Fate/Faith

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The antique divine is plural and not transcendent. The Greek Olympus is but a mountain on earth. And the Roman gods haven’t even a proper mountain. They are citizens, be it of an immortal kind and for whom the mortals have built houses/temples where they are worshiped. 

Why do mortals worship gods? Because gods are immortal and, consequently, in touch with the domain beyond the line separating life from death. Since life is oriented towards death, it might have its origin there as well. Thus the basic supposition underlying any religion. Life is ‘given’, given for free and coming from a place as unreachable as death. 

The Triumph of Death , or  The Three Fates , Flemish tapestry, ca. 1510-1520

The Triumph of Death, or The Three Fates, Flemish tapestry, ca. 1510-1520

The general name for how the multiple divine affects mortals is fate: fatum in Latin, moira in Greek. In the domain from where humans and their lives are given, there is no unity. This is why, praying for favors or presenting offerings, one never foresees the result. The figure crystalizing this aspect of the pagan divine is performed in the three Fates or Moirae: the goddesses spinning the thread of life of each of us. Klotho spins it, Lachesis measures it, and Atropos cuts it.        

In a way, antique Eros repeats that figure. It translates fate in the grammar of amorous loving. The blindness of the little god corresponds with the unreliable multitude of the divine. Yet, whereas Eros does not allow any religious practice (as can be read in Euripides), the gods explicitly do. But without any guarantee. This is fate. 

Of course, the religious people of Antiquity have faith in their gods and, consequently, in fate. But it is different from the faith the Christians have in their unique God. That faith supposes the annihilation of antique fate. Christian faith is not a way to deal with the uncertainty and unreliability of the divine. On the contrary, it relies on God as the one who loves us with a love beyond Eros, a love that overcomes sin, death and any other lack characterizing the human condition. Faith is what gives Christians hope and raises them up to life in the realm of love. As Paul concludes his hymn to agapè in the First Letter to the Corinthians (13:13): “But now faith, hope, and love remain—these three. The greatest of these is love.”  

The Christian God is not the one of fate; He is too reliable for that. He is, so to say, reliability itself. But is that so? For if yes, should He then be a God at all? Is a god still a god when you can rely on him the way you rely on the air you breath? Certainly a monotheistic God is not like that. ‘Not whom we think, is God: only God is God’: thus the paradigm of that religion.  

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This is to say that, also in monotheism,  the line separating the realm of life and the one of death remains intact. Even in Christian ‘incarnational’ monotheism, God remains ‘beyond’. And even if  He promises humans a new life there, a life of love without sin and death, it is nothing but a promise. Christ himself has overcome sin and death and we are told to follow Him in this, but only after his ‘return from the Father’, after his Last Judgment

All this results in the Christian concept of Grace. It is the promise of an eternal life totally freed from sin and death: a ‘heaven’ that no Greek or Roman god was ever able to promise. Yet, the Christian God, too, remains a God: sovereign as He is, it is up to Him to give or give not eternal life to each of his creatures. And since, to be who He is, He has no need of humans (i.e. of their sacrifices, processions, prayers, …), He can decide in advance which of them He will bestow that life upon and which not.     

Here, we meet the Christian idea of predestination which, in fact, harshens the antique idea of fate. In a way, it monopolizes fate, since here, man’s fate is in the hands of one almighty God and not of a multitude of gods fighting one another. 

What is love, if its condition is dominated by Grace? 

One of its most extreme shapes can be found in the oeuvre of Fénelon, the 17th century author who states that, even if God’s predestination has condemned you to eternal sufferings in hell, you can still love Him. What is more, only then your love is pure, i.e. not mixed up with any selfish interest. According to Fénelon, that pur amour is the ultimate hallmark of Christian faith. 

Pur amour reveals Christian faith as Antique fate in its most extreme shape.

Eros

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By: Marc De Kesel

Love as self-sacrifice: is this typically Christian? Does antique pagan mythology not provide examples of self-sacrifice out of love? Antigone, for instance. What else is it that she did for her dead brother?

After his tragic discovery, blind Oedipus went into exile and left power to his two sons who were supposed to occupy Thebe’s throne in rotation, one year Polynices, the next Eteocles. Polynices started, but once in power, Eteocles refused to hand it over to his brother. Supported by seven other Greek cities, Polynices waged war against his own brother and city. The story ended in a duel in which both were killed by the other’s sword. Creon, the new king, forbid the burial of Polynices, Thebe’s aggressor. Antigone refused to obey and gave her ‘bad’ brother – state enemy number one – a formal burial, knowing in advance that by this she signed her own death sentence. Indeed, this was the conclusion Creon drew.

Benjamin Constant,  Antigone and
Polynices , ca 1806 






  
  
   
  
  

  
  
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Benjamin Constant, Antigone and Polynices, ca 1806

Of course, Antigone loved her brother, but nowhere in the sources we have of Greek mythology, is love – in the sense of Eros – explicitly mentioned as her motive. Neither in the tragic play of that name by Sophocles. Within the crowd of scholars and philosopher who have studied the play (among them Hegel, Hölderlin, Schelling, Heidegger, Lacan, Žižek ), no one puts forward Eros as what drives Antigone to her act. 

This, however, is not to say that Eros is not mentioned at all in Sophocles’ play. There is even a song by the chorus entirely dedicated to it (v. 781-9). It is one of the most famous hymns on love we have from Antiquity.. 

O Eros, the conqueror in every fight,
            Eros, who squanders all men’s wealth,
            who sleeps at night on girls’ soft cheeks,
            and roams across the ocean seas
            and through the shepherd’s hut—

            no immortal god escapes from you,
            nor any man, who lives but for a day. 
            And the one whom you possess goes mad.  
           

Even in good men you twist their minds,
            perverting them to their own ruin.
            You provoke these men to family strife.
            The bride’s desire seen glittering in her eyes—
            that conquers everything, its power
            enthroned beside eternal laws, for there
            the goddess Aphrodite works her will,
            whose ways are irresistible.

The song presents the classical Antique Greek idea of love, a love that conquers, but with no good intentions. It is a love that ruins rather than heals, affects even gods and perverts the best among humanity. It is love as mere Beauty, detached as it is from its classical triad with Goodness and Truth. The hymn praises love as superficial splendor which, although wounding, cannot but be enjoyed.

Yet, rather than the content, it is the place within the play that is significant here. In the sentence before, after Antigone’s last confrontation with Creon, she is told her verdict: she will be buried alive in an empty grave. From then onwards, the spectator will follow her in the direct way to her death. But not without having heard first an ode to “Eros, conqueror in every fight”.

Does the Sophoclean Eros conquer death? That is what Christian Love would do. On the very place where she enters the realm of death, it would erect a cross that ultimately leaves not life but death slain. Instead of a cross, Sophocles puts Eros here, in the shape of a girl’s beauty. Eros as mere splendor, as what “sleeps at night on girls’ soft cheeks”.

Jean de Rotrou,  Antigone  (title page), 1638 






  
  
   
  
  

  
  
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Jean de Rotrou, Antigone (title page), 1638

Here, love conquers everything except death. Death is in a sense what love enables us to look at. In Sophocles’ tragedy, we look at desire: desire in so far as it cannot be satisfied, desire in its tragic condition. We look at the impossibility of satisfaction as the hallmark of the human. Death is the figure of the impossibility human desire is oriented towards. It is up to Antigone’s beauty to show us that.

On the title page of Jean de Rotrou’s Antigone translation (1638), we see her captured by Creon’s soldiers. She deliberately is performed as an erotic beauty. Behind her we notice death as what slashed down her two brothers (and, thus, the entire House of Cadmus). It is the function of beauty: being a veil that ‘clearly’ hides what is behind, i.e. the impossibility our desire longs for.

It shows us desire as what is strong as death – as is sung in the Song of Songs. 

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Death

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Marc De Kesel

Place me like a seal over your heart,
    like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
    its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
    like a mighty flame.

This is one of the most famous verses of the Song of Songs (8:6). Love is as strong as death, it tells us. It is seductive to read the passage slightly differently, as love being stronger than death. Many people have it like this in their memory. It is an old, persistent misreading. Let me quote one such from Early Modernity.

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Amsterdam, 1720. A certain Gerrit Bouman  published  an absolute novelty:  a ‘Print Bible’, a booklet  full of rebuses containing verses from the Holy Scripture. It was meant for children: amusing themselves with these rebuses, they in the meantime could pick up the Biblical messages. One of the pages performs the verse of Song of Songs 8:6, at least the first part. The rebus is correct. It says that love (caritas, whose iconography is traditionally a mother with children) is as strong as (sterck als] death. But at the bottom of the page, in the written version, we read: “love is stronger than death or any other pain” (Set mij Heer als een zegel op uw arm en herte, / De liefde is sterker dan de doodt of ander smerte).

If modernity is – as Michel de Certeau and others say – the age of faith in man’s limitless possibilities, this misreading is typically modern. Man’s passionate will is supposed to challenge and by times conquer his finite human condition. Although mortal, his passion and his love tries hard to be stronger than life’s lethal forces.

‘Stronger than’: this reading is even more typically for Christianty as well. For Christians believe that Christ did overcome mortality. His Love broke the seal of death and turned its realm into Eternal Life. Christians and moderns are inclined to read the verse as telling that Love conquers all, including death’s power.

But the original text speaks of something different. For the Hebrews of the first millennium BC, there was no such thing as Eternal Life. All the deceased went to Sheol, a kind of underworld, analogous to the Greek Hades. Faith in God was entirely a matter of earthly life. Obeying the Torah was supposed to be rewarded in concrete prosperity, in a lot of children or other things in favor of the development of Israel as a great nation.

In this sense, nothing is stronger than death, death being the ultimate power, the power no one can surpass. We have to conquer life before death’s dominion begins to reign. Once attacking, death cannot be stopped or overcome. And this is how strong Love is. Once attacked by Love, one cannot overcome, manipulate or manage it. One has to listen to its authority, both obediently and passionately. It is the ultimate contract that binds one to another, a contract sealed by death, sealed with death. When betrayed, that love kills you.

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This is the Love of the first monotheistic God, the one of what is called the Old Testament. It is Love listening to the paradigm of sovereignty, of power defined (with Agamben) as the possibility to decide about one’s life and death. The Love of that God is as strong as death.

Christianity introduced a different paradigm, the one of biopolitics, later taken over by modernity. Here, power is defined as its capacity to behold and manage life. It is in that perspective that God’s love is stronger than death. 

Crux

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By: Marc De Kesel

The cross is the crux of Christian Love. If Love is the name for the new, Christian regime overcoming the old, Jewish one of the Law, if it is what leaves behind the realm of sin and death and inaugurates the New Creation, then the cross is what enables this. It is the figure of how God – ‘in his Son’ – takes upon himself our sins and our mortality, and by doing so, delivers us from them. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3: 16).

This is a hard thing for modern man to understand, let alone to accept. Why is the laying down of one’s life an act of love? Is that bearable at all for the one for whom this is done? And what about a God sacrificing his one and only son in order to save those whom he also calls his children?

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From the very beginning, this idea has been criticized and often rejected for being thoroughly cruel and criminal, even in the bosom of Christianity. Unless, however, you interpret this cruelty as precisely what Christianity intents to lay bare and, by doing so, to deliver us from. This is the idea underlying the theory of René Girard. The violent scene of the crucified innocent brings to the surface that it is indeed our cruelty, our sins which the sacrificed victim bears; and that if we remember that scene, we in the future may avoid that cruelty and locate sin definitely where it belongs: with us.

But why is this procedure named love, the highest form of love, even? Is love essentially sacrifice? Is it love when a divine Father, to love the human, sacrifices himself (or, what for him amounts to the same thing, his son)? Is it love that a soldier is presenting when he dies for his country on the battlefield? Is it an act of love when a fundamentalist, out of love for a true world, bombs himself together with the old, corrupted world? 

In spite of the differences between the three kinds of sacrificial love, they have something formal in common. In all three, an act of gift-giving is involved. They are all forms of ‘gift traffic’. In those cases, the gift is extremely radical; it is the most radical gift possible. But in less extreme forms, love is no less a matter of gift and gift-giving. It is what one gives and what is given. It is what the giver never easily, thoughtlessly gives, and what the receiver knows he could refuse, for if he does not, the accepted gift urges him, in the near or far future, to give something back. What precisely love gives, is not easy to grasp (did Lacan not say it is “giving what one does not have”?), but that it is matter of gift-giving is clear. Just like everyone knows that, in love, gift-giving can go far, sometimes too far.

But is love giving oneself? Is it sacrifice and self-sacrifice by nature? Not every gift is like that, of course, but a gift like that is possible. What is more, to be a self-gift, it should not  have to be a real, i.e. lethal, self-sacrifice. Erotic love illustrates this perfectly. Is love not both the desire for the beloved and the act of giving oneself to him or her? Is not what makes love so joyful that, out of love, one can give him- or herself to the one he/she loves?

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It is indeed not a matter of really giving oneself, but it is surely lived like that. In the act of love, I have lost myself in the other. And the very  moment I realize that, I feel sorry already that I am no longer lost. This is what French eroticism calls ‘the little death’, ‘la petite mort’.  It is the feeling, after the act of love, that I again feel something, whereas before, in the moment of ecstasy, there was no longer an I to feel anything. And that moment in which the I was lost, is the acme of love. 

It is the crux of love: to disappear in the loving act. To disappear in it in one’s quality of ego, I, self. To finally get rid of being an ego, an I, a self or whatever. To exist, not because I exist or – what amounts to the same thing – want to exist, but to exist only because someone else wants me to exist. In that very wanting of the other, in his desire, I ultimately want to disappear, to the extent of no longer being an ego, an identity, a self.     

It is a strange thing: if love is what makes me what I am, than that love ultimately loves to deliver myself from the I, I am. Love has something to do with death: since there has been poetry, songs have been sung about this. Death is in the heart of love. Death is unconsciously the ultimate thing I long for in loving someone: it remains a weird thing to understand, let alone to accept.

Is this what we see when staring at Christ crucified? Is this the Passion?