On Science and religion (i).The mimetics of desire.

"It is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will be necessary first to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion."
Bertrand Russell.

I wish to start writing about one of the great issues of our age: the conflict between science and religion.   I is remarkable how easily, how smoothly, how enticingly, it fits into Girard's theory of mimesis.  For in the modern world, science and religion are struggling for the same thing; influence, the right to arbritrate about what is true, and who are; how even to raise children.  As they both reach for the same object, conflict is inevitable. 

The atrocities of religion are well known, so I want to focus a little on science.  In any conflict, as it deepens, guilt must rise as violence ensues, so a rationalisation must take place, in the form of diminishing the enemy.  This can take place in two ways: accusing it of bestiality and monstrosity - of being subhuman or of being evil.  And indeed, in the onslaught on religion launched by the self-proclaimed "brights" we see both these tendencies, ignoring the fact that the accusations are mutually incompatible.  In the first instance religion is seen as irrational and childish; in the second, as evil: accusations of child abuse and paedophilia; violence, murderous rage and so on are bandied about remarkably freely.  Here is Dawkins in the God of the OT: "arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully".  How can we treat our brothers and sisters in such a way?  It is the slander of the ages.

Meanwhile, religion also reacts, in equally aggressive ways.  Both protagonists, in their attempt to differentiate themselves from the other - to "gain the upper hand" thus merely manage to imitate each other until they are virtually indistinguishable - the monstrous double, as Girard calls it. And within this conflict emerges the attempts to scapegoat, of which Russell's quotation with which I opened is so blatant that it hardly requires exegesis (notice the explicit language of violence it employs).  If only, the argument runs, we could expell the evil from among us!  Then we would finally have peace.  But in so creating a victim we automatically endow it with the innocence of victimhood.  

Of course, like all scapegoating this one is based on the oldest of all the self-deceptions man has indulged in throughout the ages. It is, indeed, the lie of culture.  Dawkins, for example, obsessively attempts to conceal this by claiming that atheism is indeed peaceful, but his attempt, at the end of the atheist century that slaughtered hundreds of millions, would be comical if it were not so humiliating. 

Here is the truth: it is not the scapegoat that causes our troubles: it is us. "What is truth?", asks the Johannine Pilate before going out to the crowd and announcing it, in a moment of supreme irony: that Jesus is innocent.  The scapegoat mechanism is revealed in all its horror; two enemies, the Romans and Jews, identify a common threat and eliminate it.  The mob is satisfied - for a while.  How tragic that this blood-bought peace lasted less than a generation, with the final end being the destruction of the Jewish nation.

The Passion narratives, with their declaration of the truth of this, are of course regarded as being in the ultimate in self-contradictory nonsense by the brights.  But, as often, art reveals the truth too; for example, de Zurbaran's Christ Crucified.  Here, all truths are united: the truth of our own murderous instincts; the truth of God's decisive intervention to save us from them; the truth of the innocence of the scapegoat through the ages.


"In brilliant light and in a void of darkness, Christ is alone on the Cross. He is still alive: there is no wound in the side; he lifts his head; his lips are open; he is clearly speaking. Can we guess what he might be saying?

"Now the Gospels tell us that Christ spoke seven times from the Cross, but I believe Zurbaran has illustrated only one of these. Christ is not looking down, so he cannot be commending his mother to St John. Nor is it likely he is saying 'I thirst' to the others at the foot of the Cross. He is not looking to one side, so he is surely not telling the trusting thief that they will soon be together in Paradise.

"His eyes are turned upwards; he is speaking to his father in heaven. What is he saying? Is it the despairing cry reported by Mark and Matthew, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' or the more tranquil, 'Into thy hands I commend my spirit', that Luke gives us?

"I think it is none of these. These are words spoken in anguish and near the end. But here the beautiful body shows as yet few signs of physical distress. The agony of crucifixion seems to be only beginning. And Zurbaran is surely showing us the first of all of the words from the Cross: 'Father forgive them, for they know not what they do' (Luke 23:34). Christ is praying - for us.

"Pain makes most of us selfish - releasing us, we like to think, from any wider obligations - but not here. In the throes of his agony, this man achieves the divine. He intercedes for the salvation of others.

"And this, I think, is the point of the picture. The artist has contrived that we seem to stand at the foot of the Cross, closest to the brutally nailed feet, looking up at the body in pain, and we witness the very act of redemption, when Christ's suffering is most clearly revealed as a supreme gesture of love for us."

Neil McGregor, _Seeing Salvation: Images of Christ in Art_. 2000, BBC Worldwide Ltd.

I am often confronted with the relatively aggressive request to come up with a 'real' difference between humans and other animals. It's actually quite hard. Animals appear to be unhappy sometimes, to feel pain and confusion, to try hard to do things and fail, and even perhaps to think about the general rather than specific. But, though animals fear death when it comes to them, I do not think that even the other higher primates actually see their death coming; staring at them coldly and unwaveringly from the end of life. It touches all of our life, even our happiness. That tragic and terrible writer Miguel de Unamuno put it best, perhaps: "We are wont to feel the touch of anguish even in the midst of that which we call happiness, to which we cannot resign ourselves and before which we tremble. The happy who resign themselves to their apparent happiness, to a transitory happiness, seem to be as men without substance, or at any rate, men who have not discovered this substance in themselves, who have not touched it. Such men are usually incapable of loving or being loved, and they go through life without knowing either pain or bliss'.

To be "happy" in this life, then, is to resign oneself to its limitation; and as love really has no limitation, it is to resign oneself to a life without love: we cannot have love and happiness. But we long for both; fully to possess the mysterious joy that poets and mystics hint at, and which we glimpse every day in shadows falling across fields, or the shine of dew in a spider web, or the laughter of a child that I have already mentioned. We want it so desperately: its lack makes us inconsolable. In Sweden this sad longing is contained in the concept of 'vemod', the sense of melancholy that accompanies even the beautiful, but brave and brief summer here. Almost as soon as it is brought forth in full flower, the days are shortening towards winter once more: and its sweetness fades before our very eyes.

It seems to me that the contemplation of Christ on the Cross exactly captures this unbearable paradox. Even the most perfect life, the life most lived in wisdom, humility and love, ends not with a flight of angels and a chime of bells, but in a slurry of sweat and blood and defecation, in public humiliation. McGregor's comments above describe well the Church's view of this moment of revelation, of God come in redemptive glory. But there is another emotion that particularly Zurbaran's image evokes: not just gratitude, but also pity. Part of the mystery of the Cross is surely this: that it achieves the impossible of making us feel sorry for God. Unamuno again: "...suffering tells us that God exists and suffers; but it is the suffering of anguishing, the anguish of surviving and being eternal. Anguish discovers God to us and makes us love Him. To believe in God is to love Him, and to love him is to feel him suffering, to pity him."

The inescapability of death fills me with terror, despair and loathing, as it did Jesus. I long to live forever, so to grasp that eternal happiness, and fear that I will not: for I love life so very much. Yet that very anguish - and that love - is the engine of faith. Not because 'in despair' I invent God, but because in that very anguish I discover what it is to be God: God Himself showed us this on the Cross. He envelops our anguish with His own immeasurable anguish, says Unamuno. Yet in Christ's death we also see our own reflected and resumed, and so realise the Cross is not just a revelation of God; but also a revelation of humanity. The Son is put in the place of human suffering and sin, in the place of the need for redemption, and by contemplating Him we see our own condition. Is this, then, not God's greatest gift to the world - to show us his own suffering? And by pitying Him, do we not, as McGregor says, achieve the divine?

One day I will understand this mystery of the suffering God and suffering man, bound together in silent torture, and how it is that Easter Day triumphantly brings everything to the Good. But until then, I find myself looking up wonderingly and with pity at the foot of Zurbaran's beautiful and unbearable Cross, overshadowed with midday darkness. And in longing for God's ceaseless suffering to cease, I discover afresh my Redemption - and, perhaps, God's too.

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