Power and Belief

A dear friend once assured me that the fascination of the Hitler cult for occult beliefs is irrelevant, because Hitler was simply a figure-head. To me that is rather like saying that the Nicene Creed — which binds together almost all Christians in their basic beliefs — is irrelevant because actually the whole business was a front for the Emperor Constantine to consolidate his power. Maybe it was, but the search for simple causes will usually be frustrated. Cock-up and conspiracy interweave endlessly in the affairs of men. Multiple causes are inextricably bound. The butterfly brain theory of political change, you might say: put a single thought in the head of a significant politician — whether dictator or demagogue — and you may well change the fate of humanity.

Some say that George Walker Bush’s interest in Iraq is driven by the lust for oil alone. I do not think that his fascination with hydrocarbons excludes his obsession with the One True Faith (nor indeed his slanted view of democracy). Friends who agreed with my disdain for her policies often told me that Margaret Thatcher was a hypocrite. But I have been convinced of her sincerity from her very first term. I think the same is true of both Hitler and Bush: The commitment to belief as stated is sincere. The problem is in the beliefs themselves, as it so often is when people force their dogmatic idea of goodness on an unwilling world. The tough-minded man of action easily tires intellectually, and chooses a simple solution to end the confusion. So Alexander sliced through the Gordian Knot, and Hitler wrecked Europe in search of lebensraum.

I do not believe in the Emperor Constantine’s sincerity — his Christian belief sounds hypocritical in the extreme — but his exercise of power over the assembled bishops at Nicea, back in 325 AD, has had an astonishing influence from his days to our own.

Constantine grew bored with the endless discussions. He was a man of action, who had united a divided empire through headlong warfare and the cold-blooded extermination of thousands of his enemies. He was not about to sit around listening to a bunch of divines determining to what extent Jesus was identical with his dad, Jehovah, or how many pinheads could dance on the head of an angel. He wanted simple, clear statements that everyone could agree to. Or else. And he wanted them quickly. Now, George Walker Bush strides in the absolute faith that he is fulfilling the word of God, cheerfully unaware that it is the edited word of God (the same is true of the Old Testament, but that is another and long story).

The bishops at Nicea were one broad clique in a divided and bickering body of Christ. It is ironic that Jesus called the one disciple who eagerly denied him ‘the rock’ on which he would build his Church. Almost three centuries after the death of the messiah, dissent was rife among the devotees. The assembly at Nicea of course represented those who believed in assembling. And that excluded the tens of sects that did not feel the need for imperial sanction of their faith. It also lacked some believers who feared that they risked life and limb with their belief in love and tolerance. After all Constantine boasted that he had fed his enemies to wild beasts.

Some beliefs were rigorously suppressed. One cheeky group, called the Donatists, said that if a priest was a sinner then the sacraments administered by him would not be efficacious. To this day, the Orthodox and Catholic Churches accept that no matter how scurrilous the priest, his blessing of the body and blood of Christ are pure. Of course, this caused a little trouble with the Protestants much later on. Which means that the President belongs to a Church that disagrees with a significant doctrine accepted as God-given by those who edited the Good Book, which he believes is the received word of God. You may have to read that again for its simple enormity to sink in.

Anything that might support the popular teachings of Arius also had to be suppressed. Arius argued that Jesus was created by God, rather than being God incarnate, and that he was therefore neither True God nor True Man. This apparently insignificant argument played its part in the fall of Rome, when 150 years later a bunch of angry Gothic Arians took the city. As anyone who has seen an after-match battle between fans will tell you, ‘Never underestimate the power of belief.’

At Nicea, the tens of available gospels had to be reduced to the famous four, plus the Acts and the Epistles of the apostles. The great hero of the Council was Athanasius, who was to become a saint in part because of his successful attack upon Arius. Ironically, Athanasius had a different view of the authentic canon, for instance, supporting the inclusion of the Didache, an early statement of the teaching (the President might like it, as it outlaws abortion).

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene had to be chucked out, because it said that Jesus had approved the spiritual equality of women, and made of her the most important disciple — she was the first to see Jesus resurrected. Women had almost equal rights in pre-Christian Roman society — but not among the Church Fathers (obviously we would know them as the Church Parents if it were otherwise).

Among the many teachings excluded was the wonderful Gospel of Thomas, which, unlike any of the four in the New Testament, claims to have been written by an actual disciple. In fact, none of the authors of the gospels accepted as orthodox had even met Jesus. The tender words of the Gospel of Thomas would probably come as a shock to the President, but the Nicene Council and its followers failed to extirpate the teaching completely. Traces remain in the New Testament. Perhaps the most disturbing to simplistic Christianity is found in Luke 17:21, where the approved gospeler says, in tune with Thomas, ‘the kingdom of God is within you.’

Another hot topic of debate at the Council of Nicea was the The Acts of John. This purports to be the work of John the apostle, and contains the famous Jesus Dance, and a mystical doctrine capable of sundering any assembly. The Acts speaks of personal experience of the divine. Religion without obedience to the Church? Not a welcome thought to those shepherds who wish to keep the flock neatly ordered and well fleeced.

I once knew an Anglican minister with an Oxford degree in law. His abandoned doctoral thesis had been on the difference between divine and diabolic inspiration. Nonetheless, he grew angry when the bible was challenged, calling it ‘the received word of God’. But who is to say that those gathered to do the Emperor’s bidding at Nicea were inspired by God? What is it that assures George Bush — or anyone else — that they were?

The scary outcome of this enquiry is that we must think for ourselves, and, digging through the layers of conditioning, make up our own minds. Seek and ye shall find, as the Nazarene carpenter so nicely put it. This could be a good moment to pause and consider Jesus’s decision not to leave any written record of his teaching. It would have made matters so much easier.

The President might frighten himself by putting to one side the rulings of Nicea and seeking for himself. He could do no better than wading into the marvellous plethora of work on Early Christian Writings assembled by Peter Kirby, and referenced gratefully throughout this piece.

Hitler subscribed to the bizarre Aryan doctrine (no relation to the Arian doctrine mentioned above) that the different colours of human beings indicate membership of different species. This doctrine was bound up in the occultism of German magical societies, such as the Thule Group and the Germanen Orden (their cousins are the various OTOs that survived Aleister Crowley, who was high on Hitler’s shit-list). Himmler, the head of the military wing of the Nazi party, the SS, thought he was a reincarnation of Heinrich I, who ruled the First Reich. The deputy leader of the Nazi party, Rudolf Hess, shared membership of the Thule Group with Himmler. The Nazis justified their extermination policies out of their interpretation of the world.

Crazed ideas lead to crazed actions. In 1941, the Japanese military united behind a magical superstition about their emperor. The only condition of their eventual surrender was that he should remain in place. Their belief system allowed them to bomb Pearl Harbour, because they needed supplies of oil to fuel their continued imperial conquests in Asia. The US and Britain had embargoed their oil. The need for oil married to a powerful set of beliefs? It does sound familiar.

Pascal reduced this truth to far simpler words ‘Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.’ Add economic ends to religious convictions, and you have a deadly mix.

January 2005