The Idol of War: Why God is Not an Islamist, an Orthodox Jew, or a Republican Christianist

How does one extract God from the mob?

The Catholic contemplative Thomas Merton, in his book New Seeds of Contemplation (originally published in 1962), made the following startling observations about strong hate:

Strong hate, the hate that takes joy in hating, is strong because it does not believe itself to be unworthy and alone. It feels the support of a justifying God, of an idol of war, an avenging and destroying spirit. From such blood-drinking gods the human race was once liberated, with great toil and terrible sorrow, by the death of a God Who delivered Himself to the Cross and suffered pathological cruelty of His own creatures out of pity for them. […]

But men have now come to reject this divine revelation of pardons and they are consequently returning to the old war gods, the gods that insatiably drink blood and eat the flesh of men. It is easier to serve the hate-gods because they thrive on the worship of collective fanaticism. To serve the hate-gods, one has only to be blinded by collective passion.

I think that Thomas Merton has hit upon a key distinction here; it is the distinction between Jesus’s path and all others. Jesus was a victim, not a victimizer, and so proved a trailblazer to three key moral insights: (1) respect of conscience (Jesus called people, but never forced anybody); (2) imaginative sympathy for outsiders, whether of class or nation; and (3) nonviolence.

Whatever are Jesus’s sins—his moments of hell-fire rhetoric; his promotion of faith over reason—these are still his three virtues: the things that have resulted in “good vibrations” through time.

The world, of course, doesn’t need the hellfire and irrational Jesus. But it does need Thomas Merton’s Jesus.

Therefore, every religionist in the 21st century has to make the following existential decision: will I go the way of Jesus or the way of the violent Hindu extremist, the Islamic Brotherhood member, the West Bank settler, and Rick Santorum?

And if you’re an atheist or agnostic, you too have an existential decision to make. Will you go the way of: (1) a humanism or Buddhism that largely tracks with the three moral precepts originally hit upon by Jesus; or (2) Nietzsche and Machiavelli?

Either way, what to do about Jesus is inescapable. It is Jesus vs. the religious and secular gods of war.

Now choose.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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12 Responses to The Idol of War: Why God is Not an Islamist, an Orthodox Jew, or a Republican Christianist

  1. andrewclunn says:

    Oh, so the “moderate Muslims,” reformed Jews, and Democrat Christians are not hateful? And being right wing is just the result of having less empathy… clearly. Seriously Santi, if Jesus wasn’t divine then there is no good reason to follow him. There is no justification for self sacrifice for the sake of strangers without appeals to god(s) or an afterlife.

    If the bible is true, then it’s only the fundies who are the real Christians. If the quran is true, then sharia should be the law of the land. Picking and choosing specific texts to fit Jesus and Christianity into some pseudo-marxist BS ideology is a played out strategy. Everybody sees through it. It’s a stool without legs. Perhaps you are just a victim of the insular echo chamber of academia.

    http://www.popecenter.org/commentaries/article.html?id=2674

    • andrewclunn says:

      Or to put it another way:

      “Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
      – Martin Luther

      “No human reason nor any human heart will ever grant these things, much less the embittered, venomous, blind heart of the Jews… Therefore be on your guard against the Jews, knowing that wherever they have their synagogues, nothing is found but a den of devils in-which sheer self-glory, conceit, lies, blasphemy, and defaming of God and men are practiced most maliciously and vehming his eyes on them.”
      – Martin Luther

      It does not matter if you love reason if you also love faith. Unquestioning faith is a disease and reason is no cure, if you claim that there exist such realms that it may not apply. A love of reason will not keep you just if you simply use it to mask mask unreason in a logic scented veneer.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Andrew,

      Marxist? Really?

      Marx sought to force people via violent revolution.

      I think Ron Paul and Ayn Rand’s libertarianism matches the best sensibilities of Jesus better than other contemporary ideologies. Paul respects conscience; he keeps an openess about him with regard to people not like himself (so long as they don’t force him); and he clearly sees through the war ideology of his own party. That, to my mind, is pretty darn Jesus-like (better than most other politicians on offer). Paul’s commitment to never forcing the conscience is one of his most resonant appeals for people.

      As for giving away a key component of the Western cultural patronym (the Bible) to fundamentalists, I think that is quite silly. The Bible belongs to me as much as to Albert Mohler, and I can read it better than him.

      So my question is this: why let fundamentalists own the Bible and own it’s meaning for contemporary humans? Fundamentalists are not better readers of the Bible than you or I; if anything, they completely misread it by decontextualizing it and artificially conflating the authors with one another. You and I, by contrast, are prepared to bring all the tools of rationality to understand what it is, exactly, that was being said by its individual authors. And my argument is that there are things that Jesus hit upon that are worth following (such as respect for conscience; of not escalating violence and retaliation, etc.).

      As for self-sacrifice, I agree that it is problematic. But the inclination to avoid violence, have imaginative sympathy for others, and dialogue rather than force people, are all positive impulses that society should move towards, not away from.

      It’s one thing to protect your rational self-interests against the violent; another to indulge in blood-lust and hatred of people who are not like you. Marxism is a monocultural ideology of force. Jesus wanted a monoculture advanced (his version of Judaism), but he rejected force. That, at least, was a bit of an advance.

      –Santi

      • andrewclunn says:

        There is a stark difference between Ayn Rand and Jesus, and I’ll give it to you right here. Read this article first before reading the rest of my post:

        http://www.danoah.com/2011/11/im-christian-unless-youre-gay.html

        Alright, you done reading? Really, don’t continue until you’ve read that article. The big issue I have with that article and the big problem that I have with Jesus is this line right here, “We shouldn’t choose who we will love and who we won’t.”

        This is the big issue. Is the issue with religious zealots that they have the wrong standards for what they praise and love and what they shun and despise, or is it that they have such standards at all? This is why I will always have more in common with the religious fanatic, the racist, the radical environmentalist, and the man hating feminist. I disagree STRONGLY with their values and their ideals, but they have a standard of value. They believe that some people and things are worth loving and others hating.

        I do agree that the essence of Jesus’ teachings are to love everyone as much, if not more than, you love yourself, and that this is the way that you show dedication for and love of God. I don’t want to live in a world that follows Jesus though. i don’t want the only thing worth hating to be hatred itself. I want certain actions to be restricted by society because they harm others, but I want my mind to be free to despise people and things as I please, not because I feel this need to hate, but because I genuinely feel that there are people who do not deserve my love. I do not want universal acceptance.

        I back the fundies on their interpretation of scripture because then when their faith no longer works, they search for a new set of standards to replace the old one. If they deconvert by simply embracing no standards and accepting a Unitarian world view, then I become their most (and only justifiable) enemy; someone who fights for the right to hate.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Andrew,

        Sorry for the late reply, but I did get around to reading the article before your thread comment, and I think that this is where Rand and Jesus yet again intersect (in that they were both dogmatists, as you rightly point out).

        In fact, I think that the intersections of Rand and Jesus precisely account for Rand’s popularity. People are attracted to Rand because she respected conscience and non-interference with the individual’s conscience. But she was also a dogmatist, exactly like Jesus. And, like Jesus, she had an overwhelming moral streak. Few people cast around the word “evil” quite as much as Rand did. Jesus did as well.

        Rand is also radically democratic: anyone who accepts her message is worthy of living in her utopia. You’re her kind of person. Again, this is like Jesus.

        But I’d like to offer an alternative. What if we see people’s brains not as unified, like Cleanthe Brooks’s “well wrought urn,” but as what neurologists insist that they actually are: component. If the brain has parts, then what parts we activate with others matter.

        And when it comes to being, say, authoritarian or hippie, straight or gay, maybe we can get along if we recognize that in some ways our brains will have intersecting sympathies and in other ways we’ll just have to tolerate one another (as opposed to having contempt for one another). You don’t break off relationships with people if you keep in mind your commonalities as well as differences, and if you keep in mind that science is finding a deep connection between genetics and temperament (accounting for at least half of our characteristics).

        Everybody, in other words, is a mixed bag (not a well wrought urn). I have both friends and family that are Tea Partiers of the Rick Santorum, not libertarian, variety. They hate what I say on my blog. I hate that they only watch Fox News. If the brain is component, however, then I also recognize that I can go to the gym and play basketball with my Tea Party friend and talk to my family about some new techno-gadget at a holiday dinner. Their dignity and worth as human beings is not destroyed for me because they don’t share all my brain activations, liking different things and valuing different things.

        It is human to be lost in a narrative unique to the individual. We all salivate to different things and are captivated by different metaphors. The individual’s narrative is always interesting if we attend to it sympathetically and stay engaged with one another. In fact, Rand claimed to be an individualist, but actually had little patience with real individuality in all its messiness. To be a real individualist is to recognize the unique individuality of each brain’s composition and component nature (a lot of it contradictory).

        You’re large, you contain multitudes (wrote Whitman, who was right).

        —Santi

      • andrewclunn says:

        As I believe I’ve said before (perhaps here, I don’t recall) Ayn Rand did two wonderful things for Objectivism. First, she founded it. Second she died. All ideologies are amorphous. Just as I am a different person from one year to the next, so is the Christianity of today different than ti was a thousand years ago. However there are some things that I am powerless to change. My genetic coding is a limiting factor on just how mailable I am. The holy texts of religions remain constant.

        I disagree strongly with the Unitarian Universalists, but they are up front about what it is they do (or don’t) believe, not weighing themselves down with any particular holy text. The progressive Christianity of today is a religion, but it is not Christianity. You cannot claim that the bible is a holy book, but dismiss its moral condemnation of homosexuality.

        People can be forgiven for using imperfect labels to describe themselves. After all, the notion of labels are imperfect, and people will disagree on the meaning of a label at times, but I have met people who are openly atheists, but go to church and call themselves Christian-Atheists (and send their kids to Sunday school) because they agree with the morality of progressive Christianity.

        I am not multitudes (as Whitman said), and to the extent that I am I am flawed. Hypocrisy is not a fundamental human characteristic to be celebrated. It is the culmination of an error, to be corrected through introspection and integrity.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        I think I’ve got you here, Andrew. If you concede that individual brains consist of parts, then religions, which are artifacts of human brains, also consist of parts. Of course progressive Christians are Christians. They are picking the activations that are present in Christianity that suit them. And of course fundamentalist Christians are Christians. They are picking the parts that suit them. But Christianity is not a well wrought urn. It’s a mess of complex contradictions upon which some of its insights about the world are useful, and others not. In the post above, I pick out three things I think are useful about Jesus’s ideology, and throw away other parts. That’s what every form of Christianity does because Christiantiy, like the brain, is modular; it’s large; it contains multitudes.

        —Santi

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Andrew,

        Another quick thought here: atheist Christians, gay Christians, rich Christians, and torturing, Cheney loving Christians are messy constructs, but they are not incoherent if the brain is modular.

        I think it’s completely possible for a Randian to love Picasso (even though Rand hated Picasso). The intellectual part of the brain might not always track with the aesthetic part of the brain, and it needn’t do so. This was one of Rand’s errors; it made her too narrow emotionally.

        Then again, maybe she just had a genetic proclivity toward authoritarian rigidity. We should try to know what’s really making us say the things we do, and incline us to certain judgments. To ignore the genetic and temperamental factors, and the modular parts of the brain, is to blow-off science and indulge in ideology in a cultic manner. The discoveries of empiricism matter and need to be taken into account by rational people.

        —Santi

      • andrewclunn says:

        If it rejects portions of the bible, then why isn’t there an edited version of the bible to reflect this? I’ve read parts of “The Message” but even it can’t clean up all the things that progressives disagree with. I’ll believe they are simply reflecting a modular aspect of Christianity, rather than blatant hypocrisy, when they stop promoting texts as holy that they invariably disagree with.

      • andrewclunn says:

        To your second response concerning aesthetics and why we believe what we do; To say that unrelated areas of our life are that (that one’s religious views do not imply how good they are at basketball, to pull from your earlier example) is not the controversy here. The notion is whether two perspectives on a single issue (that are in conflict with each other) should be held by a person. That is how Whitman meant it after all.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Well, Jefferson had his Jefferson Bible, and fundamentalists, even though they don’t take passages out of the Bible, nevertheless have their own Bible, highlighting the importance of some passages over others. There’s more than one way to dismiss a passage you don’t like. You can, for example, rationalize it away.

        I don’t think Whitman was being anti-Aristotle, rejecting formal logic, when he said he was happy to contradict himself. Whitman, being a great poet, intuited the complexity of life and the mind and recognized its component nature. The particular is not always enhanced in the generalization. Blake famously claimed that the particular is vision, the generalization a distortion of vision. I think that’s too extreme, but the point is that the brain needs both analysis—the focus on the particular—and synthesis—the focus on bringing things together. And, no, they won’t always cohere in a beautiful way—as in a “well wrought urn.”

        If the brain is modular, values may not always cohere. What’s the most rational thing you should be doing right now? That’s rarely an easy question: many impulses compete for attention and you don’t know which one might pay off most in the long run, or who, among your inner multitudes, might ultimately benefit most (or get starved).

        You gotta choose anyway. I choose to stay in relation with people, and I’m reluctant to cut them off if I don’t agree with their politics or religion. I can find in the Bible that Jesus sometimes made this choice as well. That’s the passage I might highlight and declare Jesus-like, my ideal Jesus.

        Isn’t it curious that our ideal Jesus happens to think a lot like, well, us?

        —Santi

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      As for your Luther quotes, that’s why you don’t let fundamentalists intellectually own the Bible.

      —Santi

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