April 6, 2010

The Light From the East: A Detailed Response to Pope Benedict's Easter Vigil Homily

It has long been my contention that our dominant "ways of seeing" in the West are fundamentally flawed. When I say "ways of seeing", I mean more than just religion- though I have focused on religion more than any other perspective, because I believe that religion defines a culture at the deepest level. But the vast majority of people in the West have "flawed sight" with more than just religious eyes; even in the secular world, I believe, most people look outside of themselves and see only a material world, lacking a deep and important spiritual reality; they see and think only in terms of material comfort and the accumulation of material goods. This sort of flawed seeing is not the focus of my present letter. Again, as in the past, I must focus on the distortions of dominant mainstream religious thinking today, and I will turn to the Catholic Church for my discussion.

The present Pope of the Catholic Church, Benedict, gave an Easter vigil homily that is available online. I read it carefully several times because this holy day- Easter- more than any other sums up so much of the core of the Catholic and general Christian faith. A learned theologian like the Pope certainly didn't disappoint me; the homily was a very concise explication of the basics of the Christian faith and worldview. And he also- quite without meaning to- gave a concise layout of the problems with the dominant Western religion.

This religion- Christianity- has shaped the fortunes and destiny of the West for a very long time. Even with the rebirth of Pagan learning, artistic expression, science, and humanism that came about due to the Renaissance, Christianity remained and still remains the religion of the masses, and it still informed the actions, plans, and social realities of many generations. It was the "tablet of fate" that the shape of things today was inscribed upon.

For most irreligious people today, especially those who have no understanding of history, the enormous influence of Christianity (both Catholic and otherwise) is hard to see or believe. Irreligious people believe that they can simply ignore Christianity and that this path of ignoring it neutralizes its power; but long before they existed, Christianity was shaping many things about their lives and their world. Ignoring the impact of the Christian past leads to a lack of understanding of our present. Even in our more secular times, Christian forces exert a powerful tug on politics, and color the undercurrent of morality and supernaturalism prevalent in popular culture.

That the majority of people in the West don't really care about the despoiling of the world, the destruction or marginalization of non-Christian or non-Western cultures, the importance of true secular equality for all people of any sexual orientation, religious preference, or the like- all of these realities are clear and explainable. They are explained by the omnipresence of Biblical thinking and morality.

Christianity, both past and present, is decidedly against the animistic worldview; it rejects the notion that humans are equal to plants, animals, and the forces of the natural world; it rejects as immoral any society's move towards giving full liberty to same-sex couples, it furiously disapproved of the establishment of social equality for women, and up until the last century, was completely condescending towards non-Christian cultures, approving of and eagerly participating in the destruction of native cultures through their "conversion" to Christianity- which included the dismantling of their traditional languages, ancient belief systems, and unique customs.

Despite the Catholic Church's recent half-hearted move towards an environmental awareness of types, the Christian worldview, since day one, has been one that devalues this world, and all non-Christian cultures in it. This world, in their thinking, is flawed by sin; it is darkened, it is harsh, and poisoned. It will pass away- in a supernatural destruction- and be re-made anew and perfect. Thus, there is no real motivation at all to consider the sacredness of the world as it is, right now; no need to save a sinking ship.

No amount of apologetic talk can hide the fact that the Christian religious drama pridefully and unwisely places human beings as the pinnacles of creation- it considers humans to be the unique beings who are alone made in the sacred image, and for whom all the world was made. This bone-chilling anthropocentrism alone has been, and continues to be, responsible for the wholesale destruction of countless irreplaceable species of animals- our fellow travelers through billions of years of evolution and the sacred unfolding of nature.

Such a religion- and the people it consciously and unconsciously shapes- is like a tumor growing on the world-organism. Its symptoms are ignorance, a lack of care for the wholeness of things, a lack of understanding of the human place amid the sacred unfolding of life. The inaction of such humans, their tampering, their greed and exploitation (justified by the underlying anthropocentrism of the religion) and their firm, unwise sense of exceptionalism, has led to nearly all of the destructive cultural movements and events we've witnessed in the last 1700 years.

The unrestrained growth of population- urged on by the bible's flowery "be fruitful and multiply" ethic, and coupled with the Church's unrelenting war against any sort of birth control, has driven the world to extreme danger. It can only make sense from their religious perspective; for people who believe they are exceptional, god-like, and chosen, creating more humans for god's kingdom is the highest duty. Placing every inch of the land and soil and beasts under the yoke of control is their divine right; the destruction of heathen people who don't know the "truth" about god and man is their imperative, justified again by their scriptures and traditions.

What arises from the ashes of such heartless and perilous distortions of man's true place in this world is one thing, above all: the idea that man is above nature, not a part of it. He is separate, isolated, superior, and yet, owing to the fact that he must live and die, he is cursed by it. Nature, as the Genesis story tells us, is hostile to man ever since his "fall". Death was never "natural"- man, in the Christian way of thinking, was made immortal, but his "fall" cursed him to death. Disease, hardship, death- these are not "natural", but consequences of sin. Point for point, every experience that nature shapes in us that reveals to us the truth of our natural mortality is rejected by Christians as against the true way of things. Man is no longer only separate from Nature in the Christian understanding, but Nature is itself flawed into doing things to man that were never meant to be done- like stinging him with thorns or killing him with diseases.

And Pope Benedict began his homily on the Easter vigil with just this point. He begins by saying:

"Dear Brothers and Sisters, An ancient Jewish legend from the apocryphal book “The life of Adam and Eve” recounts that, in his final illness, Adam sent his son Seth together with Eve into the region of Paradise to fetch the oil of mercy, so that he could be anointed with it and healed. The two of them went in search of the tree of life, and after much praying and weeping on their part, the Archangel Michael appeared to them, and told them they would not obtain the oil of the tree of mercy and that Adam would have to die. Subsequently, Christian readers added a word of consolation to the Archangel’s message, to the effect that after 5,500 years the loving King, Christ, would come, the Son of God who would anoint all those who believe in him with the oil of his mercy. “The oil of mercy from eternity to eternity will be given to those who are reborn of water and the Holy Spirit. Then the Son of God, Christ, abounding in love, will descend into the depths of the earth and will lead your father into Paradise, to the tree of mercy.” This legend lays bare the whole of humanity’s anguish at the destiny of illness, pain and death that has been imposed upon us."

As strange as it may seem, "Illness, pain, and death", for the last 2000 years in the West, have not been seen as simple, natural aspects of the unfolding of sacred nature itself, but as aspects of a curse that has been "imposed on us". This word- "imposed"- is very telling. "We" (mankind collectively) are separate from the rest of reality, and something was forced or imposed on us from without. Entire books could be written on this simple and disastrous "way of seeing"- the ultimate alienation of humanity from its own natural existence, a natural existence which primal peoples all over the world have seen as sacred and beautiful in its own right, even with the inclusion of suffering and death. In such an alienation as we have lived under for so long, it is no surprise that our world flounders now in such a state of crisis.

Until we have learned to "return" to the world, to accept our place in it, and to accept that pain and death are simple, natural, and normal aspects of our lives here, we are doomed to repeat our scandalous past of denial, exploitation, and all of the crimes committed against the world and others in the name of spiritual elitism and human exceptionalism. If there were an "oil of mercy" that mankind badly needed to find, it would be an oil that opened their eyes to the deep beauty and appropriateness of their place in their natural home- here, our earth- and their place of equality within the family of sacred life. The only curse that causes man to suffer from the natural aspects of his condition is the firm belief that he is better than his animal body, that he is wrongfully suffering from the various ills that pain him, and that he is somehow above all this.

Let me state this clearly and with all the conviction I can muster- The only "flaw" in this sacred system of life of which we are all a part is the heartfelt belief, held by so many, that there is a flaw. All is working out, unfolding, as it must. Suffering and death are included in that, as much as joy and life. It is all just as it should be. It is not the result of a mistake or a sin.

Despite the fact that the "Holy Father" teaches, in keeping with the constant tradition of his church, that death is unnatural, a curse foisted upon man, in the very next paragraph of his homily, he ironically points out how necessary it is:

Man’s resistance to death becomes evident: somewhere – people have constantly thought – there must be some cure for death. Sooner or later it should be possible to find the remedy not only for this or that illness, but for our ultimate destiny – for death itself. Surely the medicine of immortality must exist. Today too, the search for a source of healing continues. Modern medical science strives, if not exactly to exclude death, at least to eliminate as many as possible of its causes, to postpone it further and further, to prolong life more and more. But let us reflect for a moment: what would it really be like if we were to succeed, perhaps not in excluding death totally, but in postponing it indefinitely, in reaching an age of several hundred years? Would that be a good thing? Humanity would become extraordinarily old, there would be no more room for youth. Capacity for innovation would die, and endless life would be no paradise, if anything a condemnation."

To be fair, Benedict goes on to state that the real "cure for death" cannot be a prolonging of the mortal life, but a transformation of the inner life, the sort of transformation that makes a person fit for "eternity"- a life that doesn't really "begin in fullness" until death. This, once again, brings us to one of the most devastating aspects of Christianity- the constant insistence that life on earth is limited and miserable, and that the "true life" only begins (for those blessed in association with Christ) after death. Religions that reject the world must of necessity reject the idea of a happy, satisfactory life in the world. Focusing constantly on the uncertainties and perceived insufficiencies of life "here", they keep people longing, in an escapist way, for the painless and pleasurable eternity to follow.

With this sort of fundamentally flawed thinking necessarily arises the persecution of flesh- every aspect of the natural life on earth becomes a twist of the evil serpent- beginning with (and pretty much ending with) the powerful and natural fact of sexuality. The Catholic Church- and one of its most influential writers, Augustine- is single-handedly responsible for the great guilt and scandal which surrounds sexuality in the modern day, and in countless ages before.

The Church's discomfort and mistrust of sex was and is so great, that sexual contact became the factor that transmitted "original sin" to newborn children. In the church's eyes, children are born innately flawed with sin. They are born deserving- as Augustine said- of whatever deformations, diseases, or defects they might evidence, for, again, (following Augustine's fine, twisted logic) God is all-just, and would not allow for babies to be born in such a way if it were not just that they be born so. It is because they are born sinful that such maladies can justly afflict them, in other words. God wouldn't allow it if babies were born innocent of sin.

Such monstrous thinking, given to us by a man made into a "saint" by the Church, is the legacy that shaped so much of who and what we are as a society. Today, we may rightly gasp at such callousness, at such clear stupid rejection of the nature of nature, but for 1500 years, Augustine's words were held up as sacred and beyond contestation.

The Pope continues his homily by talking about the nature of the "transformation" that takes place at Baptism- or which, he says, begins to take place- and culminates in the full sacramental life of his church, a transformation which makes a person worthy to stand "clothed in light" among the angels or sacred beings of God's presence. It's funny that the Pope should use these metaphors, and then go on, as he does, to completely reveal his own ignorance of Pagan religions and the initiations and "transformations" bestowed by Pagan mystery cults in the past- for Benedict displays the typical lack of understanding and what amounts to a complete historical re-writing of the realities of the Pagan past that his church has preached and promulgated since its inception.

But then, his church had to re-write history; they had to mis-frame and distort the realities of the Pagan past, if they were to justify their assault on history, their co-opting of culture and society and the spiritual destiny of the same.

Benedict says:

How does this transformation of the old life come about, so as to give birth to the new life that knows no death? Once again, an ancient Jewish text can help us form an idea of the mysterious process that begins in us at baptism. There it is recounted how the patriarch Enoch was taken up to the throne of God. But he was filled with fear in the presence of the glorious angelic powers, and in his human weakness he could not contemplate the face of God. “Then God said to Michael,” to quote from the book of Enoch, “‘Take Enoch and remove his earthly clothing. Anoint him with sweet oil and vest him in the robes of glory!’ And Michael took off my garments, anointed me with sweet oil, and this oil was more than a radiant light … its splendor was like the rays of the sun. When I looked at myself, I saw that I was like one of the glorious beings.”

Precisely this – being reclothed in the new garment of God – is what happens in baptism, so the Christian faith tells us. To be sure, this changing of garments is something that continues for the whole of life. What happens in baptism is the beginning of a process that embraces the whole of our life – it makes us fit for eternity, in such a way that, robed in the garment of light of Jesus Christ, we can appear before the face of God and live with him for ever.

Would such talk have really surprised the people of the Ancient world? The Roman writer Apuleius, himself an initiate of several Pagan mystery cults, including the Cults of Isis and Osiris, described his experience of his initiations in his book "The Golden Ass". He writes:

"Listen then, but believe; for what I tell you is the truth. I came to the boundary of death and after treading Proserpine's threshold, I returned having traversed all the elements; at midnight I saw the sun shining with brilliant light; I approached the Gods below and the Gods above face to face and worshiped them in their actual presence... Morning came, and, the ceremonies dutifully performed, I came forth, attired in the twelve robes of my consecration, a truly mystical dress, but nothing prevents me from mentioning it since a great many people were there and saw it at the time. For in the very heart of the sacred temple, before the statue of the Goddess, a wooden platform had been set up, on which I took my stand as bidden. I was a striking sight, since though my dress was only of fine linen it was colorfully embroidered, and from my shoulders there fell behind me to my ankles a costly cloak. Wherever you looked, I was decorated all over with pictures of multicolored animals: here Indian serpents, there Hyperborean griffins with bird-like wings, creatures of another world. This is what initiates call an Olympian robe. In my right hand I held a flaming torch and my head was encircled with a beautiful crown of palm, its bright leaves projecting like rays. Equipped thus in the image of the Sun I stood like a statue while the curtains were pulled back...."

Apuleius' description of both mystery initiations, and the light, sun, enlightenment, and illumination symbolism involved, is common in the descriptions of many mystery cults. Even the most well-known cult at Eleusis involved a "beatific vision" of light in darkness, from the best reports we have. It also, in keeping with both the mysteries of Isis, and others, involved giving the new initiate a lit torch, symbolizing the new light and life that had begun. They all involved the removal of old clothing and placing on new clothes. The mysteries of the Pagan world, as artfully explained by Burkert and Kerenyi, revealed to the initiates their place with the Gods, as one of their number- they revealed the "light" which was mankind's true and deepest nature.

Pope Benedict goes on to describe the rather beautiful and simple ancient Christian ritual of baptism. Pay careful attention to the details, but also to what Christians were expected to renounce:

"In the early Church, the one to be baptized turned towards the west, the symbol of darkness, sunset, death and hence the dominion of sin. The one to be baptized turned in that direction and pronounced a threefold “no”: to the devil, to his pomp and to sin. The strange word “pomp”, that is to say the devil’s glamour, referred to the splendor of the ancient cult of the gods and of the ancient theatre, in which it was considered entertaining to watch people being torn limb from limb by wild beasts. What was being renounced was a type of culture that ensnared man in the adoration of power, in the world of greed, in lies, in cruelty.

It was an act of liberation from the imposition of a form of life that was presented as pleasure and yet hastened the destruction of all that was best in man. This renunciation – albeit in less dramatic form – remains an essential part of baptism today. We remove the “old garments”, which we cannot wear in God’s presence. Or better put: we begin to remove them. This renunciation is actually a promise in which we hold out our hand to Christ, so that he may guide us and reclothe us. What these “garments” are that we take off, what the promise is that we make, becomes clear when we see in the fifth chapter of the Letter to the Galatians what Paul calls “works of the flesh” – a term that refers precisely to the old garments that we remove. Paul designates them thus: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like” (Gal 5:19ff.). These are the garments that we remove: the garments of death.

Then, in the practice of the early Church, the one to be baptized turned towards the east – the symbol of light, the symbol of the newly rising sun of history, the symbol of Christ. The candidate for baptism determines the new direction of his life: faith in the Trinitarian God to whom he entrusts himself. Thus it is God who clothes us in the garment of light, the garment of life. Paul calls these new “garments” “fruits of the spirit”, and he describes them as follows: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22).

In the early Church, the candidate for baptism was then truly stripped of his garments. He descended into the baptismal font and was immersed three times – a symbol of death that expresses all the radicality of this removal and change of garments. His former death-bound life the candidate consigns to death with Christ, and he lets himself be drawn up by and with Christ into the new life that transforms him for eternity. Then, emerging from the waters of baptism the neophytes were clothed in the white garment, the garment of God’s light, and they received the lighted candle as a sign of the new life in the light that God himself had lit within them. They knew that they had received the medicine of immortality, which was fully realized at the moment of receiving holy communion. In this sacrament we receive the body of the risen Lord and we ourselves are drawn into this body, firmly held by the One who has conquered death and who carries us through death."

Re-writing history is old news for the Catholic Church. But to see this learned theologian, who must be at least somewhat learned in history, associating the ancient "Cult of the Gods" and the ancient "theatre" with death-spectacles and people "being torn from limb to limb by wild beasts" is disheartening; does his flock even care at all about the truth that neither the Cults of the Gods, nor the theatre of those days were involved with people being executed in the spectacles of the Roman Coliseum?

That early Christians were expected to reject the Cult of the Gods is easy enough to understand, though it was, even then, based on foolish nonsense. But the theatre? The "pomp of Satan"? The Christian rejection of the world didn't begin in hate for their place in the natural order of things, but in the rejection of high culture and the civilization to which they owed- and to which we owe- so much. The ancient theatre was one of the most powerful expressions of human culture, poetic art, and sacred display. To it, our own dramatic and artistic institutions owe so much.

And the cults of the Gods in Greece and Rome at the time of Christian conversions did not involve human sacrifice of any kind; to stain one's hands with the blood of humans was among the acts that required great rites of purification so that a person could be allowed to attend sacrifices lawfully again, in Greek and Roman religion- at least according to Burkert, and to other scholars. The Pope is conflating spectacles of execution and sports with Pagan religion, in an attempt to sweep under the rug the beautiful spiritual/cultural legacies that his church became powerful for effacing. He's over-simplifying, and being dishonest on many levels.

As Christian leaders have always done, he is dismissing the entire wealth of cultural beauty and wisdom that was contained in the Pagan world, confident that it can be safely ignored in the light of his new religion and privileged "higher" perspective. Few things are more pernicious in my eyes than the conceit of the modern day that tells us that we are wiser now than people ever have been, and ignores the past as brutal, barbaric, or worth sweeping away. But we are not the judges of our ancestors; they are our judges. And admitting this requires a humility and a wisdom that neither the Pope nor his flock can manage to open themselves to.

Benedict is also suggesting, again in keeping with his tradition, that ancient Pagan religions didn't already promulgate virtues; I can assure him and anyone else that “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” didn't begin with Christianity. Perusing the writings of Stoic Pagans like Marcus Aurelius demonstrates how these virtues were held in high esteem by many non-Christians.

It has already been demonstrated, through simple comparison, how the Christian ritual of baptism appears to draw many elements from the common materia and vocabulary of ancient mystery cult initiations. Christianity’s claim to uniqueness is a long dead topic, but something else emerges in the Pope's description of the ancient baptism that merits attention: the idea of the fresh start, or the rebirth.

I can believe that many disenfranchised people- and perhaps others, for other reasons- in the time of the later Roman empire were looking for a way to simplify their lives and to live up to the promises and ideals of the great philosophers. The Roman Emperors of those times had become decadent; the cults of the city had become very numerous and a proliferation of Gods and myths could well confuse the simpler-minded people who might have lived then.

Overall, those stuck in poverty and low on the social ladder could easily evolve a sense that "something was terribly wrong" with their society- and the Christian initiation gave them a clean, easy break from it all- to turn their back, spiritually and mentally, on the confusion, chaos, and actual social injustices that did exist, and live for simple, good principles, all with the promise of eternal life (itself a real treasure, considering the topic of the afterlife was discussed little or at all with any certainty back then). It is easy to see why some would be attracted to Christianity.

The trouble begins when the religion itself wasn't content to re-orient lives to good ends or virtues; it could not allow for the culture that came before it, nor the religions that it sprang from and borrowed from, to continue to exist. It wasn't enough to "re-orient" oneself to virtue through Christian initiation; one had to believe that no other organization or god or temple could suffice to do the same for others, and one had to aid the faithful in overturning those others. This attitude was born in blood; it went on to shed blood; and it still sheds blood in places, and in many ways. Other religions like it- chiefly Islam- still shed red rivers of blood in their single-minded war on diversity and liberty, and they do it eagerly, possessed of the same exceptionalist and elitist madness that tore the unfolding of our Western cultures into shreds.

I think there is a natural human desire for a "fresh start", for a spiritual cleansing or re-orientation, at times of crisis or confusion. But I also know that Christianity wasn't the first religion to offer such a thing, and didn't end up being the last. Even the Pope's well-stated lines regarding the eating of the body of Jesus and the immortality it brought sounds suspiciously similar to the eating of the flesh of Dionysos, and the immortality his own initiates believed it brought.

People are always talking about what made Christianity "stand out" from the other cults of the ancient world. The answer is simple. They alone had the stated intention to destroy all others, and the will to do it. First, they cast their own flesh on the machinery of Rome, intentionally breaking blasphemy laws and laws against sedition, generating crowds of martyrs- and all the notoriety and power that brings- then they undermined the machinery of government, finally taking the mantle of the persecuted and laying it on the shoulders of Pagans, while they took for themselves the mantle of the persecutor. History records the entire bloody mess- whatever sympathy Christians think that they are owed for the fact that Christians once died in the jaws of lions is long lost owing to the record of blood and atrocity unleashed on the Pagan world by Christian leaders and rulers afterwards.

While I can admit that it was inevitable that a movement of "renewal" would have been called into being by the excesses of the late Roman Empire, I cannot say enough how lamentable it is that such a renewal should have included the harmful stories, myths, and doctrines that were promulgated by the church. Together, I believe they have done more harm to our world than the Pagan world had ever done before- or would have done since, had the Pagan world been allowed to persist.

The time of the Spring Equinox- the resurrection of the powers of life in the greenery of nature- is a universal time of joy that all people can lay claim to. People from all over the world, in many ways, have celebrated it. It is my hope that one day we will all be free of the terrors that arose 2000 years ago with the first Christian churches, and the terrors that arose 1400 years ago with the violence of Islam, and that we will all be part of that universal spirit of natural belonging, free of organized religions that teach harmful and hateful stories of human exceptionalism and spiritual elitism.