Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Bipolar religion

I used to read, or chant, the Psalms a lot. For twenty years in the Book of Hours, twice a day at least, for Lauds and Vespers, often for Compline, as well as at Mass. These 150 "hymns" are, in a way, the Bible set to music. When the West still had a viable literary tradition --that is, writers who were aware of and appreciative of their literary roots-- you would find allusions to the Bible quite frequently. Watching a Merchant-Ivory film of a Henry James novel*, The Wings of the Dove, I heard this voiceover of Psalm 55, one of the darkest.

 4My heart is sore pained within me: and the terrors of death are fallen upon me.
 5Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me, and horror hath overwhelmed me.
 6And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest.
 7Lo, then would I wander far off, and remain in the wilderness. Selah.
 8I would hasten my escape from the windy storm and tempest.

That is the strange thing about the Psalms. Their almost manic-depressive range. Their labile moods. Groups of them are serene and confident, believing that faith and righteousness will bring a happy life. And others sing despondently of broken promises and inexplicable disaster. Not a one-dimensional collection.

And it really could only have been written by Jews, especially the complaints. Although Christians hold that God's incarnation in Jesus created a new intimacy between Creator and creatures, Judaism has its own intimate connection, the God of Israel --who eventually lays claim to being the One and Only God-- has this unique obsessive relationship to this particular ethnic group. And included in the Covenant is complaining, even accusing, when the Divine Partner fails to keep up his end of the bargain. The Jewish lawyer is not a stereotype for nothing. Psalm 88 is even darker than 55, even hostile. And although Psalm 89 has a long section of praise, it almost seems like a setup for the final verses, where King David basically indicts God for breaking his word. The Jews did and do speak up when unhappy with God. They say that He was even put on trial in Auschwitz by a rabbinical court. And not found innocent.

This is something you do not find in Christianity. I put it rather bluntly: after God crucifies his only child for you, you really lose any right to complain. In a funny way, the Christian God the Father becomes a kind of an uncritiquable Jewish mother. "After all I've done for you..."  Ironically, Christ's cry of despair from the cross --My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?-- is the opening line of Psalm 22.

My problems with Christ usually have come down to feeling that it was hard to be an actual, aka fallen, human being when He was around. Certainly one of the comforting strengths of the Old Testament is that all the holy people have flaws. The doings of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, David and Solomon and their kin...all fodder for a huge family therapy session. I used to joke that the Christian Holy Family of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and St Joseph would make even the Waltons look abusive and dysfunctional by comparison. Too much goodness is not good for us.

The (Calvinist) Genevan Psalter

So the emotion-besotted Psalms of David*, especially (and strangely) beloved of monks and Calvinists, can present problems for a lot of Christians, or anyone who prefers being spiritual to being religious and who expects a sacred book, especially one called The Good Book, to be filled with nothing but monochromatic light and peace and love and joy and caring and sharing. The Happy Sutra it ain't.

*Contemporary scholars believe that the Psalter is a collection of hymns from a variety of sources, with David being an author, but not the author, of them.

*Curious, I checked the novel and the psalm is not there. An addition in the film.


Leah said...

You understand us so well.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure there could be no reason to complain of the Christian God on grounds that »after God crucifies his only child for you, you really lose any right to complain«.

Jesus observes (perhaps sarcastically to those who know how to give good gifts to their sons [v. 11] and yet maybe do not accomplish this know-how), "Indeed, who is the man among you whom his son asks for bread—he will not hand him a stone, will he? Or perhaps he will ask for a fish—he will not hand him a serpent, will he?" (Matthew 7:9, 10).

The trajectory recommended by Jesus was not follow'd up on by the Pharsees (wanting to give stones and serpents to their sons, they could hardly expect living bread and fish from the Father), and I guess accordingly the legitimate only-BEgotten son was changed to stone (cf the crucifixes pray'd before by RCs, Lutherans, and Elizabeth 1) in connection with a watery serpent in the vicinity.

... Yet apparently the devil's know-how for the "I am" includes transforming stones into bread of a sort (Matthew 4:2-3) but perhaps in the vicinity of a serpent. Not enough for eternal life, any more than one could be satisfy'd with a stone crucifix rather than the living Lord. First the Shadow, then the eternal life (Col 2:17)?

Anonymous said...

Jehovah intervened to prevent the stoneification of Isaac (which apparently God would have been okay with). Jehovah didn't intervene for the Pharisees et al to preserve their sacred king or ego, despite his citation of Psalm 22, I guess because they weren't as deserving as Abraham. They explain'd the death of the son, the obedient will-to-power One, as necessary, grimly 'expedient' etc (John 11:5) for the sake of their religious system [cf the Mecca system, founded by the illegitimate son, sc whom we know of only by revelation in sacred writ] rather than as the meaning and life of their religious system (and prefer'd the release of Jesus evil twin Barabbas [son-of-the-father]). ... Obviously by flipping the letters of 'ram' caught by his horns among thorns (Gen 22:13) we see the truth that Isaac accepted. Real blessing, then, can come only via the legitimate son; Abrahammock religion via Jesus Barabbas or any other illegitimate son as born to a woman whose name means Running Away, won't suffice -- though admittedly, it seems to be okay as a preparation, a detour that can be corrected. ... Ask the Melchizedek Grand Inquisitor, eh? He has "completed" the kerygma of Jesus into the oikoumene of Satan. And perhaps he is correct that Jesus has no right to add or take away from the completion (via Mary, John Baptist, John the Apostle, Paul, Augustinian Christendom on up to Hegel). The question is whether the diners can be content with unreal presence for ever and ever -- self-contempt for ever and ever and contempt for the Grand Inquisitor's personnel who supposedly bear the difficult truth (but they bear it as a lie, and I suppose it has as much levity as any lie). At most, an unbearable levity of fake beingness.

But my guess is this is the arrangement of Egypt. Jehovah may as well have left things as is. What an absurd detour only to arrive back at the routine fleshpots system (mystagogy plus warlordism; the sons of God using the daughters or houses [beta's] of Man for semiotic hypertrophy), so easy to replicate in all cultures and contexts for rooted communities of richly traditionalist pacifist socialist whiners who wish for the persona of necessity and thus unreal presence.

Yet you anticipate freedom for a private use of holy writ, e.g. the Psalms? ...

Anonymous said...

P.S. I see that even after Nietzsche the RSV and the Jewish Study Bible are not courageous enough to put "I am" in Psalm 89:47. (Actually the JSB asserts in a footnote the meaning of the Hebrew is is uncertain, but the RSV is nervy enough to state in a footnote that the editors are correcting the text to get rid of "I." Seems the reading should be "Remember the duration of life that I am.")

And was it Jewish sense of humour that came up with the verdict that God is "not innocent"? I will agree that the Holocaust -- which is call'd Holocaust -- is uniquely horrible in scale, but when did Jews ever have the right to fancy that God is "innocent"? Even Gentiles never really had that right -- if indeed the wish to appear obtuse and moronic is a right. ... Thousands and thousands of brainy Jews transfer'd their hopes from the covenant with Jehovah to the methods of Marx, Lenin and even Stalin. There's no excuse or justification for such methods, but consider'd from the perspective or whatever of Marx et al, how is one to be surprised that millions of naive Jewish population would get caught up in the machinery of liquidation?

I can't follow Richard Rubenstein at all when he argues that anyone who understands the Old Testament will see that the Holocaust means the stuff done in History isn't understandable in terms of God any more, and we must "believe in God the Holy Nothingness who is our source and our final destiny" (After Auschwitz, p. 204) -- that is, in a God who is 'innocent' of stuff that happens. For one thing, how does Rubenstein know that such a God is real or that we have our source and final destiny in him? By cosmological reasoning? It can't be from holy writ. Secondly, Rubenstein in this locus praises Sartre who was definitely okay with the machinery of liquidation used by Stalin. Atheistic methodologists can declare that liquidations prove the God of the Bible is false, but not that liquidations (for the proper leftwing purposes) are refuted? In any case, seems to me if Rubenstein wishes to culturally liquidate Jews into worshippers of Nothingness, he would do well to recommend something safer -- a real immersion of Jews into Islam or Christianity. Doesn't really sound safe to antagonize Islamists by declaring Jews to be worshippers of Nothingness. And if the State of Israel were to become a state dedicated to Nothingess worshippers, Christian fundamentalists in America would no longer be obliged by the Bible to support the State of Israel. "Who blesses you him will I bless and who curses you him will I curse" won't apply to a Judah who throws away his scepter in preference for Nothingness.

If Jews wish to disappear because of the Holocaust, then they should really disappear, not become a new easy target for anti-semites as declared Nothingness worshippers!

Admittedly, Rubenstein seems to leave open the possibility that God acts "meaninglessly" in history, which would congrue with an "absurd" "cosmos" is as one may "prefer" (ibid., pp. 204f), which suggests to me that the absurdity of the order or cosmos is more apparent than true. It's as though his objection isn't to the vast cruelties but the meaning attach'd to them by the Bible. That is, one can look at the Holocaust with detach'd serenity: it's the Bible that's the nightmare.

Against this absurd solution to the problem of the Holocaust and liquidation machinery in general, I argue for LESS cruelty and MORE meaning.

Anonymous said...

P.S. I noted recently in a review of Alan Wolfe's state-blaming exoneration of religion "Political Evil" by Michael Ignatieff (student of Isaiah Berlin) »Killing all Jews is not crazy: It is a plan that will make you master of all you survey.«

Well really, I must doubt this thesis. This thesis surely goes back to Satan at the temptations (the temptation, moreover, to the Shemitic element of the Gentile system) »Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the kosmos [oikoumene in Luke's version], and the glory of them; and saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.«

Supposing that Satan's system involves a unify'd system of interpreters and initiators, evidently the presence of Jews as such in the system does not prevent his ego from operating as king of all he surveys. Furthermore, if a culture's Shem really were to have no even apparent 'interloping' counter-interpreters etc, so that "deception" could be abolish'd (from a system constituted by deception!), then the killing could hardly stop with those who are Jews in the usual sense. I recall that in the movie "Murder by Decree" that "Jewes" can signify Freemasons, or perhaps a supposedly renegade band of Freemasons (an actor named "Mason" play'd the second role in the movie, eh?). As we know from Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc, liquidations in order to arrive at interpretational unity cannot stop at just this or that one designated group of badniks.

So, really, Ignatieff and Wolfe don't give sound advice even as a warning to "liberals" (on grounds, I hope, that liberals don't wish to be kings of all they survey).

But admittedly, I never met anyone who didn't implicitly favour 'cultural genocide' -- namely the change of 'genos' in a group, e.g. liberal Christians wish all Creationist fundamentalists to become liberal Christians (who incidentally seem to favour Palestinian right of return to all lands plausibly claimable as ancestral -- but I guess this must be balanced against the nightmare of Christian fundamentalists' anti-semitic Judgement Day, which I'm sure keeps Jews awake at night in terror). Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims wish to convert or culturally genocide every unbeliever into a believer.

One may regret when some cultures disappear or are liquidated by conversion of genos, e.g. speaking for moi, the rapid liquidation in North America of the girl next door, replaced by female goths, tattoo'd pierced white self-designated ho's etc. But definitely nobody wants every culture preserved. ... By abandoning meaning, Rubenstein seems to me more likely to abet cruel versions of liquidation, and to make impossible the "cultural genocide" system that can operate quite painlessly etc, and with external and internal agreement of the genocided. ... Nietzsche's call for a ruthless annihilation of the everything system that's generative and parasitical (sc anonymous Christianity's nihilism) could have been implemented with only hurt feelings. But Rubenstein wants Jews to believe in a God the Holy Nothingness.

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