Satan & January 6

In these bleak months of winter 2020-21, as Trump exits the stage and Trumpism putrefies into various expressions of private madness and public “domestic violent extremism,” I have been thinking about the everlasting dominance of what biblical scholars call “the apocalyptic worldview” or “apocalypticism.” This is nothing less than the actual religion of the Christian Bible, which always subverts and destroys the attempts of Constantinian religion, modern conservativism, or irenic Jesus liberalism to present the Bible as some kind of benign pillar of civilized consciousness.

Apocalypticism rests on a number of core convictions:

  1. The present world is horrific and intolerable.
  2. Therefore “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4) is Satan, an evil demon.
  3. But we are the good people, children of an ultimate father God who is pure goodness. “We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19).
  4. The cosmos is a battlefield between good angels and evil demons.
  5. Human beings can and must choose to fight either for the side of good or that of evil.
  6. Things will get even worse, far far worse, very soon. You can take Jesus’ word for it: there will be a “great tribulation” (Mark 13:19).
  7. After the great tribulation comes the destruction or obliteration of the created world as we know it.
  8. Then the savior god will appear and resurrect the bodies of the dead.
  9. There will be judgment. The souls and resurrected bodies of the wicked will suffer unending torment, while the souls and bodies of the faithful good people will be rewarded with heavenly bliss of some sort.
  10. The End (credits: Jews under Seleucids, Jews under Persians, Persian Zoroastrians).

That’s the basic myth of apocalypticism. The best book on this topic is Chaos, Cosmos, & the World to Come: the Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith, by Norman Cohn (Yale University Press, 1993). Cohn shows how this myth evolved out of a more ancient “combat myth” that was common to all major civilizations of the ancient Near East and India. These civilizations knew that they were fragile and could meet their doom at any time. So they told stories of a “chaos monster” that threatens to destroy the human order, but who would be defeated by a divine hero figure who would step in to defeat the monster and put the world to rights. Nothing odd about such stories to a generation raised on Star Wars, the Matrix, Harry Potter, the Batman trilogy, etc.

But Zoroaster and his followers, especially under the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BCE), changed the script considerably. They introduced new ideas, like: a perfectly good god; his counterpart, a perfectly evil god; a war between them, unfolding over the course of all human history; the necessity for humans to choose and take sides in this war; a resurrection and an afterlife; a judgment based on one’s behavior. All of these ideas were more or less new, even though the Egyptians had their own ideas about resurrection and rewards and punishments in the afterlife. The crucial change was that Zoroastrianism applied this model to history, and therefore to all cultures and peoples, high and low.

Second Temple Judaism, the origin of all Judaism as well as of Christianity, had its birth and childhood under the Achaemenid Empire, which controlled Judea and the Jews for the better part of 2 centuries (comparable to the lifetime of the United States of America). All the Jewish ideas that made New Testament Christianity what it is originate from this time (a fact which is fundamentally concealed and repressed by the adoption of “the Old Testament” as a foundation stone). Cohn thus argues that ancient Jewish apocalypticism and its Christian offshoot originate from ancient Persian ideas.

What does this have to do, really, with Satan, and with the insurrection of January 6? Everything. The Satan myth is essentially the combat myth. (See The Old Enemy: Satan & the Combat Myth, by Neil Forsyth (Princeton University Press, 1987). The name “Satan” comes from a Hebrew word meaning “the opponent” or “the adversary.” The Combat Myth fits perfectly within contemporary American politics. People are fundamentally uneasy about social, existential changes wrought by technological forces in the Information Age. The Bible itself is felt to be no longer relevant, and therefore “under assault.” America’s Civil War and Cold War are unresolved. Our children’s racial and sexual identity is being stolen from “us,” i.e. White Christian European Western Civilization. The worst are full of passionate intensity.

The Trump presidency was a psychotic eruption of the Combat Myth. Here was a great savior figure intervening on behalf of a dying white Christian America, ready to do battle with the children of darkness. His priapic excesses, if technically criminal, were proof of his titanic powers, and not any detraction from his greatness. Desperate times call for desperate measures. David and Solomon also womanized on a grand scale. That was how they thought in 2016, and it is also why Trump is so often imagined as a messiah figure. The job of the messiah is to overthrow the powers of darkness, and that’s what Trump was supposed (i.e. imagined) to do. This all makes sense within the fictional universe of the Bible, i.e., apocalypticism.

The reason both religious and secular people today are so blind to the apocalyptic bona fides of Trumpism is that we are in thrall to outdated conceptions of Christianity, the Bible, religion, prophecy, God, etc. We are trapped in a 2nd Millennium Model of what those things essentially are. If you think, for example, that C.S. Lewis was essentially right about the character of Christianity, then you have no concept of the apocalyptic energy of scripture. Lewis ignored apocalyptic themes, and made demons into pop-psychological characters of banal comedy. His Christianity, as well as of all mainline Protestant and Catholic varieties in the post-WW2 era, is essentially the “Christianity and Water” that he derided.

In a time of extreme, dualistic opposition between two cultures derived from the Bible, which both see their side as essentially good and their opponents as essentially evil, it can be hard to tell Satan apart from the Messiah. To some the cult leader is a new Christ; to others he is a Satanic figure. Either way, his role is to be a fighter, an opponent, a cosmic adversary. Trump and Satan have everything to do with one another, whether or not one believes in Satan or in the real existence of evil beings.

We are experiencing a psychotic drama in America because our sacred scriptures are fundamentally psychotic and irrational.

god ≠ the source

Have you ever noticed that we’re all supposed to know who “god” is? For example: “I was talking to god the other day.” “You were talking to whom?” is an impolite response. We’re supposed to know already who “god” is. Not “my god” or “the god I believe in” or “the supreme being,” but just…god.

It’s offensive of me to write god’s name in the lowercase. He (and He’s a He for sure) spells his name with a capital “G.” For our christian culture, it’s ok to speak of “the gods,” or “a god,” but if you are talking about the god that we all apparently know and address our prayers to, it’s a capital “G.” This is how we know we’re talking about the true god and not any false gods.

I remember that the first author I noticed resorting to this tactic was Martha Nussbaum, the philosopher and polymathic scholar. I don’t remember where she wrote it.

We get our god-consciousness from the apostle Paul:

We know that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords,  yet for us there is only one God, the Father, from which whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him. However, not all people have this knowledge.

1 Corinthians 8:4-7

Today, all people do have this knowledge, or are considered strange if they don’t.

What can we say about the meaning of the word “God”? It is a proper name, just as Michael Jackson is a proper name. It denotes a person. But at the same time, and equally, it is a concept. God is that from which all things are. Both meanings are affirmed by theism, but only the second meaning is affirmed by pantheism, which denies the first.

Take note. I changed to uppercase “God,” because I am shifting the “from whom” to a “from which” in the translator’s rendering of 1 Corinthians 8:6, which I am perfectly entitled to do on account of the non-specificity of the relative pronoun in the original, ἐξ οὗ τὰ πάντα. Paul shows here his indebtedness to Greek wisdom, the philosophical wisdom about the true nature, the pantheistic nature, of God “the father.” There is in fact the very same ambiguity (or duplicity) in the scriptural sacred name “the father” or “the Father” as there is in our modern word “God.”

In NT scripture, “the father” is “our father.” This is true for Paul just as for the Jesus of the Gospels. But what we get in this important verse from 1 Corinthians is a suggestion of a more hidden meaning of the term “father,” which is pantheistic, pagan, profane.

The father is that from which The All is. In other words, THE SOURCE. This is a subtle, and un-Jewish way to speak of God.

The source of all things is not necessarily a creator. Even pantheists admit that the All, the universe, must have a source that is transcendent infinite. Affirming that there is something or other from which the All originates is not the same thing as believing in God, since “God” is that person that people all know and talk to.

Returning to the beginning theme of this post, “God” is a proper name of a person in our Western Christian/Post-Christian civilization. “God” is also the creator, and a creator can only be a person. Only a person creates, since creation implies decision and intention and a plan. The Biblical and theistic model of a divine creator of the universe is inherently anthropomorphic, based implicitly on the human model of what it means to create something.

The mere idea that the universe is not self-explanatory, that there must be an ἐξ οὗ τὰ πάντα, a that-from-which-all-things, i.e., a SOURCE, does not amount to the One Creator God idea that defines Western religion. A creator is a person. A source is not by definition a person.

Vague Beginnings

How do I imagine this blog?

I have used the title “Post-Christian World” because I feel like a large slice of contemporary culture (whatever this thing is that I call “we”) is a stalled historical dialect of Christianity and the Bible always asserting themselves, modernity always rejecting and transcending them, and a consequent welter of confusion and chaos erupting between the two. When I say that the world is “post-Christian,” I mean to say that we are always leaving Christianity, but have never quite left it. Somehow it is never quite in the past, never quite defeated. Obviously there is a large segment of furiously pro-Christian belief and sentiment that proclaims the failure of atheism, skepticism, liberalism, etc. Then there is an enlightened modernity that refuses religion and revelation with equal confidence. In the middle, there are very many confused people who view themselves as tolerant of both religion and science, both the Bible and modernity, but who really don’t have a clue about either.

My own perspective is that (a) the Bible is abidingly important, (b) faith in its full, original form is impossible, absurd, and destructive, (c) nothing in today’s world is an “adequate substitute” for the faith that once defined Europe and the West, and hence the perpetual power and appeal of back-to-the-faith ideologies; but (d) modern versions of faith (eg, evangelicalism) are even more absurd than the original type; and so (e) we are driven forward once again into a post-Christian, non-Christian, anti-Christian future.

I am ambivalent about how I am framing these topics. I don’t like the airy, German abstractness of it. It a modernist German conceit to imagine HISTORY as a great train we are trying both to build and hop aboard at the same time. Its failure is the necessary and well-known presupposition of postmodernity: a game I refuse to play, which functions as little more than a pretext for Biblical religion to re-insinsuate itself in contemporary life in a variety of ways, some genuinely destructive of the human enterprise. I am thinking particularly of the alliance in American politics between polluting industries, the Christian Right, and the conservative legal establishment that has recently become manifest in the appointment of Justice Barrett, and with her the triumph of a Christian Nationalist Supreme Court of the United States.

My focus in the blog will be on the foundations of Christianity in the Bible. I am particularly interested in Paul and his role in the genesis of Christian scripture and belief. I will also look at philosophical and psychological foundations of belief and faith, and some of the classic modern thinkers who deconstructed them, particularly Spinoza, Feuerbach, and Jung. I have some interest in ancient traditions parallel or prior to Christianity: early Greek philosophy, Middle Platonism, Demiurgic Christianities of the 2nd century (aka “gnosticism”), Hermetic philosophy, Neo-platonism, Medieval Kabbalah, and various figures of the early modern period. Also, some favorites in the 19th century: Romantic poets, Baudelaire, Emerson, Melville, Nietzsche.

I also have some interest in pantheism, an underrated and mostly unexplored landscape for post-religious thought and imagination. My own version of pantheism is allied with atheism, skepticism, and liberalism, similar to Spinoza. As a specifically western pantheist, I don’t have much time for the idea that empirical reality is an illusion. I look to Heraclitus as the philosophical founder of western pantheism, who invented the same type of pluralistic monism that we find in Hegel or William James. Unlike religion, pantheism is not a therapy, and it holds aloof of either optimism or pessimism. I harbor a suspicion that both Job and Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament are essentially pantheistic, but this is a claim I will have to explore in a future post.