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The True Fire

In defense of spiritual strangeness.

Bob Daemmrich/Getty Images

We Know the authentic effects of the true fire through every one of its million disguises.—Emerson

The downer's work is never done. The liberal imagination turns out to be, after Waco again, a recoiling mechanism. It always returns to itself, and to its confusion of prescription with description. Pressured by circumstances or ideas, it will linger over what it opposes, but it will not linger long. It was successfully pressured to consider the reality of evil; but the evil of reality is a greater challenge. The spectacular horrors, the grand and gross refutations of the rationality of the world, are difficult to dodge, but not the unspectacular horrors. They are longer, quieter, smaller, nearer, the common injustices and the ordinary dejections that take the joy, and then the reason, out of a mass of lives; they seem less like a crisis and more like a problem, and so seem to demand less philosophy and more social science; they are varieties of unhappiness, and so they are relative; they may be smoothly integrated into an improving world as the measure of what remains to be done. They are merely strange, but there is nothing mere about strangeness. It is not the exception to the rule; it is the other rule.

A place called Ranch Apocalypse could not have been expected to enjoy much of a claim on the liberal imagination, or on that variation of it, that mixture of managerialism and emotionalism, which now inhabits the White House. The people who followed the deranged man who called himself David Koresh — a preposterous name, half a Jewish king, half a Persian king — into the gray scrub of eastern Texas were, it is easy to say. losers; and of course they were losers. But they were not the kind of losers that liberals love. They, the Branch Davidians, described their position in the world too weirdly, in a way that put them beyond the reach of politics; and the balm in Gilead is not a government program.

They could not be engaged in their own terms, which were not, and must never be, the terms of a liberal order. Thus the saga in Waco was characterized, from first to last, by an irreconcilability of meanings. One side experienced the siege secularly, the other side religiously. Both sides treated the other as if they lived in the same universe: the Feds treated the believers as criminals, for they could be nothing else, and the believers treated the Feds as the forces of Satan, for they could be nothing else. For fifty-one days, the misunderstanding was darkly comic. Then the comedy ended. And its ending only confirmed each side in its analysis, except that one side also died.

Who, exactly, were the Davidians bothering? The administration says that they were hoarding guns. How un-American; and how un-Texan, May we expect the administration to lay siege now to the National Rifle Association? The Davidians were also said to be abusing children. A graver charge, but not a charge that sends federal agents blasting "Nancy Sinatra, Tibetan chants, the sound of squealing rabbits" (in the words of The New York Times) and then crashing into the domiciles of all the other miscreants in this child-abusing country.

It is also said that the Davidians were incapable of helping themselves, that they had surrendered their wills and allowed their minds to be controlled by their leader. I do not doubt that the Davidians were terrifically under Koresh's influence. But one man's control is another man's obedience: and there are many kinds of control and many kinds of obedience. Charismatic authority has hardly disappeared from American life. Indeed, American popular culture would be inconceivable without it; and from the standpoint of the critical mind, the distinctions between star worship and "motivational technologies" and religious sectarianism and electronic town meetings disappear before the repudiation of selfhood that they all share, it is one of the unappetizing paradoxes of American society that it is composed of individualists in search of charisma. Koresh appears to have fascinated his followers with his memory of Scripture, which he could recite for hours, until there was rapture. This was one of the unlovely consequences of the Bibliolatry of Protestant fundamentalism; but more to the point, it was an American gimmick among American gimmicks, and Koresh captured only a small number of the perplexed with it.

I do not mean to make Koresh into anything admirable, or untroubling. Though he did not set the fire, if he set the fire, until he was attacked, he was responsible for the keenness for fire, and so complicitous in the deaths of his followers. Koresh was a disgrace to the great tradition of eschatological activism: taking all the women and writing "melodic rock songs" was not exactly what John of Patmos had in mind. (It is worth recalling, though, that the Book of Revelation begins in fine sectarian fashion, with a settling of scores with the congregations of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sarclis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. The end of days has always had a way of shrinking the heart.) Judging by his soliloquies on radio and television, Koresh had a coarse and confused mind, which was lit only by an overwhelming sensation of certainty. Still, popular religion is almost always vulgar religion, and most religion is popular religion. It is grimly amusing, moreover, to hear Christian friends insist that the man was mad because he thought he was the Messiah. I do not mean, obviously, to compare the man whom Koresh was with the man whom Koresh thought he was. But I do prefer the distaste for messianism to the making of distinctions among Messiahs. I know that it is stiff-necked; but it is also safer, and philosophically more consistent.

It is not Koresh that deserves to be defended, but the possibility of Koresh. The failure to understand the Branch Davidians was not just a tactical failure, which issued in an attack on people who were metaphysically gratified to be physically attacked, and not just a human failure, which issued in the astonishing inability of the president to utter a syllable of sorrow. (The president's absence the morning after was less surprising; Clinton absconditus has become a familiar figure in circumstances that are beyond the reach of suavity.) The response of the American government to the catastrophe in Waco represents a misunderstanding of spiritual life, and American spirituality, and alienation in America.

If you are eager for the kernel, you must tolerate the husks. Spirituality is not always the same thing as religion; and there are times when religion is a bulwark against spirituality, The monotheistic faiths are famously based on a revelation, but it would be more accurate to say that they are based on a revelation that is over, and it was against the renewal of revelation that their establishments were organized. The belief in the contemporaneity of revelation, or in any form of access to the godhead so direct that it may dispense with the mediations of inherited institutions and inherited ideas, has always been one of the great nightmares of the synagogue, the church and the mosque. All, of course, have demanded that the soul be wakeful, but limits were set to the wakefulness of the soul, and directions were mandated. There were eruptions of the wakefulness that would not take direction, but those eruptions were either contained and called sects, or they were expelled and called heresies.

Yet religious people, if they are interested in experience, and not merely in tradition, must harbor a secret and slightly guilty love of those eruptions. They are signs of life, which is not to say that they are not brutal. But they are not always dangerous. It is important to distinguish between the riot of one soul and the not of many souls. The theurgic activity of an individual may exalt or crush him or her, but it poses no threat to others. Collective theurgy, however, is another matter. The social experience of ecstasy has often resulted in destruction, not least because destruction has been often promoted into an occasion for ecstasy. For this reason, traditional religion's suspicion of millenarianism is sounder than its suspicion of mysticism, which has no necessary relationship to history. Spiritual life is not all historical, or political, or communal. (Apocalypse was once the Greek word for revelation, and nothing more.)

And yet millenarianism, even as it must he resisted, must also be recognized as one of the risks of spiritual wake fulness. You cannot defend spiritual life without also defending its volatility. It is, dare I say after Waco, essentially combustible. It requires visions: and some of the visions will be stranger than others, and all of them will be strange. To those for whom they do not seem true, they will seem ridiculous. They will be easily degraded and abused. They will present an opening for the appetite for power, large or small. But these visions are primary human products, even if they can be grasped only by a few; and their strangeness cannot be counted as a stroke against them. Obviously one makes choices among the obscurities, and finds something where others find nothing. One prefers Swedenborg and Steiner to Hal Lindsey and David Koresh. But one also sees in the latter a debased form of what animated the former. There is nothing high that cannot be brought low.

Especially in America. The religious prolixity of the United States is one of the most fundamental facts about it. In this country that refused an established church, churches are ceaselessly established. Shakers, Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Southern Baptists, all manner of revivalists and enthusiasts and fundamentalists, and the prophet Emerson: this country may be called, as a great philosopher was once called, God-intoxicated. In 1989 a Gallup Poll reported that 88 percent of all Americans believe that Cold loves them, that 90 percent pray to God, that 94 percent believe in God. And these beliefs are not all serenely withheld from the public sphere. This is one of the appetizing American paradoxes, that the most anti-eschatological political system in the modern world was devised for the most eschatologically inclined society in the modern world. When the Framers banished redemption from the ends of politics, they were attempting to secure America against one of its most lasting temptations.

The reasons are not far to seek. From its earliest beginnings, this country was considered by those who settled it to be itself an eschaton. The story began in Massachusetts and it did not end in Texas. Increase Mather was one of the inventors of the identification of America with the New Jerusalem, and read the Book of Revelation as an allegory of the developments in the New World ("there will a time come when the gift of interpreting prophetic scripture shall be wonderfully revived in the church, that the Book of Revelation shall be interpreted and understood as clearly, almost, as if John himself were here to preach of these things"); and his son Cotton Mather, who wrote a work called The Pouring Out of the Seven Vials, declared in 1702 that "I write the wonders of the CHRISTIAN RELIGION, flying from the Deprivations of Europe, to the American Strand" This millennial interpretation of American experience flourished in the hands of Jonathan Edwards, who believed that he was living in the age, and the place, of the Sixth Vial, "Many things make it probable," he wrote in 1742, "that this work will begin in America." And so on and so on. But the most confounding illustration of the apocalyptic attitude to America — confounding, that is, for the tinny secularism that is confident it understands what happened in Texas and so may proceed to brunch — is the extraordinary sermon that Samuel Sherwood, the pastor of a small church in Connecticut, preached in January, 1776, on The Church's Flight into the Wilderness.

Since these prophecies and predictions [of the Book of Revelation], relating to the trials and sufferings, the wars and conflicts of the church with her anti-Christian enemies and adversaries, may be justly taken in such a large, extensive sense and latitude; we may rationally conclude that many of them have reference to the state of Christ's church, in this American quarter of the globe, and will sooner or later, have their fulfillment and accomplishment among us. The providences of God in first planting his church in this, then howling wilderness, and in delivering of it and preserving of it in this day, are in a manner unequaled, and marvelous; and are reckoned among the most glorious events that are to be found in history, in these latter ages of the world…. This American quarter seems to be reserved in providence, as a fixed and scaled habitation for God's church, where she might have property of her own, and the right of rule and government, so as not to be controul'd and uppress'd in her civil and religious liberties, by the tyrannical and persecuting powers of the earth, represented by the great red dragon [of Revelation,12].

Sherwood's libertarian reading of the bizarre text is obviously more uplifting than Koresh's authoritarian reading of the bizarre text, but it is not obviously more correct; and what they have in common is the bizarre text itself, and so they are joined, however uneasily, in a common enterprise. It would be more prudent politically and more scrupulous intellectually, for believers no less than for unbelievers, to dissociate the seven seals and the seven vials from America entirely. But those who say that they are religious people, and there are liberals among them, and government officials, should finally understand that they are not living entirely on this side of unreason, and should stop behaving like tender plants every time religious people behave extremely religiously. The elected should show a better grasp of the elect. Extremism is a likely result of the feeling of election, and of the exclusiveness of the truth.

America was new, America was virgin, America was promised. An imperfect place that is not expiring of history is a perfect place to con template the end of time. Here it seems plausible. But, there is another aspect of America that makes millenarianism plausible, and that is its power to terrify. Can there be any doubt that the men and the women of Ranch Apocalypse were wounded by, and afraid of, the world? Is it really so difficult to see how easy it is to get lost and lonely in America, to feel sapped of significance by its scale and its speed, and unhoused, and diminished by its indifference? Must it really be said again that many of its citizens do not experience in is country as a land of opportunity? In a state this huge and frantic, in a society this byzantine and technological, the self is no longer secure, and no longer the certain master of its situations; and it is inevitable that there will be individuals who will wish to withdraw.

They have the right to withdraw, and they have the reason. Withdrawal from the world, moreover, is an old and respectable reaction to it. Alienation is one of the soul's great instruments. (It is amusing, again, to hear Christian friends puzzle over this Texan simulacrum of the desert) Those who rule, of course, must be worldly people; when they hale the world, others suffer. But it is not asking too much, I think, to ask of those who are happily engaged with the world, and think that they can better it, that they acknowledge the existence in their midst of those who are unhappily disengaged from the world, and think that the world can be bettered by its end. Despair is not a common emotion in eliteland, which is where most of our politicians and journalists live; but elsewhere it is common as weeds.

The separation of church from state in America was designed more for the welfare of the church and less for the welfare of the state. But the church, of course, is not a church; it is all the churches, and all the churches splitting from churches, and all the sects, and all the symbols and words and rituals and plans and sentiments of all the sects. These are. all of them, the expressions of a hunger that does not deserve to be mocked. It should not be besieged because it will not be moved. In Waco souls burned, and then bodies. The really terrible moment must have come when the men and the women in the fire realized that it was not the world that was ending, it was only their world that was ending. The joke on millenarians, God's great prank, is that nobody has the power to end the world. The durability of the world, and its insensibility to our fate, is even greater than they fear. "All loss, all pain, is particular," wrote Emerson, in the essay from which I have taken my epigraph, and the Davidians' epitaph, "the universe remains to the heart unhurt." This the poor, inflamed souls in Waco could not see. It was not the job of the government in make them see.