From moment to moment, our lives can embody any of the multiplicity of purposes that we can identify with. The stories we tell, from socially created myths to benign exaggerations expressed to friends and colleagues, project the particular purpose we want to make front and center. This can be due to a desire to express an idea to another or to make sure we’re on the same track we first set out upon. Whatever that purpose is, the values that come along for the ride, both in the telling and the type of story chosen, do so in the form the story takes. Thankfully stories are more than single-use thought-devices, else we would never be able to reuse them or get something new regardless of repetition. Because of a shared human experience, we are able to remember lessons imparted through literature or voice because they continue to resonate with new situations. Importantly, this allows us to determine whether the form the value took before is how we’d like it to continue. Take the example of a father telling a joke, a form of story, about how he’d scare his daughter’s date with shotgun in hand. The value on hand is paternal care, a value most of us hold in some fashion and have no problem promoting. However, the form it takes in the joke makes that value so prominent that it overshadows any other, for instance respect and personal integrity. As time has gone on the joke is no longer the best form to express paternal care, precisely because the values of respect and integrity have increased in significance in association with that situation. Consider it like a movable hierarchy, where the original story form presented paternal care at the top of the pyramid and respect and integrity being derived and below it. It’s not that respect and integrity didn’t exist, it’s just that rather than being equal, they were subservient to the form of paternal care being presented.
I know of no situation where a person’s values have utterly disappeared, though certainly they will rise and fall in conscious consideration as time and experience go by. I grew up with stories, my father sending me and my siblings to sleep with short made-up stories that imparted humor or whatever lesson he’d considered that day. I am also a voracious reader and, like the bed-time stories the form they take has changed over the years. There came a point when the bedtime stories stopped and simplistic fiction no longer sufficed. I still held the same values of honesty and valor, dedication to an ideal and perseverance in the face of adversity, but the way those values stood in form had become more complicated. For others the original form no longer made any sense.
Let’s consider another story. Picture a parent who’s child is, by all considerations, a perfect kid, one who looks out for others and has never had to be corrected. The parent is in a neighborhood of people who have been identified by the parent as quite unsavory, even downright horrible and because of this difference has decided their child has nothing in common with them though hopes he’ll set an example such that they’ll change their ways. One day the parent decides that in order to help all those people and make it better for their child to be associated with them, the child must be given over to the worst of them and brutally murdered in the hope that the people will come to see the error of their ways and the parent will then be able to look upon them as being worthy of taking part in the life previously only open to the child.
Imagine for a moment any parent giving up their child to be brutally murdered as a means of declaring someone else no longer punishable for their misdeeds. Imagine for a moment any terrorist or murder trial in which the judge decides that a child of one of the murdered victims be tortured and killed as a means of substitution for the crimes of those accused. To say that a immediate mob would develop and tear down the judge’s bench is an understatement. There’d be a media circus of declarations screaming about how barbaric such a practice would be. And yet, essentially we have here the myth of the Christian “Easter.” As noted in Hebrews 9:22 “without shedding of blood is no remission.”
Many different values can be seen in the story. Everything from forgiveness to renewal, self-sacrifice and idealism can be found here. Depending on the historical context, the story has been utilized to justify pogroms against Jews and most recently as a mythological connection to the human desire for healing and rebirth. The difficulty here is that when the story is looked at on its surface, the core is still the murder of a blameless person as a substitution for the crimes of another. Is that truly the story form in which the values of rebirth and forgiveness are best displayed? Certainly the answer to that question can and should be a resounding no.
In a time in which blood was thought to be required for the forgiveness of wrong-doing, sacrifice made sense, at least within that framework. Prior to advances in understanding about neurology and psychology, stories about evil spirits and the need for self-flagellation to expel them made a certain kind of sense to many. When the body or flesh is considered beneath or innately inferior to the assumed existence of a supernatural spiritual realm, then the destruction of it is of little consequence, particularly when doing so is done as an offer to achieve union with the assumed higher plane of existence. Thankfully we as a species are largely beyond such notions. Our lives are all we have, the interconnected beauty of human existence is the only stage upon which we can find meaning, purpose and establish the moral principles by which we engage with one another. Just as we no longer promote the notion that evil spirits generate psychopathy, we no longer require the torturing of our bodies for every perceived slight or wrong committed. We have legal systems in place to more objectively determine fault and causative relationships in criminal acts. We also would not ever consider it legitimate to destroy someone who’s blameless for the sake of letting the perpetrator go free. The evolution of how we express our values, as individuals and as societies, is worth exploration. This is why I, even as an atheist, can celebrate such holidays like Easter. There is a positive to be found in seeing that our species has largely moved beyond the simplistic barbarism of such myths. There is great joy to be expressed in seeing how notions of the frailty and degradation of the body has given way to the sanctity of each individual life. We are better than the myths of a bygone era. We are more than any single projection of a particular value. We can be thankful on this holiday, among others with religiously problematic origins, that the best of who we are is constantly being discovered.