The Eco-Christ and the Necessity of Apocalypse

by Cliff Bostock
Pacifica Graduate Institute

(This is a response paper written after a course in the Christ Cult taught at Pacifica Graduate Institute by David Ulansey. It is largely a rap on a text by Eliade.)

I want to respond to the course material on the Christ myth mainly as it pertains to Eliade's thesis, elaborated in The Myth of the Eternal Return.

Eliade ends his book with a section entitled "Despair or Faith" in which he argues, essentially, the truth of the adage that if god didn't exist, man would have created him anyway. He writes that the Christ myth is modernity's necessary way of protecting itself from the terror of history, supplying a sense of the transcendent within the linear conception of time initiated by the Hebraic tradition. Most of the material presented in the course's lectures and reading reiterated the importance of the shift from mythic time, "in illo tempore," to linear time. This transition is paralleled by a shift from community-based identity to individual identity, against a horizon of a world in immense transition.

It is worth noting that Nietzsche (and Heinrich Heine before him) also elaborated this theme of the eternal return at length in his first statement on the death of god, The Gay Science, and also in The Will to Power. Eliade only mentions Nietzsche twice in his book and doesn't list him in the bibliography. I am assuming it is because Nietzsche imagined a resolution to the terror of history that Eliade found unsavory: willful freedom from morality.

For Nietzsche every gesture is a completely unique expression of the will to power, by which form is brought out of chaos. Thus, he argues that meaning itself is never more than transient, in the moment. By extension, then, myth-based rituals are deprived of inherent significance while novelty, without regard to morality, is valorized. The value is in the broadening of possibility and the reversal of "customs" without necessary contemporary value, the actualization of other worlds and unseen if limited possibilities.

Put differently, value occurs only in increasing the circumference of the eternal return's circle to make room for the finite number of possibilities that, like dice combinations, may be constellated therein. Nietzsche's is a "Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, the eternally self destroying, this mystery world of the twofold voluptuous delight, my 'beyond good and evil,' without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal." In Nietzsche's world, suffering must be sought and experimented with, not just allegorized in myth and ritual - never rationalized and never circumscribed more tightly than we can imagine.

Certainly, there are areas of agreement between Eliade and Nietzsche. Both agree that the "Dionysian" or "archaic" individual is closer to the animal and that modern man, by his sense of morality and sin, distances from primitive drives. Thus Christianity is a means of civilizing us, in Eliade's view (even as Christ's story allows us to return to illo tempore, too). But morality also freezes us in linear time, since it requires consideration of action and atonement by the individual. (It is history concretized.) It also implies choice and positive value. Individuals may positively suffer for a principle. This is not so for traditional man.

It isn't that the traditional man lacks choice or that his suffering is without significance. But the sin for traditional man is stepping out of mythic time into linear time, the assertion of individual will. It is not a priori the regression to the animal state. As an example: For modern man, adultery is a sin because it is regression to animal nature and a violation of civilization's contracts. For the traditional man, it may be a sin but not because it is animal. For him it is more likely to be taboo because it disturbs one of the contracts by which the gods maintain peace in the community.

Eliade theorizes that the priests of Yaweh exploited the liminal situation of the Hebrews, caught in suffering for which their traditional gods could provide no explanation. The priests provided an explanation: the suffering was punishment from Yaweh, recorded in the prophecies, and that suffering could be abrogated in part through worship of him and investment in the future's promise of personal redemption and a messiah. In other words, they exploited an archaic sensitivity in order to enlarge their own power and, by so doing, threw their followers into linear time and faith in the future. Eliade argues that ensuing history, including creation of the Christ cult, is a story of the struggle between mythic and linear conceptions. Christ is a way - sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically conceived - of restoring mythos to linear time and, as articulated by Ulansey, of reducing cognitive dissonance. Interestingly, the class material ultimately redeems Jesus of his own reputation, arguably in another move to reduce cognitive dissonance in the failure of the supernatural Jesus to comfort us. He is reimagined yet again, essentially, as the first depth psychologist, an embodiment of the notion that that kingdom of god is within.

The "eternal return" here is not just of the descending and ascending god himself, but, as Nietzsche suggests, of the entire circle, a complete mythos - one that requires not just a god that reduces cognitive dissonance, but an apocalyptic imagination itself. It feels specious to me to recognize, on the one hand, that the mythological Christ reduces dissonance in the early imagining of him (as well as diminishing the fear of death in our own time), but fail to acknowledge the literal need for an apocalyptic-scale fantasy. That is what the Hebrew priests initially did. A political crisis was more broadly re-imagined as the end of the world in service to their god. This in turn produced a fear-based motive for faith. Similarly, the crucifixion was imagined as apocalyptic - in order to produce a new motive for faith.

I think we find ourselves in very much the same situation now. Although we are undoubtedly in all sorts of planetary crisis - from the ecological to the political - a great number of people, from all strata of intellectual life, seem highly invested in imagining an apocalyptic fate in order to promote what we might call the Millenial Eco-Christ. (I am making a psychological, not an empirical observation on world ecological health here.)

Millenialism, for example, is fundamentally an apocalyptic religion that imagines retribution in natural disasters. Once again, god (this time as Sophia) is going to expel man from the Garden of Eden for his offenses against its pristine innocence. The only survivors will be the ecologically minded believers who have fled to pods on mountaintops (an interesting repetition of Eliade's "mountain" theme) - or, bizarrely, who have escaped the planet altogether, like the members of the Heaven's Gate cult.

Respectable scientists and mystics alike announce that the planet's termination will be irreversible if we do not begin its repair in 15 years. In other words, if we do not join with their agendas, we will perish. The choice of 15 years, which hasn't seemed to change in 20 years, of course adds the sense of personal suffering we will all endure like the heroine of Todd Hayne's "Safe," coughing as she heads for a germ-free pod in the California mountains, under the eye of an eco-priest. There will be no life at all if we do not heed the call.

The technology in which we have put our faith - the computer - will turn on us in the form of the Y2K bug unless spirit is allowed to migrate to the internet. Alex Heard's new book, Apocalypse Pretty Soon: Travels in End-Time America, documents a staggering number of millennial cults - most awaiting the Eco-Christ.

Nietzsche requires us to look directly at how profoundly our need to "destroy ourselves" is in itself, so that we do not subsume our agendas in the moralism that pervades the millennial movement as thoroughly as it pervaded the world of the ancients. Even if we preserve a sense of causal relationships, if we speak of mythical time as being outside linear time, we cannot say that crisis constellates Christ. We can as well say that Christ constellates the need for apocalypse. The "future" constellates the "present," or, perhaps, Nietzsche might say that organization constellates chaos.

In the depth psychological tradition, we speak of Thanatos and Eros. Freud identified these as two drives operating simultaneously in the individual. Like Nietzsche he did not see these as causally related. Something in the psyche yearns for its own destruction; something else yearns for creation. The two drives operate at depth independent of circumstance and it is only by the modus of repression and morality (enforced by guilt) that Thanatos does not overwhelm us, though it does at times, of course - in wars and acts of violence.

Jung's Christianized reframing of this, that one may transcend the opposites in the figure of the Self, is Eliade's comfort. Nietzsche, almost dreadfully, stands not just against Jung but against Freud as well. To him, the drives must be given their complete freedom and then the circle of possibility will be enlarged enough to permit those permutations of possibility, those as yet unseen worlds, to come into existence - not as transcendental realities but as simply new realities. It is a terrifying idea to imagine what misery might arise in the reversal of morality, but, then we aren't on the brink of salvation, either.

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