Dead on Arrival
“What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light.” --from William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About NothingIn the classic film noir, D.O.A., Edmund O’Brien plays a man who has been fatally poisoned and has only 48 hours to live. In those 48 hours, he attempts to find the “who, what, where and how” of the poisoning.
“Since you have a good heart, and are willing to divide what you have, I will give you good luck. There stands an old tree; cut it down, and you will find something at the roots.” – from the Grimm Brothers' tale “The Golden Goose”
The existential moral is obvious. We are all D.O.A. from the moment we are born. And, according to the existentialists, all we can do is struggle nobly until we succumb. Well, at least the existentialists spare us the sentimental slop: “Dying is perfectly natural; there is nothing to it.” Or how about the Blood, Sweat and Tears line? “There’ll be one child born in this world to carry on.” It’s all sheep-dip. The existentialists are preferable to the false comforters.
However, there used to be a religious Faith that didn’t seek to ignore the existential view of life. Quite the contrary, this faith absorbed it, made it its own, and then transcended it. Camus’ Sisyphus was transformed into Christ carrying his cross to Calvary.
What the Christian churches have succeeded in doing over the centuries is to take a mystery religion in which the Hero conquered death through divine charity and make it into a Coca-Cola commercial. The existential view of life is not confronted and transcended in modern Christianity; it is simply covered over with artificial Log Cabin syrup.
I have given various names to the artificial ‘syruping’ process over the years: the ‘dislocated intellect’, the over-intellectualization of the Faith, Gnosticism, and the Triumph of the Greeks. Since the last is most recent, let’s go back to the Greeks.
The existential view of life, which sees man as worth something but doomed to die and sink into nothingness, was presented by Aeschylus and Sophocles. The more cynical view that man was worth little and doomed to die and sink into nothingness was presented by Euripides. Camus is in the Aeschylus/Sophocles line, while Beckett (Waiting for Godot, etc.) is in the Euripides line. I side with Aeschylus and Sophocles; I think their view of existence, sans Christ, is the more correct one, and I think they represent ancient Greek culture at its best.
Now we come to the intellectuals, the self-proclaimed “the best and the brightest.” Plato and Aristotle stand at the front of a long line of intellectual giants who have offered us solutions to the existential dilemma, “I am a man, and I must die.” Plato is at his best when he breaks his own injunction against the poets and waxes poetic about the cave, intuiting a divine force. And for this reason he was considered by the early Church Fathers and Christian intellectuals to be compatible with Christianity. Aristotle, on the other hand, was not considered to be compatible by the early Church Fathers: there was no mystical element in Aristotle; he was a straight materialist, the first great cataloguer, an entomologist, a systems analyst man, the man with a white lab coat. Aquinas, at first opposed fiercely by the Platonists, managed to get Aristotle into the Catholic pantheon by showing that the real and the particular were the nuts and bolts of Christianity and not the nebulous mysticism of Platonic philosophy. But both Plato and Aristotle are harmful. And the Church, by attempting to pour Christianity into the faithful using classical cups, over time gradually poisoned the faithful. The salvation process was reversed: we once were saved but now are lost. Or, to use the existential parlance, we are again D.O.A.
To see why the classical-Christian mix has been so damaging to Christianity, let us look back to the Roman Empire shortly before the coming of Christ. What type of religion prevailed? Was it the borrowed Greek religion of Zeus, Hera, Apollo, etc.? No, that religion was given mere lip service. Was it the religion of the philosophers? No, there were some Platonists, Aristotelians, Epicureans, and Stoics among the intelligentsia, but those faiths did not move the masses. The great mass of people were attracted to the oriental mystery religions emerging everywhere throughout the Roman Empire. And what did these mystery religions provide that the philosophic systems did not? Personal contact with the deity.
The Greco-Roman gods and the Greco-Roman philosophies failed to reach the deeper regions of the soul; hence, they were abandoned; but the Oriental religions, while allowing for a more personal contact with a human deity, did not fulfill man’s need for a humane deity. However, the masses were ready, much more so than the intellectuals, for a personal savior, because of their involvement in the mystery religions. They needed Mithra with humanity. And this is the great insight of Europe’s most Christian of writers:
Even the gods, with whom the believers thought they were uniting themselves in their mystic outbursts, were more human and sometimes more sensual than those of the Occident. The latter had that quietude of soul in which the philosophic morality of the Greeks saw a privilege of the sage; in the serenity of Olympus they enjoyed perpetual youth; they were Immortals. The divinities of the Orient, on the contrary, suffered and died, but only to revive again. Osiris, Attis and Adonis were mourned like mortals by wife or mistress, Isis, Cybele or Astarte. With them the mystics moaned for their deceased god and later, after he had revived, celebrated with exultation his birth to a new life. Or else they joined in the passion of Mithra, condemned to create the world in suffering. This common grief and joy were often expressed with savage violence, by bloody mutilations, long wails of despair, and extravagant acclamations. The manifestations of the extreme fanaticism of those barbarian races that had not been touched by Greek skepticism and the very ardor of their faith inflamed the souls of the multitudes attracted by the exotic gods. – Franz Cumont in Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism <http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/orrp/orrp06.htm >
What the Roman masses needed – a humane God who took a personal interest in their salvation – is what we all need, even intellectuals who don’t know they need such a God and who would have us accept a different type of God. I see the entire history of the Church as an attempt by the faithful to cling to the personal over the impersonal and to the incarnate God over the Olympian God. In the Catholic Church this struggle manifests itself in devotions to the Sacred Heart, the cult of the saints, and the cult of the Virgin. Unfortunately, the intelligentsia of the Church often intellectualizes the various devotions until the devotions have little of the original spirit left. In Protestantism, the struggle for the personal savior is seen in the fight for the Gospels as the intimate story of the Christ vs. the Biblical exegetical Gnostics who analyze away the religious content of God’s word.
To arouse the hope that there may be a god with a heart like our own is more for the humanity in us than to produce the absolute conviction that there is a being who nade the heaven and the earth and the sea and the fountains of waters. Jesus is the express image of God’s substance, and in Him we know the heart of God. –
George MacDonald in The Miracles of Our Lord
Christopher Dawson once said that the Catholic-Protestant wars ended with Europe divided and seemingly estranged forever. But he then went on to say that there was a unity that still existed. That unity consisted of the devotion to classical culture shared by both the Protestant and Catholic intellectuals. Dawson suggested that this was a good thing. I disagree, and I would suggest that the conflict is not between Protestant laymen who believe in the Christ of the Gospels and Catholic laymen who say the Rosary, but between Protestant-Catholic peasants and the Greek intellectuals of the Catholic and Protestant worlds.
The reason I claim that Fundamentalism has outlasted Catholicism is because Fundamentalism has preserved more of its peasant faith than has Catholicism. Because of clerical dominance, the former faithful of the Catholic Church have been more thoroughly Gnosticized than remnant Fundamentalists. More ideological peasantry is needed in the Catholic ranks. Whereas Protestantism has its peasant fundamentalist remnant, Catholics instead have only the Platonic Novus Ordo and Aristotelian traditionalism. The former tends to impersonal, Jungian ecumenism and the latter tends to impersonal man-as-insect theology; in both, the personal savior, the God-Man, is lost in Greek vapor.
The old apologists can be forgiven for their over-reliance on the Greek forms. Before Vatican II, the rotting Greek foundations of the Church still seemed strong. But now that the rot is visible, it is not permissible to continue to fuse Christianity with classical philosophy. To do so overlooks the fact that Christ came to deliver us not only from the barbarism of Isis, Cybele, and Mithra, but also from the tyranny of the academy from which devotees of the mystery religions had sought relief. And in fact, there are devotees of Cybele in the Novus Ordo seeking refuge from academic Platonism as well as devotees of Mithra in the traditionalist ranks seeking refuge from academic Aristotelianism. Both groups should seek Christ, and they might still find Him if the Church ever lifts the Greek shroud from His face.
We need, if we are to conquer Greek Gnosticism, to recapture the tragic sense of life. We must turn off the Coca-Cola commercials of the Platonists and Aristotelians and sit with Lear in the hovel and expose ourselves to “feel what wretches feel.” It is a mystery, but it is always in stables and hovels, on our knees, that we see the living God. Tragedy is turned into a triumphant fairy tale ending, but only when we have rejected the Greek way and taken the humbler route through the stables.