Around the corner from my house stands a Southern Baptist church, across the street from the Garden Court housing projects. It's not my church, not my tradition at all, but my ex-girlfriend Lis and Luke and I went down there sometimes, dressed in our best, and sat up in the back, and heard beautiful, intense, moving musical performances. For the cost of fanning yourself on a hot summer night and the pleasure of slipping a fin into the collection plate, we heard gospel music acts that put to shame any of the rock club and arena shows I've seen.
And in the same neighborhood, I lie in bed at night sometimes and hear the Amish buggies rumble down the street late on Sundays, or early on market days. I buy my apples and celery from Amish market stands, and flirt with the young girls in the bonnets (who flirt right back, because they know it's safe). On Sunday evenings when I drive Luke home to his mom's, sometimes the sound of their hymn-singing comes tremulous across the cornfields. They sing strangely and in Pennsylvania German, but plow and soil are their core acts of faith. They don't raise voices, they raise vegetables.
And this is Christianity in America, and that is Christianity in America, and they are as unlike from one another as each is from the clean, spare, silent Quaker meetings I attended in Chester County or the snake-handling cults I could find driving down I-81 into Eastern Tennessee. The Amish sell corn to the black Baptists. They recognize each other as co-religionists. They think they ultimately speak to the same god.
America is a Christian nation. I used to resist that, but now I accept it. Yet it's no more unified in its religion than ancient Rome was in its faiths. Or modern India. They were or are a collective tradition of individualist faiths. And so is America, a polytheistic religious culture under the very elastic tent of "Judeo-Christian monotheism."
Most modern polytheists don't worship all the gods at once, and I suspect most ancient ones didn't either. They respected them all, they felt close to one or two. Just so in America, a person can be raised Catholic, can attend Unitarian services in college, can be an agnostic in his 30s, can marry and join his wife in a Presbyterian pew, and can find himself in a Quaker meeting in old age. Religion in America can be a journey through faith, not a one-note symphony.
In the polytheistic religion each individual worshiper has a chosen deity (ista-devata) and does not usually worship other gods in the same way as his own, as the one he feels nearer to himself. Yet he acknowledges other gods. The Hindu, whether he be a worshiper of the Pervader (Visnu), the Destroyer (Siva), Energy (Sakti), or the Sun (Surya), is always ready to acknowledge the equivalence of these deities as the manifestations of distinct powers springing from an unknown 'Immensity.' ... During the pilgrimage of life he goes from one temple to another, adopts different forms of ritual, different modes of living, and various means of self-development. He is constantly aware of the coexistence of different approaches to divinity, suitable for people at stages of realization different from his own. [Alain Danielou, "Hindu Polytheism," 1964]
That quality in America is not an accident; it (and the British reformation that set it up) are the reason America can be what it is. The founders knew that they could set religion free of all government cognizance, because the multiplicity of sects in the nation would check each other, and all would make concessions for their mutual benefit. Madison put it perfectly in "The Federalist":
A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source.
Or, as Voltaire said of the Mother Country; "If only one religion were allowed in England, the government would very possibly become arbitrary. If there were but two, the people would cut one another's throats. But as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace."
In reading Gertrude Himmelfarb's "The Roads to Modernity," I'm reminded how lucky we were to avoid the fate of France.
In France, the essence of the Enlightenment -- literally, its raison d'être -- was reason. "Reason is to the philosophe," the Encyclopédie declared, "what Grace is to the Christian." ... The idea of reason defined and permeated the Enlightenment as no other idea did. In a sense, the French Enlightenment was a belated Reformation, a Reformation fought in the cause not of a higher or purer religion but of a still higher and purer authority, reason. It was in the name of reason that Voltaire issued his famous declaration of war against the church, "Ecrasez l'infâme," and that Diderot proposed to "strangle the last king with the entrails of the last priest."
The "fundamentalist secularism" of modern Europe was born then. Edward Gibbon is considered an arch-Christian-basher by many today. I adore his notorious 24th chapter for its body-slamming of early Christianity back into its proper historical context. Yet visiting Paris in 1763, he noted the "intollerant zeal" of the philosophes, who "preached the tenets of atheism with the bigotry of dogmatists, and damned all believers with ridicule and contempt."
Even Hume, another of my agnostic heroes, did not shout "Ecrasez l'infâme." "[Hume] displayed in his writings a tolerance toward religion and a benign view of it typical of most of his colleagues, If he did not make of religion the source of morality, he did regard it as a natural ally of the morality inherent in man. Reason and religion had equal but separate functions, reason providing the general rules of right and wrong, and religion reinforcing those rules by the commands and laws of the deity."
That's who we are; we give lip service to our fundamentalism, and the people who dislike America on principle will gladly stop there. But if you lift the lid on this culture of faith, which so appalls the modern Europeans, you find a rich pagan stew simmering happily inside.
FINDING MY RELIGION
Many of the Christians I know seem to be like the woman Joseph Addison described, who, "is so good a Christian that whatever happens to herself is a trial, and whatever happens to her neighbors is a judgment." Or they seem to suit Ambrose Bierce's definition of a Christian as "One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor," or the alternative definition, "One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin." I remember being 5 or 6 years old and talking my parents out of their Sunday trips to the Episcopalian church. I wanted to stay home and play, rather than sit in the hard-backed chairs and sing songs, and even then I could tell they went only out of obligation, mixed with a sense of social climbing.
On their own, such people are silly or mildly offensive. When they enter the political and social arena en masse, their totem, tribal, racial, and aggressive cults can be deadly. That's why the great monotheisms are better known to the world for their brutal crusades and internecine bloodletting than for their supposed gospels of love and redemption.
"Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what one does not believe. It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying had produced in society. When man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime." [Tom Paine]
There are two ideas that ought to be kept separate. The one is my faith (or anyone's) and the other is the rational critique (by me or anyone) of the Christian Gospel and the practical consequences of it in history. That critique doesn't imply some arrested development of adolescent rebellion. Not every non-Christian from a Christian home is locked into a "no-I-won't-go-to-church" temper tantrum. An atheist may be blocked by personal traumas or other psychological factors from faith. He or she may lack the "bump of veneration" (as the phrenologists used to call it). A devout Hindu, on the other hand, certainly has no shortage of faith. Yet both can read, say, the Book of Genesis and notice the two irreconcilable accounts of the creation that are in it.
For most of my youth, I was an agnostic, shading toward atheism. In modern America being "not a Christian" is as far as most people can see when you tell them you're not one.
I found occasional peace and solace in my younger years in certain places of faith -- Catholic mass, mainly for the calm confidence that comes of ritual and deep history; but also Quaker meetings, which are in my family history, and the Unitarian-Universalist church, which really transcends creed and does not require faith in some invisible, all-powerful deity. But I never joined any of them and never went to any one for very long. Whether I believed or not, I felt, was between me and God, or the gods, or the lack of them, but everyone else seemed to want to make it their business. I lived in a place and time where Christianity is something that follows me around the streets, urging poorly written tracts on me and shouting, "He died for your sins!" My stint as an editorial page editor also involved me on a daily basis with the most brutal, stupid and aggressive form of Christians, of all denominations. In the political life of my community, every species of bigotry takes its sword and shield from the "inerrant Word of God," and all manner of destructive stupidity and personal grudge flows into the social and political process under cover of "the unalterable law of the creator."
So calling attention to the warts and knots of the Bible, became a function of the practical aspect of my life. Once people become convinced they have access to absolute truth, with no test in reality, sooner or later they will begin to act on it. It doesn't matter if you're Christian or not. The bricks of Treblinka were formed of that kind of faith. But if you're one of those "I am godly and unstoppable" types, I'm going to be the prick you kick against. It's not a comfortable role, and I'm always fearing I'll fight so reflexively that I'll end up trampling one of the few genuinely good souls who are on the path of Christianity, through my lack of discernment. Judaism and Islam have the same difficulties and tendencies in the modern world as Christianity. But carping at them would make me feel evil. If I lived in Tehran or Tel Aviv, I would feel otherwise. Yet I have no more inclination to embrace those faiths than I do Christianity.
It seems unjust that I should be able to carp at your religion and not offer my own for examination. But it is also true that some faiths are personal, rather than proselytizing. And that some are rightly termed mysteries. I loathe proselytizing. As if you could sell truth door-to-door. For what I believe, there is no book that we all have read, no Bible, and if I were to attempt to describe the path I should do it poorly, for don't make it and I don't yet know where it's taking me.
Here's as much as I can tell you. I'm still the agnostic I was in my 20s: I am hesitant to make affirmative statements about more than I have known directly, or to accept worldviews that are internally contradictory and not consistent with the facts. But I have seen and felt what I never expected, what I can only say were the works or presences of gods. I don't care to convince anyone of that. I do devotions to powers you certainly have heard of. Your church stole some of them and called them saints. Others it cast down and called devils. To some it did both, without realizing it.
I ask. I learn what they show me. I follow what is strong; I grow what is needed; I wait for new doors to be unlocked. I learn to sift their voices from my own. The Quaker background is helpful, and in practice what I do is probably not all that different from what you do except the honey and apples and wine and barley cakes in the open groves.
I use the gifts that I find in me, and the greatest, perhaps, is the one you also begin to use when you read those blood-curdling Old Testament stories and say, "that was a cruel thing to do" -- say it even of God, before you correct yourself. The discernment of right and wrong that can weigh even a god's actions is a holy power.
I do not believe they "made" the world -- I do not believe it is a "made" thing. It has not the plot of novel or the tick of a watch. It is a blood-smeared squalling, snotty, wild thing; born, not made, but that requires a female first principle, and the Middle Eastern monotheisms have diligently scrubbed her out of the picture (Christianity least successfully of the three).
They are not all-powerful, but they are in this world and also in places I can't see or understand. We work together, not as equals, assuredly, but not as tyrant and slave, either.
What is beyond them? I don't know, and may not in this life. But I don't expect it to be the Christian God, based on what he has said of himself. I have been told we lived before and will live again, here. That, too, is a matter of faith. It changes a great many things. A true faith will not lie, but it may tell truths in forms that we can scarcely recognize at first.
I dislike New Age bids to reconstruct ancient religions, which usually yield tin masks for pop psychology, and religions that can be no bigger than their imaginers.
The persistent question of any belief seems to me to be the one posed in the Book of Job: why is life so nasty so often? I don't think anyone's quoted from that book for a "favorite verse" here yet. Why is life the sow that eats her farrow? The children of Egypt die of plagues even now, whether it is the work of your god or of Artemis Hekebolos. (I can comprehend it better in Artemis, since she at least does not claim to control and rule all, only her portion.)
Any religion that offers no answer to this question, or no alternative, is inadequate to human needs. Yet no final answer is possible. This is the sun I cannot stare into without going mad and which I cannot see past. And so I turn the other direction, and see the other aspect of faith: the shadow one casts on the earth. How do you live? What does your love and skill accomplish? Is the world a better place for your having lived in it? I do not say "thou fool" to one who works in the world, for what and whom he loves. I think a religion is vain that says that. I think the bumper sticker I so often see, "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven," is a shabby coat for moral laziness.
I empathize with a modern Christian of intellect and learning, attempting the feat of standing on faith alone. One who knows logic as a handy tool is forced to lay it aside, for faith makes no concession to reason. Yet a religion is open to question and probing, and to fall back on faith always smacks, to a thinking mind, of special pleading.
The path I'm on now contradicts my long commitment to enlightenment rationalism and common sense. Not totally, but any swerve from that is a life-changer. I'm no longer on the same team as Ingersoll and Tom Paine and Mark Twain, though I still love them. I now believe in things I once argued against, from a logical standpoint. If confronted now with my own arguments from 10 years ago, I would have no rebuttal.
I have to work every day to make the irrational and the rational bed down together under the same skull. That's faith. I didn't build a religion out of my ethics. Faith comes a flare through the hollow of the ear, the thing that flows in from beyond what you know and can explain. It takes you where you're afraid to go. It sent Saul into a ditch and Thomas Merton to the Little Flower. It makes my hair stand on end.
GOD and CHILDREN
When I started a blog, one of the first other bloggers to link to it was a woman who is, by her own description, the daughter of hippies, raised in the mountains of northern California in the 1970s, now married with a 5-year-old child and living as a suburban stay-at-home mom in a Silicon Valley suburb. The casual mentions of Prada and Paris suggest there's money involved.
I can't imagine anyone more unlike me in attitude and beliefs. But my other Web sites are concerned with language, poetry, literature, and such topics, and she seems to have felt an affinity without, or in spite of, reading my political matter. She kindly put up a flattering link.
It's awkward because I don't want to betray her kind words, but when I read her site, much of which concerns the daily business of raising a child, I often meet things that make my jaw drop.
Like the day she heard her son say "God Bless."
I let it go once, and that was enough for me.
Finally she brings it up in the presence of her husband, who tells her the boy's really saying "Gotta blast!" Which is something he picked up from the one cartoon he's allowed to watch, "Jimmy Neutron."
"We don't say that," I said the next time. He didn't really even pause, just continued on. But it happened again. "Honey, I said, we don't say 'God Bless.' " I would have gone into reasons, but he didn't seem interested. Why not a simple "have a nice day?" I thought.
I never really made all that much out of it and neither did he, but one day while talking with my husband in the car, Simon said it again. "Who on earth is saying "God Bless" to our kid? I asked.
Which was the point of the post, to tell a humorous story, but I can't help thinking what will happen to a child who is taught "God" is a dirty word. My prediction: He'll grow up to be a TV preacher. You have to give your children something to rebel into, when the time comes, and if you've put religion outside the pale, chances are that's where they'll end up.
As a secularist polytheist agnostic, I can sympathize with a parent's dilemmas about religion. But if you're going to raise a child to function in modern America, you have a duty to teach him or her about religions, good, bad, and ugly. Just like if you want to be a serious student of English literature, you have to know your King James Bible inside and out, no matter what you believe, personally.
The whole process can be layered in ironies. When my son was little, after his mother and I divorced, she started taking him to a fairly fundamentalist and uncreative Presbyterian church. I knew he'd have trouble there, as a sensitive and active kid.
As a secularist polytheist agnostic, I was delighted: There's no better way to assure a sensitive and intelligent child grows up to reject Christianity than to subject him from an early age to the bigoted and simplistic version of it. Except maybe to teach it to him in public school, but that broad path to atheism, alas, is now blocked off.
So my ex had my son baptized, and things went wrong from about that point. He hated having water on his face at that age (a result of some bathtime trauma) and he at once turned to the congregation and said, "does anyone have a towel?"
She made him dress in a monkey suit and sit through sermons on hot summer mornings. He used to squirm out of his clothes and at one point was down to just underwear -- he and the Jesus-on-the-cross picture.
And before long, he encountered the hair-raising, blood-curdling stories at the core of Christianity -- God tells Abraham to kill Isaac, his son. God kills his own son. God sends people to hell for eating sushi, "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother," all that sort of thing. It's in there. It's a wonder to me that anyone but the most simple, or the most sophisticated, minds can accomplish the art of living a Christian life. "Intelligent, sensitive child" falls right between those safe extremes. And I knew his mother, or the preacher she'd chosen, would be incapable of putting these stories into the kind of context that would make them swallow-able.
So it fell to me -- secularist polytheist agnostic -- to try to give him an education in Christianity for all the good it can do, for all the light and honor it can embody, and to show him the complexity of it, and the mix of mud and glory. In other words, to find the place where he could plug into the faith.
Then in later years, as his peers in their conservative Christian community rebelled into goth-dom and Wicca, it fell to me to point out the superficiality of those practices, as they are commonly acted out in teen life, and the fact that real asratu or wicca, the authentic form of what the modern New Age faiths palely echo, were ritual, communal, and not built out of personal psychological needs of the moment.
Not to make him one thing or the other, not to steer him into or away from anything, simply to keep him balanced and capable of making his own free choice -- or hearing the voice that calls.
As the gods choose.
The new (and mis-called) "Gospel of Judas" is fascinating less as a bombshell (it's not) and more because it shows how soon after the life of Jesus people of theological sensibility were poking their heads into this intriguing warp in the story.
What does the Gospel of Judas say? The Gospel of Judas which was written on 26 pages with 13 sheets of papyrus with writing on both front and back, says that Jesus requested Judas to act as a traitor. Judas is not portrayed as a bad guy but more of a hero doing as Jesus asked of him. In the other Gospels Judas is viewed as a traitor that betrays Jesus. There is also a strong Gnostic perspective established in this text. Gnostic Christians believe that salvation comes from a secret knowledge that Jesus gave to his disciples.
Probably the best-known modern warp-poker was DeQuincey, who replaced Judas the traitor with Judas the misguided saint. DeQuincey's theory even has gained ground among renegade theologians:
DeQuincey made the famous suggestion that Judas played the traitor in order to force Jesus' hand. Writhing with impatience as he watched his master apparently squandering one opportunity after another of asserting himself and claiming the throne, Judas at last decided that if Jesus would not take action of his own accord, he would have to be compelled to act. But how? Obviously the way to do it would be to get Jesus into a compromising situation. Then he would be forced to bestir himself and manifest his power. Then the Kingdom would come. [James Stewart, The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ]
Robinson Jeffers, one of the most overlooked American poets of the 20th century, took his own view of the story in the long poem "Dear Judas" in 1929. The son of a Presbyterian minister and a church organist, raised a strict Calvinist, Jeffers felt his way into the core of the betrayal story armed with the language of Yeats and the stylistic shield of Japanese noh drama. He discovered a Judas who loves Jesus and understands him better than any of the other disciples do. But in Jerusalem Judas finds his master grown too fond of power. Judas betrays Jesus, hoping that the punishment meted to him will be a day or two in prison, in a bid to save Christ from the fate of being seized as a revolutionary and killed.
But my favorite revisionist treatment of the myth comes in "Three Versions of Judas," the 1944 story by Borges, about a fictional pious Swede named Nils Runeberg who, like Jeffers and DeQuincey, plunges into the puzzling story of the betrayal of Christ and comes out in a strange place. Like the best Borges, it is written in the voice of an encyclopedia -- not the bland modern thing that goes by that name, but the vital dance of fact and sure prose of an "Encyclopedia Britannica" from the 1920s or '30s, when articles were ghostwritten by geniuses, not educrats.
To suppose an error in Scripture is intolerable; no less intolerable is to admit that there was a single haphazard act in the most precious drama in the history of the world. Ergo, the treachery of Judas was not accidental; it was a predestined deed which has its mysterious place in the economy of the Redemption. Runeberg continues: The Word, when It was made flesh, passed from ubiquity into space, from eternity into history, from blessedness without limit to mutation and death; in order to correspond to such a sacrifice it was necessary that a man, as representative of all men, make suitable sacrifice. Judas Iscariot was that man. Judas, alone among the apostles, intuited the secret divinity and the terrible purpose of Jesus. The Word had lowered Himself to be mortal; Judas, the disciple of the Word, could lower himself to the role of informer (the worst transgression dishonour abides), and welcome the fire which cannot be extinguished. The lower order is a mirror of the superior order, the forms of the earth correspond to the forms of the heavens; the stains on the skin are a map of the incorruptible constellations; Judas in some way reflects Jesus. [Translated by Anthony Kerrigan]
"Runeberg's" version comes closest to that of the freshly translated gnostic story. But that is just the beginning. Borges' Runeberg (names matter: Borges, a student of Anglo-Saxon, would have known that Germanic *run- is a word of magic and power) follows his intuition into a stunning secret history more explosive than "The Da Vinci Code."
The general argument is not complex, even if the conclusion is monstrous. God, argues Nils Runeberg, lowered himself to be a man for the redemption of the human race; it is reasonable to assume that the sacrifice offered by him was perfect, not invalidated or attenuated by omissions. To limit what he suffered to the agony of one afternoon on the cross is blasphemous.
And if you think I'm going to spoil the ending for you, you've got the wrong guy.
INDEX - AUTHOR