Notes from New Sodom

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

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]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Hal. I'm afraid I've only read the last bit of this, but the word in Hebrew is 'ehiyeh.' It is a conjugation of the verb 'to be' - a sort of timeless future tense. The word 'called' doesn't appear in the Hebrew.

6:51 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

*hangs head in shame*

I stand corrected. I came across it first as (the erroneous, it appears) "Eyah (I am) asher (called) Eyah (I am)". However I don't think either the subtle shift in sound or the idea of "Ehiyeh asher ehiyeh" or "Ehyeh asher ehyeh" (another transliteration) as a sort of declaration of universality (see here is incompatible with a derivation from E.a by way of Yah, Yaw, Yehu or any of the numerous variants. It just looks like a typical biblical word play.

8:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hal, it could be wordplay, and undoubtedly there are links between the names of God such as Yah or El and other ancient near eastern deities. On the basis of Hebrew grammar, though, a 'subtle shift in sound' that involves dropping the first of the three root letters of the verb 'to be' - h-y-h - seems to me to be too much of a stretch. 'Asher' is a particle of relation, so the original King James translation 'I am that I am' is accurate. Not all the interpretations of the phrase imply a declaration of universality. It has also been interpreted as meaning 'I am he who I am' - i.e. 'it's no concern of yours.'

Interesting stuff.

9:40 pm  
Blogger RWM said...

In the light of your persuasive Creator/Dictator duality argument, the Gnostic version just seems very confused. They reject the fused Creator/Dictator, but appeal to the transcendant True Creator. Meanwhile still revering the serpent/ divine rebel.

11:31 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

God is an emergent property of humans rubbing up against each other while forming communities. An overtone, if you will, which is why every culture has one (or more) and why the specifics vary so wildly even while sharing certain commonalities (creation myths, lawgiving, dakr and light, etc). Which is why examining the concept as anything other than a cultural artifact both misses the point and muddies the waters. The world is a nasty, brutal place...but also a very beautiful place...and consciousness keeps wanting it all to Mean Something. Add the complexities and foibles that come between ambition and despair and stir into the apprehended but uncomprehended All Thing known as god (or the gods) and untangling what is from what seems to be had to wait until someone came along crazy or brave enough to say "You know, this looks suspiciously like a made up explanation based on our own Self."

Mark Tiedemann

3:13 pm  
Blogger Lawrence said...

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 the imagery of the transcendant God, the absent God, and humanity alone in a world that is, quite literally, desolate of divinity.

Strangely though it wasn’t until the Reformation and then the Enlightenment that the idea of a world evacuated of divinity caught on in the Western European mind. It was the relative novelty of the Cartesian separation of mind/spirit and matter that caused Pascal to lament that the music of the spheres had been silenced and replaced by the horror vacui. Before that, at least in the Christian traditions, God was regarded as so radically transcendent that God embraced immanence within Godself. Far from being an ephemeral toy that will crumble back into dust (which, by the way, reminds me more of Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker than of the Bible), creation is, in the words of Genesis 1, ‘good . . . good . . . very good’. The one thing that the early Christian apologists kept stressing over against their Stoic, Gnostic and neo-Platonic rivals was that the physical universe is good.

2:07 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...


As I understand the conjectured word-play would be more about adding the aspiration to (a form of) the name "E.a", rather than dropping it from the word "eh(i)yeh". So the pun would be based on AYH becoming AHYH rather than vice versa. This presumes that Ea might be transliterated into Hebrew as AYH, of course, but since Ea was vocalised as "éya" and is given in Akkadian as "Ay(y)a", maybe that's not such a stretch,

Some more (cursory) comparisons:

Ea / Ay(y)a is master of the abzu (the deep). Yaw (original name of Yam, as given in "The Epic of Baal") is the god of rivers and seas. Yah and Yehu are key theophoric elements (popping up in personal names) for followers of YHWH, another master of the deep, and YHH (Jah / Yaw) is applied directly to God in a number of places in the Bible.

Ea is at odds with Enlil, the Sumerian King of Gods who is sidelined and superceded by the younger, more dynamic Marduk of "The Epic of Creation". Levantine Yaw is deeply at odds with Baal-Hadad, the Ugaritic "Prince High(est)" (Baal Aliyoun), who pretty much rules in place of his father, El Elyoun, (Lord of Lords, God of Gods and Most High / Highest of the High). The deity most reviled by YHWH in the Bible is the self-same Baal, and Deuteronomy 32:8-9 characterises Yahweh as distinct from El Elyon (Lord of Lords / God of Gods / Most High):

"When the Most High [El Elyoun] gave the nations their inheritances, when he separated the sons of mankind, he set up the boundaries of the peoples in proportion to the number of the sons of Israel [Note: the (earlier) Qumran scrolls use "sons of God" here rather than "sons of Israel"]. For Yahweh's share was his people..."

With these congruences and those relating to Eden and the Flood myth, the idea that (Ea / Ay(y)a) = (Yaw / Yah) = YHWH doesn't seem too radical a leap to me. It occurs to me, actually, that the additional H transforming a Chaldean AYH into an Israelite AHYH would be a neat reflection of the additional H which transforms Chaldean ABRM into ABRHM.

Fair enough, though; it is conjecture.

6:31 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Mark: "You know, this looks suspiciously like a made up explanation based on our own Self."

Absolutely. Though I think the full whack of Jungian archetypes and Freudian sub-systems are represented in these symbols of Self -- Ego, Superego, Id, Shadow, the whole shebang.

6:35 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Lawrence: wasn't until the Reformation and then the Enlightenment that the idea of a world evacuated of divinity caught on in the Western European mind... The one thing that the early Christian apologists kept stressing over against their Stoic, Gnostic and neo-Platonic rivals was that the physical universe is good.

Good points. I'm going to disagree in some respects -- I think the spirit/matter split is there all the way from Paul -- but I do think there's a tension in Christianity between rejecting the world and revering it as God's Creation (and therefore good). Partly I think this is because Christianity underwent a radical transformation from its early cultic asceticism as it tried to accomodate the gentile converts. Phil (on another thread) asked "What makes you think Christianity is monotheistic?" I think the polytheistic, animistic influences on Roman Catholic / Eastern Orthodox Christianity make that a very good point. Christianity incorporates pagan deities, appropriates pagan symbols (the halo, for example) and feast days, Mithra's birthday, even legends. The saints, angels, icons and statues of the Virgin Mary -- these function as liminal entities, like the gods and teraphim of the heathens. Christ himself is a liminal entity -- divinity both-and-neither immanent and/or transcendant. The idea of guardian angels and so on. I don't think it's an accident that Luther, Calvin, and Protestant crusaders like Ian Paisley to this day focus in on those elements as "heathen" and "idolatrous" and go off on rants equating Rome with Babylon. And I don't think it's an accident that the Deus Absconditus idea really takes off with the Reformation and the Enlightenment, coming out of that resurgence of monotheistic anti-sensuality.

But leaving that aside for a moment so as to keep on-topic in terms of that "iconography of dust", I do think you can see as much world-rejection as world-revering. Some quotes from some of the early Church fathers, garnered from this site:

Athenagoras: But to us, who distinguish God from matter, and teach that matter is one thing and God another, and that they are separated by a wide interval (for that the Deity is uncreated and eternal, to be beheld by the understanding and reason alone, while matter is created and perishable), is it not absurd to apply the name of atheism?

There's that distancing of spirit and matter. But in the same text:

Beautiful without doubt is the world, excelling, as well in its magnitude as in the arrangement of its parts, both those in the oblique circle and those about the north, and also in its spherical form. Yet it is not this, but its Artificer, that we must worship.

So, yes, despite the shift of reverence to the Creator, the world itself is portrayed as good. But:

Aristides: And if any righteous man among them passes from the world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God; and they escort his body as if he were setting out from one place to another near.

Getting out of this world is better. Indeed:

...the rest of the nations [in contrast with the "nation" of Christians] err and cause error in wallowing before the elements of the world, since beyond these their mental vision will not pass.

The world as a realm of sensual pleasures is a mire we risk "wallowing" in, such that our spiritual/intellectual soul/vision can't break through. That's the pleasure-as-ephemeral-illusion argument, loud and clear.

The Shepherd of Hermas: But He will heal all thy past sins, which have been committed in thy family; for by reason of their sins and iniquities thou hast been corrupted by the affairs of this world.
These are they that have faith, but have also riches of this world. When tribulation cometh, they deny their Lord by reason of their riches and their business affairs.

The pleasures of the world are temptations. The purpose of life is to transcend, to escape:

I asked her concerning the four colors, which the beast had upon its head. Then she answered me and said, "Again thou art curious about such matters." "Yes, lady," said I, "make known unto me what these things are." "Listen," said she; "the black is this world in which ye dwell; and the fire and blood color showeth that this world must perish by blood and fire; and the golden part are ye that has escaped from this world."

The Epistle to Diognetus: They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.
The soul hath its abode in the body, and yet it is not of the body. So Christians have their abode in the world, and yet they are not of the world. 6:4 The soul which is invisible is guarded in the body which is visible: so Christians are recognised as being in the world, and yet their religion remaineth invisible. 6:5 The flesh hateth the soul and wageth war with it, though it receiveth no wrong, because it is forbidden to indulge in pleasures; so the world hateth Christians, though it receiveth no wrong from them, because they set themselves against its pleasures. 6:6 The soul loveth the flesh which hateth it, and the members: so Christians love those that hate them. 6:7 The soul is enclosed in the body, and yet itself holdeth the body together; so Christians are kept in the world as in a prison-house, and yet they themselves hold the world together.

More of that anti-world, anti-flesh, anti-sensuality stuff:

Justin Martyr: And your public assemblies I have come to hate. For there are excessive banquetings, and subtle flutes which provoke to lustful movements, and useless and luxurious anointings, and crowning with garlands.

Polycarp: In like manner also the younger men must be blameless in all things, caring for purity before everything and curbing themselves from every evil. For it is a good thing to refrain from lusts in the world, for every lust warreth against the Spirit, and neither whoremongers nor effeminate persons nor defilers of themselves with men shall inherit the kingdom of God, neither they that do untoward things. Wherefore it is right to abstain from all these things, submitting yourselves to the presbyters and deacons as to God and Christ. The virgins must walk in a blameless and pure conscience.
So what's the problem with enjoying life, with relishing the world, the flesh? Sin is stain. Virtue is purity. Pleasure is dirty And this world of dust, this world of pleasure is a soiled thing. The miasma will infect us. Hell, in Christianity that sense of miasma really takes off. Cannibalising the apocrypha, blending the fallen Morning Star of Isaiah and the crafty serpent of Genesis and the rhetorical adversary of Job, they give the corrupting power of the world, of the flesh, of life a name:

Irenaeus: "The god of the world;" that is, Satan, who was designated God to those who believe not.

Irenaeus seems to buy into that anti-hedonistic prophetic symbolism of idolatry and fornication here. The world is rife with false gods who are all about feasting and fucking. The paganism of the ruling culture is an infection of the world in general. It's all one big city of sin with Satan as king.

However... he does later contradict this somewhat in his arguments against Gnosticism, rejecting their literal take on the "God of the world" (I think it's a reference to Paul) as a wicked Demiurge. Because the Gnostics went right out there in terms of world-rejection. As Richard says, they seem to restore the Creator/Dictator duality but decide to paint the Creator as the bad guy and the Dictator as the good. It's interesting, I think, that Irenaeus is as much attacking the Gnostics as preaching to the heathens. I think this ties in with the whole inluence-of-paganism. A lot of those apologists seem to be trying to reformulate Christianity in a way that Romans can understand and accept -- putting it in the context of Platonism and Pythagorean philosophy. This looks to me very much like the start of that long shift away from the fierce anti-idolatry monotheism which the Protestants saw themselves as restoring.

But still, there is an iconography of dust, of destruction of ephemeral matter. It comes through most powerfully in the eschatology:

But why do we speak of Jerusalem, since, indeed, the fashion of the whole world must also pass away, when the time of its disappearance has come, in order that the fruit indeed may be gathered into the garner, but the chaff, left behind, may be consumed by fire?

The image of winnowing, of separating the grain from the chaff, is another articulation of the distinction between spirit as soul and body as shell, the worthless physical vessel that will be discarded, allowed to fall through the sieve and blow away on the wind. It goes back to Zoroastrianism and Ahriman and its idea of the World as Lie, the bad guy being a Prince of Lies.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: if Satan is the Prince of Lies, who is the King?

Personally, I blame Paul for taking a perfectly nice pacifist/socialist message -- one that's kinda skewed by the trappings of messianic religion and the whole sin-as-stain metaphor but is, at least, focused on empathy -- and turning it all into one big human sacrifice blood ritual. I think it's Paul who transforms a life-is-suffering, Buddhist-style philosophy of humility and paints the world as so deeply corrupt that it's not about getting along in it, being good to the poor and the needy, but about getting the fuck out of it to that Pie In The Sky When You Die. This link pretty much covers why I think Paul is just, well, bugfuck crazy:

Anyhoo, it's still interesting to look at the strain of pro-world thought in Christianity (and Judaism and Islam, for that matter) which, seeing the world as God's Design, sees celebration and understanding of that world as celebration of and understanding of God through his work. The God of the Bible may be (in my opinion) basically a Dictator who's eaten the Creator whole, an Enlil/Marduk who's subjugated Enki utterly and set up his Heavenly Kingdom as a great monotheist, monomaniac totalitarian regime founded on faith, scripture and sin -- but I do think every system has the seed of its destruction inside it. As much as it's human nature to want the authoritative validation those three things offer, I think doubt, analysis and empathy are just as much a part of our human nature, maybe even more so, and will therefore survive and surface even in authoritarian systems of thought focused on their suppression.

But that's for another post.

8:46 pm  
Blogger Lawrence said...

I do think there's a tension in Christianity between rejecting the world and revering it as God's Creation (and therefore good).

I agree, and for pretty much the reasons you give here. To the extent that Christianity tries to be a strictly monotheistic religion it becomes world denying and encourages a spirituality that promotes mind/spirit over body. The converse is that forms of Christianity which put more emphasis on the inner complexity of God and on the intimacy of God’s relationship with creation are much more world-affirming. Perhaps it is significant that all the patristic examples of world denial that you list here come from before theologians really began to struggle with the notion of God as Trinity (interesting that you should point out the self-contradiction in Irenaeus, since he was one of the thinkers who began the movement to what we now know as trinitarianism).

8:42 am  

Post a Comment

<< Home