Now that he’s been elevated to The New York Times, our boy Ross Douthat apparently feels some need to prove himself literary. Good for him! But lately he’s found strange outlets for that instinct — you’ll recall he slammed “Avatar” as insufficiently Christian, or too anti-Christian, or something like that — and now he wonders aloud, in the company of actual literary critics, why Judaism doesn’t have as rich of a fantasy tradition as Christian, or pagan cultures (emphasis mine):
Part and parcel of Judaism’s resistance to explorations in the realm of faerie, he goes on, is a discomfort with the semi-dualism that’s necessary to classic fantasy — the idea of a Devil figure, in other words, who seems capable of actually conquering the mortal world (be it Narnia or Middle-Earth, Fionavar or Osten Ard) and binding it permanently in darkness. As Weingrad notes, correctly I think: “Christianity offers a far more developed tradition of evil as a supernatural, external, autonomous force than does Judaism, whose Satan (or Samael or Lilith or Ashmedai) are limited in their power and usually rather obedient to God’s wishes.” Tolkien’s Sauron makes sense in a Christian universe; he makes less sense in a Jewish one.
He won’t say it outright in this article, but there’s an implied pejorative. Wiengrad, the literary critic to whom Douthat eludes, identifies the lack of dualism in Judaism as a point of interest. For Douthat, though, we can properly imagine that he considers this a failing. For Douthat, religion is supposed to be simple. That’s its virtue. Recall his critique of what he (wrongly) perceived as pantheism “Avatar”:
Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality. And the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.
Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.
This is an agonized position, and if there’s no escape upward — or no God to take on flesh and come among us, as the Christmas story has it — a deeply tragic one.
Pantheism offers a different sort of solution: a downward exit, an abandonment of our tragic self-consciousness, a re-merger with the natural world our ancestors half-escaped millennia ago.
But except as dust and ashes, Nature cannot take us back.
His conception of theology has no room for gnosis, or anything like it. Why would it have room for anything short of Manichean dualism?
But religious dualism has its pitfalls. It makes the world simple, and it makes for good storytelling, but there’s an inherent attraction to take it literally, and let it bleed over into the secular. The temptation is visible in modern politics, and it’s dangerous. You can see this in conservative politicians who treat their faith seriously: the Soviet Union is an “evil empire,” identified countries constitute an “axis of evil,” public figures are either “socialists” or “patriots,” etcetera. When it makes the crossover from mythology, dualism must be a shorthand expression of, not a substitute for, a full fledged moral calculus, or it forecloses thought, and elides the nuances that actually make up policy.
Douthat stumbles on the point of dualism’s primitive nature, sort of, when tracing its history through Christianity to paganism. The notion that there must be an absolute evil to balance an absolute good is a hallmark and a vestige of polytheism, one that’s preserved in modern Christianity in the character of the largely-invented Satan. Except in apocrypha, Judaism rejected the polytheistic graft, and we may be better off if we could do the same, or confine it to the silver screen. Dualism makes for good poetry, but when taken seriously, it also makes for high body counts.