Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Planet of the Apes and Religion and Rulership

Beware the beast man, for he is the devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport, or lust or greed. Yes, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him. Drive him back into his jungle lair: For he is the harbinger of death. (23rd Scroll, 9th Verse)

Religion is always about power, whether the power to control and compel one's followers or the power to exclude the anathematized. It is a pity that we do not have more of the Ape Scrolls (quoted above) to play with, but this quote is good enough for a starting point. The psychology of religious political control is based on a dialectic of fear and submission. The sociology is based on the degree of force, whether armed force or the force of ideology as transmitted through social control, that religion can bring to bear upon rulership. As I tried to argue in my post about Gellner's take on the relations between Islamic piety and rulership, the Muslim relationship with power took place over a long stretch of history largely as an overt negotiation between an almost voluntarily subject pious urban population and a resident and tolerated "horseman" rulership.

The western Christian relationship between religion and rule is founded upon a long stretch of centuries in which the church was the centrifugal force, and rulership was a fractured centripetal force. Kingship did not arise instantly from the horsemen who drip by drip supplanted the Roman elites ... merging in some cases, dominating in others, and dropping almost instantaneously from historical view in yet others. Charlemagne stands out among the early definers of kingship, but even his famous coronation on Christmas Day, 800, was as much an attempt at episcopal usurpation for the purposes of the church as it was some sort of proto-constitutional establishment of the notion of divinely authorized kingship.

Even then, it was not until the 11th and 12th centuries that the church and the state settled into the pitched battles and fevered entanglements that set Europe on the path to its eventual liberation from the church ... a liberation that took another seven or eight hundred years to accomplish. What allowed western Europe to accomplish this was founded in the earliest moments of that relationship ... specifically, that the church had to confront rule as an alien force and not as a natural ally. It is exclusively in this sense that Christianity has a greater idea of the separation of church and state than Islam ... this idea is not in the theology but in the circumstances of the founding of modern Europe through the invasions of the horsemen at the expense of the Roman empire. Remember, theology is bunk, but religious history tells a tale that no one can sensibly ignore. Theology tail-ends events.

The proof of this paradigm is in the relative slavishness to power that one finds historically in the eastern church which was never free of the empire. Constantine dictated to the eastern chruch and this was a pattern that continued notwithstanding the various fights (for Arianism, for Monophysitism, against iconoclasm). The Byzantine church was an arm of the state. The western church sought to make the state an arm of the church, and in the event provided the venue in which the state eventually became independent of it.

That's my overview. It was not my intention in starting to write this blog that I would focus primarily on religious historical issues, notwithstanding that I have been reading almost exclusively for a year about the Middle Ages and in particular about the rise of Christianity. But having gone down this path, I thought it useful if only to me that I should put down the general lines of my arugment, and this is it. We shall see when I get back to it.

In the meanwhile, let's return to Planet of the Apes, a society in which church and state are fused. It is in that sense a fascist society, and that is the affect which the auteurs, if I might, used to inure the audience against its conceits. As much as rationalists rightly fear theocracy, we are not actually threatened by it at the moment in a Planet of the Apes type scenario, and the experience of the dubyaite cabal with the religious, and the speed with which it turned into bile, should frankly give us some comfort notwithstanding the hideous damage they have done. It is not that the bastards don't want to wrap us in a medieval cowl, it is that they still cannot notwithstanding that they are at their most dominant in a century. The religious have the upper hand in Planet of the Apes because they have a monopoly on the manipulation of fear, and it turns out to be an ancient fear that is well-founded. After all, Moses/Taylor/Heston ends the film wailing in the surf that human beings actually had destroyed themselves, and this "as-if" provided after the fact justification for the religious domination of rule in the society from which he is fleeing. The gift of this film, though, is that in the end we sympathize neither with the religious authoritiarianism nor with the rebel who is revealed as standing on sand.

Perhaps that is where we are now in society, recoiling at the religious madness but unable to find a hero.

Photo by Arod, Notre Dâme de Paris; click on the photo to go my Paris slideshow.

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