Sunday, 13 December 2009

Critique of Christianity part IV: Absolutism (1 of 2)

I wonder how many people know that the expression ‘He that is not with me is against me’ originates from the Gospel. It’s in Matthew, 12:30 – the speaker is no less than Jesus Christ. That sentence is the fulcrum of the problem of Christianity, one which it shares with all other monotheistic religions that I’m acquainted with. I kept it last because it’s the most important, and it’s so extensive that it’ll take two parts to discuss. Here’s the first one.

The fact that Christianity has led to a great deal of violence all over Europe (and beyond) is generally considered as a paradox – a distortion of Christ’s original teachings, which are all about loving your neighbour. There are plenty of passages about love and pacifism in the New Testament. I’m not going to try and criticise any of these bits because I agree with them wholeheartedly (I would, however, qualify this by saying that they are not exclusive to Christianity. Confucius and to some extent Plato said similar things, and they both predate this religion).

The point that is important is that common readings of the Gospel usually stop at these passages and see nothing else in the text. They are unilateral readings, or at least selective ones. What must be stressed is that there is another side to the Gospel, one which exists alongside the ‘peace & love’ bits but which has a very different function. To spell it out clearly, we must recognise that for all of the discourses on tolerance and humility, the Gospel also possesses an extremely authoritarian register – this is the aspect of the New Testament concerned with legitimising itself as the Word of God.

This authoritarian side of the NT – or, more aptly, the absolutist side – is as real, important and influential as the humanitarian one. An easy (and famous) example from John 14:6 – Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth and the life: no man cometh to unto the Father, but by me. No-one knows illumination except through my doctrine – but why? And how are the implications of this not inherently exclusive and discriminatory? Essentially, with this phrase we are dismissing all that came before Christ, from other countries or other worldviews. In one brush, there go everything that the Greeks and the Romans have taught to us, from philosophy to poetry, and away goes Zen religion and meditation or the works of non-religious thinkers – Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Leopardi, Camus to name but the tip of the iceberg. Any of the millions of people who ever drew inspiration from any of these works must have been deluded. Christianity discounts all of their experiences as irrelevant, because no man cometh unto the Father, but by me (predictably the Gospel does not say ‘no man or woman,’ just ‘no man.’ Perhaps women cannot reach the kingdom of God in the first place, do they lack the qualities?).

Because the teachings of Christ see themselves as the absolute good rather than just an option available to our free will, they end up condemning any choice which does not directly involve Jesus Christ. Those who do not believe in Jesus are the sons of the devil. Why do ye not understand my speech? even because you cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. This extract comes from John 8: 43-44 and has been much discussed. Scholars suggest that it can be written away by context – Jesus is speaking to the Jews who resist him, not to his disciples at large. Personally I think there is no grounding in the text itself to suggest that the sentence is so specific in its addressee rather than more general as the rest of the Gospel is, but even if it were, I still think it’s wrong. Christ’s teaching are striking to me when they say ‘love your enemy as yourself’ – love your enemy, not just your friend. That’s what’s original in the teachings of Jesus. But the above passage is what you get by having a message of love scarved in the ideology of ‘you’re either with me or against me.’ You condemn something just because it’s not like you.

This is brought so far that the Gospel even commends the destruction of cultures of knowledge which are differing – see the Nazi-style burning of books in Acts 19:19 – Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men … [20] So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed. The contingent reference for ‘curious arts’ may be traced to witchcraft, but the text is not specific enough about it, and even if it were, it’s still wrong to burn books, even when they say things we don’t like. Besides, note how the text doesn’t speak of burning books about ‘bad arts’ but ‘curious arts.’ Why is it that if something is peculiar rather than ordinary, it is best erased?

I wish to stress that this authoritarian register is utterly pervasive in the New Testament. Not only in the content of the text, but even in the style. A deal of it surrenders to rhetorical turns which have nothing to do with the pedagogic ‘love’ bits of the Gospel, but serve instead the purpose of validating the text to the reader. See for instance the infantile hyperbole which closes the Gospel of John – And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. (21:25). Right. What is the purpose of telling us this?

This also clashes with some personal convictions of mine because, personally, I hold that the Word of God should not need self-validation. If it is the Word of God, it is convincing enough as it is, without having to state ‘I am convincing.’ The truth does not declare itself – but that’s just a personal belief of mine, and it may carry us too far off on a limb, so let’s leave this as a parenthesis.

This article is getting too long. Part 2 will pick up from exactly where I'm leaving it. I'll post it tomorrow or the day after that.

No comments: