A propeller-driven aircraft flies above the clouds as, below on the ground, a city prepares. Thus is the opening shot of Leni Riefenstahl’s account of the 1934 Nuremberg rally “Triumph of the Will”. It lands. And from then on, all is focussed on the passenger on that plane, Adolf Hitler, as he makes his triumphal entry into Nuremberg. He is shown as an approachable, if somewhat physically unimposing, man who chats affably to all as women hold their babies up for him to bless. He has descended like Jesus from the heavens, and all are looking to him to heal their wounds – both collective and individual. There is no hint in all this of the chaos and ruin – the madness and industrialised murder that lies ahead – all is flowers and traditional costume.
Watching this film over seventy years later, despite the knowledge of what is to come, I think I can see what led them to follow him, all those decent, hardworking parents and grandparents. Above all, however, I can see the attraction for the idealistic young of his vision of national renewal and the paradise that awaited them. Had I been a young German at that time, would I have been a Nazi? The answer is, to my considerable discomfort, very possibly yes. Or, perhaps, I would have been a communist - and given what we now know of Gulags, genocide and torture, that is no consolation to me.
For both systems were fundamentally, and fatally, flawed and the source of that flaw can be found in the deserts of the Middle East where nomadic peoples dreamt of a land flowing with milk and honey and of a god-king who would lead them there. Like a virus, this has now spread throughout the world, and all are infected. Examples, alas, are easy to find. Names trip off the tongue: Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, Stalin, - they come easy to the mind, for they are identifiably the enemy. Then, at a more local level in the English speaking west we have had our own, more local monsters- Charlie Manson, Jonestown, Waco, etc. These are easy to spot - for they seem to depart so greatly from the norm of our culture.
None of us, surely, would get caught up in anything like this, as decent twenty-first century citizens, we must be immune to this infection.
I fear not. All around, the search for the Messiah continues. We go from guru to guru – in whatever form, looking for that cosmic fix that will enable us to transcend the limits of this physical plane and all its problems. We ache to move towards the golden realm of perfected beings – and leave behind all limitation. And there is no shortage of those who promise us this – who will open us up to the “higher” planes of being and lead us from the darkness to the promised land of light. All we need to do is to give them our power and follow where they lead.
Our feeling of powerlessness can be overwhelming and yet those glimpses that we have of our own intrinsic power are terrifying to and we do not want to have to seize it. For if we were to act as empowered people it would mean taking total responsibility for what we do. We thus long for some Divine king to carry the responsibility we fear, and seek him in various ways. He lies, slightly disguised, at the heart of “Lord of the Rings” and, even less disguised, in the “Narnia” books. He is there in “Star Wars”. The “Da Vinci Code”, with its theme of Jesus’ bloodline - initially nurtured in the body of Mary Magdalene and continuing to this day, is simply one of the latest manifestations of this messianic longing. For we are assured that when the king returns the lion will lie with the lamb and we will be drinking the dew of paradise. And death, the last enemy, shall have no dominion.
Except that it will – of that we can be certain. Our current bodies will die and rot until they return to their constituent elements. We will be absorbed into to the earth from whom we were born. For we are not extraterrestrial but inhabitants of this planet – every cell of our being created from the food we eat, the air we breathe and the water we drink. I have no idea of our ultimate origins – Atlantis, Orion or wherever, and do not really see how such knowledge can help us. We live here and this is our home. No other. Our ancestors lived here and died here and we shall do the same. Perhaps some interstellar vehicle is even now heading for this planet in order to rescue the descendants of the original colonists. Perhaps I am wrong, and there was such a person as Jesus and he will return and draw the Elect close to his bosom. Perhaps a Stargate will transport us to a new heaven and a new earth. But I doubt it. We have been waiting a long time and we are still here. Many times, throughout the centuries since the Roman Empire adopted an eastern mystery religion, literalised it and then imposed it, often by the sword, on the rest of us, a messianic ferment has erupted. People have looked to the heavens for signs and they have indeed found them. Which is hardly surprising, for the universe is big and there are a many events happening within it. Eclipses, comets, plagues, supernovae – all these can and have been interpreted as signs of the end time. Which has, repeatedly, come and gone and we and the planet have remained.
Now, as we move into the new millennium, things are rapidly and radically changing. With a couple of strokes on a keyboard or the click of a mouse, these words can, almost instantaneously, arrive on an electronic screen in New York, or Beijing, or the middle of the Sahara desert. I can send a text message to a friend whom I think is in Bristol and be answered from a beach in Thailand. And, simultaneously, in the mountains of Afghanistan, in the markets of Baghdad, ancient fears and hatreds are enacted and the earth is drenched with blood. Led by devout believers in the will of their god and inspired by love for him, young people strap explosives to their bodies and then get on underground trains while other young people drop high explosives from 15,000 metres onto the living flesh of children below.
This is where the messianic dream has always seemed to lead. The carpenter from Galilee, if he ever lived at all, is, lest we forget, reported to have said that he came not to bring peace but a sword. Inspired by another vision, a warrior-prophet arose in the Arabian Desert and founded a spiritual empire, which now stretches from morocco to Indonesia, with substantial representation in the rest of the world. Both religions preach love but their histories have all too often belied this. For they also preach that this life is mere preparation for eternity – that these bodies are, at best, an encumbrance and, at worst, positively evil. The World and the Flesh and the Devil – all are one and all are equally to be rejected. A general in the crusade against the Cathars, on entering a conquered city, asked the papal legate how he could distinguish heretic from catholic and received the answer, “Kill them all, God will know his own”. And an “innocent” who is thus killed would then be a martyr and would be received straight into the eternal realm. In the same way, those who blow themselves and others up, proclaiming the goodness of Allah, go straight to paradise.
Every day we hear of yet another such martyrdom in the markets of Baghdad. These are not aberrations but stem logically from the messianism that has led our species to the dangerous condition it is in now. For, if this world is just a preparation for the next and if our bodies are simply part of our fallen nature, then they are both expendable. The papal legate was doing the faithful a positive service by despatching them the way he did. By being martyred thus, he guaranteed them a place in heaven and spared them the risk of damnation through committing the sins that mortal flesh is heir to. A bit extreme to our minds, perhaps, but an act of love, nevertheless.
And the worst thing about all this is that is so tempting. Much of me would love to believe that all will come right in the end through some divine intervention. That some sort of cosmic Big Brother Jesus would come and wipe my brow and dry my tears and lead me to the promised land. All I would have to do is hand over my power to him and then it will all be ok. Which brings us straight back to Hitler – to Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao and to those lesser messiahs, Jim Jones, Charles Manson and David Khoresh – to the killing fields – the slaughterhouses to which, ultimately, all shepherds lead their lambs.
And yet, we have need of teachers. There are people of vision and experience from whom we can learn. Caution is necessary, however and a mind ready to test the teaching. For the responsibility for growth lies with the individual. No teacher can do it for us. And no teacher is infallible for all are human just as we are. They have impulses and emotions both petty and noble – for such is the way of our species. They can be wilfully blind at times, just as we can. And they can, for this is also our way, begin to believe what is projected upon them. The more people treat them as some spokesperson for the divine the more they can take this on and begin to believe themselves infallible.
Such thinking is at the core of much that ails our species. The ecological crisis can be directly linked to the belief that the physical world is a thing to be transcended and the related belief that divine intervention will sort it all out and a new kingdom will be established. Daddy will return and make it all better – he will punish the guilty and reward the innocent. But, as a follower of the Goddess, I just do not believe this. There is no judgement; there is only consequence, and there can be no saviour.
In one of the oldest myths of our civilisation, Inanna, Queen of heaven and earth, descends into the underworld and is killed there. Her body is hung on a meat hook and then, on the third day, she comes back to life. But this is not the old Inanna, but a new being who emerges from the underworld with full knowledge of herself, including those aspects that are considered demonic. This story is just the first of many such: Persephone, Eurydice, Tammuz, Osiris, Jesus – all die and are reborn. There is one major difference, however. The Jesus myth, the one that underlies much of our thought, whether we be Christian or not, is of a supernatural being who died to redeem a fallen, sinful, humanity. We have been taught for many centuries that we cannot do it on our own for, “No man cometh to the father save through me”. And so in the 2000 years or so of Christianity, we have been subconsciously awaiting his return and this has led to the rise of such as Hitler.
In this regard it must be remembered that Inanna did not go to the great below for our sins. She went there in response to some mysterious promptings of her own soul and returned transformed and owning her own demons. She did not it for us – we will have to do it ourselves. As a species, we are at the point where we need to accept that there will be no rescuer but ourselves. We must each look within and face our own demons and acknowledge them. In this way, we will be able to claim our own, intrinsic power and be able to face ourselves and others without judgement and without shame. For we are all children of the goddess and we are all, for that reason, of her nature, which is love, power and beauty. In short, we have to grow up. That is the present challenge. If we fail, there are, I fear, many more Hitlers waiting to play the role of daddy.