To Whom Shall We Go?
In the old detective movies, there is a basic scenario that must unfold if the movie is to proceed and not end in the first five minutes. There must be a murder, and the police must assume (wrongly) that it is an open-and-shut case. Then the private detective steps in and notices one little detail the police have overlooked. From that detail comes other details, and eventually, after being knocked on the head a few times and shot at, the private detective solves the case and proves that the police were wrong.
“Man must & will have Some Religion: if he has not the Religion of Jesus he will have the Religion of Satan, & will erect the Synagogue of Satan, calling the Prince of this World ‘God,’ and destroying all who do not worship Satan under the Name of God.”
– William Blake
Let me cast my college professor, whom I mentioned in “Galahad,” in the role of the police and myself in the position of the private eye. Dr. ___ presented, in two semesters worth of lectures, the case against Christianity. He had once been a Lutheran pastor, but his studies in antique religions, which was the title of his course, made him realize that there was “nothing unique about Christianity, it was just one more manifestation of man’s attempt to deal with his ongoing cosmic complaint.”
But strange to say, I read all the books on the book list and attended all the lectures and came up with a conclusion diametrically opposed to my professor’s conclusion. It seemed to me that the evidence showed Christianity was uniquely true and not just a manifestation of man’s “cosmic complaint.” Before mentioning the detail which led to the other details and which my professor had missed, let me present the case against Christianity that was presented to me.
When I was growing up in the dark days before VCR and DVD players, the slide projector was used as an educational tool and a torture device (Uncle Harry: “Let me show you my slides of our trip to Coney Island”). So in the form of a slide show, let’s look at Dr. ____’s and the Western rationalist’s case against Christianity.
In the first set of slides, we see the ancient Greek religion start out as a ‘god of the bush, god of the stream’ religion and then develop into that marvelous pantheon of nature gods composed of Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hermes, etc. But before the first set of slides is over, we see the coming of the philosophers. They deride the gods of the Greek pantheon and attempt to replace them with philosophy and ethics. Their efforts are largely successful. The gods of Olympus remain, but they have been drastically altered. Now they are civic gods who symbolize the various virtues enunciated by the philosopher. No one reveres them any longer as vital, living gods.
The second set of slides is the Roman era. The Romans take the Greek civic gods as their own and formalize the rituals concerning them to an extent that makes the Hebrew Pharisees look informal and casual about their laws. In essence Rome, the system, is now god. But that system was very permissive; so long as the Roman state was honored, one could seek out other gods in addition to the state gods. That permissiveness was necessary, because the Roman gods did not satisfy man’s longing for a personal god who guaranteed immortality.
Now we go to the third set of slides which reveals the mystery religions. They advanced from rather barbaric rituals to a more ethereal plane that rivaled the ethical systems of the Greek and Roman sages. And they had the added element of a personal God who insured the immortality of his or her adherents. And that closed the case as far as my professor was concerned. An ethical system presided over by a personal God, who guaranteed immortality, was the essence of Christianity, he argued, and that essence could be seen in the mystery religions of the ancient Roman empire.
The fact that the police have got it wrong starts out as an intuition: “I can’t put my finger on it, but something doesn’t feel right about this setup. Maybe it’s because I don’t want to believe my client, Mr. Christianity, is guilty, but still something seems wrong here.” Then one detail that tends to cast doubt on the police’s case against Mr. Christianity becomes clear to the detective. And while he is still pondering the first detail, another one comes to the surface, and then another, and soon the whole case against Mr. Christianity comes tumbling down.
The first important difference one notices between the mystery religions and Christianity is that the Christian God does His work of redemption within historical time. There is an actual empty tomb from which Christ emerges. The mystery gods are outside of historical time; they perform their feats of death and rebirth in cosmic time. Those ahistorical gods seem like fantastic dreams, not realities. But why does the fact that those fantasies of the devotees of the mystery religions have some resemblance to the Christ story make Christianity false? Could not we view those fantasies as one indication that God was preparing human hearts to accept the true fulfillment of the dreams and hopes of those who believed in the mysteries?
A second detail that emerges is the ethical one. Even though we can see a development in the mystery religions away from barbarism and toward mercy, they are still very much religions in which the devotee needs to propitiate the god through sacrifice rather than develop the virtues of faith, hope, and charity from within through a mystical connection with Christ. And then we must also note that Christ does not change from a cruel God to a more ethical, kind God; He is always the same: the God of mercy.
The third detail is the most decisive detail, but it is the detail that is not subject to empirical proof. Do you remember the murder trial in the Brothers Karamazov? Dmitri Karamazov is on trial for the murder of his father. All the “facts’ seem to indicate his guilt. Only his saintly brother Alyosha believes he is innocent, which of course he is. When the prosecutor asks Alyosha why, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he thinks Dmitri is innocent, Alyosha replies, “I looked at his face.” Yes, that is what it comes down to. There are solid rational reasons for belief in Christianity, and they should be stressed, but ultimately the case rests on what happens when we look at Christ.
Do our hearts burn within us when we listen to the story of Attis or Cybele? Do we look at the faith of the devotees of the mystery religions acting in their lives and say, “their faith must be the true faith”? I don’t, and I don’t think any European prior to the 20th century ever did. It was always Him, and no other. And the devotees of the mystery religions felt the same way. They forsook their gods for Christ. Only the Athenian intellectuals remained obdurate. The case is closed; Christianity is not guilty. It is the one, true faith.
There are many striking parallels, as the historians of religion have noted, between our modern democratic civilization and ancient pagan Rome. We have, like the Romans, a state religion (democracy) that has absorbed the old religion (Christianity), and made what was once a vital faith into a civic religion that serves the state. While our citizenry gives public obeisance to the state religion, they seek other gods, with the exception of those such as Chris Matthews who find the state religion sufficient, to satisfy their need for a vital faith. But there the parallel ends. The gods which modern man seeks are not up to the level of the mystery religions, at least not the higher level. There is no concept of immortality in the modern barbaric faiths. There is no rudimentary stirrings of mercy and compassion; there is only sex and blood. Which is why faith in the Negro trumps all the other faiths; it is the faith most devoid of a spiritual dimension.
Even if the Christian churches did start preaching genuine Christianity again, it is difficult to believe that the current breed of post-Christians would respond to it. But there is such a thing as grace, and European man does have Christianity in his blood. If we could establish some link again with the Europeans who had a vital spirit and blood faith… there are such possibilities.
My conviction that my Athenian professor was wrong came from my exposure, through the literary tradition of Europe, to the person of Christ. Every line Shakespeare wrote, every novel penned by Scott, pointed to Him. Which is why I believe that what is scornfully referred to by the rational apologists as the ‘cultural backdoor’ is the golden door to His Kingdom. But it is the European culture and only the European culture that holds the keys to the golden door. Spirit, blood, and faith are woven together in the European culture. There is no other culture like it. How can we live outside of it? As the disciple said to our Lord, “To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.”