Thirty or so years ago, before UCLA had a religion program, there was an informal group of faculty that met every week or two to discuss religion. It was chaired by David Rapoport, a professor of political science, and included members of various departments in the humanities and social sciences.
Our religion group sponsored both learned and “amateur” lectures, followed by lively discussions. We once held a series of lectures by students in my GA seminar, notably including Tom Bertonneau and Matt Schneider—who spoke, as I recall, about John’s woman taken in adultery and “casting the first stone.”
I was among those who provided the impetus for creating the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion in 1995. At the Center’s inaugural celebration, I had the pleasure of inviting and introducing René Girard as the keynote speaker.
The years went by. The last time (a decade or so ago) that I attended a meeting of the Center, which has an undergraduate major program but still sponsors lectures, I made a comment in which I referred to our original group. In reply, one of the participants pointed out that religion was not, as we had apparently thought it, a subject; it was a field. In other words, what was I doing discussing religion when I had written my dissertation on Gustave Flaubert?
Universities are centers of knowledge and trained specialists are indispensable. But it is overreaching to suggest that a domain as broad as religion can only be fruitfully discussed by scholars “in the field.” I would not presume to tell an Old Testament specialist how to read a given passage in Hebrew, but David’s little group had stimulating discussions about matters about which we non-specialists indeed had something to say—“non-specialists” of course including Girard himself, who although he certainly knew a lot about religion, had not been trained in the field of religious studies.
I remain sensitive on this point because this amateur status applies as well to the foundational work of GA, The Origin of Language, as well as to my writings on religion and philosophy, and indeed, on everything else except Gustave Flaubert and Carole Landis, the two personalities concerning whom I have had the right to claim expertise.
I think it is important to insist that, in an age of increasing empirical specialization, generative anthropology, far from an amateurish diversion, has become not merely justifiable but truly indispensable, precisely because, being founded on what I called “a new way of thinking,” or in Thomas Kuhn’s terms, a new paradigm, it is not situated within a predefined field.
No doubt a certified linguist might conceivably have written The Origin of Language. But although common sense suggests that constructing a minimal hypothesis of how language began is anything but a frivolous enterprise, the fact is that no certified linguist has attempted anything similar. Over the years I have examined in these Chronicles a number of works by linguists, professional and amateur, who have attempted to demonstrate the relative triviality of the question of language origin, the narrowness of the “Rubicon” that our species presumably traversed in experiencing it (see, e.g., Chronicles 553, 567, 614, 628, 629).
A quasi-sacred taboo blocks rational consideration of the need for an originary scenario. Its rationalization is simple. On the one hand, there is a clear absence of empirical evidence. On the other, language is so obviously useful that scholars naturally assume that it emerged as an inevitable outgrowth of an increase in our basic intelligence, explicable in the first place by proto-humans’ upright stature and the difficulties of procuring nourishment in their evolving environment. “The food is over the hill” lets humans find nourishment before rival primates; what could be simpler than that? One well-known linguist even hypothesized that our growing intelligence allowed us to formulate “thoughts” in our brains and that we created language in order to be able to communicate them… Yet the fact remains that in a Darwinian world, necessity is the mother of invention. Language is useful, in the first place, because it stops us from killing each other.
Our originary hypothesis offers, unlike any other, a concrete explanation of the origin of language and religion as a single distinctive trait: the deferral of reflexive action and its transformation into signs. Or as I put it years ago, “the deferral of [mimetic] violence through representation.”
Pre-Darwinian explanations of “natural religion” inevitably began with a solitary human contemplating the wonders of nature. Thus Max Müller conceived man’s first word as an expression of worship addressed to the sun, whose life-giving but frightening power dominates us. This pre-Darwinian notion of “man” emerging from the hands of his creator like Adam on the Sistine ceiling makes us smile, but I dare say that since the days of Darwin, with the exception of my originary hypothesis, there have been no cogent attempts at creating a believable scenario for the origin of religion any more than that of language, despite Roy Rappaport’s affirmation of their coeval nature (see Chronicle 730).
No up-to-date thinker would dare propose an “originary scene” of religion, at the risk of being dismissed as a throwback to Freud’s Totem and Taboo. At Marina Ludwigs’ colloquium on “The Event” this summer in Stockholm, the co-presenter in my session excused my concern with such a scene of origin as the result of my belonging to an earlier, presumably less sophisticated, generation.
I need not rehearse my demonstration that Sartre’s phenomenological “geography” of the pour-soi in L’Etre et le néant (see Chronicle 557) closely approximates the landscape of the originary hypothesis, but transformed by the pre-establishment of our subject-object relationship as a given of the human psyche. Nonetheless, the néant that figures in the title clearly reflects the scenic structure of the originary event: the individual contemplation of an object at a distance within his mind is explicable as the internalization of this originary scenario. Nor is Buddhist-inspired “mindfulness,” which focuses the contemplative experience on vanishingly trivial objects in order to emphasize the importance of the scene itself over that of a given center of attention, any less easily understood as a derivative of the originary scene.
The genius of the universal “Axial” religions, notably, Christianity, Buddhism, and later Islam,** rightly understood in contrast to their predecessors as transcendental—although “tribal” Judaism, the source of two of the three, remains the most purely transcendental of all—is their reliance on worldly revelation as opposed to mere scripture. Jesus, Gautama, and later, Mohammed were historical figures, not, like Moses or Achilles, heroes of legend. The unsuitability of Judaism as a world religion in fact corresponds to its ahistorical dependence on scripture. Whether or not Moses “really existed,” no one in historical times could identify any direct or even indirect witnesses to his existence. The story of the Exodus from Egypt was a past historical event that concerned only the Jews, whereas the historical reality of the Axial founders was a source of living communication. (That doubts have in fact been expressed concerning the historical existence of Mohammed only confirms this point, since within Islam it is blasphemous to doubt the founder’s earthly reality.)
Thus the passage from immanentism to transcendentalism cannot simply be understood as the translation of our sense of sacred presence from worldly to other-worldly beings. The Christian Trinity is rather a uniquely ambitious attempt to unify our conception of (the) sacred Being as the locus of both all-transcending sacred will and mortal frailty—while including as its third member the mediating agency of “spirit,” not language in its concrete reality but its facility of potential communication that links humans in a new kind of community.
What is more, as if in symmetry with the revelatory contact between the transcendental divinity and the human world, these Axial religions are focally concerned with the individual soul’s “afterlife,” whether Western Paradise/Purgatory/Hell or Buddhism’s continuous chain of reincarnations. It seems paradoxical that the separation of the sacred from immanence in the world requires the postulation of an altogether unobservable passage into a form of posthumous existence that, whether otherworldly and permanent or this-worldly and cyclical, whether ideally terminating in eternal bliss or in nothingness, is in neither case observable from within the world.
And as I suggested in Chronicle 692, the key element in the overall loss of religious faith in the Christian West has been the degree to which the afterlife has ceased to play a major role in people’s lives. Even for religious believers, the modern world is little suited to viewing death as deliverance from a vale of tears, as had been the case throughout the preceding millennia.
Transcendentalism is thus not the simple emigration of the divine from this to an “other” world. Judaism indeed approximates this definition; although Jews sometimes speak of the afterlife, it is in no way a focus of their religious practices. The world has been surely as much and more of a vale of tears for them than for Christians and Muslims over the centuries, but the hope of going to “a better place” is not a feature of Judaism, which maintains a clear distinction between God’s transcendence and the world’s subordinate yet humanly meaningful status. Indeed, this is precisely the feature that Christianity’s “scandal to the Jews” can be said to have rebelled against, precisely as a way of becoming not merely a transcendentalist religion but a universal, proselytizing one.
Which is to say that the really distinctive feature of Axial religions should be seen as the revelation, announced by a living prophet, of the subordination of the human soul’s temporal existence (and by analogy, that of the non-human creatures that our karma may turn us into) to its posthumous “eternal” reward as determined by sacred judgment, whether attributed to a “metapersonal” God or to the impersonal dharma. Jewish monotheism may be the source of the other Abrahamic religions, but its in principle absolute transcendentalism—tempered in practice by the Jew’s quasi-familial relationship to God/“Hashem” (lit. the name), a “tribal” trait that required the Son’s bodily incarnation in order to extend it to humanity as a whole—does not focus on the individual soul’s destiny but on the continuity of the Jewish people, and for each individual, that of his descendants. This underlines the fact that the notion of individual immortality/salvation/damnation is derived from the communal purpose of the sacred. The preservation of the human community as the beneficiary of the originary scenic configuration is understood in the “tribal” sense that the Jews as God’s “own” people are not meant to include/absorb other peoples, but to set an example for them as “a light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). The Axial age may then be defined by the felt inadequacy of this particularist communal continuity in an increasingly global world.
The creation of the state of Israel, which not surprisingly has remained uniquely challenged, given its Abrahamic derivatives’ commitment to the Jews’ “eternal” exile, has nonetheless been a generally successful attempt to realize this vision of a Jewish community as a political entity, and thereby to demonstrate the potential reality of the Jewish eschatological vision, which does not require an apocalyptic Last Judgment nor an ongoing Paradise to serve as a reward center for the faithful. With this in mind, we realize that we can interact with the sacred without a need for the leap of faith that eternalizes our individual existence. Our immortality can more modestly be reduced to our contribution to the perpetuation of our species and its worldly habitat, including but not limited to the procreation of our descendants.
In deliberate contrast to this, the credo quia absurdum/scandal to the Jews of the belief in Jesus’ resurrection at the core of Christianity is intended precisely as an initiatory act. This suggests that the Axial religions may be defined by their insistence that the community of faithful depends in the first place not on its “tribal” continuity but on its originary grounding in a transcendental revelation to each of its members. That the maintenance of this belief over the generations nonetheless depends for its sustenance on its participation in the Christian community’s own permanence is a effect of our sinfulness, not of our souls’ ontological reality.
Thus the Christian credo, as expressed in John 11, insists on the individual’s belief in Jesus’ guarantee of his personal immortality:
25 Jesus said unto [Martha], I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:
26 And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?
Jesus is the resurrection, and to believe in him is to transcend bodily death. The content of such faith cannot be assimilated to one’s membership in a community nor to a set of practices productive of favorable worldly outcomes.
Where immanentist religion is focused on bribing the ancestors to influence worldly events, Christians can at worst be persuaded by a corrupt clergy to purchase “indulgences” in order to shorten their loved ones’ time in Purgatory, the practice that provoked the Reformation. For in principle the soul after death must purge its own sins, at most aided by our prayers; as for the subtleties of afterworld architecture as instanced in Dante’s Commedia, these were surely not of concern to the non-theologian.
Purgatory, based on the notion that the eternal life promised by the Resurrection requires the compensation for sinfulness that the Buddhist cycle of reincarnation expresses in terms of karma, added an additional layer of imaginary reality to the already cumbersome structure of the Christian afterlife. The act of faith that Christianity, unlike Judaism, demands in this as in everything else is paradoxically guaranteed epistemologically by the axiom that whatever the results of ratiocination, the only way to demonstrate the truth of Christianity is by affirming its worldly absurdity—however poorly Tertullian has been treated by the Church for having dared to openly state this. For the value of paradox lies in the impossibility of simply affirming it; it initiates an endless dialectic whose “eternity” is its very point.
(to be continued)
**For purposes of simplification, I have omitted Chinese religion from Karl Jaspers’ original mix; see his 1949 Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (the origin and goal of history).