The devil's sourdough and the decline of nations
"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
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
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
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.