Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Felling the Donar Oak: A Personal Allegory

The story of the Donar Oak is a fascinating one. In it, St. Boniface, a missionary among pagan Germanic peoples, came to a challenge of faith. The pagans held that a certain tree in the village was holy, consecrated to Thor. Boniface offered a challenge to their god: if he cut down the tree, or at least attempted it, Thor in his fury would crush him. This would be proof of the god's power and mastery. However, if Boniface's God was true, then no such harm would befall him. As the story goes, Boniface swung at the tree, making a deep cut, which was followed from a gale force that blasted the tree down, splitting it into four pieces, forming a cross. These pieces were used for the construction of a church, which many Pagans, in awe, renounced their god and turned to Christ.

I don't know if this story is true, though on historical grounds, not because I don't believe the Spirit works miracles. However, I enjoy the story a lot, and have a picture of it I like to ponder. As I was looking at it, I had a flash of insight about it. I recognized the story as an allegorical reflection of my own life.

I've always found the Norse gods interesting. First and foremost, the gods are mortal; they suffer pain and can die. In fact, they not only can die, but are ultimately doomed to die. The gods, among their many allies, including the honorable dead allowed into Valhalla, know they will perish. They know the prophesy of Ragnarok, where the Ice Giants will rise up against Asgard. The gods and their allies will put up a valiant fight, but they will lose. All of the worlds will be consumed in ultimate destruction, and the Giant Serpent, coiled around the World Tree, on which all worlds dwell, will be destroyed.

I've been drawn to the kind of existential dread this cosmic view produces. There's a kind of stoic nihilism about it. Similarly to the Stoics themselves, there is the belief that one day the entire world will be engulfed in a conflagration. However, unlike the Stoics who believed this was the end point of an endless cycle, where out of the ash the entire process would begin anew, the Norse had no such belief (though there are some glosses that a new humanity would be born from the ashes). There was a hard-faced determination to face death, despising it as it claims you. It's not that the gods or the warriors of Valhalla wanted to perish, but there was, perhaps, a kind of grim glee in knowing that one died without giving an inch. At least that is the warrior's illusion.

In someways, this Pagan view of things was the seed of the German Enlightenment. This began with Kant, but sprouted truly with Fichte and Romanticism, with its blending, twisting and turning, within the rationalism left over from the French and Scottish Enlightenments. Herder, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger. These men and many others, in diverse and sometimes contrasting ways, produced the mood of what we might call the neo-Pagan, or perhaps the post-Christian. It was less about explicit rejection of Christ (though there was sometimes that), but it was more proceeding through Him to something new. Beginning in the German Enlightenment, continental philosophy is a kind of rebirth of something old and ancient.

I'm constantly lured to continental philosophy, a veritable labyrinth and maze for the mind. It is forgotten that philosophy has almost always never been severed from some larger holistic project. Rather, philosophy has always been attached to cult, not as something standing outside of it. While Socrates lampooned the foolish devotions of the prols and their justifications, he believed himself possessed of a spirit that spoke to him. Plato turned Socrates into a cult-leader, seeing man's origin and end, and lifting him up. While Plato did believe in the utility of false myth, this was for the purposes of double-doctrine, a manufactured street religion exists for pedagogy while the philosophers worship at the true cult. Elites of all times and places have set a part mystical and magical rites to seek the secrets of the cosmos. Neo-Platonism was not a mere philosophy, but a religion. The Renaissance revival of antiquity studies came with a revival of Hermeticism and esoteric cult rites. Again, this is not necessarily hostile to Christianity, but it reconfigures Christian doctrines, symbols and rites into a different picture.

One must keep all of this in mind when one examines continental philosophy. It occurs to me that perhaps the style of writing is so strange, verbose, and winding for its experiential weight. It has a sacred aura; the word has some goal to accomplish, and to grasp the word, one must study, not merely read, the text. The Bible is similar, and one has to enter into it, wrestle with it, be present within it, to gain understanding. Of course, the Bible leads to Christ. The post-Christianity above rather leads to anti-Christ. One emerges through a torch lit labyrinth to find men wearing animal masks, naked virgins, and a bloody altar. At the center stands the oak, adorned with symbols of the god.

All of this has led me into sins, of both arrogance and cowardice. I've polluted my mind with foolish readings, I've compromised time and again in social settings, I've neglected weighty things for vain conjuring. In the depths of my heart there is a Donar Oak, consecrated to those pathetic, nihilistic gods of yore, full of madness and lust.

But I'm not this oak. Rather, by the blood of Christ and radiant light, I am Boniface. The Christian's life is a life of repentance, every day turning to our God and King. Everyday Boniface must lay an axe to the root of the Donar Oak. Everyday I have to drive out these dispositions. A fool like Schliermacher tried to etch a cross on the Donar Oak; Christ hands us an axe. The only answer for these things is destruction. The inner druid, the harrying of Satan, must be humiliated by the Gospel everyday. And victory belongs not to my swinging, but to the bolt of Divine fire which blows apart the tree. The Lord lifts my hands, and supplies me with heavenly aid.

And as the tree fell, it formed the shape of a cross. The wood was collected and repurposed to build a house for the church. Thus, continental philosophy is not totally useless, it can serve a purpose. But to a purist, for someone who reads the texts as a devotee, who builds their career as a philosopher, expositor, and builder, this is anathema. The reading I have done is not a waste, it can be split open, ripped apart, mutilated, losing all shape and form of its organic beginning, and turned to the comfort of God's purposes. Indeed, Ragnarok has come, but it is in the form of the cross, and I find myself not with the gods and their Asgardian allies, but against them, breaking their teeth, triumphing over them. Worship and praise must be erected in my heart, and the demons banished. My existential constitution is turned inside out, and the core of it is radically undermined. For the axe is laid to the root.

This is an allegorical interpretation of a saintly story. It may sound odd and seemingly conjectured. Rather, while it is a post-Biblical hagiographical story, it parallels with numerous Scriptural themes (namely holy Elijah versus the Baal priests). In addition, the flash of insight connected a lot of dots in my mind. Much of the details of my struggles have been left out, though I will say, being mostly of Germanic heritage, this story has a certain fittingness for me. It marks the struggles I've had and, time and again, God's gracious aid especially in times of darkness. May this story bless you as well as it has me.

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