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On Abrahamic Nihilism
Words and Meaning
Perhaps nothing in Christianity and Buddhism is so venerable as their art of teaching even the lowliest to set themselves through piety in an apparently higher order of things and thus to preserve their contentment with the real order, within which they live hard enough lives ‑ and necessarily have to!
-Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
“Christianity” is Just Words
Christianity is often thought of as a superstition in America, but it’s a literary tradition first and foremost. The Lord and Savior at the center of the tradition, Jesus Christ, is quite literally the Word made Flesh. The premise is that our common language can unite our consciousness, but we must still act these ideals out in Flesh to make communion with the divine. That’s not to say it’s true, but that’s the idea.
That’s why I’ve never really understood atheist writers. Agnostic I get. Agnosticism is at the heart of inquisitive literature, which is why some of the best Christian theology is written by ascetics who weren’t 100% sold on magical explanations for sustaining a God fearing society. But an atheist writer is exercising the Word for what purpose or for whom? The ego? Their buddies? What the hell is the point of that. My buddies barely read.
Nietzsche was an atheist, but I give him a pass mostly because he was willing to admit that people who presume to know more than the religious are equally if not more naive than the God fearing. One of the funnier asides in Beyond Good and Evil is when the name brand philosopher notes that the existence — even veneration — of theology at the supposedly elevated scholarly institution is enough to keep psychologists busy for years. Nietzsche’s rejection of God wasn’t exactly irreligious:
To love men for the sake of God ‑that has been the noblest and most remote feeling attained to among men up till now. That love of man without some sanctifying ulterior objective is one piece of stupidity and animality more…
I’m not a historical revisionist and thus am not trying to retroactively label Nietzsche a God guy, but he went out of his way to note that ideas come from somewhere. Countercultures need a culture to counter, so to speak, and that usually manifests in written form — theology, music, poetry, fiction — before it is eventually adopted to the point of no longer being “counter” (mathematically speaking).
That’s how Christianity likely originated. It was counterculture amongst slaves and indentured servants; a language of existence meant to befuddle and subvert. Today, however, it’s prevalent enough that it’s a mostly meaningless term. That’s why stuff like “Christian Nationalism” is met with ambivalence. Separatism? Sure, that’s Waco stuff, and that’s terrifying. But “Christian Nationalism” is meaningless in a country only ever ruled by Christian majorities. Evangelical denominations are remarkably inconvenient and some of them are downright dangerous, but direct congregation with the Holy Spirit has been acceptable Christian doctrine for centuries. That includes the good (abolitionism) and the bad (bigots hiding behind bad faith scriptural interpretations).
Christianity is just a utilitarian term — academic taxonomy rather than a term of interdenominational solidarity. The attempts in the past century to create a unified global “Church of Christ” among various protestant denominations has failed. It’s an admirable idea but remarkably naive: if “we” all believe in Christ, we would all be able to share in the values of Christianity and thus create some kind of utopia, I guess. Nobody is ever clear on what happens after everyone believes in Christ, as if that is going to miraculously remove our material responsibilities to (and difficulties with) one another.
But aside from its naive reliance on Belief as a sort of supernatural phenomenon, it’s also naive to think of Christianity as either unifier or divider. It’s literature! All the writing is different and the confessional style of Catholic freaks like Augustine is uniquely personal for a reason. The traditions that spring from institutionalized interpretations of those personal confessionals differ by culture, as do the venerated confessors. The uniformity across traditions is minimal, as it is in most other faith systems that get inadequately categorized together. The savior at the center is the same, but like the Buddha before him, Christ is syncretized into local theological beliefs and cultural practices.
I feel this is best exemplified by St. Thomas Christians in India and Tewahedo Christians in what we now think of as Ethiopia. These ancient Christian traditions didn’t have any problems with their theology until the Jesuits showed up — initially welcomed by established Christians in Ethiopia and India under the false belief that “fellow Christians” meant shared values. The Portuguese were so shitty to Indian Christians that it started a minor Civil War and ended with St. Thomas Christians swearing an oath of disloyalty to Rome, the Portuguese, and the Jesuits generally. Their Christianity was no good; their savior was not the True Christ. When the Jesuits showed up in the Horn of Africa at the Solomonic Dynasty’s request to help fend off Islamic encroachment on their territory, the Jesuits stuck around in the lowlands and caused the first Christological controversy in Tewahedo Church history and subsequent Civil War. The theological controversy only “officially” ended about 60 years ago, but based on current events in the Tewahedo Church it doesn’t appear to have actually ended.
Who’s Afraid of Literary Nationalism
Well, hang on a minute here. Let’s take a pause. All this stuff is just spiritual hooey, right? We are the smart rational men of the Modern World! And as smart rationalists, we know that religion and God is nothing more than superstition and irrational Belief. If that’s the case, why do these controversies reverberate throughout generations? Only the arrogant think it’s because the billions of people who exercise their Faith are intellectually inferior. The Non-Believer comforts themselves by hoping the faithful have been brainwashed into Faith. As Nietzsche notes, this industrious Non-Believer is suffering from self-delusion brought on by their own dogmatic brain.
These controversies persist because the Word matters. It is from Word that we are made to act in the Flesh. It is from our understanding of the world around us that we are called to action — because if there is one thing one can confidently glean from all of human history, it’s that one will be called to action in good faith or bad. Call it incentive structures if you’re a materialist, but whether divine or instinctive or material nobody has found a way to ignore the thing that forces them to get off their ass. That’s where the trouble starts.
Ethnoreligious nationalism is very dangerous stuff. That’s what’s happening in India right now with Modi, and there are countless examples through history of its horrors. Thus, my dismissal of “Christian Nationalism” is not to dismiss its danger but to emphasize that the “ethno” part is missing here in America. Christianity is not an ethnic identifier in the West and using it as such would be incredibly divisive as an organizing tactic.
In the latest longread about Christian Nationalism, author Kelefa Sanneh — son of an internationally renowned Catholic theologian, the late Dr. Lamin Sanneh — implies that Christian Nationalism is nothing more than a white identity movement. From the piece (emphasis mine):
There are, of course, plenty of nonwhite Christians in America, and even nonwhite Christian nationalists. (In the earlier book, Whitehead and Perry reported that Black Americans were in fact more likely than any other racial group to support Christian nationalism.) But Gorski and Perry argue that in American politics Christian nationalism has often served as a white-identity movement.
You’ve gotta skim straight past this in order to take the author’s argument seriously, because to spend any time with it is to reveal the farce at its center: the author would like you to only focus on the part of Christianity that’s the religion of the KKK instead of the rather important portion that’s also the religion of Marcus Garvey and Paul Bogle and Nat Turner and John Brown.
Unfortunately, it is the religion of both. That’s how this literature stuff works. The icons and their meanings are immovable, but the maneuvering of those icons takes on a new shape with each mind. It was Garvey who noted that there were as many forms of Christianity and Islam as there were believers, given the degree of esoterica involved in any form of sustained Belief — religious or material. The Native Baptists of Jamaica were able to create a radical restoration of African Christianity in the Caribbean specifically because of the breadcrumbs left in the Holy Bible and Revelation. Those who are incapable of differentiating between Evangelical Southern Baptists and Arminian Baptist Liberation Theology — instead just saying “Christian” as political shorthand — only do themselves a disservice.
The issue is not Christianity but Abrahamic dualism more broadly, a judgmental and apocalyptic literary tradition. The confessional is a judgment — a self-judgment, but a judgment nonetheless — and passing that self-judgment to others via the Word inevitably causes them to reflect on their own failings (moral, intellectual, physical, etc.) in the affirmative or negative. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that, but there is something inherently wrong with forcing that evolution in the material world. More explicitly, it’s a pretty direct violation of human rights to do so.
“Christian Nationalism” as a modern political term is only as real as people want to make it. If politicians with observable developmental delays like Marjorie Taylor Greene want to call themselves a “Christian Nationalist” as a means of winking to white racists in their state, there’s no reason to pretend that makes it real. These words have meanings. The meanings can not change to suit contemporary debates amongst the overeducated in the Body Politic. You can not credibly argue that the religion practiced by His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie is a “white identity movement.” That dog don’t hunt, except to the rubes.
I worry more about American Nihilism, which has always been inherently Christian in its roots as a dogmatic rejection of industrialized German Lutheranism. The religious nihilist would appear to be a contradictory term, but their nihilism is that of material inaction even in the face of direct contradiction of their faith system. One can’t presume their belief, but it would appear that they think salvation is a dogmatic set of rules to follow. The Believer, as long as they stay within the “rules,” can choose to ignore or actively deny their own role in creating an inhospitable world for those around them. It’s a pathetic way to exist.
In Sanneh’s piece in The New Yorker, the most indifferent and most influential faith on Earth (Catholicism) doesn’t come up for more than a few words. That’s odd to me, because as far as I can tell, Joe Biden (and AOC, and Nancy Pelosi, and many other prominent national Dems) is a Catholic. The visible people who run all the institutions that decide to blow up foreign countries are Christians. If there’s a pundit willing to entertain the idea that “Christian Nationalism” is reflective of the United States’ hair-trigger foreign policy for Muslim and Buddhist countries, I’m all for it. Otherwise, it’s just slop for the current events obsessed.
The Devil is a Lie and Lies are Real
I get the utility of saying “Christian Nationalism” instead of "Literary Nationalism,” given that we’re trying to scare people here. But, I’m not into carnival barking and never have been with the Word. The scribes can do what they want.
I find myself unable to fully embrace monism or dualism as foundational philosophical concepts, instead embracing the mysticism of trinitarian philosophies. It’s clear when Monism is the right path: the least one can do is respect the inherent worth and dignity of all living beings, as I covenant to do each week at the Unitarian Church. I don’t consider myself a Christian because I’m not a Western chauvinist when it comes to my literature. I admire the Buddha most of all and remain in awe of the concept of Maitreya — the final Buddha of immovable compassion. But to have compassion is to embrace the dualistic notion of confronting inner evil and destroying it before it can cause someone else harm while also remaining immovable in morality.
As an appreciator of irony, I admire the Christian’s commitment to orthodoxy in the face of all this Western failure, never seeming to realize that orthodoxy was perhaps the only thing that Christ hated. Orthodoxy is born of the animal instinct that believes observation and repetition guarantees success. If you believe that, I guess you’d believe just about anything.
I find the Ethiopian and Indian versions of Christianity so fascinating because of their status as preserved Miaphysite traditions — a Christologial doctrine that actively encourages one to focus on self-improvement for the sake of the community around them. Unlike the Latin Church movement and the Eastern tradition, which preached that Jesus Christ was a magical God-Man who could shape shift and disappear from tombs, the Miaphysites (Ethiopian, Armenian, Malankara) instead believed that Christ transcended humanity by living his life in accordance with the Word regardless of material convenience. A covenantal faith lived to perfection. I’ve always been able to keep my promises by being discerning about what I promise, so that sounds achievable to me.
I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case), had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.
This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that "all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them.” It teaches me, further, to "remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!
-John Brown’s final speech
have a good week