The key to our secular Easter

During Holy Week, Christians sometimes muse over what a contemporary secular man makes of Easter. The Latin word, saeculum, origin of our word “secular,” meant a period of time in which everyone born in a given date was finally dead. A new saeculum began with new people.

The word now signifies a world that does not need any revelation to clarify man’s planetary or cosmic existence.


In "Beyond Good and Evil," Nietzsche mused: “Jesus said to his Jews: ‘The law was made for servants—love God as I have loved him, as his son! What have we sons of God to do with morality?’” (#164). This aphorism is a pretty good definition of what “secularism” has come to mean—the not being bound by any moral limitations.


From the outside, Easter seems like a jumble of outlandish bonnets, eggs, rabbits, weak Roman governors, shouts of “crucify him,” and strange “alleluias” about rising from the dead. From the inside, it purports to be a logically coherent account of a transcendent event that affects every human being.

In his "Pensées," Pascal wrote: “Jesus Christ is an obscurity (according to what the world (saeculum) calls obscurity), such that historians, writing only of important matters of states, have hardly noticed Him” (#785). Already here, Pascal (d. 1662) provided the key to a “secular Easter.”

The event was not important. At the time, it made no headlines in the Jerusalem, Athens, or Roman media. It was not a political happening. A couple Roman historians later did mention a trial conducted by a Roman governor in a troublesome province of Empire.

Suppose we maintain that this Jesus was not who he said that he was. We proceed to give reasons. To many, Christians appeared to be either deluded or witless to claim that this man really was the Son of God. So Jesus could not have been crucified. After his death, some claimed that the body was stolen. It did not rise again.

The more prevalent view today is that this Jesus was a really a nice guy, wouldn’t hurt a flea. His disciples so wanted him to be alive that they imagined the whole thing. Others held that this Christ never existed. Scripture texts are unreliable. He was a fictional product of believers’ imaginations. Religion is irrational anyhow. We should expect lots of outlandish claims in its name. However, we need to “respect” or “tolerate” many weird things. Too much trouble occurs when we make a big issue of them. Believers are mostly harmless. They are slavish weaklings. Nietzsche was right.

Science sometimes gets into the act. Carbon dating of the Shroud of Turin, said to have covered the dead Christ, shows apparently its origins from the same era as the Crucifixion. But this dying and rising again business? We know scientists are working on the death problem. They mainly seek to keep us alive, not jiggle some corpse back to life after it is dead. Those widely publicized near-death experiences of light and peace are interesting, no doubt. Still, like the Gospel story of Lazarus, who was said have returned to life, all those who experience near-death illuminations eventually die.

The secular Easter attentively notices the disordered lives that many Christians manifest. This same Nietzsche once remarked, in a memorable phrase, that “The last Christian died on the Cross.” Christ did maintain that he came to save sinners, not the righteous who did not need much help. The one who died on the Cross was, in fact, the only really sinless one among us. Nietzsche was right there.

A secular Easter implies that we could explain our lot in this world without the Easter account. Everything in this narrative can be explained on natural grounds. Nothing really momentous happened at Golgotha or, on Easter morning, at the tomb into which the Mary’s gazed.

In his "Life of Johnson," Bowell writes: “On Sunday, April 19, (1778) being Easter-day, after the St. Paul’s Church, I visited him...I expressed a wish to have the arguments for Christianity always in readiness, that my religious faith might be as firm and clear as any proposition whatever..."

Johnson replied: “Sir, you cannot answer all objections. You have demonstration for a First Cause...Yet you have against this...the unhappiness of human life. This, however, gives us hope for a future state of compensation, that there may be a perfect system. But of that we were not sure, till we had a positive revelation.”

The secular Easter knows of “the unhappiness of human life.” The Christian understands that “You cannot answer all objections.” The historians thought the Easter event was unimportant. Nietzsche’s Jesus rid himself of all morality. Johnson’s Jesus leaves some hope. “Let us rejoice and be glad.”

The Rev. James Schall, S.J., author of “Catholicism and Intelligence,” is professor emeritus at Georgetown University.

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