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Q&A | May 20, 2013 0 comments
Describe your latest work. When I started working on Plant-Thinking in 2008, I had no idea that the project would turn out to be as broad as it did.... Continue »
Running Out of Brimstoneby Aviad Kleinberg
"What have I to do there? I seek not to win paradise....For none go to paradise but I'll tell you who: old priests and old cripples, and the halt and the maimed who are down on their knees day and night, before altars and in old crypts; those also that wear shabby old cloaks and go in rags and tatters, shivering and shoeless, those who die of hunger, and want, and cold and misery. Such are they who go to paradise; with them I will have nothing to do. But hell is where I want to go. For to hell go the handsome clerks, and the handsome knights, killed in tournaments or in magnificent wars, and the valiant soldiers and the gallant gentlemen. With them I wish to go. There go also the beautiful ladies of refined society who have two or three lovers, beside their husbands. There go the gold and the silver, the sables and ermines. There go the harpers and the jongleurs and the princes of this world. With them I wish to go, as long as I have my most sweet friend Nicolette with me."
Being with the woman you love, thinks Aucassin, cannot be bad, whatever the sleeping arrangements. Besides, if only the pious go to heaven, it is probably not much fun, and if all the fun people go to hell, it cannot be such a bad place. If the poor in spirit are so eager to win paradise, they can have it.
Aucassin was not the first to show such a blasé attitude toward paradise. It all started in the Garden of Eden. According to St. Augustine, Eve really believed the serpent, but Adam did not. He knew that a single bite of the forbidden fruit was going to cost him and his progeny a world of trouble. And yet he sank his teeth into that fateful apple because, says Augustine, he loved Eve so much that he could not bear the idea of being separated from her, be it in paradise. Bad thinking, if you ask the old saint. Human pleasure is ephemeral; divine punishment everlasting. It's simply a bad tradeoff. When under the heady influence of the amorous cocktail of smells and sights and hormones and emotions, we feel invincible, outrageous, brazen, happy, forever young. Unfortunately it never lasts. One thousand kisses later, would Adam still be willing to defy the Almighty and trade bodily comfort for the companionship of his gullible spouse? Probably not. No earthly pleasure, not even the embrace of the beautiful Nicolette, is worth an eternity of unthinkable suffering. Sinners are either disbelievers or fools.
Aucassin is no fool. He does not openly challenge the justice of the common idea of divine retribution. One could wonder, for example, whether it is just to punish finite creatures infinitely — doesn't eternal suffering exceed at some point even the worst human crime? But questioning the Master of the Universe might not be wise. Aucassin is no fool. On the other hand, he is not exactly a naïve believer. Sure, he is willing to go to hell with the lovely Nicolette, but his hell is not exactly Dante's inferno. In the end, it would seem, everyone gets what he or she wishes for: handsome knights get to hang out with fashionable ladies in ermine and mink and with their extramarital partners; old priests get to spend eternity on their knees before altars in old crypts. Suffering is absent from Aucassin's afterlife.
In the Middle Ages, Aucassin was an exception. For many centuries, all thinkers agreed that without the fear of divine punishment, human beings would slip into anarchy and chaos. Without fear there is no morality: "He who spares the rod hates his son." The whole social structure depended on this fear. In churches, mosques, and synagogues, one could sense the same smell — brimstone. Repent or else!
Sometime in the second half of the 20th century, repentance went out of fashion — at least in much of the West. We now go to places of worship to be comforted and consoled, not to be berated and insulted. We are less sure that we are morally right and culturally superior. Do we have the right to condemn suicides, fornicators, blasphemers, pagans, and heretics? Are we convinced that masturbation warrants eternal damnation? Very few of us do nowadays. Even Pope Benedict XVI, a conservative and no stranger to infernal theology, shows a distinct lack of enthusiasm for fire and brimstone. Recently he has clarified that hell is not the torture chamber we always thought it was. Yes, it is a place of punishment, but the suffering is more spiritual — a melancholy sense of missed opportunity perhaps.
And since we no longer feel comfortable with eternal punishment, we are much more self-forgiving about our sins. Think of the Seven Deadly Sins, the magnificent seven that kill your soul and send you howling to the bottomless pit. Since their invention in the 4th century, they have been the bread and butter of the fire-and-brimstone preacher. Not anymore. Sloth? Harmless leisure. Gluttony? An appreciation of fine cuisine. Greed? Entrepreneurial spirit. Envy? Healthy competition. Pride? Self-respect. Anger? Righteous. Lust? Now, really! Don't be such prudes. Lately the Vatican has felt the need to issue a new list, more au courant than the previous one: "bioethical" violations; "morally dubious" experiments; drug abuse; polluting the environment; contributing to widening the divide between rich and poor; excessive wealth; creating poverty. Unlike the first list that makes us all sinners (Who amongst us is without envy? Without gluttony, anger, greed, lust, pride, and sloth?), the new list points its finger mainly at governments and corporate money. Few of us perform "morally dubious" experiments and even fewer, alas, "widen the gap between the rich and the poor."
How did this momentous change in our worldview occur? As always, it isn't easy to say. There are complex historical reasons, but all of them seem to point back to the crisis of the first half of the 20th century. The world of our ancestors with its premises and promises was systematically destroyed by two world wars, shattered by the numerous atrocities committed by those who should have known and been better. The baby-boom generation and its children wanted to make love, not war. Our Heavenly Father with his heaven and hell began to seem as part of a plot to spoil everybody's fun. We know we are not perfect, but that is not because we're sinners. We have reasons for being less than perfect. Please talk to our therapists. Theology with its war against sin and its prohibitions has been replaced by psychology with its excuses and its war against inhibitions.
Is this the end of sin then? Has Aucassin triumphed in spite of everything? Has our consumers' paradise with its instant gratifications replaced the naively pre-industrial Garden of Eden? Probably not. We have not seen the last of heaven and hell. The walls of the consumers' paradise are trembling. Out there, a whole chorus of preachers, prophets, apostles, and pastors are anxious to tell us they've told us so. Out there, heaven and hell are patiently waiting to make their comeback.
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Aviad Kleinberg is Professor of History at Tel Aviv University and the author of Prophets in Their Own Country: Living Saints and the Making of Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages.