Close to Revelation

It’s difficult to know how to write about two people who, one feels, came so close to fuller realizations that, had they been able to take an additional step or two, they would have. . . .  Well, would’ve what? The dilemma is complex. Let’s see if we can burrow into the puzzle.

The two people in question (not to be mysterious or coy) are Albert Schweitzer and Norman O. Brown. The realizations in question are religious or spiritual or mythological in nature. The texts are Schweitzer’s 1950 essay “The Conception of the Kingdom of God in the Transformation of Eschatology,” and various thoughts scattered in three books by Brown—Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (1959), Love’s Body (1966), and Closing Time (1973). It might be better to deal first with Brown.

It’s probably true that one has to be of a certain age—intellectually groping in the 1960s and ’70s—to understand the demographically small but nevertheless powerful intellectual impact Brown had on a certain slice of people who were not only deeply agitated about the state of the world, but who wanted an analysis of how we got ourselves into an End Times predicament and some prognosis of what it would take to find a way out. That Brown—like Herbert Marcuse—seems to have faded into obscurity does not imply irrelevancy. If anything, such obscurity proves the power of our numbing predicament, the extent to which our overarching and deeply pervasive cultural mythology deadens us to impending disasters, even if that deadening can take on forms of entertaining and diverting hyperactivity.

Anyway, what I want to suggest with Brown is just how close he came to developing Trinity into Mandala, Trio into Quartet, enlarging a three-figure religious construct into a four-figure mythological realization. The first big clue can be found on page 126 of Life Against Death:

The proper starting point for a Freudian anthropology is the pre-Oedipal mother. What is given by nature, in the family, is the dependence of the child on the mother. Male domination must be grasped as a secondary formation, the product of the child’s revolt against the primal mother, bequeathed to adulthood and culture by the castration complex. Freudian anthropology must therefore turn from Freud’s preoccupation with patriarchal monotheism; it must take out of the hands of Jungian Schwarmerei the exploitation of Bachofen’s great discovery of the religion of the Great Mother, a substratum underlying the religion of the Father—the anthropological analogue to Freud’s discovery of the Oedipal mother underlying the Oedipal father, and comparable, like Freud’s, to the discovery of Minoan-Mycenaean civilization underlying Greek civilization.

“Child’s revolt” and “castration complex” are both related to male weaning; but let’s refrain from jumping down those rabbit holes for the time being and instead attend to the opening sentence of that passage: The starting point for a Freudian anthropology is the pre-Oedipal mother. So a classics professor of ambiguous spirituality (Brown), working off of an atheist Jewish psychoanalyst (Freud), sets the stage for an almost painful grasping, in Love’s Body, where Brown repeatedly invokes Joachim of Floris (the twelfth-century Italian monk who brought Trinity out of the sky and transformed it into sequential historical ages) without ever sliding the “pre-Oedipal mother” in front of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. To do that sliding—to put Mother in front of Father, Son, Holy Ghost—would’ve immediately insinuated the Holy Ghost as a no-gender anomaly in the modified and enlarged sequence. Consistency on various levels of perception shouts Daughter. When Mother takes first position, Holy Ghost drops her burka. And it’s not as if Brown didn’t have the intellectual basis for seeing—and making—that mythological expansion.

Well, maybe Brown, in Love’s Body, was still captivated by a Freudian anthropology rather than being open to a more comprehensive Jungian mythology. His grasp of the psychoanalytical toolkit should’ve, could’ve, just might have got him there; but his partisan dismissal of the “Jungian Schwarmerei” seems to have blinded him to the crucial insights Jung opened by his exploration into buried memories and how those buried memories link not only to ancient myths but to strata of real history.

With the acutely rational aid of psychoanalytical consistency, sliding Mother in front of Father—followed, of course, by Son and Holy Ghost—discloses the figure of Holy Ghost as Daughter. Norman O. Brown came that close to the discovery, that close to the realization of Trinity’s representation of divinized male supremacy. All he would’ve had to do was, first, perceive the mythological significance of Trinity (and his grasp of psychoanalytical fundamentals allowed him to be capable of that perception); second, recognize from anthropology that Mother precedes Father (the “anthropological analogue to Freud’s discovery of the Oedipal mother underlying the Oedipal father”); and, third, draw the obvious conclusion (sheer gender consistency) that Holy Ghost is a mythological disguise for Daughter.

So I got a copy of Closing Time—inter-library loan and now, of course, overdue—and it’s a delightfully erudite and quirky book, especially its reveling in James Joyce verbal frolic (e.g., Finnigans Wake as “farced epistol to the hibruws”). But, in Closing Time, Brown reverts to the fundamentally flawed historical “ages” of Giambattista Vico (1668-1744). Vico’s “ages” are, in sequence, Chaos, Theocracy, Aristocracy, and Democracy; that is, following primal Chaos, there are three sequential phases of divine (Theocracy), heroic (Aristocracy), and the incapable human (Democracy) before Chaos gets another spin on the wheel of fate. (Gore Vidal, in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, makes the same intellectual blunder with Vico’s “ages.”) Democracy, according to Vico, always and inevitably deteriorates into tyranny, and the cycle returns to Chaos, which starts the whole sequence all over again. But this is by no means a proper starting point for any anthropology, Freudian or otherwise. It is, to be blunt, culturally and historically bullshit. And it pains me to find Brown keeping such discredited intellectual company. Joachim’s construct holds the incomplete and unfinished key to a far more rational and comprehensive understanding. Brown simply failed to jiggle the arrangement. He had the intellectual tools and the conceptual capacity to do that jiggling. But he somehow never did. Perhaps his brilliant classicism got him everywhere but over that horizon.

It may not be necessary to point this out, but Chaos in front of Theocracy and Aristocracy implicitly dresses Mother in robes of Chaos. It asserts that human beings are incapable of Democracy. Its horizon is the natural and inevitable supremacy of the self-evident male. It also is a profound failure to recognize that a true deepening of Democracy hinges on an empowerment of women whose overarching designation is Daughter.

Well, let’s slide over to Albert Schweitzer, although I suspect he is at least as unknown as Brown or Marcuse to most younger people. Schweitzer, a German across the Rhine from France, was famous (in his day) for several things—as an organist, his books on J. S. Bach and the kingdom of God, and especially his medical clinic in West Africa, in Gabon.

What’s central here, in this little essay, is Schweitzer’s ethical wrestle with the “kingdom of God” proclamation as found in the first three Christian gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—although more contemporary linguistic scholarship asserts that “kingdom of God” is a crappy translation of the Aramaic word malkuta, from which the “kingdom of God” was distilled by male translation. Malkuta is a feminine-gendered noun more aligned—if pushed into the Aristocracy camp—with “queendom” than with “kingdom.”  (In other words, to enlarge the term malkuta to “kingdom of God” proportions would result in “queendom of the Goddess,” and that is a total show stopper for all theologically orthodox Christians, whether conservative or liberal, for whom the godhead is eternally male. Period.) However, it was a volatile blend of the spiritual and the ethical that captivated Albert Schweitzer. He really took the kingdom of God proclamation seriously. And, after considerable achievements as musician and scholar, he obtained a medical degree and shipped out to Africa. He put an ethically admirable face on what it meant to be a Christian missionary. And then he discovered something he may not have anticipated, something that slowly but steadily transformed his spiritual comprehension.

But I want to focus here on Schweitzer’s essay referenced earlier, “The Conception of the Kingdom of God in the Transformation of Eschatology.” I found it in Walter Kaufmann’s Religion from Tolstoy to Camus. Kaufmann says, in a brief introduction to the piece, that Schweitzer attached “singular importance to this essay.” I’d like to explore that attachment.

The essay is fairly small print, nearly eighteen pages in length. The main thing to say about it is that it exudes Schweitzer’s yearning for an actualized kingdom of God. (There is no malkuta in Schweitzer’s narrative. Apparently linguistic scholars hadn’t yet made—or permitted themselves to recognize—that discovery. That is, there are discoveries not yet made, and there are discoveries evaded  and avoided because they are too difficult to accept, too threatening to prevailing conviction and conventional belief.) But Schweitzer, as a biblical scholar of his day, with an associated linguistic comprehension, walks the reader through the historical process by which the kingdom of God shifted from “a speedy coming” to “postponed for a short time” to “infinitely far away,” with the believer increasingly “condemned to live out his life in the same old world.” This condemnation “creates an unnatural situation for those whose faith compels them to do nothing but wait . . . condemned to refrain from all efforts to improve the present situation.” Or, we might say, not only refraining from efforts to improve the present situation, but also not knowing how to feel liberated, unshackled, or even eager (in this life) to discover what it might feel like to be alive and liberated; not merely engaging in do-good improvement projects, as important as those may be, but being oneself a liberated human being. (We might say that conservative Christians remain determined to live in the same old world, while liberals toy with efforts of improvement; but neither imagines or explores liberation.)

Christianity, under these conditions, “cannot be to the surrounding Graeco-Roman world what it ought to be. It cannot use its moral energy as power for regenerating the empire and its peoples. It conquers paganism; it becomes the religion of the state. But owing to its peculiar character it must leave the state to its fate. This world is not the dough in which its leaven can work.” (We’ll slide, at least for now, over Schweitzer’s conventional use—another chasm of a rabbit hole—of “pagan.”)

Then, having walked the reader up through medieval history to Luther and beyond, Schweitzer shows how the “rise and growth of natural science”—he names Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo—generates “an unprecedented confidence in human capacity and creative power in every field. Thus by the time of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) the new attitude has attained to the stature of a philosophy.” Bruno was also burned at the stake.

At this point Schweitzer begins to bend his analysis from religious stasis to hints of spiritual awakening. He says the “stoic ideal of humanity”—a “new intellectual attitude, believing in progress, determined to do all [it] can to help the world onward and upward, and disposed to universal charity”—is a new outlook which makes progress “acceptable to Christians, who have been prepared for the idea of progress by the ethical teaching of Jesus.” By the ethical teaching of Jesus, Schweitzer means the core sayings of Jesus in the first three gospels. (The Jesus Seminar, under the leadership of Robert Funk, winnowed even more of the ethical wheat from the mythological chaff in those core gospel sayings.) Those ethical teachings are the fuel rods of social, cultural, political, and spiritual transformation.

About halfway into his essay, Schweitzer takes us around a spiritual bend in the narrative flow. In the preceding part he says “Modern Protestant Christianity takes a long time to break away from world-denial.” Before there arose the widespread feeling that progress was possible in this life, that it was within reach not only to make one’s own life better but everybody’s, it was necessary to shed the  ideological passivity associated with the condemnation to live in the same old world. This shedding—by no means consistent or universal—also generated a collective secular energy in behalf of democratic progress. And what is the core emotional investment in democratic progress but liberated energy guided by ethical conviction—a felt thing as much or more than an intellectual thing—that making life better is, in a collective civilizational sense, an imitation of heaven or the City of God? The architecture of the civilizational dream was, at least in part, fueled by the underlying spiritual energy of malkuta even as the rationalized blueprints were drawn up by male thinkers under the influence of the “kingdom of God” construct. Augustine’s City of God.

So the belief in progress becomes a felt thing. No longer serfs or slaves, our ancestors were free to enter—or, if indigenous, forced to enter—commercializing industrial civilization as constructed by the most exacting of moral Christians, the Calvinist Protestant merchant class, who were helped mightily in their ideological supremacy by the papal doctrine assuring the Right of Christian Discovery.

Here in America land was free or cheap. Except if you were native or a slave. All you had to do, if you were male and white, was carry a gun, help catch escaped slaves, and assist in pushing back the indigenous whose lifeways were regarded as savage, pagan, spiritually wicked, and immensely inferior. The Right of Christian Discovery was the papal articulation of a collective ethical and moral right to the purifying behavior of a superior and chosen people claiming the wilderness, taming the wilderness, domesticating the wilderness, in a process of moral uplift from savage to civilized. This too was understood as progress. This was what the collective investment in making life better had come to. And this is the world we live in, the world we inhabit, the world which is self-doomed unless we radically change our collective ways, our behavior, our attitudes, our spiritual comprehension. Unless we discover living malkuta inside the infinitely postponed kingdom of God.

Schweitzer saw this. His spiritual passion was in discerning ever more fully the actual energy field a certain Jewish peasant radiated with his audacious malkuta proclamation. Schweitzer realized that malkuta brims with an astonishing and even frightening recognition—he may not have known the term malkuta, but he felt and lived its spiritual and ethical energy—that better life becomes the norm when everybody does it and lives it. But how to distinguish, how to separate, the glittering civilized corruption of a postponed and corrupted kingdom of God construct from the malkutaenergy of spiritual—and political—transformation?

The paradox, of course, is that glimmers of liberation can also activate our individual hesitation and collective restraint, for restraint is the boundary of repression imposed by the traumatic and institutionalized diseases of civilizational class and war, the venerable diseases whose authority is so reflexively instantaneous and righteous. Just as civilization made a heavenly Christ out of an earthy Jesus, so the kingdom of God was associated with the City of God. Malkuta, like Jesus, was left to wither on the earthly vine. The Catholic Mother of God got to perpetually hold her wounded and dying Son, but Daughter only got a burka.

Yes, restraint is social and collective. But it wouldn’t be collective if everybody didn’t have a big dose of hesitation and skepticism. Restraint has a multi-generational infrastructure pedigree that concentrates authority in certain places. School. Church. The Courts. And those concentrations—various levels of government, formal religious bodies, corporate organizations of great variety—represent the power arrangements in our everyday lives and culture. We all grew up in and under the restraints and prerogatives of those power arrangements.

Of course, the religious legitimacy of the Abrahamic religions is breaking down; and with its breakdown goes the overarching male supremacy most powerfully depicted and celebrated as God the Father Almighty in whom no femaleness abides. That’s the god of the Right of Christian Discovery

 So—Schweitzer makes a turn. He shifts from describing how the kingdom of God got ejected to otherworldly status to advocating for malkuta as the transformative spiritual basis of our lives. Underneath this advocacy is the question of Spirit. Do we mean God the Father? God the Son? God the Holy Ghost? Yahweh? Allah? Those are the Big Guys. Is there any room in there for Mother or Daughter? Or have the Big Guys so hogged not only collective spiritual consciousness but also our capacity to perceive mythologically that our Big Daddy fate is sealed? Will Democracy revert to Chaos because Theocracy and Aristocracy continue to dominate our consciousness?

To recognize the class and war inner structure of civilization for what it is, and to see through its self-sanctification, is also to enter into a corresponding crisis with divine imagery and its associated emotional states and mythological convictions. It can be a hard, hard struggle to work through those states and convictions. The breakdown of Abrahamic religions may seem a slow process on a day-to-day rite of passage; historically it’s something of a mudslide.

Well, End Times has entered an increasingly busy avalanche of mudslides. We’re already into global crisis in multiple ways. We’re at an evolutionary crisis point. It’s all a big muddle. To get even a glimpse of its totality is to realize what a magnitude of transformation is needed—unconditionally required—to survive the current system’s righteous self-destruction, its fatuous denial of responsibility.

Schweitzer saw what was up. Two monstrous world wars in his highly cultured lifetime. Trench slaughter. Extermination camps. Atomic bombs dropped on cities. Schweitzer said if transformation comes, if malkuta becomes the actual energy field of our personal lives and political behavior, its coming will be ethical and spiritual, not supernatural. Schweitzer didn’t say he no longer believed in God the Father Almighty. But I think that’s what he meant. “Mankind,” he said, “to-day must either realize the Kingdom of God or perish. . . . We are at the beginning of the end of the human race. . . . But there can be no Kingdom of God in the world without the Kingdom of God in our hearts.”

I believe Albert Schweitzer was living in as much malkuta as he could possibly perceive, enter into, achieve, and maintain. He strained to convey that urgent reality to the utmost of his ability. And I think we might add prophet to his list of reverent and compassionate accomplishments.

Paul Gilk lives in the woods of northern Wisconsin. His home is a reconstructed nineteenth-century log cabin, without electricity or running water. He is the author of several books including Green Politics is Eutopian, Nature’s Unruly Mob: Farming and the Crisis in Rural Culture, and Picking Fights with the Gods: A Spiritual Psychoanalysis of Civilization’s Superego.