Further below: "Toxic Christianity," a diagnosis on the situation since 2020, followed by a substantial essay on a Papal Encyclical.
What remains of Christianity?
The all-encompassing problem with Christianity is its incoherence. What is it? A set of rituals? Adherence to a core text (i.e. if not the Bible as a whole then the New Testament, or at least the Gospels)? What are the core tenets that Christians share? And what constitutes Christianity for those who no longer believe but see Christianity as a tradition embodying many of the values they hold to?
We might start with the creeds, proclaimed as truth by assemblies in the early centuries much as a political manifesto is set today. These avow certain beliefs, which are little more than assertions of a shallow world order.
They are questionable because of the structure of knowledge that they assume, namely that of a building constructed on stilts. These tenets are the fundamentals from which, supposedly, all else follows. Here one stands (“Here I stand”) on these feet. As if it were not the millipede that has the better footing in life. Epistemologically wide open to challenge. The lesson of the modern philosophy, especially the English tradition, is that knowledge is not constructed this way.
Besides, such creeds are harmful to children who (as I was) are required to utter them by rote. Early brainwashing.
Then we have not only the omnipresent symbol but also the narrative of the Cross. One idea here is sacrifice and another is vicarious redemption. When one member of a community gives life or limb in order to save, or protect, others, we may speak of sacrifice. Such sacrifice is a commonplace in all cultures. It is not what is meant in the Christian narrative. In a distant time animals were offered to the deity, and in some cultures it was not animals but humans (the youth) that were condemned. The reasoning here must be reconstructed and is bizarre, i.e. quite foreign to our usual way of thinking in the post-Enlightenment. It is the topic of much ingenious speculation among anthropologists (e.g. René Giraud).
More readily understandable is the concept of redemption, or maybe salvation. But it is here that Christianity exposes itself to ridicule. It is debts that are redeemed, i.e. monetary obligations due to the powerful. This reduces the Christian worldview to a religion of accountancy. We sinners have incurred debts, and now Big J. has kindly paid them off to his Dad.
Not so fast, says the Christian apologist. The message of the New Testament is one of forgiveness. For example, this allows the Prodigal Son to start anew and his past to be erased. As if to forgive were to forget...
The Apologist returns to the idea of redemption, or salvation, The key tenet of Christianity is Love and especially the saving power of Love. Indeed, in later iterations, God is Love. Agape, presumably, since the Gospels were in Greek and the Greeks wisely distinguished between different kinds of love. As do the Chinese, and doubtless most other cultures.
In our day, Agape might be thought of as coming close to the rule of respect, solidarity among all mankind, and universal human rights. Indeed, the political correctness these principles incorporate has the feel of a religion, but without the deity. There is, though, a counter-narrative to be upheld. In the Eastern religions other humans in other cultures are simply part of the living world. It is not self-evident that that they should be privileged over other animals.
Christianity in contemporary iterations comes close to upholding Lovc as a panacea. Not unlike faith in God or the saving power of Jesus. But although love may often be a good policy, it can also be counter-productive. Much like generosity, even generosity of spirit. Indeed, like all the so-called virtues. Pacifism included: Turning the other cheek, as a policy, is most unwise.
And it is here that we see how useless the Gospels are. They are wide open to interpretation. Was Jesus issuing a general rule, as the Pacifist would have it? Or was he just saying that, every once in a while, we should act in a manner that is counter-intuitive. Or, as I have argued elsewhere, a tooth for an eye, but unpredictibly sometimes an eye for a tooth – to stop the wicked from gaming the system.
Moving from the rituals and bizarre metaphysics of Christianity to what really matters, namely the morality, it is here that it is found most wanting. The Sermon on the Mount has all the intellectual substance of the Dada movement. How better than to completely confuse children than by presenting them with this chaos incarnate as Gospel truth? Or is this the work of the Devil?
under 700 words, May 2022
Many of those joining us in the struggle against transhumanism, deep corruption and the destruction of liberty make appeal to what they call Christian values. This applies in particular to voices from North America. In the face of great evil — whether this term be understood metaphysically or metaphorically — they are our allies. This said, much of the rot can be attributed to the incoherence of Christianity. Neither Scripture nor the tradition of thought called Christian provides much of a moral compass. Scripture fails because any quote can be interpreted variously, or else in its vastness is contradicted elsewhere. This also applies if Scripture is held to cover only the New Testament, not the Old. The tradition fails because it has been through so many metamorphoses, from early century radicalism through the oppression constituted by monastic life and into Puritanism, with their different conceptions of salvation and sacrifice.
Christian churches are largely compromised, having complied with confinement and its accompanying measures, even having been eager to suppress common liberties and community. Closer to Evil than to Good.
The values we are trying to rescue are those of the Enlightenment, which cannot be reduced to a set of doctrines. The Enlightenment draws on a commitment to the search for truth and to the force of reason, while accepting that our faculty of reason runs up against limits, not least because we have different ways of thinking about different things. It is set against megalomania and hubris. It is opposed to the concentration of power and therefore upholds systems of checks & balances.
One question to be addressed is how so many in key positions have chosen falsehood over truth and indulged in absurdities. We are not talking about legitimate differences of opinion.
How do these people live with themselves? But they are clearly devoid of conscience. Conscience involves a sense of self and consistency, with a direction of travel towards greater maturity, and honesty. (None of these concepts can be understood individually, by analytic means alone. They must be understood as interconnected, i.e. synthetically.)
One answer to that question (i.e. the origins of so much falsehood) is that the much-vaunted Christian tradition has always failed to be coherent. Despite Jesus, it falls back on convention. The recourse to rules and codes, which has become dominant in public life, has actually weakened moral fibre because it absolves people of individual responsibility for the rules they live by and does nothing to strengthen the faculty of judgement. As faith in any ultimate (metaphysical) authority has waned, it has been replaced by a crude conformism and by materialism. (Most of those claiming to be Christians have betrayed the saying of Jesus that the Law was made for Man, not Man for the Law.)
In certain circles, convention has come to tolerate (even welcome) the acceptance of bribes, or else has come to leave people vulnerable to intimidation. But this is only part of the explanation. It would seem that persons of weak character and compromised persons (i.e. subject to blackmail) have been placed in positions of power and have been obeying instructions. How else is the absurdity of their pronouncements and conduct to be explained? It can only be down to conspiracy, or conspiracies.
In a better world, people would only accede to positions of power gradually, having matured, which will mean after being tested over many years for both their character and judgement. An important principle here is that no profession can police itself, each profession must be policed by members of different professions. What we now witness, however, is that the procedures have long filtered out the best and the bravest. Something which has continued at pace since early 2020.
It is vain to imagine that bad people can be eliminated. But what can be done is to have procedures in place which prevent them from taking the high ground, which is what has happened. Any such procedures will need review and possibly regeneration with each new generation.
Caritas Deus non est
Reflections on the Insufficiency of Christian Love
2700 words, 2007
One might suppose that Pope Benedict XVI's Encyclical on Christian Love (DEUS CARITAS EST) would be of interest only to those who believe, whether firmly or vaguely, in the God of Christianity. But it may also be of interest to all those who believe in love, again whether firmly or vaguely. A critical examination of this well-formulated restatement of traditional beliefs and understandings can throw light on both the nature of love and the nature of religion, and help us guard against fatal misapprehensions.
The Encyclical addresses with refreshing frankness and directness the issue of whether love is one or many: “... [W]e speak of love of country, love of one's profession, love between friends, love of work, love between parents and children, love between family members, love of neighbour and love of God. Amid this multiplicity of meanings, however, one in particular stands out: love between man and woman, ...". And later: "We began by asking whether the different, or even opposed, meanings of the word “love” point to some profound underlying unity, or whether on the contrary they must remain unconnected, one alongside the other.” There is also a historical discussion of the words used in Antiquity (eros, philia, agape) and the adoption of the last of these words by the scriptures.
The issue for those of us who stand outside the Christian faith is whether subsuming this vast range of meanings of the word "love" in a single concept is helpful for our understanding, or whether it is a hindrance. Not that we could easily dismiss the word love from our discourse, but we could go over to using it less liberally. Moreover, we have a multitude of alternatives for expressing the substance of love in the various contexts. One might be committed to one's country; be at ease with oneself in one's profession; appreciate one's friends, perceiving them to be an important part of one's life, both day-to-day and across the years; one might enjoy one's work, care for and give priority to one's children or parents, be affectionate to family members and maintain good terms with neighbours. Spelling out precisely what is involved in these different contexts surely requires rather more reflection than simply applying the epithet love. It might on the other hand seem that love, properly speaking, involves rather more in the various contexts than the ready-made descriptions I have given. But it could also be that often we deceive ourselves: In erotic situations people may speak of love when they mean desire. Patriotism turns to an unwholesome nationalism, while neighbours may best be embraced at a distance. Focus may be a form of fascination, but fascination need not be kind or indeed welcome.
The question can be put differently: If we did not have the word love to cover what might be experienced in the great variety of contexts outlined above, would we ever want to invent this word? If psychologists or philosophers argued for some grand concept to link the different experiences and attitudes, would we be convinced and want to take up the concept and a corresponding term into the general language? The question is less theoretical than it seems. Generally speaking, other languages and cultures, untainted by the Christian tradition, do not render a single word or concept as their equivalent of "love", preferring instead different words to denote the loving relationships which exist in various roles (parental, marital, friendship, etc.).
Or the question can be put differently again: Is it not the case that to use the one word love to describe what is experienced or intended in all the many contexts is to speak at best metaphorically, and at worst loosely? Is not "love" often a cliché for those too lazy or cowardly to express themselves clearly?
Benedict would concur with this last objection: “Today, the term “love” has become one of the most frequently used and misused of words, a word to which we attach quite different meanings.”
Yet (predictably, he is after all the Pope) Benedict still wants to keep the word. He could, theoretically, jettison the modern word love and its equivalents in other modern (European) languages, and propose that the Christian concept be termed agape or, to take the Latin of the title of the Encyclical, caritas. This would, granted, not have the same ring to it. Indeed, a close examination of the wording in the English translation of the second part of the Encyclical betrays sleights of hand, with now the one, now the other word being used.
“Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable.”
Consider what is being said here, and how it relates to love in its various senses.
i) Even in the most just society, something more will prove necessary (sometimes or continuously, depending on how the word “always” is meant). The more that will prove necessary is practical help, or human attention and warmth, or both of these elements together.
ii) “There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love.” The expression “service of love” is an ecclesial, or theological, expression: in ordinary language, it does not make sense (becasue it is self-contradictory): It would be straining the expression to make it mean something different, such as “practical help with a smile.”
The sentence as a whole seems to be saying that the nature of the State and the nature of justice are such that certain human concerns always fall outside their sphere (some human concerns are not the proper object of the State). Which is certainly the case. But this does not mean that the Church and its Faithful have a monopoly in the addressing of those concerns. The sentence is presumably not saying that the attempt (to "eliminate the need for a service of love") is doomed to fail due to the impracticability of the enterprise.
iii) “Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such.”
In its context, this seems to be a rhetorical condemnation of anyone seeking to construct a perfectly just society and the perfect bureaucracy it would require. It seems to say that the nature of man is such that something essential would be lacking in a perfectly just society. There is indeed an age-old conflict between the principle of justice and the quality of love, and it is a conflict that can occur both within an individual and within society, in which latter case we observe persons and factions who struggle in a public arena, with now one, now the other side (like right and left) taking the upper hand.
See what happens to this sentence if we replace the word love by others:
(a) Whoever wants to eliminate a charitable frame of mind (a generosity of spirit) is preparing to eliminate man as such.
(b) Whoever wants to eliminate almsgiving is preparing to eliminate man as such.
(c) Whoever wants to eliminate freedom is preparing to eliminate man as such.
(a) would seem closest to the statement that Benedict wanted to make. It fits in with his argument, and makes, if somewhat rhetorically, indeed clumsily, a substantial claim the essence of which we could all agree on. But fewer would concur with (b), which is political.
By using the word “love” instead of charity or almsgiving, Benedict is canvassing our assent to a standpoint which some of us would not necessarily assent to if he had spelled out his thoughts.
Sentence (c) helps us to see the structure of the original statement. Freedom, like love, is something you can have more or less of. Some might argue that one can have too much freedom, but not too much love. (I am not so sure, though it would be sinful not to concur that one might have too little love, or too little freedom.)
iv) “There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable.” Why does Benedict use the word love here? No-one disputes: “There will always be situations of material need where concrete help from neighbours (or passers-by) is indispensable.”
The point here is not to criticise a particular formulation (there is inevitably a measure of redundancy and inexactitude in a piece of prose, if it is to read well, and in any case, we are presumably examining the Encyclical in translation, although it is not clear what it is a translation from: German, Italian, Latin?). The point is that the Encyclical uses specific expressions (such as “love of neighbour”) which leverage the word love when what is meant in context is something quite banal, that ordinarily would be expressed accurately without recourse to the word love. The Vatican might well have given a briefing to a public relations company and specified that the word “love” was to be used as much as possible, i.e. even when other terms would be more idiomatic or clearer. “Love”, despite its frequent abuse, remains a powerful word, which is to say that it retains great emotive force. If you want to win someone over, see that you bring the word love into play. With luck, they won't notice the semantic substance shifting as they are seduced by the rhetoric. “There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbour is indispensable.” The sub-text is: “Who can deny that Christian love is indispensable?” And so the hijacking of the common word love proceeds surreptitiously.
One can take the analysis a step further. There is one word that the Encyclical, unsurprisingly, uses even more than Love, and that is God. As I am examining the Encyclical from the perspective of an infidel, for me and my fellow atheists if not agnostics, all the talk of God is irrelevant and I have left it out of account. My concern is that the Christian churches (i.e. not just this one) propagate a certain conception of love that has a great influence on people throughout Western society (and increasingly across the wider world) whether they consider themselves to be Christians or not. My standpoint is that that conception is confused and confusing, and that consequently it is harmful. But, it might be argued, this is because it is taken out of context. Similarly, I might be charged with amputating the Christian concept of love, embedded as it is in talk of God and Faith, and then complaining that the limb is dysfunctional.
There is a straightforward reply to this charge, and a subtle one. First the straight reply. The Church has a word that says precisely what it means, and that word is caritas. True, it is not a common English word, but it is easy to pronounce, and the Church has not otherwise shied away from obscure terms to denote thoughts that are unfamiliar to non-Christians. (The Encyclical uses without explanation several times the word oblative, which you will not find in every dictionary, not even, e.g. in the massive – 2003 – edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English.) The word caritas has, of course, often also been translated as charity, but this noun has come to mean commonly something akin to almsgiving and has lost much of the connotation that is still found more readily in the adjective charitable, as used to describe someone who is lenient or hesitant in their judgement. If nonetheless it has pleased the Church to insist on the word Love, this has much to do with the prestige of that ancient Germanic word (related distantly to libido).
The subtle reply involves seeing religious language as a language apart, reflecting a whole form of life and thought which is not readily translatable into secular speech. On this understanding, a word such as God is inextricably bound up with a host of other ideas and practices, maybe what Wittgenstein termed a form of life. But there has nonetheless to be a bridge between the secular vision and the religious (in this case, the Catholic) one. The bridge that the Church is keen to use is precisely the word Love. The strategy is to straitjacket this charismatic word into the language of theology and hence make it the Word of God.
But our question, i.e. the challenge posed by us infidels, is whether the form of life and the intertwined language are attractive, persuasive, coherent; in a word, whether they have the ring of truth, the feel of authenticity, the promise of salvation (whatever you may hope from salvation). And whereas there may be something to be said for the form of life; i.e. the sacraments beginning with holy communion, the communal nature of this ritual, the adherence to a sometimes rigid and often vague moral code, a belief in the virtue of suffering (as symbolised by the Cross), the preference of one set of texts (the scriptures and the liturgy) over and above the wider canon of literature; one might equally choose to seek one's own salvation and authenticity along other paths, using other landmarks, signs and reminders.
Here the debate shifts from the focus on a few key concepts to a broader conception, more aesthetic than moral or logical, and it is here doubtless that the controversy will be decided in the wider world.
What is the nature of the personal love that is extolled by the Christian tradition? Benedict gives an analysis of a change in tone that occurs in the course of the Song of Songs:
By contrast with an indeterminate, “searching” love, this word [a Hebrew word similar to agape] expresses the experience of a love which involves a real discovery of the other, moving beyond the selfish character that prevailed earlier. Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.
It is part of love's growth towards higher levels and inward purification that it now seeks to become definitive, and it does so in a twofold sense: both in the sense of exclusivity (this particular person alone) and in the sense of being “for ever”.
There are many ideas here, which we need to distinguish. In particular, as I interpret the train of thought:
· Love becomes a concern for the other (i.e. a feeling, a sentiment).
· Love becomes care for the other (i.e. action)
· Love seeks the good of the beloved (close to moralism)
· Love becomes renunciation (a turning away; but from what?)
· Love is ready for sacrifice (making a hard choice, or seeking to pacify a magical power?)
· The growth and inward purification of love lead to a focus on the particular person who is loved, i.e. love becomes exclusive (i.e to the exclusion of others.)
· Love is "for ever" (and ever; i.e. ceases to be dynamic).
These elements, even without my asides, are not a logical or inevitable sequence; they are more like episodes that might constitute a particular story, a story which, although perhaps compelling, could also have run differently.
One element to bear in mind in particular is the idea of love becoming exclusive. This would seem to conflict with the idea later developed of “love of neighbour” – a love that is extended indiscriminately. Of course, the conflict might be resolved easily by speaking of different categories of love, perhaps by using two distinct words, but this resolution is avoided. The conflict could also be alleviated by speaking of different levels of intensity. But love is surely, by definition, of a certain intensity. It would be an abuse of the word to understand it to mean merely being well-disposed towards a person.
to be continued