November 24, 2005

Thomas, Jefferson, and Stewardship

The featured Essay in the current issue of Harper's, Erik Reece's "Jesus Without The Miracles: Thomas Jefferson's Bible and the Gospel of Thomas," would be an arresting read at any time, but in coming at the time of national thanksgiving it packs an even mightier punch. Briefly, Mr Reece, the lapsed son and grandson of Baptist ministers, traces an unexpected connection between the version of the Gospels that Thomas Jefferson knocked off by removing everything miraculous and entitling the result, The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, on the one hand, and the Gospel of Thomas, an non-canonical writing, probably older than the canonical ones, that was unearthed in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. These documents are far too concerned with what Jesus said to be called "Christian." Christianity is a carapace built around the figure of Jesus that also obscures him; it stands in the same relation to Jesus as one of Tutankhamen's glorious coffins does to the young king's mummy. Χρίστος - "Christ" - is the Greek translation of "Messiah," something that Jesus did not claim to be. It represents the fabulous constructions of Paul and his followers. Most important doctrines, from the Trinity and the Immaculate Conception through Original Sin and the Resurrection, completely lack the authority of Jesus' word. They are the mainstays of a formidable institution that has served a majority of Westerners well enough while crushing and maiming those who question its authority, which it claims to derive directly from God, in the person of Jesus. I doubt that Jesus would have much good to say about its non-charitable operations.

It is not surprising that the Gospel of Thomas was declared to be heretical in the second century, and that copies of it were ordered to be burned. It is not surprising that the Apostle Thomas's best-known appearance in the canonical gospels, at John 20:24-29, discredits him as lacking faith in Jesus' resurrection; at the time that the Gospel of John was written, the Gospel of Thomas was probably still in circulation and increasingly disputed. These are not surprising because the Gospel of Thomas, like The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, is wanting in miracles.

Continue reading about stewardship at Portico.

July 01, 2005


Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement, announced today, ought to be a clarion call to everyone uncomfortable with the patriarchal nostalgia that drives extreme conservatism in the United States. (It is also a time to learn how our system of courts actually works - too many people don't know much about that.) That would include me, simply because I believe that the attempt to emulate traditional ideas of masculinity in this country are as limiting and inhumane as Chinese foot-binding.

It is time to work for a disciplined, unified challenge to patriarchal nostalgia - a term that I suppose I had better define, just in case.

Patriarchal nostalgia is, first of all, just that: a wishful dream of a rosier past, in this case ("patriarchal') a world of industrious dads, stay-at-home moms, and obedient but amusing children. If the picture looks pretty to you, if you can't see how unattainable it is by the vast majority of Americans, how crippling it is both to men and women by enforcing Freud's ghastly dictum about anatomy and destiny, then re-education is in order. This dream-world is firmly mounted on a complex of notions about male sexuality that can only be palpated, never discussed. That's what makes it all so insidious: no traditionalist will ever acknowledge - may not be able to acknowledge - that sex works for him only if there are no questions to ask before pursuing the carnal. No questions for him to ask, and no objections for his wife to make. This is sexuality rescued from the shame of consciousness (and choice). It is a fortiori sexuality that is rigidly protected from the transposal in which a man might suddenly find himself in a woman's place, hoping to be longed for. It is, finally, a sexuality that precludes dissidence; dissidents are deviants. And nobody has a say in any of it, not even the men themselves. That's patriarchal nostalgia. It can never be attained, but the pursuit of it can wreck lives as easily as a disease.

PS: Don't be distracted by completely misleading chatter about "Christianity." That's a front and a feint.

June 21, 2005

What's Love Got to Do With It

It's hard to say how big - and how firm - the iceberg is, but the tip of zealous anti-gay-marriage campaigners that we got to see in Sunday's Times Magazine augurs ill for liberal society. Russell Shorto's report from Maryland was too upsetting to read all at once; I had to put it down and glance through the Book Review. There was nothing really surprising in "What's the Movement to Outlaw Gay Marriage Really About?", at least not or me; I've been convinced that the defense of traditional sexuality has come to determine almost every Republican Party policy, from stem-cell research bans to environmental laissez-faire. I am also fairly sure that religion is a tool, not an inspiration. It is unlikely that anybody currently alive is following every command of the Bible; in many cases, doing so would be illegal. The Bible contains some of the oldest text in the world, and any attempt to follow it literally requires serious interpretive somersaulting. Anti-gay-marriage (AGM) activists cherry pick as well as any group. But the wellspring of their thinking is hardly unique to Christians.

The homosexual community would have us believe that marriage is simply about loving one another," said Rick Bowers of Defend Maryland Marriage. "I say it's about two human beings who are wired completely differently, one with estrogen and one with testosterone, living together in love but with the purpose of procreation. It's a lot deeper than love."

How could anything be a lot deeper than love? Doubtless Mr Bowers really means to say "more primitive." It's as though - and this is an amazing twist, considering the source - we're being reminded not to forget that, beneath our human superstructures, we're animals subject to the "purposes" of animal life. In any case, love is clearly secondary in Mr Bowers's quite secular restatement of marriage.

Continue reading about anti-gay-marriage activism at Portico.

April 25, 2005

A Major Connection

We are back, safe and sound, from the somber journey to Peterborough and Wilton, two New Hampshire towns connected by the stretch of Route 101 that traverses a shoulder of Pack Monadnock. The weather was suitably awful, drizzling or pouring rain. After one of the worst nights of my life so far as getting some sleep goes, I had an even worse one through the wee hours of Sunday morning, and I had no idea, when it was time to get up (and for some time after), how I was ever going to make the trip back to New York. In the event, I'm thankful to say, the return was uneventful, and I find myself back at the project of renovating my life. The handwriting is on the wall: it's either that or a stroke. 

So here's what I've been thinking most about, when I haven't been worrying about myself and my aunt and my cousins.

From the very start, this Web log was intended, among other things, to help me to clarify big ideas by serving as a kind of sketchbook. In response to this or that newspaper story, chance event, or just plain sudden insight, I could doodle a few paragraphs and, later, see what worked and what the implications were, and then write something more comprehensive and coherent for a page in my Web site, Portico. For convenience's sake, I would archive sketches under the same rubric, such as "Against Television" or "The Augustinian Settlement." The latter group of entries concerns the sexual orthodoxy that was established in Western Christianity by about 450CE, and which, according to me, anyway, went unquestioned for centuries until breaking down under scientific and social onslaughts after World War II. Somehow, I never set up an archive for entries on the subject of Respectability, which, again according to me, was the code of public modesty and propriety that women in Western Europe utilized, inch by inch, to advance themselves toward equality with men. It was only last week that I saw how vitally connected the two issues are, and, in the process, saw how wrong I was to say that the Augustinian Settlement had gone unchallenged for fifteen hundred years. My very idea of Respectability began with the marriage of Martin Luther and Katerina von Bora in the white-hot 1520's. If that wasn't a challenge to Augustine's rules, I don't know what it was. It was also, I maintain, the beginning of the end of the old sexual orthodoxy that conservative evangelicals are now so frantically trying to preserve and to which they are determined to restore the force of law.

As I'm still a little tired and stiff, and also in the middle of putting together a bit of breakfast for the two of us, I will post this now and add to it later. I would just urge you to try to connect the authoritative writings of a Doctor of the Church, one and a half millennia ago, the rejection of clerical celibacy by a righteous Christian reformer, very nearly six centuries ago, and the mounting furor over homosexual equality, right now.


April 11, 2005


The cover story in the Times' Sunday Styles section, by Jennifer 8. Lee ("8," not "B"), was entitled "The Man Date." The meatier features in Sunday Styles appear to be designed to make interesting and off-center social developments look as silly as possible, and, at first, I thought that a story about the tactics of getting together with another straight man for dinner and conversation without provoking homoerotic innuendo would be a prime example of this undertaking. Most of the story is indeed embarrassing to read, for the simple reason that reading about anybody's insecurities is embarrassing. But Ms Lee salvages her story from utter inconsequence by proposing a bit of history.

Dinner with a friend has not always been so fraught. Before women were considered men's equals, some gender historians say, men routinely confided in and sought advice from one another in ways they did not do with women, even their wives. Then, these scholars say, two things changed during the last century: an increased public awareness of homosexuality created a stigma around male intimacy, and at the same time women began encroaching on traditionally male spheres, causing men to become more defensive about notions of masculinity.

Exactly, more or less. In Istanbul in January, we noticed that unquestionably heterosexual men were far more boyish and physical with one another than their American counterparts would dream of being. And isn't "defensive" the definitive adjective for Ernest Hemingway's manliness? Maybe what sexual conservatives fear most about gender equality is the tedium of thinking about their relationships with other men. What a shame that would be.

February 09, 2005

Concupiscentia carnis

It would be only natural to assume that Augustine, inventor of the still current conception of original sin, thought that sexual activity was evil, but he did not. The problem for Augustine wasn't in the sex, or even in the pleasure of sex. It was in the desire for sex. Desire troubled him. Sexual desire was simply the strongest and the most difficult to control.

Augustine began his spiritual life as a Manichaean. The followers of Mani (a title of respect, it seems) held that spirit was good and that matter was evil; the creation of the world was the act of a demiurge, or bad guy. After his protracted journey to Christianity, Augustine wrote authoritatively against Manichaeism, but it was probable that there was no point in his life at which Augustine could be said to believe in the fundamental goodness of creation.  The furthest that he could go was to allow the blessing of divine grace upon creation. If Eve hadn't handed Adam the apple, Augustine would have done so, just to get the inevitable fall over and done with. Augustine didn't need Scripture to tell him that man was fallen. This was self-evident to him.

Continue reading "Concupiscentia carnis" »

January 31, 2005

A New Nicaea?

This post does not, strictly speaking, belong to the Augustinian Settlement thread, but it was prompted by JKM's thoughtful comment to last Friday's installment, "A Happy Fault?," so, speaking less than strictly, I'll file it here.


JKM writes,

But in any case, it seems to me (and perhaps this is not the norm), those of us who do not accept, lock, stock and barrel, the views of an organized religion are viewed by those who do as lost souls whose opinions are the product of, at best, ignorance, and, at worst, Satanic possession.

In my reply, I mentioned John Shelby Spong's Why Christianity Must Change or Die, an exciting work that has been heartily denounced by most organized religionists, all the moreso because the author was a bishop of the Episcopal Church. I can't seem to put my hands on the book right now, but as I recall, Bishop Spong addresses spiritual people who feel that they belong to organized religion but cannot accept the miracles and the bizarre metaphysics (such as the doctrine of the Trinity). It's not that these faithful people have theories about the Immaculate Conception that differ from the orthodox position; rather, they find the Immaculate Conception irrelevant and distracting. At the very least, they ask not to be quizzed about these sideshows. If they believe Jesus to be divine, and if they look forward to redemption through his teachings and his sacrifice (however they might construe these statements in their hearts, does that not entitle to worship alongside other Christians?

Why did orthodoxy become so important in the first place? I have written elsewhere about the difference between faith and religion: "Religion is the bond uniting people with the same focus of this kind; religion articulates the bond by prescribing the creeds and rules of conduct that constitute orthodoxy." But how detailed do the creeds and rules need to be? To answer this, we must open the lid on the Roman Empire under Constantine, and take note of a momentous decision that attended the emperor's enfranchisement and subsequent preference for Christianity. In his important study, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (Knopf, 2002), Charles Freeman shows that Constantine's adoption of Christianity was probably more practical than religious: "It was a mark of Constantine's political genius and flexibility that he realized it was better to utilize a religion that already had a well-established structure of authority as a prop to the imperial regime rather than exclude it as a hindrance." The problem was that Constantine knew very little about Christianity - he seems to have seen Jesus as a war god - and he had no idea of the doctrinal disputes that raged among the gamut of Christian sects, which had produced, as is natural when underground movements flourish, incompatible and contradictory understandings of the nature of God, the divinity of Christ, and other hot topics. Ignorant of these quarrels, but determined to put the Christian Church to work in the administration of the Empire, Constantine made a terrible mistake: he granted tax breaks to Christian clergy.

However [Mr Freeman writes], despite his balanced policy towards both pagan and Christian, nothing can obscure the scale of the commitment Constantine showed to Christianity. He started with the granting of special favours to Christian clergy, in particular exemption from the heavy burden of holding civic office and taxation. Earlier emperors had granted exemptions to specific groups (doctors, teachers, athletes are among those recorded), but never, outside the special circumstances of Egypt, to clergy. The exemption was, in Constantine's words, so that the clergy "shall not be drawn away by any deviation and sacrifice from the worship that is due to the divinity, but shall devote themselves without interference to their own laws ... for it seems that, rendering the greatest possible service to the deity, they most benefit the state."

The problem, which quickly arose, of course, was Who's Christian? Coming out into the open, the Christian sects brought all their rivalries with them, and probably would have raised a deafening ruckus anyway, but Constantine's exemptions served only to sharpen the knives. The exasperated Emperor commanded the bishops to convene at Nicaea (modern-day Iznik, where the beautiful tiles come from once again) and obliged them to reach a consensus about doctrine. As Charles Freeman painstakingly shows, the Nicene Creed was hardly an instant success. It never prevailed in the Eastern Church, and it won acceptance in the West only over the course of the Fourth Century. Now that secular historians are interesting themselves in the history of the Early Church, the pious just-so stories that the Roman Catholic Church has been telling for so many centuries that it's hard to think of doubting them stand exposed as just that: nursery tales. And the justification for highly-detailed, my-way-or-the-highway orthodoxy turns out to be - tax breaks.

I ought to stop here, and let what I've just said sink in. But I want to press home the possibility of a New Nicaea, an anti-Nicaea, a convention of moderate Christians committed to establishing a creed that professes the lowest common denominator of faith. Since tax breaks are no longer an issue, the rationale for orthodoxy is supported only by the collective need of worshipers to know what it is that their fellow-congregants believe. What is the least quantum of detail that you, a moderate Christian, insist that the fellow in the next pew agree with?

I believe Jesus to be divine, and I look forward to redemption through his teachings and his sacrifice.

Is that not wonderful enough? Can we not pray together now?

January 28, 2005

A Happy Fault?


Like everyone else, I've been pondering the role that religion plays in American political life. For most of my lifetime, religion may be said to have exerted a powerful but tacit influence on politicians and voters alike, but that has changed in the past twenty years, and I attribute this change (throughout this as-yet short series) to what I call the Augustinian Settlement, a code of ethics concerning sexuality, gender, and original sin that was developed by St Augustine in the first quarter of the fifth century. I will discuss the background of the Settlement elsewhere; the point to bear in mind now is that Augustine's conclusions (which digested the thought of many earlier men of the church) quickly assumed the force of divine revelation, and its propositions, although never formally set out as such, went unquestioned (however inevitably transgressed) for a solid fifteen hundred years. Challenges to the Settlement's orthodoxy were never permitted to broaden, while deviancy was firmly linked to witchcraft and punished as such. Political and social storms raged century after century without disturbing the Settlement's authority about the respective roles of men and women in the world and the scope of permissible sexual behavior. Its authority was not even questioned. Those who disagreed with it or felt oppressed by it might manage to ignore it, but they must do so quietly. If you are over forty years of age, let me assure you that you know the key points of the Augustinian Settlement as well as you know your own name. Its vernacular expression today is encapsulated in the phrase, "moral values."

These are not the moral values of faith, hope and charity - not directly, anyway. They have nothing to do with metaphysical speculation about the nature and will of God. They are unconcerned with ritual and sacrament, or indeed with any explicitly religious behavior. Apart from crudely dividing the righteous redeemed from the eternally damned, the values of the Augustinian Settlement do not bear on ideas of the afterlife. These moral values prescribe acceptable sexual conduct, and, as an adjunct to that, appropriate gender-specific behavior. Marriage is for men and women. Sex outside of marriage - more strictly, any sexuality that does not enable reproduction - is bad. Men and women have altogether different roles to play in this world, and the confusion of these roles is evil. Homosexuality is simply unspeakable. More often than not, "moral values" rest on Augustine's conception of original sin: the sin of Adam that stains us all at the moment of conception. It is the inevitability of original sin that makes every man and woman, no matter how virtuous, a sinner in need of God's love and salvation. "Moral values" governed Western Europe from the twilight of the Roman Empire with the strength of Euclidian axioms.  

Continue reading "A Happy Fault?" »

January 20, 2005

Theory vs Authority

As we endure the brassy triumphalism of the Inaugurals this week, it would be well to bear in mind Susan Jacoby's essay, "Caught Between Church and State," which appeared on the Times's Op-Ed page yesterday. We used to be triumphalist, too. We believed that Clarence Darrow settled the Creationists' hash once and for all in 1925, at the infamous Scopes "monkey trial." All he did, though, was to drive them underground, where they festered for the rest of the century, building their case. Now they're out in the open again, campaigning for the right to teach the Bible in public-school science classes, and even for the right to exclude science from the curriculum.

One of the Creationists' handiest argument is that nobody has yet seen evolution at work, at least among primates. All we have is a mess of old bones that are open to interpretation - and Darwinism is no better a line of speculation than Genesis is. The theory of evolution is just that, a theory. The Creationists' sleight of hand is in the tacit claim that creationism is a theory, too. But it isn't a theory. There is a body of rules governing theories - let's call it the "scientific method" - that the Bible does not begin to satisfy. Just for starters, theories begin with inquiry, and Scripture is the very opposite of that.

We come back, again and again, to the puzzling question: what makes creationism attractive to Creationists? The answer lies in making the question less puzzling. When Darwin's ideas were introduced, the shocking thing was the idea that man was descended from ape. This notion was not quite correct, and it was massively indigestible. Gilbert & Sullivan captured one of the bigger burps in an air from Princess Ida, "A Lady Fair, of Lineage High: Gentlemen might be descended from apes, but ladies certainly weren't. There was a lot of talk about the irreconcilability of human dignity with animal drive, but what was on everybody's horrified mind was the image of gorillas engaged in reproduction. That a society in which casual acknowledgment of sexual acts was taboo should have had to countenance such beastliness is one of history's high humorous ironies.

Men - and I mean males - are either closely related to apes or they are made in the image of God; they can't be both, not in the vernacular mind. And if men are descended from apes, the authority of God flies out the window. For if God did not create men in his image, then on what ground does he claim their love and obedience? Why should they believe that he cares about them - men - in particular? And on what ground can they in turn invoke God's authority in directing the conduct of society?

That's the not-so-puzzling question to ask.

December 26, 2004


It's the day after Christmas, and nobody's reading blogs. Which makes this the perfect moment to announce another birth: that of what I hope is another long thread on the Daily Blague (see "Against Television").

Last night, I finished Charles Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason (Knopf, 2003). It is a must read - but never mind about that. I read a great deal of it yesterday, from the middle of the big chapter on Augustine all the way to the end. Something clicked somewhere; I remembered the lesson I'd learned from Peter Brown's The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Princeton, 1988). Mr Brown's book is an intricate tracing of the manifold obsessions with continence and chastity that marked the first four Christian centuries. Was sex good? No - everybody was sure about that. But there was the small question of propagating the race: no babies, no Christians. And lots of ordinary Christians then were just like ordinary Christians today: they were sure that their married lives were nobody's business but their own. At the other extreme were the Antonys and Jeromes, sublimated sex maniacs who were convinced that Satan was their true partner in every instance of sexual intercourse. Some priests were married, others castrated themselves. There was just a little too much diversity of opinion.

Augustine put an end to the plurality of opinions. Largely, he did so by appealing to Imperial authority: he was the first man of the church to call in the cops. I would hate him for that alone were I completely unwilling to factor in the disintegration of social order that characterized his era (which saw, among other things, the first sack of Rome). Authority aside, however, Augustine's synthesis wouldn't have held its primacy if it hadn't appealed to something both basic and widespread. The fact that it governed Western social thought right up until the 1960s - it was unchallenged in the Reformation - means that, well, it can't have been crazy.

And yet it seems crazy to many people today, or it would if they knew what it was. Let me put that the other way round: many people, if they knew that everyday red-state ideas about sex and authority were set around 400 AD by a troubled outsider, would agree that it is crazy to obey, without thought, his ideas - ideas that begin with him, not with Scripture.

Augustine is still approached with deference, if not reverence, by almost everyone who writes about him. I'm not going to do that. To me, he's just another populist tyrant.