Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Horror of Life’s Meaning: from Eastern and Western Religions to Liberal Humanism; Part Two


The paradox of Christianity is that Christians identified their God with a lowly, subversive Jew who lived in Judea at a time when that region was occupied by the Roman Empire, but this religion became that empire’s official religion in the fourth century. Jews had been awaiting a messiah in the Davidic line to defeat their foreign rulers and usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. The Maccabees, a group of Jewish warriors, revolted against the Seleucid Empire from 167-160 BCE, to end the influence of Hellenism on Jewish culture, and after the Romans conquered Judea in 63 CE, which had been run by the Hasmonean dynasty, Jews formed the political movement of the Zealots to foment rebellion against Rome. Their opposition culminated in the first Jewish-Roman War from 66-73 CE and in the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Although those events scattered the surviving Jews across the Mediterranean—at least those who weren’t captured and sold into slavery—Judaism, the underdog, arguably defeated Rome in the end—but through selfless Christianity rather than by Jewish force. 

The paradox is solved not by positing Christianity’s truth and thus a supernatural explanation of its success, but by attending to the historical context and to the continuation of Jewish syncretism. Christianity combined Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures. Judaism itself was divided at the time between Pharisees, Sadducees and various smaller, apocalyptic and ascetic cults collectively called the Essenes. The Pharisees supplemented the Jewish scriptures with theological interpretations deriving from Zoroastrianism, such as the principles of freewill, resurrection of the dead, and heaven and hell issuing from a divine judgment. Indeed, the name “Pharisee,” often taken to have meant “set apart,” as in the Pharisees weren’t real Jews because of the Persian influence on them, may instead have derived from the Aramaic “Parsah,” meaning “Persian” or “Persianizer.” The Sadducees were less Zoroastrian and confined their thinking to the written Jewish Law. Both groups were secular compared to the Essenes who congregated in caves, took vows of poverty, led a strictly communal life, practiced daily baptism, and wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Jewish side of Christianity, apparent from the Gospel narratives, is eclectic, combining elements of Pharisaic, Sadducee, Essenic, and Zealot beliefs and practices. Thus, the compromising function of Christianity begins at the outset even within the Jewish side of the synthesis with paganism. Like a Pharisee or an Essene, the character Jesus speaks at great length of heaven and hell and of the coming judgment at the End Times, but he also argues over interpretations of the Torah with legalistic Jews like a Sadducee, and called Pharisees hypocrites, as an Essene would have done. Moreover, Jesus spent a long time in the wilderness and lauded the poor like an Essene, but he also selflessly went about healing the sick and helping feed the poor instead of shutting himself away in a cave. Like a mystical Essene, Jesus taught in parable form and he said his teachings contained esoteric meanings that only insiders would understand. He’s baptized by the Essene John the Baptist who prostrates himself before Jesus. And Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers and told his followers to carry swords, like a Zealot.

Of course, the Gospel narratives were written decades after Jesus was thought to have lived and were canonized only much later, in the fourth century but officially at the Council of Trent in 1546. But by either point the Second Temple Jewish sects were no more and Christianity had already split from rabbinical Judaism, so there would have been no interest in casting a wide scriptural net to attract different kinds of Jews to Christianity. Instead, the Jesus depicted in the gospels that feature his Jewishness isn’t placed squarely in any one Jewish faction. The point of Jesus’s Jewishness in the Gospels, then, is that Jesus was the perfect Jew who transcended such squabbles and beat the Jewish sects at their own games.

Between Judaism and paganism there already stood Gnosticism in the first century CE, a Jewish-Platonist movement and a more philosophical, anti-natural and even Eastern rival of the universal, ever-compromising form of Christianity that would become known as “Catholic.” Gnostic Christianity was influenced by Plato through Philo of Alexandria, the first century Jewish philosopher who read the Jewish scriptures allegorically to adapt them to Platonic metaphysics. Later, in the third century, the philosopher Plotinus created Neo-Platonism, a religion combining Plato’s philosophy with the Hindu idea of an impersonal source of all being, which Plotinus called the One and which is found in our true self through asceticism and ecstatic meditation. Gnostics were metaphysical dualists who thought that nature was created by an evil or ignorant deity, and that we’re imprisoned in a domain of corrupting material forms unless we obtain secret knowledge to save ourselves, knowledge supplied by a higher, transcendent and benevolent God. Aspects of Gnosticism are apparent in the Pauline epistles, which display little interest in the historical Jesus and in which Paul proclaims that he received gnosis, of saving knowledge, from a vision of the risen Christ. Gnosticism is found also in the Gospel of John in which Jesus is depicted as a heavenly revealer, a representative of the divine light against the darkness of godless nature. In the third century, Manicheanism, too, represented a rival form of universal religion, combining Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. According to Jennifer Hecht’s book Doubt, while Manicheanism was eventually condemned as heresy, this religion’s enormous popularity, in Persia, the Roman Empire, India, and China astonished Christians, forcing the Church to adopt Eastern ideals of asceticism to meet the public demand for otherworldly spirituality. 

On the Greco-Roman side of the union, there were the Mystery Religions and the fact of the polytheistic Roman Empire itself with its bias towards universalism and expansionism, as well as its tendency to worship its emperors as gods, according to the imperial cult. The Mystery Religions were similar to Gnosticism in that they were underground schools, featuring rituals that provided the initiate with esoteric knowledge of the nature of reality and of his or her ultimate purpose. Specifically, according to the New Testament historian Samuel Angus, “common to all the Mysteries was the faith in communion, or identification with God.” This was achieved in various ways, such as through ecstasy or enthusiasm brought about by vigil, fasting, whirling dances, or hallucination. One of the forms of divine union was deification or apotheosis, the initiate’s literal transformation into a deity. For example, according to Angus, there was “the God-Man conception,” which rose from Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. The Mysteries conceived of deification in three interrelated ways: “mystic identification with the tutelary” or divine guardian, “endowment with deathlessness and transformation into the divine substance,” and “the divine indwelling, by which the material man became spiritual.” As Angus points out, the second form is apparent in the sacramental meal, called the Eucharist, which Christians took over from the Mysteries, while the third form “was so conspicuous in the mystical aspects of Paulinism, and still more in the thought of the Fourth Gospel.”

Thus, the Mystery Religions transmitted Eastern monism to the West, via the routes opened up by Alexander the Great. That form of spirituality thrilled the Romans whose native religion was a comparatively stale and contractual transplantation of Greek polytheism that depended on the correctness of practices rather than on faith or dogma. Ancient Roman religion wasn’t meant to fire the imagination or to call for existential questioning, because this religion had to be neutral enough to accommodate the various cultural sectors of the empire. Perhaps because Roman soldiers faced death on the battlefield, they needed a more uplifting religion and so many of them gravitated to the Mystery Religion of Mithraism.

To make sense of this, consider that if religion generally in the ancient world was akin to a modern company and brand, an imperial religion must have been like a transnational corporation. We know from the arts that when you try to please everyone, the quality of your work declines. This is true of movies, television, music, novels, fashion, architecture, comedy, and virtually every other field of production that has an aesthetic aspect. The more potent the point you wish to make, the more you will alienate some portions of your potential audience, and so your niche must narrow. To reach the broadest possible audience, you must ensure your content doesn’t offend the consumers by presupposing that they have much intellectual curiosity or background knowledge. If you’re running a massive franchise, your best bet is to produce cheap merchandize or insipid entertainment that the masses can afford or easily digest and to fill your storefronts with Muzak, and if you’re running an empire that spans numerous cultures, you’ll want a bland, inoffensive ideology to unite the peoples that you control and protect. While this approach works collectively, at the societal level, it doesn’t work for individuals: it enables people to function in their roles as conquerors or conquered, but it doesn’t inspire them to transcend their apparent limitations or give them an existential reason to go on living. This is where the Mysteries and Christianity entered the picture of the declining Roman Empire. Note that the Roman Empire needed an external source of spiritual vitality, whereas the Persian Empire didn’t, because Roman culture was largely inauthentic, having been borrowed from the Greeks, whereas the Persian religion was based on a vision by the indigenous prophet Zoroaster, although he would have been reforming the prehistoric, polytheistic Indo-Iranian religion.

The Christian Synthesis

But now we need to consider how the Jewish and pagan elements came together to form Christianity. The earliest Christians were Jews, but after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Christians were forced to disavow and even to demonize Jews, to demonstrate their independence to Rome. Thus, even while the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus defend every jot and tittle of the Torah, the Gospels—from Mark to John—lay the blame for Jesus’s execution more and more on the Jews who were supposedly jealous of Jesus’s popularity, not on the Romans who actually would have carried out the crucifixion. Nevertheless, early Christianity was Jewish in its apocalyptic theology, including its linear, progressive view of time. Also Jewish were the seditious implications of the early Church’s ascetic principles and the interrelations between Christian scriptures and Jewish ones. Thus, early Christians thought of Jesus as a Jewish prophet and messiah.

But Christianity also plainly adapted pagan elements, three of which are crucial. First, Christianity offered salvation to everyone, not just to Jews or to those who adopt Jewish morality. Paul wrote to his Christian communities that Jesus fulfilled the law and initiated a new covenant, one requiring mainly faith in the power of Jesus’s sacrificial death to atone for everyone’s sins until the end of time. In the gospels, Jesus goes out of his way to aid pagans and the poor and disadvantaged, because his message was understood to be universal. After he rises from the dead, he exhorts his disciples to convert all nations to the Christian faith.

Second, Christianity is infamous for contradicting itself by being both monotheistic and polytheistic. The incoherence of that theology only lends it a numinous aura for those willing to trust in it. The monotheistic contention, deriving from Judaism, is that the persons of the Holy Trinity share a metaphysical, divine essence, while the polytheistic point is that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are nevertheless separate divine persons. Thus, if you think a god must be a person rather than an impersonal force or shared essence, you’re forced to conclude that Christianity is polytheistic. Its virtual polytheism continues with its cult of holy Mary, mother of God, and with its plethora of saints who are likewise individually sanctified.

Third, the figure of Jesus Christ wasn’t a messiah in the expected mold. Instead, Jesus was eventually worshipped as the mortal incarnation of God. Instead of merely defeating one earthly empire, Christians believe Jesus died to save all of humanity from the enemy of death itself, and from everlasting torment in hell. Judaism was and still is aniconic, meaning that Jews forbid even a representation of God, to avoid the temptation of vainly supposing we might have some power over God by way of our theological knowledge. The names of God were guarded by the High Priest and Jews preferred to speak of God in euphemisms. To imagine that a human person could be literally the Jewish God would have been the height of blasphemy, if not of lunacy. But the Mysteries Religions such as the cult at Eleusis already offered a more mystical theology according to which God is everywhere and is thus in each and every one of us. We merely have to purify our consciousness to recognize our divine potential, as in Jainism.

The gospels might even have been read initially as allegories or metaphors, not as historical records. The point would have been for the Gnostic or Essene to recognize his or her “Christ-like” potential, to die to the fallen world and be reborn in a higher one, with an elevated perspective. This would indeed have been the Gnostic interpretation of the Catholic gospels, since the Gnostics had little use of an historical Jesus, because they believed the transcendent God can appear at any time in spiritual visions, as he was supposed to have done to Paul. This is how anyone can be saved even without having met a historical savior. Sacred knowledge was what was freely transferable, for the Gnostic, and so this knowledge was God’s method of redeeming his Creation. By contrast, not even the risen Christ lingered on the earth, since he was said to have ascended to Heaven only 40 days after his crucifixion. Indeed, the allegorical interpretation of the Bible was forced on the Church Fathers by the challenges of Gnosticism and Marcionism, since the Gnostics pointed out that the Christian God was evidently different from the Jewish one, that indeed the latter seemed more like a demiurge or devil, and Marcion rejected the entire Old Testament. In the second century, Justin Martyr defended the Church’s continuity with Judaism by interpreting the tyrannical or otherwise problematic portions of Jewish scripture as allegorically pointing to Christ. Clement of Alexandria and his student Origen followed suit and read the Bible as consisting largely of symbols that had literal, historical meanings for the illiterate masses, and deeper, often Platonic meanings for Christian intellectuals.

In any case, Gnosticism and Marcionism lost out to the Catholics who did indeed teach that Jesus was a historical figure as well as humanity’s savior who was identical with God. The historian Elaine Pagels explains the political dimension of this conflict which led to the persecution of Gnostics as heretics. A spiritual savior which can appear anywhere at any time is antithetical to creating a religious institution with central authority over the flock. If Christ could appear to Paul, he could appear also directly to Tom, Dick, and Harry. This was the Gnostic point—although being Platonists, that is, elitists, Gnostics were also cynical about the masses’ chance of enlightenment, because most people evidently prefer to remain lost in the haze of material distractions. But as the decades passed and the end of the world hadn’t arrived as early as expected by the apocalyptic Essenes and early Christians alike, Catholics would have been pragmatic in realizing that the growing Christian movement had to be organized if it was to survive, especially after the fall of Judaism which left Christianity at the mercy of Rome. Therefore, to justify their political power over Christians, the fathers of Catholicism would have emphasized or even invented the historical Christ, perhaps lifting the heart of the gospel story from the Suffering Servant metaphor in Isaiah 53, since they could then trace their authority to the transfer of power from Jesus to his disciple Peter, whom they regarded as the first pope. Those so-called Christians who fell outside the organization that spread from that localized event could be discredited.

Catholicism became the dominant form of Christianity within decades after Constantine converted to that religion in 312 CE. By that point, Christianity was enormously popular, and church hierarchies had already developed. The name “Catholicism,” which means “generally, universally, or according to the whole” has a curious implication hiding in plain sight. Christians point proudly at the swift rise to power of their religion, from its humble origin as a movement that glorified the poor and downtrodden to an imperial power a few centuries later that converted the very empire that had conquered the Jews and crucified Jesus. The rather democratic assumption there is that the greater an ideology’s reach and popularity, the more likely that set of ideas is true. On the contrary, we might think, the truth is hard to understand, as is clear from mass ignorance of modern science, and the presence of God in nature should be shocking, not comforting. To be sure, Catholicism soon enough dominated, but that kind of popularity and power should be inherently suspicious.  

Christianity’s historical triumph was only the latter stage of a process of appropriation and compromise that began with the Yahwist faction eight centuries before Christianity. To grow to achieve monotheistic status, Yahweh first had to absorb the powers of the Canaanite pantheon in the Jewish imagination. That’s why “El” lost its meaning as the name of a distinct deity and became a generic term for “god.” Baal was at one time the storm god, but then Yahweh became identified with the storm, as in Psalm 97, for example: “Clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him and consumes his foes on every side. His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles.” The goddess Asherah was assimilated to Yahweh’s Shekinah, to his divine presence and feminine aspect. And to graduate from being merely the greatest god to the only one, Yahweh had to take on the cosmic and apocalyptic aspects of Ahura Mazda.

Then in the first century CE, Jews were outmatched by a pragmatic empire that wouldn’t have scrupled to crucify a Jewish healer and wise man like Jesus. To reinvigorate their tradition, some Jews began to combine elements of Greco-Roman culture with Judaism, including the element of polytheism but also that of the profound Eastern ideas from the Mystery Religions. This isn’t to say there was a conscious conspiracy, but this kind of syncretism is evidently what works in a cultural version of Darwinian selection. Nor should this point about syncretism be confused with the dismissive contention that Christianity is a cheap copy of pagan dying-and-rising godman cults, as some skeptics and Jesus mythicists insist. Regardless of whether Jesus historically existed, Christianity’s synthesis of Jewish and pagan ideas and practices was original and plainly effective. In the second century CE, Justin Martyr conceded that Jesus Christ resembled the Greek gods that die and rise again to commemorate the seasons and crop cycles, but Justin needn’t have worried about the competition because Jesus’s death and resurrection had no such mundane meaning. Instead, Christians lauded Jesus’s death and rebirth as a morality tale, the meaning of which derives from Judaism’s distortion of Zoroastrianism.

Still, Christian syncretism isn’t pretty. Thus, Yahweh was split apart again to make room for his only begotten Son and for the Holy Spirit that would guide the Church. Thanks to the Trinity doctrine, gentiles could pick between monotheism and polytheism, gestalt-shifting between theological perspectives as the needs arose. Moreover, the moral and spiritual benefits of Judaism were offered up to non-Jews without the stark monotheism or the need to labour under an all-consuming legal framework. And Catholics would hardly stop there. The Eucharist is a pagan reinterpretation of the Jewish symbol of the paschal lamb. Instead of being just an animal sacrifice to commemorate Passover, the wafer and wine in the Christian meal are supposed to miraculously turn into the body and blood of Jesus, thus creating a union with God in the manner prized by the Mystery Religions and the Dionysus cult. Jesus’s birthplace became December 25 so that Christianity could overshadow the pagan festival of the Invincible Sun. Much of the symbolism of Christmas, including Santa Claus, the Odinized version of Saint Nicholas, derives from the Germanic Yuletide festival. At around 600 CE, Pope Gregory wrote a letter to Mellitus, the first Bishop of London and a missionary to England, telling him that instead of destroying pagan temples, he could more easily convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity by reusing their shrines for Christian purposes.

Such borrowing and reworking of mere symbols from pagan culture or even from Judaism were made possible because the essence of Catholicism is to be universal at all costs; like water, the Catholic Church takes the shape of its surroundings to flow onward. More crucially, though, the fusion of moralistic, apocalyptic, and exclusivist Judaism with the amoral pragmatism of the Roman Empire entailed a debasement of Jesus’s uncompromising, otherworldly principles. Saint Augustine advised Christians to plunder the riches to be found in pagan learning, just as the Israelites were said to have plundered the gold and silver of Egypt in the Exodus, because otherwise, said Augustine, pagan philosophy is in the service of devil worship. Christian eclecticism was the opposite of any puritanical fundamentalism. Thus, Christian standards declined, especially in the West with the collapse of that part of the Roman Empire. Monks, nuns, and the priesthood could practice being Christ-like while the majority of Christians would praise God for creating a more foolproof method of salvation, requiring mainly the verbal confession that Christ already did all the work for them. To run the fading empire and manage the emergencies of the Middle Ages, the Church would need a Just War Theory as well as some theological rationales for the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the witch hunts. The Catholic scriptures proved sufficiently malleable and were selected in the first place to promote a lowering of religious standards, as compared with the Gnostic texts. Thus, Christian elites were happy to oblige at least the idea of the Holy Roman Empire, what the philosopher Kierkegaard called “Christendom.” As we’ll soon see, this secularization of the Church seems to have reached its nadir in American conservative Christianity.

Western and Eastern Christianity

With that historical context in mind, let’s consider the meaning of Christian life, which is to be saved from the consequences of our inevitable sin. We can never be as perfect as Jesus and so we can’t save ourselves from death and from divine judgment. Whereas the Church may compromise to provide a sanctuary for the beleaguered masses for two millennia, God’s moral standards are infinitely high. Taking pity on his doomed creatures and seeming to salvage what was supposed to be the pinnacle of his Creation, which he’d apparently botched, God sent a version of himself to pay the price of sin, to meet his impossibly high standards so that we wouldn’t have to worry about our fallen nature. We can be redeemed just by accepting God’s sacrifice of himself to himself. Once we confess that we need such a saviour, and break down in tears in thankfulness that God loves us even though our inherent behaviour is hideous in God’s sight, we’re regenerated by the personal relationships that form between us and Christ and the Holy Spirit.

At least, that’s the Western Church’s answer. The Eastern Orthodox Church carries on the Gnostic practices of eschewing the base notion that Jesus’s death was an all-important god-man sacrifice, and of calling for escape from nature, or for noetic renewal. The Eastern Church’s technique isn’t to bow before an ancient saviour but to save ourselves by becoming God, that is, by recognizing our godhood through spiritual illumination, as in the Mystery Religions. Like the Buddha’s path to nirvana, the Orthodox Church offers therapy to overcome our sinful desires and to liberate our nous, our higher mind, by theoria, by loving contemplation of religious icons, prayers, biblical allegories, ritual meals, and experiential knowledge of God. Jesus’s task was only to conquer death by his resurrection and thus to enable us to improve and rescue ourselves.

The Western and the Eastern churches each regard the other as wildly heretical, but somehow the opposite charges of heterodoxy don’t end in nullification. Clearly, the theological rigmarole of the Western Church’s creed is a thousand times absurd, but Catholicism has assimilated that absurdity, too. For example, the Catholic Catechism speaks of the “mystery” of the Most Holy Trinity, evidently using that word as a euphemism for “absurdity.” There’s even a Catholic line of argument, going back to the early apologist Tertullian, according to which the Christian should feel confident about believing that the Son of God was crucified as a human precisely because this idea is absurd. Tertullian’s point was that the gospel story is so improbable that it wouldn’t likely have been a mere fabrication. He seems to have overlooked the fact that even were this so, a fabricator could exploit the literary preference for verisimilitude and invent miracle stories, knowing that they’d command faith for the reason supplied by Tertullian. Moreover, the Catholic creed was formed not by sheer literary invention, as in the case of artistic inspiration, but by a commitment to political compromise; the theological self-contradictions reflect the attempt to please both sides of an issue by ramming opposite doctrines—or even opposite religions—into each other. And so the fact that Christian doctrines are self-contradictory or otherwise preposterous is in the Jewish tradition of mangling Zoroastrian monotheism, to bypass rational thought and to use religion as a political weapon. The irrationality of a major religion’s beliefs is like the shoddiness or the toxicity of a transnational corporation’s products. The point isn’t to admire them but to submit, to buy into the culture and belong to a social order.

Still, the Eastern Orthodox Church welcomes the apparent contradictions as indications of Christianity’s mystical power. Eastern Christianity was strongly influenced by the Greek-speaking parts of the Byzantine Empire, which preserved the ancient Greek philosophy that in turn influenced many of Christianity’s founding fathers. Whereas the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century, the Eastern side of the empire remained intact until 1453 CE. Thus, the Eastern Church had the luxury to develop sophisticated theology that absorbed Neo-Platonism, Manicheanism, and Gnosticism and that prized mystical visions and ascetic practices. For the Eastern Church, the point of Christianity isn’t that Jesus did all the spiritual work for everyone so that to be assured of eternal life we need merely observe some minimal rites such as baptism, the Eucharist, and verbal confession of sins. Instead, the ascetic Hindus and Buddhists demonstrated a higher form of spirituality. And so Clement of Alexandria and Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, taught that Christians should imitate Christ’s single-minded devotion to God, not out of humble thanksgiving for any sacrificial payment for sin, but to become deified. As Clement said, in line with the Mystery Religions, Christ was the divine Logos who became a man so that all people “might learn from a man how to become God.” Origen likewise taught that by contemplation, the soul gradually ascends, leaving behind its body and gender to become pure spirit. God, for this more mystical and philosophical Christianity, is impersonal rather like the God of philosophers such as Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas. This God is the absolute, metaphysically simple source of all things which isn’t therefore itself a thing that can be said, strictly speaking, to exist or not to exist.

The modern philosopher and East Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart, defends this kind of Christianity against Protestants and postmodern theologians who tarnish Christianity with their worship of the Bible, their vulgar personification of God, and their lax, secular standards of Christian behaviour. For example, the Holy Trinity isn’t split really into persons, says Hart, but into hypostases, or metaphysically distinct substances or essences. Thus, God is three distinct substances united by a single, undivided essence. And Christian literalists such as William Lane Craig reply that this so-called sophisticated language is obscure to the point of being vacuous. Indeed, as we’ll see in a moment, mystical philosophy slides into atheism, since theism is belief in a personal creator of the universe, and so the Eastern, philosophy-friendly Church doesn’t offer much of a bulwark for those seeking to avoid secular temptations. What remains are the ecstatic experiences of a transcendent, supernatural state of being, but these are best captured by Rudolph Otto’s sobering analysis. Nature’s causal unity and indifference to life are horrific—at least for those who haven’t undergone the full ascetic operation of annihilating their ego and humanity.     

Americanism and the Horror of Holiness

Thus, while you might expect Christians to feel equal because of their notion of original sin, social hierarchies remain in the Church—and not just between the ascetic professionals and the secularized laypeople. True, Christianity did promote the value of human equality, since Jesus overturned expectations about who would succeed in the afterlife. Specifically, he maintained that earthly and heavenly gains are inversely related, so that it’s almost impossible for a rich person to please God since the material wealth naturally becomes a corrupting idol.

But by altering the Zoroastrian conception of hell, possibly out of what Nietzsche called the resentment that flows from slave morality—that is, by making hell permanent rather than rehabilitative, the Jesus of the gospels pushed the decisive social hierarchy into the afterlife. In Christianity, there are the saved and the condemned, the sheep and the goats, the wheat and the chaff, and the everlasting destinations after physical death are what divide those groups. The infinity of punishment for finite sins is of the same order of lunacy as the notion that there’s one lone, male deity who has always been sovereign over everything for no reason. Again, the counterintuitiveness serves a purpose, which is to force you to choose to have blind faith or to lose that gracious gift of salvation. All that’s required is to humble ourselves and concede that human reason is foolishness to God—even though God must have supplied us with the capacity for rational thought to enable us to survive for tens of thousands of years in a variety of hostile environments. With the mystics, we’re supposed to stand in awe of Christianity’s preposterousness, construing the illogic not as a sign that a monstrous fraud has been perpetrated, but as paradoxical evidence of God’s presence in the Catholic tradition.

However, the Church’s interest in mysticism is superficial. To be sure, Catholics have their assortment of saintly ascetics who have turned to mysticism to make sense of their religious experiences, and the Eastern Church prescribes contemplation of God as a way of purifying the mind. But Christian escapism operates like the Jewish kind: the implicit directive is to regard God as absurd and thus as horrific, and to flee divine matters for as long as possible, seeking refuge in the secular world. Again, the theologian Rudolph Otto captured part of this message, in his analysis of the idea of holiness. The experience of the numinous is of the amoral aspect of a holy being. For Otto, the idea of the fundamental cause of all things ought to humiliate us, reducing our parochial concerns and frivolous conceits to so much drivel; the creature who recognizes the necessary incompleteness of its pitiful attempts at rational explanations suffers awe, terror, dread in the face of this ultimate source’s absolute unapproachability. Faith in God ought to mean primarily fear of God, as it does for Jews and Muslims but not so much for Christians, because the wrath of God was a metaphor for nature’s overwhelming power in the face of which we’re forced to come to terms with our nothingness, with our stature as mere creatures. And yet despite the awe, terror, and dread, we’re drawn to this mystery, because we’re curious to a fault. Like moths to a flame we’re attracted to something radically alien and indifferent to us which snuffs us out.

Why, then, do Western Christians especially tend to speak of the need to love God rather than to fear him? To avoid the genuine religious experience of God’s holiness—which is as unhelpful to modern secular concerns as is an entheogen such as cannabis or peyote. Following the logic and the illogic of Christianity leads us to realize that the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Sacrifice are just repellant enough to legitimize the Church’s secular mission. Dostoevsky captured this mission in his Grand Inquisitor parable in The Brothers Karamazov, according to which the Church had to survive somehow to clean up the mess left by its visionary founder. Christianity is about confronting the choice between submitting as an admission of weakness and of withholding faith out of pride, between accepting and rejecting Christianity’s absurdity. God has consigned us to the wilderness and it’s there that our freedom is tested. The world didn’t end as Jesus had supposedly predicted and God left the Church in charge after he ascended to Heaven. The Catholic institution solves the problem of its shaky foundations by effectively aligning itself with Satan, with the lord of this world, mythically speaking, by promoting mass slavery to idols to relieve us of our burdensome freedom.

There’s no clearer proof of this unsettling thesis than the woeful state of American Evangelical Christianity over at least the last four decades. After a long, long history of Judeo-Christian co-optations and compromises, Protestant settlers of the New World found themselves taking on board the ideology of Americanism. We’ll look further into this ideology soon, since it’s at the center of the modern secular humanistic solution to the problem of life’s meaning. But for now, think of Americanism as beginning with the conviction that every individual should be free to decide how to pursue her private happiness, as long as she doesn’t deprive anyone else of the same right. And think of it as ending in the enshrining of capitalism and democracy as the institutions most conducive to protecting individual liberty. Capitalism, in turns, ends in vast economic inequality and so in plutocracy; thus, capitalism supplies the nature of the demagoguery to which democracy is prone to succumbing.

Superficially, therefore, Americanism is utterly anti-Christian, and when you see the millions of Evangelicals venerating the narcissistic billionaire Donald Trump, holding fast to their self-destructive ambitions even as it emerges that Trump is beholden to America’s rival, Russia, it’s hard to speak in earnest of Evangelicalism as a kind of Christianity. But when we attend to the Christian subtext, to the direction of Christian escapism, an irony emerges. Evangelicals may be truer Christians that the saintly ascetic monks and nuns who shut themselves away from secular society. Evangelicals seem to take to heart the debilitating horror that the God you find at the center of self-contradictory Christian theology is empty. Instead of crippling themselves with religious experience, they prefer to be happy, to escape God’s evident inhumanity while they can, by busying themselves with the idols of Americanism, with the Constitution and the American military, wedge issues and family values, the Republican Party and the free market right to consume the world’s resources like a parasite.

The interpretation of Western monotheism as a retreat from religion’s absurdity to the distractions of secularism is consistent with the philosopher and sociologist Marcel Gauchet’s thesis in his book, The Disenchantment of the World. Gauchet argued that once the social hierarchies of Neolithic civilization undermined the holistic, egalitarian, animistic vision of our unity with sacred nature, religion was forced to undo itself, to make way for the godless, materialistic, science-centered worldview. Monotheism was God’s fatal wound, not Nietzsche’s diatribe or philosophical reason. To understand Gauchet’s point, picture the infinite spirits of primeval animistic religion, the spirit of this stone or of that leaf, the wise ancestor spirits that guide the tribe. Now picture these spirits being compressed into a singularity, and this singularity disappearing like a black hole behind an event horizon. This is what monotheism eventually accomplished, effectively freeing or condemning us to live with a mostly absent deity. As Gauchet wrote, “There is no intellectual access to a God radically separated from the world, so humans are now on their own, with only the light of their investigative faculties to assist them before this silent totality that resists their aspiration for meaning.”

But before God disappeared completely, his dwindling relevance was preserved by his preference for Jews, so that Jews carried the dying light of God’s presence in their ritualistic culture. Christianity completed the deicide, according to Gauchet, by restricting God’s presence even further to a single man in history, with the doctrine of the Incarnation, and then killing off that man and thus God. The logic of monotheism is thus one of localizing and eliminating God, of identifying divine spirits which were once concrete and omnipresent for the prehistoric animist, with literally no thing, or with some alleged thing beyond the universe of all things and immune to being understood by anyone. Perhaps this black hole sun, to borrow the rock band’s phrase, will one day swallow the world, but until then religion no longer structures civilized societies and has been relegated to matters of private faith. It wasn’t that the world fell from God’s grace, but that monotheists realized that civilization made God obsolete, so these loyalists struggled to conceive of ways to enshrine vestiges of divinity.

Mind you, Gauchet argues as though history were bound to unfold according to some metaphysical, quasi-Hegelian logic, but there’s no such logic. True, organized religions look desiccated next to the mythopoeic vision of enchanted nature, but this is like saying we individually die as soon as we exit our early stage of childish wonder. Children experience the world as a magical place, but they don’t understand much of anything. The same would have been true of the naïve, prehistoric animists. Moreover, Gauchet’s thesis has trouble explaining Christianity’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit in Church history or even on Christ’s resurrection and availability in visions to Paul and to the Gnostics. Likewise, Islamic submission to Allah in theocracies, which follows Christianity, seems inconsistent with Gauchet’s claim that religion’s inner logic ended with Christianity, making God politically irrelevant.

But perhaps religion’s origin in prehistoric wonder was bound to end in theological incoherence and absurdity, just as we shouldn’t expect that a story told by a child could hold up to adult scrutiny. So that as civilized people accumulated historical memory and domesticated themselves, they were forced to recognize the silliness of their lingering talk of gods, despite their nostalgia. Preparing the way for the modern break from the childlike vision of nature—before European civilization fully articulated the concept of godless matter—Eastern and Western theists were stuck with the dread of having to devote themselves to manifest absurdities. Their interim faith must have tortured them and so they readily succumbed to the prospects of ignoring God and dedicating themselves, in practice, to politics, war, business, family, art, and other secular enterprises. 

No comments:

Post a Comment