Thursday, November 06, 2003
I guess this is First Things week. Last month's issue includes a piece by David Hart called Christ and Nothing that I can't get out of my head.
Hart's basic argument is an inversion of Nietzsche and Nietzsche-indebted Continental philosophy. Specifically: he argues that Christianity is "to blame" for what he describes as our culture's pervasive nihilism because, by destroying the old pagan order with its tragic myths and virtues, it exposed the nihilism that lay behind those myths. In his words:
"Christianity shattered the imposing and enchanting façade behind which nihilism once hid, and thereby, inadvertently, called it forth into the open.
I am speaking (impressionistically, I grant) of something pervasive in the ethos of European antiquity, which I would call a kind of glorious sadness. The great Indo-European mythos, from which Western culture sprang, was chiefly one of sacrifice: it understood the cosmos as a closed system, a finite totality, within which gods and mortals alike occupied places determined by fate. And this totality was, of necessity, an economy, a cycle of creation and destruction, oscillating between order and chaos, form and indeterminacy: a great circle of feeding, preserving life through a system of transactions with death."
Having destroyed this worldview, exposing its myths as empty, Christianity opened the door to escape this tragic economy, and enter into the realm of blessing, what Harold Bloom calls "more life in a time without boundaries." But when that door closes - as it has closed for those who fully absorb the ethos of modernity - we are left alone with the nihilistic void, the forces of chaos that the old myths sought to contain with lies, lies we can no longer believe.
This all rings very true to me. But its truth to me, as a Jew, is not so modern, not so new. It seems to me that long before modernity, the pagans lost their faith. Late Roman antiquity is not exactly notable for its practice of the pagan virtues. And earlier: Plato's myths are sterile and cold, and Aristotle rejected even these, leaving us living exactly where? Exactly how far from where we are today? Sure, Greek tragedy is about fate and the domestication of Dionysus. But Aristotle, that ruthless pragmatist avant la lettre, has already reduced this to psychology rather than Truth. Once the magician tells you his magic is an illusion, are we really still operating in the realm of faith?
The most modern, least cathartic, and least Christian tragedy is undoubtedly King Lear. Sam Johnson, our most sensitive Christian critic, famously could not abide the death of Cordelia; it leaves us, properly, inconsolable. The whole play is the savagely ironic exposure of our delusion: Gloucester the blind is "resurrected" in play-acting by his disguised son, and feels himself redeemed from death; he dies happy, redeemed by a lie. Edmund dies apparently repentant - "some good I mean to do/Despite of mine own nature" - and dies not knowing that his good has done no good; he, too, presumably dies happy, in a lie. And Lear, most pathetic, dies in madness - not happy, but in the most horrible lie of all, deluded that Cordelia is revived. It is the most nihilistic tragedy if such exists. But what is its effect? If it does not provoke cathartic reconciliation - and it doesn't - does King Lear move us to exalt the self as the only good, as David Hart would presumably predict? I can't imagine how it does. We are reconciled in the end not to tragic necessity (the deaths are manifestly unnecessary) nor are we moved to Edmund's self-glorification (his deathbed conversion utterly destroys his own credibility as a nihilistic apostle). We are moved by the faithfulness of Kent and Edgar in a world where God's sovereignty is manifestly absent.
Perhaps I am too much a Semite, too little an Indo-European - or perhaps too much an American, something new under the sun, a believer in Progress. The Christian myth, inasmuch as it departs from its Judaic source, has never really moved me. It takes too much away from human agency, makes us too much observers of a drama acted in the mind of God. It makes us too little partners in our own redemption. I know that God made covenants with my ancestors, and for a finite self to covenant with God is to assume a stature of enormous dignity. I wonder whether, lacking recourse to the z'chut of Abraham, a Christian is more vulnerable when confronted with the awesome power of the void.
The Christian God overcomes the world, and so implicitly leaves the Indo-European tragic description of the world itself intact. The Jewish God instructs us how, with His help, to redeem the world. We were born into a Garden, a world without the tragic economy of the ancients. We were exiled from that world into this, and to reconcile our natures with this world means either to change our natures or to change the world. And with the destruction of His holy Temple, God is exiled with us. This is why, I think, a Jew is more at home, spiritually, in a liberal order than a Christian (or, for that matter, a Muslim). Liberalism is nothing more than a Good Idea, a way of getting along in a world whose nature is essentially alien to our own. It is not necessary to reify the pragmatic axioms of liberalism into Platonic truths. And so it is not necessary to war with liberalism, so long as one can live in exile.
This paradigm of exile, it seems to me, fits the condition of the man of faith in the modern world better than any other. The Church, once sovereign, is now a vagabond. We Jews know something about this condition, and I cannot say definitively that it does not represent spiritual progress of a sort. Rather than long for another Constantine, or embrace a world-denying aceticism, perhaps the Church could learn something about living in exile from her elder brother.