The Harrowing of Heaven

“The death of God is a fact of life that one takes rightly and readily for granted. Indeed, the complete and utter lack of a single thing remotely plausible as divine is so palpably discerned that it needs hardly to be argued, much less proved. Yet it was not always so. In point of fact, there might have been no death at all had there not been, one awful springtime past, an initial God to die. The swift and final expiration of the Everlasting is a feat so marvelous and mystifying, it gives the lie to the feeble philosopher’s attempt at an ontological proof of God: it is extinction, and not existence, that is a necessary property of God. Est deus mortuus, ergo deus. (In the clubs and pubs of Portland near the end of the previous century, a garage band’s singer sang, ‘I want a God who stays dead, not plays dead.’) The story is one of paradox, which is the logic and language of angels.

memlingcrucifixion

“It begins somewhere near the Beginning, as it must, for all beginnings imply their end. To be sure, the Almighty had been doing quite well for Himself in eternity, in chaos undivided and pure potentiality; and only when was dipped the Eternal Toe in the waters of temporality did things start to get a bit leaky. The Book of Genesis records the planting of a certain Knowledge-giving tree, which the Midrash states would have been ripe had Eve and Adam waited till the Sabbath; the heresiarchs of Alexandria held its fruit to be secretly and cryptically prescribed from On High. They were only half-right. The All-Knowing wanted them to eat of it, but only since it proved creatures endowed with rational choice ought never to be trusted, and thus were still inferior. Of course, neither could He stand to co-inhabit Paradise with His equals—there being room enough for only one such Know-it-all in town, for the All-Wise was self-admittedly a rather jealous sort of God—and so He banished them, naked and knowledgeable and never to be seen among the shrubs and figs of Eden.

“The King of Kings and Lord of Hosts had been content with this arrangement, satisfied that none but He could ever use that kind of Knowledge with an expiration date on human life. A few things bothered Him, naturally—like agriculture, and language, and the building of towers—but whenever mankind got too nifty He was sure to slaughter all their first-borns, or strand them aimlessly in deserts. Apart from the occasional plague or genocidal itch the Most High was easily pleased, and so He set in stone a rather simple set of rules—the great bulk of which had been already followed by the grandchildren of Adam, without their needing telling. Respect for one’s progenitors and commitment to one’s wife seemed to be rules of basic decency; it took no stretch of reason to deduce that murder and theft would make life difficult. Thus the Ever-Merciful was faced with quite a different problem: here were a species of creature, amply rational and free, fulfiling His commandments on their own. He pondered their impertinence. He felt His rules had been too easy. He resolved instead to up the ante, from a succinct and sensible ten to a formidable six hundred and thirteen, knowing none could dare live up to His decrees. To abstain from the porcine was good and well enough, as was the ritual mutilation of an infant’s genitalia; but who could countenance the pedantic prohibition on the mixing of two fabrics, where to walk and when, what crops and grains to use and how, the proper methods of menstruation? Who would stone their impudent child, or put to death a weekend worker? Consoled of His implacability, the Good Lord welcomed His victims.

“The disciples of Confucius sought painstakingly to codify each aspect of existence, whilst permitting sons to hide the sins of fathers; in the great pavilions of Tehran, the mullahs stowed their wine. But over the scribes and priests of Solomon the Laws of Moses reigned in toto. They had honed a nearly canine knack for uncritical devotion. They perfected the innumerable mysteries of anal retention. The Holiest of Holies took notice, and was not rightly pleased. There was something imperious in their righteousness, made all the worse for its sincerity: something blasphemous in their piety. Had He not ensured, that fruitful day, man’s state of permanent imperfection? Was it not an act of eminent pride—indeed, of subliminal vanity—to deny the lot God gave to man? The Lord resented their obedience. He resolved to punish their servility, as all good deeds must be; He would make it impossible to be good. The history of this vengeance is recorded in the books of the exiled Prophets, who knew intuitively that their conquest was a punishment from Ha-Shem, but did not grasp the terrible truth that it was virtue, and not vice, that brought about their ruination. Of these woes and degradations there was no greater testament than is found in the figure of Job, whose unflinching goodness was to God a symptom of satanic arrogance. From his contemptible example one can glean this unimpeachable truth: Bad things happen to good people because there is nothing God hates more than perfection in others.

“The annals of philosophy give one term to that which history knows by many names, but to attribute these phenomena to a single genealogy is to commit a crude historical blunder. It is said that prior to his state of perfect bliss and emptiness, the Buddha consorted with their kind in the palaces of Kapilavastu; on the coast of ancient Libya there died and lived the disciple of Socrates called Aristippus, who preached the pleasures of indulgence in the flesh. Across the vastness of time and distance, as if by secret codes or divination, the prophets of this rarified sect had come to learn the terrible secret of morality. The hedonists, as they are called, held actually quite conflicting views of practical ethics: what they shared was a mutual metaphysics. They knew that humans were machines composed with irredeemable drives, whose satisfaction wrought not pain, but unadultered pleasure. The drafters of the halakha tried to circumscribe (if not altogether to eradicate) man’s postlapsarian impulses, as if to grovel by El-Shaddai—but what better form of flattery, what greater sign of gratitude, to the Creator than to embrace man’s loathsome nature? Augustine of Hippo wrote that Paul’s ‘sin that dwelleth in me’, and Peter’s ‘concupiscence of men’, was man’s collectively congenital defect dating to the Fall: thus it was the height of harmony and humility to claim one’s lawful station, to wallow in one’s proper place, to live in evil as designed. (To do otherwise would be to usurp that upon which God alone laid claim—i.e., perfection—and to deny what He decreed.) That this meant the Laws of Heaven would be broken was no matter. Derogation from the Law was indeed a spiritual duty.

“So God blessed the pagan nations, the arrogance of kings, the savage princes and the empires that unfurled across the centuries of horror and iniquity. Their gardens and towers trampled, their temple and ark profaned, the daughters of Jerusalem cried out to Him Whose Name Be Hallowed, and Who replied with a meagre shrug. It was in fact their clear and utter piety that annoyed the Most High God of Everlasting Mercy and Vengeance, whilst the desecrators and scoundrels of Rome incurred His favour. They placed their idols on high places, engraved their image in gold coins, exalted themselves lords and gods of the mortal realm and that which lay beyond. As their wickedness increased, so too Rome’s sanctity and fortune. (N.b.: This is the origin of the Roman Catholic Church.) And yet—the Lord had found Himself once more in an impossible position. With minimal effort, and with hardly an intention, the kings of men accomplished their religious obligation; in point of fact it came quite naturally. (‘I can resist everything’, wrote the sublime Oscar, ‘except temptation’—had he lived in the days of Caesar, and not in the congested dusks of Regina, the wallpapers might have spared him.) The Lord knew His singularity required men to stay corrupted; at the same time, it was unbefitting that His delight be earned too easily. Indeed, a rebellion of the flesh could hardly be rebellious, if the flesh had been so fashioned from its birth. For God’s will to be sanctified, for man fully to prostrate before divinity, there had only to be a rebellion of the spirit. And there was nothing more rebellious, nothing more depraved, than for a mortal man to deny man’s sinful disposition—and to attempt, if not to reach, moral perfection.

“(In the parliaments of Heaven the cherubim debated: Was it a greater act of fidelity to disobey God’s Law, or to disobey the order of disobedience of God’s Law? Or to disobey the order of disobedience of the order of disobedience of God’s Law; and so on ad infinitum et absurdum. This and other undetermined budgetary frictions led to legislative deadlock in the Afterworldly Kingdom.)

“There emerged in the mind of God a further problem. He knew mankind had occupied a lowly space in the order of things. It was for this reason that men lusted for both worldly and heavenly glory; for this did God demand from them humility. Twelve centuries later in Orvieto, Thomas of Aquino would trace humilitas to the Latin humus, or the ground beneath: ‘The virtue of humility consists in keeping oneself within one’s bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior.’ Those bounds, it had been shown, were toward man’s corrupted nature, a state of infinite and cosmic subordination, which obliged him to the inscrutable will of God. Humilitas, humus, homo . . . If humility or envy were the just deserts of man, what then of the Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Earth? The Angelic Doctor wrote, ‘Humility cannot befit God, who has no superior, but is above all.’ There was conceivably no duty to compel the will of God, no dispositional nature to delimit it: it was in the nature of God to be unbound. And yet to exercise this volitional superiority—to prove His insubordination, even to Himself—the Lord had only to commit an incomprehensible act, a consummate expression of unbounded will and wholeness. He would have to prove Himself capable of humility: which is to say, the obliteration of His own divinity.

“(A subcommittee in the host of Heaven proposed a new deliberation—‘Is it more intolerable for God to be bound to His divinity, or to be bound to renounce His being bound to His divinity?’—but by then angelic partisanship had reached a point of civil war; they fell embattled from the Heavens, mingling now amongst the congresses of men.)

“Two natures—one mortal, one divine—met at the crosses of Calvary. To the church of Filippoi the apostle Paul proclaimed that ‘being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.’ It is said the crucifixion was a noble act of self-abasement, a submission by the Redeemer to the unjust will of men; thus, Aquinas tells us that ‘the highest praise attaches to the humility of the Man God, who to wean men’s hearts from worldly glory to the love of divine glory, chose to embrace a death of no ordinary sort, but a death of the deepest ignomy.’ What the Doctor failed to grasp was that this very ignomy was only possible through the justness of His death. Suicide, of course, would only elevate the Lord to the honour and nobility of the samurai; a slow and withering decline fit neither the theatrics, nor morbid sensibility, of a God attempting to arrange the utmost act of self-abasement. Briefly he contrived to contract disease (consorting as he did amongst the lepers), but it was clear this would not square him fully in the abject rankness of mortality—disease being the method of God, and not of man. Nothing short of homicide would do. Nor would a vulgar murder, nor even the miscarriage of justice, suffice: he would have to deserve it.

“The Godhead chose the lowest form: the bastard son of a cuckold, a carpenter by trade and friend of whores, in a distant and uncivilised eastern backwater of Rome. He chose the lowest crime: subversion of authority, by threats to Rome and Zion alike, with pretensions of a messianic mission he had no intent to realise. It was necessary that Pontius Pilate wash his hands of the affair and leave his fate up to the Jews; it was necessary that their cries of hate befit his crime of blasphemy. None was culpable that day except the carpenter. For all to be accomplished, for God’s debasement to be complete, He had only to subordinate Himself to the glories of mankind. In that exquisite moment on Golgotha, with Caesar’s spears and the staffs of Moses at his side, the vulgar and deceitful Lamb perfected his abjection by fulfiling God’s design: he died not as a Christ, but as a man, and accordingly as God,” said the Devil.

I took a glance at my wristwatch; it was getting late. We had been dining that blue evening by the bomb-lit dusk of the Old City, sipping cocktails on a stonewalled rooftop terrace from which to watch the children pelting stones at pock-faced soldiers, or to see a beheading or three. At the end of his digression my infernal friend proposed libations: “To the death of God—molotov! Or was it mazel tov? In any case I have had better. Have you been to Kiev?”

I took a long slow sip and said, “No.” In the distance I could hear the dead muezzin’s call to prayer, belted like a vengeful cry against the shouts of mavet la’aravim. The scent of teargas mixed with lavender rose from the nearby souq; my araq smacked of rocket fuel. I said, “I still feel there’s something missing in your story. Following your reasoning—tormented as it must be—the really humble and human thing would be for the Christ to embrace the false glories of the flesh. He would have to live either in worldly sin like Caesar, or by the holy pretensions of Moses. Your Christ did neither.”

“There are two versions of the story,” replied the Devil, “neither of them fully satisfactory. One might say that through his futile mutiny against Rome, the Messiah certified his base unworthiness to the world; and by his blasphemy did he deprive himself even a martyr’s consolation. And after failing to live up to his predestined carnality, the Lord became more human than human—an imperfection of an imperfection: the antipodal shadow of divinity. But this would be to impute failure and accident to the Omnipotent Will, and not to give credits where due. Far better it is to say that at the crosses of Golgotha, a son of the hills of Nazareth descended past the depths of humanity; he sank beneath and reached the nadir of unalloyed ignobility; he delivered himself from his own nature and realised in death that he was God.”

A drizzling of rocket dust fell faintly and alighted on the tips of our cigars. It was a pleasant image: the muted spark, the smouldering leaves, the curls of a mortal exhalation. I wondered how it felt to be so elegantly consumed. “You’re a bad influence,” I told the Devil. “And here I was planning to rejoin the Church and renounce you once and finally.”

“This is no time to be making enemies,” said the Devil.

“Not with friends like you.”

“The poet says, ‘God’s in His heaven—All’s right with the world!’ Is the contrapositive also true?” the Devil asked.

I took my belt and detonator and said to him, “On Earth as it is in Heaven.”

 

Nazareth, 2015.

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