Discharging Gods on the High Seas.

“Protestants like to be good and have invented theology in order to keep themselves so. Catholics like to be bad and have invented theology in order to keep their neighbours good” ,

Bertrand Russell, “On Catholic and Protestant Skeptics” Why I am not a Christian.

If you know me at all, you probably know I have had theology on the brain this past month. Specifically, Latin-Christian theology and its endless schisms.

Somewhere between the jargon and the wars, I found a painter I am madly in love with- Pieter Bruegel whose patrons included the most eclectic (and controversial) prince of the time:  Rudolf Habsburg in Prague. I especially love the fact that one never knows who painted any given canvas attributed to him- it could easily have been his son, or his nephew or some random chap from the “Bruegel” dynasty. The art at the background of this blog is one such disputed painting: The Festival of Fools. His paintings brought the period alive for me, far more effectively than Micheal Hirst ever did.

Compare, for instance, his “Conversion of Saul Tarsus” with Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St Paul” : the difference encodes an important key to the Reformation(s). One is busy, cosmopolitan, you can barely make out the Blessed Event; the other is all individual agony and giant horse’s ass.


They might seem apposite- one is told constantly that Protestantism is the individual’s religion, while Catholicism is obsessed by the body of the Church in toto. But these lines are barely drawn that they blur. The urge behind Protestantism seems to have been to weave the laity more seamlessly into the church- by ending priestly privilege, preaching in the vernacular, and allowing priests to marry. Besides, the Calvinists policed their flock more strictly than the most militant pope’s deepest fantasy. Catholicism too has its deeply individualist traits: the power of monastic discipline and accompanying ritual, Talal Asad has argued, is that it produces a newly fashioned self- humble and servile, and devoted to God alone. This was a trait Ignatius Loyola took to logical extreme with the Jesuits during the counter-reformation. If one is obedient to God, and in His silence to the temporal authority of the church,  then any sin one may incur is wiped off the spiritual slate and handed up the chain of command (of course, popes would then burn in the deepest circle of hell, for what sin hasn’t been committed in their names? Perhaps popes and God have an understanding)

Of Christianity’s many metaphors, it is the shepherd one I find most disturbing (well, apart from the whole sorry conflation between church and bride, which subordinated women more effectively than it did any church in recorded history). I mean: why sheep? Dimwitted, woolly, these are the animals we put ourselves to sleep with. There are plenty of interesting animals that live in packs: we could’ve been zebra, or giraffe, or bison. If one must have a misanthropic religion (and evidence suggests one must) then why not compare us to cockroaches- breeding by the billion only to be squashed underfoot- and be done with it?

It is very easy, when writing from a colony, to consider ‘Christendom’ the Grand Simplification and amuse oneself with bald generalities like Russell’s above. There was the ancient world, bustling and cosmopolitan, and then came metaphysical unity and the first incarnation of ‘just’ war to hold up matters for a thousand years. It is only a closer study of the religion that allows one to perceive its role as synthesis between materiality and idealism, a debate that ultimately tore its faithful apart. Monotheism doesn’t preclude a hundred variants upon the One God and Catholic thought accommodated significant diversity long before the 16th century.   Indeed, on the most fascinating questions of the Reformation is why it happened when it did- Meister Eckhart was charged as an heretic in his century for saying pretty much what the more mystical Lutherans and the Spirituali of Italy were saying. ‘Christian’ thought, strictly defined as theological thought- borrowed and cobbled together it may have been- but it did develop on chronologically older thought.

Indian Christianity, as far as I know, has managed its schisms fairly pragmatically (and we have pretty much the full spectrum to deal with), which is perhaps why the ‘reformation’ and all its attendant violence over dogma confounds so many Indians (I’m skating on thin ice here- perhaps I should just say ‘Hindus’ and have done with it until I investigate native christianity more thoroughly. But that would only serve to obscure other differences of faith. Gah.) Centuries of strife about the perfectibility of a triune god and offending humanity? About the transmigration of bread?  Even us Anglophiles, schooled in the art of the absolute and the general schema of Christian thought, have difficulty with the subtlety of the discussion, masked as it inevitably is by semantic triviality: Calvin’s olive branch of distinctio sed non separatio is, after all, only matched in obscurity by the bizarre “separate-but-equal” race debates in 19th century America.

Then there is justification by faith- which is the (Lutheran) doctrine that one cannot attain salvation through good works alone (or at all), it is god’s grace that saves people from being damned to hell. Calvinists (or Presbyterians) take a similar view- only they believe in the even grimmer “double predestination”, which is that people are damned/saved long before they are corporeal, since god and bulldogs are similar in that they incapable of changing their minds. The church, thus, must weed out this elect and keep them ‘pure’. Some things make more sense: the hierarchy of the Elect in Calvinism, for one; hell vs. purgatory, for another. Stratification is a subject close to Hindu hearts.

The link between dogma and divine authority doesn’t seem a particularly important one in Hinduism. The gods are the gods: we must placate, persuade and police them, never fearing that we are more dispensable to them than they are to us. Humans and their copious gods are a co-dependent bugbear; strange men and their gods are better acclimated than assimilated.  Divine intercession is a cornerstone of Hindu worship, but not in the sense of judgement or salvation- such matters are up to the soul- but in mundane daily life. Your gods are supposed to protect and counsel you in the pursuit of good dharma; if they don’t, you switch gods. In return, you sustain their ego through worship.  Hinduism has an independent soteriology, embedded within caste justification, where divine will has little authority. A god can secure individual passes to heaven for important devotees, but these are strictly short-term: the karmic wheel inevitably reclaims them.  The many gods reflect many virtues (and appropriate flaws), with no hint of the all-collapsibility of Christianity and neoplatonism. They are stronger than humans (indisputable), wiser (questionable), more resourceful (arguable) and generally more relevant to the affairs of the world than the average human.  They are very rarely kinder than the average human. And it would be very strange if they took to judging us.

The title, by the way, was a hilarious misprint from our tax law textbook- “Discharging gods on the high seas ensures that the law of custom cannot apply to them”. What divine insight!

4 responses to “Discharging Gods on the High Seas.”

  1. I suppose they did manage pretty decently, but no one expected the Portugese Inquisition (spearheaded by Señors Loyola and Xavier). And I’d also guess that the population just didn’t get large enough to really start having serious issues with each other’s beliefs before that.

    • hmmm, so you think that in the 1000 years between the establishment of native Christianity and the Inquisition the population stayed small enough to stay out of each other’s face? I tend to agree- besides, the folk desperate enough to come to settle in India were probably fleeing persecution themselves. One of my histories talks about one exodus just after the fall of Constantinople and extrapolates back to suggest that most significant movements of Christianity across eastern and southern Asia were similarly motivated

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