Secrets and fictions (I)

Exploitation does not pertain to corrupt or imperfect or primitive society: it pertains to the essence of the living thing as a fundamental organic function, it is the consequence of the intrinsic will to power which is precisely the will of life.

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Close readers of this blog may have surmised that I had a somewhat religious upbringing, and that over the years some of the loonier notions have been jettisoned while the tenets of the faith permeated deeper. I’ve long realised that there is no pure unmediated connection with the divine, and I’ve been exasperated by fundamentalists. First because they reduce the scriptures to the arbitrarily selected passages which justify their own prejudices. Second because they fail in their Biblicism to see that assuming the infallibility of presumed authors and revisers of the books of the Bible implies equal infallibility in the decisions of the compilers of the canon, of which books should be included or excluded.  Better, following Irenaeus, to spend time contemplating the life of Jesus and emulating his example, rather than fixating – as Paul demanded – on the propitiatory transaction of salvation through his death.

But then a few years ago I picked up, at bookshop in the Church of St Edmund on Lombard Street, a musty 1950s edition of Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament, which for the first time transported me into the mists of the Christian dawn. I became haunted, I think that’s the word, by the historical Jesus and his immediate followers. Jesus, even as mediated and shaped by the gospels, certainly used different lexicon (e.g. ‘son of man’) to St Paul and other writers of the New Testament canon, and he almost certainly was driven by a different set of priorities. What exactly happened after the concentrated collective trauma of the Crucifixion? (Wie es eigentlich gewesen, as all good history students start off by asking.) It looks like Jesus’s brother James led the early church in Jerusalem until the powderkeg of Roman rule over the Palestinian Jews (in which Jesus was only one of the agitators) erupted catastrophically with the emperor Titus’s destruction of the city in 70AD. Then the centre of gravity of the new sect moved out to the provinces of Asia Minor and eventually to Rome itself, and the umbilical link to the Jewish heritage, especially its more recent Maccabean sedition, was gradually severed. There ensued an agglomeration of founding myths, political expediency and compelling theology. Knowledge and orthodoxy crystalised and became bound up with power. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s masterpiece, A History of Christianity spans time and geography to recount the rich, intimate and bloody tapestry that has been woven since.

So much for Christianity. People are all what Leibniz called ‘windowless monads’, individuals moving in space motivated by instincts most of which we cannot or refuse to question, but which tend to coalesce into collective action; collective action which is mostly, as Leibniz believed, harmonious, apart from the occasional genocide or other act of gratuitous cruelty. Each of us thrives or suffers according what we have inherited or else our ability for gaining at the expense of others. The backdrop to and side effect of this human experiment is, of course, accelerating environmental degradation.

I am going to pan back further, inspired by what Yuval Harari has euphemistically called humanity’s ‘disturbing secret’, where the sense of the uncanny becomes unbearable. Maybe tomorrow.