(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
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
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.