Monday, 8 June 2020

CHRISTIANITY AND PAGANISM


This is a continuation of my long essay "From Logos to Freedom". It is a preliminary reflection on the deleterious effects that the ethos of "universalism" implicit in identity politics can have on the fighting spirit and the cohesion of a free society. (To exemplify, if "Black Lives Matter", then "All Lives Matter" - including those of our most lethal enemies! - which displays the futility and stupidity, and ultimate power-lessness of this "politics".)


"In the beginning was the Word....and the Word was God," (John 1:1)

206 On Revolution - Arendt
It is in the very nature of a beginning to carry with itself a
measure of complete arbitrariness. Not only is it not bound into
a reliable chain of cause and effect, a chain in which each effect
immediately turns into the cause for future developments, the
beginning has, as it were, nothing whatsoever to hold on to; it is
as though it came out of nowhere in either time or space. For a
moment, the moment of beginning, it is as though the beginner
had abolished the sequence of temporality itself, or as though the
actors were thrown out of the temporal order and its continuity.
The problem of beginning, of course, appears first in thought
and speculation about the origin of the universe, and we know
the Hebrew solution for its perplexities - the assumption of a
Creator God who is outside his own creation in the same way as
the fabricator is outside the fabricated object. In other words,
the problem of beginning is solved through the introduction of
a beginner whose own beginnings are no longer subject to
question because he is 'from eternity to eternity'. This eternity
is the absolute of temporality, and to the extent that the beginning
of the universe reaches back into this region of the absolute,
it is no longer arbitrary but rooted in something which, though
it may be beyond the reasoning capacities of man, possesses a
reason, a rationale of its own.

As Arendt justly notes, there are two kinds of biblical beginning: the first is physico-cosmological in that it refers to the origins of the cosmos: this is the primary preoccupation of the Judaic Old Testament in Genesis and, quite obviously, it concerns God as the Creator. The second type has to do, in contrast, with the beginning of human thought, that is, the dawn of human consciousness and awareness of the world. Two kinds of God, then! The first, the God of the Hebraic Old Testament is a Creator God, a maker, more akin to homo faber: He is a doer, He is an arti-ficer who stands outside of his creation as the crafter of the Cosmos. But he is also a belligerent and vindictive God. His omniscience is that of the episteme techne. The second God, the one of the Christian New Testament, is a thinking God, a reflexive and introspective God, the God of homo sapiens; a peaceful, passive God whose knowledge is episteme logiche. Each God has his own episteme ethiche, his own ethos. The God-Artificer of the Old Testament is closer to the pagan deities of the Hellenic Graeco-Roman world. True, his Cosmos has a beginning in time, and therefore also an eschatological End, unlike the pagan divinities that populated Hellenistic mythology, whose history is not linear like the Christian one, but rather heroic or mythical. These pagan divinities were associated both in Greece and Rome with the ghens, the ancestral familia, whence the word ‘Genesis’ found at the very “beginning” of the Old Testament. Yet, the pagan gods were mythological entities and so the time of the Graeco-Roman histories was similarly mythical – at most, it was cyclical, never linear, because it knew neither beginning nor end.

The New Testament was written by Jewish intellectuals, the Apostles, who most certainly were not the humble fishermen depicted in it, but rather erudite preachers exposed to the Greek Paideia. The New Testament was written in Ancient Greek, but it was a poor version of the language used by the greatest authors of the Hellenistic period – which is why it found little favour in the educated pagan classes of the Roman Empire, East and West. Indeed, the fact that the pneumatology of Saint John identifies the beginning with the human faculty of language as “the Word”, and then proceeds to equate this Logos (the Word, Reason) with God himself, means that already from its very origin in the Early Roman Empire the Christian doctrine of the Hellenistic Apostles displays its logico-deductive, theoretical abstraction and removal from the world of heroic and mythological human action and material production to the introspective and introverted sphere of logic and dialectics that presages the imminent “decline and fall” of the Roman Empire. To the extent that the unique faculty of being human is deemed to be linguistic, this second meaning of beginning is much more concerned with thinking than with doing, with meaning than with action, with tranquillity than with conflict

The pagan gentes and familiae of the Early Empire were far more interested in the lives of Alexander, Alcibiades and Caesar or indeed of Hercules and Theseus than in the lives of the Christian Saints or, by the Late Empire, in the history of Christian persecutions and un-Christian heresies! There can be little doubt that, as Nietzsche charged, the introspective, pacifist, eremitic, ascetic and monastic bent of the proselytizing Church, from St. Ambrose to St. Augustine (and well beyond that, St. Thomas Aquinas), sapped the pagan bellicosity of the Roman polity and above all of its Army that contributed in large part to the fall of the Empire in the Occident. For whereas the God of the Old Testament was a pro-ductive Creator God, an artificer that literally “brings forth” the Cosmos – let there be light! (Fiat lux!) - and then the heavens and the earth, the God of the Christians is already a divinity self-absorbed in logic, in the sterile inertia of self-evident, analytic and tautologic Reason. With the advent of Christianity, faith and Scholastic logic fully displaced the Stoic valour and the military order and traditions of pagan Rome.

Symptomatically, a full four centuries after the birth of Christ, with the Late Empire in full decline, St. Augustine could decree its imminent demise with the phrase “In interiore homine habitat veritas”. The Christian church, its saintly intellectuals and historiographers were concerned almost solely with its own incestuous “history” – the story of persecutions under the Empire and of heretical challenges to its authority once it became the religio imperii. The Christian God of peace and equality appealed to the impoverished, welfare-dependent masses of the big cities in the Empire where the early apostles went almost exclusively to preach the Gospels. The farmers in the countryside were largely immune and insensitive to the Christian creed. The reason why Christianity spread so rapidly and widely across the Empire was precisely that it appealed to these plebeian urban populations dependent on the largesse of the Roman State for distributions of food and other victuals – panis et circenses (bread and circuses). Worse still, the early church was not a monolithic institution but rather a variegated cluster of individual proselytizers and monastic groups gravitating around newly-built cathedrals and monasteries. Their ethos was to replicate the life and deeds of Christ the Saviour. This imitatio Christi, to a much greater degree than the ethereal intellectualism of the Church, contributed to the rapid decline of the productive and military mettle of the Western Empire above all.

The reason why Constantine elected Christianity as the official religion of the Empire was, of course, that the new ecumenical and universalist Christian creed played a vital role in unifying its extremely heterogeneous, incohesive and diverse multi-lingual, multi-religious population from spread from Spain to Syria which otherwise would have been splintered by its very autochthonous and fragmented pagan rituals and creeds. In fact, it was the wider spread of Christianity among the urban masses in the Eastern Empire that facilitated the adhesion of the new religion to the existing pagan state structures there and helped solidify imperial institutions. By contrast, in the Western Empire, the weakness of Christianity and its mounting contrast with ancient Roman paganism led to conflicts between the Church and the Roman state that deeply undermined the latter. The Christian preoccupation with the salvation of the individual soul and the preservation of the Church as an institution in open and often bitter competition and conflict with the imperial state institutions and with paganism meant that the respublica Christiana diverted vital socio-economic and military resources and energies away from the defence and fortification of the Roman Army against barbarian incursions from the north-eastern provinces and boundaries. From its very inception, Christianity saw the Roman state as a persecutor at worst and, at best, as a “restrainer” (catechon) of the inevitable advent of the Antichrist before the Apocalypse. By providing a parallel universe of power and meaning to that of the Roman state and the army, there can be little question that Christianity and the Church contributed to the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire.

As we saw earlier, the Word-as-Spirit placed by John at the very beginning of the Cosmos and indeed identified with God himself (!) decrees the irremediable separation of both the Spirit and the Word, of the Logos, from the Flesh – a separation that only faith (pistis) can bridge and overcome, and one that faithfully reflects and espouses the Hellenistic philosophy of Neo-platonism. Christian doctrine and theology gradually came to incorporate many of the philosophical principles of Neoplatonism, just as the latter diverged and expatiated on the more extravagant aspects of theurgy and magic. Regardless, the sharp division between Christian faith and pagan philosophy endured through the entirety of the Middle Ages. When eventually European thought emerged from the long night of the Dark Ages, it was to the Hellenistic antiqui auctores that its great minds reverted, chief among them the early Italian historians like Machiavelli and Guicciardini.

(On all these themes, we recommend the essays edited by A. Momigliano in The Conflict Between Christianity and Paganism. Perhaps the earliest great work on these themes is by J. Burckhardt, Die Zeit Constantins. See also S. Mazzarino, Antico, Tardo-Antico ed Era Costantiniana for a historiographic review of the period. Also on the theme of the relation between early Christianity and Neoplatonism, see the lecture notes in M. Heidegger, The Phenomenology of Religious Life.)

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