Derrick Jensen on the jealousy of our culture’s gods

Derrick Jensen on the jealousy of our culture’s gods April 14, 2009

I’m currently devouring volume one of Derrick Jensen‘s two volume Endgame. Jensen is an anarcho-primitivist writer whose basic premise is that civilization itself is not sustainable and is inherently death-dealing. I don’t agree with every position Jensen takes. He’s no pacifist, and often seems to overemphasize his justifications of “counterviolence.” But the book has me hooked. I’m convinced that reading Jensen (like reading Ward Churchill) will make me a more honest pacifist. I’m also convinced that, despite his shortcomings, Jensen will help me to expand my awareness of what a “culture of life” truly is through his scathing, radical (i.e. going to the roots) unveiling of our “culture of death”: “The culture is driven by a death urge, an urge to destroy life” (xi).

Another aspect of Jensen’s writing that I find particularly appealing is that it seems to be rooted in a radical, and perhaps paradoxical, materialist spirituality. Not animism or pantheism, mind you. In another of Jensen’s books, he interviews a range of ecological thinkers, including theologians Thomas Berry and Catherine Keller. Aside from his obvious spirituality, Jensen shows an ability to make insightful critiques of our civilization’s theological dimension, or anti-theology perhaps, and the gods that we worship today. I’ve hinted at such critiques myself here before. Here’s an excerpt on the jealousy of the gods of the culture of death:

The God of this culture has always been jealous. Time and again in the Bible we read, “I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me,” or “Ye shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people which are round about you; (for the LORD thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the anger of the LORD thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee from off the face of the earth.” God today is just as jealous, whether he goes by the name of Science, Capitalism, or Civilization. Science is as monotheistic as Christianity, moreso really, since Science doesn’t have to say it’s jealous: we’ve so internalized its hegemony that many of us believe the only way we can know anything about the world is through science: Science is Truth. Capitalism is so jealous it couldn’t even allow the existence of the Soviet version of itself (they’re both state-subsidized command economies, the biggest differences being a) the merging under the Soviet system of state and corporate bureaucracies into one huge bureaucracy that was even more inefficient and wasteful than the “capitalist” system of functionally separate bureaucracies working for the unified goal of production; and b) the Soviet Parliament was dominated by different factions of the Communist Party with more than 90 percent of the votes going to this party, while the American Congress is dominated by different factions of the Capitalist Party, with more than 90 percent of the votes going to this party). Civilization is just as jealous as science and capitalism, systematically disallowing anyone from perceiving the world in nonutilitarian terms, that is, perceiving the world not in terms of slavery, that is, not in terms of addiction, that is, perceiving the world relationally. Lots of so-called free thinkers like to comment on the tens of millions of people who have been killed because they refused to worship Christianity’s God of Love–because God is after all a jealous God–but even they rarely mention the hundreds of millions of (indigenous and other) people who have been killed because they refused to worship Civilization’s God of production, a God just as jealous as the Christian God, a God deeply devoted to the conversion of the living to the dead (160).

Derrick Jensen, Endgame, Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilization (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006).

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  • His premise sounds more like a conclusion. This is important because ideology is often the fruit of beginning with a conclusion. This is not cause to dismiss the author entirely, but something to be aware of when reading him. Indeed, the most intellectually interesting thing you could do with a book like this would be to seriously question and investigate his premise. What reasons do you have to believe it? What are the alternative ways of understanding the world?

    The passage you cite reinforces my suspicion; he paints with an exceedingly broad brush, and he seems to possess an astonishing explanatory power, near godlike.

    I’m curious if you think the gods we worship today are really any different than the gods humanity has always worshiped?

    And for what it’s worth, I think the claim that our society is at bottom driven by a desire for death is totally wrong. I think we fear death and will do anything to prevent it. We are Hobbesian materialists whose intentions are not, at bottom, evil.

  • I’m curious if you think the gods we worship today are really any different than the gods humanity has always worshiped?

    Following Girard, I think they are generally different forms of the god who demands sacrifice. I’m not aware that Jensen is in any way relying on Girardian themes or theories, but his three examples — Science, Capitalism, and Civilization — seem to fit with some of those themes.

    And for what it’s worth, I think the claim that our society is at bottom driven by a desire for death is totally wrong.

    So the Church’s description of a “culture of death” is off base? Or could it be that you think it only refers to abortion (and maybe euthanasia)? This is one of the strengths of Jensen’s work, I think: expanding our notions of what a “culture of life” must mean.

    I think we fear death and will do anything to prevent it.

    Certainly we will do anything to prevent our own deaths. That’s certainly true. But Jensen’s point is that our culture is a culture of death because we are entirely willing to cause the death of others (humans, nonhumans, the land, etc.) if we benefit from it.

    We are Hobbesian materialists whose intentions are not, at bottom, evil.

    Who is “we”? Who is the one who “seems to possess an astonishing explanatory power, near godlike”?