I have spent much of my adult life dealing with an old Christian heresy: Marcionism. According to Marcion (a second-century Christian leader), the Old Testament should be rejected, because it features a God of Wrath, not the same God of Love that is featured in the New Testament (or at least in the parts that he liked). For decades it has been central to my vocation as a teacher of the faith to make the case that what the church rejected as heresy in name has all too often been accepted in fact by vast segments of the clergy and laity (including, on one memorable occasion, a faculty colleague). If students in my Old Testament classes have picked up anything, I would like to believe, it is that the entire Christian Scriptures—both testaments—present a single God of both justice and mercy who, at the end of the proverbial day, opts for mercy (for more, see my article “Hosea Goes to the Opera” at http://thecresset.org/2014/Trinity/Heider-T2014.html).
But today it is a different “M” that draws my attention. America today is, in my fallible judgment, beset by Manichaeism. Founded in the third century of our era in Persia, Manichaeism posited two supreme beings: a good Father of Greatness and an evil Prince of Darkness, eternally at odds with one another. The former was spiritual, while the latter was material (so that there is a significant overlap with Gnosticism, but that need not detain us here). The point is that the age-old “problem of evil” (that is, why evil and suffering exist) is neatly solved: there are good forces and evil forces at work in the world, and they are forever fighting.
While the great monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) are uniform in their rejection of Manichaeism, the principles of that faith, if not its overt practice, have proven attractive and enduring across the centuries. Most famously, St. Augustine of Hippo was an advocate before his conversion to Christianity in AD 387. But my present concern is not to review ancient religious debates. Rather, it is to express grave concern that the spirit, if not the detail, of Manichaeism has all but overwhelmed our present moment in the United States of America.
It is no original observation on my part that America is deeply divided at present. The recently completed year 2020 was a “perfect storm” of exemplars. There was, first of all, a deeply divisive presidential campaign, both of whose tickets garnered more votes than any other in our nation’s history. The refusal of President Trump to concede defeat and, most recently, the invasion of the Capitol building by numerous supporters have been unprecedented testimonies to deeply held resentments. The other party has responded with swift attempts to remove him and, if possible, to debar him from holding public office ever again. Unconscionable, public acts by officers of the law against African-American citizens have brought to the fore the very different realities in which people of different races have long experienced life in our land. Even interventions intended to limit the spread of a deadly pandemic have become politicized.
My point is not to say, in the infamous words of our president with respect to a racialized conflict in Charlottesville a couple of years ago, that “there are good people on both sides.” It is rather to note that, as a nation, we have fallen into a pattern of demonizing those with whom we disagree, such that those who agree with us are on the side of the “Father of Greatness,” while those who disagree are partisans of the “Prince of Darkness.” Nuance fails us. The benefit of the doubt is nowhere to be seen. The upshot is the outbreak of what Josef Goebbels notoriously termed “total war,” only within our body politic.
I am not calling for anyone to “stand back and stand by” with respect to their political convictions. What does strike me as imperative in this moment is for all of us simply to “count to ten” before launching another broadside at those with whom we disagree. As my college professor of philosophy put it so well on the final day of class, as he turned off the lights and headed out of the door, we would do well to ponder the words of Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you by the bowels of Christ to bethink yourselves that you might be wrong.”
The alternative is horrific, classically expressed by William Butler Yeats in his famous poem “The Second Coming”:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
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 towards Bethlehem to be born?