Something I find noteworthy is that in most traditional non-Western cultures, romantic love is seen as a destructive and disruptive force. As such, romantic love is discouraged in these cultures and as much as possible avoided. Families decide upon marriages, which are based primarily on strategic alliances and often meant to keep property within the family. The marriages often take place in childhood.
In the Western world, we also see romantic love as a destructive and disruptive force. The surprising twist is: We celebrate it. In Ancient Rome, it was common practice for married couples to depict themselves as Mars and Venus, who were engaged in an illicit affair and ultimately caught in a trap by Venus’ husband Vulcan. The love of Mars and Venus is impermanent, illicit and unstable, yet it is celebrated.
In Western literature, the destruction is celebrated too. In the traditional canon, you’ll find example after example, of books detailing the destruction and suffering that follows from an illicit affair. Wuthering Heights, Madamy Bovary, the Iliad and the Odyssey, you’ll find case after case of the same story playing out. There seems to be no desire to avoid conflict and destruction. Instead, the destruction and subsequent suffering is seen as an inevitability, a price worth paying.
We pride ourselves in relating to individuals, rather than to groups. Men like Genghis Khan start dynasties. The Roman emperors don’t become patriarchs like Abraham. The Roman emperors tended to be childless. Both Commodus and Caracalla were forced into arranged marriages, but noteworthy enough, the marriages failed. In most cultures, this would be an anomaly. In China, the Ottoman empire and most other empires I’m familiar with, emperors have wives as well as concubines, their primary task being to produce an heir.
The Roman emperors use their power to immortalize themselves as gods, in the face of their populace. It seems as if to us, we build something during our lifetime and it’s over when we die, all that matters by then is the memory of what we were. Nero is said to have uttered “what an artist dies with me” when he tried to kill himself, the implicit statement being that his creation dies with him.
Abraham was told by his tribal God Jahweh to look at the sky and count the stars in them, as his offspring would number the same. The Western mind doesn’t seem to function like this. Rome in the vision of Romans wasn’t started by a patriarch, but by two boys raised by a wolf. A Roman emperor has a perfect opportunity to populate the country with his offspring, but it doesn’t matter to him, because to him the world dies with him. If the city will be filled with your descendants one day, that’s an issue outside of your control and outside of your concern, to decide upon who populates the world is a responsibility for the forces of nature.
This has of course been an issue with Christianity ever since the days it first encroached upon Western shores. The idea of a brutally tortured innocent man appealed to the oppressed in Rome, but it was tightly coupled to his father, the blood-thirsty Abrahamic deity who chose a group of people descended from Abraham over the rest of humanity. The old testament doesn’t speak to our imagination, as it doesn’t fit within our culture and our environment. Every once in a while this leads to slaughter, as heresies emerge that proclaim the deity of the old testament to be a cruel monster unrelated to the martyr of the new testament.
To me there’s a relatively simple answer to this issue: Christianity has always been a poor fit for our mind and we need to shake it off our back like a bad case of flees. Your friendly neighborhood Messiah comes with a poison pill, in the form of a cruel tribal desert God, who instructs his followers to “kill every male among the little ones”. This is why I have relatively little patience for “cultural conservatives”, who bemoan the Muslims and their cruel religion, but seem to dismiss the fact that their own religion is innately tied to similar barbarism. If you don’t repudiate Moses, why should a Muslim repudiate Muhammed?
I have no genuine desire whatsoever to hold onto our Christian heritage. I prefer the Goddess Freia who sleeps with four dwarves in exchange for a necklace, over the placid virgin Mary whose greatest accomplishment in the eyes of her followers is giving birth without having sex. I also prefer the Roman interpretation of other people’s pantheon, over the religious intolerance of the Christian, who insists on converting the whole world lest the non-believers were to perish and suffer for eternity in hell. Perhaps most importantly, I insist on worshipping deities who are actively present in my midst, rather than a deity external to me. The ancient Germans worshipped Nerthus, a personification of the Earth, the Romans held onto the concept of the Anima Mundi, the soul of the world to which all of us are connected. In a desert it’s people’s inclination to look for divinity in the heavens, but here on the lush soils of Europe we can recognize divinity in our midst.
There’s a big difference between heathenism and Christianity of course. The Christians have inherited artwork from the past two thousand years. The Christians have two billion followers spread out over the globe. The Christians have churches and monasteries, as well as religious orders that have accumulated wealth and land over millennia. Christians pay tithes to their church and elderly ladies leave their inheritance to the church. Join the Christian community and you inherit all this cultural, social and economic capital, in one form or another. It’s a much easier option in life, for people who seek community and a higher calling.
If on the other hand, you become a heathen, you inherit nothing. You need to reinvent the wheel. The modern heathen has no church, his sacred oaks were cut down long ago, his rites were forgotten and extinguished, his community consists of teenage girls in black dresses and men with greasy ponytails and big beards on internet fora. He has to educate himself, the traditions he learned as a child were Abrahamic.
In the long run however, we benefit from this. You often see it argued that college teaches you how to think. That’s true, because colleges have largely taken over the social function of churches in our era. In the old days, your religion taught you how to think. You see the world through the lens of your own theological upbringing. Personally, I want to see the world as a heathen. The deities we worship are personality archetypes, a framework through which we interpret the social environment around us.
Most importantly perhaps, heathenism teaches us a different manner of relating to the Earth. We live in a culture with a linear-progress narrative, culminating in a spectacular upheaval of the Earth. As Lynn White famously argued in 1967, our anthropocentric mentality towards the Earth is a derivative of our Judeo-Christian cultural heritage. The intellectuals of the Ancient West did not look at time as having a beginning or an end. To them the world was cyclical and no genuine progress was possible. The world to them was filled with spirits. Every brook, every stone, every tree, had its own guardian genius. Even today, in Iceland roads have to be diverted because fairies might be disturbed if a particular stone was moved. The Christian replaced this heathen diversity of creatures, from satyrs to fairies, cyclops and minotaurs, with a homogeneous group of (mostly) old men, the saints, who govern our affairs. The saints are unlike nature. They are primarily old men, in heaven, who intervene in our affairs. By doing so, Christianity made it possible to look at the world as dead matter, for us to exploit. To me, the saints have died and the world is now alive again.
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