Posted on March 31, 2019 at 2:19 PM
By Charles Foster
Some odd alliances are being forged in this strange new world,
I well remember, a few years ago, the open hostility shown by dreadlocked, shamanic, eco-warriors towards the Abrahamic monotheisms. They’d spit when they passed a church.
The rhetoric of their distaste was predictable. The very notion of a creed was anathema to a free spirit. ‘No one’s going to tell me what to think’, said one (we’ll call him Jack), the marks on his wrists still visible from where he’d been chained to a road-builder’s bulldozer. And the content of the creeds, and the promulgators-in-chief, didn’t help. ‘I’m certainly taking no lessons’, Jack went on, ‘from some patriarchal sky-god represented by a paedophilic priest.’
But it’s changed. Jack still heaves bricks through bank windows (he says), and still copulates inside stone circles, but now he’s mightily impressed with Jesus, has a Greek Orthodox icon of the resurrection next to his bong, and pictures of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris on his dartboard. He’s not alone. He’s part of a widespread movement that is reclaiming and recruiting the intrinsic radicalism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the fight against Neo-Liberalism and the destruction of the planet.
It’s not just that he hates the reductionism of the New Atheists (who of course sneer at his pentacles just as they sneer at his icons), and thinks that his enemy’s enemy is his friend. Indeed, as we’ll see, the enemy of the New Atheists is not God at all. No: this is a real alliance, based on profound philosophical agreement.
There was a serious obstacle to any détente between Jack and the Abrahamic faiths. It was that the great ally of Neo-Liberalism is American White Conservative Evangelicalism (AWCE). And since the AWCEs shout more loudly than anyone else, there’s a tendency, at least in the west, to equate their slogans with Christianity – and to tar the other monotheisms with AWCE’s brush.
That obstacle has gone. Trump removed it. 86 per cent of AWCEs voted for him, making it clear beyond argument that they have not even the most tenuous connection with historic Christianity. It’s no use for AWCE apologists to say that there is plenty of Biblical precedent for evil leaders being used as instruments of divine providence. The Babylon from which Cyrus sprung the Israelites wasn’t a democracy. Where your hearts are, there shall your votes be also. We’ve seen the hearts of the AWCEs, and they’re not remotely Galilean.
So Jack now knows that Jesus is Not a Republican. He wrote excitedly to me the other day, asking if I knew that the early Christians were frank Communists, holding everything in common, and that (until the catastrophe of Constantine’s conversion), were far more deeply suspicious of the whole idea of a state than the most fiery modern anarcho-syndicalists? He quoted the splendid David Bentley Hart:: ‘…most of us would find Christians truly cast in the New Testament mold fairly obnoxious: civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent.’ Perfectly at home, that is, at an Occupy demonstration, or at the top of a doomed tree as the chainsaws roar.
So if anyone doubted whose side the AWCEs were on, the advent of Trump has removed all doubts. It’s not this, though, that compelled Jack to stand shoulder to shoulder with the ancient church. That compulsion came from a far deeper solidarity, which, Trump having cleared the Evangelicals out of the Christian field, it was easier for Jack to see.
I’ll come in a moment to the grounds of that solidarity. But first it is interesting to go back to the dartboard.
Jack throws the darts for both intellectual and instinctual reasons. Both sets of reasons apply equally to the New Atheists and the Evangelicals, and he should really have photos of megachurch pastors from Tennessee up on the board too. With his distaste for humbug and (at least between pipes) his customary clarity, he cruelly but truly mocks the evasions and inconsistencies that characterise the thoughts of both. He notes, shrewdly, that the New Atheists spend their time knocking down a straw man created for them by Evangelical theology. And that the Evangelicals have created a pastiche of God, and the likes of Dawkins and Dennett gleefully, easily, and pointlessly, spend their lives pointing out that the pastiche is laughable. The Evangelicals and the New Atheists need each other. They are crucially entwined in an acrimonious symbiosis.
The result in each case is a new religion. The Evangelicals have synthesised a sort of sickly deism (where an essentially impersonal God is somehow given the attributes of a gun-slinging racist petroleum executive who makes proteins and teaches spiders how to hunt). And the New Atheists have failed to notice that science is merely a method for inquiring into the world, and instead worship it as a complete metaphysical system.
Both, Jack saw, have made the same elementary category error. Evangelicals artlessly and ham-fistedly defend the mechanic who designed their dreary world; the New Atheists attack him. The mechanic has nothing whatever to do with the God of the monotheisms; who existed before there were any molecules to assemble; the Ground of Being; the logically inevitable pre-condition of all contingency.
It is hard to know, says Jack, which is more sad: to worship (in banal cadences, with intellectual cowardice, and in elastic-waisted trousers) the result of a category error, or to spend your life denouncing (in shrill pamphlets, and without any idea that you’re missing the point) that same result.
Plato and Aristotle, and most reflective people ever since – including Jack, and most people that I’ve met at demonstrations, folk sessions, and other outpourings of spontaneous joy, righteous anger, and compassion – held that the beginning of philosophy is wonder at the fact of existence. There is no such wonder in the choruses or tracts of the fundamentalists, whether they are religious or anti-religious fundamentalists. For them it is no surprise that they are, and that everything else is, and that this need not necessarily have been so, and indeed that nothing need have been at all. Their interest is in the machine they perceive the universe to be, and in the engineer who either made and maintains it (per the AWCEs), or who didn’t and doesn’t (per the Dawkins groupies).
For the New Atheists and the evangelicals are both creatures of the seventeenth century Enlightnement – that movement (which probably began with Descartes, in the sixteenth century, who prised apart Mind and Matter), and which saw de-souled nature as simply a mechanism. The first move was to banish Mind, along with God, to a spiritual realm. Having done that, the sceptics could observe that Mind, or God, weren’t in nature (precisely and only because they had asserted that they were not), and declare that since they weren’t in nature, and nature was everything that there is, Mind/God could not exist at all.
Following suit, and concluding that, indeed, God was not in nature, the Evangelicals could both despoil the natural world with a clean conscience, and pen their God in a tiny private space where he wouldn’t affect their ability to gorge, oppress, and exploit.
The thinking here is woefully muddled. I don’t need to highlight the errors. But it has been hugely and disastrously influential. One of its many effects was to make the abuse of nature morally inoffensive. There’s nothing ethically dubious about smashing a piece of machinery. Add a bit of talk, unencumbered by any Biblical scholarship, about the Genesis 1 mandate to subdue the earth, and you’ve got the makings of a God-endorsed Industrial Revolution. You’ve also got, if you’re a AWCE, unschooled in systematic argument, a diabolical equation of materialism and divinity.
It doesn’t begin to follow, of course, that just because the New Atheists and the AWCEs both posit their beliefs on the existence or non-existence of an entity in whom the monoetheisms have never believed, the real God doesexist. An argument against Dawkins or against the Southern Baptist Federation is not an argument for the Ground of Being. But in fact Jack has argued his way, or at least fallen, into some sort of accord with Eastern Orthodoxy (which he sees – with good historical justification – as relatively pristine: relatively undistorted by the sort of accommodation with secular politics that has shaped the western churches). He seems to have some sort of epiphany in a chapel on a rock looking out from the southern Peloponnese towards Crete. As he lit a candle, Terence McKenna’s quote came to mind: ‘Science requests, ‘Give us one free miracle and we’ll explain the rest.’ And the one free miracle is the appearance of all the matter and energy in the universe and all the laws that govern it from nothing at a single instant.’ And then he caught the eye of Christus Pancrator and that, for some reason or none, was it.
He has repented of his talk about ‘sky-gods’. It is true that the public rhetoric of the monotheisms has generally tended to emphasise transcendence. But he has noted now that they have generally insisted on immanence too. The Greek Orthodox morning prayer says of the Holy Spirit: ‘present in all places and filling all things’. Mind, in other words – the same Mind that is the substance of transcendent Being – infuses rocks and trees. Christians and Animists have a lot in common.
Jack was particularly troubled by the hounding of the shamans. The monotheisms have often burned the wise women who really knew about the immanence of spirit in the wild world, and the consequent interconnectedness of all that there is. But that wasn’t because the priests didn’t believe that witchcraft was real. On the contrary, it was because they knew that it was. They simply believed that it was in competition with their own franchise. This fear of competition is probably best explained as a matter of ecclesiastical and gender politics rather than as a deep-seated theological conviction. The witches and the bishops believed more or less the same things about the weave of the world.
Even the patriarchy of the Abrahamic monotheisms doesn’t worry Jack now. He has seen that feminine adjectives (and indeed plural nouns) are used to describe God, and (though he prefers to talk about Goethe’s Eternal Feminine, or the Womb of the World) is thinking of buying an icon of Mary to stand on the other side of the bong.
Abraham’s greener than I thought’, said he.