Aphrodite of Rhodes, 3rd Century BCE
Beauty is more profound than truth. ~ Oscar Wilde
“All men will disappoint you,”
said a man I loved madly,
the way you can love only once.
“This will lead you to God.”
His words branded me like lightning.
I knew he was right.
The Prince turns into a frog,
the dream house burns down.
But God also disappoints,
senile mumbler in the sky.
If only my prophet said:
to beauty. To Aphrodite –
quivering drops of light
startled with delay, delight.
Faith is the opposite of fate –
luxurious, lavish, arguably right.
But my lovers were as ruthless
as Zen masters. The youngest,
God’s severe critic,
the one who committed suicide,
shouted, “Why should we hide
our private parts? Let’s expose
ourselves every chance we get.
Confront him with the mess
he made! Asshole!”
He shook his impotent
fist toward the sky. “At least
you’re on talking terms,”
I enviously sighed.
But not with Aphrodite, no.
“of the beautiful behind.”
~ Oriana © 2013
I admit I was startled to hear my beloved call god an asshole (he actually did it multiple times that day, each time bringing up yet another problem with “intelligent design”). In retrospect I think it’s common to feel angry at god, and even to hate god (I imagine only too clearly how different childhood would have been if I were allowed to hate god . . . or at least not trying to force myself to love him.)
It's easy to feel a burning anger at god, a bitter rage and resentment, especially if you still semi-believe in an omnipotent being who did a poor job creating the world, with all its built-in problems. He's either an actively evil Godzilla or a passive deity who couldn't care less, who remains silent and inactive, not lifting a finger to prevent tsunamis or genocide, much less help with one’s personal problems. Hence the Yiddish proverb: “If god lived on earth, people would break his windows.”
It’s only when atheism becomes complete that the anger (sometimes even vehement rage: asked to meditate on divine love, one woman cried out, “Where was divine love when I was raped?”) disappears. After all, non-existence is the perfect excuse.
Another man not on good terms with Aphrodite
There has been much talk about the “culture wars.” Conservatives sense that they have lost: the nineteenth century really is over. But it’s the second half of the nineteenth century that introduced the idea that Western culture is a difficult fusion of the ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek values (Hebraism and Hellenism, as Matthew Arnold put it in his famous essay). It was easy to guess that Hellenism -- beauty and intellectual freedom -- held more appeal to the educated.
Later a bolder formulation was born: the quarrel between Jerusalem (faith, obedience) and Athens (reason, beauty). At this point, hellenistic values seem to be winning. Can you imagine “Follow your bliss” as the motto of the Victorians, much less during the Middle Ages?
I am not sure about the Protestant churches (though it’s common knowledge that old-time Calvinism was extra-grim, with its doctrines of Total Depravity and Limited Election). Thanks in part to my grandmother, I do know that old-time Catholicism glorified suffering. Suffering was good for you: “God sends suffering to those he loves.” Suffering here on earth meant fewer centuries in the fires of Purgatory. Even minor suffering, a headache, say, was an occasion for NOT taking aspirin. Suffer now so you can suffer a bit less in the afterlife: what's a headache next to a century of purgatorial fire? Catholic chic was to suffer NOW.
Goya: A procession of flagellants, 1812
Getting back to “Jerusalem versus Athens,” I need to clarify that it means not so much ancient Jerusalem as Christianity, especially its Puritan or fundamentalist version, including what I call “old-time Catholicism.”
(Shameless digression: I always thought that Matthew Arnold was in love with Hellenism and its pursuit of intellectual and aesthetic delight, “seeing things in their beauty and essence.” Then he’d catch himself and assert that Hebraism gave us ethics -- as if morality existed only within Hebraism, and the ancient Stoics, for instance, did not have a stern ideal of conduct.)
But let us focus on the triumph of Hellenism. In what ways have the hellenistic values won? Here is the pronouncement of an eminent Polish historian of Ancient Greece:
I bring joyful news: the gods are back! Let me summarize it in four major points:
1. the joy of the body, games, sports.
2. the joy of sex between consenting adults. In the eyes of the immortal gods, sex is good; it’s not a sin.
3. the joy of knowledge, meaning freedom of inquiry and the true cult of science. We have finally dropped the idea that the ultimate truth comes from revelation. We use our limited mind, the faint lantern of our reason, to light up the surrounding darkness. For fifteen centuries Christianity managed to prevent the progress of science. Since truth is contained in revelation, what’s the point of seeking it? Religion is not just irrational; it's anti-rational. But slowly, slowly, since the Renaissance we’ve been returning to the idea that all we have is our reason. And we are discovering the magnificence of the Universe.
4. the joy of democracy. It was created in ancient Greece and grafted onto Rome, which remained a republic for several centuries. Now we claim that democracy is the best political system, and it should be adopted everywhere -- including the Catholic church. But it will be most difficult to democratize the church, since the church is anti-democratic; it stands for theocracy and feudalism, left over from the Middle Ages.
~ Aleksander Krawczuk, interview in Pantheleon, December 29, 2009; translated by Oriana
Yes, that’s the main the subversive idea of hellenistic values: that life should be a joy, that we should be happy here, on earth, rather than focused on suffering and doing penance for sins (e.g. the contemplation of the five wounds of Christ; see the Brigidine Sisters). Furthermore, the anti-rational and anti-democratic (hierarchal) attitudes of organized religion seem more and more out of touch with the reality of the modern world.
I wouldn’t go as far as agreeing that “the black is worse than the red,” the slogan of the Polish anti-clerical liberals, the black standing for Catholic clergy and the stranglehold of the Catholic church over the nation. True, the intrusive power of the church is the prime reason I could no longer live in Poland, but if by “the red” we mean communism rather than democratic socialism, then the crimes of Moscow-controlled dictatorships cannot be so easily forgotten. Nor can the crimes of the church.
The chief crime of the church, as I’ve come to see it, has been the manipulation of the believers through the fear of hell. If you make a child believe that s/he is a terrible sinner and needs redemption to avoid being punished in hell for eternity, you paint god as a cruel tyrant. When a Methodist told me, “I was taught that god loved me and would help me if I needed help,” I was totally envious. As a child I had some hope that Mary might help me -- only Mary seemed to be a true figure of mercy -- but Mary’s power was limited by the monstrous god of wrath, the Old Testament Godzilla.
True, the church has relaxed its doctrines so as to allow non-Catholics to enter heaven, for instance. There isn’t quite the old emphasis on sin and hell, and the radical idea, “God loves you,” can be heard from a priest. I don’t remember ever hearing it in my childhood, but I did hear it from one American priest (and no doubt many others say it too; I suspect it’s one way the church wants to become like the Protestant churches it would like to absorb). And the infallible new definition of hell stresses that it’s a state of mind rather than an actual place with fire and brimstone and devils with pitchforks pushing the damned deeper into the huge cauldrons. And yet, for all the progress, I just came across a long comment from a Christian who cited “fire insurance” as the main reason to believe.
(Shameless digression: in my brain, everything connects with everything else, so I suddenly remember St. Paul’s “It’s better to marry than to burn” -- a sad reason for getting married.)
On the whole, the church is still a reactionary institution, anti-life, anti-sex, anti-woman, pro-blind obedience and anti-free inquiry. It’s just that, as Milosz observed, it’s not really possible to tell a modern person that real life begins only after death. As in antiquity, we have come to value THIS life rather than a vague afterlife, “doing nothing for ever and ever.” We have also come to see the body and sexuality as good and natural (how did THAT happen? It’s silly to point to Freud, who himself was quite repressed and by no means in favor of a liberated libido), rather than as evil and sinful. Yes, the gods have returned.
SAINTS? OR ANOREXICS AND SELF-MUTILATORS?
It’s almost too much fun writing about sin, the concept which poisoned my childhood. What strikes me now is that sin was not defined as hurting someone, but as offending god. Thus, not going to church on Sunday was a sin; falling asleep during prayers was a sin. Not feeling love for god -- worse, doubting his existence -- was a sin so profound that it called up images of the desert hermits “mortifying the flesh” in the hope of attaining grace: beating their breasts with a rock, whipping themselves with very nasty “disciplines,” depriving themselves of sleep, wearing itchy hair-shirts and belts woven of thorns, fasting. They were the ultimate, I think, in their obsession with sin and self-punishment.
Why the cruelty to the self? Aside from the church’s constant preaching about sin and the call to penance, what we see here is probably the phenomenon of internalization. The times were cruel, and child-rearing was harsh. A child who experiences a lot of punishment is likely to start punishing himself.
Today these self-mortifying saints would be classified as suffering from a variety of mental disorders, but centuries ago they were considered holy men and women. It’s not clear what sins they were trying to atone for -- most likely the original sin of being human. Again, we see a terrific change in attitudes across the centuries, though it is only recent decades that made “follow your bliss,” “live in the moment” and “enjoy” into mottos that eclipsed skulls, whips, and rocks for mea-culpa breast beating (or, if you were a Protestant, enduring three-hour sermons on falling into the hands of an angry god).
Only in our times could this poem about Saint Jerome be written:
Jerome in Solitude
To see the lizard there,
I was amazed I did not have to beat
My breast with a stone.
If a lion lounged nearby,
He must have curled in a shadow of a cypress,
For nobody shook a snarled mane and stretched out
To lie at my feet.
And, for a moment,
I did not see Christ retching in pain, longing
To clutch his cold abdomen,
Sagging, unable to rise or fall, the human
Flesh torn between air and air.
I was not even
Praying, unless: no,
I was not praying.
A rust branch fell suddenly
Down from a dead cypress
And blazed gold. I leaned close.
The deep place in the lizard’s eye
Looked back into me.
Delicate green sheaths
Folded into one another.
The lizard was alive,
Happy to move.
But he did not move.
Neither did I.
I did not dare to.
~ James Wright
The most telling part of the poem is
I was not even
Praying, unless: no,
I was not praying.
~ it’s the “unless” that turns to a different definition of prayer: paying complete and non-judgmental attention to the moment. That is the modern definition of the state of grace and paradise: seeing the beauty of things right now, in this life; the “eternal moment” of looking into the lizard’s eye -- “delicate green sheaths / folded into one another.”
Leonardo da Vinci, St. Jerome, 1480 (yes, that is a chest-beating rock that Jerome is holding in his right hand)
NOT ONLY SCIENCE, BUT ALSO ART
Most people assume the progress of science is the chief factor undermining religion. But since the Renaissance, there has been another force working in favor of the “joy of the body” and the joy of life: the visual arts.
Since its inception, the Catholic church correctly saw that art could be made to serve religion. What the church failed to foresee was the emergence of secular art that celebrated the human. It’s the kind of art that is an example of “practical atheism” -- it’s not “anti-theist,” but religion is simply absent. At this point we are so used to secular art that we need to go to a museum to be reminded how medieval art was pretty much exclusively religious, and how stiff and awkward the figures were before Leonardo’s and Raphael’s beautiful madonnas.
By banning from churches images other than the cross, Protestantism reinforced the secular trend in art. When Dutch painters painted the sky, they painted wonderful clouds without god or the angels. “Above us, only sky” -- John Lennon’s “Imagine” was prefigured by landscape painters.
As for the objection that those painters were believers, I am tempted to reply that a true artist worships only art, never mind how jealous god might be. But a more interesting issue here is “practical atheism.” Unlike militant atheism, practical atheism is not expressed through debunking the alleged proofs of god’s existence. Rather, it ignores religion. Practical atheism celebrates the world and the human. A milkmaid becomes a fit subject for a painting since she too is beautiful in the light.
Vermeer: Milkmaid, 1657
But let us leave the most famous (if anonymous) milkmaid in the world to enjoy another such image: Girl Chopping Onions, by Gerrit Dou (1646). Yes, even servants and onions were to be celebrated. The secret was out: life was beautiful and to be enjoyed.
FALSIFYING THE SECOND COMMANDMENT
How come the Catholic church allowed statues and paintings, in blatant violation of the Second Commandment?
You shall not make for yourself any graven image, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them [i.e., the graven images]; for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6, adapted from the NASV)
Thus, to make a graven image is to “hate” Yahweh. Punishment for doing so will be “visited” not only on the image makers, but also to their descendants, even the fourth generation. The Catholic church had to find a way out of this, so it moved away from the image-less god of Sinai and introduced the Trinity: the anthropomorphic Father and Son, and the Holy Spirit symbolized by the dove (a nice concession to the animal kingdom; never mind that the dove used to be sacred to Aphrodite).
But the text of the Second Commandment remained a problem, so the church simply changed it to “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” The way the nun explained it to us in catechism classes, this was a prohibition of swearing and bad language in general, even if god’s name was not directly invoked.
We were amazed that using swear words was such a bad sin. Whose father didn’t swear multiple times a day? And what about us children, letting a “bad word” escape our lips when we happened to stub a toe, for instance? Were we doomed to hellfire for this? Today it seems silly, but at the age of eight and nine I agonized even over euphemisms. God would not be fooled by euphemisms, I knew that.
But swearing as a sin is a minor issue next to the falsification of the Second Commandment. The church knew that it would be hard for the average Christian to “relate to” an image-less deity, what with the beauty of polytheistic art still around in the early centuries. And art, with its emotional power, could be used to serve the church. In addition, most of the faithful were illiterate, and art could teach them the stories of the Gospels.
What the church did not predict was the Renaissance and the art that followed. Once human beauty was re-discovered and rendered in painting and sculpture, it would become a good thing in itself. When the plate-like solid halos go and the Madonna is presented as a beautiful young woman, it’s not a big step not only to secular portraits of beautiful women, but to Aphrodite. I’ll skip Boticelli’s famous Birth of Venus and the plump fleshpots by Titian and Rubens in favor of the little known Venus by Cranach -- talk about a fashion plate! (1531; Cupid is holding a honeycomb)
My favorite is still the graceful Aphrodite of Rhodes. How could such beauty, once rediscovered, remain non-subversive? Would we not rather look at Aphrodite than contemplate the five wounds of Christ?
Like Krawczuk, I admire the ethical teachings of Christ. What I condemn is the old-time Catholic cult of suffering and rejection of the world and the human body. I’ve added “old-time” because I realize that I speak of the past. The culture wars are not over, but it’s already certain which side is going to win: the pagan joy of life is back. The joy of the body is back. The gods have returned.
Here is a quotation from an earlier blog post about Milosz's two souls (one Catholic, the other pagan):
In A Year of the Hunter, Milosz reminisces: “I had even published in Verbum [a liberal Catholic periodical, in contrast to “the hideous Catholicism of The Knight of the Immaculate Virgin”]. Jerzy Andrzejewski [the author of Ashes and Diamonds] and I used to go retreats there, without any good results, but at least we honestly confessed to each other that the
ascetic, prayerful atmosphere produced in us a wild craving for vodka
and steak.” (p. 197) This craving for sensory satisfaction, rejected by
Catholicism as sinful, is part of the pagan love of life, of carpe diem rather than the hope for heaven, which another liberal Catholic described as “only another hell, a hell of boredom” (Karol Koniński, quoted on p. 193).
And I was reminded of what Mary Krane Derr (now sadly gone from us) said: the life-hating, body-hating theology grew out of historical trauma, e.g. the Great Famine in Ireland. I think it didn't take anything as extreme as the Great Famine or the Black Death, though such disasters certainly induced the most theological cruelty, since disasters were seen as divine punishment. But let’s face it, in the past, everyday life was full of suffering (frequent war, disease, children dying; a lot of dying all around). Life was “short and brutish,” especially (but not only) for the poor, that religion naturally focused on the afterlife, rejecting the earth and the body as evil.
It's interesting, though, that the Greco-Roman civilization gave us the alternative: love of this life. The pagan gods were happy; no deity was centered on suffering.
Just finished a biography of Tolstoy, and in the photos he appeared tall and in this he appears short. I picture him as commanding.
I liked the faint "lantern of our reason." When we are so soaked in our respective religions the reason is indeed faint and discouraged. I strongly believe life should be full of joy and laughter (the best medicine) and the arts bring me joy even the works based on religions. They are still beautiful and treasures.
Even as a child I had difficulty accepting a cruel and jealous god and hell. Self-torture and punishment are so distasteful to me. I think of Dimsdale and the Scarlet Letter. Sickening.
The photo I used shows Tolstoy in old age. He was pretty tall for his times, and certainly long-lived. But note how miserable he looks. Here is another photo of him in old age, scowling:
Tolstoy at 80, Yasnaya Polyana
Though my mother, intimidated by my iron-willed grandmother, let me be raised as a Catholic, when I was ten or so she said, out of nowhere (perhaps she was reacting to my obvious anxiety and brooding), “There is no hell. God wouldn’t be so cruel.” I realized this was a huge blasphemy, and not believing in hell would be enough to doom you to hell for eternity. The pious view was that god would indeed be so cruel, except that the word for it was “just.” Even now, I think, many people speak of “justice” when they mean “vengeance.”
Religion of course has a vested interest in putting down reason.
At first the church wasn't entirely against reason; during the Middle Ages it even encouraged learning, based on the naive idea that reason would provide proofs of god's existence (and medieval scholars did come up with some, easily refuted). And the church was a patron of the arts, which eventually blew up in its face.
I too love beautiful churches and beautiful religious art. Most religious art is awful, but the masterpieces are ours to enjoy forever.
It took cruel men to invent a cruel god. The idea of compassion took a long time to evolve -- and even now cruelty is a heavy problem (Islam, Christian fundamentalists who do not “spare the rod” and carry posters threatening hell). Nietzsche: “Religions are, at bottom, systems of cruelty.”
I had problems with the threats in the Bible. Sounded too much like bullying. As for swearing I'm the worst though I did it silently when my children were little but that is what I heard growing up and even though my mother washed my mouth out with soap the words were there. Now I voice my frustration with the inability to do the most normal things such as opening a can or peeling an apple. I do it a lot. Dropping thing brings on a swathe of bad language. I'm not proud of it but it's a fact, especially if it makes a mess to clean up, as in knocking over a pitcher of OJ.
The threats: let’s face it, religion works through intimidation more than anything else. Keep them scared, and you don't really need to invent an attractive heaven. Just make sure that hell is vivid. Monotheism in particular is fear-based, hell-based. As that Christian correspondent put it, he believes because faith is “fire insurance.” How pathetic!
In a matter of half a century, we have indeed moved a long way toward the joy of life, toward tenderness. As for swearing, what's so terrible about that? Is this a sin for which you’d send anyone to hell for eternity? It’s just so ridiculous, the things that got called a sin. I hope the word eventually disappears from the language.
But I used to worry for real. After communion you're supposed to be in the state of grace, and in old-time Catholicism, you went to communion only if you were in the state of grace, and not in the state of sin. But within a few days I might slip and fall, use a bad word, and oh, no! Sin! I'm back to being a wretched sinner! A child doesn't have a clear understanding of what constitutes "sin." I assumed that pretty much everything was sin. I was reluctant to get out of bed because I thought oh, no! soon I'll be sinning again! Funny now, but it was truly distressing back then.
Luckily for us, the gods have returned.
Enjoyed your blog as usual, always thought provoking. Especially enjoyed the pictures and commentaries on Tolstoy. I have a book of his writings that has the picture you have of him, seated, on the cover. He is a source of endless fascination to me; rich, titled, talented, long life, loving wife, large family, fame in his own lifetime.....and utterly miserable! His many attempts at piety; no sex, no meat, no smokes, making his own shoes, his strict code of ethics all failed to satisfy and reduced him to fleeing the safety and love of family to die in a train station...horribly tragic. As much as I admire Melville, he too was always running from wife and family; several sea voyages, a romp through Virginia during the Civil War and his latter years spent in a morose solitude...though he did write his best poetry in that period.
Both Melville and Tolstoy had not only discordant marriages, at least in later years, but also what I’d call “unresolved metaphysical obsessions.” Dostoyevski was blessed with a wonderfully supportive second wife with whom he remained passionately in love; he adored his children also, and they him. True, he admitted to being a doubter, but because of his personal attachment to Christ he managed to have a lot of positive emotions. And he freely expressed his doubt through some of his most memorable characters, so there was the joy of constant inspiration.
Running away from his wife and dying at a train station as a closure to a great writer’s life -- I know what you mean. I want to produce that blog I’ve been thinking about since my e-apocalyptic summer: The Day Dostoyevski Died. It’s an amazing story, filled with love.
The quarrel between (faith, obedience) and (reason, beauty) is more complicated than what it appears on the surface.
"One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist" is not a Judeo-Christian value but that is what is taught in public schools today. Is that reason?
This concept of not knowing the difference between good and evil is winning in this world we live in. That can't be a good thing.
On the other hand, putting the fear of God in the mind of a child is child abuse.
After reading this blog it would be very difficult for an open-minded person to still be a believer in the doctrines of the church.
Looks like St. Jerome pounded a stone in his own chest.
My favorite section in the blog is NOT ONLY SCIENCE, BUT ALSO ART.
"Practical Atheism" is an entire book.
This is one of my favorite blogs. Congratulations.
I especially agree that indoctrinating a child with “the fear of God” is child abuse.
I also agree that Jerusalem versus Athens oversimplifies the conflict, and we most definitely need clear ethics. I am not a moral relativist. There is absolute evil, and we must not be silent about it.