Wednesday, March 24, 2004

A Bit of Heresy To Start Your Day; or, Another Way To Make Your Mother Proud

The gap that separates Gnosticism from Christianity concerns the basic question of "who is responsible for the origin of death":

If you can accept God who coexists with death camps, schizophrenia, and AIDS, yet remains all-powerful and somehow benign, then you have faith . . . . If you know yourself as having an affinity with the alien, or stranger God, cut off from this world, then you are a Gnostic. (H. Bloom [1996], 252)

These, then, are the minimal coordinates of Gnosticism: each human being has deep in himself a divine spark which unites him with the Supreme Good; in our daily existence, we are unaware of this spark, since we are kept ignorant by being caught in the inertia of the material reality. How does such a view relate to Christianity proper? Is it that Christ had to sacrifice himself in order to pay for the sins of His Father who created such an imperfect world? Perhaps, this Gnostic Divinity, the evil Creator of our material world, is the clue of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, the "vanishing mediator" repressed by both of them: the Mosaic figure of the severe God of Commandments is a fake whose mighty apparition is here to conceal the fact that we are dealing with a confused idiot who botched up the job of creation; in a displaced way, Christianity then acknowledges this fact (Christ dies in order to remeed his father in the eyes of humanity).

Along the same lines, the Cathars, the Christian heresy par excellence, posited two opposed diviniites: on the one hand, the infinitely good God who, however, is strangely impotent, unable to CREATE anything; on the other hand, the Creator of our material universe who is n one other than the Devil himself (identical to the God of the Old Testament) -- the visible, tangible world in its entirety is a diabolical phenomenon, a manifestaton of Evil. The Devil is able to create, but is a sterile creator; this sterility is confirmed by the fact that the Devil succeeded in producing a wretched universe in which, despite all his efforts, he never contrived anything lasting. Man is thus a divided creature: as an entity of flesh and blood, he is a creation of the Devil. However, the Devil was not able to create spiritual Life, so he was supposed to have asked the good God for help; in his bounty, God agreed to assist the Devil, this depressingly sterile creator, by breathing a soul into the body of lifeless clay. The Devil succeeded in perverting this spiritual flame by causing the Fall, i.e. by drawing the first couple into the carnal union which consummated their position as the creatures of matter.

Why did the Church react in such a violent way to this Gnostic narrative? Not because of the Cathars' radical Otherness (the dualist belief in the Devil as the counter-agent to the good God; the condemnation of every procreation and fornication, i.e. disgust at Life in its cycle of generation and corruption), but because these "strange" beliefs which seemed so shocking to the Catholic orthodoxy "were precisely those that had the appearance of stemming logically from orthodox contemporary doctrine. That was why they were considered so dangerous" (Z. Oldenbourg [1998], 39). Was the Catharist dualism not simply a consequent development of the Catholic belief in the Devil? Was the Catharist rejection of fornication also the consequence of the Catholic notion that concupiscence is inherently "dirty," and has merely to be tolerated within the confines of marriage, so that marriage is ultimately a compromise with human weakness?: In short, what the Cathars offered was the inherent transgression of the official Catholic dogma, its disavowed logical conclusion. And, perhaps, this allows us to propose a more general definition of what heresy is: in order for an ideological edifice to occupy the hegemonic place and legitimize the existing power relations, it HAS to compromise its founding radical message -- and the ultimate "heretics" are simply those who reject this compromise, sticking to the original message. (Recall the fate of Saint Francis: by insisting on the vow of poverty of the true Christian, by refusing integration into the existing social edifice, he came very close to being excommunicated -- he was embraced by the Church only after the necessary "rearrangements" were made, which flattened this edge that posed a threat to the existing feudal relations.)

And thus begins the first chapter to Slavoj Zizek's On Belief. It is not something I readily recommend for those of you who either don't have a lot of time (it is a short book, but requires some background reading / Googling to really appreciate it) or simply don't have a lot of time for "heretical" philosophies / theologies like those of Zizek. If, however, you do have time, and you are drawn to (or appalled by) heretical notions of what is real, what is right, and what is religious (i.e., like another Silentio), then I cannot recommend it enough.