Notes from New Sodom

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

Saturday, February 18, 2006

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the stain of sin

A fine rant, and I've been wrestling with it. I have to admit, I prefer your metaphorical imagery of responsibility and burden to the Tanakhic imagery of stain. So if I was, you know, an ancient Israelite, I'd be bowled over.

However, I also prefer Rabbinical Judaism's metaphorical imagery -- or rather, Rabbinical Judaism's choice, prioritization, and extension of the conceptions of sin available in its source texts -- to yours.


From Wikipedia:
"The Hebrew word translated as sin is khate, Strong's Concordance:2399—a crime, sin, fault. The root of khate is khaw-taw, Strong:2398—to miss, to err from the mark (speaking of an archer), to sin, to stumble."

"Doing charity and justice is more desirable to the Lord than sacrifice" (Proverbs 21:3).

Once, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking with his disciple, Rabbi Yehoshua, near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Y'hoshua looked at the Temple ruins and said "Alas for us!! The place that atoned for the sins of the people Israel lies in ruins!" Then Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort: "Be not grieved, my son. There is another equally meritorious way of gaining ritual atonement, even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain ritual atonement through deeds of loving-kindness. For it is written 'Lovingkindness I desire, not sacrifice.'" (Hosea 6:6)
Midrash Avot D'Rabbi Nathan 4:5

Sunday School and Sumer

There's something slippery, something apples-to-oranges, in your argumentation that I want to point out. You say you are interested in the actual practice of the modern religion, what happens in Sunday School -- or what can happen, across the ranges of Sunday Schools; that obscure theological arguments are beside the practical point. You also say that you are interested in getting down beneath the engine room, to the hidden source of power beneath it, hence the interest in the Sumerian, the Akkadian, the Ugaritic, the original tribal motivations for the words of the Tanakh.

I think you can have it both ways, I think that's a great deal of the strength of your argument -- but only if you're rigorous about it.

What raises my hackles about this post -- and, mind you, my hackles are my responsibility, not yours -- is its (wholly unintentional) echo of part of the bizarrely illogical conception of the Jews by Christian propagandists. Jews were dismissed as relics of Old Judea, atavisms frozen in time by our rejection of the Savior, practicing a brutal unforgiving religion of goat-sacrifice and public stoning -- while at the same time secretly fearing and loathing us as the precursors, symbols, and agents of modernity.

My hackles are neither here nor there. But the reaction does point to where your analysis is muddy.

See, if I had to pick between the religion of the ancient Israelites and, oh, orthodox Stalinism, I expect I'd pick gulags and purges and show trials over public stonings and immolations and the slaughter of whole towns by the sword for being the wrong tribe.

Luckily, though, that isn't the Judaism I'm stuck with, since the history of Judaism is a history of continually rewriting and reimagining the meanings of its texts, maintaining its connection to them, but often completely changing their meanings, weight, and resonance. I was taught (in my Sunday School) that this is the job of every generation -- to receive the tradition, and to pass it on; but not to pass it on unchanged. To reimagine, reinterpret, recast.

I'm going to talk about Reform Judaism as actually practiced in late twentieth and early twenty-first century America, not because I think it's the best monotheism (God forbid I should convert anyone to Judaism -- you don't need the grief, believe me) but because it's mine. Sin-as-stain may have more currency in Christianity than it does in Judaism; your critique of that imagery may or may not be answered or counterbalanced by the impact of the Jesus story (who, I heard somewhere, came to obviate the Law and replace it with Love --- where did I hear that? Oh, right, Jesus Christ Superstar! -- and spent a lot of time hanging out with whores, and preferring them to priestly authorities). I don't have a dog in that fight, really, so I'll stick with what I know.

Yom Kippur at Adas Israel Congregation, 1978

Let me tell you how sin functions in my tradition -- since I'm not an ancient Israelite. I'm not going to spin any abstruse complex philosophical speculative hermeneutic analysis -- I'm going to tell you about real practice, and the context in which it was presented; my understanding of sin and the rituals of sin at age nine, going to a big, middle-of-the-road Conservative synagogue in Washington, DC. I'm happy to engage in a bit with the historical argument about the origins and root meanings of monotheism; but let's start with the present practice I'm most familiar with.

The absolute center of the modren Jewish conversation around sin is Yom Kippur; it's the holiday of redemption, of liberation from sin. And the imagery of Yom Kippur is not one of stain, nor of burden, but rather of judgement and appeal.

The story goes like this: on Rosh Hashana -- the birthday of the world -- every human being is judged; their sentence for the next year (who shall live and who shall die, who shall prosper and who shall grieve) is written down in the Book of Life. Then we have ten days to appeal that decision -- on Yom Kippur the Book of Life is sealed, "but [until then] prayer, repentance, and deeds of loving-kindness can avert the severe decree".

Two things about this I had been explicitly taught, by nine years old:

1) Repentance is communal. At issue was not just my own individual sins, but the sins of the community. We erred together, and had to clean it up together. In terms of the Christian, or the Modern, idea of sin as individual moral fault, this makes no sense; and if sin is viewed as the supernatural judgement of a vengeful tyrant-god not only on sinners, but on their children to seven generations (those women and children of Sodom) it's horrifying. To me, though, as allegory, it made perfect sense. In point of fact, if we destabilize the ecosphere (with a Dad who worked at the EPA, I was worried about the greenhouse effect way before it was trendy) we will all suffer -- not just those who individually polluted. Not only Hitler and the Nazis were responsible for the Holocaust, but everyone who failed to act to stop them -- all the Germans, all the world. If you tolerate brutality in your community, your community will be judged.

Now, you could say, "if you're talking about natural consequences, that's fine -- if you're talking about the arbitrary imposition of supernatural authority, it's immoral." But I think even at nine I would have said (maybe not in so many words) that that was a logic foreign to the metaphor we're dealing with. The categories of "natural" and "supernatural" are not in the Bible.

(I know this image of judgement is abused by the arrogant -- the hurricane that kills your opponents is God's supernatural judgement for their sins, the hurricane that strikes you is natural and random. That this was in bad faith was apparent to me at nine; and in my synagogue, anyway, the idea was not really that you should watch out for plagues or hurricanes if you were bad. Nor was there much discussion of an afterlife. You repented of sin because it was sin -- the commandment to repent was both an obligation and an opportunity. There was a good deal of quiet scorn for the idea that you'd need the carrot of Heaven to bribe you into righteous behavior; rather, you should want to be a moral human being because to be anything less was a waste.)

2) Expiation had two parts. For "sins against God", prayer and heartfelt contrition would suffice. For "sins against man", reparation must be made. So the ten days before Yom Kippur were not just supposed to be meditating on how we'd erred and resolving to do better next year -- they should also be (we learned in Sunday School, and we learned that it went back to the Talmud) about cleaning up loose ends -- apologizing to those we'd hurt, making reparations for those we'd wronged. This half, the "sins against man" half like your intellectual conception of sin-as-burden -- but communal, clothed in ritual, and with a yearly time limit that was impossible to miss. Most sins were both sins against people and sins against God -- since hurting people is also breaking God's law.

Two things that were not said explicitly, but that I'd inferred by nine years old:

1) I knew it was a metaphor. Anyone in my synagogue you told there was an actual celestial book, made of celestial paper, would have rolled their eyes at you. Nor did I think of the God Who Judged as much like a human judge, nor of the judgements as supernatural miracles. I mainly thought this was an elegant way of talking about what happens in the world. Like traditional religionists throughout the centuries, and unlike fundamentalists after around 1850, I regarded natural law as the expression of God's will -- whatever God was. Actually, to put it more exactly (and again, in ways I could not have articulated at nine), I regarded natural law as a partial expression of God's will. The other part was the moral law -- what was left for us to do. I was familiar, at nine, with the old Midrash which has always been my favorite Jewish theodicy. Why did God create the world broken? So that we could mend it.

[Note: the mainstream Jewish conception of the world is explicitly positive. Though there recur over and over again minor Gnostic-influenced mystical tendencies that hold the world to be an evil place, the principal conception of the world is that is both GOOD and INCOMPLETE. The world is a beautiful gift, but not a safe place, not yet a place where humans can live without fear or suffering. It is not our job to escape the world, but to mend it -- to practice tikkun olam -- to make it that place. In Hindu terminology, karma yoga, the way of doing, is absolutely central to Judaism, while raja yoga, the meditative path to transcendance, while it exists, is absolutely peripheral. (There's a Kabbalistic story -- I may be getting the details wrong, but this is the gist -- of a young Kabbalist who achieves satori-like communion with God while saying the evening prayers in synagogue and, rushing out to joyously tell his rebbe, ignores the Shabbas greeting of some old guy in the aisle. "I got it! I got it!" cries the aspirant, and his teacher says, "No, you missed the point -- go back and do it again")]

2) I knew the definition of sin was up to me. Precisely because the list of sins I was presented with was so ancient and bizarre, the task of reinterpretation was in my face. Most people in our synagogue didn't keep Kosher -- and even if they did, I knew by nine that their version of Kosher was not the Biblical version -- that separating milk and meat plates and silverware came from "you shall not boil a kid in its mothers milk". My father wore a tallis with white threads at the ends, because the bible says to wear a fringed garment with blue threads, and at some point the rabbis had decided that that particular blue was no longer available. Nobody would definitively tell me what the modern sins were, other than the obvious kindergarten ones (and even then it was awfully fuzzy; you shouldn't hit other kids, yet the Maccabees were right to strike back against oppression). The rabbi's sermon would come close to implying that voting Republican or stockpiling nuclear weapons might be sins, and my father would be incensed about her mixing politics and religion. I knew we didn't stone people for adultery or wearing wool and flax together. So what we had was God's Law, but it was an obsolete snapshot of God's Law. The real message was that we had to find God's Law. We had lists of sins to publicly repent for on Yom Kippur, but they were like "we have lied. we have stolen. we have committed murder. we have defamed. we have committed evil unwillingly and willingly, in ways we could predict and through unexpected consequences." In its eagerness to find a candidate for the letter "Z", one English translation of an acrostic prayer offered "we have been zealots for bad causes" but no one ever told me what the bad causes were -- and it was clear my Dad and Rabbi Avis violently disagreed about it (at nine I had already incorporated the joke "any two Jews will have three different opinions about anything" into my self-definition).

We weren't obsessed with sexual sins. No one ever told me not to masturbate or have premarital sex, and what I learned about being gay was that it would be tragic, since gay people were often very sad (which was kind of traumatic for a kid with bisexual inclinations, but that's a different story) -- but that it was explicitly NOT a sin (and my Dad, who'd had miserable tragic Tennesse-Williams style gay friends in the 1950s, was deeply incensed on their behalf at the idea that homosexuality would be considered a sin as opposed to a plight). Sex, shmex. Sin was about hurting people.

What I was given was not a list of well-defined sins, but time and space and ritual to meditate on my sins. I was asked to repent: I was given the job of figuring out what to repent of.


Towards a Wittgensteinian Biblical Hermeneutics

So why do I prefer the imagery of judgement -- with its two parts, "sins against human beings" and "sins against God" -- to your imagery of sin as burden, a burden you must carry until you have satisfied the community of those you have wronged?

Postponing further criticism of Kohlberg's heirarchy, let me accept it for the moment as framing the terms of the debate.

I'm not going to deny that the monotheistic tradition works very well to solidify and enforce conventional morality. In fact I think it works perfectly well in terms of preconventional morality, too. It's really too charitable to characterize a lot of those fire-and-brimstone "Katrina was God's wrath against Mardi Gras" preachers in terms of Kohlberg's Level 1: "do what God wants or you'll get smacked"; similarly, much of the covenantal framework of Tanakic morality is really at Level 2 ("if you follow My Laws, I will make of you a great people" seen as a fair deal, rather than simple extortion or coercion).

It's probably a good bet to say that most adult monotheists relate to the morality of the Bible as a naturalized, absolute version of conventional morality -- the Law, which is known to the community, which must be followed lest things fall apart, deviance from which must be punished. In fact it's more than a good bet, it's almost a tautology in terms of Kohlberg's theory, since almost everyone in industrial societies is Level 4 or below in Kohlberg's theory (just as almost everyone in the preindustrial regions of the Third World is Level 3 or below). Since your chance of being Kohlbergian Level 5 or above is inversely correlated with your distance from Kohlberg -- your distance from being an elite, articulate, academy-socialized intellectual in a prosperous democracy -- and monotheists are thinner on the ground at Harvard than in Topeka and Timbuktu, monotheism's conventional-morality status is pretty much a sociological certainty.

But since I, after all, am close to Kohlberg in culture and class, I like the sound of Level 5 -- morality as a constantly evolving democratic process rather than a fixed set of rules -- and Level 6 -- morality centered on values that transcend one's own society. And guess what? Big surprise, given a theory from a guy with a name like Kohlberg (who was "shocked to discover how much [kibbutznik youth]'s moral development had progressed compared with those who were not part of kibbutzim"), those values are core to Rabbinic Judaism.

What's suboptimal about your imagery of burden?

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"... We must suffer until they appreciate our suffering, until they look at us with empathy and say "enough".

It's a moving imagery, and it beats the hell out of revolving-door quick-and-easy ritual absolution, or the sale of indulgences -- whether the coin is gold or emotional catharsis. You're not going to get any argument from the Jews that consequences trump intentions, and that, when it comes to repentance, the proof is in the pudding.

But here's the problem: you assign the community the role of arbiter. That's an improvement over a fixed and static Law, just as a fixed and static Law is an improvement over a single human authority figure who arrogates the role of ultimate Judge. Democracies beat theocracies beat tyrranies -- I'll sign up for that.

But is the consensus of the community sufficient to define sin? Is that the end of the story -- if the community forgives me, if the community didn't find my sin a big deal, I'm off the hook? If the community disagrees on the point, we democratically go with majority rule?

Here's the moral reasoning you don't easily get with that imagery:

"You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may won ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there fire two types of laws: just and unjust....

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. ...Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong."

-- Martin Luther King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Here's what my tradition offers, in the matter of sin: first, there's the community. Repentance means literal, physical restitution to those that you have wronged; penitence means asking their forgiveness. Where disagreements arise about what this means, the tradition is consulted -- the sum of all the arguments thus far -- but the tradition must be reinterpreted for each generation. How do we do that? We argue. Boy do we argue. We don't have priests; we don't have anyone with any special access to the Law. We lost that when the Temple fell. So to define sin? We argue, as a community.

But then there's also something more than that. There's something that goes beyond the provisional, democratic agreement of the community. It's the thing that allows you the space to step back and look at the agreements of that community and say, "wait a minute -- that can't be right".

What is that? It's the idea of a transcendant Law, a Law that isn't written down here in books, or not fully, or not in any way that can be finally understood. The idea of a law that is utterly just, that we can only yearn for and always reimagine. Of a Judge against whom any human judge must be found wanting.

We don't know what's written in the Book of Life. What we get, what the ritual provides, is a space in which we evaluate our sins and the sins of our community not from the perspective of what the community agrees to, but in the silence of the Amidah. We stand with our community, and we sign for a while about all the stuff we've done as a community, going through it item by item, making mental notes of what not to do next time, what must be repaid, what we owe, where we missed the mark.

And then we fall silent and we look somewhere else -- we peer, through a mist, at that Book of Life that we can't read. We repent, not before the community, but before God. And that's the moment in which Kohlberg's very abstract Level 6 morality -- the level he had to take out of his test when he finally realized the folly of trying to measure it, of capturing a consensus description of the morality which defies consensus -- that's where it lives. That's the moment in which you can have the thought: wait -- holy shit -- this isn't considered injustice by our law, but what about by God's?

It's not only good stuff that comes out then. It's not only the Underground Railroad and the abolition of human sacrifice. It could be a crusade or a jihad or a pogrom, because frankly morality is a lot harder and messier than Kohlberg thinks, and there's no guarantee, once people start questioning their society, that those questions are going to take them somewhere nice. You pays your money and you takes your chance.

The Birth of the Law

I like your exegesis of how it emerged -- the me, the Sumerian Tablets of Destiny, "where the often-arbitrary divine powers of polytheism are consolidated, legislated, abstracted into 'systems of the world'." Yes, that's how it began. And not cleanly: it's not even some hypothetical Tyrant God who drove that process, it was real tyrants.

Here's the great irony of monotheism. Its adoption has been everywhere driven by monarchs -- by the concentration of power. It takes the Law out of the provisional agreements of tradesmen, the bickering of local authorities, the vagaries of local traditions, and situates it way up there in the sky, an image of absolute power, absolute rightness. What better way for the king to claim legitimacy? What better way for the king to silence his opponents, than to point to the altar, the cross, the magic artifacts that show that he is the representative of God on earth, that his laws are the reflection of that Final Heavenly Law?

But then, at the same time, in that process, monotheism -- the more it advances along that road, the more it pushes that Law up higher, more abstract, more universal, more fundamental -- calls into question that concentration of power, that very mortal kingship. The king who points to the tablets and the altar soon finds the old man from the desert striding into his court, pushing aside the courtyard, and suddently the people are listening to this crazy old fuck, who says: you are not the Judge. Your law is not the Law. Maybe under polytheism, you were a god. Now you are a man. Now you are a grain of sand. Now that you've allowed yourself to imagine that Law -- how obviously, how ridiculously, how vastly you fall short, my king.

And that crazy old fuck suddenly gets to speak for God -- not the local god of his rosebush -- which would be like, "whatever, let's see how long your rosebush god lasts against the gods of the capital". Nope, sorry, king, you don't have that out any more. You've centralized, first your administration and your power, and now your ritual and moral basis for power, so guess what -- if the old man speaks truth at all, he speaks for God.

And the crazy old fuck says:

Is this the fast that I required of you?


And of course that's also why monotheism is often so brutal to dissenters, so attached to the notion of heresy, to the rack and the auto-da-fe. Because that crazy old fuck had BETTER not speak for God, whisper the courtiers, or we're all up shit's creek. If he just spoke for a rosebush god, whatever, who cares -- if he's annoying, chuck him out of the court. But if he speaks for God... go get the fire started.

Yes, monotheism is about power. Monotheism is like one of those stories where the great sorcerer puts all his power into a fingerbone -- and then loses the fingerbone.

Once you imagine God, it's too late to bring Him fully under your control -- however bloodily you try.

Next Year in Jerusalem -- but not that Jerusalem

So you know what I love about Rabbinic Judaism?

We lost the temple.

We lost the land.

Those sacrifices? We can't do them any more.

That Law? Well, you know, if you actually read it -- and if you don't have the easy out of a Messiah who's already arrived and crossed out all the bits you don't like this week -- it doesn't really make any fucking sense. Burn your house down if it's got mildew? Take and hold the land I have given you? And what ever you do, don't interbreed with the Moabites....

What Moabites?

Every damn thing you do -- eating the wrong food, wearing the wrong clothes -- is a sin. And look -- it says right here -- the only way to cleanse the stain of that sin is to sacrifice a goat in the temple. The temple we don't have any more. It says right here we're all condemned to death.

The Levites and the Cohanim can't do those sacrifices any more -- so what are they for? They've lost their palaces, their rights to the first fruits and the lambs and the bulls. They've lost their fancy clothes. They're just like everyone else. Whatever, they have a special prayer they can say for us and they can't go into cemeteries. But hell if we're going to listen to them any more.

So what do we do? Do we just stubbornly insist that everything is as it always was? (Those were the Karaites). Do we just give up and become Romans? (Plenty did). Do we go with this new guy who says that the Law is obsolete, on account of he's God and God is love and from now on everything is going to be peace and harmony and everyone will turn the other cheek? (I think we know what happened to those guys).

Or do we listen to the rabbis -- you know who the rabbis are? They're just the guys who've read the most.

A whole religion of centralized power, heirarchy, sacred cleansing rituals... hijacked by geeks.

How did they do it? Because they had an answer to the problem. And the answer was: hold on, hold on, calm down. We're not throwing anything out, it's God's word, right? Would we do that? Of course not. But hold on... I know, I know, sacrificing goats, Moabites, mildew, okay, but listen... look right here, in the text? See where it says "goats"? Well let's just say it really means, ah... contrition. Right? Goats are contrition. You with me? Okay, so, and over here?

Let's just say...

That's the birth of my religion. Abraham, yes, Moses, yes, David, why the hell not, Isaiah, damned straight.... but really it's Rabbi Yochanan. During the last seige of Jerusalem, while the rest of the Judaean Zealots were ready to fight to the death with the Romans, swords and spears and macho battle cries, ready to die for the return of the Kingdom, for the Temple, for the priesthood, Yochanan had himself smuggled out of the city in a coffin. He went straight to Vespasian and he talked him into sparing a little university town, Yavneh; and there, when the Temple was in ruins and the macho guys had died bravely, they started Rabbinic Judaism -- a decentralized religion of eternal argument. A religion fundamentally characterized by its ambivalence toward tradition. On the one hand, it's precious -- it's all the work we've done so far, it's what we've preserved of our encounter with the Divine, it's our glimpse of that Eternal Law. And on the other hand, it's pretty clear that it can't mean what it seems to say on the surface. So it's a mystery -- and we'd better get all our heads together, all of us equal, and start applying both sober analysis and midrash, crazy imagination, fiction -- to figure it out.

Let's just say...

I'm Too Tired To Think Of A Title For This Section

So do monotheism's bloody origins matter? Its crawl up from winner-takes-all henotheism, the bloodthirsty brutality and small-mindedness and tribalism which is inexorably intertwined with the moral message of The Book? Sure they matter -- and soon (but maybe next weekend? this was a long post!) we'll have that debate about the origins, about Sumer and Sodom. Sure, they're something we need to take responsibility for (indeed, that's one of my major struggles in life, in religion, and in fiction -- did you read that Strange Horizons story yet?) Never forget the children of Jericho.

Yes, it's an old, dangerous tool.

But what I'm going to argue for (in a bit) is the value of gentle syncretism, the value of hermeneutic patchwork. There's a usefulness in treasuring things that have a capacity to horrify as well as delight, to a (troubled, critical, ambivalent) allegiance to those who came before in all their faults and vices. There's a usefulness in my religion's pack rat approach to the world. We never throw anything out. We might turn it inside out, darn it, sew a bit of it in here and another bit over there, turn its meaning all around and make something new out of it.

I would be delighted to look at your shiny new tools. Indeed, I can't wait to sew your Shaitanic Midrash of Sodom into the fabric, along with all the Enlil-religion, Pharaonic ritual, Zoroastrianism, Greek philosophy, Muslim and Christian and Freudian and existentialist bits we've got in there already. But to the extent that you want to tell me a story in which there's a single mistake, made long ago, that led to all the suffering around us; a single wrong path was taken -- the technocratic egalitarian culture of Sumer or the radical libertine cosmopolitanism of your imagined Sodom was replaced with a tyrannical religion of power, and it was all downhill from there, say -- to the extent that you want to tell me a story about a single, sinful error led to a Fall, and have me accept it as the Answer -- well, you'll permit me a little skepticism. I think I've heard that one before.

7:35 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Al,

An interesting analysis of the relationship between the idea of sin and impurity. What came to mind was the thought that in a sense humanity has a deeply-rooted belief in it's own inherent flawedness and that the only way we could ever attract the love of God (or of anybody for that matter) is to hide all that we feel is inherently shameful in us. I think that the species homo sapiens has a defining characteristic - a fear of being itself. I think that everybody, to some extent, feels that if people really knew what they were like then they would be outcast - rejected from the society of others that we all need so badly. In the language of psychology, we feel impelled to construct an outer self - a false self - that we feel will be acceptable, that is capable of being loved by another.

By the same inner dynamic this fear is transferred on to our image of God. In our depths we feel ashamed - unclean - and we cannot help but believe that God could never love me. Saints - yes. But me? This self-loathing (which can manifest itself in varying degrees depending on the extent to which we were made to feel valuable when we were young) exists in drastic tension with a craving for that same acceptance and love. So we construct a false self that we believe God can love by "purifying" ourselves via good works, prayer, and self-accusation (to preempt the accusation that we fear will expose our own inner "rottenness").

However, this solution is ultimately unsatisfying. We are haunted by the sense that we are not being true to ourselves, that we are living inauthentically. The solution of creating a purified false self that our friends, family, and God can love brings us some measure of emotional stability - but it is what the monastics call the "false" or "pernicious peace". Our deepest craving is to be loved for who we really we are - but the possibility of rejection is so threatening and paniful that we need to repress this craving from our consciousness.

I guess what I am getting at is that the role of purification in religious life derives from this need to gain the favour of a capricious Creator - Old Nobodaddy. In essence this need to present our "better self" to God comes from a lack of faith, a deficiency of trust in God, which is entirely understandable but ultimately imprisons us inside the personas that we have constructed to gain the favour of men, women, and God.

Just to go back to your link between the removal of shame and forsaking responsibility. If we accept that we as human beings are "sick with shame" then it follows that we will do everything in our power to prevent the exposure of what we feel is our intrinsic flawedness. This means that we will always have an inclination to have slopey shoulders, because to accept our responsibility for a wrong feels like a confirmation of our essential unworth - it feels like destruction of our identity. It is only when begin to allow ourselves to be cured from shame (by opening up to affirmation of a trusted other - very scary! - or, in the case of the Catholic Church, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation) that we can accept real responsibilty for our faults and wrongs. Acceptance of guilt doesn't feel destructive of us as a person any more. If we retain the sense - at least notionally - that despite all our fuck-ups we are still in our inner being valuable and indeed loved then we can begin to look ourselves squarely in the face and take responsibility for ourselves and our actions.

Well, that's theory - the practice, I'm sure, takes a few lifetimes!

Just my 0.02$.


11:28 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Hey Dave, me amigo! Glad to have ye onboard.

I partly agree with what you're saying in that I guess I see the ego as a "false self", with shame as, yes, a highly important organising feature in its construction. Indeed you could see my whole twisting of the sin-as-stain imagery as a similar sort of argument... that shame, symbolised as sin, as stain, becomes the very Original Sin it pretends to describe, a state of chronic shame. But how "Original" is that state?

I think that the species homo sapiens has a defining characteristic - a fear of being itself. I think that everybody, to some extent, feels that if people really knew what they were like then they would be outcast - rejected from the society of others that we all need so badly.

This sounds to me less like a "natural state", and more like a weaker form of the depressive's low-self-esteem, engendering all sorts of socially-maladjusted behaviours from a need for validation (positive and negative). To endemically devalue oneself as not really worthy of social acceptance, to be in thrall to that fear, strikes me as neurotic, pathological, rather than normative. That said, I think that sort of insecurity is natural (just as long as it's not totally dominating). So I'm not sure I'd accept this as an essentialist statement about human nature without balancing the insecurity of deflated ego with the arrogance of inflated ego, the endemic over-valuation of oneself. I mean, I think we're just as liable to feel that if people really knew what we were like then we'd be adored. "Feel" is the key word, as neither of these are rational assessments, one weighted with shame, the other with pride.

The ego is largely, I think, the part of us we define in social terms as others validate our sense of pride or shame with approval or disapproval, reward or punishment. The simple axial quality of pride and shame allow us to position ourselves in relationships to our peers, in terms of hierarchical pecking orders, or in models of inclusion and exclusion, where we're central or marginal to various circles, cliques and coteries. When someone's behaviour strikes us as needy or boorish, it seems to me this is our judgement that their sense of ego is skewed -- they're either undervaluing themselves from shame and ignoring positive feedback, or overvaluing themselves from pride and ignoring negative feedback. Neediness and boorishness are behavioural tendencies we all have, I think, as ultimately it's a matter of social skill, of learning to pick up the signals, and we're not all masters by any means. But I think chronic shame and chronic pride are pathological. Hence my reluctance to accept the "fear of being oneself" as a defining characteristic, as an essential feature of human nature.

In some ways, in fact, I think there's a sneaky wee secular variant of Original Sin hidden away in that idea; it's the same self-perpetuating insecurity: that we are all inherently shameful, that we are all basically full of shame. I don't buy that. Shame is just a psychophysiological response (a set of responses, actually) and the affect which maps to that response, evolved as part of the big homeostatic system of our animal identities -- like the fear and fury which map to our flight or fight response, the excitement of the adrenal rush, the sense of wonder or desire, etc., all of those affective-biological sensations of our own impulses. Affect is a kinaesthetic awareness and processing of our own automatic reactions, a modelling of our own internal state. Shame is a part of that model -- a sensation of disgust at self which functions as negative feedback, identifying behaviours as "wrong" so we can nix them, thus minimising future shame, minimising affective turbulence and maintaining (or moving closer to) homoestasis. Chronic shame would seem to me, in that sense, to indicate a malfunction in the representation of self, like having the colour balance on a TV screen out of whack so everything looks too blue.

The ego with the shame turned up to eleven becomes, in its own right, a "false self" even before the construction of any compensatory / projected "purer self" from which the shame has been symbolically purged. I do think you're bang on about the fear of rejection, the craving for acceptance, the lack of faith, the construction of an "acceptable" persona, and so on... but I think this is neurotic rather than normative.

But... then again...

If our ego is socially constructed, if our positive and negative validations of self in the form of pride and shame are, in large part, internalisations of the ways others respond, evaluations of ourself in comparison with parents and peers (and I think this is the case), then chronic shame, even if it's not psychologically normative could well be culturally normative.

And this is where we return to religion and ritual and moral purity systems. The concept of sin -- and in particular the doctrine of Original Sin -- seems to me to be an institutionalisation of neurosis. I don't accept that we're "sick with shame", never have done, and that is, I think, because, I never bought into any notion that we're "stained with sin". I'm mostly shameless as a dog, dude; I'd lick my balls in public if I could, because, really, it doesn't fucking matter in the bigger scheme of things. I'm not entirely shameless; if I threw up on the carpet I'd skulk around with my tail between my legs, knowing I'd been a bad dog. My point is that most momentary crises of acute shame are (or should be) just natural negative feedback, and turning that into a chronic state of abject insecurity is fucked up, man, fucked up.

And what religion does with sin is, to a large extent, just that. (Ben, I'm going to distinguish this type of "sin" from the Jewish "khate" in my next post, btw; you make a pretty persuasive case that what I'm talking about doesn't match to the ethical argumentation of Judaism... but I'll get to that in a bit) Religion has a neat trick of defining fun, natural impulses as indecent. Like scolding a dog for licking its balls when you have visitors round; the dog really really likes licking its balls; so it wants to do it; so if it forgets the rule or lets the desire over-ride it, well, it licks its balls, gets scolded and feels shame. Repeat this for long enough and you get the repressive groundwork for neurosis. Religion also has a neat trick of making its judgements overly severe. Like not just shouting at the dog but kicking it when it licks its balls. The dog doesn't really understand what's wrong with the action, but it'll damn well learn that it's a "bad dog", becoming cowed, submissive. There's nothing worse than seeing a kicked dog return to its master, craving forgiveness because it's been trained into chronic shame. And then religion has the neat trick of offering validation in exchange for obedience, absolution in exchange for performance. Like grunting approval at the dog for walking close behind you, tail tucked between its legs. Like giving it a biscuit as reward for walking on its hind legs at your command, as you show off to your visitors just how well-trained the poor mutt is.

I'm glad to say I've never personally known anyone who treated a dog this bad, but the mechanisms are there. The tendencies to scold a dog from some dumb idea of decency, to be too harsh, to give love in return for obedience or parlour-tricks -- these are the qualities which make bad dog-owners and I pity the pooches whose owners let those tendencies fuck up their pets. Similarly the metaphor is painting a "worst case scenario" of religion, but the mechanisms are there, and I think that in the same way you can judge a dog-owner for such mistreatments you can judge religion for the comparative mistreatments, for constructing arbitrary, counter-intuitive notions of decency, enforcing them too severely, rewarding servility and ritual performance, for, in short, trying to turn people into cowed, submissive circus animals. I don't buy into that idea of the religious ritual as a "cure for shame", not at all. That's just a dog biscuit and a pat on the head, good boy, which offers a temporary relief from a state of chronic shame, an artificial, pathological, goddamned neurotic state which only exists in the first place because of the cruelty that created it. It's a slave mentality.

A quick aside: following on from Ben's defence of Judaism as working on a quite distinct sense of "khate" as "error", anyone reading this should read Vardibidian's comments over on Ben's blog about the core story of Judaism being one of liberation from slavery, for a compelling description of a quite distinct mentality in the traditions of Judaism. I'm arguing that this neurosis of chronic shame is a feature of religion as a system of institutionalised constraint morality, but my highlighting of one characteristic should not be taken as either a denial of other features, other forms, or for that matter as an absolutist statement of "this is how it must be because all monotheism works in this way and only in this way". So, yeah, go read the comments over on Ben's blog too.

Anyhoo... other than the expedient shirking of responsibility which comes with the idea of "absolution", this is pretty much my big beef with the peculiar metaphor of sin as stain, with the exploitation of that metaphor as a mechanism for constructing an unhealthy ego, a pathological state of chronic shame, and with the religious offer of relief in exchange for moral submission and / or ritual hoop-jumping: it's fucked up. Fucked-up in a "guilt-trips are not healthy, dude" sorta way. Fucked-up in a "crawling back to an abusive owner because they've trained you to loathe yourself is not sane" sorta way. Fucked-up in a "kick that poor mutt one more time and I'll fucking feed your fucking tackity fucking steely-toecapped fucking boot to you, ya mean-ass, ugly-souled, self-righteous motherfucker" sorta way. OK, I'm not going to go all ranty again. But, ooooooh, it just gets me all indignant and finger-pointing prophety the way religion puts the boot in and then offers a boot-removal service for a small fee of, oh, craven supplication. Fuck that shit.

Or as a doggy Moses might say:

Let my pack members go.

2:56 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Sorry it took me so long to respond, Ben. So much to do and so little time to do it in! Anyway, first off, that's a pretty strong defence of Judaism and there's a lot I can't argue with and wouldn't want to. As I was saying over on David's blog, yourself and Vardibidian do a good job of describing a form of monotheism that clearly has a core story quite distinct from the one I'm focusing on. So mostly I hold my hands up and say, fair enough. The Rabbinical Judaism you describe simply isn't the monotheism I'm railing against; I'd be foolish and crazy to refuse to recognise the complexities of monotheism, the fact that there are different types. I am, of course, constantly foolish and crazy, but I do try to be only one or the other, not both simultaneously.

But I do think there's more to be said, places your argument needs pushed and prodded, so to speak, and ideas I want to challenge, question.


Sin, Sin and Sin

The first thing to say is that it seems pretty clear there's quite different types of sin in this discussion, and that the khate of Judaism, as a sort of "moral stumble", is a quite different concept to the "stain of immorality" -- which does have more currency in Christianity, I think, proselytising as that religion is. If you're going to preach salvation you need something to save people from, and in Christianity that something is sin, seen as a persisting spiritual blemish which results from immoral action. The metaphoric resonances of khate -- this idea of the moral transgression as an error or flaw -- make it very hard to map the Jewish idea of khate to the Christian idea of sin. An error is distinct from its effects, a flaw is not the brokenness afterwards, and to stumble is not the same as the state of fallenness. That's the key thing. In Christianity, sin is a state as much as its an act; the Jewish khate just does not seem to carry the same meaning. Being "in error" can persist after the initial stumble but when you realise your error you're no longer in error... unless you don't face up to it, which is a different error in it's own right; this is quite different from sin as a persistent spiritual shame.

So is "sin" actually the right word to use when translating khate? It seems wrong to me, like translating the English word "crime" into the Greek "miasma", like translating "kill" as "murder". The latter, like "sin", has so much additional conceptual baggage that we're tacking on a meaning which isn't there, it seems to me. Personally, by the sounds of it, I'd rather push the ejector button, fire "sin" up through the sun-roof into the wild blue yonder, and talk about "khate" from here on in.

Unfortunately, too many folks for my liking do tend to talk about sin, with all the stain imagery that entails; and I think the implicities of that idea are too pernicious not to tackle. So while I'm happy to accept that Rabbinical Judaism takes this other notion of moral stumbling as its foundation, I still have suspicions about the language and imagery of moral purity shared by the Big Three. I think that notion of sin-as-stain is evidenced in Christianity. Islam seems to share that "cleanliness is (next to) godliness" idea. Is it entirely absent from Judaism? (I don't mean that rhetorically; I mean, if we looked at Orthodox rather than Reformed Judaism, would you see any hints of it?) Given that the notion of being morally unclean goes back at least to the Hittites, and that the Greeks had their own version in the shape of "miasma", I smell a root metaphor here, one shared by polytheist and monotheist cultures alike. If it's been not a part of Judaism is that because it was never there or because it's been weeded out?

Interestingly, that same Wikipedia article you link to names three different types of "sin" described in the Tanakh, which might, I think, point to an archaic Judaic conception of morality more like the one I'm talking about. That article describes cheit as a sin of error, but it also describes avon, a sin of passion, of surrendering to one's impulses, and pesha or mered, a sin which is intended, a deliberate act of malice. The first of these seems pretty much cognate with the idea of khate, and I find it intriguing to compare these with the Hittite distinction of haratur (general misdemeanor), hurkel (sexual crime) and shallakardatar (deliberate outrage against the gods). The Judaic distinction of moral transgression in terms of error, impulse and intent is a damn sight more sophisticated than the Hittite terminology, but it seems to me like what we've got here is a philosophical re-articulation of that archaic taxonomy. Is that taxonomy maybe even reflected in secular society, in our reaction to crimes? There are excusable misdemeanours, the sort of little crimes that folks constantly rationalise and moan about being caught for -- speeding, shoplifting and suchlike -- because they don't spark off the same level of anger and disgust. Taboo sex crimes still have a whole qualitiative difference that makes them obscene, sick; and so you get child-rapists getting shivved in jail by bank-robbers. And I'd guess that the closest thing we've got to the crime of "blasphemous outrage" in a modern context is the espousing of treason and terrorism that you get from Abu Hamza and suchlike; strip away the right-wing rhetoric and it's the attack on the ideals of Western culture that really gets people's goat, the sense of insult to the Big Ideas.

Anyway, that taxonomy illuminates, I think, the what it is about "sin" that makes the stain metaphor so popular and why khate, for me, doesn't feel like a synonym. Where a moral transgression is seen as an error, a stumble, there is little or no blaming-and-shaming; even if we don't suffer fools gladly, we suffer them a lot more gladly than we suffer the selfish or malicious, those whose crimes we see as rooted in impulse or intent. We can forgive folly in ourselves and others, telling ourselves that we learn from mistakes, we won't make the same mistake twice, etc.. We rationalise our own transgressions as mistakes when we are looking for that forgiveness. Getting rid of the blame and the shame that goes with it is often very much to do with disassociating an essential self from the existential action. I didn't want to, we say. I didn't mean to, we say. It wasn't impulse. It wasn't intent. It was an error.

Let me make it up to you.

So maybe the difference between atonement and absolution, between the burden-imagery and the stain-imagery rests in this distinction. If the transgression is a result of error rather than impulse or intent, the wrongness is not "in" us. There's an absence of good judgement rather than a presence of bad passions or wicked will. We do need to pay the cost of our error, but we don't need to expunge the impulse and / or intent. So, in so far as we think of sin as requiring expungement as well as expiation -- and I think this is a common view of sin -- I think we need to see it as quite different from khate.

Balancing the Books

This is all, perhaps, something of a semantic argument but I think it's a useful distinction to make. And from your description of Judaism, it seems like it's a distinction made by the Rabbis way back when, with the focus firmly put on an idea of immorality as error rather than impulse or intent. This seems to me to fit in well with the imagery of judgement and appeal, of communal responsibility and reparations, the metaphoric Book of Life.

I do have problems, I'd have to say (being an awkward bugger), with a metaphor that strikes me as presenting morality as a sort of spiritual accountancy -- that judgement as a sort of balancing of the books, with God as a heavenly bank manager working out whether we're in credit or debt. This is another root metaphor I think we can see, like the imagery of sin-as-stain or responsibility-as-burden spread throughout various cultures from early history onwards. The Egyptian mythology of judgement in the underworld is all geared around this "weighing" metaphor, though there it's more literal with the soul actually put in the scales. In Judaism or in the Christian eschatology of Judgement Day the imagery has become that of the palace scribe, the king's prime minister with his scrolls recording decrees and deals, debts and duties.

(As a quick aside: I give a nod to this in VELLUM. The Book of all Hours totally riffs off that Book of Life, after all; I even refer to a tradition in which it's supposedly known as The Judgement of all Accounts or The Account of all Judgements. And we can see traces of Sumerian Enki here again, I think -- c.f. Enoch/Metatron as God's scribe -- as the top god Enlil's administrator, a sort of prime minister or vizier to the heavenly king. Enki, god of writing, irrigation and mathematics, guardian of the Tablets of Destiny, is the measurer of the world, the keeper of accounts. I can't think of that Book of Life without picturing Enki holding it. Anyway...)

It's a powerful metaphor -- that book of spiritual accounts -- and if you take onboard the idea that the Law is something one has to discover for oneself, (since, as you say, the Law of the Torah is mainly craziness about mildew-infested houses and whether or not to eat locusts), well, it's a whole lot healthier to my mind than the metaphor of sin-as-stain. But (and there had to be a but coming, didn't there?), I've always been kinda uncomfortable with that scriptural imagery of scriptural judgement, with the idea that whether or not ethical truth was actually written down for all time in this one text or that -- Torah, Gospels or Koran -- whether we take that image of God calling in our accounts on our Day of Judgement or Atonement literally or metaphorically, even if we take all this simply as an allegory for the universal applicability of a moral imperative to self-scrutiny (Back a while in an earlier post I recall saying I was interested in whether a highly-moralistic system can have subsystems which undermine its own moral absolutes and push us towards idealist ethics; your description of Yom Kippur does sound like just such a system -- a moral imperative to self-scrutiny, a moral imperative to, in many ways, reconstruct morality itself in "discovering the Law")... my point is that, regardless of our reading of it, the metaphor works on an assumption that the judgement can be written. It carries, I'd argue, an essentialist affirmation of authority as the basis of ethical absolutes. I think it's a totally accurate model of morality -- in the sense of mores -- as something we are subject to, something we are measured by. But I think it's inadequate as a model of ethics for those very reasons.

I think the model is improved by the idea that the definition of sin is *not* received as some authoritarian edict, that one must "discover the Law" for oneself, working through all those obsolete rules and regulations, trying to find a set of judgements that make sense in a modern world. This definitely mitigates the dictatorial quality that I find most... expediently wrong-headed in the conflation of morality with ethics, that reassuring conviction that an ethos, like mores, is a set of constraints imposed on the individual (with the ethos simply being the constraints imposed by the individual on themself). It puts the focus on the individual as active agent rather than passive subject. But to me it still comes down to an image of scriptural certainty, the dualism of black ink and yellow-brown vellum, a tallying of good acts against bad which assumes a binary state of good and bad, observance and transgression, and an ability to quantify the individual's "worth" by toting up the positive and negative score-card. Three strikes and you're out of the Book of Life.

Consensus, Schmensus

This is where, I guess, the imagery of judgement falls down for me, and where I think you're missing part of the point of that burden-imagery. I am, yes, assigning the role of arbiter to the community... but their arbitration is only a judgement of when relief can be given. I don't see the consenus of the community as "sufficient to define sin". Hell, I don't hold with the whole notion of "sin", anyway, and in another community, in another time and place, that consensus would involve me, a stake and some roasty-toasty fire. Even if I believed in sin, I wouldn't trust the community to define it. No. The consensus of the community can be wrong in terms of fact (oh, what? innocent, you say? framed, you say? but we already hung him... oopsy) or in terms of attitude (well, boy, that nigger he slept with a white woman... so we done lynched him) or both (insert any medieaval bollocks regarding Jews and babies here). And being a shameless Sodomite Shaitan and all, you know... me and the consensus of the community don't always see eye to eye.

In fact the dubiety of society's role as judge is at the very heart of my thrawn animosity towards constraint morality, grudgingly accepting it as a natural and needful part of our social selves but thoroughly sceptical of its legitimacy and long-term effectiveness. No, for me the important point about that burden idea and what perhaps didn't come through strongly enough or clear enough in the way I articulated it is that the burden comes from the actuality of the deed and our ethical awareness of its ramifications. Responsibility for the definition of -- we'll call it khate rather than "sin" because I do like the error idea -- resides solely in the individual. The definition of one's own ethical error is the core act of ethical judgement.

Society can (and has to) impose moral judgements, institutionalise those as legal judgements, create whole systems of punishment designed to make moral/legal transgressors ritually pay for their breaches of the social order. The community might do this to try and make the transgressor get it through their thick fucking skull that what they done wasn't nice, hoping that the individual might just, with enough coaxing, realise they were foolish, selfish and / or malicious and actually regret their action, make that all-important ethical judgement. The community might just hope that, at the very least, they'll be less inclined to do the same thing again. The community might even just want to symbolically beat the crap out of the bastard perp. Ultimately though, those societally imposed penalties are artificial burdens which can just as easily create resentment as regret, because there's no theoretical reason for the individual to accept the legitimacy of society's authority. There are plenty of practical ones, sure, but if everyone in the world thought eating horseshit was our moral duty and I said "you're fucking bonkers, mate", I don't care if the God of Gods of Gods came down with a big booming voice and said "Thou shalt eat horseshit! Respect my authori-tie!", I'd... well, I'd probably eat the horseshit but I would not respect his authority.

The trouble with ethics -- the wonderful, glorious trouble with ethics -- is that an individual's ethics can be quite different from the community's moral / legal consensus. The transgressor might not agree that they deserve to be penalised. They might see no reason at all why they weren't "entitled" to murder the spouse that cheated on them (they're punishing a wrong-doer, after all, enforcing a moral dictate). Or they might see no reason at all why they shouldn't steal something that the owner was "too stupid" to keep safe (the owner was "asking for it", after all). Or they might see no reason at all why they shouldn't fuck someone up the ass, assuming that someone is a consenting adult and all (cause it's none of society's damn business). Or they might see no reason at all why they should be made to sit at the back of a bus because of the colour of their skin.

Turn it the other way round. They might see every reason why, for the sake of the hundreds, thousands, millions, billions of other human beings who might be in the same position someday, they should take a stand and say here and now, fuck the consensus. Fuck what's moral. Fuck what's legal. Fuck the Law. The Law is wrong, and it's my right as a human being to tell the Law where to get off, which is to say, my back, motherfucker.

I disagree with King in that sense. The laws and the mores of a society are out of synche but it's not this that renders a law unjust. The segregation ordnances were not unjust because they were out of whack with morality -- consensual, God-given or coded into the fabric of the space-time continuum itself. They were unjust because they were prejudicial -- practically, actually prejudicial. It's a matter of inequity rather than iniquity. You get cut a slice of cake that's a tenth the size of everyone else's, and everyone else turns a blind eye because they got themselves a big slice, they all excuse it with empty rhetoric about the inability of the minority to "deal with" a bigger slice, or with lies about how it's really their fault; man, you don't invoke a higher authority to trump their bigoted asses; you point at the fucking slice of cake and demand your fair slice. You ignore their lies and self-delusions, just keep pointing at the cake and demanding your due. You look around and you find the one guy in the corner who's wavering and you ask him if he thinks it's right, if he really honestly thinks that's a fair slice, and you keep working on him until he makes a fucking ethical judgement. You make it real to him, an in-his-face reality that's not about sin or salvation or civil rights or any other abstraction which can be easily countered with another such sophistry -- security, social stability, blah blah blah. You just get him to look at the fucking cake and make an honest, practical assessment. Cause if you can get him on your side, well, then... you have someone else on your side. Course, as Arlo Guthrie said, they'll just call you both fags and they still won't listen to you. But if there's three of you, why, if there's three of you, well then you got yourself a movement. It's the Alice's Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement in Three-Part Harmony!

Now it surely is true that some of the first on board the movements which have gotten that cake shared out a little more evenly over the millenia have been the preachers and the prophets who spoke up even when the one being cut the small slice couldn't speak up for themself. And it's just as surely true that they've levelled the language of moral absolutes, of God's Law, at the stubborn opposition to social equity, and done so because that's what they firmly believed as men of faith. But not one of them actually knew the Law, that transcendant Law that "isn't written down here in books, or not fully, or not in any way that can be finally understood". Some might say that's because the Law is God's Will and God's Will is ineffable. Me, I say it's because there is no Law, not in that sense. I don't buy it. Hell, I wouldn't take it off your hands if you paid me. God's Law ain't much use to the Devil's Advocate. No, what is of use to me is evidence -- Exhibit A, one small slice of cake, your honour -- and ultimately I think that's the real trump card for socially-constructed constraint morality. Ethics isn't a matter of knowing the Law, knowing what's right and what's wrong, nor even of trying to figure it out; rather it's largely, I think, the skill of recognising inequity when it bites us on the ass, knowing that it's hanging there with its teeth in our ass even as we sip cocktails and shoot the breeze, the skill of dealing with it.

For me that moment of self-critique is not a re-evaluation of our law in relation to an abstract, idealised Law, but of re-evaluating it in relation to circumstances. I guess to some extent I'm with Aristotle (I think it was Aristotle, at least) in so far as I think that all vice is fundamentally error, a humanist take on it which also seems embedded in the metaphoric resonances of khate. I mean that (assuming a normative empathic psychology rather than the abberant state of psychopathy) non-ethical behaviour is largely a result of an inaccurate, dishonest, impractical assessment of our actions and their results. Ethics is the aesthetics of social interaction, and aesthetics is the theorisation of the praxis of harmony.

So it comes down to showing our selves that small slice of cake, pointing it out to ourselves even when we'd rather ignore it. Saying this situation is inequitable, unbalanced. That makes it ugly. It's not that it doesn't measure up to some ideal, socially-constructed or abstracted to ineffability; it's that it's twisted, fucked-up, out-of-whack, skewed.

Of course, seeing through our own self-delusions is easier said than done. Not automatically excusing inequity in our favour, not assuming that we deserve a bigger share, not letting ourselves work with an ethics, an aesthetics which is itself skewed -- that's the tricky part. But when it comes down to it, I still reckon that it is about seeing the situation for what it is, and then making a pragmatic / aesthetic / ethical judgement about the action necessary to redress imbalance. We don't need God to tell us what to do. Or to stand there looking over our shoulder, noticeably not telling us what to do.

Thus Spoke Ziusudra

And yet...

And yet, you're right about those crazy old fucks walking out of the desert and into the city, claiming to represent a higher power, and shoving one hell of a stick up the king's royal ass. For all my Sodomite Shaitanism, my anti-iconclasm, my defence of pagan sensuality, hedonism and downright excess, I can't say there's not a part of me that identifies with those crazy old fucks, that is, in this ongoing rant, engaged in an analogous project a la Abraham in the court of Nimrod, or Yeshuah in the Temple... or Nietszche's Zarathustra, striding into the public halls of power-as-information, the modern agora of the interweb, and making grandiose claims to a trump-card for the authoritative proclamations of our latter-day ruler -- the Social Order itself. Hell, much of my argument vis-a-vis the Bible is based on precedence: if you're going to be bound to tradition then, OK, let's talk tradition. Let's talk about Hittite sin and Sumerian myth, about Enki and Enlil, the Creation and the Flood. Let's talk about the Law which came before the Law.

But where that project differs is in the source of the authority. The hierarchical metaphor of a "higher power" is one I hold no truck with. I'll always try and use "deeper " in favour of "higher", "more honest" rather than "more true". It's the subtlest of subtle differences, granted, and I know you reject the whole immanent/transcendant duality so you may well not see it as a meaningful distinction at all, but to me it's at the crux of it.

This is how the Law is constructed for me: the Law is in two parts -- official, which is to say legal, and unofficial, which is to say moral. As you rightly say the development of the Law, of monotheism, and of political structures all go hand in hand. It's not a straightforward progression; rather power shifts constantly between the local equivalents of the three mainstays of early Sumerian politics: the en, the spiritual authority, representative of the city diety; the lugal, the great householder and military leader in times of war; the unkin, the assembly of elders who held these two in check. Only in later Sumerian society did the office of the en and the lugal merge into what we think of as kings -- the ensi. Think of Melchizedek in Genesis -- the malach-zadok, king-priest. Hammurabi is an examplary figure of the ensi, first to put the Law in written form. Nimrod is another such autocratic ensi; by the time the stories of Genesis were being told, Sumer had long since gone from a federation of city-states governed by a tripartite system of checks and balances to an empire ruled by a sovereign Grand High Poobah.

Throughout history that system has varied, with the elders holding more power some times, the popes at others, the kings and emperors at others. Democracy tries to make us all elders, all members of the unkin, or to allow us access to the elders as our representative. No matter. The point is that these are our higher authorities and we symbolise them as such in concepts of sovereignty -- whether it's the sovereignty of Military Might, of Spiritual Power, or of the General Will. These higher powers are all but automatically granted moral authority over us, as our legislative, the makers of the Law. Those who hold that authority will always characterise their own authority as "higher". The lugal argues that the house -- the Nation, in this day and age -- is what matters over everything. The en argues that God's Law is a higher truth. The unkin argue that they represent the will of the people, a higher authority than the untrustworthy claims of autocrats and priests. Either way it's all about being top of the pyramid.

And then you have the shaitan. Maybe he's a crazy old fuck from the desert. Maybe he's the vizier who actually sees the fuck-ups made by the king-priests and elders, whose job as admin is to sort out the mess and keep the system running but can't do that job properly because of the fucking Law. Maybe he's the priest from some outlying village of the empire who sees the poverty, the inequity of a Law made by autocrats, theocrats and oligarchs. Either way, when he takes up his stick and starts heading for the seat of power he becomes the shaitan, the Enemy, the eternal Enemy.

He might claim to represent some older way of doing things, or some newer way of doing things. He usually does claim that his way is a "higher" way. And there's no guarantee that he's not mistaken, occluded by bitterness, hatred of the "decadence" of a "city of sin". But he might equally well be a Martin Luther King, a John Maclean, a Paul Robeson, right in so many ways that it more than makes up for any misunderstanding of, for example, what was really going on in Stalin's Russia.

To me that shaitan always represents the underdog, the hated and reviled, the ones who get the small slice of cake. His power comes from below. His authority comes from beneath, from the repressed aesthetics we can't help but apply to a situation as he stands there pointing at it, calling us out for our hypocrisies of lofty morals and base actions. He represents not God's Law but humanity's unwritten rule of empathy. He represents the blood, sweat and tears of those who suffer under the Law as it stands, their advocate, their intercessor.

His core story is, to my mind, the Flood -- the Sumerian version rather than the Biblical, because the Sumerian version stands against the Law, against the dictator god, Enlil who fuses priest and king, and the council of gods, the elders who sit back and do nothing. His story is the one told to Gilgamesh by Ziusidra aka Attrahassis aka Ut-Napishtim, the hero of the flood, of how the Law has power but no empathy, how a King of Gods, a God of Kings, is not to be trusted. It's not so very different, in many respects, from the story of Moses and the cruelty of Pharoah, and the Lord leading his people out of Egypt; it just, I think, goes one step further -- a necessary step further -- in making the saviour of humanity, the one who organises the ark, or the Exodus, or the underground railroad, not a leader, not a representative of a higher power, but an... administrator... a craftsman... a god with no real authority at all other than his role as god of the abzu the deep waters under the world, the vast well of fresh water that rises in springs to sustain us, the well of human spirit. The authority that resides within us in the stubbornly persistent refusenik form of empathy.


So you know what? I like the sound of your Rabbinical Judaism. We're not exactly on the same page of the book, but we're in the same chapter, I'd guess. Because Rabbi Yochanan fits right into my Shaitanic Midrash as you term it. The hijacking of the religion by the geeks -- I like that idea. The incessant arguing, the driving sense of loss (of the Temple and the land), the collapse of centralised power, the refusal of all that Christian absolution mumbo-jumbo in favour of a redefinition of atonement -- I have alot of respect for that. My own anarchist metaphysics puts me at odds with the idea of a transcendant Law, but a large part of that is maybe that I make a distinction between transcendant and immanent authority, between imperatives symbolised as "coming from above" and imperatives symbolised as "coming from below". I adopt a more aggressive attitude because of that; I may come off as accusing monotheism the way Maclean accused capitalism, as being "dripping red with blood from head to toe". But I won't deny the validity of your take on it, the value of "gentle syncretism".

It's not so much that I want to present a single story, a Fall story, with Sodom as symbol of some urban idyll of libertines and liberals, and monotheism as the Great Evil which brought it crashing down. More that I want to invert the dominant stories, flip them through the looking-glass this way and that, map them onto other stories to see if -- in the correspondances and conflicts -- another more honest, more accurate story can be constructed.

We were slaves in Lot's household and the Lord brought us out of Sodom with an outstretched fist... but one day we will return because we loved it.

The Tower of Babel was destroyed, and we were scattered across the world... and everything we've written since was aimed at reconstructing Babel.

As much as I value that gentle syncretism, I'm a heretic, a contrarian; I see the Law (the moral / legal reality that the transcendant Law is an abstraction of) as something to be fought with, tooth and nail, because it always, I think, has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new century. I think rejecting the Law, rejecting the idea of a transcendant God and his Will as Judge, opens up the field of fictive play, of acceptable manipulations of myth and metaphor, allows for a more mercurial approach in which nothing is out of bounds because there's no such thing as blasphemy. To me that abstraction of authority limits the acceptability of stories contrary to the consensus. But reject that authority and there's nobody to say, hey, you can use these tools but not those ones. You can prune this tree but not that one. And stay the hell away from that tree in the middle of the garden, for if you touch the fruit of it you shall surely die.

For me the whole idea of a transcendant Law is an explicit affirmation of the concept of authority, and an implicit affirmation of the authority of those who... represent themselves as representatives of that Law. And that makes me want to fuck with their fictions, to flip them, to invert them, to say, you won't die, you know. You know you won't. Those things they tell you that you can't do... you can. Those things they tell you that you can't think... you can. You won't die. God won't strike you down. And the apples are, like, really fucking tasty.

1:16 am  

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