Friday, September 26, 2008

Zoroastrian Dualism and Barthian Nothingness

There are themes within historic Christian thought that quite obviously derive from ancient Persian influence—most notably, the “apocalyptic” view of history according to which the mortal world is the battleground for the epic struggle between God and the devil, a struggle which God will ultimately win, thereby ushering in a new world order in which evil has been overcome.

These ideas first emerged in Jewish thought only after exposure to the Zoroastrians of Persia. The Jews most influenced by these ideas were called the “Pharisees.” Since the apostle Paul was a Pharisee, his seminal Christian theology was laden with apocalyptic ideas—a fact that Bart Ehrman nicely shows in God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer.

Interestingly, however, Ehrman nowhere acknowledges that this apocalypticism has its roots in Zoroastrianism. And if we don’t see this, we won’t ask crucial questions—questions about how to adapt Zoroastrian ideas to the Judeo-Christian theological context.

An essential feature of the Zoroastrian theological landscape is its dualism. The conflict between God (Ahura Mazda) and the Devil (Angra Mainyu) is a conflict between two uncreated, co-eternal forces. Because of this, Ahura Mazda cannot simply annihilate Angra Mainyu. In Zoroastrianism, God’s power is limited by the counterforce of the Devil, and so the struggle against evil cannot help but be exactly that: a struggle.

But Zoroastrianism also holds that God’s ultimate victory is assured by the very fact that God is good and the Devil evil. Goodness, according to the Zoroastrians, is coextensive with creativity and wisdom, while evil is coextensive with destructiveness and foolishness. Hence, God can direct His creative energies in ways that will ultimately push the Devil’s destructive impulses inward onto himself. And so the defeat of Angra Mainyu is thus inevitable—but the road leading there is long and difficult, even for God; and it is a road that requires the participation of God’s creation. How we participate may influence the duration of the struggle as well as the magnitude of the suffering.

It’s easy to see why Jewish and Christian thinkers were drawn to this picture. First, this picture explains why there’s so much misery in the world despite the existence of a benevolent creator—and it does so without “baptizing” evil, that is, without treating it as ultimately good from some more encompassing perspective (a disturbing tendency in many theological attempts to address the problem of evil).

At the same time, however, this Zoroastrian picture preserves the concept of a sovereign God worthy of trust and devotion. Despite His limits and the forces ranged against Him, the Zoroastrian God remains a being whose existence would constitute the fulfillment of our most fundamental religious hopes. God can be relied on to make things right in the end, even if He cannot do just anything He pleases in the short term. In fact, even though Zoroastrians embraced a heaven and hell, their theology was universalist in that they believed God’s triumph would be so complete as to include overcoming the Devil’s hold on the damned. In the end the gates of hell would be shattered, and every human soul would be freed from the grip of Angra Mainyu’s lies.

This picture of a limited but resourceful and ultimately triumphant God is presupposed, I think, by any eschatological view of history in which an epic struggle between good and evil leads to the redemption of the world. But in traditional Judeo-Christian theology, Zoroastrianism’s dualistic worldview is stridently rejected, and with it the limitations on divine power that such dualism implies. So how is it that Christians and Jews can still embrace apocalypticism? I mean, God supposedly has the power to eliminate evil with a thought, doesn’t He? So why the “epic struggle”?

Introducing a “fallen angel,” a lower-case devil, offers some framework for adapting Zoroastrian mythology to the Judeo-Christian context, but it’s hardly sufficient. An almighty God could presumably vanquish a finite, created “devil” with a proverbial wave of the hand. So why doesn’t He? Is there a way to make sense of a cosmic struggle between God and some formidable nemesis that isn’t just a stage show put on by God for our benefit?

Of course, free will is routinely invoked in the effort to explain evil. And while I don’t see how to adapt Zoroastrian thought to Judeo-Christian theism without invoking free will, I think people far too quickly assume that gesturing towards freedom solves the problem.

It doesn’t, at least not by itself. After all, if we are creatures of God, where does the temptation to use our freedom for evil come from? In a theistic context, the choice of evil is incoherent. It alienates us from the source of all value. It defies our own nature as creatures of God. It can only do harm, so why choose it? Where does the impulse come from?

On the Zoroastrian view, the impulse must have its source in that which is NOT OF GOD. But we are creatures of God to the core. On the Christian view, everything that exists has its origins in God. Assume that the epic battle envisioned in Zoroastrian mythology is really a metaphor for a battle waged primarily within ourselves. Grant that our wills are the prize over which God and his nemesis struggle. Still we must ask: who is this nemesis, if everything real has its origins in God?

The great early 20th Century theologian, Karl Barth, may have offered the best answer. He saw that for Christianity, God’s ultimate nemesis couldn’t be something, since everything that exists has its origins in God. And so the nemesis had to be a negation—but one with real potency in the world. He called it “Das Nichtige,” or “the nothingness.” It is, in simplest terms, what any finite being confronts when it considers the boundaries of its existence and encounters the great ocean of what-it-is-not that lies beyond. In Barth’s words, we are all “menaced” by this nothingness.

Before creation, there is nothing apart from God, but there isn’t nothingness. Das Nichtige is born when God brings into being that which is not Himself, that which is bounded, restricted, finite. Add consciousness, and a finite being is bound to butt up against the boundaries of its existence, and experience the force of what lies beyond.

Death is our name for what lies beyond one such boundary, but there are others. Milton’s vivid portrayal of Satan’s fall is a rich metaphorical depiction of how a fixation on limits can darken our souls. And that very same tale also reveals, I think, that even in Christian mythology we must imagine something more fundamental than a fallen angel as God’s true nemesis. Even if demons exist, we must ask about the source of their corruption. It is not found in what they are (creatures made by God), but rather in what they are not: the palpable nothingness that menaces the consciousness of every finite creature, the sense of what we are not—which is so expansive as to swamp what we are. It acquires, in the lives of conscious finite beings, a substantiality that defies its status as mere negation.

In a sense, death isn’t “something.” It is, rather, the lack of something: the lack of physiological existence, the end to the only kind of life we know. But death has an impact that’s palpable. Sometimes when we contemplate it, we fall into despair. We become overcome with the sense that nothing matters, none of our efforts have any point, since death will swallow up everything in the end (even the memories of those who remembered those who once remembered us). It feels, often enough, like a consuming darkness. The fear of death can tempt us to act in ways that defy all ordinary standards of what is good and right. And the endlessness of it—the fact, to put it bluntly, that we’re dead infinitely longer than we’re alive—can lead to a cavalier dismissal of the value of life. What does it matter if you live fifty years of thirty? You end up dead forever either way.

“Death” is defined by negation. It isn’t “something” in the conventional sense. But it influences us as if it were. Its power is real. Barth warns against treating Das Nichtige otherwise: “Nothingness rejoices when it notices that it is not noticed, that it is boldly demythologized, that humanity thinks it can tackle its lesser and greater problems with a little morality and medicine and psychology and aesthetics, with progressive politics or occasionally a philosophy of unprecedented novelty—if only its own reality as nothingness remains beautifully undisclosed and intact.”

And death is not our only limit. There are so many others, and we have names for them: Ignorance, Foolishness, Impotence, Sin. We feel it all around us, sometimes only vaguely, sometimes as if it were a hungry maw poised to consume us. That which we are NOT. We can ignore it for a time, but it creeps back in, working on the subconscious. We can pretend that we can handle it with better health care and wiser public policies—but behind the scenes it feeds the avarice of corporate executives who somehow imagine they can make themselves rich enough and powerful enough to rival it, to make what they are bigger than the endless sea of what they are not. And in their subconscious obsession with such hopeless dreams they drive nations to the brink of economic ruin.

And for everyone who responds to it with dangerous grandiosity, there are more who retreat into trivialities, because it all starts to seem trivial. We’re tempted to pursue fleeting pleasures—to eat, drink, and be merry, because tomorrow we die. And we’re tempted to pursue them at the expense of others if that is what we must do to stay alive another day, to have our fleeting pleasures while we can.

Turn our gaze to the physical universe around us, and what do we see? We see a vast universe filled with stars and planets and nebulae—but also the void, also the emptiness. We see boundaries around it all. The darkness creeps in around the edges of our wonder, and we see the grand vistas of the cosmos as nothing but the ephemeral by-products of dead matter and energy operating according to some blind fusion of laws and chance.

Meaningless. Absurd.

Unless, and until, we achieve a shift, a sudden alteration of perspective: an intuition of the Infinite in the finite.

It’s the sense that behind all this finitude is something vaster still, something without boundaries or limits, a great I AM untouched by any whiff of I AM NOT. It’s the sense that the finite reality of our immediate experience is rooted in something more, something beyond experience, even beyond imagining. Mystery, yes, but one that carries with it an astonishing promise--the hope that maybe, just maybe, there is that which can preserve what I am against what I am not. And so it matters what I make of myself.

Barth’s view is that without this infinite I AM to counter Das Nichtige, we’d be lost. What we are not, and the constant dread prospect of sliding inevitably back into nonexistence, is too potent, too vast, for mere finite beings to resist alone. When we say otherwise, we lie to ourselves. When we downplay Das Nichtige’s power, we lie. And that lie is the triumph of nothingness.

Far better, far closer to the truth, to believe in mythology, to see a cosmic struggle waged between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, to see all of creation menaced by an uncreated force of darkness, and all of creation championed by a God of fire and light and love. Because, on the battleground of our wills, a struggle every bit as epic is being fought. And in the face of the menace of the Void, our only hope is to cling to something greater than us, to turn out eyes towards Infinite Being, and to let the radiance of God wash away the darkness.

I am no fan of dualisms that divide us into in-groups and out-groups, us and them; but here is a dualism that puts all that exists and is real on one side, and pits us all in solidarity against a nemesis who is nothingness. And in the end, there is only one way for us to stand against the nothingness that lies beyond our limits. It should be no surprise that the Infinite Being, the boundless I AM that can prevail against the vast I AM NOT, is also identified with love. For it is in love that we bridge the chasm between self and other, and thus transcend our limits to become more than we were before.

This is all expressed more poetically than philosophically, but that is the mood I find myself in as I write. And I want to highlight, in opposition to the fundamentalists of every stripe, that there is more of poetry in religious consciousness than there is of scientific facts. But this is not to say there is less truth.

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