Accelerationism is a philosophical movement that emerged from the work of late 20th century disillusioned Marxist-oriented French philosophers who were confronted with the realization that capitalism cannot be controlled by current political institutions nor supplanted by the long awaited revolution: for centuries now, the driving force of modernity has been capitalism, the take-no-prisoners social-economic system that produces ever faster technological progress with dramatic physical and social side-effects – the individual is disoriented; social structure is weakened; the present yields constantly to the onrushing future; “the center cannot hold.” However, for the accelerationists, the response is not to slow things down to return to a pre-capitalist past but rather to push capitalism to quicken the pace of progress so a technological singularity can be reached, one where machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence and begins to spark its own development and that of everything else; it will do this at machine speed as opposed to the clumsy pace of development today. This goal will not be reached if human events or natural disasters dictate otherwise, speed is of the essence.
Nick Land, then a lecturer in Continental Philosophy at the University of Warwick in the UK picked up on the work in France and published an accelerationist landmark in 1992, The Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism. Land builds on work of the French eroticist writer Georges Bataille and emphasizes that Accelerationism does not necessarily predict a “happy ending” for humanity: all is proceeding nihilistically, without direction or value, humanity can be but a cog in a planetary process of Spaceship Earth. Accelerationism is different from Marxism, Adventism, Mormonism, Futurism – all optimistic forward-looking world views.
Land pushed beyond the boundaries of academic life and methodology. In 1995, he and colleague Sadie Plant founded the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) which became an intellectual warren of forward thinking young people – exploring themes such as “cyberfeminism” and “libidinal-materialist Deleuzian thinking.” Though disbanded by 2003, alums of the group have stayed the course and publish regularly in the present day accelerationist literature. In fact, a collection of writings of Land himself has been published under the title Fanged Noumena and today, from his aerie in Shanghai, he comments on things via Twitter. (In Kant’s philosophy noumena as opposed to phenomena are the underlying essences of things that the human mind does not have direct access to.)
Accelerationists have much in common with the Futurist movement: they expect the convergence of computer technology and medicine to bring us into the “bionic age” where a physical merge of man and robot can begin with chip-implantation, gene manipulation and much more. Their literature of choice is dystopian science-fiction, particularly the cyberpunk subgenre: William Gibson’s pioneering Neuromancer has the status of scripture; Rudy Rucker’s thoughtful The Ware Tetralogy is required reading and Richard Morgan’s ferocious Market Forces is considered a minor masterpiece.
Accelerationism is composed today of multiple branches.
Unconditional Accelerationism (aka U/Acc) is the most free-form, the most indifferent to politics. It celebrates modernity and the wild ride we are on. It tempers its nihilism with a certain philosophical playfulness and its mantra, if it had one, would be “do your own thing”!
Left Accelerationism (aka L/Acc) harkens back to Marx as precursor: indeed, Marx did not call for a return to the past but rather claimed that capitalism had to move society further along until it had created the tools – scientific, industrial, organizational – needed for the new centralized communist economy. Even Lenin wrote (in his 1918 text “Left Wing” Childishness)
Socialism is inconceivable without large-scale capitalist engineering based on the latest discoveries of modern science.
So Lenin certainly realized that Holy Russia was nowhere near the level of industrialization and organization necessary for a Marxist revolution in 1917 but plunge ahead he did. Maybe that venerable conspiracy theory where Lenin was transported back to Russia from Switzerland by the Germans in order to get the Russians out of WW I has some truth to it! Indeed, Lenin was calling for an end to the war even before returning; with the October Revolution and still in the month of October, Lenin proposed an immediate withdrawal of Russia from the war which was followed by an armistice the next month between Soviet Russia and the Central Powers. All this freed up German and Austrian men and resources for the Western Front.
An important contribution to L/Acc is the paper of Alex Williams and Nick Srinek (Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics, 2013) in which they argue that “accelerationist politics seeks to preserve the gains of late capitalism while going further than its value system, governance structures, and mass pathologies will allow.” Challenging the conceit that capitalism is the only system able to generate technological change at a fast enough speed, they write “Our technological development is being suppressed by capitalism, as much as it has been unleashed. Accelerationism is the basic belief that these capacities can and should be let loose by moving beyond the limitations imposed by capitalist society.” They dare to boldly go beyond earthbound considerations asserting that capitalism is not able to realize the opening provided by space travel nor can it pursue “the quest of Homo Sapiens towards expansion beyond the limitations of the earth and our immediate bodily forms.” The Left accelerationists want politics and the acceleration, both, to be liberated from capitalism.
Right Accelerationism (aka R/Acc) can claim Nick Land as one of its own – he dismisses L/Acc as warmed over socialism. In his frank, libertarian essay, The Dark Enlightenment (click HERE), Land broaches the difficult subject of Human Bio-Diversity (HBD) with its grim interest in biological differences among human population groups and potential eugenic implications. But Land’s interest is not frivolous and he is dealing with issues that will have to be encountered as biology, medicine and technology continue to merge and as the cost of bionic enhancements drives a wedge between social classes and racial groups.
This interest of the accelerationists in capitalism brings up a “chicken or egg” problem: Which comes first – democratic political institutions or free market capitalism?
People (among them the L/Acc) would likely say that democracy has been necessary for capitalism to develop, having in mind the Holland of the Dutch Republic with its Tulip Bubble, the England of the Glorious Revolution of 1689 which established the power of parliament over the purse, the US of the Founding Fathers. However, 20th Century conservative thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman argued that free markets are a necessary precondition for democracy. Indeed, the case can be made that even the democracy of Athens and other Greek city states was made possible by the invention of gold coins by the neighboring Lydians of Midas and Croesus fame: currency led to a democratic society built around the agora/marketplace and commerce rather than the palace and tribute.
In The Dark Enlightenment, Land also pushes the thinking of Hayek and Friedman further and argues that democracy is a parasite on capitalism: with time, democratic government contributes to an ever growing and ever more corrupt state apparatus which is inimical to capitalism and its accelerationist mission. In fact, Land and other accelerationists put forth the thesis that societies like China and Singapore provide a better platform for the acceleration required of late capitalism: getting politics out of everyday life is liberating – if the state is well run and essential services are provided efficiently, citizens are free to go about the important business of life.
An historical example of capitalism in autocratic societies is provided by the German and Austro-Hungarian empires of the half century leading up to WWI: it was in this world that the link was made between basic scientific research (notably at universities) and industrial development that continues to be a critical source of new technologies (the internet is an example). In this period, the modern chemical and pharmaceutical industries were created (Bayer aspirin and all that); the automobile was pioneered by Karl Benz’ internal combustion engine and steam power was challenged by Rudolf Diesel’s compression-ignition engine. Add the mathematics (Cantor and new infinities, Riemann and new geometries), physics (Hertz and radio waves, Planck and quantum mechanics, Einstein and relativity), the early Nobel prizes in medicine garnered by Koch and Ehrlich (two heroes of Paul De Kruif’s classic book Microbe Hunters), the triumphant music (Brahms, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler). Certainly this was a golden age for progress, an example of how capitalism and technology can thrive in autocratic societies.
Starkly, we are now in a situation reminiscent of the first quarter of the 20th Century – two branches of capitalism in conflict, the one led by liberal democracies, the other by autocratic states (this time China and Singapore instead of Germany and Austria). For Land and his school, the question is which model of capitalism is better positioned to further the acceleration; for them and the rest of us, the question is how to avoid a replay of the Guns of August 1914, all the pieces being ominously in place.
In the US, the Constitution plays the role of sacred scripture and the word unconstitutional has the force of a curse. The origin story of this document begins in Philadelphia in 1787 with the Constitutional Convention. Jefferson and Adams, ambassadors to England and France, did not attend; Hamilton and Franklin did; Washington presided. It was James Madison who took the lead and addressed the problem of creating a strong central government that would not turn autocratic. Indeed, Madison was a keen reader of the Roman historian Tacitus who pitilessly described the transformation of Roman Senators into sniveling courtiers with the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. Madison also drew on ideas of the Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu and, in the Federalist Papers, he refined Montesquieu’s “separation of powers” and enunciated the principle of “checks and balances.”
A balance between large and small states was achieved by means of the Connecticut Compromise: a bicameral legislature composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives. As a buffer against “mob rule,” the Senators would be appointed by the state legislatures. However, the House created the problem of computing each state’s population for the purpose of determining representation. The resulting Three-Fifths Compromise stipulated that 3/5ths of the slave population in a state would count toward the state’s total population. This created the need for an electoral college to elect the president, since enslaved African-Americans would not each have three-fifths of a vote!
In September 1787, a modest four page document (without mention of the word Democracy, without a Bill of Rights, without provision for judicial review but with guidelines for impeachment) was submitted to the states; upon ratification the new Congress was seated and George Washington became President in the spring of 1789.
While the Constitution is revered today, it is not without its critics – it makes it too hard to represent the will of the people to the point where the American electorate is one of the most indifferent in the developed world (26th out of 32 in the OECD, the bottom 20%). Simply put, Americans don’t vote!!
For example, the Constitution provides for an Amendment process that requires ratification by 3/4ths of the states. Today the vestigial Electoral College makes a vote for president in Wyoming worth twice that in Delaware: both states have 3 electors and Delaware’s population is twice that of Wyoming. If you do more math, you’ll find that a presidential vote in Wyoming is worth 3.5 times one in Brooklyn and nearly 4 times one in California. Change would require an amendment; however any 13 states can block it and the 13 smallest states, with barely 4% of the population, would not find it in their interest to alter the current system.
Another issue is term limits for members of Congress, something supported by the voters. It can be in a party’s interest to have senators and representatives with seniority so they can accede to powerful committee chairmanships; this is the old Dixiecrat strategy that kept Strom Thurmond in the Senate until he was over 100 years old – but then the root of the word “senator” is the Latin “senex” which does mean “old man.” The Constitution, however, does provide for a second way to pass an amendment: 34 state legislatures would have to vote to hold a constitutional convention; this method has never been used successfully, but a feisty group “U.S. Term Limits” is trying just that.
The Constitution leaves running elections to the states and today we see widespread voter suppression, gerrymandering, etc. The lack of federal technical standards gave us the spectacle of “hanging chads” in Florida in the 2000 presidential election and has people rightly concerned about foreign interference in the 2020 election.
Judicial review came about by fiat in 1803 when John Marshall’s Supreme Court ruled a section of an act of Congress to be unconstitutional: an action itself rather extra-constitutional given that no such authority was set down in the Constitution! Today, any law passed has to go through an interminable legal process. With the Supreme Court politicized the way it is, the most crucial decisions are thus regularly made by five unelected, high church (four Catholics, one Catholic become Episcopalian), male, ideologically conservative, elitist, lifetime appointees of Republican presidents.
The founding fathers did not imagine how powerful the judicial branch of government would become; in fact, Hamilton himself provided assurances that the judiciary would always be the weakest partner in his influential tract Federalist 78. However, a recent (2008) malign example of how the Constitution does not provide protection against usurpation of power by the Supreme Court came in District of Columbia v. Heller where over two hundred years of common understanding were jettisoned when the reference to “militia” in the 2nd amendment was declared irrelevant: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” What makes it particularly outrageous was that this interpretation was put forth as an example of “originalism” where the semantics of the late 18th Century are to be applied to the text of the amendment; quite the opposite is true, Madison’s first draft made it clear that the military connection was the motivating one to the point where he added an exclusion for pacifist Quakers:
“The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.”
Note too that Madison implies in the original text and in the shorter final text as well that “the right to bear arms” is a collective military “right of the people” rather than an individual right to own firearms – one doesn’t “bear arms” to go duck hunting, not even in the 18th Century. As a result of the Court’s wordplay, today American children go to school in fear; the repeated calls for “thoughts and prayers” have become a national ritual – a sick form of human sacrifice, a reenactment of King Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents.
Furthermore, we now have an imperial presidency; the Legislative Branch is still separate but no longer equal: the Constitution gives only Congress the right to levy tariffs or declare war but, for some administrations now, the president imposes tariffs, sends troops off to endless wars, and governs largely by executive order. All “justified” by the need for efficient decision-making – but, as Tacitus warned, this is what led to the end of the Roman Republic.
The discipline of Philosophy has been part of Western Culture for two and a half millennia now, from the time of the rise of the Greek city states to the present day. Interestingly, a new philosophical system often arises in anticipation of new directions for society and for history. Thus the Stoicism of Zeno and Epictetus prepared the elite of the Mediterranean world for the emerging Roman imperium with its wealth and with its centralization of political and military power. The philosophy of St. Augustine locked Western Christianity into a stern theology which served as an anchor throughout the Middle Ages and then as a guide for reformers Wycliffe, Luther and Calvin. The philosopher Descartes defined the scientific method and the scientific revolution followed in Europe. Hegel and Marx applied dialectical thinking to human history and economics as the industrial revolution created class warfare between labor and capital. The logical philosophy of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell set the stage for the work of Alan Turing and thence the ensuing computer software revolution.
Existentialism (with its rich literary culture of novels and plays, its cafės, its subterranean jazz clubs, its Gauloise cigarettes) steeled people for life in a Europe made absurd by two world wars and it paved the way for second wave feminism: Simone de Beauvoir’s magistral work of 1949 The Second Sex (Le Deuxieme Sexe) provided that existentialist rallying cry for women to take charge of their own lives: “One is not born a woman; one becomes a woman.” (On ne naît pas femme, on le devient.)
By the 1960s, however, French intellectual life was dominated by structuralism, a social science methodology which looks at society as very much a static field that is built on the persistent forms that characterize it. Even Marxist philosophers like Louis Althusser were now labeled structuralists. To some extent, structuralism’s influence was due to the brilliant writing of its practitioners, e.g. semiologist Roland Barthes and anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss: brilliance was certainly required to interest readers in the mathematical structure of kinship systems such as matrilateral cross-cousin marriage – an algorithm to maximize genetic diversity employed by small population groups.
Today the intellectual movement which most resembles past philosophical beacons of the future is known as Accelerationism. As a philosophy, Accelerationism has its roots in France in the period after the May ’68 student and worker uprising. The movement led to barricades and fighting in the streets of Paris and to the largest general strike in the history of Europe. All of which brought the government to the bargaining table; the students and workers counted on the left-wing leadership of labor unions and Marxist oriented political parties to strike a deal for freedom and radical social progress to lead to a post-capitalist world. Instead this “leadership” was interested in more seats in parliament and incremental improvements – not any truly revolutionary change in society.
The take-away from May ’68 for Gilles Deleuze, Fėlix Guattari, Jean-François Lyotard and other post-structuralist French intellectuals was the realization that capitalism proved itself once again too powerful, too flexible, too unstoppable; its dominance could not be challenged by society in its present form.
The paradoxical response in the 1970s then was to call for an acceleration of the development of technologies and other forces of capitalist progress to bring society as rapidly as possible to a new place. In their 1972 work Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari put it this way: “Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process’, as Nietzsche put it: in this matter, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet.” This then is the fundamental tenet of Accelerationism – push technology to get us to the point where it enables us to get out from under current society’s Iron Heel, something we cannot do now. What kind of technologies will be required for this or best suited for this and how this new world will emerge from them are, naturally, core topics of debate. One much discussed and promising (also menacing) technology is Artificial Intelligence.
Deleuze and Guattari extend the notion of the Oedipus complex beyond the nuclear family and develop schizoanalysis to account for the way modern society induces a form of schizophrenia which helps the power structure maintain the steady biological/sociological/psychological march of modern capitalism. Their Anti-Oedipus presents a truly imaginative and innovative way of looking at the world, a poetic mixture of insights fueled by ideas from myriad diverse sources; as an example, they even turn to Americans Ray Bradbury, Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, Nicholas Ray and Henry Miller and to immigrants to America Marshall McLuhan, Charles Chaplin, Wilhem Reich and Herbert Marcuse.
In The Libidinal Economy (1974), Lyotard describes events as primary processes of the human libido – again “Freud on steroids.” It is Lyotard who coined the term post-modern which has been applied to include other post-structuralists such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
Though boldly original, Accelerationism is very much a child of continental thinking in the great European philosophical tradition, a complex modern line of thought with its own themes and conflicts: what makes it most conflicted is its schizophrenic love-hate relation to capitalism; what makes it most contemporary is its attention to the role played by new technologies; what makes it most unsettling is its nihilism, its position that there is no meaning or purpose to human life; what makes it most radical is its displacement of humanity from center-stage and its abandonment of that ancient cornerstone of Greek philosophy: “Man is the measure of all things.”
By the 1980s, the post-structuralist vision of a society in thrall to capitalism was proving prophetic. What with Thatcher, Reagan, supply-side economics, the surge of the income gap, dramatic reductions in taxes (income, corporate and estate), the twilight of the labor unions and the fall of the Berlin Wall: a stronger, more flexible, neo-liberal capitalism was emerging – a globalized post-industrial capitalism, a financial capitalism, deregulated, risk welcoming, tax avoiding, globalized, off-shoring, outsourcing, … . In a victory lap in 1989, political science professor Francis Fukuyama published The End of History; in this widely acclaimed article, Fukuyama announced that the end-point of history had been reached: market-based Western liberal democracy was the final form of human government – thus turning Marx over on his head, much the way Marx had turned Hegel over on his head! So “over” was Marxism by the 1980s that Marxist stalwart Andrė Gorz (friend of Sartre, co-founder of the Le Nouvel Observateur) declared that the proletariat was no longer the vanguard revolutionary class in his Adieux au proletariat.
With the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, in Western intellectual circles, Karl Marx and his theory of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” gave way to the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter and his theory of capitalism’s “creative destruction”; this formula captures the churning of capitalism which systematically creates new industries and new social institutions that replace the old – e.g. Sears by Amazon, an America of farmers by an America of city dwellers. Marx argued that capitalism’s contradictions and failures would lead to its demise; Schumpeter, closer to the Accelerationists, argued that capitalism has more to fear from its triumphs: ineluctably the colossal success of capitalism hollows out the social institutions and mores which historically nurtured capitalism such as the nuclear family, church-going and the Protestant Ethic itself. Look at Western Europe today with its precipitously low birth-rate where capitalism is triumphant but where church attendance is reduced to three events: “hatch, match and dispatch,” to put it the playful way Anglicans do. But all this is not all bad from the point of view of Accelerationism – capitalism triumphant should better serve to “accelerate the process.”
At this point entering the 1990s, we have a post-Marxist, post-structuralist school of Parisian philosophical thought that is the preserve of professors, researchers, cultural critics and writers. In fact at that point in time, the movement (such as it was) was simply considered part of post-modernism and was not yet known as Accelerationism.
However, in its current form, Accelerationism has moved much closer to the futurist mainstream. Science fiction is taken very seriously as a source for insights into where things might be headed. In fact, the term Accelerationist itself originated in a 1967 sci-fi novel Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny where a group of revolutionaries wanted to take their society “to a higher level” through technology: Zelazny called them the “accelerationists.” But the name was not applied to the movement until much more recently when it was so christened by Benjamin Noys in his 2013 work Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism.
In today’s world, the work of futurist writer Ray Kurzweil and the predications of visionary Yuval Harari intersect the Accelerationist literature in the discussion of the transformation of human life that is coming at us. So how did Accelerationism get out of the salons of Paris and become part of the futurist avant-garde of the English speaking world and even a darling of the Twitterati ? Affaire à suivre, more to come.
In 2016, the State of Maine voted to apply ranked choice voting in congressional and gubernatorial elections and then in 2018 voted to extend this voting process to the allocation of its electoral college votes. Recently, the New York Times ran an editorial calling for the Empire State to consider ranked choice voting; in Massachusetts, there is a drive to collect signatures to have a referendum on this on the 2020 ballot. Ranked choice voting is used effectively in American cities such as Minneapolis and Cambridge and in countries such as Australia and Ireland. So what is it exactly? Mystère.
First let us discuss what it is not. In the UK and the US, elections are decided (with some exceptions) by plurality: the candidate who polls the largest number of votes is the winner even if this is not a majority. Although simple to administer, this can lead to unusual results. By way of example, in Maine in 2010, Republican Paul LePage was elected governor with 38% of the vote. He beat out the Independent candidate who won 36% and the Democratic candidate who won 19%.
One solution to the problems posed by plurality voting is to hold the vote in multiple rounds: if no one wins an absolute majority on the first ballot, then there must be more than two candidates and the candidate with the least votes, Z say, is eliminated and everybody votes again; this time Z’s voters will shift their votes to their second choice among the candidates. If no one gets a majority this time, repeat the process. Eventually, someone has to get a true majority.
Ranked choice voting is also known as instant-runoff voting: it emulates runoff elections but in a single round of balloting. First, if there are only two candidates to begin with, nothing changes – somebody will get a majority. Suppose there are 3 candidates – A, B and Z; then, on the ballot, each voter lists the 3 candidates in the order of that voter’s preference. First, the count is made of the number of first place votes each candidate received; if for one candidate that number is a majority, that candidate wins outright. Otherwise, the candidate with the least number of first place votes, say Z, is eliminated; now we add to A’s first place total the number of ballots that ranked Z first but that listed A as second choice and similarly for B. Now, except in the case of a tie, either A or B will have a clear majority and will be declared the winner. This will give the same result that staging a runoff between A and B would have yielded but in one trip to the voting booth where the voter has to rank the candidates A,B,Z on the ballot rather than choosing only one.
There are other positive side-effects to ranked choice voting. For one thing, voter turnout goes up; another thing is that campaigns are less nasty and partisan – you want your opponents’ supporters to list you second on their ballots! One can also see how this voting system makes good sense for primaries where there are often multiple candidates; for example, with the current Democratic field of presidential candidates, ranked choice voting would give the voter a chance to express his or her opinion and rank a marginal candidate with good ideas first without throwing that vote away.
After the 2010 debacle in Maine (LePage proved a most divisive and most unpopular governor), the Downeasters switched to ranked choice voting. In 2016 in one congressional district, no candidate for the House of Representatives gathered an absolute majority on the first round but a different candidate who received fewer first place votes on that first round won on the second round when he caught up and surged ahead because of the number of voters who made him their second choice. Naturally, all this was challenged by the losing side but they lost in court. For elections, the U.S. Constitution leaves implementation to the states for them to carry out in the manner they deem fit – subject to Congressional oversight but not to judiciary oversight. Per Section 4 of Article 1: “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, …”
Ranked voting systems are not new and have been a serious topic of interest to social scientists and mathematicians for a long time now – there is something mathematically elegant about the way you can simulate a sequence of runoffs in one ballot. Among them, there are the 18th Century French Enlightenment thinker, the Marquis de Condorcet, and the 19th Century English mathematician, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, author of Dodgson’s Method for analyzing election results. More recently, there was the work of 20th Century mathematical economist Kenneth Arrow. For this and other efforts, Arrow was awarded a Nobel Prize; Condorcet had a street named for him in Paris; however, Dodgson had to take the pen name Lewis Carroll and then proceed to write Alice in Wonderland to rescue himself from the obscurity that usually awaits mathematicians.
St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was the last great intellectual figure of Western Christianity in the Roman Empire. His writings on election and pre-destination, on original sin, on the theory of a just war and on the Trinity had a great influence on the medieval Church, in particular on St Thomas; he also had a great influence on Protestant reformers such as John Wycliffe and John Calvin. Augustine himself was influenced by the 3rd century Greek philosopher Plotinus and the Neoplatonists, influenced to the point where he ascribed to them some awareness of the persons of the Trinity (Confessions VIII.3; City of God X.23).
After the sack of Rome in 410, Augustine wrote his Sermons on the Fall of Rome. In these episcopal lectures, he absolves Christians of any role in bringing about the event that plunged the Western branch of the Empire into the Dark Ages, laying all the blame on the wicked, wicked ways of the pagans. European historians have begged to differ, however. By way of example, in his masterpiece, both of English prose and of scholarship, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the great 18th century English historian Edward Gibbon does indeed blame Christianity for weakening the fiber of the people, hastening the Fall of Rome.
In his work on the Trinity, Augustine followed the Nicean formulation and fulminated against the heretics known as Arians who denied the divinity of Christ. Paradoxically, it was Arian missionaries who first reached many of the tribes of barbarians invading the Empire, among them the Vandals. The Vandal horde swept from Spain Eastward along the North African coast and besieged St. Augustine’s bishopric of Hippo (today Annaba in Algeria). Augustine died during the siege and did not live to see the sack of the city.
By the time of St Augustine, in the Western Church the place of the Holy Spirit in the theology of the Holy Trinity was secured. But in popular culture, the role of the Holy Spirit was minor. Jesus and Mary were always front and center along with God the Father. To complicate matters, there emerged the magnificent doctrine of the Communion of Saints: the belief that all Christians, whether here on Earth, in Purgatory or in Heaven could communicate with one another through prayer. Thus, the faithful could pray to the many saints and martyrs who had already reached Heaven and the latter could intercede with God Himself for those who venerated them .
This is the internet and social media prefigured. The doctrine has other modern echoes in Jung’s Collective Unconscious (an inherited shared store of beliefs and instincts) and in Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere (a collective organism of mind).
The origins of this doctrine are a problem for scholars. Indeed, even the first reference known in Latin to the “Cummunio sanctorum” is ascribed to Nicetas of Remesiana (ca. 335–414), a bishop from an outpost of the Empire on the Danube in modern day Serbia who included it in his Instructions for Candidates for Baptism. Eventually, though, the doctrine made its way into the Greek and Latin versions of the Apostles Creed.
The wording “I believe … in the Communion of Saints” in the Apostles Creed is now a bedrock statement of Christian belief. However, this doctrine was not part of the Old Roman Creed, the earlier and shorter version of the Apostles Creed that dates from the second and third centuries. It also does not appear in the Nicene Creed. The earliest references to the Apostles Creed itself date from 390 and the earliest extant texts referencing the Communion of Saints are later still.
One school of thought is that the doctrine evolved from St Paul’s teaching that Christ and His Christians form a single mystical body (Romans 12.4-13, 1 Corinthians 12). Another candidate is this passage in the Book of Revelation 5.8 where the prayers of the faithful are collected in Heaven:
And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people.
For an illustration from the Book of Hours of the Duc de Berry of St John imagining this scene as he wrote the Book of Revelation on the Ile of Patmos, click HERE .
The naïve view is that the doctrine of the Communion of Saints came from the ground up, from nascent folk Christianity where it helped to wean new converts from their native polytheism. Indeed, as Christianity spread, canonization of saints was a mechanism for absorbing local religious traditions and for making local martyrs and saintly figures recognized members of the Church Triumphant.
With the doctrine of the Communion of Saints, the saints in heaven could intercede for individual Christians with the Godhead; devotion to them developed, complete with hagiographic literature and a rich iconography. Thus, the most celebrated works of Christian art depict saints. Moreover, special devotions have grown up around popular patron saints such as Anthony (patron of lost objects), Jude (patron of hopeless cases), Jean-François Rėgis (patron of lacemakers), Patrick (patron of an island nation), Joan of Arc (patron of a continental nation), … .
The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, pops up in paintings as a dove here and there, at best taking a minor part next to John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth or next to the Virgin Mary and the Angel Gabriel. This stands in contrast with the Shekinah, the Jewish precursor of the Holy Spirit, who plays an important role in the Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism.
There is one area of Christianity today, however, where the Holy Spirit is accorded due importance: Pentecostal and Charismatic churches; indeed, the very word Pentecostal is derived from the feast of Pentecost where the Holy Spirit and tongues of fire inspired the apostles to speak in tongues. In these churches, direct personal experience of God is reached through the Holy Spirit and His power to inspire prophecy and insight. In the New Testament, it is written that prophecy is in the domain of the Holy Spirit – to cite 2 Peter 1:21 :
For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.
Speaking of prophecy, the Holy Spirit is not mentioned in the Book of Revelation which is most surprising since one would think that apocalyptic prophesy would naturally be associated with the Holy Spirit. For some, this is one more reason that the Council of the Rome (382) under St Pope Damasus I should have thought twice before including the Book of Revelation in the canon. There are other reasons too.
Tertullian, the Father of Western Theology, is not a saint of the Catholic Church – he defended a Charismatic-Pentecostal approach to Christianity, Montanism, which was branded a heresy. This sect had three founders, Montanus and the two sibyls, Priscilla and Maximilla; the sybils would prophesy when the Holy Spirit entered their bodies. Alas, there are no classical statues or Renaissance paintings honoring Priscilla and Maximilla; instead the Church treated them as “seductresses” who, according to Eusebius’ authoritative, 4th century Church History, “left their husbands the moment they were filled with the spirit.” No wonder then that Eusebius is known as the Father of Church History.
While we have no masterpieces depicting Priscilla or Maximilla, for a painting of the Sybil at Delphi, click HERE .
For Tertullian and the Montanists, the Holy Spirit was sent by God the Son to continue the revelation through prophecy. Though steeped in Greek rationalism, Tertullian insisted on the distinction between faith and reason, on the fact that faith required an extra magical step: “I believe because it is absurd” – bolder even than Pascal. He broke with the main body of the Church saying that the role given to the Holy Spirit was too narrow – a position shared by Pentecostal Christians today. In fact, the Holy Spirit is key to Pentecostalism where the faithful are inspired with “Holy Ghost fire” and become “drunk on the Holy Spirit.” Given that this is the only branch of Western Christianity that is growing now as the others recede, it looks as though Tertullian was insightful and should have been listened to more carefully. Perhaps, it is a good time now for the Church of Rome to bring up the subject of his canonization almost two millennia later. Doing so today would go some way toward restoring the Holy Spirit to a rightful place in Christianity, aligning the Holy Spirit’s role with that of the continuing importance of the Shekinah in the Jewish tradition and restoring the spirit of early Christianity.
During Augustus’ reign as Emperor of the Roman Empire, the Pax Romana settled over the Mediterranean world – with the notable exception of Judea (Palestine, the Holy Land). After the beheading of John the Baptist and the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, unrest continued leading to the Jewish-Roman Wars (66-73, 115-117, 132-135), the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70) and the forced exile of many Jews. Little wonder then that the early Gentile Christians disassociated themselves from Judaism and turned to Greek philosophical models to develop their new theology.
And with God and the Logos (the Word) of Platonism and Stoicism, the Greco-Roman intellectual world was in some sense “ready” for God the Father and God the Son. Indeed, the early Christians identified the Logos with the Christ. In the prologue of the Gospel of St. John in the King James Bible, verses 1 and 14 read
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
Christians who undertook the task of explaining their new religion to the Greco-Roman world were known as apologists, from the Greek ἀπολογία meaning “speech in defence.” Thus, in following up on the Gospel of John, Justin Martyr (100-165), a most important 2nd century apologist, drew on Stoic doctrine to make Christian doctrine more approachable; in particular, he held that the Logos was present within God from eternity but emerged as a distinct actor only at the Creation – the Creation according to Genesis, that is. But while often referring to the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Divine Spirit and the Prophetic Spirit in his writings, Justin apparently never formulated a theory of the Trinity as such.
So from here, how did early Christians reach the elegant formulation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity that is so much a part of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christianity? Mystère.
The earliest surviving post-New Testament Christian writings that we have that include the Holy Spirit, the Father and the Son together in a trinity identify the Holy Spirit with Wisdom/Sophia. In fact, the first Christian writer known to use the term trinity was Theophilos of Antioch in about the year 170:
the Trinity [Τριάδος], of God, and His Word, and His wisdom.
In his powerful Against Heresies, Irenaeus (130-202) takes the position that God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are co-eternal with God the Father:
I have also largely demonstrated, that the Word, namely the Son, was always with the Father; and that Wisdom also, which is the Spirit, was present with Him, anterior to all creation,
In A Plea for Christians, the Athenian author Athenagoras (c. 133 – c. 190) wrote
For, as we acknowledge a God, and a Son his Logos, and a Holy Spirit, united in essence, the Father, the Son, the Spirit, because the Son is the Intelligence, Reason, Wisdom of the Father, and the Spirit an effluence, as light from fire
Here the “Wisdom of the Father” has devolved onto God the Son and the Holy Spirit is described simply as emanating from the Father. On the one hand, it is tempting to dismiss this theological shift on the part of Athenagoras. After all, he is not considered the most consistent of writers when it comes to sophiology, matters of Wisdom. To quote Prof. Michel René Barnes:
“Athenagoras has, scholars have noted, a confused sophiology: within the course of a few sentences he can apply the Wisdom of Prov. 8:22 to the Word and the Wisdom of Wisdom of Solomon 7:25 to the Holy Spirit.”
For the full text of Prof. Barnes’ interesting article, click HERE .
On the other hand, the view in A Plea for Christians took hold and going forward the Son of God, the Logos, was identified with Holy Wisdom; indeed, the greatest church of antiquity, the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, was dedicated to God the Son and not to the Holy Spirit.
But Trinitarianism did not have the field to itself. For one thing, there was still Sabellianism where Father, Son and Holy Spirit were just “manners of speaking” about God. The fight against Sabellianism was led by Tertullian – Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus to his family and friends. This Doctor of the Church was the first writer to use the term Trinitas in Latin; he is considered the first great Western Christian theologian and he is known as the Father of the Latin Church. For Tertullian, a most egregious aspect of Sabellianism was that it implied that God the Father also suffered the physical torments of the cross, a heretical position known as patripassionism. Tertullian directly confronted this heresy in his work Contra Praxeas where he famously accused the eponymous target of his attack of “driving out the Holy Spirit and crucifying the Father”:
Paracletum fugavit et patrem crucifixit
Tertullian developed a dual view of the Trinity distinguishing between the “ontological Trinity” of one single being with three “persons” (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and the “economic Trinity” which distinguishes and ranks the three persons according to each One’s role in salvation: the Father sends the Son for our redemption and the Holy Spirit applies that redemption to us. In the ontological Trinity, there is only one divine substance (substantia) which is shared and which means monotheism is maintained. Here Tertullian is using philosophy to underpin theology: his “substantia” is a Latin translation of the term used by Greek philosophers ουσία (ousia). Interestingly, Tertullian himself was very aware of the threat of philosophy infiltrating theology and he famously asked “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”
The Roman empire of the early Christian era was a cauldron of competing philosophical and religious ideas. It was also a time of engineering and scientific achievement: the invention of waterproof cement made great aqueducts and great domes possible; the Ptolemaic system of astronomy provided algorithms for computing the movements of the spheres (the advance that Copernicus made didn’t change the results but simplified the computations); Diophantus of Alexandria is known as the Father of Algebra, … . The level of technology developed at Alexandria in the Roman period was not reached again until the late Renaissance (per the great Annalist historian Fernand Braudel).
In the 3rd century, neo-Platonism emerged as an updated form of Greek philosophy – updated in that this development in Greek thought was influenced by relatively recent Greek thinkers such as the neo-Pythagoreanists and Middle Platonists and likely by others such as the Hellenized Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria, the Gnostics and even the Christians.
The principal architect of neo-Platonism, Plotinus (204–270), developed a triad of the One, Intellect, and Soul, in which the latter two “proceed” from the One, and “are the One and not the One; they are the One because they are from it; they are not the One, because it endowed them with what they have while remaining by Itself” (Enneads, 85). All existence comes from the productive unity of these three. Plotinus describes the elements of the triad as three persons (hypostases), and describes their sameness using homoousios, a sharper way of saying “same substance.” From neo-Platonism came the concept of the hypostatic union, a meld of two into one which Trinitarians would employ to explain how Christ could be both God and man at the same time.
So at this point, the Trinitarian position had taken shape: very roughly put, the three Persons are different but they are co-eternal and share the same substance; the Son of God can be both God and man in a hypostatic union.
But Trinitarianism was still far away from a final victory. The issue of the dual nature of God the Son as both God and man continued to divide Christians. The most serious challenge to the Trinitarian view was mounted in Alexandria: the bishop Arius (c. 250-c. 336) maintained that the Son of God had to be created by the Father at some point in time and so was not co-eternal with the Father nor was the Son of the same substance as the Father; a similar logic applied to the Holy Spirit. Arianism became widely followed, especially in the Eastern Greek Orthodox branch of the Church and lingered for centuries; in more recent times, Isaac Newton professed Arianism in some of his religious writings – these heretical documents were kept under wraps by Newton’s heirs for centuries and were only rediscovered by John Maynard Keynes in 1936 who purchased them at an auction!
While the Empire generally enjoyed the Pax Romana, at the highest levels there were constant struggles for supreme power – in the end, who had the loyalty of the Roman army determined who would be the next Emperor. The story that has come down to us is that in 312, as Constantine was on his way to fight his last rival in the Western Empire, Maxentius, he looked up into the sky and saw a cross and the Greek words “Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα” (which becomes “In Hoc Signo Vinces” in Latin and “In this sign, you will conquer” in English). With his ensuing victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine gained control over the Western Roman Empire. The following year, with the Edict of Milan, Christianity was no longer subject to persecution and would be looked upon benevolently by Constantine. For a painting of the cross in heaven and the sign in Greek by the School of Raphael, click HERE and zoom in to see the writing on the sign.
Consolidating the Eastern and Western branches of the Empire, Constantine became sole emperor in 324. Now that Christianity was an official religion of the Empire, it was important that it be more uniform in dogma and ritual and that highly divisive issues be resolved. To that end, in 325, Constantine convened a Council at Nicea (modern Iznik, Turkey) to sort out all the loose ends of the very diverse systems of belief that comprised Christianity at that time. One of the disagreements to settle was the ongoing conflict between Arianism and Trinitarianism.
Here the council came down on the side of the Trinitarians: God has one substance but three persons (hypostases); though these persons are distinct, they form one God and so are all co-eternal. There is a distinction of rank to be made: God the Son and God the Holy Spirit both proceed from God the Father. This position was formalized by the Council of Nicea and refined at the Council of Constantinople (381). In the meantime, with the Edict of Thessalonica in 380, Theodosius I officially made Christianity the state religion of the Empire.
Still disagreements continued even among the anti-Arians. There is the interesting example of Marcellus of Ancyra (Ankara in modern Turkey), an important participant in the Council of Nicea and a resolute opponent of the Arians; Marcellus developed a bold view wherein the Trinity was necessary for the Creation and for the Redemption but, at the end of days, the three aspects (πρόσωπα prosopa but not ὑπόστασɛς hypostases, persons) of the Trinity would merge back together. Marcellus’ position has a scriptural basis in St Paul’s assertion in 1 Corinthians 20:28 :
… then the Son himself will be made subject to him [God] who put everything under him [the Son], so that God may be all in all.
This view also harkens back somewhat to Justin Martyr – in fact, writings now attributed to Marcellus were traditionally attributed to Justin Martyr! So, in Marcellus’ view, in the end Christ and the Holy Spirit will return into the Father, restoring the absolute unity of the Godhead. This line of thought opened Marcellus to the charge of Sabellianism; he also had the misfortune of having Eusebius, the Father of Church History, as an opponent and his orthodoxy was placed in doubt. For a tightly argued treatise on this illustrative chapter in Church History and for a tour of the dynamic world of 4th century Christian theologians, there is the in-depth study Contra Marcellum: Marcellus of Ancyra and Fourth-Century Theology by Joseph T. Lienhard S.J.
The original Nicene Creed of 325 as well as the updated version formulated at the Council of Constantinople of 381 had both the Holy Spirit and God the Son proceeding from God the Father. Whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father is a tough question for Trinitarianism; in Latin filioque means “and from the Son” and this phrase has been a source of great controversy in the Church. A scriptural justification for including the filioque in the Nicean Creed is found in John 20:22 :
And with that he [Jesus] breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit …”
Is the filioque a demotion for the Holy Spirit vis-à-vis God the Son? Or is it simply a way of organizing the economic Trinity of Tertullian? In the late 6th century, Western churches added the term filioque to the Nicene Creed but the Greek churches did not follow suit; this lingering controversy was an important issue in the Great Schism of 1054 which led to the definitive and hostile breakup of the two major branches of Christendom. This schism created a fault line in Europe separating Orthodox from Roman Christianity that has endured until modern times. Indeed, it was the massive Russian mobilization in July 1914 in support of Orthodox Christian Serbia which led directly to World War I.
Brexit is a portmanteau word meaning “British exit from the European Union.” The referendum on Brexit in the UK in 2016 won by means of a majority of less than 2% of the votes cast representing less than 34% of the voting age population. The process took place in the worst possible conditions – false advertising, fake news, dismal voter participation, demagogy and xenophobia. Brexit is yet another example of the dangers of mixing representative government with government by plebiscite – other examples include the infamous Proposition 13 in California which turned one of the best public school systems in the nation into one of the worst and the vote for independence in Quėbec which, with a simple majority, would have torn Canada apart. Problem is, these simple majority referenda can amount to a form of mob rule.
The two components of the United Kingdom that would be most negatively affected by Brexit are the Celtic areas of Scotland and Northern Ireland; both voted to stay in the European Union – 62% and 55.8% respectively. Brexit would push Scotland toward independence risking the breakup of the UK itself. The threat of Brexit has already reignited The Troubles in Northern Ireland and enactment of Brexit will bring back more violence and bloodshed.
We learn in school about English imperialism and colonialism – how the sun never sets on the British Empire and all that. Historically, the first targets of English imperialism were the Celtic peoples of the British Isles – the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish.
Incursion into Welsh territory began with William the Conqueror himself in 1081 and by 1283 all Wales was under the control of the English King Edward I – known as Edward Longshanks for his great height for the time (6’2”).
A series of 13 invasions into Scotland began in 1296 under the that same celtiphobe English king, Edward I, who went to war against the Scottish heroes William Wallace (Mel Gibson in Braveheart) and Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen in Robert the Bruce). So memorable was Edward’s hostility toward the Scots that on his tomb in Westminster Abbey is written
Edwardus Primus Scottorum malleus hic est, pactum serva
(Here is Edward I, Hammerer of the Scots. Keep The Faith)
In that most scholarly history of England, 1066 and All That, there is a perfect tribute to Edward I – a droll cartoon of him hammering Scots.
Edward I didn’t only have it in for the Welsh and the Scots but for Jews as well: in 1290 he issued the Edict of Expulsion, by which Jews were expelled from Merry England. His warmongering caught up with him though: Edward died in 1307 during a campaign against Robert the Bruce – though not of a surfeit but rather of dysentery.
The series continued until 1650 with an invasion led by Oliver Cromwell. To his credit, however, the Lord Protector (Military Dictator per Winston Churchill) revoked Edward’s Edict of Expulsion in 1657.
The story of English aggression in Ireland is even more damning. It started with incursions beginning in 1169 and the full scale invasion launched by King Henry II in 1171. Henry (Peter O’Toole in The Lion in Winter and in Becket) had motivation beyond the usual expansionism for this undertaking: he was instructed by Pope Adrian IV by means of the papal bull Laudabiliter to invade and govern Ireland; the goal was to enforce papal authority over the too autonomous Irish Church. Adrian was the only English pope ever and certainly his motives were “complex.” His bull was a forerunner of the Discovery Doctrine of European and American jurisprudence which justifies Christian takeover of native lands (click HERE ). English invasions continued through to full conquest by Henry VIII, the repression of rebellions under Elizabeth I, and the horrific campaign of Oliver Cromwell. There followed the plantation system in Northern Ireland as the six counties of Ulster became known, and a long period of repressive government under the Protestant Ascendancy. The Irish Free State was only formed in 1922 after a prolonged violent struggle and at the price of partition of the Emerald Isle into Northern Ireland and the Free State; the modern Republic of Ireland only dates from 1949. The “low-level war” known as The Troubles that began in the 1960s was triggered by the discrimination against Catholics that the English-backed regime in the Ulster parliament maintained. This kind of discrimination was endemic: according to memory, no Catholic was hired to work on the building of the Titanic in the Belfast shipyards; according to legend, the Titanic had “F__ the Pope” written on it; according to history, blasphemy does not pay. The Troubles were a violent and bitter period of conflict between loyalists/unionists (mainly Protestants who wanted to stay in the UK) and nationalists/republicans (mainly Catholics who wanted a united Ireland). The Troubles finally ended with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that was possible because of joint membership in the EU which made Northern Ireland and the Republic both part of a larger political unit and which, for all practical purposes, ended the frontier separating them – a frontier which until then was manned by armed British soldiers.
Economically and politically, the EU has been good for the Irish Republic and it has become a prosperous modern Scandinavian style European country – indeed Irish born New York Times writer Timothy Egan titled his July 20th op-ed “Send me back to the country I came from.”
Scotland too benefits from EU membership, from infrastructure investments, worker protection regulations and environmental standards – things dear to the socially conscious Scots.
In the 2016 vote, Wales voted for Brexit (52.5%) but the latest polls show that the Welsh would vote against it if a re-vote were held today – as would the English themselves.
All this history makes the Brexit vote of 2016 simply amoral and sadistic. To add to that, the main reason Theresa May’s proposal for a “soft Brexit” with a “backstop” was repeatedly shot down was its customs union clause that it would have forestalled the border closing in Northern Ireland. On the other hand, reversing the process because of the harm it would inflict on peoples who have been victims of British imperialism over the centuries would be a long overdue gesture of Truth and Reconciliation by the English. Alas, prospects for this are not good, especially with “hard Brexit” demagogue Boris Johnson as prime minister.
From the outset in the New Testament, the Epistles and Gospels talk of “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” God the Father came from Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible; the Son was Jesus of Nazareth, an historical figure. For the Holy Spirit, things are more complicated. For sources, there are the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Essenes with the indwelling universal presence of the Holy Spirit; there is the Aramaic language literature the Targums with the Lord’s Shekinah who stands in for Him in dealing with the material world and who enables prophecy by humans; there is the Wisdom literature such as the Wisdom of Solomon where Sophia provides a feminine divine presence.
As the Shekinah becomes an independent deity in the Kabbalah, so in the New Testament the Holy Spirit is a full-fledged divine actor. Like the Shekinah, the Holy Spirit’s announced role is to represent the Godhead in the material world, to guide the lives of the believers and to inspire their prophesying.
New Testament is written in Greek, not Aramaic and not Hebrew. In the first century, the leadership of the nascent Christian community quickly passes from the apostles and deacons in the Holy Land to the Hellenized Jewish converts of the Diaspora and the Greek speaking gentiles of the Roman Empire. Traditional Jewish practices such as male circumcision are dropped, observing the Law of Moses is no longer obligatory and the Sabbath is moved to Sunday, the day of rest of the Gentiles.
But now God has become three –the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Monotheism is definitely in peril here. Add to that the Virgin Mary together with the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption and you have four divinities to deal with.
Indeed, the early Christians assigned to Mary functions once assumed in the world of Biblical Palestine by Asherah, the Queen of Heaven, and then by the Shekinah of Jewish lore. Christianity would thus not suffer from the unnatural absence of a feminine principle as did the Judaism of the Pharisees of the Temple. However, despite accusations of Mariolatry, Christianity has never deified the Mother of God, only canonized her. Even so, that still leaves us with three divinities where once there was one.
When it comes to the messianic role of Jesus, the New Testament writers do strive to calibrate their narratives with the prophecies and pronouncements of the Hebrew Bible. The situation is different when it comes to the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit descends upon the apostles in the form of tongues of fire when they are assembled in Jerusalem for the Shavuot holiday (aka The Feast of Weeks). This holiday takes place on the fiftieth day after Passover; it both celebrates the spring harvest and the day that God gave The Torah to Moses and the nation of Israel. This is a link to the Essenes’ doctrine where this feast was a special time of connection between the believer and the indwelling Holy Spirit. But that link is not made clear in Acts and even the origin of that Jewish feast is obscured by that fact that the New Testament gives it the Greek name of Pentecost, simply meaning “fifty.”
In general, in the New Testament, there is no explicit association of the Holy Spirit with the Shekinah or with Wisdom/Sophia. Moreover, the way the early Christians handled this complex situation involving the Holy Spirit would not be to go back to the practices of folk or formal Judaism, or to the Essene scrolls or to the Hebrew scriptures to sort it out; rabbinical sources such as the Talmud would not be consulted; Aramaic language sources such as the Targums would not be mined. Rather in dealing with the Holy Spirit and with the charge of polytheism, the Gentile Christians would follow the lead of Greek philosophy and formulate their theology in a way so as to make Christianity intellectually reputable in Greek cultural terms.
With such an important role in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit becomes theologically significant in Christianity – but, in terms of the beliefs and practices of the faithful, the Holy Spirit becomes something of a silent partner. The feminine role of the Shekinah and that of Wisdom/Sophia are taken over by Mary, the Mother of Jesus; the earliest Christian writers place the Holy Spirit in the Godhead with God the Father and God the Son and they do so as Wisdom/Sophia; but later Wisdom becomes identified with the Son of God. In the end, for the faithful, the role of the Holy Spirit as indwelling individual guide would be usurped by patron saints and guardian angels; for the Holy Spirit, the only substantial role left is to round out the Holy Trinity.
As the war with Cleopatra and Mark Anthony comes to an end, Augustus becomes the Roman Emperor and a (relative) peace that would last four hundred years, the Pax Romana, leads to accelerated commercial and cultural exchange throughout the Mediterranean world. Indeed, the cultural world of the Roman Empire is in full ebullition. As the Pax Romana has facilitated the spread of Christian ideas throughout the empire, so too it has provided a platform for competing philosophies, theologies and mystical practices of many sorts. So encounters with developments in Greek and Roman philosophy, with the flow of new ideas from Messianic Judaism and alternative Jewish/Christian groups, with eastern religions, with mystery religions and on and on would lead to difficult theological arguments and would drive centrifugal forces within the Christian movement itself leading to almost countless heresies to be denounced.
Given the different theological roles of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in their theology, the early Christians were naturally accused of polytheism. To counter this, the most simple position was called Sabellianism or monarchianism or modalism – Father, Son and Holy Spirit are just manners of speaking, façons de parler, to describe God as He takes on different roles. However, this view came to be condemned multiple times as a heresy by Church authorities basically because it implies that God the Father had to somehow endure the pain of the crucifixion..
So alternative solutions were proposed. The adoptionist position was that God the Son was a human elevated to the rank of Son of God, the Holy Spirit also being a creation of God the Father. In the form of Arianism where God the Son is not co-eternal with God the Father but was begotten by the Father at some point in time, this kind of position stayed current in Christianity for centuries. The position that eventually emerged victorious was trinitarianism: “three co-equal persons in one God.” This last phrase seems straightforward enough today, but a proper parsing requires some explanation. For one thing, this formulation does not come from the Hebrew scriptures, the Targums or rabbinical sources. To be fair, there is one place in the Hebrew Bible where God does appear as a threesome: in Genesis 18, the Lord visits Abraham to announce that his wife Sarah shall bear a child. The first two verses are
The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.
This was taken as a pointer to the Trinity by some early Christian writers (St. Augustine among them) but hardly suffices as an explanation of the evolution of the doctrine. So the development of the theology of the Holy Trinity is still a mystère of its own.
In the Greco-Roman world of the time of Christ, there was a view that prefigured the Christian Trinity that originated with Plato and that was followed by the Stoics: there was an abstract, non-material God from all eternity from whom came the Logos (the Word of God) who was responsible for the Creation of the material universe. So already from the Greek philosophical world, we have the idea of a dyadic Godhead.
This cosmogony infiltrated the Hellenized Jewish milieu as well. In a kind of last attempt to reconcile Jewish and Greek culture in the Hellenistic world, a contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth, Philo of Alexandria (aka Philo Judaeus) developed an entire philosophy complete with a trinity: there was Yahweh of the ineffable name, the Wisdom/Sophia of the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Logos (the Word) of Plato who was responsible for the actual creation of the physical universe. Philo wrote (Flight and Finding XX (108, 109))
because, I imagine, he [the Logos, the Word of God] has received imperishable and wholly pure parents, God being his father, who is also the father of all things, and wisdom being his mother, by means of whom the universe arrived at creation
The theology of the Holy Spirit is called pneumatology from pneuma the Greek word for spirit (or breath or wind). On the Christian side of the fence then, Philo’s view – where the Holy Spirit takes on the role of queen consort of El/Yahweh – is known as consort pneumatology.
Another movement with roots in the Jewish/Christian world of Alexandria that impacted early Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism was Gnosticism. This topic is certainly worth an internet search. Very, very simply put, at its core there was the belief that God, the Supreme Being, is unknowable, that the material world was created by a lesser figure known as a demiurge, that the material world is evil in itself and that only knowledge (gnosis in Greek) coming from God can lead to salvation. At its root, Gnosticism is based on a dualism between the forces of good and the forces of evil, between God and lesser deities. Gnosticism was an important movement in antiquity with an impact on Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The battle between St Michael and Lucifer in the Book of Revelation can be understood in Gnostic terms. Furthermore, Gnosticism contributed to the elaboration of the Kabbalah and Gnostic strains abound in the Quran. It gave rise to religious systems such as Manichaeism (with its competing forces of good and evil).
Manichaeism’s last stand in the Western Christian world was the Cathar (Albigensian) movement of the South of France in the Middle Ages. To aid in the destruction of Cathar civilization with its indigent holy men and holy women and its troubadour poets, Pope Innocent III created the first Papal Inquistion and in 1209 had the French king launch a horrific crusade against them. For his part, in imitation of the Cathars, St. Dominic founded the mendicant order of the Dominicans but then it was this same order that led the Inquisition’s persecution of the Cathars – all this is bizarrely celebrated in her pop hit “Dominique” by Soeur Sourire, the Singing Nun:
“Dominique … combattit les Albigeois”
For the vocal click here.
The Mandaeans are a Gnostic, dualistic sect that is still active in Iraq. One of the many terrible side effects of the War in Iraq is the oppression (approaching ethnocide) of religious groups such as the Chaldean Christians, the Yazidis and the Mandaeans. The Mandaeans numbered some 60,000 in 2003 but, with the war and Islamic extremism, many have fled and their numbers are down to an estimated 5,000 today. When you add to this how conflict in the Middle East has led to the end of the once thriving Jewish communities of Mesopotamia, we are witnessing a terrible loss of religious diversity akin to the disappearance of species.
For the history of Christian Gnosticism in the early Christian era, we have the writings of their opponents and texts known as the Gnostic Gospels. Again very simply put, to the Gnostic scheme these Christians add that the Supreme Being sent Christ to bring humans the knowledge (gnosis) necessary for redemption. Concerning the Holy Spirit, we know from the Gnostic Gospel of St. Philip that theirs, like Philo’s, was a consort pneumatology. Some of the names of these Gnostic Christians pop up even today; for example, Jack Palance plays one of them, Simon Magus, in the 1954 movie The Silver Chalice. Being portrayed by Jack Palance certainly means you are villain enough, but one can add to that the fact that the sin of simony (selling holy offices) is named for Simon Magus (Acts 8:18).
So with all these competing philosophies and theologies – from within Christianity and from outside Christianity – to contend with, just how did trinitarianism emerge as the canonical position? Mystère.
The history of civilization was long taught in schools as the history of its wars – battles and dates. Humans are unique this way: male animals fight amongst themselves for access to females but leave each other exhausted and maybe wounded but not dead. What cultural or biological function does war among humans actually have?
In his classic dystopian novel, 1984, Orwell described a nation committed to endless war, the situation the US finds itself in today. In the book, the purpose of these wars is to control the population with patriotic rallies and surveillance, to cover up failings of the leadership and to get rid of excess industrial production. Some would also point to the powerful side-effects of technology first developed for the military that contribute to the head-long plunge into an Orwellian future such as the Internet.
Our defense industry today is perfectly suited for the third task Orwell lists: after all, it makes things that destroy themselves. This industry is so dominated by a small number of giant companies that they can dictate costs and prices to the Pentagon, knowing the military budget will bloat to oblige them. This military-industrial complex lives outside the market-based capitalist system; the current move to merge Raytheon and United Technologies will be one more step in concentration of this oligopoly, one that does not brook competition. We can’t say that Eisenhower didn’t warn us.
But the human price of war is very, very high. So how does a modern nation-state structure its sociology to enable it to endure wars? For one point of view, the French feminist author Virginie Despentes puts it this way: with the citizens’ army, men have a “deal” – be willing to fight the nation’s wars in exchange for a position of prestige in society. With this setup, the position of women is made subordinate to that of men.
However, this compact is being eroded today: the US has a professional army, as do France, England, Germany et al. Moreover, the professional American army recruits women to bolster the level of IQ in the military which is so important for today’s technology based warfare! The erosion (in the US since the Vietnam draft) of the citizens’ army as a source of power for men in society could be a factor in the rise of feminist activism.
The irony is that while endless wars continue, the world is actually less violent today than it has been for a long time now. According to Prof. Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, the rate of death in war has fallen by a factor of 100 over a span of 25 years. The wars of today just do not require the great conscript armies of the world wars such as the massive force of over 34 million men and women that the Soviet Union put together in WWII while suffering casualties estimated to be as high as 11 million. But at least no one has yet called for a return to major wars in order to “right things” for men in Western societies.
For its part, the US has been at war constantly since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and, indeed since December 1941 but for some gaps – very few when you include covert operations such as support for Saddam Hussein during the decade-long Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and the not-so-covert downing of an Iranian civil airliner with 288 people on board by the USS Vincennes in 1988; for more in the Reagan era, add the Iran-Contra scandal where the US backed counter-revolutionaries attempting to overthrow the democratically elected government in Nicaragua (carried out in flagrant violation of US law but, have no fear, all convicted perpetrators were pardoned by G.H.W. Bush). However, the armed forces are no longer a citizen’s army but rather a professional force in the service of the US President, Congress having given up its right alone to declare war (same for tariffs). This arrangement distances the wealthy and members of the government from war itself and insulates them and most of the population from war’s human consequences.
In addition to serving Orwell’s purposes, US wars have consistently been designed to further the interests of corporations – Dick Cheney, Halliburton and Iraq; multiple incursions in Central America and the Caribbean to benefit United Fruit; the annexation of Hawaii to benefit the Dole Food Company; shipping and a convenient revolution in Colombia to create Panama in order to build the canal. As another such example, the source of the US-Cuba conflict stems from the Cuban nationalizations of United Fruit plantations and the Cuban expropriations of hotels and gambling operations belonging to Meyer Lansky and the Mafia, back in 1959. From there things escalated to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and on to the current bizarre situation.
As the forever wars endure, on the home front the military are obsequiously accorded veneration once reserved for priests and ministers. Armistice Day, which celebrated the end of a war, now is Veterans Day making for two holidays honoring the armed forces, one in Spring and one in Fall. Sports events routinely are opened by Marine Color Guards accompanied by Navy jet flyovers. In fact, the military actually pays the National Football League for this sort of pageantry designed to identify patriotism with militarism.
The courage and skill of US armed forces members in the field are exemplary. But what makes all this veneration for the military suspect is how little success these martial efforts have been having. Let’s not talk about Vietnam. The first Iraq War (Iraq I) did drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait but all that was made necessary by the U.S. ambassador’s giving Saddam Hussein an opening to invade in the first place – Iraq I also failed to remove the “brutal dictator” Saddam, a misstep which later became a reason for Iraq II. The war in Afghanistan began with the failure to capture Osama Bin Laden at Tora Bora and today the Taliban are as powerful as ever and the poppy trade continues unabated. Iraq II led to pro-Iranian Shiite control of the government, Sunni disaffection and ISIS. Any progress in Syria or Iraq against ISIS has been spearheaded by the Kurds, allies whom the US has thrown under the bus lest the US incur the wrath of the Turks. The Libya that NATO forces bombed during 7 months in 2011 is now a failed state.
There are 195 countries in the world today. The US military is deployed in 150 of them. The outsized 2018 US military budget of some $6.8B was larger than the sum of the next seven such budgets around the world. Von Clausewitz famously wrote that war is an extension of diplomacy. But military action has all but replaced diplomacy for the US – “if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” For budget details, click HERE .
Recently, the US was busy bombing Libya and pacifying Iraq. Right now the US is involved in hostilities in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen. Provocations involving oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman appear to be leading to armed conflict with Iran; this is all so worrisomely reminiscent of WMDs and so sadly similar to the fraudulent claim of attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that led to the escalation of the Vietnam War (as revealed by the Pentagon Papers, McNamara’s memoirs and NSA documents made public in 2005).
London bookmakers are notorious for taking bets on American politics. Perhaps, they also could take bets on where the US is likely to invade next. Boots on the ground in Yemen? Instead would the smart money be on oil-rich Libya with its warlords and the Benghazi incident? But Libya was already bombed exhaustively – interestingly right after Gaddafi tried to establish a gold-based pan-African currency, the dinar, for oil and gas transactions. Others would bet on Iran since the drums of war have already started beating and the unilateral withdrawal of the US from the Iran nuclear deal does untie the President’s hands; moreover and ominously for them, Iran just dropped the dollar as its exchange currency. Also invading the Shiite stronghold would ingratiate the US with Sunni ally Saudi Arabia (thus putting the US right in the middle of a war of religion); then too it could please Bibi Netanyahu who believes attacking Persia would parallel the story line of the Book of Esther. What about an invasion of Iran simply to carve out an independent Kurdistan straddling Iran and Iraq – to make it up to the Kurds? And weren’t American soldiers recently killed in action in Niger? And then there’s Somalia. Venezuela next? Etc.
From the Hebrew Bible itself, it is clear that Canaanite polytheism persisted among the Israelites throughout nearly all the Biblical period; this is attested to by the golden calf, by the constant re-appearances of Baal, by the lamentations and exhortations of the prophets, etc. What recent scholarship has brought to the fore, however, is that the female Canaanite goddess Asherah was also an important part of the polytheism of the Israelites and their world.
In addition to more rigorous readings of the Hebrew Bible by historians and translators, modern archaeological scholarship has done much to fill in the picture of Asherah’s importance in Biblical Palestine. Her connection with the Shekinah and the Shekinah’s persistence over a long time in Judaism have also been developed by historians like Raphael Patai, notably with his seminal study The Hebrew Goddess (1967).
In the Hebrew Bible, there are those multiple references to Baal and to other pagan gods – is Asherah among them? Mystère.
On her own, Asherah is actually referenced some 40 times in the Hebrew Bible in the pluralized form Asherim, but her presence has been covered over by editorial slights of pen.
There are references to Asherah in the First Book of Kings, Chapter 11, where Solomon indulges in idolatry and builds worship sites for her – in this text she is invoked as the goddess Ashtoreth of the Zidonians (a rival Canaanite group). Indeed he built altars for multiple gods and goddesses; Solomon, it appears, was working overtime to indulge his very multiple foreign wives and concubines.
But the term Asherim could refer both to Asherah herself (as with Elohim and El) and to eponymous objects associated with her cult, in particular to shrines under trees known as Asherah Trees and wooden figures known as Asherah Poles. The trick of the interpreters and translators of the Hebrew Bible has been to systematically render Asherim as “wooden poles” or “wooden groves” or simply as the anonymous “groves.”
The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible (3rd and 2nd centuries BC) into Greek religiously follows this practice and this trick was perpetuated both by St. Jerome in his Latin translation and by the authors of the King James Bible.
For example, in the Hebrew Bible, in Judges 3:7 we have a reference to Baal and Asherah; in the New King James Bible (1982), the Hebrew text is translated as
So the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD. They forgot the LORD their God, and served the Baals and Asherahs.
While in the classic King James version, we have
And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and forgat the LORD their God, and served Baalim and the groves.
The Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible follows the Latin Vulgate of St. Jerome and it too renders “Asherim” as “groves” in this verse and elsewhere.
In 1 Kings, worship of Asherah was encouraged in the court of King Ahab by his queen Jezebel which led the prophet Elijah to rail against the presence of prophets of Baal and Asherah at the court: the New King James translation of 1 Kings 18:19 reads
Now therefore, send and gather all Israel to me [Elijah ] on Mount Carmel, the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.
Again, note that this is a new translation; the original King James reads
Now therefore send, and gather to me [Elijah] all Israel unto mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel’s table.
For a picture of Jezebel, Ahab and Elijah getting together, click HERE
Asherah was even present in the Temple in Jerusalem – statues of her were erected there during the time of King Manasseh (2 Kings 21:7) but then smashed during the reign of his grandson, the reformer King Josiah (2 Kings 23:14). This outbreak of iconoclasm is given in the New King James Bible as
He [Josiah] also tore down the quarters of the male shrine prostitutes that were in the temple of the LORD, the quarters where women did weaving for Asherah.
Which can be contrasted with the King James text
And he brake down the houses of the sodomites, that were by the house of the LORD, where the women wove hangings for the grove.
Here too it is only modern translations of the Hebrew text that bring Asherah out into the open.
Josiah’s reform did not long survive his reign, as the following four kings “did what was evil in the eyes of Yahweh” (2 Kings 23:32, 37; 24:9, 19). It is not clear just what those evils were – but they must have been pretty bad to earn a reference in the Bible.
Monotheism was thus slow to become dominant among the population. Right up to the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the Babylonian Captivity, we have Biblical references to idolatry among the Israelites and, in particular, to the worship of Asherah. Indeed, one of Asherah’s titles was Queen of Heaven and this is how she is referred to in Jeremaiah 7:18 when the prophet is lamenting the Israelites’ continuing idolatry in the period just before the destruction of the Temple:
The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.
After the exile in Babylon was brought to an end by the pro-Israelite Persian King Cyrus the Great, the construction of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem began and was completed in 515 BC; it is at this time that monotheism built around Yahweh finally becomes firmly established as the official version of Judaism. So by the time of the Septuagint two centuries later, “Asherim” is systematically translated into Greek as “groves.” For official Judaism and its male-based monotheism, it was important to redact references to El/Yahweh’s consort Asherah, the Queen of Heaven.
But while the female principle of Asherah might have been expunged from the Judaism of the Hellenized diaspora and from “high temple” Judaism in Jerusalem itself, popular religion in the countryside of Biblical Palestine was another thing entirely. As heiress to Asherah, the Shekinah emerged in the religious practices of the Aramaic speaking Jews of the region – the world of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. The Shekinah first figures in the Targums, Aramaic writings from the Biblical Palestine, and she appears in the Talmud as well as in the Kaballah. As Yahweh became more distant from the material world, more modern in transcendence, it is this Shekinah who assured the link between Yahweh and that same material world and thereby provided the link between the Jewish world in the Palestine of the time of Christ and the Christian Holy Spirit.
Then too, following the suppression of Asherah in official Judaism, from Hellenic and Mediterranean sources there came the feminine principle Wisdom/Sophia which infiltrated Proverbs and Isaiah and which is the center piece of the Wisdom of Solomon (aka the Book of Wisdom ), written in Greek in the 1st century BC. Early Christians confirmed the link between Wisdom/Sophia and the Holy Spirit in writings referring to the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, in identifying the Seven Pillars of Wisdom with the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, etc.
A third influence on the Christian Holy Spirit would most likely have come from the Essenes who insisted on the role of the Holy Spirit as dweller in the hearts of men and women; this aspect of the Holy Spirit is shared by the Shekinah whose name literally means “indweller”.
However, while the term Shekinah and the term Holy Spirit became interchangeable in the Aramaic and the Hebrew Talmudic writings, the Shekinah as such did not even make the transition from the folk Judaism of the Holy Land to the Greek speaking Gentile world, only the form Holy Spirit did.
The Gospels and the Epistles were all written in Greek. Their mission facilitated by the Pax Romana, the Greek speaking teams under Roman citizen Paul of Tarsus “hijacked” Christianity and delivered it to activist converts of the Greek speaking world at the end of the Hellenistic Era. After the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, the Christians were a small group in Jerusalem clustered around St James – the apostle referred to as the “the brother of Jesus” by Protestant scholars and as “James the Lesser” by Catholic scholars. Things moved quickly. In the period from the Crucifixion to the completion of the Epistles and Gospels, Christianity was taken from the Aramaic speaking Jewish population of Judea where it had begun and turned over to the Greek speaking population of the Mediterranean.
With the First Jewish War (66-73 AD) and the destruction of the Temple (70 AD), the early Gentile Christians of the Roman Empire would have had every political reason to separate their young movement from its Jewish roots. There was also the theological motivation of securing control over the interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures and prophecies.
In fact, in making the break from the Jewish world, the first thing the new Christians did was to eliminate the Semitic practices of dietary laws and male circumcision. In contrast, when the 3rd Abrahamic religion, Islam, rose among a Semitic people some 500 years later, both practices continued to be enforced.
As related in the post “Joshua and Jesus” on this blog site, the Aramaic/Hebrew name of Jesus is Yeshua, which is transliterated directly into English as Joshua but which becomes Jesus after being passed through the Greek language filter. Indeed, had the Gospels been written in Aramaic, the language of the Targums and the language of Yeshua and his disciples, we would have a much better sense today of what the Christian Savior actually said, taught and did – and why. In particular, the conflict between the Jews of the countryside and the Pharisees of the Temple in Jerusalem would have been more substantiated. At the nativity. it would have been “Messaiah Adonai” in the language the shepherds spoke rather than the “Christ the Lord” of the Greek version, the Aramaic being much better at capturing the spirit of the Hebrew scriptures. As it is, the one time Jesus speaks in Aramaic comes as He is dying on the cross and cries out:
Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
In an Aramaic New Testament, the feminine noun “Shekinah” would likely have been used instead of “Holy Spirit”; in contrast the noun “spirit” is neuter in Greek and masculine in Latin. Severed, however, from its roots, the theology of the Holy Spirit took on a life of its own in the hands of rationalist intellectuals of the Graeco-Roman world. Affaire à suivre.