Wednesday, September 15, 2010

versions of jesus - malcolm muggeridge

the divine mr m smoking a worldly fag

I think this might be an interesting series to do - versions of that vague and protean figure of yesteryear, Jesus aka Christ, according to various believers past and present. Each essay could end up being longer than a blog piece, but I'll post bits and pieces here.

I remember Malcolm Muggeridge's dour and imposing presence on the television of my childhood. He seemed always grimly disapproving, rather like the Christian god, to my sense. Yet also, like the god, a peripheral figure, no concern of mine.

More recently, having decided to look more closely at Christianity, its inherited god, and its transformation of that god and of Judaism in the form of Jesus, I picked up a book essays, articles and sermons by Muggeridge, Jesus Rediscovered, published in the late sixties. It was a best-seller at the time, and marked an increasing interest in matters of faith for the one-time satirist. Considering that he has been described as one of the pre-eminent Catholic intellects of the twentieth century [though he only became a Catholic in 1982, when he was nearly eighty years old], I'm sure it would be worthwhile to examine Muggeridge's version of Jesus, as presented in his book.

Muggeridge is no theologian, far less a philosopher. He likes - I use the present tense, though he's long gone, and not particularly contemporary in his thinking - to present himself as a humble, hesitating everyman, modeled on one of his favourite characters, Christian from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. However, he certainly doesn't hesitate, in this book at least, in rejecting 'the things of this world', including all of science, as well as politics, economics, history, entertainment and, above all, sex. We might think of him in terms of the Christian fundamentalism that has sprung up since his time, though in some ways he's more like the Islamist imams who abominate western decadence. I can't say that reading him has brought me much pleasure, or insight, except as it has led me to reflect on other-worldly utopianism - a feature of Christian thinking throughout its history.

Muggeridge's version of Jesus, such as it is, is most centrally presented in his essay 'A life of Christ', based on a BBC2 series he presented in 1968. I'll look most closely at this essay, while supplementing my commentary with reflections on the other pieces.

Muggeridge begins his presentation by describing the birth of Jesus as 'on any showing, the most momentous event in the history of our Western civilization'. This may be so [or it may not be], in spite of the event being entirely legendary. I'm not making here the large claim that Jesus never existed - though I don't rule that out. What I am saying is that, though Jesus may have existed, the stories of his birth are entirely legendary. There are of course two, in Luke and in Matthew, and, unsurprisingly, they don't entirely cohere. If Jesus did exist, then the gospel accounts of his adult sermons, his trial [though that was likely held in camera] and his execution may be based on handed-down eyewitness accounts, but these eyewitnesses, who would have come to observe Jesus as his reputation grew, wouldn't have been present at his birth and childhood. These parts of the story are surely inventions. Not that they aren't plausible inventions, apart from the bogus genealogies and the immaculate conception, but they add to the legend of Jesus's humble origins, the fellow from nowheresville who turns out to be the king of the Jews, the Messiah.

Muggeridge differs from most modern fundamentalists in that he's far from a biblical literalist, so the possible legendary nature of at least some of the Jesus story doesn't seem to bother him. Not that there aren't other problems with his take on Jesus. Take this revealing passage from his sermon 'Unto Caesar':
The various dogmas of institutional Christianity – like, for instance, the doctrine of the Trinity, or of the Immaculate Conception – just do not impinge; I neither believe nor disbelieve them, and feel no inclination to defend or denounce them. I find them perfectly comprehensible, perfectly harmless, and - as far as I'm concerned - totally without significance. Nor does the historicity of the Gospels' account of Christ's birth, life and death worry me at all. If, tomorrow, someone were to unearth another Dead Sea Scroll proving that, in earthly terms, the traditional Christian story just didn't happen in that way at that time, it wouldn't disturb my attitude to Christianity at all. Legends, in any case, seem to me more relevant to our human situation, and in that sense more 'factual', than history, which is really only the propaganda of the victor. Thus - by way of example - I find the Book of Genesis, considered as legend, infinitely more prescient on the subject of the origins and subsequent unfolding of our human story than, say, the theory of evolution, considered as fact. 
Clearly there is plenty in this to say 'hang on a minute' to, but for now I just want to emphasise Muggeridge's absolutism. Jesus's birth is absolutely the most important event in Western, or perhaps human, history, just as the Genesis origin story [stories, in fact] is infinitely more important to our understanding of the human story than Darwin's Origin of Species, which [we can be absolutely sure!] Muggeridge never opened in his life.

Of course, Muggeridge has to be exaggerating when he claims that the veracity of the gospel account is of no importance to him. He has staked everything on Jesus being 'the light, the truth and the way', the light coming from another world which will lead himself and presumably a select few others out of the utter darkness of this world. Jesus, therefore, cannot be a mere human, he must be divine. This helps explain why the gospel of John is Muggeridge's favourite - it's the only gospel that really promotes Jesus's divinity. In terms of the human story, though, the real significance for Muggeridge of Jesus's birth is its apparent insignificance:
The essential point, as I see it, about Christ's birth is that it was so poor and so humble. The Son of God was born into the world, not as a prince, but as a pauper. So, to deck up the legendary scene of his nativity with precious hangings, pictures, glittering lamps and other ornamentation, is to destroy whatever valid symbolism it might otherwise have. Truly, we human beings have a wonderful faculty for thus snatching fantasy from the jaws of truth.
Indeed, Malcolm.

The unworldly, sackcloth-and-ashes element of Christianity, first suggested by Jesus's humble birth, obviously appeals to Muggeridge, as it appealed to the early Christians, who saw little future for themselves in a rigid, highly stratified Graeco-Roman society. The early Christians inherited their exclusive 'superior' god from Judaism, but rejected Judaic insularity in favour of evangelical or missionary enterprise. What they offered to converts was the promise of a new world for the faithful, a complete transformation, where the first would be last and the last first, and in order to make this new world more enticing it was naturally necessary to denigrate the Roman world around them. This forsaking of the real world for a promise of happiness in some other place, of mind or body, of heaven or earth, has been a feature of many religions since, and no doubt before, the advent of Christianity, but I've rarely encountered anyone so devoted to this dubious promise as Muggeridge. In this, he is happy to number himself among the credulous herd, as against the wise men of Jesus's age and his own. He is unimpressed by the tale of the wise men of the east:
Judging by our own wise men, I find difficulty in believing that any such would recognise God's son in Mary's. Let the vastly more numerous unwise go on marvelling at that stupendous moment in history when, for the first time, God was revealed to men, not in the guise of power or wealth or physical beauty, but of weakness, obscurity and humility.

Muggeridge's profound anti-intellectualism is first referenced here, though it's in evidence throughout the collection. I've already provided his 'thoughts' on evolutionary theory. On science generally he has a number of throwaway comments. In the foreword to the book he writes:
All I can say for the Genesis version [of creation] is that it strikes me as more plausible than Professor Hoyle's.
For Hoyle, we can of course insert the name of any cosmologist, but he seems particular disdainful of the irascible Englishman. Maybe Hoyle once give him an intellectual box on the ears? He mentions him again in his essay 'The crucifixion':
Towards any kind of scientific mumbo-jumbo we display a credulity which must be the envy of African witch-doctors. While we shy away with contumely from the account of the creation in the Book of Genesis, we are probably ready to assent to any rigmarole by a Professor Hoyle about how matter came to be, provided it is dished up in the requisite jargon and associated, however obliquely, with what we conceive to be 'facts'. 
This favourable comparison of Genesis with various scientific explanations is reiterated throughout the book, as if he seems well pleased with himself for coming up with it. Of course he doesn't deign to explain why Genesis is superior to all of science, it's apparently too too obvious [and Muggeridge sprinkles his text with such terms as 'obviously', 'of course', 'without any question' and so forth, often in connection with the most laughable claims. Take this doozy: 'I have no wish to luxuriate in apocalyptic prognostications, yet it would seem obvious enough that the last precarious foothold of law and order in our world is being dislodged']. In his brief article on Simone Weil, one of the few 'lights in the darkness', as he calls her, he quotes with approval her remarks about science [a subject that clearly interested her more than it did Muggeridge]:
Everything that is most retrograde in the spirit of religion has taken refuge, above all in science itself. A science like ours, essentially closed to the layman, and therefore to scientists themselves, because each of them is a layman outside his own narrow specialism, is the proper theology of an ever increasingly bureaucratic society.
As a more or less regular reader of New Scientist and Cosmos, and a consumer of many popularist books on science, I see plenty of scientists and science writers happy to reach out to the general public, but a lot of science is genuinely difficult and necessarily complex and 'technical'. Any language will be mumbo jumbo to those who are convinced that even attempting to learn it is beneath contempt.

Muggeridge next considers the political context of Jesus's birth, and life, in an outpost of the Roman Empire. He makes the extraordinary claim that at the time of Jesus's birth, this empire was 'already beginning to decompose, as even a carpenter's son on its periphery might vaguely realize'. Even when taking into account Muggeridge's revelling in the idea of worldly decay, this goes a bit far. At the time of Jesus's birth [between 10BCE and 10CE] Augustus was in power - the first emperor in Roman history! Some ninety or so were to follow. Of course, to describe this as an egregious error on Muggeridge's part would be to make the mistake of believing that Muggeridge cares about historical accuracy. He prefers the deeper truth of legend. This becomes clear when he compares this decadent empire to the modern era [that is, Britain and the US at the time of the 'swinging sixties']:
One cannot live by bread alone, [Jesus] was to say, thinking, I dare say, of the bread and circuses, the avid pursuit of wealth and luxury, the permissive morality and eroticism, which characterized Roman society at the time, as it does ours today.
This description of  Roman society [more accurately Graeco-Roman society] would not be agreed with by any historian that I've read - and I've read a few. Augustus was quite an abstemious ruler, and in any case the vast majority of his subjects would have known little or nothing about him. They went on with their lives regardless, lives of daily toil, wheeling and dealing, civic duties and religious observance, all depending on their place in that complex and relatively rigid society. In spite of the indulgences of a minority of Roman emperors and governors, Graeco-Roman society, though it would have had its prostitution and its homosexual haunts like every society, was not sexually permissive by and large. Certainly there was corruption and avarice, just as there was in later Christian society. But 'mere facts' shouldn't be allowed to interfere with Muggeridge's message. His interest is in making a connection between the 'darkness' of the Roman world and our current 'dark age', so that he can bring his version of Jesus, the light of the world, into sharp contrast with each of them.

After describing, with breathless credulity, Jesus's greatness and importance in bringing light to the world, and his prophecy-fulfilling baptism, Muggeridge turns his focus to Jesus's ministry. All, of course, is praise and admiration. The miracles are somewhat downplayed, with more focus given to infirmities of mind rather than body:
The world at all times is full of shattered or distorted bodies and minds (not least now, despite all that modern medicine can do). To them Christ offered, not medicine, but forgiveness; when he relieved them of their burden of guilt, he also automatically relieved them of their infirmities.
The fact is that, at the time of Jesus, and before, and for a long time afterwards, physical and mental illness were believed to be caused by the displeasure of the gods, or God, or the ancestors, or other such other-worldly entities. The fanatically other-worldly Muggeridge buys into that of course - as does the Jesus character. That there are lots of suffering people out there in spite of the wonders of modern medicine is a sign of 'spiritual malaise' rather than practical problems such as economic disadvantage, isolation, lack of proper facilities and treatments in particular areas and a host of other causative factors. We are sick - no matter what the sickness - because of individual and collective guilt. Hard to know how to respond to such fatuous claims and inferences.

Muggeridge's point, as always, is that this world is worthless. Or perhaps, more accurately, this world has its beauties, but to invest in it in any way, rather than focusing on the world to come, is a sure sign of worthlessness:
If cures were found for every disease ever known or to be known (a miracle far exceeding any achieved by Christ in his random essays as a healer), everything would be the same. We should still be blind and sick and crazy as long as we allowed ourselves to be preoccupied with the hopes and desires of this world.
Muggeridge reveals himself here as an other-worldly utopian absolutist, and his version of Jesus is geared toward that end. This would be a good time to examine his background, which certainly helps to explain his extremism. His father was a committed socialist, who was indefatigable in his efforts to further the cause of utopian socialism. Muggeridge often accompanied him on his mission to convert the workers, and he apparently adored his father [who was also a Christian]. As Muggeridge and so many others have pointed out, there was much evangelism and religious ritual in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century socialist proselytizing, but as a journalist in the thirties, Muggeridge came face to face with two horrific examples of worldly utopian failure, the Nazi attempt to impose an Aryan 'thousand year reich', and the bolshevist state, so degenerate under Stalin. Clearly these two horror states had a profound effect on Muggeridge, but it's also clear to me that his devotion to and loyalty to his father made it impossible to give up on the utopianism his father worked so hard to bring about. In transferring his utopianism to the other world he was able to reject socialism without entirely betraying his Christian father. This is a very sketchy piece of 'psychoanalytic mumbo-jumbo' as Muggeridge would describe it, yet I suspect even he would admit there's more than a grain of truth in it.

So Muggeridge's version of Jesus is simple enough. He's a representative of the other world, or if you like, an embodiment of the other world come down to earth. He harps on Jesus's 'obvious' uniqueness: 'Never man spoke like this man', he quotes the gospel of John. The sermon on the mount is, of course, sublime and unique, and if Jesus has a worldly message it is one of love. Love your neighbour and love your enemies, and love without desire [which is naturally selective and horribly fleshly] . He doesn't go into too much detail about this, as it's worldly stuff. More important is to 'die in the flesh so as to be reborn in the spirit', which is why the crucifixion is, to him, the high point of Jesus's life.

Having read the gospels several times myself, I see little that is extraordinary or original in Jesus's remarks. In any case I don't like being preached to, I like being encouraged to think for myself. This was the Socratic method, and it's also the modern educational method, and I suspect that Christianity will never survive the relentless application of this approach. Of course, Muggeridge, so enamoured of his version of Jesus, has no great interest in examining the gospel texts closely for inconsistencies and less than sublime utterances. My favourite has always been Matthew 11: 21-24, in which Jesus, having only a few chapters before proclaimed the necessity of loving one's enemies [to me, a paradoxical remark that undermines the meaning of 'love' and 'enemy'], curses the folk of three towns, Capernaum, Bethsaida and Chorazin, for not listening to his preaching, and promising them a fate worse than that of Sodom [whose townsfolk, you might remember, were burned alive for their sins, after which they presumably burned forever in the fires of hell].

There's little point in continuing with too much detail here. It seems to me that Muggeridge's utopianism, and anti-utopianism, is strictly an adolescent approach to the world. It's very often offensive, belittling real efforts to alleviate suffering (he mocks the distribution of spam to the survivors after the second world war, instead of, presumably, the distribution of  much-needed spirituality), expressing contempt for the development and use of contraceptives, which he seems to think is about the only innovation we have to crow about, and predicting, with repetitious regret, the downfall of western civilization. It's no wonder that he was trotted out, in his last years, as a conservative buffoon, always liable to outrage those who didn't know him well enough to be bored stiff by his apocalyptic rhetoric.

Darkness and light are favourite terms of Muggeridge. This world is all darkness, the other world is all light, and that's really all you need to know. It's a kind of adolescent black-and-whitism, boring enough in an adolescent, rather more disturbing and creepy in a grown-up. Of course, Muggeridge preferred to see himself as a clear-sighted anti-utopian, but it's clear enough to me that his ideological commitment to the 'new life' [as vague as any Marxist utopia] somehow symbolized and brought into being by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus has blinded him to the realities of the real world, where there is much corruption and much benevolence, much thoughtlessness and much self-sacrifice, much genious and much stupidity, much expense of spirit in a waste of shame, much hard work for no gain, lots of fun to be had, many obstacles to be overcome, and a world of suffering to sympathize with and to try to alleviate. It's the only world we have after all. But then again, you never know. Now that he has passed out of this world, I'm sure that he has found, on the other side, precisely the utopia he deserves.

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