Plato’s Matrix

The extensive influence of ancient Gnosticism on the Matrix movies is by now well known. Gnosticism itself was heavily influenced by Platonism, and I believe Plato provides an even closer analogue to the Matrix than Gnosticism does at certain crucial points. I am thinking of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Let’s refresh our memories. Plato asks us to picture a small community dwelling in a huge cavern. The troglodytes have been born and raised there and do not even suspect the existence of the outer, surface, sunlit realm. Reality as they know it is pretty much two-dimensional. You see, each individual is bound firmly in place, head braced to face forward. They can converse with adjacent voices, but all they ever see is a sequence of shadows passing before them, projected from behind them by other individuals who hold up plywood cut-outs of men, women, animals, etc. The prisoners of the Cave see nothing amiss in all this, but one day one man somehow breaks free, moves his stiff neck from side to side, and is amazed to view the true situation!

He manages to escape the Cave, stumbling up the tunnel and into the blinding noonday sunlight. For a time he can see nothing, less than he could see down below. But his eyes soon adjust, and he looks about him in wide-eyed wonder and astonishment! He beholds the wonder of the world of living and substantial objects that you and I take for granted every day. Have you ever seen those videos in which a person, usually a child, congenitally blind or deaf, is fitted with some new device to supplement his senses? At once he or she is beaming with joy! And so is Plato’s escapee. For the first time, he sees the real world. What he had seen previously he now recognizes as a false world of shadows, dim, flat effigies of things in the surface world.

“I can’t keep this to myself!” he reflects, resolving to return to the Cave long enough to tell the dwellers what has happened to him and to reveal that a more real world awaits outside. (This is Morpheus in The Matrix.) Picture him making the descent and interposing himself between the cut-out bearers and their audience, proclaiming his gospel. And picture his chagrin at the jeering and abuse he receives from those he sought to liberate! The guardians of the Cave, whoever they may be, need not trouble themselves to seize or silence him. Their prisoners, who do not even know themselves to be prisoners, drive him forth, back to the surface world whose existence they refuse to acknowledge.

plato's allegory of the cave 50's family watching tv

The message of Plato is one of epistemology: what do we really know, how do we know it, and how can we be sure we know it? The philosopher was of course not saying there is an actual Cave filled with captives needing to be rescued, as in some recent news stories. Rather, he was metaphorically diagnosing the general condition of humanity. People think they know the truth about the world and what it contains, but if they are correct about this or that, it is no more than a lucky guess. People are content to rely upon inherited beliefs, assimilating the groundless opinions of the people around them. These are but a poor and unreliable guide. Worse yet, people mistake mere imaginings for reality and guide their lives by them. Plato believed that the path of escape from this cognitive Cave was the discipline of abstract thinking. Especially the study of mathematics would suitably train the mind to discern the true from the false, to arrive at logical certainty. In the Allegory this is pictured by the harsh but welcome revelation of sunlight and all that it illumines. Thus enlightened, one comes to understand that all things in this world are imperfect and impermanent copies of higher Forms or Ideals which are not subject to instability and decay, treasure in heaven where neither moth nor rust corrupt.

Was not Plato’s Cave scenario a pessimistic one? After all, the refugee from the shadows fails in his attempt to free the others. Plato did not imagine the general run of humanity would ever be able or willing to gain enlightenment. His equally brilliant protégé Aristotle similarly observed that “It is beyond the capacity of most people to draw distinctions” between truth and error. It is essentially a Gnostic position: renouncing naïve hopes as to the education or redemption of the common man, preoccupied as he is with the pleasures and necessities of life (Mark 4:18-19). Applying this understanding to politics, this is why Plato disdained democracy as mere mob rule. Or as E.K. Hornbeck (the H.L. Mencken analogue in Inherit the Wind) exclaimed, as he pointed to a howling rabble outside the window: “Those are the slobs and boobs who make our laws.” Thus Plato advocated for rule by elite philosopher-kings, those who had made the ascent above and beyond “common sense,” too often common nonsense, to the celestial arcana of pure reason and superior insight into all things.

And here is a terrible irony. How do the philosopher-kings know that they know that/what they know? Why, by direct apprehension of the Truth, of course. Like Descartes, who deemed it sufficient to recognize as truth whatever seemed “clear and distinct” to the rational mind. But that is a snare and a delusion. It is what Derrida called Presence Metaphysics, the groundless notion that there can be intuitive (virtually telepathic) direct apprehension. To think that way is to ignore the seams, the sedimentary strata, the fingerprints, the signs of derivation and composition of what seems self-evident. Haven’t you been willing to stake everything on the truth of something you subsequently discovered, however reluctantly, was a mistake? “How could I have been so wrong?” “What the hell was I thinking?” You might have expected a student of Socrates to have possessed a bit of Socratic humility, or in other words, that “Now we see in a glass darkly.”  

plato's man cave

Think again of the Allegorical Cave. I mentioned the guardians of the Cave, whoever it was who kept everyone in chains, saw to their feeding, carried the cut-outs across the stage. Why did they do it? Why did they think it worthwhile to trick and deceive their victims? They must have thought it was good for them! Who knew what trouble these poor souls might get into out there in the sunshine world above, confused by the blinding light with its kaleidoscopic colors? Didn’t Plato see that the underground community lived under well-meaning philosopher-kings who wanted only the best for them? Obviously he didn’t. He didn’t have the perspective of history that we have. The leaders of the Aryan Super Race, the Vanguard of the Proletariat, the Grand Inquisitor, and countless others were as completely sure of their oppressive doctrines as any Platonic sovereign.

So is democracy the shining alternative? Winston Churchill seems to have been right in saying that democracy is the worst form of government—except for all the others. One thing’s for sure: “There ain’t no philosopher-kings in this locality.”

As long as it is run by mediocre human beings, government will be terribly flawed. We can make corrections, or say we have, but there is no real reason to think it will ever become some sort of Star Trek Utopia. So we need to come to a meaningful way of understanding what we have, with all its frustrating limitations. And here I want to switch to another ancient model that takes this condition seriously and, I think, profoundly. It is the biblical myth of the Principalities and Powers. It is perhaps the perfect example of Bultmann’s demythologizing.

It begins with the transition from Israelite polytheism to monotheism, a development I place (much later than most) in the mid-second century BCE, part of the vaunted Deuteronomic Reform. What were they supposed to do with the seventy or so obsolete deities whom Jews had formerly worshipped? Well, first they said these were the sons of God, who appointed a fiefdom for each one to rule, to be in charge of answering prayers, defending his people in war, etc. But if there was to be but a single God, these lesser beings had to be redefined, but how? When, centuries later, Christianity displaced pagan polytheism, Christians stigmatized Apollo, Mithras, and the rest as demons pure and simple, fallen angels who had rebelled against God, and with predictable results. The Deuteronomists took basically the same path, making the sons of God into fallen angels, too, but with a fascinating difference. These Fallen Ones still ruled their allotted nations. They were still (at least for the present) in charge—and, again, with predictable results! This was the Jewish explanation for evil and oppression in the world, much of the brunt of which Jews steadfastly bore.

But even when not suffering outright persecution by Gentile regimes, Jews maintained a fragile coexistence with the pagan authorities whose subjects they were. For instance, the Jewish priesthood collected Roman taxes at the Jerusalem Temple and even offered daily sacrifices on Caesar’s behalf. It was the cessation of these offerings that brought on the Roman-Jewish War. This ongoing situation was expressed in the myth of the Principalities and Powers. Jews believed that the pagan empires were clients of the Fallen Angels. The gospels depict demons as “unclean spirits,” roaming “lone wolf” devils afflicting random schmucks with insanity and epilepsy. But the epistles speak rather of the Big Bosses: the Powers behind the thrones of the nations.

Jews (and then Christians, too) believed that one day God would clean house, eject these Cosmic Gangsters, and assume direct control of the world. But until then, let’s face it, pagan rule was better than none at all. Would you rather have chaos? The War of All Against All? Modern Bible-derived mythology gives us a good illustration of the difference. You may have seen the three Omen movies in which Damien Thorn is groomed to become the Antichrist. His mission would be to achieve world dictatorship, controlling food supplies in order to force his subjects to worship him and his Father Below. Bad enough, you say? Once Damien is assassinated it only gets worse: in a sequel novel, Gordon McGill’s Omen IV: Armageddon 2000, his son takes over, and he has no interest in ruling the world. Instead he wants to destroy it! Even his Satanist acolytes oppose this!

I’ve always supposed that it was like this in Chicago in the 20s when rival gangs were the real authorities. You couldn’t really feel safe if there was danger at any moment of a roadster rounding the corner filled with Tommy-gun-wielding thugs aiming at their colleagues. But you’d rather live with that than always cowering in the shadows, hiding from nonstop rioters and rapists (like The Purge movies, only 365 days a year). Very bad, but it could be worse! Give me Tony Soprano any day! That’s life under the Principalities and Powers. Will we ever get rid of government corruption and deception? Don’t kid yourself! But remember, the alternative is not Utopia; it’s bloody Chaos. Those who pose as philosopher-kings are only emperors wearing new clothes.

So says Zarathustra.       

This game (democracy) is hard. What else is there?

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

When Political Prophecy Fails

President Trump looms within image of Bosche's Last Judgement and flames. The end of the world?

Martin Werner, a disciple of the great Albert Schweitzer, wrote a book called The Development of Christian Doctrine in which he explained the unfolding evolution of Christian thought as the ramifications of a huge watershed event, or rather, non-event, namely the Delay of the Parousia. That’s fancy language for the failure of the Second Coming of Christ to take place on schedule: “This generation shall not pass away before all these things have happened” (Mark 13:30). “There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power” (Mark 9:1). “You will not have finished going through the towns of Israel till the Son of Man comes” (Matt. 10:23). Uh, take a look at the nearest calendar: no show.

Eighteenth-century Rationalist Hermann Samuel Reimarus saw the implication that Christians have never been willing to face: Jesus taught many things about an unseen divine realm, most of which had to be accepted, if at all, by sheer faith. You’d have to wait till you died and went to heaven (if there is one) to heave a sigh of relief that it was all true after all. But there was one single falsifiable teaching provable as true or false right here on earth. That was, of course, Jesus’ promise that his Parousia (“coming, presence”) would occur before the generation of his contemporaries had passed from the scene. Had it come true, Christianity would in one blow be verified. If it didn’t, sorry, you backed the wrong horse. Logically there would be no reason to believe anything Jesus “revealed” about God, heaven, the Last Judgment, etc.

Christians have been unable to bring themselves to accept the obvious because their inherited beliefs are too dear to them. They will resort to any twisted rationalization, any desperate expedient, any ad hoc hypothesis to save face (i.e., save faith). “Oh, I guess we misinterpreted those verses! Yeah, that’s the ticket.”

The massive readjustments of Christian beliefs in the wake of the delayed Parousia, Werner explained, were predicated on the need to resign oneself to the long haul. It was necessary to substitute the vertical for the horizontal. Originally Christians looked hopefully to the (near) future: the kingdom of God will dawn in this world soon, maybe next week! But when Godot never showed up, Christians learned to look not ahead but above. Who knows when the world will end? But I could croak tomorrow, and then I’ll go up to heaven. Originally Jesus’ death was understood as his shouldering the Great Tribulation to save everyone else the trouble. It was part of the End Times scenario. But once they realized they weren’t near the End, they reinterpreted the crucifixion as a substitutionary atonement to absolve the human race of their sins, etc. It was “back to the drawing board.” Such retooling bespeaks a serious commitment to the religion. But that’s really a euphemism for stubbornness, isn’t it? You just can’t bring yourself to give it up, like a favorite jacket that has grown threadbare and no longer fits. You can keep wearing it for old times’ sake, but you look increasingly ridiculous. (Yeah, I’m thinking of me.)

How ironic as well as revealing when Evangelical Christians scoff at the predicament of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Millerites, and many other groups whose founders set dates for the Second Coming and were left holding the bag when nothing happened. The excuses, the reinterpretations, the squirming—oh the squirming! How can these scoffing Evangelicals fail to see they are looking in the mirror! And it’s not even in a glass darkly!

Cartoon: All lined up at "Comforting Lies" desk but no one lined up at "Unpleasant Truths" desk.

Actually, it’s no mystery at all. Leon Festinger and his colleagues Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter explained it in their great book When Prophecy Fails, where, based on a study of these very apocalyptic fiascos, they laid the foundations of their theory of cognitive dissonance. (See also Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.) This is the headache resulting from having to reckon with two clashing notions, one of them a cherished belief, the other a fact disconfirming it. The scientific attitude would be to reject the favorite belief, however reluctantly, in light of the facts. Don Cupitt has demanded to know why theology does not practice such self-correction. How rare for the Dalai Lama to remark that, if any tenet of Buddhism were to be contradicted by any finding of science, so much the worse for Buddhism!

The Delay of the Parousia, then, was an exceedingly bitter pill to swallow, and believers have never stopped vomiting it up. But this kind of thing is hardly restricted to religion. There is, need I say, an obvious current parallel. I have to tread carefully here, because you might think I am getting political. Sometimes I do, but not this time. I in no way intend to treat political issues here. Please keep my stated intention in mind in what follows.

It is remarkable, indeed astonishing, the extent to which Democrats have been unable to accept the reality of the 2016 electoral victory of Donald Trump, or I suppose more to the point, the defeat of Hillary Clinton. (Yes, my guy won, but I am not gloating.) For Democrats (a whole lot of them, anyway), Clinton’s defeat was the Delay of the Parousia, a colossal disappointment they could not deal with. Their stunned disbelief spawned extraordinary rationalizations of the disaster. The most notable was, of course, the outlandish notion that Trump conspired with the Rooskies to steal the election. There is no evidence of this; there never was. The fierce commitment of so many to the Collusion “theory,” the mere fact that so many found it plausible (forgive me if you did), is just like the contrived rationalizations of disappointed sectarians, including the Flying Saucer cult Festinger and his buddies studied.

Within the New Testament, even within the Gospel of Mark by itself, we can already detect more than one attempt to revise the apocalyptic deadline. The early Christians couldn’t let it go. And the same process continues today, as the recent tragi-comedy of Harold Camping and his followers amply illustrated. Even so, in the wake of Hillary’s defeat, her disciples figured that perhaps there had been only a temporary setback. They then pinned their hopes on the Mueller probe. Surely this investigation would uncover such nefarious mischief on Trump’s part to require his impeachment, or even the nullification of the election and the replacement of Trump by Clinton. But bupkis. And on and on it goes: perhaps Mueller was in on the conspiracy, yada yada yada.  

Having enjoyed the recent movie Avengers: Endgame, I can’t help seeing a parallel between the dogged attempts of Democrats to reverse the 2016 election and the Avengers’ attempt to return to the past to prevent Thanos’ use of the Infinity Stones to destroy half the universe’s population. To listen to many media pundits, one might think the two “catastrophes” were equally horrific.

None of this implies a thing about the superiority of Trump or of Clinton or of their policies. But there are political ramifications. I suspect the Democrats’ preoccupation with the 2016 election and their attempts to time-travel back to reverse it have distracted them from their proper business until recently, when, looking forward to the 2020 election, they began to crusade on behalf of a policy agenda. I would merely suggest that, had they let 2016 go and got down to the legislative business at hand, they might have some real achievements to their credit as they face the next election.

So Says Zarathustra.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments


“Alienation” is perhaps most often discussed these days with reference to loners and other social outsiders, people who can’t fit in and suffer psychologically for it. But there are several other aspects of alienation that are equally important and deserve analysis (even if, as here, superficially and cursorily). Let’s consider a few of them one by one, then see what, if anything, they have to do with each other. I’m not guaranteeing they will.

Rene Girard (Violence and the Sacred), sociologist and literary critic, theorized that social order has emerged (and re-emerged) time after time from the chaos of class, faction, and caste conflict. To make a long story short, Girard envisioned a recurrent situation in which warring groups, jealous for each other’s prerogatives, reach a bloody stalemate in which neither side can honestly accept responsibility since each has become equally guilty of atrocity. There are only villains. Each side’s bitterness is justified (both have become “monstrous doubles” of each other). How are they to move past this impasse? Attention comes to rest on some outcast randomly chosen and accused of evil magic. It is he who is at fault! If he is eliminated, the fighting, the massacres, will cease. “Cast out the scorner, and dissension will go out” (Proverbs 22:10). Once he is done to death, the scapegoat is seen in a new light: as a supernatural savior! After all, by the simple fact of his execution he has brought peace where once was war. Both factions now reproach themselves for having put the savior to death, ignorant of his holy nature. To avoid a relapse into the War of All Against All, the reconciled society commemorates the “originary violence” by regularly repeated sacrifice (usually animal sacrifice) which, paradoxically, both recalls yet disguises the saving event.

The syst3em, which Girard posits as the origin of every religion, may break down. This happens if and when a sacrificial crisis occurs. The participants somehow or other become alienated from the sacrifice. It comes to mean nothing to them and thus no longer functions as a social pressure valve. A prime case of the sacrificial crisis leading to social collapse would be the cessation of the Jerusalem Temple sacrifices that led directly to the Jewish-Roman War in 70 CE. Jewish revolutionaries put the priests to the sword, seeing them as lap dogs of the Roman occupiers. This spelled the end of the sacrifices that had been daily offered on behalf of Caesar. And this cranked up the Roman war machine.

For some decades Jewish worshippers had been growing alienated from the sacrifices they offered. Remember the gospel scene in which Jesus enters the Temple and overturns the tables of the moneychangers and drives the animals from their stalls? Why were animals and currency exchange booths located in the Temple to begin with? Well, you had to sacrifice your sheep, and it had to be in perfect health. Suppose you brought Lambchop all the way from Galilee and he/she broke a leg somewhere along the way, not an uncommon occurrence. Or suppose the sheep had some flaw you didn’t notice?  You were screwed! So, for your convenience, there were Temple personnel who would sell you a “government-inspected” animal on site. But what if you had only Roman denarii? Uh-oh. No good to use for sacred purchases! Those heathen coins bore “idolatrous” profiles of Caesar. You could use them to pay Roman taxes, but God wouldn’t touch ‘em with a ten foot shepherd’s crook! (Hence “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s,” Mark 12:17.) So the average worshipper was doubly distanced (alienated) from “his” sacrifice: it wasn’t really his sheep. It wasn’t from his flock. And he hadn’t even been able to buy it with his own money! The sacrifice had become a charade. “I will not offer to Jehovah that which costs me nothing!” (2 Samuel 24:24; 1 Chronicles 21:24). It reminds me of Tibetan prayer wheels: you just set them spinning as you walk by. Are you praying by remote control?

There is also a sense in which alienation is fundamental to social order. This one is explained by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in The Social Construction of Reality. Here alienation is a phase of a process by which the ingenious inventions of human beings like ourselves are subsequently elevated to the stature of divine creations with unimpeachable authority and majesty. In the beginning of a civilization the wise elders see the need for rules and laws in order to maximize peaceful coexistence. You have to eliminate as much theft, murder, rape, etc., as possible if you want to make any progress. Those who frame these laws and customs know good and well the ad hoc nature of their creations, but the next generation inherits these rules as a reality external to and prior to themselves. Thus the social arrangements appear with a new gravity they had not originally possessed. Perhaps they will even come to be deemed God’s commandments fresh from Mount Sinai.

What has happened here? Human beings become alienated from their inventions so that they become objectified, then reified. Reification means that arrangements designed by humans for humans are transformed into self-perpetuating realities served by humans. Someone who saw what was going on once said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Once people do start to realize this, perhaps by reading Berger and Luckmann, respect for the traditional norms declines. “What? You mean the Constitution was written by rich white guys to feather their own nests?” The eventual result is called anomie, normlessness, and, again, the War of All Against All.

This is what Socrates was fighting against. The Sophists had traveled outside Athens and discovered that all the city-states had different codes, all of them ascribed to the gods. For them, the jig was up. They taught relativism. And Socrates was attempting to reestablish some objective standards of truth and meaning.

Why do people who live off government largesse often take it for granted? Because they have no investment in it. They did not earn it by their own labor (even if their disability made labor impossible), so they cannot value it. Given free housing, the poor may not take care of their homes because they have nothing invested in them, either. It is alienation. Similarly, students value their education if they have to pay for it. If they don’t, they may not think it worthwhile to put any work into it. I have certainly observed that in the classroom. Again, it is alienation.

More alienation: Karl Marx wrote about the alienation of industrial laborers from the product of their labors. Where once artisans could take great satisfaction in what they produced, pointing to a plow, a painting, a garment, and saying, “I made that!” the assembly line wage-slaves of Capitalism had but a nominal connection to what they collectively produced. “I’m just a cog in a wheel, Jody. … In one bomb there are perhaps a thousand pieces. Every piece requires a team of fifty, sixty, seventy people.” (Richard Matheson and Rod Serling, “Third from the Sun,” The Twilight Zone, January 8, 1960). The alienation here is quite similar to that at stake in the crisis of sacrifice. In both, what the individual offers/produces is no longer really his own. A hidden, vital link has been severed. And because of it, the individual’s efforts are empty. But is Socialism any better? In the Socialist Iron Curtain countries, the work ethic was vitiated by the realization that one’s work, done well or badly, would not increase one’s wealth but would only vanish down the bottomless toilet of the “collective good.” Is this alienation really any different from or better than that produced by industrial Capitalism?

 â€œI’d like to change the world but I don’t know what to do, so I leave it up to you.” In the meantime, is there anything that can be said about the individual looking out on this dreary landscape? I think of one more type of alienation that might come in handy, and I find it in the Bhagavad Gita. There we read of something called karma yoga. It is a type of religious devotion in which one offers one’s everyday work as a sacrifice to one’s chosen god. One obeys the dictates of one’s dharma, the set of occupational duties dictated by one’s inherited caste. But one does not perform them with ordinary motives, legitimate though they are, e.g., putting food on the table. Instead one “acts apart from the fruits of action,” transforming the mundane into the sacred by consciously directing it to Krishna (or whomever) as if daily actions were ritual sacrifices performed by Brahmin priests. This can be seen, I say, as a type of voluntary alienation from the product of one’s labor, via sublimating it into something else, something spiritual.

I believe there is also a less overtly religious version of this karma yoga, and this version is well represented in the movie The Legend of Bagger Vance, which is a demythologized version of the Bhagavad Gita, as the name itself reveals: “Bagger Vance” = “Bhaga Vad.” Anyway, Bagger appears out of nowhere to help retired golfer R. Junnah (the Arjuna of the Gita) regain his rusty skills in preparation for a big tournament. Yes, he does want to win, but the essential thing Junnah needs to learn is that he must play the game for the sake of the game, regardless of the outcome. That is to act without the fruits of action.

In this demythologized understanding of karma yoga, we leave behind the ironclad caste system of inflexible social stratification and recognize instead what I believe to be the underlying and genuine meaning of dharma. Your dharma is the law of your own being as dictated by your inborn talents, interests, and loves, wherever they came from. It is another name for what Aristotle called your entelechy, the “thing” that makes the acorn develop into an oak rather than a stalk of celery. That which makes you, but not the guy next to you, want to become an artist or a trumpet player. You will not be happy doing anything else, and this inclination probably attests a natural talent, or you’d be inclined to do something else. And as you pursue the direction set by your own nature you will not be doing it as a mere means to an end but rather as an end in itself. That is voluntary alienation from the “cash value” of your work.

But suppose circumstances prevent you from the free pursuit of your nature. It happens. Plenty. Here I think of Camus’s brilliant essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Sisyphus was sentenced by the Olympian gods to while away eternity in Hades by pushing a huge boulder up to a hilltop, whence it must forever roll-bounce back down, whereupon the doomed man must retrieve it and struggle it up the hill again—all to no purpose. That’s what I call alienation from one’s labor! But Camus saw that even in, and especially in, such circumstances (i.e., the real-world conditions thus symbolized) there is possible a higher alienation: the determined resistance of the human spirit, the attainment of an inner freedom transcending circumstances by a sheer attitude of heroic defiance.

So says Zarathustra.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Put the X Back in Xmas

a merry xmas vintage postcard

As I write, the town Christmas Parade is merrily proceeding through the streets. I can’t describe it to you because I’ve never attended it, but I’m glad they have it. I love Christmas and rejoice to celebrate it. I have never put it aside as childish or as religious. All my time in the Freethought movement and Secular Humanism I was never a Christmas denier. I knew with the logic of Bugs Bunny, a trusted guide since childhood (before I grew up and got stupid), that, if I ever found myself in a position requiring me to stop celebrating Christmas, I must have “made a wrong turn in Albuquerque.” I figured that my nonbelieving colleagues and compatriots might be more consistent, but that consistency might turn out to be the hobgoblin of little minds.

The atheist opposition to Christmas, at least the atheist’s resolution not to celebrate it, stems from their quite natural antipathy for the literal meaning of the Christian Christmas: the celebration of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ for the purpose of redeeming the world from sin, a package of doctrines which, if understood literally, is just what Bultmann said it was: “Surely this is primitive mythology.” Bultmann, a Lutheran, tried to “demythologize” these doctrines, seeing in them an ancient expression of existential freedom gained by repeating Jesus’ full commitment of his future to God. Nice try, but I find that unconvincing and unhelpful. I will not defend a non-literal celebration of the holiday on that basis. It sounds to me like contrived excuse-making for enjoying a holiday you feel guilty for observing since you have no more reason to do so.

chocolate foil santas including rober0t m p.rice as one of the santas

Anti-Christmas atheists are, I think, taking the religious meaning of Christmas more seriously than Christian believers do! It is just like fundamentalists who oppose Halloween because they take the devil, witch, ghost, monster business much more seriously than their children do, who are wise enough not to confuse fantasy and reality.

But Christmas need by no means be an exclusively Christian holiday. All who celebrate it, whether they are Christians or not, are celebrating values including family sentiment, generosity, winter coziness, and adult enjoyment of childhood delight. “Christians or not”? Yes, of course. Very many secularists, Jews, even Buddhists in Japan, love Christmas. They realize it does not suffer without a focus on Christian soteriology.

The holiday has evolved. As far as we know, it originated as the observation of the Winter Solstice, the rebirthday of the sun god Mithras. It was probably Christianized in the fourth century after the Council of Nicea decided that Jesus Christ was God incarnated, which made it advisable for Christians to choose a date for his birth so they could celebrate the central datum of Christian salvation. They seem to have chosen December 25 since people were already celebrating Mithras’s rebirth on that date, which was called Brumalia (the eighth day of the Saturnalia Festival). They wanted a Christian alternative to those rowdy Brumalia office parties.

Christmas continues to evolve. Conservative Christians loudly bemoan the fact that Santa Clause has long threatened to usurp Jesus as “the reason for the season.” I think Charles Dickens created another effective rival to Jesus, namely, of course, Ebenezer Scrooge, the repentant skinflint. Christians complain of the “secularization of Christmas.” Many of our favorite Christmas songs make no mention of Christ, or even of Christmas, though they are played only during that time of year: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “Winter Wonder Land,” “Frosty the Snow Man,” “Let It Snow,” etc. And here’s the irony: if Christmas is indeed becoming secularized, why should secularists repudiate it? Christmas is a Christmas gift to you!

You know you want it! That’s why you keep creating cheap knock-offs like “Winter Holiday,” “Festivus,” and “Humanlight.” You’re not fooling anyone but yourself! Here, have some egg nog.

So Says Zarathustra.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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 | 1 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 | 1 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 | 2 Comments

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 | 1 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 | 3 Comments