FATHER FRANK’S RANTS
Rant Number 474 24 January 2012
New Era Dawns
‘I saw humanity was on the verge of a new era, like those started by Christ and Muhammad. I also understood such a new era demanded a new type of man.’ Thus speaks a man about to be executed, Otto Dietrich Zur Linde, in J.L. Borges’ Deutsches Requiem. He meant Nazism. If Hitler had overcome, if his millenarian Reich had got going, then indeed a new, fearful kind of human being, a putative ubermensch, would have arisen to rule reality.
The Third Reich’s ghost has vanished forever but...is it possible a new epoch, a novel, indeed better type of human being might actually be in gestation? The Occupy movement, the anti-capitalist rebels, the Arab spring, the desperate youth all over the West protesting against the stifling austerities the old seek to impose on them, the Islamists rising into power in the Middle East, even the rioters and looters hitting England’s cities last Summer – are they perhaps, absurd though it may seem, the signs, the harbingers of a new era?
Consider Christianity. Christian man and pagan man are anthropologically antithetical. Tertullian, a radical theologian from North Africa, chided the dying pagan world about its many crimes and perversions: ‘We are not like you. We do not fight each other in the arena, like wild beasts. We do not abort our unwanted children. We shun adultery, incest and fornications. We do not kill our disabled babies. We do not lust unlawfully after the flesh. We do not torture. We do not covet the wealth of others. We do not persecute the innocent. Instead, when we are unjustly attacked we do not revile but we bless our enemies...’
Tertullian’s list is also a matter of desiderata, of ideals. Still, the sort of human being commended in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount was totally at odds with pagan behaviour 2000 years ago, as it is today in twilight, post-Christian Europe. The Beatitudes – exalting and blessing the meek, the lowly, the guileless, the simple, the pure in heart, the oppressed, the peacemakers, the non-violent – would have struck even a pious pagan as masochistic, perverse. Yet the same counter-cultural Gospel propelled the servants of the Messiah out among the vast multitudes of the Roman Empire – and converted them to its glorious Easter faith. Christ thus forged extraordinary revolutionary values, values that gave rise to the epoch dated Anno Domini – the Year of the Lord. A new man was born.
About 600 years later, with the Hijra, another human type arose in Arabia. Islam also inaugurated an epoch. Thomas Carlyle, that eminent Victorian critic and radical, was correct in including the Prophet Muhammad amongst humanity’s heroes. The dynamic force unleashed by the Qur’an and by Muhammad’s polity empowered desert tribesmen to overturn kingdoms and conquer half the ancient world. A force, note, that does not seem extinguished yet.
The 1978 Iranian revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini illustrates the point. As I just told Sahar TV in an interview at lunchtime, it was a shockingly surprising kind of revolution. A revolt against ‘the modern world’ – the world of secular modernity. Khomeini’s political ideas inspired Muslims everywhere – and scared the living daylights out of corrupt oil sheiks and smug Western liberals alike. They still do.
Muslim man is not the same as Christian man. The two types, the ideals are different. The kind of human being created by the Islamic revelation has his distinctive features and characteristics, setting him aside from other types. That entails conflict. Inevitably so. I am not being polemical. Christianity posits a similar, necessary antagonism to any resurgent paganism. Between Christ and Belial there can be no fellowship.
Zur Linde was perhaps selective in his examples. Pity he did not mention the lofty Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. On the non-theist side – fair is fair – some would instance Soviet man. Lenin too attempted to found a brave new world. Bolshevism energised the ragged and the wretched of the earth into formidable militants under the red flag. Communist man, homo sovieticus, was to be as distant from bourgeois types as Neanderthal hominids were from homo sapiens. The new humanity would renounce alienation and exploitation of man by man in favour of utopian social virtues lived out in a socialist paradise. Alas, well before the disintegration of the USSR wondrous communitarian Soviet man had degenerated into a morose, sullen creature, sans autonomy and sans personality. His passing is generally unlamented. RIP.
What might a new, future type of human being look like? The priest can only gesture towards possibilities. Oddly enough, a cue comes from Empire, a ranting text by the Italian intellectual & former terrorist Toni Negri (co-authored with Michael Hardt). He concludes his far-left diatribe against imperialism by praising St Francis of Assisi. Francis, the son of a rich merchant in Umbria, gave out his wealth and even his clothes to the poor and created a radical community of propertyless brothers. Negri perceives a canny strategy at work: to redeem the poverty of the masses Francis embraced their condition, became himself poor and so ‘discovered there the ontological power of a new society’. Francis’ canticles revel in a joyous existence, inclusive of all beings of the natural world, a sort of sacred cosmic ecology: beasts, the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, the oppressed and the exploited, brother sun, sister moon, even sister death...Negri sees parallels with our time: we need to posit against the arrogance of power ‘the joy of being’.
Post-Marxist, Heideggerian ravings, perhaps. The Franciscan way, its revolutionary poverty, did critically challenge nascent capitalism, true. (Today it would terrify the banks!) And Francis’ ode to life appeals to the young. He himself, like Christ, was a young man followed around by a bunch of young people. Francis is thus a hero for our time. However, he was rooted in transcendence. His ethics included explosive values like selflessness, virginity, celibacy and chastity – as popular as the plague today, it appears. Hence, a no-no?
Not necessarily. Just like the pagans denounced the early Christians as freaks, as anti-social subversives and ‘haters of the human race’ and yet later succumbed to the new era, so...geddit? If God wills it...He is god of surprises, after all.
St Francis’ tremendous prayer, ‘Make me an instrument of thy Peace’, was once notoriously and blasphemously recited by former PM Maggie Thatcher, that fiendish apostle of greed. A hypocrite, she never meant it. But what if good people were really to pray that prayer? And if God truly heard it? Would a new era then dawn?
Revd Frank Julian Gelli