Thursday, September 05, 2013

The Old Folks at Home

Reading about the prosecution of rape victims in Saudi Arabia or honor killings in Pakistan, it’s worth remembering that conservative Muslims don’t have a patent on such proceedings. Back in 1205, a French girl who fell into a river and drowned while attempting to escape the henchmen of a lecherous local nobleman was denied Christian burial. It took the intervention of Pope Innocent III to insist that the girl was blameless because her death was an accident. The intention and not the event itself are what mattered, even if the circumstances of the event were notorious. There’s nothing novel about the Pope’s reasoning. St. Augustine taught much the same lesson in the City of God where he insisted that rape victims must not be stigmatized.* What is remarkable, as Alexander Murray noted in his account of the story, is that it took a Pope to enforce a point that had been made long before and not just by any Pope but perhaps the most powerful Pope of the entire Middle Ages. The church hierarchy often acted against what local congregations thought as piety because the mass of people operated with a morality of literal prohibitions and taboos. Jesus may have said, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth.” The laity always wants to see that in writing, and even then...

It’s actually quite easy to assemble examples of the church working in the interest of what even a village atheist considers enlightenment. One thinks the Spanish inquisition manifested the dark essence of Catholicism; but the papacy actually worked to moderate the excesses of what began as a local initiative against the conversos, former Jews and Muslims, who were suspected of disloyalty. For the church, a Catholic was a baptized individual who subscribed to the tenets of the faith. For the Spaniards, membership in the church was a matter of blood, not belief, which is why the characters in Don Quixote so often speak approvingly of “Old Catholics,” i.e. people of undoubted limpieza de sangre. The various inquisitors sent from Rome to mitigate the worst excesses of the Inquisition were hard, bigoted men; but they did attempt to reassert the Pauline universality of Christianity (“neither Greek nor Jew”) against the implicit racism of the Spanish church. They also attempted and largely succeeded in replace popular antisemitic riots and pograms with rational legal proceedings. Progress of a sort.

Nietzsche was no friend of Christianity, but he recognized that the church actually served to tame the inchoate religious impulses of the laity. In his view, the church was the expression of a slave revolt, but it was also disciplined the ressentiment of the mob and developed a moral outlook that was much more rational than the regime of custom (Sittlichkeit der Sitte) it endlessly struggled to replace or at least control. Christianity really did work to civilize the inner and outer barbarians; and though Nietzsche was obviously ambivalent about the virtues of civilization, he gave the priests credit for curbing the passions of their own supporters. As in many other ways, his appraisal of the historical role of religion was very different than that of the New Atheists, and he certainly didn’t agree with the commonly expressed sentiment—it’s one of the ten known undergraduate ideas—that personal religion is good but organized religion is bad.  His view—and mine—on that question is nearly the reverse.


Much of what I dislike about Catholicism is a function of the extent to which the people didn’t lose the struggle against a priestly elite. The rather pagan spiritual materialism of Catholicism reflects a long series of compromises that the hierarchy made with popular religiosity. The obvious example is the dogma of the literal presence of Christ in the host, a doctrine whose obvious absurdity even the finest minds of Europe could only finesse by prodigies of sophistical interpretation—one hopes the scholastics got paid by the hour. The church’s embryolatry, which amounts, after all, to the assertion of the real presence of the soul in the pharyngula, shows that folk psychology still at work, for the implicit metaphysics of the prolife folks is nothing as sophisticated as philosophical dualism. The soul is imagined as a filmy double of the body and not conceptualized as a radically different substance as it was, for example, by St. Augustine or Descartes. The unborn haunt the sentimental anti-abortionists whose Casper-the-Friendly-Ghost solution to the mind/body problem keeps them in the folkloric vicinity of revenants and zombies.

For all of its shortcomings, the history of the church does teach an important lesson. It takes unrelenting effort to maintain, if only by fits and starts, an adult morality of intentions in the midst of a population that thinks of right and wrong as a matter of crude rules and ritual purity. Only a disciplined, hierarchical organization can retain some sense of sobriety and realism in a world where spirits and demons routinely appear to one and all, especially since the church itself shares some the credulity of the laity.

There is a kind of thermodynamics at work in civilization. Keeping the ice cube from melting in the midst of the hot water requires insulation, and creating the ice cube in the first place requires work. A fully adult morality is unnatural. In fact, any rational approach to things requires a personal or institutional alienation from the community.

We can see this necessity in the sciences where without the creation and maintenance of distance from the opinions of the mass of humanity science would be quite impossible, not only because some of the results of inquiry outrage custom but because it is socially inappropriate to think too hard about anything. We think of the sciences as founded finally on observation, which is not exactly a mistaken impression, but a misleading one since it is just as important to disqualify the wrong kind of observers as to listen to the right kind. The democratic tendencies of science are often contrasted with the authoritarianism of the church, but the control of discourse imposed on the scientists is, if anything, more despotic than the old priestly censorship. The Index of Prohibited Books of the Holy Office has nothing on the prior restraint enforced by peer review.

Purely private skepticism also depends upon what Nietzsche called the pathos of distance. When people you love blandly report on the miracles and apparitions they’ve witnessed, there’s nothing for it but to smile and excuse yourself from the dinner table.

* “Nothing that another person does with the body, or upon the body, is any fault of the person who suffers it, so long as he cannot escape it without sin.”

No comments: