It is not only when we talk about Pakistan-India relations, or other big or small issues, that our thinking may be fixed and we have little doubt about what and who is right and wrong. Even if we have doubts, we don’t reveal that in public, maybe not even to close family and friends. If we are lucky perhaps we could talk with an old classmate or someone else special.
Religious knowledge and belief, about own and other religions are often outside what most people like to discuss and be questioned about; we do certainly not like to show how little we may know, how fixed and categorical our opinions still are, and how little we may have reflected on the figurative and real meaning of dogma and literal events in the holy books. And even if we have knowledge, that is one thing; but we have not taken time to consideration the broader meaning and consequences. We know that a dogma must always be followed by interpretation so that we can realise its meaning universally and in our time, and understand what it can mean for us individually and as community.
As Lent, the month of fast in the Christian tradition, ends this week with the celebration of Easter, I shall reflect on some key issues related to Easter and to faith more broadly – in Christianity, Islam and other religions – because the basic issues of faith are quite universal, transcending time and place. The concept of God is ultimately very similar in most religions; the moral teachings, too, about how God wants human beings to behave towards the sacred and towards one another, are very similar, indeed in the Abrahamic religions.
As always when I write about religion, I emphasize the importance of ecumenical and inter-faith aspects. Today, that is more important than ever.
Let me summarise the main Easter events, although I believe most readers, also Muslims, know the stories of the Easter drama, the mystery of Easter. Last Sunday, on Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey and ordinary people honoured him as a king and leader. Many may have hoped he would lead them out of the oppression by the Romans who occupied their land, but Jesus had in his teachings repeatedly said his message was spiritual and about humans behaviour towards one another, far beyond a land and a place at a historic time, although that too may be important.
It is said that Jesus knew, or at least understood and feared, what was going to happen during the Holy week, or, the Quiet Week, as it is called in my mother tongue Norwegian. In the cause of a few days of the week, most supporters left the rallies and withdrew their support, some even turned against Jesus and his disciples. The Romans were afraid of a local leader. They sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion on Friday, tomorrow, Good Friday in English, and Long Friday in Norwegian. That is a better name for the day, which for Jesus and those who stood by him must indeed have been a very long and sad day.
Needless to say to Pakistani readers, the Quran says that someone else died on the cross, not Jesus. Hence the mystery of his resurrection, the empty tomb, which is in the Bible, is no mystery to Muslims. But it is an essential message in the Bible, as it symbolises Jesus defeating death. It is message about Jesus turning death into life, defeat into victory, and darkness into light.
In the Bible, it says that three women came in the morning on Easter Sunday to anoint the body. But at the tomb, they were instead met by an angel telling them that Jesus had risen from the dead and was alive. The confused, scared and very glad women hurried to town to tell the good news to the disciples and the other followers. Yet, not all believed the women, not even all the disciples. Thomas is said to have said that he would only believe if he could see Jesus himself. According to the Bible, Jesus did appear so Thomas could see him – and therefore he believed.
Although Muslims don’t believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus, Muslims, too, believe in Jesus’ ascension to heaven; both Christians and Muslims believe that Jesus will come back to earth.
The two religions are different, and yet, very close in their interpretations of the Easter message, if we understand it figuratively.
The way I see it, and not being a theologian myself, I should probably add, I would underline that the Easter events, which are truly both fantastic and, yes, unbelievable, should be understood and interpreted in a symbolic way. Whether Jesus actually physically died on the cross or not, is not important. Even if we believe he did, we have not realised the message that the event carries.
The way we should understand that ‘Jesus is arisen’ and that he will live forever, has to do with the message Jesus came to share, the new covenant of how human beings should see and relate to God, and the kinder way we should live with and for fellow human beings. Human beings should not only fear God, but love God; indeed we should love all fellow human beings, feel and show passion and empathy towards all who suffer, and need ours and God’s mercy and love. The message of Easter is a message of God’s love for all human beings, symbolised by sacrifice. It is the message that shall live forever. The physical and literal events are not important, and nobody knows what happened. It is all matter of faith. But the message of love for God and one another, that is real and concrete.
Christmas is the other important event in the Christian calendar, celebrated every year on 25 December in memory of the birth of Jesus to Virgin Mary by divine intervention, as Christians and Muslims believe. Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas, but there is nothing wrong in doing so either, and maybe it ought to be celebrated because Jesus is indeed one of the most important prophets also in the Muslim faith, and indeed in Christianity. Christians say that Jesus was the ‘son of God’; that should be understood as ‘Godlike’ and not necessarily taken literally – because if we in our mind try to be too concrete about the concept ‘son of God’, we will have logical problems in comprehending it. Again, it is the symbolic message that is important; it is about God in man, about listening to and living according to God’s message.
The Christmas and Easter stories, and the story about Jesus’ Ascension to Heaven – and all the other stories and teachings about Jesus and the other prophets, indeed Muhammad, PBUH – always have messages beyond the actual events. They are the ones we must listen to and understand. The sum of all messages is always the same; it is about God trying to show who he is to the human beings; God tries to make human beings see and understand him, the sacred and the eternal good.
At the religious major religious events, and at prayer every day, God wants us to take a moment and be still and reflect; it is then we can see God around us and in us; it is then we can live by his will. The stories in the Bible, the Quran and all holy books, and the messages of all prophets, are all about revealing the eternal God to human beings so that we can follow him and his message. That is the simplicity and universality of a sacred and eternal God. It is not about the concrete interpretation of individual events and stories, which may be difficult to comprehend for people today, as they have also been for people before us, and will be for people after us. It is the message of the stories and events we must try to see and follow – with the grace of God.
Dear reader, I wish you a Happy Easter.
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.