Friday, January 27, 2006

Pope Benedict's answer to Dan Brown

You could say that today was a typical Australia Day: a hot day (33 degrees--we were expecting 41!--still 30 degrees outside at 7:30pm), spent most of the day at the local pool with family and friends. The big difference: I had an encyclical from the Pope to read.

Many people are perhaps wondering why Benedict would chose the topic "God is love" for his first encyclical. Is this the Pope who was going to "kick ass" as the American's would say? Where is the encyclical condemning the "Tyranny of Relativism"? What's all this wishy washy love stuff?

Well, if you take the time to delve into this encyclical, you will see that it is far from wishy washy. If sex sells (as Dan Brown found out--more about him in a minute) then this ought to be an all time hit as far as encyclicals go. But it is not for the biblically illiterate--you get a lesson in the Hebrew and Greek words for love as you go along. And as you read it, you begin to realise that it makes connections with all kinds of issues current in the Church and in society--western society in particular.

Now, to Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" (aka "that bloody book" as I tend to call it). I only read "that bloody book" because I was asked to do a presentation on it for the local Catholic Youth Ministry last year. I read it in a day (it took me about as long as the new encyclical did to read--guess which was the better experience...), and soon identified the following ideas Brown presents in the novel that anyone who seeks to "think with the Church" would have issues with:

1) Gnosis as the path of redemption
2) Trinity and Christology as constructs of a Constantinian Church
3) The Doctrine of the "Divine Goddess"

I can talk about the first two problems any time, but right now, I want to focus on the last one. Here are a few quotations from DB in TDVC:

  • In his “Acknowledgements” at the very beginning of The Da Vinci Code, Brown states that his novel draws “heavily on the sacred femine”.
  • “Christian philosophy decided to embezzle the female’s creative power by ignoring biological truth and making man the Creator.” p. 322.
  • “The Grail is symbolic of the lost goddess. …The Church…had subjugated women, banished the Goddess, burned nonbelievers and forbidden the pagan reverence for the sacred feminine.” p 322.
  • Langdon strained to hide his emotion, and yet he could not believe what he was hearing. Sophie Neveu had unwittingly witnessed a two-thousand year old sacred ceremony… “It’s called the Hieros Gamos… Egyptian priests and priestesses performed it regularly to celebrate the reproductive power of the female.” p. 409
  • “Although what she saw probably looked like a sex ritual, Hieros Gamos had nothing to do with eroticism. It was a spiritual act. Historically, intercourse was the act through which male and female experienced God. The ancients believed that the male was spiritually incomplete until he had carnal knowledge of the sacred feminine. Physical union with the female remained the sole means through which man could become spiritually complete and ultimately achieve gnosis—knowledge of the divine. By communing with woman man could achieve a climactic instant when his mind when totally blank and he could see God.” p. 410
  • “The ancients view of sex was entirely opposite from ours today. Sex begot new life-the ultimate miracle-and miracles could be performed only by a god. The ability of the woman to produce life from her womb made her sacred. A god. Intercourse was the revered union of the two halves of the human spirit—male and female—through which the male could find spiritual wholeness and communion with God. What you saw was not about sex, it was about spirituality. The Hieros Gamos ritual is not a perversion. It’s a deeply sacrosanct ceremony.” p. 411
  • “Early Jewish tradition involved ritualistic sex. In the temple, no less. Solomon’s Temple housed not only God but also his powerful female equal, Shekinah. Men seeking spiritual wholeness came to the Temple to visit priestesses—or hierodules—with whom they made love and experience the divine through physical union. The Jewish tertragrammaton YHWH—the sacred name of God—in fact derived from Jehovah, an androgynous physical union between the masculine Jah and the pre-Hebraic name for Eve, Havah.” p. 411
  • “For the early Church…mankind’s use of sex to commune directly with God posed a serious threat to the Catholic power base. It left the Chruch out of the loop, undermining their self-proclaimed statuds as the sole conduit to God. Fro obvious reasons, they worked hard to demonize sex and recast it as a disgusting and sinful act. Other major religions did the same.” p. 411

It goes without saying that most of this is utter nonsense—some of it blasphemous. However, note the following:

  • Brown asserts that the “hieros gamos” (ritual sex) is the means by which human beings (specifically male human beings, since females are already “divine”) commune with God. The claim that there were such rituals in the ancient world is quite true. Temple prostitution (to be a priestess was in fact to be subjected to prostitution) was a part of most polytheistic religions. It is also true that the ancient Israelites were affected by this form of religion, which was the native religion of Canaan (cf. 1 Kings 14:22-24).
  • "One may question that those ancient enemies of Israel were as evil as the Bible claims that they were, but even a superficial glance at Canaanite religion alone ably demonstrates their iniquity. Base sex worship was prevalent, and religious prostitution even commanded; human sacrifice was common; and it was a frequent practice--in an effort to placate their gods--to kill young children and bury them in the foundations of a house or public building at the time of construction: Joshua 6:26 "In his days did Hiel the Bethelite build Jericho: he laid the foundation thereof in Abiram his firstborn..." (Howard E. Vos, "An Introduction To Bible Archaeology" Revised ed. pp. 17-19)
  • In polytheistic religions there are male and female gods. Each god has a goddess as a consort. In very primitive polytheism, the male is the sky god and the female is the earth goddess. Rain (which gives fertility to the soil) was interpreted as “insemination” of the female earth by the male sky. Check out the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal (the Male Rain God) in 1 Kings 18 and you will see the irony.
  • Such gods and goddesses were not interested in human beings. The only way in which human beings could in anyway influence them was by “imitative magic” (magic, in religion, is the use of powers to coerce the gods into action). Therefore the practice of sacred prostitution was believed to encourage rain and ensure fertile crops.
  • Monotheism, where (in the words of the Islamic creed) God “has no partner/consort” radically alters the relationship of God to human beings. Firstly it “de-genders” God to a certain extent, deemphasizing his masculine sexuality. On the other hand, it opens up the possibility of a relationship with human beings in terms of a “marriage covenant”, where God is viewed as the husband/bridegroom and his people as wife/bridegroom. Cf. Isaiah 62:1-5 and Hosea 1-3. This theme is taken up by Jesus and the apostolic writers of the New Testament. It also enables a “Father/Son” relationship (and even a “Father/Daughter” relationship in terms of God’s relationship to Jerusalem, “Daughter Zion”).

Now we get to Pope Benedict's new encyclical. He deals directly with the way in which ancient religion and philosophy regarded "eros"--the erotic love between a man and women. Here are some snippets from "Deus Caritas Est":

  • §4 "In the religions, ...fertility cults, part of which was the “sacred” prostitution, ...flourished in many temples. Eros was thus celebrated as divine power, as fellowship with the Divine. The Old Testament firmly opposed this form of religion, which represents a powerful temptation against monotheistic faith, combating it as a perversion of religiosity. But it in no way rejected eros as such; rather, it declared war on a warped and destructive form of it, because this counterfeit divinization of eros actually strips it of its dignity and dehumanizes it. Indeed, the prostitutes in the temple, who had to bestow this divine intoxication, were not treated as human beings and persons, but simply used as a means of arousing “divine madness”: far from being goddesses, they were human persons being exploited. An intoxicated and undisciplined eros, then, is not an ascent in “ecstasy” towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man. Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns."
  • §5 "Eros, reduced to pure “sex”, has become a commodity, a mere “thing” to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man's great “yes” to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will. Nor does he see it as an arena for the exercise of his freedom, but as a mere object that he attempts, as he pleases, to make both enjoyable and harmless. Here we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body: no longer is it integrated into our overall existential freedom; no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. The apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness. Christian faith, on the other hand, has always considered man a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility. True, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing."
  • §9 "God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape. The Prophets, particularly Hosea and Ezekiel, described God's passion for his people using boldly erotic images. God's relationship with Israel is described using the metaphors of betrothal and marriage; idolatry is thus adultery and prostitution. Here we find a specific reference—as we have seen—to the fertility cults and their abuse of eros, but also a description of the relationship of fidelity between Israel and her God. The history of the love-relationship between God and Israel consists, at the deepest level, in the fact that he gives her the Torah, thereby opening Israel's eyes to man's true nature and showing her the path leading to true humanism. It consists in the fact that man, through a life of fidelity to the one God, comes to experience himself as loved by God, and discovers joy in truth and in righteousness..."
  • §11 "From the standpoint of creation, eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfil its deepest purpose. Corresponding to the image of a monotheistic God is monogamous marriage. Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God's way of loving becomes the measure of human love. This close connection between eros and marriage in the Bible has practically no equivalent in extra-biblical literature."

So, there you have it. If you have stuck with the argument this far, it should be fairly evident that Benedict answers each one of Dan Brown's silly assertions in The Davinci Code. The sad thing is that they needed to be answered at all. Another theme that Benedict touches on in the encylical is the role of the Church in the "purification of reason", but that's another whole topic...

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