The modern period is steeped in nostalgia for pagan naturalism. And the Enlightenment made a very conscious shift away from a meaning framework rooted in the idea of original sin and salvation to one in which the pursuit of happiness through an embrace of rationality and material progress became the central concern. And this inclined the Enlightenment thinkers to lean more toward the Hellenic side of the Judeo-Hellenic marriage from which European civilization was born. The Jewish Christian side of that tension was rejected as unnatural, irrational, too weird.
So the Enlightenment celebrates the Greek and Roman worldview. It's in the great paintings of the Baroque era through writings of Rousseau and later Nietzsche and Freud. The Enlightenment impulse was largely driven by a longing to escape the constraints and the accompanying guilt of the Jewish-Christian part of the Western heritage. In the pagan view, the Christian idea of original sin was associated with the fallen body and with sinful sexual passions. And moderns have felt a deep antipathy to the idea, which they see as the root of all repression. Pagan naturalism sought to celebrate the pre-Christian way of being human, and to return to a less alienated, more earthy, sensual, spontaneous, full-bodied way of being in the world.
For the pagan naturalist, the world is what it is—beautiful and cruel. We humans are animals who, for whatever reason, have developed brains that have allowed us to adapt to and to control our environment in ways that surpass any other of the planet’s species. It's that simple, and we’re nothing more exalted than that. Any attempt to make more of who we are and why we're here is fanciful at best and dangerous when it results in the naive idealism about which I wrote earlier this week. And any attempt to see ourselves as more leads to alienation, to false consciousness, to a refusal to accept our human condition for what it is. It takes courage to be human, and Christianity is the ideology of frightened slaves. That was Nietzsche’s take on Christianity, and he is in large part quite right. In my view, any attempt to present a postmodern Christian narrative has to go through Nietzsche. His is a flame that burns away everything that is not diamond hard. But I’ll come back to that later.
The second competing narrative lies in the related concepts of maya and the chain of incarnations found in both Hindu and Buddhist thinking. It is a given that we live in a world of illusion. It is a prison of ignorance from which we must be liberated, and even death offers no liberation because we reincarnate continuously until we finally break free. Liberation is achieved through one’s own effort with the aid of a teacher who has already found a way out, and the whole point is to get out, to get off the earth whose beauties are distractions and whose cruelties are incentives to leave once and for all and to merge with the godhead, the non-material, really real which contrasts with the shadow-world phantasmagoria we call our life on the earth.
There are similarities here to the idea of original sin and also to Plato’s Myth of the Cave. The idea of exile is strong in the Christian tradition, as in the Salve Regina—“…and after this our exile, show unto of the blessed fruit of your womb…” If we are exiles, we are so many E.T.s longing for home. And both the Eastern and the Western ideas are rooted in this profound longing not to be here on the earth because it is not our home. I embrace the idea of maya, of our fundamental delusionism as an element essential for understanding what original sin means for Christians, but I reject the idea that the point is to get off the planet. The Christian task as I understand it is not escape but subversion.
So there are important differences, and I’ll get into what they are in Part II. But here’s the main point I want to make today: Both pagan naturalism and Easternism are rooted in longings that go in two different directions. Both seek to overcome the fundamental alienation that is at the heart of the human condition. Paganism seeks to overcome it by looking toward the earth and the natural world, and Easternism seeks to do it by looking past the natural world to the really real which is non-material spirit.
It's as if the human being is pulled simultaneously in two different directions, and peace can come only by choosing one or the other. These two fundamentally different gestures of the soul propose different solutions to the basic neither here nor there-ness which is at the heart of the human condition. I want eventually to make the case that true Christianity refuses both and proposes as an alternative to integrate both these gestures, to perform both at the same time, and that we were shown how to do it in the life story of the Christ two thousand years ago. The whole business is not about saving our sorry individual asses, but saving the whole thing, the earth and everything on it. More later.