In My Easter Bonnet

A friend of mine writes he’s broken a rib. The circumstances (he doesn’t recall how it happened) remind me of Genesis:

The Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

New Oxford Annotated Bible, Full Revised Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2010.

A lot gets done in that first week of the Bible, at the end of which even God apparently needed a rest (and, in like miraculous manner, my friend with the broken rib somehow still got the tree pruned and the ladder put away). Readers might well question the facts of the matter. But in the introduction to Genesis in the Oxford, we get this:

In the modern era, Genesis has been an important battleground as communities have worked to live out ancient faiths in a modern world. For example, much discussion of Genesis, at least among Christians in the West, has focused on whether the stories of Genesis are historically true. Astronomers, biologists, and other scientists have offered accounts of the origins of the cosmos and humanity different from those in Gen 1-2. Some believers, however, insist on the importance of affirming the historical accuracy of every part of Genesis, and have come to see such belief as a defining characteristic of what it means to be truly faithful. This definition is relatively new: the historicity of Genesis was not a significant concern prior to the rise of modern science and the historical method; in fact, in premodern times, the stories of Genesis were often read metaphorically or allegorically. Moreover, many would argue that an ancient document such as Genesis is not ideally treated as scientific treatise or a modern-style historical source. Instead, its rich store of narratives offer nonscientific, narrative, and poetic perspectives on values and the meaning of the cosmos that pertain to other dimensions of human life.

page 10.

Yet one may still argue, as Mary Midgley does in “What is Philosophy For?” for a single dimension, a holistic approach that accepts one without discounting the other:

For instance, adding or removing the idea of God is not just changing an empirical detail, like adding or removing Australia from the map of the world. It is much more like changing the idea of that world as a whole. … In actual life, each of us has a world with a great background which our culture makes ready for us, including a whole population of human and non-human creatures, forces, atmospheres, opportunities, customs, tendencies, ideals, dangers and challenges. As Irish Murdoch has sharply pointed out, this ‘culture’ is not just a matter of a few recent films and fashions; it contains everything that we believe in, including our fashionable views about science itself:

It is totally misleading … to speak of two cultures, one literary-humane and the other scientific, as if they were of equal status. There is only one culture, of which science, so interesting and so dangerous, is now an important part. But the most essential and fundamental aspect of culture is the study of literature, since this is an education in how to picture and understand situations. We are moral agents before we are scientists, and the place of science in human life must be discussed in words (Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, 34).

Midgley, What is Philosophy For? Bloomsbury, 2018, 54-55.

While it might make modern sense (scientific or otherwise) to read Genesis as allegory, what are we to make of the Resurrection? If read as metaphor, of what? As allegory, with what hidden meaning, and why hide it to begin with? Does being born again free us from that “great background which our culture makes ready for us”?

One of the most interesting books I’ve read during the pandemic is Shusaku Endo’s “A Life of Jesus” (Paulist Press, 1973). At its close, having written about the life of Jesus as actual biography, Endo returns to metaphor and allegory:

Where Mark and Matthew have written that the whole earth shook when Jesus died, and that the high curtain split in two, the evangelists are not recording events which actually happened, but are rather expressing the lamentation of the disciples and their consternation at the death of Jesus….Did Jesus therefore accomplish nothing? Was Jesus simply helpless after all? Was God silent? Was the sky merely dull? In the end, was the death of Jesus really no more than the death of any other powerless ineffectual man?


And then Endo, when it comes to the Resurrection, puts the allegory to test:

Did these events actually take place? Are they historical facts, things that really happened? Or is this a fiction produced by the early Christian Church, perhaps an episode written to inculcate through symbols the undying memory of the Christ?


Endo questions how the disciples could have behaved so cowardly during the crucifixion but later turn about and emerge as courageous martyrs for the fledgling church. Was there some incredible but undeniable event that explains their conversion? Yet, Endo asks:

But the concept itself of resurrection – did the idea even exist in the age of Jesus and his disciples? And if it did exist, what did the concept actually involve?


But don’t go out and buy and read Endo’s book thinking he has the ultimate answer. Once one has proof, one no longer needs faith. And Endo, in his reflective conclusion, says:

For all I know, there may well be an analogy here between their [the disciples] inability to understand Jesus during his lifetime and our own inability to understand the whole mystery of human life. For Jesus represents all humanity. Furthermore, just as we, while we live in this world, cannot understand the ways of God, so Jesus himself was inscrutable for the disciples. His whole life embraced the simplicity of living only for love, and because he lived for love alone, in the eyes of his disciples he seemed to be ineffectual. His death was required before the disciples could raise the veil and see into what lay behind the weakness.


As for broken ribs, my father once broke seven at once, buried in a cave-in, where he was crushed against a huge underground concrete pipe, a project he’d been working on, the deep ditch he was down in inadequately shored. I sent my friend with the recent broken rib a copy of the newspaper account, as proof. How my father escaped further serious injury is one of the mysteries of his life. From Midgley again:

During the past century, philosophers have provided enquirers with one more alternative: mysterianism. This is the view that there are some questions which our minds are simply not fitted to resolve, and that free will is one them. In order to resolve this metaphysical puzzle Noam Chomsky adopted the name ‘mystery’ for these cases, apparently from a pop group called Question Mark and the Mysterians. He suggested that these unmanageable questions are not really problems at all but mysteries, situations in which scientists should stop saying (as they always do at present), ‘We do not have the answer to this yet,’ and should simply say instead, ‘This one is beyond us.’ He adds that this limitation is not surprising since the cognitive capacities of all organisms are limited, which indeed is true.

Will this do? It is surely a relief to hear the learned admitting that there are some kinds of things that they do not and cannot know. But we need to ask next, which ones are they? And why?