The Unprofessional Historian

I can’t quite help myself when it comes to Arnold Toynbee.  But I acknowledge  . . . In his 12 volume A Study of History (I have read about 8 of them) he repeats himself many times, and uses some of same examples more than a few times.  He veers sometimes wildly between philosophical speculation and the facts of the case (which I love but I understand might bother others).  A central point of his examination of Greece and Rome involves conflating them to such a degree that he seems to claim that Rome began to decline when the Pelopponesian War began.(!) He drifts too easily into gnostic, or perhaps Neo-Platonic, tendencies that raise many of my eyebrows.

Still, he takes huge swings, takes big risks with his thoughts, and offers a coherent picture of civilizations that mixes various disciplines such as archaeology, philosophy, myth, and the like.  He is in my mind the ideal of what a historian should be, not so much in his conclusions, but in his methods.

‘Volume 10’ is almost last volume of his A Study of History and has only about 150 pages of straight text, with a few appendices and a long and needed index to the other 9 volumes. This conclusion might even serve as a good introduction to the whole of his work, for here he fully describes and defends his view of what an historian is, and what History should be all about.

I say he ‘defends’ but this might be misleading, for it sounds like a didactic argument. It’s not. Part of the charm of this book for me is that he let’s himself go and speaks with passion from the heart. But the Toynbee magic is still here, as even in the first few pages we see him seamlessly weave in his grand view of history with personal recollections and observations about changes in women’s headgear in Victorian England and Turkey in the 1920’s.

I can understand people disagreeing with certain particulars of his “system,” but doesn’t this sound like fun?

His main points are

  • A historian’s proper vocation (as is the case in other vocations) is to receive and act on a call from God to ‘feel after Him and find Him.’ (Acts 17:27). There are as many ‘angles of vision’ as there are proper vocations. The historian’s vision is not greater or lesser than these, but he has a task nonetheless.
  • The inspiration of a historian is ultimately a spiritual one. The ‘muse’ of curiosity leads into broader fields of vision. Since God aims to unite all of humanity, one’s field of vision under the inspiration of the ‘muse’ (I think Toynbee means to use this term in at least a mostly literal sense) will inevitably broaden.
  • He does not spend much time on this, but this question leads to a small digression on Toynbee’s dislike of the ‘professional’ specialist. The ‘professional’ pursues not true knowledge but an impossible omniscience. This pursuit is of course impossible, and whatever knowledge he gains will be sterile — it will in fact not be real knowledge at all, and certainly not wisdom. His lack of ‘action’ in the world has a humble mask, but only serves to camouflage ‘the three deadly sins of Satanic pride, negligence, and sloth.’ (p. 26). God calls us to add to the stream of human knowledge of the world and Himself by adding one’s own thimbleful to the stream. Knowledge is never for one’s own sake or for the sake of knowledge itself, but to put humanity in a better position to know God. The same Spirit that inspires us to investigate human affairs calls us to action in service, however small, to humanity as a whole.

Perhaps this gives us some insight into his admiration for Heinrich Schliemann. Of all the historians he admires here (Polybius, Herodotus, St. Augustine, etc.) it is Schliemann, the messy amateur par excellence, whom he spends the most time with. Surely in Schliemann we find a man “inspired,” one who led with his heart rather than his head. It may be said that he created the modern field of archaeological study by going on a goose chase of absurd proportions.  And yet, he discovered Troy and Mycenae. He created the discipline of archaeology. But as soon as archaeology developed into a profession the “professionals” he creaetd dismissed him as a carnival barker. Toynbee does not dwell on Schliemann’s personal life or professional errors, but surely he would say for every step back he took two or three forward.

Finally, towards the end of the work, Toynbee sheds light on his religious views. He does this in a more straightforward and polemical way in ‘Experiences,’ which he wrote about a decade after this, and his views did not change much from this volume to then. I do not agree with his final conclusion in either volume. But here his conclusions make more sense to me in the context offered — that is — I can see how much his ‘heart’ was in his views. This is a point made by his friend Columba Cary-Elwes, a monk, in their correspondence (“An Historian’s Conscience”) which I accepted but did not understand until now. Cary-Elwes also disagreed with Toynbee ultimately, but felt that there was more agreement than Toynbee may have been aware of. Of course, as a “friend’”of Toynbee myself, I would like to think the same thing. This may be purely wishful or even ego-centric thinking on my part, but I hope not.

Basically, Toynbee believes that ultimate reality is spiritual reality, and that this spiritual reality is Love. Love is best expressed in action, not in words or syllogisms. Hence, Historian’s are called to action, and hence, Toynbee’s rejection of the various dogmas of religion as essentially unimportant distractions. He saw unity in human affairs throughout time, and a uniformity of human nature. All this led him to affirm the essential unity of religions. Claims to exclusivity are at best misdirected and at worst rooted in pride.

This is a good argument, and Toynbee was far from a cynic. He did not seek to attack religion so much as promote what he saw as something ‘higher.’ I think the Church would say that Toynbee was right about many things. But, as Chesterton said, “You cannot make a success of anything, even loving, without thinking.” He said in Orthodoxy,

The things said most confidently by advanced persons to crowded audiences are generally those quite opposite to the fact; it is actually our truisms that are untrue. Here is a case. There is a phrase of facile liberality uttered again and again at ethical societies and parliaments of religion: “the religions of the earth differ in rites and forms, but they are the same in what they teach.” It is false; it is the opposite of the fact. The religions of the earth do not greatly differ in rites and forms; they do greatly differ in what they teach. It is as if a man were to say, “Do not be misled by the fact that the CHURCH TIMES and the FREETHINKER look utterly different, that one is painted on vellum and the other carved on marble, that one is triangular and the other hectagonal; read them and you will see that they say the same thing.” The truth is, of course, that they are alike in everything except in the fact that they don’t say the same thing. An atheist stockbroker in Surbiton looks exactly like a Swedenborgian stockbroker in Wimbledon. You may walk round and round them and subject them to the most personal and offensive study without seeing anything Swedenborgian in the hat or anything particularly godless in the umbrella. It is exactly in their souls that they are divided.

So the truth is that the difficulty of all the creeds of the earth is not as alleged in this cheap maxim: that they agree in meaning, but differ in machinery. It is exactly the opposite. They agree in machinery; almost every great religion on earth works with the same external methods, with priests, scriptures, altars, sworn brotherhoods, special feasts. They agree in the mode of teaching; what they differ about is the thing to be taught. Pagan optimists and Eastern pessimists would both have temples, just as Liberals and Tories would both have newspapers. Creeds that exist to destroy each other both have scriptures, just as armies that exist to destroy each other both have guns.

Chesterton is mostly, but not absolutely correct with this. I would add what C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, that he would not have believed in Christianity unless it professed some similarity with other religions. As he came to see, it would be impossible for other faiths to contain no truths. But Christianity could be the fulfillment of the hints and whispers in other places. Toynbee came to close to asserting this himself in his “Christianity and Civilization” essay included in “Civilization on Trial.”* It is not arrogance to believe that one has found the truth, or more correctly, that the Truth has found you.**

Please pardon the long digression (for those still reading :), but I have learned a great deal from Toynbee. I feel the clue to much of his genius is in his religious views. For him, History was very much a religious endeavor, with an emphatically religious goal. I couldn’t agree more. But here too is his greatest error.

This volume is eminently suited for anyone interested in these kind of questions. The prose is lively, and the heart and mind are both engaged.

Dave

*It is probable that Toynbee came closest to a profession of traditional Christian belief when he wrote this essay in the late 40’s.  Indeed, it is Volumes 4-6 of his study, written just before this time (I think), that are his best work with his best religious insights into the meaning of history.

**After publishing this volume, Toynbee’s views if anything only drifted further from Orthodox Christianity. But there is this brief excerpt from Toynbee’s good friend Columba Cary-Elwes, a monk and frequent correspondent with Toynbee.

During our last meeting, during which he was incapable of clear speech or writing, suddenly he said very distinctly, ‘In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,’ and then fell back into silence. As I wrote before, I do not use that to prove anything to the general public. It may have been an act of courtesy to me on his part, as Veronica suggested. For me it was an answer to prayer!

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Rebels Against the Future

A few years ago at the Circe Institute conference Andrew Kern made a startling statement.  In the midst of his opening speech he mentioned the Luddites.  I have always assumed (like most of us I suppose) that the Luddites attacked the mechanical looms for economic reasons.  But Kern suggested that perhaps the Luddites acted unknowingly for more fundamental reasons.

All throughout ancient literature (which people in the early 19th century would be familiar with) weaving relates strongly to wisdom.  So Penelope’s weaving, for example, is not merely a clever device to stall the suitors.  She represents wisdom and faithfulness in contrast to the suitors who grasp for power and wealth.  They will not confirm Odysseus’ death, rather they will take what they want in defiance of the pattern of creation and marriage.  The idea of the “fabric of society” closely relates to weaving, and so on.

So, Kern surmised, the Luddites didn’t just act to try and preserve their jobs.  They may have acted to preserve the idea of wisdom itself, though almost certainly not overtly but in a sub-conscious, Jungian sense.

I thought the idea intriguing at the time, but perhaps a bit of a stretch.  But I started to look for weaving in ancient literature.  To my surprise Plato uses weaving in “The Statesmen” as an analogy for good government.  With Jason and his Argonauts we see Medea the sorceress contrasted with Queen Arete, who is weaving when we first meet her.  In Homer’s The Odyssey we see a couple of references to the span of life compared to a thread (7.197-198, 24.38-29).  Melville uses similar imagery in chapter 47 of Moby Dickand we also see it in the Upanishads.  Isaiah 38:12 reads, “My life was with me as cloth on a loom, when she that weaves draws near to cut off the thread.”

The philosopher Porphyry uses very similar imagery in his On the Cave of the Nymphs, another reference to the Odyssey (13.102-112).  Here Homer refers to a murky cave which contains, among other things, “looms, likewise of stone, on which the nymphs wear weave sea-purple garments.”  Porphyry writes (and we should remember that he–unfortunately–believed in the pre-existence of the soul),

What symbol could be more appropriate than “looms” for souls descending to birth and the creation of the body?  , . . For flesh is formed in and around the bones, which in living beings resemble stones.

We should not miss the connections to the fundamental facts of weaving, birth, death, blood, and the like.

So perhaps Kern, and the Luddites themselves, were on to something.

I finally went in search of a book on the Luddites and came across Rebels Against the Future by Kirkpatrick Sale.  Sale gives a good overview of the Luddites but does little else.  He gives us some important perspective, showing us that the Luddites had nothing against technology per se, but only against, to quote from a Luddite letter, “Machinery hurtful to commonality.”   He clearly favors the Luddite cause and shows many examples of their courage.  Sale’s explanation for the Luddites ultimate failure, however, leaves out to my mind the most basic reason.  In resorting to violence, they at times fired upon common men like themselves, and thus abandoned their moral high ground.  Furthermore, their use of violence played directly into the hands of their adversaries.  Once they broke the law, the state naturally would defend the men behind the machines.  And the state had much more force to use than the Luddites.*  Had the Luddites exercised more patience and used a non-violent, grass-roots approach, history might have been different.  As to how different, Sale offers no thoughts.  Did industrial looms pose more of a threat than factories that performed other tasks?  Would it be possible to industrialize in some areas and not others?  If other countries industrialized their economy, and thus, their armies, what would the consequences be for a non-industrial country?  The age of imperialism might offer some hints on this, and questions about community balanced with security (among other questions) should be asked.

Sale just scratches the surface.  Maybe not much else exists to see.  Maybe the Luddites had no higher purpose than saving their jobs.  But I think the Luddites continual references to “commonality” hints that Kern had more insight than I first supposed.  I will hope to find other books that can take the issue deeper.

My favorite part of Toynbee’s sixth volume of his A Study of History deals with his examination of what he calls archaism.  “Archaics” in his context seek to recover their civilization in a time of crisis by using a time-machine to travel back to some imagined golden age.  We should much prefer archaism to “futurism.”  The past has the advantage of having an actual reality and thus restrains action somewhat.  The futurist has no such limitations, and the evil they work in their earnest desperation will likely be much more terrible.  Toynbee points out that archaists would usually rather be archaeologists than politicians.  Alas, political realities set in and something must give.  The impossibility of drawing back the masses to the past with you means that archaists often choose violence in the end.  And this ends up dooming their movement.**

I think the Luddites use of violence contributed heavily to their defeat, but I would not call them “archaists.”  They sat on the knife-edge of change and saw a darkness on the horizon.  The “past” they tried to preserve was in fact the present.  Given that they did not reject all technology they had no wish to futilely put the brakes on all aspects of societal change.  They saw clearly what the Industrial Revolution would do to their communities and their sense of self.  If they did not submit to “archaism” they had more psychological flexibility at their disposal, which makes their use of violence more troubling to me.  Perhaps in the end they simply lacked the very rare traits necessary to translate those ideas politically.

Or perhaps their concerns went far away from politics.  Perhaps they saw themselves as doomed crusaders, but bound, like crusaders, to something deeper and older than politics.

Maybe.

According to the Tradition of the Church, at the Annunciation the Virgin Mary was found by Gabriel in the Temple . . . weaving a veil for the Temple where she resided, and some icons of the Annunciation (such as the one below from the 14th century in Serbia) show this as well.

In Hebrews 10:20 we see the identification with Christ’s body with the veil of the sanctuary (10:20), and we know that both the Temple curtain and the Body of Christ were broken for the life of the world.  Father Maximos Constas writes, “With the strictest visual economy, then, Mary’s thread gives consummate expression the . . . continuum of conception and crucifixion.”^

From St. Epiphianos:

About Eve and Mary it was said, “Who gave women the wisdom of weaving, and the knowledge of embroidering? (Job 38:36).  For the first wise woman, Eve, wove material garments for Adam, whom she had stripped naked.  This labor was given to her, for it was through her that the knowledge of nakedness was acquired, and thus to her was given the task of clothing the perceptible body.

To Mary, on the other hand, it was granted by God to give birth to the Lamb and the Shepherd [cf. John 1:29, 10:11], so that from his glory we might be clothed in a garment of incorruptibility (1 Cor. 15:53-54).

And from St. Nelios the Ascetic:

The Theotokos [that is, Mary, the “Mother of God”] displayed such “wisdom and manifold knowledge” (Job 38:36) that, from the wool of the Lamb who was born from her, she was able to clothe all the faithful with garments of incorruptibility.  For all true Christians stand at the right hand of the King, in golden-fringed garments, embroidered in myriad forms of the virtues.

So it may be that the liturgy of the loom points us toward the wisdom of knowing salvation itself.  I’d like to believe that the Luddites thought likewise, and would love for someone to prove or at least suggest this in another book about them.

Dave

*Gene Sharp makes brilliant points about the benefits of non-violent struggle against states or state-sponsored entities in “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” available online.

**I.e, Tiberius Graachi, who committed himself almost entirely to non-violence.  But he did violate the Roman constitution and so became a law-breaker.  This may have cost his movement the fence-sitters they needed, and it also opened the door for the Senate to respond with force.

^The entirety of this paragraph owes everything to The Art of Seeing by Father Maximos Constans, pp. 108-109, as do the quotes below, found on p. 129

 

 

9th Grade: Conversions in the City of Man

Greetings,

We began the week looking at St. Augustine’s crucial work, The City of God.  Augustine began writing shortly after the sack of Rome in A.D. 410, and did not finish until many years later.  What he began as a response to Roman attacks on Christianity became, by the end of the work, a full-fledged outline of how History happens.  His work influenced a great deal of medieval thought, though eventually not all agreed with the categories he used to formulate his vision.

Augustine saw history divided into two camps, the City of Man and the City of God.  In Scripture we see Cain & Abel, Ishmael & Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and so on, each representing their respective cities.  The “City of Man” has its place on earth.  The state does not bear the sword for nothing.  But the guiding principles of the city of man are

  • Power
  • Pride of place
  • Competition
  • Justice

Note that justice is part of the City of Man.  This is the legitimate function of the state.  The point Augustine wanted to make, however, is that however legitimate the City of Man may be, it cannot redeem us.  It cannot exercise the fruit of the Spirit.  When pronouncing a sentence, for example, a judge cannot say, “The law says you must serve at least 15 years for your crime, but I forgive you.  You’re a free man!”  And we would not want him to.  Soldiers have the right to kill under certain circumstances, but ending life is not the best way to redeem life.

The Church represents the “City of God” which runs along different principles of love, mercy, etc.  The main goal of the Church is not social order but the redemption of individual souls.  We want the Church to be the place of healing, reconciliation, etc.

Where the rubber meets the road on this is how Church and State should interact.  Should the two meet in some way, ignore each other, or oppose each other?  We will revisit this topic at a later date.

This week we also looked at the reign of Charlemagne, probably the most important figure after Constantine in the history of the West.

In previous weeks we saw how the Church played a crucial role in setting the foundation for the rebuilding of civilization. This week we looked at a few different aspects of Charlemagne’s contribution to this project.

1. Can conversions by force be genuine?

Charlemagne conquered a great deal of territory, and as he conquered he ‘enforced’ the conversion of those he defeated.  To modern minds this seems absurd and counterproductive.  It may have been, but I wanted the students to think about, how in a different time, it may (I stress the word may) have been more effective than we might think.

  • Charlemagne ruled in a time when spiritual beliefs were worn more on one’s sleeve.  Many had the sense that when a tribe fought, so too did it’s god.  Charlemagne may have held a similar view.  In some ways this is admirable, in other ways dangerous (cf. 1 Sam. 4-5).  So, if Charlemagne beat you, you might very well think that your god had lost, and it was literally time for a new one.
  • Modern western democracies do not identify leadership with the nation itself.  We do this in some ways with diplomats,  but in Charlemagne’s time we see a sense that the king ‘was’ the tribe.  If the king converted, the nation would ‘convert’ as well.  A member of a tribe  might do so with the same conviction with which they followed him to battle.   It’s not ideal, but might God work with it?
  • Part of Charlemagne’s motives I think were rooted in part with his sacramental theology.  I don’t think that they believed that baptism would guarantee you Heaven.  But they did believe that baptism conferred God’s grace on the recipient.  With this view, perhaps they thought that if one had a few embers in their hearts inclined toward God, baptism could help fan that into a flame.

How might we tell if these conversions were genuine?  First off, clearly not all them were.  One can see evidence of this in some gravestones with Christian and pagan symbols.  Perhaps they hedged their bets.  But — for the most part Christianity lasted in these conquered lands.  Charlemagne’s conquests on the whole did seem to aid, rather than detract, from the growth of Christianity on the continent.

2. Is force necessary for Civilization?  If you are like me, you wish that it was not so.  And yet, civilization requires security and confidence to flourish.  In the chaotic period of semi-nomadic barbarians that Charlemagne inhabited, war may have been required for order to be established.

Certainly not all forms of civilization are worth the price of every war.  But we must keep in mind that before Charlemagne’s conquests, Europe was hardly a peaceful place.  In every measurable way, the quality of life declined significantly after Rome’s fall.  In the aftermath of Charlemagne’s conquests, civilization does make a comeback with the “Carolingian Renaissance.”  The Carolingian Renaissance cannot hold much of a candle to Periclean Athens or Florence in the 15th century. But then again, they started from a much different place. Writing and scholarship returned to the continent.  They started building with stone, showing a desire for permanence.  With permanence came a stable foundation upon which they could build again.

Last week we discussed the dilemma of whether or not King Arthur existed.  I think we can assume that the Arthur tales, if they had truth in them, may have grown with the telling.  But the stories do not arise from nowhere.  The historian Nennius, for example, writes ca. 800 A.D. that

Then Arthur fought against [the Saxons] in those days with the kings of Briton, but he himself was the leader of battles. . . . The eighth battle was in Fort Gunnion in which Arthur carried the image of St.  Mary, ever virgin, on his shoulders and the pagans were turned to flight through the virtue of Our Lord Jesus Christ and Mary the Virgin, his mother. . . The twelfth battle was on Mt.  Badon, in which 960 men fell in one day from one charge by Arthur, and none overthrew them but Arthur alone.  And in [all 12 battles] he stood forth as victor.

Nennius writes some 300 years after Arthur existed (if he existed), whereas Bede, a more respected historian who wrote earlier than Nennius, says nothing about Arthur at all.  How do we decide what source to trust, and what sources to ignore? When do we grant oral tradition weight as an historical source, and when do we discount it?  I hope the students enjoyed thinking through these questions.

Blessings,

Dave

Gods of the Sideways World

Many across the political spectrum seem to feel that things in the U.S. have gone crazy, or upside-down.  Those on the left marshall Triump’s presidency, Charlottesville, and the Kavannaugh hearings, to prove their point, while those on the right do so with transgenderism, campus snowflakes, and . . . their own perspective on the Kavanaugh hearings.*

It appears that we can look at the same thing and not see the same thing.

Different theories exist to explain our predicament.  Some trace the beginnings of it all to Bush’s controversial foreign wars, others to the rise of the internet, or the Clinton presidency, or to the end of the Cold War.  Peter Thiel postulated that our cycles of cultural leaders skipped Generation X and went from the boomers–who artifically held on too long to power–straight to the millennials.**  Thus, lacking “Generation X” to mediate the generation gap, we jerk awkwardly to and fro like a record skipping across a turntable.

We can give all these theories their due.  But I wonder if we may be witnessing something more fundamental.  Without knowing it, akin to frogs in the pot, we are experiencing the final stages of the life in a vertical world, which existed in every ancient civilization up until the 17th century, and seem ready to fully embrace the victory of the sideways world, which has been gaining ground steadily since that time.

One can say anything in blogs . . . but, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

Mattheiu Pageau’s (brother of the more famous Jonathan PageauThe Language of Creation has all the appearance of quackery.  The book has no reviews or endorsements on the back cover.  The book has no footnotes, or even a bibliography, despite the obvious fact that he draws heavily on early Christian and Jewish sources.  This sends shivers down my spine and I can think of no defense for it.  While some parts of the book desperately needed footnotes to have a shot at convincing me, the opening several chapters made complete sense, and the book in a general way hits its target by helping one to reimagine the world.  Once embarked with The Language of Creation, it is probably best to turn to St. Ephrem the Syrian and St. Maximos the Confessor for surer guides.

The key to Pageau’s thoughts, and indeed to much of the ancient and medieval world, lies in how we conceive of our experience of space.

Everyone who has read Ender’s Game realizes that space has no up or down, at least in a scientific or absolute sense.  But we must order our sense of space to exist in it, and that involves choices on our part, choices that upon closer examination are not arbitrary.  And since we must choose, we should be struck by the fact that everyone (in the west at least) up until the present day concieved of the cosmos as heirarchical, as up and down.^

And it may be no coincidence that our current depiction of the solar system conceives it as existing horizontally, and not heirarchically.

This choice of how we depict the cosmos was certainly intentional in older civilizations, and we can fairly assume that it remains intentional today.

There is a difference.  The order and shape we give to the space around creates a framework for meaning.

The up/down nature of reality helps us understand creation and our experience of the world in many different ways:

Creation

  • We first note in Genesis 1 that God resides “above the waters,” above that is, undifferentiated, unformed chaos.  The immensity of God cannot be contained, thus He must mediate our experience of Himself for us to know Him at all.
  • Creation happens through speech, and not coincidentally.  Speech gives form to thoughts and ideas, it gives them a public reality.
  • Creation happens via continual separation and differentiation.  God ‘draws out’ reality from above.
  • The purpose of creation is for God to unite Heaven and Earth.

Plant Life

  • Plants grow from seeds.  The seed falls from above, containing the “idea” of the plant, the entirety of the plant’s particulars.
  • Seeds bury themselves in the earth, which produces the manifestation, the “incarnation” of the idea in more variety.

Man

  • The upright nature of man is also no coincidence.  It separates us from other creatures (while at the same time, giving us no evolutionary advantage per se.  Many robotics designers have pointed out how inefficient the design of the human body is).  But it also corresponds to heirarchy–the intellect is above and governs the body below. Our thoughts move as the thoughts of angels, thus the “heavenly” nature of our intellect. Our “earthy” parts are lower and more chaotic.  Our appetites need structure.  Our “heart,” which lies between our heads and our bellies, serves as the mediator and point of unity between the two, between “heaven” and “earth.”  The structure of our bodies, then, gives us a clue as to the meaning of space.
  • Man himself serves as the mediator of creation, a priesthood meant to image God to all of creation.  As a hybrid creature of Earth and Heaven, we stand between both worlds.

Language

  • Language itself serves as a kind of union of heaven and earth.  We have “”heavenly” thoughts in our intellect.  We take bits of “earth” in the form of random marks, and arrange them into a pattern to make letters.  We then further organize them into words, and so on.
  • Language, then, takes earthly random particulars and gives them structure and distinction from above–according to ideas, principles, etc.  We make ideas manifest through language.

Christ Himself

One could go on and on seeing the extent of this pattern, but all of these patterns cohere most fully in Christ Himself.  He “came down from Heaven,” (John 6:38, the Nicene Creed) as the Word of God, but then took on human nature through the Virgin Mary.  After His death He went even “lower” down and, “descended into hell” (as in the Apostles Creed).  His ressurection and ascencion^^ complete the redemptive process of descending and ascending, a link back to Jacob’s ladder.

Such was the view of the world, more or less, from at least the time of Nero down to the 16th century.

The Copernican Revolution certainly transformed how we view the cosmos, but the hierarchical nature of reality could have been maintained.  I cannot trace the exact time we started to depict the solar system horizontally, but perhaps we have an inkling now that this change involved more than mere astronomy.  Perhaps a trend towards this leveling can be seen, starting from this depiction in the 18th century

which still seems to preserve a sense of heirarchy, and then 100 years later we see

which seems to advance the leveling process a bit further.  Of course the present day, (as seen above) completes the progression towards a flat world.

The leveling of the cosmos presaged a levelling of society, and the ushering in of chaos and confusion.  Geographically speaking, both oceans and deserts represented chaos for the ancient and medieval world–i.e., both areas have no visibile differentiation in their form, and we cannot live there.  With chaos comes death.  For to understand anything and understand its meaning, we need differentiation and distinction.  Again, this is one of the main teachings of Genesis 1. The same holds true of society in general.  The early phases of dismantling existing heirarchies and norms come with great excitement.  Maybe the old forms had run their course, maybe change was overdue.  But the dismantling of all distinctions between up and down, creation and creature, men and women, etc. will usher in a blindness that will hinder our ability to understand the world God made and to understand God Himself.  Without this foundation, we will hardly be able to understand each other.

Since we cannot live in chaos, we will soon find that heirarchy will have to return.  Given our seeming embrace chaos (i.e. a world with no heirarchy and no distinctions), it may end up returning with a vengeance.  We already can see what distorted forms it might take. Those on the far left would make the most marginalized “victim” king^^^, and those on the far right would repeat Charlottesville en masse.  New gods would rule over us.

I believe most people want to avoid both of these extremes, but have no idea what to do about it.  Perhaps we can start with the very simple move of thinking about the world as up and down instead of side-to-side.

Dave

 

*I continue to hope that the world of twitter and political commentating is merely a distorted reflection of the real world we all inhabit.  Indeed, I have come across very few in my neighborhood or at church who got terribly bent out of shape one way or the other about Kavannaugh’s nomination.

**Peter Thiel believes that the dearth of viable presidential candidates in their 40’s-50’s in the last election proves this point.

^Like most medieval maps, this does not represent an accurate spatial depiction of the cosmos, but the cosmos as it appears “spiritually” to them in their hearts and minds.  Ptolemy’s Almagest was the standard work of astronomy of the Middle Ages and speaks of the Earth as a mathematical point in the universe.  But, they represented the Earth as larger than other planets because this is where the drama of the redemption of the cosmos plays itself out.

^^Most churches hardly focus on Christ’s Ascencion and stop at Easter.  But the structure and scope of redemption shows us how crucial the Ascencion is, for Heaven and Earth cannot be fully reconciled until Christ presents Himself spotless before the Father.  Only after this does the Spirit of God descend that God may dwell within us.

^^^I have no settled thoughts on the trigger warning and micro-aggression phenomena, aside from an obvious distaste for it.  But I do wonder at its logic.  If victimhood gives one power and the right to speak, would it not serve their interests to increase their victim status by having themselves “assaulted?”  Perhaps then, the enthroned victims wish to keep their power by preventing anyone else from gaining status?  That would make them like everyone else.  Those in power tend to guard it jealously.

8th Grade: Babylon’s “Ball of Confusion”

Greetings,

This week we began our look at Babylonian civilization.

Babylon had many things going for it.  They were the quintessential cosmopolitan city of the ancient world.  Their geography funneled trade, cash, and resources towards them.  Much of ancient learning concentrated itself there.  This would be a city in general more tolerant, vibrant, and diverse than most other cities in the ancient world.  I hope that they remember our examination of the geographical influence of all of this.  ‘Cosmopolitan’ cities throughout history have to be accessible, which usually puts them in relatively flat areas near water.  One thinks of New York, London, and Los Angeles as examples.  Of course, the such cities not only need favorable geography, but they need to be accessible and open-minded culturally as well.  Geography can bring you to water, but can’t make you drink.

But enormous cracks in the foundation lay below the surface.  Babylonian creation accounts paint a bleak picture: Ultimately things “come to be”  because of chaos and confusion amongst the gods.  Unlike in Genesis 1, creation had no intentionality or design behind it.  Nor can we say that the “good” gods triumphed over evil.  Rather, one side simply emerged as the stronger.  This impacted their thought in several ways:

  • Humanity is an afterthought that exists to be manipulated by the gods
  • Stability and order are generally absent (a stark contrast to Genesis 1).This chaos spilled over into other areas:
  • Sin, at root, was not your fault, as you could be ‘jumped’ by malicious spirits (jinn) who would lead you down the wrong path
  • Ishtar was their major goddess – goddess of love and marriage but also war and prostitution.  She was again, a goddess, but was often depicted with a beard.  The ambiguity was reflected in the statue of her to the side, which shows her as a warrior showing quite a bit of leg for an ancient goddess.
  • Not surprisingly, this gender confusion spilled over into society, as Herodotus tells us of the fad among society’s elite for cross-dressing
  • Not surprisingly, Babylon was known for its immorality, notorious for its rampant temple prostitution, among other things.

 

A society where so much is left to chance is bound to try and find a way to explain it all, and this may have led to the Babylonian passion for dream interpretation.*  A whole list of possible dreams and their meanings was drawn up, but this did not necessarily help.  One tells us that if you dream that you have meat you will have a son.  Later, it says that if you have meat in a dream you will not have a son.  How could one know the truth?

Or perhaps, with the mysteries of the universe completely unknowable, one might stop looking and settle for the ‘eat, drink, for tomorrow we die,’ philosophy.  It is any surprise that Babylon is conquered in Daniel 5 as they are partying?  Perhaps we might also surmise that Babylon’s endless possibilities led in the end to boredom.  We looked at this famous Babylonian text,

Babylon’s View of Life: “The Dialog of Pessimism,” (M stands for Master, S for slave)

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “I will love a woman!”

S “So love, my lord, love!

The man who loves a woman forgets want and misery!”

M “No, slave, I will not love  a woman!”

S “Love not, my lord, love not!

Woman is a snare, a trap, a pitfall;

Woman is a sharpened iron sword

Which will cut a young man’s neck!”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “Straightaway order me water for my hands,

I will make a libation to my god!”

S “Do my lord, do!  As for the man who makes a libation

To his god, his heart is at ease;

He makes loan upon loan!”

M “No slave, I will not make a libation!”

S “Make it not, my lord, make it not!

Teach the god to run after thee like a dog.”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “I will give money to my country.”

S “So do, my lord, so do!

The man who gives money to his land,

His alms have been put in the palms of the god

Marduk himself.”

M “No, slave, I will not give alms to my land!”

S “Do it not, my lord, do it not!

Look upon the ruined mounds of

Ancient cities and look around;

Behold the skulls of those of earlier and later times.

Who is the evildoer, who is the benefactor?”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “Now then, what is good?

To break my neck and thy neck,

To fall into the river — that is good!”

S “Yes my lord.  Who is tall enough to reach up to heaven;

Who is broad enough that he might encompass the earth?

M “No slave, I will kill only you — you go first!”

S “But, you my lord, would not last three days after me!

I hope the students saw the links between Babylonian religion and the problems in their society as a whole. Indeed, the idea that ‘you are what you worship’ is true for individuals as much as societies.
This week the students will look at sections from the “Code of Hammurabi,” what historians believe to be history’s oldest written law code.  On the one hand, forming this code ranks as a significant achievement, but I think we often overrate it.  Why did Egypt, for example, not have a written law code (that we know of, anyway)?  Egypt’s sense of purpose for their lives as individuals and as a civilization had such a strong religious foundation, that they simply appeared not to need a formal written law code.  Incidentally, the Egyptian creation account compares favorably in many key respects to the biblical account.  Babylon’s need for a law code so early in its life may have reflected the fractured nature of their society.