…Let me begin the formal segment of our Conference by admitting that there are a number of assumptions planted in its description. First, there is the problem of defining, and locating, the modern.

Modern and Pre-Modern

As a chronological boundary marker, “modern” is a notoriously elastic term. The historians of jazz, as I understand it, trace the birth of the modern to the 1950’s. Modern art is usually said to have begun in the period between the world wars. Historians of architecture find the germs of the modern in roughly the same period, incubating in the cubical wombs of steel and glass conceived by the Bauhaus brotherhood. In literature, the modern age is usually said to begin in the late eighteenth century, with that most contemporary of literary genres, the novel. Philosophers detect the first stirrings of modernity through as wide a range of periods and personalities as those of Descartes, Macchiavelli, Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau. History itself takes the longest view, placing the dawn of the modern in the late fourteenth century, in the Renaissance, the age of the rebirth of the ancient.

There is thus enormous variation from discipline to discipline in locating the modern; what’s more, there are always recalcitrant individuals who refuse to respect the frontiers of official chronology. In music, Bach’s discords and suspensions are disturbingly modern, while twentieth century composers such as Vaughan Williams seem eternally stuck in Tudor England. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Macchiavelli and Castiglione were almost exact contemporaries: one very forwardly looking and modern, the other determined to preserve a code of gentlemanly conduct that goes back to Homer. Nietzsche is assuredly a most modern literary critic, but a half century on, T.S. Eliot (though identified by literary critics as one of the founders of the modern movement in poetry) was himself, as a literary critic, a defender of what he called “tradition”.

Such anomalies could be multiplied, and I mention them only by way of admitting that almost any definition of the modern is bound to be idiosyncratic, made all the more so by the fact that the word “modern” itself has about it an almost triumphalist aura. Modernity is an attitude as much as an historical designation, as illustrated by the view of most of my first-year undergraduates for whom the modern era began the day they were born, and whose thinking thereby tends to relegate the whole groaning process of history that led up to that blessed event to the dark mists of antiquity.

Those of you who have been in my classroom before have already heard me animadvert on our fetishistic advocacy for the modern as an entirely, well, modern development. If what we call “Civilization” dawned some time around 3000 B.C., then for the first 48 of the 50 centuries thereof, it was more or less universally assumed, by poets, priests, and philosophers, at any rate, that things were always and inevitably getting worse.

The biblical myth of the Fall, and the classical myth of the four “metallic ages”, are both succinct expressions of this dour view of the future. Rather than looking breathlessly forward to some hitherto unrealized utopia, the pre-modern imagination looked back to a lost paradise or golden age, which it was the purpose of literature, art, philosophy, and religion to cooperatively restore.

I have argued that these pre-modern assumptions are infinitely more salutary – morally, politically, and psychologically – than our own utopian optimism, which has spawned, amongst other horrors, the Nazi and Communist holocausts of the last century. More to the point here, a belief in a lost golden age and in the progressive degeneration of mankind would have made us a little less inclined today to assent to the Narcissistic illusion that every present generation is better educated, more politically equitable, morally enlightened, and artistically fecund than the previous one: that our social arrangements are more compassionate and just, our art is more creative because it is untrammeled by convention, our consciousness has been raised higher, and our deepest selves are more fulfilled than ever before in our patriarchal, sexist, racist, Eurocentric, xenophobic, homophobic, and generally benighted past.

This is merely jingoism of the chronological sort. That I don’t happen to share these modernist prejudices is, of course, wholly beside the point, but that the ancients certainly didn’t is entirely germane to our project here. For that reason I must leave this theme only to take it up some time later in the context of the pre-modern writer’s “bookishness”, as C.S. Lewis has called it, that is, his reverence for authority and tradition, together with his apparent failure to strive for, let alone care about, originality.

For now, however, I merely want to stress that the pre-modern and the modern attitudes towards modernity are fundamentally antithetical.

When, then, does the pre-modern era end and the modern begin? Since it is a difference of attitudes that concerns us here, the precise date doesn’t really matter.

I’ve assigned it to the year 1800 – with mock precision, as I’m sure you realize. (I think I made this arbitrary decision while remembering an early music program that I used to listen to on the radio called “Music Before 1800”.) Even still, there are good reasons for my choice, which I hope will become clearer throughout the course of the lectures.

 

“Involuted Mysteries”

I’ve called this Conference “Involuted Mysteries”, which sounds like one of those high-sounding made-up phrases one might hear at a convention of New Age priestesses, or crop circle enthusiasts, or (I regret to say) academics. Let me assure you therefore that the phrase has an ancient and legitimate pedigree.

It comes, as I recall, from the Mystagogus Poeticus of Alexander Ross, an English mythographer of the late Renaissance. When Ross used it, it was indeed a phrase of his own concoction, but one yoked together nonetheless from real words freighted for centuries with real meaning.

Let me take a few minutes to explain, at least superficially, what these words meant, and in the course of doing so to anticipate some of the themes and topics that will occupy us in due course.

The adjective “involuted” derives from the word involucrum, a term used by medieval literary theorists to describe the way in which the inner symbolic or allegorical meaning of poetry is hidden deep within the outer wrapping of the literal sense. Involucrum is a synonym of sorts of two other popular medieval literary terms, velamentum, which means covering in the sense of a “veil”, something that hides, and integumentum, which means “covering” in a protective sense. (Integumentum comes from the Latin verb tego, tegere, tegi, tectum, from whose past participle we get the English words “protect” and “protection”.)

Both ideas, that the literal sense of poetry “hides” the allegorical meaning, and that it “protects” it from the eyes of the unworthy, are central to the ancient and medieval conception of literature and art as “mysteries”. But for reasons that will become clear, I hope, involucrum is my term of preference. Its allusive imagery is richer.

You all know what the English cognates “involve”, “revolve”, “evolve”, “volute”, “evolution”, “revolution”, and so on, mean. They come from another Latin verb, volvo, volvere, volui, volutum – so, I presume, does the overpriced Swedish automobile – which means to “roll” or “wind”. The allegorical meaning of poetry, according to the medieval commentators, was thus “involved”, a mystery “wound up” and so hidden in the deep centre of the literal words – like the living seed, in fact, protected within the dead and disposable shell or chaff (to use another popular medieval analogy), or Plato’s spherical World Animal, whose soul, the Mind of God, is rolled up invisibly within its material envelope.

 

“Mystery” and the Sacred

Now to the noun in our title. You are all familiar with the popular meaning of the word “mystery”: something difficult or impossible to understand or explain, because it is unusual, paradoxical, or even miraculous.

We have just passed the festival of Christmas, or what the demystifying fanatics of political correctness insist on calling the Holiday Season. Christmas, as you know, celebrates the first of the two central “mysteries” upon which the Christian religion is founded: the Incarnation – the coming of the eternal, incorporeal, and invisible God into the flesh and the world of space and time. As the text of the Christmas motet begins, O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum: “O great mystery, O wondrous sacrament”. The text is instructive: its more or less synonymous conjunction of the words “mystery” and “sacrament” tells us something rather important for our present purposes.

In popular modern usage, we might call any phenomenon that is difficult to comprehend or explain a mystery: for instance, the mystery of flight (as folks at the beginning of the last century used quaintly to refer to the new technology), or of calculus, or (to continue to list things I’ll never understand), the mystery of the golf swing.

But in the pre-modern imagination, the word “mystery” was reserved for an entity or event that was not merely incomprehensible but also experienced as sacred, as a sacramentum; and indeed the mystery – the incomprehensibility and wonder – of it was inseparable from its sacredness. Everything that is mysterious is sacred: ordained by God, a manifestation of God, or a concealment of God; and everything that is sacred is by necessity mysterious.

That mystery is rooted in the Divine was, of course, the universal attitude of the pre-modern. As anthropologists have long recognized, the special mark of the primitive – they used to call it the savage imagination before the dawning of the age of political correctness – is to invest with – to project upon – that which is otherwise inexplicable to it in nature, a consciousness and a will, very much like its own, in fact, only more powerful and therefore more dangerous. Every important event or anomaly in the natural order – earthquake, flood, a birth, an unexpectedly bountiful harvest – was conceived as the effect of God’s inscrutable and capricious beneficence or displeasure.

When science finally comes along to explain these events by ascribing them to purely physical causes, it can only do so, of course, by de-mystifying them. It must, in fact, expunge from the universe every trace of Soul or Mind or God. The inscrutable living Spirit that was formerly and from time immemorial thought to reside at the centre of, to animate and govern everything that exists and occurs in the world, is pronounced dead, and the de-spirited carcass of the cosmos is now moved by the cold hand of mechanical law.

Here, again, is one of the most obvious differences between the modern and pre-modern outlooks. If the ancient reflex was to multiply and aggrandize mystery, the modern project is to diminish and ultimately abolish it.

But from the eighteenth century to the present, science, and scientific criticism, have tended to pronounce the death of mystery and God with a dogmatic excess of certitude and materialistic zeal. It has told us with overweening confidence, for instance, that the parting of the waters of the Red Sea during the Exodus was the result of no miraculous intervention by God, but is merely the dim folk memory of a freak draught or unusually low tide, abetted perhaps by a sudden windstorm.

This is a nice bit of modern scientific rationalization, but as such it is of course wholly beside the point. To reduce a religious mystery to a meteorological event, and explain that event in accordance with the principles of natural causation, is to completely misapprehend it.

As any student of mythology knows, the parting of the Red Sea didn’t happen, at least not in the sensible world of space and time; it is poetry, not history, symbol not fact. The very point of the story is mythic and symbolic: to demonstrate the majestic power of the God of Israel, who with a “mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (in the words the writer of Exodus) shepherded his people out of bondage in Egypt and into the Promised Land – as He would liberate them from captivity in Babylon and greater Persia, as he would be beseeched to liberate them from the Empires of Greece and Rome, and as eventually He would release all mankind from bondage to Satan, sin, and death.

The Israelites’ passing over dryshod of the Red Sea is, beyond that, an only subtly veiled historical transcription of the ancient Near Eastern mythologem of the nocturnal death and matutinal resurrection of the Sun-god, who every night set in the Western sky and descended into the waters of the underworld sea, there to encounter the chaos-dragon Tiamat or Apophis or Rahab or Leviathan (alternatively historicized by the Hebrew authors as the evil Pharaoh), to conquer him and deliver from his belly the captive dead into the light of salvation. This, as we will see, is one of the foundational and recurrent myths that govern the whole course of the so-called “history” of the Judaeo-Christian Bible.

 

Mystery and Myth

For the ancients, then, mystery and myth always lay just beneath the surface of the visible order. This is to say, really, that it was in the subterranean stratum of mystery and myth that the hidden intelligible meaning of natural phenomena and historical events – actualities that were, in themselves, meaningless – was found.

This is one reason why Aristotle wrote in the ninth book of his Poetics that myth is a somewhat more “philosophical” genre than history. History records, as Aristotle explains, what actually happened to this or that person, in this or that place and time, once and for all. Myth is the record of what happens in all times and places, recurrently, everywhere, and always.

In Platonic terms, history belongs, we might say, to the mutable and particular dimension of existence (what Plato called “Becoming” or “Not-Being”), whereas myth refers to an eternal and unchanging Reality. The historian Herodotus might thus chronicle the rise and fall of Croesus’ Lydia, or of the Persian Empire; a Thucydides, the rise and fall of Sparta; a Livy, Carthage; a Gibbons, Rome. But as soon as one speaks of a king or nation’s “rise and fall”, one is using the language of myth, not history. One is observing one of history’s universally and eternally recurrent patterns, on the model of the mythic journey of the Sun, or the pitiless rotation of Fortune’s Wheel.

Historical events can be observed and natural phenomena measured, but Meaning, of course, is an entirely incorporeal and invisible entity. To search for it beneath the superficial currents of history or sensible things involves a great leap of faith, whether in the name of religion or science.

Like the religious postulate of the Divine, the quest for meaning at any level involves the projection of the interpreter’s own Intelligence into an inanimate and therefore unintelligent world. The only difference is that, where the pre-modern imagination used to call that Intelligence God, the scientific imagination now de-personalizes it as the Laws of Motion, or of Thermodynamics, or Gravitation, or Relativity, or String Theory.

But it is, all the same, a projection and a leap of faith.

 

     It is generally assumed that traditionalists are hostile to free inquiry and experimentation. On the contrary, they revere them. But traditionalists also recognize the difference between open-mindedness and empty-mindedness.

I am a respecter of traditions because I know that they are rational, and that they work. Though possessed of a gargantuan ego–what else would impel me to write a blog?—I have just enough humility to acknowledge that it is unlikely that I, Harleius Pretius, sitting alone in the solitude of my study, and owning no more than the meager quotient of intelligence and life-experience with which any single individual can ever hope to be endowed, could come up with a better solution to the problems besetting humanity than those hammered out at some point during the half-million-year history of human reflection and trial by the cumulative genius of mankind that preceded my glorious birth. I’m no paragon of Socratic humility, but I hesitate to pit my lonely intellect against a collective braintrust that includes the likes of Johnson, Pope, Milton, More, Erasmus, Pico, Aquinas, Boethius, Augustine, Aristotle, and, well, Socrates.

Even the most “knee-jerk” adherents of tradition have a well-grounded intuition that the customs and practices they follow have been rationally and empirically demonstrated over time. If today’s cabinet makers “mindlessly” continue to build carcasses and drawers with the same old dovetail joints as have been sawn and chopped since the William and Mary period, it’s because they know that after having experimented with butt joints, rabbets, tongues-and-grooves, round dowels, square pegs, iron pins, steel screws, hide glue, glue from fish bones, and probably human spittle, their predecessors long ago agreed that the dovetail was a superior mechanism. In putting two pieces of wood together at right angles along end grain, the dovetail joint works splendidly within the limitations fixed by the nature of the material and the laws of geometry. Traditionalists accept the immutable conditions of the world into which they have been born, and woodworkers are no different. (They’d certainly regard any cabinet maker who built drawers using an inferior joint for the sake of novelty as a lunatic.)

Most traditional social or moral arrangements—heterosexual monogamy; the nuclear family, with its division of labour; the prohibition against adultery and pre-marital sex; the abhorrence of infanticide and abortion–were established in the mists of antiquity, but then only at the end of an earlier, protracted period of human experimentation and adjustment. A traditionalist is one who has the sense to recognize when the experiment has succeeded, and to stop, on the principle that there is nothing more mindless—because it is insane—than to go on experimenting for experiment’s sake. But we are a culture confused: in some cases we treat a hyperactive compulsion for change with Ritalin; in others, we elect its sufferer President.

Of course, “knee-jerk” and “mindless” are insults to which the enemies of tradition have staked a proud and exclusive claim. Progressives have always regarded traditionalists as craven and uncritical conformists (whereas they, by contrast, are fearless free-thinkers, whose every opinion has been won in a protracted agon of self-examination and untrammeled rational inquiry). It is, moreover, in brave defiance of their relentless persecutors (here cue the music of the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Hunt, or the McCarthy Hearings) that they display their hard-won laurels of victory.

The truth, however, is that those who reject tradition tend to do so as reflexively and out of as servile a submission to authority as any medieval divine. It is just that the authorities they venerate are more recent and modish. Chesterton said that tradition is the democracy of the dead; progressives believe in a tradition that is the oligarchy of the fashionable. (Whether it is rational to conclude that the world-view of today’s sages is more just and wise than that of the perennial consensus of historical humanity, merely because its advocates are currently breathing and capable of filling a lecture hall, remains an open question.)

No era in history has, in any case, ever achieved a more perfect and universal conformity of thought, taste, dress, and demeanor than our own “revolutionary” age, or exhibited a more slavish subjection to authority. In university I remember the free-thinking and free-loving opponents of mindless tradition carrying around copies of Chomsky and Mao’s Little Red Book, and quoting verses from Lennon and Dylan in the same transports of ecstasy as any Bible-thumping Southern Baptist quoting from the Book of Revelation. Today’s undergraduates carry copies of Derrida and Foucault and cite apocalyptic dooms from An Inconvenient Truth. Modern anti-traditionalists even willingly don the habits of their religious order: in the Sixties, jeans and Mao jackets; today, Nikes and backwards baseball caps. It’s getting harder and harder to take their lectures about mindless conformity and reverence for authority seriously.

If traditionalists are supposedly enslaved to a static past, progressives are surely enslaved to a fleeting present. And their serial submission to the dogma du jour makes for an amusing spectacle in which they are constantly changing masters: from Freud to Marx to Mao to Greer to Gore, to who-knows-whom. Their appetite for authority is apparently so insatiable that, whenever the obsolescence of intellectual fashion or the vicissitudes of history conspire to liberate them from one form of it, they rush headlong into the shackles of another.

 

IV. The Universal City

If the modern state of Israel were indeed established to provide a refuge for Jews stumbling among the God-forsaken ruins of the Holocaust, it has been a colossal and unmitigated failure. Today, Jews throughout the Diaspora – from Montgomery, Alabama to Berlin – are appreciably safer and less exposed to anti-Semitism than the residents of Haifa or Tel Aviv. European Christian anti-Semitism has either completely deliquesced or become so wholly discredited that those who continue to profess it subject themselves to universal opprobrium if not criminal prosecution or deportation by the state. In the post-War democratic West, an anti-Semite is the equivalent of the perpetrator of murder or sacrilege who, in Greek antiquity, was ritually ostracized lest his miasmal presence pollute the land and destroy the polis. And anyone who questions the precise historical details of the Holocaust is called a “denier”, a term to whose irony the mighty hunters of anti-Semitism are blithely oblivious, inasmuch as it was originally used by the Inquisitors against heretics, especially Jews, who “denied” the divinity of Christ.

But the creation of the state of Israel has managed to incubate a wholly new and more lethal strain of soi-disant “anti-Semitism” – one that straps itself into suicide vests. It has done so, moreover, within a Semitic Arab population that at the turn of the century lived peacefully and often amicably with its Jewish neighbours, and a larger Islamic culture that has historically offered sanctuary to Jews flying from Christians accusing them of having murdered their Lord. Surely the fact that Islam has, in such a short time, exploded into a psychotic frenzy of Jew-hatred demands to be recognized as historically remarkable. Not even the most fanatical Nazis were willing to martyr themselves for the cause of Aryan purity.

In reality, of course, Arab hatred of the Jews has little to do with “anti-Semitism” per se, and certainly nothing to do with the traditional European Christian kind. Arab hostility is perfectly comprehensible in the context of the unique historical circumstances of the founding, expansion, and ongoing policies of the modern state of Israel. It makes about as much sense to call the anger of Palestinian Arabs over their dispossession and colonial subjection – whether real or merely perceived, it matters not – “anti-Semitism” as it is to call the Soviet-era anger of occupied and Russified Hungarians “anti-Slavism”. Naturally, it serves the interests of the apologists for Israel and her policies to conscript her Arab opponents into the ancient and continuous ranks of anti-Semites, whereby their historical grievances seem as vicious and irrational as the racist calumnies of the Nazis, and, more generally, the looming threat of an outbreak of another episode of the Holocaust becomes more real and imminent than ever. Above all, it serves to portray Jews as hapless and passive victims of a cosmic malevolence for which they have had no responsibility and with which they have had nothing to do. Having been dropped by God like manna from heaven into a moral desert, Israeli Jews are, yet again, history’s innocent bystanders, God’s eternally suffering servant and sacrificial lamb.

The Prison of History

It is time, perhaps, for Jews to recognize that the history they simultaneously abhor and revere is, in the formulation of Jean Daniel, a prison, and that to seek redress in history for injuries suffered in history is only to forge new bars. Every genuine religion has regarded history as a prison, insofar as the vanities and resentments, the triumphs and humiliations, deposed in a people’s historical memory are the links in the chain that bind the soul to the ephemera of the temporal world. All the major religions and philosophical sects of antiquity with which I am familiar—the mysteries of Osiris in Egypt, of Marduk and Adonis in Babylon and Syria, of Attis in Asia Minor, of Mithras in Persia, the Orphic, Eleusinian, Pythagorean, Platonist, Stoic, and Gnostic cults in Greece, and, above all, Christianity—have preached a soteriological doctrine that enjoins upon its adherents at least a partial withdrawal from the historico-temporal world, a relativization of its overwhelming reality and value, a liberation from its brute necessity, a transcendence of the meaningless flux of time: an escape from or “abolition” of history, as Eliade has described it.

But Judaism is a religion of and for history, not in spite of it; indeed, when Jews affirm that Yahweh is the “God of history”, they confer upon the historical order the highest possible value. Their yearning is to be redeemed by and through history, rather than from it. And with neither a hope nor a desire for a hope of deliverance from this prison, historical injuries and resentments burrow deeply into the Jewish soul.

It is, of course, manifestly impossible that history, as the fallen arena of human action, could be redemptive, except in the sense that time, when of sufficient duration, can heal old wounds and confer upon the observer the wisdom of perspective. But with their counsel to “Never Forget”, Jews strenuously reject such wisdom. In any case, equanimity and perspective come from one’s transcendence of history, hardly one’s absorption into it.

Most of the other empirical human disciplines have at least a rational or metaphysical afflatus that informs the insensate materiality of the objects they study, and may well beckon their initiates along a highway that eventually leads to the Mind of God. But history is the most intractably opaque and unintelligible of all branches of human knowledge. Historical events are governed by no objective, constant, and universal laws that we yet know of. (The closest approach to the discovery of such a law was made by the ancients, who taught that history unfolds in response to the spastic lurches of Fortune’s Wheel, a “constant” defined by capricious and inscrutable inconstancy.) Modern historians don’t even pretend to inquire into the existence of such laws. And when we speak of history’s purposes or final ends, or history’s patterns or archetypes, we are speaking the language of poetry and myth—the language, that is, of the Gentiles.

I have already referred to Aristotle’s judgment that myth is “more philosophical” than history. For Aristotle, the novelty, uniqueness, and unrepeatability of historical events condemned them to that inferior ontological order of “appearance” or “non-being” which consisted in everything mutable, visible, transient, and particular. But Aristotle was also surely alluding to the ethnic and socio-political particularism to which historical events (and the separatist history of the Jews especially) so monotonously give witness.

By contrast to all of the theologies that germinated in the spiritually fecund soil of Greek and Near Eastern antiquity (Christianity amongst them), Judaism alone has dignified the historical sphere as man’s true and rightful home. Having looked there for justice and happiness, as they do now to the modern state of Israel, it is surely no wonder that the Jews have found, in the words of Augustine, only a “perverse and bitter sweetness”.

Augustine’s seminal distinction between the vice of cupiditas – the illicit love of the historical world for its own sake –, and the virtue of caritas – the use of the world for the sake of the apprehension and love of the invisibilia Dei –, seems to apply to, and was probably rendered in mind of, the Jews. As he explains in the De Doctrina Christiana:

To enjoy something is to cling to it with love for its own sake. To use something, however, is to employ it in obtaining that which you love, provided that it is worthy of love. For an illicit use should be called rather a waste or an abuse. Suppose we were wanderers who could not live in blessedness except at home, miserable in our wandering and desiring to end it and to return to our native country. We would need vehicles for land and sea which could be used to help us to reach our homeland, which is to be enjoyed. But if the amenities of the journey and the motion of the vehicles itself delight us, and we were led to enjoy those things which we should use, we should not wish to end our journey quickly, and, entangled in a perverse and bitter sweetness, we should be alienated from our country, whose sweetness would make us blessed. Thus in this mortal life, wandering from God, if we wish to return to our native country where we can be blessed we should use this world and not enjoy it, so that the “invisible things” of God “being understood by the things that are made” [Rom. 1:20; 11:36] may be seen, that is, so that by means of corporal and temporal things we may comprehend the eternal and spiritual. (I. iv)

I am aware that these are outmoded philosophical sentiments, wholly alien not only to Jews but to most modern Christians and atheists alike, for whom reality and truth mean empirical-historical reality and truth above all. But no intelligent discussion of Jewish historical suffering can proceed as if it has come out of an intellectual vacuum. That even well-educated Jews can refer reverently to that narrow strip of land that constitutes the territorial state of Israel as their “homeland”–without a twinge of irony or the faintest awareness of the ancient philosophical attitude that Augustine here re-presents–, demonstrates how contentedly ensconced they are in their historical prison.

I have no intention of attempting to reprise the long history of that philosophical attitude here, except in the briefest of terms and only insofar as it maneuvers into perspective ancient and modern Jewish velleities to sanctify the meager particularities of history, nation, and land. Clearly, the unbroken tradition of Greek philosophical and religious universalism (from Pythagoras, Xenophanes, Parmenides, and Heraclitus, through Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, to Apuleius, Plutarch, Maximus of Tyre, Plotinus, Porphyry, Proclus, and Macrobius) was paganism’s most precious bequest to Christianity, as it functioned, on the level of the collective psyche, to compensate the narrow historicism and sectarianism of the ancient Hebrews. On this theme, I have already mentioned Jesus’ repudiation of the ethnic particularism of the Jews—their parochial law; their messianic expectation of a national and political kingdom of Israel–, and his proclamation, on the contrary, of a non-sectarian Law written on the heart of man; an unlocalized Kingdom Within; and a Universal Church inclusive of the faithful of all the nations.

The Cosmopolis

For Paul and the early Fathers, the universality of the Christian message was so radical and fundamental a datum that to speak of the Church, as we now speak of it, as a locus of worship or even an earthly institution, would have seemed a malicious insult to them. On the contrary, the Church (the New Israel) could be bounded by no finite limits of either historical time or geographical space. It consisted only in an everlasting, diffuse, and incorporeal community of souls, a more or less eternal spiritual Diaspora, whose relation to this or that particular people or earthly-historical city was regarded as merely contingent (having resulted from nothing more than an accident of birth), and whose principal allegiance was to the Celestial Jerusalem, the Universal City of God in which all human souls originally dwelled, and to which they by nature belong. Under the New Law, as Paul proclaimed it, every new Israelite was a fellow-citizen of the heavenly City, “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free.” (Col. 3: 11)

As I have argued elsewhere, the Christian vision of the Civitas Dei derived more or less directly from the ancient Stoic vision of the Cosmopolis, which the god-like sage of antiquity recognized as his spiritual fatherland and true home. Seneca’s eloquent summary of the doctrine should serve to place Augustine’s dependence upon it beyond doubt:

…there are two commonwealths–the one, a vast and truly common state, which embraces alike gods and men, in which we look neither to this corner of earth nor to that, but measure the bounds of our citizenship by the path of the sun; the other, the one to which we have been assigned by the accident of birth. This will be the commonwealth of the Athenians or of the Carthaginians or of any other city that belongs, not to all, but to some particular race of men. Some yield service to both commonwealths at the same time–to the greater and to the lesser–some only to the lesser, some only to the greater…

…The laws [that Zeno and Chrysippus] framed were not for one state only, but for the whole human race…

…Our school [i.e., the Stoics] refuses to allow the wise man to attach himself to any sort of state…(Moral Essays: On Leisure)

Within this universal Cosmopolis, all men are free and equal citizens by natural right and by virtue of their common filiation from the eternal Logos, regardless of those accidental differences of social or economic stratum, or national or ethnic ancestry, that divide them from their brothers, and pit man against man, here below. As a son of the universal Logos and King, every man of reason and virtue is by rank a prince. In Boethius’ Christian-Stoic formulation, “The whole race of men on this earth springs from one stock. There is one Father of all things….Thus, all men come from noble origin. Why, then, boast of your ancestors? If you consider your beginning, no one is base unless he deserts his birthright…” (Consolatio III, meter 6)

This is so gloriously humanistic and egalitarian an ideal that one suspects that only the mention of God has prevented modern Marxists, pacifists, and Beatles’-era “imaginers” from appropriating it. Which they did, of course, except that they obtusely “imagined” that it could be translated to, and realized in, the fallen City of Man. But even in this bowdlerized and diminished form, the vision of the Universal City has now been utterly rejected by the primitive multicultural ethos and identity politics of post-modernism. If it has survived anywhere, albeit barely, it is only in Christian tradition, where it has served for two millennia as the world’s single credible moral and intellectual check on those tribalistic and jingoistic instincts that are equally native to the human animal, at least in its accidental habitat within the historical world.

Whether or not “Zionism is racism” (in the crude and unhelpful sloganeering of Israel’s Arab enemies), it should at least be obvious that Semitism and anti-Semitism—racial solidarity and racial hatred—are two sides of the same debased coin. Pride illustrates the point just as convincingly as prejudice. When Jews (or members of any other group) take “pride” in the history of accomplishments of their countrymen, they are proud of accomplishments of which they have no right to be, having had absolutely nothing to do with them. The collective has merely appropriated the achievements of one of its “members” and redistributed them to the membership at large. Such “pride” comes from the theft of an individual’s personality. Whether one identifies oneself with the group out of solidarity and pride, or one is so identified by others out of racial prejudice and contempt, the effect is the same: one’s human individuality is obliterated.

As Simone Weil has remarked, God is capable of incarnating in a man, a stone, or a loaf of bread, but not a people. Defining oneself as a member of the group drives out God just as surely as it drives under the individual personality. For Weil, even the social milieu in which the adherents of institutional religions ordinarily commune is inhospitable to the Divine. The group exerts such a powerful gravitational force that not even God’s love for the soul can wrest it free of its comforting embrace.

How is it, then, that the Jews have failed to see that ethnic nationalism and ancestral pride have confined them to the narrowest cell in the historical prison? How has the fundamental truth so escaped the attention of Jewish philosophers and theologians, that man in his essence is neither an Athenian nor a Roman nor an Israelite, but a subject of God and a citizen of the world; and that it is upon his detachment from those petty provincial allegiances that his peace, happiness, and salvation depend? Everything that binds a man to his particular nation or tribe fosters what is primitive, inessential, and unnatural within him, and diminishes the innate divinity that makes him most completely and individually a human person.

…Caeca Synagoga…Election…In the Image and Likeness of the Hebrews…

III. An Everlasting Possession (God’s Pun)

Rabbi Epstein’s formulation of current Jewish teaching on the Kingdom of God is nothing more than a breathtakingly fundamentalist reprisal of the Old Testament myth. And it is in this myth that lies the answer to my question of what, precisely, in their Jewishness so compelled the loyalty and cohesion of my friends in the Manor.

As I have noted many times throughout the course of this rambling memoir, the Old Testament myth is the only thing I can come up with that explains practically everything about the manorial mentality: the self-ghettoization, the enduring contempt for the Gentiles, the cultural hubris, the vigilance against intermarriage, the always vexing sense of persecution and victimhood, the obligatory Zionism, the constant re-living of the anguish of the Holocaust, the ineradicable bitterness and hatred of the oppressor. Possessed by, and in the possession of, these four-thousand-year-old archetypes, there is hardly any need for the sort of theology, soteriology, or liturgy in which other religious adherents invest their spiritual aspirations and energies.

 

Caeca Synagoga

The Jews’ unconsciousness of the archetypes that have them in their grip is ultimately, it seems to me, a function of a traditional aversion to the mythological valencies of the Old Testament narrative. Jewish biblical scholars are certainly aware that many Old Testament loci are mythological: the creation story in Genesis, the Eden myth, the primeval history, the legends of the Patriarchs, large tracts of the Moses and Exodus cycle, the Samson saga, the story of David’s youth and election, the folktales of Daniel, Jonah, and so on. But the guardians of Jewish orthodoxy regard these as interpolations, and insist, in spite of them, upon the essential historicity of the chronicle of Israel. Israel is the People of History, and it is the God of History who leads them.

Inevitably, this insistence called forth a decisive response in the form of Christianity. For the Old Testament prophets, priests, and kings, the arch-sin was syncretism: the contamination of a rigorously monotheistic cult by the seasonal rites and deities of the “nations” of the Ancient Near Eastern world. What happened in due course followed as if according to some immutable law of the cosmos. Christ, in whose person and story was deposited the universal mythology of ancient paganism, appeared in Palestine and laid claim to the Israelite throne. The mythological Christ was the religious psyche’s answer to Jewish historicism, and to a separatist Jewish ethos that regarded the culture and religion of the Gentiles as a demonic snare and miasmal swamp of pollution.

Though they are both peoples “of the Book”, the Jews’ and Christians’ respective attitudes towards myth and history are fundamentally antithetical. At the time of the Advent, the Jewish messianic hope was (and still is) for a new Mosaic liberator to lead Israel out of bondage to yet another of the nations, and to establish the Kingdom of God on earth on the historical model of the Davidic golden age. Rejecting this interpretation as grossly reductive and concretistic, Jesus was rejected in turn; He promised only liberation from sin, and a Kingdom of God that “cometh not with observation”. St. Paul rebuked the Jews for the cognate sins of legalism and historical literalism: for Paul, the Law and the history of Israel were above all visible sacraments of the invisibilia – self-transcending signs and symbols (myths, that is) pointing, in the first case, to an interior state of grace, and in the second, to what Origen would later call the “inner history of Israel”. Christianity thus represented a profound re-evaluation (and devaluation) of what (as Origen again would put it) was “mere history”

Over the course of the next fifteen centuries, Christian exegetes took up the Pauline burden of spiritual interpretation, treating the historical letter as a provisional conveyance for allegorical, that is, typological, moral, psychological, doctrinal, or mystical meanings. In Greek antiquity, allegoresis and mythopoesis were, as Jean Pepin has shown, closely related forms: the twin idioms in which the opposition between historical “truth” and mythic “falsehood” was transcended, both being relativized and subordinated to the hidden meanings occulted beneath the literal veil. Christian exegetes, in fact, regarded both the fictive veil of pagan mythology and the historical veil of Scripture as allegorical integuments concealing spiritual mysteries. The concomitant allegorization of biblical history and pagan fable suggests that the historical sense of Scripture and the false letter of pagan poetry were assimilated as “myths”: that is, symbolic fictions, or else equivalently figurative genres for the mediation of truths more profound and valuable than the mute facts of “mere history”.

Remarkably, the allegorical consciousness that gave birth to the Church–and continued to breathe meaning into the lives of Christians long after the Incarnation and Resurrection had receded into the historical shadows–had practically no effect upon the Jews. Indeed, the Jews have striven manfully to suppress it. In the very generation in which the Christian Messiah preached in Palestine, another reformer appeared on the scene in the Alexandrian Diaspora. Philo Judaeus (c. 20 B.C.-50 A.D.) was unquestionably the most brilliant Jewish philosopher and scriptural exegete of his age. More accurately, Philo was the most brilliant philosopher and scriptural exegete of his age, period. The author of more than forty moral essays, philosophical treatises, and biblical commentaries, Philo was not only the leading living exponent of Middle Platonism, but as the first theologian to apply to Scripture the allegorical method that had been employed by the ancients for the interpretation of Homer, he would be revered for centuries to come as the father of scriptural allegory.

Now, here is a Landsman to kvell about. Yet, ask a rabbi about Philo today and you are likely to be answered with bemused ignorance. Jewish teachers and scholars who are able to recite the names of the Talmudic commentators in chronological order from the early Middle Ages to the present have never heard of him. Why? Philo’s allegiance to some of the most solemn of Jewish principles is suspect. As a philosopher, his thought is fatally infected by the Middle Platonic and Stoic ideas that at the time furnished the essential elements of the universal theology of the “nations”; and as a proponent of scriptural allegory, Philo is guilty of having insulted the historical literalism upon which Jewish orthodoxy is apparently founded.

 

Though no expert, I have read a good deal of Talmudic commentary in the hopes of finding some trace of Philo’s sinister allegoristic influence. But figural interpretation, which plays a part in the exegesis of the sacred text of every other ancient religion, is another Golden Calf for Jewish orthodoxy. The bulk of the Talmud is, significantly, Halachah: elaborations of biblical precepts relating to the duties, dress, and deportment of priests and Levites; regulations governing the Temple and its appurtenances; governing the slaughtering of animals and their ritual fitness for use; laws of ritual cleanness and uncleanness in things and persons; of the Sabbath as well as of festivals and fasts; rules and regulations connected with agriculture (tillage, sowing and reaping, gardens and orchards); statutes governing marriage and divorce and other regulations concerning the relations between husband and wife and the sexes in general; Jewish civil and criminal ordinances, covering the conduct of judge and judged, teacher and student, governor and governed. In these pages the Pentateuch’s Byzantine legalism not only survives but stretches out its dead hand to embrace every aspect of human activity, including the pious angle at which to set one’s hat, and what to do if one has to use the bathroom on the Sabbath, but the nearest facilities are farther than the four cubit limit on travel (Eruvin 41b). One hesitates to make fun of such material, first out of respect for religious tradition, and second, because it is too easy; but the Talmud’s tens of thousands of similar hair-splitting trivialities benumb the mind and deaden the soul.

No more inspiring is the much smaller portion of the Talmud devoted to Haggadah (narrative), as well as the independent cycles of scriptural exposition (Midrashim), which are consecrated to the task of deciphering the precise literal meaning of the scriptural text. Here is the Midrash Rabbah on Exodus:

And the Children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground (14:22). How is this possible? If they went “into the sea”, then why does it say “upon the dry ground”? And if they went “upon the dry ground”, then why does it say “into the midst of the sea”? This is to teach that the sea was divided only after Israel had stepped into it and the waters had reached their noses; only then did it become dry land.

(So, it’s Moses over Pharaoh by a nose.)

In Christian commentary, any discussion of the watery abyss, Noah’s Flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, or Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan, will inevitably open up into the vast cosmos of mythic archetypes and symbols: into a discussion, that is, of the primeval ocean as universal mother and abode of the dead, of the sea as womb and tomb, of the paradoxical relationship between death and birth, the realms of darkness and light, and the contraries in general. These are the primordial images through which the rhythms of human life have been experienced and expressed since time immemorial, and in which we find the roots of the human psyche and the eternal spirit. But the Jewish exegetical eye is focused narrowly and superficially (though in excruciating detail) upon the historical surface of revelation. It’s as though the world’s most powerful electron microscope were calibrated to probe universal existence to the depth of a single atom.

 

I have written elsewhere and at some length about the defining opposition between Christian allegory and Jewish historical literalism, and do not wish to prolong the discussion here. The principal point is that a culture that is so outward-looking as to remain contentedly blind to the symbolic inner significations of its sacred narrative is inevitably blind to its own psychology. This is undoubtedly what the medieval sculptors and stained glass artists were suggesting when they depicted the Synagogue as a withered old crone with a blindfold over her eyes.

The “blind literalism” of the Jews was, of course, an early Christian trope, rehearsed in conjunction with the Pauline topos of the “oldness of the letter”. Indeed, there is something that can only be described as anthropologically primitive about Jewish literalism. Recommending the spiritual rewards of the allegorical interpretation of classical myth, the sixth-century Bishop Fulgentius of Ruspe wrote, “A child is content to play with the whole nut, whereas an adult breaks open the shell to better savour the taste within.” Literalism is a mark of the adolescent stage of human psychic evolution, when the primitive accepted his unconscious projections as objective, outward realities, there being, for him, as yet no subjective “inside”.

 

In the Image and Likeness of the Hebrews

The Old Testament narrative, comprising written materials and oral traditions that go back to the early second millenium B.C., is naturally replete with such unexamined projections; and the doctrine of divine election is a typical enough example of them. It is hard to ignore the reek of tribalism and political utility that emanates from the terms of God’s covenant with Israel. Abraham agrees to keep God’s statutes and ordinances, to worship Yahweh alone, and to proclaim Him as the One and Only. In return, Yahweh agrees to multiply Abraham’s descendants until they outnumber the stars in heaven and the grains of sand in the sea. He will make Abraham the father of nations; great kings shall come out of his loins; his seed shall possess the gates of their enemies; and Yahweh will give to them all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession. When famine strikes, Yahweh instructs Abraham’s son Isaac to go into the land of the Philistines, and promises to give to his seed in turn “all these countries”. When He changes the name of Jacob to Israel, He explains, “for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men”.

The mercenary nature of this contract is apparent. (It is scarcely less mercenary than the transactional economy of pagan animal sacrifice—propitiating divine ire and buying divine favour with burnt offerings–which the Old Testament prophets and kings constantly decry.) There is a significant difference, however: Yahweh does not promise riches, ease, fertile pasture, or bountiful herds; it is evidently political power that Israel aspires to–to be a great nation among “the nations”–, and Yahweh covenants with her to be her conquering warlord.

In the renewal of the covenant with Moses, political ambition is compounded with tribalistic xenophobia. The Mighty Hand and Outstretched Arm promises to deliver the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, and once again to give them the land of Canaan for an inheritance, so long as “you shall not walk in the customs of the nations which I am casting out before you” (Lev. 20:23). The customs of the nations are abhorrent to the Hebrews’ Jealous God, priimarily in that they include the worship of others besides Him. Lest they adopt these promiscuous pagan ways, Yahweh has set the nation of Israel “apart from other people”.

 

To any but the most fundamentalist of adherents, these statements are literally swarming with projections. Unless you contend that the Pentateuch was dictated verbatim to Moses by God, you are bound to acknowledge that, like all other religious texts, the Old Testament is an attempt by a fallible and finite human understanding to represent an ultimately infinite and irrepresentable Deity; and in doing so it is necessarily condemned to describe Him in terms borrowed from its own immediate experience. As a God who is thus created in the image and likeness of his worshipers, Yahweh exhibits the as yet unconsolidated moral consciousness of a Bronze Age tribe.

What I have just said hardly represents a neoteric theory of religion, by the way. By the sixth century B.C., the ancient Greeks recognized that Homer’s depiction of Zeus as a moral reprobate whose crimes include indiscriminate murder, incontinent lust, incest, and serial adultery, was crudely anthropomorphic, and not coincidentally reflective of the dubious mores of the Achaean military adventurers whose exploits Homer sings. As the Pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes famously wrote:

The Ethiopians make their gods snub-nosed and black; the Thracians make them gray-eyed and red-haired.

And if oxen and horses and lions…could draw and do what men can do, horses would conceive their gods in the shapes of horses, and oxen in the shape of oxen….

The Yahwistic God-image similarly holds up the mirror to the character and aspirations of the Hebrews.

Yahweh’s conviction that He is the One True God can thus only reflect the belief of the Israelites that they are in possession of the One True Faith, by comparison to which all others are “unclean”. Yahweh thunders that He is a jealous God who will have no other gods before Him; Israel is then a jealous people, righteously convinced of the superiority of her religion, legal code, and customs. Yahweh’s bequest of Canaan is obviously enough the rationalization of Israel’s expansionist yearnings. As an itinerant tribe of desert herders, constantly in search of fresh pasture, the Hebrews could hardly have failed to covet a land flowing with milk and honey, and Yahweh duly provides the divine sanction for the Conquest. Indeed, the God of Israel not only condones but enjoins upon her the ruthless methods she employs in pursuit of this end, including dashing the heads of the babes of the infidel against the rocks until their brains pour out. Such brutal illusions are innocuous enough so long as one recognizes them as the product of a ruthless and depredatory age, and withdraws the projections that have solidified into dogmas exonerating and indeed ennobling the ancient Israelites as a nation called by God and providentially commanded to realize her military and political ambitions. But surely it is obvious that to continue to entertain such teachings as literal truths in the twentieth century can only spell spiritual and political disaster.

I note that even Jews themselves are aware of the mortal perils to which such pious fantasies give rise. Consider the analysis of the aforementioned Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg:

Obviously there can be no “chosen people” unless there is a God who does the choosing. History, especially modern history, knows too many examples of self-chosen peoples. No matter how high and humanitarian a “civilizing mission” such a people may assign to itself, self-chosenness has invariably degenerated into some form of the notion of a master race.

The blindfold of Caeca Synagoga is evidently still firmly in place. To a religious historian in the late-twentieth century, it should be apparent that, for a second millenium B.C. tribe of bedouins, “divine election” is none other than “self-election” projected into transcendence. Since time immemorial, in every military adventure and confrontation in history, nations have blustered that God was on their side, but even in proclaiming Him as their champion, they have been at least half-aware that they are engaged in jingoistic humbug, or an act akin to sympathetic magic, wherein the chief or medicine man mimes a desirable outcome so as to compel it to come to pass. The Nazis, too, betraying their own primitive unconsciousness, were convinced that they had been divinely summoned to establish the Aryan Regnum Dei on earth. Another odious comparison, I’m sure, but it is Hertzberg himself who can’t help but conjure it to mind.

The relationship between the Old Testament mythos and the tragedy of twentieth-century Jewry has become a modern taboo – a subject that Jews and non-Jews alike are officially forbidden to think or talk about. I say mythos, once again, because anyone who has contemplated the long and complicated history of the Israelites can’t help but be struck by its monotonous repetitiveness. The details change, but the pattern is essentially immutable. Israel goes whoring after foreign gods, and is justly abandoned by Yahweh to one of the world’s “unclean nations”, under whose heel she groans in bondage and captivity. Israel prays for a liberator, and in His infinite mercy Yahweh grants her prayers. She is restored to the Promised Land, and enjoys an interval of prosperity and power, which inevitably comes to an end after another episode of backsliding. Then the cycle repeats itself. This is the mythic archetype that underlies Israel’s “history” from the time of her bondage in Egypt, through the absorption of the Northern Kingdom into the Assyrian Empire, the Jews’ Dispersion and Captivity in Babylon, and finally, Judea’s impotent subjection to Persia, Hellenistic Greece, and Rome in turn. The only thing as constant as the Jews’ political ambition is its frustration.

Contentedly possessed by this myth, the Jews have been condemned to live it out. The world has always been their mastering enemy, and they its victim. Second Isaiah’s magnificent hymn to the Suffering Servant expresses Jewish victimhood in language so noble that it seems churlish to point out its megalo-maniacal implications. “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…for the transgression of my people was he stricken.” This passage is best known in Christian circles as a typological adumbration of Christ’s magnanimous Sacrifice on the Cross. Sine macula, He died for the sins of mankind. For Isaiah, of course, the Suffering Servant is the covenant community of Israel, who suffered for the transgressions of “the nations”. Evidently Israel’s own backslidings have been forgiven by Yahweh, and she steps forward in the end-time as a guiltless victim and vicarious sacrifice to be placed upon the altar of the very nations who persecute her, and for whose redemption she willingly undergoes this persecution.

 

When allegorized as a prefiguration of the divine man, Isaiah’s poem spills over into mythic universality, and becomes a poignant and affecting vision of the tragic and redemptive suffering of Everyman; read as a literal record of the historical vicissitudes of a particular race and nation, it is rank and unendurable chauvinism.

Chauvinism inevitably begets chauvinism. The Old Testament legacy of racial superiority, separatism, and victimology is, thus, a geo-politically lethal one. How might the world be expected to respond after four thousand years of being reminded of Jewish “chosenness”, quarantined as a breeding-ground of infection, and, in paradoxical conjunction with the above, regularly petitioned for sympathy and demonstrations of contrition? Until the archetypes are depotentiated, Israel’s future history is likely to be as monotonously repetitive as her past.

…Jewish “Theology” …The Kindgom of God…

II. Judaism – Theology = Judaism

I had already begun to grow weary of the Holocaust fixation by my mid teens, if only from the urgency and zeal with which my peers, who had grown up like me in a hermetically sealed ethnic bubble and never inhaled so much as a whiff of prejudice, lived and breathed It, continued to abominate all things German, avidly raised money for the Zionist project, and insisted firmly on the need to preserve the racial integrity and traditions of the Jewish people. Frankly ignorant of the answer, I asked them, Why? What, exactly, was it that they burned so to preserve? It was the Sixties, after all, and not even the relative cultural isolation of the Manor immunized it against the revolutionary Zeitgeist of that decade. On the contrary, many of my high school classmates declared themselves Marxists, Trotskyites, Maoists, and unqualified admirers of Fidel and Che. As children of the Sixties, they regarded traditions, in solidarity with their political heroes, as things to be smashed. But their own Jewish traditions were somehow exempt from revolutionary scorn.

In what did this precious tradition consist? I certainly saw in my contemporaries no searing religious conviction. (Neither did I see it in their parents, by the way. It was the modernist scorn for the supernatural, the insouciant secularism, of my Jewish acquaintances that eventually persuaded me that Judaism had little to offer me or anyone else who was interested in the life of the spirit.) Whatever it was, it was surely not the religious content of their “Jewishness” that my friends were so zealously determined to preserve.

At the Saturday morning synagogue services I briefly attended in preparation for my Bar Mitzvah, I experienced nothing that I couldn’t have experienced at a country club cocktail party. The synagogue architecture itself–all pockmarked concrete, both inside and out, blond wood furnishings in the Danish modern style, and, of course, nothing that one could call ornament or imagery–seemed expressly designed at once to banish any sense of the sacred and amplify the sense of the workaday and mundane. The floor was covered in thick-pile broadloom, just like the nineteen-fifties ranch-style bungalows and “splits” in which most of us lived. The individual seats were over-stuffed buckets upholstered in burgundy velvet–exactly like the ones in the local cinema. Since the rows were steeply graded, the synagogue interior communicated to the “worshiper” the breezy feeling of being out for a movie or a concert. The only thing that distinguished it from the O’Keefe Centre was the fact that the spectators chatted with one another incessantly, religiously ignoring whatever happened to be transpiring on the “stage” below.

The most notable ritual of the Saturday morning service was the endless parade of comings and goings. At the risk of mixing metaphors, it was rather like being at a Blue Jays game, where every five minutes one has to pull in one’s knees to let another “fan” pass on his way to the beer counter, and then again as he departs for the bathroom to empty his bladder of what he had purchased on his last trip. At any given moment, there were more people in the synagogue lobby than in the pews. And since they passed their time in idle conversation in both venues, moving back and forth between them was accomplished with the utmost casualness. There was certainly no bracing awareness in doing so of transiting from a locus profanus to a locus sacer. Moreover, unlike a movie or baseball game, there seemed to be neither an official start nor end to the service. People arrived and left more or less at will.

 

Since the Exodus was the most momentous juncture in Jewish history, and Passover the most sacred season of the year, I fondly imagined that the religious gravitas so absent from the Saturday morning synagogue service would veritably overwhelm me at the Passover Seder. But the only thing overwhelming about it turned out to be the sheer quantity of food. At all the Seders I attended, the rite was merely a preamble to the meal, and one to be dispensed with as quickly as possible. It was conceded from the beginning that the hunger of the flesh must inevitably triumph over that of the spirit. The Passover Haggadah (the text of the rite commemorating the events of the Exodus, which is read aloud by those assembled at the dinner table) is already short, but no one objected to its further arbitrary abridgement, or its recitation at warp speed. An unusual number of Jews, it seems, were able to speed read long before any systematic technique had been developed for learning such a valuable skill; and the Seder is undoubtedly the reason why. But then the text of the modern Haggadah is so infantile that it could hardly be said to have suffered an indignity for having been paid supersonic lip-service. I say “infantile” advisedly, by the way. The Seder is the only religious ritual I have ever attended that has been expressly devised for the amusement of children.

As I’ve already mentioned, idolatry is the most grievous abomination in Old Testament consciousness; and perhaps this is why modern Jews (like radical Protestants) avert their eyes when in the presence of anything that strikes them as ritualistic. But what does that leave in the way of religious content? I am well aware that Judaism is pre-eminently a religion of laws. But in following the commandments (Thou shalt not bow down to graven images; Thou shalt not kill; not steal; not commit adultery; not bear false witness) contemporary Jews are only observing the practices of every monotheistic creed, and obeying the laws they are compelled to obey by the modern secular state. There is nothing uniquely “Jewish” in these desiderata, let alone religious; and most of the more esoteric laws and shibboleths (if an ox shall push a manservant or maidservant, its owner shall give unto their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned) have been retired long ago as anachronisms.

In the Manor, the dietary laws were the conspicuous exception. And precisely how they were observed bears noting. To reduce a very complex code to its essentials, Jews are bound by the laws of kosher, first, not to eat or touch what has been proscribed as “unclean”, and second, amongst the licit foods, not to combine meat with anything made from milk. To comply with the latter requires that every Jewish household possess two sets of dishes, cutlery, and cooking utensils, and that they be fastidiously segregated against mutual contamination. But in the kitchens of my friends and relatives in the Manor, as in most modern Jewish communities, one is struck by a clever improvisational novelty. Jews are as fond of lobster, spare ribs, bacon, and especially Chinese food as any other prosperous people. The solution? Eat them out, in a restaurant (the traditional occasion is Sunday night, when the uxorial chef gets her day off); or if you must bring them into the house, keep a third set of dishes. Apparently the stomachs of Jews can be insulted so long as the china remains undefiled. I know that trimming is a specialty of hypocrites of every religion on earth. But that Jews should have more regard for the purity of their kitchen cupboards than the temples of their souls strikes me as perfectly emblematic of the externality of the modern Jewish outlook, just as, two thousand years ago, the Pharisees’ outward piety of gesture struck St. Paul.

 

Laws, in any case, do not make a religion. A philosophy, perhaps; but no philosophy I know of has been capable of instilling in men the conviction that their eternal souls have been saved and their lives transformed through an experience of the transcendent. To be sure, modern-day Christian “searchers after the historical Jesus” are no less oblivious to this truism than Jews. If the “historical Jesus” had been deemed no more than an enlightened social critic or moral sage, and not also the living God in whose Passion, Resurrection, and apotheosis all men might participate, He would have had no greater claim upon the religious imagination than Hammurabi, Pythagoras, or Gandhi.

When I was growing up in the Manor, I had hoped to discover some evidence of a transformative encounter with the Divine amongst the friends and relatives who had so fiercely identified themselves as Jews. I was disappointed. Their lives seemed to me as banal, their preoccupations as neurotic, and their happiness as fragile as those of the most hedonistic pagans or rootless atheists. It was in university that I learned that any awareness of a dimension of being that transcends the world and time was simply unavailable to them, even if it was something to which they aspired, and for which they had the spiritual aptitude. Judaism has no interest in it. In fact, Judaism has always regarded such interest as arid speculation.

During my undergraduate studies of ancient religion, I grew to suspect increasingly that Judaism had no theology. I dismissed this suspicion as the product of scholarly immaturity. After all, a religion without a theology, I thought, is like champagne without the alcohol: it may quench the thirst of the flesh, but the spirit craves stronger stuff. Then, while taking a third-year course on the early literature of the Old Testament, I read the following passage in an authoritative book on Judaism by Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg (of Columbia University and Temple Emanu-el, Englewood New Jersey):

The Jewish ideas of God, Torah, and the people of Israel, as well as the lesser but quite important doctrine of the Holy Land, do not represent a catechism or a theology, for there is none such in Judaism. They are the lasting values, areas of concern, foci, or problems (call them what you will) around which the mass of Jewish…thought through the ages has organized itself.

In place of a theology, in Rabbi Hertzberg’s view, Judaism has “values”; and I am inclined to agree with him. For once, that empty and over-used word seems appropriate.

 

Nothing better illustrates the theological poverty of Judaism (and its purposefulness) than its doctrine (lack of doctrine) of the afterlife. Here is the Torah’s teaching on the subject as summarized by another respected scholar, Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein:

Promises of reward, primarily temporal and national, are made for obedience, as part of the divine justice which is to distribute to each according to his deserts. No specific mention is made of reward and punishment after death.…Scripture…found it necessary to cast a veil over the whole question of survival beyond the grave, in order to wean people away from the idolatrous cult of the dead with which this belief was at that time associated.

Once again, the pagan temptation is dispositive. No doctrine of the soul’s survival, lest possessing one the Jews are befouled by the superstitions of the unclean and go whoring after foreign gods.

 

My own reading of the Old Testament is only slightly more consoling. Job’s nihilism, certainly, is complete: “man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he? As the waters fail from the sea, and the flood decayeth and drieth up; So man lieth down and riseth not….” Throughout Isaiah, Ezekiel, the sapiential literature, and especially Psalms, there are references to Sheol as the abode of departed spirits. But Sheol is exactly like Achilles’ Hades: a place of strengthless wraiths and shadows. “In death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol, who can give you praise?” “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol…”

Rather than in a metaphysical heaven or hell, Jewish eschatological hopes have been invested in the myth of the Kingdom of God, to be ushered in by the coming of the Messiah. But once again, the Kingdom is unambiguously terrestrial and political in conception. It is to be preceded by the General Resurrection (in the body, of course) and the Judgment wherein, depending on God’s sectarian temperature, either all of the nations or those of the nations who still deny the One God are to be eternally damned. For the people of Israel, the Kingdom is to be raised here on earth, by human hands, as a monument to Judaism’s faith in the ultimate perfectability of mankind. The Messiah, accordingly, will be neither a god nor demi-god, but a political leader (on the Mosaic-Davidic model) who will repatriate Israel to her ancient homeland, and through her ingathering and elevation to the former glory of the Davidic golden age, bring about the moral and spiritual reclamation of all of humankind. Thereafter, the One True God will be worshiped and the One True Religion observed by all the nations of the world. Then, the divine purpose of the God of History will be fulfilled.

Of the Heavenly Kingdom to which the Earthly is a prelude, there is nothing to say. As Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba, quoting Rabbi Johann, writes in the Talmud: “All of the prophecies of consolation and of good things to come delivered by the prophets apply only to the days of the Messiah, but as for the world to come, no eye has even seen, O God, only You have seen.” (Berakhot, 34b)

That the Heavenly Kingdom is but a nebulous afterthought to the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth demonstrates that even unto the end of time, Judaism is a “faith” whose focus remains determinedly socio-political and this-worldly. Such, as Rabbi Epstein writes, is nothing less than its defining nature:

The kingdom of God, in its terrestrial and social setting, provides the key to the understanding of Judaism in all its varied manifestations, and, indeed, the solution to the riddle of the existence of the Jewish people…No people has suffered more cruelly from ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ than have the Jews, but they have refused to despair…of the world…, and never gave up the belief in man’s ultimate regeneration and perfection. This belief…is a genuine historical tradition, based on the conviction that this is God’s world chosen by Him to become the scene of a divine order wherein goodness and truth are to reign supreme.

And how, again, will this regeneration take place, and what will be the Jews’ role in it?

At the highest the Messiah is but a mortal leader who will be instrumental in fully rehabilitating Israel in its ancient homeland, and through a restored Israel bring about the moral and spiritual regeneration of the whole of humanity.

Israel is thus not the subject but the agent of God’s redemptive activity. She is, as the Prophet calls her, the “light unto the nations”. It is the “nations”, pre-eminently, who are in need of redemption. And this miracle will occur once the Jews have been re-established in the land they had conquered and briefly occupied beginning in the eleventh century B.C.

Jews and Gentiles…

Blood…

The Sins of the Fathers…

The Holocaust Industry…

*****

For what follows, I make no claim of universal validity. What I have written is just as the title suggests: an irreducibly personal reflection. Since they live in every region of the world, the children of Abraham have grown up in widely varying milieux, undergone different experiences, and arrived at different conclusions. Still, I am persuaded that the modern Jewish pre-dispositions I describe below are normative if not absolutely universal. To the degree that they derive from the archetypes embedded in the Jews’ scriptural hieros logos, this should hardly be surprising.

*****

 

I. To the Manor Born

In our politically correct culture, so completely hobbled as it is by tribalism and racial hypersensitivity, it is only the pure of blood who enjoy the privilege of lively moral accusation. Since the Fifties, Black–if I were racially sensitive I would say “African-American” –comedians have been cracking ruthless jokes about the multiple socio-pathologies that have all but destroyed contemporary urban Black society. Not even liberals can restrain their laughter at Eddie Murphy’s uproarious impersonations of the stock characters of the urban Black underclass: silk-suited pimps, baggy-panted, Nike-shod gangsta-rappers, spaced-out Rastafarians, and primping Cassanovas who are proud of siring a brood of children they have never met. But if you are not a member of the ancestral group, beware. Mention these peculiar anthropological types in any but admiring tones and you will be accused of racial stereotyping, or hauled up before one of Canada’s human rights tribunals for the crime of “hate speech”.

And so, I offer my own endogenous bona fides. I was born to Jewish parents and spent my childhood and adolescence in a conventional subdivision in the northern suburbs of what was then called Metropolitan Toronto. My mother and father were also born in Toronto, but to Polish immigrants who had fled Europe before the First War. Many of my grandparents’ numerous siblings had remained in the Old Country, with the consequence that a good number of my parents’ relations remained unknown to them, having perished in the camps.

The place in which I grew up was, and still is, known as “Bathurst Manor”. I prefer to think that in giving it such an incongruous upper-class English designation, the humour of the Manor’s developers was intentional. A few years after the last driveway had been poured and before the sod had taken root, streets with names such as “Acton”, “Hotspur”, “Hove”, “Brighton”, and “Waterloo” were inhabited almost exclusively by Jews who had emigrated from towns or villages with names like Lodz, Minsk, and Pinsk, or had been born to immigrant parents of the same humble eastern European origins. At about ninety-five percent Jewish, Bathurst Manor was the least “English” and least manorial place you could imagine. In truth, it was a modern treeless ghetto, not unlike the ghettos many of its denizens had fled, except that it was richer, freer, cleaner, safer, and a ghetto entirely of the inmates’ own making.

It was the ethnic homogeneity and suburban blandness – not to mention the architectural and natural turpitude of the place – that made me flee the Manor for a new country of my own. The Jews had told themselves that they had no choice but to live together in separate and ethnically monolithic enclaves. Indeed, they had been forced to do so by the anti-Semitic majority that conspired to exclude them. In Toronto, that meant WASPs, whose ancestors had come from such towns as Hove, Brighton, and Waterloo. Given the standing hostility of my relatives to WASP culture and values, I’ve sometimes wondered whether the Jewish onslaught upon and occupation of the Manor was a subliminal stroke of revenge against the Anglo-Saxon Establishment. Usurping the “lords of the manor” is, after all, very much a part of the Jewish historical narrative, beginning with the expulsion of the indigenous Canaanites and, one might say, continuing more recently with the re-occupation of Palestine.

The sense of being a people excluded was in any case an almost palpable component of Jewish psychology in my neighbourhood. Family lore, as retailed by my uncles, consisted mostly of stories about having been singled out for humiliation at school, of this or that successful Jewish businessman who had been denied admission to this or that club or organization. What’s more, the Gentiles weren’t content with merely banishing Jews to the socio-economic fringes; they habitually pursued them even to the gates of their exile. It was for these reasons, according to my elders, that “we” needed to huddle together in places like the Manor, to protect ourselves from the ever-present threat of racial discrimination and violence from the anti-Semitic hordes.

When I finally passed beyond the battlements of our ethnic fortress and emerged into the big bad Gentile world, I experienced a somewhat different reality from the one I had been schooled to expect. I encountered neither prejudice nor discrimination; indeed, knowing how naturally abrasive my personality could be, even I was a little surprised at the world’s benignity. The worst insult I was able to elicit from a member of the old Ontario guard was that I reminded him of Woody Allen. No doubt Allen himself would have deconstructed this as anti-Semitic “code”. But then Allen’s on-screen persona perfectly epitomizes the sort of racial defensiveness that discomposed so many in the suburban ghetto in which I grew up.

I have never doubted, of course, that anti-Semitism has been a virulent poison throughout history; as I said, there were significant lacunae in my family’s genealogy because of it. But as an anthropologically curious youth in the late Sixties and early Seventies, I could find no empirical evidence of anti-Semitism in anything like the toxic doses against which I had been regularly inoculated by the community elders. On the contrary, all the “Goyim” I met were bending over backwards to demonstrate that they were “not prejudiced”, in the politically correct parlance of the day. The entire world, it seemed, including a generation that hadn’t been born until after the War, was engaged in a solemn dromenon of self-flagellation over what had happened to the Jews in Europe.

 

Lest you think the fears of racial persecution I describe beset only the older generations of Jews, haunted as they were by memories of their own direct encounters with it, let me assure you that they persist to this day amongst my contemporaries. In 1970, when I finished high school, most of my friends from the Manor chose to go either to York University or University of Toronto’s New College, both of which had been founded shortly before. Amongst themselves, they referred to New College as “Jew College”; but then, as I said, no Gentile would have dared utter such a calumny or even remarked in passing upon the disproportionate number of Jews at this institution. The reason for such choices was earnestly explained to me by those who made them: a brand new school would as yet have no WASP patrician class to harass or discriminate against Jews.

There was no arguing with them, of course. Since the early Sixties, Jews had been wildly over-represented amongst the graduating classes in the humanities, in the departments of sociology and psychology, and of course, in the faculties of business, medicine, and law. But such statistical vagaries did not assuage my friends’ strangely consoling dread that they were about to be discriminated against. It is ironic that, today, Jews have once again become the targets of racial discrimination in the academy. In lowering objective admissions standards or abandoning them altogether so as to accommodate “people of colour”, “Native” peoples, the handicapped, homosexuals, and anyone else upon whom society has recently conferred fully-accredited victim status, university admissions officers have inevitably excluded better qualified Jewish applicants. The further irony is that Jews, overwhelmingly liberal in their political proclivities, have always been in the forefront of movements calling for such racial (i.e., racist) “remedies” –the very policies and programs that are currently working against them. But this is only one of many Jewish paradoxes I must return to later.

 

When I married and left the parental nest, I went south, to the big city. Meanwhile, all of my high school friends migrated in the opposite direction, to a place called Thornhill. There, in another suburban wasteland with a bucolic English name, they proceeded to re-establish the self-ghettoized existence they had known in the Manor. It was more than clear to me at this point that the old arguments about racial persecution and violence were ritual mantras that had nothing any longer to do with actual empirical realities. The Jewish instinct to remain “together and apart” was something that ran much deeper than any prudent historical adaptation to external events or circumstances; it was evidently an inner, psychic compulsion, which is to say, a mythological imperative.

 

Blood

It may seem far-fetched to some to say that this instinct is rooted in the historical mythos of the Old Testament, but then modern rationalists invariably underestimate the degree to which they can be possessed by these hoary archetypes. For ancient Israel, remaining a people apart was the supreme religious obligation. Yahweh makes it a binding condition of the covenant: “I am the Lord your God, who have separated you from other people…; you shall not defile your souls by…anything…which I have set apart for you to hold unclean.” Uncleanness beckoned to the Hebrews pre-eminently in the form of the temptation to “go whoring after foreign gods”, and Hezekiah’s was only the first in a series of religious reformations whose centerpiece was the tearing down of the high places and their conversion to a latrine. Circumcision was a proud stigma of membership in the tribe, and Hebrew dietary laws were likewise shibboleths meant to keep the Jews free of the pollutions of the unclean Gentiles.

The ancient practices of circumcising new-borns and keeping kosher are both still widely observed today, notably, even amongst Jews who are otherwise unobservant. And, of course, the most solemn Jewish commandment next to the worship of the One True God is the prohibition against intermarriage. For a “good Jewish boy” to contemplate marriage to a “Shiksa” is always the occasion of parental dread and anguish, both in Borscht-Belt comedy and real life. Marrying outside the clan is an unforgivable apostasy. The argument is that Jewish numbers are so precarious that widespread intermarriage threatens the utter extinction of a four-thousand-year-old tradition. But once again, tradition is here defined in terms of blood. There is no impediment against a Gentile wife’s converting. (Indeed, in the “mixed marriages” with which I am familiar, this is the case more often than not.) In fact, the conversion of every “Shiksa” would only add another Jewish soul to the census rolls. But that is to understand Judaism as a religion, not a tribe. A converted Gentile is not a “real” Jew, in the eyes of the elders—not of the blood. It is for this reason, amongst others, that the Jewish clergy place no great emphasis on proselytism.

The Old Testament prohibition against miscegenation originated in a totemic stage of social history, when the tribesman’s first obligation was to maintain the purity of the ethnic group. Otherwise, the ancestral spirits might abandon him in his hour of need. Similarly, Jewish separatism is anthropologically articulated with the fear and suspicion of anyone outside the tribe’s ethnic temenos. We throw around charges of xenophobia loosely enough these days. Yet the Jews are apparently exempt. Perhaps because they have been conspicuous victims of racism, they are presumptively incapable of it. (But the subject of Jewish racism is also one I’ll have to come back to.) Let me simply close this part of the discussion by pointing out the eerie similarities between Jewish anxieties about racial purity and the “Aryan” fantasies of the Nazis. The respected leadership of the Jewish community (the Canadian Jewish Congress, the B’nai Brith, et al.) will immediately dismiss this as an “odious comparison”. But odious comparisons are usually things that people prefer not to think about.

Here’s another in the same vein, since I’m on a roll. I’ve said before, to the shock and horror of my auditors, that the confrontation between Judaism and Nazism was probably historically pre-ordained. Oh, I know: providence and pre-ordination are superstitions, no less atavistic than the Jewish beliefs and practices I am currently decrying. But I don’t mean pre-ordination in a theological sense. There are unknown currents, as Jung has argued, that clash and mingle beneath the surface of historical events: unconscious psychological affinities and repulsions that arrange things in ways we are unaware of. We all accept that they operate in the personal realm, of course. We say that so-and-so’s failure is the result of his negative attitude, or that so-and-so’s sunny disposition creates his own good luck. I see no reason why there should not be unconscious psychic forces that operate at the collective level of culture and history in the same way.

In the thirties, the Nazi movement notoriously saw itself as the long-awaited historical epiphany of mankind’s master race. Such inflations are common enough. The ancient Greeks sneered at the barbaroi (i.e., everyone who wasn’t a Hellene) as too intellectually and morally backward to appreciate the Greek gifts of reason and liberty. The Romans thought that only they knew how to govern, and so they magnanimously Romanized the world. Arguably, the illusion of racial superiority has at one time or other ensnared every nation throughout history, with the difference that the Nazis projected it with monstrous literalism. But who does not think his own people are “uniquely” special? Try to send back an order in any restaurant in France and you’ll find out, as I did, that the French are the world’s absolute masters of the culinary arts, so vastly superior to all of the other nations in this metier that the mere suggestion that a meal isn’t up to snuff will reasonably and justly expose one to the threat of physical violence.

 

The “Nations”

That the Jews are remarkably gifted, and have been the objects of envy and distrust on account of their gifts, goes without saying. In any number of fields—science, business, the law, medicine, academic scholarship, the media, literature, the arts—the Jews have achieved a degree of success and prominence out of all proportion to their numbers. And everybody knows it, especially the Jews.

All Jews of my acquaintance are understandably proud of their collective accomplishments; to their credit, in fact, they don’t speak of them overmuch. But the awareness is ever present, the more so for remaining unstated. It manifests itself in subtle ways. Whenever someone does something splendid in the news and it turns out that he or she is Jewish, there is a mute gesture of acknowledgment. If it’s someone in an occupation in which Jews are normally undistinguished–Sandy Koufax in baseball, or Steve Yzerman in hockey, for example–, there is an audible kvell of pride.

“Is he/she Jewish?” is the perennial question. “He/she is Jewish, you know”, is the perennial affirmation. Some may find this innocent enough; to me it was a mark of morbid self-absorption. I felt as though I were living in a Judeo-centric universe, from which there was no escape.

Indeed, for the Jews in my neighbourhood, just as for the ancient Greeks, the world consisted of only two groups of inhabitants: Jews and Gentiles. It never occurred to those who thought in such binary terms that the Jews represented a tiny minority of the global population, and to conceive of God’s creatures as consisting of “us” and “them” (as though the two were poised in some sort of balance of power) was profoundly self-aggrandizing. It also didn’t seem to matter that the “them” – the Gentiles – comprised a thousand different peoples. The term served to assimilate non-Jews in a homogenous lump, which is just how my friends and relatives thought of them.

Of course, “Gentiles” is a WASP prettification. The Yiddish word, the word used in the Manor, was Goyim. Goyim is, plain and simple, a racial calumny–if it’s possible to say so about a word as ethnologically diffuse as Goyim. On the lips of every Jew I have ever met, it has an unmistakably derogatory connotation. Goyim are morally and intellectually defective in every way that “we” are not. Jews are smart; Goyim have, well, a “goyishe kopf”. Jews are responsible family folks; Goyim are rakish and dissolute. Jews are sober and self-disciplined; Goyim drink too much.

 

Just in case you thought that, having been the victims of Shylockean stereotyping, Jews would never be guilty of the same, consider the widespread Jewish myth that Gentiles (i.e., the world’s entire non-Jewish population) have a congenital problem with alcohol. On this theme, I must recur to another personal anecdote – one, however, that is all too representative of my manorial experience.

When my parents’ estate was being settled a few years ago, my brother made an appointment with an accountant who had been a boyhood friend in the Manor. His office was – naturally – in Thornhill. Both of them, as it happens, had just returned from holidays in the Maritimes and were singing the praises of the Caeli’s they had attended. The consensus was that Maritimers really knew how to throw a party. Apparently, none of the locals left before he was falling-down, pickled-to-the-gills, two-sheets-to-the-wind, insensibly, roaring drunk. “Well”, said my brother’s accountant friend, “they’re Goyim”. Remember, I had just been introduced to this self-righteous prig. All he knew about me was that I was the brother of his friend, and therefore (at least biologically, which is all that counts) Jewish. So commonplace is his opinion within the tribe, that he naturally assumed that I wouldn’t be offended in the least by his arrogant moronism.

I’m aware that for the CJC, B’nai Brith, and so on, merely asking the question is proof that the questioner is an anti-Semite. But I’ll ask it anyway. Are Jews racists? Not in the conventional sense, of course; although some of the comments I heard about “Shvartzes” when I was growing up were world-class racial slurs. (But then Jesse Jackson, Louis Farakkhan, and other self-appointed leaders of the Black community have since returned the favour.) Most racists, however, look down upon particular groups (Blacks; Pakistanis; the Irish; Catholics; Jews). The Jews are equal opportunity condescenders; they look down upon everyone.

Preserving, into the twenty-first century, the sort of parochial hubris that regards “the nations” of the world as barbaroi is, in the least, a spectacular feat of anachronism. The great idol before which we all currently genuflect is cultural relativism: the creed according to which all creeds are equal. But, amongst the Jews, I see no realization that the Old Testament mythologem of the “chosen people” is an atavistic enormity that needs to be forcefully and unambiguously renounced. On the contrary, Jewish history and psychology, from the beginning to the present, seem to me to represent the steady, unreflective reification of the Old Testament myth.

 

The Sins of the Fathers

The Old Testament mythos, as I will argue more fully below, has much to do with many of the poisonous and geo-politically suicidal attitudes of contemporary Jews. The most poisonous of all concerns the “German question”, which seems the appropriate designation for a corrosive obsession that has been gnawing at the heart of Jewry for over sixty years.

A couple of years ago my oldest friend from high school abruptly terminated the relationship. My sins had been to question the original justice of the founding of the state of Israel, and to cast doubt upon the moral sanity of continuing to abominate all things German. Edmund (as I’ll call him) liked fast cars, and had just taken delivery of his latest when I asked if he’d ever test-driven a BMW. The reply was delivered in a familiar tone of disdain: “I don’t buy things made by German bastards”.

I’d heard the same anti-German vitriol throughout my childhood and adolescence in the Manor, and I always found it repugnant. To indict an entire nation – a nation with a two-thousand-year history – for the crimes of the Nazis struck me as outrageous. The Jews above all should be loath to condemn others on the basis of the group to which they belong by accident of birth. Surely my friends and relatives knew that in the thirties not all the German people happily subscribed to the Nazi program. Surely they knew that if a substantial segment of the German population were complicit, it was in the way that the inmates of totalitarian prisons have always been complicit. It’s easy enough for those of us who have never had to worry about a nocturnal knock at the door from the KGB or the Gestapo to be very brave and wonder why the German people did so little to oppose Hitler.

As I said to Edmund, the current shareholders of BMW must inevitably include investors from all around the world, and of the Germans amongst them, few were old enough to have lived during the Holocaust. To condemn the sons for the sins of the fathers is the most primitive sort of racism – the Neolithic sort that assumes that guilt is passed down through the blood. Come to think of it, that is just what the Old Testament God Yahweh apparently thought, when He fulminated that, in punishment for the sins of the fathers, He would pursue the sons to the nth generation.

I am aware, of course, that the same atavistic mentality is behind the current ubiquitous political sacrament of affirmative action and “reparations”. But such morally preposterous “remedies” compensate those who have suffered no injuries by punishing those who have committed no sins. Guilt has merely trickled down through the centuries and generations until it settles upon some convenient scapegoat lurking in the thicket.

It is for the same reasons that the conventional moral raison d’etre for the creation of the modern state of Israel has always struck me as questionable. Suffering from their own bad consciences over the historical treatment of the Jews, the Allied victors assumed the burden of guilt for the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the War. But the ancient Arab inhabitants of Palestine were not responsible for the Holocaust. One can hardly atone for the dispossession of a people by dispossessing a mutually agreed upon third party. As Arthur Koestler, a self-described Zionist, described it, the Balfour Doctrine amounted to “one nation solemnly promising a second nation the country of a third.” This, it seems to me, is the irreducible cause of the bitterness that has persisted through the decades in the Middle East.

 

The corrosive anti-Germanism that has survived through a second and third post-war generation of Jews has by now taken on the quality of a blood-feud. One can be forgiven (pun intended) for noting that Judaism has never repudiated the lex talionis that is the core of the Old Law. There is in Jewish tradition no glorious myth of the supersession of the Erinyes by the Eumenides, and the Christian proclamation of an epochal transition from the aera sub lege to the aera sub gratia has, of course, been emphatically rejected.

The yearning for vengeance for such monstrous crimes as the Jews suffered during the War is understandable and human; but sixty years on, it has become psychologically destabilizing. For many of my friends and relatives, it seems, it is still 1946. More than six decades later, the Holocaust Industry (as it’s been aptly called) has never been in fuller swing. Every year or so there is a new Holocaust movie or television documentary; there are Holocaust museums, travelling Holocaust exhibitions, Holocaust symposia, Centres for the Study of the Holocaust on practically every campus, and tour companies that specialize in “holiday” packages to Auschwitz and Belsen. In response to its more or less constant coverage, an American journalist once quipped that the New York Times should have changed its name to Holocaust Update. (Predictably, he was accused of anti-Semitism.)

It is for the Jews to judge the toxic psychological and spiritual consequences of continuing to rehearse and re-live the pain and anger conjured up with these memories. But the injunction to “Never Forget” is not merely directed by Jews to their own descendants; it is a standing accusation aimed at the Gentile world. Whether intended or not, the effect of nurturing a permanent Holocaust consciousness is to place the Germans in a perennial state of supplication for forgiveness. But since, as I have said, the majority of living Germans have nothing for which to apologize, they can hardly be expected to respond with anything but indignation and resentment. If Germans are as congenitally anti-Semitic as many Jews claim, then it is only a matter of time before that resentment metastasizes into something far more ominous.

The Strike…

Education, Losing a Year, and Eternity…

 

   Providing you ignore the bleakness of the setting and the turpitude of the architecture, such is the frequency and predictability of strikes at York University, that it’s rather like having a little corner of France right here in the northwest reaches of Toronto. In the socialist republique of York, as in France, one can be sure that at least one major sector of the labour force will be on strike at any given time.

   Since York’s student body has overwhelmingly supported the strike—university students overwhelmingly support every strike–, one can be forgiven for taking a soupcon of pleasure from the fact that its principal victims were the students themselves. Of course, once they calculated that they might “lose their year”, as they put it, their proletarian ardour began precipitously to cool. So much for the selfless idealism and devotion to social justice with which the “younger generation” is so often credited.

Why, in any case, should the students at York have “lost their year”? Library workers weren’t on strike. Free of the burden of classes, essays, and exams, why didn’t York’s students redeem the time by venturing boldly in, moving past the banks of computers, and ascending into the stacks, where those pre-Internet repositories of wisdom known as books are located? There they might have achieved what few degree recipients are required to achieve these days: a broad liberal arts education, and a critical appreciation of a Civilization that formerly counted a passing familiarity with its great writers and thinkers an essential human virtue.

Having begun with the study of the civilizations of the Ancient Near East and progressed through that of Greece and Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, to the modern era; having become conversant in the works of the major poets, dramatists, essayists, philosophers, theologians, composers, and artists of the past four thousand years; then, if the strike were still in progress, York’s undergraduates might have had a reason to complain about their enforced idleness.

But whenever strikes drag on at York and students begin to panic, reading Homer, Plato, or St. Augustine is rarely uppermost in their minds. The delay they fear is that of the timely commencement of their careers; the loss, that is, of a year’s pay. Having listened for years to politicians and bureaucrats trumpeting our federal and provincial governments’ generous “investments” in education as the incubator of a “highly-skilled workforce” and the engine of a “modern economy”, it is hardly surprising that students should now think of universities as upper-class vocational schools.

As with so many other institutions, the modern state has managed to radically re-define education while pretending that its neoteric definition has always been normative. It hasn’t. From classical antiquity to the 1960s, the purpose of education has been to make young adults full heirs of the cultural and intellectual patrimony of the West, which was regarded as their universal birthright as members of the human race and citizens, pre-eminently, of an eternal Cosmopolis of the mind. (During that time, only Spartans and Communists attempted to suborn education for the narrow military and economic interests of the state.) As the American conservative columnist Joseph Sobran has written recently, “Few of us seem to notice the totalitarianism implicit in the assumptions that children’s minds belong to the state and, further, that they must never be taught eternal truths.”

One doesn’t have to know the Bible or the Greek myths, the pagan Platonist Apuleius or the Christian Platonist Origen, to get a high-paying job; merely to enter into the human conversation as it has been conducted over the span of three millennia. (Origen was the father of a fifteen-century tradition of biblical allegory, but I doubt that either Dalton McGinty or Stephen Harper has heard of him.)

Less than a hundred years ago, grade school children would have been introduced routinely to these subjects. Today, few university graduates know them. Even still, we smugly proclaim their generation the brightest and most sophisticated in history, on the basis, apparently, of their fluency with Windows.

What follows is a version of a lecture presented in 2004 in the University Lecture Series of University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies.

A MYTHOLOGICAL APPROACH TO CHRISTIAN HISTORY AND SOTERIOLOGY

I

The cultural urgency of understanding the Christian story and soteriology from a mythological point of view I take more or less for granted. Christianity remains the living myth of Western civilization, though this fact seems to be scarcely recognized or understood in our officially secular age. Even when we are reminded of it perforce, it seems nonetheless to ambush us from some dark atavistic hinterland of the psyche.

A couple of years ago, an otherwise typical embodiment of Hollywood normalcy by the name of Mel Gibson produced a movie called The Passion of the Christ. It shattered, as the keepers of such statistics attest, practically all records at the box office. Naturally, the critical beau monde panned it. They could find nothing in the film, as they would have us believe, that justified its success.

Though mass popularity is hardly an index of cultural or artistic value, it seems nonetheless obvious that the critics’ reflexive dismissal of The Passion was less a matter of sophisticated judgment than sophisticated prejudice. As we know, intellectuals don’t always comprehend the important things very deeply, especially the things of religion. And of course, it was amongst the lower, uneducated classes that the Christian myth was first incubated, before it conquered the entire ancient Roman world, including its most sophisticated and enlightened minds.

What was it that so many movie-goers, in an officially post-Christian age, responded to so powerfully in The Passion? That in witnessing on screen Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection as it had taken place in first century Palestine, they were being reminded of the momentous historical event that, along with the entire posterity of Adam, redeemed them from Satan, sin, and death, unto eternal life?

One doubts it. Since very few people today, even amongst the non-intellectual classes, are any longer capable of such naive belief, it can hardly have been the literal historical story that moved them. But in the absence of literal belief, they were moved, all the same. By what?

Dying God and Mother-Spouse

At the risk of turning this into a movie review, let me draw your attention to one minor example of the way in which the Christian story can still apparently impinge upon the living psyche. Early in the movie there is a charming little domestic scene in which a young Jesus proudly shows his mother the table he has just finished building. Whether canonical or not, the scene has a certain historical verisimilitude.

Like his human father Joseph, Jesus is after all a carpenter. That as a young man Jesus should seek the approval of his mother is entirely in keeping with the natural family situation. That Mary should nonetheless gently point out to her precocious offspring that his masterpiece is somewhat implausibly tall for a dining table is also both natural and endearing. But if that were all that the scene contained, or rather, if the story of Jesus were merely an endearing but ordinary human story, then indeed it could hardly be of enduring interest.

Jesus’ table, of course, is no ordinary dining table. It is in fact the altar that he is preparing for his own Sacrifice. It is also a type of the table of the Last Supper upon which he will consecrate the eucharistic bread and wine, his own body and blood. Typologically, the wood of the table of the Last Supper, and of the Cross itself, is the same wood. According to Christian tradition, it had been harvested from the Tree of Knowledge in Eden, whose fruit deprived Adam of eternal life, just as the Second Adam is the fruit hanging upon the tree of the Cross, whose death restores it. And as Christ is the fruit, so Mary is the universal Tree that bears the fruit. And as tree and fruit, Mary and Christ are no longer mere biological mother and son, no longer any particular historical mother and son interacting in the ordinary family situation, but the immemorial dying and reviving God and mother-spouse of universal mythology.

I do not, of course, for a moment think that, though these symbolic and mythological meanings are entirely traditional and well-known to the student of Christian theology and iconography, the average movie-goer, or even Mr. Gibson himself, understood them consciously. Theirs were rather what Maud Bodkin in her Archetypal Patterns in Poetry called “felt significances”. Mr. Gibson’s cinematic art has recreated what was once experienced intuitively in the nascency of the Christian epoch and yet still inhabits the deepest strata of the Western imagination, susceptible of being called back into living significance and emotion by the sort of skillful portrayal that Mr. Gibson–for those with eyes to see and ears to hear–has given it.

The Search for the Historical Jesus

It should by now be clear, I hope, that when I say that Christianity is the living myth of our culture I do not mean Christianity as a fixed and codified system of dogmas and creeds within the context of an organized religion. In this latter manifestation, the corpus Christi is undeniably moribund–dead, or at least dying–from the effects of attack from without and exhaustion from within.

By now, rational science has long since succeeded in exposing the biblical Christian salvation history as a quaint anachronism, a fairy tale that persists from the childhood of the race. The almighty state (which will have no gods before it) has safely banished traditional Christian symbols from the public square, and generally treats religious statements and ideas as pernicious. Academics can find in the two thousand year history of the Church nothing but forced conversions, inquisitions, witch burnings, and all the other atrocities that logically fester in the miasmal swamp of racism, sexism, and intolerance that is the Western Tradition–and they evangelize this caricature of Christianity to the young with the certitude of the defenders of a new orthodoxy. Worst of all, the Church’s ostensible defenders have been all the more devastating to her for being benignly well-intentioned.

For well over a century now, Christian scholars and “progressive” theologians have assumed that they were doing the Church a good service by stripping Christian narrative and dogma of all those accreted myths, miracles, and metaphysical mysteries that have proved a stumbling-block to rational modern belief. But their obsession with the Jesus of history has merely succeeded in further emptying the pews.

 

The well-meaning undertaking by Christian scholars to distill from the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry a core of indisputable, historiographically and scientifically verifiable fact–the so-called “search for the historical Jesus”–has arisen logically enough in response to the stubbornly agnostic spirit of the modern age. Modern civilization has once and for all left the cocoon of religious fideism. As the great Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung observed almost a century ago, modern man will apparently no longer accept traditional religious postulates that he cannot verify for, or in, himself. In place of subjective belief, he demands objective, scientific knowledge; in place of second-hand faith in distant deeds or remote metaphysical entities, he requires private and immediate experience. In short, modern man seems no longer capable of sustaining any conviction in the literal-historical truth of his ancestral narratives, which he now regards as less akin to history than to poetry, projected psychology, or myth.

In light of the widening and deepening cultural awareness that the Christian istoria is in essence a myth – not unlike those parallel myths of saviour-gods retailed throughout pagan antiquity – the “progressive” search for the historical Jesus seems paradoxically retrograde. Nonetheless, from relatively humble beginnings in the late nineteenth century, the historical study of Jesus the man quickly rose to prominence in the twentieth with the work of the Protestant demythologizer Rudolph Bultmann, and remains today a thriving cottage industry. It continues to fascinate all strata of Christian society, from the learned members of the Jesus Seminar to the southern Baptists who ask, in all earnestness, “What would Jesus drive?”

Unfortunately, however, demythologizing the Christian story is a little like de-alcoholizing Champagne; it can be done, I suppose, but in the place of a high and effervescent mystery, one is only left with a flat-tasting and disappointingly non-intoxicating beverage. To slightly alter the metaphor, the historical Jesus might satisfy the thirst of the flesh, but to satisfy the spirit, only the wine of miracle and myth will serve.

The Mythic Christ

As the Jewish rabbi who lived and taught in first century Palestine, and bequeathed to posterity an undeniably revolutionary and enlightened code of social and moral conduct, the Christian God has nonetheless no more claim on us than Pythagoras, Seneca, Marx, or Gandhi. Were he regarded by his followers as human and nothing else, and in this sense historically true, he could no more have kindled the light that for two millennia has burned in the darkness of the world than any other in the long succession of history’s eminent visionaries, wise men, political reformers, ethical scolds, or naive idealists. He opened men’s eyes to his revelation precisely because he was the eternal and transcendent God, and therefore unhistorical. It can hardly have been the meager human story of a Semitic sage that persuaded those first Christians of their transformation into heavenly beings and their everlasting salvation in communion with God.

Without the supramundane Christ and the whole metaphysical cosmos that He embodied, there would have been no story whatsoever. What has ultimately mattered down through the centuries to the religious, if not to the historical imagination, is that Jesus is the God-man, the incarnate Word, the eternal Son of the everlasting Father; that he was sent from heaven for the salvation of mankind; was conceived miraculously by the Holy Spirit within the inviolate womb of His virgin mother; that for the redemption of the fallen he died, descended into Hell, rose again from the grave, and returned to the right hand of God.

But every one of these Christian motives and credenda–God-man, miraculous conception, Virgin Birth, Descent into the Underworld, Resurrection, Ascension, and so on–is by definition wholly unsusceptible of empirical-historical demonstration, and therefore wholly beyond the scope and purview of the “search for the historical Jesus”. Every one, that is, constitutes an age-old and irreducibly mythological category of description. The historical imagination can apparently neither prove nor disprove them, as the religious imagination refuses at the same time to see them superannuated.

Naturally, it has never occurred to the searchers after the historical Jesus that their methods of inquiry are utterly incommensurable with the object of their search. Whoever Jesus actually was, and whatever deeds may be verified by historical evidence as having been enacted by him, he was in any case the target of a tidal wave of psychic projections and mythological expectations that all but swamped his historical personality from the very beginning. As Jung remarks, neither St. Paul nor the Evangelists hardly ever allow the real Jesus of Nazareth to get a word in.

Even at this incipient stage of the Christian revolution, his historical particularity has been all but dissolved in the solvents of archetypal and metaphysical conception: he is, already at the end of the first century, the pre-existent Logos, cosmogonic Nous, universal Redeemer, mediating God-man. The entire pre-Christian, Ancient Near Eastern, Hellenistic, and Gnostic theological and philosophical legacy attaches itself to Jesus and transforms him into a larger than life, collective figure who has no more need of historicity. Indeed, the historical Jesus is so peremptorily and completely absorbed into the circumambient religious and philosophical atmosphere of the ancient Graeco-Roman world that he effectively disappears without a trace.

 

The birth of the God-man in Bethlehem was an event with which the entire ancient world had been pregnant since the dawn of civilization. The obscure rabbi whose career lasted for perhaps a year before it came to a tragic end must have staggered beneath the burden of mankind’s conscious and unconscious expectations, no less than he staggered beneath the burden of the Cross. His was both a New Birth and an old one, as those same religious expectations had already been at least partially projected upon, or had moulded out of the raw clay, any number of mythological redeemer-figures throughout pagan antiquity, whose imprint on the developing Christology is unmistakable.

At every stage, the life of the biblical Christ is bent and stretched to the archetypal pattern of the ubiquitous hero myth, whose main elements are well-known: supernatural birth of a divine Father and a mortal mother; improbably humble origins; threat of infanticide; flight into exile; precocious development; miraculous deeds; anagnorisis of his hidden divine origins; tragic death by dismemberment; descent into the underworld, resurrection, and reclamation of his kingdom. All of these age-old and pre-formed motives were inevitably projected into the vita Christi just as they had been projected into the mythic narratives of Zeus, Perseus, Hercules, Theseus, Oedipus, Dionysus, Asclepius, Romulus, Sargon of Akkad, Osiris, Tammuz, Attis, Joseph, and Moses, to name a few.

When surveyed from the distances sufficient to the perspectives of theology, the entire Judaeo-Christian istoria reveals a system of natural and cosmological imagery and a mythological structure that were so long ago absorbed into the biblical tradition that the familiar formulas ventilated by critics and historians to explain their precise cultural-historical relation (“borrowings” or “assimilations”, “harmonizations”, “adaptations”, “Christianizations”, etc.) seem wholly inadequate.

 

The Christian salvation history tells the story of a Saviour who died the victim of an Enemy who appears to have represented an antagonistic Principle of darkness, wintry sterility, and death; thus he was cut down and dismembered on the Cross like a harvest Tammuz (whence in ongoing sacramental devotions, his people consumed his blood and broken body that they might commune with him in immortality). When he descended into Hell, during his absence from the upper world, the entire earth was darkened, even as Nature was said to lament the disappearance of the ancient year-god and abstain from her joyful duties. In the underworld Christ slew his Enemy in the form of a malevolent sea-monster, and rescued his subjects from captivity in its belly; then he arose from the grave and ascended into heaven, where, following a sacred marriage with a royal princess, the Son of God and his mother-spouse assumed their place as King and Queen upon a throne that had been usurped, for a time, by a pretender. By means of his triumphant springtime resurrection, Christ the Sun of Righteousness, the eternally rising Oriens, the Fruit of the Living Tree, the Bread of Life, and True Vine, redeemed an exhausted and dying moral and social order, and converted a barren wasteland into an eternally verdant Paradise, restoring the world to the state of its pre-historical beginnings.

No one can fail to decipher in this outline of biblical history a theme of universal dispersion. Whether defined as “the myth of the hero” or the “seasonal pattern”, the archetypal schema according to which the parallel narratives and rituals of the various redeemer-gods of antiquity were ubiquitously organized seems to have been wholly re-constellated, along with its ingredient images and symbols, in the historical life, liturgy, and sacraments of the Christian God.

*****

II

Historical Man, Universal God

Through these symbols, the earliest Christians encountered in Christ both a God of history and a God of myth: a Redeemer revealed in the unique events of historical time, and (as One who was born upon the winter solstice and reborn on the vernal equinox), a God of nature and the revolving seasons as well. Such primordial associations with the eternal year effectively abstracted Him from His own local, unique, and unrepeatable history, and exalted Him onto the universal plane of mythopoeia. As Jung has contended, this is the essential meaning of the archetype of the God-man, and of the mystery of the Cross, at the intersection of whose vertical and horizontal axes the universal and particular, eternal and temporal dimensions of the Godhead, and therefore of reality itself, collide.

As a personage of Israelite history, Jesus set himself in opposition to the old numens of myth and the cyclical consolations of nature. Yet the Church has unconsciously preserved the traditional narrative and ritual forms commemorative of these ancient mythic and natural themes.

Over the centuries, Christians have seen in Jesus’ Crucifixion an iconic echo of the sparagmos or dismemberment of the ancient year-god by his death-dealing Enemy, or a recollection of his harvest dramas, when the god’s corpse lay strewn on the threshing floor. Christian poets and homilists have described the Maries mourning Jesus during their Easter vigil in the same manner in which the female votaries of Tammuz, miming the bereavement of Ishtar, wailed their annual ritual lamentations as they searched for the departed god. Christian artists have treated Christ’s Harrowing of Hell as the eleemosynary gesture of another Tammuz, Osiris, Theseus, Hercules, or Orpheus; and between the Sun of Justice’ emergence reborn from the belly of an infernal maritime dragon and the night-sea journeys through the viscera of Apophis or Tiamat prosecuted by the sun-gods Re, Horus, and Markuk, their depictions have recorded little iconographical difference.

By means of such mythic resonances Christians have preserved the balance between the concept of Jesus as historical man (Galilean preacher of first-century Palestine), and Jesus as Universal God, an incarnation, localized in time and place, of a Deity who has reigned in all places and all times. While in deference to Jesus’ own historical example, the Church has formally given preference to doctrines and rituals that were inherited from Judaism rather than paganism, yet having detached herself from the old Mosaic Law and the national-historical aspirations of Jewish messianism, she has moved steadily towards the assumption of all the timeless, meta-historical symbols and sanctities of traditional Gentile religion.

When the Emperor Zeno rededicated the Temple of Rhea at Byzantium to the Virgin Mary, it was but a step towards her elevation from the merely human character of the Gospels to the age-old Universal Mother in whom, as the poet and classicist Robert Graves has said, all the ancient titles and attributes of the pagan Virgin Goddess were finally restored. Zeno’s concession eventually gave rise to the Mariolatry of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and culminated in the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption in the twentieth. Such a dogma, in effect, merely acknowledged, in the words Graves, that “educated Catholics do in practice avert their eyes from the historical Jesus and Mary and fix them devoutly on the [universal] Christ and the Blessed Virgin”. Accordingly, as eternal female and male principles, in their mythological guises of Earth and Heaven, Moon and Sun, Heavenly Queen and King, lamenting mother-spouse and dying son-lover, tree and fruit, Mary and Christ have never ceased to be venerated in Christian piety, mysticism, literature, and art down through the ages.

 

The Christian Polemic Against Myth

It need hardly be said that a re-valuation of the vita Christi as myth–or perhaps I should call it a reclamation of the original mythic Christ–would entail a radical transformation of Christianity as it is now understood and practised, and thus run up against enormous inertial forces. That much at least is clear to me from the nervous disavowals I hear in Church every Christmas morning as the priest intones the same sermon year after year: Today, begins his annual homiletic scolding, we are celebrating the birth of the Son of God in history. We are not commemorating a myth, like those idle fables rehearsed in pagan antiquity of divine births that never happened in the real world but only in the mind. We are commemorating an historically true and actual event. We are commemorating a Truth that is unprecedented, unique, and final.

He is right, of course, in one sense: an insistence upon historicity as the primordial authenticating datum of Christianity is tantamount to an insistence upon the exclusivity and finality of its revealed truths. The biblical-historical event occurs uniquely in time and place. It occurs once and for all, and any who do not assent to its truth are outside of the Christian communion. The mythic fiction, on the other hand, is indiscriminately disseminated and universally accessible, to anyone, everywhere, and always. It is eternally recurrent, to use Eliade’s formula, although “only in the mind”. But then this is a curious “only”, coming as it does from a Christian faith that purports to value the invisible things of God and the soul above the mutable and transient phenomena of the material world.

Besides this minor ontological solecism, the besetting problem, however, is that the modern educated intelligence can no more accept the exclusivity and finality of the Christian revelation than it can accept its historicity. I wish I possessed the searing eloquence of Simone Weil, the great French mystic and philosopher, in answering the finalistic certitudes of my annual Christmas homilist. In a “Letter to a Priest” published in the early 1940s, I believe, she enumerated those opinions which she said had debarred her from the sacrament of baptism and entry into the Church. Here are some excerpts from this remarkable meditation:

…we do not know for certain that there have not been incarnations previous to that of Jesus, and that Osiris in Egypt, Krishna in India, were not of that number.

***

If Osiris is not a man having lived on earth while remaining God, in the same way as Christ, then at any rate the story of Osiris is a prophecy infinitely clearer, more complete and closer to the truth than everything which goes by that name in the Old Testament. The same applies to other gods that have died and returned to life.

***

And the same applies in the case of Prometheus. The story of Prometheus is the very story of Christ projected into the eternal. All that is wanting is its localization in time and space.

***

I also think that Hestia, Athene, and possibly Hephaestus are names for the Holy Spirit. Hestia is the central Fire. Athene came forth from the head of Zeus after the latter had devoured his wife, Wisdom, who was pregnant; she ‘proceeds’, therefore, from God and his Wisdom. Her emblem is the olive, and oil, in the Christian sacraments, is symbolically connected with the Holy Spirit.

***

Fire is constantly the symbol of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.

The Stoics, heirs of Heraclitus, named pneuma the fire whose energy sustains the order of the world. Pneuma, that is fiery breath.

Heraclitus recognized a Trinity….The Persons are: Zeus, the Logos, and the divine Fire.

St John, in making use of the words Logos and Pneuma, indicated the profound relationship existing between Greek Stoicism and Christianity.

***

Plato also clearly recognized…and pointed to the dogmas of the Trinity, Mediation, the Incarnation, the Passion, and to the notions of grace and salvation through love.

It is worth noticing that the moment Christ was crucified, the sun was in the constellation of the Ram.

Plato, in Timaeus, describes the astronomical constitution of the universe as a sort of crucifixion of the Soul of the World, the point of intersection being the equinoctial point, that is to say, the constellation of the Ram.

***

The words: “Except a corn of wheat die” express Christ’s affinity to the dead and resuscitated divinities which were represented by vegetation, such as Attis and Proserpina.

***

The motherhood of the Virgin has mysterious connections with some words in Plato’s Timaeus concerning a certain essence, mother of all things, and forever intact. All the mother Goddesses of antiquity, like Demeter, Isis, Artemis, were figures of the Virgin.

***

Baptism regarded as a death is the equivalent of the ancient initiations…The use of the word “mysteries” to designate the sacraments points to the same equivalence. The circular font strongly resembles the stone basin in which, according to Herodotus, the mystery of Osiris’ passion was celebrated. They both represent perhaps the open sea, that open sea on which Noah’s ark and that of Osiris, wooden structures which saved humanity before the one of the Cross.

***

The ceremonies of the Eleusinian mysteries and those of Osiris were regarded as sacraments in the sense in which we understand that term today. And it may be that they were real sacraments, possessing the same virtue as baptism or the eucharist, and deriving that virtue from the same relation with Christ’s Passion. That Passion was then to come. Today it is past. Past and future are symmetrical. Chronology cannot play a decisive role in a relationship between God and man, a relationship one of the terms of which is eternal.

Simone Weil here anatomizes the chronic infirmity of faith in a remote and external historical event. Does the modern man really believe that Christ’s once-and-for-all death on the Cross two thousand years ago has saved him? Does he feel saved, now, today?

Writing at about the same time as Weil, Jung animadverted on the pitiable impotence of a God who is thus bound and fettered to the unique and unrepeatable historical moment. “And it is to this powerless God that a Christian is supposed to pray for salvation from bodily and spiritual want? God cannot lift a finger, for he exists only historically, in tradition, and in a strictly limited sense. The French could just as easily, and with just as little success, importune Charlemagne to inflict a great defeat on the wretched Germans and liberate Alsace-Lorraine.”

 “One nature but many names”

It may be either alarming or reassuring to Christians to know that Simone Weil’s twentieth century speculation that there may have been other genuine incarnations of God before Christ and may well be further incarnations after him–that the variously named pagan deities are merely parallel intimations of and designations for the same God–is an ancient and universal intuition of the religious imagination.

Recognizing that the One God can only be revealed through the many, but that no single revelation could express the transcendent totality of His Being, the second-century Middle Platonist philosopher Maximus of Tyre was moved to make the case for an enlightened form of “idolatry” (all the more significant because the veneration of temple images was the arch-sin of both Judaism and primitive Christianity):

God Himself, the Father and Creator of all that is, is older than the Sun or the heavens, greater than time and eternity and all the whole flux of being, is unnamable by any lawgiver, unutterable by any voice, not to be seen by any eye. But we, being unable to apprehend His essence, seek the support of sounds and names and images and creatures, of shapes in gold and ivory and silver, yearning for the knowledge of Him, but in our weakness forced to name His divine Nature after the merely terrestrial beauties of the world…Why should I pass judgment against the use of images. Let men strive to know what is the essential nature of the Divine (to theion genos); let them know. If it is the art of Phidias that arouses recollections of God for the Greeks, while for the Egyptians it is the worship of animals, or for another man it is a river, another fire, I have no objection to such diversities. Let them only know God, let them love and remember Him. (Or. II, 10)

Maximus presents an eloquent brief for a multiplicity of iconographical and revelatory forms, as the plenary instrument of a universal religion. The divergences of local cult and imagery, according to Maximus, betray only the limitations of the human understanding, and the inadequacy of human speech. Properly comprehended they serve to fire their devout to the remembrance of the unitary, transcultural essence of God (to theion genos), who is “older” and “greater” than all of His many local signs and manifestations.

Cultic multiplicity and difference, in mythic theology, do not therefore imply competition and exclusivity of truth; quite the opposite. Thus we observe, most famously in Plutarch, that peculiarly late-antique character: the spiritually omnivorous worshipper. Like Plutarch, who might attend the mystic rites of Isis on Monday and Demeter on Tuesday (in the knowledge that they were merely regional versions of the same Mystery), the second-century Middle Platonist Apuleius was proud of his membership in a multiplicity of cults. “I have been initiated into many sacred mysteries in Greece…moved by religious fervour and a zeal to know the truth, I have learned mysteries upon mysteries, rites beyond number, and a great diversity of ceremonies.”

In short, the mythic theologians of late antiquity regarded the diverse names, cults, and sacred legends of the many gods as only relative symbols of a universal and transcendent Reality. In the useful formulation of Maximus of Tyre, the Divine has “one nature but many names”. For the initiates of the countless dying and reviving gods of the late-antique world, competitive claims to exclusive or absolute Truth were dissolved in the awareness that the local deities were only finite representations of the Infinite, and that, besides, there were overwhelming narrative, imagistic, and allegorical symmetries that assimilated their myths and liturgies. Thus, as opposed to identifying any one regional or ethnic divinity with the Divine itself, what we observe is the ubiquitous late-antique velleity to identify the different gods with each other “syncretistically”, and to relativize them all as merely local representations or epiphanies of the Absolute.

 

Nor was this an exclusively pagan intuition. The second-century Christian apologist Justin Martyr could not help but be struck by the comprehensive analogy between pagan mythology and the Christian istoria, which he explained by recourse to a widespread Stoic doctrine of innate and common religious conceptions implanted by the Logos spermatikos in the rational depths of all men.

Clement of Alexandria likewise granted to the pagan worthies the dignity of their own unmediated encounter with the Divine. The scriptural and mythological traditions are in his view separate but parallel channels issuing from a single reservoir of wisdom, vouchsafed simultaneously to the Hebrews and Greeks, and then translated by the Prophets and poets into images “appropriate” to each nation. The Jewish Prophets, Egyptian priests, Chaldaean astronomers, Perisan Magi, Indian Gymnosophists, and Greek poets) all suffered the afflatus of the Word, and it is the same Word that has recently become flesh. In each case, the Word was proclaimed in a different religious dialect, but the underlying theology remained the same. And if the Word is to be heard in the Greek world, it must doff its Semitic guise and put on a Hellenistic guise; it must speak the language of Plato and Homer.

With his theory of the adaptations of the Logos, Clement effectively assimilated and relativized the Godhead’s Jewish, Near Eastern, Greek, and Christian cultural forms, in the same way, that is, as the ancient mythic theologians had assimilated and relativized the diverse names, images, rituals, and sacred legends of the many gods as the regional manifestations and accommodationist symbols of the Universal God.

 

 Beyond the Categories

      As Joseph Campbell has argued, it is the function of myth to humiliate its own confident assertions, to point beyond its inevitably local, particular, temporal iconology to some unspecific and unmanifest Source or Ground of Being:

The function of ritual and myth is to make possible, and then to facilitate, the jump–by analogy. Forms and conceptions that the mind and its senses can comprehend are presented and arranged in such a way as to suggest a truth or openness beyond. And then, the conditions for meditation having been provided, the individual is left alone. Myth is but the penultimate; the ultimate is openness–that void, or being, beyond the categories–into which the mind must plunge alone and be dissolved. Therefore, God and the gods are only convenient means–themselves of the nature of the world of names and forms, though eloquent of, and ultimately, conducive to, the ineffable. They are mere symbols to move and awaken the mind, and to call it past themselves.

Though, according to Campbell, the “recognition of the merely secondary nature of the personality of whatever deity is worshipped” is characteristic of “most of the traditions” of the world, in the biblical religions, “the personality of the divinity is taught to be final”–thereby impeding rather than facilitating any passage beyond the local-cultural names and forms of the Godhead. That the particular local incarnation is complete and identical with the Absolute is, indeed, the salient meaning of the Christian historical belief in the Word that took flesh (the only True God and Saviour of mankind, who appeared to men but once, in Roman Palestine, under the governorship of Quirinius). Founded on a supposedly novel, unique, and spontaneous sequence of actual historical events, the Christian evangelium announced a new and utterly final truth to the world.

What then is left to the Christian who has lost his faith in the exclusive veracity and soteriological efficacy of the unique historical revelation? There is always–and the operative word is “always”–the unio mystica: that wholly open-ended revelation of God by means of the individual soul’s unmediated encounter with and transformative possession by the Holy Spirit.

Of course, like faith itself, the unio mystica unfortunately cannot be compelled. The Spirit bloweth where it listeth; and if it bloweth in our direction, it does so as a spontaneous gift of grace. I suppose there are methods of making the soul more receptive to the Spirit’s afflatus At least, the early Christian and medieval mystics thought so. But I know of few people today who can spend weeks on end perched atop a pole in the Egyptian desert.

We are left, in the end, it seems to me, with the symbols: left to study them, to try to comprehend them, to contemplate them, to stare at them, to venerate them if one is so inclined, as a means of approach to the Unknown God. A symbolic or mythological approach to Christianity would certainly be subversive of its sectarian certitudes. But then it’s already too late to worry about that.

In any case, it is not clear to me why the truth of Christianity should not be amplified rather than diminished through the acknowledgement of its archetypal character and transcultural affiliations, and that the meaning and soteriological efficacy of Christian dogmas and symbols might not be enhanced by means of a resonant reconnection with their common psychic ground and mythic background.

By recognizing the symbolic and mythological irradiations and meanings of Christian statements, such as can no longer be metabolized as literal truths anyway, we might at last get beyond the “sacrosanct unintelligibility” in which so many Church dogmas seem almost deliberately to be shrouded. Nor do I mean to suggest this as a merely intellectual or academic exercise. As the psychic deposits of millennia of human religious experience, mythic images are already freighted with meaning and charged with emotion.

As Campbell suggests, and as the ancients believed, the symbols are the steppingstones by which the mind can move out of itself into the sphere of the Divine. In the conscious and unconscious encounter with the eternally recurrent archetypes, whose timelessness and ubiquity transcend every locally and historically circumscribed revelation, the spirit confronts that a-temporal and universal dimension of the Divine which has been, for almost every age and people, the ultimate goal of the religious quest.

Political Messiahs…

American Camelots…

Sons against Fathers…

History and Providence…

The Mass Mind…

and…

Obamamania…

     In his True Doctrine, the second-century Middle Platonist philosopher Celsus paints a dreary portrait of an age swarming with prophets, soothsayers, sibyls, mantics, clairvoyants, wonder-workers, faith healers, saints, and redeemers. Our own age seems no less fecund with prophets and messiahs, save that they are of the more acceptable, post-religious, political type.

     My own skepticism in the matter of political messiahs is founded in a messianism of a rather different sort. Here I stand firmly with Jesus, who rebuffed the demands of Jewish zealots for a political leader of a new Davidic golden age of peace, prosperity, equality, and justice, with the wisdom recorded in Luke: “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation. Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” Christianity sanely rejects the illusion of a terrestrial, socio-political Paradise; the last century should have persuaded even the post-Christian mind that those who promise one usually deliver a socio-political Hell. Nonetheless, our appetite for political messiahs remains curiously undiminished.

     Over the course of my lifetime, I have tallied up the collective swoons of significant segments of the population for (in roughly chronological order): Mao Tse Tung, Fidel Castro, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Nelson Mandela, Robert Mugabe, and Mikhail Gorbachev.

     As the list suggests, political messiahs run the moral gamut (they are only human, after all). But a few common characteristics distinguish them from the generality of mankind. They typically promise radical, epoch-retiring, world-regenerating change, preliminary to the establishment of a new order of equality and social justice. They promise to effect that change by means of an ever-expanding State. And their gospel of change is exuberantly hailed by the multitudes. I can hear them, at this very moment, hailing the advent of Barack (change we can believe in) Obama.

     Obamamaniacs exhibit all of the symptoms of the primitive unconsciousness that has bred previous epidemics of political messianism. Obama’s rhetoric, puerile and vapid even by the standards of politicians, has been called “majestic” and “inspirational”. Though more Nestorian than Churchillian at its best, and at its worst, painfully embarrassing, his “oratory” has moved otherwise intelligent observers to gush that in it the soaring cadences of Demosthenes can be heard.

     Obama’s most inspirational mantras (“We are the ones we have been waiting for”) are so rankly Narcissistic as to suggest that he suffers from a full-blown messiah-complex. Today, even Christians cringe when reminded of Jesus’ immodest words, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”; and the citizens of North Korea have always secretly laughed at their Dear Leader’s pathological self-inflation. Able to swallow, and keep down, Obama’s vainglorious first-person-plural rodomontade, his supporters have evidently progressed to the most advanced stages of the personality cult.

     On the campaign trail, the crowds that have come out to strew palm-branches in his path are enormous. He has, it is said, re-mobilized American youth (as if political youth movements have been ever benign). He is lauded, above all, for appealing to voters across party and ideological lines. When I heard that Christopher Buckley, the famous son of the founder of modern American conservatism, had announced his defection to Obama, I was reminded of the warnings issued by Christ and other revolutionaries, that the New Doctrine will divide brother against brother, husband against wife, and father against son. Obama’s surrogates have moved well beyond such warnings to explicit threats; as Erica Jong has admonished, an Obama defeat would lead to “blood in the streets” and precipitate “a second American Civil War”.

     On election night, people all across the globe gathered in the hundreds of thousands to watch the returns and celebrate Obama’s inevitable victory. In downtown Toronto, whose denizens are nomally either indifferent to or contemptuous of American politics, the devout assembled sua sponte before a huge open-air monitor to count down the minutes to the new age. Thereupon they partied throughout the night, as though it were New Year’s Eve or VE Day. In Europe, above all, the reflexive anti-Americanism of both the masses and the intellectual elites was simply swallowed up in a tidal wave of Obamamania. The world, like Michelle, had finally found a reason to be proud of America.

     I write in the very early days of the aera nova, but already the word “historic” has supplanted “like” and “ya know” as the most common filler in English usage. Mr. Obama’s acceptance speech, his first cabinet appointment, and his first post-election visit to the White House were all pronounced “historic”. The only development that wasn’t so called was the genuinely historic, four-day free-fall in the stock market that began at 9:30 on the morning after the final results were in. But then, no one wanted reality to intrude upon the political “good news”.

      For generations, scholars and clinicians in various fields have anatomized the peculiar state of mind into which the individual rational intellect lapses when it has become dissolved into the psyche of the group, whether in primitive tribal rituals or modern political mass movements. As Jung has described it:

Rational argument can be conducted with some prospect of success only so long as the emotionality of a given situation does not exceed a certain critical degree. If the affective temperature rises above this level, the possibility of reason’s having any effect ceases and its place is taken by slogans and chimerical wish-fantasies. That is to say, a sort of collective possession results which rapidly develops into a psychic epidemic.

Since Jung wrote these words long before the Internet and CNN, he could hardly have imagined how widely and rapidly such psychic infections as Obamamania can spread.

       Even in the antediluvian days of newspapers and network T.V., the speed with which the mass mind was able to propagate was impressive. The Kennedy phenomenon was a seminal case in point. I was hardly ten at the time, but I remember parents, relatives, and pre-pubescent friends—none of whom had ever taken much interest in, or knew much about, U.S. politics—suddenly singing the praises of this new American knight-errant, and becoming giddy with cosmic optimism. It helped that Kennedy was rich, young, and handsome. It helped, above all, that he was perceived as a sophisticated liberal foil to the reactionary, red-baiting Nixon. But ultimately political ideas had little to do with it. (It was Kennedy, after all, who proved to be the anti-communist hawk, and Nixon the appeaser.) Kennedy was merely thrust forward by the collective spirit of the times, which no mere individual can resist. Sages everywhere were proclaiming him a wunderkind and political saviour. Who were my humble, suburban parents to disagree? Never has Dr. Johnson’s comment been more apposite, that popular opinion is “not founded in reason, but caught by contagion”.

     Fittingly, the only way to describe the Kennedy phenomenon was in the language of mythology, and the myth of Camelot proved to be paradoxically apposite, especially in ways its propagandists could hardly understand. The primitive messianic yearnings of the early Sixties found expression in the legend of Arthur’s resurrection, return from Avalon, and parousia in Cornwall, where he would once and for all liberate the native Christian Britons from the pagan Saxon yoke. In Kennedy’s time, Americans were already beginning to yearn for a messiah who would liberate them, on the contrary, from their own native moral, religious, and political traditions (for what else do the current orthodoxies of alienism and multiculturalism signify?), and perhaps with the advent of Obama, the soteriology of post-Sixties liberalism will finally be accomplished. Unfortunately, Kennedy re-actualized the more sordid details of the Arthurian archetype, in whose possession he and his worshipers found themselves. As Malory tells it, the decline of Camelot’s power and prestige, and Arthur’s eventual defeat and death at the hands of a traitorous assassin, were the inevitable results of the dark adulterous passions raging within the Arthurian court. So far gone in their adoration were Americans, that the Kennedy clan’s sexual libertinism only made them more attractive.

     Is Obama, like Kennedy, the harbinger of a new revolutionary age? His extreme leftist ideology and evident scorn for the political and cultural traditions of the American republic—Obama clearly shares his wife’s opinion that the day he entered the campaign was the first day in history on which America had anything to be proud of–suggest so. But, as another in the series of post-Sixties revolutionaries, Obama is really an ossified conservative. The “change we can believe in” is the change Americans have all believed in–through both Democrat and Republican administrations–since LBJ’s Great Society: ever-larger and more intrusive government, higher spending, higher taxes, more regulation, more social welfare, more hostility toward the rich, more racial huckstering, and less freedom of individual thought and action. This kind of “change”, propelled by its own inertial momentum, has taken place regardless of who has happened to be in power, and during the Obama epoch, the U.S. will undoubtedly continue to “change”–if at a slightly accelerated pace–toward an ever more suffocating statism. No doubt Obama’s administration will be “transformational” (to use Colin Powell’s measured descriptor), but only by comparison to the by-now-long-forgotten model of minimal government and maximal freedom fondly imagined by the Framers.

     For these and other reasons, the euphoric mentality of Obama’s supporters is far more fascinating than the mind of the man himself. What has propelled this junior senator from relative obscurity to rock-star celebrity and political redeemer status is such a few short years?

     History, apparently. Christopher Buckley has written that an Obama presidency is “what the historical moment seems to be calling for”. Buckley says this with the insouciance of one who thinks that history and eternal providence are the same thing. Time, as Plato writes, may be “the mobile image of eternity”, but if history were merely a temporal transcript of providence, there would be no need for politicians preaching change. We’d all be contented quietists, and we’d never again have to listen to those nauseating public service announcements reminding us of our civic duty to get out and vote.

     Buckley’s appeal to the benign wisdom of history is but a grandiloquent way of saying that an Obama presidency is what the mood of the moment happens to be calling for. His is an especially curious and precipitous surrender to a transient Zeitgeist, as it comes from one whose magazine’s original mission statement was “to stand athwart the tracks of history yelling stop”, and whose longstanding cause was the defeat of communism, a mass movement whose time had come, if ever there was one. But then, as Buckley forthrightly puts it, he has decided to “jump aboard the Obama bandwagon”. So much for a conservatism that was once constitutionally averse to the tyranny of fashion, the collective milieu, and the group-think it incubates.

     The entire Obama campaign has, in fact, amounted to a thinly veiled warning to Americans not to swim against the currents of historical destiny. Jong’s threat that a McCain victory would lead to America’s second Civil War may have come from a world-class nutter, but she certainly understands the effectiveness of the moral shakedown tactics that have made Obamamaniacs of us all: vote for Obama, and stand on the side of racial fairness, progress, and the future; vote against him, and declare yourself with America’s sordid racist past. It’s a very old merchandising technique: Chaucer’s shifty fourteenth-century Pardoner used it habitually at the end of his sermons, when he warned that no one who had committed mortal sin (murder, sacrilege, etc.) would be eligible to purchase his precious pardons. Naturally, when he unfurled his bag of factory-made relics and forged indulgences, sales were brisk. No one in the congregation dared to remain seated, since to do so would be to incriminate oneself of a heinous crime. Thus the Pardoner enriched himself with cash, as Obama does with votes, by appealing to people’s moral vanity.

     But the proximate cause of Obamamania, and the most obvious answer to the question, is the one that continually fails to resonate. The media’s homo-erotic infatuation with like-minded ideologues is now the only love that dare not speak its name. In annual surveys conducted since the late Sixties, the percentage of registered Democrats in the various branches of the media has never been lower than 95, and an overwhelming majority of these call the extreme left wing of the Democratic party home.

     When members of the media gaze upon the face of Obama, they see their own beloved countenance reflected back at them. As has been fruitlessly pointed out by his opponents, Obama boasts the most impeccable left-wing voting record in either the House or Senate. His yearning for a national health care system; his “redistributionist” demagoguery; his credulous acceptance of the junk-scientific orthodoxies of climate change; his vow to repeal free trade and “re-think” globalism (i.e., to restore an ancient and discredited protectionist regime); his zeal to “re”-regulate Wall Street; to raise income taxes on the rich, as well as corporate and capital gains taxes; to reintroduce closed-shop unioninsm and abolish the secret ballot for union certification and strike votes; his enthusiasm for fetal stem-cell research and rejection of even the most modest restrictions on a wholly unfettered abortion trade (he voted against the bill to ban partial-birth abortions); and of course, his opposition to the war in Iraq, have created, for the left-wing media, the perfect ideological storm.

     Obama’s extraordinary popularity serves to remind us yet again of the scandalous fact that, year after year, the media remains monolithically supportive of the same one of the two major political parties. Try to imagine the outcry if 95% of the current members of the Fourth Estate identified themselves as far-right, born-again-Christian, gun-toting, God-addicted Republicans. The world’s leading intellectuals would now be intoning threnodies on the hijacking of the U.S. political process, the death of its democracy, and the imminent theocratization of its government; and they’d be absolutely right. It is unsurprising that the Left, which never fails to decry the power of advertising to manipulate consumers with Svengalian efficacy and Pavlovian predictability, never fails to dismiss as a “myth” the ability of a uniformly left-wing media to influence voters and skew the results of elections. But I still can’t comprehend how ordinary Americans, having been justly contemptuous of the democratic pretensions of the former Soviet Union, could be so complacent about living in a country with a one-party press.

     It has been observed that, with the passing of monarchy, tyranny, and dictatorship, despotism has merely assumed the benign, democratic guise of Public Opinion. Given human psychological frailties, Public Opinion is quite capable of achieving near uniformity on its own. In a T.V.- and Hollywood-addled, twenty-four-hour-news-cycle, Oprahfied age, uniformity of thought is virtually assured. The coalescence and propagation of a single political and cultural orthodoxy is arguably the greatest threat to that personal liberty upon which the very possibility of moral action depends, and the most destructive form of terrorism that we currently face: one that terrorizes not merely the body but the mind and soul. The helpful enforcers of that orthodoxy are everywhere: sitting on government human rights tribunals, writing academic speech codes, offering sensitivity training in the workplace. An ideologically divided media would long ago have blown the whistle on this intellectual and moral enormity. One that subscribes to the same narrow orthodoxy merely sounds the trumpets and beats the drums.

     In the absence of a partisan media that has trumpeted his virtues and downplayed his vices, Obama’s political ascendancy is unthinkable. Every Sunday for twenty years, Obama attended services at the church of a race-baiting, White-hating, conspiracy-obsessed “Reverend”, whose twisted world-view makes that of Sharpton or Farrakhan seem almost reasonable by comparison. Obama so esteemed him that he asked the Reverend Wright to preside at his wedding. Indeed, throughout his political career, he praised Wright publicly as his philosophical mentor. Having continued to do so until two months ago, Obama’s latter-day repudiation of him was manifestly calculated and insincere. The media, nonetheless, colluded in the risible pretense that Obama is now and has always been scornful of Wright’s toxic ideology. Like Obama’s longstanding chumminess with Ayers, the press dismissed the story as “ancient history”. It duly evaporated after a few days, or rather transmuted into one about the McCain campaign’s desperate tactics amid the long history of Republican dirty tricks (cf. Nixon). How quickly, do you think, would the press have exonerated him, after it had been revealed that McCain, or any other Republican candidate, had faithfully attended services at the church of a Neo-Nazi White supremacist?

     Which brings me to the last, but no less troubling, reason for the Obama phenomenon. It has been said, ad nauseam, that Obama’s candidacy is “not about race”—that it transcends race–, even as we have been reminded, ad nauseam, of Obama’s African roots, and of the urgent but hitherto refractory moral imperative of placing an African-American in the White House, so as to bring to a happy conclusion the protracted tragedy of American racism, and finally qualify the guilt-laden American people for absolution from their country’s “original sin”. Obama is indeed the twenty-first century’s Pardoner. Voting for him will finally absolve a populace that has been mired in sin for centuries, and alleviate the unbearable burden of white liberal guilt.

     Not about race? Tell me another one. For once I agree with Hilary, who has discovered, to her feminist chagrin, that in American politics race is a far more potent asset than gender.

     The idea that Obama would have been no less successful and adored had he been as White as John Kerry is amusing enough; but his campaign’s assurance that he has transcended the politics of race is a howler. One does not need to be as fundamentalist an apostle of Black victimology as Jesse Jackson, Alvin Sharpton, or the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, to be a racial huckster. I am glad that Obama has repudiated Wright, even if he did so for reasons of pure political expediency. But I am now waiting to hear our recent convert promise to repeal the poisonous and counter-productive policy of affirmative action. Or to counsel Blacks to stop blaming Whitey for the epidemics of crime, unemployment, promiscuity, illegitimacy, and other social pathologies that have ravaged their inner cities. Perhaps he will, someday. But I doubt it. A number of impressive American Black intellectuals and celebrities—Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Walter Williams, Roy Innis, Alan Keyes, Clarence Thomas, and Bill Cosby, to name a few—have been preaching this rather more difficult gospel of change before deaf ears for decades. Keyes has even run for President. When one of them gets elected, I will be convinced that America has truly transcended race.

     I wish President-elect Obama well. I hope he lives up to his promise to withdraw American troops from Iraq (although I suspect he won’t have done so any more quickly than a McCain administration; more probably, he’ll merely shift them eastward, into Afghanistan). I wish, above all, that Obama would end America’s adolescent infatuation with a foreign policy driven by “humanitarian” concerns (i.e., regime change, nation building, exporting democracy around the world, and the rest of it). With the fall of the Soviet Empire, this seems to have become America’s new raison d’etre, beginning, I might add, not with George Dubya and the neo-cons, but with Clinton’s intervention in Yugoslavia.

     But toward Obama’s success or failure, my attitude is ultimately one of Boethian indifference. If he succeeds, I will congratulate him. If his presidency is a disaster, it might at least make people a little less susceptible to mass-minded enthusiasms. I believe in providence, not history.

 

Priceton student Brett R. has sent an e-mail from down under with the subject line, “What the hell is going on in America?” Brett aspires to know, more specifically, what the hell is going on as it pertains to the meltdown in the financial markets and the government bailout that has been proposed to fix it. Since, for some years, Brett and I have taken swings at each other from across an ideological Grand Canyon, I am touched and flattered that he thinks I can explain the current mess. To repay his misplaced confidence, I humbly offer the following.

 

The Hazard of Government

“It seems beyond the conceptual abilities of most people that current problems might have been based on too much rather than too little regulation. Somehow people can ignore that the U.S. financial institutions that recently stumbled were subject to comprehensive oversight by the Federal Reserve, the SEC, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and others. They have a blind spot to the role of government programs and policies in promoting the housing bubble, and of facilitating institutions, especially Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, that were widely perceived as being government backed (and ultimately were)…. As Richard Salsman points out…, far from being due to too much laissez-faire, the present turmoil was inevitable in a system that had been both massively subsidized by deposit insurance and over-regulated….

What is so stunning about public attitudes towards the capitalist system is that finance can be regulated eight ways from Sunday and still be written off as ‘unfettered’….

[A] less-regulated system…would be one in which people were a great deal more careful with their money, knowing that when they made mistakes they would have to pay for them. Under the existing heavily regulated alternative, when moral hazard inevitably rears its ugly head, the taxpayer gets lumbered. Such an arrangement is obviously attractive to incompetent managers and overweening bureaucrats, but it’s astonishing that it would be supported by the average person.”

–Peter Foster, Financial Post, Sept. 24, 2008

 

 

The fact that I’m not an economist, and certainly no expert on the markets, ought probably to dissuade me from weighing in on the current “financial crisis”, as it is being called. But then, in re the economy, there are no experts, least of all those who call themselves such. We are about as close to a scientific understanding of that dismal branch of human activity (I should probably include all the “social sciences” here) as medieval leeches were to a science of medicine.

If it were possible for any individual, or group of individuals, to understand and predict the trajectory of the economy, the Soviet Union would now be the world’s only economic superpower, and aging Russian apparachiks would currently hold the patents on the personal computer, the Internet, and high-definition T.V. As it happens, the Russians are still building cars with carburetors.

We’ve done rather better in the West, because no particular group of financial “experts” has managed to persuade our government “planners” to meddle in any more than a few sectors of the economy at a given time, and, at that, not for very long. It is not, that is, because of, but rather for the lack of, economic expertise that we, in the free-market economies of the West, have thrived. If you don’t share my skepticism, look at the performance of those actively managed mutual funds for which investors continue to pay a hefty premium, in exchange for the assurance that smart people with advanced degrees and a sophisticated knowledge of the markets will be picking the right stocks for them, and buying and selling them at the right time. For a while in the Eighties and Nineties, I recall that some fund managers were so sycophantically feted, by the economic washed and unwashed alike, that their names became as familiar as those of celebrity chefs. Yet, if one had bothered to check, one would have discovered that seventy-five percent of such funds have traditionally failed to do as well as the Index. You’d have a better chance of making money in the market by donning a blindfold, sitting yourself down in front of a list of the S&P 500, and feelingly checking off a dozen names, than if you happened to be the godchild of Sir John Templeton.

When I say that Economics is only presumptively scientific, I don’t, of course, mean that it is irrational. In fact, we have been aware of the simple laws according to which the markets have worked since the days when men traded spices and trinkets out of carpet bags on camels. Every transaction between a buyer and a seller, when acting as free agents, is to the advantage of both. The “value” of a commodity is neither intrinsic nor arbitrary, but whatever price at which a free agent agrees to sell it, to a free agent who agrees to pay it. When supply outpaces demand, prices fall; when demand exceeds supply, they rise. Arbitrarily fix the price of a commodity lower than the market would otherwise pay for it, and no one will produce it, leading to a scarcity, and higher prices. Collude to fix it higher, and everyone and his brother will get into production, whereupon the price will fall. When the costs of certain commodities rise, consumers use them more frugally; decrease the cost by fiat, and the population will descend into profligacy. Subsidize or insure against certain risks, and people will confidently take them. Give people something for nothing, and they’ll treat it as if it were worthless.

These are the immutable laws of the market, because they are the immutable laws of human nature. Economic law is thus highly rational, which is one reason why the central planners of command economies (including our own “free” democratic welfare states) always fail so miserably to understand it. Central planners don’t particularly like human nature. They think it ought to be reformed, and they think that only they know how to reform it.

 

One needn’t go back very far in history to illustrate the obduracy of these laws, and the havoc that has been wrought by the various “compassionate” and “progressive” politicians, bureaucrats, and social engineers who have tried to circumvent or repeal them. Most recently, it was our state planners and green activists who alone failed to predict that subsidies for ethanol—already recognized as yesterday’s technology–would lead to skyrocketing prices for corn, wheat, and other grains, significantly increasing the cost of food to householders in the industrialized world, and resulting in starvation for many in the developing world.

To be sure, this sort of benevolent meddling has gone on since the birth of the modern welfare state at the beginning of the last century. But it only achieved unstoppable momentum a little over thirty years ago, when politicians began to fantasize about eliminating poverty and economic inequity by declaring “war” on them (and you thought George Bush’s project of militarily imposing democracy in the Middle East was a fool’s errand?), and creating that paradise on earth that the likes of Lyndon Johnson called “the Great Society”. The criminal follies committed by such reformers in the name of progress and social justice are too numerous to recount. Let me confine myself to a couple of examples of which even today’s Economics majors will have had some immediate experience.

In the early seventies, rents were rising in many North American cities faster and to higher levels than most renters would have liked. Being economically obtuse but very adept at counting votes, mayors and city councilors astutely calculated that there were more renters than landlords in their constituencies, and so imposed what they called rent controls (i.e., they fixed the price of housing at an artificially lower rate than the market, operating freely, would otherwise have assigned). Of course, since it was no longer profitable to build new apartments, private developers erected condominiums instead, leading to a critical scarcity of rental units. The same urban planners who then argued for rent controls are now decrying the forest of condo towers that currently block out the sky in places like Toronto and Vancouver, and lamenting the fact that the poor and working classes have been driven clean out of the city.

Around the same time as we had the “crisis in affordable housing” that led to rent controls, we also had an “energy crisis”—just one more in a series, as it turns out, of such apocalypses, of which the current “financial crisis” is the latest. The world was one fill-up away from running out the oil (it still is) to which Americans had become so wickedly addicted (they still are, as that supposed shill for Big Oil, George Dubya, has been admonishing). Something had to be done. It was then that governments at all levels in both Canada and the United States began to impose a raft of regulations upon (and offer a raft of tax breaks and subsidies to) the auto manufacturers. Cars became smaller, lighter, and more fuel efficient: not in response to the spontaneous demand of consumers, mind you, but to the central dictates of bureaucrats and environmental lobbyists with the power to incarcerate those who didn’t share their vision. Never mind. Detroit finally gave us cars that got thirty plus miles to the gallon, and who can argue with that?

Politicians and environmental lobbyists are still congratulating themselves on these “timely” and “responsible” interventions in the market–even as they continue, paradoxically, to chastise naughty Americans for their dependence upon cars and oil. Apparently, we are still depleting the earth’s oil reserves at the same alarming and unsustainable rate, in spite of our government-mandated fuel-efficient cars. But then everybody knew that this would happen, except the experts. When you make cars more fuel-efficient, you effectively reduce the price of gasoline. Drivers adjust their habits accordingly, as reason dictates, increasing the frequency, and the distances, of their trips, and burning, in the process, more or less the same quantity of fuel as they had burned in their pre-crisis gas-guzzlers. (They also die in greater numbers on the highways—not only because they are travelling more, but because the smaller, lighter cars into which they have been shoe-horned by the experts are environmentally responsible death-traps. But then saving the planet is worth the sacrifice of a few human lives.)

 

I challenge my readers to identify a single such “timely” and “responsible” government intervention that hasn’t failed as utterly to end the “crisis” for which it was prescribed, or had similarly “unintended” consequences. Such consequences are about the only thing, in fact, that is predictable about the market. To the extent that those who buy, produce, and sell within it enjoy whatever residual freedom has been left them by the leviathanic state, they will exercise it, and often in ways that are quite at odds with the utopian reveries of central planners.

Even in the nascency of the welfare state, when governments began weaving the safety nets intended to break the falls of citizens thrown from cruel Fortune’s ever-turning wheel, this principle was already well known. The insurance industry denominated it “moral hazard”, clearly recognizing in so doing that the markets function in accordance with the ethical laws of human nature. The principle was first observed at work when governments legally required the owners of real estate to purchase fire insurance. Immediately thereafter the incidence of both accidental and deliberately set fires doubled. Knowing their properties were insured against loss, owners—again, with a certain plausible rationality—gradually overcame their primordial fear of this explosive element, and became less vigilant against its catastrophic potentialities. It should have been no surprise, then, that after governments required the owners of automobiles to purchase accident insurance, drivers were involved in a much higher incidence thereof, and people were being maimed and killed on the highways in unprecedented numbers.

The moral hazards created by government safety nets are, naturally, no less hazardous than those created by private insurers. It is hardly surprising that welfare and unemployment “insurance”—paying people not to work—has led to an increase in unemployment, multi-generational dependency, and devastated lives; that, under the illusion that health care is “free”, Canadians visit their doctors for the most trivial of ailments, thereby swamping the system, and making it all but impossible to get a timely appointment for even the gravest of conditions. In every sphere of life, the welfare state is now the insurer of last resort. Why shouldn’t folks build houses on the flood-plains of the Mississippi or the sub-marine swamps of New Orleans? Even if private companies, sensibly enough, won’t insure them, they know that FEMA (i.e., the taxpayer) will quickly row to their rescue. (As the government is doing at this very moment in bailing out the sinking ships of bankers and mortgage holders who were similarly encouraged to buy and sell below financial sea-level.)

 

It’s hard to argue against these measures when the cameras of CNN are trained on the floating corpses of beloved family pets in New Orleans, or on the dusty caravans of the dispossessed leaving their humble cottages in the Arkansas hills, having been foreclosed upon by the evil Wall Street bankers. No less than CNN, politicians know the power of these Steinbeckian images, and how to mobilize support for their compassionate interventions by casually slipping into the conversation the dreaded D word.

In the case of the current financial bailout, there is the added incentive for the government of being able to abominate the capitalist classes even while making them its beneficiaries. Inevitably, the genesis of the crisis has been ascribed to the avarice and corruption of the Wall Street firms who once again enriched themselves “on the backs of the poor”. It’s the Reagan “era of greed” coming back to haunt us. We’re merely reaping the whirlwind for all those years of irrationally exuberant, unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism, of de-regulation and getting government off our backs. If we’d only had a little more government, more regulation, the robber barons of Wall Street wouldn’t have gotten us into this mess in the first place. (And I’m paraphrasing Bush, McCain, and Palin, by the way.)

 

The Republicans have reflexively been accused of being the party of the rich, but this sort of class-warfare demagoguery has always leapt as naturally to their lips as it does to those of the Democrats. McCain’s descriptions of the Wall Street financial community might as well have been taken from one of Antonio’s harangues against Shylock.

The ironic truth is that it’s not pre-eminently “da liddle guy” (to quote our own former Chief Advocate of the Deserving Poor, Jean Chretien) who has an abiding interest in diabolizing “corporate America”, but the omni-wealthy state. Wherever the state, by bringing its unlimited prosecutorial resources to bear against an Enron, a World Com, or a Conrad Black, can foster the populist image of the private sector as a “corporate kleptocracy”, it is able to deflect attention from government’s vastly more depredatory regime, even while depicting itself as the champion of the people. Conrad convicted of skimming six million from his shareholders? Government leaders and functionaries waste, misappropriate, or steal more than that measly sum every minute of their working day. But how often do you hear the phrase “socialist greed”, or “government kleptocracy”, or the “robber barons of Parliament Hill”? The idea of governments–who confiscate half of our incomes every year at gun-point–protecting us against corporate greed really is rich. Almost as rich as bombarding the populace (especially the poor) with advertisements for federal and state lotteries while excoriating Wall Street financiers as “high-rollers”.

I confess that I am at a loss to understand how it is that in the popular imagination the “corporate culture” (Big Oil, Big Drugs, Big Box Retail, Big Everything, with the notable exception of Michael Moore’s or Oliver Stone’s Big Hollywood) is universally vilified, while Big Government enjoys a prima facie presumption of innocence. What could be more selfless than the government’s desire to provide school lunches for children or drugs for seniors? It is simply assumed that government interventions in the market—government activities in general–are prompted by the most altruistic and communitarian of motives. Whether they act to eliminate socio-economic inequity, relieve human misery, promote some virtuous technology, or save the planet, governments by definition seek the “common good”. Even though they are comprised of ordinary, individual human beings, once they are sworn into office or hired into the bureaucracy, the selfish gene apparently lapses into dormancy. The lust for power, wealth, and glory that disfigures ordinary human nature and the capitalist classes especially has evidently been “put off” (in the words of St. Paul) by New Governmental Man. Governments have transcended original sin.

What compounds the mystery is that wherever you go, you hear people complaining that politicians are liars and thieves, magnets for bribery and graft, monsters of self-enrichment and corruption. But, let them announce some new program to help the lame, the halt, or the fat, the victims of volcano or tidal wave, children with ADD, mothers with PMS, fathers with TMJ, and the electorate starts to believe in Santa Claus again. All their world-weary cynicism evaporates into infantile credulity.

 

The same childlike trust of the nanny state and cynical distrust of the markets has, inevitably, befogged the discussion of the current “financial crisis”. Who’s to blame? Here’s an answer to the question that practically nobody will dare to give: the principal culprits are those who defaulted on their mortgages. The good folks who, with that original advocate of the impecunious classes, Wimpy, promised, “I’ll gladly pay you next Tuesday for a hamburger today”. Those who blithely borrowed money from banks and broke the contracts they signed to pay it back; who fraudulently represented themselves as being able to pay it back, but weren’t, and didn’t.

I know it’s unfashionable to inculpate individuals so directly and specifically–especially the poor–, rather than to blame some impersonal abstraction like the “system”, or look for “root causes” (we’ll get to those in due course). But let’s try a little thought experiment to see how you might react in the situation. Imagine that an impoverished college friend comes to you asking for a loan of a thousand bucks to buy, let’s say, a used car. “I’ll pay you back in monthly installments, with modest interest, over the course of a year”. But six months go by and he’s yet to make a payment. (Meanwhile, he’s totaled the car.) You confront him, and he replies: “Look, it’s your fault. You wanted the interest, and aggressively marketed the loan. It was wrong of you to sell me a loan knowing that I didn’t have the means to repay it.”

Do you feel guilty now? This, I believe, is what most normal folks (including those within and without the Jewish banking cabal) would call chutzpah. And it is with similar audacity that, once again, the current financial crisis is being blamed on Wall Street.

It seems only decent to pause for a moment before the lynching commences to consider what the bankers of Wall Street are being accused of. The more specific charges, so far as I can understand them, are these. First, that they made imprudent loans to those without the financial wherewithal to repay them. Second, that they sold off these liabilities in elaborate Ponzi schemes, distributing tiny parcels of their otherwise unsecured risk around the globe. And, third, that they connived to get rich doing so

Certainly, offering mortgages without requiring a downpayment from under- or unemployed borrowers was stupid. (Of course, if government had resisted the temptation to cure the malady, the banks would have been justly punished by the markets for their stupidity.) But re-packaging and dispersing the risk was about the only prudent thing Wall Street could have done. Financiers have been doing that sort of thing since Lloyd’s of London first insured tobacco and rum against catastrophic loss at sea.

That the bankers hoped to make money from these schemes is the perennial and fundamental indictment of capitalist America. It’s not just that entrepreneurs and their financial backers expect to earn a profit; the besetting sin of capitalism is evidently in wanting to make as Big a profit as possible. Capitalists want to make “windfall” profits. Imagine that. Windfall profits. No ordinary, socially responsible, liddle guy would ever wish for such a thing for himself. That’s why whenever liddle guys win the lottery they refuse to cash in their tickets; why union leaders don’t try to negotiate as Big an increase in pay for their socially responsible members as possible; and, why, whenever their bosses offer to double their salaries, employees always just say no.

 

With the financial meltdown, we now enter the latest chapter in the Manichaean mythology of the cosmic clash between corporate America’s armies of greed and the public sector’s soldiers of mercy.

Since the seventies, practically every politician who has run for office at practically every level of government in the United States has intoned some version of these words: “I want to make the dream of home ownership a reality for every American.” And they have.

Does anyone remember the campaigns of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, et. al., vilifying the major banks as bastions of white old boy racism for refusing to “serve the needs” of the residents of the Black inner cities? Thanks to their racial huckstering, and the egalitarian arm-twisting of governments, banks have now been shamed into opening unprofitable branches in depressed underclass neighbourhoods throughout America.

Home ownership, like medical care, legal care, jobs, food, and clothing is just the latest of those desiderata to be advertised by the compassionate classes as a universal human right. (The working definition of a “universal human right” is anything that you want but can’t afford, and that your altruistic government will force others to purchase on your behalf.)

In pursuit of our politicians’ populist dreams, banks have been strongly encouraged not only to open in dubious locations, but (as part of aggressive government “outreach” programs in which their products were marketed amongst the poor and financially under-served), to offer sub-prime and variable rate mortgages to borrowers who had neither the equity nor the income to pay them off—self-interested borrowers, that is, who were hoping to profit from cheap loans. Not only was the risky behaviour of the banks morally enjoined by governments who urged them to be “good corporate citizens” and all that, but it was tacitly underwritten by them. Having been exhorted to take a chance on the deserving poor, the banks assumed, with plausible rationality once again, that those public sector lenders of last resort, Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac, or some other governmental agency, would rescue them if their creditors defaulted. And who can say that they miscalculated?