Religion is so powerful a force in social life because believers are united by the emotions they share in common as the inevitable or “natural” feelings that make up the human psyche, however much these may differ from the feelings people in other religions take as inevitable or “natural”. Emotions are more important than the doctrines to which believers subscribe and we have known since Harnack that doctrines are themselves an unfolding of the emotional plausibility of an insight into the structure of things. The primacy of emotions accounts for the fact that even in our secular age the boundaries that divide up the world are those of religion rather than politics. North America and Europe are dominated by Protestant Christianity; the boundary between Europe and Asia is the border between Catholic Poland and the Catholic parts of Ukraine on the one side and Russian Orthodoxy on the other. The realm of Islam is engaged in a civil war of very long standing between Shiites and Sunnis. Africa and Latin America remain largely Catholic realms. And so on. So let us try to capture the distinctive emotions of Christianity, as those are exhibited by its core story of Jesus and His crucifixion and Resurrection, which make this particular religion stand out from what came before and which remain distinctive to the present day and which sustain this religion whatever the forces that buffet it about.
There is a secularism in the Bible, it has been suggested, that reaches back to its beginnings, whether that is set at “The Book of the Covenant”, which is included in but considerably predates “Exodus”, which promotes rational international law rather than custom or superstition, or if it is set in the early pre-Abrahamic era, which concerns whether people can live longer lives, or if that beginning is set during the times of the not so patriarch dominated families that are part of the nomadic life of Abraham and his kinsmen. The secularism pervades the Bible even when it would contrast, as it does so majestically in “Exodus”, the technology of chariots with an idea of something else, the ineffable spiritual life of those who have been liberated from Egypt by a miracle as visible to a large number of people as any in history and yet so rare as to be both unexpected and very notable. This secularism reaches its pinnacle, perhaps, with “Ecclesiastes”, which is, after all, a rather definitive statement of the secularist point of view.
Another book that expresses that point, though in a very subtle way, is “Ruth”, always known for being the very best of all short stories, but perhaps less appreciated as an answer to the rape of Dinah. There are no ethnic frictions to pollute a story of love offered and consummated between good people. God, such as He is, abides in the silences-- in what might have gone wrong with this relationship between a wheat farmer and a woman who was a stranger and whom he first came across when she was collecting gleanings. Life has drama enough and can be sustained well enough without bitterness or hate or double dealing, much less the melodrama and/or tragedy that comes from invoking the name of God. Just let people be.
Then, in the century or two after “Ecclesiastes”, something happened to reset the emotional spectrum. It led to the setback of secularism for some fifteen hundred years, whatever else there is to be said for Christianity because of its complicated insights into the human psyche, including the longings for a better internal life. This setback was not just to material prosperity and science or in the return of superstition. It resided primarily in what I would consider a retrograde psychology. This story is well known from Edward Gibbon or, to a more contemporary audience, from Gore Vidal’s “Julian”, and what is fresh about my retelling of the story, should there be anything, is in using Biblical documents rather than Greek and Roman documents to outline the story.
The quietism which is found in “Ruth” and that can be regarded as either secular or religious is shattered by a new sense of sinfulness that is most fully acknowledged in the Four Gospels, however much the Pauline Letters attempt to mitigate the sense of sin by making sinfulness more abstract and therefore manageable. Christianity develops as a way to resolve the problems that arise when religion is overtaken with the bourgeois, lachrymose sentimentality that first appears among the Jews in post-Exilic times. The people in “Judith”, “Lamentations” and “Esther” feel sorry for themselves and at the same time crave conventional respectability. How is it possible to entertain both emotions at the same time? Christianity, in it’s over the top fashion, is an answer because it presents sentiments very different from the one present in “Habakkuk”, a book composed probably a generation or two before “Lamentations”. In ”Habakkuk”, the thought is of revenge. God will do to the enemies of Israel what the enemies of Israel did to them. He will despoil them because He is an eternal god while your gods are just idols and so have no reality. Just wait till you get yours.
“Lamentations”, on the other hand, is a prefiguring of Christian emotions, full of self-pity in its portrayal of a Jerusalem recently defeated. It reports that most of Judah has gone off in exile and the people left have to fend for themselves. They have to sell what they have to provide the necessities and some of the young starve. The community has been humiliated because the inner sanctuary of Zion, the home of the spirit of Judaism, which was to survive anything, has been devastated. Her priests therefore groan. It is Berlin in 1945. And yet, how does the poet of “Lamentations” choose to imagine this scene? He personifies Jerusalem as a violated widow who is lonely and tearful, deserted by her lovers and by her friends. She was rich; now she is poor.
The trope of a rich woman deprived of her luxuries and the self respect that comes with those trivializes the story of the ravaging of Jerusalem. It is as if the story of the Holocaust were merely of the rich Warsaw Jews who lost their furs along with their lives. There is something disproportionate here that is the equivalent of bathos, as if Mrs. Lincoln were reported upset because the play wasn’t all that good. Moreover, the portrait of the widow is somewhat prudish. She is dishonored because she has been made a mockery. “…all who honored her despise her,/for that they have seen her nakedness;/she herself groans,/and turns her face away.” The issue is not the physical violence of a rape or the belittling that comes from that; it is the immodesty that comes from others seeing her being violated. This should not have happened to her, considering who she is. The middle class niceties which are violated are the worst that happens to her, never mind the starvation.
“Judith” represents the fullness of this new emotional tack. It is composed in the century or two before the life of Jesus. To put the point briefly, Judith does a brave act by visiting the enemy general in his camp so as to kill him. She had risked her life as well as her honor because she got into his camp so that her beauty might beguile him and because her message to him that her people were taking expedients of defense that went against Jewish religious usages are words designed to persuade him that she had gone over to his side. She is welcomed into his tent in due time without the presence of guards, and takes the occasion to kill him.
Judith speaks with pride of what she had done when she returns to her people. Yet she also goes out of her way to point out that she had not been seduced by the enemy she killed through stealth, however unlikely that was to have been the case. Her personal sexual respectability is put on the balance along with the assassination of the conqueror, as if the latter would not have redeemed her for whatever she had had to do to find him or make him vulnerable. Delilah was not such a prude.
Esther is also able to be of use to her people by taking advantage of a position bestowed on her in part by her sexuality. She is able to get the ruler to go against the wishes of his appointed minister in dealing with a subject people and instead turn to Esther’s brother, an acknowledged Israelite, as his go-between. In other hands, this might be the story of Jewish perfidy: getting into the inner sanctum so as to serve one’s other allegiance. But here it is a story of justice accomplished at the last minute by a righteous Jewish woman.
Now it might be said that you can hardly blame women for using the weapons they have to accomplish their political goals. Men certainly do use their physical strength to get what they want. But that does not account for the hypocrisy or the smugness as that is related in this and the other two stories. “Esther” cannot admit that what Esther did was close to treason. Moreover, these three stories do not do justice to the opposite sex. Think back to “Ruth”, that document before the change in sentiment. There, Ruth, under the tutelage of her once mother in law, seduces a rich man by slowly moving herself into a position of trust by relying on his good instincts, and then sleeps with him, and then wins a proposal. This is a very carefully carried out plot, so well carried out, in fact, that the reader is apt to mistake the story as being just a love story, when in fact it is a love story arranged to happen. But what gives the story its resonance as a love story is that it portrays the sentiments of her lover as honest and above board. He is not interested in taking advantage of her and she, for her part, is being beguiling so as to set herself up as a respectable wife. She is not duplicitous, just careful to arrange things in the steps necessary to have them work out. Positive affect is created but not the less genuine for that. Ever so has been the nature of courtship. A reader is very pleased that everything works out, that nothing goes amiss, that no one takes undue advantage of another. Ruth is respectable as well as seductive and neither she nor Naomi feel sorry for themselves or for their fates.
Christianity satisfies the same double desire found in the “Lamentations” era for feeling both shame and respectability. It does so through its doctrine of forgiveness. Your sorrow, which is a kind of weltschmerz, the world too much with us, we such pathetic souls, is answered, as is your quest to be an upstanding member of your community, proud of what you have accomplished, because you have been granted the right to feel other than sinful in spite of the hypocrisy you display in characterizing yourself in public as respectable, a figure who can hold himself or herself erect, despite all you have done to besmirch yourself, these facts ones that you keep to yourself, even as the people you pass in the street or live with do the same thing and secret the way their own souls are dark and despoiled.
The Christian, therefore, is more occupied with his shortcomings (at least until St. Thomas) than he is with the ways in which he tries to do the right thing by his family and his nation. The Christian focuses on the state of his own soul more than on the well being of others, his sacrifices for others in the service of magnifying himself in the eyes of God. The Christian is preoccupied with sex because that is part of the original sin of Adam and Eve as well as a prime case of how life is beyond the control of the will of even the most sincere believer. The Christian is like the author of “Lamentations” in casting the net that catches human grief too narrowly and is like “Judith” in protesting his or her virtues too much.
The doctrine of the Atonement accomplishes the feat of allowing a Christian to hold his or her self as both respectable and sorrowful by transferring sins to another. But that “person” is not really a scapegoat because the transfer is done with bathetic grandiosity. A person’s sins are atoned for by the death of a God as if a God could die even if He became a man. If Jesus is the Son of God, even if there is any sense in which Jesus can be suitably described as a “son”, given that a father has to precede a son if he is to be considered a father in anything but a metaphorical sense, and that is true whatever the philosophical idea that makes Jesus coterminous with God. The death of Jesus is therefore not truly the death of a son. Jesus is, moreover, to be restored to his throne beside God when his nasty three days in the tomb are over, and that would not have happened with Isaac if Abraham had sacrificed him. If Jesus is only a symbolic son, and is perhaps as such a realization of the philosophic idea of God made concrete, as apparently seems to be the view of the author of “The Gospel According to John”, then what is the big deal? God would not be feeling pain, even if Jesus were, and it is doubtlessly the case that a great many good people, not just Jesus, have endured a great deal of pain. If original sin is such a big deal, then the sacrifice of Jesus will hardly balance the books.
But whatever its standing as moral reasoning, the story of the Atonement allows a person to be a pillar of the community, whether a farmer or a merchant or a tax collector, to hold his head high, putting into a box one’s own reprobate nature which is to be confessed in public so as to show that a soul has been reborn. The believer turns a corner to where admission of not just guilt but bad feeling becomes a triumph worthy of either Judith or the widow of “Lamentations”. A sinner is saved if the sinner acknowledges being a sinner. Now, it is a psychological truth that people have difficulty facing up to their own failures and shortcomings, but it is an easy enough trick to turn a formula of words into a certification for entrance into the community of the saved.
This psychological trick has a profound impact on the unfolding of the modern world. It suggests a bifurcation of the self into two parts, one concerned with the present world and the other with the afterworld or, at the least, a division between the public life of the individual and the private or spiritual life of the individual, whether that is simply based on introspection or the pursuit of some spiritual adventure that can result in salvation. People have to keep their eyes on their double fates even if the spiritual adventure becomes rationalized into the hope for “self-awareness” or “happiness”. Indeed, the Greeks suggest that those two emotional goals are not rationalizations but the fundamental motives people have, and so Christianity comes to reign as the religion which gives objective meaning to those goals and separates them from being merely practical activities.
Shorn of its religious trappings, the division of a person into two selves is a staple of the modern imagination, known now as the separation between the inner and outer self rather than as the separation between the bad soul and the saved soul. Shakespeare’s soliloquies show people who know themselves nonetheless hiding some of their motives from the outer or public world. Every novelist must provide both character and plot, those two very different things, one internal and the other external, to populate his landscapes, for not to do so reduces the novel to a tract or a history. And in the world of High Modernism, the two sides of people struggle with one another, conscious versus unconscious in Freud, memories against the present in Ibsen.