My young correspondent with the fortuitous name of “Art”, who describes himself as a "Funky Pagan Taoist Neo-Pagan Shaman Artist Musician,” is representative of a whole horde of young people who have discovered the abiding preoccupations of those who live in the context of the Abramic religions (Esp. Xianity, Islam, and Judaism) with their entwined theologies and competing goals. I thought I’d just make a short list of some of the issues that fascinate some people -- though they aren’t exactly the sort of things that bother the kind of people who argue about eating fish on Fridays or whether Mitt Romney as president would be dominated by the Mormon hierarchy. (Kennedy clearly didn’t obey the Pope, even when he should have.)
Most of the puzzles come from the tribal origins of these desert-based systems that formed just as agriculture changed human living arrangements based on grain raising and irrigation, thus requiring the invention of defended walled cities for storage. The assumption is that a Big Man is key, so God is assumed to be that sort of entity. From that arises the problem of loyalty (“thou shalt have no other Big Men before me”), inerrancy, and free will (“do what I say because you really want to”). Beyond that, argument is endless about the nature of the Big Man, whom some see as a King, and some try to make into a less-demanding abstraction, like “Love.” The Big Man is your Father, who will obviously see that you are taken care of, because He loves you. If He doesn’t, it must be because you did something wrong, even if you can't think what. (Remember Jacob and Esau?)
Then arises the problem of succession, which introduces some tricky bits about the next generation. Human beings attach to their own genetic children, so why would God be different? But one doesn’t like to think about what God must have done to the Mother of God any more than thinking about what one’s own parents did to create oneself. Also, acknowledging the genetic contribution of the Mother introduces another line of descent, unless you’re an Egyptian pharoah marrying one’s sister. Virgin birth, that’s the ticket. (Male parthogenesis, with woman as incubator.) And no sibs, please.
Since daily life for most was a matter of hard work and potential scarcity, Paradise became a place where one could lie around in plenty, a goal rarely reached until recently -- it's rumored to be the practice among the American rich. Rivalry and the domination of enemies are characteristic of Abramic religions. “Dad loves ME best! I’m the Chosen People!” “Oh, yeah? Well, MY Guy really WAS God’s Son and actually He was God as well!” Crusades, Holy Wars, and more walls follow. Jesus was first conceptualized as a Warrior who would come down out of the sky and lay waste to all the other side’s Big Man Armies, at that point the Roman Empire. Then the theory shifted to a hidden hero within. This pattern persists in such folk heroes as Marvel comic book heroes who come to save the meek, tiny and blameless from big tycoons with cigars who hire private armies.
When writing was devised back in those days, the idea was that if the rules -- as well as the entitlement to patches of land regularly obliterated by floods that made them fertile -- then people would have to acknowledge where the boundaries were instead of arguing and fighting over such issues. Thus, the theory of inerrant scriptures and ownership linked to prosperity arose. (This is the part where Paul Shepherd thinks we should have stuck to hunting or -- at most -- herding. Too late now. Too many people. Unless there's a plague...) In those days, the Big Man (or his representatives) wrote the Big Laws. Democracy was not part of the deal.
So Free Will on the part of people is a problem. If the Big Man has all the power, why doesn’t He do a better job? Why should people suffer, especially those who have done nothing to deserve it? Why is life so unfair if the Big Man says good people will be rewarded? The answer is usually something like: “Well, you ought to use common sense to do the right thing. I can’t hang around and control everything!” Or sometimes, “Well, it was that OTHER Big Man in that Other Place who snuck in here and corrupted everything. That SNAKE.”
I don’t know Islam or Judaism as well as I know Christianity, but I have a notion that the latter translates to modern life best when it sticks to The Family Romance, that is, a small social unit developing organically from Mom, Dad and Junior; that is, celebrated at a dinner table with bread and wine. It works okay as long as the larger culture actually KNOWS bread and wine. Difficulty arises when the larger culture never bakes bread, never grows grapes, and subsists on something quite different from the Mediterranean Diet. Such exotic items as communion wafers and wine then become objects of magic and can be worshiped as objects -- when the original idea was for them to point to the family and the memory of that lost son. And how does one depict a crucifixion in a place with no trees, any more than mandating the eating of fish on Friday in a place with no fish? The question didn’t arise so long as the Europeans stayed in Eurasia. And then there’s the problem of the affinity tribe becoming more important than the family, which seems to be affecting our youth today.
Christianity is pretty resourceful about drawing localisms into an increasingly more and more complex systems of belief which developed little tales of saints and miracles. So the north European sanctification of evergreens (renewing even in winter) became our Christmas tree (though the original Christmas tree was a palm) and the event of the birth of Jesus was slid along to merge with the Solstice (and now Hannukah). The trouble is that the Christmas tree began to dominate the creche and the giving of gifts lends itself so well to capitalism that it has gobbled up everything else. Even the Nativity gets a lot of emphasis on the gifts brought to the Christ Child. And the tree has become artificial, as convenient and about as inspiring as an umbrella.
The old Greek split between Apollo, the Big Man in charge of order, arts, and self-discipline, and Dionysus, the Big Man in charge of drunkenness, wild behavior and plumbing the depths of the psyche, has never been resolved and erupts through every Christian festival. Judaism has been more successful in holding up the nuclear family as a defense. Islam has that Ultra-Apollonian strand of Human Puritanism which provides a kind of backbone -- even did so for early American democracy when the celebration of Christmas meant a day of fasting and devotion -- not revelry.
Such are my speculations on a cold morning pre-Christmas in a little prairie town where everyone but me professes to be a good Christian though I know that even the white ranchers around here have at their hearts a connection to the land that is far more like the Blackfeet only a few hundred years ago. Paul Shepherd would have loved the old Blackfeet life.