Return of the Gods


Hannes Stein



Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 97 (November 1999): 34-38.



In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters like a whirlwind. And God said, Let there be light! and there was light.


But the light was young and helpless and weak: and though God divided it from the darkness, this division was barely perceptible to human eyes. God’s light did not shine, it flickered; with difficulty it oscillated between boundless black and infinite gray. It was not an aureole but a distant, hazy, tired glow.


And dark superstition governed men’s heads and fear tyrannized their thoughts: for the world was a place full of magic. Every hill was holy land owned by the ancestral spirits. Each tree accommodated a spirit who was gazing after the traveler. A smirking demon squatted in every bush and demanded his toll. The eagle who circled high up in the air was a supreme being. In the mountains dwelt giants who hurled bolts of lightning and thunder. In the oceans lived monsters whose names it was forbidden to utter. There was fear everywhere”pagan fear.


Indeed the people of these prehistoric times lived in a state of constant angst. They were terrified of committing a capital offense; they were terrified of the chaos of nature. The universe seemed sinister to them and full of threats. At every turn the wood nymphs, pixies, and demon-gods demanded to be appeased and begged for forgiveness. As long as one was awake one risked violating a taboo.


Sometimes caution was not enough, for the higher beings were malicious. Then a specialist was called in for advice: the shaman, the witch doctor. He knew the gods face to face and had command of their language. His eagle’s mask gave him super human powers. Without let or hindrance he ran between heaven, earth, and underworld. Masterly the shaman played the manual of feelings: sometimes he alleviated the pagan fears that plagued his fellow tribesmen, sometimes he whipped them up. His costume, showing a skeleton made of metal bones, was visible proof that once he had already been dead. Evil spirits had torn him apart and drunk his blood. Afterwards the tribal totem beasts had eviscerated him and supplanted his bowels by magic substances. Finally the spirits had put him together again piece by piece like a puppet. Through his death, the shaman had become one with the horrid universe. Through his voice the nature gods screeched, screamed, shrieked, and hissed.


He was a powerful man. On his drum he flew straight to the tree-of-nine-branches that connected heaven, earth, and the realm of the dead. By the beginning of the bronze age, however, his magic powers were suddenly no longer sufficient. Then it became clear that there were gods more powerful and terrifying than the others: man began worshiping the stars. The priest came to the shaman’s aid with the slaughtering knife in his fist and human sacrifice on his mind.


This was still true for the Aztecs, who had erected a great empire in Mexico by means of genocide. Theirs was a deeply pessimistic religion: they believed that the sun and the moon had appeared in the sky by a fiery self-sacrifice of the gods. More gods had given their lives in order to set the celestial bodies into motion. This was a debt the human race now had to redeem by sacrificing some of its own. According to the Aztec faith, the world had perished and been reborn four times already. Another cataclysm could be deferred only as long as human blood was flowing in broad rivers. Should the stream of blood ever run dry, the sun would not rise the next morning.


If an enemy fell into the Aztecs’ hands, he might be lucky and be selected for a special fate. In this case he would be accepted into his captor’s family and be treated as an honored guest. On a set date he would be accompanied to an elevated platform and slowly slashed to death by four splendid warriors. The longer his agony lasted, the greater his glory. The festival reached its climax when an Aztec priest skillfully cut his heart out of his chest and held the bleeding, beating muscle into the light. After this the victim was skinned, and his captor wore his skin until it was decayed completely.


The Aztecs were not exceptionally cruel; and only a fool would call them uncivilized or barbarian. For human sacrifice was precisely what defined the advanced civilizations”not only in America but also in the Middle East. Thus the Canaanites threw children into fiery furnaces to please Moloch; the Egyptians worshiped the sun and the goddess Hathor “who in the darkness crushes blood as if it were mash”; the Assyrians and Babylonians built the first cities around enormous slaughterhouses where priests sang praise to the stars before they cut the throats of well-built young men. How could the Israelites with their nomadic ancestor Abraham compete with this? The Philistines, by comparison a civilized race, prostrated themselves before their fish-god Dagon. They were immigrants from Crete, where the celestial bull demanded the lives of a dozen virgins every year.


Human sacrifices were no cause for shame. They were not performed discreetly in a clandestine cellar but on top of a pyramid, in the temple, in front of a crowd. Lo and behold, we are prepared to give what is most dear to us! Look, we do not even spare our children! So voracious were the star gods. So great was the fear of the pagans. And thus it could have gone on forever according to the eternal cycle of nature, accompanied by the howl of shamans, the singsong of priests, and the roar of the slaughtered.


But on the fourth day God put the sun and the moon in the firmament of heaven, and He made the stars also: to divide the day from the night and for signs and for seasons and for days and years. There and then the world was enlightened. Henceforth the mortals no longer were to serve the stars”quite the opposite: God had hung them in His firmament for their benefit. The celestial bodies that made all the civilized peoples tremble were nothing but lamps and watches! This was an unheard-of provocation, unprecedented chutzpah. Genesis begins with a blasphemy: a slander, that is, against the gods.


This blasphemy marked the end of pagan fear. For when the mighty star gods lost their influence, the minor gods, too, began their retreat into nothingness. Henceforth one could without punishment cross every hill God had drained on the second day of creation. No demons dwelled in the trees and bushes that He had planted on the third day. The eagle who had sailed the sky since the fifth day was no longer a supreme being. The mermaids, fairies, and demons vanished with a silent shout of fury. Thus the demystification of the heavens entailed a radical disenchantment of the world. God’s earth suddenly became very wide: man could move about on its surface without superstition. And God saw that it was good.


But was it? As yet nobody (barring a small nation at the outskirts of the Arabian desert) knew that the idols had lost their power: this gospel had not radiated into the wide world. Only a few Greek philosophers dared whisper that the gods were nothing”that they were wooden statues decked with sheet metal that must be borne by human hand. The others, the silent majority, remained dumb and superstitious. Clearly, God needed a messenger.


He found him by using a time-tested method. Half a millennium ago God had called by name a certain Jeremiah “before He formed him in the womb.” Now, too, He singled out one of his sons before he came into being and entrusted him with a special mission: He made him a navi lagoyim , a prophet to the pagan nations.


The journeys of this emissary ploughed the Mediterranean world in a bizarre zigzag. On his way he wrote letter after letter, grumbling, breathless, impatient: “Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren.” He was a tentmaker, a middle-class entrepreneur. However, he was convinced that in a short while history would come to an end. In these last, messianic days, the Hebrew Bible taught, all the nations would turn towards the One God of Israel. Paul thought he had been hand-picked to help this prophecy come true.


How did he disseminate his message? Did he really stand in the marketplace, as the New Testament would have us believe, and start preaching in the name of his messiah Jesus? It seems more likely that he went to the synagogues. There he would enter into conversations with Greek and Roman intellectuals, many of whom were seriously interested in Judaism: those for whom the pagan cults had become meaningless visited Jewish services instead. They listened to scriptural reading in the vernacular and to the great merriment of their fellow heathens kept the sabbath. Such intellectuals were considered sons and daughters of Noah by the Jews. They were not circumcised, did not count as members of the community, and could not be called to read from the Torah. They were “righteous among the nations,” to be sure, but they remained pagans.


Among such Noahides (as they were called) Paul propagandized for his messiah. And this was his offer: you can become full-fledged members of the Chosen Nation instantly if you believe that Jesus was the savior who died for you on the gallows. You need not get yourselves circumcised, nor do you have to learn Hebrew or complicated biblical commentaries in Aramaic. All that remained from the formalities of conversion to Judaism was the submersion in running water”baptism.


There was a problem, however. Paul spoke without authority. Strictly speaking he could not even be called an apostle or messenger”he had never seen Jesus alive. Perhaps he was a liar? What arrogance to knock over borders that had been erected by God Himself. Thus an intra-Jewish conflict erupted over Paul’s missionizing. The stronger position was held by those followers of Jesus who insisted that pagan followers of the messiah become Jews first: this meant that the men had to be circumcised. Paul argued against this opinion like a rabbi who knew all the talmudic tricks. Was it not written in the Torah, “and Abraham believed the Lord, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness”? And had Abraham been circumcised at the time? Voil ! One did not have to convert to Judaism to be counted among God’s chosen: faith in Jesus was enough.


It may seem that debates like these were theological hair-splitting. But they concerned very practical questions. Could Jewish and pagan followers of Jesus share a table and dip their bread into the same bowl, or did they have to worry whether the contents of the bowl were kosher? Was a Greek allowed to marry a Jewish girl in the name of Christ, or did he first have to offer a sensitive part of his body to the knife of circumcision? Paul’s mind on these issues was set. He adamantly opposed forcing heathens under the yoke of Jewish law. Yet it would be wrong to assume that Paul repudiated Mosaic law altogether. After all, it was the fixed mark from which he argued even when he spoke against it.


Perhaps Paul was best understood by his enemies. Thus the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote with lucid distaste: Christianity would not exist without Paul, i.e., without “the confusions and thunderstorms of such a head; hardly would we have heard of a small Jewish sect whose master died on the cross.” Elsewhere Nietzsche says that the process of decay that had begun with the death of Jesus was concluded by Paul, who used “the cynical logic of a rabbi.” Paul had contaminated antiquity with his ” chandala hatred,” the hatred of the eternal inferior, which in turn led to the “denaturalization of all natural values.” This “genius of hatred,” Paul, had infected all things healthy with his Jewish slave morality, his guilty Jewish conscience. Therefore the Jews are “the most fatal nation of world history; in effect they falsified the world to an extent that even the Christian can feel anti-Jewish without understanding himself as the last Jewish consequence.”


Nietzsche is perfectly right. It is true: Paul (a.k.a. Saul) was the most competent member of the Jewish world conspiracy. The secret of his success was that he spoke a metaphorical language that was commonly understood in antiquity: Christ, he said, had given himself up for us “as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” This new interpretation of Jesus’ defeat made it possible for Hebrew enlightenment to transcend the boundaries of its own culture. It became acceptable for pagans who were not Noahides. Soon stories about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were being told outside the synagogues as well. The monotheistic idea seized the masses and became a material force. And God saw that it was good.


But was it? On the surface perhaps: in that third of the world where the Hebrew Bible and its appendix, the New Testament, had been disseminated, the gods seemed defeated and forgotten. But not far down, pagan nostalgia remained alive and kicking, waiting patiently for its appointed hour. It dawned in 1918 when the sun set over the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy once and for all.


This empire had succeeded in uniting different peoples from Galicia to the Mediterranean under one law and one double crown. It was an empire founded on solid sloppiness, but the cement that glued its multinational bricks together was Catholicism. At the same time the Star of David held a prominent place in its heraldry and the Jews were considered its most loyal citizens. Hence the nationalists in Budapest, Prague, and Vienna distinguished themselves by rabid anti-Semitism. The adherents of “pan-Germanism” fumed against the “Jewish emperors” who ruled Austria-Hungary and against the Roman Church that in their view deprived the nations of their true substance.


Shortly before the turn of the century the Viennese politician Georg von Schönerer founded a movement that was known by its slogan “Away-from-Rome.” It quickly became popular among German Austrians; many Catholics with anti-Hapsburg feelings converted to Protestantism. Simultaneously a secret new faith spread across Europe: theosophy, as it was called by its prophet-priestess Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Theosophy was an occult cocktail made of Gnostic, Egyptian, and Hinduistic ingredients and topped off by a good shot of the Aryan myth. The followers of H. P. Blavatsky recognized each other by an ancient Eastern symbol of fertility”the swastika.


Thus a neo-pagan sect matured within the womb of the multiethnic Hapsburg empire. For on the eve of the First World War Schönerer’s nationalistic faith and Madame Blavatsky’s ideology mated. The offspring of this liaison dangereuse was baptized “Ariosophy,” its spiritual fathers two fake aristocrats: Guido van List and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels. Their apocalyptic vision promised a new era of German world domination under the leadership of wise pagan priests”an empire of light, inhabited by noblemen, which would be cleansed of all Judeo-Christian influence.


Let us jump backward in time to the nineteenth century. In 1834 Heinrich Heine’s The History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany was published in Paris. This marvelous book is a jewel of Saint-Simonian utopianism: crystal clear, polished with wit, and sparkling with genius. The poet seriously wanted to make the French believe that the Germans had for the moment confined their democratic revolution to the lofty sphere of philosophy but would make up for it thoroughly in the arena of politics.


At the end of this book Heinrich Heine shared the fate of the pagan prophet Balaam”only the other way round. In the Bible Balaam wants to curse but only blessings come over his lips: Heine, on the other hand, wanted to supply a heroic battle painting and sketched a nightmare instead. With gloomy lucidity he portrayed the future German revolutionary who would become terrible by “making contact with the primal forces of nature, by conjuring up the demonic powers of old Germanic pantheism so that a pugnacity awakes in him which we already find among the ancient Germans”a pugnacity which does not fight to destroy or to win but merely in order to fight.”


Heine also remarked: “It is the greatest merit of Christianity that it has calmed this brutal Germanic pugnacity down somewhat. But it could not destroy it, and once the taming talisman”the cross”bursts asunder, the wildness of the ancient warriors of which the Norse poets have so much to say will shoot up again. This talisman is fragile, and the day will come when it will collapse miserably. Then the ancient stony gods will rise from the forgotten debris and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes, and finally Thor with his giant hammer will jump up and smash the Gothic cathedrals. At this sound the lions in the remotest deserts of Africa will knuckle under . . . and hide in their royal dens.”


The accuracy of this prophecy is astonishing. Yes, the Gothic cathedrals lay in ruins when everything was over”just as the synagogues were rubble and ashes in 1938. And, yes, the lions fled to their dens as Rommel’s tank army droned by on its way to the British Palestine, where the Jews in the kibbutzim stopped making children. In the middle of civilized Christian Europe, however, the cult of Wotan and Ishtar rose again. Furnaces for Moloch were being erected. Heavenly signs were being watched and inter preted accordingly. Albert Speer recalled a Nazi rally on the eve of World War II: “For an hour the legendary Untersberg which lay vis-á-vis was flooded by a very strong polar light . . . . The end of the Gotterdämmerung could not have been staged more effectively. The faces and hands of each of us were colored red. Suddenly Hitler turned to one of his military aides: ‘This looks like a lot of blood. This time we will have to resort to violence.’”


The German messiah left no doubts concerning his agenda, as reported by Hermann Rauschning: “We are fighting the perversion of our healthiest instincts . . . . That devilish: Thou shalt! Thou shalt! And that stupid: Thou shalt not . . . . We commence hostilities against the so-called Ten Commandments; the tablets from Sinai are no longer in force. Conscience, like circumcision, is a mutilation of man.”


It is no coincidence that in the beginning Great Britain was the only military obstacle in Nazi Germany’s path. Winston Churchill, a regular contributor to the Jewish Chronicle who endorsed the Zionist enterprise in Palestine, referred to the example of the valiant Maccabees who rebelled against the Greek occupiers of ancient Israel: “Arm yourselves, and be courageous men, and be prepared to fight: for it is better to die in battle than to see the sacrilege which is being done unto our people and to our altars.” Yet it would have been so tempting to enter into a treacherous peace with the Germans in 1940. France had just gone to the wall; in Dunkirk the British troops had suffered a severe defeat; the Soviet Union was still allied with the Nazi empire for all eternity; the Middle East was in uproar as the Arabs sided with the Axis; the United States was still far away. Britain stood desperately alone. Her Prime Minister, however, decided in the spirit of the Maccabees that the aim of this war was the unconditional surrender of Hitler’s Germany.


Has Nazism survived its military defeat? Put in less poetic terms, does Hitlerism still exist as an ideology after it has lost its power?


The first thing that comes to mind here are the neo-Fascist parties in Europe. And it certainly would be foolish to belittle the threat they pose. However, political parties have the advantage of being visible. Much more dangerous are those Nazi ideas that blossom secretly, whether in feminist temples, the gardens of New Age, the greenhouses of ideological vegetarianism, or the discreet cult that animal protectionists have erected around our four-legged friends.


No, Nazism has not been victorious. But it has survived”incognito, as it were”under the guise of nonpolitical movements. It has become soft and tame and looks at the world with innocent blue eyes. Hardly ever does it take the floor under its real name and bare its fangs. Yet an anti-Semitic pamphlet that quoted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and praised Hitler’s occult powers sold like hotcakes in the New Age bookshops of Germany.


Ever since the Communist paradise on earth went to hell, nationalist pantheism has been spreading eastward. The statues of Lenin are finally lying on the rubbish heap of history, but new idols have already taken their places. The shallow journalistic phrase “Kremlin astrologers” suddenly is a metaphor no longer”Rasputin has thousands of great-grandchildren today. Everywhere in the former Soviet empire one finds an abundance of shamans with magic pendulums, soothsayers who talk to the dead, witches who tell fortunes.


At the threshold of the twenty-first century the gods are coming back. They climb out of flying saucers. They send telepathic news from other dimensions. As signs of the zodiac they determine the karma of the mortals. As mighty animal spirits they enter their followers and change them into superhuman beings. For their sake hordes of postmodern priestesses go on pilgrimages to the temples of Mexico and to places of worship in Crete; for their sake clever businessmen organize journeys of self-experience to the pyramids of Egypt and to Stonehenge. And the goddess of nature is the greatest of all deities. To honor her we enact complicated rituals of garbage separation, forge statistics about the world climate, ostracize environmental sinners, and pay indulgence to Greenpeace.


The green-catastrophic-New Age kind of gods have evidence and all likelihood on their side. One does not need occult capabilities to predict that their power will increase. Today the secret, or not-so-secret, religion of a majority of continental Europeans is vaguely neo-pagan: it consists equally of gnostic, pantheistic, and deistic elements. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and of St. Paul) looks relatively poor in comparison. Even His own lobby leaves him in the lurch. Long ago a faith developed within European churches that has hardly anything in common with traditional Christianity.


Complicated topics such as sin, penance, and forgiveness are not often mentioned in Christian houses of worship nowadays. Instead Protestant ministers open themselves to astrological influences, light fumigating sticks, invite Hindu preachers, meditate, and learn from the various psychological cults. In the Book of Maccabees it is written: “At the time there were bad people in Israel who persuaded the people by saying, ‘Let us make a covenant with the nations around, for we have experienced much suffering since we separated ourselves from the heathens.’” What the Jews went through long ago, it seems, is now happening to the Christians.


Will the Christian religion thus drown in the swamp of neo-paganism without making any major bubbles? Maybe. But then perhaps not. For here is something the Christians could learn from the Jews: there has always been a remnant that defended the law of Israel against the scorn and hatred of the world. This remnant is inconspicuous but not unimportant. The insignificance of its number corresponds precisely to the weakness of that distant, flickering light with which, on God’s command, the first day of creation began.



Hannes Stein, a native of Germany, is Literary Editor of Rheinischer Merkur . He has been living in Jerusalem for the last two years. His book Moses und die Offenbarung der Demokratie (“Moses and the Revelation of Democracy”) was published last year by Rowohlt-Berlin-Verlag.