As Easter approaches I am reminded, once again and forever, of Sisyphyus.
Sisyphus, king of trickery and deceit. Sisphyus, King of Ephyra, condemned eternally to roll an enormous stone to the top of a hill, only to have it roll back again.
I am reminded of Sisyphus with each approach of Easter. I am reminded precisely because of that damned stone: nearly immovable on the way up, completely unstoppable on the way back down.
In the Gospel stories moving the Easter stone is easy. It takes no effort at all and even less faith. The Marys, or the disciples — according to which version you pick — simply show up at Jesus’ tomb on Sunday morning. They worry about who will move the stone for them, only to find that the work has already been done. (Either by young men or angels. Again, take your pick.) We know the scene: a beautiful garden tomb, the heavy stone rolled away from the door, everything bathed in a soft light, the young man or the angel grinning like the cat that swallowed the canary. The stone is no problem at all.
Except that it is. It always is. For me.
I grew up, like many religious people do, living in two worlds. At church, I heard sermons about creation and miracles. On PBS, I watched Carl Sagan explain the Big Bang and Darwin’s theory. I read the Bible and I excelled in high school biology. The two worldviews seemed, somehow, unrelated.
Then, in college at Alabama’s Samford University, a Baptist college where I was a religion major preparing for a career in the ministry, I read Rudolf Bultmann’s New Testament & Mythology and my life was changed forever. The great German theologian wrote more clearly and honestly than anyone I had ever read before. He described the mythical world picture of the New Testament, a world picture where heaven was above and hell was underneath, where angels and devils intervened in human life, where god-men not only die, but also live again. Then, without hesitation, he said what I must have already been thinking because it was thereafter something that I could never overcome. He said: the citizen of the modern world, if intellectually honest and true, cannot believe in such things.
He was right.
For Bultmann, of course, this did not mean the end of the Christian Gospel; it meant, rather, that theology must demythologize Christianity, peel away the ancient mythological world view in order to expose an eternal, existential truth. The challenge for a Christian, Bultmann believed, was to find a way to be both faithful and honest. He made no bones about it. While there was no intellectual problem in believing in Jesus of Nazareth as a Jewish rabbi who taught the coming of the Kingdom of God and who was killed by the Roman Empire, the resurrection was another matter entirely.
Bultmann argued that the Easter story had meaning and importance for Christians, even though it was clearly not an historical event. There may have been an historical Jesus. He may have died on a cross. He did not rise from the dead.
But, what is important, Bultmann argued, is not the historicity of the event, but its existential meaning. It is the role of the preacher, the task of the theologian, to make this meaning clear, without succumbing to treating the myth as historically true, without getting caught in the mythological world view.
This made sense to me, for a while.
As a pastor in the local church, as a theologian, it was now my duty to roll away the stone. And, because the Earth orbits the sun and is tilted on its axis, this was something that had to be done eternally. Every spring there was work to do, mental gymnastics to perform, intellecutal sacrifices to be made. With all my effort, putting my back into it, the stone would move. Jesus would stumble out of the tomb, blinking sleepily in the morning light.
Then, without exception, it would all happen again. God would be born into the world on Christmas morn, he would die on Good Friday, and the stone would be right back in its place. Every time I turned around, that damned stone would be back in place and God would be back among the dead.
This is the curse of Sisyphus and it is the curse of the honest Christian thinker, of the man or woman not willing to sacrifice their intellect for the sake of comfort or calm.
Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, perhaps of Kierkegaard, “The honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it is possible to walk on it.”
I don’t know if this is true or not. I know that is not true for me. I can’t walk on water and I can’t walk on air.
So, not surprisingly, I left my first career, the ministry I had been preparing for since I was 15. There were other issues, to be sure, conflicts with parishioners and, most importantly, vast political differences with church leadership, but at its heart it was a matter of honesty. I left because it was what I had to do. It was the only way that I could be saved.
So this Easter, I’ll decorate eggs with my wife and children, I’ll anticipate a visit by Peter Cottontail, I’ll rejoice in the coming of spring which arrives through no effort of my own, but I don’t want anything to do with that damned stone.
Let Sisyphus push it away. I’ll not do it. I’m no longer cursed. I’m free.
Dr. Gregory L. Reece writes about comic books at PopMatters.com and is the author of Creatures of the Night: In Search of Ghosts, Vampires, Werewolves and Demons; Weird Science and Bizarre Beliefs: Mysterious Creatures, Lost Worlds and Amazing Inventions; UFO Religion: Inside Flying Saucer Cults and Culture; Elvis Religion: The Cult of the King; and Irony and Religious Belief.
Check out his website at gregorylreece.com.