February 29, 2004

Simmering blood-feuds in the comment-box!

Posted by Curt at 03:43 AM in Bitching and Moaning | TrackBack

To those of you who have followed the comments on my original post on Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ it should by now be apparent that many people have invested themselves personally in this debate more than is the case in most of the issues that we treat of in this weblog. I should say up front that in my opinion the relative artistic merits of the film are fairly irrelevant; the controversy sparked by this film has touched upon issues which have swirled about almost since the time of Jesus, and will doubtless long outlast the notoreity of this film. In this respect, so far as these issues are concerned it matters not at all whether this film is a masterpiece or a turd. My concern is with the fundamental issues involved, not with their representation in this particular film, so any further comments regarding the film itself will henceforth receive no further attention on my part. Now, as for these more substantive issues, I wrote the original post intending to critique the activists who have quite irrationally, in my opinion, protested this film on account of its depiction of Jews as primarily responsible for the death of Christ. Now, surprising as it may seem in light of the numerous comments which have criticized me for allegedly questioning the historical validity of the Gospels, virtually the entire basis of my point in the post was to opine that, absent any substantive historical evidence to contradict the Gospel account of Christ’s death as being primarily the fault of certain Jews, the protests against this version of the story amounts to little more than a futile desire to exonerate the Jews without historical evidence, combined with a bullying victim-oriented ideology bent on exonerating them with or without evidence. Actually, my larger point was that whether or not any Jews are legitimately implicated in the death of Christ should have no bearing on how we treat living Jews, who had no part in these events of the distant past, and that in a larger sense punishment for historical crimes should never be inflicted on the perpetrators’ descendents.

Now, I could well have understood have understood a criticism of this opinion to the effect that crimes of the father actually do accrue to the son, and that issues of historical guilt and innocence need to be worked out in the present to bring the cycle of vengeance to an end. Instead, criticism (aside from the trivial issue of whether I have dealt fairly with the movie, which I freely admit that I have not seen and which only interests me insofar as the controversy surrounding it sheds light on the larger issues which I speak of now) seems to have come from quite a different quarter, namely the argument that I should not even consider questioning the validity of the Gospels, nor should I criticize a rigid adherence to the doctrine and narrative laid out in them. Now, I should perhaps state that I am not a Christian nor do I follow any religious denomination, so, to put it bluntly, I could not give a flying fuck whether anyone is offended by me taking an irreverent attitude towards scripture. Now, anyone who has read my words carefully will realize that I actually grant the Gospels historical validity in accordance with the non-contradiction principle, that is to say that I consider them reasonably historically valid absent documented contradiction of them. But I certainly will not move from that limited and conditional endorsement to a wholseale and unquestioning acceptance of them historically, morally or devoutly. Such an unquestioning acceptance of them is, in my opinion, highly characteristic of, in not the definition of, fundamentalism. Too many words have already been expended on overly subtle readings of my every word, so let me state this clearly and succinctly: I consider those who blame living Jews for the alleged crimes of their ancestors to be irrational, perverse and despicable. It is definitely a fundamentalist attitude to conclude that because the Gospels blame Christ’s death on certain Jews, this is indubitably the case. It is not necessarily a fundamentalist belief that because certain Jews living at the time of Christ were responsible for his death, Jews living to day should suffer reprisal, but it is a common characteristic of fundamentalists to, as Yeats observed, try to separate religious identity from the rest of human existence, so that members of a particular religious denomination, Judaism, for example, are viewed religiously as no more than a sum of the doctrines that their group espouses and of the actions of their group throughout the course of history. Again, this does not inherently accompany a religiously fundamentalist mindset; fundamentalism has enough unappealing qualities as is without attaching this inextricably to it. However, a retributive historical mindset does often accompany a fundamentalist mindset, accords well with it, and explains, I believe, most of the vengeance-seeking holy wars throughout the ages. The reason that I consider this despicable as well as superficial is because, as I said in my original post, moral responsiblity is solely characteristic of individual existence. An individual can be held responsible only for his own actions, and cannot be held responsible for what he had no part in. Hence, seeking vengeance for ancient historical crimes is wholly illegitimate. Finally, I should be the first to admit that fundamentalism is not limited solely to religion; one can apply this mindset to Mao’s little red book or to Adam Smith, but this does not mean that the religious fury that I have described above does not qualify as fundamentalism. Perhaps I should have said “the basic hollowness of the attitude of the Christian fundamentalists who wish to extract vengeance on living Jews” rather than “the basic hollowness of fundamentalism,” but my opinion remains unchanged regardless.

p.s. I didn’t really mean to write an attack of fundamentalism, although little love for it is lost on my part. However I will say that even if I were a fundamentalist I don’t think I would choose to defend my mode of belief on grounds of rationality. If I were inclined to stake my entire belief-system on unconditional acceptance of doctrine, the syllogistic system of moving from given premises to a valid conclusion which is the central dialectical mode of logic would seem to be pretty thin soup by comparison. Those who attempt to apply principles of logic to events and ideas in the world generally remain in a constant fog of doubt, never able to assent to anything more than conditionally and consistently hemmed in by the scope of their premises. Now, in a shadowy sense one could mimic the motions of logic within a fundamentalist framework by equating doctrine with logical premises, and then proceeding to conclusions purely within the bounds of doctrine. But shadows should not be mistaken for reality, and the key difference is that those who really follow a logical mode of thought never assent to either their premises or their conclusions unreservedly (of course in mathematics validity and truth are tantamount to the same thing, because the logical identity of numbers and their actual nature is identical as far as we know, but in any case this surety does not extend to the world outside of mathematics). Were I a fundamentalist, were I desirous of maintaining absolute surety on the matters addressed by the doctrine I had accepted, logic or rationality, with their terminal and irresolvable uncertainty, are the last things with which I would want anything to do. It should be pretty obvious that believing anything wholly unquestioningly is just as abstract and impossible as doubting everything, but starting from a state of doubt and questioning all that one can at the beginning seems less arbitrary to me than simply fixing on certain beliefs with certainty from the beginning.


I should perhaps have also noted that the parablistic mode in particular, which Jesus himself often uses in the Gospels (and appears explicitly in a number of the prophetic books in both the Tanach and New Testament) very obviously resists literalistic, word-for-word acceptance. That is to say that Jesus seems to me to have adopted the style of telling parables, among other reasons, in anticipation of the very dangers I have pointed out, i.e. the danger of his words being accepted uncritically and hence hardening into doctrinal inflexibility. The parablistic style, as may be ovious by now, is a great favorite of mine, because by contrast with the clumsy pedantry of literalism, it always points away from the superficial content of the words to a deeper, inexplicit truth. However, as happened so many times before, many of his followers have lost the great truths in grasping at the small ones.

p.s. It should also be ovious that I have little respect for the "morality with stories" portrayal of Jesus, but I simply mean to point out that real faith and skepticism are both hard roads to hold to, and neither one should be confused with literalist readings that are either affirmative or that counter-religiously seek to use the literal text of scripture to demonstrate its "scientific" absurdity.

Posted by: Curt at March 3, 2004 09:00 AM