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We Probably Have to Earn Atonement
Agree on What Sucks
A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with my friend David Roth [WRITER, DEFECTOR, PODCASTER, BESPECTACLED] about this blog, God, things of that nature. I’m lucky to consider Roth as a bit of a mentor in the writing world. He denies this usually–either because he doesn’t want that burden, or because he’s humble–but consistently Roth has been a steady hand: quick with advice that usually ends up right, and good at reading into the subtext of a sheepish question. I would characterize our conversations as iterative agreement. My pal and I don’t seem to be on far different pages, but we both usually disagree enough that we can talk about it and come out of it smarter. That, I find, is where the best conversation comes from. There are people who enjoy the thrill of an argument with someone diametrically opposed to them (and Lord knows I like making a strong opinion known) but I’ve never found those to be especially productive.
You don’t have to agree on what’s cool, but you have to agree on what sucks. Because if you agree on what sucks, then you’re operating from a foundation of general improvement, regardless of who feels they’ve “won” an argument by scoring a satisfactory amount of uncontested rhetorical quips. That’s how I would characterize Roth’s and my conversations. We agree on what sucks so we’re able to gesticulate without it going sideways.
It’s for that reason we were able to talk about God, despite not really being much on the same page about it. That’s probably not fair to Roth, who mostly talked about other stuff like baseball and history while I talked about God, but it also seemed like we were mostly talking about the same thing. How we parse the world so that we don’t lose our minds. The great tattooer and artist Nick Bubash used to call his process making order of chaos, but not necessarily as some sort of act of radicalism but because of our instinct born to a world we never understood and determined to find answers that don’t exist. Being alive in the 21st century is to be under constant apocalypse. This is a good thing, if you know how to manage it.
Roth actually touched on it during our conversation, though he wasn’t referring to apocalypse, necessarily:
“I think I thought I could see the curvature of that arc of justice or whatever and it doesn't exist. Maybe I mistook it for watching history happen…had just sort of assumed that, because we had already had a 1970's and a 1980's, that we wouldn't necessarily need to have to repeat the worst parts of them again.
Maybe it's the sports-watcher in me. I'm used to knowing when a game is over.”
What Roth is describing is my personal apocalypse. We are in a self-fulfilling loop, waiting on an end that never comes and hedging against the wolves at the door. If Jesus Christ was the Alpha and the Omega as claimed, it’s fair to wonder if we’ve got a little while to go before Omega time—unless we’ve once again missed the point by being so literal in the West. Perhaps Christ was not saying he was an “end” but the end of the line: he, us, etc. is as good as it gets. He told his people that he was just like them, and that they, like Him, were the final product of God’s divine touch. No more reinforcements coming, so to speak. We’re in charge of making this thing work.
There is no end to anything, something Roth and I both agree on. The idea of an end is human vanity at its finest: we already know that the Earth does not end with or without our existence. We picture beginnings and ends because of our own life cycles, but time marches without us. Deep within the shale rocks that we now crack open for a taste of the devil’s fire are the remnants of the last carbon lifeform that we now process and ignite to power our fantasy world. Soon their remains will run out and our way of life with it. Whether we end alongside it is up to us collectively aligning on a new way of life.
I’ve started to think of it as a theory of communal atonement that we have to earn together, which I’ll expand on later here. But the people who do the materialist thing of focusing on the problems at the present ignore that unhealed wounds fester, distrust is further entrenched over time, etc. That means you can’t just keep it moving and expect everyone to agree that we’ll just settle the bill up at the end.
Does Something End If Everything’s Happened
“I think once you figure out how you understand the world this all gets a lot easier to parse. It's more just understanding how things work, and who everyone works for, and what you should and shouldn't expect from people and institutions. But this is disillusioning. And I am in the process of figuring that out like everyone else, and right now it mostly just makes me sad, and angry. I think most people, mostly, want to do right. There are just so many obstructions between that wish and any lived reality.
I just don't believe in a heaven so that's kind of a drag. Like I just do this and then at some point am killed by a drunk driver and it's roll credits.”
-David Roth, Writer and Person About New York and New Jersey
An apocalypse has a pretty negative connotation in the West, but that’s also largely because the West is still the world’s last bastion of predominantly scripture literalists that think a white horse is going to ride out of the sky in the near future. These are rubes, and that’s not to imply they are undeserving of sympathy—they are likely more deserving of it than any—but a nation of rubes tends towards rubeness, and thus there is a preponderance of people who have spent the bulk of their lives misunderstanding what apocalypse means in a theological sense. It is an explosion of the mind. It is a realization so fucking profound that it is absolutely impossible to ever exist differently. Finding out that we’re meant to love one another is an apocalypse. Having your first steak with Whiz and onions is an apocalypse. Formative experiences that destroy our notions of what it means to be a society or culture. Progress is inherently apocalyptic. That’s fine. In fact, that’s the whole idea, and why the early emphasis on resurrection, a concept that I’ve come to feel so robbed of in my life.
The western conception of God is descended from the Latin Church movements, which means that it is particularly focused on substitutionary atonement. In layman’s terms, this is the source of guilt and the relatively lazy version of salvation that exists in Western Christianity: Jesus died for you, so you should be grateful and maintain your faith in Him, because this faith is grace given by God. On its own, this is largely innocuous, but in the 11th century, a guy named Anselm of Canterbury introduced an extremely popular concept in Catholic and later in Calvinist, and Lutheran Reformations called satisfaction theory of atonement. Affronts to God’s laws must be met with penance to make up for the deficit. You can draw a straight line between Satisfaction Theory and the Western fixation on crucifixion and punishment, a pivot from the focus on resurrection that had dominated many centuries of Christian theology. This early notion of crime and punishment–itself flawed even as a logical rationalization, implying that man could ever comprehend, let alone deem worthy punishment for divine infraction–is uniquely Catholic (and therefore uniquely Protestant). I’ve always found this particular way of thinking to be the root of some of the fairly obvious instances of hypocrisy in Orthodox Christianity in general, but in particular the rewriting of what it even means to be Christian over centuries in the West. Everyone's experience with God and their congregation is individual, though, so I’m just referring to the broader institutional Orthodox Tradition, so to speak (guys in hats co-signing genocides or damning groups of people in ways their savior would quite clearly not approve of).
God is unknowable. At the foundation of theology is exploration of the unknown, hoping for something resembling divine harmony and greater understanding of existence. Clarity that makes your ears perk even in complete silence. Inherent in some of the uniquely self-obsessed principles of Western Christianity, like that of Satisfaction Theory, is the idea that man can replicate the divine on Earth, or at least use the “Word of God” as a way to approximate divine judgment. I can be a broken record on this, but this feels uniquely accentuated in western world-building societies and is the root of their eventual and inevitable nihilism. Our societies are designed for us to replicate the divine on Earth through cooperation. Without a unified idea of what divine objectives even are–world domination, the subjugation of women, love and peace for humanity, a self-sustaining society are all in play for various powerful groups of people, despite inherent contradiction–there’s very little progress aside from the inevitable.
It’s here that I feel most disconnected, in general, and is why I’ve felt compelled to return to theology in the past year or so. What drove me away from religion wasn’t necessarily the dogma, but the finality of judgment on something so patently silly. I remember being taken in by the New Atheist movement of the aughts, lead by figures I’m humiliated to have ever been fans of like Bill Maher or Richard Dawkins, all because of banal jokes regarding scripture literalism that is fairly unique to the Latin Church movements and Anglican tradition. Would I have been so quick to abandon God had I known of the Syriac tradition and its insistence on physical communion with the Earth? Would I have been so quick to flee if I knew of the Tewahedo concepts of cyclical rebirth and the pursuit of gnosis? I fear that so many of the non-believers are victims of the same American Protestant upbringing I had–not necessarily abusive (though there is plenty of that in the church in general), but always some varying degree of omniscient “God is watching” type theology that stops making sense to the average person about 10 years after Santa.
I’ve found lately, for my own personal framing of the world at least, that dedicating oneself to non-belief based on rejection of the long rejected interpretations of scripture is equally bereft of intellectual curiosity as the average polo shirted evangelical. Framed against the background of an increasingly hopeless civilization, it’s worth wondering whether Marx missed the forest for the trees when he said religion was no longer relevant, though as the famous Monastic Thomas Merton notes Marx is slightly softer on faith (but hard on religion as a guiding light) than many of his intellectual progeny.
Marx was wrong about faith. That is why Marxism fails, and why it failed so spectacularly in the USSR. Unsurprisingly, those who model his smug atheism tend to be the type of Eurocentric racist losers that are too blind to realize the revolution already happened in their own backyard in the pews that Marx said were no longer relevant. While Mr. Opium of the People was convincing himself of his own genius about God in London, Arminian Baptists were using the power of scripture to liberate kidnapped Africans across the antebellum south and the Caribbean.
Perhaps the biggest irony of Marx’s declaration of the end of religion and the new age of science is just how unscientific it was. Look around at the material world you’re so obsessed with, Karl. The people that exist in the material world that are still in church each week, still seeking advice from pastors and reverends and priests and scriptures instead of politicians and scientists. It’s been a few years since I’ve been in science class, but from what I can recall the guy in the coat at the front of the class would call that “observable evidence” that maybe Karl Marx was “jumping the gun” when it comes to religion and faith.
Discovering versions of faith from around the globe that are of the same savior and familiar parables has helped ground me in a shared past that I never knew existed. Not in an overly spiritual “we are one people” or crunchy type way–I’m still a bit too young and jaded to go soft–but more in a way that has opened my eyes to interpretations of my faith that feel more like home. Interpretations from the Oriental Orthodox and the Church of the East that are grounded in the material world because those religions were formed among the rural peasantry; almost a handbook for agrarian communalism instead of a mystic interpretation of the psyche. Interpretations from men like Merton, who made his life’s mission to embody love and understanding so that an often close-minded Catholic intellectual class could expand their imaginations. I feel at peace in scripture and maybe that’s because I was raised in its image, but I find that discovering others’ thoughts about God framed against the circumstances and the timeline of human development is more fascinating than any policy paper by an academic with too much time and very little hope of ever seeing their vision come to fruition.
I can’t pick which parables and folklore have resonated the most, but in my conversation with David Roth, I kept thinking about the Tower of Babel. This is not unique, of course; the Tower of Babel is one of the oldest and most commonly discussed parables in the Old Testament. It’s on people’s minds, and was even in Zee Atlantic this spring. For those who are completely uninitiated, the broad strokes here are society of people trying to replicate the divine on Earth by building up a big old tower, God gets mad because they get close, scatters it, and then confuses everyone’s language so that they can’t do it again. There are some pretty basic, foundational interpretations that you can likely guess at: human cooperation, “flying too close to the sun” type stuff, explanations for varying languages across the globe, folkloric parables for why different regions have different tribes of people, etc.
To me, the idea that the Tower of Babel is an allegory for our inability to understand each other is a bit too easy. In fact, if that was the only thing at the heart of the Tower of Babel, it wouldn’t make sense for it to be such a resonant parable. There are plenty of scriptural examples of misunderstandings and confusion, and the consciousness granted by the Serpent is often ground zero for that very insight. If it was all about misunderstanding, the Tower of Babel would be just another in a long line of parables.
But it isn’t. It survives because inherent in its lesson is not the confusion, but the foolish drive to continue building even with the knowledge that nobody has ever been on the same page. The ignorant belief that man, through collaboration, would be capable of creating the divine on Earth. In order to achieve the type of cooperation that would make such fantasy possible, billions of people would have to arrive at a unified consensus that is mathematically impossible in the language of our modern gods. Billions of people receiving trillions of neurological inputs, all interpreting events differently based on shared experiences and collective consciousness between people, families, tribes, faiths, communities. Nobody has to presume the meaning of the Tower of Babel in the 21st century, which is the part that The Atlantic story got right: the Internet has allowed us all to create a common tongue across cultures, and we’re more fucked than we’ve ever been. The Tower of Babel collapsed not because God was angry, but because God isn’t around to help when we inevitably fail to do His work.
And why would they want to? After all, as the scriptures tell us, God makes the decisions that humans can’t–not in an omniscient or active way but in ways we can’t comprehend. In scriptural interpretations of agrarian Christianity where God is the Earth–both bountiful provider and ruiner of crops–you’d be hard pressed to argue against someone who told you climate change was a coming punishment from God for man’s greed. Sure, you could make fun of them or cite scientific reasons for the rising global temperature that is sure to spread disease, drought, flooding, and disaster in unprecedented ways. All you’re saying is that man is causing climate change. If someone believes that God is the Earth, then it’s still both scientifically accurate and theologically sound to say that there is a coming Biblical apocalypse–not a fiery death, but a revelation toward a new way of life as ordained by the world around us. These aren’t “Christian” concepts but foundational teachings in various monastic traditions, as well as being pretty straightforwardly present in the Old Testament and the Islamic conception of prophets.
Stories like the Tower of Babel remind us that these aren’t “grasping at straws” syncretizations but resonant insight you can’t quite articulate. It’s not that God scattered people around the world to prevent us from replicating His work. It’s that scattered around the world are billions of different interpretations of God (or a lack thereof), each working towards their own salvation. But while salvation may happen at the individual level, atonement must be communal otherwise the universe remains in imbalance; the Tower toppled and rebuilt on shaky foundation. We keep trying to rebuild God because we can’t help ourselves, but we return to the Tower of Babel because we know that there’s something inherently wrong with the instinct.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling a little bummed about the historical persistence of the Tower of Babel, I also remind myself of the historical and cultural persistence of heaven on Earth (or similar concepts). Maybe what’s foolish is expecting humanity to ever arrive in paradise on a full time basis. There are moments of harmony (speaking with a good friend about the world so that you both can understand it a little better, for example) that send your mind’s eye into such frenzy that you’re overcome with a sense of stillness. Time drifts. When it’s over—even the small ones—you can live your life differently for as long as you’ve got one if you want.