HELL ON EARTH
Classically, literarily, evil, sex, death, suffering, ecstasy have been entwined in many a religious story, sometimes designed to create the most intense of arousals. Think of the Bible.
A movie called “Kink” used to be on Netflix. It was an exploration of people who sought out extreme and strange ways to seek sexual pleasure. In it was a demonstration of a barrel hung on a rope that was able to vibrate in a way that stimulated women. This woman went too long, too intensely, and suffered a grand mal seizure, concerning the operator of the apparatus. She was unconscious with her eyes rolled back in her head. She looked rather like the marble ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Bernini.
The intense arousal of epiphanies some people claim to be as if “struck by lightning” can be either transcendent or just organic excess. Likewise, they can be uplifting or can plunge the sufferer into black despair, the void, kenosis, emptiness. One google entry promises 18 definitions of kinds of “epiphany”, including both literary and history of science examples.
Those who have felt epiphanies say they are indescribable. Who’s to say that the woman who fell unconscious off the vibrating barrel wasn’t having some sort of vision? If a forensic lab specialist were to evaluate both the nervous wiring and the solute chemicals in her blood, could he see something definitive, some proof of the supernatural? Maybe.
The part of “religion” discussed here is about manifestations in strong experiences that seem to connect to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans that cannot be explained by humans. The experience is related by survivors as real, sensory, and therefore meaningful. It’s just that the meaning is inaccessible to others. This situation is familiar to humans who are constantly trying to solve life as it penetrates our own skin. After all, our survival is at stake.
But we can be overwhelmed. And the “truth” is constantly re-created because our bodies are constantly recreating themselves, the receivers. Truth is only momentary and situational. Part of our yearning for authoritative religion is wanting something to be dependable, permanent. We don’t want to be stuck or confined — just dependably held, embraced — but nevertheless the oxymoron is unresolvable.
This point of view about liminal moments is that it can be a ritual technique meant to accept change, adaptation — even escape. This is particularly important when it comes to evil, some of which has the power to end survival. Or it can mean a transition of states, the death of an old self.
My own “evil” is laughably minor: sloth, failure to intervene, lack of discipline. But life has given me access to knowledge about profound evil, beginning with the WWII atrocities. Partly the hate was from being in places made evil by social aggression. Once I was talking to a city friend whose circumstances were pleasantly prosperous and mentioned that a nice guy she had met here on the rez was in prison. “What could he have possibly done that was that bad?” she asked.
“Raped his girl friend with a .357 handgun.”
My friend went white. Even though she was a theorist who equated guns with penises and felt rape was simply lack of permission that was seized by frustrated men. Specifics and violence change everything. The emotional metaphor is made real.
At a General Assembly a colleague approached to ask about a minister we both knew. “Why did X leave his church?” asked the colleague. “He was well-liked and productive. He should have been there for many years!”
I told him what had been a secret. The minister’s wife had taken a university course and fallen in love with her instructor. The professor got a promotion to a much better job that meant he had to move far away. He didn’t want to marry this woman but she was determined to follow him. The minister loved his children but in order to stay in contact he also had to leave. All this was evil in the name of love. What could the church do to prevent it? Where was the wickedness?
For many years I was in an email relationship with a collection of boys who had been separated from their families because of stigma (drugs, homosexuality, broken families, defiance, poverty) but who were able to survive by doing sexwork. This exposed them to the most evil of customers, men (almost always) who wanted to inflict suffering, violence, humiliation in the name of sex — sometimes killing the boys. This was social evil. Sometimes the boys couldn’t stand it and killed themselves — was that evil?
So how do epiphanies, glimpses of something “Other”, fit into this context? The answer can’t be that the people are being contacted by God unless God is evil, permitting the world to include this dimension. Some accept this and imagine God is just any dictator playing to punish or for his amusement. But these moments of mysterium tremendum might be so agonizing and identity-destroying that they are ended only by the loss of consciousness, even death.
Physical death, sex, violence, can be more endurable than psychological torture. A fiendish torture incident I read was locking a new mother just out of reach of her infant to force her to watch it starve to death. She wasn’t withholding secrets — her tormenters just enjoyed watching. Her only choice was either fantasy about a supernatural compensation or by going flat, denying awareness.
Now that we are far more aware “brains” (expanded to thought throughout the body and shared with community beliefs) can control what we experience, it’s possible to say that evil is always located in humans — either the perpetrators or the victims — and that the universe aside from humans has no evil because it has no awareness, no emotion, no attachment. It is stony in the most literal sense. (Animals have senses but do they have epiphanies?) Or are Buddhists right, that we can only escape evil by escaping desire? But then what about human attachment?
If it is possible for humans to experience exaltation, innocently located in their own bodies, as coming from some mysterious source, then it is also possible for them to feel momentary malevolence from The Devil. And since these experiences are bodily, matters of neurology and organs producing certain molecules, then they can be affected by drugs, intentions, community pressure, visions of something better. Human bodies are highly responsive.
All these things are at least occasionally connected to rituals and ecstatic experiences arranged on purpose. Whole societies can become preoccupied with watching murder, even imposing it on individuals, or celebrating deaths in war. Right now we’re watching death for political advantage by profiting from a pandemic that kills thousands daily. The numbers are rivaling hurricanes and earthquakes but no one intervenes. Can a virus itself be evil or just an opportunity? It’s humans that make sin, notoriously possible by doing nothing.
The rules over what is sin can be changed. Perhaps that’s one topic for a moral gathering like church: what is sin? More sharply, are we sinful ourselves? If we have moments of realization of evil and our own sinfulness, epiphanies in reverse, what then? Is there any compensation? Recovery?
Arousal is the one shared characteristic of ecstatic moments, but the ones cherished and related are about harmony, peace, and connection. These can be seen as normal, but they are not, particularly at high intensity. Instead it is lack of intensity and arousal, mildness, that is taken to be a characteristic of the benign. Non-acting, toleration, not-knowing. Crimes of omission.
Arousal that is evil has an attraction to it — something blindly magnetic, maybe a secret that carries power like blackmail, extortion — the methods of the mafia. These are survival methods. Are they then justified? Our TV series seem to think so. Isn’t the guilt and blame just an arbitrary social response that people learn to accept?
Negative arousal is easier than visions of the good and beautiful. It makes more money in a confused society that simply wants the feeling and doesn’t mind that it’s private, even covert. The arousal of pornography is being undermined by its display everywhere. The arousal of greed mixes with it. The management of arousal is the business of religion in most of its aspects. But today people leave the pews in search of it.