The mystery of Easter

April 15th, 2019

Easter Island: A mystery of history?

The statues of Easter Island are famous all over the world for their distinctive angled faces and inexplicable location. Located around 2,000 miles off the coast of Chile, Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, has been inhabited by a small number of inhabitants since around the 13th century. The statues, called moai, were likely erected by the native Rapa Nui people between A.D. 1250 and 1500. The tallest moai, called Paro, is almost 33 feet tall and weighs up to 81 tons. Platforms called ahu have also been found near the statues. For years scholars have wondered why the statues were placed along Easter Island’s coast.

Recently, Carl Lipo from Binghamton University, Robert DiNapoli of the University of Oregon and several other researchers published a paper claiming to have discovered the reason for the moai’s location on the island: access to freshwater sources. Using a technique called quantitative spatial modeling, the researchers observed that freshwater flowed down from volcanic tubes into the sea along the coast — the same coast where the statues were located.

“Many researchers, ourselves included, have long speculated associations between ahu/moai and different kinds of resources,” lead author DiNapoli said in a news release quoted by Ars Technica. “However, these associations had never been quantitatively tested. . . . Our study presents quantitative spatial modeling clearly showing the ahu are associated with freshwater sources in a way they aren’t associated with other resources.”

New research also shows that the construction of the enormous statues surprisingly didn’t demand excess resources or labor. The researchers are hoping that a more complete study of the island will help reveal more about the moai and why this island community chose to build them in the first place.

Mystery in modern life

Although researchers have now found one reason for the location of the Easter Island moai, they still haven’t uncovered the underlying purpose of the statues. In fact, it’s possible that the true purpose and origin of the Easter Island statues will likely remain one of history’s great mysteries. “We may never get a [definitive] answer,” Carl Lipo said in Ars Technica. “The people survived by cooperation, and the statues served to mark their communities.”

While researchers desire to uncover facts, there are some who argue that mystery is equally valuable to human flourishing. According to British artist John Newling in Psychologies, “Mystery is a predisposition to search, enjoy, play and wonder. That becomes lost when we’re controlling it all.”

As our communities are more and more plugged in to sources of seemingly infinite knowledge, the place and role of mystery begin to shrink in our everyday lives. Mystery is left for religious ritual and as yet unexplained science. Yet, as human beings, we’re created for a sense of wonder and mystery.

Les Lancaster, a professor of transpersonal psychology at Liverpool John Moores University, says, “A sense of mystery is intrinsic to the human mind. It’s intrinsic for us to seek answers. It’s our evolutionary heritage, moving us forward by motivating us to find out more and use our imagination.”

Tanis Taylor, writing for Psychologies, advocates for a renewed sense of mystery. “[Mystery] dispels the arrogance that we know where we’re headed. It keeps our minds open and our lives interesting.”

Holy mysteries

Easter Island was originally given that name by the first European explorers who landed on the island on Easter Sunday in 1722. The island, like the day for which it was named, is a constant source of unanswered mysteries.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a central tenet of the Christian faith yet still a fundamental mystery. How did God bring a dead body back to life? Was Jesus’ body the same after resurrection? If so, why didn’t Mary or the disciples recognize him (John 20:1-13; Luke 24:13-35)? It’s in the unanswered questions — the open mystery of the empty tomb — that we’re invited into the Christian faith.

The resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning isn’t the only holy mystery. The nature of the Trinity and God’s relationship to God’s self are also deep theological mysteries. The grace extended in baptism is a mystery. The first God-breathed moments of the universe are a holy mystery — a moment of awe and wonder that’s not yet fully explained by scientists.

The very birth and incarnation of Jesus are a mystery, rooted in God’s love for all of creation. How does God, the infinite Creator of the universe, dwell inside a finite human body? How much of God’s divine knowledge does Jesus have as a human man? These are unanswerable questions that theologians have wrestled with for centuries. While we have no definitive answers, they’re important and powerful mysteries of faith.

Mystery, awe, and wonder are essential to a life of faith. Yet in a world more and more focused on answers rather than questions, it can be easy to overlook the vitality of mystery. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote in Letters to a Young Poet, “Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and . . . try to love the questions themselves. . . . Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

comments powered by Disqus