In the beginning

William Blake, "Ancient of Days"

William Blake’s, “Ancient of Days,” with which I shall take issue.

I tell people that I write using the full catastrophe of my name. Except it was not my name; it was the Reformation name my preacher father bestowed on me, his third son.

Dad was confident the Lord had called his four boys to the mission field in Darkest Africa (he called it).  Like the prodigal, I went instead to the fleshpots (he called it) of Southern California where in due course I earned a PhD in history.

Here, in the depths of the mighty river of history, I found the greatest darkness of all. Poring over sources I saw how this reformation or that bloody war, or that cultural mandate, or that conquest, was carried forward in Christ’s name. Kings and queens, popes, presidents and prime ministers, generals and corporals, headmasters and superintendents—the list of titles is endless. All invoked the burden of Jesus Christ in their line of duty. Even when it involved hurling young men (boys, often) into battle, or empanelling a firing squad, or perhaps flaying an enemy or flogging a child. The chronicle of history is deafening with the roar of Christian pieties set against the most shocking brutalities, swindles, or downright folly. “Through an ocean of blood to the Kingdom of Love” (Isaiah Berlin paraphrasing Robespierre).

Missionary to Darkest Africa indeed.

I specialized in Native America. I used to lecture my students about Christian residential schools where native kids were beaten and humiliated and starved, while dying from the white man’s tuberculosis. Schools with their own graveyards. I fought back tears as I read aloud the bland report filed by two God-fearing Californians who amused themselves one day by hunting down Indians. Finding what they were looking for in a cave—a group of frightened old men, women, and children—the two planted themselves at the entrance and casually shot them all. Like beer bottles on a wall.

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre” wrote W.B. Yeats,

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

The poem haunts me. It encapsulates my despair over history. Yeats acknowledges the central role of Christianity in the past twenty centuries of global history.

History, he declares, has gone mad. And Jesus, he says, is one of the culprits for this madness. The individual who promised to save us behaves more like a virus than a savior, highjacking the genetic machinery of the human story and now carrying all humanity to its doom. Global doom: Isn’t this the message of the Apocalypse? Is this not the vision of the Book of Revelation and even writers like St. Paul? Does not Christianity teach that the earth is a temporary expedient for the working out of a cosmic drama between Good and Evil? Milton captures the sentiment brilliantly and tragically (although ambiguously).

Like millions in America, I grew up on this fare, though none of it as lofty as Paradise Lost. Childhood consisted of porridge in the morning and scripture at night. My father never doubted that Jesus was the salvation of the world and I learned to view time and history, human nature—everything, really—through the lens of the Bible. Chapter and verse. History began with Adam and ended in a mushroom cloud at Armageddon. “The whole story, my boy, is right there in The Book.” Mankind was the centerpiece of the universe, and with mankind’s final cleansing (a word favored by Christians) the universe would vanish.

For reasons known only to himself God had created this cosmic backdrop for the colossal morality play being conducted right here and only here on this tiny planet. God, in short, took a deeply personal interest in me. He did so chiefly through his son, Jesus, who took my “sinful nature” upon himself and died for it, to satisfy some obscure need of God’s. For God could not bear to countenance me as a sinner; he could embrace me only as a redeemed sinner, that is, a sinner who had accepted Jesus’ expiatory death. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” All of human history, even the history of plants and rocks and soil and rivers and oceans and spring peepers, came down to this single verse. I was made to memorize John 3:16 in several languages; it was the key to everything I was and ever would be.

Cogito ergo sum? No, not for me as a child. “God thinks, therefore I am.”

Such were the verities I grew up with. Salvation, sin, heaven, hell, guilt, redemption, born again, cleansing, good and evil, God, Satan, Christ, the End Times. The Second Coming. My father was pretty certain he would never die; for much of his life he seemed convinced the Lord would return and spare him that indignity. (My dad, poor man, was terror-stricken at the thought of dying.) Harold Martin did die, after all—an old man deranged in his senility. He died in the full terror of the death he was not at all prepared for.

Long before that event I began to question the validity of the words he taught me—this language of Christianity. I began to doubt that the universe and the human enterprise ran according to the biblical paradigm.

And when I became a man, to paraphrase St. Paul, I found I had been swindled. Testosterone and estrogen are the two best antitoxins to biblical fundamentalism I know of. Reach puberty, discover sex (my father called it a mere “tickling of a nerve”) and the whole thing becomes dubious. In those fleshpots of Southern California I succumbed to what dad called the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Mostly, the devil: I began to read. Not John Bunyon this time (although he is worth reading) but Rousseau, Kant, Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman. Darwin and Einstein and the quantum physicists intoxicated me. Soon I fell under the spell of Loren Eiseley, heir to Darwin and Thoreau. “We are rag dolls made out of many ages and skins, changelings who have slept in wood nests or hissed in the uncouth guise of waddling amphibians. We have played such roles for infinitely longer ages than we have been men. Our identity is a dream.” Eiseley called it our “immense journey.”

In college and graduate school I devoured course after course in biochemistry. I had found the bedrock of humanity: peptide bonds, ATP, nucleic acids, fatty acids, amino acids, glucose. Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorous: the small change of life. Plant, animal, even microbial life. Humanity is but one of many designs woven into the seamless garment called Life. Thoreau saw it, too, and I blessed him for it: “Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?”

I was thrilled. Released from biblical bondage, I resolved to doubt everything to find truth, and was finding it in leaves and vegetable mould. I felt I was becoming a child again, finding meaning in such commonplaces as leaves and trees and rivers.

An immense journey indeed: couplings of amino acids and nucleotides over vast octaves of time had produced my kind, humankind. Humankind was withal a shapeshifter; we have worn many skins. The mindprint and body print of these earlier forms remain with us today. Excited by this vision of mankind, I entered the field of history.

History? Biology had put into my hands a creature, Homo sapiens, constructed of mostly carbon and water. A bipedal, frontal-gazing primate with a formidable neural capacity for speech and handling things. All well and good but, for me, not enough. Anyone having the misfortune of carrying around the religious baggage I struggle with is going to find himself needing to explain why humans behave the way we do. Words like depravity, sin, guilt, foreordination, salvation, redemption, and good and evil spring to mind. These things molded me; I shall take them to my grave. (Even now thousands of my brain cells are unavailable for further use, frozen in the lyrics of innumerable hymns.) My case is extreme, I confess, although I am not alone; it is more than four ludicrously named brothers who struggle to heal the wounds of Christianity. I like to think that as an adult I have moved the Christian discourse into something more complex.

I turned to history in part to purge words like sin, good and evil, moral and immoral of their biblical meanings and put them, now, into a historical context. A context that would be less personal, more detached. I no longer had the stomach to wrestle with my own salvation or my own good and evil; I needed to pluck these things out of myself and deposit them into something called History. Here, safely outside of me, I could analyze where they came from. When I was a child I was forced by messianic parents to make my way to truth through my heart; as a historian, I would find truth through my intellect.

To become a historian was, for me, an exorcism—so I naively thought.

There are two paths. Neither takes you.
Sometimes, though, lost in thought, the one
lets you go on….
—Rilke

… to be continued