The Devil's Sourdough and the Decline of Nations
Feb. 21, 2006
The personal is political," said the feminists of the 1960s. They were on to something. Countries go to war because those who inhabit them cannot bear their individual lives. Entire cultures die out because the individuals who comprise them no longer wish to live, not because (as author Jared Diamond claims) they cut down too many trees. Bulgaria and Belarus have plenty of trees, yet we observe in such countries a demographic catastrophe unseen in Europe since the Thirty Years' War.
What is it that makes life livable? And why should life be bearable in some nations but not in others? Unlike Sigmund Freud, I do not
think mankind suffers from a universal death wish, any more than it benefits from a universal instinct for self-preservation. Some people have a death wish, and others don't. Considering how disappointing life can be, and how hard it is to credit divine justice in the face of so much suffering, it is not surprising that so many peoples fail of their will to live. It is hard to digest the ancient sourdough, as Mephisto told Faust. More remarkable is that some nations remain cheerful about life notwithstanding.
Birth rates rise and fall with religious faith (see Why Europe chooses extinction, April 8, 2003, and Death by secularism: Some statistical evidence , August 2, 2005). People do not have babies because religious doctrine instructs them to procreate, though, but because religion makes them happy. With the end of traditional society, religion becomes a personal, not a communal, matter, and the fate of nations is fought out at the level of individual souls. Communism suppressed religion in Eastern Europe, and the demographic data in consequence seem to bear out the cliche of the melancholy Slav. By mid-century most of the Eastern European countries will lose 20-40% of their people and be left with a geriatric remnant. 
US Christians, by contrast, have one of the highest birth rates in the West. Conservative, mostly evangelical Christians have a plurality, soon to be a majority, in US politics (see Power and the evangelical womb, November 9, 2004, and It's the culture, stupid , November 5, 2004). Their burgeoning power stems from a personal message that has made converts of tens of millions of liberal Protestants. Evangelicals are political only when circumstances force them into politics, for example proposals in several US states to legalize same-sex marriage. Their identification with Israel has drawn them into foreign policy.
US journalist David Shiflett has interviewed the shepherds of this spiritual migration, and those who wish to understand the transformation of US politics should read his book Exodus: Why Americans Are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity (Sentinel: New York 2005). It is not a story of politics, but rather of individual souls seeking shelter from the ruin of modernity.
An indispensable witness to the ruin of modernity was the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who died 150 years ago on February 17. Not a single notice in the English-language press observed the anniversary, but Heine is too important to pass unmentioned. He is known for ironic love poems and political humor, but the sufferings of a Job during his final years elicited a particularly funny deathbed cycle of religious poems. Here is the first of them (my translation):
Skip the learned exegesis
Skip the reverential blessing,
Solve the damned conundrum for us
Just this once without digressing:
Why the righteous bear a cross
Along their road of woe, and bleed,
While the scoundrel trots victorious,
Happy on his lofty steed?
Who's to blame for this? Might God's
Omnipotence be less than full?
Or does He play these pranks on purpose?
Oh, that would be contemptible!
Every day we ask until
The question wears us out like cancer.
Then a shovelful of dirt stops up our
Muzzles - but is that an answer?
The final interrogative, so typical of Jewish humor - "Is that an answer?" - recalls Job's response to God at the conclusion of the biblical theodicy. Job receives something else than a shovelful of dirt, but it still takes the form of a question: "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?" It is a striking difference between Islam on one hand, and Judaism and Christianity on the other, that Islam offers the promise of success as the reward for submission to God (see Horror and humiliation in Fallujah , April 27, 2004), while the older religions offer no greater consolation than God's own presence. It is God's presence itself before Job that provides the answer to Job's question (and Heine's, and yours and mine). It is a deed, not a word.
To Christians the answer to Job's question is, "Christ crucified!" To observant Jews it is the shekhinah, God's presence among the Jewish people. Job has lost what is dearest to him. But because human love is only a weak adumbration of Divine Love, the presence of God more than assuages his bereavement. It is not what God says to Job, but the fact that God is that answers Job's question. That explains why Heine's last poems are so cheerful, even though he composed them in constant pain.
Impertinence uniquely characterizes Jewish address to God. Lovers love to laugh, all the more so in their moments of intimacy. Jews stand on the most intimate terms with the Creator of the World - "sanctified as ancestors and kinsmen of the Holy One in Israel, in a sense that gentiles are not by nature", as Karl Barth put it.  Jews quarrel with God, as in the stories recounted by Martin Buber of Levi Isaac of Berditchev. That is not just a modern but emphatically a biblical trait, as Jonah's griping to the God who sent him to Nineveh should remind us. Typical is the joke whose original is found in the Talmud, of the four rabbis debating an obscure point of law. Rabbi Feinstein is outvoted 3-1, and prays for a sign from above. A heavenly voice announces, "Feinstein is right!" The other rabbis shrug, "So now it's 3-2."
Religious humor abounds elsewhere, but only the Jews crack jokes about the Creator to his face. Protestants understand intuitively that they are not "ancestors and kinsman", as Barth put it, "not even the best of Gentiles, not even the gentile Christians, not even the best of gentile Christians, in spite of their membership in the Church". But Protestantism established a new intimacy between God and sinner, and for that reason humor enters the repertoire of modern theology in the mighty person of Martin Luther.
These considerations raise questions about the Roman Catholic Church's contention that it constitutes the Israel of the Old Testament, the lineal continuation of Abraham by virtue of Matthew 3:9. Catholics come up with good jokes about sinners - witness Dante's Inferno - but humor fails them on the subject of God (witness Dante's Paradiso). In another location I called attention to a horrible example of Catholic stuffiness, namely Hans Urs von Balthasar, the most influential of 20th-century Catholic theologians. He mistook Wolfgang Mozart, the most outrageous of musical pranksters, for a marble image of cherubic innocence (see Why the beautiful is not the good , May 17, 2005).
On his deathbed, Heine warned God that he would turn Catholic if unrelenting pain succeeded in ruining his sense of humor (my translation):
You're inconsistent, Lord,
I say with all due respect:
You created the merriest poet
But left his sense of humor wrecked.
Pain has suppressed my cheerful trope
And left me in the lurch;
If the maudlin game doesn't come to an end
I'll join the Catholic Church.
Heine is quite right. Take a Jew, remove his sense of humor, and what remains well might be a perfectly good Catholic. This happened to a number of Jews after the Holocaust, for example Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris. I do not mean to imply that the Catholic Church is not necessarily God's Church, but only that it cannot fly the glorious banner of Israel's birthright, that is, effrontery before the Eternal.
Islamic humor is another thing altogether. Muslims do not joke about Mohammed, as casual newspaper readers now know, the way that Jews joke about Moses. Muslims joke about themselves, sometimes mercilessly.  The best Muslim jokes, which ridicule religious megalomania, date back to the 9th century and are recounted today only with caution (on this see Why Americans can't laugh at American culture , December 16, 2003). But Muslims do not tell jokes to Allah. Unlike the Judeo-Christian God, Allah is not a lover, but a sovereign. One does not risk lese-majeste before such a monarch by making bad jokes at him. 
Sadly, today's Jews are failing of their sense of humor. As faith dissipated among the Jews, and the insipid introspection of a Woody Allen usurped the wit of Levi Isaac of Berditchev or the late Heine, Jewish birth rates have plummeted to Western European levels.
Modern Jewish humor about God is ubiquitous, but somewhat overrated. Towering above all modern religious humorists was a German Protestant with a heathen streak, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His masterwork Faust is the modern Book of Job, and the most biblical of all secular works of literature.
Faust begins with a quotation from the Book of Job in a Prologue in Heaven, where Satan asks God's permission to tempt his servant, Faust. But the whole of Faust, in my somewhat idiosyncratic view, recasts the subject matter of Job in terms appropriate to the modern world. Goethe inverts perfectly the premise of the Book of Job. To tempt the righteous man of Uz, the biblical Satan takes from him all that ancient man might want. Goethe's Mephistopheles tempts Faust by offering him everything that modern man might desire. Job is lost if he overly regrets his loss; Faust is lost if he overly enjoys his boon. By his pact with Mephisto, his soul is forfeit should he be so satisfied by the Devil's gifts as to regret the passing of the moment.
Faust is too astute to become easy prey: it is not money, riches or power that he desires, but life with all its pains and pleasures, in all its fullness. He tells Mephisto (in Walter Arndt's translation):
... What to all of mankind is apportioned
I mean to savor in my own self's core,
Grasp with my mind both highest and most low,
Weigh down my spirit with their weal and woe. 
To which Mephisto replies:
Oh, take my word, who for millennia past
Has had this rocky fare to chomp,
That from his first breath to his last
No man digests that ancient sourdough lump!
Believe the likes of us; the whole
Is made but for a god's delight!
Mephisto's boast is subtle and insidious: he bets that no man can digest the "sourdough" of human life. It is not the sort of calamity that befell Job, but rather the workaday sorrows of ordinary existence, that humankind cannot bear. By offering extraordinary pleasures - innocent love, unlimited wealth, political power, even the hand of Helen of Troy herself - Mephisto will attempt to pervert Faust from his goal of achieving ordinary humanity.
We know all along that Faust will be saved, by the way, through the scene that precedes Mephisto's appearance to him. Faust sits down to translate the Gospel of John, and after several tries renders the word logos not as "Word", but as "Deed" - "In the beginning was the Deed." The scientist Faust already knows that all of man's power over nature tells him nothing about how to endure life. He craves not an explanation, but a life.
No idle threat was Mephisto's about the lump of sourdough. So many peoples are buried in the past; and as Mephisto later crows over Faust's cadaver, "'Past'? 'Past' and pure nothingness are exactly the same thing. 'It's over' - what do we mean by that? That it's as good as if it never had existed!"
Of the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of human cultures buried beneath the sands, of how many do we have so much as a sandal-strap or pottery shard? And of these, how many have left us even a dozen words of their extinct language? And of the latter, of how many do we know the simplest elements of their history? Where are the lives, the passions, the intelligence, the love and ferocity of these departed peoples? Nothing remains but the cackles of Mephistopheles over their nothingness.
For this reason Goethe is the most relevant, and paradoxically the least understood, of modern writers. Life's triumph is to digest the daily sourdough, and its anxiety and sorrow are the greatest temptations. Contrary to my namesake Oswald Spengler, Western society is not "Faustian" because Western man seeks power, but rather because Western man still plays dice with the Devil for his soul according to the rules of the game established by Faust and Mephisto. Technology and freedom offer modern man the temptations of Faust more than those of Job.
Faust thwarts Mephisto because he never ceases to strive, but Faust is an exceptional fellow, a proxy for the inimitable Goethe. What we learn instead from the lives of ordinary people - and from the life and death of peoples - is that a sense of divine presence is what makes the Devil's sourdough digestible. US evangelical Christianity is not "about" conservative values, school prayer, or heterosexual marriage. It is about Christ crucified, and the rest follows as a matter of housekeeping.
By the same token, Muslim unhappiness is not "about" the Israeli presence on the West Bank, or even the intrusion of Western secular values. It is about the Muslim perception that Islam's promise of success against its enemies has eluded them. It is a crisis of faith (see Crisis of Faith in the Muslim World, Part 1 (November 1, 2005) and Part 2 (November 8, 2005).
1. The demographic profile of the major Eastern European countries is summarized in this table:
Source: United Nations World Population Prospects (2004 Revision)
2. Barth, Church Dogmatics, Volume II Part 2, p 287.
3. Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 59b. For background click here.
4. Here is a favorite, gleaned from an Islamic website: A man was walking across a bridge one day, and he saw another man standing on the edge, about to jump off and commit suicide. He immediately ran over and said, "Stop! Don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" the other replied. The man said, "Well, there's so much to live for!" "Like what?" "Well ... are you religious or atheist?" "Religious." "Me too! Are you Muslim, Christian or Jewish?" "Muslim." "Me too! Sunni or Shi'ite?" "Sunni." "Me too! Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi or Maliki?" "Hanafi." "Wow! Me too! Do you follow Sheikh Fulaan al-Fullani or Sheikh Kaza Kazah?" "Sheikh Fulaan al-Fullani." To which the first man said, "What?!! Die, heretic scum!" and pushed him off.
5. By way of example: a Google search on the phrase "God loves you" yields 965,000 hits, while a search on the phrase "Allah loves you" yields only 530 hits, mostly from Christian websites evangelizing Muslims.
6. Faust, translated by Walter Arndt (W W Norton: New York 2001), p. 47.