Blood for the Blood God

"This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all." (1 John 1:5).
1.

For those of you who are not nerds, or at least a certain sort of nerd, allow me to give you a brief primer on Warhammer.

Warhammer first came into existence as Warhammer Fantasy Battle, which is a tactical war game set in a medieval fantasy world using painted miniatures published by Games Workshop, a British game company.  The original miniatures game expanded into tabletop RPGs, video games, and other media, as well as the derivative Warhammer 40k, which is basically Warhammer in space (and, if anything, is even more popular and well known than the original fantasy version).

But Warhammer is best known for being the origin point for the term "grimdark," which was derived from the original tag-line for Warhammer 40k--"In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war."  "Grimdark" refers to media or fictional properties that not only explore dark or depressing themes, but define themselves by their darkness, and even revel in it.  As an example of Grimdark, the major antagonists in the Warhammer universe are the Gods of Chaos, one of which is Khorne, the God of Blood, War, and Murder.  The chant of the followers of Khorne is "Blood for the Blood God, Skulls for the Skull Throne."

But, while over the top, the Chaos gods of Warhammer are not all that much different from other forces of Team Evil that show up in fantasy and sci-fi fiction.  What makes Warhammer truly grimdark is that the protagonist factions, the "good guys," are at best only marginal improvements on the Team Evil factions.  In the Warhammer 40k version, the "Emperor of Mankind" is kept alive via the daily sacrifice of thousands of human beings (psychics, in this case) in front of the "Golden Throne."  In other words, the Emperor of Mankind, the "good guy," is just another Blood God who demands blood and skulls before a slightly different sort of Skull Throne.  The names may be different, but in the end Khorne and the Emperor are fundamentally the same.

Despite being adjacent to the the fan spaces in which Warhammer is a huge deal, I've never had the inclination to get into the game or its fiction.  Something about it repelled me, and I think it is ultimately the very concept of "grimdark."  I am interested in dark stories, where the protagonists are faced with almost insurmountable challenges and horrors.  I am also fine with protagonists that, at the end of the day, lose.  What bothers me about Warhammer-style grimdark is that none of the choices, none of the conflicts, actually matter, because all potential outcomes are just different flavors of the same poop sandwich.  Even something like the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft (deeply problematic as it is in so many ways) posits at least hypothetical outcomes in which human values and decency can be validated, unlikely as that might be in the face of the horrors of the universe.  At least in Lovecraft, you can light a candle against the coming of the night, knowing that it will probably be blown out; in Warhammer, there are no candles, just different kinds of night.

2.

So, why am I talking about Warhammer?

This is a quote I found six weeks ago, and I have been stewing over it ever since, trying to put into words my reaction to it.  It postulates a theological vision in which God demanded the blood of 500,000 people as a sacrifice to make up for the reality of slavery.  Keep in mind that, under this account of the universe, it was not the sacrifice of the people who were holding people in slavery, or even people working for the people holding people in slavery.  Erickson is very explicit that he's talking about Union soldiers, the people who at least on some level were working to stop the institution of slavery.  It was their death that, in Erickson's world view, was demanded by God for the United States to be cleansed of its sins.  There is no account of individual responsibility or guilt, or really any account of guilt, in this formulation.  Only a debt of blood, to be satisfied in whatever manner is expedient.

And then it hit me.  Last week, new friend of the blog Ben Crosby made a tongue-in-cheek comment that Warhammer 40k is "space integralism" (to be contrasted with Star Trek's "space communism").  And that was the piece I needed.  Erick Erickson's "God" is the Emperor of Warhammer 40k.  This Emperor is "good" and "beneficient" because that's what he says about himself, and that's what his followers parrot.  But, at the end of the day, Erickson's god is the Blood God.  You can dress it up with any sort of superstructure you want about why the blood is required, but all of that is ultimately theater.  All that really matters is blood for the blood god.  And, as such, there is no real difference between this Emperor and his opponents.

I suspect Erickson is not a fan of Warhammer.  Why would he be?  Why would you play a game about grimdarkness, when you think the real world is every bit as grimdark as what is described in the game.

3.

David Bentley Hart recently came out with a book called That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal SalvationIn a sense, the book is about exactly what it says on the tin--heaven, hell, and universal salvation.  But, on a more fundamental level, Hart (in his trademark style) makes a forceful and combative case for the idea that God is and should be subject to moral analysis.  It's not just proper, says Hart, to ask the question of whether an all-powerful entity who has, at an absolute minimum, voluntarily created conditions under which some measure of that God's creation will suffer a literally unimaginable fate would actually be good and love; it is absolutely necessary for us to ask such questions.  If we cannot apply the meaning of words like "goodness" and "love" to God at all in the way that we apply them in our ordinary sense, then we can't really say anything at all about God.  Otherwise, the core claims of the Biblical witness are empty signifiers, devoid of any meaning.

This is not a new idea--Aquinas and the medieval scholastics make this point, among others.  And Hart, I am sure, would affirm that we cannot fully grasp the scope of God's goodness or love.  But, as Hart's book acknowledges, this is not a mere philosophical or theological discussion.  Hart believes, really believes, that God is actually good and actually loving.  And, as such, he seeks to defend that belief from people who would attribute horrors and atrocities to God as a product of an unthinking and unreflective commitment to abstract theological principles, or some misguided self-negation under the catch-all heading of "God's ways are not our ways," or otherwise out of a desire to project the "sacred violence" of Girard onto the divine.  Whatever the source, the end result are statements like Erickson's.

And its not just Erickson.  



This is a common experience--I have heard it first hand from folks.  There are millions of people who live in fear of the "God of love," because that phrase has been drained of any substantive content.  Liberation for those people only comes when they are told, and come to truly believe, that either "God is love" means exactly what its sounds like it means, or all of this Christianity stuff is junk and should be abandoned.  While the later is a shame, I will never, ever criticize the person who comes to the later conclusion--it is far better to live without religion and free than to live in fear of the false, terrorist god of so many Christians and Christian churches.

There is also, as pointed out well by Dr. Chris Green in this excellent piece, people who are caught between an experience of God that is truly love and a doctrine of God that is not.  They sit, quietly and unobtrusively in churches, listening and hearing but not really believing what their religious leaders say about the Blood God:

I do not agree with Hart when he says “the God in whom the majority of Christians through­out history have professed belief appears to be evil” (p. 73). (I would have agreed if he had said the majority of what Christians have professed about damnation appears to be evil, provided the emphasis was on the word “appears.”) Instead, I believe, as Hart himself elsewhere suggests, that what Christians as a rule have believed about hell—or at least what they have believed that they believe—is actually at odds with what they know to be true about God. Perhaps it is nearer the truth, then, to say the majority of Christians believe that God is good—and feel the best they can do is somehow hold this belief in tension with what they have been told is true about hell.

They feel bound to hold this tension because they have been told that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, which means we must never question what we are told about God’s ways. But, as Hart intimates, this way of thinking is stupefying, dehumanizing. We do not find truth by denying the questions that arise, especially not questions about the character of God, but by living with those questions courageously and patiently. We do not find truth by crucifying our intellect, but by yielding our minds and hearts to the crucified one. The ugly fact is, however, that many people are convinced they cannot trust themselves to question what they have been taught, which, of course, they take to be authoritative. And so, instead of losing their minds, they just keep the question close, unasked and unan­swered, waiting to be rescued. They are not stupid or faithless; they are confused. 

4.

Lots of folks don't like Hart's tone.  They think he is too strident, too self-important.  And I will admit that in places I found him to be a bit overheated in That All Shall Be Saved.  But there is a moral urgency to Hart's writing that animates the book, and his tone.  And that moral urgency, in my view, is motivated in large measure by a desire to shake us out of the "confusion" that Dr. Green describes, and allow us to confidently and boldly confront these "unasked and unanswered" questions.  Don't look away from these questions anymore, Hart says.  Don't fear the answers that you might come to, or your intuitions about those answers.

A lot of people are not ready for those questions, and are more comfortable retreating into theological slogans. Take for example some of the responses Hart has made to criticisms of the book, and more specifically his response to writer Peter Leithart.  Here is the paragraph that has gotten people up in arms:

You ask if I think the YHVH of the Old Testament was “good.”  First of all, there is no single YHVH in the Hebrew corpus.  The various texts that the Second Temple redactors collated into the Torah and Tanakh emanate from various epochs in the development of Canaanite and Israelitic religion, and reflect the spiritual sensibilities of very different moments in the evolution of what would in time become Judaism.  Most of the Hebrew Bible is a polytheistic gallimaufry, and YHVH is a figure in a shifting pantheon of elohim or deities.  In the later prophets, he is for the most part a very good god, yes, and even appears to have become something like God in the fullest sense.  But in most of the Old Testament he is of course presented as quite evil: a blood-drenched, cruel, war-making, genocidal, irascible, murderous, jealous storm-god.  Neither he nor his rival or king or father or equal or alter ego (depending on which era of Cannanite and Israelitic religion we are talking about) El (or El Elyon or Elohim) is a good god.  Each is a psychologically limited mythic figure from a rich but violent ancient Near Eastern culture—or, more accurately, two cultures that progressively amalgamated over many centuries.

The consensus, including among folks that I respect and usually agree with, is that this response shows that Hart has lost it, is beyond the pale of orthodoxy, etc.  But I disagree--Hart is right, and he raises an issue that folks, especially those who consider themselves to be part of the "neo orthodox" need to grapple with, and often don't. I saw someone suggest that Hart's diganosis is false, because of the mercy shown to the people of Israel at Sinai.  Well, maybe, but what about the Benjaminites at the end of Judges?  What about the entire book of Joshua?  What about the Amelekites in Exodus?  The mercy shown by the God of Israel doesn't necessarily apply to anyone outside of the people of Israel, at least before you get to the material from the prophets.  We cannot simply turn away from these "texts of terror," pretending that they don't exist.

To be clear, Hart's solution to these texts is to treat them as the products of unreliable narrators, not truly reflective of the nature of God:

Judaism (as we know it today) and Christianity came into existence in much the same period of Graeco-Roman culture, and both reflect the religious thinking of their time.  Neither was ever literalist in the way you apparently are.  The only ancient Christian figure whom we can reliably say to have read the Bible in the manner of modern fundamentalists was Marcion of Sinope.  He exhibited far greater insight than modern fundamentalists, however, in that he recognized that the god described in the Hebrew Bible—if taken in the mythic terms provided there—is something of a monster and hence obviously not the Christian God.  Happily, his literalism was an aberration.

Much of the Judaism of the first century, like the Christianity of the apostolic age, presumed that a spiritual or allegorical reading of the Hebrew texts was the correct one.  Philo of Alexandria was a perfectly faithful Jewish intellectual of his age, as was Paul, and both rarely interpreted scripture in any but allegorical ways.  Even when, in the New Testament, the history of God’s dealings with Israel is united to the saving work of Christ—as in Acts or Hebrews—it is in the thoroughly reinterpreted and intenerated form that one finds also in the book of Wisdom (a worked audibly echoed in Romans, incidentally).

The problem is not the texts qua the texts--the problem is that the texts are being approached as journalistic accounts of events, which is not the purpose for which they should serve, or have served throughout the bulk of Jewish or Christian history.  This is not a new approach to the problem, nor some radical innovation.  I would venture to say that, when Hart was writing this response, he was probably thinking about this commentary:

Then, again, the heretics, reading what is written in the Law, ‘A fire has been kindled from my anger’, and, ‘I am a jealous God, repaying the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation’, and, ‘I regret that I anointed Saul to be king’, and, ‘I am God, who makes peace and creates evil’, and again, ‘There is no evil in the city which the Lord has not done’, and, ‘Evils came down from the Lord upon the gates of Jerusalem’, and, ‘An evil spirit from God throttled Saul’, and reading many other passages of Scrip­ture similar to these they did not dare to say that these are not Scriptures of God, but they supposed them, however, to be of that creator God whom the Jews worshipped and whom they esteemed should be believed to be merely just and not also good; but that when the Saviour had come, he proclaimed to us a more perfect God, whom they say is not the creator of the world … 

Yet also not a few of the more simple of those who appear to be enclosed within the faith of the Church esteem that there is no greater than the creator God, holding in this a correct and sound belief, but believe such things about him and would not be believed even of the most unjust and savage of human beings.  (Origen, On First Principles, 4.2.1 (thanks to Fr. Aidan Kimel for the quote)).

Or, perhaps even more clearly, from Gregory of Nyssa, speaking of the Passover, the heart of the Book of Exodus:

How would a concept worthy of God be preserved in the description of what happened if one looked only to the history? The Egyptian acts unjustly, and in his place is punished his newborn child, who in his infancy cannot discern what is good and what is not. His life has no experience of evil, for infancy is not capable of passion. He does not know to distinguish between his right hand and his left. The infant lifts his eyes only to his mother’s nipple, and tears are the sole perceptible sign of his sadness. And if he obtains anything which his nature desires, he signifies his pleasure by smiling. If such a one now pays the penalty for his father’s wickedness, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is Ezekiel, who cries: The man who has sinned is the man who must die and a son is not to suffer for the sins of his father? How can history so contradict reason? (Life of Moses, paragraph 91).

What is striking about both Origen and Gregory's hermaneutic approach is that they treat these stories and vignettes with the moral seriousness they deserve.  If we really believe that God's love is universal, we must hold God account for actions attributed to God against newborn Egyptian children, or Israel's political rivals, or anyone else that God says that God loves.  We can't look away from these issues, and retreat into a reassuring bubble of our theological ideology that soothes us with claims of its own self-evident correctness.  Some might accuse Origen and Nyssa and Hart of "taking the easy way out," papering over problems with the texts.  But I would rather paper over the problems than believe in a God that was eager to sacrifice a bunch of innocent little kids as a pawn in God's greater plans.

Because looking the other way brings back the grimdark problem.  Call me one of Augustine's "tender-hearted Christians" if you will, but I want to believe, and do believe, that there is actually the possibility for good and love in the universe, and that this possibility rests ultimately in God.  More to the point, this possibility is a real possibility, not one generated out of a blinkered and carefully edited perspective on one of the multitude of manifestations of darkness.  "No darkness at all," as the Evangelist says, means no darkness.  That's what I believe.  And that belief has consequences.

5.

The Emperor in Warhammer 40k is, intentionally or not (as some of the writers and fans get a bit, as they say, "high on their own supply"), an allegory for the horrors of totalitarianism.  Belief is like fire, and unthinking belief like an inferno--not bad in and of itself, and even extremely beneficial, but capable of almost unlimited destruction.  If the person or thing to which you have staked your belief is unworthy of that mantle, then you are on a narrow path toward darkness.  Never trust the person or entity who tells you not to think, only to accept and follow.

We live in a time when totalitarianism is on the march.  And, unlike the bulk of the 20th Century versions, the 21st Century flavor thus far is under the banner of, or at least hand-in-hand with, religion.  In the West, that religious banner is the Christian banner, at least ostensibly.  Many well-meaning people ask how such a thing can be possible, and there are a multitude of factors and causes.  But I am convinced that one of those causes is that so much of Christianity inculcates habits of turning away from tough questions, not engaging with human horrors in a proper spirit of moral seriousness, even embracing atrocities in the name of ideological consistency.  If you have a theology that claims that God demands the sacrifice of a half-million Union troops and that this is "good," and that people are tortured forever in Hell at God's command or at least tacit permission and this is "good," then it's going to be a lot easier to swallow the idea that the dictates of a Trump or a Putin or an Orban are similarly "good" as a matter of first principles.  Moral sense is like a muscle, and a lack of use can cause it to atrophy.  A Christianity that deliberately, as a matter of theology, promotes this atrophy primes its congregation for membership in the new totalitarianism.  And if you don't believe me, just listen to Ralph Reed.

Hart's book, then, is not merely a consideration of a theological question, albeit a central one.  It is exercise for those moral senses.  He's loud and brash like an athletic trainer who sometimes raises his or her voice to coax peak performance out of the trainee.  Don't look away.  Don't anesthetize those moral instincts in a cloud of unthinking doctrine.  Confront these questions.  There are answers on the other side--good answers, that bring with them a goodness and love that is real.   

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Anatomy of a Twitter Beef

Talking About the Resurrection, Part 1--Jesus's Teachings Matter

Apocalypse Now, Part 2--A General Theory of the End Times