I was talking to my friend Oliver this evening about spirituality, and reading the Gospels as wisdom literature, and reclaiming the useful things about Christianity from Christians. And he reminded me, out of mischievous desire to see how I would get out of this one, of the Chesterton essay in which Chesterton rebukes those of us who want to admire Christ as a man, and refuse to regard him as the incarnation of god. How can we admire a man, Chesterton asks, whom we regard as deluded in so crucial an area of his sense of self?
It seems to me, I riposted in one of my bursts of intellectual energy, that there are three answers to that question, of varying degrees of seriousness, but all of them valid, though in a couple of cases also cheap shots.
Firstly, as an agnostic, I am used on a regular basis to respecting the personal morals, and insights on a variety of issues, of vast numbers of people who suffer from what I regard as a delusion, which is to say their belief of direct contact with the numinous through the practice of organized religion. I also have respect for the personal morals, and insights, of people who believe that shuffling cards can give you real insight into character, that the stars and planets dictate circumstance and that one day Lord Cthulhu will return and eat us. Oh, and I am not joking about the last one - I did know an entirely admirable woman who was appropriately stoic in the face of this belief. People get things wrong, and still manage not to be shits, which is why I am so intolerant of religious believers who are incapable of noticing that they are behaving badly.
So, a person whom I admire, believed in some sense that he was, in some sense, the promised Messiah and/or the living embodiment of the divine. Not a problem for me - we all have issues.
Secondly, there is the debating point that arises from the existence of a lot of religions, most of whose founders, and many of whose saints or holy men or sacred virgins, believed themselves in direct communication, one way or another, with the divine. It is possible, but only if you are Jack Chick, to believe that the Prophet Mohammed, on whom be peace, was a very bad man who either lied or was in direct communication with the devil. Otherwise, believers in any specific religion are forced to believe that their founder and saints, but none of the others, were in touch with the divine, and all the others were deluded, but helped towards moral behaviour by their delusions. Nor is this helped much by, say, the belief of many Muslims that Christians know vastly less about Jesus than they do - because all that does is remove the burden of delusion to third parties.
If, on the other hand, you are an agnostic, who believes that all of these people were wrong, but insightful and moral in many ways, you have no contradiction in your view at all.
Thirdly, and this strikes me as the crucial point, being the son of God, or the Messiah, or the Prophet to whom the Angel Jibrael dictated the Holy Koran, are all, from my perspective, ways of speaking and of thinking about spiritual reality. If they are delusions, they are delusions that go with the territory.
I write, and as I write, sometimes I am conscious of inspiration, of words moving through me that have not proceeded directly from my conscious composing ego; I don't believe in the Muse, but I know what people mean by it, and at times it is the best language for feeling in about what is happening. I speak in public sometimes, and am quite good at it; at the point when I feel the audience in the palm of my hand, my own ego often disappears and I am subsumed in a general will that I have helped create. Again, these are ways of speaking about what happens and what I feel that are culturally determined descriptions that are embedded in my internal language.
As a trans person, I am stuck, when I talk about my personal experience, with the cliche of having felt I was stuck in the wrong body. Now, I am entirely aware of the problems with that, both in terms of pathologizing myself and in adopting some body fascist stereotypes that I entirely reject. Intellectually, I try and avoid it; emotionally, it is something that, especially when I was younger and in the early stages of transition, spoke to my sense of my own condition rather eloquently. It was a piece of language, a meme if you will, that was in the culture that helped me vocalize an inchoate and unverbalizable sense of dysphoria.
If one were trying, in first century Judaea or sixth century Arabia, to express one's sense of how it felt to have moral insights, to see those insights through the mind of an eloquent maker of analogies or a fine lyric poet, I can see how a way of expressing one's sense of self that came close to claiming semi-divine status, or an angel whispering in one's ear, might very readily creep up on one. The concept of the Messiah was everywhere in Jesus' native culture; the belief that the gods and their children walked among us was the official party line of the imperial power that marched past him with shield and sword every day of his life - dead Emperors were always, retrospectively, the son of a god rather than their parent. If Jesus spoke of himself in those ways, it is, to me, entirely plausible, that he was doing so because of the intractability of language. And the same goes for Mohammed.
They were not bad or mad; they were struggling with the capacity of language at the point when there were new things to be said and old ways of saying them that creep in however much you strive for newness, because you have to talk to the people around you in a language they already know.
'Beauty is nothing but a feeling of terror we are still just able to bear', Rilke says in the Duino Elegies, and somehow his talk of angels and thrilling pain is one of the best ways of talking about the formation of the poetic that we have. Does this mean angels spoke to him? Not exactly - but the concept of angels is more than just picturesque and pleasing words he made up to express thought; they were the way his thinking could happen in the first place.
Either we avoid speech about the ineffable altogether, as Wittgenstein recommended, or we just get on with it and take the consequences. It is significant that, when he recommends silence, Wittgenstein does so in a borrowed eloquence half Euclid and half Martin Luther. Language is our trap and our escape.
I really wish it were possible to sit Gilbert Keith Chesterton and Clive Staples Lewis down and explain all this to them - they were such intelligent men and yet we have the advantage of reading things they never knew. So this is here for my friends who would adopt the same arguments.