The God Confusion

A world on its knees, and at your throat

“Do The Three Abrahamic Faiths Worship The Same God?” Peter Berger asks, on his blog at the American Interest. His answer, which seems to be programmed at least as much by the sensitivities of interfaith politics as by the exigencies of rigorous theology, is a politely nuanced “yes (but).” If anyone is unconvinced about the urgent pertinence of multicultural diplomacy to the question, Berger settles such doubts quickly by depicting the integrated conception of ‘Abrahamic faith’ as a response to the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ climate that arose in the wake of 9/11, “with the altogether admirable intention of countering anti-Islamic hatred.”

At its core, his argument is both realistic and relatively uncontroversial. It is comparable to an informal set theory, or cladistics, briefly surveying family resemblances and dissimilarities between branches of the Abrahamic religious ‘tree’ and concluding, reasonably enough, that none of the potential groupings are absolutely strict (each faith, even narrowly defined, is differentiated within itself by sub-branches, and twigs), and that the coherence of ‘Judeo-Christian’ monotheism is considerably stronger than that of ‘Abrahamic Faith’ in general. Whatever the complexity of these branchings, however, they derive from a readily identifiable trunk. Berger cites a lecture by the Protestant theologian Miroslav Volf:

Yes, one can say that Christians and Muslims believe in the “same God”. There are enough common affirmations to justify this—most importantly, of course, the belief that there is only one God (what the late Richard Niebuhr, coincidentally another Yale Divinity professor, called “radical monotheism”)—but also the belief in a personal creator distinct from the creation, and the giver of a moral code.

When evaluated from a wide enough angle, it is clear that the God of Jews, Christians, and Muslims is distinctively specified, relative to alternative religious traditions:

Sometimes it is a good idea to step back and look at the imputed collectivity from afar. It may help to look at the three ‘Abrahamic’ faiths from, say, Benares, one of the most holy cities of Hinduism and near which the Buddha preached his first sermon. Looked at from that far location, the family resemblance between the three versions suddenly appears quite clearly. Hindus and Buddhists sometimes speak of ‘West Asian religion’ in contrast with their own ‘South Asian ‘or ‘East Asian religion’. It then seems just about inevitable to say that Jews, Christians and Muslims, whatever their differences, do indeed worship the same God.

To be sure, there are similarities between Benares and Jerusalem as well. There are Hindu versions of theism, with intense devotions to personal deities (bhakti), but there is no real analogue to the monotheism that originated in the deserts of the Near East. In Vedanta, arguably the most sophisticated form of Hinduism, the ultimate reality is the brahman, the impersonal ocean of divinity in which all individual identities eventually dissolve. There are theistic elements in Mahayana Buddhism, with devotion directed toward godlike boddhisatvas— individuals who have attained Enlightenment, but who, out of compassion, delay their entry into the final bliss in order to help others to get there. But that bliss too ends in that impersonal ocean of divinity that seems for many centuries to have dominated the religious imagination of India, from where it migrated eastward. 

Yet, whilst the theological dimension of this question is very far from uninteresting, or inconsequential, it limits the question at least as much as it clarifies it. More than a faith, the ‘children of Abraham’ share a story, and – still more importantly — a sense of history as a story, and this is the factor that most tightly bundles them together, irrespective of all quibbling over narrative details. Abraham is the beginning of a tale, even if it can be projected back (at least a little way) beyond him. He defines the meaning of history, as an interaction with God, through which the passage of collective time acquires structure, direction, unity, radical finitude, moral and religious significance. Abrahamic history has purpose, and a destination. Above all it tells the story of a moral community, whose righteousness and unrighteousness will ultimately be judged. Eschatology is its real key.

Because the Abrahamic tradition is rooted in a distinctive experience of history, it extends beyond theistic faith. Indeed, any comprehension of this tradition that excludes Marxism, fascist millenarianism, and ‘liberal’ secular progressivism (even that of the ‘New Atheists’) is woefully incomplete, to the point of diversionary propaganda. Uniquely, the Abrahamic faiths do not merely rise, fall, and persist. They are superceded by new revelations, or afflicted by heresy and schism. Their encounters and (inevitable) conflicts become internalized episodes that immediately demand doctrinal and narrative intelligibility. Hence the affinity between the Abrahamic faiths and historical (as ‘opposed’ to pedagogical, cosmic, or naturalistic) dialectics: the ‘other’, merely by appearing on the stage, must play its role in the world-historical drama of belief.

Strict monotheism is the personification of narrative unity, and in the end it is the narrative unity that matters. Whether history is finally to be appraised from the perspective of the people of Israel, the Church, the Ummah, achieved communism, an Aryan master-race, or secular multicultural globalism, it will have been integrated through the production of a moral community, and judged as a coherent whole by the standard of that community’s purity and righteousness. It will have been comprehended by a collective subject whose story — it insists — is the entire meaning of the world.

For the minor paganisms of antiquity, and the major paganisms of the east, this structure of understanding has the objective potential to be offensive to an almost inestimable degree, so the fact that pagans have rarely contested it with an animosity that even remotely approaches its ‘internal’ conflicts and disputations is intriguing. Whilst cases of anti-semitism, anti-clericalism, islamophobia, anti-communism, anti-fascism, and systematic political incorrectness have, on occasions, been plausibly derived from pagan inspirations, in the overwhelming majority of cases it is the various ‘fraternal’ branches of the great Abrahamic family that have wrought devastation upon each other. Indeed, persecution, as a particular mode of ‘zealous’ or ‘enthusiastic’ violence, seems to be an Abrahamic specialty, one that depends upon conceptions of ‘intolerable’ idolatry, heresy, apostasy, false-consciousness, or political incorrectness that are found nowhere else.

God told Abraham to kill his own son, and he was ready to do so (Gen 22:1-19). That is how he earned his status as the ur-patriarch of the tradition, whose children are defined by the ghost of a knife at their throats. Demonstrated willingness to kill in the name of the Lord, or its abstracted equivalent (the meaning of history), is the initiatory ideal, and the beginning of the world story that now encompasses everyone. After this original ritual, Isaac’s life was no longer natural, but ideological. It was suspended, vulnerably, from a word owing nothing to the protective bond tying an animal to its progeny (symbolically terminated by Abraham’s surrender to divine command), but settled on high, in the narrative structure of the world. If God had willed it — or the story demanded it — he would have been slain. In this way an unnatural line, existing only as an expression of divine purpose, breaks from the archaic pagan order of ‘meaningless’ procreation and nurture. (The place assigned to the sacrifice, Mount Moriah, would later be the site of Jerusalem, the city of the end of time, and beyond nature.) Isaac was spared, but the pagan world was not similarly reprieved.

The existence of an Abrahamic tradition has an importance that far exceeds its internal politics and internecine rivalries, since it is indistinguishable from the historical unification of the world, and no ‘other’ is able to remain outside its narrative order. In much of the world, even in its Abrahamic heartlands, to refuse God is no great thing, and perhaps little more than a mildly comical affectation, but to depart from World History is quite another matter. It is then that the knife of Abraham glints again.


Calendric Dominion (Part 2)

Caesar with the soul of Christ

Political Correctness has tacitly legislated against the still-prevailing acronyms that define the hegemonic international calendar (BC-AD), and proposed clear alternatives (BCE-CE). Both the criticism and the suggestion are entirely consistent with its principles. In accordance with the tenets of multiculturalism (a more recent and also more active hegemony), it extends the liberal assumption of formal equality from individuals to ‘cultures’, allocating group rights, and identifying – whilst immediately denouncing – discrimination and privilege. As might be expected from an ideology that is exceptionally concentrated among intellectual elites, the proposed remedy is purely symbolic, taking the form of a rectification of signs. The ‘problem’ is diagnosed as a failure of consciousness, or sensitivity, requiring only a raising of awareness (to be effected, one can safely assume, by properly credentialed and compensated professionals).

Even considered in its own terms, however, the rectification that is suggested amounts to nothing more than an empty gesture of refusal, accompanying fundamental compliance. Whilst the symbolic ‘left’ draw comfort from the insistence upon inconsequential change, with its intrinsic offense against conservative presumptions, reinforced by an implied moral critique of tradition, the counter-balancing indignation of the ‘right’ fixes the entire dispute within the immobilized trenches of the Anglo-American ‘culture war’. The deep structure of calendric signs persists unaffected. Between Christian dominion (invoking ‘Our Lord’) and a ‘common era’ that is obediently framed by the dating of Christian revelation, there is no difference that matters. It is the count that counts.

Political Correctness fails here in the same way it always does, due to its disconnection of ‘correctness’ from any rigorous principle of calculation, and its disengagement of ‘sensitivity’ from realistic perception. A calendar is a profound cultural edifice, orchestrating the apprehension of historical time. As such, it is invulnerable to the gnat-bites of ideological irritability (and dominance is not reducible to impoliteness).

The problem of Western Calendric Dominion is not one of supremacism (etiquette) but of supremacy (historical fatality). It might be posed: How did modernistic globalization come to be expressed as Christian Oecumenon? In large measure, this is Max Weber’s question, and Walter Russell Mead’s, but it overflows the investigations of both, in the direction of European and Middle Eastern antiquity. Initial stimulation for this inquiry is provided by a strange – even fantastic — coincidence.

In his notebooks, Friedrich Nietzsche imagined the overman (Übermensch) as a “Caesar with the soul of Christ,” a chimerical being whose tensions echo those of the Church of Rome, Latinized Christian liturgy, and the Western calendar. This hybridity is expressed by a multitude of calendric features, following a broad division of labor between a Roman structuring of the year (within which with superficially-Christianized pagan festivals are scattered unsystematically), and a Christian year count, but it also points towards a cryptic — even radically unintelligible — plane of fusion.

In the Year Zero, which never took place, a mysterious synchronization occurred, imperceptibly and unremarked, founding the new theopolitical calendric order. For the Christians, who would not assimilate the Empire until the reign of Constantine in the early-4th century AD, God was incarnated as man, in the embryo of Jesus Christ. Simultaneously, in a Rome that was perfectly oblivious to the conception of the Messiah, the Julian calendar became operational. Julius Caesar’s calendric reform had begun 45 years earlier, following the Years of Confusion, but incompetent execution in subsequent decades had systematically mis-timed the leap year, intercalating a day every three years, rather than every four. The anomalous triennial cycle was abandoned and “the Roman calendar was finally aligned to the Julian calendar in 1 BC (with AD 1 the first full year of alignment),” although no special significance would be assigned to these years until Dionysius Exiguus integrated Christian history in AD 525.

Given the astounding neglect of this twin event, some additional emphasis is appropriate: The Julian calendar, which would persist, unmodified, for almost 1,600 years, and which still dominates colloquial understanding of the year’s length (at 365.25 days), was born – by sheer and outrageous ‘chance’ – at the precise origin of the Christian Era, as registered by the Western, and now international, numbering of historical time. The year count thus exactly simulates a commemoration of the calendar itself – or at least of its prototype – even though the birth of this calendar, whether understood in the terms of secular reason or divine providence, has absolutely no connection to the counted beginning. This is a coincidence – which is to say, a destiny perceived without comprehension – that neither Roman authority nor Christian revelation has been able to account for, even as it surreptitiously shapes Western (and then Global) history. As the world’s dominant calendar counts the years under what appears to be a particular religious inspiration, it refers secretly to its own initiation, alluding to mysteries of time that are alien to any faith. That much is simple fact.

Unlike the Julian calendar, the Gregorian calendar was determined under Christian auspices, or at least formal Christian authority (that of Pope Gregory XIII), and promulgated by papal bull in 1582. Yet a glance suffices to reveal the continuation of Julian calendric dominion, since the Gregorian reform effects transformations that remain strictly compliant with the Julian pattern, modified only by elementary operations of decimal re-scaling and inversion. Where the Julian calendar took four years as its base cyclical unit, the Gregorian takes four centuries, and where the Julian adds one leap day in four years, the Gregorian leaves one and subtracts three in 400. The result was an improved approximation to the tropical year (averaging ~365.24219 days), from the Julian 365.25 year, to the Gregorian 365.2425, a better than 20-fold reduction in discrepancy from an average ~0.00781 days per year (drifting off the seasons by one day every 128 years) to ~0.00031 (drifting one day every 3,226 years).

The combination of architectonic fidelity with technical adjustment defines conservative reform. It is clearly evident in this case. A neo-Julian calendar, structured in its essentials at its origin in AD 1 minus 1, but technically modified at the margin in the interest of improved accuracy, armed the West with the world’s most efficient large-scale time-keeping system by the early modern period. In China, where the Confucian literati staged competitions to test various calendars from around the world against the prediction of eclipses, Jesuits equipped with the Gregorian calendar prevailed against all alternatives, ensuring the inexorable trend towards Western calendric conventions, or, at least, the firm identification of Western methods with modernistic efficiency. Given only an edge, in China and elsewhere, the dynamics of complex systems took over, as ‘network effects’ locked-in the predominant standard, whilst systematically marginalizing its competitors. Even though Year Zero was still missing, it was, ever increasingly, missing at the same time for everyone. “Caeser with the soul of Christ” – the master of Quadrennium and eclipse — had installed itself as the implicit meaning of world history.


(Still to come – in Part 4? – Counter-Calendars, but we probably need an excursion through zero first)