Who cares if Christ is risen? This bold headline graced the front page of the London Telegraph on Easter Sunday about 25 years ago. The secular journalist who wrote the accompanying article was responding to a poll showing a shockingly low number of people in England who understood the significance of the Easter holiday. Or cared.
“If you walked out into the street this morning and say to passers-by, `Christ is risen’”, he began, “you will be met, of course, by looks of embarrassment that accompanies such speech to strangers in Britain. You will also be met with looks of bewilderment from 31% of the people you address, who will simply not understand what you mean. And 80% of the people you speak to will believe that what you are saying is untrue.”
So, his question. Does it matter?
The journalist observed that religious ideas were ceasing to underpin morality in Western society and wondered what changes that might bring to our culture. Because these ideas have prevailed for so long, people assumed that the morality which goes with them was obvious and commonsensical.
“Love thy neighbor as thy self” was widely believed to be a moral imperative which everyone could accept and try to follow without religious faith. As if it were a belief which comes naturally to man.
This is a terrible error. No moral doctrine comes naturally. It needs to be taught. We are entering a period when this is no longer so, and we are beginning to see the results.
We are seeing a diminished respect for the uniqueness of humanity. If members of PETA had been in Jerusalem on the first Good Friday, they would have been far too worried about the fate of the donkey on which Christ entered Jerusalem to mind that he was being crucified before their eyes.
With loss of clear human morality comes a greater emphasis on human gratification. The great modern crime is to prevent people doing whatever it is they want to do. Or be. Being yourself is the thing to do, as if yourself was automatically interesting and good.
When people turn inward, no longer believing in humanity’s extraordinary standing before a divine creator, it is easier to denigrate worth of human life. Ever easier for the wise and wicked ones to feed on life’s sacred fire.
The word, “love”, is used just as much as it ever was, but it means something else entirely. For Christians, the measure of love is what one is willing to give up for it. For non-believers, love is the most exciting state of the ego, in anticipation of what someone can do for you.
The social consequences are more greed, more crime, more family disarray, more violence, and more confusion – creating an extreme restlessness which makes contentment as far removed as the stars.
Although non-believers dislike these trends as much as Christians, they are powerless to stop them. They have nothing to offer save their personal grievances and opinions. It is religion that has an extraordinary and unique capacity to keep sublime concepts of beauty and truth, and the principles of conduct derived from them, in the minds of ordinary people. And it is religion we have rejected.
Now we have discovered that our moral beliefs will decay if they are cut off from their source, just as a stream will become a stagnant pool if it is no longer fed by its spring.
The injunction to love thy neighbor is not a statement of the obvious. It is a commandment. And one which only makes sense because it flows from the first commandment to “Love the Lord your God.”
We obey it not out of innate human qualities. We obey it because it is true. And we know it is true because of the event which this day, Easter, commemorates.