Some wandered in desert wastelands,
finding no way to a city where they could settle.
They were hungry and thirsty,
and their lives ebbed away.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
A theme of scripture, seen in Israel’s exodus from Egypt, is the longing to return (a topic I began to address last week here). We see the same thing in Abraham’s exit from his home and people, as God’s taking him to a new home and a new place requires that he never go back, though the temptation is to return to a Babel-like (self-propagating) horizon of meaning. Literal slavery or slavery to a delusion offers its protections from the realities of finitude (death in the desert or a death in childlessness). Faced with the harsh wilderness conditions, the Jews began to grumble and say, “Let us go back to Egypt where, it is true we were slaves, but at least we had plenty to eat” (Exodus 16:3). In The Matrix, Cypher (the Judas figure of the film) knows that the Matrix is a computer-generated virtual reality but this does not subtract from the pleasure of his virtual steak or for his desire to “be someone” virtually important in the virtual world: “someone like an actor.” There may be nothing more satisfying than to be reinserted into a warm vat of embryonic fluid and to once again become part of a simulated ordering of reality. The slavery and delusion are a temptation, largely because reality turns out to be cruel and deadly. Morpheus refers to the harsh, crushing reality outside of the Matrix as the “desert of the real.” Once taken out of the Matrix, returning (as Cypher chooses to do) is portrayed as a Judas-like forsaking of the fight for freedom, though this fight seems to be a lost cause. In the case of the Jews, Abraham, or The Matrix, there is no unseeing the reality of enslavement but the vision is necessarily had from the desert, in which the old horizons of meaning have been deconstructed and homelessness ensues.
The church in Hebrews is compared to Israel and the admonition is not to return to slavery and thus fail to enter into rest. The danger, which came to pass in Constantinianism and Christendom, is that the church would settle for the false rest of an Egyptian-like slavery. The end result of this false rest has been exposed in the secular nihilism which is now predominant in our culture. This historical moment, in which Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the death of God is for most a fixed reality, is also an irreversible vision from the desert. The inherent nihilism of Christendom, Enlightenment, and modernity have been exposed but it may be hard to comprehend this failure from within.
As Mark Colville, one of the Kings Bay Plowshares Seven serving time for his actions in protest of nuclear weapons (they cut a hole in a security fence and entered the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base singing and praying and spray-painted slogans and hammered a replica of a Tomahawk missile), reports from his imprisonment:
An authentic Christian faith practice, in other words, is not centered on doing good works; it is centered on resisting evil. Little wonder, then, that the bulk of the New Testament itself was written either in prison, underground, or from political exile. And on a personal note, no wonder my own discernment seems to become so much clearer when it is undertaken inside the U.S. empire’s hellholes. I guess that’s why I always end up coming back!
There is no returning (though the temptation is pervasive) to imagining there is an American Christian culture in which being well-adjusted is synonymous with being Christian. At this point, those of us who are not in prison, or those who are not in exile from a comfortable institutional-cultural Christianity, may need to answer for ourselves.
We have passed out of that womb like existence, or as Friedrich Nietzsche described it, “Our world has been unchained from its sun.” The God of the law, the God of the philosophers, the God of Christendom, is no longer with us. Modern culture’s loss of ultimate meaning in the loss of Christendom, in the loss of scientism, in the loss of philosophical rationalism, in the loss of the God of the philosophers, is a loss that does not touch upon the truth of Christianity. It is Christ who calls us into exile outside the walls of the city.
It is Christ who does away with the comforting structures of his culture in his assault on the Pharisees and the ruling authorities. He assaulted the mediating structures of Temple, Cult and Law, and the impetus to throw off the kingdom and empires of Christendom was made of the claim that we all have equal access to God through Christ. Those made in his likeness can also throw off the old encrusted patriarchies. We may long to retreat to Christendom, to the premodern, to the 1950’s or before, but we have set out on a journey into the desert. The God who comes to us in Christ has indeed died upon the cross, but this means he is a God who can travel with us in the desert amongst the crumbling horizons of meaning.
For most of our contemporaries in Europe and for a growing number in North America, religious belief is culturally and psychologically spent. The old man in the sky, the law giver, the God of reason is mostly dead, though as Nietzsche noted, not everyone has heard of his demise. Modernity has given rise to nihilism and the danger is that of retreat in the face of the harsh reality of the desert, but this is the same sort of ambiguity Abraham and the Jews and the early Christian’s faced. Secularism reigns, and the world cannot be reenchanted with fairies and demons, but this is not a condition to be lamented but calls for a coming to terms with the irreversible nature of history and a continual unfolding of the meaning of Christian revelation.
If we would break down human history into Paul’s psychological categories, historically we have passed beyond the age of the law, that comfortable time in which the church ruled culture, in which even the emperor begged at the gates of the Pope. In our culture’s psycho-historical journey we have passed into a questioning of the law, a questioning of the God of the philosophers. The culture passed into the notion of rational individualism in which for a brief historical moment the “I” or ego reigned. The American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, were all given impetus by the desire for individual freedom. They all signaled that the old religious and cultural authorities were no longer adequate. They all attempted to throw off inquisitions and the murderous authority of religion. Christendom had become corrupt in tying itself to tsars, and kings, and popes, but this throwing off of Christendom (as Hart points out), is a continuation of the Christian story, which is irreversible.
The danger is that the deconstructive power of Christ will only leave us harking to return, to retreat once again into the protective realms of the womb, of the law, of nationalism, of Christendom. We are surrounded by right wing fundamentalists, right wing Catholics, right wing nationalists, right wing atheists and religionists. For some it may be the comfort of psychotherapy or drugs – we are a country plagued by mental illness and drug addiction. As the old religion fails the new forms of retreat have taken a variety of forms. If we have passed from the age of law to the age of the ego, the ego is besieged by an unconscious drive toward death.
We need a world to inhabit but many of our contemporaries would craft the new world in the mold of the old. They may call this world that of the Republican or Democratic Party, that of Nationalism, or simply that of rational autonomy. The desire to return, the impetus behind the fascism which surrounds us arises, as for many it as if they have been turned out into the darkness in an inhospitable desert. The exodus toward freedom – the pursuit of freedom as its own end – has cleared out a host of demons, only to create a more binding spiritual enslavement. We understand now that spiritual forces surround us in a certain psychological-political orientation which has possessed our neighbors and which has perhaps tempted all of us.
We cannot escape the reality of the desert we occupy. Nietzsche’s diagnosis of God’s death is a fact, as Plato’s God cannot be resurrected and the attempt to revive dualism through fundamentalism, religious nationalism, fascist authoritarianism, are all signs of retreat and return to an age that cannot be restored and to a form of faith which Jesus confronted in his contemporaries. There is no returning to Egypt, no returning to the law, no return to the enlightenment. The epochs of human phsyco-history are not reversible. The re-founding of human subjectivity undertaken by Christ is not reversible. We cannot rebuild the idols of scientism, pre-critical rationalism, or of a naïve individualism. The contradictions are exposed and the idols are toppled, but this is an outworking of what Christ implemented. Christendom fell because of Christianity and the attempt to restore the notion of a Christian nation, to imagine that secularism is not the case, has become dangerous.
The answer is not retreat or return. The sickly nostalgia and resentment of the right, the political and religious right (the Catholic right, the evangelical right) – but maybe just the notion of some sort of final restoration or return infects us all. We of the Restoration Movement should not imagine that we can restore New Testament Christianity by turning back the clock. New Testament Christianity is precisely that which has driven us to this moment in which the idols are fully exposed. I do not mean that we are mere products of this history, as it was an apocalyptic form of the faith that has always been delivering us from mere genealogy and history. History is not historicism but it is a ground of learning and moving forward, resisting the nostalgia for a womb-like security and the resentments of a failed age. We are not journeying back to Eden, there is no lost golden age, but we are called out of the impulse to return so as to move forward. It is not God that has died but a certain image of him, which is tied to the past, is dead and we should not mourn his demise.
What we see in Scripture is an unfolding of a new kind of human – a born again, new Adam type of human. From Abraham to Christ, we see the depiction of a new type of human subjectivity. The dynamic Word at work in the world is unfolding or enfolding new meanings as the old Egypt, as the law, as Babel, is displaced with Jerusalem. But we must acknowledge we are in the desert, between two places.
 As David Bentley Hart has recently described in, “No Turning Back,” in Commonweal which partly inspired this blog.