|Art by Cameron Gray|
Jurgen Schulze uses his Principle of Irony as a guide to metaphysical and cosmological truth. In general, he infers, there must be a self-negating deity to maximize irony and tragedy in the universe, “to cast everyone into the spiritual wilderness and thus to thrust a fully-charged existential quandary upon each reflective soul” (18b). The Truth must be “universally bewildering,” as Schulze once told me. Indeed, contrary to utilitarianism, which speaks of the obligation to maximize happiness, Schulze contends that enlightened individuals should discern how reality maximizes irony, establishing a gulf between natural facts and our intuitions and preferences.
Schulze seems to have reflected for long hours on the nature of religion, but his thoughts on that subject derive once again from a single principle, which is that all religious discourse is anthropocentric with respect not just to that discourse’s origin or cause, but to its reference. All religious statements derive from human primates, not from any extraterrestrial source; more surprisingly—especially since he posits a cosmic deity, in the name of Irony—Schulze says that all such statements have as their inner meaning some bearing purely on what has been happening in our history. The world’s major religions speak of gods, supernatural realms, and of experience that transcends the five senses. Taken superficially, literally, and exoterically, then, religious creeds point far beyond our sociopolitics and dominance hierarchies, our class divisions and relations to our environment and to other animal species. But for Schulze, every major religious utterance ought to be interpreted as metaphorical and, more specifically, as reflecting back on how we distinguish ourselves in nature.
In this respect, religious discourse would be like science fiction: taken literally, a sci-fi novel or movie is about some events transpiring in the far future or on a distant planet, but every science fiction author knows that those scenarios are just literary devices that are useful in creating the psychological distance to discuss prickly, often taboo issues that impact us here and now. Theology as it has been practiced in the major religions is a form of literary fiction—except that instead of suspending our disbelief for the sake of entertaining ourselves as consumers, religious devotees are entranced by religion’s literary devices and escalate their belief in the protagonists until the belief becomes unshakable faith in the absurd. We’re blind to the hidden function of religious language, because we’re gullible, lazy, and easily distracted by literal, surface meanings of the most outlandish statements. The greatest lies that preoccupy us by assuaging our fears and stirring up our unconscious longings are the most fervently believed. But, says Schulze, “this process of indoctrination is as anticlimactic as a magician’s trick: once you learn the secret of its success, the spell wears off and you’re left to marvel at the audience’s credulity. We’re led like pets on leashes, our mind furnished with preposterous beliefs like a dog forced to wear gaudy mittens and a silly yellow hat in the rain” (20b).
The deeper meaning of theology, for Schulze, which I discerned from my interviews with him and from some of the scraps that remain from his corpus, is that religious discourse is entirely self-directed. Again, his point about anthropocentrism isn’t the classic one, familiar from the Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes’ charge that a donkey would interpret God as being donkey-like; the point isn’t that as we cognitively process that which lies beyond the bounds of our experience we filter it through humanizing concepts, distorting and taming reality so that as we confront it we might resort to our comforting, social repertoire, praying to the wind and so forth. Schulze’s point, rather, is that religious discourse isn’t a distortion, since religious phenomena are occurring right before our eyes, but we’ve grown so accustomed to them that we don’t appreciate their strangeness. Theology doesn’t employ humanizing transducers; instead, it “slyly retells the outlines of human history, but overlays a facade of fiction to preserve our modesty” (20c). In a word, religious myths and creeds are so many romans à clef. As such, the key to their interpretation is to perceive the connection between the fiction and the human reality.
Schulze’s surviving fragments lay out the shape of the key, as it were, by hinting at several such connections. First, there are religion’s ecstatic pronouncements about a transcendent, supernatural realm. All of nature is regarded as some deity’s creation, but although the gods may intervene therein, they reside in a heavenly, eternal paradise, in a land of pure being that never becomes anything else because it’s already perfect. Religion thus provides the source for political utopias such as Plato’s, Bacon’s, or More’s. Some myths use metaphors to concretize the supernatural, such as the Eden myth of the unspoiled primordial garden or Islam’s references to the palaces and ruby valleys of Jannah. Heaven is a paradise but also an oasis, since it necessarily stands apart from hell or at least from the present state of the physical universe. Whether God’s home subsists simultaneously with nature in a multiverse or will replace nature after the rapture and a cataclysmic end of days, heaven is supposed to be a refuge and a victory after the long and rough journey of natural life. The Quran speaks of heaven as a place of peace, security or everlasting bliss, or simply as our true home.
However, to imagine that the supernatural is extraterrestrial is to miss the point that’s been staring us in the face since the moment our prehistoric ancestors first acted as recognizably human. “Supernature stands to nature as our artifacts and our autonomously-directed actions stand to the blind, pointless flow of the wilderness” (21a). Notice, then, the double role of the garden imagery: in profane, mass religion, the garden signifies the pinnacle of transcendent being, but in reality, supernature is that which redeems the pristine garden of wild nature, by injecting it with artificial functions operating through techniques and technologies. Here, then, the garden metaphor distracts and misleads, but also encodes the subliminal message that this religious symbol inverts the truth. Our home isn’t where the animals dwell, in the forests, oceans, mountains, or deserts. We are self-conscious beings and so we drove ourselves out of those wild places to build our refuges—our towns, cities, and nations—so that we might elevate our living standard. “Ask the hunter-gatherer, who’s lived for all his decades like a cunning animal, whose life is nasty, brutish, and short, but who’s introduced to a high-tech city, how that bedraggled fellow would characterize the transition. By way of answering, he’d sound just like an ecstatic prophet. ‘I’ve seen Paradise,’ he’d blurt out, ‘such wonders as I’ve never dreamed could be real!’” (21c).
The supernatural is supposed to break into the material realm also in the form of miracles that manifest God’s higher law or his will that designed natural law in the first place. Yet Schulze might have thought Jesus was onto something when he warned his followers not to be deceived by signs and wonders, since heaven already lies upon the earth but people don’t see it. Heaven was built precisely by signs and wonders: by the miracle or anomalous, emergent phenomenon of language, with its myriad abstract representations, and by the wonders of technology that have carved out the age of the Anthropocene. And the reason heaven lies upon the earth isn’t that the potential for God’s Kingdom lies in the hearts of childish Christians, nor is it that some spiritual vision is needed to discern how a transcendent deity steers all events along a predestined course. Some effort is needed to make the familiar unfamiliar so that we might appreciate what we’ve done as a species, but the heaven of our artificial refuge from the wilderness literally rests upon the earth, in that we’ve uproot the wilderness as part of our construction process. “Supernature isn’t anything that somehow exists outside of the universe which by definition includes everything. No, the supernatural is that which intelligently and personally undoes nature. Heaven is anti-natural because—as alienated beings—our paradise can be assembled only after nature has been demolished” (21b).
What, then, is a miracle? In a sense, it’s just what you think: a divine intervention in nature. But Schulze challenges us to shift our perspective: the intervention isn’t a reaching into nature from an external standpoint, but an outcome of the emergence of the anomaly of intelligent life within the material universe. “Organic life is natural with respect to its evolutionary origin from nonlife and its physical basis, but people transcend nature in specific, all-too familiar ways” (22a). We have the capacity to see beyond the facts as we find them, in our imagination which models alternatives, and we have the power to make the world match our ideals, to bring our preferred heaven to earth by feats of engineering. “Just as nature paradoxically includes the black hole which has the capacity to devour the natural order, so too the universe evidently developed creatures that have the will to oppose natural processes at nearly every turn” (22b). The harm we do to the ecosystem is a palpable proof of our freewill as persons. Far from being slaves to our genetic programming or to the confines of our habitat, we’ve alienated ourselves from the animal life cycle, even as we still revert to the basic imperatives to breathe, eat, and copulate; if we lay waste to the animal species and to their meaningless territories, we must be able to choose between the animal’s world and the civilized, ideal one. We’re increasingly free from nature just to the extent that we carry out our sacred anti-natural mission, to eradicate the absurdity of a godless natural order and to put in its place a fitting home for animals that became gods.
This, then, is the second ridge or notch in the key’s shaft: “Plainly, we are the gods we’ve been looking for” (24a), writes Schulze. The key comparison isn’t between anthropomorphic deities like Yahweh, Odin, or Krishna, and humans, but between people and animals. We are gods in relation to animals and to the earth: we have the potentials for omniscience (via science), omnipotence (via technology), and goodness (via our conscience). We use the earth as raw material to implement our designs, just as Yahweh was said to speak order into being, upon the face of the chaotic deep. And we’re investigating the genetic code and the limits of cyberspace so that we can create life. Religions speak superficially of the pivotal moment when gods created human beings, aided as the gods were by some preposterous mechanism. Instead, we create ourselves by a process of self-realization: the higher self of our conscience and of our unconscious aspirations shapes our lower, animal self by curbing our impulses and slowly forming our character to some degree of personal authenticity. Some people are thus more godlike than others, depending on how well we control ourselves; in turn, that capacity depends on how well we know ourselves; and we can know ourselves only if we spend time introspecting and learning the pitfalls for self-made deities, such as the risk of degenerating into automatons if we succumb to someone else’s training or to a pre-assigned role.
Eventually, some charismatic individuals are worshipped as being gods in the profane sense or as having a special connection to a transcendent deity. These are the kings and emperors and lords of history who commanded legions and led their civilizations to prosperity or to ruin. They were all, of course, merely human, but they exploited deficiencies in the multitude’s self-understanding and so they were worshiped in the name of “the true god,” the assumption being that domesticated people in general are closer to animals than to gods. That assumption has often been correct, but only because our godhood must be earned since it requires effort to form the requisite virtues such as integrity, skepticism, and creativity, and many who have the capacity to be fully personal prefer the ignorance and slavery that define an animal’s way of life.
In any case, for Schulze, many religious myths are only indirect ways of speaking of this relationship between human oligarchs, that is, superpowerful human minorities, and the multitude of human animals that surrender their potential to be gods themselves. When we read that God told the king to do this or that, we need merely substitute for “God” that human leader’s highest, most liberated self, shielded as it is from natural cycles by his character, imagination, and reason. Instead of an unnatural, intervening deity who uses human rulers to carry out his divine will, there are just those human masters who implement their own plans. Typically, this class division widens to the detriment of the masses, by way of reenacting the fate of the cosmic deity that ironically isn’t worshipped in any religion, because that god is a colossal failure, as discussed in the last chapter. So the oligarch uses the duped majority as instruments for aggrandizing himself, sadistically compelling the masses to grovel before his majesty, and inevitably losing touch with his highest calling as he’s corrupted by the vast power inequality, sacrificing his empire upon the altar of his ego just as the cosmic god would have killed himself in the act of creating the material universe.
In general, religions distinguish between the sacred and the profane, between that which is dedicated to gods or to the highest purpose, and that which is irreverent or uninitiated. On Schulze’s view, the conventional, theistic interpretation of the major religions is itself profane, because these religions would thereby be dedicated to fictions, not to living and breathing deities. If we are the true gods among all beings, and what we do when we live up to our potential and thus act authentically is sacred and holy, compared to what happens throughout godless nature, any misrepresentation which obscures this mundane source of spiritual transcendence must be a form of impiety. Thus, those priests and bishops and gurus who are celebrated as the most devout individuals for worshiping an extraterrestrial god are instead among the most backward in their approach to divinity. Likewise, mystics who seek God within in a form of impersonal or nonhuman consciousness miss the fact that manifest divinity is necessarily embodied. Finitude is a precondition for the existent, so whatever is allegedly infinite or supernatural in the conventional sense of having no dependence on matter or on evolution is only simplified so the contradictory talk of such “higher” entities can operate as a more or less useful fiction. That fiction can be a scientific model or a religious con, but if it’s the latter its profanity is egregious because it flows from our blindness to what we really are.
Take for example the typical religious dogma that faith, not reason, is the proper approach God. Saint Paul expressed this fiction well when he distinguished between spiritual and earthly wisdom, the latter being foolishness to God. For Schulze, religious talk of the need for faith indicates a lacuna in the religious worldview. The point isn’t that the religion recommends humility to avoid the sin of hubris. Faith is the willingness to suspend knowledge of apparent reality, in the hope that there’s something greater than us. But this hope must ignore the fact that we are plainly already gods in relation to animals and to the natural world which we transform. Monotheistic faiths try to accommodate this fact by saying that God made humans in his supreme image, but this makes God superfluous. How many gods do we need, the billions that we obviously already are or the one that’s hidden and indeed defined out of existence to avoid the religion’s being scientifically falsified? What the major religions miss is ironically the obvious truth that we need no gods beyond ourselves. We alone solve our problems. Far from being a distraction for mundane, instrumental purposes, reason has clearly been the chief technique by which some primates turned themselves into the only manifest gods. Reason enabled us to survive by using technology to alter the environment to our advantage; as we learned how to survive and to record our discoveries in the form of history, we created cultural memory which is the basis of our virtual omniscience. Reason also alienates us from nature, casting us adrift in angst and melancholy, which are the proper pitfalls of any reigning deity. Indeed, if humility has a role to play in worthy religion, Schulze would say it must be a god’s humility, given her understanding that she’s tragically doomed to fall into the ultimate God’s madness that must have given birth to godless nature. Faith, though, isn’t entirely irrelevant to a worthy religion, since we must likewise trust in ourselves to fulfill our potential. Faith in an extraterrestrial savior, however, is indispensible to the global fraud perpetrated by the major religious con artists.
This, then, is the deep sense of the anthropocentricity of the worlds’ religions, according to Schulze. Myths aren’t just stories told by us; to the extent they have any positive truth value, the myths are also entirely about us—what we are now and how we historically and psychologically got here. The average religious person sees through a glass darkly indeed; only a slight shift in perspective is needed to awaken her to the truth that’s been hiding in plain sight. “Religious myths express our unconscious pride and horror as we recognize that we alone now are the movers and shakers, the miracle-workers who hold the ecosystem in our hands, the exterminators of species who nevertheless represent the only hope for an ideal, meaningful transformation of the inhuman wilderness” (24b). Only an intelligent race can build heaven on earth, just as only gods with a social animal background would have a care for morality. We bring intelligent design, ideality, meaning, and goodness into existence. Without self-conscious creatures, freed in so far as their minds are inner worlds unto themselves, the universe would be godless, forsaken, and an absurd shuffling of forces and materials with only hapless animals in attendance.