Spider-Man as Scripture

(Dedicated to Stan Lee, now in Valhalla) 

Spiderman Stained Glass Window by nenuiel on DeviantArt

I still cringe! Whenever, that is, I think how many people have told me over the years that their mom took the opportunity while they were off at college to throw away their comic book collections!  I flinch even more, however, when I hear moms still today snapping at their kids, “What are you reading that cheap trash for?” Money figures into it, because if those earlier moms hadn’t trashed their kids’ collections, they’d likely be worth a pile of money now. And because today’s comics cost so much more (often three or four bucks!), it’s not even “cheap” trash anymore! And that makes the case I want to argue here even harder to make, because I want to convince you that, while comic books are no longer cheap, they sure aren’t trash either. Instead, I believe they may form a crucial portion of your child’s education.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Fan

I admit to being a full 64 years old, but my interest in comic books and superheroes is hardly some sort of mid(?)-life crisis behavior. I started reading the four-color epics when I was, what? About 5 or 6 years old, I guess, when they cost a mere dime! A cheap ticket into an alternate universe that turned out to have a lot more to do with this one than I realized then. For some reason, back then I always pictured Superman as being about 40 years old. Superman, Batman, Captain America and the others were authority figures for me. They were survivors of the so-called Golden Age of comics, published through the forties and fifties, members, so to speak, of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation.” But when Stan Lee’s Spider-Man came along, I related to him in a whole new way. Like me and many other young nerds, this superhero was a teenager, and his paranormal abilities did not make their problems vanish. Knowing himself superior to thick-headed bullies like Flash Thompson, Peter Parker nevertheless had little opportunity to vindicate himself against the jockish taunting. All the jocks knew was that Peter was a chemistry major who kept to himself. He was absorbed not only by how to beat the latest tactics of the Vulture and the Green Goblin, but also whether his part-time job could enable him to pay for his aunt’s medicine. This was a unique sort of character at the time, though a legion more soon copied him. And the unique experience for the young reader was that, if Spider-Man’s mundane problems didn’t vanish during the course of the comic book, neither did the reader’s! The hint was clear that even the great overcome despite their drawbacks, and these drawbacks are not always melodramatic. I never had to square off against Dr. Octopus, but I did have to struggle with the ridicule of insensitive jocks. Spider-Man told me the truth about me.

So I found solace in the garishly colored pages. But that’s not all. I found many other treasures that your children will surely find as well. For one thing (and this alone is worth a lot more even than comics cost today): I became interested in reading. I guess you could get something out of a comic book just looking at the nice pictures, but I’ve never known anyone who was satisfied with that. I read innumerable comics, actually read them, and they became a direct path into reading real books. Specifically, around 1966 (the Turtles’ Happy Together was just out on the radio), I was struck by a story (Archie Goodwin wrote it, Steve Ditko, Spider-Man’s artist, drew it) in Creepy that fell into a fantasy genre new to me, Sword and Sorcery. Not long afterward, I chanced to spot a paperback book on the rack in the stationery store where I bought my comics. It was the Lancer Books edition of Conan the Warrior by Robert E. Howard. Little did I know that he was the very creator of the Sword and Sorcery genre. I could tell by the Frank Frazetta cover painting that this was the sort of thing I had enjoyed so much in Creepy. I had never been much of a reader before (it seemed to take forever to get through Freddy the Detective), but Howard’s tales of Conan instantly galvanized me! My Junior High (now they call it “Middle School”) English teacher used to give us index cards to record the few boring novels they forced us to read, but I now asked for card after card to record the literally scores of titles by Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tolkien, Lin Carter, etc., that I was consuming. Oh I did my homework all right, all A’s, as a matter of fact.

It wasn’t long before, both my imagination and my love of reading being ignited, I widened my scope to other interests. Today I have two earned Ph.D. degrees. This trajectory began way back with Spider-Man. Spidey was a scientist, got his powers during an experiment with a radioactive spider. Believe it or not, this inspired me to want to become a research scientist. (Instead I’m a biblical scholar, but it’s still research!) And not long ago, one of the most exceptional students I ever had the pleasure of having in class told me that he got his life together and began to try to perfect himself more and more every day–after reading the origin of Spider-Man who taught him that with great ability comes great responsibility. (This maxim was coined by Stan Lee.)


Spider Bob

I Only Know What I Read in the Funnies

So kids learn to love to read through the medium of comics, since the dazzling artwork provides a good dose of sugar to make the medicine go down. But what is the medicine? I have just anticipated one of them: moral education. All cultures have hero myths, and the use of them is to help us see life in certain terms, as if it followed a certain type of script. It isn’t obvious that right prevails, that nice guys finish first, but that seems to be the best pattern to have in mind as we face what might otherwise seem like chaos. If we can be taught to envy the heroic quest, to admire the kind of person who defends the rights of others, well then, little by little, we might just be able to reshape the world in that image. We might be able to live that way, though maybe not in Technicolor. In a day when there seems to be a strange sheepishness about teaching values to children, and when TV makes kids think adults are dolts, comic books might be a secret weapon for parents trying to sneak some moral nutrition past their children.

Something else one learns pretty fast in the comics is science, and science of all kinds. Even linguistics, philosophy. I remember learning from Superman that diamonds come from compressed coal. I learned that Prince Charming must originally have sought a girl wearing a fur slipper, and that, since the French words for “glass” and “fur” are almost the same, the fairy tale evolved. I’ve seen Nietzsche quoted a number of times, and Schopenhauer, and William Blake, and the Gospel of Matthew. You don’t find that on network TV. You can get quite an education reading those “funny books.”


Modern Mythology

Why do we read stories, any stories? Superman or Gone with the Wind? William Tell or The Odyssey? I’ve already touched on this briefly, but it’s worth pursuing. We do learn lessons from inspiring examples, but it goes deeper than that. Joseph Campbell held that all stories ultimately boil down to hero stories. If you look deeply enough you can find the basic dynamic of a protagonist seeking some fulfillment, weathering setbacks, overcoming the odds, and winning through. These stories are as universal as the human race, and this isn’t coincidence, because the stories function as scripts that condition us to set and seek a goal and thus to create what no one else can give us: a purpose to life. We will, hopefully, begin to write, to live, our own version of the story, filling in the blanks as we see fit. If our lives are not about something, they will be a mere matter of marking time, filling our days at random. And this meaning is seldom if ever provided by some abstract idea, some concept, even a sublime one. No, meaning is provided by narrative.

And to get their point across, stories tend to paint with broad strokes, bold colors. Superman is, of course, Everyman. What do you think Clark Kent is doing there at all? He is the mundane exterior of every person. Superman is the amazing potential hidden inside us, so deeply hidden that sometimes neither we nor others ever discover it. But the point of the stories is to help us discover it. Occasionally a Superman story has the Man of Steel confounded, unable to defeat a challenge, only to discover that Clark Kent can win the victory by a less conspicuous route. Here the veil of allegory grows thin, and it is hard not to see the point: everyone is Clark Kent, and Clark Kent is Superman.    

If you have read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, as everyone in my generation seems to have done, you may have gotten close to the end, read over a thousand pages, only to find an apparent anticlimax. You have accompanied Frodo, Aragorn, Boromir and the others to the Crack of Doom and back, overcoming the dread Sauron–only to return home to the Shire where a block-headed bunch of bureaucrats is in the process of tastelessly remodeling the place. The heroes thought they were home free and could rest by the fire. But no, there was block-headedness to be dealt with. Nothing cosmic, pretty laughable after dispensing with Sauron, right? But that’s the whole idea! We will never face Sauron, but we will face his small-scale counterparts of mundane evil, so mundane that we may not even think to call it evil. But these are the obstacles we must overcome with all the heroic endurance we can muster.

 Joseph Campbell was a disciple of the great psychoanalyst Carl Jung, and Jung explained just how these heroic quest stories have their impact upon formative minds. It’s too bad Jung didn’t have a personal computer, because it would have made his point easier  to grasp. He taught that deep inside us there is a set of inherited images, “archetypes,” nothing spooky, just brain furniture, and that these images must emerge gradually from our deep subconscious into our conscious mind. If they don’t, we cannot mature. Some of the images are geometric and numerical: a square as a symbol of stability, the circle as a sign of wholeness. Others are basic literary characters, like the wise crone, who is embodied as the Fairy Godmother, the Gypsy Fortune Teller, your own grandma. The dragon, the hero, the prophet, etc. The archetypes appear over and over again all over the world and across the ages, in fairy tales, myths, scriptures, Buddhist mandalas, alchemist diagrams, Gnosticism, etc. We need ‘em. It’s as if the mind is a computer, and in order to learn how to use all the programs, you have to learn, one by one, what all of those icons on the screen mean. They are just iceberg tips, calling up the deeply-laid programs your computer was born with. They’re all there, but they won’t do you, the computer-user, any good if you don’t access them. Myths are there to present the subconscious icons, archetypes, to the conscious mind so you can click on them and get them running.

The 17 stages of Joseph Campbell's Monomyth

How do you activate them? There are two basic ways, and religion specializes in both. First there is ethics: like my student who read Spider-Man and realized he had to act responsibly. He was living into the archetype by his daily choices. Then there are rituals. Rituals are miniature symbolic psychodramas. They produce certain results in us by having us act out a myth in symbolic form. The actions of a ritual, like adult baptism, or chanting scripture in one’s Bar Mitzvah, are not themselves moral actions in the mundane world. Indeed, their very “strangeness” sets them apart in our minds and memories so they can have an impact on us that no mundane act would have. Religion offers us symbolic stories and ways of acting them out by which, Jung said, we can access the archetypes. This is why Jung disagreed with his teacher Sigmund Freud on the value of religion. Freud focused on the neurotic potential of religion and how it protracts childhood for those who retreat into God belief as an excuse for not thinking for themselves, not making their own decisions. Jung did not deny many people use religion for unworthy reasons and with bad results, but he thought Freud, ignoring the archetypes, failed to see how religion could actually help the psyche mature.

I suggest that in our day, when religious belief is for many no longer the simple matter it once was, when children grow up in homes with mixed faith or none at all, the modern myths of Wonder Woman, the Silver Surfer, Batman, and the rest have very much the same power of traditional religious stories. Granted, this is partly because the comic books overtly borrow from the Bible and from Greek and Norse mythology, but just as often they don’t. They are simply the same sort of thing. And comic books even have a kind of advantage over the traditional religious stories.

When we read comic books we know we are under no obligation to believe the events depicted there actually happened. This fact allows and even encourages the free soaring of the imagination. Comic fans often make up their own super-adventures, and even act them out (ritually!) with a towel for a super-cape. Nowadays there is “cosplay,” in which teenagers and adults dress up as their favorite superheroes at parties or fan conventions.

Some decide they could tell stories just as well or better than the pros whose work they read. And that’s how the next generation of comics creators emerge. In many religious communities, by contrast, the imaginative fire of even the most spectacular stories of scripture can be deadened, leadened, if the child (or adult!) is told he or she must believe the story really happened. In that case, the story becomes a clamp, a vise, something to restrict and imprison the imagination. But in the case of comics, there is no such dogmatic agenda. I am, remember, a Bible scholar. I love its stories and spend my life studying and expounding them. But they have become so sacred that we are often afraid to touch them, to treat them as stories ought to be treated. And one of the things scripture tells us is that our very soul, our selfhood, will be in peril if we do not keep alive the child within us. Comic books help us keep that eager child active within us, and if we start our children on these wholesome works early enough, we will be both guiding them into a healthy maturity and keeping the flower of their childlike spirit alive. 

So says Zarathustra, super-fan of the Superman.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Thinning Veil

Thinning of the Veil

Just this morning I was reading a Facebook post from my friend Yow Man Chan. If his name is familiar to you it may be because you remember him winning on Survivor a few years ago. Born in faraway Borneo, he has successfully adjusted to most aspects of American pop culture. But he admits he has yet to understand Halloween. What is the point, he asks, of adults having fun scaring children?

Plus, I think of the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer gets fed up with all the junk mail and tells the Post Office to stop delivering his mail. Not only that, but he campaigns to get others to do the same. He raises enough of a ruckus that he comes to the notice of the government. One day he is “invited” to a clandestine sit-down with the Postmaster General (played by Wilford Brimley), who turns out to be affable but formidable. He chuckles as he says he can see Kramer’s point: it does seem a bit silly to have an army of letter carriers in woolen pants fanning out across the city—but the mail service must go on.

Applying it to Halloween, it also seems pretty peculiar to send forth a horde of costumed children onto the sidewalks, ringing doorbells and collecting candy from householders most of whom they do not know and who do not know them, especially since they are swathed in special vestments they will not wear for another year. Why do the neighbors feel obliged to distribute candy to these little hooligans? Ostensibly, of course, it is extortion. Adults must hand over the treats if they want to avoid the threatened “trick.” Just like the Christmas scenario depicted in the song “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”: What do the carolers sing to their expected benefactors? “Bring Us Some Figgy Pudding…, and bring it right here…. We won’t go until we get some.” Uh, sure! Sure! Be right back with it in just a second! Sometimes the revelers (some of whom are not children) graduate to out-of-control rioting, and this is what got Christmas outlawed in England for some years!

Somehow, in some parts of the country trick and treat have been reversed in sequence. This happened when Halloween was split into Mischief Night (what you might call “Halloweeneen,” i.e., “the Eve of the Eve of All Saints”) on October 30 and Halloween on the 31st. Mischief Night is the night of chaos and pranks. There is not even the element of a protection racket that is theoretically the whole premise of Trick or Treat. The pranksters expect no treat and you know there is no opportunity to buy your way out of the TP-ing of the trees in your front yard. While you might expect the pranked householders to respond, “Okay, you rotten brats! If that’s the way you want to play it, I’ve got a little trick of my own! No candy for you!” But that’s not going to work because the Mischief Night mayhem is meant to demonstrate the severity of the Halloween threat the next night! “You want more of this, Mr. Wilson? It can get worse, much worse!” And then the householder falls victim to the Stockholm Syndrome and, smiling nervously, forks over the candy to the infernal little Jehovah’s Witnesses.

What is the religious significance of Halloween? The original (Irish) occasion was called Samhain (pronounced Sah-win). It was the night of the year when the spirits of the dead penetrate the veil separating the world of the living from the realm of the dead and return to manifest their spectral forms to those they left behind (cf. Matthew 27:52-53). This smacks of ancient ancestor worship: giving out candy is an offering to the wandering shades of our ancestors, still reflected also in our practice of leaving flowers on their graves. Today’s flowers are the counterparts of the food once left atop the graves. And of course, any neglected ancestor would call down misfortune upon his or her neglectful descendants. These are reprisals: the “trick.”

vintage trick or treaters

The big difference between Samhain and our Christian Halloween is that the roaming spirits are no longer our ancestors but rather our descendants, our kids. When All Hallows Eve (the Eve of All Saints) replaced the pagan Samhain, the arrival of the shades of the dead became the Communion of the Saints. But eventually the meaning evolved further. As perfectly depicted in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, when demons vomit forth from the mouth of Hell to revel and rejoice in their freedom, only to be consigned there again once the sun comes up. The point here is that rampant evil may gain freedom and mastery, but it cannot last. Divine Grace will appear, no matter how dark the depth of the Night. Halloween is thus the darkness before the dawn. And this means that the haunting spirits are no longer the familiar forms of the dear departed. Rather, they are menacing demons.  

Halloween, then, marks the thinning of the veil between worlds. We no longer take that literally. But demythologizing it does not destroy the symbolism. Now it denotes the penetration of the barrier between the mundane world and the fantastic imagination. For one night each year one dons a costume, revealing an alternate version of yourself, showing the “real” you or the identity you wish you had. Trick or Treat is a rite of revelry but also of transformation, albeit temporary. Temporary because it is not viable to live in the workaday world as a monster, a pirate, a space alien, a superhero, etc. But “letting it all hang out” provides the opportunity to embrace the fantastic, dream-version of you. It’s a reinvigorating vacation from the civilized, respectable, boring, adult you.

liminalityIt is this ritual, liminal character of Halloween that explains the transgressive nature of the whole thing. Liminality is the element governing rites of passage between two stages of life. There are rites of transition from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to adult marriageability, then into matrimony and to vocational certification, to retirement, and finally into the hereafter. The rituals are meant to facilitate each transition successfully. They do this by initiating the individual into the borderline condition itself for a very brief time. While passing through this mini-zone, one flouts the rules that govern behavior in the stages from which the initiate comes and that into which he is entering. One example is sacred homosexuality and sex with partners ordinarily off limits. Another might be the consumption of ritually unclean foods. A modern, “secular” example would be the bachelor party. His fiancée can/has to forgive her intended’s one-night binge of debauchery. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” You get the picture.   

Halloween is a night of liminality. One does not pull nasty tricks on other nights than Mischief Night, because one knows that is the only night one can get away with it. And one can get away with on that night because it is a night of liminality. Modern entertainments premised upon liminality are the Star Trek episode, “The Return of the Archons,” in which Kirk and his buddies beam down to a world whose civilization allows a daily “Red Hour” in which all manner of wild and lascivious behaviors are allowed as a kind of pressure valve for a population otherwise living in Puritan passivity. More recently, there are the Purge movies. So the concept should not be completely unfamiliar.

On Halloween, liminality is expressed in candy-coma gluttony for kids and in drunken excess for parents at party-time. But more significant is the freedom of children to present themselves in the likeness of evil and horror: devils, ghosts, slasher movie anti-heroes, witches, werewolves, etc. But isn’t that unwholesome? Shouldn’t that be discouraged? Many parents and costume manufacturers seem to think so. This is to miss the crucial point. Halloween is no mere “Come as you aren’t” costume party. Jung must have understood this: each of us possesses a Shadow, the part of the soul that participates in evil. One cannot simply exorcize it. Henry Jekyll (like John Wesley) thought he could do that, but Jung could have told him what must happen next. Your Shadow side is not going anywhere, though it may seem you have vanquished it. Rest assured, it is still there, percolating, festering, gaining in strength until, once a weak spot in your moral armor manifests itself, the dam bursts, and the freed Shadow makes up for lost time. To avoid that outcome, one manages the Shadow. Halloween is an occasion for us to do that: to indulge evil as harmless role-play. That defangs evil. I don’t mean that Hitler would have turned out okay if he’d gone Trick or Treating in Austria as a kid. I’m just talking about most people most of the time.

Pardon me now, as I open another bag of peanut butter cups. And Happy Halloween to you!

So says a guy in a Zarathustra costume.

Rock and Roll Souls


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Saint Peterasty

saint peter writing inspired cherubs

The Roman Catholic Church reached the point of crisis some years ago. The ever-expanding scandal of priestly sexual abuse and, just as bad, the intricate and systematic cover-up by the highest authorities, has deepened the shadows in which lay Catholics have painfully struggled. What should they do? Leave the Church for Eastern Orthodoxy or Episcopalianism? Not a bad idea, it seems to me, but then I’m not a Catholic. But if I were, here are some of the factors I’d consider.

The situation is complicated by the nature of the Catholic Church as an institution. If one were dealing with a scandal in a Protestant congregation in which a clergy sex scandal had been revealed (and they have been, many times), it would be a simpler matter. Fire the minister (or make him undergo “counseling,” which I have always suspected was a euphemistic Get Out of Jail Free card provided by a sanctified Good Ole Boys club)—if you can. Sometimes the loyalty of the congregation to a beloved minister makes them reluctant to believe the charges against him, no matter how well-founded; either that or it makes them too forgiving. In these cases, one’s recourse would be simple: quit the church or split the church. But the Catholic Church is, by ancient design, a closely integrated, massive, and rigidly hierarchical institution. Only so could it ensure uniformity of doctrine, morals, and discipline. It ought to be able to employ this great machine to stamp out abuses like clergy sex predation, but what if the corruption is so deep, so far-reaching, so high up the ladder that it is no longer a question of getting rid of a few (thousand) bad apples? Suppose the Church hierarchy, the institution itself, has become the abuser?

It has happened. Even the Pope has been credibly charged with covering the butts of offending priests as well as those of bishops who protected the wolves instead of the lambs. You know, hosting the game of Musical Molesters. What should Catholics think? What should they do?

The All-Father from AMC's PreacherLet’s ask Saint Augustine. He was the theologian-bishop of Carthage in the early fourth century who defined important aspects of Catholic belief and practice as they still exist today. Some of his influence was good, some bad (and the verdict will vary according to whom you ask). Predestination, infant baptism, and more. Here I am thinking of his “solution” to the Donatist Controversy. As you may already know, the last serious persecution of Manicheans and Christians was that commanded by the pagan emperor Diocletian at the end of the third century, just before the Christian Constantine became Caesar. The trouble was this: during the persecution, a number of bishops knuckled under, renouncing their faith, embracing Caesar-worship, and handing over copies of scripture to be burnt. When the danger was passed, and clergy were in short supply, some of these fair-weather bishops showed up at church waving a white flag with a lot of explaining to do. Many managed to get their old jobs back, after suitable penance, involving public embarrassment. (The penance had to be pretty serious—after all, what these yellowbellies had done was to buy a one-way ticket to the Inferno according to Mark 8:38!)

Others, however, were rudely told to hit the road. These guys had forfeited any right to, e.g., administer the sacraments. It would be the worst kind of farce. It must make a mockery of the sacraments. Even worse, any sacraments they had administered before the persecution and apostasy must be declared null and void! It is no surprise that churches throughout North Africa took sides, resulting in a schism. The stricter group was named for one of its chief leaders, Donatus Magnus. This is where Augustine came in. He tried to come up with a theoretical basis for reconciling the factions. It didn’t go over big. Augustine really just defended the Catholic side and hoped the Donatists would come on board. They didn’t. Here’s what he suggested.

He was apparently less concerned with the hat-in-hand bishops than with the laity who were worried that the absolutions they had received, their church marriages, and their babies’ baptisms were all negated, at considerable peril to their souls. Both priest and people, Augustine reasoned, would be served by his proposal. Let’s take a couple of steps back. First, why are priests ordained at all? They are to administer sacraments and to enable and entitle them to do this they themselves must receive the sacrament of ordination.

Second, what is a sacrament? What is it about a sacrament that requires an ordained priest to administer it? Here is a major point of difference between Catholics and Protestants. The latter regard the ministry as a sacred task, yes, but essentially a profession. The Protestant minister has no greater access to God than the layperson. He is simply trained and skilled for pastoral duties, exactly analogous to a physician or a lawyer. The Catholic priest of course receives much the same training, but the nature of the sacraments adds a crucial element to priesthood. The minister knows his Bible and how to baptize, how to preside over the Lord’s Supper, how to perform weddings and funerals, etc. If a layperson studied up, he could pinch hit for the minister if needed. But it must be an ordained priest to administer the Catholic sacraments because these rites are understood as “means of grace.” Some Protestants use this term, too, but the Catholic belief is that “grace” is a supernatural saving power. (I’d say it’s like the Holy Spirit, but without the personhood.) It is this grace which makes it possible for baptism to cleanse one from Original Sin, which transforms the communion elements into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, which effects the absolution of sins. These acts are metaphysical and miraculous, not just symbolic.

Moreover, the priest does not do these things in virtue of his own personal holiness. Likewise, even a saintly layperson dare not administer the sacraments (though there are special cases). The ordained priest is set apart and equipped for his role by his own sacramental anointing.

Augustine reasoned that, since the sacraments are divine works, not human ones, not “works of the flesh,” their value does not depend upon the character of the priest who administers them. The bread and wine become the Body and Blood by divine grace. The power of God, not the personal sanctity of the priest is the electricity; the priest is but the wire along which it travels. So if the priest should turn out to lack holiness or even moral integrity, it wouldn’t affect the sacrament. The sinful priest would be in trouble with God, but he wouldn’t be ruining things for his unsuspecting parishioners. This makes a lot of sense: it is God, not the priest, who is saving and sanctifying you.

But there is an unintended possible consequence of this thinking. It takes only a step or two in the wrong direction and you have a whole clergy establishment in which a sacramental system of divine grace independent of human morality exists side by side with an immoral libertinism. The two come to coexist more and more comfortably. And that’s where we are today. If this were not so, we would have to imagine some insidious secret cabal seeking to infest and subvert a Church that once valued personal sanctity. That would indeed be bad enough, but I think it is worse if the Church hierarchy has, by itself, come to accommodate itself to immoral libertinism as an acceptable norm.

Tartuffe the pious hypocrite from Moliere's Play Tartuffe
Tartuffe, the pious hypocrite from Moliere’s Play Tartuffe

Now let’s ask Dostoyevsky’s advice. We find it in his great novel The Brothers Karamazov. Alyosha, a pious monk, attempts to win his profane brother Ivan back to Mother Church. But no sale. Ivan tells Alyosha that he cannot reconcile God’s ostensible justice with the manifest suffering of innocent children. The moment you offer some sophisticated rationalization for God allowing such atrocities, you are becoming his accomplice-after-the-fact. You are saying, in effect, “It’s okay with me! There’s a good reason for it, even if I can’t say what it is.” I think of this scene every time Cardinal Dolan or Philip Donahue disgraces himself by splitting hairs to try to mitigate the seriousness of the scandal. How can they live with themselves? And when His Popishness himself asks (cheap) forgiveness for the tsk-tsk “outrage” over the scandal, I think of Claude Rains in Casablanca: “I am shocked, shocked, to find pederasty going on here!” Also the moment in Moliere’s play Tartuffe when the live-in charlatan tearfully confesses  his charlatanry, which of course only makes his gullible suckers adore him all the more.

But of course the Church is not the same as God. Or is it? I take a lesson from Emil Durkheim who suggested that God, the gods, and totem animals are projections, mystifications of the communities who believe in them. In the present case, “God” functions as a decoy: “Oh, sure, we have shortcomings, but don’t blame God!” The institutional nature of the Catholic Church, I think, really makes it impossible to distinguish between the two. The ground rules include the belief in a Pope who speaks infallibly when he wants to, together with every Catholic’s obligation to believe and obey this “vicar,” or stand-in, for Jesus Christ. Especially revealing is the belief that there is “no salvation outside the Church.”

Remember the gospel parable of the Wicked Tenants (Mark 12:1-12)? The religious authorities are portrayed as a group of sharecroppers who refuse to turn over to the land owner his share of the harvest, beating up his representatives and sending them home empty-handed, finally even lynching his son, thinking that, with him out of the way, they will be in line to inherit the vineyard, by virtue of occupation, once the old man dies. But they have counted the owner out too quickly: he sends in armed enforcers to kill the sharecroppers. Then he replaces them with better, more trustworthy sharecroppers. Even so, says Jesus, God is about to take from the corrupt Temple authorities their oversight of the sanctuary and its rituals. Did that happen? Yes; the parable was written after the fact, blaming the Jerusalem priesthood for the Roman destruction of the city and the Temple in 70 CE.

If you applied this parable to the rulers of the Catholic Church, what would it look like? Not violent destruction at the hands of outside powers. At least, I hope not. Let me shift over to a different biblical precedent: the withdrawal of a pious community from a religious body deemed corrupt and the formation of an alternative “church in exile.” A prime case would be that of the Zadokite covenanters of the Dead Sea Scrolls, who disdained the Herodian Temple and its priesthood for perceived unorthodoxy and moral corruption. They organized their own counter-community with its own version of the Torah-prescribed rituals. This is what I humbly suggest happen today.

As long as you continue to identify with the disgustingly corrupt institution of the Catholic Church with its lecherous and hypocritical hierarchy, are you not making excuses for it? By protesting that the Church is yours, not that of these Wicked Tenants, aren’t you just making it easier for them to continue doing what they have always done? If you offer that excuse for remaining, I even wonder if you really understand what Catholicism is! It is a top-down operation, not a bottom-up one.

I’m not saying become a Presbyterian. Start a schism like the Donatists, like the Old Catholic Church, and the Polish National Catholic Church. Preserve your traditions, your rituals, your doctrines. Have your bishops choose a new Pope, an “Antipope” as they used to call them in times of schism. You don’t have to hate anybody. Take your leave prayerfully and amicably.

 Better schism than stigma.

            So says Zarathustra.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The High Price of Free Will


Taming the Donkey', painting by Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala, 1868Philosophers and theologians have long debated the question of free will versus determinism, but were they free to do so? Or was it inevitable that they (we) would? Is your decision to ponder the question a spontaneous choice you made? Was each step in the logic of your reasoning perhaps dictated, below the level of self-awareness, by factors beyond your control? Are we passively receiving directives from a hidden puppeteer, whether God or a mechanistic process randomly producing our thoughts, desires, and even our seeming selfhood? And does it make any difference? Well, yes and no.

It usually seems to us that ideas, thoughts, impulses appear on our mental screen from nowhere, ex nilhilo, from the void. The process of their production is hidden from us, but if we deny, as we might like to, that they are the scripted unfoldings of a predetermined narrative, what must be the alternative? Are not truly “spontaneous” actions just the spasms of a seizure, unconsidered and therefore random? They are actions that are unleashed from any purpose. But even that is an illusion, since we may trace the electro-chemical forces in the material brain that lit the fuse on these firecrackers.

And we can also trace more purposeful actions and choices back to factors that produced them, a larger vista of environmental and hereditary determinants. Is it sheer coincidence that virtually every individual believes in the religion predominant in his or her society? And if someone converts to a different faith, say, after listening to missionary preaching, do we not have to inquire as to biographical factors that “made” him or her receptive to that preaching, unlike the vast majority of his or her contemporaries? It is seldom a mystery.

Charles Manson Life MagazineSurely it is the same with criminals. It is most clear in the case of gross offenders like Charles Manson. His deeds are initially shocking, but once we look into his abusive upbringing, his unsavory companions, his “education” in prison, his drug abuse, and the doctrines of marginal religions popular in his generation, we realize the surprising thing would have been if he had grown into a mature and soundly balanced individual.

Neuroscience reveals that when we (think we) make a decision, it is actually simply the receptive awareness of that choice having been made just beforehand deeper in the physical brain. We are, in short, taking orders, playing a role in a play we did not author—and with no author. The multiple factors producing our decisions and actions are the proverbial roomful of monkeys randomly pecking away on typewriters and eventually producing Hamlet. A cause but not a plan.

We human monkeys at our keyboards may hear this and nod in recognition, because many of us genuinely feel as if we have merely channeled a creative revelation from our subconscious. Our story, poem, etc., seems to us an apparition from outside us. The ancients felt the same way: they said creators are inspired by the Muse. That is a mythological way of saying the same thing, the difference being that we know that our creations do emerge from somewhere inside us. But even those of us who experience this probably do not account for our thoughts and choices in that same way.

Twilight Zone Nick of Time William Shatner.As dismaying as this scenario sounds, it is fairly benign in its implications, for it makes us (to shift the metaphor just slightly) characters in someone’s novel. We perforce follow an internal plot-logic and character description, but we are not aware of the ultimately illusory status of our existence, that it is a pantomime, a shadow play. Even if, as in some Twilight Zone episode, we come to suspect the truth, we mustn’t forget that even that is only part of the pre-scripted fiction. But this need not be seen as an inescapable prison.

We are, it seems to me, envisioning something like this when we see our conscious selves as the end product of a pre-conscious process of genetic, environmental, etc., factors. We are not in fact the root of our decisions and ideas, but rather the fruit of them, “the last to know.” But the whole thing, the process and the product, is us. It becomes problematic only once we insist on isolating the conscious “self” as “me.” I am not the master of my fate in any absolute sense. No, I am my fate, the whole thing.

Thus far, we might be excused for thinking this whole business is only a mind game, a species of skepticism, as Hume said, that we may and must leave in the study. But perhaps it is not. There are what first seem to be very dangerous repercussions. For are we not saying that Charles Manson, Adolf Hitler and the whole merry gang of sociopaths, terrorists, and petty crooks are not truly responsible for their felonious deeds? Should we absolve them, stop arresting and executing them? No, because, as Joseph Campbell pointed out, that’s part of the fiction, too. We cannot leap free of the pages of the novel in which we play our parts. Especially since there is no place else to go. In this world, even if science now reveals it as a world of maya, misleading appearances, we cherish loved ones and must try as best we can to protect them from predation. Thus we must treat malefactors as we do deadly animals poised to attack us. We must banish, contain, or kill them. If possible, of course, we would like to “rehabilitate” (i.e., recondition) them. Animals are not culpable, but you would not hesitate to shoot an attacking grizzly bear or rattle snake. If we deem human predators and terrorists “not guilty” in an absolute sense, we must still deal with them. It is part of the story, our story. In this way we can see how, though a fiction, free will and responsibility are necessary legal fictions.

monkeys typing shakespeareHave we solved the problem? I am satisfied with the explanation proposed here. But suppose we are not the literary creations of those fun-loving simian typists. Suppose, as Christian belief tells us, we are instead the customized masterpieces of an almighty, all-wise Deity. As I mentioned at the start, theologians have spent considerable ink and dialectic over the issue of predetermination (predestination) and free will. The focus for them is the decision for salvation. Can a sinner (and everybody is) make a decision whether or not to repent and believe in Christ as his or her Savior? Pelagians, Semi-Pelagians, and Arminians say they can. Either a sinner’s free will is unaffected by his or her sinfulness or the Holy Spirit intervenes to free up the sinner’s heart momentarily, making him or her open to the possibility of deciding for Christ, but leaving the ball in the person’s court.

Calvinists and Lutherans, on the other hand, reason that humans are utterly “dead in sin” to the point that the prospect of repentance and conversion cannot even appear attractive to them. Conversion is not a live option until God intervenes, having decided at the dawn of time who would be “elect” (chosen for salvation, chosen to believe) and who would be “reprobate” (abandoned to sin and damnation). At a pre-planned moment of awakening, the elect individual would suddenly bemoan his or her wretchedness and rejoice to recognize, and to accept, the opportunity to repent and to join Christ’s flock.

Calvinists have always had to try to explain away the manifest unfairness of their doctrine. You mean God created the human race, allowing (or even causing) them to lapse into sin, and denying the majority of his hapless creations any path of escape from an unending hell of torture? This theology not only makes God into a devil, the Lord of Damnation, but it requires those who accept it to redefine the ostensible mercy of a perfect heavenly Father as compatible with the infliction of eternal suffering. Open season on religious fanaticism, no?

Perhaps paradoxically, it looks to me like both Calvinism and Arminianism have much in common with the popular, secular belief in free will. The latter imagines that human choices appear without strings attached, even though most neuroscientists (and many other scientists and philosophers) are convinced that this not so. These Christian doctrines, with their belief in an inherited taint of sin, are admitting that the will is not free, but at the most finds itself confined within a limited range of options, all sinful. Think of Martin Luther’s classic treatise The Bondage of the Will. Jonathan Edwards similarly taught that the will even of the sinner is free, but only up to a point, choosing among sinful (or neutral) options. What people generally imagine about the underived spontaneity of their choice, these theologians are restricting to that unconditioned choice for repentance and salvation: no immanent psychological resource accounts for this momentous decision.

free will vs determinismOnly it does not appear out of a void. Rather, it is a miraculous insertion into the process by God, equivalent to the belief in divine healing when no medicine or therapy can have produced the cure. The upshot is that the popular, “natural,” belief in free will is closer than we might first think to the religious version. Where Calvinists and others believe that God has intervened in the decision process, the popular belief in everyday free will posits what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called a “god of the gaps,” a philosophical freebie, a mulligan. And isn’t that really what even the theological “God” is? A pseudo-answer, an implicit admission of ignorance, as when we say, “God only knows,” meaning “No one knows.” The evolutionist says, “Here’s how the various species got here,” but the creationist says, “I’m not buying it! It got here by a miracle!” The creationist is thinking just like the common believer in free will, isn’t he?

So much for the predestinarians. As I anticipated, there are plenty of Christians who do not get that deep into the weeds, simply believing that God will just reward the righteous and punish the wicked. The former go to a blissful heaven, the latter to a blazing hell. But this seeming disdain for predestination in favor of (dangerous) freedom cannot escape the trap. It presupposes the popular belief in free will: there is no one to blame for your bad deeds but your bad self. Your sins were your own idea. But we have seen that all actions are the inevitable out-workings of the hidden factors of environment, heredity, and damaging experiences. Thus not even Osama bin Laden can ultimately be blamed for what reality made him. But we have to destroy him anyway, as if he had free will.

But God is outside the novel in which we live and move and have our being, even if he sometimes pops up in it, like Stan Lee’s cameos in Marvel Comics movies or Hitchcock in his films, to impart a revelation or to perform a miracle. “God” in the narrative of which we are a part is really a character in the author’s novel, based on the author himself.

Here’s the problem: if we say that, after this life is over, God closes the book and punishes us in his world, the real world, the extra-diegetic world, we are positing that our own characters were, like God’s, based on real entities, entities who must now face the music for what their fictional counterparts did. That is like waiting at the stage door to assassinate the actor who played the role of Judas Iscariot or Benedict Arnold.

Or put it another way: if this worldly life comes to an end, its trial, tragedies, and temptations over at last, where is the need for God to punish sinful creatures who can do no more harm to fellow mortals? That’s all over. Society no longer requires protection from them. We need no more apply the legal fiction of free will and accountability. If we know the sinner and the criminal were really not to blame, and they pose no longer any threat, it would seem that damnation must be both moot and grossly unjust. Justice, like childish things, will pass away. It matters much now, but it won’t then, if there is a then. And eternal damnation would be, not a punishment for a crime, but itself the worst of crimes.

So says Zarathustra.

Listen here to the audio reading of  The High Price of Free Will

lake of fire, hell

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Lost Wakanda

WAKONDAI have been a Black Panther fan for over half a century, ever since the character’s debut in  (1966). He has starred in his own title as well as being an important member of the Avengers super-team. Prince T’challa, son of T’chaka, was the creation of the greatest comic book visionary of all, Jack Kirby, whose various characters, series, and ideas are too numerous to list here. He pioneered a dynamism of illustration, panel composition, and character anatomy depiction hitherto unimagined. No one has since surpassed him, and his creations are ever-new, as witness this year’s film, The Black Panther.

Black Panther's fist appearanceOriginally Kirby dubbed the character “the Coal Tiger,” an indigenous designation for the eponymous jungle cat. He (or perhaps editor Stan Lee) thought better of it and switched to “the Black Panther.” This was just before the formation of the militant Black Panther Party with their “Communitarian” ideology. (I remember seeing “Free Bobby Seale” posters on the walls of Harlem back in the day.) I don’t believe the group got the name from the comic hero, but the superhero’s name was certainly not based on theirs. Nonetheless, the sudden notoriety of the Black Panther Party made Stan and Jack entertain second thoughts on the name. For a brief while they changed the name to “the Black Leopard” (which is what a panther is, after all, “black panther” being a redundancy), but soon they decided “To hell with it” and returned to using “the Black Panther.” But that wasn’t quite the end of the matter. Ostensibly because of the redundancy, they soon started to call him simply “the Panther.” This was during his Avengers stint, which I loved. But eventually they went back to the full “Black Panther” title again. What about the original “Coal Tiger” moniker? Well, in a 1990s series called “A-Next” (AKA “Avengers Next Generation”), the Panther retired and was succeeded by T’chaka, son of T’challa, who broke with tradition and called himself the Coal Tiger. Hitherto, the costume and the name Black Panther were both hereditary, exactly analogous to another costumed jungle hero ( a white-skinned one), the Phantom, “the Ghost Who Walks,” who simulated immortality by handing on the role from father to son over the centuries.

(And speaking of white Africans, I happened to catch a few minutes of an old Johnny Weissmuller flick called “Tarzan and the Mermaids” in which the Lord of the Jungle encounters a group of “Africans” who are clearly Polynesian pearl divers, though some, like the beautiful heroine, are obviously Caucasian! Their high priest is played by George Zucco without even a token gesture of make-up. How racist is this! You make a movie set in Africa, and all the “natives” are white!)

By the way, in an Atlas Comics title, quite short-lived, called Tiger-Man, Marvel veteran Steve Ditko (co-creator of Spider-Man) illustrated a story featuring a villain (who soon turned out to be a hero) called “the Blue Leopard”! He was much more interesting than the ho-hum Tiger-Man.

The Black Panthers were the kings of a hidden African kingdom called “Wakanda,” a realm of fantastic technological super-science combined with traditional African culture and customs. This Lee-Kirby creation mirrored their version of Asgard, the realm of Thor, Odin, Loki, and Heimdall. It, too, combined futuristic tech and architecture with highly stylized neo-Norse chic. Asgard was, of course, part of historical Norse myth. Wakanda is not a mythological place in Africa as far as I know, but the name itself is genuinely African. It denotes a kind of magical energy, supernatural power, or just great good luck: that force that makes a king a king, that brings prosperity to traders or farmers, that enables shamans to heal and commune with the ancestors. American Indians refer to it as orenda, South Sea Islanders as mana. Luke Skywalker calls it simply “the Force.” So Wakanda is a name of power for a place of power.

And the enormous popular response to the movie shows this power in abundance. It is clear by now that superheroes are the modern gods of a new mythology. The Black Panther is hardly alone in this. But it has a unique cultural and social importance. It upholds an inspiring model for African-American youth, a stentorian voice in opposition to the nihilistic and self-destructive propaganda of much Rap music and the slave-morality fostered by the poisonous rhetoric of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Louis Farrakhan. In filling in the Panther’s background, Stan asked himself, “Why shouldn’t there be scientific geniuses in Africa?” Indeed, why not? And why shouldn’t there be scientists, scholars, and experts among African-Americans?

Of course, there are! But the Leftist self-hating victim-mentality of black demagogues discounts such people, assuring young African-Americans that these successful fellow-blacks are exceptions that prove the rule. They can have succeeded in the white American system only by selling out to it. They are race traitors, betraying their brothers and sisters by doing what Whitey does—succeeding! What a recipe for cultural and social suicide! If this is how you see it, you have internalized the racism of the Ku Klux Klan. Maybe you didn’t notice it because the Grand Dragon was in minstrel-show black-face and calling himself Al Sharpton.

But The Black Panther calls that bluff.

You might be thinking, “One flaw in your argument, Price! There is no Wakanda! No kingdom of African super-science! You’re just promoting an illusion! An idol of false hope!”

University of Timbuktu in Mali
The University of Timbuktu in Mali

But I’m not. True, Wakanda does not exist, but something much like it once did. Did you ever hear about the glorious Muslim empires of Late Medieval Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay? They had civilizations matching or surpassing those in Europe. Ghana could boast a university, Timbuktu. That name probably sounds familiar, but few know what the name referred to. And the names of some of these empires have been appropriated by a few modern African states, though, thanks to arbitrary boundaries carved by European colonial powers, they do not cover the same territory as their namesakes. Remember how Wakanda’s scientific mastery was enabled by their huge deposit of meteoric Vibranium? That actually mirrors history, since the wealth of these old African empires was based on their great gold mines. It ain’t Vibranium, but it ain’t bad!

A couple of decades ago, controversy raged over “Afrocentrism,” a tendentious rewriting of history bogusly claiming, e.g., that the Egyptians, with their grand civilization, were black Africans. The goal here was in effect to appropriate one nation’s heritage for the benefit of another. The odious implication was that African-Americans had no real heritage in which to take pride, so why not steal someone else’s in order to boost African-American self-esteem? During all this nonsense, I was baffled as to why schools did not instead teach black youth about the real glories of old Africa. I still cannot understand it! I learned about the African empires in unspectacular, working-class Bloomfield High School in my “Non-Western History” class, where I also first learned about Islam. Why does this rich heritage remain a big secret? George Santayana famously warned that those who fail to learn the hard lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them. But it is equally true that those who remain ignorant of the glories of the past are doomed not to repeat them.

So, no, there is no Wakanda, but there used to be. And if we taught new generations about it, there might be one again. That is the hope and the promise represented by The Black Panther.

So says Zarathustra.  


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Trance Gender

trans bathroom


O brave new world that hath such genders in it! Seems like everybody but me is talking about gender these days. My first reaction to the whole business is to think, “I am an old man, and this is not part of the fading world to which I belong. I don’t have an opinion about it and don’t need to.” But the more I think about the question, prompted by puzzling developments with which the news assaults me, the more I cannot help entertaining random ideas about it. Here they are.

First, I think I am noticing a rather important ambiguity, even a contradiction, in the discussion: Transgenderism advocates seem to be talking about trading one gender for another, switching teams. But much of their rhetoric appears to be saying something quite different, namely, that they are seeking to transcend gender distinctions, creating a new category of identity. I think of a book about homosexuality from some thirty or forty years ago, The Third Sex. Transgenderism as the transcending of gender categories marks the rebirth of a major movement in early Christianity. Already available in New Testament times (1 Corinthians 7:25-38 NEB; Galatians 3:27-28), the celibacy gospel of Encratism (from encrateia, “self-control”) flourished among various Christian sects (e.g., Gnostics, Marcionites, Manicheans) on into the third century. It was based on a literal reading of the Eden story. The Creator required but a single human to tend the garden oasis which he and his fellow deities frequented and which nourished them. The adam (the original, androgenous human) was allowed to share the bounty, including the Tree of Life prolongation, barred only from the Tree of Knowledge of sexual reproduction.

The adam’s simple duties left too much time on its hands, so Jehovah sought to supply a fit companion. The various animals proving unsuitable, Jehovah split the adam into male and female. But soon the Promethean serpent told the couple the secret of procreation. With access to both immortality and procreation, the humans must eventually become a rival race of gods. Thus their expulsion. Encratite Christians understood sex as the original sin, the origin of the division of humanity into classes, ethnicities, and genders with the resultant strife, prescribed roles, and oppressions. Their remedy was to undo that sin, renouncing gender roles and other conventional social structures. They embraced apocalypticism, anarchism, vegetarianism, and pacifism, simulating a pre-Fall existence. Encratism made it possible for women, freed of domestic servitude and male domination, to function as leaders and prophets. It is not too much to say the whole phenomenon was one of radical gender transcendence.

Jesus saw children being nursed. He says to his disciples, “These nursing children are like those who enter the kingdom.” They say to him, “Are we, then, to become children in order to enter the kingdom?” Jesus says to them, “When you make the two one, and when you make the inner as the outer and the outer as the inner and the above as the below, and when you make the male and the female into a single one, so that the male will no more be male nor the female be female then you shall enter the kingdom.” (Gospel of Thomas, saying 22)

Here is the transcendence of gender and of the social duties and definitions that go along with it. This is something well beyond the decision of a male to become and to be henceforth considered a female, as in the cases of Kaitlin Jenner and Chelsea Manning and those guys who become gals and join the women’s sports teams where they take advantage of their leftover masculinity to win trophies that otherwise would go to the natural-born females. (Rest assured, this is no concern of mine, as I have not the slightest interest in sports.)

Maybe the confusion is only in my own mind. Maybe I am mixing together different factions. But if not, then I should think this contradiction requires sorting out. Are you exchanging one gender for another, or are you transcending gender itself?

My second point is a policy statement. There is a vogue for revising the English language to supply neologistical gender-neutral pronouns, and another movement to create various new pronouns appropriate to the rapidly multiplying gender classifications, some 75 by one count, over 100 by another. Every nuance requires a separate gender, and every gender demands a different pronoun, and in some places, you will be in trouble with the law if you slip and use the wrong pronoun. Well, I can only say I will not be joining the party. No one is going to dictate what I can and cannot say. You and Big Sibling can keep your Newspeak to yourselves.

gender neutral appearance

Third, another policy statement. I take individuals as they come, with their charms, their needs, their problems, their opinions, their blemishes, their virtues. I value them and rejoice in their diversity. Different religious or anti-religious or non-religious positions, various sexual orientations, political views, whatever. They are people, and I love people. So be whatever gender you want to be; it’s fine with me.

My fourth point is in some tension with the third: I view the burgeoning gender confusion, as I consider it, a major symptom of the dissolution of Western culture and civilization. Various factors are fragmenting the “sacred canopy” of values and beliefs that historically hold any society together, providing a common identity. Definitions of marriage and family, together with wise child-rearing, are rapidly eroding. “Everyone does what is right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6). “Without a [unifying] vision, a people perishes” (Proverbs 29:18).

I understand our present epidemic of gender confusion (and I know those are loaded terms) as the manifestation of what Giles Deleeuze and Felix Guattari (in their Anti-Oedipus) welcome and proclaim as the dawn of the Schizoid Man, a casting off of what neo-Freudian Jacques Lacan calls “the Law of the Father,” the identity definitions imposed on every child as part of the socialization process. Deleeuze and Guattari urge us to cast off the chains of that consistency that is the hobgoblin of little minds. Be all you can be, consistent or not. I see it as the psychological equivalent of what the radical philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend (Against Method) prescribes as the only principle that does not inhibit scientific research: “Anything goes!” The postmodern person should not hesitate to “be all over the place.” His proper name is Legion. It is a wild existential freedom that does not rein itself in by restrictive codes.

Again, it is the individual/psychological version of the death of traditional Narratives that used to supply national and cultural identities, a cultural crisis discussed by Jean-Francois Lyotard in his The Postmodern Condition. This is what makes possible today’s espousal of “world citizenship,” open borders, and the disdain for nationalism and patriotism as mere jingoism. Personally, I believe that these trends, though much may be said in their favor, are sowing the wind and will sooner or later lead to reaping the whirlwind. Even when chaos is constructive on one level, it can simultaneously be destructive on another, as the sad history of revolutions has amply demonstrated. Who can say what will eventuate? Who knows what rough beast is slouching toward Bethlehem to be born?

So says Zarathustra.

Pat - Saturday Night Live

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Hawking in Hell?

I am told that various Christians went on record gloating over the passing of the great astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and contemplating his arrival in the magma pit of Hell. Hawking’s damning sin? Well, of course, he was an atheist, and what other destination would be fitting? Any mature person will deplore what John Beversluis called a “chop-licking attitude” at the prospect of one’s ideological opponents frying in the Inferno. These “schadenfreudians” are like cruel children, and it would be equally silly to take them as typical Christians. But their frank sadism does raise an important question about Christianity per se. Are these gloating believers hypocrites, acting in contradiction to the faith they claim to represent? Or are they consistent with that faith?

The problem is not a contradiction between such spiteful hate on the one hand and Christian belief on the other, much as we might want it to be. No, the problem is a contradiction between aspects of the Christian faith itself. It bids us go in two different directions. Some Christians proceed in one direction, the rest in the other. Even if we are non-Christians, we wish we could say that Christian faith includes a noble moral stance, fostering forgiveness and compassion. And indeed it does. But there is a fatal Tse-tse fly in the ointment. And of course that is the doctrine of an eternal Hell for those who do not accept the Christian belief.

Of course Christians deny that it is a simple matter of one’s choice of religion. They realize how unfair and arbitrary that sounds. How cruel and arbitrary that would be. So they try to ameliorate that offense by telling us (and themselves) that there is much more to it! And what is that? Wouldn’t be good works, would it? Roman Catholics seem to add works to faith, as if we must make ourselves worthy of the grace of God, whatever that might mean. Eastern Orthodox Christians believe in synergism: we must work together with God’s grace for it to save us. But traditional Protestants want to stick with Martin Luther’s dicta of Sola fidei, Sold gratia (Faith alone/grace alone. Two “alones”? Well, yes, they’re both sides of the same coin: nothing but God’s grace can save us, but we must wittingly receive it or it will never really be ours. God throws out a lifeline, but the drowning man must take hold of it. I don’t know if that gets them out of the jam. If it were all simply a matter of grace, we would have Christian Universalism: everybody is saved whether they know it or not! Jesus did not merely try to save humanity, and with partial results. No, he did save the human race. He didn’t just provide the cure, like a chemist; he actually administered it, like a doctor.

Another route of attempted escape is the claim that belief is a necessary but not a sufficient condition; you must have (i.e., you must experience) a “personal relationship with Christ.” But this seems logically quite different from the transaction of trading belief in Christ’s atonement for the dropping of the charges against you as a sinner. It’s not clear what the “personal relationship” business would have to do with all the “Protestant Latin,” you know: justification, regeneration, expiation, propitiation, etc. Besides, it simply adds a kind of religious sentimentalism to correct doctrinal belief as a second qualification for salvation. It is essentially the same principle expounded by the United Pentecostal Church: you must speak in tongues in order to be saved. And this is supposed to be better than “salvation by works”?

I just don’t see how it makes sense for Stephen Hawking to be condemned to eternal torment for not having prayerful, tearful devotions every day, for failing to “have a little talk with Jesus.” Damned to the endless flames for not agreeing with an unprovable assertion about an invisible and intangible being?

But I said the real contradiction pointed up by some (I hope few) fundamentalists spitting on Hawking’s grave centers on a crucial element in Christian theology. I have always loved the joke that explains how the Unitarians and the Universalists finally got together. The Universalists said, “God is too good to send anyone to Hell,” and the Unitarians said, “And we’re too good to go there!” Well, there’s truth in that. No one deserves endless torment, not even fiends like Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. Yeah, they deserve plenty of retribution all right, but endless torture? Come on. If that’s the way God runs things, he’s worse than them! No, that can’t be, at least if all the talk about God being a loving Father has any truth to it. So, yes, Virginia, God is too good to send people to Hell.


And there is danger in thinking he’s not. Here’s what I mean. Your God is by definition your ultimate standard of morality. “You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). But suppose you have been taught that God’s perfection includes, is compatible with, his willingness to condemn people to unending torture. It is the greatest, most outrageous, harmonization of a biblical contradiction ever attempted, and theologians have long tried simply to split the difference between God as Love and God as the Lord of Damnation.

For most Christians, this harmonization is merely a trick of theoretical, theological damage control, just public relations. It is not an existential problem for them. They really only care about God as the loving Father. The notion of him consigning his creatures to the Hellocaust is really just a pesky distraction, no more important than whether the mustard seed is “the smallest seed on the earth” (Mark 4:31).

What do such Christians say when an outsider raises the question? It is something of a relief to hear them reply that they wish it were not true that unbelievers are doomed to Hell, but that they are obliged to believe it is, unfortunately. It’s like believing that the Nazi Holocaust happened: you wish it hadn’t, but that hardly gives you the right to deny that it did, right? At least this response is better than that of the Christians who rejoice that poor Hawking is now rotating on a spit over the flames of Hell. But it doesn’t resolve the contradiction. In fact, aren’t the more compassionate Christians implicitly admitting the existence of the contradiction? And are they not admitting that their own moral conscience is superior to that of the God who, unlike them, does not seem to mind torturing his creatures?

Oh, but perhaps God is just as pained and regretful at having to send these poor sinners to Hell! He has no choice! They should have taken him up on his offer of amnesty. Thus they have only themselves, not God, to blame. This is doubly absurd. On the one hand, to say, as apologists do, that the sinner chose Hell when he could have chosen heaven is ridiculous, especially in the case of someone like Stephen Hawking, who knew there was insufficient reason to believe in either Hell or the Gospel. C.S. Lewis said he was not asking anyone to accept Christianity against his better judgment, since that must poison “faith” with intellectual dishonesty. Too bad God does not, on the standard reading, take such an open-minded view!

On the other hand, why should God “have to” send anyone to Hell? Is he bound by some rules that are superior to himself, like Zeus, helpless before the Fates? Jesus does not seem to think so when he petitions his Father, saying “all things are possible for thee” (Mark 14:36)?

I say there is danger in believing (pretending) that a loving God can damn people to eternal suffering and still be a loving God. The danger is that you may feel entitled to make room in your heart for cruelty and gloating. After all, it’s all right for God! And this seems to be precisely the thinking of the theological sadists who relish the thought of Hawking or Gandhi or anybody else going to Hell. You see, they are not being inconsistent with their faith, which would make them hypocrites. No, they are being consistent with a self-contradictory faith. We can only be glad that most Christians do not make the logical connection. But we would be even gladder if they did see the logic of it and purge their faith of this terrible contradiction.

So says Zarathustra.


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Why the Truth Is Stranger than Fiction

Why the Truth Is Stranger than Fiction

Last evening, Carol and I were watching the latest episodes of the Hulu TV series The Path. It is an excellent show illustrating, among other things, the dangers of transformative piety, what I like to call the Shazam Model of Sanctification. It is the belief that an individual may transcend his or her natural self with all its flaws by means of this or that “spiritual” mind game. It is, I think, a case of attempted suppression of forces, urges, and quirks that cannot be eradicated. They will only seek expression in other, more devious ways, often clothed in the language and pose of moral and spiritual superiority. This is how religious leaders eventually crash and burn, subverting themselves by means of what they think are virtues but are actually vices wearing aluminum foil haloes.

I said to Carol that I was particularly impressed by the way the Cal Roberts (Hugh Dancy) character is both written and acted. He is the product of an abusive upbringing which eventuated in alcoholism and other back-riding monkeys. Pretending (to himself) to have overcome these problems by the techniques of Meyerism, a liberal New Age therapeutic and apocalyptic sect, abetted by the use of Ayahuasca, Cal has risen to prominence, the apparent heir to founder Steve Meyers, recently deceased. His position is challenged by Eddie Lane, a convert who had begun to lose faith in Meyerism until a visionary experience convinced him of its truth. In addition, founder Steve appeared to him, designating him, not Cal, as the true “Guardian of the Light,” the Meyerist Messiah. Cal is affronted and promptly starts scheming to take back the leadership.

Cal Roberts on Hulu's The PathCal is too easily tempted by sex and booze and is not even above a strategic murder on occasion. Yet the man exhibits real therapeutic insight and ministry skills. It would be quite easy to write him as a caricature, or even to depict him as a real-life self-drawn caricature like the unfortunate Jim Bakker. But Cal’s character works. He comes across as a complex man whose inner demons somehow energize and make possible his great gifts. I contrast him with another fictional character, Sarr Poroth, one of the main characters in T.E.D. Klein’s great 1984 novel The Ceremonies. We are told that Sarr, a rustic farmer belonging to an Amish-like community in remote Gilead, New Jersey, had a few years previously sojourned in New York City, studying anthropology. This (conveniently for the plot) equips Sarr with the knowledge he will need to understand the growing, ancient evil impinging on his rural paradise. Though I love the book, I must admit that I just couldn’t swallow this arbitrary juxtaposition of rustic sectarian and learned grad student. I thought the author should have contrived to split the character in two. Sarr combines oil and water, a forced fusion of two very different actants, or narrative functions: the hero/protagonist and the “donor,” who supplies needed knowledge, power, etc. (like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Gandalf, or Merlin).

At this point, some reader might be thinking, “Not so fast! As odd as it sounds, I once knew a guy like that!” Maybe you did, but that doesn’t make any difference. Even if it happened, it was an oddity, as your very response implies. It is a question of verisimilitude, plausibility based on readers’ expectations about life and the world, expectations based on most people’s experience of the world. It is akin to the historian’s principle of analogy, which stipulates that no claimed event can be judged as probable (the best verdict any historian can render) if it is without analogy in present-day experience.

Artist Leon De Leeuw c.1964I first learned this lesson from my painting professor at Montclair State College, the great Leon de Leeuw. He told us something to this effect: “I don’t care if you did see a weird cloud that looked like that! It’s going to distract the viewer from your overall scene. If your goal is to highlight the strange cloud, take a photo of it!” Exactly, it spoils the verisimilitude by defying the viewer’s expectations for clouds.

This discussion of characters and clouds opens up a wider subject. Verisimilitude is perhaps the key to all artistic creation. I’m thinking of a wonderful scene near the end of Bergman’s classic Fanny and Alexander (hmmm… is that my favorite Bergman film, or is it The Seventh Seal? I can never decide!). Celebrating the birth of two baby girls to the Ekdahl clan, Gustav Adolf, proprietor of a restaurant adjacent to the theatre owned and run by his family, is blustering away. He reflects on how, in the face of the terrors ever threatening us out in the big world beyond the well-ordered sanctuary of elegant culture and family sentiment, the theatre provides a “little world” which re-presents for us selected elements of the outside world to help us understand it. (In this very film, we have seen that Shakespeare’s Hamlet would have provided the key to understanding recent tragic family events if only anyone had noticed at the time!) Art selects certain elements of the observed world in order to construct a mental model, a map of meaning, our meaning, not necessarily the meaning, especially since there is no “the” meaning.

Think of another great movie, Man of Steel, in which young Clark Kent, suddenly under siege by his awakening super-senses, panics from sensory overload. The poor kid can’t control his X-ray vision and super-hearing. But his mom guides him to focus his attention, to weed out what he doesn’t want to hear or see at the moment. Just like the Buddha, who was selectively omniscient: he wasn’t aware of everything happening in the universe unless he directed a sensor ray to see whatever he needed to know.

What Clark was seeing and hearing during his original sensory bombardment was Kant’s Undifferentiated Manifold of Perception, the Ding an sich (the “Thing in itself”). We, unlike Clark, never see this because we are born with the mental filtering apparatus Kant called the Categories of Perception and the Logical Functions of Judgment. These tools shape perception so that it makes sense to us. For instance, is there really a succession of moments out there? Does cause actually lead to effect? Are objects really distinct from one another? Do they truly have weight, volume, and form? We don’t know. But we cannot help perceiving reality as if this is the way things are. Kant spoke of certain Transcendentals, overarching perspectives, not directly perceived but necessary for perceptions to make sense. One of these was “World,” the very notion of a vast “container” of all the “things” we perceive, a horizon by which they appear to cohere into a united whole. (I think of what Lovecraft says in “The Call of Cthulhu” about “correlating the contents” of the mind.)

Paul Deussen (The Philosophy of the Upanishads) long ago understood Hindu Nondualism as being perfectly analogous to Kant’s epistemology: Kant’s Categories of Perception were the same as Shankara’s upadhis, the “limiting conditions” of finitude, a feature of illusory maya, the Samsaric existence we inhabit before Enlightenment. These upadhis refract our perception of the ultimate Nirguna Brahman (“Brahman without qualities”), pure Being. Think of them like water droplets in the air that refract sunlight into the spectrum of colors. This, too, is art and verisimilitude: the product is beautiful to us but as a derivative, selective distortion.

Perhaps the final paradox is that, even if the mystic manages to leap beyond the Samsaric maya, past the Categories of Perception, unto the Suchness of the Undifferentiated Manifold of Perception, to “rise above the noise and confusion / to get a glimpse beyond this illusion,” the resultant Satori will still be a creation of the mind because what will have happened is that happy disabling of the Temporal Parietal Lobe of the brain, that gizmo which makes it possible for the infant eventually to distinguish self from world, returning us to what Freud called “the oceanic feeling of the womb.” In other words, it’s still all in your head.

Or would Kant perhaps have understood the meditative introspection of the mystics, which switches off the Temporal Parietal Lobe, as analogous to his own exploration of the workings of the mind but carried a big step further? Had the mystics, with their intra-mental flashlight, discovered a way of bypassing the Categories of Perception and the Logical Functions of Judgment, yielding a genuine beholding of the Undifferentiated Manifold of Perception? If so, they managed to behold that Truth that is far stranger than the fictions we construct to make a familiar, sensible world for ourselves. If so, the “big world” Gustav Adolf Ekdahl envisioned is a lot bigger than he thought!

So says Zarathustra.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Spinning the Theology Wheel

Spinning the Theology Wheel

Last Friday evening, Cecilia, my mother-in-law and pal, and my wonderful wife Carol, and I were sitting around shooting the breeze after watching John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness and the season finale of The Exorcist TV series. Not surprisingly, the conversation turned in the direction of theology. It often does, not so much because of my own interest in all things religious, but because Carol and Cecilia have a long-running (and friendly) dispute. Cecilia is a very conservative Roman Catholic, while Carol is an enthusiastic proponent of New Thought. Cecilia is quite sure there is one true faith and that she is in it. Carol regards that as way too restrictive. Why limit your options? Why not pick and choose? The discussion raised two issues in my mind. I want to ruminate on them a bit if you’ll indulge me.

            First comes the issue of Syncretism or eclecticism: choosing elements from this religion and that, combining them into a creed of your own. Are the preferred tenets logically or practically compatible? Once at Gordon Conwell Seminary I wrote a skit pretending to be a theological game show called Twist That Text! (Gotta admit I swiped the title and the idea from my mentor Michael S. Kogan at Montclair State College.) One segment of the show featured “the Systematic Theology Wheel.” Each spoke of the wheel had a doctrine inscribed on it: “Predestination,” “Universal Election,” “Annihilation of the Wicked,” etc. You’d give it a spin, inevitably winding up with a raft of grossly incompatible doctrines which you’d then have fifteen seconds to harmonize into a coherent theological system. Our contestant won the big prize with this reasoning: “Let’s see… everyone is elected, but since there have to be some wicked to be annihilated… everyone is predestined to go to Hell!” Bingo!

Is that the way theology really works? A jury-rigged mess of disparate beliefs? For my money, that’s what the Trinity is, for example. “Now we want to be monotheists, but we also want to worship Jesus alongside God, so I guess Jesus must be God, too, but not the same one. But not really a different one, or we’d have to admit we’re polytheists. So how about this? Jesus and his Father are two persons sharing the one divine nature… or something.”

If it’s nothing but a mind game, the incompatible ideas don’t really matter. You never have to put them to practical use, so they’re untestable. But if your doctrines are applicable to your life, the contradictions will result in contradictory behavior and cognitive dissonance. The greatest example would have to be your belief that “God is love” on the one hand and that God is planning on subjecting some people to eternal torment on the other. You can always just ignore one or the other, but that’s cheating. If you try to reconcile hell belief with God’s love you must end up considering love as somehow compatible with torture. That’s screwed up, and you will be screwed up.

But I don’t think that kind of theological schizophrenia is entailed in the syncretism many people espouse. Instead, they are discovering that certain elements have appeared in different religions independently. There are spontaneous parallels that are not copyrighted by any one of the faiths in which they appear. Salvation by grace through faith has been derived by the same basic logical process in both Protestant Christianity and Pure Land Buddhism. Jesus is the savior in the one case, Amitabha Buddha in the other. Neither appears to have influenced the other.

meditating om jesusSimilarly, mystical non-dualism appears in Taoism, early Sufism, Mahayana Buddhism, and in Meister Eckhart’s writings.

            How do we account for this? Actually, it is quite simple. All religions contain a wide variety of beliefs and approaches. Activist versus passivist, salvation by faith or by works. The founder as a vicarious savior versus a way-shower. Allegorical versus literalist reading of scriptures. Ancient scripture versus ongoing revelation. And so on. The fact is that humans have the same mental machinery which they bring to bear on certain perennial questions, resulting in the same range of resultant positions. And, for example, non-dualists belonging to Hinduism recognize non-dualists in Buddhism, etc., once they come to learn about them. They find kindred spirits, merely employing different but equivalent idioms. Their links to the like-minded in other faiths are stronger than their links to the people sitting next to them in the same pew. So they belong to two different religions but in different senses. Why not? You could call such people syncretists, but this is misleading because it is in fact the same doctrine that they are holding in common with the like-minded individuals wearing different religious labels. What I’m getting at is that a “syncretist” of this kind is not creating some Mulligan stew of disparate ideas. Not spinning the Theology Wheel. No, they are happily recognizing that other faiths share some particular belief they themselves already embraced. Why not learn from what these “foreign” cousins have to say about it?

            The second question is one long ago discussed by the father of Liberal Protestant theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher, a thinker very important to me personally. Is “Natural Religion” adequate? Or isn’t “Positive Religion” necessary if religion is to become more than a set of abstract, idiosyncratic opinions? “Natural” religion, popular among intellectuals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was primarily ethical and philosophical in character, overlapping with Deism. It was religiosity in general. Schleiermacher denied that this was an authentic form of religion. It was more opinion than communion, more properly to be categorized as philosophy of religion rather than religion itself. Schleiermacher stressed the need for participation in some one of the historic religious communities, and not necessarily the Christian one. It is revealing that Schleiermacher spoke of the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of the Christian Community.”

            Traditionally, religious communities were united by corporate worship and ritual. The strength of this approach is evident from the fact that some groups are almost indifferent to whatever beliefs their individual members may privately hold. Judaism and Episcopalianism have grown to accommodate a broad spectrum of belief in this way. But can such a common life be sustained among freethinkers? Can such a gathering transcend the character of a polite debating society?

Are these two options really alternatives, or would it be more illuminating to view them as markers along a continuous spectrum? The latter way of looking at it might make more sense of the actual social phenomena. I will say, however, that in my experience the closest thing to a Natural Religion community, namely the Unitarian Universalist Association, though it may duplicate the social patterns of traditional churches, seems to me to be more of a political group, much more ethical than religious in any traditional sense. A kindred group was until quite recently called the Ethical Culture Society, which seems to me more accurately descriptive for Unitarianism as well.

            I understand this distance between Unitarian “fellowships” and “associations” on the one hand and traditional churches, synagogues, and mosques on the other in terms of another important aspect of Schleiermacher’s thought: the indispensable character of religious piety as the conscious awareness of “absolute dependence” upon the infinite Totality of Being that is God. The ethical dimension is non-negotiable, but it is not the essence of religion as Kant thought. Scripture and myth are not merely Sunday School lessons inculcating ethical growth. Rather, for Schleiermacher, they are catalytic for “God-consciousness.” I think Unitarianism attests the truth of Schleiermacher’s opinion. Unitarianism strikes me as essentially secular and pragmatic, non-religious and sterile. In many places it gives the impression of being a mere adjunct of the Democratic Party. This is, in effect, just what Schleiermacher expected and predicted would happen once religion defines itself as ethics. Noble but arid.

            Above, I described some who feel a deeper, more significant connection to members of other traditional religions with whom, however, they share some doctrinal belief (e.g., non-dualism) even though they continue attending church alongside those without that deeper understanding. They are like the ancient Valentinian Gnostics who regularly attended Catholic congregations but also attended Gnostic study groups on the side. The church authorities thought these Gnostics should just scram and stick to their “heresy.” But the Gnostics apparently felt the need for both. I think that’s probably a pretty good model for those “syncretists” with a foot in both camps today.

So says Zarathustra,


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Where Understanding Ends

Has it ever struck you as pathetically absurd when you hear a defense attorney for a convicted fiend seek mitigation for him, arguing that he was made the man-monster he is by terrible childhood abuse? It seems a last-ditch tactic. But it may just work because Americans are sometimes too full of the milk of human kindness. And within such kindness lurks a hidden and most convenient assumption: that individuals are the product, not as the Buddha says, of their decisions, but of their influences, purely passive, receiving an imprint like a seal on malleable wax. Here we have yet another example of the Slave Morality despised and bemoaned by Nietzsche. Cowards love to avoid responsibility, culpability, by attacking the very notion of responsibility and therefore of culpability. If no one is really culpable, then I am not culpable. If everyone is a passive recipient of conditioning, and of nothing else, then so am I. I might feel indignant at leniency shown murderers and child molesters, but I, too, am willing to give the monster a pass if that’s the price of my being able to shirk any responsibility for my own inadequacies. We moral cowards need to stick together!

Is it really impossible to imagine that an individual has the ability to defy conditioning and environment? If it is impossible, then there is no such thing as an individual. We are then no more than instantiations of sociological factors and trends, patterns of dysfunction. The individual as such, in that case, does not “exist,” because, as Paul Tillich liked to point out, to ex-ist means to “stand out” from the field of Being. But if we are merely one more stitch in a socio-economic and psychological tapestry, we are not individuals because there is no individuality.

I think also of Martin Heidegger, who prophetically urged his readers to awaken from their collective slumber, their passive acquiescence to Das Mann, the faceless mass of humanity governed by whatever currents cause the river of humanity to drift this way or that. He had in mind the habitual laziness that tempts us to let peer pressure supply our values and beliefs. Peter Berger discussed it in terms of the Sociology of Knowledge: we will blithely share the assumptions and values of our “plausibility structure” until we come to realize that’s what we’ve been doing and snap out of it, questioning everything in order to make our own “cognitive universe” for ourselves. That, Berger called “the Heretical Imperative.” Harvey Cox posited that the Original Sin of Adam and Eve in the Eden myth was accidie, letting the serpent tell them what to do. Dostoyevsky imagined Jesus getting crucified because the religious authorities of his day wanted to protect their troubled flock from having to face the challenge of Jesus to take up the heavy cross of freedom. If we do, to return to Heidegger, we will have at last attained authentic existence, heeding the call of our long-stifled authentic self.

So what is it that determines whether we are authentic individuals or passive marionettes? Simply, it is the decision that one is going to be an individual. To decide to take and to accept responsibility. It might be that, even if we deny it, we are nonetheless merely products of greater forces which combine to create us. Considering ourselves to be individuals may be kidding ourselves. Even this may be a role assigned us without our knowing. Theoretically, we might be able to posit threads of influence that inclined us toward rebelliousness. Would that vitiate our self-confidence as “rugged individualists”? I guess it would. But that’s where understanding ends.

Kant figured that, logically, all things must transpire according to an iron chain of cause and effect, including our decisions, choices, and actions. But what does it mean that we can come to know this? Does it not imply a superiority to that chain-link determinism? Does the fictional character know that he is a fictional character? Would that not tear asunder the fictive narrative of which he forms a part? Kant inferred that our sense of autonomous freedom is a “Transcendental,” a condition, a perspective, which is not derived from the data of sense perception but which is nonetheless necessary for us to make sense of the world of perceived data. Otherwise we could not even recognize the process of cause and effect that we are in that moment transcending! Freedom is a necessary hypothesis—even if we don’t understand how it could be. We find ourselves at the top of Mount Everest without knowing how we got there.

Perhaps this sense of autonomy is an illusion. If so, consider it a legal fiction. The defense attorney can play the air violin of excuse-making as sweetly as he wants, but we shall have to stop up our ears and proceed on the assumption that his client did not have to commit the atrocity he did. We must take for granted that he could have resisted the temptation; he could have controlled his compulsion. We will consider him an autonomous individual responsible for his actions even if he does not think so, even if his lawyer begs us not to. If we don’t, if we never do, you can see what must happen to our justice system. The Slave Morality will mean that nothing is anyone’s fault, and then there is no punishment for anything. We will consider rapes, murders, etc., to be blows of fate, like hurricanes, earthquakes, disease plagues. No one’s fault, just rotten luck. This, too, is where understanding ends. Where it must end. Oh, it may be that we would have erred in our chain of reasoning if it led us to mitigate responsibility to this extent. But even if psycho-social determinists are right, “that way lies madness.” We will have become too smart for our own good, even for our own survival.

Some atheists, like E.O. Wilson, reluctantly agree that people seem to need to believe in God, and that without belief in God (whatever you want to call him, her, or it) there can be no morality. What they mean is that, sociologically, traditional societies operated under what Peter Berger called a “Sacred Canopy” of shared rules, values, beliefs, and mores, all of which were sanctioned and buttressed by the belief that God/gods had ordained these things for their pet humans, and that sooner or later there would be divine reprisals for anyone who stepped out of line. It would undermine morality if everyone came to realize that these codes were originally the pragmatic inventions of mere humans like themselves. The result would be a state of anomie, confused normlessness in the society at large, from which we suffer right now.

Okay, sociologists and philosophers who understand how the system works don’t need it; like Nietzsche’s Superman, they can create their own values (even as the original framers did!). But, like the Gnostic Illuminati, some of them, e.g., Wilson, realize this is strong medicine, too strong for the “weaker brethren.” Perhaps it would be the wiser course not to rock their boat. The truth, I think, does not always “work.” And that is where understanding ends.

So says Zarathustra.

The devil made me do it!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment