The Long View: The System of Antichrist

Here is an excellent example of why I still think John J. Reilly has something to say all these years later. This book review is a synthesis of ideas he had been working on for nearly ten years, nicely summarized by the links he put in to his earlier work. And also, this paragraph:

Like Foucault, Upton notes that evolution in modern thought replaced ontological hierarchy with historical development. In fact, the fallacy that makes all the other New Age fallacies possible is the belief that new Truth (that, is truth not already contained by Tradition) can come to light in history. Upton's critique in this regard is not so different from other criticisms of "Process Theology," which might be summarized by the principle that God is the best that exists at any given time, not the best that can be.

Reminds me of this current controversy in the Catholic Church. These ideas haven't gone away, or even changed very much.


The System of Antichrist

Truth & Falsehood in
Postmodernism & the
New Age

By Charles Upton
Sophia Perennis, 2001
562 Pages, US$27.95
ISBN 0-900588-30-6

A Review by
John J. Reilly

 

Globalization, the New Age Movement, and postmodernism did not merely arise at about the same time, according to The System of Antichrist. Rather, they are all manifestations of a common impulse, one that is not entirely of human origin. They are in fact symptoms of the impending end of the world. As is the way with eschatological analysis, much of the book's argument is best taken metaphorically. However, these are the sort of metaphors you neglect at your peril.

The author, Charles Upton, began life as a conventional Catholic. He experienced the 1960's Counter Culture and subsequent New Age spiritualities, which he now views as pathologies that have been marketed to a mass audience. Eventually, he washed up on the shores of Tradition, and became a Muslim Sufi. Upton's book is largely a synthesis of the theological metaphysics of Frithjof Schuon's The Transcendent Unity of Religions with the eschatology of Rene Guenon's The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times.

The System of Antichrist does not attempt to summarize Tradition systematically, so neither will this review. Suffice it to say that Tradition is a curious blend of neoplatonism and comparative religion that was devised in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Tradition, or corruptions of it, crops up in the most extraordinary places, from Black Metal music to the writings of Robertson Davies. As a matter of intellectual history, it belongs in the same class as Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy, Jung's psychology, and the comparative mythology of Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell.

Additionally, I think it important to point out that Tradition is also closely related to the reaction against speculative philosophy that we see in Heidegger, with the vital difference that Traditionalists find that the Transcendent, rather than Being, is inescapably "thrown" to them.

As we will see, Traditionalists tend to believe that the state of the world is very unsatisfactory, and fated to get worse. Wicked Traditionalists not only believe that the world is ending, but are keen to help it along. (One of the most puzzling features of this book is the failure to engage directly the esoteric fascism of Julius Evola.) In the sense in which Upton uses the term, however, "Tradition" means almost the opposite of world-hating Gnosticism. Gnostics deny the value of the world; Traditionalists see eternal value in the world. For Tradition, the creation of the world was not a mistake, but an act of divine mercy. Everything in it tells us something about God. These things include the human institutions ordained by God, the most important of which are the world's revealed religions.

This is where Tradition differs from ordinary syncretism. Tradition is a spiritual practice that needs a revealed matrix. Traditionalists can be Muslims, or Jews, or Christians, or Buddhists, or even shamanists, but they cannot mix and match. These traditional religions, at least according to the Traditionalists, are united by the transcendent object toward which they look. Each represents a revelation of the divine nature; the differences between them can be resolved only eschatologically. The attempt to create a world spirituality, in fact, is one of the satanic counterfeits of these latter days.

Although The System of Antichrist has its biases, it is not religiously partisan. Many of its theological points are perfectly orthodox. For one thing, Upton never departs from the principle that eschatology is fundamentally personal. Creation and apocalypse are always present. Eschatological history is only a symbol of the death of the ego and its replacement by God. In one sense, you are the Antichrist, and in your own latter day that tyrant will be overthrown. On the other hand, there is no denying that eschatology also has a universal dimension. The book usually works on the assumption that a personal Antichrist will appear in the penultimate stage of world history; several of the world's religious traditions say as much, and personification facilitates the discussion. However, Upton reminds us repeatedly that the concept of Antichrist can also be taken to refer to a collectivity, one that has existed as long as Christianity itself. That collectivity becomes coherent and visible as the end nears.

Admirers of C.S. Lewis will be happy to know that they may have already read some fictionalized Traditional metaphysics, in the form of Lewis's novel, That Hideous Strength, which deals with a conspiracy of scientific magicians to open a branch office of Hell in central England. In The System of Antichrist, Upton seeks to make explicit the suppositions behind that story:

"[A]s this cycle of manifestation draws to a close, the cosmic environment first solidifies – this being the result and the cause of modern materialism – after which it simply fractures, because a materialist reality absolutely cut off from the subtle planes is metaphysically impossible. These cracks in the 'great wall' separating the physical universe from the subtle or etheric plane initially open in a 'downward' direction, toward the 'infra-psychic' or demonic realm (cf. Rev. 9:1-3); 'magical realism' replaces 'ordinary life.' It is only at the final moment that a great crack appears in the 'upward' direction..."

If you don't like esoteric metaphysics, this would still be an interesting statement about the history of philosophy. The rejection of the transcendent resulted in materialism, which, like all monisms, is at best incomplete. By the middle of the 20th century the materialist edifice was riven by skepticism toward scientific and historical knowledge. With the coming of postmodernism, very strange substitutes for metaphysics began to appear. Upton means much more than this, but this is one way to look at it.

The Intellect is the faculty of the mind by which we perceive "self-evident truths." During the 19th century, the Intellect could no longer look to a transcendent God; even metaphysical first principles were rejected after Kant. In consequence, emotion became divorced from the truth. The affective part of human nature was expressed, for a while, as the irrational sentiments of Romanticism. The postmodern declension from Romanticism is emotional numbness, enlivened by atrocity and sinister fascination. There is such a thing as emotional intelligence, and the trajectory of the postmodern world is to stultify it. Postmodernism removes the possibility of romantic heterosexual love as a spiritual exercise. Worse yet, it makes God inaccessible.

The New Age might be called "folk postmodernism," except that folk religion is better structured. In traditional civilizations, there is a hierarchy of the religious life: popular practice, an institutional church, and esoteric tradition. The New Age collapses these layers, so that the transcendent element that had been the object of esoteric spirituality is lost. All that remains is the psychic, meaning both ordinary psychology and the shadowy realm that surrounds the material world but is not necessarily superior to it. The result is people who channel extraterrestrials, or embrace psychological management techniques, or are attracted to some of the less-grounded forms of Pentecostalism. The forgetting of the distinction between psyche and spirit makes Antichrist's counterfeit of the spiritual possible.

Like Foucault, Upton notes that evolution in modern thought replaced ontological hierarchy with historical development. In fact, the fallacy that makes all the other New Age fallacies possible is the belief that new Truth (that, is truth not already contained by Tradition) can come to light in history. Upton's critique in this regard is not so different from other criticisms of "Process Theology," which might be summarized by the principle that God is the best that exists at any given time, not the best that can be.

Anti-historicism is central to Tradition. The school arose in opposition to that other tradition, the one that proceeds from the French Revolution. Tradition denies the possibility of historical progress. It is resolutely anti-Hegelian. Also, largely in response to the evolution-based postmillennialism of the Theosophical Society, it will have nothing to do with the concept of evolution. Even if new forms of life appeared over time, they were simply the instantiation of preexisting archetypes. The only historical change is decay:

"It is certainly true, according to esoteric philosophy, that the created order returns to its Divine Source through the conscious spiritual unfolding of individual sentient beings. But this 'evolution,' this unfolding of the individual through a transcendence of the self-identified ego, is not a continuance of the cosmogonic process, but a reversal of the process..."

One could expand at length on the misapprehensions in this book about evolution. The chief one is the common error that the Second Law of Thermodynamics forbids local increases in order. As a corrective, one might refer to Robert Wright's "non-zero-sum" model of evolution, which gives a persuasive explanation for why history must be, in some sense, both progressive and teleological. Actually, the idea that evolution may be a process by which "ideal forms" incarnate is not so far off the scientific reservation, according to Simon Conway Morris. However, even a Platonic approach to evolution requires that higher forms appear with the passage of time.

Be this as it may, the point Tradition tries to make is that religious novelty is never for the better. This has proven to be the case with the New Age. There is such a thing as a New Age agenda, one with a long pedigree. New Agers suppose that belief in anything beyond the psychic is patriarchic oppression. The major New Age writers usually envisage the end of Christianity, and particularly of the Catholic Church.

Upton gives us a selective tour of some of the fashionable New Age belief systems of the past three decades. James Redfield's Celestine Prophecies gets a rather more thorough critique than the matter merits. (Upton does hit the nail on the head by calling the cult of the books a manifestation of "New Age singles culture.") Deepak Chopra comes in for measured criticism for seeming to equate enlightenment with material well-being. Some of these writers have always been obscure and have become only more so with the passage of time. Still, their ideas have permanently affected the popular imagination.

Upton believes that "A Course in Miracles" is the acme of New Age thought. It is based on the channeling of the "Seth Material" by Jane Roberts. As you might expect, this is a lengthy revelation that is supposed to come from a supernatural entity named Seth. The resulting doctrine does, at least, accept the existence of a divine absolute. The problem is that the absolute is so absolute that God does not even know this world exists. "A Course in Miracles" purports to go beyond the dichotomy of transcendence and immanence by saying that this ego-generated world is too unreal for God to be immanent in.

I was previously unfamiliar with "A Course in Miracles." It seems to be almost classically Gnostic, complete with a dying and senescent demiurge in the form of the Christian God. Remarkably, "A Course in Miracles" adapts the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics as the basis of a theory of simultaneous incarnation. That is unlikely to be true, but it is very ingenious.

Upton is so impressed by the Seth material that he wonders whether it may have been designed to lead astray the metaphysically inclined. He has particularly harsh words for its treatment of the question of whether God is personal: "The tendency to use the Impersonal Absolute to deny the Personal God, all-too-common among many people shallowly interested in mysticism and metaphysics, is simply another form of the ego's desire to be God." Depersonalizing God distorts the divine essence into a mere cosmic potentiality. We may use it, but it can make no demands on us. In Christianity, Upton points out, the meaning of the incarnation of the Second Person is that no one may approach the Godhead except through personality.

There is a larger metaphysical point here that is worth a little attention: the distinction between transcendence and abstraction. An abstract idea is merely a selection of common features. Upton's notion of a transcendent idea, in contrast, sounds like a "phase space." It encompasses all that something can be. Archetypal ideas are ideas of this order. In Upton's system, an entity of this sort is just what we mean by a "person." God is more than personal, but he is also personal in this way.

If great archetypal ideas are personal, it by no means follows that they are necessarily friendly. The powers of darkness appear as unconscious belief systems and social mores. An unconscious false belief on the psychological level is a demon at the psychic or spiritual level. The world is misled by fallen entities of a high order: cherubim, demons of the Intellect rather than of the will. In Upton's estimation, these shadows of the Four about the Throne can be characterized as Law, Fate, Chaos, and Self. These false alternatives war among themselves, and foment war on Earth. Self-deluded, they delude us.

The postmodern world presents a greater peril than merely a disordered cultural climate:

"Friedrich Nietzsche said, 'Be careful: while you are looking into the abyss, the abyss is looking into you.' This is why I caution the reader not to open this section while in a state of depression, anxiety, or morbid curiosity. Whoever already knows how bad UFOs are, and is not required by his or her duties to investigate them, should skip this chapter."

Despite the warning, Upton's account of extraterrestrials as a postmodern demonology is not without a certain morbid fascination. The growth of the popular cult of UFOs means that the blackest kind of black magic has gone mainstream; an assessment that, oddly enough, echoes Michael Barkun's conclusion that the UFO mythology have served to distribute "stigmatized knowledge" throughout the whole culture.

Upton relies heavily on the UFO researcher Jacque Vallee, who is best-known for arguing that the reports of UFO encounters closely resemble folkloric accounts of meetings with faeries, incubi, and (Upton's favorite spooks) jinn. Vallee does not limit the phenomenon to folklore. In the more than fifty years of UFO reports, there are real physical effects, instances of mass psychological phenomena, and human manipulation. About this Upton says: "The critical mind tries to make sense of this, fails, and then shuts down. It is meant to."

Upton sketches a history for us. The earliest accounts of meetings with extraterrestrials, which date from the mid-20th century, come from people with connections to the occult underground. Black magicians, who earlier in the Occult Revival had been able to invoke demons only for themselves, had been searching since the beginning of the century to invoke them for the masses. This was not entirely the magicians' idea. The Jinn, or at least the malicious ones, are seeking a stable incarnation in this world. They induce people to welcome and worship them. They also, perhaps, inspire computer technology and genetic engineering. These technologies undermine the human image. They also could be media through which the jinn achieve bodily form. They would then either displace the human race, or corrupt it to their purposes.

I would say that little of this is likely to be literally true. Still, it is true that there is a deep connection between flying-saucer cults and transhumanism. In any case, these dark desires, whether human or demonic, interpenetrate seamlessly with the spirituality of what has been called "the transnational class," but which Upton calls simply "the global elite":

"The characteristic 'religion' of some (but not all) sectors of this global elite is a kind of 'world fusion spirituality' – which, however, is essentially psychic, not spiritual – made up of texts, music, ritual objects, yogic and magical practices, and even shamanic initiations from around the world."

The spiritual disorders that arise from the denial of the personal God are important precisely because they are integral to the drive toward world unification. Neither side of the globalization struggle is strictly on the side of the Antichrist, but then neither is necessarily opposed to him.

Postmodernism is one of the reasons what a united world would be intolerable. Upton correctly notes that pluralism and the subjectivity on which postmodernism is based are incompatible. Postmodernist globalism, under the cover of multiculturalism, creates unity by denying its possibility. Metaphysical unity is a reality, always and everywhere. When it is denied, it reasserts itself as power rather than as cognizance. On the other hand, the multiplicity of cultures is metaphysically necessary, because each reflects some aspect of the divine. Suppress that multiplicity, and the result will be inter-ethnic chaos, which only force can control.

As is so often the case in this book, one notes that Tradition comes in different forms, and that all of them use the cultural resources of historical societies in a selective fashion. Other writers influenced by Tradition emphasize the archetype of the "empire," of the necessary unity of humanity, which is found in many civilizations. Even Islam, which makes a point of officially tolerating the existence of other confessions, contemplates that this toleration should occur in the context of a universal Caliphate. Upton's critique echoes the common anti-globalist complaint that both the unity and the diversity offered by globalization are disingenuous.

In any case, Upton asserts that today we live in a world that has moved from "the revolt of the masses" (which old-style conservatives like Guenon worried about) to "revolt of the elites" (which troubled another of Upton's favorites, Christopher Lasch). For the first time in history, it is the wealthy and educated who want to remake the world. As a critique of globalization, The System of Antichrist is in many ways a more lucid version of Hardt & Negri's "Empire." (That book, despite it postmodern Marxist rhetoric, expresses many Traditional themes.) Actually, for a book that is supposed to reflect the viewpoint of primordial truth, Upton's seems to accept uncritically the "litany" of the anarchist left, from alleged environmental collapse to corporate malfeasance. Fundamentally, however, politics and economics are epiphenomenal to what is really happening.

The Antichrist appeals to the best in us; therefore he is at his worst when he most closely approximates the truth. Beyond the vulgar New Age, we learn, there is a long-running tradition of "counter-initiation." The people engaged in this project do not seek to destroy the revealed religions, but to subvert them in all their forms, exoteric and esoteric. The Theosophical Society is the best–known example, but Upton is most alarmed by those he calls the "false traditionalists." Most famous of these is Carl Gustav Jung, who is a well known inspiration for the world's proto-global elites. The object of Upton's peculiar ire, however, is one William W. Quinn, Jr., author of The Only Tradition. While sometimes deploring the dissolution of traditional cultures and religions, Quinn sees it as a necessary step toward the creation of a Traditional Planetary Culture, one that will be simultaneously scientific and religious, a post-democratic world ruled by a hierarchy of adepts. This is very much what the system of Antichrist would look like in its maturity.

Upton admits he was strongly tempted by the prospect of a Traditional Planetary Culture, but overcame the glamour. False Tradition of this kind is a mere "higher empiricism." It views revelation, not as the word of God, but only as data. The result is metaphysics without religion; in other words, a sort of psychic engineering. Again, God becomes a resource, not a person.

As for the apocalypse itself, we are given a comparative tour of mythologies as they relate to the endtime. (I once attempted such a study myself, by the way, in a book called "The Perennial Apocalypse.") Upton's survey includes aspects of the eschatological ideas found in Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity (chiefly in its Orthodox version), Islam, and the religions of the Hopi and the Lakota. As you might expect, the survey finds a high incidence of Antichrist-like figures who deceive the world in the latter days, and Messianic figures who briefly restore Tradition before the end.

We learn quite a lot about the Shiite idea of the "occultation": messianic figures disappear for centuries, until they are ready to play their endtime role. Despite the high incidence of millenarian hopes throughout history, we are given to understand that a literal Millennium, of a perfected earthly society, is not Traditional. However, Upton intriguingly parses the possibility of a "short Millennium." This might be consistent with the reign of the Mahdi, or the period alluded to in Revelation that occurs immediately after the Second Coming. This period is variously described as lasting a few days, or months, or years; in one Shiite version, it lasts 309 years.

Our destiny is the New Jerusalem, the perfection and crystallization of our world. Though Upton is no more clear than his sources, one gathers that will occur Elsewhere. There may be some continuity of our physical world with a following one. It is possible that Earth will not be destroyed, and even that there may be a few human survivors. That next world, however, will be another creation. Our business is with salvation in this one.

Upton suggests some spiritual possibilities unique to the endtime. The latter days allow for detachment, since at last we know enough not to place our hopes in history or "the future." There is also a unique opportunity to acquire encyclopedic spiritual knowledge from around the world. Indeed, the very advent of the Traditionalist school is a providential "sign of the times." Finally, we may hope for the spread of serenity like that which accompanies the old age of just persons, through whom eternity begins to shine.

On a practical level, we must not forget that the forces of globalization and those opposed to it are equally apt to the hand of Antichrist. He might even come to power to overthrow a previously established world system. The System of Antichrist suggests that we deal with this situation in the way that Jesus did when he was asked whether it was licit to pay taxes to the Romans. To that he answered that we should render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. We must avoid being trapped in crooked choices. Our goal in the latter days is not to save our lives, but our souls. Even politics can be a "liturgy," in which we play the role we are assigned.

* * *

Upton's analysis merits comment. So does the doctrine of Tradition itself.

No doubt it is true that God forgives even theologians for their theology. Nonetheless, the principle of the transcendental unity of religions is open to question. The doctrine holds that the revealed religions are more similar to the degree that they approach their Object. This is not obviously so. Regarding personal eschatology, for instance, the Buddhist "moksa" is not equivalent to the Christian Beatific Vision; neither is self-evidently identical to the model of collective immortality that Upton himself seems to favor. The latter's best known exponent is the Muslim mystic Ibn al-Arabi. That is an important point.

In addition to Western Hermeticism, Tradition exhibits quite a lot of Sufism. The primordial Traditionalist, Rene Guenon, famously became a Muslim, and Upton followed suit. There are Christians, indeed Latin Christians, who consider themselves Traditionalists. Still, sometimes I can't help but wonder whether Tradition is just a very refined form of Sufism. This suspicion is probably misplaced, but Tradition is nonetheless parochial in a more fundamental way.

Sufism is a wisdom that crystallized from an age of skepticism and heresy. So, for the most part, are the other civilized esoteric traditions from which Tradition was composed. Tradition is not primordial. It's like the music of Solesmes, which was created at almost the same time as Tradition, and for much the same reasons. The Traditionalists are right, surely, when they say that it is mere bigotry to look on the past as inferior simply because it is past. We have a duty to extend the same sort of imaginative sympathy to the modern era that we do to distant times and places. The West is still going through its own centuries of skepticism. Someday, modernity could appear as primordial as Atlantis.

End

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Apocalypse Kit

All these years later, the Heaven's Gate webpage is still up and running. That is an apt metaphor for John's point here: millennialism is a permanent [well, really really stable] feature of the human mind. You see the same pattern over and over again, in widely separated times and places. It is an idea that manages to survive the death of its adherents, over and over again.

I haven't got a theoretical explanation for that, but I also think you don't need one to acknowledge the fact.


The Apocalypse Kit

“The avatars of the New Age, as the Irish mystic A. E. realized in a vision fifty years ago, will not be the solitary male, but the male and the female together.”

--From “The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light” (1981) by William Irwin Thompson, Page 254

 

Do and Ti. Bo and Peep. Guinea and Pig. Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles. These two variously-named founders of the Heaven’s Gate cult first achieved the eminence of a New York Times Magazine feature story in February of 1976. Then they were just a couple of eccentric people on the West Coast who came to public attention because they had begun to recruit people to fly away with them in a flying saucer. They had some success with the recruiting. As time went on, they no doubt believed they had some success in communicating with the flying saucer people, too. They then disappeared from public view for twenty years, invisible to all but a few cult-watchers.

While in obscurity, they practiced meditation techniques, lived in rural encampments and learned the Internet. They took on a few new recruits, but the bulk of the membership seems to have remained the people who joined in the ‘70s. Many of the men had themselves castrated in order to escape the temptations of the flesh and the peril of reproduction in an evil world. Some of the people who joined were lonely losers, but the most striking thing about the membership was how many of them were somewhat superior people, with degrees and careers and happy families. In any event, the world next learned of them at the end of March, 1997, when we heard that 39 members of the group had killed themselves neatly, antiseptically, without so much as a library fine left unpaid. The contrast with the bloody mess left by the suicides of the Order of the Solar Temple, the Camp Davidians and Jonestown could not have been greater. This terrifying tidiness was the only unique thing about them.

To me, at least, the significance of Heaven’s Gate is the way it adhered so closely to ancient patterns. It was as if the whole thing had been constructed from a kit, a collection of ready-made parts that the principals did not invent. You cannot call on psychology or sociology to explain what happened to Heaven’s Gate. The small personal crises of Applewhite and Nettles in the early 1970s perhaps provided occasions for what was to come, but these accidents did not determine the content or trajectory of the cult. Neither does the cultural crisis of those years have much explanatory power. People in entirely different societies under entirely different pressures have done very much what Heaven’s Gate did, in whole or in part. In Heaven’s Gate, you had something close to the Platonic ideal of a passive millenarian movement. You will learn little about America or late modernity from studying it. You will, however, learn a great deal about one of the more dreadful capacities of the human condition.

What is a millenarian movement? Basically, it is a group that believes that the world, or an age of the world, is about to end. The end they conceive need not be catastrophic, but it often is. The group is usually concerned with surviving the transition, or preparing to escape the catastrophe, or quite often with engineering the catastrophe themselves. Millenarianism is not an attribute only of cults or small sects. Whole societies can become millenarian for decades at a time. When that happens, some version of apocalypse is often enacted in literal fact. The short explanation for the rapid Spanish conquest of Mexico, for instance, is that the arrival of the Spanish occurred at a time when the belief was already widespread in Mexico that the “Fifth Sun,” the final age of the world, was about to end. Similarly, the catastrophes of the first half of the European 20th century were preceded at both the popular and the elite level by a growing sense of a “trembling of the veil,” of impending wonder and disaster.

In Christianity, millenarians usually look forward to the Second Coming of Christ after a period of tribulation. As a rule, Christian millenarians also look forward to a literal “millennium” on the other side of that event, an age in which they themselves will help to rule. Christian millenarians in the United States have traditionally been politically passive, though this is changing with the increasing political mobilization of the evangelical vote. Some millenarians, on the other hand, form revolutionary armies, like the Fifth Monarchy Men of the English Civil War. These reactions are really matters of degree. The passive millenarians seek to retreat into an end-time community, while the aggressive ones seek to make that community coextensive with the world.

It must be emphasized that millenarianism is not confined to Christianity or the West. The nineteenth century was particularly rich in millenarian activity of every description. The Plains Indians “Ghost Dance” cult was a millenarian phenomenon; the Indians danced in hope of the end of European settlement and the return of the Buffalo. A generation earlier, the Millerites of western New York State bravely announced a date certain for the Second Coming (two, in fact), thereby producing the Great Disappointment of 1844. By far the bloodiest war of the nineteenth century was the “Tai Ping” rebellion in China in the 1850s and 60s, which sought to install the Age of Highest Peace on Earth. One of the curiosities of colonial history was the career of Charles Stuart Gordon, the British general who made his reputation helping the Manchu government of China put down the Tai Ping. So great was his fame that 20 year later he got the assignment to hold Khartoum in the Sudan against the Mahdi Rebellion, another millenarian uprising, this time inspired by Muslim eschatology. This posting was less successful, since it terminated with the fall of the city and the loss of Gordon’s head. The Mahdi’s Jihad was only one of a number of similar uprisings in Africa, Asia and Polynesia.

Actually, the 20th century has, if anything, been even more affected by millenarian patterns of political behavior. The Marxist theory of history, many observers have long noted, retains the shape of the Judeo-Christian model. For the Tribulation of the Last Days read Late Capitalist Immiseration, for the Second Coming read the Revolution, and for the Millennium read the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. On the other side of the political spectrum, the expression “Third Reich” is an old term for the Millennium. (It refers to the Third Age of the world, the Age of the Holy Spirit, which the 12th century Abbot Joachim of Fiore suggested might begin in 1260 AD.) For that matter, there is good reason to believe that such 20th century institutions as annihilation bombing of civilian populations were inspired rather directly by H.G. Wells’s secularization of the Book of Revelation in many of his stories. In a way, then, the return of self-consciously religious millenarianism at the end of the 20th century is simply a return to normal.

Of all the exotic things about Heaven’s Gate, perhaps the group’s surgical approach to androgyny attracted the most media interest. This is not the sort of thing they tell you about in journalism school, probably for good reason. Nevertheless, the notion of sacramental castration is nothing new, even within Christianity. The “proof text” for this practice is Matthew 19:11-12, which reads: “Not all can accept this teaching, but those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born so from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs that were made so by men; and there are eunuchs who have made themselves so for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” This passage, of course, comes at the end of a discussion of divorce, and it may be taken in various senses. However, in apostolic times it does not seem to have occurred to anyone to interpret it as an injunction to literal castration. For that, we have to wait for the third century writer Origen, who probably, though not certainly, castrated himself as a young man.

The most systematic recent practice of sacramental castration that I am aware of occurred in the sect of the Skoptsi, the “Castrated Ones” of Russia. The group began as an outgrowth of Russian flagellant sects in the middle of the 18th century. The police attempted to suppress it as soon as they became aware of it. However, under their leader Kondratji Selivanov, the Skoptsi not only survived but enjoyed a measure of patronage by Czar Alexander I in the early 19th century. Even when the political climate turned against them again, they continued to find converts at all levels of society, not only in Russia but in the Balkans. Remnants of the sect may have survived in Romania as late as the Second World War.

Deliberate communal suicide is a rare phenomenon in any context, millenarian groups included. Of course, millenarian societies often have beliefs that are suicidal if put into practice. The Xhosa of what is now South Africa, for instance, destroyed their cattle in an act of mass sacrifice in the 1840s, in the belief that this would spark a new age in which they would be free of the British, the Boers and the Zulus. The result was mass starvation, and only a remnant of the people survived. More generally, it was widely held among insurgent millenarians fighting European armies in the 19th century that certain prayers or amulets would turn their enemies’ bullets to water. How this bad idea spread is one of history’s minor mysteries, but it had a great deal to do with turning what might otherwise have been merely lost battles for native insurgents into massacres.

The chief instance of mass suicide before Jonestown in 1978 was probably represented by the early stages of the Raskol, the “Great Schism” in Russian history. The event is perhaps an extreme example of what can happen when you do a liturgical reform badly. By the mid-17th century, Russia was coming out of a long time of troubles, and so it sought to put its house in order in many areas. Among these was a reform of the Orthodox Church. There were a number of reasons why a reform was a good idea. Corruptions had crept into the texts of the old Slavonic liturgy and Bible over the centuries, as the Greeks often pointed out. Additionally, the system of ecclesiastical discipline and administration had to be rationalized in response to the Jesuit-lead Catholicism of the Polish Empire, which the Russians were in the process of beating back militarily as well. The Synod that decided on the reforms was held in the ill-omened year 1666. The opponents of the reforms became known as the “Raskolniki” or “Schismatics.” They christened the Synod itself “The Synod of Antichrist.”

To an outside observer, the changes implemented by the Synod do not seem very great. Certainly there were no major theological changes. However, many of the reforms were needlessly intrusive into traditional practices, down to “correcting” the Russian pronunciation of the name of Jesus. Aggravating the situation was the personality of the Patriarch Nikon, who was not much interested in diplomacy or compromise. The result was that, while almost all the higher clergy reluctantly conformed, in the provinces all hell broke loose. Particularly in the north of the country, peasants became convinced that the age of Antichrist and the end of the world were upon them. To save their souls, the populations of whole villages killed themselves. In some cases the people gathered into a large building and set it afire. In others, the people starved themselves to death. In later years, the Raskolniki, who called themselves the “Old Believers,” were objects of perennial persecution by the Czarist authorities. In turn, the Raskolniki were ever after an important element in popular revolts and general unrest. Dostoyevsky did not choose the name “Raskolnikov” for the subversive protagonist of “Crime and Punishment” by accident.

This brings us to what many imagine to be the more strictly modern elements of the Heaven’s Gate story. Folklorists love flying saucers, or at any rate they love the people who believe in them and have reorganized their lives to take account of their existence. Partly, this is because beliefs about flying saucers so closely reproduce story patterns that are familiar from folktales. (A very good book on the subject is Keith Thompson’s “Angels and Aliens: UFOs and the Mythic Imagination” (1991)). Quite suddenly, in the 1950s, supposedly deracinated Americans began telling tales about encounters with fantastic beings, tales that followed the ancient patterns. Stories of meetings with diminutive people from the sky who paralyze their human acquaintances with light and sound are not very different from Celtic traditions about encounters with the Good People. Stories about the deplorable sexual proclivities of the aliens are often indistinguishable from medieval accounts of visitations of incubi and succubi. (In the 12th century, by the way, penitential manuals for parish priests took the sensible position that these things were hallucinatory, but that confessors should not make fun of people who confess to them.) As with the rumors that began to circulate in the 1980s about a witch-underground that sacrificed thousands of children every year, the flying saucer stories were often not just similar to those of 500 years ago; they were the same stories.

Flying saucers began to be incorporated into millenarian beliefs almost as soon as they were first reported, in a prosaic account by an experienced pilot in 1947. Little knots of less prosaic people collected to establish contact with the aliens. They soon formed a subculture that contrived to facilitate communications among its members quite without the benefit of the Internet. David Spangler’s memoir, “Emergence” (1984), is a reasonably lucid account of that milieu by someone who was raised in it and went on to be become a noted channeler and teacher in the 1970s. The popular side of the New Age was in fact little more than the popularization of this subculture for a mass audience.

In later years, the aliens tended to be taken in a more metaphysical sense by many New Agers, Spangler included. However, in the beginning, the motives attributed to the aliens were not thought to be hard to understand. Sometimes the aliens came to warn people that the human race was doomed unless it changed its ways. Sometimes they came to offer enlightenment. Curiously, there were few if any groups formed around the idea that the aliens were dangerous invaders who needed to be resisted, despite the popularity of that motif in contemporary fiction.

Occasionally the aliens came to offer personal rescue from apocalyptic catastrophe. Heaven’s Gate falls into this category. One of the most interesting books in the literature remains Leon Festinger’s “When Prophecy Fails,” which deals with a cult in the 1950s that was informed of impending natural calamities through a medium and promised rescue. The chief finding of the book was the fact that the failure of the saucer prophecies to come true actually strengthened the cultists’ faith. Their explanations for why the saucers did not come for them were often quite ingenious. Considering the book now in light of the Heaven’s Gate episode, one is struck by the fact that not only did both groups pack little traveling bags for the trip, they both even prepared “documentation” for the aliens to certify. The difference was that, after a string of failed prophecies, the beliefs of the 1950s cult just snapped. The cult quickly disintegrated in a shower of spin-off groups and disillusionment. The members of Heaven’s Gate, in contrast, took steps to prevent a change of heart.

What lessons can we learn from Heaven’s Gate?

Perhaps one thing we should do is stop blaming the proximate causes. There is, for instance, no special power in old Star Trek episodes or the Hale-Bopp comet to lead people to mass suicide. Neither is the Internet to blame. Anyone who has looked at the cult’s websites can see that they were hardly a menace to human life. (Actually, anyone who has talked to a marketer can tell you it is almost impossible to sell anything on the Internet anyway, cult membership included.) For that matter, neither can religion in general nor Christianity in particular be held liable. As we have seen, millenarianism is not specifically Christian. It is not even specifically religious. It is a way of making sense out of history, which really is episodically catastrophic. As Paul Boyer noted in “When Time Shall Be No More” (1992), millenarians at the beginning of the 20th century had a better intuition of the coming decades than did Wilsonian liberals.

I can come up with any number of social, moral and economic explanations for why just those 39 people killed themselves in San Diego in 1997, but I do not really believe them. Sociology I now believe to be merely a species of rhetoric, and there is no longer any school of psychology that I find persuasive at all. What we are left with is history, and the ancient patterns.

End

This article originally appeared in the May 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: The Celestine Prophecy

The archetype of gassy New Age puffery. I'm with John: probably not actively harmful, but it won't do you much good either.


The Celestine Prophecy
by James Redfield Warner Books, 1993
246 pp., $17.95
ISBN: 0-446-51862-X LC: 93-61754

 

Let us be charitable. Pilgrim's Progress was not very good as a story either. Still, for centuries people throughout the English-speaking world have been edified and entertained by that book, despite its relentless allegories, stiff characters and a plot with all the surprise and whimsy of a long ride on a freight elevator. The Celestine Prophecy is a novel also economical of artistic blandishments, yet it too has achieved an uncanny popularity. As of July 10, 1994, it had been on the New York Times bestseller list for 19 weeks and was still number 2. On computer bulletin boards, people extol its virtues and testify to how it has changed their lives. The author, a New Age writer and spiritual guide who lives in Alabama, has been making the round of radio talkshows and afternoon television programs with some success. However, when all provision has been made for differences in taste and the quite real possibility that it is I who am obtuse, I cannot escape the conclusion that there is something terribly, terribly sad about the reaction to this book, that this savorless New Age confection should have been the most popular piece of spiritual reading in the United States in the first half of 1994 [when this was written].

The framework of the book ("plot" is perhaps an exaggeration) is simple enough. It seems than an Aramaic document, written about 600 B.C., has been discovered in Peru. This work, which is composed of nine "insights," explains the reason for human conflict and outlines the future of the race. The Peruvian government, at the behest of the Catholic Church, is trying to find and suppress the document. Therefore, its keepers have divided it up for safety and translation. The protagonist is a man from the United States who goes to Peru and finds the translated insights one by one.

Well, okay. It is interesting to note that when this book first appeared, it was characterized as non-fiction. Some of its readers, I gather, still think it may be literally true. (The book, by the way, had been self-published before Warner Books so profitably adopted it.) It was reclassified as fiction, perhaps because of little slips, such as the consistent reference to the indigenous civilization of Peru as "Mayan." That and the fact the denim-and-Jeep culture in which the characters move sounds rather more like Colorado than Peru.

The first insight is that we should take significant coincidences, what Jung called "synchronous events," more seriously. The protagonist takes this advice, and so progresses from encounter to encounter with just those people he must meet to in order to find each insight and become prepared for the next. Most of the insights deal with interpersonal relationships. Thus, we learn that marriages and friendships fail because they become struggles for power in a quite literal sense. As our protagonist's spiritual capabilities increase, he can actually see the cloud of psychic energy being pulled back and forth between people engaged in an argument. This energy is necessary for health and happiness. To dominate another person is to steal his energy. The solution to this dilemma is the insight that you can draw all the power you need directly from the universe. As you draw more and more power, you develop new faculties. At the end of the process, your body becomes spiritualized and you can walk into heaven.

Perhaps one of the attractions of the book is that the author's spiritual system is held together by a kind of soft millenarianism, a three-stage model of history quite like that developed by the Abbot Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century. Starting about the year 1000 A.D., according to the author, the Western world lived in a universe of faith, certainty and otherworldliness. This lasted about 500 years, until dissatisfaction with the way the Church applied its own ideals led to a second age, one centered on enjoying and understanding this world. Today, it seems, the world is approaching a critical mass of spiritual disaffection which will at last open people to wider realties in the New Age, the third age to come. During the coming age, people will depend less and less on science and engineering and more on their psychic abilities. Indeed, one of the insights is that, deep in the New Age, the chief item of production for which people will be paid will be more spiritual insights. (For those who cannot wait for the New Age, the book thoughtfully provides subscription information to the author's monthly newsletter, The Celestine Journal, which is no doubt full of insights.) At the end of history, the whole human race will consist of spiritual adepts who will move on to a higher plane of existence.

It is hard to see how this book does any great harm. The advice about personal relations which the book provides is not vicious (or interesting). Even its fashionable anti- Catholicism lacks sting, since the author does not know enough about Catholicism to criticize it. The cardinal who is trying to destroy the manuscript, for instance, explains his actions in part with the argument that the insights, if published, would make people less prepared for the Rapture. Perhaps more important, the world of The Celestine Prophecy is one without evil. This is true even of the cardinal, who is merely deluded. This, maybe, is the problem: if the bad is not very bad, neither is the good very good. The book's prescriptions for reducing interpersonal conflict rest on a theory that sounds more like fluid dynamics than like ethics. Our conflicts, all the trouble in human history, are the result of the fact that we have unknowingly been trying to steal spiritual "stuff" from each other, what the Chinese call "chi" force. Fortunately, however, now we know that we can get all the stuff we want at will from the universe. All conflicts and violence can now therefore cease. Well, I'm glad that's settled.

The only frightening thing about this book is what it suggests about the state of American spirituality. Hundreds of thousands apparently find it provocative, life-changing and deep. You hope that this just a case of people reacting positively to the best that they can get. After all, the book does seem to be well-meant, and a little popular eschatology can be edifying. You fear, however, that the success of books like this means that people would not recognize the real spiritual life if they ever met it.

This article originally appeared in the October 1994 issue of Fidelity magazine. Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View: Spirit Wars

John Crowley

John Crowley

Now nearly twenty years old, this book review is a pretty good primer of the cultural movements in America that made the Da Vinci Code a best-seller.

So far, the biggest religious revival of the early twenty-first century has been an increasing lack of religious affiliation at all. The Second Religiousness may yet come, but it isn't here yet.


Spirit Wars: Pagan Renewal in Christian America
by Peter Jones
WinePress Publishing, 1997
$18.95, 331 pages
ISBN: 1-883893-74-7

 

A Preview of the Great Apostasy?

 

"Where was it ...said...that in the religious history of the West the old gods are always turning into devils, cast from their thrones into dark undergrounds, to be lords over the dead and the wicked? It had happened to..the Northern gods...who became horned devils for Christians to fear...And now look, the wheel turns, Jehovah becomes the devil. Old Nobadaddy, liver-spotted greasy-bearded jealous God, spread over his hoard of blessings like the Dragon, surrounded by his sycophants singing praises, never enough though...
(John Crowley, "Love & Sleep," pages 499-500)

 

It's a rare American church-goer who has not noticed that at least some of the leaders of his denomination have been talking funny in recent years. The use of gender-neutral language does not prove much, since this is becoming a standard professional-class dialect (failure to use which is in some cases actionable at law). Nevertheless, even the most trusting parishioner has to wonder whether new formulas like "Creator, Savior, Comforter" really mean the same as the old "Father, Son, Holy Spirit." Perhaps more incomprehensible to the folks in the pews has been the dogmatization of ecology, which might seem to some people to be the paradigm case of a prudential issue.

Paradoxically, it is only in the most extreme situations, where pastors speak openly of the Earth as the goddess Gaia and churches invite practicing witches to lead Bible study groups on Halloween, that it really becomes clear what is going on. The bald truth is that a large slice of the American theological establishment has abandoned Christianity as expressed in its traditional creedal formulations and adopted a species of gnosticism. "Spirit Wars," a new book by Peter Jones, currently Professor of New Testament at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California, is a guide to this new religion, showing how it fits into the intellectual landscape of late twentieth century America and describing in detail its many close links with the classical gnostic heresies of the first few centuries A.D.

Professor Jones writes from an evangelical perspective, though not without reference to the state of Judaism and the Roman Catholic Church. (Regarding the latter, he quotes frequently from Donna Steichen's "Ungodly Rage.") With a masters degree from the Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate from the Princeton Theological Seminary, he is certainly in a position to describe the progressive paganization of the leadership of the mainline churches in America. Though British-born, he seems to have made his way through the great educational institutions of the United States just before the Long March of `60s ideology began. Unlike many of his younger colleagues today, he is therefore still able to be shocked.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the book is the connections it makes between the resurgence of gnosticism and other trends in the academy and politics. The literary technique known as deconstruction, for instance, helped to create the intellectual universe in which the transcendental monotheism of orthodox Christianity became quite literally unthinkable to many people with expensive educations. I might add that, most recently, deconstruction (which turned out to have been founded by Nazis) has been superseded in some institutions by some form of "historicism." As practiced by many prominent theologians, this approach essentially consists of recasting biblical history to fit an ideological perspective. The metaphysical anti-monotheism inculcated by deconstruction still remains, of course, but there has been added to it a profound dishonesty in the use of historical sources.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is Jones's assertion that American gnosticism has begun to serve as the theological underpinning of cultural and even political liberalism. For two centuries, the chief alternative to orthodox Christianity was atheist humanism, or agnostic scientism, or at any rate some way of looking at the world that categorically excluded the supernatural. This is no longer the case. Increasingly, people who oppose traditional ethics and who seek to collapse the human race into the natural world are claiming some sort of supernatural sanction. This trend has entered the mainstream to an appalling degree, as even a cursory familiarity with Vice President Al Gore's preachy eco-feminist tract, "Earth in the Balance," will confirm. In some ways, the people who control the key institutions of American society are more pious than their predecessors were a century ago. The problem is that this piety is directed toward objects that have less and less in common with the religion of the people these institutions are supposed to serve and represent.

The origins of gnosticism are disputed, as is the precise time of its appearance, but it is clear that in the first few centuries after Jesus there was a variety of sects, other than the orthodox church, that claimed to be Christian, indeed to be the true and esoteric Christianity. They changed and multiplied, as their adherents followed after one charismatic adept after another, but a few themes and names stand out. Marcion, for instance, who lived in the second century, essentially threw out the whole Old Testament as the work of the devil and kept only fragments of the New. Others, such Valentinus, tended to keep the scriptures but modified their meaning. As a rule, though, in gnostic speculation the God of the Jews was denounced as a tyrant who had created the inferior world in which we live. His law is folly and his promises are lies. The universe over which he rules is a multi-layered prison in which human beings are confined in ignorance of their origin and destiny. The serpent in the Garden of Eden was seeking to liberate mankind, and Eve was its prophet.

In most gnostic systems, there is indeed a god worthy of worship, but one wholly alien to this world. This god is neither male nor female, neither good nor evil, but beyond all categories even by analogy. The Christ is his agent, but understood primarily as a psychological function. The Jesus of history, to the extent the gnostics were interested in him at all, was an exemplar rather than a redeemer. Human beings contain the "sparks" of the alien god. After many incarnations, these captive souls may hope to attain the "knowledge," the "gnosis" (the words are cognate, by the way) that will allow them to return to their origin.

How did the sparks get there? They are trapped, through "love and sleep," in the mass of the world, into which a fragment of the complex divine reality called the "pleroma" has fallen. This final emanation of the divine is called Sophia, "wisdom." She is conceived of as a goddess whose fear and terror and grief at her separation from the pleroma gave birth to the Demiurge, the false god of our creation. There is a "higher" or unfallen aspect of Sophia who works to undo the enslavement of the divine to matter and to rescue the human race from the world of birth, death and division.

Now, all of this sounds like pretty esoteric stuff, something that only scholars or would-be magicians might be expected to run across. Until a few years ago, that was largely true. Today, in contrast, expressions of gnosticism turn up in the most unexpected places. Consider, for instance, the following autobiographical description of a vision experienced by the author of a recent book that dealt largely with the state of current progress toward a unified field theory in physics:

"...I became convinced...that I was the only conscious being in the universe. There was no future, no past, no present other than what I imagined them to be. I was filled, initially, with a sense of limitless joy and power. Then, abruptly, I became convinced that if I abandoned myself further to ecstasy, it might consume me...With this realization, my bliss turned into horror...As I fell I dissolved into what seemed to be an infinity of selves."
(John Horgan, "The End of Science," page 261)

The interesting point here is that the writer of this passage had apparently never heard of the gnostic doctrine that the world had been created through God's own fear. He mulled over this experience for many years and eventually wrote "The End of Science" to work through the possibility of a downside to omniscience. However, most people do get their ideas about gnosticism from books rather than personal experience. With certain adaptations, all of the themes described above as elements of ancient gnosticism now have modern analogues, expounded in prestigious schools of divinity and, in many cases, preached to actual congregations.

Some things have needed translation, of course. Classical gnostics loathed matter and the structures of this world because they thought there was an immeasurably better world elsewhere. However, though this better reality was absolutely transcendent, they believed the way to find it was by looking within. In modern gnosticism, in contrast, the transcendent is a more muted theme; any appeal to the "beyond" is likely to be denounced as an ideology. The search within continues, however. Instead of seeking union with the alien god, modern gnostics seek their authentic selves. The techniques for this search are therefore more likely to be considered therapy than magic, though in fact rather a lot of traditional hocus-pocus has become fashionable in progressive religious circles.

In any event, today the opposition to the "structures of this world" is at least as fierce as it was in the religious underground of second-century Alexandria. To take the most colorful example: if the God of Genesis said to be fruitful and multiply but otherwise to behave yourself, then obviously the way to subvert his law is to engage in any form of sex that does not result in children. There has always been a real horror of reproduction in gnostics of all ages. This sentiment was well expressed by Jack Kerouac in his declining years, when he regretted that he had fathered a daughter and thereby had added to the "meat-wheel" of the world system. Similarly, both in modern and in ancient times, there has been a strong gnostic tendency to regard homosexuality as metaphysically superior, since it moves beyond the division of gender roles established by the Demiurge.

Modern gnosticism is predominantly feminist, and indeed to the extent that feminism seeks an ontological justification, gnosticism is probably it. However, we should keep in mind that consciously gnostic feminism has as little to do with the actual needs and concerns of most women as Leninism does with those of industrial workers. I, at least, am increasingly convinced that the role of feminism in the critique of the Western tradition is in any case largely instrumental. Notions like "patriarchy" are essentially a form of class analysis, with the genders substituted for economic classes. It is an unfalsifiable hypothesis. Like the term "bourgeois," it is a cuss-word rather than a description of anything. When the whole of art and science and politics are denounced as part of a system of patriarchal oppression, the point is not to draw attention to unjust gender-relationships, the point is to get rid of the art and the science and the politics. Again, the impulse here is fundamentally gnostic, a studied loathing of ordinary life not because it is evil, but because it exists.

A novel aspect of modern gnosticism is its millenarian streak. Ancient gnostics anticipated that the corrupt world system created by the incompetent Demiurge would come crashing down one day, but they did not normally anticipate it happening anytime soon. They were wholly uninterested in transforming the world or in becoming a universal faith. In today's gnosticism, in contrast, there is a strong dispensationalist sentiment. The Age of Christianity (or of Jehovah) is over, they say, and the New Age is about to begin. Among feminist gnostics, the motto "women will destroy god" is frequently met with. There is a high end and a low end to this sentiment. The low end is represented by "witches" who conduct gothic ceremonies in honor of the return of the Goddess Sophia. The high end is represented by people like Joseph Campbell, who held that the global society of the third millennium requires a new global myth, one consonant with modern science and social practice. There is no lack of perfectly respectable people, again notably including Al Gore, who have suggested that the myth of the Goddess Gaia, of the Earth as organism, might serve this function. Thus, modern gnosticism has plans not only for destruction, but for the reconstruction to follow.

On a less global level, vandalism is a good enough description for what has been happening in the Protestant mainline churches and elements of the Catholic Church for the past quarter century. (Actually, in the case of Catholic parish churches, "vandalism" is not a mere metaphor, considering the ghastly effect that modernizing liturgists have had on the ornamentation and design of church buildings.) Church-goers who have been paying any attention at all have had little trouble following the irresponsible mutations that have occurred in the treatment of scripture and liturgy.

Peter Jones is particularly exercised by the proliferation of tendentious Bible translations in recent years. Perhaps the most dishonest exercise so far has been "The Five Gospels," a heavily-marketed translation of the four canonical gospels, plus the "Gospel of Thomas," a work that came to light among the gnostic texts found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. The "Gospel of Thomas" is simply not a "gospel," both because it is of later composition and quite different in form, a mere collection of sayings attributed to Jesus. Nevertheless, this is precisely the kind of distinction that many modern theologians have been systematically subverting.

The progressive line now is that the gnostics had as much right to be considered Christians as did the orthodox Church. The victory of one faction over the other was a matter of pure chance, the outcome of a power struggle. How Christian orthodoxy, an outlawed religion for three centuries, could have won a power struggle against anybody is hard to see. Syncretistic religions that included elements of Christianity were not illegal; a statue of Jesus stood in the pantheon of the third century emperor Alexander Severus. Nevertheless, in the interests of inclusiveness, "Gnostic Bibles" containing apocryphal literature from Nag Hammadi and other sources have already begun to appear. They find increasing acceptance in seminaries where the whole idea of a biblical canon is under question.

The situation is only exacerbated by enterprises like the "Jesus Seminar," whose participants vote periodically on which elements of the New Testament should be given what level of credence, and particularly on which sayings attributed to Jesus were really his. The sayings they endorse are those that suggest Jesus was mostly interested in finding the inner self and subverting gender roles. The Seminar is, as Jones notes, essentially a hoax perpetrated by people with impeccable credentials. However, it has the backing of Time Magazine, which gives choice bits of its "discoveries" wide publicity every Christmas and Easter.

Just thinking about this subject is enough to invite cosmic paranoia (which is a good definition for gnosticism in the first place). And then, of course, sometimes merely odd stuff happens. As I mentioned, Peter Jones is English, and he hails from Liverpool. In fact, he was a good friend of John Lennon in high school. They parted company when Lennon went to vocational school for the arts while Jones took a college track. Jones pronounces himself mystified as to how, despite this divergence in education, Lennon was incorporating gnostic themes into his later work that Jones knew about only because he had studied patristics. I mention this because, a few hours before starting to read this book, I was poking about on the Web and I came across a site whose author purported to be no less a person than Antichrist himself. Of course, sites purportedly maintained by Abraham Lincoln are probably no less numerous than those maintained by Antichrist. This particular Antichrist, however, had an eschatology that incorporated John Lennon as the final incarnation of Christ, so that Lennon's death marked the beginning of the end of the Christian era. I hate it when this kind of thing happens.

Spirit Wars is in fact fairly free of paranoia and quite devoid of conspiracy theories. Nevertheless, towards the end of the book, Jones does permit himself this observation:

"As she covers her anemic body with a fake robe of Christ, Sophia begins to look more and more like the harlot of the Apocalypse, that startling image of an apostate Church, fornicating with the kings of the earth, drunk with the blood of the saints and the martyrs of Jesus. On the threshold of the third millennium, the `Spirit Wars' have begun in dead earnest, though at present we have only seen the initial skirmishes. Sophia is only at the beginning of her reign."
(Spirit Wars, page 257)

Well, maybe. On the other hand, there are some other points to consider. The big one is the size of gnosticism's actual audience. Peter Jones cites dozens of conferences, books and papers that propound a gnostic point of view (the book has 60 pages of notes; I just wish it had a better index). I am quite ready to believe, as Jones suggests, that gnosticism is now the orthodoxy of many of America's major seminaries. Still, he does overlook one key point about the power of gnosticism: it empties churches faster than stink bombs. The mainline Protestant churches with which Jones is primarily concerned have been bleeding membership for thirty years. They adopted fad after fad in theology and liturgy, so that when gnosticism and feminism came along they had no living tradition of resistance. The result was that soon many such churches also had no members.

On the Catholic side, of course, the saddest case has been what happened to American nuns. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, some few orders made only the modest reforms suggested by the Council, and at this writing they look like they will survive. Most, however, followed essentially the same gnosticizing trend as, say, the Episcopal Church in America. The result is that the scariest academic conferences Jones discusses, in which the God of the Bible is denounced as an idol and goddesses are openly worshipped, are largely populated by Catholic nuns. They are, however, for the most part aging nuns. Their orders do not attract new members. They can solicit contributions from ordinary Catholics successfully only by appealing to old memories of parochial school graduates. Their fate is as clear an indication as one could wish that liberal Christianity has no future.

The churches that are growing in the United States are for the most part those that make some effort to remain theologically conservative, though one might wish that they could combine this endeavor with a higher level of theological sophistication. Some of the mainline churches, notably the Presbyterians, have recoiled from the abyss at the insistence of their local memberships and started firing liberal staff in their central organizations. The Catholic Church in this decade has produced a thoroughly orthodox Catechism that has reached a wide popular audience despite the efforts of liberal ecclesiastical bureaucrats to suppress it. While these developments hardly constitute rollback (a fine old Cold War expression), they do suggest that Sophia is not having things all her own way.

Finally, there is one other point to consider in assessing the prospects of modern gnosticism. The religious future of the West cannot be discussed without reference to the future of the West as a whole. Peter Jones notes the analogies between the religious climate of the early Christian centuries and that of today. Cyclical historians have given this matter a great deal of thought. Jones cites Toynbee on the subject, who says that the twentieth century will be remembered as the time when the "Higher Religion" of the third millennium appeared. You may pick your own favorite historical tea-leaf reader, but mine is Oswald Spengler. Writing seventy years ago, he used the term "Second Religiousness" to describe the cultural state of old civilizations, after their "modern" eras have ended. According to him, it is precisely in this final phase that "fancy-religions" like Theosophy and the cult of Isis lose their appeal. Civilizations return to the forms of their springtimes, which in the case of the West means a form of conservative Christianity. It is not wholly clear that time is on the gnostics' side.

This article originally appeared in the October 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-07-07: Edwards; Gen-X; Arthur; Doppelgangers

I hadn't know until now that Pelagius was from Britain. Even now, John can surprise me.


Edwards; Gen-X; Arthur; Doppelgangers

There was another instance today of duelling columns on the New York Times editorial page. Commenting on the dour John Kerry's choice of the sprightly John Edwards as a running mate. William Safire remarks:

A larger question looms that confronts every presidential nominee: what if he wins and dies in office? In making his decision yesterday, Kerry should have kept that criterion of "the best man ready to take over" upper-most in his mind.

In my view, he failed that test. In the choice between the Democrat most ready to be president and the Democrat who would enliven a stalled campaign, Kerry played it safe and chose the political hottie, Edwards.

Meanwhile, exactly eight inches up the page and to the right, Nicholas D. Kristof retorts:

Is there a risk in choosing Mr. Edwards? Sure, Mr. Kerry might drop dead. Then we'd have a very inexpert president -- again!

What happened here is that John Kerry walked into an ice-cream parlor, studied the menu for five minutes, and, predictably, ordered vanilla. In fact, there is nothing wrong with John Edwards. Although he often sounds (and looks) like an infomercial, his unrehearsed statements show some capacity to deal with the unexpected. This is better than President Bush, who always sounds like he is answering a phone call at three in the morning. However, the greater contrast is actually with Kerry, who answers questions by throwing out strings of phrases that look like they have been generated from a thesaurus data base.

In fact, someone should create chatterbots for all these people. Ample archives of interviews are available online for the memories. Interviews and press conferences would be better than speeches, I think: you never know who writes speeches.

* * *

Continuing my interest in the generational model of American history, I noted this piece in the Sunday (July 4) issue of The New York Times: Look Who's Parenting, by Ann Hulbert. The article remarked on something I have noted myself: Generation X parents are less likely than Babyboomers to badger and plan their offspring into a state of perfection. They are also more likely to just be around to raise them. To use a contrast that does not appear in the article: Babyboomers were keen on planning "quality time" with their families; Gen-Xers are generous with "junk time," which I always thought was what families are for.

So this is what happened to the no-hopers from The Breakfast Club (1985), or at least the ones who are not dead or arrested. One can only compare this historical snapshot with the picture of the intolerable Boomers at the same stage in life in The Big Chill (1983). There is justice, maybe.

* * *

May I remark how hard it is to find top search-results that don't have aggressive ads? Those links in the paragraph above are to movie reviews. I chose them, not so much because of the content, as because they did not have graphics that make you sit through a commercial before you can read text.

* * *

On the subject of movies, I see that yet another film about King Arthur premiers today. This one sounds like a particularly dismal exercise. It throws away the legend, which is one of the great mythos of the world, and replaces it with a backstory that looks like the Soccer Hooligan Age of British history. Of course, I am responding here just to reviews of the film. It might be wonderful.

The most persuasive account of the "Arthur of history" I have read comes from The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650, which was published in 1973. Yes, there was a historical Arthur, more or less, who took charge around AD 470 of a successful Britano-Roman counter-offensive against the Anglo-Saxons. Actually, by Arthur's time, the resistance was more "British," in the sense of early Welsh, than Roman. The Roman province of Britain had broken down thirty or forty years before.

The last days of the province are the interesting part of the story, if you ask me. Britain was the only major part of the Empire to escape invasion in the fourth century (AD 300-400). At the beginning of the fifth century, while Rome was being sacked, Britain was unique in successfully fighting off barbarian incursions (which were not just from Europe; they came from the Pictish north and from Ireland, too). There was a twilight period of a decade or two. The economy became demonetized, because the continental mints closed down, but the great country villas were still occupied. So were the cities, where there was enough intellectual life to produce the heretic Pelagius.

The provincial government was under the control of a man known as "Vortigern" to history. That's not a personal name, but some garbled title. He organized the defense of the province by hiring Germanic mercenaries, to whom he gave land in what were supposed to be tightly restricted areas. The government had no way to control the mercenaries except by hiring more mercenaries. The rest of the story writes itself.

By the way: is it really possible that I am the only person to note the similarities between the Arthurian mythos and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which is set in a comparable twilight era in Chinese history?

* * *

And while I am conflating fiction with reality, I must confess that some coincidences of appearance have been bothering me.

For instance, why is Doctor Who reporting from Baghdad for the New York Times?

And when is someone going to admit that Mr. Giles has been running the Department of Defense for the past three years?

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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LinkFest 2016-11-22

Abandoning Defensive Crouch Liberal Constitutionalism

Here is someone on the other side of the culture wars advocating not only that the Cultural Left won, but that they should be roaming the battlefield looking to finish off wounded survivors.

How we ban the creation of more of the most loved bits of London

I think I have written about this before, but I am more than willing to repeat it: current building codes make it impossible to build the kind of buildings people actually want. Here is an example from my own town. There are a number of quaint buildings downtown that everyone likes. 

Buildings that already exist can be maintained indefinitely, but unfortunately you cannot building something like the McMillan building any longer. Parking and setbacks mean new construction looks like this.

This is how Steve Bannon sees the world

This is a very interesting transcript of a talk Steve Bannon gave at the Dignitatis Humane Institute in 2014. He cites Evola and Tradition as an influence on the Eurasianism of Vladimir Putin.

Theranos whistleblower shook the company - and his family

This kid has balls of steel.

The Seven Decade Hunt for the Origins of a Strange Indian Disease

Infectious disease research used to be positively dangerous.

The Long View 2004-07-02: Fed; Buckley; Coral; Detention

In one of those fascinating coincidences, I just read an article by John Cochrane, the Grumpy Economist, today on what current economic theory thinks causes inflation. Best guess: they don't know. The theory used to link employment and inflation, but the post-housing bubble US economy didn't follow the pattern, so now economists are on the search for a new theory.


Fed; Buckley; Coral; Detention

There is something sad about the amount of attention given to the Federal Reserve's interest rate policy, as the quarter-point increase announced this week illustrates. Within living memory, the federal government had a counter-cyclical tax system. When things were slow, taxes were lowered to stimulate business activity. When things were overheating, taxes were raised to prevent inflation. Some of this effect was achieved just by having a more finely-graduated tax schedule than we have now, but Congress was quite capable of raising or lowering tax rates with some attention to how the changes would affect the real world.

No one argues for that kind of system anymore, it seems. There are even crooked conservatives who argue that federal deficits have no effect on inflation. The whole burden of controlling inflation and preventing the formation of bubbles is cast on the Federal Reserve. The tax system has its faults, God knows, but the use of interest rates as the sole tool of macroeconomic policy creates its own distortions. Interest rates are a tool that cannot distinguish between exchange rates and domestic fiscal stimulus, for instance. Controlling inflation and manipulating the value of the dollar are different policies, but the Fed really has only one lever to control both (aside from buying and selling dollars to manage short-term fluctuations, of course).

In effect, the federal fiscal machine is a car in which the gas pedal is always pushed to the floor, and the only way to control speed is the brake. This is a poor design concept.

* * *

One notes that William F. Buckley has finally passed the control of National Review to a younger generation; at any rate, this week he transferred his controlling interest in the magazine to the board of trustees, receiving an award in the process. Here is what the youngest trustee, Austin Bramwell, had to say about the founder of modern American conservatism:

"By ironic periphrasis, arch understatement and surprising deployment of familiar and of course unfamiliar words, Buckley convinced his opponents that he knew something they did not, and what's more, that he intended to keep the secret from them," Mr. Bramwell said as he presented the award. "Thus did he waken their minds to the possibility that liberalism is not the philosophia ultima but just another item in the baleful catalogue of modern ideologies."

Only Mad Magazine could do justice to prose like this; which makes sense, since Mad and National Review are genial survivors from the same era. Buckley invented the style, at least for political purposes, but I am pleased to see it can be learned. One surprising note, though: I was rather shocked to learn that National Review does not turn a profit. Surely that was not always the case?

* * *

Speaking of ancient survivals, why is it that only I (and one Australian, to judge from Usenet) have noted that the Spirit rover on Mars found something that looks an awful lot like coral? NASA calls the hematite-bearing rock "Pot of Gold." You can find the bland press release here.

I fully recognize that it is almost certainly not coral, or any kind of a fossil. Coral on Mars is hard to posit. Coral is actually a fairly sophisticated form of life. It appeared in Earth's oceans just 500 million years ago, with the rest of the explosion of multicelluar animals. The proponents of the Blue Mars model of Martian history, however, generally say that Mars has been dessicated for at least 3.5-billion years. So, if Pot of Gold is coral, evolution on Mars must have been much faster than on Earth.

Still, it looks like coral.

* * *

The Supreme Court's decisions that require combatant detainees to get some kind of a hearing are yet further examples of an unhappily typical pattern for the Bush Administration. In reality, the Administration won, in the sense that it got everything it might reasonably have hoped for. No way was the Court going to allow the government to hold any civilian in detention without some sort of judicial review, much less American citizens. Within that obvious constraint, however, the Court was remarkably deferential. The procedures the Court requires are minimal, little more than the right to present a claim to mistaken identity. That was the best outcome the Administration could get, and it got it.

You would not know this from press reports about the decisions, but that's not media bias. The press properly reported that, in the posture in which the cases were heard, the government "lost." That is, the Court rejected the government's maximalist arguments, and provided a predictable compromise.

Prosecutors routinely make more charges against an accused than they can ever hope to prove. They do this to create a tool for plea bargaining, or in the hope that some accusation will stick if the case comes to trial. The Administration had adopted this strategy for the detention cases, and it was lunacy. The Bush Administration did not need just to maintain freedom of maneuver with regard to detaining terrorists; it needed to restore the federal government's reputation as a protector of civil liberties.

The solution was simple enough. The sort of review procedures that the Court actually endorsed should have been put in place last year. Civil libertarians would still have challenged them, but the Court would have sided with the government. The headlines would have read: "Court Upholds Government Detention Policy," and the Administration's discretion would have been in no way impaired.

The Bush people have a knack for making victories look like defeats. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-06-28: Disaffected Persons

Here is a good example of the things that John ended being very, very wrong about. First, in his criticism of Tom Friedman, John says:

The problem is not that the US exports fear. It's that the US has so far failed to rouse the thanatophilic international class from what may be a terminal coma.

It turned out that the international class became extremely enthusiastic about the War on Terror, and was willing to open new fronts worldwide. In part, this is because you could marry the transnational [John's term] or globalist [current term] agenda to exporting war under the rubric of human rights and free trade. It probably also helped that President Obama was a leader more to their tastes, although the Bush family business interests align them pretty strongly to globalism as well.

Also, John thought that Michael Moore's style of popular political documentary would flop. It turned to be quite successful, and widely imitated.


Disaffected Persons

Does today's unscheduled transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi Provisional Government seem a little on the low-key side? Yes it does, but it represents a commendable understanding on the part of the Iraqis and the US that they are in a war, which means that they have to react to events. Imagine the transfer taking place amidst brass bands and fireworks, but with a dozen police stations being attacked at the same time. Low-key was better

No doubt the police stations will blow up eventually, but now the explosions will not be part of a war of independence, but of an insurgency against a popular government. As I have remarked before, few images could have overcome the visual impact of the Abu Ghraib pictures, but Zarqawi seems to have done the trick with his televised beheadings and infomercials in which hostages plead for their lives. For the last generation in Iraq, political authority was gained by horrifying the opposition into submission. With a plausible alternative to hand, it is possible, even likely, that the tactic will fail this time, but that is by no means certain.

* * *

For instance, it seems to have worked so well on Thomas Friedman of The New York Times that he is taking three months off to get a grip on himself. In a summer farewell column on June 27, he listed the following among the wish-list items he would like to see in the news while he is away:

Bush Administration Calls an End to the "War on Terrorism." No, I haven't taken leave of my senses on the way out the door. I realize that we have enemies and they need to be confronted. But I do not want this to be all that America is about in the world anymore, and that is what has happened under this administration. I don't want the rest of my career to be about an America that exports fear, not hope, and ends up importing everyone else's fears as a result. I don't want it to be about explaining to young Chinese why my government can't give them student visas anymore. I don't want it to be about visiting U.S. Embassies around the world and finding them so isolated behind barbed wire, they might as well not be there at all. Defeating "them" has begun to define "us" in too many ways.

One wonders what Friedman would say if President Bush issued a proclamation declaring that global warming had ended and calling on the nation to move on to things that Bush would prefer to talk about. The United States did not declare the Terror War; the jihadis did. The problem is not that the US exports fear. It's that the US has so far failed to rouse the thanatophilic international class from what may be a terminal coma. It is beyond the power of the United States to end the assault on the West, or at least to end it by declaration. That bit of reality seems too much for Friedman to bear. Certainly it is a bad sign when he tells us: "I'm taking a sabbatical to finish a book about geopolitics, called 'The World Is Flat.'

* * *

In the same issue of the Times, we see a metaphysically more rarified version of Friedman's attitude in a piece by Michael Ignatieff, Mirage in the Desert. The article is a long wail by a liberal supporter of the war. He says that his human-rights arguments for the war were exploded by the Abu Ghraib scandal, which is false but plausible. However, he goes on to express his outrage that anything unexpected or even difficult happened in the course of the occupation. He reaches this conclusion:

The signal illusion from which America has to awake in Iraq and everywhere else is that it serves God's providence or (for those with more secular beliefs) that it is the engine of history. In Iraq, America is not the maker of history but its plaything. In the region at large, America is not the hegemon but the hesitant shaper of forces it barely understands.

Do you think? War and statecraft are always improvised. We work with imperfect information, and at least some results are always unexpected. Frankly, compared to occupied Japan and the trainwreck-that-was-Europe between 1945 and 1948, US reconstruction efforts in Iraq have been made with singular dispatch and success. The big difference from World War II is that the overthrow of the Baathist government was not the end of the Terror War, but only the beginning of a new phase. The Bush Administration never said otherwise.

For Ignatieff, the null hypothesis was American omnipotence; he experienced the shortfall from that standard as failure. In reality, if America were omnipotent, it would not need a defense policy at all. The fact is, though, the United States is vulnerable. Sometimes it has to act, even when success is uncertain, even when imperfectly prepared. As for the role of the US in history, it certainly is not the case that history is an American artifact. The US does have a special place in the world system, and that, I think, is real reason for the disaffection of the transnationalists.

* * *

Yes, I did do other things on Sunday, June 27, desides read New York Times editorials, but permit me to note one more example of the Times confronting reality and defeating it. In this case, the Op Ed writer is Garry ("Two Rs") Willis, a disaffected Catholic who pretends to orthodoxy by reducing its substance to a nearly perfect vacuum. In The Bishops vs. the Bible he tells us:

Catholic bishops recently met and sought the best way to enforce "church teaching" with Catholic politicians who fail to oppose laws that allow abortion. Some critics of the bishops see this as a violation of the separation of church and state. Both sides are working from misconceptions. Abortion is not a church issue, so what the bishops have to say about it cannot be an intrusion of the church into state concerns. Abortion is, admittedly, a moral issue -- but not one that can be settled by theology or by religious authority.

One might argue that the natural-law arguments against abortion are unpersuasive. (Willis account of the scriptural arguments is unpersuasive, in the sense he does not state key evidence contrary to his position, but there's Willis for you.) Nonetheless, the prohibition of abortion is part of the Magisterium. That is the Catholic position. You really don't get to make this stuff up.

* * *

And on the subject of making things up, one notes this:

Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" took in a whopping $21.8 million in its first three days, becoming the first documentary ever to debut as Hollywood's top weekend film.

That is pretty whopping for a documentary, however tendentious. Let me make two predictions:

First, very soon we will see, not just bootlegged copies of the film, but versions in which the sound track has been modified to better reflect the political views of the bootlegger.

Second, real producers will now start to greenlight activist political documentaries. All of them will flop. 

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-06-24: Trains; Rockets; Missionaries; Jousts

Parking at Disneyland

Parking at Disneyland

The relative merits of mass transit technologies often came up on John's blog. The thing he said that stuck with me the longest is: cars tend to eat their destinations. The example that always comes to mind for me is the endless parking lots around Disneyland. However, it also matters when it comes to more mundane issues of zoning in my own city. 

There is, in principle, an inverse relationship between urbanity and parking. A lot of people don't seem to get that.


Trains; Rockets; Missionaries; Jousts

 

Because of the surprising success of the local Hudson-Bergen Light Rail system here in New Jersey, I keep a lookout for how other light-rail systems are faring elsewhere. One of the great clashes on this issue took place in Houston, where the new system flew in the face of car-culture. Now that the trains have been running for six months, the Houston Chronicle says that system is at least a qualified success, as this interview with a downtown restauranteur suggests: Ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching goes the light rail, manager says. Oddly, The New York Times was more pessimistic:

Last year, when Houston finally got a rail line, the culture clash became physical. Since testing began in November, the silvery electric-powered train, which slides north and south along the street on a 7.5-mile route, has collided with more than 40 cars.

The big difference between the Houston system and the one we have here is that ours runs mostly over wasteland, or along a highway. In residential areas, the trains move at no more than a fast run. The Houston system is faster and more integrated into traffic. Evil-minded people suggest that the reason for the high accident rate is that Houstonians are just awful drivers. The real problem seems to be that the original signal system was somewhat postmodern: it did not tell you whether it was safe to go so much as indicate topoi for the great discourse that is traffic. Anyway, they are fixing it.

Light-rail and mass transit in general are a good-government dogma that is no longer subject to falsification. In fact, they are not a very efficient way to move people per capita if you are looking at fuel efficiency. On the other hand, if you count the efficiencies from higher retail and residential densities, I strongly suspect the balance between rail and car would more than even out.

* * *

Speaking of competing modes of transportation, I have often spoken admiringly of Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne, which recently drew ahead in the X Prize competition by flying to the edge of space over the Mojave Desert. Rutan is apparently a brilliant engineer, and the ship he designed was innovative on almost all levels. Its fuel was rubber, of all things. The problem is that the vehicle is so pretty that you have to wonder whether it is a serious step toward manned commercial spaceflight, or just a piece of mobile sculpture.

It could be that the right answer lies in an entirely different direction: the space elevator. A system that hauls things into space along a nano-tube cable sounded like the stupidest thing I ever heard of when the idea first came to my attention. In the meantime, not only has the idea not gone away, but the materials problem is closer to solution than I would have thought possible. Now they are talking about a system that could be built in 15 years, for $10 billion. That's well within the reach of private finance, especially in light of the fact the commercial applications are immediately obvious.

The space elevator is not how I pictured space flight when I was a boy. If the idea is realized, it will be almost as big a surprise as cellphones.

* * *

In his book The Great Heresies, first published in 1938, Hilaire Belloc has this to say about what he calls "The Great and Enduring Heresy of Mohammed":

The missionary efforts made by the great Catholic orders which have been occupied in trying to turn Mohammedans into Christians for nearly 400 years have everywhere wholly failed. We have in some places driven the Mohammedan master out and freed his Christian subjects from Mohammedan control, but we have had hardly any effect in converting individual Mohammedans save perhaps in some small amount in Southern Spain 500 years ago; and even so that was rather an example of political than of religious change.

One of the most interesting things about the current Jihad is that Belloc's assessment is no longer true: there has in fact been successful missionary activity in recent years, both in the Muslim diaspora and in the Muslim homelands. Certainly websites like this one have proliferated, dedicated to the evangelization of Muslims. How this relates to light rail I have not yet determined.

* * *

And if we are going to talk about Belloc, then we have to talk about Chesterton, or at least take a Chestertonian look at the world. Consider this piece by Alan Cowell, which The New York Times ran on June 23:

What Kicks the Continent to Life? (Not Politics) Two recent events, juxtaposed, would give roughly the same sense of a simple answer as, say, Jekyll and Hyde or any other combination of the most unlikely contrasts...The first event was an election this month for the European Parliament in which Europeans registered their lowest turnout - as low as 26 percent in some places...

Now consider Europe as a joust, a tournament of champions, a medieval war of nation-states sublimated in soccer, celebrated in headlines and banners and roaring crowds, punctuated by such eminently real and tangible events as the failure of David Beckham, the English captain, to score a penalty goal...But, if the swords are sheathed, the pennants still flutter and the passions still flow...

Thus, soccer works, and so do roaming cellphones, the euro single currency, reduced border controls - anything, in fact, that allows a new, younger generation of Europeans to crisscross a playground from the Baltic to the Mediterranean.

President Bush is in Europe as I write this, no doubt ducking bottles and rotten eggs. Nonetheless, I must repeat that he is better positioned than the Brussels mandarinate to connect with these people. Any American president is.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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Soda Pop Soldier Book Review

Soda Pop Soldier
by Nick Cole
Harper Voyager, 2014
$4.99; 368 pages
ISBN 978-006-221022-7

Nick Cole describes this book as "Ready Player One meets Call of Duty". I would wholeheartedly agree with that assessment. I would also recommend this book, at least to anyone with the same kind of nerdy interests I have. War, politics, videogames, and applied psychology all can be found here, along with a droll sense of humor and a passel of pop-culture references.

I had been looking for this book for months. I know I could  have bought it anytime on Amazon, but I like trolling bookstores. The day I picked this up I also found two other books I had been looking for. It is really about the thrill of the chase, and the joy of an unexpected find. Plus, I do love the smell of slowly oxidizing paper.

Perhaps that kind of anachronism is what endears this novel to me. PerfectQuestion, the online alias of John Saxon, also has an unusual fondness for things that came from an entirely different world than the one he lives in. Given how grim that world is, I can't say that I blame him. His world is full of many clever things, but few beautiful ones.

That link to the past also grounds him. For a guy with not a whole lot going for him, Saxon has a lot of integrity. Someone better adapted to his dark future would likely be a worse man for it. Sure, he has the typical weaknesses of men who like to fight for a living, wine and women, but as Chesterton said, those are at least the sins of men instead of the sins of devils.

That moral realism is part of what I enjoy so much about Soda Pop Soldier. There are other books that explore a similar universe, but this one has a special flavor all its own.

My other book reviews

 

LinkFest 2016-11-11

Veterans' Day Edition

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Why did Medieval Slave Traders go to Finland?

At the time, Finns were neither Christian nor Muslim.

Down and Out at Del Mar

A great vignette of life on the bottom.

A Lead-Crime Study Passes the Gelman Test

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones has been writing a long series on the effects of lead poisoning on children. Andrew Gelman is a statistician who has in the past been skeptical of such studies, but this time Gelman says the study is plausible.

The Long View 2004-06-22: Al Qaeda's Candidate; Missing Cicadas; Transitory Opposition

John J. Reilly, snark from beyond the grave

John J. Reilly, snark from beyond the grave

Thanks to Mark Steyn for linking to yesterday's The Long View re-post. John Reilly's been gone four and a half years, but even in death he manages to keep up with current events.

Here in June of 2004, John expresses some doubts about the existence of WMD in Iraq. Would that he had paid heed to that niggling suspicion.


Al Qaeda's Candidate; Missing Cicadas; Transitory Opposition

Every living soul in the United States knows that al-Qaeda hopes to stage a terrorist attack close to election day that will turn the incumbent administration out of office, on the model of the entirely successful train bombing in Madrid in March. Despite the fact everyone knows this to be the case, the Kerry Campaign must at least have some talking points that suggest otherwise. Talking points need not be persuasive; they are just things to say in answer to awkward questions. The state-of-the-art talking points in this regard may be found in a upcoming book called Imperial Hubris, which The Guardian mentioned on June 19. It was written by the most prolific of all authors:

Anonymous, who published an analysis of al-Qaida last year called Through Our Enemies' Eyes, thinks it quite possible that another devastating strike against the US could come during the election campaign, not with the intention of changing the administration, as was the case in the Madrid bombing, but of keeping the same one in place.

"I'm very sure they can't have a better administration for them than the one they have now," he said.

"One way to keep the Republicans in power is to mount an attack that would rally the country around the president."

It's not John Kerry's fault that the Islamist network hopes for his election, but there you have it. A Bush defeat would demonstrate to the governments of Muslim countries that there is no reliable support for them in the West. Though a Kerry Administration would no doubt eventually drop the Powell Doctrine when the roof fell in, President Kerry would almost certainly return to a diplomacy of process for several years. He would turn the question of the use of force over to an international security system with a record of masking the growth of threats, and he would make strategy with allies who are irresponsible or hostile. This would not buy peace. It would just mean war a little later, on worse terms.

* * *

Like many people all over the world, I remain troubled by the failure to find stocks of WMDs in Iraq. Like many people in the Mid Atlantic states, I am also worried by the failure of the cicadas to appear. For many months now, The New York Times in particular has been taunting its readers with predictions about the deafening emergence of Brood X. In New York itself, however, the spring season saw an almost perfect dearth of noisy horrible green insects, or at least of any that are not familiar residents. Yesterday, the Times came clean:

If you haven't seen your Brood X cicadas by now, you probably aren't going to for another 17 years.

Complaints should be directed to the bug experts who predicted that a biblical swarm of periodic cicadas, Brood X, would sweep like a curtain of white noise across the Middle Atlantic region in June. Or at least that is how it sounded to the swarms of reporters who breathlessly predicted that the bug storm of the young century was headed for the region's windshields...The Ohio River Valley, Baltimore and the Washington area are still agog with cicada talk, cicada cocktails and cicada chocolates on turned-down beds in hotels. Here in Princeton the racket was so great that university music directors chose baccalaureate music in more or less the same mystic key as the cicadas.

But from Princeton north, according to Rutgers University extension service horticulturalists, the bugs have emerged only in spots moving up the Delaware River and across parts, but far from all, of Hunterdon, Somerset and Morris Counties.

"Complaints should be directed to the bug experts," should they? Once again, the Times has put itself in a position where an apology is in order. I am tempted to write the paper's new ombudsman: was Jayson Blair ever on the bug beat?

* * *

Someone should organize a blog for people who no longer read Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, to make it easier to keep track of all the commentary they no longer read. When I look in (and no, I no longer read him regularly, either) he is often commenting on the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger mail he gets about the amount of space he devotes to gay issues. His apparently settled conviction that he cannot support the reelection of George Bush, because of Bush's support for the Defense of Marriage Amendment, has done little to improve the tone of his inbox.

Anyway, the flaw in Sullivan's position can be seen in this entry from June 17:

I wrote that "[t]his president has now made the Republican party an emblem of exclusion and division and intolerance. Gay people will now regard it as their enemy for generations - and rightly so."

There aren't going to be "generations" of gay people, not in the sense of the organized and self-conscious pseudo-ethnic group that we see today. The chief characteristic of gayness is that it does not reproduce itself. It is an expression of an unsettled period in the cultural history of the larger society, a period that is necessarily transitory.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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The Long View 2004-06-04: Art Imitates Death

The Two Cultures

The Two Cultures

John references C. P. Snow's famous essay The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution in this post. While much has changed in the last sixty-seven years, much has also stayed the same.

Most politicians in the English-speaking world continue to come from law, poli sci, and the social sciences, although some exceptions, such as Margaret Thatcher, exist. For the most part, scientists and engineers do not have easy access to the levers of power. This isn't true everywhere, however. The nomenklatura of the USSR often had technical backgrounds, and the current government of Mexico, heavily dependent on the oil revenues from PEMEX, is largely composed of engineers.

Oddly, the support base of Communism in the West largely came from the same literary classes as the rest of the politicians, despite the more scientific bent of the Soviets. Maybe that explains why the Soviets held their Western fellow-travelers in such contempt.

Also, look at this paragraph written by Mark Steyn in 2004:

In much of western Europe, on all the issues that matter, competitive politics decayed to a rotation of arrogant co-regents of an insular elite, with predictable consequences: if the political culture forbids respectable politicians from raising certain issues, then the electorate will turn to unrespectable ones.
America turns to an unrespectable politician, as predicted by Mark Steyn in 2004

America turns to an unrespectable politician, as predicted by Mark Steyn in 2004

You can't say you weren't warned.


Art Imitates Death

 

The custom of referring to death as a "final journey" is so common that the expression has lost power as a metaphor. So why do we keep using it? Perhaps because it is also a common experience.

That may be one way to take the observations by Valerie Reitman, which recently appeared in the Los Angeles Times in a piece entitled Taking Life's Final Exit. She was not talking about "near-death experiences," which is what people report who have been clinically dead but then revived, but "nearing death awareness," which is what terminally ill people dream or imagine or just talk about. According to Reitman:

[T]hose dying slowly often talk of preparing for a trip or of trying to finish something, Kelley and Callanan found, perhaps using language pertaining to their professions or hobbies. One dying man who liked to sail, for instance, talked about the ebbing of the tides; a watchmaker mentioned that the clock was not ticking fast enough; a carpenter described details of completing an imaginary house...Why dying people speak of taking journeys is anyone's guess. Drugs don't seem to play much of a role, hospice workers say, because the phenomenon occurs both in those who are taking painkillers and those who aren't. If anything, they say, the more drugs one takes, the less likely any conversations.

Reitman cautions that this behavior should not be confused with the desire many dying people express in their last days to go home or to be transferred to another facility; I have seen that, but this final-journey business is new to me. I wonder: does this also have something to do with the motif of the Quest?

* * *

Speaking of near-death experiences and the Quest, there are several things that might be said about the decision by the US Supreme Court earlier this week to throw out the Newdow case. That was, of course, the suit by the noncustodial biological father of a girl in the California school system to have the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance declared unconstitutional, at least for use in the public schools. The Supreme Court said the father did not have standing to bring the suit; the surprising thing was that any of the lower courts had held otherwise. On the other hand, it was also surprising that the Supreme Court had agreed to hear the case. It was surprising that the Court heard oral arguments in a case decided on a technicality. It was surprising that three of the justices wrote separately, giving their views on the merits of a case they had voted not to decide.

Perhaps what happened here is that the Court realized there was a majority for overturning "under God" in an election year, and understood it was looking into the abyss. They met this challenge in a way recalling Sir Robin's Song in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Brave Sir Robin,
He ran away,
He ran away,
He turned his tail
And he scuppered off
And he hit the road;
And brave Sir Robin,
He bravely, bravely
Ran away!

Monty Python was not as good as the Simpsons, but they were close.

* * *

Before there was Monty Python, there was the scientist-turned-novelist, C.P. Snow. A collection of his lectures, published in 1959 as the book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, was also once a reference that all sophisticated people were supposed to recognize. His argument was that, particularly in Britain, the elites were divided between those with a literary education and those with a scientific education. Though sometimes exasperated by the cultural illiteracy of scientists, his argued that only people who understand science and engineering would be able to direct public policy intelligently. He contrasts the British political class, populated by a raft of Oxbridge graduates who read Classics or Modern Literature at school, to the nomenclatura in the USSR, most of whom have been trained as engineers, or in the useful humanities, such as foreign languages. Surely, he says, the West will be able to hold its own in the Cold War only if its educational system can be brought up to Soviet standards.

Now comes social-science-fiction writer David Brooks, with a structurally similar model of a cultural divide among American elites. In a column in The New York Times entitled Bitter at the Top, Brooks puts the matter thus:

Knowledge-class types are more likely to value leaders who possess what may be called university skills: the ability to read and digest large amounts of information and discuss their way through to a nuanced solution. Democratic administrations tend to value self-expression over self-discipline. Democratic candidates — from Clinton to Kerry — often run late...Managers are more likely to value leaders whom they see as simple, straight-talking men and women of faith. They prize leaders who are good at managing people, not just ideas. They are more likely to distrust those who seem overly intellectual or narcissistically self-reflective.

Note the declension here. Snow's Classicists, who at least knew Latin and Greek, have been replaced by people who studied political science and sociology, and so know nothing. Similarly, the physicists and chemists have been replaced by "managers," who in my experience are people who never, under any circumstances, learn the substance of what the organization they manage is supposed to do.

Alas.

* * *

On the other hand, if you believe Mark Steyn, the problem in the United Kingdom, and in Europe as a whole, is that the elites have arrived at a consensus that their electorates find increasingly repulsive. Speaking with reference to the recent elections, in which euroskeptics embarrassed the establishment throughout the EU:

[T]he real problem in Britain would seem to be a lunatic mainstream, set on a course of profound change for which there is no popular mandate whatsoever.

In the late 20th century sur le Continent, politics evolved to the point where almost any issue worth talking about was ruled beneath discussion, beyond the bounds of polite society.

In much of western Europe, on all the issues that matter, competitive politics decayed to a rotation of arrogant co-regents of an insular elite, with predictable consequences: if the political culture forbids respectable politicians from raising certain issues, then the electorate will turn to unrespectable ones.

Most of these alternatives are unrespectable only in the sense that the establishment refuses to give their ideas a hearing. Others, of course, should be hanged or arrested.

* * *

Here's a final instance of the widespread sense that something is missing: 'Faux mitzvahs' a rising trend with non-Jews. As the headline suggests, the story deals with the rising demand among young American teens of all religious affiliations for the sort of initiation rite that bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs provide for Jews. Actually, the belief that something has to be done to civilize 13-year-olds is universal. East Germany devised a secular coming-of-age ceremony like this, and I believe it survived the Wende of 1989.

The wonder is that the report does not mention the term confirmation. What can the churches that maintain this rite be thinking of?   

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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LinkFest 2016-11-06

This LinkFest has been delayed three weeks. I had better publish it before the election and everything gets falsified!


Divided by meaning

A great piece on how Americans are divided by their attachments to hearth and home, or the lack thereof. Fascinating to me, since by education and career, I ought to be a member of what the author calls "the front row kids" who run the country, but I have chosen to live and work in the same small town I grew up in, much like Steve Jobs.

Is there a dietary treatment for multiple sclerosis?

It wouldn't be that hard to design a double-blind RCT on this if you wanted to. You could put everyone on the vegan+fish diet and then supplement animal fats in pill form. If the IRB balked, you might then suspect they secretly believed it might work.

The Crony Economy

Everyone agrees they don't like it, but no one has produced a lasting reform.

How Half Of America Lost Its F**king Mind 

Cracked continues to impress me. Companion piece: Divided by meaning

Is there a dietary treatment for multiple sclerosis?

A really good look at the incentives that push medicine towards pharmaceuticals and away from other kinds of therapies. Related reading: Lions, Tigers, and Bears. Is the placebo powerless?

Revealed: Nearly Half The Adults In Britain And Europe Hold Extremist Views

There is no end to the humor in this, but I find the commitment to democracy kind of sweet and endearing in people who are otherwise horrified when they find out what average people really think. Can you imagine the headline if one were able to conduct the same survey world-wide?

Why Tokyo is the land of rising home construction but not rising prices

Because they almost always tear down old houses and build new ones instead of just moving into them. There are a variety of interesting cultural and practical reasons for this, but one that doesn't appear in the article is the way the Yakuza use construction as their legitimate front. A lot of blue collar work in NYC works much the same way.

How Democrats killed their populist soul

Part of my on-going series of how the Economic Right and the Cultural Left are currently dominant in the West. Until I read this, I hadn't appreciated how the economic theories of Right and Left alike had turned against trust-busting and monopoly prevention.

Estates of Mind

A bit more about anti-trust laws as applied to intellectual property.

Mergers raise prices not efficiency

Since I have worked in manufacturing for my entire career, I don't find this surprising at all. The idea that mergers allow for standardization looks a lot easier on paper than in reality. Supply chains and manufacturing lines can't change with a memo.

The Rise of the alt-Right

Definitely one of the best things I have read about the alt-right. What is going on in the US has a lot of ties to what is going on in Europe.

On the reality of race and the abhorrence of racism

Bo Winegard, Ben Winegard, and Brian Boutwell point out that studying race doesn't make you deplorable.

The ruthlessly effective rebranding of Europe's new far-Right

I said what I read above from Scott McConnell was the best thing about the alt-right, but you really need this one as background.

The election that forgot about the future

In John's review of The Fourth Turning, one of the things that Strauss and Howe said made the Civil War worse than it could have been was the failure of the aging Transcendentalists to step aside and let someone else solve new problems. According to Strauss and Howe's model, the Baby Boomers are currently filling the same role in the United States. And you might note, one of two aging Baby Boomers is about to win the Presidency in a bitterly contested election.

Hacksaw Ridge

Mel Gibson makes another great war movie, about a guy who would not carry a gun.

The Long View: Where C. S. Lewis and Hermann Hesse Meet

It has been twenty years since I last read The Pilgrim's Regress, and I've never gotten around to The Journey to the East. Perhaps it is about time.


Where C.S. Lewis & Hermann Hesse Meet

 

By John J. Reilly

 

Could I really be the first reader to notice that C.S. Lewis and Hermann Hesse wrote almost the same book at almost the same time? Surely their audiences overlap so much that someone else should have remarked on the coincidence before now. It's 2004, for God's sake.

The books in question are Lewis's The Pilgrim's Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity Reason and Romanticism, which was first published in 1933, and Hesse's The Journey to the East, which was published in 1932 under the title Die Morgenlandfahrt. The Hesse book has been available in English since 1956. Both books are quite short; the Hesse book is really just a short story.

Both these stories are about a quest for the transcendent. In Hesse's Journey, many people are engaged in a movement to promote the quest, under the general oversight of an immemorially ancient League. The League has definite, secret goals of its own, but each pilgrim has a private goal, too:

“For example, one of them was a treasure-seeker and he thought of nothing but of winning a great treasure which he called 'Tao.' Still another had conceived the idea of capturing a certain snake to which he attributed magical powers and which he called Kunda