Any belief that carries a charge of destructive energy is like a bomb ready to explode. But a bomb needs a fuse. The destructive potential in insane and inhumane beliefs can remain dormant, like the many bombs that were dropped in World War II and continue to be discovered in the fields of Belgium (where I write these words), and elsewhere throughout Europe. There is some danger these relics might be set off by mere impact, but this is unlikely if the fuse is missing. Sappers will routinely explode a bomb under safe conditions. However, if a fuse exists, still intact and operative, they face the delicate, dangerous task of defusing the bomb. This work of sappers is a good analogy for applied metahistory’s critique of beliefs.
Risk of Detonation
The bomb that turns into a heart, and back again into a bomb, signals the extreme ambivalence we feel when we are challenged to examine our cherished beliefs in a mentally sober, heartfelt way. The charge of the bomb under scrutiny may vary. If I believe that Elvis never died, and you challenge me, I may just shrug you off without a second thought. There is no heavy ordnance involved. If I believe that to oppose the policies and actions of my government is treasonable, and if I believe my government provides me what it takes to sustain my way of life, I may experience a vertiginous anxiety upon being challenged to put those beliefs in question.
The mere suggestion of questioning a core belief immediately threatens our sense of identity and belonging. The critique of beliefs is not an armchair exercise, a mental game limited to head-centered speculation. Whatever makes your heartbeat quicken with a sense of panic likely indicates that you have a “Big Bertha” under scrutiny. One common reaction to this panic is to thrust the belief-bomb up for examination at someone else, ideally the person who has dared to put it in question in the first place. If I believe that opposing the government of my country is treason, and the government does something so controversial that it could be viewed as insane and inhumane, I may find myself stressed and ambivalent, sitting on “Big Bertha.” It would not be unusual for me to work off my unwonted panic by tearing down DISSENT IS PATRIOTIC stickers wherever I find them.
In defending religious beliefs, a common tactic is to hurl the belief-bomb back at the source of criticism. You challenge my belief that “God punishes sinners” (a typical three-word formula scripted into countless admonitory fables and morality tales), and I retort that God will surely punish you for questioning my belief that God punishes sinners.
More often than not those whose beliefs are challenged cannot distinguish between assessing a belief and refuting it. For the metahistorian this distinction is paramount. A critique is a discerning approach to something with the intention of seeing it truly and assessing it fully. It is an exercise in judgment, not a feat of condemnation. Unfortunately, dialogue about beliefs and belief systems can collapse whenever critique is perceived as refutation. One might say that the initial reaction arises out of a natural instinct of self-preservation: the believer does not want to detonate his or her own cherished bomb. In any case, not while they are sitting on it.
The risk of psychological detonation is very real, and sensed at a visceral level. But a bomb needs a fuse. Panic reactions to critique don’t happen simply because someone points a finger at Big Bertha and asks, “What on earth is that all about?” Those who stiffen at the mere hint of a question about their beliefs do so because the questioner is fingering their fuse. The fuse may be a simple one, a mere twist of string ignited at one end, or it may be an extremely complex detonator, comparable to a nest of tangled, multicolored wires.
If belief is a like bomb, its fuse is error. Experts often say that the most dangerous thing about a bomb is not its load but its detonation system. The best way to disempower beliefs is by prying away the error that detonates the belief.
It will not do to overwork this explosive analogy, but it is essential to understand the importance of separating bomb and fuse, belief and error. For example. most Christians believe that Jesus Christ, the only perfect human being who ever lived (so they believe), did not have sexual intercourse. This is a belief, pure and simple, neither provable or disprovable.
In applied metahistory, a belief that cannot be refuted by evidence is called resolute. A resolute belief is beyond being proven or disproven through evidence or logic, entirely immune to critique. Therein lies its strength: because it cannot be proven, it doesn’t have to be. (On the dogma of the Resurrection, the early Christian father Tertullian said: “I believe it because it is absurd.”) Resolute beliefs form the core structure of all world religions and most philosophies, as well as the theoretical assumptions that underpin modern science.
To return to the belief that states: “Jesus, the Son of God who incarnated as a man, was chaste.” This bomb is impressively loaded, because the belief in the sexual purity of the Jesus Christ is one component in a complex set of beliefs concerning creation, sin, the “fall” of humanity, disobedience to God, salvation, forgiveness of sins, and a final reckoning on Judgment Day. In such a huge belief system all components impinge on each other, and all are highly charged. A multi-warhead Big Bertha!
What then is the fuse of this bomb? Delicately isolating one filament of the detonator, we may ask: Have all Christians always believed that Jesus Christ was absolutely free of sexual lust and carnal intercourse? By so asking, we attempt to make the belief relative, to regard it in its historical context. This turns it around so that it may be seen in a new way against its proper background. A little research reveals that early Christians called “Gnostics,” who were wholly and genuinely Christian in their time and setting, but later called heretics, insisted that Jesus Christ was sexually active with Mary Magdalen. Although most Gnostic teachings were destroyed, surviving textual evidence tells that Jesus and Magdalen kissed openly when they were with the other disciples. One such fragment relates how Jesus discussed with Mary the fine points of oral sex.
Having isolated this filament of the fuse attached to the belief that “Jesus was chaste,” we are not thereby obliged to insist the belief is wrong. The point is to show that this belief was not always and universally held. Rather than refute the belief, we proceed by detecting the reasoning attached to it, and the precedents (such as historical factors) that support that reasoning. The fuse consists of threads of reasoning that explain why the belief is true and ought to be adopted. All through history human beings have reasoned in diverse ways about their beliefs, but justifications for belief are often riddled with logical and factual errors, absurdities and contradictions. In metacritique, we look for fallacious notions in the rational framework around belief. Anyone may choose to believe that Jesus was celibate, and since this choice requires no act of reason, it might be thought that reason does not figure in the belief at all. But the human mind being as it is, those who adopt beliefs without reasoning always try to justify them by some kind of reasoning process.
The evidence of Gnosticism shows that is an error to assume that all Christians have always held the belief that Jesus was chaste. The issue then becomes, not what you believe about the sexuality of Jesus, but how you came by this belief, and how you justify it, or how it was justified by those who inculcated it in you.
Further evidence sheds more clues to errors in the rationality of the belief that the Son of God was not a sexually experienced man. Art critic Leo Steinberg published a book improbably entitled The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion (1983). Steinberg relates his discovery of some forty paintings that show the crucified savior with an erection, or cupping his loins in a gesture that recalls the antics of Michael Jackson. Other paintings show people around the Madonna scrutinizing and even tweaking the tiny penis of the Christ Child. Steinberg suggests that “many artists came to regard the Incarnate’s sex as a necessary exhibit,” (p. 34) and he asks rhetorically, “How could he who restores human nature to sinlessness be shamed by the sexual factor in his humanity?” (p. 17) Steinberg maintains that in the era that produced these Christian works of art the genitals of Jesus Christ must have been regarded as an object of reverence as much as the stigmata, the wounds in his hands.
Note that Steinberg’s interpretation does not refute mainstream Christian ideology — Jesus the Christ restores humanity to the condition of Adam and Eve before the Fall — but neither does it preclude human sexuality from the scope of the savior’s redemptive power. His scandalous research shows that for many true believers sexuality and salvation could not be dissociated.
Sweating profusely now, but steady at the task, we isolate another filiment of the fuse. The critique developes with a quote from The Murder of Christ by Wilhelm Reich: “Christ knew love in the body and women as he knew so many other things natural.” (p. 32) To Reich, Christ represents not the perfect human being (i.e., of virgin birth and a divine father), but the most alive person we can imagine, the complete embodiment of life-force infused with love, courage and moral intuition. Rather than a being who miraculously intervenes from beyond this world, he is the most totally sensitive, totally engaged participant in this world. The murder of Christ is the denial of this supreme potentiality in ourselves. Such is Reich’s re-imagination of the meaning of Christ’s life and passion.
These ideas touch delicate fuse circuits, but we realize with a huge sigh of relief that the bomb hasn’t exploded. We have not blown ourselves up or harmed any Christians who might be involved in our endeavor. The bomb has been rendered less dangerous because part of its denotation system (the set of erroneous notions attached to it) has been disabled.
Belief bombs cannot be disabled by attacking the belief structure head-on. For the delicate work of defusing beliefs, applied metahistory relies on special techniques and customized word-tools, such as resolute belief, that comprise a whole syntactic tool box. Defusing a belief (detecting errors in the rational structure that surrounds it) and assessing belief (evaluating it by the behavior it produces) are the main routines of metacritique*. The aim of metacritique is to expose beliefs that are insane and inhuman, but not to refute them as “wrong” or “untrue.” Fortunately, the techniques required for metacritique are neither complex nor prolix. It only takes a toothpick and pair of clippers to disable an atomic bomb.
Close and consistent scrutiny of where and when beliefs originated, how they operate now and in the past, and what kind of behavior they have produced and now produce, is the essence of applied metahistory.
We human beings are rational animals, even if we do not rely on our reasoning powers as much as we could, or if we do not develop the full scope of these powers. No matter how irrational a belief may be — the belief that the earth is flat, for instance — due to our inborn rational faculties, it will always be framed in a rational argument of some kind, a rationale* that supports the belief. All the beliefs written in the Old and New Testaments can be summarized in perhaps a dozen pages, but countless millions of pages have been written in the attempt to buttress and legitimate those irrational propositions.
To put irrational belief in a rational frame may sound like a weird thing to do, but it is not really so. The impulse repeats itself again and again, but not because we need to turn irrational belief into something rational. No, the irrational remains so, and its power consists in the fact that it is irrational. “I believe it because it is absurd.” Yet the spell of irrational belief, strong though it is, never completely takes hold of the human mind. Because the innate wisdom potential of humanity works through our reasoning powers, we frame our beliefs in rational structures. The power of reasoning is not suppressed by beliefs, but enlisted to support them, to justify their contradictions, explain their inconsistencies, and apologize for what happens when beliefs did not prove true in experience.
The destructive charge of any belief resides in its irrational content, but thankfully the fuse is wound from rational elements. It is pointless and tiresome to insist that any belief is right or wrong, true or false. In applied metahistory, errors that inhere in the rationale for the belief are subjected to a careful inquiry. By discerning fallacious notions that support the belief we become able to dissent from it. At the very least, the defusing process gives us distance from the powerful spell of the belief.
Metacritique does not refute belief head-on, but applies reason to determine what in the end might be worth believing. Thus reason can show us what to believe, and not merely justify by false notions what we already do believe.