One of the reasons apocalyptic literature was so popular during times of political and cultural upheaval, e.g., the late first century CE, was because the oppressed people, e.g., Christians during that time, were expecting God to intervene in human history to bring about the downfall of the oppressors like the Romans and, bypassing “normal” history, thereby to effect radical change. Sometimes the oppressors were the Egyptians; sometimes the Ptolemaic dynasty; other times, the Romans; etc., etc. Each such period generates its own apocalyptic literature, like the Book of Revelation, et al., and each such period is a reaction against the apparent passivity and inaction of God – even the failure of God – to act on behalf of justice for the oppressed. Improbable as it may sound, reflecting on the historical and political origins of apocalyptic literature has recently afforded me an insight into why, even after all the religious changes I have experienced – from hyper-fundamentalist Baptist to non-fundamentalist but quite conservative evangelical Christianity, to conservative Catholic, to Berrigan-Brothers-left-wing Catholic and recently to Buddhism – the old Christian-fundamentalist culture still maintains its hold on me in some ways and in some contexts.
I cannot speak for anyone else. But I can speak for myself. And speaking strictly and exclusively for myself, my experience with Christianity – of all the types and varieties mentioned above – has been much like what I read of many individuals’ experience with the herpes simplex virus, something I fortunately know only academically and at second-hand. From what I have read, I gather that herpes can lie dormant for an extended period of time – days, weeks, even months – during which time the herpes carrier will be completely asymptomatic. But under certain conditions, herpes symptoms can explicitly manifest themselves, whereupon, after some varying period of time, the symptomatology will often (usually?) recede, again often for some significant time. Herpes symptoms seem to come and go, seemingly arbitrarily.
For me, monotheistic religion – in my case, Christianity – has, in my personal experience, been spiritual herpes. (Note well: it has taken me almost 60 of my 70-and-counting years to give myself permission to write the previous sentence.) This assertion is not intended to indict or to impugn in any sense the integrity of friends who are monotheists – Jews, Muslims, Christians. I know many people of irreproachable character and personal integrity who are monotheists, religiously, people of great compassion, wisdom, and humility. But then, there are also many people of similar character who carry the herpes simplex virus. Personal character and integrity have nothing to do with the issue. It is all a matter of one’s individual upbringing and experience. Because of differences in upbringing and life-experience, religious ideologies that some find nourishing and sustaining others find toxic and pathological. For me, monotheism has been decidedly the latter.
The difference is this: now I think I know why. Consider …
One of my most persistent memories as a Christian is of going to church – the particular denomination makes no difference whatsoever – and hearing the minister, the congregation, the choir, religious educators, etc., etc., all praise the great works of God: how God lifts up the humble, frees the captives, feeds the hungry, comforts the grieving, defeats the arrogant, humiliates power, makes war (metaphorical or otherwise) against empires, strips the robes from kings – and generally completely upends what we often think of as the “normal” and “usual” social and political hierarchies of society. “So the last shall be first and the first [shall be] last” – Matthew 20:16. Or, as expressed in Mary’s great hymn of praise, the Magnificat (Luke 1:53) “He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.” Such was the general tenor of Church rhetoric, conservative and liberal, Catholic and Protestant, that was deployed in my experience of Church earlier in my life.
But I also noticed something else. I noticed that – again, regardless of denomination and liberal vs. conservative ideology – once the last “Amen” was said and, in the Catholic case, once the priest intoned Ite missa est, I walked outside the church building, looked around, usually listened to the news on my car radio as I drove home, and I saw and heard none of the above actually happening. Except for isolated and blessed instances of human compassion, all of which were exceptions to the rule in the grand scheme of things, the rich not only went away full at the expense of the poor, but also manipulated the political system so as to gorge themselves even fuller at the expense of the even-emptier poor. (E.g., consider Trump’s “no multi-billionaire left behind” tax cut.) Instead of lifting up the humble, God stood idly by and allowed them to be ground even deeper into the mud. The captives remained captive, even in a nation with the highest incarceration rate of any country on the planet. God neither comforted the grieving nor, e.g., intervened to defend the Uighur against Chinese domination. All the eloquence I heard declaimed in the Church service was employed in the service of sheer fantasy – basically, ecclesial gas-lighting.
I was told, furthermore, that “Well, gosh, human beings have to do their part” – which I eventually came to interpret as “Human beings have to do everything, all the heavy lifting”. God does nothing. Humans do everything, and God only stands on the sidelines to demand the praise for what God did not do. Which, in turn, begs the question: “OK … then why do we need God at all, if it is all up to us, anyway?” To that latter question I have to this day never received an answer that makes any coherent sense. God began more and more to seem like the human appendix. Presumably, the appendix was evolved because, in the remote past, it perhaps endowed humans with some survival advantage. But what that advantage was is by now lost in the mists of evolutionary time, and all the appendix seems good for now is to become inflamed, necessitate a trip to the hospital to have it removed – either that or to burst and be a potentially lethal source of sepsis. In my case, the analogy of the appendix with a monotheistic God is probably more apt than even I realized when I wrote that last couple of lines: belief in and devotion to a monotheistic God has been, on the whole and like the appendix, immensely more destructive than healthy in my life.
The customary response to these reactions was to say that God is indeed active in the world, but that God's actions on behalf of Justice are usually ... always? ... mediated through human beings, and that, consequently, I should not expect to see God qua God acting in history. (What about the parting of the Red Sea, Jesus healing the sick, etc. ... well ... best not talk about that!) In other words, God's great wonders always partake of the past tense, not the present. So when Dr. King marched for civil rights, that was God marching with or in or beside or above -- choose your own preposition -- Dr. King. When Nelson Mandela went to prison in South Africa in protest of the policy of apartheid, that Jesus was in prison with Mr. Mandela. When Gandhi went on a hunger strike against the British raj in India, Christ was hungering with him. Etc., etc., etc. Over time, those arguments wore gossamer thin, and I came to see them as attempts to "save appearances" by appropriating the goodness of human beings and imputing that intrinsic human goodness to God. To speak plainly, I came to see the "God-in-human" arguments as moral plagiarism.
Anyway, eventually, and over time, I came more and more to reject the rhetoric I heard in the Church and to face more squarely the reality I encountered outside it. I began – this is still very much a work in progress – to purge my prefrontal cortex of any ascription of credibility to allegations of God as a God of Justice, Compassion, Who exercises anything like what Catholic social teaching calls “the preferential option for the poor”. Reality decisively argues against such an attitude. Instead, I now believe it really is all up to us. There is no celestial 911.
So … bottom line: conflict resolved … right? Wrong! Quite wrong! The short answer is that such a glib resolution is wrong simply because human beings are more, much more, immensely more, than a prefrontal cerebral cortex with a life-support system attached. Like the herpes simplex virus, the God-as-Advocate-of-Justice virus likewise works its way from the frontal lobe of the brain and into the “reptile brain,” the limbic system, eventually settling into the amygdala – the part of the brain that controls emotion. From the superego into the id, if you will and by analogy. And there it stays. And the God-as-Advocate-of-Justice virus is all the more insidious, all the more persistent, because the God-as-Advocate-of-Justice virus tells us precisely what we most want to hear, i.e., that there is a Power in the Universe that does defend the oppressed, that does lift up the fallen, that does humiliate the arrogant, that does comfort the afflicted, etc., etc., even though our own raw experience conclusively argues otherwise, and that, ecclesial gas-lighting notwithstanding, humans have to assume the task of such vocations. Dr. Martin Luther King, in a sermon he preached at the National Cathedral a few days before he was assassinated, said “The arc of the moral Universe is long, but it bends toward Justice.” True enough. But it bends toward Justice only if human beings do the bending.
Incidentally, and on a more personal level, this explains why, even after all the changes I have experienced in terms of religious belief and commitment, the old conservative-evangelical, even fundamentalist, hymns still have the power to sometimes reduce me to tears. The music and the words, bypassing the rational faculties of the prefrontal cortex, go directly to my amygdala and appeal to what I used to believe on an affective / emotional level – to what, if I am to be completely honest with you – the part of me centered in the amygdala, in the limbic system would still like to believe. This holds true even of Catholic hymnody. There are certain pieces of music I dare not listen to while driving – and I do not mean only hymns from my fundamentalist youth like “The Way of the Cross Leads Home” or “Victory in Jesus”. I mean also, broadly speaking, the music of the 17th-century Catholic Counter-Reformation, the music of Palestrina, Allegri (especially his great Miserere), Josquin de Pres, Michael and Hieronymous Praetorius (who were not related, by the way), and the music of pre-Reformation England, e.g.. Thomas Tallis, John Taverner, et al. I am quite serious when I say that it would be irresponsible of me to listen to any of that music over my car’s Bluetooth system while I am driving. I would turn myself into a serious traffic hazard. So -- thank Great Cthulhu and the Old Ones for XM satellite radio! -- I switch to jazz of various stripes: Stan Getz, Diana Krall, McCoy Tyner, Billie Holiday, Kenny Davern, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, et al., i.e., refreshingly, blessedly secular.
Don’t get me wrong: I still very much enjoy the liturgical music of Palestrina, Tallis, etc., but I dare not do so in a car where I may become a hazard to other drivers and pedestrians. Rather, I have to listen in a non-hazardous environment. So for me, I have learned by experience over the years, the herpes simplex of monotheism can be cured by jazz.
James R. Cowles
General Congregation of the Council of Trent in Santa Maria Maggiore … Elia Naurizio, 1633 … Public domain
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina … Artist unknown … Public domain
Josquin des Pres … Charles Gustave Housez … CC by 3.0
Gospel quartet … Jones 629 … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported
Revival hymnal … "Christian Century", 1913 … No known copyright restrictions
Stan Getz … Geir … Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication
McCoy Tyner … Eddie Janssens … cc-by-sa/GFDL
"Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" … Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov, 1887 … Public domain
DIana Krall … Jose Goulao … Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic