I have been reading William Butler Yeats’ strangest book, A Vision, for the—how many times has it been now? At least once for each of his twenty-eight phases of the Moon, surely, since I first picked up a battered paperback copy from a used book store in Seattle, one of those cramped and marvelous places where bookshelves lean whispering to one another over the top of narrow aisles. Yeats, as I hope most people still dimly remember, was a brilliant poet; fewer recall that he was also one of the leading figures in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the premier magical order in Britain at the turn of the last century. A Vision came out of the marriage of those two passions of his, and also out of his marriage with fellow Golden Dawn adept Georgianna Hyde-Lees, who provided most of the raw material for the book.
A Vision is a book about cycles. Starting from the basic concept of two forces, one moving toward unity and the other toward differentiation, Yeats sets out a sequence of twenty-eight phases of the cycle formed by these forces, related symbolically to the twenty-eight days of the lunar month; he then shows that every human personality falls into one of these phases; then he goes on to trace out the same cycle, with the same twenty-eight phases, in each individual life, in the process of reincarnation, in the rise and fall of styles and fashions and artistic movements, and in the rise and fall of civilizations. It really is a bravura performance, with few parallels other than the I Ching, the great Chinese treatise on the theory and practice of cyclical change.
Each time I reread A Vision, though, some different theme strikes me more forcefully than the others. This time it’s the way Yeats talks about the history of religion. In the preface, dedicated to his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound, Yeats wrote:
“Oedipus lay upon the earth at the middle point between four sacred objects, was there washed as the dead are washed, and thereupon passed with Theseus to the wood’s heart until amidst the sound of thunder earth opened, ‘riven by love,’ and he sank down soul and body into the earth. I would have him balance Christ who, crucified standing up, went into the abstract sky soul and body, and I see him altogether separated from Plato’s Athens, from all that talk of the Good and the One, from all that cabinet of perfection, an image of Homer’s age.”
Then, later in the same introduction:
“What if Christ and Oedipus or, to shift the names, St. Catherine of Siena and Michelangelo, are the two scales of a balance, the two butt-ends of a seesaw? What if every two thousand and odd years something happens in the world to make one sacred, the other secular; one wise, the other foolish; one fair, the other foul; one divine, the other devilish? What if there is an arithmetic or a geometry that can exactly measure the slope of a balance, the dip of a scale, and so date the coming of that something?”
Those of my readers who are Christians, or who grew up in one or another of the Christian sects and have not quite left it behind, may find Yeats’ equation of Christ and Oedipus blasphemous—and of course that was wholly deliberate on his part, and helps make his point. When he penned the introduction to A Vision in 1928, Oedipus had haunted the collective mind of Europe for a good many years already. Eliphas Levi’s book The Doctrine and Ritual of High Magic, which kickstarted the modern magical revival when it first saw print in 1855, built an entire body of symbolism from Oedipus and the cycle of Greek legends in which his life plays a central role; paintings of Oedipus and the Sphinx were accordingly standard fare for the Symbolist painters of the next half century, most of whom at least dabbled in occultism. I’ve wondered more than once, for that matter, if Sigmund Freud chose the figure of Oedipus as the iconic image for his most famous theory as part of the covert conversation with occultism that plays so large a role in his psychology, and burst into the open with the work of his student and rival Carl Jung.
It bears remembering, though, that the ancient Greek play from which Yeats borrowed the image was originally performed as part of a religious festival, and had the same sacred character at that time that the passion play at Oberammergau had two thousand and odd years later. Oedipus unknowingly committed the worst sins the ancient Greeks could imagine by killing his father and marrying his mother; he tore his own eyes out when the truth was revealed; he was shunned thereafter by all but his daughters, who stayed beside him in his wanderings; and he finally received pardon from the gods and descended alive into the body of the living earth. To the ancient Greeks, that made him as potent a talisman of human salvation as later generations found in Christ, who was traditionally without sin, suffered injury at others’ hands rather than his own, was surrounded by adoring crowds in his wanderings, finally pardoned the world—“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”—and was received alive into Heaven.
Sometimes, gazing out my study window on the roofs of the largely Catholic and working-class neighborhood where I live these days, I wonder: what was it like to live at that period in the ancient world when the meaning and power was trickling out of the story of Oedipus, and an entire world of spiritual experience was slowly becoming opaque? Then I stop, and remember that the same process is unfolding around me right now.
I’m far from the only person to notice that something very strange has been happening to Christianity for quite a long time now. The liberal denominations that used to be the mainstream capitulated to atheism back in the 1950s—you’ll have to look long and hard to find ministers in any liberal church who actually, literally believe in the objective reality of the God whose weekly worship they’re paid to conduct—and now function mostly as charitable foundations and political-action committees with a sideline in rites of passage. The conservative denominations that took their place on the public stage in the 1970s promptly slid down the same well-greased slope; while there’s plenty of talk about faith in Jesus, their faith amounts in practice to defending the social customs of the 1930s and getting out the vote for Republican candidates.
It’s not at all uncommon, historically speaking, for religious institutions to turn into sock puppets for competing political elites, and that’s an important part of what’s happened here. Still, I’ve come to think there’s something deeper going on. My position as a sometime spokesperson for a quirky minority faith that gets nearly all its members from those who’ve left the mainstream has given me an unusually detailed idea of why people bail out of the established religions of our time. We can leave aside the people who grew up as atheist materialists and found the secular religion of progress unsatisfying; their concerns are important, but not relevant to the topic I’m trying to explore just now. It’s the former Christians I want to discuss here.
People quit Christianity for a great many reasons. Abuse of power by religious professionals is a massive factor. (Every single person who’s ever talked to me about why they quit the Roman Catholic church, for example, cited personal experiences of serious, repeated abuses of power by Catholic clergy and religious, which were condoned and enabled by the church hierarchy, as the chief thing that drove them away. If the Catholic church ever decides to clean up its act, I can suggest a very good place to start.) Failed apocalyptic prophecies are another common reason—it’s hard to maintain faith in a given sect when it keeps predicting an end of the world that never happens—and so is the hypocrisy with which churches that enthusiastically judge and condemn everyone else on the planet turn around and insist that others shouldn’t judge and condemn their leaders, or the politicians they favor, when these latter get caught doing something vile. Finally, of course, the intrusion of politics into the pulpit is an important reason: too many clergy these days seem never to have grasped that people come to church to pray and worship, not to be subjected to political hectoring of the sort already far too common in the media.
Yet there’s another thing, one that often doesn’t get mentioned until well into the conversation, and sometimes doesn’t come out at all until some later moment, perhaps sitting around a fire after an outdoors ceremony as the night deepens and most of the participants have stumbled off to their tents or cabins. That’s when you can expect to hear from the many, many people who quit Christianity because they prayed their hearts out for years and never got an answer. I’m not talking about those who wanted something and didn’t get it; I’m talking about people who found themselves, over and over again, staring up into an empty place where God was supposed to be.
If my experience is anything to go by, this is an extremely common experience. I suspect, in fact, that one of the reasons that atheist materialism is as common as it is today is that a very large number of people who approached Christianity in good faith found themselves facing that same void, and decided on that basis that the whole religion thing is a crock. It’s an understandable decision if not necessarily a valid one, as it generalizes about all deities from a sample size of one—but of course that same generalization has been pushed on them over and over again by Christian clergy, who like to insist that the only god that can possibly exist is theirs.
The basic notions of Christian theology have become so deeply entrenched in modern thought, even (or especially) among those who think they’ve rejected Christianity and all its works, that it’s probably worth taking a look at the world through other, older eyes. The notion that there’s one and only one god, who is eternal and unchanging, is a very rare one in religious history. Outside the Abrahamic faiths, the consensus has generally been that there are a lot of gods and goddesses, most of whom didn’t have anything particular to do with creating the world, if the world was created, and many of whom weren’t even around at the beginning, if there was a beginning. Gods in these other religions are born, mature, age, and retire, and some of them die.
The interesting thing about this more traditional consensus is that it mirrors, very precisely, the facts of religious history. Gods do in fact wax and wane over time, if their importance in the religious life of the cultures that worship them is anything to go by. Many theogonies—that’s what you call a genealogy of the gods, a common feature in polytheist faiths—go on at length about whole generations of gods and goddesses whom nobody’s worshipped in a very long time, while it’s not hard to trace the rise of the more recent deities who replaced them. The ancient world had plenty of examples: the old Roman god of war and livestock, Mavors (later spelled and pronounced Mars), was a hugely important deity in Rome’s early days; later on he became a minor figure reverenced mostly in a few very old traditional ceremonies. The earth god Veiovius had a similar trajectory, while Jupiter, who started out as one among many Roman gods, clawed his way to the serene dignity of Jupiter Optimus Maximus—from which exalted status he had already begun to slip when Christian persecution made the whole matter moot.
Set aside the presuppositions of Christian theology and all this makes an interesting kind of sense. Gods and goddesses, in the traditional way of thinking, are nonhuman beings—disembodied or, if you will, differently embodied—with whom human individuals and communities enter into various relationships, some of which deserve the good old term “covenant.” They vary in power and importance, but minor gods are still worthy of reverence; there have been any number of examples of covenants between small gods and individuals, tribes, or local communities, in which the latter seem to have benefited quite substantially from the interaction. Yet the divine partners in these relationships are no more eternal than the human ones, and so in polytheist societies you see a constant movement of worshippers from old gods who no longer answer prayers to newer, more vital gods who do.
In a very real sense, this is what happened in the ancient world when Christianity spread across the Roman Empire—but there was a crucial difference. The Greek-speaking intellectuals who embraced Christianity in its early days, when it was still a despised countercultural sect appealing mostly to slaves, had absorbed the worldview of Greek philosophy, which insisted that nothing could be ultimately real unless it was timeless and unchanging. From the Presocratics on, Greek philosophers had been fixated on the notion that the real world—the really real world—couldn’t possibly be the jumble of constant change and muddy interaction we see around us; no, that had to be a mere appearance, or even an illusion, blocking our view of a real world of pure, perfect, timeless unities. They proceeded to map this way of thinking onto the doctrines of newborn Christianity, and the result was Christian theology.
Over the short term, that was a clever strategy; it convinced a great many people who were unsatisfied by classical Pagan religion’s jumble of constant change and muddy interaction that the new faith and its god were qualitatively different. What’s more, the new god had the vitality that new gods generally display. Valerie Flint, in her brilliant book The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe, has documented that a core reason Christianity was able to spread so rapidly across Europe, winning support from local warlords and kings, was that Christian monastics and clergy earned a reputation for being better at magic than their Pagan rivals: better, that is, at delivering the goods that religion is supposed to deliver.
That remained true for a good long time, and the religious literature of Christendom is full of the sort of robust divine manifestations that you normally see when people call on a strong and hearty god. It wasn’t until many centuries had passed that you start to hear whispers of the same autumnal chill that surrounded Jupiter Optimus Maximus in the waning days of his glory. Heinrich Heine, that astonishingly prescient figure, put his finger on it at a time when precious few people anywhere in Europe doubted the permanent ascendancy of the Christian god:
“A peculiar chill of horror, a mysterious sense of awe forbids us to write any further today. Our breast is full of a dreadful pity—old Jehovah himself is preparing for death. We have known him so well, from his cradle onwards, back in Egypt where he was brought up amongst divine calves, crocodiles, sacred onions, ibises, and cats. We have seen him as he bade farewell to these playthings of his childhood and the obelisks and sphinxes of his native Nile valley, became a little god-king in Palestine, with a poor nation of shepherds, and settled down in his own temple-palace. We saw him later on, when he came into contact with Assyrian-Babylonian civilization, and laid aside his all-too-human passions, no longer just spewing out rage and revenge, or at least no longer instantly hurling thunderbolts down at every bit of despicable behavior. We saw him emigrate to Rome, the imperial city, where he renounced all national prejudices and proclaimed the heavenly equality of all peoples, and with the use of such smooth phrases formed the opposition party against old Jupiter, and intrigued for so long until he took complete control, and from atop the Capitol ruled the city and the world, urbem et orbem. We saw how he became more and more spiritualized, how softly and blissfully he whimpered, how be became an amiable Father, a generic Friend to Man, a Contributor to World Happiness, a Philanthropist—but none of it could save him. Can’t you hear those little bells tinkling? Down on your knees! They’re bringing the sacraments to a dying God.”
Heine was as usual far ahead of his time. Friedrich Nietzsche, decades later, pronounced the patient dead on the scene, and even then noted bemusedly that the news of the event had yet to reach the passersby on the spot. Yet reach them it did, as more and more people turned prayerfully toward Heaven, the way two thousand and odd years of religious counsel advised them to do, and discovered to their horror that there was nobody home.
In the 1880s, when Nietzsche wrote, that was the terrifying private discovery of a handful of sensitive minds. By the early 1900s, the rumor had become sufficiently widespread to evoke counterblasts from the newly minted Fundamentalist movement, which tried to cover up the scandal by quietly substituting faith in a printed book for faith in the living God. By the 1950s, it had become a massive if still unmentionable issue, and played a major role in driving the liberal mainstream denominations to their surrender to atheism and their current death spiral. Writing in 1972, Theodore Roszak could say without fear of contradiction, “We are long past pretending that the death of God is not a political fact”—and in the decades that followed, as conservative denominations followed their liberal brethren down into the mud-wrestling pit of partisan politics, his prophecy was proved amply correct.
It’s standard, on those rare occasions when the emptiness on high gets discussed, to see it framed in terms of something human beings have done or left undone. Here again, though, we’re seeing the legacy of Greek philosophy’s impact on Christian theology, the insistence that what’s real must by definition be timeless and unchanging. I’d like to suggest that maybe we should stop assuming that human beings are the only active participants in the complex of relationships we call “religion;” I’d like to suggest that maybe the changes that have unfolded from Heine’s time to ours reflect actual changes on the other end of those relationships, and that the reason there are so many atheists these days is that something that used to be present is now gone.
If Yeats is right, the next divine influx will be on Oedipus’ side of the balance—the side of full participation in the world, not of withdrawal from it; the side of wholeness, not of perfection; the side of earth, not of heaven. If he’s right, in turn, we face a revaluation of all values considerably more wrenching than the one Nietzsche thought he was proclaiming—a revaluation precisely as wrenching, in fact, as the one that came when Great Pan died and Christ took his place. Yeats had something to say about that, too:
In pity for man’s darkening thought
He left that room and issued thence
In Galilean turbulence;
The Babylonian starlight brought
A fabulous formless darkness in;
Odour of blood when Christ was slain
Made all Platonic tolerance vain
And vain all Doric discipline.
Our thought is sinking into a confusion at least as profound as the one that swallowed “all that talk of the Good and the One, all that cabinet of perfection” that characterized the flourishing of the classical mind. The Babylonian starlight is still waiting, with no shortage of fabulous formless darkness to bring in its train. And the new influx? That will come when it wills, not when we choose. We’ll talk more about that in later posts.