Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Heirs of Job

The Best Lack All Conviction

Ben makes some cogent points about my recent "Duncan Does Deus" post, all of which deserve consideration... and which I hope will allow me to clarify and expand on (or just expound on) the whole issue of scripture versus satire, morality versus ethics, and how I think that plays out in religion, to make my stance with a little more reason and a little less righteous ire.

First of these is a pretty specific point about generalisations and exceptions...

Note, I am not denying the existence or gravity of the culture war... What I'm specifically responding to is your erasure of the religious left and middle... as complicit fellow travelers of the fundies, clinging to the monotheisms out of some combination of nostalgia, moral timidity, and confusion... I'm just asking you to notice that we exist. Not as a milder version of the religion you hate, but as a force which has been fighting it for twenty-five hundred years.

In my defence, I'd argue that I was characterising the religious left and middle as complacent rather than complicit, their loyalty to the religion making them not willing enough to tackle the religious right head-on, making too many compromises with the forces of conservatism. The current stushie in the Anglican Church over gay clergy illustrates both sides of the coin. Clearly the progressives are there and clearly some of them are willing to take a stand. But at the same time, the reactionaries seem to be louder and more numerous, and able to hold the moderate majority hostage with their threats to break the community. The current uneasy state is one in which, largely speaking, the conservatives are being appeased from a reluctance to risk that break.

I don't mean to deny the existence of the progressives (although it may have come across that way; fair point), simply to challenge their priorities. If there's a tendency within monotheist religions for conservative moralism to dominate progressive ethics -- as I think there is -- any lack of resolve on the part of the progressives in defying the conservatives is bad news for us all.

You seem to accept that my usage of religion might be Kohlbergian post-conventional... But you also seem to insist that this is an idiosyncratic, individual development of my own, something I arrived at after leaving religion behind as a stepping stone... Bullshit. It's what I learned at my parents' knee. I didn't arrive at it past Judaism, but through Judaism...

As I'm sure you can imagine, I'm not interested in being excused with an "oh, Ben, I didn't mean *you* -- you're not like the rest of them."

Quite. That would be a total cop-out on my part, a face-saving caveat laced with condescension. It would basically be saying "Of course, you're not really one of *them*. You might think you are, but you're really one of *us*; you just haven't *realised* it yet." This is the sort of meta-argument you get where rather than dealing with someone's contrary opinion you just rationalise it away. "You're only saying that because..." followed by some spurious mind-reading act, implicit or explicit ("... you've *actually* advanced to Stage 5 or 6 but you remain loyal to your religious roots due to blah blah psychobabble blah").

I referred to a good example of how, I think, that works in my original post -- the classic meta-argument used against satirists or any such antagonists to the orthodoxy... that they're just saying what they're saying to be "controversial". I hate that and the folks who've commented on this blog, arguing with me on this point or that, have had the good grace not to use that tactic ("I mean, all that shaitan nonsense; that's just being controversial for the sake of it, isn't it?"). So I'd be a low-down scurvy knave if I did the same myself.No... I'm not interested in systems of thought that propose "All X are A" then simply gloss over individual exceptions with an "except, of course, U". And I'm even less interested in systems of thought that set it out as "All X are A except, of course, U & I". What I am happy to do is set it out as a challenge -- "All X are A, no?" in the hope that someone will come back with an argument as to why, where and how this generalisation fails to apply. Specific counter-examples which illuminate the gaps in the model. Better still, an "All Y are B" where X and Y are often combined and A and B are incompatible. Something that collides with the implicit absolutism of any generalisation -- such as my correlation of religious moral systems with Kohleberg's Stage 4 "law and order orientation" and the idea that this kind of institutional system, founded so strongly on a social order bound together by notions of faith, scripture and sin hence considers doubt, critique and empathy as anathema.

Which is exactly what Ben gives:

I am the heir of an *ancient tradition* of construing wisdom, justice, and mercy as paramount, of questioning scripture, puzzling and grieving over the brutal and bizarre aspects of the traditions we've inherited, and of mending the world, man.

I don't doubt it, not at all. What I'm *not* trying to do is set up an argument that says "All monotheists are ethical retards" or, for that matter, that says "All ethical retards are monotheists". The selected subject -- monotheism -- the key question -- why all the irrational vengeful ruthlessness? -- and the proposed answer -- institutionalisation of the "law and order orientation" -- aren't by any means intended to add up to a simple equation of the three elements, the religion, the behaviour pattern and the moral pyschology... if A then B, if B then C, if C then A. Rather I'm proposing that the religious structures, the behaviour patterns and the psychological mechanics are features of a system, something we can abstract, talk about in generalisations. This doesn't preclude the possibility of other systems, systems which work against this "constraint morality", either at a higher level (countermanding it with conscious ethics-driven judgement) or at a lower level (undermining it with unconscious aesthetics-driven choice). Nor do I preclude the possibility that these other systems of thought are also formalised, manifested, in the religious structures of monotheism, the behaviour patterns of its followers-as-a-group, and the psychological mechanics of individual believers.

Hell, I don't even think this is unique to monotheism. Totalitarian communism seems to share the key features I'm identifying. We all go through Kohlberg's Stage 4, indeed, so any institutionalised ideology might be expected to reflect this.

What I'm arguing is that this constraint morality is a dominant system in the huge complex of systems that constitute that big abstraction we refer to as monotheism (perhaps because it's a dominant system in society, in general; that's why Kohlberg labels this morality "conventional", after all). So I don't deny the tradition of argument in each of the Big Three that is driven by the philosophical principles of doubt, analysis and empathy I admire so much. All my rhetoric about "kicking the hatemongers out of the temple" is, in fact, based on a profound respect for that tradition and a profound sorrow and, yes, anger that this tradition is consistently and repeatedly side-lined. That it has happened so often in the past. That it is, undeniably, I think, happening again.

From W.B. Yeats's, "The Second Coming:

"The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity"

I think those of us driven by doubt, analysis and empathy need a bit more of that passionate intensity. We need to be ferocious in our challenges to faith, uncompromising in our critique of scripture and unlimited in the empathy we level against this hideous notion of sin.

There are questions, I freely admit...

There's Battle Lines Being Drawn

Consider: there are people out there who really hate Jews... Demagogues in my community call all these people "anti-semites". They point to the scariest ones and say "those are my target; the rest of you are just in the way"... It's a neat trick. It's also understandable for someone who feels embattled. Actually "reaching out to the other", though, would require a bit more discrimination. It's all in how you draw the boundaries, isn't it? To you, those folks are in the vast category "monotheists", a circle you can draw around most people on the planet, leaving you in the embattled and enlightened minority. To them, though, they draw the circle called "goyim", and there you go -- the goyim hate us.

I think this is all fair comment. An attitude of entrenchment against a projected "enemy" reinforces their own projection of hostility. Thinking of yourself as embattled can be a self-fulfilling prophecy and an expedient abandonment of any attempt at compromise. And whichever side of the "battle lines" you position yourself on by simply thinking in terms of battle lines we're buying into dualism of constraint morality, of right and wrong, good and evil... Good and Evil even.My approach in that blog entry and elsewhere, every so often -- and it may or may not work, may or may not blow up in my face, I admit -- is to go "over the top". Fuck the entrenchment. Fuck the embattlement. Fuck the boundaries. I'm trying to get behind the lines by jumping up on my Evil Rhinoceros and riding it full-tilt at the gates, clinging on for dear life with one hand and firing the grenade launcher at the gun-emplacements that are trying to blast me off. I recognise this could be counter-productive. I recognise that fighting fire with fire may only lead to scorched earth all round. That my own rhetoric of antagonism is just as deserving of destruction as that of those monomaniacs I'm opposing.

As the song says:

"There's battle lines being drawn / And nobody's right, and everybody's wrong"

At the end of the day, maybe that's what I want... to get taken down. To be proven wrong. To charge in with all that infernokrusher passion and power, to break through the barriers of decorum, smash up some preconceptions, and seize the moral high ground -- not so as to hold it, but so as to level it. To qrush and be qrushed, you know. And I don't mean that in a glib way. I really don't.I mean, a part of me says the only solution is tact and diplomacy, reasoned argument; anything else is counter-productive, fuel for the fires. But a part of me says that sometimes you've just got to apply cant and rhetoric, impassioned attack; you've got to tear down. Construction or destruction. Compromise or conflict Sometimes, I think, you have to throw all your weight behind the antithesis, not so as to over-run the thesis, not to "win the argument", but knowing full well that the thesis and the antithesis have to destroy each other to make room for the synthesis.

One problem, I think -- not the only problem, but one of them -- is that the elaborate constructions, the intricate compromises which result from the non-confrontational approach can become -- have become in many ways -- a labyrinth of barriers too complex for negotiation. Believers and non-believers alike, we look at that maze and we tend to just... not bother. One wrong turn and we'll get lost. We'll make a wrong step. We'll find ourselves insulting those we consider friends by questioning their beliefs or looking like we're trying to impose our own. We'll get so lost in it we'll end up having to hack and slash our way out, leaving holes in the wall, gaps in the bushes that only reinforce the perception of us as barbarians with no real understanding of each other, no real sense of the subtleties of ethics and aesthetics that went into making that elaborate constructed compromise of "polite society". The other week, Lawrence and I were talking in the pub about how you can end up feeling like you should be apologising for your beliefs.

This is when, I think, an Evil Rhinocerous comes in handy.

It does have it's down-side though.

The Satirist and the Shaitan

[L]et me ask you, which ethics is at work in your post "Duncan Does Deus"? I'm looking for "the attempt to reconstruct the self by finding the acceptable other" in that post, and I'm not finding it...

In terms of the inherent contradiction of, well, going all fire-and-brimstone about the fire-and-brimstone brigade... I'll admit straight off that in writing that rant I came up against a choice between reason and rhetoric and deliberately let the rhetoric have its head. The reasoned argument, I decided, should temporarily take a back seat to the impassioned articulation. My rant was intended as an inversion, an antithesis, of that type of generalisation I hate, that "All X are A". It was intended as an "All Y are B" which crashes full-speed into the notion of religion as an intrinsically Good Thing, an improving, edifying system for making us all Better People.

It was a rhetorical attack, one as much driven by aesthetics as by ethics, an attempt to say, look, the religious don't have a monopoly on being insulted, on feeling furious at the utter lack of appreciation of deeply-held principles. I felt it had to be no-holds-barred to get that message across. So do I withdraw the excesses of rhetoric or justify them? I don't think it's an either/or. I'd be a coward to withdraw what I believe in, a fool to justify what I don't, but I hope I can explain it, prune away the confusion of implications that go along with any generalisation, refine those crude, blasting accusations with specifics and, more importantly, contingencies.

So. Ben picks up on a specific example:

What I am seeing is that the cogent argumentation on the risks of abdicating personal skepticism and empathy to a received morality is mixed with revulsion and disgust, so that the cultural practices of monotheism -- praying, for instance -- take on their worst possible interpretation; the argument against prayer, here, is not founded in analysis but in revulsion. At first the revulsion which drips from the passage is a little odd, given that the metaphorical imagery is one of fellatio, which is a little odd coming from you; but dig a little deeper ("making Him proud and happy") and we see that it's the power assymetry of the fellatio that bothers you; that we're not talking about consenting fags having a nice fuck, but about abuse -- about a choirboy gagging on the uninvited member of a Catholic priest.

And play this against my own words:

Their transgressive actions are, as in any propagandist's story, there to validate the already-existant animosity, to illustrate the tow'ebah nature of the enemy culture.

I can see how that looks like I'm the pot calling the kettle black. But my point in that example is not to demonise but to trivialise, to appropriate the transgressive, the taboo, to my own ends. That example is a perfect one to point to because it's specifically related to the use of the term "deus-diddlers" and to the play on "Debbie Does Dallas" in the title. To that extent it can be taken as a statement-of-intent, an attempt to say, here's what I'm trying to do and here's why I'm trying to do it. It's a cards-on-the-table open aknowledgment of my own rhetorical gamble. "Yes, I am being insulting; I'm taking this *beyond* reason; here's why." Ben is right that the whole metaphor is about power assymetry... but it's not about abuse; it's about the petitionary aspect of prayer, the self-interest of the sycophant. The focus of revulsion is in the self-abasement and, particularly, in that supplication as a means to an end. The disgust is at the cheapness, the tawdriness of submission in the expectation of reward... even if that reward is only the proud humility of piety. But note that it's a snide sneer, a side-swiping dismissal, not the wrathful "j'accuse" of elsewhere in the rant. Here the pettiness of prayer is the point. Worship is not being raged at as an "abomination", but being ridiculed as "deus-diddling". My contempt is the contempt of the satirist, not the scripturist. I do think they're different.
I'm not trying to illustrate the abominable nature of the enemy culture by invoking an imagery of abuse here. I am playing on the sexual taboo, the obscenity of oral sex, but if the revulsion is "a little odd"... well, that's exactly my point.

After all, prayer is -- in its best possible interpretation, surely -- a selfless act of love, offered freely, aimed only at pleasing the recipient and improving one's relationship with Him... and involving the skilled use of one's tongue. What better metaphor could there be than fellatio? But simply by making that association I recast it as a selfish, loveless act, with strings attached, aimed at pleasing the recipient in order to get something out of Him... prayer as, literally, lip-service. I make it a blowjob and I imply that it's for payback. Why? What's worse than a faggot or a whore? A faggot whore, of course.

What I'm trying to do, by linking prayer and fellatio, is set up a metaphorical double-bind which maps to the double-standard. If you accept the metaphor at any level then surely it has to undercut either the taboo status of fellatio or the privileged status of prayer, is what I'm trying to imply. If fellatio is revolting why isn't prayer? If prayer is revered why isn't fellatio? It's a boiling down of my whole argument about the cartoons, about free speech and moral constraints. If satire is insulting why isn't scripture? If scripture is revered why isn't satire? What privileges one reaction of "this is obscene!" over another?

Unlike the use of taboo in, for example, the Sodom story, here the taboo is invoked because those most likely to be offended by it are those least likely to be sympathetic to the ethical stance of the text in which it's used. Even those sympathetic to the ethical stance might find it just a little uncomfortable, going a little bit "too far", like one of those Bill Hicks routines where he pushes it so close to the bone the audience are laughing their asses off but at the same time thinking "You can't say that". This is maybe what, for me, is the distinction between scripture and satire; where one pushes those emotional buttons with the intent of re-assuring us, through the surface message of the text, that those emotional reactions are righteous, the other pushes those same buttons in order to unsettle us, to throw all our emotions, ethics and aesthetics into conflict. Every satirical invocation of outrage, every such attempt to push an audience into a state of aesthetic and ethical tension between the rightness and wrongness of what's being said and how it's being said ("He's so non-PC... but he's so right!"... "Some of what he says is spot-on... but some of what he says is just outrageous!"), is an attempt to focus our attention on the absurdity of that tension. When we accept that absurdity, release it as laughter, we're acknowledging that absurdity.

Satire is, for me, a sacred thing. The word "satire" coming from the Greek "satyr" plays which would be staged after a trilogy of tragedies, to finish the proceedings on a high, I think the modern satire is still following on in that tradition, an antidote to solemnity, a puncturing of the pomp. The tragedian gives us their spectacle of sorrow, bloody revenge and brutal horrors, rituals of misery. And then the satirist says "Fuck that shit".

(I have a sudden whimsy of the Big Three monotheisms as a trilogy of tragedies by Aeschylus, telling a three thousand year long story: from the Construction of Israel to the Destruction of the Temple; from the Crucifixion to the Crusades; from the Caliphate to Al Qaeda. The sad story of the heirs of Job, as much heroic as tragic, with nobility as much as brutality, with the great and the good brought low. And then you follow that with the absurd satire of Humanism -- nihilist Nietszche prancing on in goathide leggings with an ithyphallic cock dancing in the air, bringing existential panic, but saying "Whatever doesn't kill me, makes me stronger" -- bara boom. I always thought Nietszche was a misunderstood comic genius.)

Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that the irreligious, satiric tradition is as much a tradition as the religious, scriptural one. It's confrontational, outrageous, absurdist. It has no respect for decency, respects no boundaries. It should respect no boundaries. That's its sacred duty. The satirist and the shaitan are two sides of the same transgressive trickster, the jester who doesn't just have the right to insult everyone, the king included. He has the responsibility to do so, to say what no-one else will.

If the Devil's Advocate isn't using every trick in the book, including low-down, dirty, venomous ridicule, in an attempt to challenge our acceptance of the authoritarian "social order" and even, yes, the nice, liberal, moderate dictates of tact and diplomacy, the strictures of "polite society", he's not doing his job.

Tools and Rules

So was I aiming at the right target, applying the right tools?

Kohlberg's work, as a text, elicits very naturally the elitist [...] reading... It sits in a very old tradition -- back to Brahmins and Plato's philosopher-kings. Like the story of Sodom, it lends itself to convenient "othering". We the few have liberated ourselves from the chains of false ideologies; the masses in their blind and fearful subservience to custom must, accordingly, be ruled.

I agree with this, actually. I think the simplicity of Kohlberg's hierarchy is suspicious, the discreteness of the stages imposing a theoretical caste system of moral development, a hierarchy of ethical enlightenment which we have to challenge for exactly the reasons given above. Are we to suppose that people transition suddenly to the post-conventional in some blinding moment of satori, that the "chains of false ideologies" all suddenly just fall away? Are we to flatter ourselves that "All X are A... except, of course, for U and I"?

[W]hen people offer me a system -- like the Tanak's, like Kohlberg's -- to teach ethics, a system to inspire empathy, a system which offers a moral description of the world, I perk up... When they tell me the system *completely specifies* the good, that it will *ensure and validate ethics*, guarantee empathy, and describe the world *accurately*, I get nervous. And when it sorts people into those who are worthy to be listened to and those who aren't, the saved and the damned, the sheep and the philosopher-kings, I reach for my... well, I don't have a gun right here, but I reach for my pruning shears...

So do I.

Personally, I think Kohlberg's system is... a good theory, with observations to support it, and applications that make it valuable. But it is still a theory and I'm not convinced it gets deep enough into the mechanics of morality and ethics. I think it builds well on the work of Piaget in tracing the socialisation of children from the pre-conventional to the conventional, the abstraction and internalisation of reward and punishment, and in positing that as the groundwork for the ethical/moral adult. It seems to be backed up by some solid empirical evidence gathered from studies of children, how they react to this or that ethical dilemma, how those responses can be typified as patterns (I'm subsituting "patterns" to avoid the implicit hierarchy in the term "stages"), and how we may shift from one pattern of response (and the pattern of behaviour and pattern of thought that it implies) to another. I think the idea that those response patterns are better modified by presenting "ethical interrogatives" than by teaching "moral imperatives" opens up a vast field of possibilities, even if it isn't as black-and-white as Kohlberg asserts; even if it's not an outright impossibility to *teach* someone a "higher level" of ethical development, I find it quite plausible that his technique of presenting challenges is more effective.

But I do feel that same urge to reach for my pruning shears.

What I'm suspicious of is your confidence in the alternative you offer. I'm saying, "ok, look, I have these tools; they've got problems, I've had to patch them here and there, you wouldn't believe the things I've done with baling wire and duct tape; they're really old and cantankerous, and unfortunately I've noticed a lot of people who don't understand them end up just mauling up themselves and others when they use them. But I've got them more or less working; they mostly do the job I need them for. What have you got? What advantages and disadvantages does it have? What are the costs? What can we mix and match, trade and learn?" And you're saying "fuck those old tools, man, just burn 'em -- I've got the shit right here."

If that's how it reads, that's not what I was trying to say. Hell, maybe it's what I did say in trying to articulate my thoughts on constraint morality with reference to the Tanak, the Gospels, the Koran and Kohlberg, in trying to articulate those thoughts in order to formulate them. So maybe I can formulate those thoughts a bit better now.

Kohlberg's theory is a kicking off point for me, not a new system of ethical instruction I'd propose as a replacement for religion but rather a model of ethical development which, I think, can be used to critique the way(s) religion works. As a tool, I'd have to say, it seems like it could use some retro-fitting too.

In general, I think, it holds together. The internalisation of reward and punishment as pride and shame, the way those become measures of social status as we relate ourselves to those around us, the way those sensations of self abstract and cohere into ego, positive and negative, and are projected outwards into evaluations of our selves and our peers (the good boy/bad boy), the way that lionising or demonising the highest and lowest strata of that hierarchical system of status creates celebrities and scapegoats who define the outer limits of this social order, the way all of this is defined in moral terms, in terms of societally-imposed rules which proscribe and prescribe the acceptable and the unacceptable, virtue and vice, and the way we develop a deep-seated loyalty to, dependence on, and even reverence for this whole system of thought -- all of this strikes me as a recognisable feature of society. I do think this system -- which I'm labelling constraint morality -- is an observable, analysable system of society, something we can find, out in the world, in monotheistic religion (though not only in religion), and in individual believers (though not only in believers), something that is real enough that we can look for cause and effect.


I think that constraint morality functions as a discrete system and that other systems can and do operate simultaneously, at both the indvidual and societal level, systems in harmony and / or conflict with that constraint morality rather than being mutually exclusive. I mean, the "post-conventional" stage Kohlberg describes is something I'd reclassify as "idealist ethics", viewing it not as a "next stage on" but as a distinct set of psychological mechanisms for self-evaluation, a sub-system that does not displace the constraint morality we develop as a part of our socialisation, but which runs concurrently with it, either in harmony or in conflict. If these are in a state of conflict either one can come to dominate; either one can countermand the affect logic of the other by being more aesthetically effective.

What I mean by "affect logic" is the logic of feelings, the feeling of logic, what Luc Ciompi describes in "The Psyche and Schizophrenia"(1982) as "the co-existence of feeling and thinking, or affective and cognitive functions, in an inseperable whole that characterizes the way our minds experience reality far better than either aspect taken on its own". Ciompi draws on Freud, Piaget and Systems Theory to build a picture of the mind as homoestatic system. I can't begin to do him justice here, but I think the basic idea is fairly simple: our behaviour is shaped by judgements that are neither wholly intellectual nor wholly emotional but rather both; the way I would put it is that, at heart, we are acting on aesthetic evaluations.

I wonder if what Kohlberg refers to as "pre-conventional morality" cannot actually be seen as an aesthetic system wired into a Freudian id, a shaping of that wild force of instinctual passion into a pattern of behaviour where the affect-logic remains one of reward and punishment, aimed simply at maximising pleasure and minimising pain. Bearing in mind that empathy is an entirely natural part of this affect-logic this doesn't exclude the possibility of altruism; it's simply that altruistic behaviour is seen as good by the child because it feels good.

Contrary to Kohlberg, then, I'd argue that we never really "leave" this "stage", because it's not a stage we can actually leave in that sense. Rather it's the foundational aesthetic system that we build upon. It's there in our pleasure when we give a gift. It's there in our resentment when we get caught doing something wrong. Since I'm using Kohlberg and Freud pretty loosely here, springboarding off of them into my own theory, I'll call this system of affect-logic "impulse aesthetics" rather than risk abusing their terms.

I think we might then look at Kohlberg's "conventional morality" in terms of the Freudian ego, the "highly complex agency that mediates between the demands of drives (or the pleasure principle), on the one hand, and perception, experience, commands, and prohibitions (or the reality principle and the superego) on the other." (Ciompi again). Commands and prohibitions are important here; the ego is a social construct and one might argue, I think, that it is the aesthetic system by which we incorporate the affect-logic of others into our own affect-logic, that those commands and prohibitions are fundamentally communicated to us as affective imperatives. We begin to recognise that this is "right" and that is "wrong" because our parents and peers signal it in their emotional reactions. And as complex as that agency is, as complex as the internal articulation of "rightness" and "wrongness" is, there is a base vocabulary in which we communicate those judgements, six universally recognised facial expressions which map to simple, "cardinal" emotions -- anger, fear, disgust, joy, sorrow and surprise.

In the communication of those emotions, and in the reconstruction of our own behaviour in response, I think we can trace the development of constraint morality out of the impulse aesthetics it's founded in. Pride and shame can easily be seen, I think, as abstractions of those cardinal emotions applied as evaluations of our own behaviour, joy and surprise constructing pride, anger, disgust and sorrow constructing shame. Our impulse aesthetics drives us to maximise one and minimise the other. And this is so much easier if the behaviours and the evaluations of behaviours can be formalised, formulated as rules, as mores.

I do agree with Kohlberg's idea of "post-conventional morality" as being a more mature system of thought. I wouldn't hierarchicalise it as "higher", but I do think it's a more subtle, more complex pattern of thinking. As I would characterise it this is a further layer of abstraction wherein the mores themselves are open to evaluation, where the "received wisdom" of constraint morality is subject to scrutiny, where the conflicts of moral imperatives ("theft is wrong" versus "letting your children starve is wrong") are recognised and tackled. Freud's concept of the superego or Jung's concept of the Persona, the ideal self-image, are the psychological agency that has come into play here, I think, stepping into the Mexican stand-offs of constraint morality and negotiating solutions based on context-dependant decisions rather than inflexible rules, with an acceptance of contingencies and uncertainties rather than a strict adherence to absolutes of "right" and "wrong".

This idealist ethics could, in fact, be seen as a logical product of any constraint morality which contains, implicitly or explicitly, the moral imperative to (re)make morality, to "set standards". Kant's categorical imperative, Sartre's idea of "good faith" are, I think, secular articulations of just such an imperative. Such imperatives completely undercut the authority of any other imperative of the constraint morality in which they are formed. If the constraint morality can and must be remade by its adherents then its adherents can and must construct and utilise an idealist ethics in order to conform to that constraint morality.

I suspect that the sheer paradigm shift in the individual's relationship to the social order is what leads Kohlberg to identify individuals working with an idealist ethics as being at a discrete, higher level of moral development -- once you're consciously committed to, basically, making it up as you go along, you're playing a whole nother game -- but I would question whether that shift is as sudden, as absolute, or as permanent as Kohlberg's theory seems to imply. I see no reason why this idealist ethics could not co-exist with constraint morality, being brought into play as and when a stalemate of constraints requires abstract arbitration. I see no reason why an individual applying this idealist ethics, without necessarily reflecting on the complex chain of thought they've just used to select one rule in preference to another might not still, when questioned, simply explain their actions in terms of constraint morality -- "I did this because it was right." And I see no reason why an individual working generally with an idealist ethics and who articulates their behaviour in those terms, might not be unconsciously selecting this or that action on the basis of constraints which are, after all, if this theory has some foundation in the truth, deeply integral to our sense of who we are and how we fit into society.

I know I strive to live according to an idealist ethics. I'm quite sure I act, at times, according to my own constraint morality.

Where I part company with Kohlberg most of all though, and in particular with the implicit idea of a "priestly class" of enlightened thinkers pulling up the novitiates with a sequence of Q & A sessions like some Masonic ritual, is that I think the development of idealist ethics is driven from "below" rather than "above". If idealist ethics can be seen as a logical product of constraint morality -- as a law which says we must constantly redefine the law -- it can also be seen, I think, as a logical product of the impulse aesthetics at the heart of it all.

We want to measure up to the ideals we create.

We want this.

We are driven by doubt, by curiosity and by empathy, desiring to forge (sorry, my favourite paraphrase of Joyce again) in the smithy of our souls the uncreated conscience of our race.

Now I do not deny that this attitude of questioning, of critiquing faith, scripture and sin, is there within monotheism in the tradition of "construing wisdom, justice, and mercy as paramount, of questioning scripture, puzzling and grieving over the brutal and bizarre aspects of the traditions we've inherited, and of mending the world". Jew, Christian, Muslim or atheist, there are many on all "sides" who, I think, would see themselves in that tradition of argument, a tradition stretching back to a bet between God and shaitan and the critique of the hypocrisies of faith, scripture and sin that result from it. We're *all* the heirs of Job, in many ways, even those of us who've chosen to curse God to his face.

What really concerns me, though, is the palpable existence of another tradition, a rival tradition, an institutionalisation of constraint morality which in ascribing absolute ethical authority to God implicitly, or indeed explicitly, precludes the moral imperative to remake morality. What concerns me is that God's response to Job is basically an assertion that Job has no right to question him, no right to apply his own idealist ethics as a critique of the (metaphysical) social order. Is this right? asks Job; is this really right? Who the hell do you think you are to question me? says God.

"Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? Tell me, if you understand, who marked off its dimensions?"

God thunders his power and his majesty, his might as right, and Job is cowed. He submits, surrenders to the constraint morality of pride and shame:

"Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes."

He fears God.

For all that the tradition of argument within monotheism is a long and noble one, for all that the emphasis on wisdom, justice and mercy is there, I think this lynchpin of monotheism -- this idea of a supreme moral authority, a God who makes the law, who owns the law, whose law is defined in terms of sin, dictated to us through scripture, and derived from faith -- this is the keystone of that rival tradition, I think. That authoritarian tendency within monotheism does its best to restrict a quite natural impulse to question the rules, justifying this on the basis that any such challenge is a lack of faith, a challenge to scripture, a sin in and of itself, because it challenges the supremacy of God's moral authority -- i.e. their constraint morality. I think it's arguable that the monotheist concepts of God and His Book, as tools, were designed to that purpose, as validation for the restriction of ethical autonomy. You can retrofit those tools, take them apart and put them back together, but if you strip away the baling wire and the duct tape, look at them as they came direct from the supplier, as they were used in the past and as, indeed, they're still used... and I think their purpose is something far grimmer than gardening. I'm not saying your reconstructed tools can't be put to good use. I would however argue that they are reconstructed. That it's dangerous to deny the other uses that can be made of, especially when you think of just how much blood there is on the blades.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Interim Ruminations

I didn't mention the Romania deal, did I? Well, I got a Romanian deal. Hurrah! Europe crumbles before me.

More to come soon on religion and stuff. In the meantime, courtesy of Pan Macmillan, here's a wee game to play!

Monday, February 20, 2006

A Dark And Hidden God


Isn't it possible that you aren't supposed to be reading God as "the Boss", but rather as "the World"? That God is -- a little more than a metaphor, maybe -- but not some Joe up on cloud 9 either? Isn't it possible -- I mean, if you really read the Bible, isn't it *obvious* -- that the *intent* is to portray God as capricious and arbitrarily brutal -- because the *world* is capricious and arbitrarily brutal? And yet to claim, at the same time, in tension with that, that God (the Universe, mind -- not some guy) loves us, that we are to love God with all our minds, all our hearts, all our souls? God who loves AIDS and tigers and nebulae just exactly as much as He loves us, who lets babies die and sends the tsunami. That God. Who is not a guy. He is, perhaps, a way of talking about what it is that you love, when you love life despite the tsunami.

I don't think so. In terms of intent -- how we're meant to read God -- I think you absolutely have to distinguish the immanent all-pervasive divinity of animism from the transcendant all-powerful divinity of monotheism. The animistic idea of the divine -- which can be as abstracted and impersonal as the Tao or as literal and individual as the dryad -- is largely, I'd argue what is under attack in monotheism. The angry-god = volcano-explodes = we-suffer simplistic answers of animism are discernable in the texts, but they're palimpsested by the Big New Idea that the divine is *not* the world, not *of* the world. He's not the sky, not the storm, not the bull, not the hawk, not the summer rain, not the wine or the grain. These things are mere creations of a craftsman god, ephemeral toys made of clay which will, in the end, crumble back to dust.

The recurrent iconography (the imagery raised to religious symbolism) of dust, of destruction, of pointless toil, of accomplishments stripped away and scattered on the wind is, I think, a negation of animism, of the immanent divinity. This is the imagery of the transcendant God, the absent God, and humanity alone in a world that is, quite literally, desolate of divinity. The world is dust and it's only the heretics like William Blake who'll argue that the divine can be found in a mote of dust, a grain of sand, a bubble of quantum foam; the core message is that life sucks. Vanity of vanities. There's a certain stoicism and humility to be found in that philosophy, articulated most clearly in Ecclesiastes but evidenced also in common-use words and phrases like "heam", "mektoub" or "in God's hands"... but it can also be deeply fatalistic, deterministic to the point of being defeatist. When the divine is not immanent and all-pervasive, but transcendant and all-powerful, our judgement, our control, is projected outwards. We become the subjects of our own destiny, that divinity an alien force sovereign over all we are.

Look at Buddhism and Taosim in contrast. Buddhism is similarly nihilist, teaching that all life is suffering, the material world a vain illusion, but it offers solace in the possibility of escaping that illusion; because divinity is immanent, it says, we have direct access to our own Buddha nature which can guide us to nirvana if we only choose to follow the path. Taoism is even less pessimistic, accepting the good with the bad, recognising the joy as well as the suffering. The point of Taoism is not to get to the end of the path so we can wash the dust off our bodies, wash the bodies off our souls, wash our souls away into peace. The point is just to walk the path -- the Tao -- enjoying the rain along with the sunshine. Such sensual pleasures are "vanity" in the iconography of dust. The rain is a flood sent to destroy humanity. The sun brings drought and famine. All we can do is *suffer* what we are *subjected* to.

The endless catastrophes and calamities of the scriptures are not there to teach us the harsh whimsy of Nature, that the world is to be understood as sublime, a thing of "terrible beauty" we are to love all the more for its devastating caprice. Rather, I would argue, these are integral parts of the iconography of dust and the ideology of determinism it is intended to instill. We are not being taught to love a material world in which the immanent divinity is manifest. We are being taught to revile it. Our alliegiance to the world, the flesh, the whole deadly sexy sensuality of nature, is being severed. The abject suffering of our material lives is being drummed into us time and again; we're being told we should surrender, seek peace in acceptance of our lot, seek solace in our spiritual transcendance of the inherent misery of this world of dust.

In the monotheist traditions, some hints of immanent divinity do slip through the spaces in between the iconography of dust and the philosophy of submission. With the Holy Spirit, the shekinah, the Gnostic Sophia, the monastics and the mystics of these religions seem to me to be returning to an archaic animism. There are hints, I think, of that immanent, all-pervasive, nameless, faceless force in the Elohim who begin the Creation. That first chapter of Genesis is not all that far from the Orphic cosmogony in some ways; it just starts a step on, with that initial primal chaos already divided into the Ocean and the Wind -- the deep and the spirit of God. There's a formlessness and plurality to those powers taking their name from no more than the common word for gods, spirits, the high -- el -- cognate with the Ugaritic term il. This is divinity in its most abstract form, as a pneuma moving upon the face of the abyss. Wind upon the water.

In the seven days, the seven ages, the seven stages of creation we can see a simple attempt to taxonomise the world philosophically from first principles. Light and dark, day and night (compare Haemera and Nyx in Hesiod). Land and sea. Plants, animals. The stars and the seasons they mark out. It's not good physics or biology in modern terms, not scientific as we'd know it; but it is, I think, intended to be read as natural philosophy. If we think of these Elohim as little more than ordering forces of nature we might even see a hint of an evolutionary model in the cyclicity of the process, the continuous re-affirmation, a hint that order emerges out of chaos because chaos is endlessly generative and order only that within it which persists, which survives because it is most fit to survive... that which is, as the Elohim would put it, "good".

The fact that the Elohim speak, that they invoke the world into existence, that they have a conscious will to execute and an opinion on the results doesn't quite collapse the inchoate abstraction into a concrete Creator, I think. They retain their elusive insubstantiality, so indefinite, in fact, it's hard to pin them down as strictly transcendant or as strictly immanent beings. Instead they're liminal, existing on the threshold, skimming along the surface of the deep, reflections on the water, light and dark, rippled by wind.

For the Egyptians, the Creator was himself created. Ptah, the original craftsman, emerged out of four aspects of chaos: Amun, that which is hidden; Kuk, that which is dark; Huh, that which is formless; Nun, the watery abyss. Ptah then shaped the creator god Atum on his tongue, spoke him into existence. (The "t" of South Semitic shifts in West Semitic to a "d", we should note; so semantically and symbolically, the Egyptian Atum bears more than a passing resemblance to the Hebrew Adam.)

Anyway, in that first chapter of Genesis, I think, we can see an attempt to (re)construct a liminal conception of the divine as a dark and hidden force acting upon an abyss without form. But that liminal divinity, sadly, doesn't last much longer than the first chapter. As soon as we get Adam as the man of clay,we get his Creator, a craftsman divinity, a divinity not just anthropomorphised but sociomorphised. Our own first dabblings in the mud, the first pots shaped upon the wheel and baked, the first shabti figurines of the Neolithic, the skulls of the dead refleshed with clay in Catal Huyuk -- these become metaphors of the transcendant divinity as shaper of *material*.

The start of Genesis tries to jettison the anthropomorphism, but it fails, and this is a large part of why I think monotheism fails, eventually, in its own aim. The attempt to pare away the fetishistic icons and idols, the pantheons of petitionable divinities, to reduce all this superstitous baggage down to the abstract, ascetic, aniconic idea of YHVH, ultimately runs up against our stubborn inabilities and refusals to deal in abstraction. We want the folk tales rather than the lectures. We want plot and character and symbolism rather than dry theory. We want the idols even if they do have feet of clay.

So man made God in his image. And it all went downhill from there.

Enter YHVH.

Now, I'm not saying the God of the Hebrew Bible is a nice fellow. If you insist on construing him as a fellow, you'd have to say he's not just a brutal fuck -- he's *crazily* brutal...


Isn't it possible -- I mean, if you really read the Bible, isn't it *obvious* -- that the *intent* is to portray God as capricious and arbitrarily brutal -- because the *world* is capricious and arbitrarily brutal?

But is he crazy? And if so, in what way. In many cases that brutality is not, I'd say, as arbitrary as it looks -- irrational perhaps but not entirely capricious, vengeful perhaps but with precise targets. It's the ruthlessness that's really frightening. He's not psychotic. But if you measured him on the scale of psychopathy I think he'd score as a "pure forty". Which is to say that if we contrue him as a fellow -- and I do think that type of reading is called for by his characterisation within the text -- his behaviour has, with a few exceptions (e.g. his seemingly random decision to kill Moses), quite clear and logical motivations (the Israelites have fallen into fornication and idolatry, allowed the whoredom and faggotry of foreign religions within his domain), usually set out in the text itself. The brutality is simply an utter lack of empathy.

The problem is that for all the abstraction of the transcendant divinity the impulse towards crude explanatory anthropomorphism does survive as a hangover from polytheism; only here it is reconceived as a plan, a schema. We can see that process of abstraction taking place in Mesopotamian culture in the evolution of the idea of me, where the often-arbitrary divine powers of polytheism are consolidated, legislated, abstracted into "systems of the world". The world -- the human, natural and divine order -- is determined by these me, so much so that any god with designs on the top job -- Anzu, Inanna, Marduk -- must steal them. These "Tablets of Destiny", made by the craftsman god, the god of irrigation and pottery, mathematics and writing, Enki, are the precursors to the apocryphal Enoch's "book of life", transcribed by him on God's dictation, precursors also to the earthly tablets of the Ten Commandments and the Book of the Law which contains them, embodying the "systems of the world" as far as humans need to know them.

It is straying from this Infinite Year Plan, more often than not, which brings down God's totalitarian brutality.

The world as posited in these scriptures is not arbitrary and capricious. Rather it is supremely ordered. It is dictated, legislated on all levels, with the activities of the human, the natural and the divine all comprehensively proscribed and prescribed by this latter-day god of wisdom, emulating his prototype in "Enki and the World Order". As in all such dictatorial regimes brutality is doled out as a way of maintaining power by imposing a state of fear. When the relationship between divinity and humanity is that between master and slave, a state of fear is a good thing to maintain, if you're the master.

"Why does God create humanity? Why destroy them?" asks Trent. "To do his work for him," is the simple answer to the first question, I'd say. "For disobeying him," is the simple answer to the second.

Forget Eden as a garden. The word edin is simply Sumerian for steppe, the garden a meidan, an enclosed agricultural area. Forget Adam as some pet in his own personal paradise. Adam exists to serve his master, just as the first men of Sumerian myth were created to work for the Igigi. "When once the gods as men toiled in the fields", the Sumerian precursor of this story begins, going on to tell how these proud gods tired of the hard work and decided a few slaves might be in order, how Enki was ordered by Enlil to create humanity from clay. Reading intertextually, there is no more mystery to YHVH's ways here than there is to those of European plantation owners shipping slaves to the New World. Indeed the creation of humanity from clay symbolically positions us in relation to the gods as the shabtis found in digs across the Middle-East were in relation to humans -- these shabtis being little clay figurines buried with the dead, to toil for them in the netherworld. We are the shabtis of the gods.

I'm sorely tempted to critique this whole creation-from-clay as an implicit validation of subhumanising and enslaving other racial groups; if it's alright for a divine being to enslave a human then it's presumably alright for a human being to enslave a subhuman. Bearing in mind, however, the context of the neolithic revolution, and the sociomorphic nature of this myth, I think, we'd do better to read both YHVH and the Igigi as signifiers for the new technological social order. We are the shabtis of the gods -- that's the point here -- not the gods to our enslaved enemies. It's not a grandiose delusion but a neurosis, a myth for the new age of the plow and the pot -- of humanity as the worker shaped by and for Industry... in the service of Authority. A humanity that knows its place.

The Greeks, like the Sumerians, split the role of Creator and Dictator, portraying humanity as shaped from clay by a god of technology -- Prometheus -- on the orders of a god of might -- Zeus. The later role Prometheus plays in stealing fire from the gods, his punishment for this crime, and the association of this with the Greek version of Flood, where it is Zeus's punishment on humanity for receiving stolen goods, offers an interesting... hypothesis. If we unfuse the roles of Creator and Dictator in the Biblical tale, one might well construct an alternative myth, an analogue in which it is another Light-bringer, an angel of craft in all senses of the word, who creates humanity on the orders of his master, whose rebellion is to give them fire, light, reason, who is chained in a most desolate place for his outrageous insubordination, and who gets nothing but ingratitude and hatred from a humanity he sought to help.

The role of the serpent -- symbol of wisdom, symbol of Enki -- in the Eden myth, and its later assimilation with the Lucifer in Christianity, reinforces this contrarian reading. Forget the smokescreen of temptation and sin; this is a story of stolen wisdom. Note that even the shame of nakedness, of being nude -- arom -- is in part a pun on the term given for the craftiness of the serpent, his cunning -- arum. Adam and Eve have been revealed, one might say, to themselves and to each other, metaphorically.

I'm not suggesting that this hypothetical myth ever existed, simply posing it as an ethical inversion. The differences in how an archetypal story is tackled by different authors, different cultures, are indicative of the different ethical and political agendas of those authors, those cultures. What does it tell us that the Creator of Genesis does not create humanity on the orders of a distinct Dictator?

Compare the actions of Enki and Enlil in the Babylonian version of the Flood. Enlil, who ordered the creation of humanity but let Enki do the dirty work, becomes annoyed at the noise of these creatures and orders Enki to unleash the deluge, to destroy them all. Acting contrary to this Primal Solution, Enki risks his own safety by warning Atrahassis of the coming Flood. He defies the sovereign Lord of Lords and God of Gods, which we might expect to be treated as an outrageous crime, but this is a culture where even that Supreme Being could be impeached (and indeed is, brought before a rather democratic "assembly" of gods and exiled for the rape of the maiden Ansud); in this culture Enlil's ruthlessness is wanton tyranny and Enki's insubordination is heroic. When the Flood is over, the survivors, justifiably, have no truck with Enlil, excluding him from their sacrifices.

It's fairly clear, after all, who's on the side of humanity and who's a psychopathic bastard.

More specific questions are raised when we look at the apocryphal shadows and reflections of this archaic version of the Flood myth, where there an awful lot of hints of that Enki / Enlil relationship. What does it tell us that apocrypha present the Dictator with a right hand man, his scribe, his Voice, the ascended mortal Enoch, but that this is not included in the official text? What does it tell us that other apocrypha have Enoch giving "secret wisdom" to humanity but that this is, again, excluded? What does it tell us that Genesis connects the flood with the intermarriage of angels and humans but does not, unlike the apocrypha, also connect it with the transmission of forbidden knowledge from one to the other, nor represent Enoch as the angels' advocate, speaking up for them in the face of God's wrath? What does it tell us that the serpent in the garden offering stolen wisdom to humanity is not Lucifer, not officially, not until centuries of folkloric addenda have assimilated the two? What does it tell us that the story of Lucifer as the Dictator's first right hand man does not have him, in Enoch's role as Voice, mouthing the words "Let there be light"?

Again, I'm not trying to suggest some great occluded truth here in a join-the-dots secret history of monotheism. But the archaic and the apocryphal margins of the Bible's narrative of Creation and Destruction do contain these fragments that are highly suggestive of a coherent tale. "Highly suggestive" is an understatement, actually; all we need do is click the risen human Enoch and the fallen angel Lucifer together and the tale is there in front of us.

The Dictator orders the Creation and the Creator makes it so. "Let there be light," he says, and then proceeds with the ordering and arrangement of the world until it's just so. The Creator rather admires his own work. The Dictator decides it could use some slaves to do the chores and orders the creation of humanity. The Creator makes humanity out of clay and sets them to work. The Dictator warns the humans not to touch that fiery, juicy wisdom stuff, telling them it will kill them. The Creator tells the humans that's a crock of shit, so they give it a go. They don't die. The Dictator gets mighty angry. The Dictator decides to make sure these humans don't get that fiery, juicy immortality too; their job is to work the fields, not be "as gods like us". The Dictator orders a round-the-clock guard on his hoard. Others of the Elohim follow the Creator's lead, giving more of that fiery, juicy wisdom stuff to the humans. They decide they like the humans so much they settle down and have babies. The Dictator gets really angry now. The Dictator decides on a flood to wipe all these bastards out. The Creator pleads for mercy. The Dictator is having none of that bleeding-heart liberal nonsense. The Creator sneaks off and warns Noah. Noah builds a boat and survives. The Creator is happy until the Dictator has him dragged before him in chains. He's going to pay for this, the Dictator tells him. For a very long time.

It is only the fusion of the roles of Creator and Dictator which renders the monotheist God seemingly capricious, arbitrary in his mercy and arbitrary in his brutality. I say "seemingly", however, because a fair attempt has been made at reconciling the conflicts. The revision of plantation eden into paradise Eden renders humanity as pet rather than slave, painting the Dictator in a more favourable light. The revision of wisdom into nakedness, of sorrow into shame, again paints the Dictator as a more paternalistic figure, wishing only to maintain our innocence. The revision of the imposition of worker status on humanity into just punishment rather than selfish subjugation changes the Dictator from overseer to judge. The revision of the flood from an act of narcissistic rage to one of righteous wrath again validates the Dictator. The revision of the salvation of the flood hero from a rebel's act of empathy to a master's act of discrimination repositions the "moral high ground" and places the Dictator firmly on it. Finally, the revision at the end of the Flood myth sees a complete inversion: where the Sumerian version has the remnants of humanity make offerings to everyone other than the Dictator, the Biblical version has the remnants of humanity make offerings to no-one else but the Dictator.

In every case, it seems, these revisions, these ethical inversions of the Sumerian tale, are focused on whitewashing the Dictator, the Enlil aspect of God, in order to excuse and / or deny his irrational, vengeful ruthlessness, his outright opposition to doubt, critique and empathy. In every case, these ethical inversions celebrate authority at the expense of wisdom, justice and mercy. Where the Sumerian tale explores the relationship of neolithic Industry to neolithic Authority, the former in service to the latter, but aligned ultimately -- in its core values of curiosity, objective evaluation and co-operation -- with an Enlightenment mindset that predates our own by two or three thousand years, aligned with humanity-as-worker rather than society-as-tyrant... the Biblical tale unwrites this relationship, subsuming Industry entirely into the service of Authority, swallowing Enki up into Enlil, and spitting out only a few bare bones of the rebel god of craft.

Sadly, the Bible is not unique in this respect. In "Erra and Ishum", it is Marduk, Enlil's inheritor in Babylon, who as Sovereign of Heaven, Possessor of the Me, Lord God of Gods claims responsibility for the attempt to destroy humanity, referring to "when I was angry and rose up from my dwelling and arranged for the Flood". In "The Epic of Creation" where Marduk receives his titles having established his authority by slaying Tiamat, the monster of the deep, and her brood of elder deities now redefined as demons, the very last name bestowed upon him shows us, perhaps, the moment when the God of the Bible was born, in the submission of the god of wisdom:

"He whose fathers have given him such a splendid name / Shall have the name Ea, just like me. / He shall have mastery over the arrangement of all my rites, / And shall direct every one of my decrees."

Ea, as I've mentioned in a previous post, was the Babylonian name for Enki. Ea, as I've also mentioned in a previous post, offers a quite sensible decryption of that enigma offered to Moses when he asks for the name of his God, the God of Abraham who came out of the Mesopotamian river-valley, from Ur of the Chaldeas (where Enki was a hero), up through Babylon perhaps (where Enki was known as Ea, where that identity was appropriated by Marduk), up to Haran and down into Canaan. Moses asks what name his god is to be known by.

-- Eyah asher eyah, says God.

I am that which is called Ea.

Emphasis on the word called. [Edited in light of Tamar's comment]

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Do I Ever Shut Up?

Clearly not. If this interview in Matrix is anything to go by.

The Stain of Sin

After Trent's comments on a previous post I've been doing some more thinking on the way that Abel's blood "cries out" to God, and my reading of that as a sort of miasma, about how this pertains to -- illustrates, actually -- a particular feature of the idea of sin. See, the word "sin" is not a simple synonym of "crime", and (contrary to Ben's idea of sin as "missing the mark") I think what distinguishes "sin" out from crime is a blindingly simple idea at the heart of it, a root metaphor which extends out into the discourses of priest and follower alike and permeates the culture at large -- the idea that sin is a stain.

The extent of this root metaphor is so wide that if I started trying to justify it with references I'd be here all day, so I'm not going to reel off endless quotations and references unless some intransigent stick-in-the-mud refuses point blank to admit any such thing. All I'll do is point y'all to the Christian idea of being "washed clean in the blood of the Lamb", and to the idea of the "purity system" laid out here.

As this article sets it out, in the moral system of the Tanak there is a distinction to be made between ritual purity and moral or "metaphorical" purity linked to issues such as "idolatry, sexual mores and intentional bloodshed". It doesn't do to get confused between the idea of ritually "unclean" animals or actions that make one ritually "unclean" and the moral / metaphorical application of the "unclean" metaphor to a person, city or what have you. It's the metaphoric / moral idea of purity that's at the heart of our idea of sin.

Sin is, metaphorically speaking, a blot, a stain, a mark upon our soul. It is dirt, a filth that coats us, that soaks into us. To be a sinner is to be "unclean". But the thing about root metaphors is that the extensions, the ramifications, the extrapolations of that metaphor become articulations of more than just the core idea. They shape the whole vocabulary around that idea.

If sin is a stain, then our crime remains with us -- on us, in us, a part of us. If sin is a stain, then our crime can be expiated -- washed off, washed out, washed away. If sin is a stain, then expiation of that crime absolves us of it.

Cleanliness is not next to godliness; in metaphoric terms at least, it is godliness.

Now, responsibilty for a crime could be said to "cling" to us in this way, to be something which we "carry around". Indeed it often is. But can that responsibilty -- real actual responsibilty in terms of culpability, the fact that we have done X -- be removed? Can we change the fact that we did X? Is our personal history not always and forever a part of us, a part of the world around us? Even if we were to wipe our minds of all memory of that crime, the fact that we committed it is not written out of reality.

What can be "washed away" is not our (factual) guilt in terms of responsibilty, but our (sensational) guilt in terms of shame. This is what Shakespeare perfectly articulates in the spot of blood on Lady Macbeth's handkerchief. If Lady Macbeth could only confuse responsibilty and shame, her washing of the handkerchief would remove that spot, it would ritually remove that shame, wash out the sin. But she does not. No matter how hard she scrubs at that damned spot, no matter if in the physical reality (Shakespeare flipping the factual and the sensational) she removes the sin, the blood, the shame, in her psychological reality, the crime, the hallucination of blood, the responsibility remains. She cannot expiate her guilt because she cannot delude herself that responsibilty and shame are the same thing, the stain of sin that one can simply wash away.

I'm sure there's many monotheists who understand that distinction perfectly well; but that's not what monotheism teaches. It's not the message articulated in the scriptures and the rituals, in the symbolic language of sin, in the metaphor of the stain upon the soul.

All sins, Christianity tells us, can be washed away by the blood of the Lamb. Which is to say, through repentance, through baptism as a symbolic ritual cleansing of the soul, you can absolve yourself of all that horrid shame.

Bully for you.

Responsibility, in another root metaphor -- a root metaphor with a quite different vocabulary of extrapolation -- is a burden that we carry. It weighs us down, but we shoulder it and go on. Time under that burden changes us. Suffering under that burden changes us. We can be strengthened by it or crushed by it. Some day we may even be relieved of it. We may carry that burden until an alloted time has passed, until the time has come to lay it down, if others allow us. Those others may then take that burden from us -- our victims and/or judges -- accepting that we have "changed", that we're not the "same person" and so we can no longer be said to really, truly bear the responsibilty for the weakness, folly or outright malice of a self long since passed away. But make no bones about it, there will be time and effort involved in getting to that point of relief.

The root metaphor of reponsibility-as-burden offers empathy as a path of atonement. We must suffer as we have made others suffer until we appreciate their suffering. We must suffer with them after the fact because we were not empathic enough to consider their sufferings in our actions. We must suffer until they appreciate our suffering, until they look at us with empathy and say "enough".

The root metaphor of sin-as-stain offers atonement in a self-centred act of symbolic purgation. No empathy is required, no understanding of the suffering of others, only a remorse focused on one's own "polluted" nature. All we have to do is loathe ourselves for our actions, distill out that self-loathing into a sense of sin as a stain, something that is not us, not ours. Wash away that sin and we are absolved of all that shame.

Baptism is a form of ablution, and ablution works on this simple metaphor. Whether the washing is that of the born-again Christian washing away all the sins of his past life, or the Muslim practice of wudhu or ghusl, cleaning oneself before prayer, or the various ablutions in Judaism, the symbolism is the same. It is a symbolic ritual cleansing of oneself.

The act of ablution is sympathetic magic, based as it is on the "like produces like" principle, the principle that action on the signifier (physical dirt) is, or results in, parallel action on the signified (spiritual sin). There is a difference between pagan magic and monotheist ritual, (which practitioners would be quick to pick up on if I didn't point it out), in whether the action is believed to literally cleanse one of sin; where magic is believed to have actual effects, a Christian would say it is, in fact, the repentance that cleanses, Muslims and Jews similarly hold, I understand, that ablution does not "actually" remove sin (c.f. the distinction between ritual purity and moral/metaphoric purity).

But if it's only a symbolic act then why do it?

In religious terms, the ritual is a message, a statement in the symbology of religion, addressed to the divine powers. It is a preparation of the body, a preparation of the mind. Looking at it in psychological terms, however, this ritual is not just addressed to the divine powers; it is also (more so, I would argue) addressed to the equally mysterious, equally archetypal, equally elusive and insubstantial forces of the unconscious. What we are doing is sending a message to our unconscious that we have cleansed ourselves, removed the stains, removed the sins that make us unclean, that render us shameful things in our own eyes -- i.e in our self-image. What we are doing is symbolically redefining that self-image through the ritual.

Perhaps there is some value in an attempt to improve oneself by redefining one's self-image as cleaner, purer, by washing away the guilt. Perhaps it's not such a terrible thing to try and be a better person by imagining yourself to be a better person, like the self-helper with their headphones repeating life-affirming messages over and over as they sleep. But it seems to me that this is at best self-centred and at worst self-deceit. We can keep repeating those ritual ablutions, over and over and over again, washing away the sin, trying to scrub out that stain, but if we succeed in absolving ourselves of all shame, we are simply ditching the burden of responsibility.

Christ did not die for my sins. I'll die for them myself, thank you very much.

Years ago, I read somewhere (in one of the many archaeological texts on my shelf or in the university library during my student days when I would study pretty much anything other than the English Lit I was meant to be studying), that ablution can be traced back to the Hittites (I've been looking for the reference to back this up; haven't found it yet, but if I do I'll post it in a comment). It's no surprise that we find this idea in monotheism then.

Given that Abraham comes from Ur of the Chaldeas, stops off in Hittite Haran, and then travels down into Canaan, given that the nomadic tribes referred to in contemporary sources as the Habiru or Khabiru who poured down into this region around the time Abraham is said to be arriving (causing the coastal city states no end of grief with their continual raids) were a mix of Hittite and Semitic peoples, given that the Bible portrays Heth (the eponymous tribal forefather) as a son of Canaan, and has the whole region chock-full of Hittites -- it's little wonder that the cultures of the Hittites and the early Hebrews share certain features.

The Hittites were pretty big on the idea of sin too, with different words for different kinds of crime. The word haratur seems to be the basic term for an offence. Crimes of a specifically sexual nature -- most commonly incest -- were considered far graver and segregated out with their own term, hurkel. Deliberate, arrogant offences against the gods were considered shallakardatar. While I can't find the source claiming that ablution originates with the Hittites, they were certainly believers in sin and heavy practitioners of ablution.

In "The Hittites: People of a Thouand Gods", Johannes Lehmann quotes the Luwian-Hittite Tunnawi ritual (circa 1400-2000 BCE):

If a person, man or woman, has become unclean in some way,
or been called unclean by some other person,
then shall that person, man or woman, perform the rtual of uncleanness as follows, it being called 'the Ritual of the River'

The ritual that follows differs from the monotheist ablutions in that it is quite clearly out-and-out sympathetic magic. It involves animal sacrifices and clay figurines intended to take on the sin washed off by the propitiate. There are many variants for different lapses of conduct, but Lehmann describes their commonality:

"[G]uilt is immediately transferred to an effigy, a live animal or even another person. We find the same disburdening procedure in the Biblical scapegoat and the self-sacrificial death of the Christian Redeemer". [emphasis added]

It is interesting, in this context, to note the Biblical injunction against eating an animal that has not had the blood drained from it. Is blood, as with Lady Macbeth's spot, the physical symbol of the sin that must be washed away, the stain? If we can transfer our sin into the sacrifice, and slit its throat, and let that sin pour out, and wash the blood from our hands, do we perhaps decide that blood, the magical, symbolic carrier of sin, is not to be consumed? The blood of Abel soaked into the ground, staining it with the sin of fratricide -- is that stain also the mark on Cain, the "blood on his hands"?

We still use the phrase "blood on his hands", so to what extent does the Hittite notion of sin still permeate our culture today? To turn that metaphor on itself, is this bloody stain of a root metaphor, this idea of sin-as-dirt, still with us? Has it been washed away or are its ugly, poisonous, filthy footsteps still ground into the fabric of our day-to-day life?

At the start of this entry I referred to the idea of miasma in reference to Abel's blood. To the Greeks also sin was a sort of pollution, a miasma. Miasma to the Greeks wasn't simply the noxious, perhaps poisonous, vapours or influence we would now use the word to represent. It wasn't just the vapours of decay from a swamp, a mire, or a corpse. Miasma in the Greek sense was a mark of crime, the stinking, poisonous, corrupting stain left by it. Miasma needed to be removed, cathartically cleansed, purged.

In the glossary of "Suppliants and Other Dramas" by Aeschylus (trans. Micael Ewans, The Everyman Library, 1996), miasma is defined as: "Pollution; the word embraces both literal dirt and what we would call psychic pollution incurred by breaches of taboo, e.e. bloodshed."

Sin or miasma in this sense of moral impurity, moral pollution, is a danger, a threat. It has to be dealt with. Why? Because it is infectious. So the miasma left by Cain's murder of Abel, the stain of his blood, necessitates action. Likewise the miasma emanating from Sodom necessitates action. Just as Abel's blood cries out then, so too is there an outcry against the cities of Sodom and Gommorah.

I've argued in previous entries about exactly what the Sodomites are guilty of, exactly what brings God's judgement down on them. To simply say that they are murderers because the word "outcry" is used elsewhere in the Bible in respect of murder and must therefore mean the same here is like saying that every "accused" in the docks must be "accused" of the same crime simply because they are all referred to as "accused". Hagar's outcry is not that of a murder victim. Neither is Esau's. In these cases the se'aqa is against entirely different injustices. The story itself does not specify the charges against the cities. It does not tell us. But if we look at the text again the extermination of the Sodomites is validated by the demonstration that they are guilty on three counts. To use the Hittite terminology of sin:

They're guilty of haratur -- because they violate the custom of hospitality.

They're guilty of hurkel -- because they desire unnatural sex.

They're guilty of shallakardatar -- because it is the angels of God they attack.

Compare Ezekiel's description of Sodom as having failed to help the poor and needy (violating hospitality), as having done detestable things (tow'ebah sexual acts) and as being haughty (arrogant against the divine).

The point is that these are fundamentally demonstrations that they are guilty. The implication we are to read into this three-fold damnation -- this representation of them as offenders against Society, Nature and God -- is, I suggest, that they are guilty of everything. Murder may well be one of their crimes, but they are not accused by the ghosts of their murdered victims, no more than it is Abel's ghost which cries out for revenge. We are not dealling with a metaphysics of hoary spectres and gore-drapped spirits here -- no Hamlet's father, no Bancquo's ghost -- but with a metaphysics of miasma, of sin, one where the shed blood, the broken taboo, the crime itself, pollutes reality and requires God's action.

There is another ramification of the root metaphor of sin as dirt, as pollution: when that sin reaches a certain level, it cannot just be washed away; it must be purged.

Note the vocabulary of purity and pollution, infection and disease in this modern day tract.

Here the pernicious influence of sin is a threat: the "unholy morality of Sodom was a prevalent, polluted, persistent, and it was also a punishable thing"; it spread "like a cancerous cell in a healthy body grows and spreads until it destroys the health of the whole body"; our preacher man here worries that "we cannot keep on taking in the world’s ideologies without becoming tainted ourselves"; and paints our liberal culture as a modern-day Sodom; he "can’t help but think that this is a good description of what we see going on in our culture today".

This idea of sin-as-stain is voiced in extremis by the more extreme elements of monotheism, but it's not, I think, confined to those extremes, not by any means. The idea of the "miasma", the metaphoric association of morality with dirt, disease, infection, an "evil influence", was with us even in the supposedly more enlightened secular field of medicine, right up until micro-biology made it obsolete.

[This article on the 1832 New York Cholera Epidemic refers to how]the scientific idea of contagion was confused and interrelated with religion, piety, sin, and "God's Justice."

In all probability, most New Yorkers, if they had been asked in 1831-2 what they believed to have been cause of cholera, would have answered that cholera/disease was some form of righteous consequence which afflicted those who were least likely to be in God's grace. As further proof they would cite that Cholera most often affected those persons who lived dissolute, alcoholic, drug related, sexually excessive, and filth ridden lives; cholera's victims were simply being punished by God. It was the consequence of sin and "was the inevitable and inescapable judgment" of the Divine Power. "Cholera was a scourge not of mankind but of the sinner." And, it was a known and seemingly irrefutable fact that cholera was most commonly found in those areas of the world least populated by Christians.

In contrast to the simple purity of Christianity's rationale for cholera, medicine, physicians, and other adherents of "reason," proposed theories which also recognized that certain social groups seemed more vulnerable. Similar to those who considered cholera the product of sin, knowledgeable and scientific people agreed that it was the imprudent, the dirty, and the intemperate who were more subject to cholera's terror. Instead of God's punishment, they proposed that cholera was "an influence in the atmosphere," a miasma (poison) that afflicted only those who had weakened themselves by exposure to certain behaviors, places, or "exciting causes." Only those persons of irregular habits should fear cholera. The good, the clean, and the temperate would escape its presence. Only those persons whose systems were weakened or debilitated would contract the disease.

Compare the theories of AIDS prior to the discovery of the HIV virus, which saw it as a syndrome caused by a lifestyle of promiscuity and drug abuse.

It's interesting to see how the "evil influence" idea takes two forms -- direct transmission from exposure to the infected, and indirect transmission from exposure to the "pollution" in the environment.

Confounding this more rationale theory was the long standing debate between the rival schools of thoughts regarding epidemics: Contagionism or Miasmatism. Many men and women of "reason" had long proposed that epidemics only occurred as the result of a miasma in the atmosphere which if encountered by a weakened individual caused disease. This theory suggested that the miasmatic atmospheric phenomenon was generated by rotting corpses, marshy land areas, and other putrescent matter exhaling vaporous emanations.

There is a moral miasmatism that persists, I would argue, in the root metaphor of sin, and it is, I would argue, endemic in those moral systems which institutionalise what Kohlberg refers to as the "law and order orientation" of the second level of moral thinking...

Here's an article on that:

The second level of moral thinking is that generally found in society, hence the name "conventional." The first stage of this level (stage 3) is characterized by an attitude which seeks to do what will gain the approval of others. The second stage [i.e. stage 4] is one oriented to abiding by the law and responding to the obligations of duty.

And another:

[T]he respondent becomes more broadly concerned with society as a whole. Now the emphasis is on obeying laws, respecting authority, and performing one's duties so that the social order is maintained. In response to the Heinz story, many subjects say they understand that Heinz's motives were good, but they cannot condone the theft. What would happen if we all started breaking the laws whenever we felt we had a good reason? The result would be chaos; society couldn't function. As one subject explained,

I don't want to sound like Spiro Agnew, law and order and wave the flag, but if everybody did as he wanted to do, set up his own beliefs as to right and wrong, then I think you would have chaos. The only thing I think we have in civilization nowadays is some sort of legal structure which people are sort of bound to follow. [Society needs] a centralizing framework. (Gibbs et al., 1983, pp. 140-41)

In the metaphor of the social order as a structure, a framework, any crime, any breach of that structure is liable to bring the whole thing crumbling down. In the metaphor of sin-as-stain, those transgressions are pollutions of purity, corruption of the natural social order, liable to infect all those exposed to the miasma. Unless we purge ourselves of the sin. So just as the Hittites used clay figures or live animals as scapegoats, projecting their unclean status into sacrificial symbols in "The Ritual of the River", just as all the potential sins of a people against Society, Nature or God were symbolised in the city of Sodom, so we still to this day have our scapegoats. So we still to this day project "spiritual squalor" into those "dirty", "filthy" others in our midst -- the Armenians, the Jews, the gypsies, the gays, the blacks, the Turks, the Kurds, the Bosnian Muslims, the Asians, the asylum seekers -- so we can slaughter them in our imaginations and, in washing their blood from our hands, wash the stain of shame from our souls, and feel pure.

You burn a city to the ground. You kill every single inhabitant who's a member of one ethnic group. You spare the members of another. It's called ethnic cleansing.

Ethnic. Cleansing.

But hey. Go ahead and wash that stinking stain of sin out of the scriptures. Pour on some Eezi-Cleen theology. Scrub away at the history. Lather, rinse, repeat. As long as you can get rid of the shame to your satisfaction then any responsibility can just be shrugged aside along with it.

But here's a thought for ya, seeing as I'm playing Devil's Advocate. Remember Abel's blood, his murder by Cain? Well that whole first fraternal squabble all kicked off over what was a fitting sacrifice to God -- Cain's fruit and veg, or Abel's fat of the firstborn. The harvest of the fields, or the slaughtered lamb. And seeing as I'm playing Devil's Advocate, let's just for a second, just for a secular sceptical second, ask ourselves if Cain didn't get a pretty strong signal from Old Nobodaddy that his wheat wasn't welcome. Oh no. It's blood that this Big Badass wants. The blood of the living. The blood of the scapegoat.

-- Shit, man, says Cain, what the fuck do you want from me? I've got no herds, no livestock, nothing to kill. All I got is my fields, my grain, and this here sickle, and... and... you can't be serious... no way... but he's my... that's just... sick...

Then the LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you but you must master it."

Sin is crouching at the door.

And we all know how to get rid of sin, right?

But Cain couldn't wash away his sin in his brother's blood any more than Lady Macbeth could get that spot out of her handkerchief. Instead he is cursed to carry the burden of his crime as the indelible mark of his responsibility, to suffer under it, to toil in the fields, to walk the long path of atonement through the Land of Nod, to be changed by time and suffering and, eventually, to build the first city where, one imagines, people of different tribes and different religions might meet and trade, exchange goods and ideas, and learn to live together in the tolerance of a liberal, mercantile culture.

But I'm sure that too was a city of sin to those reading from these scriptures stained with Abel's blood, with the blood of the animals he slaughtered as sacrifice, and with the blood of all scapegoats since, anointed messiahs or enemy others, these scriptures stained with the stinking, sordid, shameful sin of this idea of sin.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Some Light Relief...

... while I prepare more heathen apostasy and hyperbolic atheism in response to Ben (and hopefully some simple humanist argument to rationalise my passion):

Dead Kennedy's
This is where you belong in the annals of punk history!
You are the thinking man and pranksters punk. You are what the ideal "punk as social rebel" is supposed to be. You see the capability for amazing art that punk contains just beneath the surface. You are America's favorite underground hero and your brains are what really scares the establishment. Just don't become too "more punk than thou," because then you just become the establishment that we've spent all this time fighting against and your rebellion goes up in smoke. You're too smart to let that happen. You're the real deal.

My test tracked 4 variables How you compared to other people your age and gender:

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You scored higher than 95% on wild apathy

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You scored higher than 38% on pissed off

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You scored higher than 23% on comically evil

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You scored higher than 44% on socially aware
Link: The What classic punk band are you Test written by DrLebowski on Ok Cupid, home of the 32-Type Dating Test

Friday, February 10, 2006

Wisdom, Justice And Mercy

Ben responds to my previous sulphurous spew with a little acid of his own. Fair enough. I was asking for it.


If all of the People of the Book idealise three attributes in their deity, wisdom, justice and mercy, why the fuck is it that they all consistently and repeatedly pervert these into an irrational vengeful ruthlessness?


That's us, man. Consistently. I for one like to kick kittens before breakfast each day. On account of my arrested moral development, mindless adherence to dogma, and inability to distinguish my emotions from reality. Which is, you know, identical with the whole Judaism thing.

I didn't use to think so, but then, you know, there was the whole Baruch Goldstein incident, and so I was like "well HECK -- I guess I must be an immoral loonie too! 'Cause look, we both wear *the same little hats*!!"

Thank heaven you Tammuz-worshippin' fellas aren't given to allowing your emotions to dilute your powers of careful and responsible reasoning. Nice to know we can count on someone.

For the record, I don't worship Tammuz; I just lament his death. But to answer the point (with a little less vitriol this time)...

He's right to pick that piece of rhetoric, actually; it should've been worded differently in retrospect. The "they all" in the "why" reads as "all of those specific believers individually" where I meant it to refer to the Big Three as the sets of believers -- i.e. the question should really be: Why is it that within these three religions the concepts of wisdom, justice and mercy are consistently and repeatedly perverted into an irrational vengeful ruthlessness? I didn't mean to imply that every single believer, as an individual, "consistently and repeatedly" takes a set of spurious moral absolutes and decides that it's their God-given right -- nay, duty -- to smite the evil deus-defying heathens who, by not adhering to those dictates, can be justifiably demonised as "abominations in the eyes of God". What I am saying is that it's a pattern, a recurring feature in monotheism, that this sort of moralistic fervour erupts time and time again, and that rather than writing the pogroms and inquisitions and jihads and crusades off as aberrations I think it's high time we started calling the monotheist religions out on this tendency to go all Smite The Unbeliever on us.


The destruction of Sodom is pretty fucking ruthless; there's not much mercy shown there. It's vengeful too, justified as punishment for sexual crimes. And it's irrational, I'd say, the criminality of those sexual acts being based on a "this is disgusting therefore it is evil" argument which boils down to plain old prejudice. What feels shameful must be sinful.

We can shrug and say, yeah, but hey, that's just a legend from the second millenium BCE... but that's missing the point. All of the Big Three include that story in their holy scriptures. Whether taken as truth or legend that story is a picture of irrational vengeful ruthlessness in action as a good thing. It has a moral message which comes through loud and clear, and to this day that story is taken as the all-clear for homophobia by many believers.

And rightly so, I think. That moral message is fairly unequivocal. I am an abomination in the eyes of God and deserve to be wiped off the face of the planet.

Cheers, God. That's nice to know.

I'd argue that this is only one example amongst many in the scriptures. YHVH gets pissed off at humanity and wipes out all but one man and his family in the Flood -- and that act of genocide is portrayed as fine and dandy; YHVH makes the rules so he's quite entitled to perpetrate genocide if he thinks we deserve it for miscegenation (albeit miscegenation with angels). The firstborn of the Egyptians get wiped out in punishment for the crime of an autocratic Pharoah they can hardly vote out of office; man, in terms of wisdom, justice and mercy that makes Kaiser Soze look like Ghandi. David is a hero for the steaming mound of Philistine foreskins he brings back; fair enough, it's a war, but it's a bit sodding Colonel Kurtz as far as pacification of the enemy goes. And the Nabiim rail against the coastal city-states of Byblos, Sidon and Tyre for their "decadence", for the fact that they were mercantile melting-pots where different cultures tolerated each other's weird beliefs and ways of living, where diversity was not a threat but an opportunity, and where sex was seen as sacred rather than sinful; that the Nabiim reacted to this culture with such vitriol as they did may well be partly down to political, nationalistic enmity but it's articulated by them in terms of prejudice, vengeance and extermination.

Some might argue that these myths and messages have to be understood in the context of the time. I agree. But I don't think we can just cherry-pick our myths and messages from the scriptures, ignoring this part, reinterpreting that part, editing and exegesising it to suit our own individual ethics. Or rather, I think that we can (and do) take this approach but that in doing so religiously rather than philosophically we tacitly accept that others who do the same, who hone in on the very areas we've discarded, are quite entitled to cite those scriptures as holy revelations rather than human inventions. If we accept the validatory authority of those texts as divinely-inspired scripture, if we validate those texts as divinely authoritative, the Word of God, treat them as articles of faith rather than grist for the philosophical mill, then we're complicit, I think, in their use as justification for what I call irrational, vengeful ruthlessness.

Further, if those scriptures can be used as justification for irrational, vengeful ruthlessness, and are used in that way over and over and over again, I think you have to question whether that's to do with some feature of the texts. It's too glib and easy to just say that people can read into them what they will, that the zealots, jihadists and crusaders will just magically find what they're looking for because they're nasty fucked-up people who can twist the Word of God any which way they want. That's just too bloody complacent and too bloody convenient. I think monotheism has some simple questions to answer:

1. In what sort of ideological system can the destruction of Sodom be evaluated as an act of wisdom, justice and mercy? 2. Does that sort of ideological system validate other analogous acts of destruction by applying the same principles? 3. What are those principles exactly?

I think there are some simple answers to those questions:

1. A religious value system which resolves apparent contradictions with appeals to the ineffable nature of God (which trumps wisdom), the absolute authority of his decrees (which trumps justice) and the concept of sin (which trumps mercy). 2. Yes, as long as those acts of destruction can be represented as desired by God, executed according to his decree, as punishment or prevention of sin. 3. The fundamental principles are Faith, Scripture and Sin.

So, I'm not arguing that this unholy trinity of features necessarily ethically cripples all believers without exception, turning them all into dogmatic, kitten-kicking zealots, jihadists and crusaders. What I am arguing is that this sort of ideological system is an institutionalised version of Kohlberg's "law and order orientation". I don't doubt that it can and does serve as a stepping-stone for many believers, and that the particular beliefs and values they learn within this framework subsequently inform the individual ethics they work out in what Kohlberg calls the post-conventional stage. But I do think it can and does also serve as a barrier. It's a self-sustaining system, after all. Faith, Scripture and Sin all feed off each other as concepts, validate each other; if we question one of those principles the others are there to push us back into line. If you really think wisdom, justice and mercy are admirable characteristics that one shoud aspire to then I think you have to put away those childish things.

There's no wisdom that doesn't challenge faith. There's no justice that doesn't challenge scripture. And there's no mercy that doesn't challenge the very idea of sin. I honestly think, all bile and bluster aside, that it's in our nature to try, and that maybe, just maybe, there's some small part of those institutions -- an open doorway in the words "wisdom, justice and mercy" -- which is there simply as a way out. But I think the larger part of those institutions consists of walls and bars and trustee inmates working as guards, meting out rewards and punishments in a brutal regime. Faith is our meds. Scripture is our straitjacket. And Sin is the madness that keeps us sitting in the corner with our arms around our knees, rocking back and forth, too busy torturing ourselves with our own imaginations to see the exit sign staring us in the face.