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17.8.02

I just finished Daniel Quinn's The Story Of B, which, like Ishmael, I read straight through in a day. Like Ishmael, it presents a lot of interesting ideas about ecological philosophy, but grounds them in a misunderstanding of the cultural ecology of the origin of agriculture. But The Story Of B also presents an interesting -- though likely inadvertant -- message about Christianity.

The surface message of B as it pertains to Christianity, and probably the only level Quinn was thinking about it on, is a fairly familiar argument (despite the narrator's protestations of originality). Christianity, along with every other philosophical strand of post-agricultural-revolution thought, is implicated in creating an exploitative attitude toward nature, which has led to our current ecological and social crisis. In the book, the narrator is a priest sent by the Roman Catholic church to investigate whether a revolutionary philosopher lecturing in Germany, known to his followers as "B", is the Antichrist. The book expounds B's view of the ecological unsustainability of our culture and ultimately concludes that he is the Antichrist, but that that is a good thing. Rejecting the (often Christian) exploitative philosophy of our culture is the only way to survive.

My initial reaction was typical of how I feel when I read this type of argument. I protest that the destructive philosophy attributed to Christianity isn't the "real" Christianity, or at least that the Christian tradition is salvageable and even contains the seeds of a more ecological philosophy (as the article linked two posts ago examines). But as I read the last page of the book, it struck me that B's viewpoint is in fact very Christian, in a very mainstream way. B is the Antichrist to the church as an institution (and thus a Roman Catholic priest makes an excellent symbol), which has been part of a great deal of troubles in its history (and makes possible the defense that what has been done by Christians in the name of Christianity is not what Christianity is really about). But when Jesus' message is considered in itself, what B is proposing is simply a retelling of the Biblical story on an ecological, rather than spiritual, plane.

B's mytho-history of human civilization in a nutshell is this: Through most of human history, humans have been "Leavers" -- that is, people who are content to let nature (aka the gods, as they are animists) decide what to provide for them. But several thousand years ago, one tribe in Mesopotamia got a new idea that led them to become "Takers" -- people who take on the role of god for themselves and appropriate nature for their own use. While the Leaver strategy is time-tested and in accordance with the laws of nature, our present state is clear proof that the Taker strategy is about to fail. We can't manage the environment; we have to let it manage itself.

This outline resonates with how Christianity (and what sprung to mind first was how it is presented by Jehovah's Witnesses) answers the Problem of Evil, namely, why does a loving God allow bad things to happen? I'm focussing here on how this theology is envisioned by Jehovah's Witnesses for two reasons. First, they can conveniently represent, in contrast to the Catholic church, a de-institutionalized version of Christianity, as they take very seriously the Reformation ideas of the importance of direct study of the Bible and a renunciation of the earthly politics that has gotten the Catholic church in so much trouble over the centuries. And second, I'm more familiar with their theology as a coherent system due to discussions with a Witness on the Brunching board.

Jehovah's Witnesses summarize human history as follows: God set everything up so that people could live in harmony with the world, and He would take care of things. But then Adam and Eve got the idea that they could decide better than God how people ought to live, and ate the forbidden fruit. God's response was essentially "you think you can figure out how to run things better than I can? Well, go ahead and try." The sufferings that followed serve as proof that people can't do it alone, and eventually the human system will collapse as foretold in the book of Revelation.

The parallels between Takers' relationship to the laws of nature and humanity's relationship to God's commands should be obvious. There are differences, to be sure. Quinn makes a big issue out of the fact that most human societies chose to remain Leavers until the Takers wiped them out, whereas Jehovah's Witnesses would say we're all descended from Adam and Eve. And since there is no ecological afterlife, Quinn's focus is on the idea that if we return to choosing the laws of nature we can avoid Armageddon, whereas Jehovah's Witnesses would say that the system has to be left to collapse under its own weight before we (as a society) can pick ourselves up and try living God's way. But the similarities are strong enough to make me stop and think about how B can be seen as a book not just about the relationship between Christianity (and other civilized philosophies) and animism, but also about the relationship between Christianity as an institution and Christianity as a religion.

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