Monday, December 16, 2013

Love or Disgust? A Christian debates a Misanthrope

            Standing on a downtown street corner was a new monastic Christian named Jason, who wore a sort of monk’s robe with a large hood, long dreadlocks, and glasses. Beside Jason was a crude sign saying “Jesus was homeless.” Jason bid passersby a good morning, most of whom ignored him completely, but when one fellow crossed his path—a balding man in shabby clothes—the fellow smiled and Jason asked, “Why are you smiling, friend?”
“I just thought you were staging some sort of postmodern play or performance art, since you look like a medieval monk or something.”
“I’m just a Christian.”
“Yeah, I can tell that from your sign, but you’re not what someone would expect from a Christian nowadays.”
“No, I’m not. I agree completely. I should be more specific and identify myself as a new monastic Christian. It’s a Christian movement dedicated to getting at the essence of Jesus’s message and making it relevant to the modern world.”

Authentic Christianity

            “What’s that essence?”
            “To love fellow people as much as you love yourself.”
            “Alright and how is that relevant today?”
            “Well, Jesus’s message is relevant in that it’s radical in our egoistic societies. After modern science and capitalism and democracy, not to mention the flawed examples set by most Western churches, it’s subversive to speak of the moral imperative to love each other as companions in this fallen world. Instead, we’re taught to look out mainly for ourselves, to compete and horde possessions like dragons, to fight and kill, to divide and conquer. Jesus’s message amounts to radical egalitarianism and socialism. If practiced, it would set the modern world on fire.”
            “Are you saying the Church should be a humanistic, communist enterprise? Aren’t Christians supposed to glorify Jesus and recognize that they can’t do anything right themselves, that we’ve just got to grovel now and wait for Jesus to return to fix the world, because of our tendency to corrupt everything?”
            “Ha ha! No, that’s the ‘conservative Christian’ distortion of Jesus’s message. You’ll hear it from these so-called evangelical Christians who are in bed with the most anti-spiritual libertarians and crony capitalists you’ll ever want to meet. They say we’ve got to idolize the Bible, follow its every letter, and worship Jesus. I do think Jesus was divine, but God didn’t make me a simpleton. I happen to know about the political and theological divisions between the early Christian sects which led to the canonization of scripture.
“The Bible is a political document, you know. The Gnostics and the Jewish Christians under James became marginalized and the winners got to write Church history to rationalize their compromise with the Roman Empire. The Gnostics taught individual empowerment through the divine power within each of us, while the universalists wanted to establish a global version of Judaism for the gentiles, under a power hierarchy headed by a Caesar-like pope with absolute authority through the Holy Spirit. And so they interpreted Paul’s letters, forged some others, and selected some interpolated gospel narratives to support those ambitions.
“By the time you reach modern Christianity, you’re talking about grotesque political compromises that are antithetical to what Jesus’s life was about. You have to read between the lines provided by the Catholic Church, which won out in the early power struggle, but Jesus was clearly a socialist, a pacifist, and an uncompromising moralist. He was a spiritual visionary with his eyes set on an ideal world. Compared with his ideal, the real world is revolting, and he lived with that contrast in mind. That’s why he didn’t care about earthly happiness. We’ll be happy in heaven, where we belong.”
“So it’s left versus right-wing Christians, is that it? Each reads into Jesus what they want to see. Leftists want a radical Marxist and conservatives want an authoritarian to rubberstamp our animalistic side, our tendency to divide into warring groups of rich and poor, friend and foe, patriot and traitor.”
“I’m curious where you’re coming at this from, friend, since you sound like you’ve put some thought into this already. But I agree that that’s what the conservatives are doing. However, new monasticism isn’t the same as liberalism or socialism. There’s some overlap on various social issues, such as vegetarianism, the death penalty, wealth distribution, and so on, but I’m an ascetic like Jesus. Liberals defend private property and communists worship the state. I don’t say the state should have totalitarian control over all the nation’s wealth, but I also think we have a moral and a spiritual duty to think long-term and to care most about what’s really important, which is each other’s welfare, not about signaling how much more happy and popular we are on account of our wealth and power. We should voluntarily renounce much of what we take for granted, because it’s bad for our spiritual well-being. And I don’t worship the state. I worship the divine spark of consciousness in each of us, which makes us truly equal.”
“Hmm. I can go along with much of that, as it turns out. But there are sticking points…”

Authentic Naturalism

          “Tell me what you believe, then. What’s your philosophy of life? I’m Jason, by the way.”
“Hi, I’m Ben. You want to know my philosophy? Then you’d best hold onto your hat—or at least your hood. I believe we’re especially accursed animals trapped in the belly of the undead god. This might sound a little Gnostic, but it’s not really Gnosticism. The Gnostics said humans are the divine beings in a horribly flawed world. Well, I’m a naturalist and a pantheist. I think science tells us what the real world is, and that world changes itself with no personal oversight. There’s no transcendent, personal God who governs everything. The universe evolves and complexifies without being alive. The universe, then, is god—but an undead one. You see?
“And we’re especially cursed, because we’re able to know all of this. Knowledge threatens us with horror and despair, and our moral imperative is to end the curse by fighting back. We must create our own way in nature. We must be artists following an aesthetic code which celebrates originality as the chief virtue. The universe is the ultimate creator, but we’re creative agents within that sublime masterwork and we can devise subworlds that testify to our awareness of god’s monstrosity. We ought to defy nature’s creative path, renounce certain natural instincts, and live as tragically heroic artists.”
“Well, now! I think I see why you said there’s some overlap here. You’re a sort of ascetic as well, then, right?”
“Yeah, I’m appalled by the rigged competitions that empower an elite group of sociopaths at the expense of the majority, because I see god’s undead zombie hand in the creation of that sort of clichéd inequality. In other words, when we’re at our most natural, when we follow the social conventions that enable us to rationalize our evolved instincts, we’re not being original and our lives make for aesthetically inferior art. We’re letting nature guide us, but nature is an indifferent, undead monster that will just as likely lead us all to extinction to make room for something new. So I’m interested in the epistemic and aesthetic advantages of social alienation and detachment.”
“Of course, Jesus was alienated from the world into which he was born, since in that world Rome had conquered the righteous Jews.”
           “And Jesus was homeless and unmarried. He was an omega man—except that Christianity undoes all of that with its frustrating incoherence. Jesus was poor and rich, since he was God’s only begotten Son; he was homeless, but he also resides eternally in heaven on God’s right side; he was meek and mild, but he’s also mighty enough to make good on his promise to return and destroy all earthly powers that stand in God’s way. You see, Christianity makes human history a comedy with a happy ending, whereas I see it as a tragedy. There are optimistic naturalists, such as the transhumanists, but I think the most optimistic of those folks are closet supernaturalists. Like Hegel, they see God as coming at the end of a process; maybe God will be an artificial intelligence. I’m not saying that’s impossible, but I’m more of a cosmicist. I think the undead god wins out and god’s monstrous ends are alien to us, meaning that we count for squat in the grand scheme. Our artificial gods are idols that will pass away in time, as the true god continues to decay like a mindless, shambling zombie.”

Love or Disgust?

           “Again, I discount the orthodox mythologization of Jesus. I’m interested in the core of Jesus’s message, which we discern only after we’ve come to grips with the historical context of early Christianity. To me, Jesus was an outsider, because his message of universal love is subversive. Those earthly power hierarchies you spoke of would crumble, were we to acknowledge our equal divinity and stop pretending that our earthly success—due to advantages of birth or talents in the service of cruel ambition—entitles any of us to live like a king while the masses languish. When you love someone, you have a hard time uncorking your thousand dollar bottle of wine if that beloved person is starving in the street. Most Christians’ problem is that they don’t love nearly enough.”
“I take your point, but here we come to the main sticking point. You see, I’m something of a misanthrope. Sure, I see divinity in all creations and thus especially in such anomalous creative agents as mammals like us. But what the hell is there to love? Love? I take it you’re talking about agape, not eros—brotherly love, not the erotic kind. But what I see when I look at all people is a herd of more or less pretentious mammals, mammals which are not just accursed by our existential situation—we’re too rational for our good, given that we’re trapped in a monster—but we’re also made disgusting by that plight. People are too disgusting to love. The world is decaying all around us. Can’t you see that? All natural changes are aimless, even the ones that happen in our artificial worlds since the minds that produce those subworlds are really brains and brains are devoid of anything supernatural.
“I agree that our creations are special and that’s why I admire our greatest artistic achievements. But love? No, everything is repellent, including Jesus and all our masterworks. There’s much that inspires awe in the world, as the secular humanists say, but awe is the dawning of horror. Awe is the surprise you feel when you’re presented with something sublime, meaning beyond your comprehension. But when you learn that it’s natural and thus mindless and undead, as modern science implies, your surprise should settle into a sickening worry that there’s no hope, that we’re left to desperate devices which might all fail, that none shall be covered in glory when our true resting place is revealed and it turns out our entire species is insignificant and each of us lived and died because monstrous nature twitched this way rather than that one. No, I fear the Buddhists are right: attachment to anything is foolish, under the ego-shattering circumstances.”
            “But Buddhists are altruists! They, too, say we should sacrifice ourselves to help each other.”
            “Yeah, they’re altruists but not lovers. They crave nothing, not the improvement of anyone’s earthly lot or any socialist utopia; they resign themselves to feeling misplaced as long as their ego is intact, feeding them distorted impressions of what’s important, which they reject because they’re partly enlightened. That’s how they immunize themselves against feeling any disappointment. They sacrifice their physical happiness not for love, but because they’re disgusted by the metaphysical error of egoism on which that foolish happiness depends. Buddhists are hyper-rationalists, not sentimental lovers of anything. With supreme emotional detachment, they coldly do what they think is necessary to alleviate their suffering; in effect, they rewire their brains to extinguish their personality.”
            “Well, there are different kinds of Buddhists. But anyway, are you really saying you love nothing at all? Why go on living then?”
            “I have plenty of reasons to live, but love isn’t among them. For being a new monastic Christian with at least a modicum of intellectual integrity, instead of participating in the ludicrous fraud that is orthodox Christianity, you have my respect. Unlike Buddhists, I hold great art to be sacred; I’m pleased when I come across some existentially magnificent achievement. I feel schadenfreude when I mock the absurdity of all-too-natural pastimes and the delusions that sustain them. And I feel camaraderie with like-minded introverts and outcasts. We’re brothers and sisters in arms, if you like. But ask yourself whether soldiers love their fellows in combat. They die for each other, but they’ve seen too much horror to undergo anything so sentimental. They honour their courage and other martial virtues, but to say that soldiers are lovers is lame and unbecoming. On the contrary, soldiers are more likely to suffer from so-called post-traumatic stress disorder and to search desperately for a reason to live, given how the horror of experiencing war trumps airy-fairy love.”
            Agape isn’t just sentimental. Our divine spark is real. You call it our anomalous creativity, and that’s fine. We should love people in general by way of honouring that which equally dignifies us. We’re the most precious things in the world. Maybe the word ‘love’ is tainted for you, because of its connotations, but you should agree that we should think more warmly about people than about inanimate things.”
            “A warm feeling? I suppose camaraderie would amount to that. But this isn’t just a semantic question. ‘Warmth’ here is a euphemism. We’re really back to the question of whether history is comedic or tragic. Anything like love requires a kind of optimism and open-heartedness which I think are forbidden by enlightened metaphysics. Anyone who understands what reality is has an obligation to face the existential implications, and the character that emerges from that crucible and from the fires of angst and horror will be more like a soldier than a lover. Love is for sheep, not wolves. And so it’s no accident that Christians think of Jesus as a shepherd.”
            “You’re too proud, aren’t you, Ben? We’re all lambs in God’s eyes; we’re lambs led to the slaughter and we need a greater being to point us in the right direction to make the most of our lives. That someone was Jesus, who showed us what a true hero values: the downtrodden and the vision of a better world for everyone, not power hierarchies built on transient material wealth. You’re too proud to admit that you’re a social being who needs to be loved, like almost everyone else. Well, to be loved, first you’ve got to love.”
            “Ugh! The spiritual law of attraction? Really? You should know that if you’re going to favour a liberal interpretation of Christianity, you’re going to rely on the hermeneutic principles of the scientific, critical historian, in which case you’ve got to be enough of a rationalist and a naturalist to know that there’s no personal God. So that’s off the table for both of us. Your theistic metaphors are useful only as advertisements for less-informed folks.
“You say Jesus was a hero, and maybe he was heroic for standing up for the underdogs and for proclaiming the dignity and even the spiritual greatness of everyone alike. But that doesn’t mean we should act like sheep. Sure, we should heed the advice of wise people, but that doesn’t mean we should submit to anything, including our social instinct. Oh, I’m not saying we should be antisocial. But, yes, the soldier needs honour and pride, because a state of war calls for such shields and we’re at war with nature, which is to say with god. That’s the existential struggle.
Love is hormonal madness, a chemical bond between romantic partners or xenophobic tribalists. That’s why even Christians who speak of unconditional or universal love distinguish between us and them, between humans and the demonized fallen angels who must be shunned and who deserve everlasting agony for their sins. Guess what? The demons are rebels against God and so are the best of us. To the extent that your Christianity supports liberal politics, you too advocate a satanic rebellion—not against a personal God who doesn’t exist, but against the natural god that does. You think we should build a more perfect society, but any such society would be glaringly unnatural, because of the equality of its members. Nature is full of inequality, because the undead god is a creator and a destroyer and when you mix things up in those ways, you’re left with a great imbalance.”   
            “No, I’m afraid I can’t entertain any such comparison of moral people with Satanists.”
            “Of course not, because whatever your firsthand experience of poverty and war, your ideas are still too unoriginal to escape the trap of political correctness. You think Jesus died for love, but that’s just a meme. You fight for liberal causes, but it’s our rationality that makes us equal, not any vacuous ‘divine spark.’ Our reason tells us the horrible truth, and that necessity is the mother of all our inventions which distinguish us as the great unnatural creators. By opposing the incoherence of secularized Christianity, you set yourself up as the rationalist, but you still speak of a personal God—even though that’s just a childish anthropomorphism. I’m not saying I’m any kind of perfect wise man, Jason. On the contrary, I’m saying we’re all disgusting for one reason or another, and that’s why if love is central to some worldview, that worldview is unviable.”
            “Well, your worldview is hardly viable. Without love, I see no basis for self-sacrifice or for civility, let alone morality. To sacrifice your pleasure to help a stranger in need, you’ve got to appreciate that person’s worth. Brotherly love is just the emotion that tells us that ultimately we’re no better than anyone else.”
            “No, now you’re talking about empathy, which is merely a kind of objectivity. The Golden Rule is about logical consistency or at least an empirical observation of everyone’s basic humanity. Emotion is irrelevant to that. I agree we should empathize with those who are in dire straits. I call that pity or disgust. I pity those who fare badly and I’m disgusted with the world that makes many people miserable. Again, the fact that you speak loosely of love tells me that however subversive and thus admirable your kind of Christianity is, it still papers over some existential truths.”
            “Maybe there’s logic in empathy, Ben, but empathizing with someone isn’t just a matter of knowing what you share; it’s a stirring of the conscience which prompts you to act. That’s the trouble with your naturalism. As much as I admire your willingness to face the harsh implications of the best of philosophy and science, unlike many New Atheists and secular humanists, you say you’re after tragic heroism, but a hero needs to act, not just stew in solitude, amassing ideas instead of material possessions, and ridiculing joiners from the back row. Yours is a philosophy for mice rather than men, to borrow Dostoyevsky’s phrase from Notes from the Underground. You overthink and you need love to motivate you to act well.”
            “I agree emotions are needed as motives, but pity, disgust, and horror will do nicely for moral and aesthetic purposes, I think. There’s no place here for schmaltz. Stale sentimentality is a recipe for kitsch, not for the virtuosity that can accomplish the miracle of ennobling us in the face of our inevitable disaster. I’ll leave the love-talk to exotericists like you, and the most curious Christian ascetics and rationalists may wish to investigate further, in which case they’ll find authentic naturalism waiting for them.
            “Maybe you’re right that authentic naturalists may prove unable to act, after all. Any emotion, even the kind I prefer, is a natural process which carries us along like a river of undead blood to an unknown, but likely appalling destination. The most heroic action, I think, isn’t merely an effect of some such emotion, but it happens after a leap of faith. This is the act of will that skips over the river of blood, hacks away at the undergrowth and forges an original path. That’s the inspirational kind of action I find heroic. When you love someone, you’re possessed by the love hormones; you’re a pitiful puppet that’s sent to carry the genes along the river. And when you’re disgusted by some filth or hackery, you’re just as well possessed, although disgust produces more original art than does love; just ask stand-up comedians, the irascible painters, or the tyrannical movie directors. Spielberg’s an old, soft-hearted lefty and most of his movies are infamous for being saccharine and schmaltzy. Only on a few occasions did he leave his heart out of it and make Jaws, Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan, which all won Oscars.
“We need emotions, because we’re animals and not just computers. But we also need creative will power and vision, to make us unpredictable, like subatomic particles, because we’re the animals that gnaw through our cage and even through the very undead hand that feeds us.”


  1. Very interesting debate, Ben. It really lays out some of the problems with conventional morality and thinking.

    Where I remain stymied is your concept of "art" and "creativity" as heoric solutions. To be honest, I can't buy it because I have trouble with seeing most "art" as heroic or anything more than often banal self indulgence. That may reflect a soulessness or a lacking in ME, I will certainly acknowledge.

    But...great essay nonetheless!

    1. No, you've made that point before, Brian. But you're talking about fine art, whereas what I'm calling art is something much broader, namely anything whatsoever that's created and evaluated with the aesthetic attitude. What I'm really trying to get at is a certain state of mind, similar to Spinoza's bliss which you're supposed to have when you see everything as a geometric whole, from God's point of view. It's the enlightened perspective from which everything in the universe seems like art of different calibers (undead and cliched or satanically rebellious, unnatural or anomalous). I'm talking about art in a metaphysical sense, not just fine art (painting, music, etc).

      See "Life as Art" for much more on this.

  2. You guys don't seem to understand the reason for the existence of love. That reason is to ultimately help bring unity in a world governed by moral views. It's not wrong to use our emotions to express our love. Just remember that it's not an emotion itself, it's ACTION.

    1. Is the natural world governed by morality? Did love evolve for a reason? That's the anthropocentrism which I think naturalists find to be at the heart of theism's implausibility. I talk about that in my YouTube video, "Anthropocentrism and Misanthropy":

      Anyway, I don't think the disagreement is about a failure to understand the role of love in God's plan. The disagreement is about all of the presuppositions involved, such as anthropocentrism.

  3. Within orthodox traditional christianity, love is not an emotion, it is an act of will, it is to will the good of the other, regardless weather you like them or not. Secondly, agape is to love the person regardless of value, so to say you can't love someone because they are disgusting is incoherent.
    If these 2 points are considered, the conversation would've been more clear and precise, less emotive etc

    1. Thanks for reading, Jonathan. Does "orthodox" mean Catholic? The Christian I had in mind for this dialogue is the new monastic Christian pictured in the photo, namely Shane Claiborne. The authenticity I focus on here is about lifestyle, not the finer points of doctrine.

      Still, I see why a Christian would want to spiritualize love rather than identify it with natural emotions, since nature is supposed to be a fallen place, ruled by the archons. Mind you, that's a hangover from the heresy of Gnosticism which was coopted by the Catholic assimilation of Paul's writings, so it's a little unseemly implying that I'm misrepresenting "orthodox traditional Christianity."

      In any case, the deeper response is obviously that, on the contrary, it's quite incoherent to suggest that you can love a *person* regardless of value. What would be happening there is that the willed, spiritual force of "love" would be directed towards the immaterial spirit that's somehow connected with the person, but not towards the person herself. By contrast, personhood has now been thoroughly naturalized. What makes up a person is determined by genes and the concrete experiences that shape the brain's memories and other neural circuitry. Real personhood thus has value unless you're a nihilist. Some people/minds are good, others are bad. If you treat them all equally, that shows you're not treating people at all. You're focused on something that doesn't exist, namely the immaterial spirit or the equal value of all minds from God's perspective. The traditional, exoteric notion of God is incoherent many times over; indeed, Catholics wear the incoherence of the Trinity conception of God as a badge of honour, since reason as opposed to faith is likewise supposed to be part of the fallen world.

      I always find it insulting when a Christian says he loves you unconditionally, because what that means is that he doesn’t love the actual person at all. The love is bogus, because it’s not directed at anything specific or real. But the Christian wants the benefit of being taken as spiritually elevated.

      The fact that we care more about our natural, concrete selves than any immaterial, spiritual essence is evidenced by our lack of interest in impersonal immortality. If told that “we’ll” live forever, but without any personal memories or habits or anything else that’s part of our natural identity, we wouldn’t care about that form of afterlife. We wouldn’t identify our real selves with that vague notion of spirit. Thus, if a Christian were to be upfront about unconditionally loving not the person herself, but the person’s spirit, the allegedly beloved person would have a greater chance to respond with the indifference that that “love” deserves.