Explaining Academia: Mystical Manipulation

Part I here.

Mystical Manipulation. The manipulation of experiences that appears spontaneous but is, in fact, planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority, spiritual advancement, or some exceptional talent or insight that sets the leader and/or group apart from humanity, and that allows reinterpretation of historical events, scripture, and other experiences. Coincidences and happenstance oddities are interpreted as omens or prophecies.

Here’s a fairy tale: 30-ish A.D, Roman authorities in Palestine execute yet another in a long line of rabble-rousing, apocalypse-preaching mystics.  But this time they botch the job somehow, because reports quickly begin to circulate that the guru is still alive.  His followers, though, insist that the mystic actually raised himself from the dead — as he said he would — thus fulfilling all the prophecies about him and proving all his claims.

Most of that actually happened, as proven by sources any reasonable historian would accept.  The kicker is the guru’s followers’ claim, that the mystic actually did rise from the dead.  Because that claim is so implausible, we immediately discount it… but because his followers seem so damn sure, we start looking for alternatives: He was in a coma.  The Roman authorities thought he was dead when they took him off the cross, but he was still just barely alive, and recovered.  The disciples found a convincing lookalike.  Mass hysteria.  Whatever — we accept that something like the Resurrection actually happened, just not the thing itself.

Which is an at least superficially plausible account of Christianity’s origins, and, since the appeal of its message is obvious, is thus a superficially plausible account of Christianity’s subsequent career.  Most of us “know” lots of intellectual and cultural history that way — e.g. you probably memorized something like “the Romantic movement was a backlash against the Industrial Revolution” without thinking about it too much.  If you’re not a believer, Fox Mulder’s motto is good enough — they wanted to believe, so they did, on whatever grounds did the trick at the time.*

Here’s another fairy tale: in 1517, the Western world was being trampled under the two oppressive boots of The Church and Feudalism.  Combined, they stifled free thought, free expression, and, most importantly, the free movement of goods and gold.  So when Martin Luther posted up his famous Theses, merchants everywhere seized upon their revolutionary potential to overthrow both the Church and its enabler, Feudalism (remember, the Church owned up to half the land in most kingdoms).  From then on, money and reform went hand in hand — Capitalism created Protestantism; dialectically, Protestantism created Capitalism.

This, too, is a superficially plausible account of the origins of the Early Modern world.  To take one of endless examples, it seems pretty suspicious that the guys leading the charge to overthrow and execute Charles I — an old-school Divine Right monarch if ever there were one — just happened to be both Puritans and petit bourgeois.  See also the Huguenots, the Plymouth Colony, etc. — nobody drives a harder bargain than a guy who thinks we’re all damned to hell.

Again — superficially plausible.  Problem is, unlike Christianity, Marx’s whole schmear doesn’t rely on a physical impossibility (for those who went to college after about 1990, or who skipped class before, that whole Capitalism/Protestantism thing is Kapital 101).  Saying credo quia absurdum doesn’t get you any social cachet – this is the much likelier response, plus loads of crippling self doubt on a lot of sleepless nights.  Reducing the vast sweep of human thought to “the needs of Capital,” however, makes you sound smart, or at least college educated, to people who have been trained to regard polysyllabic gobbledygook as profundity — that is, any graduate of the American school system in the past 50 years.  And since nearly all of us forget, nearly always,  that correlation is not causation, the fact that lots of merchants were Puritans makes us behave as if the desire to make a buck caused Puritanism, or vice versa.  We ignore all the Puritans who weren’t merchants (the vast majority), all the merchants who weren’t Puritans (ditto), and all the angst Puritan merchants themselves had over their lifestyles (cf. Max Weber, above, and the Salem Witch Trials).  “Capital” doesn’t do anything, because it can’t — capital-C “Capital” is historians’ shorthand for the outcome of a lot of interrelated but autonomous processes, not some mysterious Force that arranges people like chess pieces to accomplish its mysterious designs.

Mystical manipulation, see?  Because Protestantism, the consolidation of national states, a rapid rise in literacy, the expansion of international trade, a revolution in military tactics, and a zillion other things were all happening at the same time, and because you need money for all of them, it not only doesn’t sound absurd to say “Capitalism” caused them all, it actually sounds correct.  And because of that, the guy who says it sounds like a genius.  And because of that, that guy’s disciples start furiously spinning their rationalization hamsters to come up with canon-consistent explanations for all the stuff the guru got wrong — which is to say, the vast majority of it.

And, of course, if you disagree with me, I’ll flunk your term paper.



*Not being an ancient historian or a Christian apologist, I’d be curious to know if there were any other resurrection claims in the ancient world.  If you assume Christianity is just a myth, James Frazier-style, then yeah, there’s Osiris, Orpheus returning from the underworld, etc.  But did anyone, anywhere, ever claim that about a man?  Christianity spread by word of mouth from people who unquestionably existed, and who personally saw Jesus, before and after.  Saying that Christ was transformed into an Osiris figure after his death won’t hold, unless you also claim that the Apostles were also suffering from that specific delusion, immediately after the crucifixion.  I seem to recall that there are lots of references to sorcerers who claimed to be able to raise the dead, Witch of Endor-style, but no references to any individual so raised walking around in the sun.

3 thoughts on “Explaining Academia: Mystical Manipulation

  1. I’d be curious to know if there were any other resurrection claims in the ancient world.

    I’m pretty sure it was down to “disciples stole his body” back then.

    Though we’re getting into the weeds of the “how would you ever prove a miracle” riddle.

    • Right, but what I’m getting at is, “this man — this named individual, that plenty of living people would recognize — has been resurrected.” So far as I know, that’s a unique claim in the ancient world. Lots of other people in the ancient world claimed to do everything else Jesus did — “oh, he heals the sick and casts out demons? Fifty two other guys in Jerusalem alone can do that.” But if nobody ever claimed to have come back from the dead, that’s… interesting, no?

      If you want to claim that Jesus was just another wandering mystic, ok, fine, he does all the stuff — healing the sick etc. — that establish your bona fides as a mystic back then. Everyone does that. But then his followers make this extremely odd claim about coming back from the dead. In a traditional society, you do traditional things. That’s about as radical a break from tradition as you can find… which means something was very different about Jesus. None of that proves He was who He said he was, of course, but it would certainly take some of the wind out of the sails of guys like John Dominic Crossan, Reza Aslan, et al, who say Jesus was JUST another mystic, no different than Steve and Larry and fifty-six other guys whose names are lost to history who were wandering around Judea saying basically the same thing, at the same time…

      • Well checking on this

        Platonic thought, as Murray Harris puts it, supposed that “man’s highest good consisted of emancipation from corporeal defilement. The nakedness of disembodiment was the ideal state.” Physical resurrection was the last sort of endgame for mankind that you wanted to preach.

        Indeed, among the pagans, resurrection was deemed impossible. Wright in Resurrection of the Son of God quotes Homer’s King Priam: “Lamenting for your dead son will do no good at all. You will be dead before you bring him back to life.” And Aeschylus Eumenides: “Once a man has died, and the dust has soaked up his blood, there is no resurrection.” And so on, with several other quotes denying the possibility of resurrection.
        . . .
        We can see well enough that Paul had to fight the Gnostics, the Platonists, and the ascetics on these counts. But what makes this especially telling is that a physical resurrection was completely unnecessary for merely starting a religion. It would have been enough to say that Jesus’ body had been taken up to heaven, like Moses’ or like Elijah’s. Indeed this would have fit (see here) what was expected, and would have been much easier to “sell” to the Greeks and Romans, for whom the best “evidence” of elevation to divine rank was apotheosis — the transport of the soul to the heavenly realms after death; or else translation while still alive.

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