Christianity and the Cult of Forgiveness

3,000 words

Forgiveness figures so prominently in the Western Christian vision that it can be reasonably argued that it is the centerpiece — the fulcrum around which all its doctrines and religious practices turn. Whichever way you look, the fundamental energy for Christian life through much of the two millennia of its existence, has been the imputation of universal sin, the guilt and punishment that it entails for everyone, and the mechanisms exclusively controlled by the Church available for its forgiveness. Those of us formed in this culture are so accustomed to it that, unless we spend some time immersed in other traditions, it never occurs to us that there is any other way to think about religion.

But while the other “religions of the book,” Islam and Judaism, are equally focused on obedience to “God,” they trust “God” will forgive them. Christianity is unique in that it worries over finding mechanisms for forgiveness that are guaranteed to work automatically. In contrast with Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism, which concentrate on the moral transformation of the personality in this world leading to the harmony of society, the Christian emphasis on sin and its punishment in the afterlife is so great that it gives rise to the impression that Western Christians thought of the moral code as something of a formality: a backdrop to the real drama. It was never expected that anyone would or even could comply with it, that all would necessarily sin, and that religion primarily had to do with what happens afterwards. Even Paul said the purpose of the “law” was to prove to us that we couldn’t keep it. It defined our relationship to “God” as beggars. The behavior that religion was concerned about was not basic morality, but how to act once you realized moral wholeness was no longer a possibility — how to live from day to day even though you were a moral cripple, out of sync with the Universe, alienated from God, saturated with guilt, and terrified of death because eternal punishment hung over your head like the sword of Damocles.

This emphasis on coping with the failure of moral living rather than finding ways to encourage its joyous and LIFE-expanding implementation, was given deep theological justification by Augustine of Hippo at the end of the fourth century. He claimed that the very purpose of the incarnation was to reverse the insult, guilt and effects of Original Sin — the disobedience of Adam and Eve — that hung over humankind, condemning every single human being to eternal torment, even the sinless, just for being born human.  Jesus’ death on the cross was said to be an atone­ment for that primordial sin … a “sacrifice” in the literal ancient sense of the slaughter of a victim as a symbol of submission to “God” and was believed to “please” “God” and avert his justified fury at the human race. It created an infinite pool of forgiveness, which the Church managed and parceled out to Christians in accord with their compliance with the second great code of morality: the commandments of the Church.

This interpretation of the foundational events of the Christian religion was, along with others, merely theological speculation until Augustine articulated it in the most compelling and consistent worldview that Christianity had produced to date. The fact that this all coincided roughly with the establishment of the Catholic Church as the official (and exclusive) religion of the Roman Empire, and Augustine’s personal acquaintance and collaboration with the Western emperors in their century-old efforts to recover Imperial property (churches) from the Donatists, insured that, in the West at least, his view of things would prevail. And prevail it did. It dominated Western Europe through the middle ages and, due to its influence on Reformation theology and the Papal reaction, on into modern times. Today, despite a half century of alternative thinking since Vatican II and centuries of demurral by Eastern Christians, Augustine’s vision is still considered the official view.

Augustine and Rome

Augustine’s theology was Roman and it was retrospective. It looked back after 400 years of Christian history and re-interpreted both doctrine and practice in such a way that they became a perfect counterpart to the cultural and political imperatives of the Roman Empire. The background is that well before Constantine, during the first three hundred years of mostly unrecorded Church history, Christianity had been adjusting itself little by little to the cultural and religious mindset of Rome. The difficulties in achieving accommodation made it clear that there was an unbridgeable gap between Jesus’ message and the complex master-slave economy and the associated geopolitics of conquest that defined the Imperial Project. That dawning realization, and Christians’ desire to live a normal life as part of the Empire, gave rise to what I am calling the “cult of forgiveness.” And it was Augustine who gave it a theological rationalization.

This Christian embrace of Roman values had reached such a point by the early fourth century, that it made it possible for Constantine to choose Christianity as his preferred religion, despite Christians’ open refusal to worship the gods of Rome. For by that time Christianity no longer represented a change of lifestyle, only the replacement of one set of gods with another, something that was not that different from the traditional Roman practice of allowing its conquered people to worship their own gods. Exchanging Jesus for Zeus or Apollo was no big deal (especially after Constantine certified that Jesus was the high “God” himself); but freeing all the slaves, forcing the upper classes to shoulder the burdens of common labor, restoring conquered peoples their property and political independence, and disbanding the legions was not thinkable. Eliminating the slave economy, the class system it sustained and everything necessary to keep it all going was simply not going to happen. Anyone could see that fully embracing Jesus’ message would have demanded nothing less, and there was no way that Rome would do any such thing. Christians chose to live with the contradiction.

It is my contention that by accepting the conditions prevailing in the Roman Empire as unchangeable and binding themselves to live within it, Christians subconsciously conceded that they would never be able to commit themselves to the gospel invitation, and that they were institutionalizing a permanent repudiation of the kind of human community that Jesus envisioned. By accepting Roman life as it was, they had committed themselves to be permanently alienated from the will of “God” and full human self-actualization as individuals and as a community. The Church was subconsciously aware that it had consigned itself and its members to a “state of permanent sin” that required continuous acknowledgement of guilt and a continuous plea for forgiveness.

This had a number of concomitant effects. The first was that attention came to be focused almost exclusively on the afterlife, because life in this world was dismissed as irreparably immoral. There would never be justice, and therefore peace and happiness was not possible. Second, the class character of Roman society which was diametrically opposed to Jesus’ egalitarian vision, was introduced into the Christian community itself establishing the two-tier Church of clergy and laity, priest and people that it has had ever since, and it canonized male domination by excluding women from the positions of authority that they had once occupied in the very early Church. All this was in direct opposition to the explicit teaching of Jesus about the exercise of authority. It restricted episcopal offices to the upper class alone, a practice that became standard through the middle ages. Third, the sacraments shifted from being symbolic expressions of internal dispositions to magical incantations — spells cast by elite priest-wizards — that automatically dispensed the forgiveness that had become the daily addiction of this community of sinners. Baptism, for example, came to be considered a ritual that insured an automatic forgiveness of all sin. Christians not only postponed baptism until their deathbed (as Constantine did) to ensure “salvation,” they also started baptizing their infants, abandoning any pretense that baptism was a symbol of mature commitment, because they believed baptism was magic that would automatically save their babies from an uncertain eternity should they die. All this had occurred before Constantine and Augustine. Augustine’s theology of baptism, which he elaborated in the heat of the Donatist controversy and in which he maintained that baptism had an automatic and permanent effect (ex opere operato) of forgiveness, was in large part a way of justifying what was the current Christian practice of infant baptism. Augustine argued that infants who died without baptism, despite their innocence, went to hell for all eternity to pay for Adam’s insult to God. The people, he said, were right. But it also meant the Donatists had no ground for holding onto their churches.

Augustine’s theology continued to build the case for the endemic sinfulness of the entire human race. Snippets out of the scriptures that hinted at universal sinfulness were identified, taken out of context and promulgated as “doctrine.” Lines from the psalms, for example, that complained with obvious poetic hyperbole “that no one is good, no, not even one” had been quoted by Paul in his letter to the Romans. It was reminiscent of the fable about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where not even one just person could be found to prevent the promised punishment.

By the late middle ages, Martin Luther gave it an articulation that summed up what had been its real effect throughout Christian history: the Christian, he said, was simul justus et peccator. The Christen was justified and a sinner at one and the same time. Forgiveness, he said, did not change the sinful, immoral, alienated state of the human being who remained corrupt forever; all that happened was that “God” promised he would not punish this one guilty person, even though he reserved the right to punish anyone else because they were all equally guilty, the forgiven and the unforgiven alike. You never stopped being guilty and deserving of eternal punishment; all you had to go on was “God’s” promise that you, personally, because of your faith, would not be punished. You never really became “God’s” friend. You just stopped being the object of his wrath. Wonderful.

If there were any doubt of the thrust of Augustine’s thinking, he capped off his theories with a unique doctrine of predestination. Augustine argued that since “God” is omniscient, he knew from all eternity that Adam would sin, plunging all of humanity into the cesspool of moral impotence. “God” permitted the drama in the garden of Eden to play itself out because he had also planned from all eternity to send his Son to die for helplessly sinful humankind thus displaying his infinite mercy. Augustine reasoned God gained greater glory in forgiving a morally corrupt mankind incapable of achiev­ing salvation on its own and predetermined to create violent and oppressive societies. Thus the entire scene of selfish humankind in Augustine’s Roman Imperial mind was foreseen and predestined. Selfishness was inescapable and apotheosized: it was intentionally permitted by “God.” Augustine’s “God,” not unlike the Roman emperor, was self-absorbed in promoting his own “glory.”

The Monks in the Desert

At the same time that Augustine was elaborating his theories at the end of the fourth century , other Christians, recognizing the fatal complicity of the Christian Church with the Roman travesty, rather than abandon the promises of the gospel, walked out on the Imperial Church altogether. They found the most deserted places in the wastelands and forests that bordered on the civilized world and attempted to create their own societies dedicated to doing it right. They started as hermits and their gatherings became monasteries. They instinctively knew they had to get away from “normal life” because it was so compromised with the conquest, plunder, greed, violence, slavery and self-idolatry that was the very dynamic that Rome ran on.

It should be no surprise that these early Christian monasteries bore the greatest affinity to the religious programs of the eastern traditions, especially the Buddhist. Both groups were dedicated to “doing it right” and shared a common insight: that social transformation and individual transformation were two sides of the same coin. You could not have growth in authentic humanity and at the same time accommodate to a venal society, bound to a larcenous and violent economic system whose ultimate driving attractions were power and pleasure, without having your circuits jam. It was oil and water. Once you had opted for accommodation, the only thing “God” could do for you was forgive; “God” could no longer be understood as LIFE (the energy of moral transcendence) in this world. The pursuit of an authentic humanity focused on justice, generosity and compassion was not possible.

In all these efforts the alternative community was an essential part of the program; it was the antithesis of imperial corruption. Similarly, they were convinced of the importance of meditation, the interior awareness and confrontation with one’s own individual cravings and misperceptions — what each tradition identified as “demons,” terms that modern psychiatric treatment modalities continue to use metaphorically today — which were the antecedents of socially destructive behavior. The goal for all was individual freedom from mindless, knee-jerk, selfish, negativity — an individual freedom that bore fruit in the harmony of the community.

In the case of the early Christian monasteries, there was a stark contrast with the religiosity characteristic of the mainstream Church-in-the-world that they had separated from. For the monks there was little emphasis on the rituals of forgiveness, confession, or the mass as a conduit of “grace.” There was rather a strong reliance on understanding how the human mind and emotions worked and what was effective in changing one’s moral bearing. One of these practices of transformation, perhaps the principal one, was labor. Everyone worked. Later, in the middle ages, monks were divided into upper and lower class. That wasn’t true in the beginning. There were no class divisions or servants in the Egyptian desert.

The primary difference among the traditions was the Christian emphasis on a personal “God” who related to the immortal human soul. This tended to direct the Christian monk toward a psycho-erotic love relationship with the deity that seemed to require celibacy for its faithful fulfillment, and was consummated only after death. Early Buddhists, for their part, ignored the divine realm altogether and their doctrine of anatta or “no-self” is compatible with a cosmic materialism in which every entity, including the human organism, is only a temporary coming together of components which come apart at death and are recycled for use by other organisms. LIFE was had in belonging to the totality.

In the case of Christianity, the emphasis on the “nuptials” with “God” has tended to direct anyone thinking about personal transformation away from family-life and toward the monasteries. Perfection was thought impossible to married households and thus reinforced the inferiorization of the laity and where women as reproductive agents and authority figures had a prominent role. The pursuit of personal transformation tended to be effectively quarantined. These patterns dominated the middle ages. The resistance against them grew and eventually became part of the reform movement that divided Western Christianity into Protestant and Catholic. The family is the proper venue for Christian development.

Buddhism was also focused on the sangha, the community of practitioners, but encouraged people who were householders to put the program into practice in their work and family life. The point of Buddhism wasn’t forgiveness, it was the practice of the dharma — the basic morality that brought peace to the individual in this world and justice, harmony, generosity and compassion to the human community. The monastery was helpful but not indispensable in achieving this goal. The Indian society where Buddhism emerged had its problems with injustice and disharmony, but Buddhism did not justify it as inevitable and protect it from the influence of its transformative challenge.

The Christian displacement of religious life from social morality to forgiveness naturally tended to “normalize” the social immorality that it was impotent to change. Hence some form of slavery or another, eventually modulating into wage slavery in the modern era, has continued to characterize societies where theocratic Christianity has held sway. The acceptance of outright slavery and the effective enslavement of serfs and servants, women and children, convicts and debtors, wage workers and share croppers, is a hallmark of traditional Christianity. The rebellions within mediaeval Christendom that arose regularly against the status quo all had a revolutionary egalitarian, anti-slavery, anti-class aspect to them. They grew in number and intensity through the centuries until the established order was brought down, almost always by people who found they had to neutralize the institutional Church in order to achieve their objectives.

Theology reflects the prevailing social reality, and its rationalizations in turn serve to justify and consolidate the social order that gave them rise. There is no way that Christianity is ever going to energize anything but the institutionalized exploitation of the labor of the poor and marginalized by the rich and powerful unless its theology undergoes the kind of overhaul that this short reflection is suggesting. Christianity has to repudiate its ancient “cult of forgiveness” based on the acceptance of a thoroughly immoral social dynamic as occurred with the Roman ascendency. A new interpretation of the significance of the foundational events that launched Christianity must be elaborated and applied institutionally so that they carry beyond the lifetime of those who develop them. So long as Augustine’s vision remains the official teaching of the Church, calls for social morality for the sake of justice in the human community are meaningless and will be ignored. They make it unmistakably clear that the Church has other more important concerns: “saving the souls” of Christians after they die who while they lived were predestined to be complicit in the immorality of empire.


Autogenic Disease

The following piece is based on a segment from a work in progress.  The book as planned will deal with the issues surrounding the breakdown of mediaeval Christendom resulting in the Reforma­tion of the 16th century that divided Christian Europe between Protestants and Catholics.  My reflections on that historical watershed, influenced by the transcendent materialism that I have become convinced represents the real world, go beyond the standard religious interpretations.  This essay and its sequel comes from that point in the book where I am trying to stake out the ground from which I will view events and base my judgments.

 Autogenic Disease

So, having explained that the central focus of this study will not be politics, or ecclesiastical allegiance, or theological distinctions, or any of the social, technical and economic developments of the age, but rather the much deeper and more elusive issue of religion, allow me to begin to flesh out the elements of what I believe is involved.

Working backwards, I want to begin with a key antithetical notion: “autogenic disease.” I am using the term to refer to what I claim is a generalized, multi-millennial, specifically Western pathology where the human mind, in an act that seems to belie the presence of intelligence, identifies its own body as alien and tries to destroy it.  Contrary to what we in the West like to tell ourselves about our mental prowess, and despite all our brainy achievements in science and technology and our reputed “materialism,” the fact that we are biological organisms in a material universe seems to exceed our ability to comprehend.  We do not accept it, and we do everything in our power to refute, ignore, disregard and repress it.  We may admit we have … but we do not believe we are … bodies … and we conceive our destiny in other terms entirely.

That other destiny, of course, is spiritual immortality. Thus is generated the potential for an insuperable disgust for what we actually are.  We are biological organisms in a material world where all biological organisms of whatever kind dieWestern culture, forged in the crucible of its own distorted version of Jesus’ message, does not believe it; and that, I submit, is the source of our malaise.  Western Christianity appropriated the message of Jesus and used it to support a ritual and symbolic form of Platonism.  It claimed that we die only because our material bodies were corrupted by human sin; it projected another world of “spirit” from which we fell and to which we long to return … and in so doing internalized a disdain for all things material, including our own bodies.  That religion shaped European humankind whose culture now rules the planet.  The suggestion that this is an ominous development that presages some kind of universal disaster, is fully intended.

Among the myriads of life forms that the earth has spawned, humankind is the only one that is capable of this kind of insanity, for we are the only species that can despise itself.  To be fair, it’s not entirely our fault.  It’s a function of having an imagination.  Since we can imagine being other than we are, we are capable of wishing we were especially when things are not going well.  If being happy can be defined as “having what you want … and wanting what you have,” Western culture promotes unhappiness for in fact, it tells us to not like what we have, and it encourages us to want what is beyond any possibility of obtaining.

In our Christian past we had other ways of obeying our cultural imperatives and escaping our organic reality.  Mainstream monasticism is a prime example; it offered salvation for the “spirit” through a lifelong programmed pursuit of the “mortification” of the flesh.  But generally we have abandoned it, due in part to the Reformation, both Protestant and Catholic, which tried to make everyone a monk and everyday life monastic, rendering withdrawal into monasteries superfluous.  In modern times our escape vehicle is technology.  We are persuaded that our technology will launch us out of our earthbound lives and into an orbit of cerebral happiness.  At the present moment, the pathology of displacement has gone so far that many of our people look forward to the day when technology will make us something other than human.

Popular culture generates images that reflect this dream: bionic individuals, robotic cops, iron men, mutants and laboratory-created superhumans of various kinds.  These projections are more than adolescent cinematic fantasy.  Already many of us have bodies that have been significantly modified by medical science with joint replacements, coronary bypasses, organ transplants, pacemakers, and a warehouse of chemicals that sustain a functioning balance that our bodies may not be able to maintain on their own.  We believe if only we have enough time that someday we will conquer all the inimical forces of nature that cripple us and embitter our lives … we will provide ourselves with the means for the universal absorption of knowledge and control … we will overcome all our shortcomings, our mental and physical limitations, our vulnerability to disease, the causes of misunderstanding and relational disharmony … we will do away with diminishment of any kind … and, yes, someday we will conquer death.

For all our materialism, you will notice, these projected conquests anticipate transcending the stubborn, stultifying impotence of our biological organisms — organic matter that must struggle to survive in a material universe.  We see all our problems as stemming from the inefficiency of our bodies to deal with the invariable “laws” of nature.  Our bodies do not correspond to the limitless scope of our imagination.  We can imagine anything, but reality gets in the way — specifically this body-in-this-world, ours or others,’ betrays us — and we find we are just not strong enough, or fast enough, or smart enough, or detached enough to realize our dreams.  What we want slips through our fingers.  It is all reducible to a mind-body disparity: our minds can think what our bodies-in-this-world cannot do and we will not accept it … and here’s the rub: our cultural Mother has told us since time immemorial we don’t have to.  It tells us to strive for what we don’t … and can’t … have: to live forever in a state of ecstatic happiness.

We have assigned to our technology no less a mission than overcoming the limitations of the way matter has evolved on earth since our planet was formed 4.5 billion years ago.  Our efforts are based on a conviction that all our “unhappiness” is due to nature.  And so we want to learn how nature works, not because we cherish it and want to collaborate with it, but in order to transcend it and advance our principal goal: to no longer have this body in this universe.  We don’t want what we have … we don’t like what we are: human beings.

Every victory in this direction encourages us to trust the path we have taken and to believe in “the dream:” someday we will redesign everything; we will become strong, invulnerable, immortal … and we will be happy … because someday we will stop being what we are; we will stop being human beings.

If getting what you want is one path to “happiness,” wanting what you’ve got is the other.  While these two statements seem to have parity when viewed abstractly, in practice they are wildly disproportionate.  For in the West, after two millennia of Christian tutelage we have placed all our bets on the first and abandoned the second.  What we want is to live forever, and despite the overwhelming evidence that it is the most pathetic of delusions, we now think we have a natural right to it.  That we are not immortal we take as standing proof that there was indeed some kind of “fall” that caused all this.  For the last 2000 years all our energies have been focused on overcoming the “limitations” of the body — flying off to some spirit world where perishing matter cannot follow us — a world concocted by our “spiritual” imagination.  And even when people stopped believing in the other world and spirits, they didn’t change their immortal aspirations — which by that time had been elevated into unquestioned “truth” — they simply re-applied the dynamic to another content: the technological paradise.

Hence from paradise in another world to paradise in this one, it’s still “paradise” — a never-never land that does not exist.  The result is that the practical pursuit of learning to live with what-we-are and adjust our wants (and our sense of the sacred) to what we’ve got has totally atrophied.  This madness of make-believe has so penetrated every aspect of our lives that our global economic system itself is irreversibly grounded on the myth of endless expansion, satisfying a population of endlessly increasing numbers with limitless desires to accumulate and consume, provisioned by a universe made to yield endless supplies to our endlessly innovative technology.  Our global survival system is locked into these fantasies as its only source of drive and direction; the system runs on investment, and investors will not buy stock unless they see growth.  Growth is sine qua non, despite the known fact that the earth’s resources cannot meet our imagined needs.  It’s as if we were on automatic pilot watching ourselves plummet to disaster, powerless over the very machine we created to carry us aloft.

The role of the Church in promoting impossible aspirations has now been taken over by the new ideological guardians of our well-being: the entities responsible for the production of goods and services and insuring their avid consumption.  The message to consumers of an earthly “paradise” is being delivered by a chain of interconnected actors: commercial advertisers, career politicians, purveyors of mass information, paid by wealthy corporate providers of consumer products and services, whose businesses are kept growing by powerful financial, energy and human resource enterprises protected by a coercive legal and police apparatus all run by the very same wealthy and powerful people.  What drives it all is the new “immortality:” the promise of the happiness of being endlessly lifted out of the limitations of our material organisms by technology.

Death is “conquered” (in reality, endlessly postponed) by medical technology … or when that fails, death is held in contempt as we are wont to do with an opponent who constantly gives the lie to our pretensions.  We take a delusional satisfaction in projecting that someday we will finally get what we want — we will win the definitive victory over death.  In the meantime we forego the contentment that comes from cherishing what we are … wanting what we’ve got.

Cherishing what we are.  Most people have never had the experience.  “Stress reduction” programs … therapies, exercises, meditations, rituals … that aim at achieving such an adjustment are relegated to the private sphere where they are tolerated as “personal taste” or derided as crutches for the weak, but no one would ever consider organizing society around them.  And so “speech” that promotes exaggerated need and discontent in order to increase sales is officially “protected.” It is not entirely unlike the mediaeval Church that told us we were all corrupt from birth and damned without its products and services.  That “speech” was also officially protected.

Our wasteful economy is based on the illusion of endless resources mentioned above; it literally cannot function without it.  There is no thought of promoting and providing contentment and stasis: a zero-growth goal requiring, first of all, peace of mind that comes from the elimination of inequality, a guaranteed access to the basics for all, and then simplification, reduction in consumption, the encouragement to eliminate the superfluous, avoid wasteful display and unnecessary luxury, aim at optimal functional efficiency in the energy-consuming machines we use every day: our cars, our houses with their refrigerators, washer-dryers, cook-stoves etc.  The word “luxury” has lost its original sense of being “too much” — wanton excess — and has now become a necessity, a desideratum, encouraged, of course, by those who profit from the sale of luxury goods and who are fast becoming the only voice we hear.  Superfluous — unnecessary, wasteful, destructive — consumption becomes a value we are encouraged to live for, the conspicuous display of one’s “achievement” as a human being edging ever closer to the ultimate control of everything provided by technology — the new paradise.  This pursuit, I contend, is a major source of the inequalities among us; for in order that some may acquire more than they need, others are forced to live with less than they need.  Pie on earth is as dysfunctional for us as pie in the sky.

Do not misunderstand.  I am not starting a new list of do’s and don’ts or advocating the rejection of technology.  I am using these examples to illustrate a mindset.  I am talking about changing the foundational attitudes that stem from our primary perceived relationship: who we think we are and how we are related to the world around us.  How we apply technology to everyday life follows from those attitudes; that primary relationship is what I mean by religion.  

Next post:  Energy and entropy, LIFE and death:

Asperger’s Syndrome — a reflection

A propos of my discussion of Asperger’s Syndrome in this blog, a short book review in Salon  of Gary Greenberg’s recently published Book of Woe, by Laura Miller deals with some of the same issues affecting other “mental disorders.”  It is an interesting read.  In the last paragraph of the review Miller mentions that Asperger’s Syndrome has been dropped from the official list (known as DSM-5) of recognized “mental disorders.”  In the case of AS the only things known are the symptoms (more or less) not either the cause or the cure.  That doesn’t mean that there might not in fact be a physiological basis for AS … and I for one wish there were, it would make things a lot easier to deal with … I am not arguing to preclude testing that would reveal that fact, if it is indeed a fact.  But if, as in the case of ADD, a generation of kids who were lost to education because of poor teachers or poor curricula (and the venality of corrupt researchers), are put on drugs like Ritalin, some for the rest of their lives, we have not only done further damage to the victims but we have not even identified the problem.  I believe the Greenberg book as reported in Miller’s review supports my argument that our cultural preference for the “medical solution” may prevent us from looking elsewhere — like making a critical appraisal of the values we live by.

They say that Mahatma Gandhi was once asked by a journalist, “Sir, what do you think about Western civilization”? and Gandhi was reported to have replied, “I think it would be a good idea.”  As I think most people read that remark, he wasn’t (only) joking.  Gandhi seemed to think that Western culture is at least … pre-civilized.  In trying to plumb what his comment may mean for us today, beyond what he probably had in mind about colonialism, … and in an attempt to discern the path that may lead to becoming civilized, I want to explore a “disease” called Asperger’s Syndrome (AS).

In researching what is known about this condition, I quickly learned that the short answer is “absolutely nothing.”  Not only is there no known etiology or cure, there is not even agreement about the package of symptoms that identify it.  They “guess” that it must have a genetic basis but no procedures so far support that conclusion.  The origins of its discovery are hardly more substantial.  The name comes from a German pediatrician, Hans Asperger, who in 1944 wrote about four “autistic” children in his care who happened to display the variance of having no loss of cognitive or linguistic development.  He called it an “autistic psychopathy.”  A propos of my point, it’s interesting that Dr. Asperger’s analysis is no longer considered adequate.  Classified as an “autism spectrum disorder”(ASD) some prefer to call it a “high functioning autism” rather than give it a separate diagnosis.  ASD’s were originally thought to be  diseases of children, but the diagnosis of AS in adults is increasingly common.  Could all this lack of clarity indicate that with AS we may be dealing with another example of medical overreach — calling things diseases that perhaps ought to be addressed as something else?

Besides, how has the “syndrome” even been identified with autism?  It seems that the one common factor that has the “doctors” convinced that there is an autistic pathology here is the lack of social skills, manifest in a decided absence of empathy — the ability to feel with others, and to “get” what they are saying about themselves and their needs even when they are not directly referring to them.  This is often accompanied by varying degrees of obsessive fixation on the technical details of things that are irrelevant to human interaction.  Here is a typical  list of “symptoms,” this one from the Mayo clinic:

Asperger’s syndrome symptoms include:

  • Engaging in one-sided, long-winded conversations, without noticing if the listener is listening or trying to change the subject

  • Displaying unusual nonverbal communication, such as lack of eye contact, few facial expressions, or awkward body postures and gestures

  • Showing an intense obsession with one or two specific, narrow subjects, such as baseball statistics, train schedules, weather or snakes

  • Appearing not to understand, empathize with or be sensitive to others’ feelings

  • Having a hard time “reading” other people or understanding humor

  • Speaking in a voice that is monotonous, rigid or unusually fast

  • Moving clumsily, with poor coordination[1]

After reading this list you may be as struck as I was about how little these “symptoms” differ from the behavior we encounter in “normal” people … and that we may even display ourselves.  I take this as a principal clue that we may not be dealing with a medical problem but with something of a different order altogether.  You may agree.  I have some thoughts about it I would like to share.

The hypothesis as question

Please be advised: what I am about to say is pure conjecture.  And because there is no data to back it up (or to refute it, for that matter) I will use a technique I have seen employed by some writers when they were moving into unchartered waters, and that is to present their ideas in a series of rhetorical questions that cleverly lay the responsibility for accepting the new daring thought at the feet of the reader.  Whether it actually works that way or not, the format should at least serve as a constant reminder of the hypothetical nature of the exercise.

If this is acceptable I would like to open with the following question:  Is it possible that what has been identified as Asperger’s Syndrome — an autism spectrum disorder — is really nothing more (or less) than the early and entirely subconscious internalization of the primary values and interpersonal dynamics implied in traditional western “christian” culture?   Corollary to this hypothesis, and contrary to the assumption of a physiological defect responsible for the lack of empathy, could the onset of the “disorder” have been due rather to an extremely — perhaps even overly — sensitive psychic radar, where a linguistically adept young child, newly emerging from the warmth of infancy, subliminally picks up “messages” sent by the social environment that encourage a disregard for feelings, both one’s own and those of others, and a preoccupation with the control of “things” in the service of one’s own accumulative interests?  It is significant that, unlike classic autism, the AS variant does not manifest itself in infancy with the signs of the familiar form of the disease: repetitive rocking motions, inability to speak, lack of interest in contact with others.  Classic autistic disorder is specifically distinguished from AS by manifesting itself quite clearly in the first 3 years of life, indicating a defect in the brain’s normal development of communication skills like the ability to speak coherently.  Asperger’s, in contrast, occurs without any signs of learning or language disabilities, and therefore cannot be diagnosed until that phase of childhood development is verified.  Hence it is usually identified later on in childhood, and in most cases not until school age or even later.

Some more questions: Could there be a correlation between these “symptoms” and the presence of these very attitudes (disregard for feelings … a focus on things, etc.) as priority values in our society and culture, or is their simultaneity merely a coincidence?  In this regard I would like to clarify that I am not suggesting that the child consciously absorbs these attitudes as values that would require thought and understanding.  It is my conjecture, rather, that something similar to the mechanism that is functioning in early language learning with its  highly complex grammatical elements, well before the use of reason, might also be functioning in the subconscious absorption of the psychic attitudes for social interaction.  Furthermore, wouldn’t something learned so early and pre-reflectively tend to manifest itself later as so intrinsic to the personality — not unlike language — that it would appear as almost organic?  No one remembers how or when s/he learned that third person singular subjects always require that the corresponding verbs end in “s” and that other forms do not, but by three or four years old the normal child says “I love you, mommy” and “daddy loves you, mommy” without hesitation or error … and applies the “rule” inerrantly to verb after verb, even those s/he has never heard before.  Would it not be logical to assume that the early developmental energies focused on the absorption of social tools so absolutely necessary for the survival of the organism, would be functioning across the board and that the suppression of feelings, absence of empathy, selfish obsession, and fixation on control of the physical environment, might actually be an example of a learning that is absorbed from others and imprinted on the psyche like language itself?  Isn’t it more consistent to assume that if these energies are functioning normally in language learning — the specific AS marker — that they would also be functioning normally in the appropriation of other social skills, rather than assume that this process breaks down or is being resisted only for these non-linguistic social issues?

Is it possible, in other words, that the source of the problem is not a defect of the human organism, but rather of the culture into which the organism is inserted and assimilated?  Is Asperger’s Syndrome a symptom of an uncivilized society?

Enter “christianity”

In presenting the hypothesis I made specific mention of “christian” culture.  What does “christianity” have to do with it?  Am I just grinding my axe?  Allow me to explain.

It was christianity that gave definitive shape to our culture.  For almost two thousand years the west operated on the assumption that what the Roman Catholic Church and its reformed offshoots taught about the nature of “God,” the world, the individual “soul” and its destiny was literal factual truth.  The western christian religion was not just a cluster of rites and ceremonies but a complete world-view — a way of life based on a comprehensive description of universal reality.  It was a story about reward or punishment in another world after death, administered by a demanding and watchful “God,” based on behavioral compliance during life.  The social dynamic was exclusively focused on individual “souls” who achieved their destiny by obeying the moral “law.”  Please observe: the central assumption of this christian story was the primacy of the individual.  “Salvation” was not a communitarian enterprise.  No amount of obedience on the part of one individual or group had any effect on the salvation of any other individual except perhaps by example.  All were on their own.  Whatever community existed (like the church) was focused on training the individual to “think about his/her eternal destiny” and “not to worry about anyone else.”

I would like you, dear reader, to stop for a moment, and think about that … christianity was a continent-wide belief system that remained unchanged for the better part of two millennia.

It makes me think about my “unchurched” friend “Charlie,” whose mother was a committed “born-again” christian.  Recently, in response to my questions about her feelings toward him, Charlie told me that “she simply doesn’t care … because she believes that we are all on our own before God.  She believes even my damnation will be for the glory of God.”  I was incredulous, but Charlie insisted.  Clearly his mother had adjusted her feelings to reality as she saw it.  There was no compassion much less anguish, and she was at peace with the world.

This was not a matter of moral failure, just the opposite.  It was just the way things were.  Nothing a mother or father could do, besides teaching and setting an example, could “save” their children.  No amount of committed love among brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, friends, relatives, neighbors, clans, villages, … even churches, would have any but an extrinsic effect on whether one of their number ended up in heaven or hell.  Salvation was not a community endeavor.  Does this sound familiar?  It pervades the culture.

One had to learn that little twist, because starting in  infancy the natural instinct of the human body is to reach out and cling … identify and feel safe in the bosom of the protective loving family, and in turn to protect the family, clan, community, that was the source of one’s survival and well-being.  In my own case, my spontaneous projection … that I feel safe because I belong to others and they belong to me, the organismic foundation of human community of every kind … no longer worked when it came to my eternal “life” with “God” and my “true community,” the Church.  I had to learn, and learn well, and as early as possible, that in spite of my spontaneous feelings, “God” and my family were really strangers to me … that we really cannot count on one another or trust one another … that life is not what it seems, that I am on my own … .  It’s an attitude that pervades the culture.

Wouldn’t it seem obvious that to the degree that a “christian” family had internalized those values that their attitudes and behavior even in areas that were morally neutral would embody and reflect them?  It is hardly imaginable that a normally functioning sensitive child would not pick up those “vibes” and begin to imitate and internalize adult attitudes — ways of feeling — long before the arrival of a reflective consciousness that could ratify emotional habits that were already in place.  I ask emphatically: how is it even possible that the child would not absorb these things?

At this point, someone may object:  If, as you claim, these patterns are in conformity with what you are calling “high priority values” in society, why would they ever be identified as a problem?  If your hypothesis is correct, how could such behavior ever come to be considered a pathology?   Why is it not considered absolutely normal or even desirable?

That might seem logical, and in fact some parents are quite happy to see that their children are,  what they like to call “competitive.”  But, I would respond to the objection by saying that it is obvious that the patterns in question (lack of empathy, suppression of feelings, obsessive fixation on one’s own interests, etc.) are in fact dysfunctional for social interchange.  Society depends upon empathy, compassion, etc., and does not expect that the self-interested motivation associated with “saving one’s soul” would generate this level of sociopathology.  And at the conscious reflective level it need not.  But why not?  For those who have not absorbed this social currency at the pre-reflective level of infancy — i.e., those who do not have AS — it is not a problem, for their organismic spontaneities are functioning normally despite their moral obligations as consciously understood.  They do not consciously countenance selfishness, despite the self-interest grounded by the doctrine of individual salvation.  Isn’t “love” itself a christian commandment?  But we must realize: the “syndrome” I’m speaking about is not a conscious reflective reaction.  It is a pre-reflective psychosomatic childhood absorption, just like language … and like language it cannot explain itself nor correct itself for it has no theoretical basis for judging itself.  It is absorbed whole cloth and appears to all observers, including the “patient,” as intrinsic to the organism.  It is, insofar as there is such a thing, the psychological bottom line — the core of the onion.  Doesn’t this conjure up the blackest of nightmares: physiologically healthy human beings of impeccable moral compliance who are incapable of compassion?

Does the christian “command” to love resolve the paradox?  Not at all; it reinforces it.  Please note:  there is an insurmountable incompatibility between the spontaneity of love and an “act of love” elicited out of the self-interest of gaining reward.   Wouldn’t it have been unlikely for an omniscient “God” to issue such a command as a condition for eternal life in another world, knowing that compliance would be skewed — motivated by the desire for gain, or more crassly, to avoid punishment?  Doesn’t the expectation that one will behave in a loving manner only for one’s own benefit after death require a schizoid self-division and the subordination of altruism to self-interest?  If this is true, is it any surprise that the super-sensitive pre-reflective child would pick up those subliminal feelings by osmosis and long before the cere­bral double-think, which allows adults to sustain two mutually incompatible emotional postures, entered the picture?  Once in place, isn’t it plausible that early rooted patterns — not unlike language — would later in life resist change, much as for many trying to learn a new language as adults is like hitting a brick wall?  Could it be that it is this mechanism of the pre-reflective absorption of emotional attitudes directed toward self-interest … attitudes which are later camouflaged in adults because they are made operative in intentionally benevolent behavior (obeying the “command” to love) … that accounts for both AS as well as the identification of those attitudes as pathological?

Has traditional christianity, in focusing exclusively on behavioral compliance (and if “reward and punishment” is the motivation, what other kind of compliance can there be?), unwittingly encouraged an emotional configuration that in fact is the foundation of psychopathic and sociopathic personalities?  Has the christian insistence on the rectification of behavior ignored the issue of the rectification of perceptions, attitudes and emotions?  Have we “cleaned the outside of the cup and left the inside full of greed and self-indulgence”?

Doesn’t this suggest that the transhistorical christian harnessing of the moral code to reward and punishment necessarily entails an obsession with self, produced and sustained by the very structural foundations of the culture — its sacred bases?  Couldn’t such a culture be legitimately called schizoid because it involves a split in the personality goals and emotional self-projec­tions of the individual?  Doesn’t this not only rob the individual of an emotional integrity to which his/her organism is naturally inclined, but also set up obstacles to future reintegration that are so impassible that only the uniquely dedicated can be expected to persevere and overcome them?  Doesn’t this contradictory use of anti-social motivations to drive social life … inevitably resulting in social and individual self-destruc­tion … merit the label uncivilized? 

Now what … ?

So many questions.  I guess the ultimate question is:  now what?  … what does it all mean … and where do we go from here?  How do we become “civilized,” or in this case what amounts to the same thing, how do we reverse Asperger’s Syndrome?  It is interesting that the medical authorities, in the absence of any known physiological or chemical cures, suggest “behavioral and cognitive therapies.”  That is stunning.  Do you realize what that means?  “Behavioral therapy” means the application of “rewards and punishments” to elicit changed behavior.  How delicious an irony is that?

This tells me two things: one, that whether AS is a disease or a collective spiritual myopia, the remedy is the same, so my conjectures were not so daring and dangerous after all.  And two, we’re back to rewards and punishments which can only change behavior.  What about our feelings?  Will they never be healed?  Perhaps by “acting as if,” they will, over time; it’s the basic premise of behavioral therapy.  But the very notion of reward and punishment as it will have to function in this therapy, if it’s not to continue producing the same baleful effects, has to be taken as metaphor: for the “reward” must be understood as “becoming whole again” and the punishment “remaining internally divided.”  There really is no literal reward for there is nothing to “get” … nor is there anything to “get” from what we “get.”  The goals are entirely internal.  There aren’t any “things” to lose by failing … to the contrary, oddly it is victory that usually involves losing things … because it means “letting go” of the false self-enhancements of accumulation.

Empathy, in other words, the very power to love resident in our bodies of flesh, is its own reward — like any work of art.  To re-learn empathy is to rediscover and recover our bodies our selves — it is, in fact, to be “saved” in the only “salvation” there is.  The reward is to finally become what we are: the mirrors — the sons and daughters — of LIGHT/LIFE reflected, reproduced in our bodies our selves … as lovers … us loving us … not me saving myself.