Utopian Dreams

Note 4: St. Cyprian: On Mortality. 3/8/99

An early church father, St. Cyprian (200-258 A. D.) became the first African martyr of the Christian community of Carthage when he was beheaded for his faith in 258 A. D. His exhortation to his fellow believers on the subject of mortality foreshadows in any number of ways the perception that his martyrdom was inevitable. While it may not be completely proper to suggest that Cyprian was more the victim of a ritual suicide than he was one of religious persecution, since members of the faith were heavily persecuted during the early centuries of the community's existence, one cannot completely escape the impression that martyrdom itself was a widely sought after validation, if not actual proof and demonstration, of the strength of commitment the individual Christian held with respect to his/her faith. Put another way: the early church fathers, Cyprian included, actively argued to their fellows in the faith that being the victim of persecution and martyrdom established, retroactively as it were, the unquestionable authority and validity of the Word the martyr had spoken during his/her lifetime prior to becoming the victim of pagan intolerance.

The problem of martyrdom in early church history is an incredibly complex social and psychological one that has an essential ground and foundation in the idea that the world itself is responsible for the evil that afflicts and threatens the salvation of good Christians and true as long as they are forced by their own mortality to live inside its material, and therefore sinful, limitations. In speaking to the issue of why Christians are afflicted by mortality, Cyprian says that

"As long as we are here in the world we are united with the human race in equality of the flesh, we are separated in spirit. And so, until this corruptible element puts on incorruptibility and this mortal element receives immortality and the spirit conducts us to God the Father, the disadvantages of the flesh, whatever they are, we have in common with the human race." (Chapter 8)

Cyprian attributes this concept to Paul, who argues that the greatest gain a Christian can receive is " 'to be no longer held by the snares of the world, to be no longer subject to any sins and faults of the flesh, but, released from tormenting afflictions and freed from the poisoned jaws of the devil, to set out, at Christ's summons, for the joy of eternal salvation' " (Chapter 7). Several things stand out in these two statements. On the one hand, Cyprian's words clearly imply that Christians do not conceive of themselves as being part of a wider human community. The fact that they should see themselves as "united with the human race in equality of the flesh," but differentiated from them at the same time by virtue of the possession of a "spirit," which ordinary human beings apparently do not have, makes them more than, better than other members of the human race. "We" have in common with "them," Cyprian claims, the afflictions of the flesh, which is corruptible, but will escape from this mortal commonality at death because the spirit "we" have, which is incorruptible, will carry "us," not only away from "them," but to God and to "the joy of eternal salvation," as Paul puts it. Escaping from the "snares of the world," from the "sins and faults of the flesh," from the "poisoned jaws of the devil," becomes a goal, and the single most desirable objective, for the true believer in the community of Christ that the church has established on the earth. Since death is the only condition that can accomplish the ultimate differentiation of the true Christian spirit, in its incorruptibility, from the sin and affliction of the world, the flesh, and the devil, in its corruptibility by association with ordinary members of the "human race," with pagan reality, it seems only logical to suppose that early Christians actively pursued, and were encouraged to pursue, their own death as the ultimate means of achieving and demonstrating their own incorruptibility, the realization of their own salvation.

Cyprian says as much explicitly in Chapter 25 of his discourse:

"While the servants of God have always had to [respond to God's call], they ought to do it all the more quickly, now with the world falling and oppressed by the storms of attacking evils, so that we who perceive that grievous things have already begun and know that more grievous things are imminent should count it the greatest gain if we should speedily depart from here."

This is clearly an exhortation by Cyrpian to his flock to seek out a swift exit from the "storms of attacking evils" that are gathering around the African Christian community at the mid-point of the third century. Precisely what he means by his reference to the "grievous things" already occurring and the ones that are looming over the community's collective head is not specified explicitly anywhere in his text. He does make reference, in Chapter 2 of his treatise on Mortality, to the fact that Christ "foretold and prophesied that wars and famine and earthquakes and pestilence would arise in the various places" where Christians live, all of which were to be taken as signs of the Second Coming, which may account for the sense of urgency in his discourse, but these generally perceived threats to ordinary human existence were commonplace in early church writings and cannot be taken as references to specific possibilities of persecution toward individual enclaves of Christian believers. Tertullian, another Carthaginian theologian, who lived about the same time as Cyprian, also makes reference to the same set of natural catastrophes that seemed to beset the minds of most early Christian thinkers.

The point being made here has two sides: on the one hand, general threats against human life which were centered in nature (storms, famine, earthquakes, disease, etc.) came to be associated with the Second Coming as signs of the Apocalypse and were sent by the devil to try the faith of good Christians, were in themselves evil by association with the natural world and the devil's existence in it and were meant to be tests of a person's faith. A person who failed the test was proven to be unworthy of salvation. In a typical expression of the false consciousness used by Christian ideologues to hold the flock together on its restricted field of grazable ideas, Cyprian cautions his followers to avoid complaints and murmurings against God for the misfortunes that befall them: " We must not murmur in adversity, beloved brethren, but must patiently and bravely bear with whatever happens, since it is written: 'A contrite and humble heart God does not despise'" (Chapter 11). Being despised by God, of course, implies a necessary doom and damnation to anyone who does complain.

A second point to take here, on the other hand, concerns the fact that Christian piety was always more concerned with the realization of "eternal salvation" than it was with conditions that existed in temporal reality. Cyprian makes this point in Chapter 12 by advising his followers to

"let not [adversities] be stumbling blocks for you, but battles; nor let them weaken or crush the faith of the Christian, but rather let them reveal his valor in the contest, since every injury arising from present evils should be made light of through confidence in the blessings to come. Unless a battle has gone before there cannot be a victory; when a victory has been won in the conflict of battle, then a crown also is given to the victors."

Receiving the "crown" of a true soldier of Christ was the same as being welcomed into heaven when you died. He makes this point in a general reference early in his discussion (Chapter 2) when he announces the imminent arrival of the kingdom of the true believer:

"The kingdom of God, beloved brethren, has begun to be at hand; the reward of life and the joy of eternal salvation and perpetual happiness and the possession of paradise once lost are now coming with the passing of the world; now the things of heaven are succeeding those of earth, and great things small, and eternal things, transitory."

His reference to "the possession of paradise once lost" brings us full circle, as it were, and back around to the subject of this document in general. The death of the world, as Cyprian makes clear here, and for all the reasons outlined above, represents to the Christian the fact of returning to glory in that "paradise once lost" known as Eden. The point here is clearly stated: the earth, the world, the flesh, the devil must necessarily perish completely, absolutely, irrevocably, before (wo)man can have any hope of regaining that which was lost through original sin, before (wo)man can go back to the Garden of Eden. Embrace death, early Christianity teaches, and live forever in the otherworld, in perfect bliss, in the eternally perfect world of Eden.

The militancy of this view is also clearly expressed in Cyprian's discourse. In the very first words of his exhortation he turns to militaristic vocabulary by saying that

"he who serves as a soldier of God, who, being stationed in the camp of heaven, already hopes for the divine things, ought to recognize himself, so that we should have no fear, no dread at the storms and whirlwinds of the world, since the Lord predicted that these things would come through the exhortation of His provident voice" (Chapter 2).

Being a "soldier of God" with one's life already "stationed in the camp of heaven" suggests that any Christian, who is still actively engaged in worldly concerns, actively engaged in living in the flesh, since why would there have to be soldiers in paradise at all, is potentially, and often enough in actuality, an agent of death who has his heart and mind set on the next world while his body is going about its business in this one. The question this raises, of course, is: what exactly are these "soldiers of God" doing in human culture while they are patiently waiting for God to finish his work of destroying the world, the flesh, and the devil, that have been tormenting his loyal followers for the past 2000 years? One rather troubling answer to that question points toward people like Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols who found a way to express their Christian faith in Oklahoma City at the expense of 168 people who happened to have business of their own at the Federal building that day. If that doesn't strike you true, what do you say about people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson encouraging good Christians and true to punish homosexuals by beating them to death in Wyoming and Alabama? What exactly do you think individuals like that are saying when they insist that God despises gay people? The message is as clear as it is simple: the Other is always already part of the world, the flesh, and the devil, that good Christians and true must destroy before they can regain their rightful place in paradise. A final point to take away from this is the notion that Christ, as the divine Logos, can, through "His provident voice" alone bring forth all the war and destruction that will herald his Second Coming. Good Christians and true can and should expect that to happen.

One final example can be cited here to raise the issue beyond a few local crazies who preach the Gospel of hate, exclusion, and destruction, for the sake of their own greed through a few isolated television stations. Hegel, in The Phenomenology of Mind, in the course of discussing the ethical mode of being, argues that

"The living ethical world is spirit in its truth. As it first comes to an abstract knowledge of its essential nature, ethical life (Sittlichkeit) is destroyed in the formal universality of right or legality (Recht). Spirit, being now sundered within itself, traces one of its worlds in the element of its objectivity as in a crass solid actuality; this is the realm of Culture and Civilization; while over against this in the element of thought is traced the world of Belief or Faith, the realm of the inner Life and Truth (Wesen)." (460)

While Hegel's tendency to dialectical abstraction always already creates problems of comprehension for those of us not particularly enamored of such modes of thought, finding them obstructionist at best, what he says here, I think, is that ethical life comes at some point to an abstract knowledge of its own essential nature and recognizes the fact that it exists in two separate but equal frames of reference. The question I have is whether people living an ethical life come to this realization or whether "ethical life," as some kind of sentient being in its own right, reaches that state of realization apart from the people who live it. The two worlds of the dialectic here are defined as being opposites (of course and that goes without saying in all of Hegel's thought); with one being seen as the "crass" material reality of ethical constructs as they exist in "Culture and Civilization." The other world where ethical constructs "exist" (?) is characterized as being, or belonging to, the realm of "Faith and Belief," of the "inner Life and Truth." One way to approach the parallel between St. Cyprian and Hegel is to recognize that culture and civilization belong to the realm of the world, the flesh, and the devil, so to speak, while the realm of faith and belief belong to God and heaven. In other words, ethical precepts which are expressed in cultural contexts are "crass" materialistic versions of the ones that exist in "Truth," and in the "inner Life" of "Faith and Belief."

Hegel anticipates a problem with ethical constructs being held or kept in the "crass" material reality of culture and civilization for too long a time. There is a danger that they will become too settled, too hardened into a kind of complacent commonality. To prevent that from happening, however, and "In order not to let [ethical constructs] get rooted and settled in this isolation and thus break up the whole into fragments and let the common spirit evaporate, government has from time to time to shake them to the very centre by War" (474). The only sense I can make of this statement is that ethical constructs become hardened and ossified cliches after a time of living in the material reality of the actual world and governments step in on their behalf, so to speak, by causing war to break out in the world. Because war is "hell," and terrible atrocities nearly always accompany its progress, ethical constructs become susceptible to redefinition by the cultures and civilizations that are brought to the brink of destruction by (wo)man's inhumanity to (wo)man. Without war, apparently, ethical constructs would become totally useless in their "rooted" and "settled" ossification and reification.

Hegel then goes on to explain how this "fixed stability" of ethical constructs is broken apart by war and explains what that means to the future and the present of human reality in culture, civilization, and community:

"By thus breaking up the form of fixed stability, spirit guards the ethical order from sinking into merely natural existence, preserves the self of which it is conscious, and raises that self to the level of freedom and its own powers. The negative essential being shows itself to be the might proper of the community and the force it has for self-maintenance. The community therefore finds the true principle and corroboration of its power in the inner nature of divine law, and in the kingdom of the nether world." (474)

As Thomas Hobbes maintains, being in a state of "mere nature" is not a particularly positive condition and one can probably also assume that "sinking into merely natural existence" is just as pejorative in Hegel's thought as it is in Hobbes's. What that leaves us with, apparently, is the assertion that War, because it rescues ethical constructs from falling into ossification, is a positive good, one both necessary and valuable as the force held and employed by "community" for its own "self-maintenance." Through the act of maintaining itself, then, society and culture discover and re(dis)cover the "true principle" of its power "in the inner nature of divine law" which seems to have its essential dwelling place "in the kingdom of the nether world." Precisely what Hegel means by any of this is beyond my certain comprehending and so, rather than force an interpretation of his Word on the reader at this point, I will simply leave it where it stands. One point which can safely be taken here is that Hegel's reference to the "nether" world probably does not refer to the Christian concept of "hell" so much as it does to the fact that "divine law," because of its source in an incomprehensible Being and Will (God), must always remain accessible to human agency only as an unconscious reality, hence its dwelling place in a "nether" world. The only other thing I will say now is that St. Cyprian's use of a decidedly militaristic vocabulary in the third century, a verbal usage that became commonplace in Christian discourse over the centuries of its spread through Western Europe and beyond that to the New World, to describe his perception of a Christian duty and estate seems clearly to have found a home in Hegel's rationalistic dialectic as he expresses it toward the midpoint of the nineteenth century.

Valorizing war as a certain means of purifying the ethical state and condition of European communities seems to fit like any fist inside the glove of Christianity's perception of how it ought to respond, and eventually did respond, to all pagan attempts to prevent the spread of its death-embracing pathology and cultism through the living world of all naturalistic belief systems. Hegel simply extends what thinkers like St. Cyprian began, moving it beyond the early days of superstitious melodrama into the dry and arid world of Eurocentric rationalistic mythology. What does it mean, after all, to assert that the "divine law" dwells in a "nether world" of the human unconscious? All that seems to accomplish is to make the nonexistence even that much more inaccessible.

For my own part, and speaking from a native American point of view, and I do not know whether Hegel means it this way or not, but saying that the "divine law" exists, or has its existence, in human unconsciousness is one short step away from making the assertion that God Himself is nothing more than a creature born out of a profound human need to imagine themselves connected to and drawn up by a supernatural entity into a life more meaningful and lasting than the transitory one of their mundane existence here on earth. Finding it easier to whine and complain about being mortal than it is to live a productive life, a certain kind of person must have invented God, defined Him as a supernatural being who held the keys to eternal life, and waited, rather impatiently it seems, to be transported into a better place than the one granted by the world, the flesh, and the devil. That (wo)man created God, rather than the other way around, makes infinitely more sense to me than most of what I hear in the voices of the early church fathers.

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