Monday, April 12, 2004

Relativistic Effects

Huge old institutions distort logic in their vicinity much as massive bodies warp nearby space-time. As the 1919 poem had it, “This much is certain and the rest debate: Light rays near the sun do not go straight.” Similarly, the rules of evidence don’t apply in the normal way when applied near the event horizon of ideologies or religions. How else explain complicated philological arguments summoned up to buttress or dispute the historicity of religious figures who were said to be able to walk on water or rise from the dead? Absent the political and cultural power of Christianity, no rational man would entertain the reality of Christ for a minute anymore than he would suppose that Hercules was once a real baby that strangled snakes in his crib. Truth told, nobody would give much credence to the mere existence of a natural man named Jesus either if it weren’t for the people who make such a fuss about it. If you were snoozing your way through a treatise on Sumerian history, you wouldn’t waste two seconds rejecting the historicity of a name so feebly attested by reliable sources. In the twisted metric of religious polemic, however, the fact that a thesis is not impossible is taken as evidence of its truth. It would hardly surprise anybody, after all, if there turned out to have really been an itinerant preacher named Jesus. But there’s always room for one more obscure Mesopotamian nobleman, too, and that doesn’t make Smargil of Ur a real guy. By the same peculiar rationale, a certain very common kind of rare spirit will triumphantly explain that we can trust the literal truth of Exodus because the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea during a wind storm and not the Red Sea during a special effect. But there is no better evidence for the non miracle than for the miracle, which is to say there is no credible evidence for either.

None of this matters a great deal to the people. Even if there really was a King Arthur, the cultural significance of his story would reside in the grandeur of the fictions that accumulated around some dimly remembered Celt. It’s the mythic figure, not the postulated barbarian that moves us. By the same token, all the detail and pathos of the Christ story belongs to its elaboration—all the good stuff is embroidery on what may already by a fiction. People are obviously genuinely moved by the Passion of Christ movie, but they also get upset about how Scarlet O’Hara treated Rhett Butler. Whether the film offers three or four handkerchiefs worth of catharsis has nothing whatsoever to do with the extent to which it is a true story. It obviously isn’t. But over and beyond the political power of myth, which no one can safely ignore, the halo of goofiness that surrounds religious issues has a definite effect on educated folks who should know better. Besides creating the fly-paper-like presumption that these questions have two sides, the piety, good manners, or mere prudence of the impious makes it hard to figure out how Christianity really did get started.

Lately I’ve been pursuing the implications of a largely uncontroverted philological conclusion, the fact that the letters of Paul were all written before the first gospel and make almost no references to any biographical facts about Christ over and beyond the bare assertion that he was crucified at some indeterminate time in the past. This information is highly relevant to a debate about the veracity of the gospels or rather, would be, if that were still a meaningful argument. What I’m interested in is Paul himself and his utterly Gnostic, indeed docetic, Christology. Apparently, in the history of Christianity, the heresy is older than the orthodoxy.

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