Theologist and author Bart Ehrman provides a stellar answer to a question posed by Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” (The answer appears at the end of the 4/8/14 interview at the 35:30 min. mark, but the rest of the interview is very informative, as well):
Terry Gross: As we’ve talked about before on Fresh Air, you used to be a Christian – a fundamentalist who took the bible as literal and now you describe yourself as agnostic – what meaning does Easter have to you?
Bart Ehrman: You know, I went through a number of stages as a…as a Christian, I was – uh, for a long time I was a very hardcore evangelical Christian – I guess you would call me a fundamentalist, and I thought, back then, that you could prove the resurrection happened historically – I had all sorts of historical proofs for it happening; I came to think that I no longer could do that and I moved from being an evangelical Christian – and for many years I was a fairly liberal Christian, and for me, the meaning of Easter was that in Christ, God had manifested himself in this world. That Easter showed that God triumphs over evil, and that evil doesn’t have the last word – God has the last word. And I still resonate with that, but I’m not a believer in God anymore. And so what is the meaning of Easter now for me? I think Easter continues to show me that there is horrible injustice and oppression and political violence in the world, but that we should wrestle against it. In the Christian story of God raising Jesus from the dead, God was saying no to the Roman Empire and the forces that were aligned against him. There are political forces in our world today that do horrible things: acts of injustice and oppression, creating poverty and misery and suffering, and I think we should say no to them. And so, I understand the Easter story not to be a historical event, but I still think it says something very important about how we ought to live in the world.
Here’s a short slideshow of seveteen photographs taken by one of our species finest human beings: Sebastião Salgado. Born and raised in Brazil, Salgado obtained his PhD in Economics in France and worked for investment banks that help financed development projects in Africa. He then turned to photography, capturing some of the most haunting images of modern man and humanity to have ever been produced in a dark room. After witnessing the horrors of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, Salgado took a break from photography and returned to Brazil where he restored deforested land, started the Instituto Terra, and opened a National Park. He returned to photography in 2004, this time focusing on non-human animals, and is now fighting to save the world's trees. If you want to feel bad about how little you’ve done in your life, check out his inspiring TED Talk.
Sebastião Salgado and his wife, Lelia Wanick Salgado:
Image from: http://lounge.obviousmag.org/venturarte/2013/08/a-arte-captada-pelas-lentes-de-sebastiao-salgado.html
This first excerpt is transcribed from The Web of Life lecture from the Out of Your Mind Lecture Series, Alan Watts brings up a funny notion about sea shells critiquing other sea shells, and ties this into a larger, more serious concept related to the way we humans tend to separate ourselves from the world around us. He says:
I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing – something to be condemned – to take your own individual life seriously in dead earnest, and to have all the problems that go with that. Do understand that being that way, that being a real mixed-up human being is a manifestation of nature that is something just like the patterns on the waves out here, or like a sea shell. You know we pick up shells – I always keep one around as sort of an example for many things – and say, “My goodness, isn’t that gorgeous? There’s not an aesthetic fault in it anywhere, it’s absolutely perfect.” Now I wonder, I wonder if these fish look at each other’s shells and say, “Don’t you think she’s kind of fat? Oh my, those markings aren’t really very well spaced. Pssshhh.” Cause’ that’s what we do, see we don’t realize that all of us in our various goings on and behaviors and so on are just as marvelous – more marvelous, much more complicated, much more interesting – all these gorgeous faces that I’m looking at, you know every one of them – some of them supposedly pretty, some are supposedly not so pretty, but they’re all absolutely gorgeous. And everybody’s eyes is a piece of jewelry beyond compare. Beautiful. But we have specialized in a certain kind of awareness that makes us neglectful of that. You see we specialize in more or less briefly concentrated, pin-point attention. We look at this and we look at that, and we select from all the things we might possible be aware of, only certain things. And as a result of that, we leave out of our everyday consciousness, generally speaking, two dimensions of experience; one: amazing beauty of experience that we never see at all, and on the other hand, a very deep thing: the sense of our basic identity, unity with, oneness with the total process of being. See, because we are staring, as it were, at certain features of the landscape, we don’t see the background. And because we get fascinated with – you know I could go into details of this shell, as I said, and put myself in the mind of a conch or whatever it is that lives in this thing and say, “Hmm, that’s not so not hot that one,” Like that you see? And so, I wouldn’t see the whole thing! But when I look at it like this, when anybody looks at it like that we say, “Oh my God isn’t that gorgeous?”
Image from: Aaron Dames, Divided Core Media
In philosophizing about the idea of reincarnation, Alan Watts makes some interesting (although possibly impossible to prove) points about the way that sentient objects perceive see things around them. This is from a lecture called Every Incarnation is this One, from the Out of Your Mind lecture series:
And the Buddhists thought that one over, and they said, “Crazy…we found a way of samsara – the wheel of birth and death.” And somebody one day said, “But, isn’t that rather selfish? You get yourself out, what about all the other people? Don’t you have any feeling of compassion?” “Oh yes,” they said, “Of course. We forgot that didn’t we? Let’s come back again, and uh, help all these people out.” Then they got very sophisticated about it and they said, “Look, if nirvana is release from birth and death, then they’re opposed, and so nirvana and birth and death go together and they will have to imply one another. So you’re really only released if you see that, if you see that nirvana and birth and death are the same thing.”
Now I’m gonna pull a fast one on you. So every time an incarnation occurs, it feels like this one. See, it might be quite different – we might we reincarnated in another universe as beings in of altogether different shape, see? Not at all like human beings, but because we were used to it we would feel that that was the human shape. We would say, “Well that’s natural, obviously, obviously, that’s the way things are.” So naturally, if you appeared in the form of a spider, you would look around at other spiders and say, “Well yes, of course, this is, this is a natural place to be in, this is the human shape.” Something that is not us looks at us and thinks we look perfectly terrible. I mean imagine how you look to a fish: clumsy, cumbersome, stupid looking thing. Whereas a fish is so elegant and graceful and can slide through the water so beautifully. The human beings can’t even swim properly.
So don’t you see, that in every world that comes into being, or could come into being, it seems just like it seems now, and every species that you could belong to would seem like this one. It would have its up end of what is highly intelligent, and its low end of what is not so intelligent. You would be aware of superior forces and inferior forces; otherwise you wouldn’t have the idea of mastering a situation unless there were situations you couldn’t master. Now we are not aware of species of beings above us unless you cultivate those forms of psychic awareness when you think you’re in touch with angels or something of that sort. But the things that appear to be above us are great natural processes, only we think they’re rather stupid, only very tough, too strong for us: earthquakes, the elements, also some little ones, see the virus is a very troublesome being. And this is where a human being really finds himself at his wits end in dealing with molecular biology. So, you know, if the monsters don’t get your, the ministers will – the insects, you see.
But at any rate, whatever level you’re on, it always appears to be the same one. Now we...therefore, naturally, don’t we, we feel we’re in the middle. We feel, for example, with the telescope, that there is a world greater than us that is infinitely greater; we feel with the microscope there’s a world below us that’s infinitely smaller, and we seem to stand in the middle. Of course you seem to stand in the middle, every creature stands in the middle because if you stand on a boat in the middle of the ocean and you turn around through an angle of three hundred and sixty degrees, you will see the same distance in every direction. That’s because you see, and your sensitivity to sight or the intensity to light is the same in every direction, so you’re in the middle. You’re always in the middle. Where else would you be? In other words, anything that perceives anywhere is always in the middle. Anything that grows anywhere is always in the middle. It’s betwixt and between. And the middle always has, therefore, extremes. It has extremes in space – as far west and as far east as you can think, as far on and as far back. And there’s always a beginning and there’s always an end, just as there’s a left and right, or a top and a bottom.
Transcribed by yours truly from The Inevitable Ecstasy (Part One) lecture, part of the Out of Your Mind lecture series (click here for the audio):
Back in 1958 I was in Zurich, and there met an extraordinary man by the name of Karlfried von Dürckheim. He was a former German diplomat, who had studied Zen in Japan, and when he came back after the war, he opened a meditation school and retreat in the Black Forest. And he said, “Well, I’ll tell you what, a lot of my work has to do with people who went through spiritual crises during the war.” And, he said, “You know, we all know when a person’s in an absolutely extreme situation, and they accept it, there is a possibility of a natural satori.” And that’s what I mean when I was explaining that when one gets to an extreme – that is to say to the point when you realize there is nothing you can do about life, nothing you can not do about life, then you’re the mosquito biting the iron bull. Well, so in the same way he said, “Look. You heard a bomb coming at you, you could hear it whistle, and you knew it was right above you and headed straight at you and that you were finished. And you accepted it. And suddenly, there was a strange feeling that everything is absolutely clear. You suddenly see that there isn’t a grain of dust in the whole universe that’s in the wrong place. That you understand completely, absolutely, totally what it’s all about, cause’ you can’t say what it is.” But he said in so many cases the bomb was a dud, and they lived to tell the tale. Or he said you were in a concentration camp, and you’ve been there so long that you gave up all hope whatsoever of ever getting out. You were just going through this miserable, boring, degrading grind week after week after week; nobody paid the slightest attention to you as an individual. You knew you would never get out, and you accepted it, and suddenly something changed. This extraordinary feeling: freedom. Or he said, you were a displaced refugee. You had lost your family, you didn’t know whether they even existed, you were miles from your home, you didn’t know whether it existed, you had lost your job, your very identity. You were absolutely nowhere, and you accepted it, and suddenly you were as light as a feather and free as the air. Now he said, so many people have had those experiences and they’d talk about them to their families and friends, and they’d say, “Oh well, you were under terrific pressure and you probably had some hallucination, you know?” Well he said, “I am showing those people that so far from having a hallucination, those were the few, few occasions in which they woke up.”
So you see this is always the opportunity presented by death. That if one can go into death with eyes open, and have somebody help you if necessary, to give up before your die, this extraordinary thing can happen to you. So that from your standpoint in that position at that time, you would say, “I wouldn’t have missed that opportunity for the world – now I understand why we die. The reason we die is to give us the opportunity to understand what life’s all about – by letting go, because then we come to a situation that the ego can’t deal with. When we are no longer hypnotize by that, then our natural consciousnesses can see clearly what all this universe is for.
So therefore we have missed this golden opportunity by institutionalizing death out of the way, instead of having a socially understood acceptance of death and rejoicing in death. Now I could imagine that one person would want to rejoice in death in an entirely different way from another. Like, um, let’s say a wedding – is a rite of passage. There are certainly some forms of celebrating a wedding which I would find a total bore, and quite offensive; other ways would be good, I would enjoy it. So everybody, in other words, I’m not saying that you’ve gotta get mixed up with a lot of people coming laughing around you and giving you presents and cards and everything because you’re going to die. Heh heh! But, I’m only indicating a general thing, that the doctor, the ministers, the psychiatrists, and above all us – really owe it to our friends to work out an enitrely new approach to death. Because what has happened you see, from earliest childhood the child learned that great-uncle was dying, and saw the family put on long faces and say, “Aahhhh, that’s too bad.” Even Christians, who think they’re going to go to heaven, you know, they get absolutely morbid, more so than anybody else about death because heaven as they all know is a very boring place. And so, this frightful thing, “Oh this death, you know.” And one understands that for the living, to lose someone you love, or even for a dying person to worry about what on Earth my wife, my children, my whatever are going to do without me… One can understand a certain worry in that, but nobody’s indispensable, and there comes a point when you have to say, “I’m sorry, but I am completely going to abandon responsibility for anything, because there is no further way I can do it.” This is another way of that surrender. And then the curious thing that occurs is the moment all that is dropped, suddenly it dawns on you that to be important, existence does not have to go on any longer than a moment. Quantitative continuity is of no value. How long can you hold your breath? Who cares?
So, it follows from that you see, that if any one of us, without being shocked into it by being bombed or put in a concentration camp, could at this moment be as one about to die, genuinely and honestly, we would understand the mystery of life, because death is the - in a certain sense - the source of life. Just as we see in nature when the leaves fall from the trees they mold and rot, and this supplies hummus from which more plants can grow, it’s a cycle like that. But in every way, symbolic and otherwise, human beings try to stop that cycle. Unamuno said, “Human beings are the only species that horde their dead.” And therefore with the ghastly art of the mortician, we try to make the body unpalatable to the worms, and so to stop life, as if to be eaten in due course were an indignity to the human being, whereas we eat everything else and we give nothing back. So that is a kind of a social symptom of our profound disorientation with respect to death. We think death is unnatural, and furthermore, we think birth is a disease, and send the mamma to the hosptial for the most unnatural, weird kind of parturition. In other words, more and more one regards the healthy and inevitable and natural transformations of the body as pathological. I can imagine, you know, people having sexual intercourse on an operating table to be sure that the whole thing is hygienic. Ha ha! You know, uhh, everything about us like that has become over-interfered with by specialists, and less and less the province of our own preferences. It’s very very hard indeed to die in your own way, without some blasted bunch of relatives that come fussing around and insisting that you go to a hospital, that you get fixed with the tortures of being fed through tubes and things to keep you alive indefinitely and waste the family savings. It’s even a crime to commit suicide. Now this is simply nonsense. It’s this perfect panic to survive at all costs.