Western Culture and its Christianity

I began this train of thought by identifying autogenic disease as “western.”  But clearly the background conditions it addresses transcend any region or culture.  The inescapable business of surviving from day to day requires of everyone, western or not, that they deal with the shortcomings of their bodily existence confronted with a material universe whose processes and properties are determined by the implacable laws of physics and bio-chemistry.  It describes human life everywhere.  It’s the human condition.  Why single out the West’s response? … and why call it a disease?

… because western culture reconceived the human condition in moral and religious terms.  It ascribed will and intention to what were biological realities.  Death was interpreted as the punishment of an angry “god” directed at human beings despite the abundant evidence of the mortality of all organic life.  The ancients didn’t need modern science to see the reality around them.  The Platonic-Christian vision called death and diminishment “evil” and identified us as its source — that it was all our fault, our sin — introducing a dynamic of guilt and self-loathing and a justification for escape that became the core of the human project in Western Europe.

The existence of exploitive economic stratification among us — broadly speaking the enslavement of some people by others for the purpose of escaping the conditions placed on every organism to work for its own survival — was drawn into this worldview. Slavery was justified by Aristotle as the “spiritual” (mental) superiority of the masters over the slaves: that slaves were more “material,” sub human, and needed direction. It was a self-deception of appalling proportions.  There is no excuse for it.  In Aristotle’s world the use of “slaves” for the most demanding intellectual and administrative tasks was pervasive; the Roman elite routinely assigned educated Greek slaves to teach their children.  There is no possible basis for Aristotle’s outrageous claim except the crass, willful intention to justify a class system in which some people make other people do the work that is everyone’s responsibility. It represents the escape from the conditions of materiality erected into a “philosophical principle.”

This is endemic. Every ill we suffer coming from our ancient inherited social inequalities was either created or intensified by the refusal to accept the inescapable: we are all, each and every one of us, biological organisms trying to survive in a physical, bio-chemical world, and “work” is each organism’s necessary interaction with the environment to secure that survival.  I believe the enslavement of some by others for the purpose of evading that responsibility is the aboriginal source of all injustice, and the accumulation of superfluous wealth merely an addictive by-product.

I contend that the “escape from the human condition,” sanctified and elevated into cultural imperatives and concretized in religious beliefs and practices, was the autogenic disease that the Reformation was attempting to cure with religious treatments.  The reformers were left nearsighted by their times; they saw trees but not the forest … but they had an excuse: before the advent of modern science no one could.  They saw the problem in Christian terms.  But in reality what they were looking at was only the tip of the iceberg, the latest phase — the mediaeval Christian phase — of a profound and ancient delusion that had reached a point of crisis.  For the Mediterranean world had been infected with this disease since before the advent of Christianity.  Christianity had embraced it, canonized it, and spread it throughout the Roman empire.  By the 14th century it had grown to epidemic proportions; it was aggravated by the flagrant corruption of the Church hierarchy in the 15th.   In the 16th century what the reformers proposed was insufficient, for it was aimed at the symptoms of the disease in its Christian form and not at the source.  At a deeper level the Refor­ma­tion changed nothing, for the root of the problem — the disdain for matter — was left untouched.   The venomous snake of organic escape was still alive and well.  The Reformation merely precipitated a molting that shed the skin of the mediaeval form and allowed it to begin a new phase that eventually became the modern form.  But the characteristic alienation: the belief in the corruption of the body, the guilt and self-hatred and the desire to escape organismic life in this material universe that began in ancient times, lived on and is with us still.

Since the beginning of the common era — when Christianity was born — the West has generated a set of erroneous beliefs that made a religion out of our struggle with the laws of nature: it raised our survival efforts to the level of a holy war; it demonized matter as the “enemy” and split the human being asunder, setting an imagined “spirit” warring against its own body.  It was the onset of a plague we have carried, and spread, ever since.

It made the body’s neutralization and ultimate obliteration a sacred quest, and has for millennia seriously attempted to factor out of the human equation the reality of being a material organism in a material environment. The fact that the goal was so delusional as to be impossible to achieve made for necessary compromises that further undermined the sense of integrity of the individual attempting to comply with its demands; society’s acquiescence, then, could be nothing less than corruption. The inescapable guilt and sense of failure created by this state of affairs was almost predictably interpreted as the result of immorality, the confirmation of the theory of an original “sin” that caused humankind to be corrupted and bound to matter.  We have since learned that it was all nonsense.  The only thing immoral in this whole scenario was the cultural ideology, the religious message, placing demands on the human organism that could not be met because they were the fruit of illusion — the illusion that we are “spirit” and that matter is our mortal enemy.

Relational morality

In such an alienated context modern technological interventions can be morally problematic, even though not immediately perceptible on the surface.  The morality I speak of is not casuistic, it is relational; it reflects who we think we are.  Its import is revealed over time in the application of these interventions, which are often exaggerated and inappropriate.  Let’s take a minute to explore this issue.  Cosmetic surgery may serve as a good example but the analysis is applicable to all kinds of technological interventions like the extraction and use of fossil fuels.

Everyone instinctively has qualms about cosmetic surgery. But it’s not “immoral” by our conventional standards, so why are we uncomfortable with it?  I believe what bothers us is a lack of balance so often present that derives from an inaccurate relationship to one’s self-in-the-world.  Conventional morality permits unrestricted recourse to cosmetic surgery (for those who can afford it), but it uses personal alienation as a premise from which moral permissions are derived.  Specifically, the reasoning is that since the matter of our bodies is a meaningless substrate, we have a right to change or manipulate it as we wish.  It has no intrinsic value or significance in itself.  Therefore cosmetic surgery is ad libitum. The only thing that could challenge its morality would be giving it precedence over other, necessary, life-saving surgeries.

But it seems obvious that decisions based on the meaninglessness of matter will be skewed and out of balance. A culture that denigrates the natural conditions of genetic inheritance and the natural curve of the life cycle as mere mindless mechanisms to which we are chained as to an alien and hostile process, will deal with them as invasive elements that get in the way of our lives, and decisions based on that attitude, understandably, will make us “uncomfortable.”

My modern western culture tells me “matter” is an obstacle and at best my slave. “Matter,” for this view of the world, — in the peculiar way it has evolved … in what specifically it has achieved … in the particular way it works within the laws of nature — is not “me.”  I do not have to love it, cherish it, respect it, protect it, or live with it: I do not have to consider it sacred. The only thing sacred in this view of things — the only thing worth cherishing and protecting  — is what gives “me” enjoyment, pleasure, satisfaction, fulfillment, as if “I” were different from my organism.  Such an attitude is a denial of the fact that my own personal self is identical with my emergence as the organic offspring of this material world; there is no “me” apart from it.

But make no mistake. The attitude I’m talking about is not meant to serve as a new premise from which to deduce some new moral conclusion … and it could as easily serve to impel the choice to have cosmetic surgery as to reject it.  Rather it is a call to see behavioral choices not as the application of an abstract principle of morality, but as a function of relationship.  It represents a change in the locus of morality, from the calculation of negative prohibitions to a conscious embrace of one’s reality-in-context which can induce positive response as well as negative avoidance.  In the case we are considering here it is the antithesis of the western autogenic pathology because the relationship in question is the relationship to our selves — our  bodies.  Disdain for the body as the enemy of “spirit” has been used as a premise for negative commands, and even as we moderns repudiated its practical applications, the premise has remained intact and continues to rule our thinking.  We may no longer use it to repress our pleasures, but it lives on in our general disregard for non-cerebral species and the delicate balance and fragile interdependence of the complex ecosystems that sustain life on our planet.

Hence it is no surprise that all kinds of behavior tend to get out-of-balance. First-level pleasures become the standards that determine my enjoyments: they run my life.  But once I embrace my body as “me,” the innate love I naturally bear myself opens the door to deeper gratifications that come from being this particular body at this time on this earth.  The experience precludes any claim that there is “no value” here; the “value” is, in fact, transcendently existential; for it is the condition of the very possibility of my being-here. I cannot be-here without simultaneously having a definite place in the genetic chain of organic life and a biological organism with a necessary life-cycle of its own, umbilically connected to its environment in real time.  The mystique of embracing my body-self in THIS world provides an enjoyment that is unique.  Absent that depth of awareness, it is simply not accessible.  Many people never experience the profound contentment that comes from knowing they are exactly where they belong.  They remain strangers to their own body-selves and the earth that spawned them all their lives, forever wishing they were something or somewhere else, abusing themselves and soiling their nest in the pursuit of some non-existent utopia … a true “no-place.”

The ground of these experiences of belonging are scientific biological realities that cannot be denied. Genetically determined biological reproduction is the origin of all life on our planet.  There is no other basis for existence.  To be alive on this earth — to be-here — is to be an emergent leaf at the end of a branch of an immense tree, a totality that is interdependent in space and time.  It reveals that the cultural premise that identified humanness with an other-worldly spirit and gave encouragement to the exploitation and denigration of matter to have been a huge “metaphysical” falsification.  It was a vicious illusion, and a primary source of human alienation.  I cannot treat my body, bound as it is to the absolute conditions of its viability, as if it were other than “me.”


Please notice what’s happening here. This moves the discussion decisively out of the arena of casuistic morality and into the realm of relationship, where “right and wrong,” “good and bad,” are a function of identity, love, trust, mutual agreement, communication, solidarity, commitment.  The religious issue in this relational frame of reference does not bear on “morality” in the sense that we are familiar with, i.e., that such and such behavior is “good” or “bad,” permitted or forbidden as determined by abstract “principles” applied with logical consistency.  It is rather a question of how I am related to myself and from there how I am related to everything else around me, individually and collectively, and what that means for what I do under the sun.  The real issue is how I answer the question: Who am I? That is where morality resides.

The answer, I submit, is: I AM my socially-reproduced-organism-product-of-this-earth. It is precisely because I have THIS organism reproduced from the living matter of THESE parents embedded in THIS social matrix, who live at THIS point in time in human history on THIS planet, having evolved from THESE remote ancestor species that I am here at all, and therefore that I am “me.”  There is no “me” apart from what constitutes my coming to be as an organism in real time in this universe.  No organism can be conceived apart from the chain of causes that produced it and sustain it.  There is no identity for a leaf apart from the tree that bears it. There was no independent “infusion” of a “soul” by “God.” I believe that were our culture to inspire the members of its social network to an organismic self-embrace at this depth and with this relational accuracy, the decisions about “cosmetic surgery” or any other human activity — one way or the other — would be made without ever having to ask in what case an intervention might be considered right or wrong.

The shift from casuistry — which characterizes a legal, negative-command morality, based on the superiority of “spirit” over matter — to relationality, is the key to this point of view that I am promoting. Relationship rules. Moral behavior results from, it does not establish relationship. It is significant that Martin Luther’s seminal insight was similarly relational.  The “faith” that justified was really a trust that could only exist when the two “individuals” involved — “God” and the human person — had a relationship.  And as he conceived it, morality flowed from the trusting relationship, it did not create it.  When Luther insisted that we were not “justified” by works, what he was basically saying was that the relationship to “God” is not created by what we do — our obedience — the relationship is prior to and is the condition for our doing whatever we do.  The behavior is shaped by the relationship, not the other way around.  “Luther rejected the Aristotelian notion that good works make a good man, and insisted rather that a good man does good works and does so freely and without legal regimentation.”[1]

Ancient hubris

The denial of our reality as evolving matter’s integral organic offspring — whose survival is secured by working within it — is an old problem.  Modem runaway technology is also an escape from individual labor.  It recapitulates the hubris of ancient times when, by turns, an individual’s efforts were directed toward the exploitation of others for the selfish purposes of self-aggrandizement and avoiding the survival labor that is the onus of every organism on the planet … and then, after a moral awakening, the attempt to domesticate one’s “selfish” body with a relentless asceticism whose central requirement was the renunciation of sex, fundamentally a delusional rejection of the individual’s place in the chain of organic reality.  Both are attempts to deny having a body, and both reject the responsibility to work.

The ascetic “vision” was considered an esoteric gnosis by Greeks in the Platonic tradition, appreciated only by those initiated into “philosophy” taken as a kind of religion.  It should be noted that its practitioners were of the same ruling classes, able to pursue these “spiritual” goals only because their “carnal” needs were taken care of by the work of slaves, women and other menials.  “Rational” pursuits served to distinguish the “spiritual” elite from the “sub-human” proclivities of those who served them (and men from women), or more accurately, it identified being a biological organism as “animal,” or at least sub-human, “low class,” inferior, effete and unmanly.[2]   This was, until the imperial imposition of Christianity on all in the fourth century, only a “minority report” that existed within a conquest-driven Mediterranean culture that survived economically by the massive infusions of slave labor[3] and had re-conceived the naturally egalitarian act of copulation as an expression of male supremacy and domination.[4]  Many of us are quite familiar with the main lines of these flip-sided profiles.  The ascetic version is the traditional program still offered to Catholicism’s spiritual elite … and it is still expected to arise from a conversion from “worldly” pursuits which include marriage and the work needed to sustain a family.  Please note: the ascetic does not work, or if he does he takes it on as an ascetic discipline. In this view of the world there is no recognition of the responsibility of the organism to labor to survive. 

Prior to the separation of Church and State beginning only in the late 18th century, the theocracies of Europe were all Christian and while the main lines of this classic bi-polarity remained intact, the ascetic version was held up by all, Protestant and Catholic, as the highest that an individual could achieve.  That means that it reigned as the human ideal in the West, preached from all pulpits and sanctioned officially by all governments however hypocritically it was lived in practice, for 1400 years.  That the West internalized those values and that they live on today should surprise no one.

This is not insignificant. What other cultures identified as the very essence of a tragic myopia  became in the West the goal and purpose of life.  A “matter” that was believed to be the evil nemesis of the human “spirit,” was disrespected and its needs disregarded.  The word “tragic” is appropriate.  For this is not just an unfortunate shortcoming that adds more discomfort to an already difficult struggle.  To fail to accept the material essence of the human condition is fatal; and apparently from the way things seem to be going, by not respecting the materiality that is the necessary envelope in which we survive, the resulting mindless exploitation, both of humans and the earth, has not only destroyed harmony among us but it is annihilating other species and threatening the very life-support­ing capacity of the planet.  Without our material matrix … and without mutual support among us, we will not survive.  However “normal” it may seem to us who live with our situation every day, we cannot afford to misunderstand the depth and virulence of our autogenic sickness.  Western culture is the repository of the myopia that bears forward that misguided quest, and because of its unparalleled technological success, the proverbial spider has drawn other once wiser cultures into its web and is consuming them.

[1] Hans Hillerbrand ed., The Protestant Reformation, Harper, 2009 (1968), p.31-32

[2] Peter Brown, The Body and Society: men women and sexual renunciation in early Christianity Columbia U.Press. 1988

[3] See Kyle Harper, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275 – 425, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 58 (fn 150) – 60.  Estimates for the prevalence of slavery in the Roman Empire vary — upwards of two to three million slaves in Italy by the end of the 1st century BCE, about 35% to 40% of Italy’s population (Encyc. Brit).  For the Empire as a whole, the slave population has been estimated at just under five million, representing 10 – 15% of the total population. An estimated 49% of all slaves were owned by the elite, who made up less than 1.5% of the Empire’s population. About half of all slaves worked in the countryside, the remainder in towns and cities.  (Wiki: Slavery in ancient Rome)

[4] Brown, op.cit.