Eating Humble Pie

I’ve eaten quite a lot of humble pie in the last few years. I’m not going to go into the details—it’s bad enough to eat it, without vomiting it up in public. Suffice it to say that I’ve had to rethink my belief in my invincibility.

Which may be a good thing, though I can’t say I find it to be much fun.

Eating humble pie has led me to think about the shape of life. All along I’ve had an internal narrative similar to Hardy Boys novels, in which I consistently and heroically come out ahead in the end. Setbacks I tended to see as temporary, creating narrative tension as to how I would overcome them.

Humble pie, however, has led me to ponder two inescapable facts. First, success is far from inevitable. Second, the shape of life leads to decay and death.

I know it’s not an original observation, but it’s one that I certainly have kept well hidden from myself. So, I think, do most people. Perhaps we have to, because it’s not a comfortable thing to consider. For all of us, whether “successful” or not, the visible shape of life is extremely discouraging. In the end you die, and in the leadup to that event you lose your animal vigor, your drive, your agility, your sex appeal, your sex drive (some at least), your mental acuity (again, some), and just about everything else that you hold precious. No amount of money, no number of prizes, makes much difference in this downward spiral. The death rate is 100%; the number of long-term survivors is zero.

Philosophy and religion deal with these realities—or try to. Most people, religious or not, cope with death through a mixture of stoicism and epicureanism. (Forgive me, philosophy students, if those terms are wrong.) I mean, we try to find pleasure in each day as a way to stave off the coming darkness. And, we try to show some dignity in the face of it, demonstrating courage and fortitude. Both of these strategies rely on thinking day to day, and not too much about the end result.

Religions may try to reframe the narrative. For example, Hinduism (I believe) seeks to offer a bigger picture in which our personal dramas are lost in an unchanging vastness. Some versions of Judaism stress a yet-invisible coda to the story, in which all God’s people will be raised from the dead to life in a perfected world. Animistic religions offer a wider view of the universe in which the visible and invisible exist side by side; decay and death represent merely a shifting from one realm to another.

These religious responses do not question the basic narrative of life-to-decay-to-death. They add to the story—a wider context, an unseen ending, an invisible context.

Only Christianity, I believe, claims an exception to life-to-decay-to-death. That is why the resurrection is so critical a doctrine. It indicates how fundamentally materialistic Christianity is. “If Christ is not raised, your faith is futile….” (1 Corinthians 15:17) All coping aside, all reframing aside, Jesus’ resurrection challenges the basic premise that the number of long-term survivors is zero.

Now, noticing the distinctiveness of this claim is one thing. Finding reason to believe it is another. It’s no small thing to put your faith in an exception to the rule of death, especially when the purported exception took place two millennia ago.  If someone really wants to look at this, I strongly recommend N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. It attempts, among other things, to carefully examine the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, and it’s about as thorough and fair-minded as you are likely to find in this life.

Whether you believe in Jesus’ resurrection or not, you can see why Christianity made such a shocking impact in the first century. It wasn’t one more religion or philosophy, as such were generally known. It was a claim that the facts of the visible universe needed revision.

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One Response to “Eating Humble Pie”

  1. Sean F. Says:

    Isn’t this a good reason *not* to believe in Christianity? The self-interest in the belief is so transparent and so unimaginative – and the arrogance of the belief in a personal god so striking – that one has good reason to challenge any such belief as self-motivated (as opposed to having any relationship with the truth).

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