Holy violence

17 10 2019

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As a supplement to my review of his book, I also present a reflection on a response that Hart himself made to another critical review of That All Shall Be Saved. In reviewing Hart’s book, Peter Leithart referred to all of the atrocities that God asked His chosen people to perform in His name, namely, annihilating entire cities and towns, including the children and animals. Leithart asks how one could reconcile this Biblical history to the idea of a good God. Hart states bluntly in Good God? A Response:

You ask if I think the YHVH of the Old Testament was “good.”  First of all, there is no single YHVH in the Hebrew corpus.  The various texts that the Second Temple redactors collated into the Torah and Tanakh emanate from various epochs in the development of Canaanite and Israelitic religion, and reflect the spiritual sensibilities of very different moments in the evolution of what would in time become Judaism.  Most of the Hebrew Bible is a polytheistic gallimaufry, and YHVH is a figure in a shifting pantheon of elohim or deities.  In the later prophets, he is for the most part a very good god, yes, and even appears to have become something like God in the fullest sense.  But in most of the Old Testament he is of course presented as quite evil: a blood-drenched, cruel, war-making, genocidal, irascible, murderous, jealous storm-god.  Neither he nor his rival or king or father or equal or alter ego (depending on which era of Cannanite and Israelitic religion we are talking about) El (or El Elyon or Elohim) is a good god.  Each is a psychologically limited mythic figure from a rich but violent ancient Near Eastern culture—or, more accurately, two cultures that progressively amalgamated over many centuries.

I admire Hart here for not pussyfooting around at least. The modern person has a real problem reading about God mandating atrocities while reconciling this to the merciful Jesus in the New Testament. (Though perhaps He isn’t as merciful as many suspect, as the whole conversation about universal salvation indicates.) Many ancient Christian writers such as Hart’s beloved Origen read the Old Testament allegorically. God is not obsessed with animal sacrifices and the fabric of one’s clothing. One has to move past these literal meanings to proceed to the true spiritual reading. Putting an entire city to death means stripping oneself entirely of the carnal and sinful attachments which prevent union with God. At least this is one conceivable reading of it. I would also argue that ancient peoples were more acutely aware of the realities of warfare. There were no U.N. conventions back then: if you were on the losing end of a war, you would be exposed to the full brunt of vengeance of the enemy. There was no use sugarcoating it.

I have seen some backlash against Hart for expressing this opinion, though apparently this is not the first time he has expressed it. Some have accused him of following the lead of the Gnostic heretic Marcion in rejecting the Old Testament almost entirely in favor of his idiosyncratic reading of the New. In fairness to Hart, I haven’t seen many people respond thoughtfully to his almost complete rejection of the Old Testament. Perhaps people believe more in their belief in the God who commands atrocities than in the God of atrocities Himself. The believer can think that this is just a “test”, that one must have faith that, in the end, God will provide answers to questions that bother us at the moment. How does one reconcile… the truth is we don’t know. But one isn’t allowed to throw out the unpalatable since it may be an essential piece of the entire puzzle of salvation history that culminates in the Incarnation.

I will switch gears and discuss another view of atrocities in a completely different venue. I return to the Srimad Bhagavatam, specifically to the events recounted in the penultimate canto concerning the disappearance of the Yadus and Krsna from the Earth. After fighting and winning the Battle of Kurukshetra, Krsna’s clan continued to be a burden on the world. As His associates, they were omnipotent and getting increasingly full of themselves. At one point, one of them dressed up as a woman and put a big iron ball under his sari. A group of Yadus asked a brahmana mockingly if the baby the man in drag was “carrying” would be a boy or a girl. The brahmana did what any sensible brahmana would do in this case, and cursed the entire Yadu dynasty for the affront. Later, the Yadus, under the influence of Krsna’s external energy, began a massive drunken rumble that turned exceptionally violent. Krsna and His brother Balarama at last took up iron stalks of cane, which had grown out the iron ball, and beat all of the Yadus to death. Afterwards, both Krsna and Balarama disappeared from the Earth, opening the Iron Age: the Kali Yuga.

As with the rasa lila discussed previously, Srila Prabhupada explains that this episode should not be understood in a mundane manner:

The Lord and His associates appear and disappear by the will of the Lord. They are not subjected to the laws of material nature. No one was able to kill the family of the Lord, nor was there any possibility of their natural death by the laws of nature. The only means, therefore, for their disappearance was the make-show of a fight amongst themselves, as if brawling in intoxication due to drinking. That so-called fighting would also take place by the will of the Lord; otherwise there would be no cause for their fighting. Just as Arjuna was made to be illusioned by family affection and thus the Bhagavad-gītā was spoken, so the Yadu dynasty was made to be intoxicated by the will of the Lord, and nothing more. The devotees and associates of the Lord are completely surrendered souls. Thus they are transcendental instruments in the hands of the Lord and can be used in any way the Lord desires.

(N.B. This purport appears in the Third Canto as Srila Prabhupada only translated the Srimad Bhagavatam up until the Ninth Canto due to the end of his earthly life, the rest being completed by his disciples.)

The associates of Krsna are not ordinary people and cannot be interpreted as such. Thus, no analogy can be made between the “holy” violence of the Bible and the events around the disappearance of the Yadu dynasty. The other obvious difference is that all of the characters in the martial anecdotes of krsna-katha are confirmed enemy combatants. Krsna and His cohorts aren’t out laying waste to entire cities, and they certainly aren’t slaughtering all of the cattle of the enemy, as God commanded in the Bible.  This would not be in line with the Kshatriya code, and if such atrocities happened elsewhere, they would have no place in Krsna’s lila.

The other main difference is one of identity. The Yadus are all eternal associates of Krsna in the spiritual world. They descend to the material world to play a part, and then they disappear back again into the spiritual world in a continuous cycle. Unlike conditioned souls (people like you and me), they do so at Krsna’s pleasure and not in any punitive sense. They are serving Krsna by playing a role, and that’s it. Their violent death and disappearance isn’t tragic or the subject of any profound existential crisis of meaning. They are literally like actors on a set who return to a role periodically only to go back to their “real life” elsewhere.

I am reminded here of Hart’s coreligionist, Metropolitan John Zizoulas, and his seminal book, Being as Communion. In that book, Zizoulas discusses how Christianity presented the revolutionary idea of the integrity of the human person. In ancient Greece, the word for person was πρόσωπον, which also meant “mask,” as in the mask an actor might wear in an ancient Greek play. Christianity indicates that the person, especially in the context of the Holy Trinity, should be considered as ὑπόστασις, as someone who stands by his or herself as an underlying reality. Just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit aren’t roles that the One God plays, but actual Persons who live in relation with one other [but being of one substance (οὐσία)], so human beings aren’t just “playing a role”. We’re not just random spiritual and material outputs spit out by a cold and uncaring cosmos, but actual integral persons designed to live in communion with one other. We do not merely play a role and dissolve back into the primordial cosmic goop.

In this context, Biblical atrocity becomes hard to swallow. Everyone in a city condemned to the sword and flame by God was an actual person, even a microcosmos. They had loves and hatreds, they had personal struggles, they had dreams and talents. It seems unacceptable that the meaning of their lives was entirely instrumental, that is, their destiny was to be the object of God’s wrath executed through others, and that’s it. This is the other side of the coin of Hart’s objection to “infernalism”: if universal salvation isn’t true, then there is a good possibility that God created all of these beings in His image and likeness not only to destroy them, but to torture them for all eternity. Humans would be as ephemeral as the sand mandalas constructed and destroyed by Tibetan Buddhist monks, but worse, as all of those loves and dreams would be transformed into suffering and hatred forever.

In face of this, one could continue to assert that we simply don’t know the answers, but we continue to believe in the God of answers who will dry the tears from every face, even if it does not seem possible considering the information we are given.  The other option is to lean into the ephemeral nature of humanity and reject the material world as anything but a prison. To the Western mind, this is very difficult to do. We have been so enamored by our dominance in transforming the material world that we are quite content with the idea that this is all there is, and stating that one’s award will be “great in Heaven” seems like the ultimate intellectual cop-out. Under no circumstances can we excuse the atrocities and savagery committed on this side of death as mere illusions. To explain away the affronts to human dignity appears to us to be one more affront, worse because it excuses violence for the sake of preserving otherworldly appearances.

I would sympathize with that objection more if there were any end to the pursuit of material pathos. To demand meaning and solace from the material cosmos just seems like a futile effort at this point (Srila Prabhupada brings up the analogy of trying to milk the nipples on a goat’s neck.) Taking the material world so seriously would be a more credible path if it didn’t always end in frustration over this “vale of tears”. Otherwise, the only other excuse is that such detachment from “all we know” is difficult, as Prabhupada explains later in the Third Canto:

The sufferings of the conditioned soul are superficial and have no intrinsic value, like the cutting off of one’s head in a dream. Yet although this statement is theoretically very true, it is very difficult for the common man or the neophyte on the transcendental path to realize practically. However, by serving the feet of great transcendentalists like Maitreya Muni and by constantly associating with them, one is enabled to give up the false idea that the soul suffers from material pangs.

In one purport,  the ISKCON founder disposes of the sufferings of the martyrs and of Jesus Himself on the Cross. It all didn’t mean anything. That we continually focus on it, on these harrowing existential questions, may just be an indication that we identify more with the prison than actual freedom. We are looking for answers in a place where no answers are possible. Srila Prabhupada indicates that identification with the material world is a path to continued misery, but it is also the binding force of material existence itself, known as false ego. Identification with the material world, with the idea of lording over it and enjoying it, even in a “right ordered” manner (sattvic), is the ultimate cause of suffering. And it is the very reason for the existence of the material creation which can give us no real comfort.

I continue to see how some would find the Cross as the redemption of suffering to be a great consolation. I see why people would still just “trust God” in these historical questions concerning horrible things happening in the Bible. It comes down to what decisions you want to make about first principles. It is also clear to me, however, that these problems are not going away. As we modern people become more brittle and sensitive to the bygone world described in our scriptures, more people like Hart and Co. will emerge who will question the accepted interpretation of what was written.


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