Saturday, October 8, 2011

C is for Cults

Whenever a small group of fanatics does something especially outrageous, momentarily grabbing the headlines, a gusher of “cult” commentary pours forth from “experts” who invariably pass over in total silence the biggest cult of them all—“the Cult of the Christians”—as it was known to the Romans.

Primitive Christianity had all the earmarks of a cult: (1) A charismatic leader who believes in his own special powers and destiny; (2) A small, highly devoted band of followers; (3) A belief that the end of the world is imminent; (4) A renunciation of conventional sexual morality; (5) Unrelenting hostility to family and friends outside the group; (6) Strenuous opposition to the religious establishment of the day; (7) A special destiny established by fulfilling various earlier predictions; (8) An obsession with death and dying.

Jesus, the center of the Christian Cult, clearly believed in his own magical powers. He regularly “cast out demons,” cured the sick, restored sight to the blind, and even raised a (supposedly) dead man to life. He also believed that the end of the world was imminent. His prediction “before this generation passes away” can be found in many conspicuous places throughout the gospels. Modern day Christians try to explain away these false predictions by wrapping the perfectly clear term “generation” in layers of self-serving ambiguity. (Similar to the way that theologians like to play around with the meaning of the word “day” when trying to explain God’s creation as taking place in “seven days and seven nights.”)

What do we know about the sex life of Jesus? Most Christians go into deep denial when this question is raised and refuse to take it seriously. We know that Jesus and Paul both strove to deny their sexuality and equated sex with sin. Jesus even talked about “cutting off your hand lest it lead you into sin,” explaining that “It would be better for you to enter the kingdom of heaven missing a hand than not enter at all.” Although the hand is often an instrument of sin, Jesus may have had another organ in mind when he issued this warning to his followers.

The contemporary Christian concern for “family values” falls very wide of the mark established by the early cult. More than once, Jesus commanded his followers to give up everything forsaking both friends and family to follow him and him alone. He publicly humiliated his own mother and brothers, denying that they were his real family.

Despite his statement that he intended “to fulfill, not to overthrow,” the law and the prophets, he spent most of his time trying to do exactly that. His violent behavior in the Temple of Jerusalem is a case in point. The money-changers working there fulfilled an important public function that everyone accepted as necessary. Worshipers needed to exchange money to buy animals for sacrifice. These “profane” transactions took place outside the sacred inner grounds of the Temple. Jesus’s gratuitous and violent attack on the money changers was a publicity stunt probably calculated to provoke the authorities into overreacting.

Earlier, on his way into Jerusalem, Jesus more than once told his cult followers that he was going there in order to die. He confidently expected to be killed. He needed to be killed in Jerusalem so that certain ancient scriptural predictions could be fulfilled. Going out of his way to fulfill various prophecies was a frequent and important part of Jesus’ behavior. His obvious intention was to lend credibility to his claim to be the Messiah.

Jesus’ eagerly-sought death—not to be confused with a genuine “martyrdom”—is the epicenter of the enormous cult of death and resurrection founded by St. Paul. Without Paul’s genius as a propagandist, Christianity would probably have faded away or become just another oddball splinter group within Judaism. With unstinting energy, Paul was able make himself the high priest of the cult of the dead Jesus who had risen from the dead. Paul thus became the cult’s second founder. He proclaimed that without Jesus’ Resurrection, Christianity had no foundation. In other words, its sole claim to validity lay in the unique authority of its resurrected founder. Its principles do not derive their validity based on the force of logical arguments, moral reasoning or even common sense. They must be accepted in their entirety because of your belief in Him, the Founder of the cult, and in His Divine Authority.

The entire scene surrounding the death of Jesus has a cult-like quality to it. Nailing to the cross could not have happened—nails driven through the hands will not support the body weight of a fully grown adult male. Driven through the wrist, they would bring about a quick death by severing the arteries. The familiar image of Jesus hanging from nails thorough his hands on a cross is preposterous and cult-like in its unreality and in its unspoken demand that members suspend their critical faculties when confronted by it.

Nails through the feet make no sense whatsoever. The whole point of crucifixion was to hang the victim from a horizontal cross beam, with feet dangling, so that the weight of the suspended torso and legs brings on a slow and agonizing asphyxiation. With the legs dangling, the diaphragm is forced to lift a weight far beyond its capacity and eventually it gives out and the victim dies. Sometimes nails were driven into victims’ appendages by sadistic executioners to inflict even more pain.

If Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, it most likely happened in the normal way—tight ropes around his wrists with feet left dangling. That would have provided more than enough suffering for anyone. But, since thousands of ordinary people had been crucified in this way, something special had to be added to enhance the suffering of the cult leader, raising it to the super human level. Hence the legend of a body suspended solely by nails driven through the hands and feet.

Modern Christianity, with its billions of followers, remains a cult magnified and institutionalized with such enormous size that it is barely recognizable as one. Unless, that is, you take the trouble to look at it twice.

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