This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
It may be unusual to accost you on paper; impertinent surely not.
People are incited to address you all the time, more often, I confess, in hope of favours and/or forgiveness than in conversational mode. In today’s jargon, you can be imagined as the spiritual form of Deliveroo; St Jude your 24/7 service. As the go-to member of the Trinity, you have practical experience, which the Father does not, of inhabiting a mortal frame; hence your role as mediator. By a self-denying ordinance, your actual interventions seem, like His, very rarely to amount to more than counsel and consolation. Was that decision His, without being negotiable between you?
If the question is vulgar, is it because it is impossible for you and Him to have different reactions? In that case, what can your mediation mean in any theological or practical sense? If you have more empathy than He with mankind, how can that not, in theory at least, lead to Trinitarian unevenness?
Has any grand catastrophe been averted by supernatural intervention?
Am I not right in thinking that the machinery of sainthood, in Catholic colours, requires candidates to display three cases where the results are “against nature”? Benedict Spinoza declared such miracles logically impossible. His austerity, equating God and Nature, more enraged than impressed his co-religionaries. In Christian practice, qualifying marvels are liable to be in the tradition of your own terrestrial crowd-pleasing: the incurable patient rises from bed, food fills more mouths than expected, things of that eye-catching order. There is no reliable report of water being converted into wine since you attended that wedding in Cana of Galilee where, some joker has it, one of the guests would sooner have had water.
Has any grand catastrophe been averted by supernatural intervention? How could we know? What might have happened, but did not, offers a limitless field of speculation. In known records, divine brakes are never heard to squeal when it comes to human malice, however mass-murderous. The Godhead has made itself immune to charges of callousness by its irrevocable consignment of Free Will to mankind. Need this have happened? If not, why was the world’s game left to be refereed by officious, rarely impartial, human whistles? If there was no way back, how can such necessity be squared with divine justice? Whether the Trinity is now obliged — by “logical” fiat — to accept the consequences or whether it has chosen not to, does earthly mayhem appal or amuse the Godhead? Can the Three-in-One have divided responses while televiewing human dramas? Is there an infinity of channels, colours beyond the spectrum, in alien galaxies? These questions can be sighed away as callow but they go to the heart of what can be meant by a personal God or an ultimate Creator.
What did it mean when Jews, never all Jews I am sure, looked forward to the advent of the/a Messiah? Can they ever have expected anything more than a cheerful Jeremiah or an all-conquering meta-Maccabee? Was there ever any notion that the Almighty would practise dominion over the world, or His people, in such a way that He would, at some point, concede autonomy to the rubric Jehovah & Son? Does any solemn tract of scripture promise anything so disruptive?
The sins of the world have proliferated beyond ancient imagination since your thirtysomething years on earth.
Christianity, like Islam, has so much blood on its hands that all manner of ingenuities have had to be devised to preserve its benign validity. Although both of the later monotheisms took much from Judaism, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” was not prized among the booty. The failure of the Jews to kill, or even to defend themselves, until threatened with extinction by their derivatives, excited more scorn than respect. The state of Israel then raised and sustains furious apprehension that killing and robbing Jews may not be part of the divine plan.
If God is working his purpose out, as the Reverend Woodward’s not very ancient hymn promises, it is tempting to wonder when, to the nearest millennium, He might come up with an answer. The image of the thief in the night warns against putting the kettle on, but one can become impatient even for the creak of a jemmy. Paul, ex-Saul, held your return to be imminent. It was better to marry than to burn, he said, but conjugal meum/tuum was not expected to have time for more than a few sessions. It did though, didn’t it, by mortal reckoning, generation after generation? Your delayed return, tease or purposeful as it may be, has led to voluminous theological refinements and (God save the mark!) meta-Talmudic ingenuities. The multi-dimensional theory of time has been handy in discounting the centuries. There are, it is said, no clocks in heaven, as there are none in casinos.
Meanwhile, mankind’s innings grows longer; sins accumulate, mammon reigns, blood spills. The proceedings of the final judgment will be either summary or protracted, depending on whether the defence can ask questions — “What kept you?” not least — of the kind the Church has seldom tolerated without violent repression. Will clerics be among the accused when The Day comes? Mea maxima culpa seldom figures in any official pronouncement from the Lord’s episcopate.
It seems curious that the report you cried out on the cross, “Father, Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?” has been allowed to appear in the Gospels.
Perhaps ecclesiastical editors failed to excise it in time. Does it not suggest that exiting mortal life in such an agonising way came as a surprise, if not a betrayal?
Might your claim to be the son of God have been more modest, more Jewish even, than Christianity came to insist? It was a cliché for male Jews to describe themselves in such terms. Less boast than confession, it repeated their duty to honour His patronage by obeying His law. Rewards were not promised, the afterlife scarcely mentioned, individual supplication suspect: it is said to be futile for fewer than ten Jews together to implore divine attention. Requiring such a quorum can be read as a way of discouraging individual pleading. While on earth, you ventured disconcerting thoughts, but did you go further than the Essenes or other critics of the Temple consistory and its spectacular, Hellenistic form of worship?
Your terrestrial teaching was close enough, in many respects, to the views of Pharisees for you to be taken for one of them. The Gospels then chose to depict you as diametrically at odds with that intelligent company. How else to assert your uniqueness and justify a cult which came to damn “the Jews” as perfidious enemies? This ground is well trodden, and deeply muddied; all discussion of the battles that took place on it is deemed, conveniently, not of the mysterious essence.
The world is instructed to remember only that you declared yourself the Son of God and that your own people rejected you. If that was your claim, they would, wouldn’t they? No one doubts your charisma, as signalled by John the Baptist, but was he certifying you as any more than a prophet in the tradition of Isaiah and Elijah? The essence of the Covenant from which you personally never dissented was that God was unique, the Jews His people; take His word for it.
The construction of you as the Saviour was essential to what came to be represented as your time on earth. Interpreters, Greek and Hebrew, are renowned for embellishments. As for your mother’s virginity, that was a now more or less recognised mistranslation, too late to retract, of the Greek parthenos. In Hellenistic patois the word had come to signify a marriageable young woman, with no guarantee her maidenhead was intact. Having incorporated the mystery of virgin birth, the elders of the church were committed to an admixture of magic elements and holy moly. Challenged, they had recourse to the ineffable to sanctify and obscure the issue.
The Virgin’s “bodily assumption” into heaven (decreed unquestionable by Rome 18 centuries after the event) furnishes another occasion for puzzlement: where, in carnal form, can Mary be lodged, fed and so on? “She is with God,” a modish monsignor once told me with enough-said conclusiveness. He has since quit holy orders.
The construction of you as the Saviour was essential to what came to be represented as your time on earth.
To exempt you from undignified postures, apologists claimed you were spared excretion by a digestive system so thorough that you had no impurities to eliminate. Pious images of you as an infant were suffered to show your penis, but your adult person was presumed to have no practical use for that organ in limp or rigid form. D.H. Lawrence was the first to imagine you absconding from celestial reunion and embedded in a human relationship entailing progeny. Kingsley Amis wanted you to stick around next time you came and “have some kids yourself”. That, he implied, would teach you. No sex, no laughs, no nappy-changing — what kind of experience of human life did you ever really have?
It can be said that Judaism had already fetishised the penis by circumcision. It stopped short of condemning the female orgasm, by never mentioning it (as Tiresias of the wrinkled dugs did and declared it nine times more enjoyable than the male). The stories of Sodom and Gomorrah and of the shaming of Onan suggest what Wittgenstein would later conclude: we are not on earth to have a good time. Your own genial attitude to females, virtuous and fallen, somewhat breached current Jewish male practice, but strong women are more often found in the Old than in the New Testament.
That cry of yours on the cross suggests you had not been fully briefed
The Virgin, virtually a non-speaking part, is exemplary, but scarcely characterful. How much time has Christianity had for females except in ancillary, Martha-like roles? While your generosity to Mary Magdalene promised redemption to penitent whores, it also polarised them. Women had to be one thing or the other. Which was witch became a morbid obsession in Christian Europe, with murderous, misogynistic consequences: if you can’t burn a Jew, burn a woman.
That cry of yours on the cross suggests you had not been fully briefed. The defence of Judas Iscariot has been that he was less a traitor than necessary to the divine scheme. The Romans were also divested of blame. It has been made to look as if Pontius Pilate was coerced by the Judaeans to whom he otherwise seldom deferred. His required place in the Passover plot has made washing his hands into a gesture that was all but saintly. That “the Jews” took the rap was more diplomatic than just: it left way for Christians to trim with Roman power and, in time, abstract its crown as they had God’s favour from the Jews. The next number was to evict what was left of the Jews from Jerusalem and deny them re-entry forever. The latest trick is to un-Jew your very person. As the serpent never quite said to Eve, how do you like dem apples?
You presented yourself, while on earth, as a radical provincial — ignorant, it seemed, that cool Jerusalem fig-trees did not crop as often as those in your native Galilee — but you offered no challenge to the central role of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments. Had you paraded as an out-and-out secessionist, would you ever have attracted the Judaean audiences, who listened to you as they might to any eloquent preacher?
The sighs of those who have heard this before do nothing to resolve the paradox of a divine mission that issued in a Church based, against Mosaic principle, on trinitarian worship and the eviction of Jews from salvation. Did your words ever supply a licence to princes, prelates and demagogues who never cease to include the degradation of Jews in their curriculum?
The Church’s wish to avert attention from its own imperious purposes led it to postulate a secret quasi-diabolic Other which required extirpation. So, later, did the ex-seminarian Stalin enhance and curse Trotsky, Orwell imagine Emmanuel Goldstein, and so on. “Snakes, you can’t see them but they’re there,” is an antique mantra. There has always to be some surreptitious conspiracy to account for delays in salvation. Embellishers and advocates profit from your brief stay on earth and from your infinitely more significant departure in the tracks, as it were, of Elijah; the same pad launched the prophet Muhammad into heaven, after which the service was suspended.
The Jews, pernicious or on probation, according to their utility, set a style that rivals have pillaged for their own advancement.
Since Judaism’s basic morality remains fundamental to later faiths, Jews may regularly be abused but it cannot be discounted. The Aztecs had a similar nervous attitude to the Toltecs, whom they had evicted from power and from whom, even at the height of their waterborne majesty in Tenochtitlan, they never ceased to solicit happy auguries (and implicit forgiveness), without success. Alexander the Great was humiliated by Diogenes’s refusal to think of any favour that the master of the world could grant him, other than not getting between him and the sun. Alexander said that if not Alexander, he would as soon be Diogenes. Diogenes did not return the compliment.
The non-Christian student of available sources is likely to take your reading of the Jewish law as an incitement to generosity without rating you any kind of renegade. You were scarcely alone in wishing piety to entail more than formal recitation. Hillel, a great teacher/preacher of just before your time on earth, had advocated “love”, of the chaste order that Greeks called charis, as the right attitude to others.
He also held a man’s personal conduct to be a primary concern; everything else, he said, as you came to insist, was a derivative gloss. It is another oddity of many pious Jews, though not only of them, that they insisted that sex be limited to monogamous marriage; yet their sacred books lavish admiration on adulterous amorists such as King David and ostentatious wantons such as King Solomon.
The non-Christian student of available sources is likely to take your reading of the Jewish law as an incitement to generosity without rating you any kind of renegade
Alternating currents of obedience — as in the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his own son — and murderous defiance, like that of Cain, run through the thickets of morality and worldliness. The failure of your Father to punish Cain for killing Abel is an early paradigm of His long habit of allowing the wicked and the green bay tree to flourish with equal prolificity. Doctrinal elaboration of what is waiting for the Faithful in the way of heavenly mansions, if they stick with it down here, calls for patience in the face of God’s refusal (“inability” would be rude) to interfere in what the twelfth-century pope Clement III called “The World’s Game”, of which that pontiff was, like his successors, determined to be the master.
It can hardly be necessary to explain to you what, if the ideology built around your place in the godhead is to be taken seriously, you must know already: a part of the sad history of the Jews, amongst whom not even their enemies can scarcely deny counting you, is that they have always been as fissile as they are coherent. Moses assumed their leadership, before the Covenant was ratified and sealed literally untouchable confirmation of his demanding guardianship. It required guile as well as confidence to unite a mob of disparate fugitives from Egypt into a proto-nation on the march to a promised land. Circumcision seems a curious prescription for homogeneity but — as you know — if you’re cut out for it, there it is.
Hillel, a great teacher/preacher, held a man’s conduct to be a primary concern.
The garrulity of the Jews, in a language rich in metaphor, apt for colourful glosses, hot with adversatives, reckless in presumptions of divine support, has fractured their history into chapters full of loquacious antagonisms. Nothing is less likely, as you may one day or night come to confirm, than the Christian assertion (made in evangelistic Greek) that the Jews with one accord called for your execution. The Jewish genius finds no more regular expression than in taking exception.
The fantasy of a Jewish plot sealing all the seemingly diverse elements in a sinister communal network derives, I hope you would agree, from an ideological trick which allowed the Christian church to accuse “the Jews”, one and all, of your murder. By this mass condemnation, without possibility of defence, the Church presumed on your authority to condemn “the Jews” to repeated, gleeful obloquy. The Gospels and their interpreters supplied an Ur/wellian Ministry of Truth. By attributing to the Jews of your time the chant of “His blood be on us and on our children”, they made it saintly to persecute and dispossess all Jews forever. The latest denigration is to deny that your earthly person was ever a Jew. This, as the neo-Zealots fail to see, collapses the whole castle from which it was hoped that you would one day command the scene.
The proclamation of the upstart emperor Constantine, at the beginning of the fourth century, declared Christianity the religion of his empire. It had less to do with spiritual revelation than with a non-Roman’s politic move to unite the disparate population under his control. God was expected to be grateful, and appears to have been so: conversion became widespread quite (but only quite) rapidly; it also confirmed Constantine’s God-blessed right to the imperial throne, as had the destruction of rebellious Jerusalem that of the no less upstart Vespasian 300 years earlier, according to the interpretation placed on it by the nascent Christians. Their eviction of the Jews from your father’s favour depended on the translation of power to Rome.
The latest denigration is to deny that your earthly person was ever a Jew.
The Jews were dispossessed of the solitary deity Who had commanded their undivided devotion but Who did not quite insist that He was the only God in existence. Did “Thou shalt have no other Gods but me” not acknowledge that other races or tribes had, or might have, their own divinities? JHVH Himself is rumoured to have united two such gods, one fancied by some meta-Talmudists to be female. The universalisation of the Trinity was an act of imperialism no less than of piety. Who dares to presume what your earthly mission was? However odd of God to choose the Jews, He was as much chosen as they and seemed to take the charge seriously. Your advent had no advertised scheme. Your speeches never threatened that you or He would abandon the Jews. You have been taken for a revolutionary, for dramatic purposes, but you proved more clever diplomat than the marching warrior it became flattering to call you.
Might it be that there are more lessons available to a sceptic than can be derived from a pious reading? You supplied alternatives even as you, and certainly your devotees, seemed to demand unquestioning adhesion. In that sense, maybe you have returned again and again without anyone noticing. You must know the old story about someone saying to Bernard Berenson that he had dreamed of your Second Coming. “Really,” said Berenson, “in what style?”
Someone at the door.
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