Friday, May 25, 2007

Molly is presently reading 'The Politics of Jesus' by Obery M. Hendricks. This book is a "left Christian" piece of apologetics for considering the message of the Bible as one of social justice rather than individual morality. Reverend Hendricks is a professor of Biblical studies at the New York Theological Seminary and an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The argument of the book is extensive, and Molly hardly has the space to present all of it here- besides, I'm not finished reading it. Some parts of it are convincing. Others are less so.
What Molly wants to bring to light here is the use that Obery makes of the heresy of 'Docetism'. This was a heresy held by most gnostics and later the Manicheans that the actual physical body of Christ was an 'illusion', that Jesus only "seemed" human, and that, especially, his crucifixion and death were an illusion. At its extreme end this shades into the Platonic "cave metaphor" that all of existence is illusion. A western version of Maya if you will. (Molly aside; almost all the philosophical thoughts that can be thought occur in all traditions. Those that claim some "uniqueness" for a given philosophical or religious tradition reveal far more about their own desires for prestige than they do about the reality of such traditions) The gnostics were particularly elitist about this whole matter, following in the footsteps of Plato's elitism. The parting of the veil of the illusion was to be accomplished via the "hidden knowledge" that the gnostics were presumably privy to. This whole scam is more than slightly familiar as it echoes in endless variations down through human history. For those who are interested see the Wikipedia article on Docetism and also the more extensive Catholic Encyclopedia article on same. Molly has little stomach for the controversies of Christology here and now. The sword of Constantine decided these long ago, and medieval crusades against Albigensians and Burgomars merely wrote finis to the epilogue. Modern disputes about these matters are merely dim echoes of what could have been. As an aside the Qur'an teaches the same dogma, that the crucifixion of Jesus was an illusion.
The important part here is that Hendricks makes the point that right wing interpretations of the New Testament assume a sort of "political Docetism" that even if the interpreters hold orthodox Christian views they still try and make an unrealistic separation between the Christ of their choosing, concerned only with personal morality, and the real Jesus as a human being embodied in a real social, political and economic context as a 1st century Jew in a country colonized by the Roman Empire and viciously exploited by both the conquerors and their quislings ie the priestly aristocracy of Judea. Hendricks takes off from this in situating Jesus and his works and sayings in a much more radical interpretation that brings out the egalitarian and "justice seeking" aspect of the Christian message. As I said I am more convinced by some of Hendricks' arguments than I am by others, and I am particularly disappointed by the book's ignoring of its predecessors in both the Catholic left and the Protestant Social Gospel.
Still I find the use that Hendricks makes of the term 'Docetism' to be very much a good tool for looking at a lot of political thought. On the right the neo-cons and the shrinking Christian right hold to Docetist heresies. They believe that the real national and corporate interests that lead to wars and conflicts within societies are merely "illusion" and that it is some metaphorical "clash of civilizations" or "good versus evil" that drives history. They refuse to look at reality. They ignore real economic threats to families in favour of an illusionary ideological spook of some left wing conspiracy against "family values". Their politics is a politics of illusion.
Not that the "left" cannot be equally deluded. Through most of the 19th and 20th century the radical left was defined by Marxist illusions of great dialectical forces struggling for some "synthesis" that was presumed to be inevitable even if it was falsified by Marx's literary executor, Bernstein, over 100 years ago. The pseudo-scientific pretensions of Marxism, the bastard child of the Hegelian academy, were exposed long ago, but the lure of ignoring reality for a world of comforting abstractions was far too great. According to Marx and orthodox Marxism real history was an "illusion" that was exposed by the "hidden knowledge of dialectics" to be merely form in the working out of world history ala a scheme more desired than proved.
The spectre of Docetism infects the anarchist opposition as well. One merely has to consult the convoluted oracles of "primitivism" and "post leftism" to see it at work. Real struggles of real people are read, often via a very obvious covering of half digested convoluted rhetoric and pseudo-intellectual "analysis" that attempts to give an illusion of profundity to what is very crude in its reality, as "signs" of some great and overwhelming "collapse of civilization" or whatever. Contrary "signs" ie the full spectrum of reality are more than conveniently ignored. To each their own narrow, claustrophobic, world.
The ultimate, of course, is the academic fad of "post-modernism", a meme that infects fascists, Marxists, liberals and anarchists alike without apparent predilection for any ideological body. Only the American style of conservative seems to be immune, protected by an exoskeleton of ignorance, as intellectual conservatives who are aware of their roots,especially the fascist roots, are just as susceptible to this fad as the most naive 3rd year Marxist poly-sci student. This is the ultimate in Docetism as it not only says that "reality" is illusion, but that all talk about reality is similarly illusionary and that one can read in whatever meaning one wants to into the "discourse" of a "text". At its basis this depends on a Stalinist interpretation of "correctness" ie whatever one can force by political intrigue (or in Uncle Joe's interpretation by having more tanks).
Of course "movements" built on the illusion that all is illusion don't last very long for obvious reasons unless they tie themselves to a class system that grants the possessors of the "hidden knowledge" real and actual power to kill in reality(Tibetan Buddhism ?). Should the traditional left, Marxist or otherwise, continue to wallow in nonsense it will be replaced by a new left, perhaps based on the realism of Evangelical leftists such as Hendricks who are much closer to reality. To put it bluntly, the whole idea of traditional Christian theology with its trinitarianism and other contradictory beliefs is less of an assault on reason than many things held "sacred" by the left. There are indeed many 'Protestants' on the left who try and drag it back to reality. Molly is one of them. May we escape the inquisition of a traditional left in power.

1 comment:

ann arky said...

Was Jesus not preaching the philosophy of the Cynics and his heaven (paradise or what ever) was a state of mind as in the Cynics, reached through purity of humility, and not a "place"?
ann arky;