Two Views of Present Christianity

First, everyone can be skeptical of science, including of course scientists themselves — after all, scientists are skeptics by profession. But skepticism pushed toward extreme denialism is mostly limited to the political right, some scientific issues standing out (e.g., climate change). And general distrust of science is broadly and consistently found only among religious conservatives.

This is a point that was made by Chris Mooney in his research showing that there is no equivalent on the political left — as far as I know, not even among the religious left. For example, the smart idiot effect is primarily found on the political right, such that knowledge really does matter to those on the political left (research shows that liberals, unlike conservatives, will more likely change their mind when they learn new info).

The role religion plays is in magnifying this difference between ideological tendencies.

Not All Skepticism Is Equal: Exploring the Ideological Antecedents of Science Acceptance and Rejection
by Bastiaan T. Rutjens, Robbie M. Sutton, & Romy van der Lee

To sum up the current findings, in four studies, both political conservatism and religiosity independently predict science skepticism and rejection. Climate skepticism was consistently predicted by political conservatism, vaccine skepticism was consistently predicted by religiosity, and GM food skepticism was consistently predicted by low faith in science and knowledge of science. General low faith in science and unwillingness to support science in turn were primarily associated with religiosity, in particular religious conservatism. Thus, different forms of science acceptance and rejection have different ideological roots, although the case could be made that these are generally grounded in conservatism.

Study: Conservatives’ Trust In Science At Record Low
by Eyder Peralta

While trust in science has remained flat for most Americans, a new study finds that for those who identify as conservatives trust in science has plummeted to its lowest level since 1974.

Gordon Gauchat, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied data from the General Social Survey and found that changes in confidence in science are not uniform across all groups.

“Moreover, conservatives clearly experienced group-specific declines in trust in science over the period,” Gauchat reports. “These declines appear to be long-term rather than abrupt.”

Just 35 percent of conservatives said they had a “great deal of trust in science” in 2010. That number was 48 percent in 1974. […]

Speaking to Gauchat, he said that what surprised him most about his study is that he ran statistical analysis on a host of different groups of people. He only saw significant change in conservatives and people who frequently attend church.

Gauchat said that even conservatives with bachelor’s degrees expressed distrust in science.

I asked him what could explain this and he offered two theories: First that science is now responsible for providing answers to questions that religion used to answer and secondly that conservatives seem to believe that science is now responsible for policy decisions. […]

Another bit of surprising news from the study, said Gauchat, is that trust in science for moderates has remained the same.

Here is the second point, which is more positive.

Religious conservatives are a shrinking and aging demographic, as liberal and left-wing views and labels continually take hold. So, as their numbers decrease and their influence lessens, we Americans might finally be able to have rational public debate about science that leads to pragmatic implementation of scientific knowledge.

The old guard of reactionaries are losing their grip on power, even within the once strong bastions of right-wing religiosity. But like an injured and dying wild animal, they will make a lot of noise and still can be dangerous. The reactionaries will become more reactionary, as we have recently seen. This moment of conflict shall pass, as it always does. Like it or not, change will happen and indeed it already is happening.

There is one possible explanation for this change. Science denialism is a hard attitude to maintain over time, even with the backfire effect. It turns out that even conservatives do change their opinions based on expert knowledge, even if it takes longer. So, despite the evidence showing no short term change with policies, we should expect that a political shift will continue happen across the generations.

Knowledge does matter. But it requires immense repetition and patience. Also, keep in mind that, as knowledge matters even more for the political left, the power of knowledge will increase as the general population moves further left. This might be related to the fact that the average American is increasingly better educated — admittedly, Americans aren’t all that well educated in comparison to some countries, but in comparison to the state of education in the past there has been a dramatic improvement.

However you wish to explain it, the religious and non-religious alike are becoming more liberal and progressive, even more open to social democracy and democratic socialism. There is no evidence that this shift has stopped or reversed. Conservatism will remain a movement in the future, but it will probably look more like the present Democratic Party than the present Republican Party. As the political parties have gone far right, the American public has moved so far left as to be outside of the mainstream spectrum of partisan politics.

We are beginning to see the results.

Pro-Life, Pro-Left
by Molly Worthen
(see Evangelicals Turn Left)

70 percent of evangelicals now tell pollsters they don’t identify with the religious right, and younger evangelicals often have more enthusiasm for social justice than for the culture wars

Trump Is Bringing Progressive Protestants Back to Church
by Emma Green

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, some conservative Christians have been reckoning with feelings of alienation from their peers, who generally voted for Trump in strong numbers. But at least some progressive Protestant churches are experiencing the opposite effect: People have been returning to the pews.

“The Sunday after the election was the size of an average Palm Sunday,” wrote Eric Folkerth, the senior pastor at Dallas’s Northaven United Methodist Church, in an email. More than 30 first-time visitors signed in that day, “which is more than double the average [across] three weeks of a typical year,” he added. “I sincerely don’t recall another time when it feels like there has been a sustained desire on people’s part to be together with other progressive Christians.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests other liberal churches from a variety of denominations have been experiencing a similar spike over the past month, with their higher-than-usual levels of attendance staying relatively constant for several weeks. It’s not at all clear that the Trump bump, as the writer Diana Butler Bass termed it in a conversation with me, will be sustained beyond the first few months of the new administration. But it suggests that some progressives are searching for a moral vocabulary in grappling with the president-elect—including ways of thinking about community that don’t have to do with electoral politics. […]

Even if Trump doesn’t bring about a membership revolution in the American mainline, which has been steadily shrinking for years, some of the conversations these Protestant pastors reported were fascinating—and suggest that this political environment might be theologically, morally, and intellectually generative for progressive religious traditions.

Southern Baptists Call Off the Culture War
by Jonathan Merritt

Indeed, disentangling the SBC from the GOP is central to the denomination’s makeover. For example, a motion to defund the ERLC in response to the agency’s full-throated opposition to Donald Trump failed miserably.

In years past, Republican politicians have spoken to messengers at the annual meeting. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush addressed the group, Vice President Dan Quayle spoke in 1992, and President George W. Bush did so in 2001 and 2002 (when my father, James Merritt, was SBC president). Neither President Bill Clinton nor President Barack Obama were invited to speak to Southern Baptists during their terms. Though Southern Baptists claim not to be affiliated with either major party, it’s not difficult to discern the pattern at play.

Vice President Mike Pence addressed the convention this year, which may seem like the same old song to outsiders. But there was widespread resistance to Pence’s participation. A motion to disinvite the vice president was proposed and debated, but was ultimately voted down. During his address, which hit some notes more typical of a campaign speech, a few Southern Baptists left the room out of protest. Others criticized the move to reporters or spoke out on Twitter. The newly elected Greear tweeted that the invitation “sent a terribly mixed signal” and reminded his fellow Baptists that “commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.”

Though most Southern Baptists remain politically conservative, it seems that some are now less willing to have their denomination serve as a handmaiden to the GOP, especially in the current political moment. They appear to recognize that tethering themselves to Donald Trump—a thrice-married man who has bragged about committing adultery, lies with impunity, allegedly paid hush money to a porn star with whom he had an affair, and says he has never asked God for forgiveness—places the moral credibility of the Southern Baptist Convention at risk.

By elevating women and distancing themselves from partisan engagement, the members of the SBC appear to be signaling their determination to head in a different direction, out of a mix of pragmatism and principle.

For more than a decade, the denomination has been experiencing precipitous decline by almost every metric. Baptisms are at a 70-year low, and Sunday attendance is at a 20-year low. Southern Baptist churches lost almost 80,000 members from 2016 to 2017 and they have hemorrhaged a whopping one million members since 2003. For years, Southern Baptists have criticized more liberal denominations for their declines, but their own trends are now running parallel. The next crop of leaders knows something must be done.

“Southern Baptists thought that if they became more conservative, their growth would continue unabated. But they couldn’t outrun the demographics and hold the decline at bay,” said Leonard. “Classic fundamentalist old-guard churches are either dead or dying, and the younger generation is realizing that the old way of articulating the gospel is turning away more people than it is attracting. “

Regardless of their motivations, this shift away from a more culturally strident and politically partisan stance is significant.

As the late pastor Adrian Rogers said at the 2002 SBC annual meeting in St. Louis, “As the West goes, so goes the world. As America goes, so goes the West. As Christianity goes, so goes America. As evangelicals go, so goes Christianity. As Southern Baptists go, so go evangelicals.”

Rogers may have had an inflated sense of the denomination’s importance, but the fact remains that what happens in the SBC often ripples across culture. In Trump’s America, where the religious right wields outsized influence, the shifts among Southern Baptists could be a harbinger of broader change among evangelicals.

The divide between the religious and the rest of the population is smaller than it seems. That is because media likes to play up conflict. To demonstrate the actual views of the religious in the United States, consider a hot button issue like abortion:

  • “As an example of the complexity, data shows that there isn’t even an anti-abortion consensus among Christians, only one Christian demographic showing a strong majority [White Evangelical Protestants].” (Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life)
  • “[A]long with most doctors, most church-going Catholics support public option and so are in agreement with most Americans in general. Even more interesting is the fact that the church-going Catholics even support a national plan that includes funding for abortion.” (Health Reform & Public Option (polls & other info))
  • “[M]ost Americans identify as Christian and have done so for generations. Yet most Americans are pro-choice, supporting abortion in most or all situations, even as most Americans also support there being strong and clear regulations for where abortions shouldn’t be allowed. It’s complicated, specifically among Christians. The vast majority (70%) seeking abortions considered themselves Christians, including over 50% who attend church regularly having kept their abortions secret from their church community and 40% feeling that churches are not equipped to help them make decisions about unwanted pregnancies.” (American Christianity: History, Politics, & Social Issues)

Whatever ideological and political conflicts we might have in the future, it won’t be a continuation of the culture wars we have known up to this point. Nor will it likely conform to battle of ideologies as seen during the Cold War. The entire frame of debate will be different and, barring unforeseen events, most likely far to the left.

* * *

As an additional point, there is another shift that is happening. There is a reason why there feels to be a growing antagonism, even though it’s not ideological per se.

The fact of the matter is “religious nones” (atheists, agnostics, religiously non-identifying, religiously indifferent, etc) is growing faster than any religious group. Mainline Christians have been losing membership for decades and now so are Evangelicals. This is getting to the point where young Americans are evenly split between the religious and non-religious. That means the religious majority will quickly disappear.

This isn’t motivated by overt ideology or it doesn’t seem to be, since it is a shift happening in many other countries as well. But it puts pressure on ideology and can get expressed or manipulated through ideological rhetoric. So, we might see increasing conflict between ideologies, maybe in new forms that could create a new left vs right.

Younger people are less religious than older ones in many countries, especially in the U.S. and Europe
by Stephanie Kramer & Dalia Fahmy

In the U.S., the age gap is considerable: 43% of people under age 40 say religion is very important to them, compared with 60% of adults ages 40 and over.

If nothing else, this contributes to a generational conflict. There is a reason much of right-wing media has viewers that are on average older. This is why many older Americans are still fighting the culture wars, if only in their own minds.

But Americans in general, including most young Evangelicals, have lost interest in politicized religion. Christianity simply won’t play the same kind of central role in coming decades. Religion will remain an issue, but even Republicans will have to deal with the fact that even the young on the political right are less religious and less socially conservative.

Effeminate Christianity

 

Jesus is a metrosexual deity, sometimes seemingly transgender or outright feminine or at the very least androgynous. This was common among salvific godmen and divinities at the time. During the mass urbanization of the Axial Age, the old agrarian fertility goddesses became less of a focus. In their place, some male figures of worship inherited the characteristics of the old goddesses, not only aspects of their physical appearance but also key attributes such as self-resurrection and triune identity.

This mythological gender mixing has remained within Christian tradition. It pops up from time to time. Every few centuries or so, effeminate portrayals of Jesus begin appearing. This is partly because of the origins of Christianity, as within the early Roman Empire it was seen as a religion of women, slaves, and low class — an equation of power that Jesus sought to turn on its head. Jesus himself was described as taking a particular interest in speaking with, healing, and defending women. This sense of Christianity carried over even into more recent history such as how, for example, early Evangelicalism, in the post-revolution and largely unchurched South, was considered unmanly in how it initially attracted mostly women and slaves, not to mention the overly emotional (i.e., ‘feminine’) mode of religiosity.

Every now and then, some modern artist will portray Jesus as feminine. And of course, there is always outrage. But there is an ancient history to this going back to the earliest Christians. This Western crisis of gender identity is far from being a mere recent phenomenon inflicted on society by radical feminists. Supposedly ‘traditional’ gender roles have been overturned multiple times these past millennia. As one of the key figures in this ongoing anxiety, Jesus is constantly being re-envisioned.

This has lead to right-wing moral panics about emasculated males and demands for muscular Christianity. Even though women played major roles in the early church, even though there were influential female mystics and visionaries and preachers over the centuries, many conservative Christians to this day worry about women even having minor roles for fear they will turn churches into “women’s clubs”. And in American history, this fear has been real, considering churches have been places of political organizing and occasionally insurrection. The earliest feminists in the 18th and 19th centuries, after all, were feminists who often took inspiration directly from their Christian faith.

On a related note, one of the most famous black churches in Charleston, SC was the site of the planning for a slave revolt. And churches played a central role during the Civil Rights movement. In dreams of freedom, many blacks during slavery and Jim Crow took inspiration from the Bible itself (e.g., the Jews once having been enslaved and in their escape many of their oppressors died). This gives new meaning to Friedrich Nietzsche’s claim that Christianity was a slave religion. It also might be noted that it was common for Southern women to be likened to slaves in the expectation of their submission to the social order, but then again Biblical figures like Moses and Jesus also were expected to submit. Rebellion from within, sometimes by women, has been plaguing the church for centuries. The First Great Awakening (1730s-1740s) along with the American Revolution unleashed these internal tensions within Christianity.

In modeling themselves after Jesus’ teachings of turning family against family, Evangelicals like other dissenter sects, from the Quakers to the Shakers, sought to break free from kinship loyalties and form new spiritual families. Following Jesus’ example, Evangelical preachers put particularly great importance on women, praising their capacity of spiritual sensitivity and vision. Many women found they could gain a new kind of confidence, respect, and authority within their adopted spiritual families:

“Pious sisters could also rely on early Baptist and Methodist preachers to affirm that women of all ages and races might exercise their gifts by speaking before public, sexually mixed, religious gatherings. Thereby the clergy endorsed the view that acceptable forms of female spiritual expression went beyond fulfilling their private roles as dutiful wives, mothers, and sisters. Indeed, rather than advising women to restrict their influence to the uplift of their households, ministers encouraged them to display their talents in churches and religious meetings at neighboring homes. To assert themselves as authoritative public presences was an extraordinary liberty for women in a culture that otherwise required them to be silent and subordinate.”
(Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross, Kindle Locations 3283-3288)

This gave further evidence that these Christianities were effeminate and emasculating. As kinship loyalties were based on a highly entrenched patriarchy, this was a radical challenge to the entire social order:

“Both ritual practice and the association of fellowship and family thus sustained converts to early Methodist and Baptist churches. Separating the sexes at public worship obscured the painful absence of converts’ unbelieving family members. Condemning their upbringings eased converts out of past lives embedded in kinship networks. Identifying the church as a family endowed converts with a new circle of spiritual kin, often one more sympathetic to their religious strivings than were relatives by blood or marriage.”
(Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross, Kindle Locations 2953-2957)

Further challenges came from other of Jesus’ teachings such as, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female.” For those who took their Bible seriously, these were powerful words. Jesus didn’t only speak in this way for, through his actions, he demonstrated what it meant to defy authority. And as I’ve pointed out here, the very portrayals of Jesus showed him as a profoundly ambiguous figure who transcended the divides of social identities.

The ancient and extensive history of a ‘queer’ Jesus can’t be erased. There has always been a bit of the trickster to Jesus and the trickster, by nature, is always hard to pin down. For anyone who doubts that, ask the Roman and Jewish authorities during Jesus’ life. If Jesus were around today, he’d give the modern Pharisees a run for their money.

* * *

The Feminine/Androgynous Jesus
by Valerie A. Abrahamsen

Jesus was a man, right? In the New (Christian) Testament of the Bible he certainly was. However, in the first few centuries of the Common Era (CE), images of Jesus were not limited to male.

During this era, a great deal of Christian literature, generally called “apocryphal” or “extra-canonical,” circulated but did not make it into the New Testament (NT). Similarly, art depicting images of Jesus, his family, his disciples and their stories was also created, not all of the images taken from NT texts. In both the literature and art of the first Christian centuries, Jesus’ sexuality could be ambiguous, androgynous or even feminine.

What may be shocking, offensive or bewildering to us most likely resonated for the people of the time and had parallels in the culture. […]

What is more problematic for us moderns is the portrayal of Jesus as sexually ambiguous, with feminine traits. Examples of an ambiguous Jesus are found in both art and literature and, as Cartlidge and Elliott point out (page 66), some of this evidence leads to “intricate academic footwork” and “dodging and weaving” of interpretation; that is, scholars tend to dismiss the importance of images and texts of which they cannot make sense. […]

Cartlidge and Elliott point out that the debate about Jesus’ sexuality must have been raging from the earliest times of the development of the church, as attested in these literary and artistic pieces of evidence. If the feminine/androgynous Jesus and the tripartite Jesus are viewed from the point of view of ancient, even prehistoric, religion, it becomes more comprehensible as to why such depictions and images appeared and resonated with early Christians. The prehistoric nature goddess (whom we met earlier) was often accompanied by a young, vital male deity, especially in her aspect of the life-creating force; “male animals and humans stimulate and enhance life” (Gimbutas, Living Goddesses, 117). Taken alongside the power and influence of Mary – Mother of Jesus, Mother of God, Theotokos – the appearance of the young Jesus fits this ancient pattern. In the competitive Graeco-Roman and early Byzantine era, the pairing of the powerful Mary with the powerful, younger Jesus made sense.

Similarly, Jesus with feminine characteristics suggests that he took on attributes of powerful female deities in the Graeco-Roman and early Byzantine milieus. If Jesus had characteristics of these goddesses, devotees attracted to them might also be converted to the Christ cult.

Understanding Early Christian Art
by Robin Margaret Jensen
pp. 124-127

One of the most striking and, to modern eyes, curious aspects of the beardless, youthful image Jesus is Christ’s endowment with feminine physical characteristics, including small protruding breasts, sloping shoulders, wide hips, and long curling hair. Such representation obviously contrasts with the darker, bearded type of Jesus image, but it also often presents an image of Jesus that differs from congruent representations of the apostles, who usually are given quite masculine appearances, with clipped beards, short hair, broad shoulders, and square jaws. The contrast between Jesus and his apostles shows up very clearly on several fourth- and fifth-century sarcophagi (cf. Figures 42, 48). Such feminine features led to the original misidentification of a famous statue of Christ as a seated woman poet. […]

However, in contrast to mortal human males, long ringlets and beardless cheeks characterized the iconography of certain late antique gods — Apollo and Dionysus in particular. Moreover, Apollo and Dionysus iconographic types also share other feminine attributes seen in the youthful Jesus images, including the round shoulders, small but obvious breasts, wide hips, and full cheeks of the nearly hermaphroditic figures described by Euripides, Ovid, Diodorus, and Seneca, or portrayed in the classical iconography. Dionysus, especially, underwent transition from a mature, bearded, Zeus-like figure on archaic Greek vases to a late-classical and Hellenistic appearance as a youthful, androgynous and “Apollonian” image. However, while the changes in Dionysiac types have been noted by art historians, the variants in Jesus’ iconography (which parallel those of Dionysus) are rarely discussed in modern secondary literature.

The parallels between Jesus images and Apollo or Dionysus in earlier Roman iconography raise certain fascinating theological issues, including whether some art objects were specifically commissioned by or for women, who envisioned or experienced Jesus as female, and whether they emerged in non-orthodox Christian communities that varied their gendered images of the Triune God and transferred particular attributes from the pagan deities to Jesus, including Dionysus’ role as a god of fertility. Jesus’ application of the metaphor “true vine” to himself (John 15:1) may have strengthened the parallel. […]

A more likely possibility is that representations of Jesus were simply consistent with the portraiture of the savior deities of the Hellenistic mystery cults, especially Apollo, Dionysus, and Orpheus. The iconography of Jesus merely borrowed from the traditional and familiar portrayals of those gods, perhaps in part because of their similar divine attributes. Serapis, too, was known to be represented with female breasts (although not beardless) and statues of that god are known to have been restored as the goddess Roma or Minerva. These classical types had come to be visually synonymous with the concept of deity; certain physical characteristics automatically signified divinity to the ordinary viewer. The power of association encouraged those characteristics to be transferred to Jesus iconography, as they had become a kind of artistic marker — or shorthand — for the appearance of a certain kind of god. Jesus’ transformation of water to wine at Cana and his statement, “I am the true vine,” may account for the adoption of Dionysiac vintaging scenes for Christian monuments. Perfectly orthodox Christians could image Jesus with feminine physical attributes because those attributes visually signalled characteristics that were deeply rooted in the visual language of the surrounding culture. However, not only were these borrowings intended to suggest that Jesus possessed certain god-like qualities, but in fact subsumed all divine attributes in one person.

Jupiter’s portrayal and perception as majestic and powerful — both Lord and Judge — could be borrowed to transfer these same characteristics to Jesus in compositions like the enthroned apse of Sta. Pduenziana. Certain aspects of Orpheus’ or Dionysus’ portrayal as idealized, youthful “savior” gods were likewise applied to images of Jesus. The gods featured in the mystery cults of late antiquity were immanent and personal gods with whom devotees had intense encounters, not unlike Jesus. Moreover, they were gods of resurrection who survived descents into the underworld. Orpheus additionally was often depicted as a shepherd in a paradisical setting — a figure that parallels the Christian Good Shepherd. Clement of Alexandria had already pointed out certain parallels that formerly misguided pagans might find between the old gods and the divine Son in Christianity. No wonder, then, that aspects of traditional representations of these gods would be transferred to visual imagery of Christ, including the almost feminine beauty associated with such gods in particular.

The Roman god Bacchus as a Christian icon
by Riley Winters

Bacchus was the Greco-Roman god associated with mental and physical duality. His mythology began in Greece, under the name Dionysus, a foreign god joining an already existing civilization (Dionysus and Bacchus are comparable deities, but for the purpose of this article, “Bacchus” will be utilized to discuss the pagan god to avoid confusion).

In Euripides’ Bacchae, Bacchus came to Greece from a far off land and shook up the Thracian king with his new religious practices and effeminate ways. The Bacchanalia, a procession of satyrs and overly drunken women, led to the king’s disapproval of Bacchus’ religion, eventually resulting in the death of the Thracian king. Though this particular myth is vastly different from the stories of Jesus, there are similar visual themes the Christians expertly borrowed in their symbolic portrayal of Jesus to aid the Romans in accepting the new religion, allowing it to eventually become the primary faith of the empire.

On the surface, the similarities between Bacchus and Jesus are easily evident. Both gods are first depicted as youthful and feminine. Bacchus is intended to be androgynous, with long flowing hair and a soft face. Jesus, however, is in part portrayed young to reveal his innocence, highlighting his purity. […]

There is also an important similarity between these two figures in that their early imagery reveals that their faiths were initially targeted toward women in the beginning of their worships. Men were the religious leaders of both societies, and women were commonly ignored or pushed to the side. To gain a position within the Roman culture, both Bacchus and Jesus had to show a value for women, giving them a voice in the male-dominated world. The primary worshippers of Bacchus were the Maenads, women who reached a heightened level of ecstasy through excessive drinking. According to Greco-Roman thought, the drinking allowed the women (and the few men who participated) to achieve a spiritual release they were otherwise not allowed because of the norms of their society. Religious worship, however, temporarily exempted them from these rules.

Similarly, Jesus showed an interest in women by taking the time to heal those who otherwise were ignored and exiled. One of the images found in the catacombs relates to the Woman with the Issue of Blood who was cleansed by Jesus after reaching for his robe, her faith in his power alone healing her. According to the Biblical account, the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection was a woman, Mary Magdalene, who herself travelled with the twelve apostles. Both Bacchus and Jesus emphasized the importance of women early in their mythologies by providing women with the attention they desired from their deities right away. By focusing on women, a large faction of supporters rose around both men quickly, the power of the forgotten ones. This was a very strong image in both Greco-Roman and early Christian culture, and both were commonly depicted with women in their art.

 

Feminine Images of Jesus: Later Medieval Christology and the Devaluation of the Feminine
by Jenny Bledsoe

During the later medieval period in Western Europe, feminine representations of Jesus abounded. Medieval Christians had begun to emphasize the humanity of Jesus in reaction to the religious foci of the era before their own (early medieval focus on the spirit and Jesus’ resurrection), and seemed to find that “feminine” characteristics were most expressive of the human nature of Jesus. […]

As a result of economic changes, the later medieval period refashioned Christology, as well as conceptions of self. Feminine images of Jesus express changing ideals of femininity and also the socially accepted roles of women in the Church and the public. This study explores later medieval representations—both textual and visual—of Jesus as mother in order to determine the implications of such representations for actual women. We will sample three medieval writers who wrote about feminine Jesuses, two writing in the heyday of incarnation theology and feminized Jesus imagery—the twelfth century monastics Bernard of Clairvaux and Hildegard of Bingen—and later, one fourteenth century theologian who inherited the legacy of her predecessors, Julian of Norwich. In her book on Hildegard’s theology of the feminine, Barbara Newman describes the shared focus and understanding of all medieval representations of a feminine Jesus: “The common denominator is a sense that the feminine is somehow problematic; being neglected, undervalued, or wrongly understood within a patriarchal culture, it needs to be perpetually redefined, revalued, and relocated in the general worldview.”1 Although all of the medieval writers subscribed to essentialist understandings of gender based in a patriarchal society, it is true that they all seemed to think that it was necessary to explore and define the feminine more fully and consider how the feminine fits within human understandings of God. […]

Feminist Theology

Some feminist theorists argue that descriptions of divine motherhood refer to long-suppressed ancient worship of female goddesses or androgynous gods. Elaine Pagels writes that the monotheistic religions are unusual in comparison to other world religions in that the former do not employ feminine imagery to describe God.2 By 200 CE, upon the establishment of the Christian canon, orthodox Christianity discouraged feminine symbolism for expressing the essence of the divine.3 While women played leading roles in Gnostic Christian groups, which sometimes described God in feminine language, the orthodox tradition banned female leadership and description of the divine as female. Pagels questions why the orthodox Christian tradition so ardently demanded that women and feminine conceptions of God be banned from Christian hegemony: “Is it possible, then, that the recognition of the feminine element in God and the recognition of mankind as a male and female entity bore within it the explosive possibility of women acting on an equal basis with men in positions of authority and leadership?”4 […]

Medieval Conceptions of Motherhood

At this point in Western culture, there was no conception of separate religious and secular realms. And so, religion defined all aspects of later medieval society, including the role of the mother. Spiritual writers define the medieval woman or mother as having three distinct characteristics: “The female is generative (the foetus is made of her very matter) and sacrificial in her generation (birth pangs); the female is loving and tender (a mother cannot help loving her own child); the female is nurturing (she feeds the child with her own bodily fluid).”15 In medieval representations of Jesus as mother, Jesus displays these feminine characteristics, all of which are based on medieval physiological theories

The Hidden Lesson of The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale has returned with a second season. I finished the second new episode. It offers much food for thought. The story itself is wonderfully told, partly because it is based on a fine piece of literature, but credit is due to the screenwriters and main actresses.

Also, it is one of the most plausible and compelling dystopias of the near future. That can’t be doubted. Still, it could be doubted that it is the most probable dystopia, as there are so many other possible dystopias. Some would argue we are already living in a dystopia, the only issue being how bad can it get. That isn’t to say we should fool ourselves that recent events have been as important as they seem in how they loom in our immediate public imagination. The shit storm has been brewing for a long time.

As I watched the beginning of the second season, it occurred to me that The Handmaid’s Tale is the nightmare of a specific demographic. I think it’s an awesome show, but as a working  class white guy I’m not the target audience. It doesn’t speak to my personal fear-ridden fantasies about the world I see around me. Nor does it speak to white working class single mothers, poor rural Christians, homeless veterans with PTSD, recent immigrant families, Native Americans on reservations, young black men targeted by police, etc.

I’ve talked about the haunted moral imagination of the reactionary mind. Well, this show is the haunted moral imagination of the liberal class. To be more specific, I noticed that all the lead roles are professional white women or were before the theocrats took over. Both seasons focus on various professional white women who in the pre-catastrophe world were moving up in the world. The actresses by profession are of the liberal class with most of the main actresses being Millennials and so the show points to their experience.

An older gay guy tries to warn a younger lesbian to be careful at the college where they both work, but she dismisses him as trying to “hide the dykes” and she acts tough. Like most liberal class Americans, she has never lived in a world where there were severely dangerous consequences for people like her. The toughest battles were fought in the past and it was assumed that society was permanently changed and continuously improving, the liberal class’ version of Whig history.

What exists outside of the liberal class moral imagination is the fact that, for many Americans outside of the liberal class, this society has been horrific for a long time. The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about those suffering the consequences of their complicity in what has been done to others. Minority women and poor white women in the United States have been experiencing continuous oppression, including sterilizations in recent history. Middle-to-upper class white feminists maybe thought, at least prior to Donald Trump’s presidency, that the worst battles have already been fought and won with only some cleanup to eliminate the last of the misogynists in power, but as for other women the worst battles are yet to come and they’ve long known the risks of continuing to lose the fight.

The fear of American theocracy isn’t entirely unrealistic, obviously. Yet the origins of the fear come from within the dark heart of American liberalism itself. All those secular societies that the United States destroyed and replaced with theocracies along with other forms of authoritarianism, that was done with the full support of Democrats like Hillary Clinton who laughed at the suffering of Libyans (and ask Haitian-Americans in Florida why they didn’t vote for Clinton and helped swing the state and hence the entire election to Trump). A vote for the Democrats, no different than a vote for the Republicans, is to support the exploitation, oppression, dislocation, and killing of hundreds of millions of mostly poor brown people in dozens of countries around the world (the war on terror alone has involved the US military in more than 70 countries).

The Handmaid’s Tale is the shadow cast by American actions worldwide, actions supported by both parties for generations. The liberal class has been fine with promoting theocracy elsewhere, just as long as they don’t have to think about it or admit their own responsibility. What is portrayed in this show is not speculation. It is what we Americans have already done to untold numbers of women elsewhere. Within the haunted moral imagination of the liberal class, there is a seething guilty conscience that fears its own moral failure.

What The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t show is how a society becomes like that. It never happens with no presentiments and precursors. In a previous post (But Then It Was Too Late), I shared a passage from Milton Mayer’s They Thought They Were Free (ch. 13). Like one of the characters in The Handmaid’s Tale, Mayer’s was a good liberal college professor, someone who meant well but wasn’t a fighter and wasn’t prone to radicalism. He didn’t protest or revolt when he had a chance, waiting and waiting for the right moment to speak out until it was finally too late:

“Your ‘little men,’ your Nazi friends, were not against National Socialism in principle. Men like me, who were, are the greater offenders, not because we knew better (that would be too much to say) but because we sensed better. Pastor Niemöller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing; and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something—but then it was too late. […] It is clearer all the time that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an occasion to do it, and then you are obviously a troublemaker. So you wait, and you wait.

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.”

That describes America this past century. And economically well off white liberals have been part of the problem. When bad things happened to the poor, they weren’t poor. When bad things happened to rural and inner city residents, they weren’t rural or inner city residents. When bad things happened to minorities, they weren’t minorities. When bad things happened to immigrants, they weren’t immigrants. When bad things happened to foreigners, they weren’t foreigners. And so most liberals did nothing. The liberalism (and feminism) they fought for was one of privilege, but they didn’t realize that once all others had been targeted by oppression they would be next and then no one would be left to stand up for them.

The saddest part of an authoritarian takeover is how easy it is to see coming decades in advance. Radical left-wingers have been warning the liberal class for generations and they would not listen. The Handmaid’s Tale does make the liberal class sit up and pay attention. But do they learn the most important lesson from it? That lesson is hidden deep within the story and requires soul-searching to discern.

Shadows of Moral Imagination

“Until the day breaks and the shadows flee…”
– Song of Solomon 2:17

“The moral imagination,” Russel Kirk wrote, “aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.” He resurrected the Burkean moral imagination and maybe modernized it in the process. Jonathan Leamon Jones, similar to Gerald Russello and William F. Byrne, argues that Kirk’s moral imagination wasn’t modern but postmodern in its mistrust of metanarratives, including those of mainstream conservatives and radical right-wingers (others such as Peter Augustine Lawler go further in declaring that all of “conservative thought today is authentic postmodernism.”).

Modernity is always the frame of the reactionary mind, as conservatism in operating within the liberal paradigm can’t help but be an endless response to and borrowing from liberalism. The attempt to speak for the pre-modern inevitably leads to a post-modern attitude, even as modernity remains securely in place. There is no ‘pre-modern’ and ‘post-modern’ without the modern that defines and frames it all.

Such is the case with the development of moral imagination, but as a consciously articulated notion it took form in conjunction with the mature rise of modernity. The French Revolution symbolized the end of the ancien regime. Edmund Burke wasn’t postmodern, that is for sure, since modernity was only then taking hold. And moral imagination has its roots in the distant past. One important difference to keep in mind is that Kirk’s moral imagination, as opposed for example to the reactionary imagination of a conservative-minded classical liberal like Jordan Peterson, included the social or sociological imagination (Peterson is so post-post-modern that he is all the more modern for it). Burke did speak of the social, but of course he lived long before social science and social constructivism. “I contend that,” Jonathan Leamon Jones writes,

“Kirk, as a figure more concerned with culture than politics, attempted to negotiate his conservatism as a denial of the “autonomous self” and as an acceptance of the social construction of life (guided by, in his case, religious and socially traditionalist norms developed over extended periods of time). What is shared with Lyotard is that his postmodernism rejects the “grand narratives” of liberalism (such as “autonomy” and “progress”) as well as collectivism (such as fascism, socialism, and communism). Even so, Kirk is grounded in what might be termed a metaphysical master narrative, one of divine interaction with humanity. And because human beings are sinful and severely lacking in knowledge, their statements about the world can only be provisional, subject to revision and circumstance.”

Burke was a professional politician of a partisan variety. Kirk was not, as he was more wary of formal politics, it ironically being in part because of his own interpretation of Burkean moral imagination that he avoided following Burke’s political example. It was Kirk’s moral imagination as a conservative that actually allowed him to vote for those who didn’t identify as conservative, since his moral imagination allowed him to put moral character and personal concerns above both narrow ideological dogmas and lockstep political partisanship.

Where Kirk resonates with Burke is maybe along the line of the Burke’s denial of natural law as a human-imposed abstraction that risked idealism and radicalism. This is an attitude that he shared with John Dickinson’s worldview of Quaker constitutionalism (a constitution not as a paper document, espoused dogma, or mission statement but as a living pact between God and a specific people). Natural law has been cited by conservatives in making claims of traditionalism, but it was used even more persuasively and powerfully by radicals and revolutionaries seeking divine authority above human law.

One might note that Burke came from a family that was originally Catholic whereas Kirk converted to Catholicism as an adult. And one might note that both Burke and Dickinson were educated by Quakers. The commonality between Catholicism and Quakerism is the heavy emphasis on the social, specifically the social imagination as expressed through social theology and social action, including social activism. The moral imagination ultimately is a social imagination, overlapping with what some simply call culture or what Daniel Everett describes as the dark matter of the mind (i.e., the sociocultural unconscious). The social component isn’t only about what defines imagination but also what constrains or focuses it. Enculturation as with conversion is all about moral imagination, as are social control measures from propaganda to perception management.

To continue with Jones’ analysis: “Kirk sought to guide the reader to that place where he made his “home” – the small, local networks of associations that echo Burke’s well-known “little platoons” of society. Set against the “modern” in ways at once superficial and philosophical, such guidance was placement in an uncertain yet transcendently-grounded “postmodern” time and place.”

This is where, I’d argue, Burke lost the thread of his own narrative. With the French Revolution, his fevered rantings and detached fantasies about distant royalty had nothing to do with human-sized “little platoons” at the local level of comunity, certainly nothing to do with the lived experience and real world concerns of the average person in France or England — as Thomas Paine put it: “He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.”

A major point Paine made was that modernity had destroyed those “little platoons” and that the remnants of that loss required moral re-imagining to compensate for what was stolen for that loss was intentionally caused by those who gained from it. Those in power had intentionally and actively targeted the destruction of those “little platoons” (the communities and commons of feudalism) and on the rubble they built the British Empire.

This created an insurmountable problem for the burgeoning conservative mind. Burke’s moral imagination had become untethered since, for whatever reason, he lacked Paine’s urgent sense of the living memory of the disappearing past. Maybe that is because Paine, in having come to the colonies as Burke never did, saw with his own eyes the Indian tribes living within their “little platoons” and so this concrete experience that no longer could be found in England ensured that Paine didn’t get mired in idealistic fantasies and ideological abstractions. In speaking of common sense, Paine was turning to the common past and gave voice to the most powerful vision of moral imagination of his generation.

Kirk’s moral imagination is the perception of others as moral beings as part of a moral community. That much I agree with and so would the likes of Thomas Paine. It is reminiscent of a distinction I often point to. Germanic freedom embraces this kind of moral imagination whereas Latin liberty does not, as freedom is etymologically related to friend and means being a free member of a free people whereas liberty originally meant just not being a slave in a slave-based society. This concern over a moral community is where Burke’s moral imagination met Paine’s common sense, not that either of them saw the connection.

Kirk’s ultimate failure as with Burke’s was a too limited imagining of moral imagination in that over time conservatism despite all its protestations to the contrary had shackled itself to ideological dogmatism and so denied the radical challenge (radical, etymologically-speaking, as going to the ‘root’) of moral imagination as it operates in the human mind and human society, an unwillingness to follow negative capability into the dark unseen realms of the collective psyche. In relation to the likes of Julian Jaynes and Lewis Hyde, I might argue that Burke and Kirk were comparably superficial thinkers which is not entirely their fault since, in being products of a specific place and time, they both lacked education in such fields as linguistic relativism, anthropology, social constructivism, consciousness studies, etc; although Kirk seems to have had a broader a liberal education.

These two had an intuitively astute sense of the moral imagination while lacking the cognitive frame to fully and consciously articulate it, such is the sense I get from reading their writings and reading about their lives. In the end, there is something lacking and dissatisfying about the conservative constraints placed not just on the enactment of moral imagination but on its very definition and explication. Before beginning to explore it, moral imagination in these earlier texts had already been made into something small and manageable. In constructing a moral imagination into something usable for the modern conservative mind, maybe a few important parts get left and forgotten on the shop floor.

In looking for what has been lost, let’s return to the issue of modernity. For all that post-Enlightenment modernity gets blamed, the seeds of modernity including autonomous individuality and vast meta-narratives were planted during the Axial Age. The entire civilizational project following the Bronze Age has been a suppression and retooling of the moral imagination. According to Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, earlier humanity was fully immersed in the moral imagination such that it was their entire lived reality, even to the point that the imagination was taken for (superimposed upon) reality and this imagination spoke to them in clear voices. The archaic moral imagination is no longer part of our paltry consciousness with ego boundary-walls that keep it all safely contained and controlled, such that the gods no longer are even a small inner voice to be heard at all.

For all its florid and flaunted fantasizing, Burke’s moral imagination is a pathetic, weak creature that is chained, beaten and starved if not yet fully subdued and domesticated. Burke wonders how moral imagination might serve us, but for archaic humanity they served at the behest of moral imagination. Burke’s censures of radicals was the replaying of Plato’s banishment of the ancient poets whose wild and unruly more-than-human imaginings threatened that aspiring civilizational order. Revolution wasn’t caused by a lack but by an excess of moral imagination, as it had become unleashed from millennia of oppression. Burke felt the necessity to philosophize about this fearsome moral imagination in order to safely put it back in its cage and then to lock the door to that Burkean wardrobe.

What Burke’s moral imagination and Kirk’s conservatism touched upon but never quite grasped is that Eric Hobsbawm’s invented traditions didn’t merely replace but were used as weapons to destroy and dismantle the traditions that came before, erasing the living memory of them from the the public mind. Conservatism, as a modern phenomenon, is a non-traditional tradition (within the liberal tradition itself that is the paradigmatic framework dominating and defining all of modernity). As such, conservatism inherently is a reactionary persuasion and there is no way to escape this for all the attempts at philosophical diversion and special pleading. There is no going back for the revolution, once begun, can’t be stopped. Moral imagination is a living fire that consumes the world and remakes it. And conservatives have played a key role in radically creating something entirely new.

Paine’s radical liberalism acknowledges the dire situation of tragic loss, not getting deluded in the process by nostalgic fantasies. And so Paine’s moral imagination seeks to engage the world rather than evade the situation. Kirk, in his friendship with the sociologist Richard Nisbett, maybe comes closer to seeing what Paine was pointing toward, the loss of community. But what Kirk didn’t understand is what community once meant, not just in the near past but centuries earlier. Consider the Jeffersonian freedom proclaiming each generation’s right to self-governance which seems like a radical and revolutionary ideal of the Enlightenment but in actuality was built on the Anglo-Saxon (and Scandinavian) tribal tradition in Britain, as written laws and constitutions were as abstractly modern as was ethno-nationalism and colonial imperialism. Jefferson was invoking the traditional moral imagination of a once free people and, such as his referencing the fight against Norman invasion, was quite explicit about it.

Burke ran up against this issue. He struggled to admit the problems of colonial and corporatist imperialism and to admit the impotence of his moral imagination in dealing with those problems, stating in a 1783 speech about the British East India Company that, “it is an arduous thing to plead against abuses of a power which originates from your own country, and affects those whom we are used to consider as strangers.” This caused Burke to switch back and forth between progressive reformer and reactionary counterrevolutionary, at one moment criticizing empire and at the next reverencing its authority, at one moment defending the rights of corporations and next demanding a corporation be put under government control. Moral imagination, however it was dressed up, offered little guidance for making sense of the radical character of imperialism that was forcefully remaking the world. Rather than inducing moral clarity in Burke’s mind, the only thing moral imagination made easy was moral rationalization.

Kirk had an idiosyncratic take on conservatism, and such idiosyncrasy is common among conservatives because of the underlying reactionary impulse. Kirk’s conservatism wasn’t easily defined. It was a mindset, temperament, attitude, tendency, or even just a mood. He sometimes spoke in Catholic terms of a canon which simply means an argument made, one argument among many and so not conclusive. This conservatism was a supposed “negation of ideology,” a claim that is never convincing for anyone who has given much thought to the topic. The real issue, as I describe with symbolic conflation, is that the power of conservative ideology is precisely dependent on it being hidden. This is the purpose of obfuscation to which Burke applied moral imagination and Kirk found it likewise useful. Burkean moral imagination uses the mental wardrobe to veil the tender naked skin of truth, to keep it from the prurient eyes of the conscious mind and the harsh glare of Enlightenment thought. This is political ideology transformed into a vague and shifting theology of mysticification.

Right-wing ideologues, interestingly, are always attacking ideology because only other people’s beliefs and values (and not their own) are ideological — this kind of anti-ideological ideology goes at least back to the 1800s, such as the defense slaveholders used against the -isms of the North: abolitionism, feminism, Marxism, etc (and yes Lincoln was friends with all kinds of radicals such as free labor advocates and there was a Marxist in Lincoln’s administration). Moral imagination when cut off from ideological worldview (in Louis Althusser’s sense) becomes an ideological realism that closes down the mind, as the eyes are drawn to the shadows cast on the cave wall.

Related to this, Kirk wrote that “a conservative impulse, if denied intelligent leadership and moral imagination, may be diverted banefully into ideological fanaticism.” Not quite right. Moral imagination is never denied for it is always present, if typically below the threshold of consciousness. Between Burke and Paine, the disagreement wasn’t over being for or against moral imagination but about what kind of moral imagination and to what end. Paine’s complaint was that Burke’s horror fantasies were abstractions of suffering disconnected from the real world experience of living humans. Kirk was less guilty of this, so it seems to me. Being a professional politician muddied Burke’s thinking, a problem Kirk tried to avoid in maintaining a more philosophical position.

Some have talked about moral imagination and more generally about the mind in terms of closed vs open, constrained vs unconstrained, thick boundary vs thin boundary, and similar categorizations that loosely correlate to conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness. Both serve purposes for the survival of the species and the functioning of society, but to be trapped in either one is problematic. Flexibility is the key, although this is a biased position for flexibility is a trait of the latter and not the former.

I’ve made the argument that the liberal mind can only operate during times of peace and tolerance. And this relates to how the liberal mind can allow space for the conservative mind in a way that is not possible the other way around, which is why liberalism can only operate under optimal conditions. And maybe liberal-mindedness is more common among tribal people with their low stress lifestyles, indicated by relaxed attitudes about sexuality among most hunter-gatherers. Consider my favorite example the Piraha who are extremely laid back and anti-authoritarian, disregarding hierarchical authority altogether.

This has to do with the circle of concern and the capacity to empathize. We can only empathize with those we perceive as moral beings, as humans like us. This is determined by our moral imagination. It is unsurprising that Edmund Burke, a professional politician operating in fear during a revolutionary era when his beloved British Empire was under threat, had a severely constrained attitude that did not only disallowed him to experience more openness toward others but made it hard for him to even imagine that such openness could be a part of human nature. His conservative-minded imagination excluded liberal-mindedness from his conception of moral imagination. We never know moral imagination in general for we can never step outside of our own moral imagination which typically is shared by those immediately around us.

What has changed over time is the expansion of moral imagination. Even those who identify as conservatives today are more liberal-minded than those who identified as liberals in the early 1800s, a time when liberals were divided over issues such as slavery. Much of what Burke complained about as dangerously radical has since become mainstream thought, even among conservatives today. Thomas Paine’s moral imagination won the struggle over hearts and minds, even as the struggle over Paine’s politics lags behind.

That is how it always happens, the revolution of mind preceding the revolution of society and politics, sometimes the one preceding the other by centuries. Heck, it took the Axial Age revolution of mind a couple of millennia to more fully take hold. And I might add that moral imagination in how we understand it as part of an intentional civilizational project (as opposed to an implicit experience of social reality) began with the Axial Age, as it was in the late Axial Age that religion and politics began to be thought about in explicit terms and as distinct categories, coinciding with the invention of rhetoric proper. Burke’s openly philosophizing about  and questioning the modern moral imagination demonstrated how far that millennia old revolution of mind had gone.

In explaining this phenomenon, Kwame Anthony Appiah notes that the arguments for something being right, true, or necessary become common knowledge long before public opinion and political will emerges to cause change to happen (such that most of the arguments against slavery used during the Civil War were widespread and well known prior to the American Revolution). It can take a long time for a society to assimilate new ideas and implement new ways of thinking, but eventually a change is triggered and the once unimaginable quickly becomes the new reality. Then as memory fades, the altered status quo dominates the collective moral imagination, as if it had always been that way.

We project our moral imagination onto reality without giving it much if any thought. No matter how philosophical we get about it, moral imagination can’t be disentangled from our experience of being in the world and being in relation with others. It is the substructure of our entire sense of reality. Our ideas about moral imagination are as likely to delude us as to enlighten us about how our moral imagination actually operates. That is because moral imagination is the territory of rhetoric and rationalization. It’s the stories we tell so often that we no longer realize they are stories, making us ripe for indoctrination and propaganda. But there is nothing inherently sinister about it, as this is simply the process of enculturation that is the basis of every society that has ever existed.

An early philosopher on moral imagination was Blaise Pascal. I don’t know that he ever specifically spoke of ‘moral imagination’, but he wrote extensively about morality and imagination. He appears to have been ahead of his time in many ways, having been born more than a century before Burke (some conservatives claim the both of them as ideological ancestors). Maybe his writings influenced Burke for it is highly probable that Pascal’s writings would have been familiar to many well educated English-speaking individuals in the 18th century. Pascal was one of the earliest thinkers to take seriously the impact of modernity, Jack Sherefkin claiming that he was “the first to face and express the experience of living in this new universe without center or limits.”

Sherefkin goes on to say that, “Most pre-modern societies identified with and felt a part of an orderly, purposeful universe. That is no longer believable. We now find ourselves lost in an infinite universe.” The ancient experience of reality was unraveling and so moral imagination was let loose. Pascal lived during the English Civil War, what some consider the first modern revolution because of the radical ideas (e.g., socialism) that emerged at the time. I’ve often thought that what Burke most feared wasn’t the foreign threat of the French Revolution but the homegrown tradition of British radicalism. It was the English, not the French, who first had the idea of beheading a king in order to establish a revolutionary ideal of social and political order. What Burke couldn’t admit was that, long before his birth, revolution and regicide had become established as part of the British moral imagination.

There is an interesting anecdote about the power of moral imagination. “During his final illness,” Mark Malvasi writes, “Pascal often refused the care of his physician, saying: “Sickness is the natural state of Christians.” He believed that human beings had been created to suffer. Misery was the condition of life in this world. His was a hard doctrine.” It’s similar to Burke’s view of the British Empire and monarchy for, though he could imagine reforming it, he couldn’t imagine a world without it. To Burke, imperialism and monarchism was the natural state of the British; despite the fact that both were foreign systems imported by the French Normans.

There is what has been called the banality of evil. It’s what blinds us to evil in normalizing it, often by way of the slow boiling frog effect. Describing his own experience and observations as a German during the Nazi rise to power, Milton Mayer shows how moral imagination operates:

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next.”

What is so shocking about the Nazi regime is how normal life continued to be for the average German, right up to the point when war began. Nazism slowly became apart of the German moral imagination. This was only possible because there had been a long history that had already embedded authoritarian tendencies, anti-semitism, and such within the German psyche. The veneer of a free, democratic society kept obscure this dark underbelly. There was never a right moment for a German like Milton Mayer to revolt against German Nazism, as there never was a right moment for a British subject like Edmund Burke to revolt against the British Empire.

The same goes for Americans today with the American Empire. It has become inseparably a part of American identity, largely because American culture emerged from the British Empire with its moral imagination of White Man’s Burden and Manifest Destiny. It doesn’t matter that most Americans find it impossible to imagine their society as an empire. The relationship between collective imagination and objective reality tends to be tenuous at best, specifically in such a vast society that requires a vast meta-narrative.

Moral imagination is as much or more about what it denies than what it affirms. This includes how the moral imagination denies the claims of any competing moral imagination. As such, American conservatives deny the moral imagination of Native Americans and Hispanics whose traditional relationship to the land is far older than the ideological abstractions drawn and written on paper that American conservatives are mesmerized by. Most Mexicans are a mix of Spanish and Indigenous ancestry. With a long history of traveling ranch workers and migrant farm workers, the moral imagination of Latinos in North America is rooted in a profound living memory that can’t be erased by legal and ideological abstractions. Well into the 20th century, Mexicans continued to freely cross the ‘border’ as their ancestors had been doing for centuries or millennia before there was any border. This demonstrates the absolute polarized conflict and contradiction between conservatism and traditionalism. The conservative mind is enthralled by imagined abstractions such as lines drawn on maps, no matter what is asserted by traditional authority of local organic communities.

Consider an even more contentious issue. Abortion has become a defining feature of modern American conservatism. But abortion wasn’t a central concern, even for Christians, until quite recently. In fact, abortions used to be quite common. Not that long ago, any American woman could find a local doctor who would perform an abortion (my great great grandfather was a rural abortion doctor). Even when there were some laws about abortion, they were rarely enforced and everyone in communities knew doctors performed abortions. Abortion is a practice that has early origins in Anglo-American and English society. One can go back even further in reading about how common was not only abortion but infanticide and exposure in much of the ancient world. Sickly and unwanted babies were a potentially dangerous liability prior to modern medicine and the modern welfare state.

If conservative moral imagination is supposed to be about tradition, there is no ancient established social norm about abortion. So, what is the moral imagination about for an issue like abortion? Conservatives often say it is about the sanctity of life. But that is obviously bullshit. Countries that ban abortions have higher rates of abortions, albeit illegal, than do countries that don’t ban them. This is because liberal policies effectively decrease unwanted pregnancies and so eliminate much of the need for abortions. As often is the case, there is a severe disconnect between moral imagination and moral realities. In the end, moral imagination is about social control in enforcing a particular moral order. It’s not that babies shouldn’t die but that loose women who get pregnant should be punished as sinners for that is the divine decree within the moral imagination of contemporary conservatives — such a god-tyrant still haunting the imaginations for many on the political right even after their formal religious faith is lost or weakened.

This fundamentalist deity, as with all of fundamentalism, is a modern invention. As with conservatism in general, fundamentalism didn’t exist prior to modernity. The reactionary mind that provokes this re-imagining only comes into being once the traditional power and authority of the ancien regime was in decline, and that ancien regime experienced its fatal blow centuries before the modern American culture warriors decided to obsess over sexuality. Burke had more of an insight into this. He clearly demarcated moral imagination and natural law, not mistaking the one for the other, as he didn’t believe in natural law. What Burke admitted that many modern conservatives won’t is that moral imagination is built on human customs accruing over time, not on divine commandment decreed at the beginning of time. Burke was a devout Christian but at a time when fundamentalism hadn’t yet fully formed.

Moral imagination isn’t about the world itself, rather about our place in the world. As the world shifts, so does our moral imagination and the entire context for what we are able to imagine. It is a constant process of forgetting about what came before. Living memory is a flame in the darkness and imagination is the shadows on the cave wall. The most radical act of imagination may not be in imagining something entirely new but remembering something forgotten in order to see what was unseen, which happens when moral imagination turns back toward the source of light. It is only in emerging awareness that we can challenge the stories that possess our minds and then tell a different story that speaks more honestly about our shared origins. How we imagine the past determines how we imagine all else.

* * *

Hume’s Theory of Moral Imagination
by Mark Collier

David Hume endorses three statements that are difficult to reconcile: (1) sympathy with those in distress is sufficient to produce compassion toward their plight, (2) adopting the moral point of view often requires us to sympathize with the pain and suffering of distant strangers, but (3) our care and concern is limited to those in our close circle. Hume manages to resolve this tension, however, by distinguishing two types of sympathy. We feel compassion toward those we perceive to be in distress because associative sympathy leads us to mirror their emotions, but our ability to enter into the afflictions of distant strangers involves cognitive sympathy and merely requires us to reflect on how we would feel in their shoes. This hybrid theory of sympathy receives a good deal of support from recent work on affective mirroring and cognitive pretense. Hume’s account should appeal to contemporary researchers, therefore, who are interested in the nature of moral imagination

Why We Think They Hate Us: Moral Imagination and the Possibility of Peace
by Robert Wright

It’s about “the moral imagination”—a term that has been used in various ways but, in my usage, refers to the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of other people, especially people in circumstances very different from our own. I argue that the moral imagination naturally tends to expand when we perceive our relations with other people as non-zero-sum and to contract when we perceive those relations as zero-sum. […]

In general, when a religious groups sees its relations with another religious group as non-zero-sum, it is more likely to evince tolerance of that group’s religion. When the perception is instead of a zero-sum dynamic, tolerance is less likely to ensue. (For an essay-length version of the argument, see this article, based on the book, that I wrote for Time magazine.) The moral imagination, I contend, is involved in this adaptive process. […]

Moral Imagination

The way hatred blocks comprehension is by cramping our “moral imagination,” our capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of another person. This cramping isn’t unnatural. Indeed, the tendency of the moral imagination to shrink in the presence of enemies is built into our brains by natural selection. It’s part of the machinery that leads us to grant tolerance and understanding to people we see in non-zero-sum terms and deny it to those we consign to the zero-sum category. We’re naturally pretty good at putting ourselves in the shoes of close relatives and good friends (people who tend to have non-zero-sum links with us), and naturally bad at putting ourselves in the shoes of rivals and enemies (where zero-sumness is more common). We can’t understand these people from the inside. […]

[T]he point is just that the ability to intimately comprehend someone’s motivation—to share their experience virtually, and know it from the inside—depends on a moral imagination that naturally contracts in the case of people we consider rivals or enemies.

In other words, we have trouble achieving comprehension without achieving sympathy. And this puts us in a fix because, as we’ve seen, some people it is in our profound interest to comprehend—terrorists, for example—are people we’re understandably reluctant to sympathize with. Enmity’s natural impediment to understanding is, in a way, public enemy number one.

It’s easy to explain the origins of this impediment in a conjectural way. Our brains evolved in a world of hunter-gatherer societies. In that world, morally charged disputes had Darwinian consequence. If you were in a bitter and public argument with a rival over who had wronged whom, the audience’s verdict could affect your social status and your access to resources, both of which could affect your chances of getting genes into the next generation. So the ability to argue persuasively that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance would have been favored by natural selection, as would tendencies abetting this ability—such as a tendency to believe that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance, a belief that could infuse your argument with conviction. And nothing would so threaten this belief as the ability to look at things from a rival’s point of view.

In dealing with allies, on the other hand, a more expansive moral imagination makes sense. Since their fortunes are tied to yours—since you’re in a non-zero-sum relationship—lending your support to their cause can be self-serving (and besides, it’s part of the implicit deal through which they support your cause). So on some occasions, at least, we’re pretty good at seeing the perspective of friends or relatives. It helps us argue for their interests—which, after all, overlap with our interests—and helps us bond with them by voicing sympathy for their plight.

In short, the moral imagination, like other parts of the human mind, is designed to steer us through the successful playing of games—to realize the gains of non-zero-sum games when those gains are to be had, and to get the better of the other party in zero-sum games. Indeed, the moral imagination is one of the main drivers of the pattern we’ve seen throughout the book: the tendency to find tolerance in one’s religion when the people in question are people you can do business with and to find intolerance or even belligerence when you perceive the relationship to be instead zero-sum.

And now we see one curious residue of this machinery: our “understanding” of the motivations of others tends to come with a prepackaged moral judgment. Either we understand their motivation internally, even intimately—relate to them, extend moral imagination to them, and judge their grievances leniently—or we understand their motivation externally and in terms that imply the illegitimacy of their grievances. Pure understanding, uncolored by judgment, is hard to come by.

It might be nice if we could sever this link between comprehension and judgment, if we could understand people’s behavior in more clinical terms—just see things from their point of view without attaching a verdict to their grievances. That might more closely approach the perspective of God and might also, to boot, allow us to better pursue our interests. We could coolly see when we’re in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone, coolly appraise their perspective, and coolly decide to make those changes in our own behavior that could realize non-zero-sumness. But those of us who fail to attain Buddhahood will spend much of our lives locked into a more human perspective: we extend moral imagination to people to the extent that we see win-win possibilities with them.

Given this fact, the least we can do is ask that the machinery work as designed: that when we are in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone we do extend moral imagination to them. That would better serve the interests of both parties and would steer us toward a truer understanding of the other—toward an understanding of what their world looks like from the inside.

Nietzsche on Truth, Lies, the Power and Peril of Metaphor, and How We Use Language to Reveal and Conceal Reality
Brain Pickings

Two centuries after Pascal, whom Nietzsche greatly admired, examined the difference between the intuitive and the logical mind, he ends by considering the tradeoffs between these two orientations of being — the rational and the intuitive — as mechanisms for inhabiting reality with minimal dissimilation and maximal truthfulness:

There are ages in which the rational man and the intuitive man stand side by side, the one in fear of intuition, the other with scorn for abstraction. The latter is just as irrational as the former is inartistic. They both desire to rule over life: the former, by knowing how to meet his principle needs by means of foresight, prudence, and regularity; the latter, by disregarding these needs and, as an “overjoyed hero,” counting as real only that life which has been disguised as illusion and beauty… The man who is guided by concepts and abstractions only succeeds by such means in warding off misfortune, without ever gaining any happiness for himself from these abstractions. And while he aims for the greatest possible freedom from pain, the intuitive man, standing in the midst of a culture, already reaps from his intuition a harvest of continually inflowing illumination, cheer, and redemption — in addition to obtaining a defense against misfortune. To be sure, he suffers more intensely, when he suffers; he even suffers more frequently, since he does not understand how to learn from experience and keeps falling over and over again into the same ditch. He is then just as irrational in sorrow as he is in happiness: he cries aloud and will not be consoled. How differently the stoical man who learns from experience and governs himself by concepts is affected by the same misfortunes! This man, who at other times seeks nothing but sincerity, truth, freedom from deception, and protection against ensnaring surprise attacks, now executes a masterpiece of deception: he executes his masterpiece of deception in misfortune, as the other type of man executes his in times of happiness. He wears no quivering and changeable human face, but, as it were, a mask with dignified, symmetrical features. He does not cry; he does not even alter his voice. When a real storm cloud thunders above him, he wraps himself in his cloak, and with slow steps he walks from beneath it.

Blaise Pascal on the Intuitive vs. the Logical Mind and How We Come to Know Truth
Brain Pickings

Pascal argues that our failure to understand the principles of reality is due to both our impatience and a certain lack of moral imagination:

Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand the process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight, and are not used to seek for principles. And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not at all understand matters of feeling, seeking principles, and being unable to see at a glance.

He considers what mediates the relationship between our intellect and our intuition:

The understanding and the feelings are moulded by intercourse; the understanding and feelings are corrupted by intercourse. Thus good or bad society improves or corrupts them. It is, then, all-important to know how to choose in order to improve and not to corrupt them; and we cannot make this choice, if they be not already improved and not corrupted. Thus a circle is formed, and those are fortunate who escape it.

Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall
by William Wood
pp. 137-139

The Imagination Bestows Value

The preceding analysis raises an important question. If the heart produces immediate moral sentiments, and if those sentiments are both true and compelling, then why does anyone ever act immorally? Why do we not always act in accordance with our sentiments? Pascal’s response to this question leads back to his famous critique of the imagination. Even though our moral sentiments have the felt sense of truth, according to Pascal, we are also strongly motivated to believe that our imaginative fantasies are true. If it is the heart that responds to the perceived value of moral goods, it is the imagination that bestows value on them in the first place. As a result, even though we do respond immediately to moral goods, we typically perceive those goods only after they have already been filtered through a haze of imaginative fantasy. Without repeating the discussion of the imagination in Chapter 2, recall that, according to Pascal, the imagination can “fix the price of things” and so invest moral goods with value. Moreover, “Imagination decides everything: it creates beauty, justice and happiness which is the world’s supreme good” (L44/S78).

Pascal’s account of the socially constructed imagination reveals that he is not just an ethical intuitionist but a social intuitionist. A social intuitionist recognizes that people are “intensely social creatures whose moral judgments are strongly shaped by the judgments of those around them.” While moral intuitions may be innate to everyone, social intuitionists claim that people acquire most of their particular moral intuitions through custom and habituation — that is, through their participation in thick cultural webs of moral practice. Once again, although social intuitionism currently enjoys pride of place among empirically oriented moral psychologists, there has been no recognition that Pascal is an early advocate of its key claims. Social intuitionists often look for inspiration from David Hume, or even Aristotle, without ever recognizing that Pascal is an even closer cousin to their own work. Moreover, Pascal is able to wed a social-intuitionist ethics to a full-blooded account of moral and axiological realism, something that contemporary social intuitionists often find themselves unwilling or unable to do.

Both the imagination and the heart are cognitive and affective faculties. The heart intuitively grasps moral and spiritual goods, and perceives moral beauty (L308/S339). Yet it is also an affective faculty associated with loving and desiring. Like the heart, the imagination also unites various cognitive and affective functions into a single faculty. In its cognitive aspect, the imagination allows us to form mental representations. These representations include theeveryday images by which we inwardly grasp the things that we perceive with our external senses. In its affective dimension, the imagination bestows value on goods. Although Pascal does not directly speculate about how the heart and the imagination would work if human beings had not fallen, it seems clear that the heart should perceive moral goods accurately, leading us to love and desire them according to their true value. Similarly, the imagination should also correspond to the world as it is, and supply us with accurate mental representations. In both cases, there should be no conflict between what is true and what we find beautiful. A moral agent that is not fallen would accurately perceive the beauty of spiritual goods and would love them as a result.

Instead, after the Fall, the imagination has become a “proud power” that oversteps its bounds and creates moral value independently, setting “the same mark on true and false alike” (L44/S78), and the heart has become “hollow and foul” (L139/S171). The sinner rejects the sentiments of the heart — the seat of conscience — and instead acts on the basis of the false, self-serving fantasies of the imagination.

Although Pascal usually focuses on the way we excessively magnify the value of our own selves, any object may be imaginatively invested with more value than it can bear: one may build up a fantasy about a commodity (a new car, for example), a specific self-understanding (of oneself as being just the kind of dashing person who would drive such a car), or some other pursued goal (making enough money to buy the car). The possibilities are endless. In each case, however, the perceived value of the object sought is a function of how it is imaginatively construed.

Although Pascal recognizes that the imagination is central to the moral life, his thought challenges the sometimes facile claims of contemporary narrative ethicists and those who would look to the “narrative imagination” for moral renewal. Pascal reminds us that the imagination is not just the locus of individual creative genius and speculative possibility. It is also a socially constructed repository for the (often immoral) dispositions and values of the wider world. Far from being the initial launching pad for moral critique, the imagination is often itself the faculty most in need of such critique. Furthermore, Pascal would remind us that reorienting the moral imagination is no simple matter. Certainly it is not just a matter of reading the right novels or passages from scripture, imaginatively identifying with the right moral exemplars, or trying to dream up new possibilities for moral community. Because the imagination is socially constructed, reorienting the imagination requires something like a massive program of counter-habituation, comparable to becoming a native member of a wholly new society. In short, reorienting the imagination would require something that looks quite a lot like an ongoing program of religious conversion. Pascal therefore sounds an important note of caution about the moral possibilities of imagination.

* * *

Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism
Poised on a Knife Edge
The Haunted Moral Imagination
A Phantom of the Mind
The Fantasy of Creative Destruction
Violent Fantasy of Reactionary Intellectuals
Freedom From Want, Freedom to Imagine
Orderliness and Animals
On Rodents and Conservatives
Imagination: Moral, Dark, and Radical
The Monstrous, the Impure, & the Imaginal
Lock Without a Key
On Truth and Bullshit
Sincere Bullshit
Racism, Proto-Racism, and Social Constructs
Race & Racism: Reality & Imagination, Fear & Hope
Racial Reality Tunnel
Race Is Not Real, Except In Our Minds
Race Realism and Symbolic Conflation
Symbolic Conflation & Empathic Imagination
Liberal-mindedness, Empathetic Imagination, and Capitalist Realism
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Delirium of Hyper-Individualism
The Group Conformity of Hyper-Individualism
Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination
Foundations and Frameworks
The Iron Lady: The View of a Bleeding Heart
A Conflict of the Conservative Vision
Avatar: Imagination & Culture
Our Shared Imagination
The Way of Radical Imagination
Imagination, a Force to Be Reckoned With
Vision and Transformation
The Master’s Tools Are Those Closest At Hand
Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions
A Neverending Revolution of the Mind
The World that Inhabits Our Mind
Beyond Our Present Knowledge
Revolution and Apocalypse
To Imagine and Understand
Fantasyland, An American Tradition
Memetic Narratives of War and Paranoia
Cold War Ideology and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
Of Dreamers and Sleepwalkers
The Living Apocalypse, A Lived Reality Tunnel
The Elephant That Wasn’t There
Stories: Personal & Collective
The Stories We Tell
The Stories We Know
A Compelling Story
A Storyteller’s Experienced Meaning
A Story of Walking Away
Conscious Dreaming, Conscious Self
Dark Matter of the Mind

Remembering Resurrection

On occasion, I’m reminded of how conventional corporate media can be. The New York Times is supposedly the liberal stronghold of liberal bias and liberal elitism, whatever that is supposed to mean. But obviously what it doesn’t mean is any deep and probing questions about the ideological foundations of our society.

The article that brought this back to my attention was what amounted to a Christian puff piece by John Meacham, some empty filler for the Easter weekend. He is a respectable author and historian within the mainstream establishment and popular media, but this particular article seems to be a throwaway that he quickly jotted down in between more important activities. Obviously, no serious scholarly research was involved, beyond some passing references.

The article is about resurrection and Meacham should know better. He has often written about religion in terms of history, including one book on the American founders. In my accusation, what exactly is it about which he should know better? In NYT, he writes that, “To Homer, as to the rest of the ancient world, what became the Christian idea of personal resurrection was preposterous.” Well, that part is simply misleading. Homer was writing long before the Roman Empire and all religious thought was far different, as human civilization was just emerging from the collapse of the Bronze Age (what Julian Jaynes refers to as the bicameral societies) and the Axial Age with its radically new religious ideas hadn’t yet taken hold.

So, it depends on which era of the ancient world one is talking about. But even in the pre-Axial period, the notion of resurrection was not an unknown concept, as many gods and godmen were brought back to life. This religious motif goes back to some early civilizations. What changed was how the relation between human and divine was imagined and experienced. Resurrection didn’t appear out of nowhere with the myth of Jesus Christ, although at that point it was being reinterpreted. Obviously, personal salvation (or gnosis, nirvana, enlightenment, transformation, etc) couldn’t be conceived until Axial Age individualism had been formulated and established. But centuries into the Axial Age, it was common for various religions to make claims of personal salvation, such as burial inscriptions declaring that as Osiris died and rose so would the buried worshipper.

Meacham pretends otherwise, though. “So singular was the proposition,” he writes, “that a particular person had been resurrected from the dead and that belief in him would lead to eternal salvation; it would hardly have been the early Christians’ first choice of narratives to share. Why argue something so improbable, and so unexpected, unless they believed it had actually happened the way they told the story?” I have a hard time taking him seriously. None of this was original to Christianity.

Belief in such things became well established over the preceding centuries, that is belief in personal salvation by way of resurrection gods and godmen — as Robert M. Price stated in no uncertain terms, “The ancient Mediterranean world was hip-deep in religions centering on the death and resurrection of a savior god. […] It is very hard not to see extensive and basic similarities between these religions and the Christian religion. But somehow Christian scholars have managed not to see it, and this, one must suspect, for dogmatic reasons” (Deconstructing Jesus, pp. 86 & 88). Sure, gnostic Christians and later heresiologists put their own spin on this mytheme, but it was far from having never been seen before. This type of theology emerged out of the meeting point of Alexandrian Jewish Neoplatonism, Greco-Roman Mystery Schools, Egyptian Hellenism, Virgin Isis-Meri worship, Osiris/Horus rituals, Dionysus tradition, etc. For example, the Catholic Church not only incorporated Mithraic elements for the Vatican was literally built on top of a Mithraic ritual cave.

None of this should be unknown to Meacham. In his book about the American founders, there are numerous references to Thomas Paine who wrote about the mythicist origins of Christianity which was well documented at the time. And Thomas Paine was one among many others during that era. Going back to early Christianity, there was much debate on all of this, even to the point that a major Christian Father defended the faith by admitting that there were pagan precursors to Christianity but that this was because the Devil implanted these ideas in earlier false religions in order to deceive humanity. But at least this apologetic defense is more honest in its admission than those who simply pretend the evidence doesn’t exist.

I don’t personally care about other people’s personal beliefs about Christian theology and traditions, rituals and practices. The heretical Unity Church I was raised in didn’t place any priority on such matters. If as a kid I had argued that Christianity borrowed from other religions, most of the people in my church wouldn’t have cared and some of them likely would already have been familiar with the evidence. There is nothing inherently anti-Christian about having knowledge of Christian origins. Nor is it dismissive of Christianity and disrespectful of Christians to admit basic historical facts and mythological precedents, no matter how challenging to our received dogma. Any worthy faith shouldn’t require a leap of ignorance.

Besides, in acknowledging what Christians inherited, it remains fair to argue that Jesus and his early followers helped form an original belief system, as would be true of any mature religion as it developed its own unique tradition. Christian theology about resurrection should be understood on its own terms, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother understanding it in terms of the ancient world out of which Christianity emerged. This doesn’t lessen the value of Christianity in any way. Rather, this broadens our potential insight about what it means to have a personal relation to the divine and to be personally saved (or, for atheists and agnostics, to offer context and allow for perspective). These are ancient concerns that extend far beyond Christianity proper. We are inheritors not only of Christianity but of the entire ancient world.

For some Christians such as Robert M. Price, learning the truth causes them to lose faith. But for still others like Tom Harpur, the truth strengthened their faith even further. On that note, no matter what you believe or don’t believe about resurrection: Happy Easter! And in remembrance of resurrection’s ancient agricultural inspiration, after this past long lingering Winter, I welcome the  return of Spring. That is a resurrection of the world that includes us all, even the dead in taking on new forms. Life emerging from the empty tomb of the cold soil is no small miracle.

Meyerism and Unity Church

One of the shows I’ve been following is The Path, about a growing spiritual movement and community called Meyerism (they don’t refer to themselves as a religion). It’s in the third season. My interest has been sustained, even if not quite as good as the first season.

The melodrama has increased over time, but that is probably to be expected. After all, it is about a close-knit faith group that transitions from a cult-like commune to a respectable large-scale organization. It’s a turbulent process with an existential crisis for the community involving a change of leadership. The portrayal of faith feels honest and fair to human nature, the way people struggle and care for what matters most to them.

One aspect I like about the show is the comparison and contrast with Christianity. As the organization grows, they decide to expand their reach to provide more services. Volunteer work and generosity is central to their spiritual vision. So, they invest in a major center in the nearby city, but it is more space than they immediately need. They share the space with others, including a Christian youth group. As a community, they are confident in their faith and so don’t see other groups, religious or otherwise, as competition.

One of the young Meyerists, Hawk, who grew up in the faith soon falls in love with the also young Caleb who leads the youth group. The conflict is that Caleb’s father is a fire-and-brimstone preacher, not accepting of homosexuality. Hawk has to simultaneously come to terms with his own homosexual feelings and those of others. This causes him to question what is faith, what is religion vs a cult, what does it mean to love someone no matter what. His parents raised him in Meyerism, but after his father became the new leader his mother had her own crisis of faith. She has learned to be more accepting and offers Hawk her perspective.

This conflict for Hawk came up again in the most recent episode (ep. 10, The Strongest Souls). Hawk doesn’t want to lose Caleb, but Caleb is afraid of losing his family. Unlike Meyerism, Caleb’s fundamentalist church is not accepting in the slightest. Caleb is feeling unbearable pressure to enter into a program to have his homosexuality cured or whatever they do. In hope of helping Caleb, Hawk looks for a gay-welcoming Christian church and finds himself sitting in a Unity service. That caught my attention. I grew up in the Unity Church (part of New Thought Christianity) and it is the first time I’ve seen it portrayed in any form within mainstream media.

I can be critical of Unity. It is as idealistic and as liberal of a church as you are likely to find. As someone dealing with depression, the idealism I internalized in my youth has been a struggle for me. It has messed up my mind in many ways, a bright light casting a dark shadow. But at the same time, the Unity Church represents some of my happiest memories. I attended Unity youth camps and the experience blew me away. Unity theology is all about love and light. I was never taught any notion about sin, damnation, and hell. These were foreign concepts to me. It is a beautiful religion and the positive feeling and support I felt growing up was immense. It showed me the world could be a different way. But returning to high school after one of those youth camps, it sent me into a tailspin of despair. The idealism of Unity didn’t match the unrelenting oppressiveness of the world I was forced to live in on a daily basis. Positive affirmations and visualizations were no match for the cynical culture that surrounded me. I felt unprepared to deal with adulthood in an utterly depraved world.

Yet that was long ago. For a moment in watching Hawk in that Unity service, I remembered what was so wonderful about the Unity Church. It’s a place where you will be accepted, even the lowest of the low. It’s a church that actually takes Jesus’ message of love seriously. If you think you hate Christianity for all the ugliness of fundamentalism, then you should visit a Unity Church. It has nothing to do with whether or not you want to believe in God or have a personal relationship with Jesus. I can’t say all Unity Churches are equal, as I’ve been to some that felt less openly welcoming than others. But the best of the Unity Churches can give you an experience like few other places.

Aesop and Jesus

“The Life of Aesop and the Gospels”
by Mario Andreassi
p. 164, Holy Men and Charlatans in the Ancient Novel

While individually heterogeneous, the analogies so far highlighted show the similarities in narrative structures of the biographies of Aesop and Jesus. However, analogy certainly does not mean textual interdependence, but it does led to the thesis that the authors of the Life of Aesop and the Gospels aimed, where possible, to place the life of the protagonist in a literary and narrative context known to the public and variously attested in the lives of the philosophers and in the Christian aretalogies. Apart from its complex editorial genesis and notwithstanding many severe judgments in the last century, the Aesop Romance belongs within a wider and consciously literary production: it is no paradox to maintain that ‘those who wrote the Gospels were likely influenced by the same literary model that gave rise to the Life of Aesop’.

‘Aesop’, ‘Q’ and ‘Luke’
by Steve Reece

The last chapter of the gospel of Luke includes a story of the risen Christ meeting two of his disciples on their way from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus and chastising them with the poetic expression ὦ ἀνόητοι καὶ βραδεῖς τῇ καρδίᾳ ‘O foolish ones, and slow in heart’ (Luke 24.25). No commentator has ever observed that Jesus’ expression occurs verbatim, in the same iambic trimeter metre, in two poetic versions of animal fables attributed to the famous Greek fabulist Aesop. It is plausible that Luke is here, as at least twice elsewhere in his gospel, tapping into the rich tradition of Aesopic fables and proverbs that were widely known throughout the Mediterranean world in the first century ce.

The Fisherman and his Flute
from Wikipedia

Commentators have seen a likeness to the story, although only in the detail of dancing to the pipe, in Jesus’ parable of the children playing in the market-place who cry to each other, “We piped for you and you would not dance; we wept and wailed and you would not mourn” (Matthew 11.16-17, Luke 7.31-2).[8] There is an echo here too of the criticism of unresponsive behaviour found in Herodotus.

[8] Francisco Rodríguez Adrados, History of the Graeco-latin Fable 3, Brill 2003, p.20 (“The proverb in the Gospels may be compared with the fable in that it uses the same musical metaphor of dancing accompanied by flute-playing.”)

Aesop’s Fables in the Bible
by Kent West

About five-hundred and fifty years before Yeshua was born, Aesop collected and/or created many fables, one of which was “The Fisherman and His Pipe”:

There was once a fisherman who saw some fish in the sea and played on his pipe, expecting them to come out onto the land. When his hopes proved false, he took a net and used it instead, and in this way he was able to haul in a huge catch of fish. As the fish were all leaping about, the fisherman remarked, ‘I say, enough of your dancing, since you refused to dance when I played my pipe for you before!’

[…] Nearly six hundred years later Yeshua makes reference to this same fable, having probably learned it as a child:

To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:
“We played the flute for you,
and you did not dance….”
Luke 7:31-32

Aesop as Context for Matthew 7:15-23
by Brandy Vencel

The passage begins with “beware of false prophets.” We must consider the entire passage in light of this introductory phrase. We are given a metaphor, in order to better understand false prophet: they are wolves which get in amongst the sheep by dressing up in sheep skin. {This is a direct reference to Aesop’s The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, but we will come back to that.} […]

What makes me so sure that this is an entire passage is its perfect parallelism with Aesop. It is said that Aesop lived around 500 years before Christ. His fables were so powerful, they were the first principle of the progymnasmata writing and rhetoric curriculum, which we know was formalized as early as 100 BC. Because Aesop was utilized not only to instruct in wisdom, but to teach writing and storytelling, and because almost every student would have had to retell Aesop’s fables, we can safely assume that this idea of a wolf in sheep’s clothing had slipped into the culture and provided a frame for discourse for at least 150 years, if not half a millenia, before Christ said these words.

Please realize that He was taking a universally known cultural story, and applying it those who would hurt His sheep.

Aesop’s tale of The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing has two parts. In the first part, the wolf has trouble getting any sheep to eat because the shepherds are so good at protecting them. The wolf’s problems are solved when he discovers a discarded sheepskin and puts it on. Almost immediately, he manages to snag a sheep for lunch. This is the fist half.

The second half takes an interesting turn. In this half, one of the shepherds decides that he’s in the mood for mutton broth for dinner, and heads out to the flock. He grabs the first sheep he finds…which just happens to be the wolf. The wolf becomes soup, not unlike the fool of Proverbs, who falls into his own pit.

Depending on your version of Aesop, you will have different morals attached {the morals were added much later}. One is: Appearances are deceptive. The other is: The evildoer often comes to harm through his own deceit. {There may be others, of which I am unaware.}

Jesus recasts the wolves as false prophets, and instructs His followers in how to pull the sheepskin off {look at the fruit}.

In the first half, Jesus covers deceptive appearances, and in the second half he covers the harm that comes to the evildoer in the end, as a result of his own choices and actions.

Just like Aesop.

Humor in the Gospels
by Terri Bednarz
pp. 208-209

Whitney Shiner (1998) gives interesting insights on humor when he compares The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark. Both of these works, the argues, were built by editing together various independent narrative episodes. These episodic narratives share common features: 1) their writing style lacks sophistication, 2) they were concise and short, and 3) their main characters persistently outwit antagonists. The main characters tended to be populist tricksters who succeed in unmasking the foibles of the elites, thus making them appear ridiculous. The tricksters target their antagonists with satirical barbs.

Shiner writes that The Life of Aesop advances its plot much more simply than the Gospel of Mark. Aesop merely outwits his antagonists in episode after episode. In hearing the stories of Aesop, one would more likely say, “Not again!” The Gospel of Mark has a more complex plot in which Jesus must repeatedly perform miracles, relate wise dicta, and outwit opponents in order to convince the audience of his ability to get the better of his antagonists. With the Markan Jesus, the hearer would more likely say, “Prove it!” Both the Markan Jesus and Aesop succeed in making their antagonists look foolish.

Shiner details other similarities in the Aesopic and Markan plots. Aesop’s rank and success increase in accord with the mounting hubris that leads to his eventual death at Delphi (Herodotus 2.136). The Markan Jesus also increases in stature, entering Jerusalem as a king (Mark 11:19-11), which also comes at great cost. Like Aesop, Jesus will meet a political death. Shiner notes another similarity: the use of divine causation. For Aesop, there is divine intervention in disputes, in posing and solving riddles, and even in his death. For the Markan Jesus, there is a divine plan that keeps unfolding until it culminates with Jesus’ death.

Shiner examines the ancient practice of intercalation, where an episode is woven into the middle of another episode. He argues that intercalation increases tension in the audience. This technique is found in both the Aesopic and Markan narratives. He gives an example from the Gospel of Mark where Peter stands in the shadows as Jesus is led into council. The audience is led to suspect that Peter follows Jesus in order to watch for an opportunity to express his bravery (Mark 14:53-54). Then Mark inserts the intercalation (14:55-65), which recounts Jesus’ courageous testimony, but then Mark jerks back to Peter where the audience hears Peter’s own bravery melt into a dramatic account of cowardliness (Mark 14:66-72). Shiner then presents an example of Aesopic intercalation. As Aesop cooks his lentil, there is an interruption in which Aesop and Xanthus engage each other in agonistic rhetoric, after which the scene of the cooking of the lentil resumes (Aesop 39, 41).

Shiner stresses that the episodic narratives and the intercalations are designed to keep the audience engaged, but not in the modern sense. Modern audiences anticipate that characters will break from their characterizations, and evolve into more complex figures. Shiner argues that this is not the case with ancient audiences, which expect characters to be static and predictable. For example, Xanthus will always be the butt of Aesop’s witty barbs. For ancient audiences, the episodic narratives do not produce tension by introducing the unexpected but by fulfilling what they anticipate will happen. In other words, the tension builds because the moment of comic recognition is delayed. Aesopic and Markan episodes and their intercalations simply postpone what the ancient audience expects will happen. They know that the antagonists will always receive Jesus’ witty or barbed riposte, or that Peter will stumble yet again, or that Aesop will once more outwit Xanthus.

Whitney Shiner, “Creating Plot in Episodic Narratives: The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark”
by Matthew W. Ferguson

Shiner (pg. 155) begins her analysis by noting that there are “two distinct ways” that the Gospels have been read. One approach, following the from critics, is to view the Gospels as a conglomeration of self-contained episodes that have been stitched together from oral tradition. The other approach is to view the Gospels as a continuous narrative. Shiner argues, however, that these approaches can be harmonized through an “extended episodic narrative.” As Shiner (pp. 155-156) explains:

“In reading the Gospels as episodic narrative, one must see the narrative as simultaneously episodes and as extended narrative. The extended narrative is built from more or less self-contained blocks. Continuity in the extended narrative is found not so much in the continuity of detail in action and characterization between episodes as in continuity in the overall impact of the episodes. To take an analogy from art, extended episodic narrative is like a mosaic.”

Shiner goes on to note that the Life of Aesop, much like the Gospels, is built around narrative episodes that are largely independent. These independent episodes, however, are organized to advance the plot of the macronarrative. As Shiner (pg. 156) explains:

“This is especially true of the most extensive section of the Life, in which Aesop repeatedly outwits his master, the philosopher Xanthus. Much of the macronarrative structure of Aesop, such as Aesop’s sale to the philosopher, his manumission, and his entering into service to Lycurgus, serve to move the narrative from one type of episode, appropriate to Aesop’s earlier situation, to a different style of episode, appropriate to the new plot situation.”

Shiner (pp. 169-174) identifies eight different narrative strategies shared between the Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark that are used to weave episodes into a continuous plot:

  1. Similar episodes are repeated to develop a point […]
  2. Within the plot as a whole discrete sections are created that are, in terms of size and content, amenable to episodic development […]
  3. The discrete sections are ordered to suggest a coherent plot development from one to the other […]
  4. Sustained conflicts between the hero and another person or group are established and episodes are used to illustrate conflict […]
  5. Episodes of various lengths are presented to create variety […]
  6. Narrative within episodes is elaborated to enhance the narrative quality of the whole […]
  7. Discrete episodes are interwoven to extend narrative tension or to provide keys for interpretation […]
  8. Similar episode plots are presented at different places in the narrative to recall earlier episodes and to suggest an underlying unity of theme or plot […]

Through these narrative strategies, therefore, Shiner argues that the episodic structure of the Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark does not conflict with a continuous narrative. Instead, these strategies are employed to weave continuity within the narrative and a continuous plot.

Lawrence Wills: “The Life of Aesop and the Hero Cult Paradigm in the Gospel Tradition”
by Matthew W. Ferguson

After identifying novelistic biography as the best analogical model for the Gospels, Wills goes on to argue that the anonymous Life of Aesop makes for the best comparison. Wills (pg. 23) explains:

“The tradition of Aesop as a teller of barbed fables … is found as early as the fifth century B.C.E., and the account of his life, which circulated in multiple versions, may derive from narrative traditions that are as old. The extant versions, however, are dated to about the turn of the era, that is, roughly contemporary with the gospels…”

The process of composition described above is very similar to The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, where an anonymous editor compiles multiple earlier accounts into a single episodic narrative (which then circulates with multiple textual variations). As I explain in my essay “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels,” the NT Gospels are also better described as edited volumes, rather than the unique work of a single author, based on how they borrow and redact earlier materials (often verbatim), with the editor of the text remaining anonymous.

Beyond these structural observations, however, Wills also notes a number of thematic similarities between the Gospels and the Life of Aesop. As Wills (pg. 23) explains about the subject of the biography:

“Aesop is introduced in the Life as an ugly and misshapen slave who is in the beginning unable to speak. He is devoted to Isis, however, and after he shows kindness to one of the priestesses, falls into a sleep and is granted by the goddess the power of speech. This gift he uses to the utmost–he never stops talking, but with an acid wit skewers the pretensions of his new owner, a philosopher, and also the owner’s wife and fellow philosophers.”

Aesop is prominent for teaching in fables, a form of fiction quite similar to the parables used by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. On this point, it is also worth noting John Dominic Crossan’s recent book on the subject, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. For his teachings, Aesop, like Jesus, runs into problems with the authorities and is executed. As Wills (pp. 23-24) explains:

“Through his cleverness he manages to help both his master and the citizens of Samos, and ultimately attains his freedom. Once free, however, he soon runs foul of the citizens of Delphi, and rebukes them with his sharp-pointed fables. They condemn him to death on a trumped-up charge, and he is executed. When a plague strikes the city, they consult an oracle of Zeus and learn that they must expiate their sin through sacrifice.”

Here, Wills draws a major parallel with the life of Jesus, namely the wrongful execution of the subject, followed by divine vindication. As Wills (pg. 28) argues:

“The relationship of blame, violent reaction, impurity, expiation, and immortality of the hero are drawn close together. Similarities to the expiatory death of Jesus can be seen here, especially if we begin to consider the latter in terms of ambivalent worship with his people, that is, to Jews, Israel, or Jerusalem.”

Wills (pg. 29) also notes that the length of the Life of Aesop is a bit longer than Mark and John, and and about the same length as Matthew and Luke. Wills points out, however, that in terms of structure the Life is more similar to Mark in John, particularly in how the text does not begin with a narrative of the subject’s birth (though Aesop is briefly said to have been born a slave in Amorium of Phrygia, without discussion of the circumstances), or his early growth and development, but is instead focused on his adult life.

 

“The Aesop Tradition”
by Lawrence M. Wills
pp. 223-224, The Historical Jesus in Context

The Aesop tradition is important for the study of the Gospels for two reasons. First, Aesop’s fables can be formally compared to Jesus’ parables. Readers will recognize in some of the fables below individual motifs that re also found in the Gospel parables, as well as the use of ideal scenes that provoke reflection, even if the point to be taken from them is quite different. Second, the Life of Aesop is roughly contemporary with the Gospels and bears some remarkable similarities. These similarities may derive from the fact that the Life and the Gospels both dramatize the life and death of the ostracized hero, told in an age of prose novels and novelistic histories. (Later Christian tradition [Acts of Peter 24; Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor 3.1] even adds that Jesus was ugly, based on a reading of Isaiah 53:2.) The Life is about the same length as the Gospels, written in a relatively low style. Like the Gospels, it gives the sense of being a longer text composed of many originally independent episodes. If Jesus in the Gospels is more prophet than sage, and Aesop is more sage than prophet, the difference is minor compared with the overall similarity in structure:

  1. The protagonist has lowly beginnings but experiences a deity’s favor.
  2. The protagonist has a period of ministry with a salvific message.
  3. The protagonist is despised as a result of the message.
  4. Trumped-up charges involving blasphemy of the deity are brought forward.
  5. The protagonist is executed as a result.
  6. A cult of the protagonist is instituted.

Within some of the general similarities, we can perceive even closer parallels in the details. The Life of Aesop begins with a visitation by the goddess Isis and the bestowal of powers on Aesop, not unlike the scene of Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of the Gospels with the voice from heaven. At the end of the Life there is a geographic shift from Samos to Delphi, that is, from the periphery to the center of the worship of Apollo, just as there is a shift in the Gospels from the periphery of Galilee to the center at Jerusalem. Finally, at the transition at the end of these texts from ministry to a trial and passion, the process by which this shift occurs is also similar. In both groups of texts, conflicts that are punctuated by the use of a special kind of discourse arise. and this leads directly to the trial and execution of the protagonist […]

In addition, in all three texts the charge of “blasphemy” figures heavily in the conspiracy to execute the protagonist (Life of Aesop 132; Mark 14:64; John 10:33). This is true even though the charges of blasphemy n the three cases are not clearly stated and may be quite different. In Aesop, the protagonist is accused of being a temple robber; in Mark, blasphemy is often discussed by scholars in terms of Jewish law on this subject (Leviticus 24:16), but the charge seems to focus instead on Jesus’ implication that he himself is the coming Son of Man; in John the Jewish authorities tell Jesus that the charge of blasphemy arises because “you are making yourself God.” Blasphemy should thus be seen in its literary context as the “standard” false charge that separates the wise hero from his people. It is also roughly equivalent to the false charge of impiety leveled against Socrates. In Socrates’ case the charges were corrupting the young, neglecting the gods, and introducing new ideas (Plato, Apology).

The difference in tone between the Gospels and the Life of Aesop — urgent and demanding in the case of the Gospels, broadly satirical in the case of the Life of Aesop — can be attributed to the difference in the protagonists’ message. Jesus brings the good news of God’s plan of salvation at the end time, while Aesop the Cynic sage preaches a gospel of liberation from human convention and complacency and an awareness of the true nature of things. (Some scholars would argue that this places the Life of Aesop closer in religious outlook to the sayings source Q or the Gospel of Thomas. If that is the case, then the Life of Aesop is structurally closer to one part of the Gospel tradition, and thematically closer to another.) This overall literary similarity between the Life of Aesop and the Gospels indicates that the genre “gospel’ was not as unique as some have thought, and the particular motifs of the Gospels may owe more to the general background of reverence for philosophers than has been previously acknowledged.

My Flesh Is Meat Indeed
by Meredith J. C. Warren
pp. 54-55

In addition, Berenson Maclean points out the generic compatibility found by other scholars such s Lawrence Wills between the biography of the poet-hero and the Gospel of John in particular. Wills’ study argues that the novelistic pattern of the poet-hero’s life and death, including the poet’s antagonistic relationship with both the city and a deity, makes it appropriate for comparison with John’s structure. Specifically, Wills suggests that The Life of Aesop fits the same pattern as Mark and John; for instance, all three begin at the adulthood of the main character rather than with his birth and all three involve, close to the outset, an experience from heaven. Jesus’ ambivalent relationship with the Temple and oi ioudaioi also make John’s comparison to Life of Aesop appropriate.

Nagy’s work on the hero now becomes very relevant to the discussion: “by losing his identification with a person or group and by identifying himself with a god who takes his life in the process, the hero effects a purification by transferring impurity.” The expiatory understanding of Jesus’ death is apparent in early Christian works such s 1 Corinthians 15:3, Romans 3:25, 1 Corinthians 5:7, and Mark 10:45. For Wills, this further locates the early Christian understanding of Jesus in the context of the Greco-Roman hero, though he cautions that the paradigm of the hero is more variable than a single genre could contain. Gunnel Ekroth concurs with this point, saying, “a characteristic of heroes and hero cults is their heterogeneity.” Rather, for all three of the texts Wills examines, the paradigm of the hero is narrated in a way that establishes the cult even if not all the elements are present in any given text and with the reservation that there is no single paradigm that encompasses all of early Christianity’s understanding of Jesus’ life and death.

pp. 209-212

Nagy’s treatment of the Aesop tradition is significant for this study of John because in it, Nagy is careful to pint out the feedback loop present in the myth and ritual: Aesop’s death is the cause of the ritual institution he critiques while at the same time, his death in the narrative is caused by his critique. That is, everything is occurring at the level of narrative. It is this relationship that establishes the association of Aesop with Apollo. Thus Life of Aesop, too, reflects the understanding of the relationship between chosen human and god that is recorded in literature from the time of the epics to the turn of the millennium and after. In particular, the complicated cause-and-effect relationship between the antagonism, the ritual, and the divine identification found in Aesop as observed by Wills and Nagy is also found in the Greek romances. As I have illustrated above, this feedback loop of antagonism — sacrifice/cannibalism — divinity is a key manifestation of the type of relationship Nagy finds between heroes and gods in Homer’s epics. Likewise, I argue that this “antagonism in myth, symbiosis in cult” is also found in John.

Further, Wills notices similarities with the ways in which Jesus and Aesop die. In Life of Aesop, the Delphians put him to death in a way that makes him a pharmakos, a scapegoat. The act of putting a person to death is polluting, and the only way for this act to be purified is with the establishment of the hero’s cult. Wills’s outline of Jesus’ death shows the parallels between his sacrifice and the trope of heroic death in the Greco-Roman world. He points out that (likely pre-Pauline) formulas speak of Jesus or Christ as one who has died for the sins of others — in other words, as an expiation. In particular, Wills observes that the oracle uttered unwittingly by Caiaphas in John 11:50 makes a significant point of contact with the heroic death narratives, where frequently the “sacrifice of the hero is demanded or predicted by an oracle.” Caiaphas’s words, “It is expedient that one man should die for the people, so that the whole nation not perish,” make it clear to the readers (though ironically not to Caiaphas himself) that Jesus’ death is on behalf of the nation and can therefore be seen as expiatory. Jesus’ death at the request of certain factions of oi ioudaioi results in his worship by certain other factions of that same community.

Wills also observes that Jesus’ death in John occurs at the same time as sacrifice of the Passover lambs in the Jerusalem temple. As I have observed earlier, John’s Gospel avoids discussion of the expected Christian rituals of baptism and Eucharist and yet maintains a concern for the practice of ritual; Nagy, too, notices this feature in the heroic epics that are the focus of his work, the Odyssey and the Iliad. The fact that John shares his concern for right ritual practice with Homer suggests that the leap from literary death to cultic concern is indigenous. Likewise, John’s location of Jesus’ death at the time of that other, ordinary expiatory sacrifice further establishes Jesus’ death in a sacrificial, and therefore heroic, context. In other words, John’s concern with right ritual practice combined with the manner and timing of Jesus’ expiatory death, as prophesied by Caiaphas, creates an image of Jesus that shares significant points with the hero of the epic and with Aesop. Jesus’ and Aesop’s manners of death are therefore comparable; in this way, Jesus can also be viewed as heroic pharmakos.

Wills also points out that there seems to be striking similarities between Aesop’s characterization and Jesus’: the travelling distributor of pithy wisdom is persecuted and eventually executed as a kin of scapegoat/pharmakos. Clearly much of Jesus’ narrative follows a very similar pattern, especially, Wills observes, if we consider Jesus’ relationship to his own community, oi ioudaioi. It is especially appropriate for the current study that Wills there quotes Nagy:

By losing his identification with a person or group and identifying himself with a god who takes his life in the process, the hero effects a purification by transferring impurity. . . . In such a hero cult, god and hero are to be institutionalized as the respectively dominant and recessive members of an internal relationship.

This method of establishing such an eternal relationship can also be observed in the romance novels we have been discussing so far. In each case, the protagonists have experienced alienation from their communities. There are some differences worth articulating: whereas in the novels, the great beauty of the heroines gave them away as divine creatures, Aesop’s disfiguring ugliness is remarkable. John Winkler calls this satirical characterization of the main character the trope of the Grotesque Outsiders, one who is more capable of penetrating humanity’s veneer because of his or her marginal status. As such, this characterization marks the novel as satirical, but this, Wills is quick to point out, in no way effaces its usefulness in examining the finer points of the genre as a whole, especially since Leucippeand Cltophon might well fall into the satirical camp itself. The overarching theme of alienation and execution in both Aesop and John also plays out in the romances; Aesop’s satirical ugliness functions has a reversal of the goddesses’ beauty, but further, the trope of the outsider is clearly visible in all the examples. In short, while Wills compares just Aesop and John for his comparison, for the purposes of this project, where consumption is also a factor, it is significant that the romances also follow this narrative pattern in which the protagonists experience exile.

Paul and the Rise of the Slave
by K. Edwin Bryant
pp. 57-58

I also employ The Life of Aesop as a resource for conceptualizing how Paul’s construction of messianic life reclaimed slaves from the deadening violence imposed on conquered peoples. This investigation makes full use of Aesop as a hero who, in grotesque disguise, utters critical truths and contests the legal and political definitions imposed on slaves. Aesop is a common man’s Socrates who “cloaked his wisdom in foolishness.” We suggest that Rom 6:12-23 demonstrates how slaves of Messiah Jesus re reclaimed from the sinful domination of Empire, and subsequently illustrates how Paul’s polemical construction of messianic life provides eschatological comfort to the “vanquished.” Paul’s language in Rom 6:12-23 has more in common with the theatrical representations of slavery in the mine, than with the elite philosophical discourses of wisdom. Locating Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus in the language of comedy, jest, and the mime maybe controversial. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus was formulated from a grotesque perspective, in response to violence, and to facilitate an upsurge of the human spirit that challenged slaves to rise above the profane and juridical conditions imposed upon them. […]

The life of Aesop provides suggestive parallels between Aesop’s fables and Paul’s characterization of his calling as that of a slave, particularly in the ways that both resisted and contested power relationships. That Aesop is presented as a hero who is ugly, deformed, and disabled contests the Hellenic picture of wisdom and intellect. The Life of Aesop frequently portrays Aesop’s wisdom as disconcerting elite persons and challenging them as subjects. Yet, at times, Aesop is unable to transcend his grotesque appearance. On other occasions, Aesop consciously employs his wit and ingenuity to create anxiety in members of his master’s social class. The Life of Aesop is polemical in that Aesop ruptures the legal and social definitions of the slave as a subject, and annuls the impact of the power imposed upon him. Xanthus’ students marvel as to how Aesop’s intellect is greater than their professor’s. That Aesop constantly brought about a reversal of expectations indicates that the problems associated with his grotesque appearance were intermittent. Nevertheless, it would have been difficult for most slaves to subvert the continuum of power without the help of a construct like Paul’s ethic of messianic life. […]

pp. 65-66

It may be that the grotesqueness of The Life of Aesop, and the positive valuation of the slave as a subject, will infuriate the “modern bourgeois readers.” Such a reading will undoubtedly elicit scandalous remarks and reactions. In contrast to the bourgeois reactions, the staging of Aesop’s many reversals “provide the only defense, and occasional revenge, for those who routinely suffered maltreatment.” Now let us imagine the implications for slaves in Rome, if they too, had an encounter with the divine and awakened to a new way to conceptualize their existence. This analysis does not suggest that Paul’s readers had access to The Life of Aesop, but does highlight the fact that a contemporary non-Christian source portrayed slaves with the capability to transcend power relationships; one can only imagine how Roman slaves could replicate the same conditions by participating in the death of Messiah Jesus through baptism. The Life of Aesop presents a literary source contemporary with Paul that, in a similar way, challenges slaves to subvert how institutions and power structures imposed identity on slaves as subjects. Paul’s theological concept of identity formation subverts how the Empire imposed identity on subjects. Such a reading also asserts that Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus resonates with aspects of the slave Aesop’s identity that had been silenced by conquest. The Life of Aesop suggests how Paul’s polemical construction of messianic identity may have facilitated a role reversal that generated the acceptance of one’s new calling as a Slave of Messiah Jesus. On the one hand, this reversal of fortune annuls the negative implications of social cohesion and formation. On the other hand, we suggest that Paul’s polemical construction of messianic life contributed to an upsurge of the human spirit.

Second, the reclamation of identity generated the courage for slaves to resist aspects of the identity that Roman rule imposed on conquered peoples. After receiving his gifts from Isis, Aesop became aware of the maltreatment of slaves and contested how the propertied class exploited the ambiguities of slavery. Aesop was also conscious of how Xanthus attempted to exploit his intellect. In ways similar to the Life of Aesop, Paul’s description of himself as a slave of Messiah Jesus facilitated an awakening of Christian identity. The final episode in The Life of Aesop reveals Aesop’s willingness to be hailed by the deity in order to thwart the attempt of the men of Delphi’s to kill him. Instead, Aesop accomplishes his own fate to prevent dying at the hands of moral slaves. That Paul describes himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus serves as an invitation to auditors who were slaves to realize their calling by participating in the death of Messiah Jesus. We posit that the grotesque perspective generated the grammar required for urban slaves to imagine an existence apart from their legal condition.

p. 76

To contest the ways that dominium ideology facilitated violence required slaves to employ a grammar of resistance that permitted them to subvert the identity that Rome sought to impose on its subjects. Our exploration of The Life of Aesop revealed a representation of a slave who possessed the intellectual prowess to negotiate, and in some ways transcend violence, and subvert how masters understood the legal and political definitions of the slave as subject. Thus, The Life of Aesop provides a helpful resource for appreciating the language of Paul’s letters, at the same time that it illustrates how slaves tried to imagine an existence apart from the identity that Rome imposed upon them. In this context, we may form an impression of how Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus was understood by members of urban slave congregations. We propose that Paul crafted Rom 6:12-23 to convince Slaves of Messiah Jesus, who were restricted to conditions similar to modern ghettos, that they might awaken to a new messianic life. Thus, Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus functioned to reclaim slaves from the negative implications of subjectivity and generated a positive valuation of the slave as subject.

p. 200

Turning now to Paul, it is impressive how closely Paul’s requirements for slave participation in messianic identity parallel Aesop’s decision to take his own life rather than allowing the men of Delphi to force a meaningless death upon him. Paul’s exhortation to slaves in the “now” time signals that the only way to “rise” from the profane verdict assigned to slaves involved the willingness to share in the death of Messiah Jesus — only then can one generate a new meaning for life that transcends the imposition of Rome’s demonic rule. Paul’s repeated use of the word vuv (now, present time) in Rom 6:19, 21, and 22 confirms our exegesis of Rom 6:18-20. The process of interpelation awakened slaves to a new messianic consciousness that facilitated an awareness of how humiliation, torture, and violence were employed to reinforce the subjectivity of slaves as subjects. Thus, the positioning of “now” in Rom 6:19-23 announces an end to the domination, humiliation, and torture produced in a context of shame. Paul’s reference to the “now time” of salvation signals that slaves encountered “new ethos that had ethical and theological implications.” Roman Imperial ideology assigned slaves as weapons of wrongdoing: slaves can now participate in community with a “messianic consciousness.” Based on Paul’s use of […], we can say that slaves who participate in messianic community are able to reimagine their existence in positive ways without shame (cf. Rom 1:16).

The Art of the Lost Cause

Many people are understandably disappointed, frustrated, or angry when they lose. It’s just not fun to lose, especially in a competitive society. But there are advantages to losing. And losses are as much determined by perspective. Certainly, in more cooperative societies, what may be seen as a loss by outsiders could be taken quite differently by an insider. Western researchers discovered that difference when using games as part of social science studies. Some non-Western people refused win-lose scenarios, at least among members of the community. The individual didn’t lose for everyone gained. I point this out to help shift our thinking.

Recently, the political left in the United States has experienced losses. Bernie Sanders lost the nomination to Hillary Clinton who in turn lost the presidency to Donald Trump. But is this an entirely surprising result and bad outcome? Losses can lead to soul-searching and motivation for change. The Republicans we know now have dominated the political narrative in recent decades, which forced the Democrats to shift far to the right with third way ‘triangulation’. That wasn’t always the case. Republicans went through a period of major losses before being able to reinvent themselves with the southern strategy, Reagan revolution, trickle down voodo economics, the two Santa Claus theory, culture wars, etc.

The Clinton New Democrats were only able to win at all in recent history by sacrificing the political left and, in the process, becoming the new conservative party. So, even when Democrats have been able to win it has been a loss. Consider Obama who turned out to be one of the most neoliberal and neocon presidents in modern history, betraying his every promise: maintaining militarism, refusing to shut down GITMO, passing pro-biz insurance reform, etc. Liberals and leftists would have been better off to have been entirely out of power these past decades, allowing a genuine political left movement to form and so allowing democracy to begin to reassert itself from below. Instead, Democrats have managed to win just enough elections to keep the political left suppressed by co-opting their rhetoric. Democrats have won by forcing the American public to lose.

In the Democratic leadership failing so gloriously, they have been publicly shamed to the point of no redemption. The party is now less popular than the opposition, an amazing feat considering how unpopular is Trump and the GOP at the moment. Yet amidst all of this, Bernie Sanders is more popular than ever, more popular among women than men and more popular among minorities than whites. I never thought Sanders was likely to win and so I wasn’t disappointed. What his campaign did accomplish, as I expected, was to reshape the political narrative and shift the Overton window back toward the political left again. This period of loss will be remembered as a turning point in the future. It was a necessary loss, a reckoning and re-envisioning.

Think about famous lost causes. One that came to mind is that of Jesus and the early Christians. They were a tiny unknown cult in a vast empire filled with hundreds of thousands of similar cults. They were nothing special, of no significance or consequence, such that no one bothered to even take note of them, not even Jewish writers at the time. Then Jesus was killed as a common criminal among other criminals and even that didn’t draw any attention. There is no evidence that the Romans considered Jesus even mildly interesting. After his death, Christianity remained small and splintered into a few communities. It took generations for this cult to grow much at all and finally attract much outside attention.

Early Christians weren’t even important enough to be feared. The persecution stories seem to have been mostly invented by later Christians to make themselves feel more important, as there is no records of any systematic and pervasive persecution. Romans killing a few cultists here and there happened all the time and Christians didn’t stand out as being targeted more than any others. In fact, early Christians were lacking in uniqueness that they were often confused with other groups such as Stoics. By the way, it was the Stoics who were famous at the time for seeking out persecution and so gaining street cred respectability, maybe causing envy among Christians. Even Christian theology was largely borrowed from others, such as natural law also having been taken from the Stoics — related to the idea that a slave can be free in their mind and being, their heart and soul because natural law transcends human law.

Still, this early status of Christians as losers created a powerful narrative that has not only survived but proliferated. Some of that narrative, such as their persecution, was invented. But that is far from unusual — the mythos that develops around lost causes tends to be more invented than not. Still, at the core, the Christians were genuinely pathetic for a couple of centuries. They weren’t a respectable religion in the Roman Empire, until long after Jesus’ death when an emperor decided to use them to shore up his own power. In the waning era of Roman imperialism, I suppose a lost cause theology felt compelling and comforting. It was also a good way to convert other defeated people, as they could be promised victory in heaven. Lost Causes tend to lead to romanticizing of a distant redemption that one day would come. And in the case of Christianity, this would mean that the ultimate sacrificial loser, Jesus himself, would return victorious! Amen! Praise the Lord! Like a Taoist philosopher, Jesus taught that to find oneself was to lose oneself but to lose oneself was to find oneself. This is a loser’s mentality and relates to why some have considered Christianity to be a slaver religion. The lowly are uplifted, at least in words and ideals. But I’d argue there is more to it than seeking comfort by rationalizing suffering, oppression, and defeat.

Winning isn’t always a good thing, at least in the short term. I sometimes wonder if America would be a better place if the American Revolution had been lost. When I compare the United States to Canada, I don’t see any great advantage to American colonists having won. Canada is a much more stable and well-functioning social democracy. And the British Empire ended up enacting sweeping reforms, including abolishing slavery through law long before the US managed to end slavery through bloody conflict. In many ways, Americans were worse off after the revolution than before it. A reactionary backlash took hold as oligarchs co-opted the revolution and turned it into counter-revolution. Through the coup of a Constitutional Convention, the ruling elite seized power of the new government. It was in seeming to win that the average American ended up losing. An overt loss potentially could have been a greater long term victory. In particular for women and blacks, being on the side of the revolutionaries didn’t turn out to be such a great deal. Woman who had gained the vote had it taken away from them again and blacks hoping for freedom were returned to slavery. The emerging radical movement of democratic reform was strangled in the crib.

Later on, the Confederates learned of the power of a lost cause. To such an extent that they have become the poster boys of The Lost Cause, all of American society having been transformed by it. Victory of the United States government, once again, turned out to be far from a clear victory for the oppressed. If Confederates had won or otherwise been allowed to secede, the Confederate government would have been forced to come to terms with the majority black population that existed in the South and they wouldn’t have had the large Northern population to help keep blacks down. It’s possible that some of the worst results could have been avoided: re-enslavement through chain gangs and mass incarceration, Jim Crow laws and Klan terrorism, sundown towns and redlining, etc —  all the ways that racism became further entrenched. After the Civil War, blacks became scattered and would then become a minority. Having lost their position as the Southern majority, they lost most of the leverage they might have had. Instead of weak reforms leading to new forms of oppression, blacks might have been able to have forced a societal transformation within a Confederate government or else to have had a mass exodus in order to secede and create their own separate nation-state. There were many possibilities that became impossible because of Union victory.

Now consider the civil rights movement. The leaders, Martin Luther King in particular, understood the power of a lost cause. They intentionally staged events of getting attacked by police and white mobs, always making sure there were cameras nearby to make it into a national event. It was in losing these confrontations to the greater power of white oppression that they managed to win public support. As a largely Christian movement, the civil rights activists surely had learned from the story of Jesus as a sacrificial loser and his followers as persecuted losers. The real failure of civil rights only came later on when it gained mainstream victories and a corrupt black leadership aligned with white power, such as pushing the racist 1994 Crime Bill which was part of the Democrats becoming the new conservative party. The civil rights movement might have been better able to transform society and change public opinion by having remained a lost cause for a few more generations.

A victory forced can be a victory lost. Gain requires sacrifice, not to be bought cheaply. Success requires risk of failure, putting everything on the line. The greatest losses can come from seeking victory too soon and too easily. Transformative change can only be won by losing what came before. Winning delayed sometimes is progress ensured, slow but steady change. The foundation has to be laid before something can emerge from the ground up. Being brought low is the beginning point, like planting a seed in the soil.

It reminds me of my habit of always looking down as I walk. My father, on the other hand, never looks down and has a habit of stepping on things. It is only by looking down that we can see what is underneath our feet, what we stand on or are stepping toward. Foundation and fundament are always below eye level. Even in my thinking, I’m forever looking down, to what is beneath everyday awareness and oft-repeated words. Just to look down, such a simple and yet radical act.

“Looking down is also a sign of shame or else humility, the distinction maybe being less relevant to those who avoid looking down. To humble means to bring low, to the level of the ground, the soil, humus. To be further down the ladder of respectability, to be low caste or low class, is to have a unique vantage point. One can see more clearly and more widely when one has grown accustomed to looking down, for then one can see the origins of things, the roots of the world, where experience meets the ground of being.”

* * *

Living Differently: On How the Feminist Utopia Is Something You Have to Be Doing Now
by Lynne Segal

Another anthropologist, the anarchist David Graeber, having been involved in protest networks for decades, remains even more certain that participation in moments of direct action and horizontal decision-making bring to life a new and enduring conception of politics, while providing shared hope and meaning in life, even if their critics see in the outcomes of these movements only defeat:

What they don’t understand is that once people’s political horizons have been broadened, the change is permanent. Hundreds of thousands of Americans (and not only Americans, but Greeks, Spaniards and Tunisians) now have direct experience of self-organization, collective action and human solidarity. This makes it almost impossible to go back to one’s previous life and see things the same way. While the world’s financial and political elite skate blindly towards the next 2008-scale crisis, we’re continuing to carry out occupations of buildings, farms, foreclosed homes and workplaces, organizing rent strikes, seminars and debtor’s assemblies, and in doing so laying the groundwork for a genuinely democratic culture … With it has come a revival of the revolutionary imagination that conventional wisdom has long since declared dead.

Discussing what he calls ‘The Democracy Project’, Graeber celebrates forms of political resistance that in his view move well beyond calls for policy reforms, creating instead permanent spaces of opposition to all existing frameworks. For Graeber, one fundamental ground for optimism is that the future is unknowable, and one can live dissident politics in the present, or try to. This is both despite, and also because of, the insistent neo-liberal boast that there can be no alternative to its own historical trajectory: which has become a linear project of endless growth and the amassing of wealth by the few, toil and the struggle for precarious survival for so many.

Furthermore, Graeber points out that historically, although few revolutionaries actually succeeded in taking power themselves, the effects of their actions were often experienced far outside their immediate geographical location. In a similar reflection on unintended consequences, Terry Eagleton suggests that even with the gloomiest of estimates in mind, many aspects of utopic thinking may be not only possible but well- nigh inevitable:

Perhaps it is only when we run out of oil altogether, or when the world system crashes for other reasons, or when ecological catastrophe finally overtakes us, that we will be forced into some kind of co-operative commonwealth of the kind William Morris might have admired.

Even catastrophism, one might say, has its potentials. […]

It should come as no surprise that most of the goals we dream of will usually elude us, at least partially. However, to confront rather than accept the evils of the present, some utopian spirit is always necessary to embrace the complexity of working, against all odds, to create better futures. A wilful optimism is needed, despite and because of our inevitable blind-spots and inadequacies, both personal and collective.

For many of us, it means trying to live differently in the here and now, knowing that the future will never be a complete break with the present or the past, but hopefully something that may develop out of our most supportive engagements with others. To think otherwise inhibits resistance and confirms the dominant conceit that there is no alternative to the present. Thus, I want to close this chapter repeating the words of the late Latin American writer, Eduardo Galeano, which seem to have been translated into almost every language on earth, though I cannot track down their source:

Utopia is on the horizon. I move two steps closer; it moves two steps further away. I walk another ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps further away. As much as I may walk, I’ll never reach it. So what’s the point of utopia? The point is this: to keep moving forward.

Our political dreams can end in disappointment, but are likely, nevertheless, to make us feel more alive, and hence happier, along the way, at least when they help to connect us to and express concern for those around us. Happiness demands nothing less.

 

Billy Graham’s Addiction to Political Power

“The framers of our Constitution meant we were to have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”

That is from the infamous Billy Graham. The argument is that the founders weren’t serious when they talked about the separation of church and state. It’s amusing in its silliness. It would be like saying that the framers of our Constitution meant we were to have freedom of oppressive monarchy and aristocracy, not freedom from oppressive monarchy and aristocracy. He is playing a word game to push an agenda. But many of the founders, such as Thomas Jefferson, were quite clear in what they meant about separation of church and state. Religious freedom most definitely does not entail the constitutional right to enforce theocratic laws onto others.

Graham has a long history of political involvement and influence. This has been true across every presidential administration since the 1950s. He was particularly close with Richard Nixon. After Nixon’s scandalous resignation, Graham expressed more wariness toward politics. He went so far as to later on criticize Jerry Fallwell’s politicized “moral majority” (Parade Magazine, 1981), stating that:

It would be unfortunate if people got the impression all evangelists belong to that group. The majority do not. I don’t wish to be identified with them. I’m for morality. But morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak out with such authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists can’t be closely identified with any particular party or person.

Referring specifically to Falwell, he made himself even more clear:

I told him to preach the Gospel. That’s our calling. I want to preserve the purity of the Gospel and the freedom of religion in America. I don’t want to see religious bigotry in any form. Liberals organized in the ’60s and conservatives certainly have a right to organize in the ’80s, but it would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.

That didn’t stop Graham from continuing to play the political game. He stayed close to the Washington establishment in the decades since. In 2011, he once again expressed regret for his complicity in the politicization of religion. Yet the very next year he jumped into another political fight over gay marriage in North Carolina. The culture wars are simply too thick in his blood. The attraction to political power is an addiction. He can’t help himself. John Becker wrote that,

The fact that the 93-year-old Graham, who was born during the final days of World War I, supports marriage discrimination is not, in and of itself, surprising, when one considers both his age and his evangelicalism. What is rather surprising, however, is the fact that he’s made such a public anti-gay pronouncement at all. After all, the man has been essentially in retirement since 2007. Since that time, he’s left most of the right-wing craziness to his son, Franklin “President Obama may or may not be a ‘son of Islam’“ Graham, and his daughter, Anne “9/11 was God’s way of getting back into the government and our schools“ Graham Lotz. Waggoner notes that William Martin, an authorized biographer of Graham, cannot recall any effort by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association similar in size and scope to its current pro-discrimination push in the organization’s entire 62-year history. And according to Martin, professor emeritus of religion and public policy at Rice University, this can only mean one thing: that the source of this bigotry is not Franklin Graham, who heads the BGEA, but Billy Graham himself. Says Martin, “I am somewhat surprised that he would take that strong a stand. In the past, I have heard him say with respect to homosexuality, there are greater sins. Franklin has been more outspoken about it, but it sounds as if this is Mr. Graham expressing his own will.”

It appears the Graham family ministry has become ever more politicized as the patriarch ages. Billy Graham is no longer heeding his own advice, hard earned from his earlier life experience. This can’t be blamed on his family taking over the ministry. It’s obvious the elder Graham is still fighting the culture wars in very much politicized form.

It’s with this in mind that we should take note the political support of Donald Trump by family members and key figures close to Billy Graham. Even though Franklin Graham promised not to endorse a candidate, he posted a photograph of his father with Donald Trump right before the election. He described those photographed with his father as “a few special friends,” implying the relationship between Billy and Donald isn’t a casual association. Acknowledging the support he had been given, Trump stated that he was “a big fan of Billy Graham” and then thanked some of the family members.

It’s not clear what Billy Graham thinks of Trump. But one thing is clear. This new administration has been extremely divisive among evangelicals, even among those surrounding the Graham family. Consider the warning of “21st century idolatry” given by Ed Stetzer. He is the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and the Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center.

Trump’s narcissistic buffoonery and anti-Christian sociopathy will make many evangelicals rethink their position on the politicization of religion, specifically in its present partisan divide. It will weaken the ties between evangelicals and the Republican Party. It might also weaken the ties with the religious right as well, since younger evangelicals are increasingly liberal and progressive. It is the decades of politicized religion by religious right figures like Billy Graham that have turned so many away from the old culture wars. That might not have happened if Graham had taken his own earlier advice to heart.

Who and where is the enemy?

I was looking at some books on the ancient world. A few of the books were on Rome, specifically the changes that happened after Christianization.

People often talk about the Barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome. But the fact of the matter is that the German tribes that ‘invaded’ were already there living in the empire. They had been mercenaries for generations and were trained by the Romans. They weren’t really ‘Barbarians’, in the sense of being a foreign pagan population that showed up from the wildlands beyond the Roman frontier.

These Germans were even already converted to Christianity, but it was at a time when Christianity was splintered in diverse traditions and beliefs. It’s quite likely that those in power feared the Germans because they adhered to heretical forms of Christianity. As far as that goes, most early Christians would be labeled as heretics by the heresiologists. That was fine until the heresiologists attempted to oppress and kill all competing Christian adherents. Maybe the German Christians took that personally and decided to fight for not just their sovereignty but also their religious freedom.

So, it was really just one population of Christians in Rome deciding to take power from or simply overthrow another population of Christians in Rome. Those Romanized and Christianized Germans would become the great monarchies and empires of Europe, such as the French Normans that turned much of Britain into England. And it was the Norman-descended Cavaliers who reinstated the monarchy after the English Civil War, creating modern England.

All that was meant in the ancient world by someone being Barbarian was that they were of a different ethnicity. It literally meant someone outside of one’s door, which is to say outside of one’s community. And in the Roman Empire, many ethnicities maintained separate communities. The Jews were Barbarians as well and the Romans feared them as well, although their earlier revolt failed.

It is interesting to think about those early German Christians that helped topple the Roman Empire. Maybe they were practicing for the later Protestant Reformation.

The original Lutherans, Anabaptists, Pietists, Moravians, Mennonites, Amish, etc were Germans. Calvin’s father came from the northern borderlands of the Roman Empire, in a town established by Romanized Gauls, and after Calvin escaped France Calvinism took hold in Switzerland. Huguenots also lived in the border regions of what once was the Roman Empire. The population out of which Puritanism arose, influenced by some of these German Christians, was of German descent. The English Midlands where the Scandinavians settled gave birth to Quakers and other dissenter traditions.

German Christians, along with other Northern European and British Christians, were constantly causing trouble. This challenging of religious authority lasted for more than a millennia. And to a lesser degree it continues. In the majority Germanic Midwest of the United States, this struggle over Christianity continues with much challenge and competition. The Midwestern Methodist church where my Germanic grandfather was once minister ended when some in the congregation challenged central church authority.

Christian authority is on the wane these days, though. American fundamentalists like to think of the United States as the last great bastion of Christian authority, like the Christianized Roman Empire once was. But if Washington is to fall as did Rome, it won’t likely be from an invading army of non-believers, of secularists, agnostics, and atheists. Maybe similar to those Germanic mercenaries, the defense contract mercenaries will grow so powerful that in their Godless capitalism (though Christianity has a strong toehold among military personnel and defense contractors) they will turn against their weakened American rulers. Corporatism will be our new religion, as the American empire collapses and disintegrates into corporate fiefdoms. Some would argue that corporatism is already our new religion.

Anyway, if history is to be repeated, the so-called barbarians at the gates are already here. And they have been here for a while. They won’t need to invade, as they were welcomed in long ago and were enculturated into our society. The mercenaries of our country, whether taken literally or metaphorically, might turn out to be a fifth column. The enemy within might be those we perceive as protecting us, until it’s too late. Mercenaries aren’t always known for their loyalty. So, who are the mercenaries in our society, the guns-for-hire? And who is the real enemy in this situation? The mercenaries of our society would answer that question differently, as did the German mercenaries living in the Roman Empire.