JR'S Free Thought Pages
New Age Religion by A. C. Grayling (The Form of Things: Essays on Life, Ideas and Liberty in the 21st Century, 2007, pp. 95-98)
A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford - and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com
In the United States and Nigeria religious observance is increasing. In mature, world-wise, sophisticated Western Europe, attendance at church has long been declining. But declining European church attendance does not mean a reduction in superstitious belief. It has partially been offset by interest in New Age alternatives. Thus some non-churchgoers buy crystals, have their astrological charts cast, and arrange their houses according to feng-shui principles. (To add a characteristic further touch of contradiction, they might yet remain 'C of E' - 'Christmas and Easter' - nevertheless.)
One thing this change in ways of expressing credulity does is to show that religion is in essence no different from these other observances. The shift really comes down to rejecting participation in organized religion in favor of vaguer, less demanding and more exotic superstitions. A recent BBC survey on religion in Britain showed that almost half of the population claim to believe in the existence of some kind of 'higher power'. This degree of residual superstition explains why Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ struck a chord with some when it first appeared. (According to his own testimony, Mr. Gibson is a practising Roman Catholic and his wife is a practising Anglican. Asked whether he agreed with his denomination's doctrine that 'there is no salvation outside the Church' he said he did; which meant - he further explained - that he had to accept that although his wife was a better person than himself, he was saved and she was not. Such, one sees, is true religion.)
Although Western Europeans inhabit a post-Christian culture, the symbols and stories of the Christian tradition still exert emotional power among them. The reason has less to do with that tradition itself than the tradition to which it itself belongs. Stories of the death and resurrection of gods are very ancient. They can be traced back through all middle-eastern mythologies to ancient Egypt. Gods such as Horus, heroes such as Odysseus, and symbolic figures such as Orpheus, all went to the underworld for various reasons, and returned. The earliest myths were prompted by the death of vegetation in winter and its resurrection in spring. The Jesus legend is a version of that mythic tradition. People today only know the Christian version, and identify with it because it is central to the institution which for 1500 years dominated much of European and therefore Western history: the Church.
The 'Passion' story - the trial and death of Jesus - has a grip on people's minds largely because of the horror of the story. In medieval times practically every church had murals depicting it in full color. The Alte Pinakothek in Munich has an overwhelming collection of altarpieces from that period in which one can see, portrayed with ghoulish relish, cruel scenes of suffering and agony, with gushing blood, livid wounds, faces awash with tears, much weeping and wailing. Alongside were pictures showing the torments of hell awaiting those who would not respond suitably to all the suffering alleged to have taken place on their behalf. The coercive and ugly aesthetic of most Christian history and teaching - replaced (now that the doctrine has to compete with alternatives and indifference) by saccharine images of Mary and a baby, and statuettes of the Bleeding Heart in which Jesus' eyes are turned mournfully upwards like a spaniel's - is not now fully appreciated. But the icon of a tortured semi-naked corpse hanging on a scaffold remains the central image, intended to provoke - well, whatever response is supposed to be central to that queer religion.
People seem to have a psychological need for images that convey gripping, scary, upsetting ideas. It does not really matter what images succeed in stimulating us to feel these emotions, as the great variety of horror films shows. Our cultural heritage has conditioned us to think that the crucifixion is especially emblematic, because the corpse's suffering is said to have been a sacrifice for others. Mothers suffer sacrificially a great deal of the time, of course, and repeated experiences of giving birth (say - a twelve hour or more labor) would not be hard to calibrate against a one-off experience of three hours nailed to planks of wood. Nor would the last months of terminal cancer, thoughtfully provided, so some allege, by the Intelligent Designer of the universe. But the idea of the Passion is nevertheless taken to be especially iconic, holding its votaries by engendering a blend of curiosity and superstitious awe.
The Passion story comes from a literature that was written at particular times for particular people. The first canonical gospel, the one according to Mark, was written in Rome about ad 60 soon after Jerusalem was sacked. It was pitched at a Roman audience who asked the question, 'Why should we take seriously the story of someone who was executed by our authorities as a political rebel?' (Crucifixion was the specific method of execution for terrorists and insurgents.) The answer Mark gave was that the Jewish Sanhedrin tricked the Romans into crucifying Jesus. From then until very recently (and, for some, still) the Jews were the murderers of the Messiah, and were accordingly demonized - and viciously persecuted - by Christianity.
When a religious organization has political as well as spiritual authority it increasingly tends to adopt a repressive and tyrannical Taliban-like face. The orthodox (which means: those with power) persecute the heterodox and unbelievers, even to the extent of torturing and killing them. One has only to think of the Inquisition and the Wars of Religion that followed the Reformation: if a person disagreed with the Church he could be burned at the stake - and many were. Now the situation is different. The Churches are in retreat, so they have turned themselves into organizations full of brotherly love and charity. In this friendly mode they seek to play down the horrors of their past, and gloss over their murderous relationship with Judaism. The Church has gone from harshness to happy hymns, from Savonarola to snappy sermons, from punishment to the persuasion of marketing ploys.
Would the Christian Churches stay the same - 'happy clappy hymns' - if ever they regained the degree of power of life and death, of torture on the rack and burning at the stake, that they once wielded over our daily lives? One very profoundly doubts it.
A C Grayling Bio
Dr Anthony Grayling MA DPhil (Oxon) is Reader in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne's College, Oxford. He has written and edited many books on philosophy and other subjects; among his most recent are a biography of William Hazlitt and a collection of essays. For several years he wrote the "Last Word" column for the Guardian newspaper and is a regular reviewer for the Literary Review and the Financial Times. He also often writes for the Observer, Economist, Times Literary Supplement, Independent on Sunday and New Statesman, and is a frequent broadcaster on BBC Radios 4, 3 and the World Service. He is the Editor of Online Review London, and Contributing Editor of Prospect magazine. In addition he sits on the editorial boards of several academic journals, and for nearly ten years was the Honorary Secretary of the principal British Philosophical Association, the Aristotelian Society. He is a past chairman of June Fourth, a human rights group concerned with China, and has been involved in UN human rights initiative.
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