In the three previous chapters I have been trying to suggest something of the contrast between the natural or physical and the spiritual vision in regard to language, space, and time. We can now try to see where this takes us in our efforts to distinguish the natural from the spiritual vision of God. We are told in the New Testament that God is spirit, that Jesus has no kingdom except a spiritual one, and that only the spirit can understand what the New testament is saying. On the other hand, no God or numinous presence can be found within nature, the attempt to find him there being the great error that the Bible calls idolatry. The metaphorical vision may see the reflection of God from his works in nature, but it is only through the distinctively human elements in the world that we can come to the spiritual God.
Let us begin by looking at some features of the development of 'pagan' or 'heathen' religion in countries outside the Bible but contemporary with it. For human societies organized in small tribal units, dependent on nature rather than masters of it, the gods take shape as projections of human hopes and anxieties into the more mysterious aspects of nature. Local deities of rivers, trees, mountains, along with the sun and moon, are among the most primitive of divinities and develop into the nymphs and fauns and satyrs of later mythology. The cult of animals that we find in Egypt and elsewhere also reflects a sense of something numinous in modes of being quite different from the human consciousness. Such a cult is not a 'worship of animals' but a recognition that humanity is only one presence among others in its world. The sense of the numinous in nature is the bedrock of the pagan or heathen religion, which is based first on tribal and local societies, then on rural and non-urban parts of civilization. A pagan is etymologically a peasant (paganus), and a heathen a heath-dweller.
Although there is unlikely to be any clear-cut sequence, as societies form bigger units and become more elaborately class-structured, the gods take on the features of a human aristocracy. The more important gods often dwell on mountain-tops like the Greek Olympus, and dispense a rough justice like a human aristocracy, sometimes benevolent, sometimes tyrannical, but above all concerned with preserving their privileges and inflicting vicious punishments on anyone who challenges their authority, even by a boast. By that time there are many gods of primarily political and social reference, gods of war, of wisdom, and of justice, but they still reflect the arbitrary and whimsical elements in both human and physical nature.
As nations expand into empires, and their rulers begin to think of themselves as kings of the world, a supreme god appears, and religion approaches the great divide between the gods of nature who are human creations and a god who is supreme over both human and physical nature. An imperial monotheism, in which the ruler of a world-empire is the incarnation or adopted son of God, as mentioned previously, is a very different thing from the revolutionary and still largely tribal monotheism of the Bible; but still it is monotheism, and it marks an immense advance in the human comprehension of the environment. First, such monotheism is relatively tolerant: it may even encourage local cults, on the general assumption that smaller gods are emanations or reflections of the supreme one. When the Mesopotamian empires that held their conquests only by force were superceded by the better organized Persian Empire under Cyrus, the benefits for the Jews held captive in Babylonia were immediately marked. The Roman Empire, too, was tolerant of a plurality of cults to a remarkable degree.
The physical image that suggests monotheism is usually the sky, the superior world that is above us everywhere. Some students of mythology think that most primitive communities have some potential monotheism in which a supreme god is there, but has abdicated and left the rule of the world to lesser spirits. Such a conception reflects a human society confined to small competitive groups, unable to unite even by force. Of the objects in the sky, the sun alone seems to have an obvious and immediate relevance to human concerns, and hence the ruler-figure in imperial monotheism is often associated with the sun. This association has persisted from ancient Egypt to contemporary japan, and enters Christendom with the 'Sun King' Louis XIV of France.
Then again, monotheism of any kind indicates an increase in the human mastery of nature, both intellectual and physical. The sense of the unity of God forms part of a growing sense of nature as an order: in fact this sense goes so far as to reverse our initial statement about nature as the source of idolatry. There is a strong philosophical tradition, stretching from the Stoics to Spinoza and beyond, of identifying God and nature, though this 'nature' is no longer a world of mysterious presences but is conceived as an order obeying certain laws. Such a nature is less alien to humanity and more of a reflection of human consciousness. Of course in an originally polytheistic religion the gods to not give up at once: they are still there, if increasingly vestigial, in pagan Rome up to Julian the Apostate. Yet as early as the Iliad we have in the foreground a group of quarrelling gods, some lobbying for Greeks and some for Trojans, and in the background a hint that, as the fifth line of the poem tells us, a single divine purpose (Zeus) is working its will. Even that will appears sometimes to be overruled by a fate which is impersonal, and which even the greatest of personal gods must obey.
The sense of a natural order grows along with the sense of a moral order. From Plato onward there is an increasing feeling that whimsical, arbitrary, capricious gods are too human to be really divine. Our notions of the best human behavior ought surely to be the place where our conceptions of divine behavior should start, or, as Plutarch says, gods of whom indecent stories can be told cannot be real gods. He is thinking of such stories as the one in the Odyssey of the lovers Ares and Aphrodite caught in a net constructed by Hephaistos (who at the time was Aphrodite's husband), to the great amusement of the other gods.
Such developments are obviously important for religion: they also accompany the gradual transformation of mythology into literature. The theory called euhemerism, where gods are thought to be deified human heroes, is an inadequate theory for mythology, because such deifications appears to be the exception rather than the rule. But the reverse process is a very real one: gods modulate into human heroes of saga and romance, and so initiate the development of secular literature, or the original myths may be thought of and retold as essentially literary stories, as they are in Ovid's Metamorphoses. After the coming of Christianity, Jupiter and Venus become purely literary figures, but are much more genuinely real as gods than they were when temples and sacrifices were connected with them. The true gods thus become more like what the Greeks called Muses, symbols of the creative powers of humanity, like the Eros who appears to Dante in the Vita Nuova, and says to him 'ego dominus tuus': I am thy Lord. False gods, in the Christian period, are those regarded as objective existences independent of human imagination: as no such gods exist, they can only be illusions thrown up by the demonic powers. We notice a cosmos of three levels here, a point we shall return to, the genuinely divine, the demonic parody, and the human world in between that is turned by grace from a demonic direction toward a divine one.
We have not forgotten that monotheism of the kind discussed here is imperial, and that the human being at the top of the social structure is its personal focus, becoming increasingly so as the other elements of religion become more impersonal. In Egypt the Pharaoh was an incarnation of two gods, of Horus during his life and of Osiris after his death. Obviously the deifying of a human ruler is a powerful political instrument, and one that was adopted in the Roman Empire in a ritual following the emperor's death. This device was effective enough for Augustus, but something of a strain when the emperor was one of the contemptible creatures who followed Augustus. The philosopher Seneca wrote a satire in which he described the deifying of the Emperor Claudius as an 'apocolocyntosis,' the apotheosis of a pumpkin. Still, the need for a personal focus kept the absurd custom going, and the resistance of Jews and Christians to participating in it turned them into political criminals.
Later centuries were fascinated by the contrast between the temporal ruler of the world, Augustus Caesar, and its spiritual ruler Jesus, who was born during Augustus' reign. Contemporary with Jesus we have the whole mythological side of classical culture summed up in two great masterworks, Virgil's Aeneid and Ovid's Metamorphoses. Ovid provides a kind of encyclopaedia of mythology in which the central theme is metamorphosis, the incessant dissolving and reshaping of forms of life. Toward the end of his long poem, he brings in the philosopher Pythagoras to expound a gloomy philosophy based on the same theme. The Metamorphoses starts with creation and deluge myths, and Pythagoras sees at the end of time a running down of the world into a kind of entropy, or chaos come again. But there are also eulogies of the Caesars, particularly Julius, as the only symbols of what can transcend metamorphosis. In Virgil, similarly, the myth that Rome was founded by Trojan refugees expands into a vision of history in which the Roman empire represents a kind of goal or telos of the historical process.
There is a certain amount of Stoicism behind Virgil, and Stoicism was a philosophy, or religion, that originally put its main emphasis on equality and the brotherhood of man, and had no place for a dictatorial ruler. But the logic of a revolutionary situation, which elevated the emperor to the top of the social pyramid, compelled Stoicism to adapt itself to becoming an intellectual support for the empire. Stoic and emperor, of course, merged in the figure of Marcus Aurelius. There are some odd parallels with the Marxist developments in our day: first the vision of equality in Marx himself, where the state eventually withers away, then the adulation of Lenin as the power-figure who consolidated the revolution with himself as leader, then a series of tyrants.
There are thus two foci of non-biblical religion, the ruler vested with supreme authority and the sense of nature as an impersonal structure of law and order. The ruler manifests this order in human society, and is therefore symbolically divine. Similarly, there may be a supreme personal god in Zeus for the Stoic poets, but Zeus owes his personal dignity to his impersonal aspect as a manifestation of law. The principle involved here is that religion tends to outgrow the notion of a personal god in order t reach its loftiest ideals. Or, to put it another way, we can build a higher tower of Babel with a god so transcendent that he transcends first personality and then himself, eventually disappearing beyond the bounds of human categories of thought. Even in Plotinus, who retains a personal god, that god is so remote that language cannot say what he is except 'one.' Then we come down through an immense ladder of Word, Spirit, ideas, demons and the like to something approaching the (ugh) physical world we live in. Such constructs reflect the pyramid of authority, nevertheless, in that very world.
The temporal ruler is the chief executive officer of nature, history, and God. There are two kinds of such rulers, the tyrannos, whose power springs from his natural abilities as a leader, and the basileus, who rules by hereditary right (Basileus does not invariably mean a hereditary ruler, but I need some word.) Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin were forces of nature; hereditary monarchs are attached to a social contract. The latter stand for continuity as the tyrannos does for revolutionary upheaval.
We think of God as the author of our being, and hence use the metaphor of 'Father' for him. If we think of the authors of our being in a natural context, we think of our parents, then of our direct ancestors. The association of divinity and nature underlies the tendency in society to produce an aristocracy, a class considered entitled to special privileges because their direct ancestors possessed them. At their head is the king, who is king because his father was a king. Such a community is a conservative social force: once it is broken by a revolution, the tyrannos or natural force appears again. As Marvell says of Cromwell's ousting of Charles I:
Nature that hateth emptiness
Allows of penetration less,
And therefore must make room
When greater spirits come.
Christianity is founded on the New Testament, and the New Testament is founded on the Old Testament only. The New Testament is unintelligible until it is understood that its writers regarded their message as primarily an interpretation of the true meaning of the Old Testament, the spiritual fulfilment of its laws and prophecies. Nevertheless there were many in the early Christian period who thought that the break between Judaism and Christianity did not go far enough. Many of the Gnostics regarded the Jehovah of the Old Testament as an evil demiurge, and the work of Jesus as an effort to deliver humanity from his tyranny. This position was close to that of the Manicheans, who, like the second-coming sects of the previous century, were anxious to hasten the apocalypse, to jump out of matter into spirit by abstaining from sexual intercourse and the like. For the central tradition of Christianity, spirit and nature could not be instantly divorced in this way, and the Incarnation implied that the same God presides over both spiritual and natural worlds.
So Christianity retained the conception of the integrity of the Bible and of the positive relevance of the Old Testament to the New. When Augustine denounces the errors of the Manicheans, their negative attitude to the Old Testament is frequently cited. At the same time there was increasingly a search for philosophical principles to serve as an infrastructure for the biblical revelation, and to form the necessary link between the two orders. As all our philosophical traditions in the West are Hellenic in origin, this meant constructs derived ultimately from Plato or Aristotle.
There were several intellectual traditions in the Middle Ages that were Neoplatonic in their main inspiration: one of them was introduced by Dionysius the Areopagite, although he would probably have got nowhere if he had not given himself a fraudulent name out of the New Testament. It was a more concrete Aristotelian tradition, with its greater reliance on form and language, that finally prevailed with the great Summas of St Thomas Aquinas. One difficulty here is that every philosophical construct is bound to be a differentiation from every other such construct, and this cannot be fully recognized in societies preoccupied with a uniform ideology. As in all repressive cultures, most of the more penetrating thinkers of the Middle Ages were dissidents accused of or at least suspected of heresy: they included Siger of Brabant, Scotus Erigena, Peter Abelard, John Wyclif, Roger Bacon, Nicholas of Autrecourt, Meister Eckhart, William of Occam, and Joachim of Floris. Dante got one or two of these into Paradise, and his own De Monarchia on the Index. With the Lutheran and Calvinist movements there came a renewed emphasis on the Old Testament as the sole basis for Christian doctrine, and something close to an abandoning of all attempts at an integrated philosophical infrastructure. In the Middle Ages, St Thomas was the greatest Catholic theologian, and therefore its greatest philosopher. In the sixteenth century, Luther and Calvin were the greatest Reformed theologians, and were therefore not philosophers at all.
The funeral service speaks of Christianity as providing the comfort of a reasonable religion. It is not always understood that the reasonable and the rational are opposed attitudes, and that the comfort of a reasonable religion can hardly coexist with the prickly discomfort of a rational one. The reasonable person proceeds by compromise, halfway measures, illogical agreements, and similar signs of mature human intelligence. Rationalism is a militant use of language designed to demonstrate the exclusive truth of what it works on and with. Inferior grades of rationalism usually amount to a simple defence of intolerance and obscurantism by a trumpery show of pseudo-logic, an abuse of language that succeeds only in articulating original sin. For the Reformation it would have been reasonable to have developed an interest in Judaism as the fons et origo of Christianity, and in the way that Jews read their own Bible. There were marginal improvements in the attitude toward Jews: a progress in the study of Hebrew through the sixteenth century and later, which depended on jewish teachers; a slightly greater degree of social tolerance in seventeenth-century Holland (Rembrandt is sometimes though to have been Jewish), and, after Cromwell, in England; there was even a Christian form of Kabbalism, which turned mainly on putting the letter shin in the middle of the Hebrew YHWH and thereby changing Yahweh to Yeshua. But it was centuries before there was any serious Christian interest in Jewish culture. Matthew Arnold's dialectic of Hellenic and Hebraic influences on the culture of nineteenth-century Britain, in Culture and Anarchy, is vitiated by the fact that the Hebraic was not really an influence from a different culture, but a narcissistic kidnapping of an originally Hebrew book into the reader's own cultural orbit.
There was, however, a genuine clarification of the Christian revelation involved in the renewed emphasis on the Bible, and I have often reverted to a passage in Milton's Paradise Regained (IV, 285ff) that illustrates what it is. In that poem, which deals with the temptation in the wilderness, Satan first tries to persuade Christ to join the Parthians and become a kind of Genghis Khan, then to become emperor of Rome and achieve temporal power over the world. Failing in these, he goes on to suggest that Jesus attach himself to the Hellenic philosophical tradition. Jesus denies that there is any relevance to his own Messianic function in the Greek tradition, and refuses to have anything to do with any culture outside the Old Testament. The passage is often regarded as evidence of a tired, irritable, even sick reaction on Milton's part; but in its context what Jesus says makes complete sense. The world, including the wisdom of Plato and Aristotle, is in Satan's possession: Jesus must reject every atom of it before he can enter on his ministry. After he has done that, he can redeem everything in that world that is not inseparably attached to the demonic, including Hellenic culture. It is only because Christ rejects Plato and Aristotle that Milton himself can study them.
The conception of redemption is a centrally Christian element in contrast to, for example, the more simplistic Manicheanism, where there are only the divine and demonic worlds, and those elected for salvation are not so much redeemed as rescued. A man rescued from a shipwreck is simply pulled out of the water, and wants to have nothing more to do with water; but redemption means fulfilling what one formerly was, as well as separating it from the demonic or parody-world of evil. A redeemed slave has his bondage annihilated, but his essential human life fulfilled; similarly with the Old Testament law as the New testament concieves of it, which is fulfilled in one aspect and abolished in another.
Thus the immense benefits of Hellenic culture for the Western tradition, including Christianity, are not in question here: the question is the emphasis on Hellenic philosophical conceptions rather than the Old testament as the basis of Christian teachings. The growth of democratic ideology increasingly compelled Christianity to be reasonable, to soft-pedal its claims to being the exclusive means of human redemption, and not simply to tolerate but to enter into dialogue withother religions or anti-religions. But in all centuries there is a perpetually renewed hankering for a rational infrastructure that will demonstrate the unique validity of the Christian revelation once and for all. In the twentieth century this tendency produced, two generations ago, a revived Thomism in Catholic thought, set up to be a comprehensive intellectual system in opposition to Marxism. In Protestant circles, harnack audibly wished that Christianity had been based on classical rather than Hebraic sources. Matthew Arnold, with many qualifications, would probably have agreed. Such revisionism would doubtless not have translated the 'Logos' in the Gospel of John as 'Word,' but would rather have tried to assimilate it to the philosophical Logos in Greek thought from Heraclitus onward, where it is more like a principle of order in the mind tha recognizes a corresponding order in the physical world. Most Protestantism, however, turned to history rather than metaphysics as an infrastructure for revelation. We have already glanced at the method resulting: we first distinguish secular from sacred history, then ignore the mythical structure of sacred history in favour of extracting a credible historical Jesus of secular history from the wrong context.
Paul could explain to the legalistic Romans that Christ was the fulfilment of the law, and to the erotic Corinthians that Christ was the fulfilment of love. Perhaps if he had succeeded in founding a church at Athens he would have written an Epistle to the Athenians that would have clarified something of the Hebraic-Hellenic relationship. He shows a token interest in Hellenistic culture, at least, in quoting Menander and the Stoic poet Aratus of Soli (I Corinthians 15:33 ; Acts 17:28 ). In default of such an epistle, the only reasonable thing to do is to return to our principle that the language of both testaments is the language of myth and metaphor.
The general position we start from is, once again, that the true literal sense of the Bible is metaphorical. This conception of a metaphorical literal sense is not new, or even modern. Dante said that his Commedia was, like Scripture itself, 'polysemous,' having many meanings, though in his exposition the literal-descriptive is the basis for all meaning. He passes over the immense difficulties involved in explaining how a poem could have this kind of literal meaning, and one of his first commentators, his son Pietro, remarks that there are in fact different kinds of literal meaning, of which the metaphorical literal is one. But this insight remained undeveloped in biblical criticism because of official anxieties about dispensing with the simplistic literal.
In Matthew and Luke, genealogies of Jesus are given to show that he was legitimately descended from David as the Messiah was supposed to be by prophecy. It is hard to see just what these genealogies establish: apart from the fact that the two lists are quite different for the post-exilic period, they both trace the descent through Joseph, who according to the Virgin Birth story was not Jesus' father at all. Besides, while Jesus was a Jew, descended from Abraham like all Jews, we are told (Matthew 3:9 ) that the Jews need not pride themselves on that descent, as God could raise up more descendants of Abraham from stones (an image curiously similar to the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha in Ovid's flood myth). As for the Virgin Birth, it looks like an importing of the common Mediterannean myth of the hero with a divine father and a human mother, complete with the need for concealing the miraculous birth from the person threatened by it, in this case Herod. The most likley reason for importing it appears to be the Septuagint rendering of halma, young woman, as virgin, parthenos, in Isaiah 7:14.
This kind of disintegration is as far as we can get with what Blake calls single vision. But the real literal question is not 'Did this happen just like that?' but 'Is this an essential part of the revelation of the Messiah?' If we look back at what we said about basileus and tyrannos authority-figures in secular life, we can see that the story of the Messiah must include the basileus theme of Davidic descent, but that in the double vision which includes the spiritual one, it is equally necessary that the hereditary succession should be interrupted by a divine intervention. Otherwise we should be ascribing divine right to the natural father or direct ancestor, as human monarchies do. The line of David itself was established by divine intervention, though Saul remained the Lord's anointed after his rejection. The Virgin Birth, where God raises up a son of David, not out of a stone but certainly without a natural father, is essential to understanding what the real or spiritual significance of Jesus is.
Jesus is a spiritual basileus, a legitimate king, totally unrecognized as such in a historical context, except in mockery, but invariably addressed as 'Lord' by his followers. He is also a spiritual tyrannos, owing his unique abilities as leader not to nature or fate or the historical process, but directly to the will of God. In contrast, Augustus, the temporal ruler of the world when Jesus was born, is a potential Antichrist figure, that is, a human ruler who claims divine honours, and he became an actual Antichrist, as mentioned earlier, when deified by the Roman cult.
We note that the principle of metaphorical literalism takes its chances with the possibility that the Gospels are cleverly concocted pious frauds. If the gospel writers had simply made up what they say out of their own imaginations or even out of their convictions, what they produced would still have been superb works of literature, though they would not have been the Gospels. A superb work of literature is a very precious thing in a literary context, and to the extent that this context is involved, the Gospels are authentic literary treasures. Approaching the Gospels as one would approach works of literature, however, though a correct approach on the literal level, is confined to that level. The Bible is still polysemous, and has many other dimensions of meaning beyond the suspended judgement of the imaginative. Some of them would recapture everything that the single-vision literalist is trying to gain, but an exclusive single-vision literalism will not work.
In Twelfth Night, when Viola and Sebastian appear together, the Duke says, 'A natural perspective, that is and is not!' The phrase 'natural perspective' refers to the fact that in ordinary experience it is impossible that even twins could be so much alike, but this is a play, and in a play we may have visual confirmation of what otherwise would be only the metaphor of 'identical' twins. In Mark 1:6 , John the Baptist is described as wearing camel-hair clothes and a leather girdle. Ah, says the single-vision reader, at last a realistic detail. There are no realistic details in the Gospels: this detail is there to identify John with the Elijah of II Kings 1:8 . That is, John the Baptist is Elijah reborn, as Malachi 4:5 says Elijah had to be in the day of the Messiah, and as Jesus confirms (Matthew 11:14 ). When John the Baptist himself is asked if he is Elijah, he says he is not (John 1:21 ), and if he were the fact would contradict the whole negative attitude to literal-descriptive reincarnation in Christianity. Great difficulties here for the single vision: none whatever for a metaphorical language in which the paradox of 'is and is not' is functional.
The question often arises, Why can't we have it both ways? Why can't there be a definitive literal-descriptive dimension along with a spiritual vision of it? The reason, apart from the contradictions and incoiinsistencies involved, is that the former is a passive response and the latter is an active one, and if they were both there the passive one would take over and eliminate the active one. The human mind, like the human body, has a strong pull toward inertia built into it. Most religions teach a doctrine of immortality that by definition implies a release of a new source of unfettered energy at death, but the great majority of petitions for the after-death state ask for peace, repose, untroubled sleep in the bosom of God. 'After the first death, there is no other,' says Dylan Thomas, saying something that those who accept immortality and those who do not can agree on.
Similarly, faith involves risk and adventure: it cannot rest in assured certainties, because there are no certain propositions that are not tautologies. Two and two certainly make four, but only because four is another way of saying two and two. The practical certainties of sense experience, or the self-assurance that one would have had them at the time specified, neutralize the genuine energy of faith. Hence Sir Thomas Browne's remark in Religio Medici: 'I bless myself and am thankful ... that I never saw Christ nor his disciples.' A Chinese philosopher is said to have remarked that in practice unicorns do not exist, because if anyone saw a unicorn he would instantly tell himself that he had not seen it and forget the memory. The spirit of this remark is in the Gospels too, where so frequently people do not hear what they hear, and do not see what they see. The 'both ways' we have, therefore, are only the alternatives of the choice between using the Gospels as spiritual batteries, so to speak, for charging one's spiritual energies, and looking at them objectively as aesthetic productions.
In pagan religion two factors stand out: the personal focus, associated with the temporal ruler, and the sense of nature as a manifestation of law, which accompaniedd the decline of belief in the earlier capricious gods. I will look at the peresonal focus first. One who voluntarily assumes responsibility and devotes himself to decision and action enters a situation of guilt, however admirable his motives in doing so may be. Lying, half-truths, the threat of violence, pressures of self-interest, surrounds him on all sides, and it takes exceptional integrity, astuteness, and a certain amount of luck to avoid being infected by them. Even the idealized description of the magnanimous man in Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics gives the impression of a kind of moral ballet dancer, whose skill in avoiding error attracts more admiration than his actual virtue. To acquire power, on the other hand, is to be led into temptation, from which the Lord's prayer asks deliverance, and the temporal ruler, for all the adulation he may receive in his lifetime, seldom lasts long as a role model.
The spiritual personality of Jesus as set out in the Gospels, however, remains unchanged as a role model, or rather as the role model, for Christians. He remains aloof from decision and action, apart from those decisions that affect his own life, but is totally concerned with the world, even though he has a high regard for privacy. What he does is renounce temporal power, as the episode of his arrest shows in particular. Anyone with his abilities of concentration might have been able to eliminate much of the physical pain of the Crucifixion, but it seems clear that he was called upon to renounce that too. It is only after his ressurection that he says, 'All power is given unto me.' Yet there is nothing ghostly about him, and nothing of the sense of antagonism between soul and body. In fact he is ridiculed as one who 'comes eating and drinking' (Luke 7:34 ) instead of being, like Plotinus, an acetic ashamed of being in a body, as holy men are often conventionally supposed to be.
The ideal portrayed here has parallels in other religions: one is the hero of the Tao te ching in China who seeks the humble 'way of the valley' and the kind of non-action out of which all effective action ultimately comes. But this remains on the level of precept only, and even so the supreme sacrifice of dying for the people does not appear to be anything that would appeal to a Taoist. The dilemma faced by pagans in trying to get their gods to behave decently, and thereby including them in a growing sense of order and coherence in both society and nature, is much more complex. For the Epicureans, including Lucretius, the gods can preserve their integrity only by not soiling their hands with human affairs. Stoics and Neoplatonists took less easy ways out; but here Christianity itself had a crucial problem. We said that the sole basis of the revelation of the Messiah in the New Testament is the Old Testament; but what does the Old Testament provide us with?
The Jehovah of the Old Testament develops into a monotheistic God out of the stage known as henotheism, where he is specifically the God of Israel, without the reality of heathen and hostile gods being denied. Syrian invaders explain to each other (I Kings 20:24 ) that Jehovah is the god of a hilly country, skilful therefore at hill-fighting, so that the Israelites have to be enticed to lower ground in order to make him ineffective. We are here on the Homeric level of gods fighting each other, when Trojan gods are defeated along ith the Trojans. Of course this is only a heathen army getting it wrong, but we also read of 'contests' with Dagon of Philistia and Baal of Phoenicia. And while many aspects of Jehovah rank with the highest possible conceptions of God, such as the shepherd of the Twenty-third Psalm and the suffering servant of the second Isaiah, the God of the Old Testament is on the whole not presented as a theologian's model of perfect being, but as an intensely humanized figure, as violent and unpredictable as King Lear.
What, for example, are we to do with a God who drowns the world in a fit of anger and repeoples it in a fit of remorse, promising never to do it again (Genesis 9:11 ); a God who curses the ground Adam is forced to cultivate after his fall, but removes the curse after Noah makes a tremendous holocaust of animals, the smell of their burning flesh being grateful to his nose (Genesis 8:21 ); a God who rejects Saul as king after he spares his enemy Agag out of human decency (because he should have been offered to God as a sacrifice) and inspires Samuel to hew Agag in pieces and tell Saul that he has committed an unforgivable sin (I Samuel 15 ); a God who observes children mocking the prophet Elisha and sends bears out to eat up the children (II Kings 2:23 ), and so on? All mythologies have a trickster God, and Jehovah's treatment of the Exodus Pharaoh (hardening his heart ), of Abraham, perhaps even of Job, shows clear trickster affinities. Some of the most horrendous of his capers, such as the sacrifice of Isaac , are tests or trials of faith, implying a lack of knowledge of what is already in Abraham's mind and will. We spoke of the pagan gods who reflected the whimsical and capricious elements in a still unknown and mysterious nature; but is there any real superiority to that stage here?
We notice first the stark simplicity of the biblical scenario, in contrast to the complexities both of polytheism and of later theologies. There are only God and Israel, though Israel may be in different contexts an individual, a society, or a metonymy for the human race. Jesus himself is a spiritual israel in individual form. Again, Jehovah has nothing of the 'Olympian' about him, nothing of the god who is removed from the human situation unless something exceptional attracts his attention: his preoccupation with his people is continuous, insistent to the verge of fussiness.
When we look at the Bible from the point of view of later Christianity, we often get a vision of God sitting up in a metaphorical sky, presiding over moral and natural law, omnipotent, omniscient, loving, compassionate, merciful - all the right words - but leaving the outcries of pain and misery from the world below largely unheeded. To his devotees he is the source of grace, a quality or power almost always associated with metaphors of descending from a remote height. To others he seems a picture of impotence, an empty hypothesis.
This is not intended to be anything but a caricature: what I am describing is the disparity between this metaphorical structure and the intensely limited and concrete relation of God and man to which the Bible mainly confines itself. This is especially true of the Mosaic books, which set out God's intimate, even cosy, relations with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses. To the writing prophets God is still close, but mainly as an invisible voice. Yet even in the wisdom literature, while terms of infinite transcendence are certainly applied to God, there is little interest in God's traditional metaphysical attributes. With Jesus' relation to his Father in the Gospels, the original intimacy is not only restored but increased to the point of identity ('I and my Father are one '). Nowhere does the Bible seem to be afraid of the word antropomorphic.
We often meet with miraculous events in the Bible, such as the triumphant vindication of Elijah on Mount Carmel before the priests of Baal (I Kings 18 ), where a voice within us keeps insisting that God does not act in this way, that he does not interrupt the course of nature arbitrarily, and that a contemporary of ours who attempted Elijah's feat would encounter the same silence as the priests of Baal did. To cling to the authenticity of the event sooner or later suggests the question, If God could do it then, why can't he do it now? This is the attitude of looking for a 'sign' that Jesus condemns (Matthew 12:39 ). In any case the historical event, whatever it was, is out of our range: it is only the verbal event that concerns us, and the verbal event may be the starting-point of an adventure in understanding. This story in particular illustrates the curious intimacy of God and man which seems uniquely biblical. Magicians and miracle-workers are worldwide, but only in the Bible would God and his prophet cooperate in putting on a show for the public. And however 'incredible' we may find the story, its haunting power has some connection with all the occasions where the wrong kind of help has let us down and only the authentic kind breaks through.
At this point we are still on the metaphorical-literal level where stories are simply stories, considered with the suspended judgement of the imagination without relation to the area we vaguely describe as 'truth.' Beyond that lie the 'polysemous' levels in which the biblical stories form a myth to live by, transformed from the kind of story we can construct ourselves to a spiritual story of what has created and continues to re-create us. According to Milton, the Bible should be read by the 'rule of charity.' That is, the Bible is the charter of human freedom, and any approach to it that rationalizes the enslaving of man has something wrong with it. For example, when chloroform was discovered and doctors began to use anaesthetics to lessen the pain of childbirth, some clergymen objected that this violated the commandment in Genesis 3:16: 'In pain shall you bring forth children.' One can read any book as a mirror of oneself, and here, perhaps, we think of the comment of the eighteenth-century writer Lichtenberg that if a monkey looks into a mirror, an angel will not look out. But we should not dismiss such objections as mere perversity, but consider them as examples of the fallacy of a kind of legalism inherent in the literal-descriptive view, according to which every event of prophecy or commandment in the Bible establishes an identical precedent for the present day. One hears this doctrine of precedent often enough from pulpits still, but the application of it in detail would often lead to such absurdities as the example just given.
The next step up from the metaphorical-literal in reading the Bible is traditionally the allegorical, where the story 'really means' something expressible in discursive language. Non-biblical religions allegorized their myths extensively in the effort to give them profounder meanings, and Plato ridicules this procedure (technically called hyponoia), as his aim was to supplant mythology with dialectic. The biblical religions had to go in the direction of hyponoia, however, as they had only their stories. But the discursive element in allegory keeps something of the divisive 'I must be right and you must be wrong' quality in it.
Paul, for example, refers to the story in Genesis of Abraham's two wives, in which one wife became jealous of the other and succeeded in getting her rival sent into the desert. Paul says that this story is an 'allegory' (Galatians 4:24 ) in which the excluded wife represents the bondage of the Jewish law and the accepted one the freedom of the Christian gospel. A Jewish reader of Paul's interpretation, seeing that the Jews are identified with the Ishmaelites and the Christians with the Jews, might well say that this view of the story was about the most preposterous that it was possible to hold, and that a method of this kind could say anything about anything. A further advance in meaning is clearly needed, something that goes in a more catholic direction, such as 'Freedom is within the orbit of God's will and bondage is outside it.' Not that Paul would rule out further advances of this sort by any means.
Above the allegorical level, in the medieval system, is the moral or tropological level, the reading of the Bible that takes us past the story into the reordering and redirecting of one's life. The clearest examples of this kind of meaning are probably the parables of Jesus, explicitly fictions, but fictions that end with 'Go, and do thou likewise.' The divisiveness we noted at the allegorical level remains to some degree in all religions, in the form of 'This makes sense to me if not to you,' but it is difficult to argue against the human compassion in such stories as those of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son. We may note that the former story ascribes a genuine charity to someone outside both the Jewish and the embryonic Christian communions. With such parables we begin to suspect that there may be two readers within us, and that one is beginning to form a larger vision that the other has only to attach itself to. That is, we are moving from a single or natural vision to a double or spiritual one.
This movement is a purgatorial journey in which God and man are visualized as working within the same human units, whether individual or social. A glance at the human situation around us reveals war, famine, arbitrary acts of injustice and exploitation, voilence, crime, collapse of moral standards, and so on almost indefinitely. Even in prosperous countries a spiritual barrenness produces innumerable acts of ferocity and despair. How does human life of this kind differ from life in hell? Hell is often supposed to be an after-death state created by God in which people are eternally tortured for finite offences. But this doctrine is merely one more example of the depravity of the human mind that thought it up. Man alone is responsible for hell, and much as he would like to pursue his cruelties beyond the grave, he is blocked from doing so. God's interest in this hell is confined to 'harrowing' or redeeming those who are in it. At the same time there are honesty, love, neighbourliness, generosity, and the creative powers in the arts and sciences. Human life appears to be a mingling of two ultimate realities, which we call heaven and hell. Hell is the world created by man, and heaven, or at least the way to it, is the world created through man by God.
Hence the stories of the Bible may exhibit all three of the levels we spoke of in connection with Milton's Paradise Regained: demonic parody, redemptive power, and apocalyptic vision. The name Israel, which is traditionally supposed to mean 'one who strives with God,' was given to jacob after the extraordinary episode in Genesis 32 usually called 'wrestling with the angel.' There are some very archaic elements in this story: the 'angel' is, like the demons of darkness, including Hamlet's father, a being who is compelled to disappear at daybreak. He seems also to be a local demon, like the river-god whom Achilles fights with in Iliad 21, and who would have destroyed the great hero if the latter had not been given an abundance of supernatural help. The river in Genesis has shrunk to a brook (Jabbok), but traces of a guardian spirit in nature are still there. The Homeric god, though he has a name, is usually referred to by Homer simply as 'river' (potamos). Similarly when Jacob asks for the name of his antagonist, he gets no response: he would acquire too much power over his opponent if he knew his name. Another very primitive element is the use of a myth as an explanation of a dietary taboo (V 32 ).
However anxious the angel is to get away, Jacob clings to him demanding a blessing, though what he eventually gets is a touch in the thigh that lames him for life. The antagonist himself is called a 'man' in verse 24, but he is clearly no man, and by verse 30 we have a very strong hint that in some way and some sense Jacob has been striving with God himself, though surely one can strive with God only by striving with or through oneself to obtain a spiritual vision of God. So we have, first, a demon of darkness who attacks and mutilates those who encounter him, then a redemptive context in which Jacob demands a blessing from an angel, and a final outcome in which Jacob is transformed by divine poer into Israel, the individual centre and starting-point of God's people.
The story of the sacrifice of Isaac also has a demonic basis: the sacrifice of human children which was practiced around Israel but forbidden to the Israelites themselves. This story also sets up a demonic situation and then moves in a redemptive direction, where Abraham becomes aware of the uncompromising priority of God's right to human devotion against the closest of earthly ties. We may compare Jesus' remark in the Gospels that he had come to bring not peace but a sword, and cause division even among families. The redemptive vision of Abraham is eloquently expounded in Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, where Kierkegaard's personal sacrifice of his love regina is part of the situation. There is also a poem by Emily Dickinson where that poet's troubled but utterly honest vision sees the story as a contemptible act of arbitrary tyranny on God's part. Textually speaking, both perspectives are 'true,' but the Dickinson poem remains on the metaphorical-literal level of the story while Kierkegaard explores the redemptive dimension in it.
Sometimes the journey of understanding leads, in Hegelian fashion, to the opposite of what the physical event suggests. Let us imagine a speaker in Flanders of Leningrad or anywhere where there is a war cemetary memorializing hundreds of thousands of dead soldieres, explaining to an audience that aggressiveness is essential to humanity because of its survival value. A kernel of truth in a bushel of vicious nonsense; but in contemplating the nonsense our understanding begins to turn inside out. The conventions of secular literature, as they descend from Homer to medieval romance, keep the aggressive hero in the foreground as a central poetic theme. These conventions are also reflected in the Old Testament period between Joshua and David. Other elements in the Bible eventually push us in the opposite direction of seeing that endurance under adversity is the real form of courage. Here the genuine survival values become the spiritual ones given by faith and hope, even when we are not quite sure what our faith is in or what our hope is for; even when their goal is certain death.
Faith and hope, however, seem to get implicated in the question of postponed promise. If God promises prosperity to israel, why so long a period of exile, servitude, even massacres to a point where only a 'saving remnant' survives? More bluntly, why is God portrayed as incessantly promising better things, when history records so little in the way of performance? Taking Israel to be typical of the human situation as a whole, the question expands into the stock question of what is called theodicy, or why a good God permits evil and suffering.
The virtues of faith and hope are purgatorial virtues, and culminate in the paradisal vision of love. Love in the New testament is agape or caritas, God's love for humanity reflected in the human love for God and for one's neighbour. The sexual basis of love is subordinated, because the primary emphasis is on the individual and the community, but erotic love is clearly a part of the total vision. Such love, it seems to me, has to begin with the human recognitioin that it is only human beings who have put evil and suffering into human life, and that no other entity than ourselves, certainly not God, is responsible for its persistence. I have expressed this elsewhere by suggesting that love or charity begins by asking the question, 'Why do we permit so much evil and suffering?' The story of the Exodus shows God in the role of guide to a promised land out of Egypt, the symbolic 'furnace of iron' or hell-world of bondage. He is unalterably opposed to any turning back to this 'Egypt,' and those who try to do so have to face his 'wrath.' But if our general thesis is right, his wrath has nothing of the human egocentric feelings of anger or desire for revenge or love of punishment, however much the rhetoric of the prophets may suggest such things. Wrath is, so to speak, honest criticism, and points out consequences: it does not interfere with free will.
There is certainly a demonic state of being, but it appears to be really an intensification of the human one. Conceivably the divine state is too, or, at least, progress in human love might be thought to bring us to the point of identity with God. Traditional Christianity tends rather to follow the view, which goes back to Augustine at least, that the advance of the spirit, whereever it ends, certainly makes us more authentically human. This is usually taken to refer only to the individual human, but the question arises whether there could be social spiritual advance as well. If so, we are involved again in some conception of progress, though of a very different kind from those mentioned earlier.
Every one of us is defined by our social conditioning, but while our conditioning defines us, it also limits, even imprisons,us,and awareness of the limitations built into being who and what we are is one of the central elements in education, particularly religions education. One of the most encouraging signs of social change in the last half-century is the growing momentum of such awareness, a momentum that has increased to the point of being a social movement. Earlier inthe century we realized how much we owed to Marxism for illuminating the 'bourgeois' conditioning of which most of that class had up till then been unconscious. Similar is the Freudian illumination of the unconscious conflict in our minds and the way we rationalize it. Both these movements, however, especially Marxism, tended to polarize every situation dialectically, and we are beginning to find this incessant polarizing less and less concincing.
The news media now devote a great deal, perhaps even most, of their attention to the way that our conditioned attitudes block our own freedom, ranging from the cruder stereotypes of racism and sexism to the subtler arrogance in regard to the natural environment. Such a growing awareness also prevents us from a facile idealizing of the past. Bernard of Clairvaux was one of the greatest saints of his time, but by the standards of contemporary awareness anyone who put so much time and energy into preching a crusade would not be a saint at all, however intense his spiritual life and however numerous his miracles. There may be just wars, but no holy wars, because the 'good' side is never holy and the 'bad' side is still human. The question that concerns us at present is, Can a growing insight into our own conditioned limits also be connected with a process of, so to speak, cleaning up the human picture of God?
Such a phrase as 'consciousness-raising' may often refer to niggling pedantries of no real importance; but behind it is something that could be of revolutionary religions significance. The single vision of God sees him in the reflection of human panic and rage, its love of cruelty and domination, and, when it accepts such a God, calls on him to justify the maintaining of these things in human life. The double vision sees this as taking the face of God in vain, as it were, and tries to separate the human mirror from God's reality. The point is that his reality comes far closer to human life when purified of the reflection of human evil: that is why the Bible presents so anthropomorphic a picture of him, even in the centuries before the Incarnation.
We must now very briefly sum up the relation of our 'double vision' in language, space, and time to our double vision of God.
One of the benefits of the coming of the kingdom of the spirit, the prophet tells us, is the restoring of a 'pure speech' (Zephaniah 3:9 ). Such purity can hardly be the abstract purity of logic or descriptive accuracy, much less the isolation of one existing language from others. It is rather the purity of simple speech, the parable or aphorism that begins to speak only after we have heard it and feel that we have exhausted its explicit meaning. From that explicit meaning it begins to ripple out into the remotest mysteries of what it expresses and clarifies but does not 'say.' Not all pure speech is in the Bible: T.S. Eliot and Mallarmé tell us that purifying the speech of the 'tribe' or society around us is what gives a social function to the poet. Such purity of speech is not simply a creative element in the mind, but a power that re-creates the mind, or perhaps has actually created the mind in the first place, as though it were an autonomous force deriving from an authentic creation; as though there really were a Logos uniting mind and nature that really does mean 'Word.'
We also spoke of Blake's double vision, which seems at first to be reverting from the conscious awareness of an objective order to the old superstitious notion of presences haunting it. But we also suggested that Blake is really talking about a third stage of development, one in which the vision of gods comes back in the form of a sense of identity with nature, where nature is not merely to be studied and lived in but loved and cherished, where place becomes home. A new covenant with nature, Hosea tells us (2:18 ) will come after war has been swept from the face of the earth. The growth of nature from a manifestation of order and intellectual coherence into an object of love would bring about the harmony of spirit and nature that has been a central theme of this work. Some recent writers have been deeply impressed by the conception in Chinese culture of a harmony between two similar worlds, usually translated as 'heaven' and 'earth,' which is the goal of all genuinely human aspiration. We should perhaps not overlook the fact that what seems like the same kind of harmony is prominently featured in the Lord's Prayer.
Our physical bodies are part of a world usually described as material, but if matter is simply energy cooled down to the point at which our physical bodies can live with it, perhaps spirit can enter a world of higher energies where the separate things spread around objective heres and theres are no longer things to keep bumping into. In such a spiritual nature, a nature of 'implicate order,' as it has been called, or interpenetrating energies, and no longer the nature of congealed objects, we should be gods or numinous presences ourselves. If the spirit of man and the spirit of God inhabit the same world, that fact is more important than the theological relation between them.
Reverting to our remark about the God of promises, all our conditioning is rooted in our temporal existence and in the anxiety that appears in the present as the passing of time and in the future as death. If death is the last enemy to be destroyed, as Paul tells us, the last metaphor to be transcended is that of the future tense, or God in the form of Beckett's Godot, who never comes but will maybe come tomorrow. The omnipresence of time gives some strange distortions to our double vision. We are born on a certain date, live a continuous identity until death on another date; then we move into an 'after'-life or 'next' world where something like an ego survives indefinitely in something like a time and place. But we are not continuous identities; we have had many identities, as babies, as boys and girls, and so on through life, and when we pass through or 'outgrow' these identities they return to their source. Assuming, that is, some law of conservation in the spiritual as well as the physical world exists. There is nothing so unique about death as such, where we may be too distracted by illness or sunk in senility to have much identity at all. In the double vision of a spiritual and a physical world simultaneously present, every moment we have lived through we have also died out of into another order. Our life in the resurrection, then, is already here, and waiting to be recognized.