"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Which Passes All Understanding

One of the favorite hobby-horses of the anti-religion crowd is to claim that all religions spring from a need to explain natural phenomena. It is, of course, an 18th century claim, one brought to full flower in the 19th century in Europe, and a reductionist argument with little or no basis in fact. Rather difficult to read the Creation story of Genesis (either one) or the story of Abraham as an explanation for rainfall or drought, or feast or famine. But it occurred to me this morning that there is a reason for this flawed analysis, and the root is in the question of power.

Consider: all governments only rule by the consent of the governed. Democracy is not unique in this aspect, it is simply meant to put all of the authority in "the people," who then put the responsibility on those who lead and direct the day to day functions of government. "That government governs best which governs least," Thomas Jefferson asserted, and yet he expanded the powers of the government far beyond those of his predecssor, John Adams (he of the Alien and Sedition Acts). In history, ironies abound.

But no government survives which does not serve the people governed. Ideally a democratic system of government corrects the errors and corruption of those to whom it gives responsibility with greater alacrity than a monarchy or a dictatorship. But eventually even the dictator cannot maintain control over a people whom his government does not serve with some benefits. Orwell's pessimism on this point has not been borne out by history. His "proles" have not proven as tractable and complacent as 1984 imagined, and the usual picture of the misery of the serfs in Medieval Europe has proven to be wildly exaggerated. Likewise the freedoms we so value in this country seem, to outsiders, to come at a high price and while we see Islamic countries as backward and primitive, they feel the heel of our boot on their necks, and wonder how much of our liberty is based on their suppression.

Pakistan today is as outraged at our casual missile strikes in their neighborhoods to kill one terrorist (we'd call it using a sledge hammer to kill a fly, if it happened to us) as they are by cartoons of their holy prophet.

So it isn't a matter of history "progressing," much less coming to an "end," and it certainly cannot be reduced to a simple schema of "freedom = good." Because too often freedom means "I have the power to take from you." Just ask the people who were here when the Europeans started pouring in.

Power is the root here, and power always flows from the governed. When situations become extreme enough, the governed withdraw their consent from the government, be it a dictatorship, be it a democracy. And this is where religion becomes connected to it.

Did religion arise solely as mythology, a magical explanation for natural phenomena? That explanation was never removed from the rulers, the government over the people who told those stories. Explanations of natural phenomena by reference to divine powers may seem to be a first-line abstraction from observed natural phenomena, but at least in Western literature, it is hard to find these explanations separated from those who claim to provide security from the vagaries of the future and the insecurity of daily living.

Humankind, after all, is a social creature, which bands together into groups at a minimum to meet the common goals even Aquinas understood were basic: shelter, food, reproduction, and education of offspring.

Set aside the Greek myths for a moment, not because they undo the analysis, but because most tellings of them are removed from their context and have been retold as stand alone stories, as "myths" which were attempts to explain nature and the cosmos. They were, but no more than the story of Beowulf explained the nature of courage, heroism, and immortality through deathless fame. In that, Beowulf is connected directly to Gilgamesh. But neither culture knew of the other, and neither culture thought its stories were "myths" in the 19th century European sense we use today. The stories of Persephone and Pandora need to go back into the context from which they arose; so set them aside for now, and attend to more complete examples.

Gilgamesh is one. The ruler Gilgamesh is a good ruler, but immature. The people appeal to the gods for help, because while the gods are far away and ethereal, Gilgamesh is close at hand, and material. If Gilgamesh can't be straightened out, who cares what else the gods provide or require? Or Oedipus Rex: Apollo is angry with Thebes because of an injustice, but it is Oedipus the people look to in order to right the wrong. Apollo may be withholding rain, but the ruler is responsible for correcting the problem. The tragedy of Antigone is that the ruler has defied the gods. But before it is revealed the gods are angry, Creon's son reveals that the people are turning their smpathies to Antigone's plight. If Creon angers the gods, what will that mean for Thebes? The gods cannot be reached; but people can. Even in Exodus: God may lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, but when they get tired of the desert and the manna, Moses is blamed for leading them into disaster and hunger.

Or the figure of the Fisher King, behind the Arthurian Grail stories. The king lies wounded in his castle, a wound which will not heal but from which he does not die. His castle sits in the center of a wasteland, the kingdom reflecting the condition, not of the gods, but of the king. It is the king who protects the people; his state is their kingdom's state. It is no accident that Lear's madness occurs in the midst of a hurricane. The storm in his soul is the storm in the kingdom.

Stories of how divine powers control natural phenomena for the benefit of the people, or their harm, are never far removed from the responsibility of the rulers for the people. When Moses calls upon the God of Abraham to turn nature against Egypt, the blow is struck at Pharoah's power, and that is why Pharoah finally decides to release the Israelites. When every first born male in Egypt is struck down in the Passover, Pharoah understands his ability to rule is what is threatened.

The gods, in other words, may have been propitiated in hopes of insuring the harvest, or securing the future, but it was the rulers who were held responsible for making sure all went well below heaven. So the King of Nineveh repents upon hearing Jonah's message, and the whole kingdom repents with him. And Constantine confesses Christianity on his death bed, and quickly the whole Empire joins him. It has a great deal less to do with anthropomorphism and the Freudian projection of a father figure onto the clouds, and a great deal more to do with political power, and governance.

Which is, again, the issue in play. Much of the anti-religion response centers on the efforts of certain Christian groups in America to gain power; as in the Dover, Pennsylvania school board case. As Rick Allen pointed out in the comments, it is no small part of the issue in the on-line "Wieseltier" controversy. It's a question, not of faith, but of authority; not of "what do you believe?" but "who will rule?" Christianity, ironically, asks the same question, because it's central responsibility is to proclaim the empire of God, the basilia tou theou. But in that empire, the first are last, and the last first. The scramble is not to be in authority, but to be in service to others. Properly, it has nothing to do with power at all. Properly, it understands that there is no power without resistance, and so Christians profess to offer no resistance.

Because all power comes from God; who taught us the value of power, in the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. Which, oddly enough, has nothing to do with either power, or natural phenomena, or governance, at all.


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