The crucifixion of Jesus is the paradigmatic instance of acute suffering in western culture. How should it be understood?
The Bible is the most important book in the history of western civilization. Jesus’s suffering and death on the cross is the penultimate climax of his biography, which is the chief topic of The New Testament. Without it, there could have been no resurrection-and, at least according to Paul, “If there be no resurrection, the Christ was not raised; and if Christ was not raised, then our gospel is null and void, and so is your faith” [The New English Bible, 1 Corinthians 15, 13-4.].
It is natural for humans to suffer. In that sense, we are all essentially like Jesus on the cross, we all suffer crucifixion.
Let’s use ‘suffer’ and ‘suffering’ to refer to the whole range of dissatisfactions from very mild and minor to very important and major. To suffer crucifixion is obviously an extreme case of suffering. Suffering need not be extreme. It occurs whenever there is a gap between what-is and the way we would like (prefer, desire) what-is to be. Whenever the world is exactly as we desire it to be, we don’t suffer.
Since it’s not clear that any other species of animal has the ability to imagine the world to be other than it is, it is not clear that any other species of animal suffers. Of course, other kinds of animals can feel physical pain. Pain is unavoidable; at best, it can be minimized and managed. Suffering, on the other hand, is optional. This is why it is important to distinguish pain from suffering.
There is no one best way to interpret the crucifixion of Jesus. Why? There is no one best way to interpret anything.
Fanatics, of course, deny this. Fanatics are fanatics because they are attached to their interpretations. To be a fanatic is to be a fool. Fools fail to live well (wisely). Fanaticism is a fearful response to uncertainty. It may itself be the chief cause of suffering.
To make a judgment is to conceptualize. Concepts are principles of classification. We classify an object in accordance with its similarities and differences to other objects. This is a human or that is a table. While similarities and differences may be objective (in the sense that we notice or discover them as opposed to making them up), it is always possible to pay attention to different similarities and differences.
This is why alternative conceptualizations and conceptual systems are always possible. No single interpretation (judgment, conceptualization, thought, proposition) can express the whole truth. Another interpretation may always be better. Why? They are all, at best, only partially true.
Becoming attached to a certain interpretation is the mark of a fanatic. What-is may always be understood differently. Different interpretations have different uses. One interpretation is often superior to another interpretation for a certain purpose. Different interpretations reflect different values. At least among philosophers (who are the opposite of fanatics), none of this is controversial. Even though there is no one best way to interpret the crucifixion of Jesus for all purposes, what is its importance?
I suggest the following. Since he suffered and you suffer, why not use your imagination to put yourself in his place, which is essentially similar to your place, and ask yourself, “How should I respond?”
Let’s do it.
You have been nailed to a wooden cross for hours. You are in extreme physical pain and death is imminent. You are suffering acutely. You have lost all your well-being and are about to lose your life. All the Projects that you have invested so much time and energy in cultivating are about to come to nothing. For example, you are about to become permanently separated from everyone you love. Now what?
How should you respond to suffering?
Ultimately, here is your choice: acceptance or rejection. You can accept it or reject it. Only one is the way to wisdom. Which is it?
Please consider this very, very carefully.
It is impossible to avoid aging and dying. Since nothing abides, you are impermanent, too. Separation from everything and everyone you value is inevitable. Given these facts, how should you live?
Ultimately, your choice, like mine and everyone else’s, is between a life of acceptance or a life of rejection. I think the greatest value of the crucifixion story is the focus it brings to bear on this issue.
If you would live wisely or well, what should you do?
What are you doing? How are you living?