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Out of Egypt: metaxy, memory, and Moses the Egyptian

I. Introduction
Draw a distinction.
Call it the first distinction.
Call the space in which it is drawn the space severed or cloven by the distinction.
—George Spencer-Brown[1]

Nothing, in fact, is far away from anything; things are not remote: there is, no doubt, the aloofness of difference and of mingled natures as against the unmingled; but selfhood has nothing to do with spatial position, and in unity itself there may still be distinction.
—Plotinus[2]
We find from time to time that the wisdom found in one field of study is applicable to another. George Spencer-Brown was writing about the space of logical and mathematical construction; Plotinus was speaking of unity on the most fundamental level, that of all things in the One. Taking these together, we see that every distinction between things is simultaneously a line of contact between them. That which we cleave apart, conceptually speaking, we necessarily and in the very same instance cleave together. Every separation is thus a connection. Such a line, of boundary as well as contact, not only cleaves a given space but is a space in itself, an interval or betweenness which has been called metaxy.

Jan Assmann, who begins his book Moses the Egyptian with the very same quote from Spencer-Brown, notes that it "also applies surprisingly well to the space of cultural constructions and distinctions and to the spaces that are severed or cloven by such distinctions."[3] If we further apply the premise of metaxy above, so that every cultural distinction is understood to be simultaneously a connection, we have taken a crucial step in examining a particularly important cultural distinction—that which Assmann calls the Mosaic distinction—and thus have a firm ground upon which to begin the translation of that which lies on either side of the distinction. We'll return to this matter shortly; first, a brief introduction to the subject matter of Moses the Egyptian.

There is a discussion on the nature of monotheism, religious revelation, and their relation to Egypt through the figure of Moses, which began in Antiquity and continues to the present day. Moses the Egyptian is a recent installment in this Moses-Egypt discourse, and it takes a discerning look back at the trains of thought which have run through its territory. In both this narrow sense and in a broader sense which regards the entire Western experience before and since the Christianization of Europe, the book is a study in cultural memory.

In the course of this study, Assmann articulates and integrates several concepts, the explanations of which constitute in themselves some of the book's most important theses. The Mosaic distinction is chief among them, aside perhaps from that of mnemohistory, that is, the study of how the past is remembered. Also of importance is the anonymous god who is "One and All", or Ἓν καὶ Πᾶν, as revealed by Egyptological study and as remembered by scholars and mystics from Ancient Egypt to the Enlightenment and beyond. Though we will not spend much time here on its Enlightenment reception or its roots in Ramesside theology, this concept of deity is of central importance to the Moses-Egypt discourse.

My especial interest in these matters regards their importance for the rehabilitation of an extra-Mosaic European religious perspective, the development of which will depend on the examination of the cultural threads which connect Egypt to both Israel and Greece. Such an examination will help us translate Christianity and pre-Christianity, to find the underlying stream by which European culture has in all its phases been nourished, and thus to build a "Grand Narrative" of the European past which can serve as the foundation of new cultural undertakings.

Such an effort, of course, will require much more examination, deconstruction, and reconstruction than is offered in the present treatment. Here our chief concern regards the Mosaic distinction, given that it underlies the distinction between Christians and "pagans". Before we can go any further in our examination and translation of this distinction, of course, we must define it, and for that we turn to Jan Assmann.

II. The Mosaic Distinction: Before and After
From the first chapter of Moses the Egyptian:

The distinction I am concerned with in this book is the distinction between true and false in religion that underlies more specific distinctions such as Jews and Gentiles, Christians and pagans, Muslims and unbelievers. Once this distinction is drawn, there is no end of reentries or subdistinctions. We start Christians and pagans and end up with Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and Lutherans, Socinians and Latitudinarians, and thousand more similar denomination and subdenominations. Cultural or intellectual distinctions such as these construct a universe that is not only full of meaning, identity, and orientation, but also full of conflict, intolerance, and violence. Therefore, there have always been attempts to overcome the conflict by reexamining the distinction, albeit at the risk of losing cultural meaning.[3]
He explains that this distinction is best called the Mosaic distinction since it begins according to tradition with Moses; nonetheless, even if we assume Moses to have been a real figure, Akhenaten's monotheistic revolution in Egypt, in which temples and sacred images were demolished and cultus of the gods was banned, drew the same distinction even earlier. However, "Moses is a figure of memory but not of history, while Akhenaten is a figure of history but not of memory", and since "memory is all that counts"[4] when it comes to cultural definitions—we'll soon pick up this thread on the importance of memory a bit later with the introduction of the concept of mnemohistory—the term Mosaic distinction, rather than Akhenaten's distinction, is justified.

The assumption might come rather easily that all religious traditions define those outside themselves as "unbelievers" or "pagans". But such a distinction is not universal; it is part and parcel not of religion itself, but of what we call monotheism. It is thus fundamental to the modern "secular" frame, as I have written elsewhere; it cleaves the space in which the Western mind has dwelt since its Christianization.

The space severed or cloven by this distinction is the space of Western monotheism. It is this constructed mental or cultural space that has been inhabited by Europeans for nearly two millennia.

It is an error to believe that this distinction is as old as religion itself, though at first sight nothing might seem more plausible. Does not every religion quite automatically put everything outside itself in the position of error and falsehood and look down on other religions as "paganism"? Is this not quite simply the religious expression of ethnocentricity? Does not the distinction between true and false in [religion] amount to the distinction between "us" and "them"? Does not every construction of identity by the very same process generate alterity? Does not every religion produce "pagans" in the same way that every civilization produces "barbarians"?

However plausible this may seem, it is not the case. Cultures not only generate otherness by constructing identity, but also develop techniques of translation.
[...]
Ancient polytheisms functioned as such a technique of translation. They belong within the emergence of the "Ancient World" as a coherent ecumene of interconnected nations.[4]
In order to illustrate the radically different understanding of religion brought about by the Mosaic distinction, we must describe in further depth what came before it.

The word paganism for what exists outside, and existed prior to, the Mosaic distinction is unsatisfactory, not only because the term was coined in contradistinction, but more importantly because the diversity of religion in such places and times consists of a multitude of systems of differing names, rites, and doctrines; there are innumerable "paganisms". There is something these systems had in common, however, namely their sense that the gods are in a certain respect international and do not limit themselves to the concerns of an elect group, which allowed them to translate one another.

Hence the concept of the All-Encompassing God we mentioned above: this was the understanding which was implicit in the intercultural translation of Antiquity, and was made explicit in "an uninterrupted line of textual tradition from the Ramesside age down to the Greco-Roman era".[5] This textual tradition, which is the origin of the Hermetic idea of the cosmic god, expounds what Assmann calls evolutionary monotheism, rather than revolutionary monotheism. The former is compatible with polytheistic worship, whereas the latter opposes it.

Indeed, the terms monotheism and polytheism show themselves in this discourse to be inadequate for describing the real differences between Mosaic counter-religion and the innumerable "paganisms" it rejects. The modern contrast of monotheism and polytheism is unsatisfactory, since it addresses the differences between monotheistic counter-religions and other traditions as a question of number, which is less important than the differences in how God's nature is understood. The difference between religion and counter-religion is much more a question of quality than of quantity. In "paganisms", that is to say, in cultures not observing the Mosaic distinction, God is present in nature, or even directly equivalent to Nature Herself; in cultures which do observe it, deity and world are severed from one another. Thus Assmann and others have taken to referring to this sense of God-as-One-and-All, and the intercultural interpretation of the gods that went with it, as cosmotheism.

For a further account of this cosmotheistic sensibility, we can turn reliably to the ancients themselves. As early as the Kassite period of Bronze-Age Mesopotamia, lists were written not only relating the names of deities in Akkadian and Sumerian, which were spoken by members of the same cultural bloc—and in which lists of this sort were already in existence—but now also in Kassite, Amorite, Hurrian, and Elamite, thus translating across truly distinct cultures.[6] Greeks living in Cyrene visited a temple of Zeus Ammon in the Siwa Oasis; a distinctive Gallo-Roman religion, in which the gods were addressed by double names, developed from the Roman conquest of the Celts; and so on. The examples of such cross-cultural interpretations (as in the case of the Sumerians, Kassites, and so on) and syncretic formations of new cultural paradigms (as in the case of the Gallo-Roman development) are innumerable.

Tacitus, in his study of the ancient Germans, while nonetheless considering their practice of human sacrifice to be unlawful, quite easily renders their primary deities into Roman terms:
Mercury is the deity whom they chiefly worship, and on certain days they deem it right to sacrifice to him even with human victims. Hercules and Mars they appease with more lawful offerings. Some of the Suevi also sacrifice to Isis.[7]
Plutarch says in his work on Egyptian religion:
Nor do we think of the gods as different gods among different peoples, nor as barbarian gods and Greek gods, nor as southern and northern gods ; but, just as the sun and the moon and the heavens and the earth and the sea are common to all, but are called by different names by different peoples, so for that one rationality which keeps all these things in order and the one Providence which watches over them and the ancillary powers that are set over all, there have arisen among different peoples, in accordance with their customs, different honours and appellations.[8]
In the last book of Apuleius' Metamorphoses, Lucius invokes the Queen of Heaven by four names: Ceres, Venus, Diana, and Proserpina, which themselves could be easily rendered in Greek: Demeter, Aphrodite, Artemis, and Persephone. In her reply, she refers to herself by no less than eleven names:
Lo, I am with you, Lucius, moved by your prayers, I who am the mother of the universe, the mistress of all the elements, the first offspring of time, the highest of deities, the queen of the dead, foremost of heavenly beings, the single form that fuses all gods and goddesses; I who order by my will the starry heights of heaven, the health giving breezes of the sea, and the awul silences of those in the underworld: my single godhead is adored by the whole world in varied forms, in differing rites and with many diverse names.

Thus the Phyrgians . . . call me Pessinuntia . . .; the Athenians . . . call me Cecropeian Minerva; the Cyprians . . . call me Paphian Venus, the . . . Cretans Dictynna, the . . . Sicilians Ortygian Proserpinel to the Eleusinians I am Ceres. . ., to others Juno, to others Bellona and Hecate and Rhamnusia. But the Ethiopians . . . together with the Africans and Egyptians who excel by having my original doctrine honor me with my distinctive rites and give me my true name of Queen Isis.[9]
Note that the translatability of distinct cultures by means of common archetypes does not imply that these cultures were the same, or that their differences were merely superficial (Greco-Roman Isis religion, with its habit of addressing the goddess by so many names, is itself a distinct cultural development). Indeed, the very act of translation presupposes that there are meaningful differences. Translation is a crossing of boundaries, and non-existent boundaries cannot be crossed. We may use the analogy of language to illustrate the mutual conditioning of translatability and heterogeneity.

In Spanish, the verb tocar has several meanings which have separate words in English. Tocar una cosa, for example, means to touch something, but tocar la guitarra means to play the guitar. This demonstrates that there is no precise equivalent for the word tocar, in all its shades of meaning, in English. These different senses of the words are nonetheless translatable.

Likewise, the Egyptian figure of Thoth and the Greek figure of Hermes were seen as reflecting a common divine essence, despite noted differences. Thoth for the Egyptians is the scribe of the gods, and is said to have given language and science to mankind. Hermes is also responsible for language and is the messenger of the gods, but traditionally he is portrayed more as clever and cunning than book-wise as Thoth is.[10] He is also a psychopomp, which Thoth is plainly not. These differences were not enough, however, to prevent the center of Thoth's cult in Khmun from being called Hermopolis. Hermes' role as psychopomp, in fact, gave him an affinity with the Egyptian Anubis, and the two were rendered during the period of Roman rule in Egypt as Hermanubis.

What is fundamental, of course, to this pre-Mosaic understanding of divinity is not that the gods were translated, but rather that they were not deemed categorically "true" and "false", as they were understood to be present in nature. This sense of common truth, combined with the presence of very real boundaries of meaning and practice, is what allows for any kind of translation in the first place, linguistic or otherwise.

Thus the Mosaic distinction created a new understanding of religion: one of "true" and "false" gods, "righteous" and "heretical" customs, revealed creeds versus "idolatry". It made different systems of myth and ritual opaque to one another, rather than translatable by means of underlying commonalities in the figures and narratives by which these systems made reference to the divine. In so doing, it also created a new kind of violence. War in what we would call Classical Antiquity was not waged in the name of "spreading the true faith" or "destroying false gods"; the very concept of a "false god" does not seem to have been established. Traditions which adhere to the Mosaic distinction, and thus have within themselves an impetus for such violence, are counter-religions, for they frame themselves in contradistinction to all other religions.

III. Mnemohistory and the Genius of the Discourse

Egypt functions as the emblem of this "otherness" or "falsehood". The remembrance of Egypt is, in the Mosaic tradition, part of a "constellative myth" or a "Tale of Two Countries", as Assmann puts it, which frames Egypt as a rejected past, a past which has been overcome, a previous state from which one has been converted. The calling forth of this past can serve another purpose, however: that of deconstructing the Mosaic distinction.
If the space of religious truth is constructed by the distinction between "Israel in truth" and "Egypt in error," any discoveries of Egyptian truths will necessarily invalidate the Mosaic distinction and deconstruct the space separated by this distinction.[11]
Thus the Mosaic distinction is maintained by the very same method which allows us to deconstruct it, that is, by remembering Egypt. This recalls our discussion of metaxy earlier; the distinction connects what it divides, and what lies between is what allows for movement in either direction:
[I]t is as a neuter plural (τὰ μεταξύ), referring to “intermediate” or “in-between things”, that the metaxy occurs in Plato’s Gorgias (468a), where Socrates discovers through dialogue with Polus that there is a neutral class of things, qualities, states and actions which are neither good nor bad (τὰ μήτε ἀγαθὰ μήτε κακά). While our actions may in themselves be neutral or intermediate (Socrates gives the examples of sitting, walking, and running), we always act in pursuit of the good, however. Even evil actions are committed for the sake of the good; they are evil as a result of their agents’ perverted understanding, whereby the Good and the Truth become obnubilated in the soul.[12]
In this case, what has been obnubilated is Egypt, and what lies between is memory. Just as we always act in pursuit of the Good, movement in either direction across the Mosaic distinction puts us in the pursuit of remembering Egypt; whether we affirm or deny the falsehood of the gods, we are keeping the memory of Egypt alive, as an anchor for either affirmation or contradistinction. Hence the importance of mnemohistory, that field of history whose distinction from others is that it is not concerned with what actually happened as much as with how what happened was (and is) remembered. Thus in tracing the Moses-Egypt discourse from Antiquity to the 20th century, Assmann is undertaking a mnemohistorical study, thereby uncovering the metaxy, the in-between space, of the Mosaic distinction.

Hence the subtitle of the book: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. For Moses and the traditions which have followed him, Egypt is important not for what it was but as a reified "other", a memory of the rejected "pagan" past—"And I that am the LORD thy God from the land of Egypt..."[13] Likewise, any tradition which seeks to retrace history in order to overcome the Mosaic distinction must involve its own memory of Egypt. Assmann wants to place this sense of memory in the context of actual Egyptian history, in order to shed light on the origins and effects of the memory. He also wants to make a more general illustration of the reception of Egypt:
Mnemohistory is reception theory applied to history. But "reception" is not to be understood here merely in the narrow sense of transmitting and receiving. The past is not simply "received" by the present. The present is "haunted" by the past and the past is modeled, invented, reinvented, and reconstructed by the present. To be sure, all this implies the tasks and techniques of transmitting and receiving, but there is much more involved in the dynamic of cultural memory than is covered by the notion of reception. It makes much more sense to speak of Europe's having been "haunted" by Egypt than of Egypt's having been "received" by Europe.[14]
Indeed, as we'll see later, it is not only the Mosaic memory of Egypt that the West has inherited, but important traces of the Egyptians' own memories of counter-religion which survived into Late Antiquity—all the better for uncovering the metaxic "neutral ground" which lies between them. Assmann thus wants not only to understand the memory of a rejected Egypt in its "mythomotoric" function for the Mosaic tradition, but more broadly to elucidate the thematic patterns underlying the entire Moses-Egypt discourse, to perform a "mnemohistorical discourse analysis" which "investigates this concatenation of texts as a vertical line of memory and seeks out the threads of connectivity which are working behind the texts: the intertextuality, evolution of ideas, recourse to forgotten evidence, shifts of focus, and so forth."[15]

In performing this analysis, Assmann says, a heretofore neglected phase in the "haunting" of Europe by Egypt is brought to light, namely that of Egyptomania which "starts in the latter half of seventeenth century and culminates in the time of Napoleon". This phase is important because it "is different from that of the Egyptophilic Renaissance in that is has worked through... the hostile reactions of orthodoxy"[16] and has built itself on a firmer ground of historical criticism. It has merged, in the context of Egypt, a Hermetic discourse, a "hieroglyphic" discourse ("the Egyptian script (mis)understood as pure conceptual writing (Begriffschrift)"[17]), and a Biblical discourse; it does so by means of the conception of an unrevealed "monotheism", in which Nature Herself is deity, which is thus important to the project of constructing the mediating figure of Moses the Egyptian. This period of post-Renaissance Egyptomania is of more interest to Assmann's book than it is to our discussion here, but we must acknowledge it as a significant part of the broader discourse in which we are participating.

Assmann notes that this project will require the input of scholars with expertise outside of Egyptology, but also that Egyptology itself has a crucial role to play:
It might be asked what an Egyptologist could possibly contribute to such a project, which obviously requires very different qualifications. It is necessary to know Egyptian to study the works of these men, who themselves did not know Egyptian. What is required is the combined competencies of a classicist, a scholar of patristic literature, a Hebraist, a Renaissance scholar, a historian of ideas, and a Freudian scholar, whose field is now a discipline in itself. I cannot claim any of these competencies for myself. I am perfectly (and painfully) aware of the all too preliminary character of my observations, which, of course, need to be extended, reviewed, and corrected by the respective specialists. But there is something here which only an Egyptologist can discover, and that is the original impetus which got this discourse started and which survives in an almost miraculous way through all of its transformations and ramifications.[18]
Assmann thus wants to establish "a dialogue with Ancient Egypt... integrating it again into the cultural memory of Europe". He must thus "coloniz[e] the no man's land" between the historical study of Egypt and the fascination or "haunting" which Egypt has exerted on the European mind, and thus make a mnemohistorical examination of Egyptology itself.[19]

For someone who wishes to understand fundamentally the importance of the Mosaic distinction as well as the purpose of mnemohistory, this chapter provides a good enough summation. Most importantly for us, it introduces the genius or daemon of the Moses-Egypt discourse—though for Assmann, "this kind of helpful mystification is, of course, illicit"[20]—which generates myths from the distinctions and constructions therein. We now have a basic portrait of the mythomotor we'll need to become familiar with in order to overcome the distinction whose metaxic space it inhabits, and thus to bring the fruits of the discourse to bear on a European religious perspective.

IV. Akhenaten: The First Counter-Religion
Now that we have explained the Mosaic distinction, its metaxic space which consists in the remembrance of Egypt, and the aims of mnemohistory, we can delve a bit further into the history behind the relevant memories. In the second chapter of Moses the Egyptian, the religious antagonism underlying the constellative myth of Israel and Egypt is further explained, and the Egyptians' own memory of the events of the Amarna period—to the extent that such can be traced, since Akhenaten was subject to damnatio memoriae after his death—is discussed. Though Assmann cautions us that to affirm outright that Moses was Akhenaten is to operate in "a field which could be characterized as 'science fiction' applied to the past instead of the future",[21] mnemohistory tells us that there is at least some historical connection between these two figures.

To establish such a connection, we must begin with King Amenophis IV, that is, with Akhenaten. Assmann notes that one could trace religious antagonism in Egypt to its conquest by the Hyksos, a Palestinian people, about three centuries earlier. The Hyksos ruled Egypt for over a century, and the experience of Hyksos rule remained in Egyptian memory. But "there was certainly no religious conflict between the Hyksos and the Egyptians",[21] because the Hyksos, who worshipped Baal, did not impose their cult on the Egyptians, let alone destroy Egyptian sacred sites or objects.

Thus the earliest "purely religious conflict" we have any certainty of is that instigated by Akhenaten, and as it turns out, a plague broke out across the Near East around the end of the Amarna period. This experience must have added to the horror of Amarna counter-religion, and together they "formed the trauma that gave rise the phantasm of the religious enemy".[22]

Among both the priestly class and the common people, there was reason to see Akhenaten's revolution as a shocking act of sacrilege and destruction: for the former, the performative construction of order on earth by means of ritual had been interrupted; for the latter, the gods, who were understood to be present outside their temples during festivals—"[e]very major Egyptian religious feast was celebrated in the form of a procession"[23]—were now continually absent.

Thus the Amarna revolution was a civic disruption as well as a spiritual one, and the two qualities are rather difficult to distinguish:
The Egyptian idea of the city was thus centered on and shaped by the religious feasts. The city was the place on earth where the divine presence could be sensed by everyone on the occasion of the main processional feasts. The more important the feast, the more important the city. The feasts promoted religious participation but also social identification and cohesion. The Egyptians conceived of themselves as members of a town or city rather than as members of a nation. The city was where they belonged and where they wanted to be buried. Belonging to a city primarily meant belonging to a deity as the master of that city. This sense of belonging to a god or goddess was created and confirmed by participation in the feasts. The abolition of the feasts must have deprived the Egyptians of their sense of identity and, what is more, their hopes of immortality. For following the deities in their earthly feasts was held to be the first and most necessary step toward otherworldly beatitude. In the Theban tomb of Pairi there is a graffito which the scribe Pawah wrote in the time of Smenkhkare, the last of the Amarna kings. It is a lamentation for the absent god and it begins which the words: "My heart longs to see you!" Its theme is nostalgia for the sight of Amun in his feast.[23]
This desacralization and even desemioticization of the city and the cosmos, combined with the spread of disease, thus created a devastating experience, the trauma of which was exacerbated by the systematic removal of Amarna from Egyptian memory:
The recollection of the Amarna experience was made even more problematic by the process of systematic suppression whereby all the visible traces of the period were deleted and the names of the kings were removed from all official records. The monuments were dismantled and concealed in new buildings. Akhenaten did not even survive as a heretic in the memory of the Egyptians. His name and his teaching fell into oblivion. Only the imprint of the shock remained: the vague remembrance of something religiously unclean, hateful, and disastrous in the extreme.[24]
Thus the frame of experience which Amarna established, voided of any conscious recollection of what had caused the trauma, was then filled with new experiences as well as reïnterpretations of old ones (the Hyksos, for example, were reïmagined as monolatrists of Seth), "which in their turn had roots in this semantic frame of this nascent image of the Asiatic foe."[25] This semantic frame, as we'll see, is considered by Assmann to be part of the Western inheritance of Egyptian memory. By reading ancient authors from Manetho to Tacitus regarding the story of Moses, we can develop a better picture of how this semantic frame was established.

V. Traces of Amarna: The Classical Reception of Moses
Assmann goes on to describe how Egyptian oral tradition retained traces of the Amarna experience; by elucidating these traces, we are not only able to acquire a better understanding of how counter-religion was experienced by Egypt (i.e., by those who were not counter-religious), but also to get a further sense of the dependence of the Mosaic tradition on Egypt. Manetho, an Egyptian priest who wrote his history of Egypt in the early Ptolemaic period, made an account of such traces.

Flavius Josephus, in his Contra Apionem, seeking to dispel "the various calumnies which the Egyptian historian Apion and other Hellenistic historiographers—mostly of Egyptian provenance—had attributed to the Jews"[26], twice quotes Manetho. His first quote Josephus regards as true; it describes how the Hyksos, after their reign, during which they "treated the population with utmost cruelty", was ended by the king of Thebes, "emigrated into Syria and finally settled in what is now called Judaea."[27] The second version of this origin story Josephus is less happy about:
According to Josephus, Manetho's first version follows the "sacred Scripture" (ta hiera grammata), but his second version is based on popular tales and legends (mutheuomena kai legomena). In Manetho's [second] account, King Amenophis wanted to see the gods. The sage Amenophis, son of Hapu, tells him that he may see the gods if he cleanses the land of lepers. The king sends all lepers with priests among them into the quarries in the eastern desert. Amenophis the sage predicts divine punishment for this inhuman treatment of the sick: they will receive help from outside, conquer Egypt, and rule for thirteen years. Not daring to tell the king this in person, he writes everything down and commits suicide. The lepers are allowed to settle in Avaris, the ancient capital of the Hyksos. They choose Osarsiph, a Heliopolitan priest, as their leader. He makes laws for them on the principle of normative inversion, prescribing all that is forbidden in Egypt and forbidding all that is prescribed there.[27]
Thus the first commandment Osarsiph gives is "not to worship the gods, not to spare any of their sacred animals, not to abstain from other forbidden food." It is a commandment of normative inversion, by which sacred things are made taboo and taboos are made sacred. This notion of inversion is crucial to the understanding of counter-religion which Assmann articulates, and we will return to it shortly.

The second commandment of Osarsiph "proscribes association with people from outside". Assmann notes that while the first commandment "seems most characteristic of the negative force of a counter-religion", the second commandment would appear to be typical of what Mary Douglas calls an "enclave culture", a threatened minority culture which seeks to avoid being absorbed into the majority culture by means of "a multitude of purity laws":
As Mary Douglas has brilliantly shown, Judaism is the classic case of such an "enclave culture". Therefore, it is very probable that the second commandment, the prohibition of intercourse with outsiders, refers to the Jews rather than to the Amarna religion, especially since the notion of exclusivism, or "amixia," came to be a stereotype of the Classical discourse on Jews and Judaism. The second of the two commandments of Osarsiph would then have to be explained as a secondary motif that entered the tradition only after the Egyptians encountered the Jews.[28]
But Assmann cautions us that "the possibility can by no means be ruled out that even the second commandment stems from the older experience", as "the Amarna religion shows some traits of an enclave culture as well", and notes the boundary stelae surrounding Amarna which record that king was sworn not to cross them. This may have had to do with the fear of contagious disease, but it may also have been done for "fear of contagion of a more spiritual kind". Assmann notes that it is "revealing" to make such an association between the idea of an enclave culture and the experience of Amarna.
Moreover, the prohibition of contact with outsiders can be more generally interpreted as the negation of mutual religious translatability. It then has to be seen against the background of ancient polytheism, which encourages and enforced intercultural communication.[28]
The story of Osarsiph continues, as he fortifies the city and invites the Hyksos, long since expelled from Egypt, to join them in their revolt. The Hyksos return; the king, remembering the prediction, flees to Ethiopia with the sacred animals. The lepers and the Hyksos then rule Egypt "for thirteen years in a way that makes the former Hyksos rule appear like a Golden Age in the memory of the Egyptians."[29] Towns and temples are destroyed and the sanctuaries are "turned into kitchens" where the sacred animals are cooked. Osarsiph then takes the name Moses. Finally, Amenophis and his grandson Ramses return from the south and drive out the lepers and the Hyksos.

Assmann notes that, despite Josephus' reading of this story as a "counterhistory", as Amos Funkenstein would put it[29], it is actually a recording of an oral legend that apparently had many versions. He then goes on to recount the variants of the Moses story—Manetho is the only one to call him Osarsiph—which were told by other authors: the Greeks Hecataeus of Abdera and Lysimachos; Chaeremon of Alexandria, the Egyptian priest and bookkeeper who tutored a young Nero; the Gallo-Roman historian Pompeius Trogus; the Jewish author Artapanos (who describes Moses "ethnically as a Jew but culturally as the founder of Egyptian religion and civilization" and thus writes a "pure counterhistory in Funkenstein's sense of the term"[30]); Tacitus; Plutarch; the Egyptian grammarian Apion (the namesake of Josephus' Contra Apionem); and Strabo.

VI. Normative Inversion, From Without and Within
Among those listed above, we will linger here only on the accounts of Tacitus and Strabo, because of their emphasis on the principle of normative inversion which we established earlier as important to the understanding of counter-religion. Tacitus describes Moses as instituting "a new religion which is the exact opposite of all other religions (novos ritus contrariosque ceteris mortalibus indidit)"[31]. He explains that this religion conceives of god monotheistically and aniconically, rejecting the divine images as impious.

Tacitus further notes that "the Jews consider everything that we keep sacred as profane and permit everything that for us is taboo (profana illic omnia quae apud nos sacra, rursum concessa apud illos quae nobis incesta)."[31] As Assmann puts it:
In Tacitus, the characterization of Jewish monotheism as a counter-religion which is the inversion of Egyptian tradition and therefore totally derivative of, and dependent on, Egypt reaches its climax.[32]
Strabo's account emphasises Moses' rejection of images, and attributes to him a pantheistic conception of deity in which the representation of god in zoomorphic images, as in Egyptian tradition, is fundamentally inadequate in relation to such an all-encompassing being.[33] This sense of "idolatry" as inferior initiation, rather than outright impiety, is of a Stoic character rather than a Biblical one; "the coincidence in the refusal of images is purely formal."[34] Nonetheless, this notion of monotheism as a break from tradition and a rejection of prior rituals is important, because it supplies a more appropriate definition of monotheism than the one to which we are accustomed:
The decisive feature of the monotheistic movements is their revolutionary, "idolophobic," or iconoclastic character. They are counter-religions which are born out of "dissatisfaction" with tradition.[35]
Note that this picture of inversion is not merely the product of the biased account of Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians. Much the same account of the Mosaic Law is given by Maimonides, who writes in his Guide for the Perplexed that Moses intended a sort of therapeutic legislation which would remove all trace of "idolatry":
We have shown in our large work, Mishneh-torah (Hilkot, ‘Abodah-zarah, i. 3), that Abraham was the first that opposed [idolatry and magic] by arguments and by soft and persuasive speech. He induced these people, by showing kindness to them, to serve God. Afterwards came the chief of the prophets, and completed the work by the commandment to slay those unbelievers, to blot out their name, and to uproot them from the land of the living. Comp. "Ye shall destroy their altars," etc. (Exod. xxxiv. 13). He forbade us to follow their ways; he said, "Ye shall not walk in the manners of the heathen", etc. (Lev. XX. 23). You know from the repeated declarations in the Law that the principal purpose of the whole Law was the removal and utter destruction of idolatry, and all that is connected therewith, even its name, and everything that might lead to any such practices, e.g., acting as a consulter with familiar spirits, or as a wizard, passing children through the fire, divining, observing the clouds, enchanting, charming, or inquiring of the dead. The law prohibits us to imitate the heathen in any of these deeds, and a fortiori to adopt them entirely. It is distinctly said in the Law that everything which idolaters consider as service to their gods, and a means of approaching them, is rejected and despised by God; comp. "for every abomination to the Lord, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods" (Deut. xii. 3 1).[36]
Indeed, Maimonides uses this principle to construct his image of the "Sabians", that is, the "idolaters" whose rites Moses legislated against:
Maimonides' Sabians are an imagined community which he created by applying Manetho's principle of normative inversion in the opposite direction. Manetho was familiar with Egyptian tradition and imagined a counter-community based upon the inverted mirror image of Egyptian mores. Maimonides was familiar with normative Judaism and imagined a pagan counter-community—the 'ummat a'aba—as the counter-image of Jewish law. If the Law prohibits an activity x there must have existed an idolatrous community practicing x. The truth of both counter-constructions lies in the negative potential and antagonistic force of revelation or counter-religion.[37]
Thus both sides of the Mosaic distinction, with their mutual counter-constructions in both inherited memory and derivative reïmagination, agree that one side is the inversion of the other. Thus, irrespective of how factually accurate the stories told on either side about Moses may be, they both express the truth of what counter-religion is in relation to what exists outside it: the former semiotically and morally inverts the latter and thus denies any independent truth in the latter. A counter-vocabulary is thus coined to describe and account for other religions as a contiguous image of what is to be opposed: "paganism", "heathenry", "idolatry", "unbelief", "apostasy", and so on.

This means that while both sides are affirming the antagonistic quality of counter-religion, they are by the very same fact denying one another's conceptions of the divine and thus of the world. To turn on its head the statement we made in the introduction, this connection is simultaneously and necessarily a separation. Both sides remember one another in a negative light, but this shared negativity is grounded in unshared, and indeed mutually opposed, portions of the memory of what happened in Egypt.

VII. Reception and Dependence: Asymmetry in the Memory of Egypt

We have "a conspicuous case of distorted and dislodged memory" with the story of Moses and the lepers. Assmann argues that a "crypt" was formed in Egyptian collective memory, in which the dislocated recollections of the traumatic experience of Akhenaten's monotheistic revolution were made subject to various alterations. He notes that on both sides of this "constellative myth", Israel and Egypt, the other is seen in a "dark affective shading": in the Biblical account of the Exodus, "the Egyptians are shown as torturers and oppressors, as idolaters and magicians", while "in the Egyptian account, the 'Jews' are shown as lepers, as impure people, atheists, misanthropes, iconoclasts, vandals, and sacrilegious criminals."[38]

While "it would be most instructive to confront these different versions with what could constitute historical evidence," there is only one historical event which has not only archaeological evidence but also semantic conformity to these stories of plague and expulsion: the Hyksos period in Egypt.[38] Assmann agrees with Josephus and with Egyptologist and archaeologist Donald B. Redford that "the Hyksos' sojourn in, and withdrawal from, Egypt was all that happened in terms of historical fact" and that "different memories of these events lived on in the traditions of Canaan and Egypt."[39] Thus we have an archaeologically verifiable anchor by which to draw our mnemohistorical portrait:
The Hebrews merely fell heir to the Canaanite part of these memories. If we accept this theory, we are in a position to evaluate the stages of its transformation and to recognize its direction. The Hyksos stayed in Egypt not as slaves but as rulers. They withdrew from Egypt not as finally released slaves but as expelled enemies. The inversions which the Hebrew tradition imposed on the historical facts find their explanation in the semantic frame of the covenant-and-election theology.[39]
The Egyptian part of these memories, then, was inherited by the West, forming "the phantasm of the religious Other and the phobic idea of conspiracy and contagion" which "never ceased to haunt Europe". He thus argues that "it is important to trace this history back to its origin, with the hope that this anamnesis and 'working-through' may contribute to a better understanding and an overcoming of the dynamics behind the development of cultural or religious abomination."[40]

Here we must return to our discussion of metaxy, for it allows us to explain in further depth the understanding of the Mosaic distinction as "totally derivative of, and dependent on, Egypt". The acknowledgement of an intervallic space between religion and counter-religion, or in this case between Egypt and Moses, should not be taken as an implication of symmetry. What the above accounts from Classical authors, taken together with the Biblical account, make clear is that there is a fundamental asymmetry surrounding the Mosaic distinction. One side is independent; the other dependent. One side supplies the metaxic space with content simply by being remembered; the other, in its rejection of what is remembered, uses the content of the former as fuel for a counter-narrative. One side was traumatized by the experience of the other; the other remembers the traumatized as oppressors.

This asymmetry, and thus the framing of its metaxic space, may provide the key to its own overcoming. It tells us not only what the Biblical and Classical accounts owe to Egypt, but also in what manner they relate to each other. The implications of this relationship, and the method thereby provided for transcending the Mosaic distinction, will require explication elsewhere.

[1] George Spencer-Brown, Laws of Form, 1972, pp. 3.
[2] Plotinus, Enneads, c. 270, IV.3.11 (trans. Stephen MacKenna and B.S. Page).
[3] Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian, 1997, p. 1.
[4] Idem, pp. 2.
[5] Jan Assmann, Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism, 2008, pp. 69.
[6] See idem, pp. 54, as well as Mark S. Smith, God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World, 2010, pp. 41-43, and Theophilus G. Pinches, "The Language of the Kassites", from The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 49, issue 1, January 1917, pp. 112.
[7] Tacitus, De origine et situ Germanorum, 98, IX (trans. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb).
[8] Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, c. 100, 67 (trans. Frank Cole Babbitt).
[9] Apuleius, Metamorphoses, c. 165, XI.5.
[10] Walter J. Friedlander, The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus Symbol in Medicine, 1992, pp. 69.
[11] Idem [3], pp. 8.
[12] Alistair Ian Blyth, "The Seductiveness of the Metaxy", 2009.
[13] Hosea XII:9, KJV; see also Exodus XX:2.
[14] Idem [3], pp. 9.
[15] Idem, pp. 16.
[16] Idem, pp. 19.
[17] Idem, pp. 18.
[18] Idem, pp. 21.
[19] Idem, pp. 22.
[20] Idem, pp. 17.
[21] Idem, pp. 24.
[22] Idem, pp. 25.
[23] Idem, pp. 26.
[24] Idem, pp. 28-29.
[25] Idem, pp. 29.
[26] Idem, pp. 30.
[27] Idem, pp. 31.
[28] Idem, pp. 32.
[29] Idem, pp. 33.
[30] Idem, pp. 36.
[31] Tacitus, Historiae, c. 105, V.IV.
[32] Idem [3], pp. 37.
[33] Strabo, Geographica, c. 23, 16.2.35.
[34] Idem [3], pp. 226 (footnotes to pages 36-42).
[35] Idem, pp. 39.
[36] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, c. 1190, pp. 317.
[37] Idem [3], pp. 58.
[38] Idem, pp. 40.
[39] Idem, pp. 41.
[40] Idem, pp. 44.

20150324

Obfuscation is not great, or: Of Plato and Moses

It has recently come to our attention that Mencius Moldbug, as of 2007 at the very least, has put forward a model of modern ideology which is distinct from his articulation of the thesis that the progressivism or Universalism of the present day is cladistically descended from Puritanism. He contends, in this post, that the problem is one of "Idealism":
I have a standing offer of a bottle of Laphroaig for anyone who can supply me with an objective and nontrivial explanation of any distinction between the nouns idealist and ideologue as used in the contemporary English language.

Explaining that conservative ideologues are a dime a dozen, as are progressive idealists, but there are somewhat fewer progressive ideologues and it is almost impossible to find a conservative idealist even when you really need one, will not get you the whisky.

However, there's another meaning of idealist in English - a historical one. Idealism is actually a philosophical school. Or rather a number of philosophical schools. I find the term most useful as it pertains to the line from Plato to Hegel to Emerson to Dewey. (It sometimes helps if you think of them as evil kung-fu masters.)

Let's capitalize the word Idealist in this sense, so that we know we don't just mean a nice person who thinks the world could be improved.

An Idealist is a person who believes that universals exist independently. Specifically, in the modern sense, your Idealist believes in concepts such as Democracy, the Environment, Peace, Freedom, Human Rights, Equality, Justice, etc, etc.

What do these concepts have in common? One, they have universally positive associations. In fact they have no meaning without these associations. A statement such as "the Environment is evil" or "we must work together against the Environment" is simply not well-formed. It is the equivalent of Chomsky's "colorful green ideas sleep furiously."

Two, they are impossible to define precisely. It's fairly clear that they have no meaning at all.
This is a profound conflation of an ancient metaphysical model with a modern form of ideological thinking to which it is entirely unrelated—and in fact, as we'll see, opposed. Plato's metaphysical realism (which, somewhat confusingly, can be called a form of objective idealism) does not assert meaningless ideographs as unceasingly positive—as in Moldbug's examples—but rather it holds that the things we perceive with our senses are instantiations of abstract objects, that is, of universals. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
The most fundamental distinction in Plato's philosophy is between the many observable objects that appear beautiful (good, just, unified, equal, big) and the one object that is what beauty (goodness, justice, unity) really is, from which those many beautiful (good, just, unified, equal, big) things receive their names and their corresponding characteristics.
Thus Plato tells us that the physical world is a series of models of, or emanations from, higher Forms which are truly real. He is not telling us that we ought to take up arms for a perfect world; he is telling us that a perfect world exists right now, and that by contemplating realities—and thereby distancing ourselves from passion and seeing the eternal One which abides in, and beyond, the ever-changing Many—we can have some knowledge of that perfect world. It is by this means that we draw nearer to God.

The difference between this view, and the view held by modern progressives—that their creed is universally true rather than that the One is universally real—is more than evident. One might be tempted to look at such "idealistic" models as those put forth in Plato's Republic, for example, as a sort of communism-before-the-fact, but to do so would be to impose a present-day understanding of political ideology on an allegorical work of philosophy.

The proposals made in the Republic, which would be strange indeed if applied as though it were a political treatise, make perfect sense when we take the "ideal State" to be the state of the soul, and not a prescription for what must be brought about among imperfect, far-from-ideal beings. Plato is making a vast allegory for the soul, just as he allegoricizes the Eleusinian Mysteries in the Symposium. If we read Plato as a scribbler of political manifestos in the modern fashion with which we are familiar, we misread him.

Another helpful indicator as to Plato's intentions is the actual behavior of actual Platonists. If we look at the way real-life Platonists acted—we're talking Plato himself, Plotinus, Iamblichus, Porphyry, and Proclus here—they were about as far away from Protestant reformers as one could possibly get. They had no conception of a universally true orthodoxy which existed in contradistinction to, and which was to violently destroy, all other forms of belief and worship; they did not make calls to immanentize the eschaton.

There is a vast chasm between the claim that there is a perfect world which is more real than this physical one, and the claim that this world must be made "perfect" by destroying everyone who disagrees with you. The former is what one comes to understand with enough study of Hellenic and Egyptian mystery religion, Hinduism, and so on; the latter is the result of an epistemic distinction which begins in memory with Moses (who appears to have derived it in turn from the iconoclastic cult imposed by the pharaoh Akhenaten): hence Jan Assmann's name for it, the Mosaic distinction.

With all this in mind, if we then accept Moldbug's explanation of progressivism as a particularly virulent form of Protestantism, something is dreadfully amiss. Were Luther, Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards consulting Plato for their theology? Is Platonic philosophy—or, indeed, anything Hellenic at all—somehow important to Protestant thinking in a way that the Bible is not?

A look at the relevant history tells us that the Protestant Reformation came after a shift in the metaphysical and theological framework of the Western Church between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, away from metaphysical realism, to nominalism. As I said in a recent comment at Occam's Razor (a funny coincidence of names, given the content of the comment):
Nominalism says that universals do not exist outside of our minds; that the frog, the lilypad, and the blade of grass may be easily categorized as ‘green’, but are not actually in common possession of some universal greenness. Such a universal, after all, would be a limit on God’s omnipotence. So for men like Ockham, God was not reasonable or even necessarily loving; he could do as he pleased, rescind any offer, negate any promise. The only indication of what this deity’s inscrutable will amounted to was to be found in Scripture.

Over the next two centuries, nominalism came to supersede realism. By the early 16th century, the ontological debate had been more or less settled in favor of the former, and now Western philosophy turned to debates about which realm of being was primary, rather than a debate about the nature of being itself. But the god presented in the nominalist vision was, in a word, horrifying; how was one to worship him? or, as one might come to wonder, how was one to remove such a vicious and disturbing idea of deity from his mind?

The Protestant Reformation; the humanism of the Renaissance; the ‘modern’ thought of men like Bacon, Descartes, and Hobbes: each of these was an attempt to answer these questions. The first declared deity primary; the second, mankind; the third, nature, in a sort of middle-ground formulation. None of these models is particularly satsifying, because the denial of the existence of universals is at its root a corrosive and unsettling proposition, which no amount [of] window dressing can truly mitigate. The Western mind has not yet recovered from the shock.

In short, Protestantism is a form of Christianity that draws itself back to its Hebrew roots, rejecting the grafting of European philosophy and artistic endeavor into it which had taken place over the course of centuries. Indeed, the iconoclasm of the Reformation follows quite directly from YHVH’s repeated injunctions to his people to “overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire” (Exodus XXXIV:13; Deuteronomy VII:5, XII:3).

Iconoclasm, a hatred of beauty, a rabid intolerance of other forms of worship, a fanatical belief in the absolute truth of one’s own creed and the future victory of its adherents: this is the extended phenotype of something much older than Calvin.
If Moldbug can find me a record of footsoldiers being amassed to bring about a New Zion in the name of the blessed philosopher—Plato's Chosen, if you like—I'd love to see it.

I get the feeling I won't be getting that bottle of Laphroaig.

20150319

European religion: ritual and reconstruction

I. Introduction
In our previous post—which ought to be read before continuing this one—we discussed the generational stratification of modern culture; its relation to the conception of modernity as "secular"; the origin of said conception in the Mosaic distinction; postrationality; and the matter of religion and how to define it. As explanatory as all this has been, it has left us with even more questions; and where the previous post was descriptive, this post will venture—though not terribly far—into the prescriptive. Note that where the term religion is used, it refers to systematic myth and ritual unless otherwise specified.

Let's start with the present condition of Christianity in the West, as well as its main competitors (as the previous post ought to have made clear, we should like not to have the sense that spiritual organizations are "competing" for souls—but the term applies well enough here).

Over the past century, Christianity has gone from being a dominant force in Western societies to a relatively weak one, and its decline has occasioned less a massive inundation of new religious movements—though there have been a good number of these, of which we'll soon discuss a few—and more a mass apostasy. As we discussed in our previous post, this apostasy is part of a process specific to Western Christendom, which has been exported to some extent around the world but which is conditioned by the system from which it is proceeding—that is, Christianity. As the West continues to exit its former Christian paradigm, it does so in a Christian way, making use of epistemic distinctions—that of "secularity" versus "religiosity" and that of modernity versus antiquity being twin chiefs among them—which emerged from none other than the Western Church and her academies.

II. Christianity, High and Low
In order to discuss this issue any further, we must know that not all Christianity is the same.

To start with: there is a "high church", and there is a "low church". Litmus tests for the former include: a Sunday liturgy referred to as Mass; a priest whose term of address is Father; and a beautiful interior, if not exterior, to the church building itself. If you encounter a church that eschews liturgy, uses saltine crackers and grape juice for the Eucharist, and is little more adorned than any "secular" conference center, you are dealing with the low church.

What the high church understands (though not as well as the ancient world did), and which the low church has trouble with, is that spirituality is a matter of experience and not of "belief". Formulaic prayer and singing; lighting of incense; sacramental use of bread and wine—none of this would be unfamiliar to an ancient "pagan", especially one who had been initiated into one or more mystery religions. If such a man were to happen upon a congregation of low-church Protestants, he would be liable to wonder where the icons and incense had gone.

Protestant churches without liturgy or sacred objects I have always found wanting. When I have attended Orthodox Christian services, on the other hand, I have always, unquestionably, felt God's presence. This had nothing to do with whether I believed in the Nicene Creed and everything to do with the experience.

For that matter, I have also felt God's presence reading one of Boëthius' hymns over a fire in the middle of a dark wood. Christianity has no monopoly on this feeling, and this fact does not somehow invalidate or belittle Christian worship—rather, it justifies it in a way that Christianity is not accustomed to, that is, it justifies it non-exclusively as a means, but not the means, of ensuring the soul's progress after death. This is the whole point of mystery religion.

Proper arguments for the existence of an eternal soul are beyond the scope of this post, but it is worth noting that more convincing arguments have been made for it than have ever been made for the existence of an "authentic" self that knows what it wants—yet this latter belief today surrounds us. If you're a materialist or somesuch and therefore deny that life follows death, you can simply substitute the soul's progress after death with a person's stoicism in facing death. In any case, the Eastern Orthodox Church preserves the Platonic understanding of theosis, which gives it a special affinity with the Greco-Egyptian mystery religions that preceded it and puts it philosophically ahead of any other branch of Christianity. From La Wik:
Eastern Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism have a substantively different soteriology. Salvation is not seen as legal release, but transformation of the human nature itself in the Son taking on human nature. In contrast to other forms of Christianity, the Orthodox tend to use the word "expiation" with regard to what is accomplished in the sacrificial act. In Orthodox theology, expiation is an act of offering that seeks to change the one making the offering. The Greek word that is translated both into propitiation and expiation is [hilasmos] which means "to make acceptable and enable one to draw close to God". Thus the Orthodox emphasis would be that Christ died, not to appease an angry and vindictive Father, or to avert the wrath of God, but to change people so that they may become divine, that is to say, become God in his energies or operations but not in his essence or identity as God (see theosis).[39]
Even Orthodoxy, however, is limited by the Mosaic distinction. If the Church functioned as the ancient mystery cults did, there would be a process of initiation consisting of certain actions and experiences, which may have certain entry criteria but not a prohibition on participation in other cults; the Eleusinian Mysteries, for example, were limited simply to non-barbarians—i.e. those who could understand Greek—who had also not committed murder.

The initiation process in high-church Christianity consists of two components, one Mosaic and one rather "pagan": catechesis, in which doctrine rather than ritual is the focus, followed by baptism, which is not unlike pre-Christian purification rituals involving bathing.

In the Eleusinian Mysteries, of course, one could perhaps simply lie about the second requirement; likewise, one might lie by taking Communion at a church full of strangers while having never been baptised. But in practice these rules have a way of enforcing themselves; according to Suetonius, even the Emperor Nero turned himself away from Eleusis out of guilt.

Note that not all religion must meet the standards of mystery religion; it is perfectly natural for a people to have rites which might be understood simply to bind them together, and perhaps encourage their reverence for God or nature, which are only made salvific or enlightening by one's prior initiation into a mystery religion which interprets them—in other words, ethnic religion, or civic religion.

Christianity plays this role, too, but again inconsistently: the Church may form the foundation of a people's self-definition, but it still demands creedal allegiance, which means that its interests do not align with the interests of that people as such, but as Christians.

So when the Church was the dominant institution in Europe, it was de jure universal but de facto thedishly European, and thus, in defending itself, defended European identity against, for example, invaders from the Muslim world. Now that the Church is no longer dominant, it does not engage in any such defense of Europeans—to the contrary, the current Pope has called on us to "pray for a heart which will embrace immigrants" and argued that the present trend of mass immigration into Europe is enriching.

Thus present-day Europeans, looking for a system of ritual to renew their sense of attachment to their own collective past, have no more robust and established institution to turn to than one which, after centuries of uniting them—and having removed, by force and otherwise, all prior thedishly European systems of ritual and belief—calls for their own demographic replacement as a display of piety. This would be the case whether or not Westerners were to reconvert en masse to Christianity.

By all means, attend Mass. Enjoy the liturgy. Have fellowship with other worshippers. But if we are not confident in the Church's willingness to safeguard Europeans from demographic eclipse, or if we have reservations about assenting to the Mosaic distinction--nay, if the amalgamation of Hebrew prophecy with Greek philosophy simply does not satisfy us as an account of divine truth--what are we to do?

III. Post-Christianity
A number of neopagans have their answer: to reconstruct the old pantheons and pick up, more or less, where our pre-Christian ancestors left off. This approach--aptly called reconstructionism--has a number of limitations, however, which mirror those of present-day Christianity.

The problem which seems to lie at the fundament of most attempts at reconstructionism—at least those I have come across—is their inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that Christianity happened to us as Westerners, and that it did very much to shape who we are today. It, along with feudal economic structures, altered the way we form families. Pre-Christian Europeans, outside the Mediterranean, lived in tribes, which were held together by cousin marriage; the spread of Christianity was also the spread of Roman and Greek breeding practices, which caused nearly all of Europe to become outbred, and to form what we now know as nations rather than tribes. Europeans whose ancestors come from within the Hajnal line have been living without inbred tribes for about a thousand years.

I see many neopagans who want to reconstruct—for example—a pure Germanic pantheon, untouched by dreaded "syncretism", and yet in the same breath lament the many inter-European wars of religion. No more brother wars!

The grand irony is that without those brother wars, present-day Europeans would not even have the sense of collective identity necessary to lament their tragedy. This is not to say that we should all convert to Christianity, or that religious differences between European ethnic groups cannot or should not be maintained or redeveloped. It means simply that we must have a narrative, as Europeans and as members of our respective ethnic groups, that explains how and why Christianity was able to affect us so mightily. If we can't come up with any such explanation, we're lacking a key component of what will make new European religions viable.

I have never come across a neopagan who does not acknowledge that things have in fact changed since Antiquity, and that he will therefore have to tailor his worship somewhat to suit the exigencies of postmodern life (such as work schedules, dealing with family who are averse to non-Christian religious practice or even religious practice in general, und so weiter). But in such acknowledgement, I do notice not only a lack of willingness to confront the Christian question as outlined above, but also the fact that such an adaptive approach as that acknowledgement demands is rarely followed logically—that is, followed to the point that one understands that in any effort to reconstruct myths and rituals which have gone unpracticed for centuries, one is in fact creating something new.

We can go forward with a deeper reverence for our ancestral traditions and with an understanding of the deadly quality of the Mosaic distinction, or we can indulge in idle fantasies of launching new Catholic Crusades (as many young "traditionalists" do) or becoming caricatures of the noble savages our pre-Christian ancestors are imagined by some to be (as many neopagans do); but there is no going back. Time, as Spengler said, does not suffer itself to be halted; the cosmic clock runs only clockwise.

Related to the desire to ignore Christianity's importance to the European past is an aversion to practices which are deemed to resemble Christian ones. This, too, is impoverishing and inconsistent. As Westerner, even if we do not profess belief in the Nicene Creed or in some watered-down low-church derivative thereof, we are no less descendants of Christian civilization than any Bible-thumper, and it would behoove us to take everything of value from Christianity that we can.

As discussed somewhat above, high-church Christianity retains a good deal of "pagan" or non-Mosaic religious behavior: Mariolatry, prayer to the saints, prayer for the dead, baptism, lighting of incense, icons, and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist are not Mosaic concepts. They are, by and large, express violations of the First Commandment, which is why the low church, not to mention other monotheistic groups, distrusts or even despises them.

Someone who reacts to such obviously extra-Biblical practices as Lenten fasting or Mariolatry like a vampire to a crucifix—and certainly such people do not constitute the entirety of those who call themselves pagans today—is missing the whole point of rejecting counter-religion. We ought to be willing to see the value in such practices that many Christians themselves do not.

IV. Translation and Distinction: Religion as Language
This aversion to Christianity is often accompanied by an aversion to ideas or practices associated with other "paganisms"—as mentioned above, there is a dread among neopagans of "syncretism" or "mixing cultures", and a concern for the "purity" of myth and practice. This concern is not without merit, of course.

The healthy aspect of such a concern is evident from the truism that different cultures are different, and that no one likes to be told by another culture how they must perform their rituals or tell their sacred stories. Certainly translation of other cultures' archetypes, and tolerance of their differences, does not necessarily entail the adoption of their ways.

But the extent to which many neopagans take their desire to keep a "pure" religion leads to a rehashing of the very Mosaic distinction which motivated the destruction of so many European traditions in the first place. To our pre-Christian ancestors, the idea that different religions were somehow totally incommensurate with one another was simply unthinkable. Different religious traditions were treated much like different languages: local traditions with distinctive qualities unique unto themselves, but which were also translatable, with common archetypes addressing underlying truths. Myth and ritual form the language-games by which men communicate with the divine.

Furthermore, in the case of Celtic and Germanic reconstructionism, there is such a paucity of written knowledge about what the ancients were up to in the regions in question that any attempt to rebuild their pantheons without any reference to non-Northern-European traditions will amount to nothing but speculation and ignorant role-playing. Slavic, Baltic, and Finnic reconstructionism are in a similar predicament. Roman, Greek, and especially Egyptian religion are much better preserved, and I would encourage anyone wishing to make a meaningful revival and adaptation of the less-preserved traditions to study them.

V. Practice, Past and Present
This brings us right back to the question asked—and not quite answered—earlier: what is a European, whether on the continent or a member of the diaspora, to do if he wishes sincerely for a way to worship God and not YHWH, whose name is Jealous?

As suggested above, any such means of worship will necessarily come from a combination of what we know of pre-Christian European traditions with the accumulated wisdom of existing non-Mosaic religious ideas and practices—and that means looking outside of Europe for guidance.

The Hellenes of old, for example, had no problem learning from Indians—whom they called gymnosophists—in order to perfect their own religion, and neither should we. That doesn't mean "converting" to Hinduism—which is, anyway, impossible for you if you are not an Indian—but it does mean accepting that there are other ethnic groups who have been more fortunate than we in maintaining their time-tested religious customs and resisting Mosaic counter-religion, and that we have a great deal to learn from their historical experience and present-day practice.

Note that the understanding of the relationship between the human and the divine—and thus of the necessity of "assimilation to God as far as is possible", as Plato would suggest—which exists in various traditions around the world is not shared by all religions. The embrace of the perennial kernel of wisdom which many religions happen to share should not be misinterpreted as an anything-goes endorsement of any and all religious practice. Some religious traditions are simply primitive and do not look upward, and others are downright evil.

So read up on how Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Shinto practitioners go about things—and read some Plato, Plotinus, and Hermes Trismegistus while you're at it. If mass immigration has brought non-Muslim Indians or Asians to your area, take advantage of it and start talking to them about their worship. And if there's anything you take away from this post, let it be that practice precedes belief—and there are plenty of ways to ease yourself into practice.

Start praying and meditating daily, for example—mantras in particular are wondrously effective at inducing a calm and reverent mental state, and there are plenty of European prayers and phrases which work very well as mantras. The nine doxologies from Poemander (see page 46 in the linked PDF), whether in Latin or in the original Greek, are especially good. Look through those ancient hymns and prayers which survive and use any part of them which strikes you as especially pious (perhaps you'll enjoy the hymn from Boethius mentioned earlier as much as I do). There's also a recent Burzum track which is little more than a repeated mantra and may be attractive to you. Get some incense, too—frankincense and myrrh are tried and true.

There is much more to say and even more to do, but start small with reading and prayer first. If any of our readers actually take this advice and stick with it for at least a week or two, do leave a comment and share your experience. ἅγιος ὁ θεὸς!

20150104

Religion, counter-religion, and the weirdness of modernity

I. Cultural Space and the Problem of Secularity
It can be supposed that in every age there are men who take for granted the peculiarities of the spatial-temporal location in which they happen to find themselves. But in every age there is also a connection to the past through living ancestors, myths, rituals, institutions, names, recorded history, and so on; and a connection to the future through concern for one's descendants, as well as the maintenance of myths, rituals, and so on.

Such a connection can be called vertical, as it extends up and down in time—as opposed to horizontal cultural connections which exist between people of the same generation. Today, of course, we are notably lacking in vertically transmitted ideas and practices, and rather than calling the past back into conscious (and unconscious) life through myth and ritual, we often see our own cultural past as a strange place with foreign values and customs. This is, in part, because older and younger people do not socialize with one another in the same ways, or with the same frequency, that they did only a century ago. As nydwracu explains:
The single most obvious and most important difference between our time and most others is the segregation of generations: the break in communication across age groups. People today spend the first two and a half decades of their life socially isolated from everyone not within five years of them, with very few exceptions, most of whom are authority figures barred by their position from exerting the subtler and more effective forms of social influence.
[...]
Our cultural reference points are no longer vertical, handed down over the centuries like a folk song or a nursery rhyme, but horizontal, stratified across timespans of decades at best. Very few creations of the mass media enter into the vertical cultural consciousness.
This means that as we are culturally severed from our collective past, horizontal cultural commonalities become stricter, more regimented, than they would otherwise be. As non-age-related peer groups diminish in importance, it becomes ever more socially disadvantageous not to fit in with people one's age. The postmodern condition could be said to have at its fundament the dissolution of vertical culture as well as the corresponding stratification of horizontal culture:
First, societies learn by the process of making mistakes and passing down regret. This regret collects as wisdom and forms social norms, which are then passed down to the younger generations. Generation segregation obstructs this transmission of social norms: children today cannot learn from the mistakes of their elders because they rarely interact with them. The younger generations are left to figure the world out for themselves, and the cultural respect afforded to the sex-and-drugs lifestyle proves that they don’t do a very good job of it.
Second, generation segregation outsources the function of cultural transmission to the school system and mass media. Cultural memory breaks down and is replaced by history classes, a poor and easily politically manipulated replacement. Identity stratifies generationally: children identify not with their cultural heritage, but with subcultures composed only of people their age and defined in opposition to their parents—who define themselves in opposition to theirs.
In other words, the most important vectors of cultural transmission are no longer families, face-to-face communities, and local institutions, but large-scale managerial structures which operate on an ideological or commercial basis. This allows the conditions leading to the conferral of high or low status to change intensely from one generation to the next, and allows the motivations of those operating the vectors to diverge from those of the people on the receiving end of the cultural broadcast.

It is possible that the conditions underlying this phenomenon of horizontal cultural stratification are significantly older than age-segregated public schools and youth media culture, and have roots in what were previously vertically important ideas. After all, the distinction between horizontal and vertical, in cultural terms, is analogous to that between what are called secular and religious. Secular things are, well, secular—of the age, that is, relating to what is temporal or even temporary—and thus horizontal. Religious things, as contrasted with the secular, are correspondingly vertical, not merely connecting people to the past but to the eternal; not to some period in historical time but to mythic time. Myths, as such, thus tend to extend vertically; if a myth doesn't last long enough to enter the vertical cultural consciousnessin other words, if it doesn't last longer than a generationit effectively doesn't become a myth.

But what about myths, or mythemes—the basic units of myths—that developed as part of a horizontal cultural split, but became vertically important anyway? We have, for example, the mytheme of the rocker or Hollywood star who dies young, the activist who delivers an underprivileged group from abjection, and the bullied kid who becomes a school shooter. Mythic elements like these stretch our understanding of what is "secular" in pop culture; how far apart are rockstar fandom and the ancient hero cults?

Such a clean division between secularity and religion breaks down even further when applied to certain other examples in history: in particular, those of short-lived religious movements and long-lasting "secular" ones. The Münster Rebellion of 1534 to 1535 was religious in the sense that it was inspired by antipropertarian Anabaptist theology, but its significance was far more horizontal than vertical—in other words, while it contributed to the character of the Europe of the 1530s, it did not leave a notable effect on the European experience of the following generations. It was an event of its age.

Marxism, on the other hand, is secular in the sense that it does not concern itself with gods or eternal souls, but it has made no small mark on the cultural y-axis. It contains mythsnot only the eschatological view of history culminating in the anticipated future revolution, but specific revolutions in the pastand has inspired martyrs. We can persist in categorically separating Marxism (or any ideology) from "religion"but would not doing so make describing Marxism more difficult, or less? Would a Marxist in the 1920s have sung the Internationale any differently if he had consciously considered himself to be a religious man singing a hymn? As Mencius Moldbug asks:
Should non-Marxist atheists, such as myself, be as concerned about separating Marxism from state-supported education as we are with Christianity? If Marxism is a religion, or if the difference between Marxism as it is in the real world and the version in which Marx was a prophet is insignificant, our "wall of separation" is a torn-up chainlink fence.

But there was a period in which Americans tried to eradicate Marxism the way they fight against "intelligent design" today. It was called McCarthyism. And believers in civil liberties were on exactly the opposite side of the barricades.

As non-Marxist atheists, do we want McCarthy 2.0? Should loyalty oaths be hip this year? Should we schedule new hearings?

This is why the concept of "religion" is harmful. If trivial changes to hypothetical history convert reasonable policies into monstrous injustices, or vice versa, your perception of reality cannot be correct. You have been infected by a toxic meme.

If memes are analogous to parasitic organisms, believing in "religion" is like taking a narrow-spectrum antibiotic on an irregular schedule. The Dawkins treatment - our latest version of what used to be called anticlericalism - wipes out a colony of susceptible bacteria which have spent a long time learning to coexist reasonably, if imperfectly, with the host. And clears the field for an entirely different phylum of bugs which are unaffected by antireligious therapy. Whose growth, in fact, it may even stimulate.
In the last two centuries, "political religions" have caused far, far more morbidity than "religious religions." But here we are with Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett - still popping the penicillin. Hm. Kind of makes you think, doesn't it?
But there have always been "political religions", that is, civic myths and ritualsand they have not always sought to clear the field of other myths and rituals. Those civic religions which have sought such a monopolysuch as Marxismcould not have done so without first having a self-perception as "secular" and thus categorically distinct from the "religious religions" they opposed. And if the distinction between "secularity" and "religion" is invalidand we therefore have an illusory, even dangerous, epistemic divide separating our horizontal and vertical cultural axeswhere does it come from?

II. Sacramental Exclusivity and Vertical Discontinuity
In medieval Europe, unlike modern Europe, the State did not see its power as entirely external to matters of "religion"; but this was because one had no civically sanctioned option other than Christianity (or, depending more precisely on time and place, Judaism). In the Communist countries of 20th-century Eastern Europe, the former State religion was suppressed, but Marxism took its place. We can imagine, then, a "religious" theocracy (such as the Holy Roman Empire) as well as an "ideological" theocracy (such as the Soviet Union); we can further imagine a "secular" State whose citizens practice various religions. But there is yet another way that "religion" can function in a society.

In the ancient world, the civic religion held no monopoly on myth and ritualyet it also did not see itself as merely "secular" and outside the domain of "religion"; it shared social space with various household and ethnic rites as well as mystery cults. For all the Greek cities to keep a fifty-five-day truce for the Eleusinian Mysteries was thus both a religious and a secular matteror perhaps more precisely, it was neither. The origin of the religious-secular distinction, then, lies sometime before Christianity became the Roman (and then European) civic religion.

Indeed, we first see the potential necessity for such language when Christianity began to establish itself in the Roman Empire. Christianity was unlike other cults in that it claimed sacramental exclusivity. Initiation into the mysteries of Demeter, Mithras, or Dionysus did not imply that one could not worship other gods, or offer incense to the Emperorbut Christianity did.
We struggle to understand the persecution of the Christians under the Roman empire. Roman society tolerated a great variety of deities and cults; worship of Christ as (a) God did not in itself threaten or offend, and religious innovation was not impossible. The emergence of Christianity itself coincided with the novelty of cultic worship of the Roman emperors or their tutelary spirits, which could be included alongside other deities in existing religious frameworks.

Christian beliefs and practices were, however, radically exclusive, or radically extensive in their claims over the whole of religious loyalty. The reactions of Perpetua’s father and the presiding magistrate at her trial demonstrate palpable frustration, not just with her personal intransigence, but with her apparent misconstrual of how personal belief should and should not have functioned, relative to the religious fabric of society itself. Loyalty to father and to son, as well as support for the well-being of the emperors, were matters of piety for Romans, not of secular duty – for the secular did not exist.

By the same token, neither did religion.
Today, American Christians tend not to see any problem with reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, or with telling their children about Santa Claus; this is easily understood, given that such traditions are safely classifiable as "secular", or perhaps as harmless traditional additions to a more fundamental religious perspective, and are therefore licit for "religious" people to participate in. Jehovah's Witnesses, however, do refuse such customs (and let us not forget the Puritans who banned Christmas in Massachusetts), and to that extent they reflect a view more like that of the early Christians in Romea view which existed by necessity once the premise of sacramental exclusivity had been accepted and as long as there was no category for "secular" myths and rituals which could be devoid by definition of "religious" significance. Like the early Christians (or anyone in the ancient world), Jehovah's Witnesses effectively do not recognize the concept of the secularbut also like the early Christians, they also do not recognize the legitimacy of myths or rituals outside of their own tradition. This attitude gave Christians, to the ancients, a strange understanding of piety:
The refusal of Christians to observe the elements of practice which were matters of pious duty in family and household life, and in the public sphere, led to the conflicts discussed. A profound disengagement from sociability, not merely refusal to acknowledge the gods of Rome, led to labelling as “atheists”. In their rejection of pagan religion Christians were not therefore regarded simply as upstarts or annoyances, but as actively irreligious, and subversive.
The early Christians' behavior, assuming a non-Christian State, thus logically implied the view Christians (and Westerners in general) tend to have today: one set of norms governing "religious" ideas, experiences, and so on, and another set of norms for the "secular". The Christianization of the Roman Empire—which, again, caused Christianity to fulfill singularly the roles of the popular, civic, and mystery cults of Antiquity—made such a division unnecessary or "moot" for a time, but it guaranteed that, once Rome lost its hegemony, civic norms (for example) would no longer by necessity be subject to the same social conditions as "religion". Once Europeans had had their sense of the sacred entirely contained within one system of belief and practice, it was not difficult for Europeans to come to allow that popular or civic myths and rituals which diverged from that system could be "secular" and therefore necessarily unconcerned with the sacred.

Thus we see the memetic mechanism at the root of our present condition of vertically discontinuous culture: Westerners today see the formalization of myths and rituals in relation to ideas of sacrality and piety as restricted to specific "religions" and outside of the "secular" sphere. This implies that if one does not adhere to any one "religion", his life is "secular" and he should therefore have no interest in what is sacred or pious, have no place to speak on matters of sacrality or piety, and so on.

III. The Mosaic Distinction and Intercultural Translation
If the distinction between religious and secular did not exist in the ancient world, and if this distinction is linked to—indeed, implied by—the notion of sacramental exclusivity, then what motivates the notion of sacramental exclusivity? It can only be the belief that other religions are false or impious. But we know from the Roman experience with early Christianity, not only that not all religions have held foreign rites or myths to be false, but that there was a time in Europe and the Near East when such a distinction—that between true and false in religion—was considered strange and offensive. Jan Assmann, in Moses the Egyptian, calls it the Mosaic distinction, given its origin in cultural memory—though not in history; that lies with Akhenaten, of Egypt's eighteenth dynasty—with Moses. He notes that the Mosaic distinction is not as historically normal as we might be inclined to think:
The space severed or cloven by this distinction is the space of Western monotheism. It is this constructed mental or cultural space that has been inhabited by Europeans for nearly two millennia.

It is an error to believe that this distinction is as old as religion itself, though at first sight nothing might seem more plausible. Does not every religion quite automatically put everything outside itself in the position of error and falsehood and look down on other religions as "paganism"? Is this not quite simply the religious expression of ethnocentricity? Does not the distinction between true and false in [religion] amount to the distinction between "us" and "them"? Does not every construction of identity by the very same process generate alterity? Does not every religion produce "pagans" in the same way that every civilization produces "barbarians"?

However plausible this may seem, it is not the case. Cultures not only generate otherness by constructing identity, but also develop techniques of translation.
[...]
Ancient polytheisms functioned as such a technique of translation. They belong within the emergence of the "Ancient World" as a coherent ecumene of interconnected nations.
This ecumene was held together by an understanding which is at least four thousand years old, namely that the gods worshipped by different peoples, though honored by different names and with different rites, could be equated by function. Thus the creator of universe was called Ammon by the Egyptians and Zeus by the Greeks, and by the sixth century BC there was a temple of Zeus Ammon. When the Romans conquered the Celts, they recognized their wisdom goddess Minerva (to the Greeks, Athena) in the Celts' native Sulis; the Roman temple at Bath is, accordingly, dedicated to Sulis Minerva. In the last book of Apuleius' Metamorphoses, Lucius calls upon the Queen of Heaven by several names, and in her answer to his prayer she offers even more:
Lo, I am with you, Lucius, moved by your prayers, I who am the mother of the universe, the mistress of all the elements, the first offspring of time, the highest of deities, the queen of the dead, foremost of heavenly beings, the single form that fuses all gods and goddesses; I who order by my will the starry heights of heaven, the health giving breezes of the sea, and the awul silences of those in the underworld: my single godhead is adored by the whole world in varied forms, in differing rites and with many diverse names.

Thus the Phyrgians . . . call me Pessinuntia . . .; the Athenians . . . call me Cecropeian Minerva; the Cyprians . . . call me Paphian Venus, the . . . Cretans Dictynna, the . . . Sicilians Ortygian Proserpinel to the Eleusinians I am Ceres. . ., to others Juno, to others Bellona and Hecate and Rhamnusia. But the Ethiopians . . . together with the Africans and Egyptians who excel by having my original doctrine honor me with my distinctive rites and give me my true name of Queen Isis.
Note that the Queen of Heaven having a true name or verum nomen, in this case, does not at all imply an antagonism towards other peoples and their differing rites and names; that a Christian might consider Her true name to be Mary is in this context entirely understandable, for it means only an inferior level of initiation, as Assmann puts it, on the part of those who call her by other names, and not at all a falsehood of faith.

There are innumerable other examples of such translations, because the Mosaic distinction was simply absent from the ancient worldview.
The Mosaic distinction was therefore a radically new distinction which considerably changed the world in which it was drawn. The space which was "severed or cloven" by this distinction was not simply the space of religion in general, but that of a very specific kind of religion. We may call this new type of religion "counter-religion" because it rejects and repudiates everything that went before and what is outside itself as "paganism." It no longer functioned as a means of intercultural translation; on the contrary, it functioned as a means of intercultural estrangement. Whereas polytheism, or rather "cosmotheism," rendered different cultures mutually transparent and compatible, the new counter-religion blocked intercultural translatability. False gods cannot be translated.
When Moses tells the Hebrews not to worship other gods and not to venerate images, he thus prefigures the knocking down of the statue of Athena in the Parthenon by Christians in the fifth century as much as the de-Christianization of France during the French Revolution; he also prefigures, for that matter, the destruction of the tomb of Jonah in Nineveh by the Islamic State last year. Any list of such iconoclasms in Hebrew, Christian, Islamic, and modern revolutionary history would be inexhaustive.

The reason for these various iconoclasms is at its fundament the same: the cultures in question do not, or did not, have the ability to translate what foreigners find sacred into their own cultural language-game, their own intersubjective understanding of truth. In other words, they observe, or observed, the Mosaic distinction.

If the early Christians had not observed the Mosaic distinction, they would have simply interpreted the statue of Athena in the Parthenon as a representation of Sophia or perhaps of the Virgin; if the French revolutionaries had not observed it, they would not have murdered priests, destroyed crosses, or forced farmers to mark the days of the year by minerals and farming implements rather than saints. And if there were no Mosaic distinction, there would be no Islamic State.

Even today, there are those—millions of Indians, for example—who do not observe the Mosaic distinction. Their ability to translate other cultures into their own through the commonality of the gods is still impeded, however, by other cultures' unwillingness to acknowledge such a commonality. Thus Sita Ram Goel notes that many Hindus are happy to call Christ an avatar until they are informed by missionaries that Christianity is sacramentally exclusive—at which point they might insist that Christ was indeed an avatar, and that as such he could not possibly have said what is written in the New Testament. But Christianity, generally speaking, insists to the contrary that the Bible is essential, and does not acknowledge Hindu worship as a valid means of accessing God, and therefore remains incommensurate with native Indian religion. Thus, again, counter-religion can be a means of cultural estrangement even for peoples who do not practice it.

IV. From Polyatheism to Postrationalism
In the absence of autochthonous systems of myth and ritual which can be translated around points of commonality into other such systems, the function of translation as a means of mediation of cultural difference is replaced by a function of lenition: cultural differences are effaced or ignored in order to facilitate a monoculture. In our case, this monoculture claims not to be a culture in the same way that other cultures are, but rather presents itself as an immanent "secular" frame in which all people(s) live, and which is added onto or concealed by "religious" frames of experience.

Narratives of secularism which present the "secular" frame this way, as simply the reality which remains when "religion" is taken away, are referred to by Charles Taylor as "subtraction theories"—and indeed the concept of "the secular" as most commonly articulated would seem to imply a subtraction theory, given that it distinguishes itself by its being outside of "religion".

Note that this is exactly what counter-religions do: present themselves as outside of, and even against, all other religions. Every counter-religion has its own sort of subtraction theory—that when the false gods of the infidels are abolished or subtracted, what will remain is the real, living god of the true faith.

Thus we see the origin of modern ideological thinking—or, as nydwracu calls it, monoatheism—in the Mosaic distinction:
Monoatheism can’t abide the Outside. Cladistic inheritance from religions of conquest manifests in a spectrum between genocidal fantasies and occasional incomprehension. Preserve the Union! Make the world safe for democracy!
Those who find themselves outside of the dominant monoatheism, but still living in the "secular" frame, are then polyatheists:
Polyatheism is a Marcusean monoatheism: it cannot tolerate a monoatheism that takes itself seriously, and when it cannot escape it or syncretize it into oblivion, it must declare defensive jihad. Get off my lawn!

Monoatheism preaches the end of history. (Fukuyama ignored the past and present of his own areligion.) Polyatheism awaits its return. Time and space shall rise again!
How might a polyatheist escape, not only socially but epistemically, from the "secular" frame and therefore from monoatheism? Enter postrationalism:
As you might imagine, postrationality has a lot in common with rationality. For instance, they share an epistemological core: both agree that the map is not the territory, and that concepts are part of the map and not part of the territory, and so on. Also, the two movements share some goals: both groups want to get better at thinking, and at achieving their object-level goals.
But the movements diverge in the way that they pursue these goals. In particular, rationality tends to give advice like “ignore your intuitions/feelings, and rely on conscious reasoning and explicit calculation”. Postrationality, on the other hand, says “actually, intuitions and feelings are really important, let’s see if we can work with them instead of against them”.
Thus the key insight of postrationalists is that people not only tend to ascribe emotional or narrative significance to their own actions, to the actions of others, and to the world in general, but also benefit from acting in accordance with these ascriptions (rather than aiming to work against them). Ashley Yakely articulates postrationalism similarly, but in terms of perspective:
Darcey writes, “actually, intuitions and feelings are really important, let’s see if we can work with them instead of against them”. I’ll go further: intuitions and feelings are inseparable from the texture of truth.

Perspectives have plurality. We adopt different perspectives in different contexts, even as they are part of a larger perspective. Culture is by-and-large commonality between perspectives. This is why cultural difference is so difficult and yet so interesting.
This means that ancient polytheisms allowed different perspectives to recognize the same truth; the multiplicity of perspectives in the ancient world was sustained by the agreed-upon unity of divinity. Given the lack of such a method of translation today, there is also no such multiplicity of thedish perspectives. Postrationalists notice this:
Post-rationalism has space for (pagan) religion in a way that rationalism doesn’t seem to. This is important to me not because religion is “accurate”, but because it is broadly healthy. We know this because of its ubiquity: people naturally tend to be religious, though as Blake pointed out, no one particular religion is natural.

Alain de Benoist says that pagan religion is not a matter of believing in the gods, but awakening to their presence. I consider this awakening as the gaining of a new perspective, one that admits the presence of the gods. For example, the Sun is a god, known by many different names (Sunna, Helios, Saulė, Amaterasu etc.), that one can literally point to on any sunny day. A religious perspective can allow and value all of these without dissonance:
  • The Sun is ball of hydrogen and helium plasma (per TMBG)
  • The Sun is the source of all energy and life on Earth.
  • The Sun is sacred.
  • I shall give thanks to the Sun.
  • I shall pray to the Sun, and at the right time.
  • It is said, the Sun sulked in a cave until she was lured out by a stripper with a mirror. (for example)
This may seem strange or trite to us, but the development of perspectives is a collective, social process as well as an individual process, and living in a deeply un-pagan culture it’s difficult to enter such perspectives in a genuine way (despite much effort from some quarters).
Therefore a postrationalist living in the West today might see before him a massive undertaking: that of not only awakening to the presence of God/the gods (as we'll soon see, these terms are best understood as interchangeable), but of allowing others to awaken similarly. He might have as his goal merely the mental and social health which comes with religious devotion (understood as systematic ritual based on ascription of emotional or narrative significance to the self, others, and the world); he may see the utility of ethnic religion in the preservation of presently threatened peoples among Europe and her diaspora; he may also have the sense that there is a certain sort of truth which only immersion in a religious perspective can offer, a truth above and beyond what is merely human.

V. Religiō
So what is religion, anyway? We've already determined that the distinction between it and secularity is tenuous at best, but we've avoided until now the matter of its definition. Perhaps the most helpful way to think of religion, especially for a postrationalist, is by understanding the Roman concept of religiō.
Despite some continuity of actual doctrine, what we call religion in twenty-first century Australia is not the same in structure or character as ancient constructions of the relationship between religious belief and the rest of life. Religio in Latin, Tertullian’s or anyone else’s for that matter, does not mean “religion” in the sense of one belief system among others, but the piety or scrupulosity with which cultic and other duties are carried out.

Roman “religion” (as we might persist in seeing or analysing it) was, despite its apparently pluralistic character, coterminous with culture and society itself, and hence left little room for genuine diversity or dissent. We can only understand it as “religion” in the modern or post-modern sense by the artificial excision, from the ancient set of beliefs and practices, of certain elements which make sense to us as religion. …

Constantine’s recognition of the Church involved discernment of the potential for the growing Christian movement to achieve for the Empire what the cultic worship of the Emperors themselves had not: namely a coherent belief and ritual system which was not ethnically-prescribed, but capable of universal relevance.
Thus when we speak of "pagan religion" we are really speaking of certain aspects of historically normal human culture, sans the Mosaic distinction. The terms "pagan" and "heathen", along with "gentile", "unbeliever", and "infidel", are counter-religious in origin, coined not as positive appellations but as terms of contradistinction. Due to their proliferation, we are now liable to reify "paganism" as some distinctive form of religion which is unlike the rest; it is crucial not to make this mistake.

Let us speak, then, not of religion—unless we take the time to define the term as the following—but of myth and ritual as well as the piety or religiō with which one carries out one's duties (including, but not limited to, rituals). A religious person, then, can be defined, not as one with a strong belief in a specific proposition about the divine, but rather one who acts dutifully, whether in regard to spirituality or another aspect of life.

Now we have a truly difficult question before us: how are we to redevelop such a culture that piety or religiō is not unthinkable? Relatedly, how are we to see the history of Europe given this understanding of religion? and what is a present-day Westerner to do if he is inclined toward spiritual practice but unsatisfied by Christianity? Furthermore, what of the Christian traditionalists who care deeply for their heritage and do not see themselves as "spiritual Semites", in the words of Pope Pius XI? And if Christianity has been European long enough to be irretractable from the European soul, what is to be done as the Pope calls for mass immigration into Europe—the Dalai Lama, notably, has spoken against it—and the low church kowtows to monoatheist orthodoxy?

The answers to these questions, and others, will be the substance of our next post.