Here are the concluding acts of “Worlds Collide,” my play about the hesitant, contradictory, hysterical articulation of Christianity in the 4th-5th centuries A.D. I hope my principal inspirations are evident: Erich Auerbach, Denis de Rougemont, Mircea Eliade, Norman O. Brown. G.W.F. Hegel the seminarian, as always, Alasdair MacIntyre the historicist philosopher who wrote Marxism and Christianity when he was all of 22, and of course Will James, the guy who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience as a preface to radical empiricism, hence pragmatism.
As an old-school Marxist, I was never much bothered by invidious comparisons between it and religious fervor or faith, because their eschatological purposes, the redemption and perhaps even the end of suffering, were at least similar. You can read vol. 1 of Capital as a gloss on the Reformation. Max Weber certainly did. That’s why he wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. You Shakespereans will recognize my borrowings from Act III, Scene 7 of King Lear. Here we go.
[Lights come up, same scene, but now Marcellinu sstirs. Augustineis standing, looking out the window, arms folded. Jeromeis reading from the book (Augustine’s “Confessions”) he found on the table in Act II, amidst the bottles of wine and the platters of food. Pelagius watches impassively as the SERVANTS converge, cleaning, wiping, bowing, scraping.]
MA [waking, he raises his hand, he speaks to no one in particular, he’s used to the diction of command]: Bring me water. A hot towel. These men are no doubt hungry. Feed them something.
[The SERVANTS gradually remove the remains of the night before as MA slowly wakes up, and as he takes in the scene: Augustine seems angry, Jeromeis reading carefully, Pelagius looks impassive as ever. . . MA looks weary, puzzled, as he watches his guests, turning his head from side to side as if at a tennis match . . . SERVANTS return with food, water, wine, hot towels.]
MA: Where were we? I seem to remember that you three were disagreeing about something. And yet you share this church, this faith. This world as well, Rome itself, the center of the universe.
[Nobody moves or speaks. Jerome keeps reading, Augustine stares out the window, Pelagius still watches the SERVANTS]
MA: We are not here to ignore each other. Come, gentlemen, at least face each other. Face me if you cannot do that.
All right. Let me tell you again why you are here. Why do I feel this regret? I have killed many men, I was trained to do it—that was my job. But listen now, I have killed women and children, too, I have disemboweled them, do you know what that means? I split them with my sword and watched them die slowly, as they begged for mercy—as they stared at their own organs wriggling in the dirt. Their intestines kept moving.
[SCRIM rises again, but the images are blurred, and modern, too fast for comprehension: Serbia, Ghana, Nigeria, and last but not least, the American Civil War]
I don’t regret these acts. I was a warrior. But that family crossing the river . . . And our own time, I begin to think that Jerome is right, these are the end times. My world is disappearing. The question is, how does yours get born? Is it the next world, Jerome? Or is it this one, Augustine, the one you are so attached to? Or Pelagius, your world—how can it be our creation?
I ask you, have I sinned? That is what you call it. I still don’t know what that means, and I have read your books.
[Augustinerelaxes, unfolds his arms, turns toward the others, as Jerome rises from the couch holding the book; Pelagius is still, as always]
J: You have read this one, his “Confessions”?
MA: Yes, of course, that is why he is here.
J: Listen to me, my lord, I will read from Book 10 of these “Confessions.” He thinks he is a god, heforgives our Lord, he writes this:
“Like you, my Lord, but also my fellow men and women, I will renounce my powers and submit my own body to the judgments of this profane world, where I am sure to suffer unto death. I will forgive your transgressions, O my God, by relinquishing this greatest power, of memory, and forgetting your trespasses against us.”
There is more, all blasphemy. “Like you, my Lord’? He has inverted the Lord’s prayer. Listen now, please listen, these are Augustine’s own words.
“But what is nearer to me than myself? And lo, the force of mine own memory is not understood by me, though I cannot so much as name myself without it. For what shall I say, when it is clear to me that I remember forgetfulness?”
A: “Great is the power of memory, a fearful thing, O my God, a deep and boundless manifold”—I can quote myself, I can convict myself of blasphemy, you little shit—“and this thing is the mind, and this I am myself.” That’s also from Book 10.
MA: I agree with Augustine.
J: I know you do, and this is what worries me, that is why I am here. He is not a Christian. You misunderstand us. Your world is dying. And his will never be born.
MA: But he believes in it. He loves the world you despise. How can you both be Christians?
A: I love this world, he loves the next. I can’t explain it. Ask him, for fuck’s sake.
MA: No, I will ask you. And I will ask this man, Pelagius, who seems to think he rules the world.
[SCRIM rises again, now we see late medieval images, of the Christ, and of the Crusades, as the lights go down]
[INT. The four men are again seated as the lights come up, but now they’re closer together, they sit on their respective couches but their bodies are turned toward each other, as if they need to address one another. SERVANTS (Mary and Peter) hover, moving slowly, hesitantly, they know they’re witnesses to a dangerous scene, but they also know they somehow preside—they will inherit the earth, not these men. It looks, too, like all six of these people might be coming together: they’re converging on some truth they can hear but can’t yet say.]
A: All right, then, I will answer you, Marcellinus Ammianus. [He gulps some wine, turns toward Jerome] Jerome, you cite these Gospels when you call me a blasphemer. Matthew, Mark, blah, blah, who are these men? It’s now centuries later, they never saw the man, your Jesus. Nor mine. Neither did Paul the Apostle, Saul of Tarsus, not even on the road to Damascus.
[Mary and Peter exchange looks; Augustine turns his head toward Mary as if he overheard that conversation]
But they’re all authors of what you call the new testament. What’s new about it?
MA: That is not even a question, Augustine. These are thieves, fishmongers, whores, they’re not worth the words you use, they—
A: I’m not asking you, Marcellinus, I’m asking him, and I’m asking them [he gestures toward the hovering servants], what is it, this new testament?
J: It’s the kingdom of God, you fool, how can you be so blind? It’s not heaven on earth, it’s the kingdom to come, thy will be done, when Jesus returns. If this world is all there is, we’re slaves, like them [he also gestures toward the servants, and they each take a step closer, as if being invited into this conversation, and again they exchange looks].
A: You officious ass, we areslaves, like them, the offspring of original sin. No matter when that kingdom comes. Can you not see this, what Jesus taught us? If you can’t love this world, you can’t love God—he’s your neighbor, not your master.
MA and J [at once, amazed at the affront]: We are not slaves.
P: [Quietly] Nor am I. Remember the Gospel of James, the bother of Jesus, “if the Lord is willing, and we are living”—
J: James was a blasphemer.
P: And so, then, am I. And you, Jerome, Jerome [almost pleading] try to—
A: Fine, you’re free men. Choose, then. This world or the next, Jerome? These people or your own kind, Marcellinus, the well-born and the well-educated? That’s where you are, always in between something. It’s not where I am. There’s no in between.
And you, Pelagius, you say you’re not a slave, you say you have “free will,” how would I find your world, where would it be? Here and now, or in the place Jerome keeps pointing to, where anything is possible because we’re dead?
P: Fuck you, Augustine, you’re now the fool here. You say we’re slaves—to what? Are we God’s servants? Obeying his commands? Look around. Didn’t the Lord our God give us the ability to make mistakes?
Slaves to what? Not to God, he left town when he realized he sinned against Job, the poor bastard. He left the earth to us after that sorry episode. Can’t you see he sent us the Son of Man as penance? That’s what Jesus called himself, the Son of Man. God was a man, he is a man. “Many are sons by grace, but Christ is a son by nature, even in his physical birth he is shown to be different from the rest.” I’m quoting myself here, I’m writing about Paul’s epistle to the Romans. No, we’re slaves to what Jerome rightly hates—our bodies, our desires. But so was Jesus.
But our will is still our own. Slave morality, what you insist on in the name of God, you fucking saint, this, too, is ours. It’s what we decide to do.
A: I will leave you now.
MA: You cannot leave.
A: I am not your slave. [He looks at Mary, then back at MA]
MA: I beseech you: please do not leave. [Now he looks at Mary, too, as if he needs the guidance of his servant, whose name he doesn’t even know]
I invited you here to see—to understand this thing, this Christianity. And now it is even more . . . confusing, it sounds insane. It makes no sense. Jerome says his God waits for us on the other side of this life, you say No, mine is here and now or he’s nowhere at all. And Pelagius, he says . . . I don’t understand what he says.
But you say these people . . . [he gestures weakly toward Mary and Peter] will inherit the earth?
J: My lord, this man is a fool [gestures toward A], an imposter. He is not a Christian, nor a philosopher, he is a barbarian, an African, a “donkey keeper” as my friend Julian of Eclanum calls him. This man writes, forgive me, he writes mere shit that makes me wince . . . he pretends to be a man of the people but he is not, and nobody can be because you are right, they are animals, mere beasts [he looks over his shoulder at Peter, who takes another step closer].
He is learned, but he is like them, he’s an animal. He has no Greek. He’s still a Manichean!
And this man [gestures toward P] is a charlatan. Nobody listens to him because what he says is nonsense. “Free will” is for children and madmen.
MA: Augustine, Pelagius, what say you?
A: I say, fuck all. Look at your world, Marcellinus, Jerome is right, it’s dying. It’s already dead. What comes after? Darkness has fallen, I’ll give you that, but what then? You have never asked the question because you didn’t have to. We do. We know another world waits on our efforts. But it’s our world, we will make it. It’s not the next life, it’s not what Jerome lives for. And it’s not what Pelagius says it is, God is at work here.
This “thing,” this Christianity, makes sense, but only if you grant these people [he gestures toward the servants, who step closer, exchanging glances] their lives, or, I don’t know how to say this, control of their own souls, how’s that? It’s true, they’re slaves. And yet they speak for themselves. Their faith is the conviction of things unseen—now I quote Saul of Tarsus from his letter to the Hebrews. I have that much Greek, Jerome.
[He turns to P] That is not “free will,” Pelagius. It’s faith.
P: What’s the difference, my brother? The Apostle Paul says “The reward for good works is awaited with patience because it is not given in this life.” Really? Paul, and Augustine, “not given”? Fuck off. And I say this because I too have read your “Confessions.” You remake us there as if you were a God. On every page, in every sentence, in these words of yours I find new freedom from the bondage of this world, their world. The world you conjure is mine, not theirs.
But good Lord, your tract on the Trinity! Listen to yourself, my brother, I quote from memory:
“Anyone reading this should travel on with me where we agree; search with me where we are unsure; rejoin me if he finds himself astray; call me back to this path when I go astray. That is how we will find our way together, along the path marked by love, walking with the God who tells us, ‘Look for me, my face is turned toward you.’”
Those are your words, Augustine. Look for me, your God says, my face is turned toward you. But before God speaks, you say, we will find our way together, you and me, here and now, knowing we will never see his face, no matter where we look for him. My will is free because your God is gone from this earth. Do you understand me now?
MA: No. That is simply impossible. Whose will is free? It is ridiculous. [Jerome and Augustinenod]
Mary: My lord, if I may, I have never done you better service than now to bid you hold . . . I mean, please hold your tongue. You have sinned, and you want atonement. Now be quiet.
MA: A peasant stand up thus? What have you to say? [By now she’s close by: he shakes his head, reaches over, and grabs the hair on the back of her neck as if she were a dog or a cat, then steadies her as she sways]
Mary: [She tries to move out of MA’s grasp] This man [she gestures toward Augustine] speaks for me. Jesus speaks for me. This man, too [she gestures toward Pelagius] My lord, you cannot.
[A stares at MA, equal parts bewilderment and anger, but then moves toward MA, P intervenes, he grabs A by the shoulders]
P: Do you see how this happens, Augustine, a slave has told her master to be silent, where did that come from? That is what I mean by free will, can you not understand this?
Peter: [Addressing MA] My lord, I am not a Christian, but come now, and take the chance of anger. Leave her, let her go [He moves toward MA, Augustine steps between them] I swear I will . . . I am a slave, I am your slave, but I will speak these words . . . I will say this . . . Do not treat her like a dog—let go or, I swear, I will strike you. [He doesn’t know what else to say] . . . Mary, are you, are you all right?
[MA lets go, steps away, looking confused again]
P: Augustine, do you see what you have done?
A: Now, Marcellinus, do you see what you’re up against? It isn’t magic. Or, it isn’t your magic. It’s in the words, but they’re not yours anymore. Nor yours, Jerome, you with the beautiful soul—you, the servant of power who poses as the enemy of all ambition and every desire.
They’re our words because it’s our world. We the animals will tell the stories hereafter, not you. We will tell your stories. [He points at MA]
MA: So this is what your “Gospels” mean? [He turns, stupefied, to Jerome, then to Mary]
[Mary nods, looking at A, and he returns the look, nods, too. A then turns to P, and they exchange short bows, just nods of the head]
J: No, my lord, it is not.
A: Yes, it is. That is exactly what they mean. Your questions have been answered, Marcellinus. Now you know what we believe.
But what will you do with your regret? I don’t think you’ll be writing any more volumes of your histories. Perhaps you’ll seek Jerome’s pardon for your sins. He can make you a monk, for God’s sake. You can wait for the end times on a plantation, or in a cave.
MA: No, I will not be a farmer, or a monk. It is still my world . . . [He looks at Mary] I can’t leave it. The difference between you and me, Augustine [MA is still looking at Mary], is that you love this world. I don’t love it. I merely accept it for what it is—a gruesome place where men live nobly or not. But Jerome here rejects it; that is why he believes in the other place, this heaven of his, the next life. As for Pelagius . . .
I believe I now understand him. You, I do not. I beg you to stay, to explain . . . to explain, not what you believe, but why.
A: No, Marcellinus. Ask Jerome to explain me. Or this man, Pelagius, who thinks . . . who thinks. I don’t know what he thinks, but he thinks for himself. Better yet, Marcellinus Ammianus, ask this woman. Remember, her name is Mary. I will take my leave. [He moves as if to exit STAGE left, but he stops and turns back just on stage to see what unfolds]
[MA looks at Jerome, then turns to Pelagius. His shoulders slump, but he straightens himself. Finally, he turns toward Mary, addressing her directly. He bows his head]