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Saturday, September 21, 2013

John Calvin's Tough Love

School diaries are a big deal here in the Netherlands, with many commercially available themed variations, from pop idols to teen trends. Those religion-based schools protective of their pupils’ moral standards even print their own student-designed ones. And so it was with the Calvinist Pieter Zandt school in the heart of the Netherlands Bible Belt. But with this month’s commencement of the new school year something went seriously awry.

The statue of John Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland. Man presumes to know the mind of God, and presumptions become set-in-stone doctrine. 
This particular school made the columns of the national newspapers when it recalled three thousand of its own self-printed school diaries. The reason: one postage stamp-sized photo on the front pictured a boy sporting a familiar peace sign on his T-shirt (below). This sign (so the school board reasoned) had associations with the occult and with the [1]‘Cross of Nero’. [2]Emperor Nero, of course, was infamous for his persecution of early Christians. Clearly, the offending diaries had to go.

A detail of the cover of the destroyed Pieter Zandt school diary. The offending peace sign is just visible on the white T-shirt in the back row.
And go they did. All three thousand copies of the newly-issued school diary were destroyed. Now, it might be easy to scoff at such over-sensitivity (not to mention the sheer waste of time, resources and €20,000 costs involved), certainly when we consider that, whatever associations the symbol might have had in the past, what it conveys now is a simple message of peace. But censorship through an act of destruction has a way of focusing on who is doing the destroying, and scrutiny turns around to face the scrutinizer.

For John Calvin, only the Chosen Few would hear the choirs of Heaven. But it was Calvin who decided this. For wiser (and less presumptuous) mortals, the mind of God remains as inscrutable as ever.
In destroying the diaries, the school board strove to uphold its own faith-based standards. But what are these standards? They are those of Calvinism, that branch of Protestantism promulgated in the 16th-century by Frenchman John Calvin. Calvin was as anti-Catholic as Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, but he deviated from the teachings both of Luther and the Papacy in that he advocated a doctrine which he called [3]predestination. The doctrine is simple enough: Christ did not die for all humankind, but only for the Elect – the Chosen Few – who would be saved and ascend to Heaven. All others are damned and will spend eternity separated from God in the unquenchable fires of Hell.

Hell in the 2005 film Constantine appears as our own world in fiery devastation, with eternally gridlocked freeways and highrises in ruins.  Hell can always be found within ourselves, and the human imagination can supply what our direct experience lacks, even to the most terrifying of places. 
Calvin chose the term ‘predestination’ for a reason: all humanity, according to Calvin’s doctrine, was already predestined. Which is to say that before the Fall in Eden, before humankind was even created, God had decided who was going to Heaven and who would roast in the Eternal Fire. Calvinism and its doctrine is therefore a kind of extreme religious fatalism: if God already has you on his blacklist, then you are predestined to burn in Hell. There is no free will, there is no chance to change the outcome, and there is no redemption. Your fate for eternity has already been sealed, with God dispensing a sort of omnipotent tough love with brutal finality.

John Calvin’s deity is therefore a being who treats his own creations with a form of refined fatalistic sadism: this deity already has decided who is going to be tortured for eternity – and then goes ahead and has them tortured anyway. In which case, God moves in ways that are more than just mysterious. If you endorse Calvin’s doctrine, then you additionally accept that he also moves in ways that apparently have an edge of calculated cruelty. The question is: does believing in such a ruthless reward-and-punishment god have an adverse effect upon the human psyche?

Peace is a fragile thing, subject to the tides of human affairs and differences of faith.
The school board strove to protect its students from what it perceived as un-Christian symbolism, and its objections to the cover of the diary were specifically to do with the peace symbol’s alleged original association with the persecution and deaths of Christians. Alas for humanity, the accumulated deaths by [4]persecution, [5]slaughter, [6]warfare or acts of [7]genocide in the name of the Christian faith, whether by [8]Catholics, [9]Protestants, or any other Christian [10]denominations, are all too real, and can be reckoned in the millions. These persecutions and deaths by – not of – Christians are documented history, although I rather suspect that the events (and others like them) related in my notes below do not feature prominently in the history lessons of the Pieter Zandt school.

So in the light of the destruction of their school diaries, and the reasons behind that destruction, here is my own history lesson for the pupils of that school: the Christianization of Europe is estimated to have cost some ten million pagan lives – [11]one hundred times more than the number of Christians executed under the Emperor Nero and for three centuries afterwards – remembering that this was before all the various Christian-against-Christian wars, conflicts and persecutions between the different denominations which followed in the centuries that came after.

[1] The now-familiar peace symbol (right) has a more chequered history than is generally realised. Ostensibly it was created in 1958 by the London designer Gerald Holtom, initially for the anti-nuclear weapons movement of that time. It is formed from the two superimposed semaphore letters ‘ND’ for ‘nuclear disarmament’. But the symbol was allegedly in use before this, apparently as an inverted cross associated with the crucifixion of the apostle Peter. The tradition that Peter was crucified on an inverted cross originated in an apocryphal Latin text of the 2nd-century known as the Acts of Peter. But since this text also has the apostle bringing smoked fish back to life and making dogs talk, it seems reasonable to doubt the veracity of the account of his death. 

[2] Please see note [5] in my post 666: The Number of the Beast. In Nero's day the term 'Christian' had not yet been coined. There were groups of different beliefs loosely centred around Christ's teachings, no one of which had more or less validity than another. 

[3] Calvin also vigorously endorsed the ‘sin and guilt’ teachings of Augustine (please see my post Shame). 

[4] Please see my post The New Church. Catholicism emerged as the dominant Christian force by ruthlessly eliminating other beliefs such as the Gnostics, Manichaeans and Paulicians

[5] In the 8th-century the Christian monarch Charlemagne (left) decreed the death penalty for anyone who refused conversion and baptism. In the year 782, at Verden to the north of Paris, four thousand five hundred pagan Saxons were rounded up and beheaded in a single day, at the end of which Charlemagne retired from the scene of the slaughter and attended Mass. In this single horrific afternoon the Christian monarch had therefore put to death as many pagans as there had been Christians executed during the entire reign of Emperor Nero. But worse was to follow: the following thirty years left two thirds of the entire pagan population dead.

[6] The death toll in the 17th-century Thirty Years’ War is estimated to have been some seven and a half million lives (source:, retrieved on September 14, 2013), with Europe being left largely in a state of devastation. The conflict, which literally did last for thirty years, was essentially a religious one, with Catholics fighting to keep the Holy Roman Empire intact, and with Protestants equally determined to break the power of the Papacy. The scene (above) by Henri Motte portrays full-scale religious warfare: wearing the armour of war beneath his cardinal’s scarlet, Cardinal Richelieu surveys the approaching English fleet which supported the Protestant French Hugenot forces at the siege of La Rochelle. The siege took place between 1627 and 1628, and ended in defeat for the Hugenots, although the tide of the war would eventually turn against the Papal forces.

[7] Please see my post A Dark Crusade for an account of actual genocide instigated by the Papacy.

[8] In February of 1658 the entire population of the Netherlands – then some three million people – was sentenced to death for heresy by the Papal Inquisition. The Duke of Alva (right), commanding the occupying Spanish forces, managed to formally execute some eighteen thousand six hundred  Dutch citizens over a six year period, although the numbers massacred by his troops added considerably to this total. Again it was a situation of Protestants defying Papal authority, with the Papacy yet again demonstrating that it was prepared to wade through blood to hold onto power. Today Catholicism in the Netherlands is generally confined to regions in the southern provinces adjoining the Belgian border.

[9] Please see my post Martin Luther's Final Solution for a documented account of an act of genocide instigated by Martin Luther.

[10] In the 17th-century four Quakers known as the Boston martyrs – three men and a woman (left, Mary Dyer being led to execution) – were hanged in Boston by Puritans for professing other-than Puritan beliefs. The Puritans were a sort of right-wing version of the Calvinists, although it is largely a fallacy that the Puritans sailed for the New World to avoid persecution for their beliefs. The truth is nearer to being that they were so intolerant of the beliefs of others that they sought a land where Puritanism would be the only practicing and tolerated religion. As events showed, they were prepared to kill their fellow Christians to make that happen.

[11] This is based upon a maximum high-end estimate of 100,000 over the first three centuries. The actual number of executions specifically of Christians under Nero is unknown, but might have been between three to five thousand. These would not have been Christians as we would have recognized them, as many would either have been Gnostics, or Apostolic (subscribing to the doctrines of Paul), or adhering more to the traditions of the Hebrew prophets (subscribing to the doctrines of James), or other interpretations of the new faith, which was still thought of by the occupying Roman authorities as having a variety of cult followings.

Deborah J. Shepherd: The Convergence of Paganism and Christianity in Northern Europe: The Conversion and Archaeology. Program for Interdisciplinary Archaeological Studies, 1996, University of Minnesota. Published in PDF by The transition in Europe from pagan religions to Christianity was neither smooth nor benevolent. At times it was an uneasy collision between two differing world views, with a compromised merging of customs and traditions. At other times, as under Charlemagne, the transition was mandatory, bloody and abrupt. In Britain, Scandinavia and elsewhere many sites of pagan worship were forcibly annexed and destroyed, and churches were built upon their foundations. Our word 'bigot', used to describe someone who is arrogantly intolerant of others, actually comes from 'Bei Gott' ('By God'), used by the Frankish and Germanic pagans to imitate the exclamation of aggressive conversion activity practiced against them by Christian missionaries. This metal 'Hammer of Thor' Viking talisman (right) has been disguised as a Christian cross, allowing its wearer outwardly to acknowledge token allegiance to the new religion while retaining loyalty to still-familiar gods.

Discussions of these topics which I have had in the past with others have turned with apparent grinding inevitability in the direction of some Christian soul who has been only too keen to point out to me the millions who perished under the rule of Stalin (or some other suitably atheist tyrant from history). But playing the ‘atheists versus believers’ death count numbers game achieves nothing. The whole point is that religion by its nature is supposed to invest a believer with some intrinsic altruism, some basic humanity. History shows that in practice this is not what happens. Subscribing to this or that faith or denomination clearly no more equips someone to behave more tolerantly, more altruistically – or even more morally – than a confirmed atheist. So what end does religion serve?

Friday, September 6, 2013

No Country For Old Men

He cannot be reasoned with. He cannot be bribed. He cannot be deterred from his purpose. Even the most heartfelt of entreaties means nothing to him. In other words: pleading with him for your life will not work. If you are on his list – and sometimes even if you are not – he will find you, and you will die. He is human, yes. But humans are supposed to possess at least some sense of compassion, whereas he apparently has none. And you can forget about forestalling him by tracking him down first, because he can vanish like a ghost into nothing, only to turn up right behind you when you least expect it.

This frightening individual is Anton Chigurgh, the self-serving hitman in Cormac McCarthy’s novel of crime in Texas [1]No Country For Old Men. The author supplies us with no physical description of Chigurgh, and has deliberately created his name to be ethnically ambiguous. This is of course intentional, as it builds on the effect of Chigurgh being untraceable, even in police and civic records. What motivates others in the story – the weakness in the moment for the opportunity to possess instant wealth, or even for receiving payment for a killing – are not Chigurgh’s motivations. In fact, we are never entirely sure what does motivate him, which only has the effect of making him seem even more dangerous.

To relate this post to my [2]previous post, the book’s moral voice, and the counterbalance to Chigurgh, is the laconic county sheriff. Nearing retirement, Ed Tom Bell is a pillar of decency and personal integrity, a man who stands by his principles of serving his community and the cause of justice. Sheriff Bell holds determinedly onto those ideals, even as the book’s landscape darkens around him into nightmare, with Chigurgh seeming ever more like a ghost as events in the lives of the other characters begin seriously to unravel.

Bell is the fictional sheriff of Terrell County, which (as its [3]inhabitants can verify) is real enough, and lies in southwest Texas against the border with Mexico. It is this interface with borders, not just on the map, but within ourselves, that is a further theme of the book. At what point do we consider ourselves to have crossed the line? In what moment of time have we strayed over what is safe for us – and for those who care for us – in pursuit of the lure of some desire? And having crossed that line, can we make it back safely or not? Inevitably, the further into the unknown we venture, the more hazardous is the journey back, if it can be made at all.

The hazard is Chigurgh, waiting for us to make that crossing, waiting for us to get careless, to be fallibly [4]human. And that is what lies at the heart of the story: the illusion that we are in control of things. As with the Vietnam veteran Llewelyn Moss, who finds himself caught up in the story’s events, we like to think that we are in control. Of course we do. A feeling of having control over events, over our lives, is a reassuring thing. It gives us a sense of purpose, of being able to predict what will happen tomorrow. Usually, of course, things do pan out as planned. Tomorrow happens, and what we had expected to happen also happens. But not always. Life has a way of walking up to you in the street and hitting you hard for no good reason. You go down, you hit the ground thinking whoa, I didn’t see that one coming. It is in such moments that we learn just how illusory our control over things really is.

No Country For Old Men is not about life. It is life, with all its uncertainties and unexpected twists and irrational endings that we neither had foreseen nor wished for ourselves. The thing is: Chigurgh always catches up with us in the end. He’s out there somewhere, waiting. But Sheriff Bell sets us the example. Standing there in the darkening shadows, it is how we acquit ourselves that counts, even though we know that our name is on Anton Chigurgh’s list.

[1] The book’s title is taken from the opening lines of W.B. Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium – a poem from a Nobel laureate who himself created new borders for contemporary writing, weaving myth, folklore and the commonplace into a seamless whole.

[3] In 2010 the population of Terrell County was 984, which decreased to 914 in 2012. Source: United States Census Bureau, Department of Commerce.

[4] No, I’m not going to tell you about the coin toss incident, although it does point to the one chink of light for Chigurgh’s intended victims. But I decided from the get-go that this post would contain no spoilers!

My post focuses on Cormac McCarthy’s novel, but clearly I cannot let things pass without mentioning the Coen Brothers’ exceptional film version of the book. Not only does the film have a pitch-perfect cast, including Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell, Josh Brolin as Llewelyn Moss and Javier Bardem as a truly blood-chilling Anton Chigurgh, but whole passages of McCarthy’s characters’ gritty dialogue made it intact onto the screen.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

All Things Bright and Beautiful

Seeing the hand of God in creation is not difficult. One has only to look at the magnificence of a sunset, or the splendour of a rainbow after a shower of life-giving rain, or the intricate beauty of a butterfly’s wings. At least, that was what someone once reassured me. My answer was that if he accepted these things as part of that creation, then he must also accept that the spirochetes which form syphilis, the rogue cells of cancer, and the bot fly are also part of that same scheme of things.

The eyes of a leopard. We tend to think of such predators as being at the top of the food chain, but titanic struggles between predators and prey are constantly taking place at the microscopic level as well.
The bot fly (I explained to him) injects its larvae into the nestlings of [1]birds. The huge growing larvae, crawling their way through living flesh, eat the baby birds from the inside out, causing slow and excruciating death before they [2]burst through the flesh to continue their own life cycle. He thought for some time about this, then carefully responded that those sorts of creations cannot be God’s, but must instead be the work of the Devil. He seemed not to be aware that, in ascribing equal creative powers to the Devil as he gave to God, he was committing what from an orthodox standpoint was an extreme heresy.

An electron microscope image of the bacteria Vibrio vulnificus. This exclusively carnivorous and highly-predatory water-dwelling bacteria eats flesh – any flesh, including that of humans. Wounds on the victims resemble the massive and ragged-edged bites of a shark attack.
Perceiving the mechanisms of the natural world as a blind force with no supernatural agency involved removes this gnarly moral problem at a stroke. It is only with the introduction of supernatural creation that seemingly-insurmountable moral ambivalence is introduced into the mix. If God created everything, then he also consciously created some very nasty stuff as well as those butterfly wings: things which were deliberately created to make other things suffer, which makes God’s own moral stance anything but ‘loving’. But if you accept that God created rainbows, but don’t accept that he created everything, well… then you’re a dangerous heretic by default. Ah, the dilemma!

The magnified scales on a butterfly’s wing. The colours are not formed from pigment, but from minute prisms which refract the light. Much that we perceive as beautiful is not even visible to the naked eye.
And what a strange creation it is. It exists by consuming itself, with a large percentage of all the organisms sustaining themselves by eating other organisms, from big cats on the Savannah right down to predatory microbial life – and often-enough with processes involving considerable pain, stress and suffering to the consumed. It has been the unenviable task of religious belief to iron out this paradox, which becomes a moral paradox as soon as it is linked to a consciously intelligent creator. The person with whom I was in conversation had opted, quite unknowingly, for a scheme of things which was proposed in distant centuries by the Gnostics.

A common dandelion head festooned with dew and spider silk on an overcast morning. The human mind perceives the beauty while the natural world remains indifferent. The delicate lace of a spider’s web is an efficient trap spun by a predator for ensnaring prey, which it then paralyzes and keeps alive to consume.
What the Gnostics believed was that the ultimate godhead is unknowable, unfathomable, and defying any attempt at description by mere humans. The first emanation from this Mystery is [3]Sophia – Wisdom – the feminine creative force. Sophia, rashly experimenting with her own creative powers, begets a monster known as the Demiurge – the ‘Craftsman’ – who is sometimes depicted as a serpent with a lion’s head. The Demiurge in his turn also rashly forgets that his powers are not his own, but are loaned from Sophia. In his hubris the Demiurge then creates the world, and all the creatures in it.

The veined traceries of fallen leaves in Autumn. The human mind’s ability to create patterns of its own seems to make it hard-wired to assume intelligence behind naturally-occurring patterns in the wild. Since such an assumed intelligence would by definition have to be a supernatural one, it lies forever beyond proof in the realm of personal belief.
It is this [4]Demiurge who resembles the creator god of scripture – a god who creates the world and its creatures. We consider the scriptural God as supreme, just as the Demiurge, in forgetting the higher powers above him, also thought that he was the supreme creative force. Knowing this ‘back story’ readily explains why the world is flawed, violent and ambivalent, why it survives by consuming itself in ways that are often savage and the cause of suffering to its denizens. This makes sense if the creator god is a lesser god who acted out of arrogance. But attributing the world and its creation to a god who is loving and all-powerful immediately gives rise to disturbing moral issues. If God is all-powerful, why does he allow such suffering to exist? And if he is loving, why did he consciously and willfully create the natural mechanisms which cause such suffering in the first place? You cannot cite sin as a reason, because the [5]natural world is not subject to sin.

A Dutch winter landscape, photographed not far from where I live. Our senses respond to the snowy white silence and purity of nature in winter, but for the animals which live in it, it can mean a time of hardship, starvation, and even death. 
In a recent earthquake that occurred in Peru a church collapsed, tragically killing many of the congregation who were at worship inside. What are we to think of this incident, if we consider the presence of an omnipotent god? Weren’t they praying hard enough? Such speculation hardly comforts the bereaved, and leaves us floundering in a moral morass.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

So go the words of the well-known Sunday school hymn. But this squeaky-clean version of the creation only tells half the story. And Gnostic beliefs might have been vilified by the Church for centuries, but at least Gnostics managed to come up with a more feasible explanation for why things are the way they are.

[1] Potentially any warm-blooded animal, including humans, can become a host. But with nestlings I’m using the example which I have seen.

[2] Yes, I know what you’re thinking, and yes, such earthly parasitic life-forms were indeed the inspiration for the alien’s life cycle in Ridley Scott’s film.

[3] Hence the term ‘philosophy’: ‘love of Sophia (Wisdom)’.

[4] Although a unique entity, the Demiurge tends to be confused in Christian thought with the Devil, which is why the Christian claim that the Gnostics believed that Satan created the world is a misunderstanding.

Tyrannosaurus rex, the superlative-defying predator at the top of the Cretaceous food chain - and of the dinosaur popularity stakes in the human imagination - flourished at the very end of the age of the dinosaurs for a comparatively brief two million years.
[5] Even your familiar four-legged household friend lacks the enzymes necessary for the digestion of a vegetable diet, so please spare me the Christian fundamentalist claim that animals only became carnivorous after the Fall. Such a line of thinking leads inexorably to the idiocies of creationism, and creationist claims that Tyrannosaurus rex (above), whose bite force has been calculated at a staggering 2,900 pounds per side of the jaw (the most powerful of any animal known), was on board Noah’s Ark and ate coconuts. You think I’m making this stuff up? I wish that I was, but Kenneth Ham, the founder and CEO of the Creationist Museum in Kentucky, is on record as saying this. But then again, how do creationists know what dinosaurs looked like?

Sources are untraced for the leopard, the Vibro vulnificus bacteria, and the butterfly wing scales. All other photography and T. rex skull drawing by Hawkwood for the David Bergen Studio © All Rights Reserved.