“I See Satan Fall like Lightning”

This was originally published in 2014, then again in 2015 after Girard’s death.  I post it again in light of some discussions this past week in government class.

And now, the post . . .

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I’ve said before that for the most part, I can’t stand the modern British historian, or at least, a certain kind of British historian. This is the type that Toynbee rebelled against and patiently denounced for years.  This model calls for exacting discipline to attempt to focus only on the “what” and never the “why.”  They see their jobs as using a microscope to discover the most amount of facts possible, but never think to lift up their heads. Leave that to the metaphysicians.  Historians should tell you what happened and keep their noses clean of any other venture.

This approach has flaws from top to bottom.  First of all, it’s dreadfully boring, and second, it’s a lie. We simply can’t avoid metaphysics — we will always worship and point to something, though they seek to drive ourselves and others away from such a fate.

The Abbot Suger of the Abbey St. Denis once declared, “The English are destined by moral and natural law to be subjected to the French, and not contrariwise.”  Leave it to the French to say crazy things!  And with historians anyway, I agree.  French historians to the rescue!   They have their share of great ones, from Einhard to Tocqueville, Fernand Braudel, Marc Bloch,  Regine Pernoud, and so on.  Historians should not forget that they too are made in the image of God, and that history has no meaning or purpose without us seeking to “sub-create” and give meaning and purpose to the world around us.*

Rene Girard fits into this mold with his great I See Satan Fall like Lightning, a brief, but dense and thought provoking book that challenges how we read the gospels, mythology, and all of human history.  A magnificent premise, and he delivers (mostly) — all in 200 pages.

To understand Girard’s argument, we first need to understand two main lines of thought regarding civilization.  The first and overwhelmingly dominant view sees civilization as a great blessing in human affairs. Civilization allows for creativity and cooperation.  It fosters a rule of law that prevents a cycle of violence from overwhelming all.  Civilizations give the stability that, paradoxically, gives us space and time to challenge existing ideas and move forward.

The distinct minority believes that civilization can do no better than aspire to a lesser evil than barbarism.  It at times descends below barbarism because it enacts great cruelties under the comforting cloak of “civilization.” At least the abject barbarian harbors no such illusions.  The very organizing principle of civilization concentrates the worst human impulses to impose their will on others and count themselves innocent in the process.  Before we dismiss this uncomfortable thought, we should note that in Genesis 4 the “arts of civilization” are attributed to Cain and his lineage, with violence as the hallmark of their work.  God confuses language at the Tower of Babel because collectivized human potential is simply too dangerous.  In his The City of God Augustine seems at least sympathetic to this view, as his memorable anecdote regarding Alexander the Great makes clear:

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.

I used to associate this negative view of civilization exclusively with French post-modernists like Foucoult (not that I’ve actually read them 🙂 and therefore dismissed it.  But, there it is, in Genesis 4, in St. Augustine, and likely other places I’m not aware of.  So, when Girard asks us to accept this view, he does so with connection to the Biblical tradition and some aspects of historical theology (Girard accepts the necessity of government and order of some kind but never fleshes out just how he wants it to function).

With this groundwork we can proceed to his argument.

Scripture tells us that Satan is “the Prince of this world,” but in what sense is this case, and how does he maintain his power?  Where he wields influence, he sows discord internally in the hearts and minds of individuals and in society in general.  Hence, the more influence he has, the more dissension, and thus, two things might happen:

  • He risks losing control of his kingdom, as no kingdom can withstand such division for very long.
  • The chaos might incline people to seek something beyond this world for comfort, which might mean that people meet God.

How to maintain control in such a situation?  Girard believes that mythology and Scripture both point to the same answer: Satan rules via a ritual murder rooted in what he calls “mimetic desire.”  The war of “all against all” fostered by Satanic selfishness must be stopped or he risks losing all.  Mimetic desire heightens and gets transformed into the war of “all against one.”  The people’s twin desires for violence and harmony merge in an unjust sacrifice.  This restores order because we have find the enemy collectively, and find that the enemy is not us — it’s he, or she, or possibly they — but never “us.”  Satan’s triumph consists of

  • His control restored
  • His control rooted in violence
  • A moral blindness on our parts
  • A reaffirmation of our faith in the ruling authorities to bring about order

“Mimetic desire” has a simple meaning: we seek to imitate the desires of others, and by doing so take them into ourselves, into the community.  Girard speaks at some length about the 10th commandment which prohibits coveting. While this prohibition is not unique to the Old Testament, it places greater emphasis on the problem of desire than other cultures. Desire in itself is good, but Satan, the “ape of God” gives us his desires, desires for power, for more.  Once these desires spread they turn into a contagion, or a plague that infects people everywhere (Girard believes that many ancient stories that talk of a “plague” may not refer to something strictly biological).  Once begun, resistance is nearly futile.

To understand this we might think of two armies opposing one another.  Neither wants to fight, but both fear that the other might want to fight, so both show up armed.  Once the first shot is fired, be it accidental or otherwise, all “must” participate. All will fire their weapons, and you would not necessarily blame a soldier for doing so.  It just “happened,” and with no one to blame, there can be no justice — another victory for Satan.

He references Peter’s denial of Jesus just before his trial.  Often our interpretations focus on the psychological aspects of Peter’s personality — his impulsiveness, and so on.  Girard won’t let us off the hook so easily.  Such psychological interpretations distance ourselves too comfortably.  In reality, Peter fell prey to the desires of the crowd in ways that ensnare most everyone.  Peter is everyman, in this case, and perhaps its more telling that he extracts himself from that situation.

Pilate too succumbs, in a way typical of politicians everywhere.  Pilate needs order — his cannot afford that Justice be his primary concern.  To maintain order he has no other choice but to give in.  Girard would argue, I think, that this is nothing less than the bargain all rulers must make from time to time.  Politics, then, get revealed as more than a “dirty business,” but one with indelible roots in the City of Man.

Many ancient stories show forth the nature of mimetic violence, but the Cross itself stands as the example par excellence. The people in general have no hostility to Jesus, but once they become aware that the religious authorities are divided, and the Romans start to weigh in, the plague of mimetic desire settles in.  They turn on Jesus, and believe that His death will solve their problems.  It looks like a repeat of other events and another victory for Satan.  But this victim not only possessed legal innocence, He actually had true and complete innocence.  Now Satan’s methodology gets fully exposed, for “truly this was the Son of God.”  His resurrection and ascension vindicate Jesus and establishes His lordship and His reign over a kingdom of innocent victims.**  This “exposure” has its hints in the Old Testament at least in the Book of Job.  His troubles must be deserved in some way, so say Job’s friends.  If he follows his wife’s advice to “curse God and die,” he will bring peace to the community by vindicating their perception of the world.  He resists, and God vindicates him in the end.

Girard argues that Jesus does not give commands so much as introduce a new principle, that of imitation.  He counters our mimetic desires not by squashing them, but by redirection.  Jesus asks that we imitate Him, as He imitates the Father.  The epistles carry this forward.  Paul tells us to imitate him, as he imitates Christ, who imitates the Father.  Well, Jesus did give commands, but his commands about love in John, at least, invoke this pattern of imitation.  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34).  What makes this commandment new is not the injunction to love each other, but perhaps the principle on which it is based.

So far I buy Girard entirely.  His link of mimetic desire with the crucifixion, and his analysis of the nature and extent of Satan’s influence I find profound.  He started to lose me a bit when talking about how so many myths follow this pattern of mass confusion, scapegoat, death, and then, deification of the victim — or barring deification of the person killed, then of the process itself.  I.e., because it restored order, it must be from God/the gods.  I could think of a few myths, but I’m not sure how many follow this pattern (though I have a weak knowledge of mythology and could easily simply be ignorant).

When speaking of the founding of certain civilizations, however, he seems once again right on target.  In Egypt and Babylon the violence occurs between the gods.  Girard suggests that some stories may have actually occurred, and then the victims like Osiris and Tiamat became gods.  But in Rome at least, the violence takes place between the twins Romulus and Remus, an instructive case study for Girard’s thesis.  The twins set out to found a kingdom but cannot agree on which spot the gods blessed.  But the brothers cannot co-exist peacefully.  Their rivalry heightens until Romulus kills Remus and assumes kingship of Rome.  Livy, at least, passes no judgment on any party.  This is the way it “had to be.” No state could have two heads at the helm–one had to be sacrificed for order to commence. The Aeneid also has a similar perspective on the founding of Aeneas’ line. Violence just “happened.”  Such was the founding of Rome, and in later stories Romulus is deified as a personification of the Roman people.  Not that everything about Rome would be evil, but the foundational principle of “sacred violence” to establish civic order has no business with the gospel.

This story is instructive for Girard, but not entirely.  The deification of the aggressor fits squarely within Girard’s framework. But what of those that deify or exalt the victim?  Many myths fall into this category, Persephone, Psyche, Hercules, and so on.  These myths seem to prepare the way for Christ, who fulfills the stories in the flesh made real before our eyes.  Girard sees mythology in general rooted entirely in “City of Man,” but I cannot share this view.

At the end of it all, however, we have a great and thought-provoking book.  We should have more like them even if it means more French influence in our lives.  Below is a brief interview excerpt with him.

Dave

POPE BENDICT IS RIGHT: CHRISTIANITY IS SUPERIOR

Rene Girard, a prominent Roman Catholic conservative and author of the seminal book “Violence and the Sacred,” is an emeritus professor of anthropology at Stanford University. His more recent books include “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World” and “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.” This interview was conducted by Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels earlier this year. It is particularly relevant in shining some light on the controversial comments by Pope Benedict on violence and Islam in Germany last week.

By Rene Girard

Global Viewpoint: When Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) said a few years ago that Christianity was a superior religion, he caused controversy. In 1990, in the encyclical “Redemptoris Missio,” Pope John Paul II said the same thing.

It should not be surprising that believers would affirm their faith as the true one. Perhaps it is a mark of the very relativist dominance Pope Benedict condemns that this is somehow controversial?

Girard: Why would you be a Christian if you didn’t believe in Christ? Paradoxically, we have become so ethnocentric in our relativism that we feel it is only OK for others — not us — to think their religion is superior! We are the only ones with no centrism.

GV: Is Christianity superior to other religions?

Girard: Yes. All of my work has been an effort to show that Christianity is superior and not just another mythology. In mythology, a furious mob mobilizes against scapegoats held responsible for some huge crisis. The sacrifice of the guilty victim through collective violence ends the crisis and founds a new order ordained by the divine. Violence and scapegoating are always present in the mythological definition of the divine itself.

It is true that the structure of the Gospels is similar to that of mythology, in which a crisis is resolved through a single victim who unites everybody against him, thus reconciling the community. As the Greeks thought, the shock of death of the victim brings about a catharsis that reconciles. It extinguishes the appetite for violence. For the Greeks, the tragic death of the hero enabled ordinary people to go back to their peaceful lives.

However, in this case, the victim is innocent and the victimizers are guilty. Collective violence against the scapegoat as a sacred, founding act is revealed as a lie. Christ redeems the victimizers through enduring his suffering, imploring God to “forgive them for they know not what they do.” He refuses to plead to God to avenge his victimhood with reciprocal violence. Rather, he turns the other cheek.

The victory of the Cross is a victory of love against the scapegoating cycle of violence. It punctures the idea that hatred is a sacred duty.

The Gospels do everything that the (Old Testament) Bible had done before, rehabilitating a victimized prophet, a wrongly accused victim. But they also universalize this rehabilitation. They show that, since the foundation of the world, the victims of all Passion-like murders have been victims of the same mob contagion as Jesus. The Gospels make this revelation complete because they give to the biblical denunciation of idolatry a concrete demonstration of how false gods and their violent cultural systems are generated.

This is the truth missing from mythology, the truth that subverts the violent system of this world. This revelation of collective violence as a lie is the earmark of Christianity. This is what is unique about Christianity. And this uniqueness is true.

*Ok, I overstated the case.  The British have many great historians, Henry of Huntington, Toynbee, and recently Niall Ferguson (British Isles), and countless others who all attempt to have the humility stick out their neck, say something intelligible, and make people think.

**In an intriguing aside, Girard points out that Christianity helped establish concern for victims for the first time in history, a great victory for Justice and the human heart.  But Satan has learned to pervert this as well.  Now our “victimization” culture has left off concern for justice, and instead has become a quest for power over others.  I.e., “because ‘x’ happened to me, now you must do ‘y.'”  We see this happen in the ancient world also, perhaps most notably with Julius Caesar’s murder and its relationship to the founding of the Roman Empire with Octavian/Augustus.  Girard writes,

The Antichrist boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance Christianity promised but failed to deliver.  Actually, what the radicalization of contemporary victomology produces is a return to all sorts of pagan practices: abortion, euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games without the victims, etc.

Democracy and the Feminine

This was originally written in March 2019 . . .

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Any observer of our political and media cycles knows that we have a problem. Unfortunately, for as much as we talk about various problems, we seem no closer to solving them. We do not understand the roots of the problem, or what the problem even is. We have no common platform on which to stand to start to discuss it meaningfully. Here I do not wish to discuss red-state/blue-state divides, inequality, immigration, or any such thing. They all have importance. But we must go deeper into basic symbolic language to see what these issues mean in our context. Without this, we will continue to spin our wheels

Many who care not for President Trump seem mystified that he can violate a variety of established presidential norms and have more or less the same approval rating. Those with other political perspectives felt similarly about President Obama. To their great frustration, neither a terrible Iran deal, or the labryinth of the financially unsustainable health care bill–his two main initiatives–had any effect on his supporters. Neither president inspires(d) middle-ground opinions, and I believe that we can explain this only by understanding that neither one of them functions(ed) as traditional politicians, but rather as heavily symbolic figures. People identify with them primarily not through their policies or even their personal actions, but by what they represent.

If true, this may forebode difficult times ahead, for it shows that we disagree on fundamental things, and that whatever we say about the marginal tax-rate may only serve as a smokescreen for what we really mean beneath our words. We will fight hard for our narratives. This should impel us not just to understand the symbolic nature of our politicians, but also the “location” of democracy within traditional symbolic archetypes.* I will primarily reference biblical models and explanations, but I readily acknowledge that other civilizations use many of the same understandings.

Much confusion exists as to the meaning of masculinity today. We can start correcting this by understanding that all of us, men and women, are “feminine” in relation to God. That is, the masculine is the originator, the beginning and the end, the initiator. The “masculine” is steady, solid, not in flux. We might expect the feminine to have a merely passive role, and true, we see the feminine as “becoming,” rather than “being.” It is God who seeks us out, hunts us down (think of Francis Thompson’s great “The Hound of Heaven”). But, the feminine plays a strong supporting role.

We can see this even in the modern penchant for guys to call cars and boats “she.” The feminine gives the masculine a context for action, a space to develop. Cars and boats both create a womb of sorts, and (most) every mythological male hero needs a ship. Indeed, we are all born from water, just as God drew creation itself out of water in Genesis 1. And because water involves flux, so too the feminine can give flexibility to the straight and “narrow” nature of the masculine.

I confess that I find it rather silly that some feminists find the modern west toxically patriarchal. If we understand male and female archetypes, one immediately sees that modern democracy may be the most Feminine form of government in human history. We embrace change, possibility, and the new. We allow for individual expression and variation–all archetypal feminine strengths. While the west’s history with immigration has been somewhat erratic, overall we have welcomed far more foreign people’s than other cultures. We should expect this in democracies, for women are usually the best and most gracious hosts. They are generally better at managing social dynamics than men.

In human history, myth, and folklore the masculine tyrannizes much more often than the feminine. St. Francis’ marvelous Canticle of the Sun praises “Brother Fire” for being bright and strong, but fire so easily gets out of hand, flaring up at any time and place. Heat burns, but we quickly can remove ourselves from it (hopefully). So too, St. Francis honors “Sister Water” as being humble, clear, and pure. But Scripture, myth, and folklore all attest that, when feminine tyrants do happen to arise–though they are rare–they are the most dangerous.

One might see this in Medusa, Medea, and Jezebel. In Babylonian myth, the goddess of the sea, Tiamat, oversteps her bounds and inspires the other gods to rebel against her, with Marduk gaining the victory. Not surprisingly, the feminine aspects of Babylonian thought lingered on in their culture ever after, with the goddesss Ishtar reigning over most aspects of everyday life.** True to their feminine nature, Babylon was probably the most cosmopolitan and open city in the ancient world, but so open, however, that Scripture refers to the city in the book of Revelation as the archetypal harlot to the world.

In his magisterial Democracy in America, Tocqueville says much in praise of what he observed. But he devotes some time to discussing “What Sort of Tyranny Democracies Have to Fear.” Though he does not use Male/Female categories of thought explicitly, one can see them when he contrasts two types of abuse of power. “Masculine” forms of government such as monarchy or aristocracy go wrong in obvious ways. They rage, they lash out. But such tyrants usually care nothing for what you think. They are too direct for such subtlety. Tocqueville points out that the more masculine forms of tyranny may imprison the body, but they leave the mind free.

In contrast, democratic/feminine tyranny may be more rare, but will have greater power over individuals indirectly. They care not so much for the body but the soul. They don’t want you to empty the dishwasher, so much as they want you to want to empty the dishwasher. They want love, not obedience.^ They come for your soul and care little for the body, weakening one from the inside out.

Still, those that lament the feminization or infantilization of our culture have to acknowledge that, as already stated, democracy itself borrows much more heavily from feminine archetypes. It has no hierarchy for us to consult.^^ But, even if one wanted to establish a more “masculine” form of government like monarchy to counteract this, such an endeavor would be foolish and impossible. It seems, then, that we have an impasse between masculine and feminine visions.

I suggest, however, that the Church gives us a path forward, showing us how the feminine plays a crucial role in establishing, or reestablishing, a new sense of order. I will take just a few examples, but many more exist.

Postmodern thinkers like Jacques Derrida talk of the need for “radical hospitality,” a radical openness to the “other,” a dramatic extension of the feminine archetype. Such openness obviously invites chaos and self-obliteration. But, look again . . . perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that when Joshua sends spies to the Promised Land it is a woman (Rahab), and a prostitute who practices “radical hospitality,” that shelters them (my thanks, once again, to Jonathan Pageau for this example). So too Mary Magdalene, another loose woman, devotes herself completely to Christ before His disciples. Rahab’s openness to the new allows her to see that her civilization must be destroyed–by men of war. She becomes a hero of the faith (Heb. 11:31). But we must not also forget that she joins with Israel, and has her head shaved as a sign of her submission to the new order, and her devotion to God the Father.

The Virgin Mary gives us an even more constructive example. Tradition tells us that she was raised as a servant in the Temple, the very center of life for the people of God. Germanos of Constantinople marveled in the 8th century that

Do [we] not see a girl born as a result of a promise, and she at the age of three, being taken within the inner veil as an umblemished gift to live there without interruption, also being carried in procession by the wealthy among the people? . . . What then will this child become (Lk. 1:66). But as for us, the peculiar people of God . . . let us approach the [Virgin Mary] and approach the divine mysteries! . . . Let us see how the prophet admits her by his own hand and brings her into inaccessible places, having been in no way displeased, and without having said to her parents, “I am not undertaking this most novel practice and leading a girl into the holy of holies to dwell there without interruption, where I have been instructed to enter only once a year.” The prophet uttered no such thing; instead he knew in advance what would come to pass, since he was a prophet.

Mary Cunningham, translator for the above text, notes that

The high priest was only allowed to enter the holy of holies, the most sacred part of the building, shielded by a veil, representing the boundary of the created order and the realm of divinity. The preacher emphasizes here the extraordinary exception that was made in admitting the Virgin Mary to this sacred space and allowing her to live there throughout her childhood.

We might say that Rahab serves as a precursor to Mary–both women expressed an openness to God that made salvation–entering the Promised Land–possible. We might say that it is convenient that God could only become Man through a woman, but it makes “sense” mythically and archetypally just as it does biologically. And in her Magnificat, Mary alludes that this “openness” will not destroy order but in fact reaffirm it. Her “radical hospitality” becomes not a tyranny of chaos, but instead, wondrous devotion to the new kingdom ruled by her Son.

When “I AM” is both Alpha and Omega (Rev. 21:6) the hierarchy can be inverted and reaffirmed at the same time. This forms the solution to our current political and social difficulty. On the one hand, the “Masculine” must acknowledge that the possibilities inherent in the “Feminine” might bring about our “salvation” (using that term in an earthly and limited sense). But even in a democracy, the “Feminine” must acknowledge that the openness they bring best serves the reaffirmation of order, and not its destruction.

Dave

*All of what comes after this point assumes the following:

  • That gender/sex differences are real, rooted in creation, and not mere social constructs (though some degree of variation may occur over time and space as to how these differences manifest themselves).
  • That certain mythological constructs/ideas are also not mere human constructs–however universal they may be–but go deeper, and express “real reality.”

**True to the potential of excessive openness in the feminine, Ishtar reigned over love, marriage, war, and . . . prostitution.

^We see this in some of the worst democratic tyrannies, such as the French Revolution. In a near parody of the “impossible female,” one could get imprisoned in Paris ca. 1793-94 for either being too excessive in one’s love of liberty, or conversely, not excited enough about liberty. So too in Stalinist Russia (for communism is a western form of government), you could be shot for not keeping up with the intricacies of party dogma.

Today the idea of safe spaces, of the regulation of language so no one gets feelings hurt, etc., conjures up the image of a smothering mother–in contrast to the typical bad dad who is absent or physically abusive.

^^Perhaps not surprisingly, the first great western democracy had Athena, goddess of wisdom, for their patron deity. Scripture also calls Wisdom “she,” for wisdom is often subtle and contextual, not always straightforward and direct.


Historical Philosophy in Renaissance France

Like many of you I have spent some time wondering where we are as a civilization and how we got here.

It might seem like a book about French historians of the 16th century might have very little to do with this question.  But bear with me!–George Huppert’s book The Idea of Perfect History: Historical Erudition and Historical Philosophy in Renaissance France might indeed have something to do with where we find ourselves.

Though perhaps getting there via this informative but slightly dry tome may require more patience from readers than usual!

Huppert makes that point that the writing of history changed dramatically during the period he examines, but to understand this we need to briefly glimpse the history of “History,” for the study of history as we know it came into being comparatively recently.

In the ancient world various kings had their escapades recorded for posterity.  A text of the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III, for example, has him slaying 1000 lions with a single arrow and other such things.  We can wonder, did Thutmose expect others to believe him?  Did he believe it himself?  More likely, he had no wish to record exactly what happened but inhabited another way of thinking and another form of writing.  Herodotus records a combination of personal observations, investigations, and poetic constructions.  He saw no need to differentiate.  Apparently, he didn’t think it mattered.  He saw no need to concern himself exclusively with what “actually happened.”  Even Thucydides–who had a much more scientific bent and witnessed many of the events he records–surely invents certain speeches to craft an artful narrative.

The medieval period formed the immediate context for many of Huppert’s subjects.  Many wrote first-hand accounts of kings or crusades during this period.  What they knew and saw they described.  But when going beyond this, they no problem filling in gaps with some educated guesswork, and like the ancients, saw no need to be clear about the difference.  Others went further.  In his History of the Kings of Britain Geoffrey of Monmouth includes a lengthy section on King Arthur.  Here Geoffrey is on at least semi-historical footing.  King Arthur, or someone like him, may have existed.  But Geoffrey includes a section detailing Arthur’s denunciation by the senate of Rome, and his combat against a rag-tag army which included “Kings from the Orient,” which certainly never happened.  Moreover, Geoffrey and his readers must have known this never happened.

We also see in many medieval histories the desire to connect one’s own particular history with a grander narrative.  One can do this with myth directly, but others did this “mythically.”  Vergil has the origins of Rome come from Troy, and Geoffrey has the English, in turn, come from Rome/Troy.  French historians have the Franks come from Troy as well.*  Again, the desire to connect poetically/narratively with the grand story of civilization trumps that of what “actually happened.”  They did this quite self-consciously.

Nicole Gilles’ Annals of France (ca. 1525) gives us a late example of this.  He begins with Creation itself and then recounts some aspects of Biblical history.  He moves quickly to the history of France’s kings, but here he includes many legends and miracles.  The giants he describes, as well as the kings, have an ancestry. It just so happens in the Annals that the Franks were founded by a man named Francio, . . . also from Troy. Even the giant Feragut, slain by Roland, descends from Goliath.  Perhaps Roland and Francio did not exist, but certainly Charlemagne did.  But he has Charlemagne do things that few would really think actually happened, such as undertake a crusade to Jerusalem.  His book was a wild success, which surely frustrated many of the France’s emerging humanist scholars.  Those scholars might have taken solace had they known that the Annals were the last of its kind.

We see the shift evidenced by the comments of two humanist scholars in the mid 16th century.  Claude Fauchet wrote that medieval historians had, “failed in the chief responsibility of the historian, that is, to tell the truth.” And Lancelot Popeliniere declared that “no man of honor ever practiced [history in France], since the profession had always been in the hands of clerics,” whose limitations and biases prevented them from giving an objective appraisal of events.

These statements contain within them a revolution of thought, but they both beg questions: What does it mean for a historian to tell the truth?  And who is objective?

Their passion for “what really happened” involved the following:

  • Making history a science that concerned itself with the affairs of men, not so much the intervention of God, which cannot be measured or predicted.
  • Broadening the scope of history beyond national or religious concerns, and focusing on the history of all, and
  • Getting the best texts, and staying faithful to the best texts, would get us to the truth.  Truth comes from texts, not so much from tradition.

The astute observer no doubt notices a strong correlation between this last goal and the emerging Protestant Reformation.  Indeed, some of this new breed of historians had much sympathy with the French Protestants, and we can say more on this later.  But regardless of religious affiliation, all three goals also added up to a rejection of the idea that history involved a kind of devolution, a falling away from grace.  Rather, for these French humanists, just as we could improve the study of history and cleanse from the muck of the errors of the past, so too could our whole society move forward and progress.**

Huppert details the writing of several French historians of the 16th century who followed these axioms.  The details here ran a bit dry for me, but the overall effect was the same.  When one combines the work of these scholars in the 16th century with the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, the work of history changed dramatically, and we should evaluate the fallout for good or ill.

The passion for precision and the value of the text have done a great deal to improve history in a variety of ways that seem axiomatic to mention.  We have more access to more information, we have more texts in translation, and almost certainly, a better idea for “what really happened,” than previously.  The late Renaissance humanists foreshadowed the Enlightenment, which gave us a variety of other secondary blessings, especially related to advancements in science that comes with breaking things down into component parts.

But we have lost a great deal in the exchange, and the exchange may not have worth it.

First, I stress that while we have a “better idea” for what really happened in the past, we still don’t really know.  We still have to guess and be comfortable with guessing.  Having more texts will not solve the problem of interpreting the texts.  But all this says is that the French humanists had a bit too much optimism, hardly a dreadful fault.  But this optimism has had certain consequences.

Their methods assert that we can get outside traditions and into a place of pure perspective and rationality.  We know that we cannot do this.  Their reliance on texts exacerbates this.  A text, divorced from tradition, can have an almost infinite amount of interpretations.  Note how the reliance on “sola Scriptura” has doomed Protestants into constant splintering and thousands of factions, each claiming to base their ideas on the “text” of the Bible.  In the end, different traditions of interpretation do in fact form, with Reformed Study Bibles, Scofield Reference Bibles, and so on.

We must also deal with Geoffrey of Monmouth and Nicole Gilles and ask if they write history. We may say that the discipline of History involves many things, but we must first ask what it involves primarily.  Is it primarily an art or science?  If we had to choose would we rather have eyewitness testimonies to tell us what happened in Guernica, or Picasso’s painting?

If we side with Picasso we will begin to understand medieval historians.

For History to have any real significance, it must have meaning.  Meaning requires interpretation, and interpretation requires poetry, something beyond mere facts.  We might surmise that in having Arthur deal with Rome, Geoffrey sought to display his view of Arthur as the inheritor of the mantle of Christendom after the fall of Rome–the literary equivalent to an interpretative painting of him, or perhaps an “icon” of Arthur (a great example of how truth can be communicated in image can be found here). The same could be said of Gilles’ “depiction” of Charlemagne.

We do not critique paintings by saying things such as, “He didn’t look exactly like that, so that’s not painting.”  But humanistic rationalism treated the text as having more truth than the image.  This is why they treated medieval historians unfairly.  They failed to see how truth claims could be communicated in the text artistically (and entertainingly as well, as anyone who has read Geoffrey of Monmouth can attest).^  I have no problem calling Geoffrey and Gilles historians, albeit historians of a different type.  They told the “truth,” (if their interpretations were accurate), but in a different way.  They had their biases, but so do you and I.

One can point to many reasons why we experience our current political situation.  Some of them do indeed have a connection to the historians of Renaissance France.  The founders (not the early colonists) drank deeply from the same Enlightenment-oriented spirit of our aforementioned historians.  They too focused heavily on texts, and indeed, we base our life together not on shared traditions, but the texts of the Declaration and Constitution, and this has certain consequences.

The postmoderns rightly tell us that texts can have an almost uncountable number of interpretations.  The search for the “absolute” interpretation of the text will get us nowhere.  So, both those who drive pickups with big American flags, and those who drink latte’s and protest the national anthem can claim to live out what it means to be an American (i.e., “protest is the most American thing one can do,” and so on).  On the one hand, Trump takes an ax to many traditions of how a president should act.  But on the other hand, he “connects with the common man,” and isn’t America all about the common man and freedom from tradition?

Hence, we see our dilemma.

But postmoderns fail us because not every interpretation has the same validity.  We have to have a way of distinguishing and separating the good from the bad.  With only texts and no traditions at our disposal, however, we will have a hard time reigning in the various interpretations.  Other ways of seeing and apprehending the “truths” of history can provide checks, balances, and possibly, a return to sanity.  In his introduction to Fr. Maximos Constas’ The Art of Seeing Bishop Maxim asks

For example, if you have a photograph of Christ and an icon painting of Christ, which is more truthful?  Certainly, if you have a naturalistic approach, you would say, “the photograph.”  But if you say [the icon] you point to unconventional and eschatological truth.  . . . .Therefore, there is truth in art that does not correspond to the mind of reality.

Dave

*I find it interesting that everyone wanted to come from Troy and not Greece.  Troy lost.  Many say that the Europeans wanted to come from Troy to connect themselves with Rome.  I can’t deny this might have something to do with it, but I think it goes beyond that.  Hector, for example, became a Christian name, while Odysseus and Achilles did not.  I’m sure there is more here to explore.

**The idea that history means speaking of such devolution is hardly the property of medievals alone.  Most every ancient society had myths of golden ages in the past we should attempt to emulate, whether these ages be mythical, quasi-mythical, or presented as historical (as perhaps Livy does in his work).  What looks benign to us in the French scholars really represented a radical shift from the past.

I consider the idea of devolution in history here.

^I think this attitude towards texts and the reduction of the idea of truth to “what actually happened” contributed greatly to the Galileo controversy and the subsequent tension between science and religion. In my limited reading of the situation, no such tension existed before this time.

 

 

Renaissance and Reformation, Act 2 (?)

I published this originally in 2016 a few weeks after Trump’s election.  In re-reading it, I would change very little of my original thoughts.  I am still not sure of what to make of Trump’s presidency and what it might mean for our future, and I still am not sure what criteria to use to evaluate his presidency.

Without further comment, the original post . . .

**************************

Like many I awoke Wednesday, November 9 to a big surprise.  Like many I wonder in what sense business as usual (more or less) will be the order of the day as Trump begins to actually govern, or whether or not we will see a significant pivot in our national life.  Time will tell (full disclosure, I supported neither candidate and hoped for a 3rd party revolution that never materialized).

I confess there is much I fail to understand about the election.  I have no strong opinions as to why Trump won.   I will attempt to focus on a broader historical perspective and will not deal with issues specific to the campaign, whatever their importance might have been.  I will not seek to take sides so much as to explain.

Consider what follows speculative . . .

Like many I search for historical parallels to our situation.  Many months ago I suggested Andrew Jackson, or perhaps Rome’s Marius, as a historical counterpart to Trump.  A few months ago Tyler Cowen suggested that, based on a book he had read, our world might resemble that of the Reformation.  I filed that away and thought little of it–until November 9.  All six of Cowen’s observations have merit, but two immediately jumped out at me:

1. Many of the structures in places are perceived as failing, even though in absolute terms they are not obviously doing worse than previous times.

2. There is a rise in nationalist sentiment and a semi-cosmopolitan ethic is starting to lose influence.

In his Civilisation series Kenneth Clark displayed an obvious affection for Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536).  Who can blame him?  Erasmus had a great intellect and a good sense of humor, especially about himself.  Erasmus had no particular attachments anywhere and so he cultivated friends all over Europe.  He represented what some might see as the apotheosis of the medieval vision–a cosmopolitan, universal man of Christendom.

Such status did not prevent Erasmus from engaging in polemical criticism.  From what I hear, his Praise of Folly (I have not read it) mercilessly lambasts much of society at that time, in and out of the Church.  And yet, Clark points out that Erasmus could not accept challenges to authority from the common man.  In a personal letter he wrote with horror at the fact that hardly anyone in a town he visited doffed their caps to him–to him–a respectable pillar of Society.  We can almost hear him say, “I’m the one who gets to criticize society.  Not you!  You don’t know what you’re doing, whereas I (obviously) do!”*

Erasmus could criticize aspects of society but would never think of criticizing Society itself and the conventions that held it together.  He lived in an urbane, intelligent, tolerant world of reason, progress, proportion, and the like.  But the temper of times overwhelmed him.  Europe’s darling in 1511 found himself playing the role of “Mr. Irrelevant” soon after the Reformation began in 1517.

Even Clarke, I think, sees the problem with Erasmus.  No one doubted his character, but they questioned his conviction. Erasmus wore too much on his sleeve and not enough (at least to observers) in his heart.  His glib dance throughout Europe made many wonder what he actually believed.

Many assume the that the medieval period practiced more than its fair share of intolerance.  Scholar and historian Regine Pernoud points out, however, that the latter Renaissance had many more persecutions of heretics and witches than any period in the Middle Ages.  She offers no direct reasons for this, but we can speculate.  By 1200 A.D. Europe had attained a significant measure of stability, but not yet a great deal of movement.  The elite of society had “real” jobs and connections to the common man.  The “people” did not live as well as the aristocracy, but they lived with the elite in the same communities and moved in the same circles.  The sea had yet to tempt medieval society, which limited physical mobility and perhaps added to the stability.

By the mid 13th century Thomas Aquinas begins to dabble in the powers of reason and Aristotle.  The Black Plague disrupted the settled social arrangements (among other things).  The 15th century saw plenty of change with the beginnings of exploration and the printing press.  The papal court practiced pagan Greek city-state thinking more so than the service of God.  Now too, elites like Erasmus moved in entirely different circles than “the people.”  With the revival of classical culture came the revival of classical pagan religion, and the rise of occult practices.  It adds up to too much change too quickly.  The Reformation happened not just because of Luther, but in part because Europe had several different people rise up simultaneously willing to challenge an out of touch status quo many no longer cared anything for.  Rightly or wrongly, many felt that elite Renaissance culture had gone too far.**  As Pernoud points out, the reaction against this outwardly benign march of “progress” began before the Reformation in the late Renaissance.

In another post, again from a few months ago, Cowen suggests the possibility that too much immigration may result in a backlash against immigration (we should note that Cowen favors increased immigration as a matter of ideology, but might be pragmatic as a matter of policy–I don’t know). If the pace of change moves too fast, people react against it even if the change itself benefits them overall (most data shows the increased benefits of increased immigration). Rapid change often creates psychological problems of dislocation.

Others with different ideological perspectives seem to agree with him.  Slavoj Zizek argues (warning to those who follow the link: Zizek uses profanity rather “liberally” in places:) that on European immigration issue, allowing for more democracy would significantly restrict immigration policies in multiple countries.  Right now more inclusive policies must come from the state and not from the people.^  Ezra Klein had an interesting exchange with Tyler Cowen recently where they discussed the subject of diversity.

COWEN: …Now Putman, let me ask you about Putnam, and how Putnam relates to Donald Trump. As you know, Robert Putnam at Harvard, he has some work showing that when ethnic diversity goes up that there’s less trust, less cooperation, less social capital.

If you think of yourself in the role of an editor, so you have an American society, diversity has gone up, and a lot of people have reacted to this I would say rather badly — and I think you would agree with me they’ve reacted rather badly — but there’s still a way in which the issue could be framed that while diversity is actually a problem, we can’t handle diversity.

Putnam almost says as such, and do you think there’s currently a language in the media where you have readers who are themselves diverse, where it’s possible not to just be blaming the bigots, but to actually present the positive view, “Look, people are imperfect. A society can only handle so much diversity, and we need to learn this.” What’s your take on that?

KLEIN: I strongly agree. We do not have a language for demographic anxiety that is not a language that is about racism. And we need one. I really believe this, and I believe it’s been a problem, particularly this year. It is clear, the evidence is clear. Donald Trump is not about “economic anxiety.”

Might Trump have a doppelgänger of sorts (not religiously, not even close!) in Martin Luther?  In Luther, we see, among other things, someone with an authoritarian nationalist streak, one who could not stand the polite pagan-infused niceness of elite Europe, one who had no trouble calling fire and brimstone down upon a variety of people, and one who dabbled in opportunism from time to time.

One possible explanation for Trump might lie in the reaction against some of the sweeping changes that have come into the consciousness of America, such as

  • The “trigger warning” and “snowflake” phenomena across many college campuses
  • The Supreme Court case legalizing homosexual marriage across the land (overturning a variety of state laws in the process).
  • The extreme pressure directed against those who refuse to cater, provide flowers, etc. for homosexual weddings
  • The debate over transgender bathrooms, the reaction against the NC law, etc.

None of these changes directly effect the well-being of very many at all, but they do impact how one sees the their place in the world.  Without considering who is right or wrong in these actions, might the western cosmopolitan set across the U.S. and Europe have flown too close to the sun too quickly?

I listen to classical music on a very low level, when I actually listen to it. I can usually tell if it’s Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart, but that’s about it.   One day I decided to get cultured and tried to listen to a Mahler symphony.  My reaction?

In Absolutely on Music, Japanese author Haruki Murakami recorded a series of interviews with the famous conductor Seiji Ozawa.  In one interview Murakami asks,

Just listening to the third movement of [Mahler’s] First Symphony, it seems clear to me that his music is filled with many different elements, all given more or less equal value, used without logical connection, and sometimes in conflict with one another: traditional German music, Jewish music, Bohemian folk songs, musical caricatures, comic subcultural elements, serious philosophical propositions, Christian dogma, Asian worldview–a huge variety of stuff, no single one at the center of things . . . .  Isn’t there something particularly universal or cosmopolitan about Mahler’s music?

To my admittedly very limited experience of attempting to listen to Mahler, Murakami could have just as easily asked, “Isn’t there something meaningless and incomprehensible about Mahler’s music?  After 1/2 hour of attempting to “elevate” my cultural understanding, I would have begged someone to play me a Sousa march to at least bring my brain back into focus.

Cowen’s final thought on how this world might resemble that of the Reformation . . .

The world may nonetheless end up much better off, but the ride to get there will be rocky indeed.

Dave

*A possible parallel to this exists today.  A variety of high-profile fashion designers have said that they will not provide gowns for Melania Trump.  Bruce Springsteen canceled a concert in North Carolina over his objections to their transgender laws.  The great jazz pianist Ethan Iverson called for a boycott of Steinway pianos because the owner of Steinway supported Trump in some vague fashion (in 2012 Iverson urged a boycott of a particular jazz musician for his support of Romney.  Were Iverson a politician, this would be extremely dangerous territory, i.e., punishing someone not for their actions but for their particular beliefs). All of them were perfectly within their rights to do so.  Many applauded them putting moral convictions over profit or convenience.

Can progressives not extend the same rights to those who wish not to cater homosexual weddings?  It appears that some do not wish to extend the same right of protest.  Stephanie Slade at Reason magazine wrote,

The problem is not that Theallet was willing to dress Michelle Obama and isn’t willing to dress Melania Trump (which is, like it or not, a form of discrimination). The problem is just how many people don’t seem to think that same freedom should be extended to bakery owners, photographers, and other wedding vendors who object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

As Theallet put it, “we consider our voice an expression of our artistic and philosophical ideals.” I suspect Barronelle Stutzman, the white-haired grandmother who owns Arlene’s Flowers, feels the same way about her craft. But instead of assuming a live-and-let-live attitude on the matter, Washington state has systematically worked to destroy Stutzman’s business unless she agrees to take part in a celebration to which she is morally opposed.

**Whatever authoritarian streak the Middle Ages might have had, the Renaissance had it too, but it came not from the people, but from the elite makers of taste.  In many cathedrals the colorful stained glass (made by a variety of local artisans) got smashed out and replaced with clear glass to better fit wth their ideas of classical purity and decorum.

Pernoud argued with some force that the culture of the Middle Ages was “populist,” which the culture of the Renaissance was “elitist.”

^We can see the Brexit vote as a symptom of this same phenomena.  Europe’s pundits all seemingly declared that Britain would vote to stay in the European Union.  Part of me wonders whether or not the vote to leave had more to do with “sticking it to the cosmopolitan man” (which certainly includes most pundits) than any particular economic or social issue.

9th/10th Grade: The Reformation Roller Coaster

Greetings,

This week we looked at how the Reformation began to spread beyond Luther and his theology.  We looked at a couple of key ideas and themes:

1. Erasmus was a notable scholar.  He wrote many powerful critiques of the Catholic hierarchy.  He believed in going “back to the sources,” and translated the New Testament into Greek.  He initially admired Luther, but felt that a) Luther went too far, and b) Breaking with the Church would cause more harm than good.  Erasmus’ life should make us consider whether or not the cost of the Reformation outweighed its benefits.

2. Mainstream reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli believed that while the Church needed reform, society as it stood should be preserved.  Others of a more radical bent believed that both Church and society needed drastic overhauls.  They borrowed heavily from Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” theology and established their own views of faith, revelation, and the culture around them.  They went much further than Luther ever intended.  The logic of their ideas ran something like. . .

  • All believers have equal access to God, and have an equal chance of understanding His Word
  • Therefore, we have no need of any kind of hierarchical leadership in the Church
  • Those with the Spirit of God have more wisdom than those who do not.  Therefore, we have no real need of local governments.
  • To achieve real holiness of life, and real holiness in society, the godly must separate themselves from the ungodly.

Luther and others were aghast when they saw how others interpreted their ideas.  When Luther wrote pamphlets urging the nobility to crush the radicals without mercy, some felt that Luther had become a ‘Protestant Pope.’

Our look at the ‘Radical Reformation’ forced us to consider the Church’s relationship to society.  Calvin’s followers wanted to blend civic and religious duties almost until there was no distinction.  In other words, Church and Society in their view should blend seamlessly together.  Radical Reformers wanted the kept entirely separate.  I hope the students understood that our ideas of how the Church should function impact how we think Christians should interact with society.

Of course, Luther never envisioned that he was starting “The Reformation.”  He believed that the Church needed reformed, and that under his guidance, the Church had more or less done so.  In his mind, after the reforms he helped initiate, it was time to stop “The Reformation.”  But Luther had unwittingly opened the floodgates.  The genie was out of the lamp, roaming free across Europe.

We discussed that while Protestantism solved many problems, it created others:

1. There are thousands and thousands of Protestant denominations worldwide.  What did this mean for society in the 16th century?  What does this mean for us today? Is this a problem?  If so, can Protestantism solve it, or is it part of its very nature?

2. In the 16th century, Catholics persecuted Protestants (and vice versa), but Protestants also persecuted each other, largely over disagreements over what is ‘essential’ to the faith.  How do we know what an essential of the faith is?  Can Protestants reach unity on this question today?  Why could they not do so in the 16th century?  As we discussed in class, few disagree about what Scripture says.  We disagree about what it means.  Why did the social, political, and religious climate of this time lead to so much violence?

The peasant revolts, the political shifts, and the multitude of opinions that emerged from this period should make us ask — “What was the Reformation exactly?”  For our first formal discussion of the year we got different perspectives on this question.  Whatever our answer, we must see that the Reformation involved much more than a change of church doctrine.  In fact, the Reformation shows us that changes in the Church will get reflected in society at large.

We continued to examine the Reformation in England, and its consequences for the rest of Europe. On Thursday we looked at Henry VIII early life and reign.  I include here four pictures of him at various points in his life.   No matter the period — I don’t trust those eyes!

Last Thursday I had the students look at a variety of maps in an effort to look at the Reformation from a purely geographical perspective.  In other words, did geography do anything to shape the course of the Reformation? Are there any patterns for us to observe?  The maps are here, which include the topography that the students had to match up with the religious divisions.

European Topography:

Some of them noted how mountains walled off certain religious groups.  Some theorized that different countries of like religious beliefs usually were close enough to be trading partners.  Religious groups in more rugged terrain (Spanish Catholics, French and Scottish Protestants) tended to have a bit more militancy to them than others did.  The possible link with rugged terrain and more intense religious expression may go beyond Europe.  Most of radical Islam, for example, does not come from Indonesia (the most populous Moslem country) but from the deserts of the Mid-East.  Looking at events from different angles hopefully can give us a more full complete picture of an era.

Many thanks,

Dave Mathwin

9th/10th Grade: Looking back from the Reformation

Greetings to all,

This will be the first of what should be weekly updates about what we are doing in class.  My goal is to have these updates to you no later than Sunday afternoon, so if you do not receive one by Monday, do let me know.  My purpose is to let you have a glimpse of the classroom so you can keep abreast of what we are learning and discussing.  I hope you will join in the conversation with us as we move through the year.

We spent part of the first week reviewing and setting the context for the Reformation.  For the new students, this meant entering a story somewhere in the middle, which can always be difficult.  For some of the returning students, summer has understandably flushed some of their brains.  Any student who feels shaky on the medieval and Renaissance period may want to look here and here, or perhaps other places in the “9th Grade” category in the archives here at astickinthemud.

As I mentioned at orientation, this class primarily involves understanding what it means to transition from the pre-modern to the modern world.  We tend to use “modern” as a synonym for “good,” and indeed, students may feel that the changes from 1500-1850 represent a substantial improvement for mankind.  However, others may just as legitimately feel that we lost a great deal of our Christian heritage as a result of this transition.  Understanding both sides of this debate is one of the key goals of this class, regardless of where students stand on this transition.

The transition can be best understood I think in the following ways:

  • The pre-modern world believed that time and space had a meaning of its own apart from our own actions, whereas the modern world, in the words of scholar Charles Taylor, believes in the homogeneity of time and space.

For example, some churches today have spaces that they use for basketball on one day, picnics on another day, and worship on Sundays.  The meaning of the space depends on the meaning the people give it.  The space has no “meaning” in itself.

The pre-modern world believed in sacred time (Lent, Paschaltide, Advent, etc.) and sacred space.  No one would every think of playing basketball inside Chartes Cathedral.  The space has a meaning apart from us, inherent in the nature of the space itself.

  • The modern world puts a lot more emphasis on the individual than the pre-modern world, which had a more communal and historically oriented approach to meaning.

For example, many in the modern world feel comfortable with the idea than anyone can interpret the scriptures, which empowers the laity to read for themselves.  On the flip side, however, the modern world has a harder time deciding which interpretation is correct.  The pre-modern world had little concept of the individual and derived meaning and understanding from the past more so than the present.

No Church historian, whether Protestant or Catholic, believes that things in the Church in 1500 A.D. were fine.  Many wanted reform in the Church and believed it was desperately needed.   Among scholars and contemporaries, disagreements come in the following areas:

1. When did the problems in the Church begin?  Some say that it began with the popes of the 15th century.  Some say it began with the Great Schism of 1378.  Some argue that it can be traced to the Avignon Papacy, or to the papal decree ‘Unam Sanctum.’  Some go as far back as the Investiture Controversy of 1077.  Some reformers would want to go back further still, and argued that the problems began with Constantine in the 4th century A.D. How people answered this question influenced what they believe was the root problem the church faced.

2. What  indeed was the root problem the Church faced?  Was it a question of the ethics of the Church hierarchy? Was the issue mainly theological?  Or was it the Church’s long involvement with politics?  Or perhaps, all three?  Each choice represented a new fork in the road, one that would involve different choices and divergent paths.  For example, if you believed the Church’s problems to be recent, you likely would focus on the Church’s moral lapses.  The further back one found the so-called “root” of the problem, the more theological and institutional the criticisms, the more radical the operation required to correct the abuses.

Another issue was not only how far reform should go, but, cut free from Church hierarchy, what criteria should they use to make theological decisions?  What authority should tradition be granted?  Is it just “What the Bible means to me?”  If it is more than that, what is it?  Reformers at the time did not always agree on this question, and the results of their disagreement would do much to shape events throughout Europe.

Despite its fairly innocuous beginning when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg, the Reformation would snowball into a revolution.  Martin Luther had all of the necessary qualities that revolutionaries need.  He possessed great courage and great belief in his convictions.  He had charisma and keen intelligence.  The same qualities that make for good revolutionaries, however, do not make for good diplomats.  This type needs patience, flexibility, and the ability to see many points of view.  Historically speaking, very, very few have been good at both.*  This too will have a significant impact on Protestantism in particular, and the history of Europe in general.  Below I include some quotes from Martin Luther (and others) that illustrate Luther’s keen insights, sense of humor, temper, and stubbornness.

Next week we will see how the Reformation spreads throughout northern Europe, and the different guises reform takes.  If we believe that religion forms the heart of any civilization, the religious upheaval in Europe in 16th century will have significant ripple effects into all areas of life.  We shall examine some of these things next week.

Many thanks,

Dave Mathwin

*The only two I can think of are Nelson Mandela and George Washington.  Can anyone else think of others?

Reformation Quotes:

I think his [95 Theses] will please all, except a few regarding Purgatory who make their money thereby.  I perceive that the monarchy of the Roman high priest is the plague of Christendom, yet I hardly know if it is expedient to touch this open sore. — Erasmus in 1518

Most blessed Father, I offer myself prostrate at the feet of your Holiness, with all that I am and have. . . .I will acknowledge your voice as the voice of Christ, residing and speaking in you.  — Martin Luther to Pope Leo, 1518

Dearest brother in Christ, your epistle, showing the keeness of your mind and breathing a Christian spirit, was most pleasant to me.  Christ gave you his spirit, for His glory and the world’s good. [My advice] is that quiet argument may do more than wholesale condemnation.  Keep cool.  Do not get angry. — Erasmus 1519, in a letter to Luther

Luther’s books are everywhere and in every language.  No one would believe the influence he now has on men. — Erasmus, 1521

Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Sacred Scripture or by evident reason . . . I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe.  God help me. — Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, 1521

If we strike thieves with the gallows, robbers with the sword, heretics with fire, why do we not much more attack these masters of perdition, these cardinals, these popes, and this sink of Roman Sodom . . . and wash our hands in their blood? —  Martin Luther, 1520

It would be better if every bishop were murdered, every foundation of every cloister rooted out, then one soul destroyed, let alone that all souls should be lost due to their trumpery and idolatry. – Martin Luther, 1521

Begone, unclean swine!  Touch not the altars with your desecrated hands!  The cup is full.  See ye not that the breath of liberty is stirring?  – John Hutten, German priest speaking to the Roman bishops

The common man is learning to think, and contempt of princes is gathering among the multitude.  Men will not suffer your tyranny much longer. — Luther to the German princes

You lords, let down your stubborness and oppression, and give the poor air to breathe.  The peasants, for their part, should let themselves be instructed, and [withdraw some of their demands]. – Luther to German Nobility

Forward!  Forward while the fire is hot!  Let your swords be ever warm with blood. . . . The godless have no right to live except as they are permitted to do so by the elect.  – Thomas Munster, to his peasant army, 1524

In my former book, I did not venture to judge the peasants, since they had offered to be set right and instructed, [but they did not listen].  Any man against whom sedition can be proved is outside the law of God, so that the first who can slay him does right and well.  Therefore let everyone who can smite, slay, and stab.  There is nothing more devilish than a rebel. – Luther, ‘Against the Robbing and Murderous Horde Of Peasants.’ – 1525

He who will not hear God’s Word when it is spoken with kindness must hear the headsman when he comes with his axe. . . . Of mercy I will give no heed but to God’s will in His word.  If He will have wrath and not mercy, what are you to do with mercy?  Did not Saul sin by showing mercy upon Malek? — Luther, ‘An Open Letter concerning the Hard Book Against the Peasants.

Why should we pity men more than God does? – Philip Melancthon on the destruction of the Anabaptists

Anyone who is aware of [Anabaptist] teaching and preaching must give names to the magistrate, in order that the offender may be taken and punished.  Those aware of such breeches of this order and do not give information, shall be punished by loss of life or property. – Edict of Saxony, 1528

Quotes from Luther on Various Topics:

All the articles of our Christian faith are in the presence of reason sheerly impossible, absurd and false.  Reason is the greatest enemy faith has.  She is the Devil’s greatest whore.

The Bible teaches us to feel, hope, grasp, and comprehend faith, hope, and charity far otherwise than mere human reason can.

The human will is a beast of burden.  If God mounts it, it goes where He wills, and if Satan, it goes where he wills.  Nor can it choose the rider.

Christianity is nothing but a continual exercise in feeling that though you sin, you have no sin.  It is enough to know that the Lamb bears the sins of the world, whether we commit a thousand fornications a day or as many murders.

Man is as unfree as a block of wood, a lump of clay, a pillar of salt.

I do not admit that my doctrine can be judged by anyone.  He who does not receive my doctrine cannot be saved.

Seek out the society of your boon companions, drink, play talk bawdy, amuse yourself.  One must sometimes commit a great sin out of hate for the Devil, so as not to give you the chance to feel scrupulous over mere nothings.

Sin powerfully.  God can only forgive a hearty sinner.

I eat like a Bohemian and drink like a German.  Thanks be to God.

I seek and accept joy where I can find it.  We now know, thank God, that we can be happy with a good conscience.

Our loving God wills that we eat, drink, and be merry.

Dances are instituted that courtesy may contracted between young men and girls.  I myself would attend them sometimes, but the youth would whirl less giddily if I did.

I would not give up my humble musical gift for anything, however great.  Next to theology, there is no art that can be compared to music, for it alone, after theology, gives us rest and joy of heart.

Christians need not altogether shun plays because there is sometimes coarseness and adulteries therein; for such reasons they would have to give up the Bible too.

If God can forgive me for having crucified Him . . . He can also bear with me for occasionally taking a good drink to honor Him.

My enemies examine all that I do.  If I break wind in Wittenberg they smell it in Rome.

Punish if you must, but let the sugar plum go with the rod.

Take women from their housewifery and they are good for nothing.  But there she can do more with the children with one finger than a man with two fists.

My Lord Katie (his pet name for his wife Katharine).

I wish you peace and grace in Christ, and send you my infirm love.  Dear Katie, I was weak on the road to Eisleben, but that was my own fault. . . . now, thank God I am so well that I am sore tempted by fair women and care not how gallant I am.  God bless you.

I never work better than when I am inspired by anger.

Luther the Anti-Semite?

 I would not have the Gospel defended by violence or murder.  Since belief and unbelief is a matter of everyone’s conscience . . . the secular power should be content to attend to its own affairs and constrain no one by force.

Since our fools, the popes, bishops, sophists and monks, those donkeys have dealt poorly with the Jews.  Indeed, had I been a Jew and seen such idiots, I would rather be a hog than a Christian.  I would advise everybody to deal kindly with the Jews.

And let whosoever can throw brimstone and pitch upon [the Jews]; if one could hurl hellfire so much the better. . . .And this must be done, so that our Lord will see that we are indeed Christians.  Let them be driven like mad dogs out of the land.

Opinions of Luther

Luther is the ‘Morning Star’ of Wittenberg. – Mutantius, contemporary of Luther

Luther has all the fury of a maniac. – Mutantius, spoken about a year after the previous comment

If we judge greatness by influence – which is the least subjective test we can use – we may rank Luther with Copernicus, Voltaire, and Darwin as the most powerful personalities in the modern world. – Will Durant

8th Grade: Egypt’s Desert Formation

Greetings to all,

I hope you have had a good week, and I hope too that you will enjoy the weekend before us.

This week we began our unit on Egypt, and first considered the influence of geography on the formation of their civilization.  I wanted to ask the following of the students:

1. What is the central feature of Egyptian geography, and why might this promote civilization?

2. What about Egyptian geography might influence it towards strong centralized government?

3. How might Egyptian geography have influenced their religion?

I do not believe geography exercises an absolute authority over humankind.  We are always left with choice & responsibility for those choices.  Having said that, we should not neglect the impact our surroundings may have upon us.  I do also stress to the students that the heart of any civilization is not its surroundings, resources, etc., but what it worships.  What a civilization worships is, in its turn, often reflected in its architecture.  With that in mind, I anticipate us taking a hard look at the pyramids next week.

When we think about Geography and its connections to Egypt, we noted the following:
1. The extremes of Egyptian geography: Only somewhere between 5-10% of their land was arable, but that land was some of the best farmland in the ancient world due to the yearly Nile floods.  Lush farm land backed right up against barren desert (as seen in the picture below).  This geographical tension probably produced psychological tension.  We see in Egypt, for example, the duality between the worship of almost any life whatsoever, and the reign of death just beyond.  The pictures of the Nile river valley below illustrate this stark contrast.
Nile River Valley
This tension had to be resolved in either a positive or negative way.  As time went by, death gained the upper hand.  Here is an early Egyptian poem that reflects this.  Some of these sentiments may ring true from a Christian perspective, and some lines resemble aspects of Biblical Wisdom literature. I think, however, that the overall imbalance towards death as an escape from the “claustrophobia” of life rather than a source of redemption is evident.
Egypt and Death: An Early Poem
To whom can I speak today?
One’s fellows are evil;
The friends of today do not love.
To whom can I speak today?
The gentle man has perished,
But the violent man has access to all.
To whom can I speak today?
No one remembers the past;
No one at this time does good in return for good.
Death stands before me today
Like the recovery of a sick man,
Like going outside after being confined.
Death stands before me today
Like the fragrance of myrrh,
Like sitting under the shade on a breezy day.
Death stands before me today
As a man longs to see his house,
After he has spent many years in captivity.
The Nile River valley had to serve as the center of Egyptian civilization, and in turn, we note that the Egyptians had an unusual inward focus.  They did not interact with many other peoples in the ancient near east.  Some geographies push people out of their settings, but we might imagine the Nile river as a giant vacuum, sucking everyone towards it.
  • The extremes may have led to Egypt’s focus on ‘Ma’at,’ or keeping things in balance. When one lives in between stark images of life and death constantly, it should not surprise us to see an inordinate focus on the concept of “balance.”  Keeping the order of things (ma’at) was the central job of the pharaoh, and of course this is a semi-divine task.  No problem per se for the Egyptians, as in their mind  the pharaoh’s were divine, or perhaps semi-divine, themselves.  When we look at the Exodus in a little bit we should keep in mind that among other things, God exposes Pharaoh’s complete inability to maintain “ma’at.”  God uses the plagues as a means to free His people, but also a message to the Egyptians to come join the Israelites.  Pharaoh’s inability to maintain harmony and balance gets decisively exposed.
  • The relative sameness and flatness of Egypt contributed to the political centralization of Egypt.  Egyptian society could not exist without fair and equitable distribution of the Nile floodwaters, and this would have required executive oversight.  But it may also have psychologically contributed to the eventual rigidity of thought that eventually overtook Egypt from about 1800 B.C. onward.

With this emphasis on Ma’at we get confronted with a very different way of thinking, and a very different set of priorities.  A president who wanted to look successful in his memoirs would probably highlight the great changes he brought to America.  In Egypt, Pharaoh’s “memoirs” focused on how they kept things exactly the same, in just the proper proportion (for those interested one can read this post on Ma’at and Pharaoh Userkaf).

Towards the end of the week we began our look at Thutmose III and the Battle of Meggido.  We will continue that next week as well examine the Book of the Dead and the monotheistic Pharaoh Ikhneton.

Blessings,

Dave

8th Grade: An Introduction to Civilizations

Greetings,

I hope the school is going well for you and your family.  I already can tell that I will enjoy this class. They are enthusiastic participators and willing and able to track with me and think about the issues before us.

As I told the students, before we move into the actual study of certain civilizations, I thought it appropriate to think of what we mean by the term ‘civilization,’ and what this might have to do with a Christian worldview.  I gave the students an example of a desert island divided into two halves.  Both halves have a government (a despotic king), religion (worship of a bloodthirsty god), laws and a way of life, (everyone pick up a stick and try and bash in the head of someone on the other side of the island).  They have a large enough group of people and a defined location, if one happens to believe that these are important criteria.

We discussed whether or not  this be could be termed ‘civilization.’  Even if it was a place where you would not want to live, was it ‘civilization?’  While I acknowledge that defining the concept is a bit slippery, in the end I think we can give a clear answer in the negative.

The definition I am using for civilization in this class is from historian Will Durant, who stated that civilization is, “Social order that promotes cultural creation.”  Life on our hypothetical island could not allow for ‘cultural creation.’ No buildings could be built, no books written, not even advances in weaponry could be made if everyone’s daily life consisted entirely of sleeping, eating, and fighting.

I believe the definition we are using is a good one because human society should help us live out what it means to be made in God’s image.  The first thing we see about God is that He creates.  A society that did not allow for human creation would deny a fundamental tenet of what it means to be human. Being made in God’s image means many things, but surely it must include something of what J.R.R. Tolkien called ‘sub-creation’ on our part.   If we look back on the island example, is the life lived there really human life?  Even beavers build dams, and otters make water slides for themselves.  Living just to eat, sleep, and fight would put us below many animals.

This week we also looked at the basic elements of all civilizations.  What purpose do civilizations serve, and how do they function?  Ultimately, civilizations exist to provide a means of human interaction, a structure that allows us to live out God’s image and call on our lives.  While none of the civilizations we will study will be ‘Christian’ civilizations (if such a thing is even possible), the closer one gets to this goal, the better off people are.  While we may not need civilizations per se, we do need each other.  God Himself is a kind of Community (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and as we are created in His image, so too we need to live in community with one another to make us fully human.

We examined what I call the Five Elements of Civilization:

Geography

Suppose that you and your friends wish to do something together.  You would need to agree on a location to meet.  For there to be profitable human interaction, we need a defined physical space to do so.  Obviously, the geography must provide a minimum of food, water, etc. for civilization to exist.  But as we discussed, ideal geographies do not tend to foster civilizations.  When things are too easy, we never need to learn, invent, or progress.  Historically speaking, we need a challenge to thrive.  On the flip side, some geographies present such an extraordinary challenge that man’s nearly heroic adaptation to them binds them into such narrow confines as to stunt the growth of civilizations (one might think of desert nomads or Eskimo peoples in the Arctic).

Over the course of the year we will see the subtle influence of geography on the way people live.

Economics

No one can be completely self-sufficient. “No man is an island.”  We neither know all or can do all things well.  We need others to help us, but also need to have a means of exchanging goods and services fairly so these beneficial trades can take place.

A strict barter economy makes perfect sense.  I have apples, you have wood.  If we trade we both get something we easily know to have a direct value.  With one I can build a house, with the other I can avoid hunger.  Barter economies have the great advantage of simplicity, but the great burden of a complete lack of flexibility.  Imagine doing your weekly shopping, having to load up the wagon with bushels of grain, a few pigs, etc.  Then, you can only get what you need in return only if someone needs what you have.

A money economy helps solve some of these problems, and money began with precious metals.  But who made the first exchange of a shiny metal for a bushel of wheat?  You cannot eat, wear, or live in shiny metal.  The same is true of paper money.  In itself, it’s only a piece of paper.  You could write on it, or perhaps burn it for a few seconds of heat.  The money has value not for anything in itself, but because of our agreed upon belief about what it represents. Hence, the link between the health of our economy and the trust we place in our government and those around us.

A good economy will foster helpful and just exchanges of goods and services, which in turn fosters honoring social interaction.

Politics

Or — what I call the outward structure of civilization.  We need an agreed upon way of making decisions, and we need to know what is expected of us.  For example, we must decide if we are to drive on the right hand side or the left, or no one would drive at all.  We must also have an agreed upon way of deciding what side of the road we drive on, or nothing can ever get accomplished.

Laws serve a good purpose if they help grow helpful interaction between people.  They oppress if they stifle such social interaction.

Religion

Or – what I call the inward structure of civilization.  Since no one can write a law code that covers every situation, if we are to interact with others successfully we need a strong set of unwritten rules that everyone follows.  If someone cuts in line at the grocery store, we do not have the option of calling the police, for example.  This unwritten code comes ultimately from our religious beliefs.  We don’t cut in line in the final analysis because we believe in Justice.

I encouraged the class to think about religion more broadly than just what happens on ‘Sunday,’ in a given civilization.  As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” or to put it another way, “You are what you worship.”

Religion is in a broad sense what we give ourselves to truly, not merely our lip service.  A society might outwardly worship God, gods, or possibly even ideals and values like freedom, and so on.  Everyone worships something, and we cannot help but be conformed to the object of our worship.  This ultimate devotion becomes the main spring of our values.

Many modern historians often make materialistic arguments for the origin of civilization.  They will say things such as, “When river valley ‘x’ began to dry up the people came together to maximize their food input and begin to specialize.  From this early social organization governments arose, and then these governments codified religious belief to enforce their power.”

And so on, and so on.

I entirely disagree with these kinds of explanations, at least as the primary explanatory concept.  Such theories completely misunderstand human nature.  Why do relationships happen?  We do not enter into a relationship with people based on the need to survive.  We are made for relationship (“It is not good for man to be alone”).  We are drawn together by our common loves, by our common worship.  We were made for worship, and this is why religion forms the heart of any civilization.

Culture

In the narrow sense, culture is what we do with our free time.  A person’s hobbies are often a better insight into who they are than their jobs.   In a broader sense, culture is about how we interact with God’s creation, and how we outwardly express our inner values and strengths.  Broadly then, culture speaks to our values, and a bit more narrowly, culture is that which makes life enjoyable (reading books, playing games, etc.), and sets us apart from the rest of creation.

Of course every culture can and should have room for purely “fun” activities, but ideally our recreation truly engages in “re-creation,” whereby we image the God who creates.

My goal through all this was to try and show how each element is not an island, but impacts other areas.  These elements are interconnected and depend on one another.  Scripture’s image of the Body of Christ fits very well for civilizations.

My subsequent emails will likely not be as information oriented, but these categories will inform the rest of our year together.

Next week we will begin looking at actual civilizations, and begin applying this theoretical interpretative model to reality.  We will begin to look for the patterns and truths that history reveals to us.  Below I include the famous set of paintings by Thomas Cole called The Course of Empire.  I do not necessarily agree with everything regarding Cole’s interpretation of history, but it is a wonderful visual image of a thought provoking theory, from a civilization’s beginning to its end.  We’ll reference these images from time to time in class this year.

Thank you again for all your support.

Blessings,

Dave Mathwin

Impress Imbalance

I encourage my students to play, “Would you rather?” games, i.e., “Would you rather eat 500 live ants or 1 live cricket?” Often questions like this involve no specific moral quandary, but the practice of creating and defending mental hierarchies has great value, even when such hierarchies are relative. Comparing civilizations has something of the apples/oranges dilemma, I admit. And reigning cultural relativism tells us not to judge. But I believe that the mental process involved in deciding whether Greece was better than Rome, or in this case, whether or not Egypt has the leg up over Babylon, helps bring clarity and meaning to the study of history–even if one should hold on loosely to these kinds of distinctions.

Many have used various criteria for evaluating civilizations, such as how long they last, the power they accumulated, their technology, and so on. I think a better lens involves us seeing how each civilization aligns itself with the reality of creation–with the patterns and Truth found in the created order, available for any with eyes to see.

Henri Frankfurt’s Kingship and the Gods gives us more than a rundown of Egyptian and Sumerian/Babylonian kingship. He seeks to integrate religion and politics not just with their history, but also the geography and the general patterns of living from both cultures. He reveals his method early in the introduction, writing,

Mesopotamian society was entirely adapted to the cyclic succession of the seasons.  While each winter resolved its harshness in the spring and the plague of summer was succeeded by autumn rains, human society moved through a succession of seasons in which humanity joined in of the cosmic crisis of life, death, rain, and drought.  The [Babyonian] sees a dramatic conception played out in nature between the divine and the demoniac, between forces of order and chaos.

The most important seasonal celebrations in [Babylon]  centered around the bewailing of the death of Tammuz and his rebirth on the New Year–his victory over death  and his sacred marriage to the mother-goddess.

Egypt, too, reflected the natural rhythm of the seasons in the course of the official year.  But their celebrations differ profoundly in character from those in Babylon.  In the plain of the two rivers, the festivals were never free from anxiety, and those which we know best show a change from deep gloom to exaltation.  In Egypt, festivals provided the occasion to affirm that all was well, for Egypt viewed the universe as essentially static.  Revolts against the established order happened, but never got classified as anything more than a few ripples under the surface.

The rich Nile valley lies isolated and protected on both sides by a vast desert, while Mesopotamia lacks clear boundaries and was periodically assaulted on its fringes by mountain tribes.  Egypt derived its prosperity from the Nile, which never fails to rise, even if the floods differ in effectiveness.  But Babylon depended on uncertain rainfall and  the Tigris was an unaccountable, turbulent, and dangerous river. 

Some might then conclude that religion means nothing more than a natural phenomena, though Frankfurt himself does not suggest this.* Rather, Frankfurt wants to integrate our vision of each society–to see Egypt and the Egyptians as one and not many. When we pull back and see the integrated whole of a civilization, the impression they leave comes into greater focus.

If I had to choose between Egypt and Babylon, I would likely choose Egypt, but one of their key weaknesses lay in their failure to appreciate the feminine aspects of creation and experience. Nearly every religion I am aware of sees creation as essentially feminine, Christianity included. As C.S. Lewis commented, we all stand as essentially feminine in relation to God. All in the Church, whether man or woman, are the “bride” of Christ. Various pagan beliefs have “Mother-goddesses,” whereas Christianity might talk of “Mother Earth” in a slightly more abstract way, as St. Francis did in his “Canticle of the Sun.” Egypt had no “Mother Earth”–for them the earth itself was not even feminine. The idea of power had strong play in Egyptian thought, and so rather than the traditional “receiving and transforming” aspect of Earth, the Egyptians saw supreme power in the male diety of Ptah or Geb. In some creation stories, Ra stands on the Primeval Hill to create, again over-emphasizing the male aspect of reality. Apparently Egypt did not want creation to have any derivative existence.

Most every religion, including ancient Israel, had harvest festivals of some kind. Nearly all of these festivals focus on the idea of death, the earth receiving death, and then having that death transformed into life. Harvest festivals connect us with birth and new life, and so highlight feminine aspects of life. A proper conception of this pattern must allow for three days in the tomb, so to speak. So in Greece, as elsewhere, the seed could be identified with the king (think of Mary Renault’s classic, The King Must Die), who “dies” for the people to give them grain. No grain comes without the earth receiving and transforming the seed. But things were different in Egypt. Yes, the king ceremoniously started the harvest by cutting a symbolic stalk, but the forgoing ceremony emphasized that he was the wheat which went up to the cloud, not the chaff that fell to earth. Frankfurt comments that,

All we know of the Egyptians shows they would have found [a festival centering on the death of the seed] distasteful. They did not readily admit the shadow side of life, perhaps on hedonistic grounds, but also because, in their static conception of the world, grief had no [place].

We see this in the Egyptian harvest prayers, i.e.,

Osisris is Unas in the mounting chaff

His loathing is the earth;

He has not entered Geb to perish.

He is not sleeping in his house (i.e., tomb) upon earth

So that his bones may be broken.

His hurt is driven out!

He has purified himself with the Horus Eye.

Unas is up and away to heaven;

Unas is up and away to heaven

With the wind, with the wind!

A Christian might be tempted to see here a foreshadowing of victory over death in the resurrection. Perhaps an aspect of that exists here, but with Frankfurt I extend a word of caution–even God Himself submitted to the pattern of first going down before rising up. The Egyptians seemed to want to short-circuit the process. A Christian might think of something akin to banishing “worldly sorrow”–something the Babylonians struggled mightily with–but they would be wise to remember that “blessed are those that mourn,” and that it is usually our moms that take pity on us when we scrape our knee or need visited in the hospital.

This same imbalance shows in their depictions of royalty. Certainly every society has a hierarchy and kings might naturally be depicted in some outsized way to show his importance. But in Egypt, one often sees only the king, as in this relief of the conquests of Thutmose III:

Tuthmosis III smiting his enemies, the Cannaanites, at the Battle fo Megiddo from the north wall of the Great Hypostyle Court, Egypt. Ancient Egyptian. New Kingdom 18th Dynasty, 1473 BC. Karnak. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

If we compare this to how Babylon depicted one of its greatest kings, Nebuchadnezzar a contrast immediately becomes evident:

and

I have mentioned a few times above that Christians should be cautious in interpreting Egypt’s religion in an overly Christological manner. Now, I offer the same caution to women in general. Some might look at certain aspects of Egyptian belief and celebrate that even the feminine earth has been raised to the level of the masculine sky. But in fact Egypt did not raise the feminine up–they (mostly) abolished the feminine aspects of reality from their experience.

Most every traditional belief system sees the following pairings:

Masculine

  • Strength
  • Vertical Hierachy
  • Steady/Unchanging

Feminine

  • Compassion
  • Togetherness
  • Protean

This “exchange,” this relationship between these two different aspects of reality, help form healthy civilizations just as they form healthy families. As Kenneth Clark stated, when guys and gals are separated too stridently for too long in social situations, the level of discourse tends to decline in both camps.

The history of Egypt, perhaps akin to the history of China (of which I know much less about) could plausibly show forth this pattern of the elimination of feminine qualities. In his A Study of History Toynbee makes the case that after the pyramids, Egypt tightens and “freezes up.” Much of Frankfurt’s religious analysis comes from this post-pyramid era, and the evidence shows an exaggerated desire to eliminate all variability, all doubt and grief, from their way of life. Such an attitude surely helped contribute to their failure when confronted by Moses.

Babylon shows us the opposite problem–too much of the archetypal feminine. As Frankfurt aptly points out, the stately nature of Egyptian geography shows a direct contrast to that of Babylon. Women go through more changes overall than men**–this is neither a virtue or vice–and so a civilization that over-emphasized feminine qualities would tend towards too much change, and not enough solidity. This shows up in Babylonian creation mythology, with its constant conflict and shifting alliances between different gods. It arises in their depictions of the goddess Ishtar, sometimes shown wearing a beard. Aristocratic Babylonian men followed the trend in their religious beliefs and may have engaged in cross-dressing, and so on.

Other manifestations of this imbalance show up:

  • Coronation rituals for Babylonian kings took place in the temple of Ishtar, and their royal insignia came from the goddesses “Lady of the Crown,” and “Lady of the Scepter.”
  • Frankfurt suggests that, while obviously Egypt and Babylon had various religious festivals, Babylon had more festivals that “required” everyone to participate at the same time in unison–it is the mom who generally wants to have everyone home for the holidays, etc.
  • In Egypt, water was effectively tamed. For the Babylonians, “the ways of water are devious. It avoids obstacles rather than conquering them, goes around and yet gets to its goal.” Traditional religions always associate water with the feminine, and we see something of the “mystery of Woman” (guys are not that mysterious) in Babylonian views of water.

For clarification, I am not here suggesting that any of these things are good or bad per se. The question is more of emphasis.

One sometimes hears silly things such as, “If only women were in charge throughout the world then there would be no wars, and everyone would love each other.” But Babylon had an empire as well. And Babylon for biblical writers became (along with Egypt), an archetypal tyranny, albeit with some different manifestations than that of Egypt. I have written elsewhere of the possibilities of feminine tyranny, and will not rehash that here. In Egypt’s case, the excessive emphasis on order “naturally” called forth the chaos of the 10 Plagues. For Babylon, the undue emphasis of the market, of change and flux, of possibility, inevitably called forth excessive order–it is no coincidence that Babylon produced the world’s first known extensive code of law and punishment.

Ancient Egyptian and Babylon societies show us that masculine and feminine “gods,” when freed from proper relationship with the other side, become demons.

Dave

*I would not say that Egyptian and Babylonian religions were false because of this either. Obviously, a Christian would say that such beliefs had deep flaws, while at the same time one can affirm the aspects of the Truth that they professed. Occasionally, a skewed religious belief can at times show forth an aspect of Truth in a more compelling fashion, as they give it undue emphasis in the wrong place. Still, all in all, I think the key problem of pagan religions was their inescapable imminence of the gods (this is something excellently discussed by **** in his book *****. The undue focus on imminence leads to a narrowing, an entrapment of sorts, a tautology. You see this today whenever an argument is based on the fact that, “It’s 2021.” In other words, whatever we happen to be doing must be right because we are in fact doing it–the ethics of imminence. One is inevitably influenced by our surroundings, including our geography. We should not be trapped by it, to be excessively determined by it.

**I think it fair to say that puberty involves more changes for women than men. Marriage involves more change for women. Women obviously go through a lot of change in terms of conceiving and giving birth to children, and then, menopause, and so on.

8th Grade: “Bueller. . . Bueller. . .”

Greetings to all,

Are we sure that History matters?

This was the question I posed to the students the first day of school.

A few students pointed out that we should study History to learn from the mistakes and copy the successes of the past.  This is the answer most frequently given to the question, “Why History?”

But why should we accept it?  What on earth could anyone who has been dead for thousands of years, living in a completely different part of the world, have to teach us today?   “Perhaps,” I suggested to the students, “I am wasting your time, serving as part of a vast conspiracy of the old to occupy and distract the young.”  Is this what school really means?  Is the study of history merely an exercise in the “vain repetitions of the heathen?”

It’s fun to play devil’s advocate, but in the end we provided two key reasons why History does matter.

“Begin at the beginning,” said the King in Alice in Wonderland.  The study of history rests on a few key Christian assumptions:

  • We assume that what happens to people depends in part on choices they make, and these choices must in some sense be “free” choices.  If we have no ability to choose then whatever success of failure we experience has nothing to do with anything we can call “ourselves” at all, but merely instinct, environment, and so on.
  • We must believe that genuine communication across time and space can occur.  Believing this, in turn, rests on the belief that much more unites us as humans than divides us.  Otherwise, either communication would be impossible (because we would not understand one another), or meaningless (if our differences would be so extreme the experience of others would have no relevance for us).

Such things may seem so commonplace that they do not need to be defended, but in fact, those who buy into certain postmodern assumptions about identity and language would likely not agree with the above propositions.

In Genesis we read that God made mankind in His own image.  I am not capable of exhausting the richness of what this means for humanity, but we established a couple key concepts in class:

  • In Genesis 1 we see God bringing order out of the void.  He could have created everything in an instant, but He chose six days/periods of time (whichever you prefer), each with a clear progression and pattern.  In Genesis 1 we see God separating night from day, dry land from sea, and so on.  He then separates mankind from the rest of His creation.  So too, we can find order and patterns in our surroundings.  History need not be “one thing after another” with no distinctions or meaning.
  • God acts with will and intentionality, and so too we act from more than mere instinct.  If we had no ability to choose and act with purpose, History would have no meaning because we could not learn from it or apply what we learned without it.

God gives all people who have ever the lived the gift of His image, and this is the good side of the coin regarding humanity.  But in Genesis 3 sin enters the picture, with terrible consequences.

  • Adam and Eve attempt to alienate themselves from the very Source of Life itself and hide from God.  While mankind retains the stamp of God’s image, I think it no coincidence that Genesis 5:3 mentions that Seth was born in Adam’s image.
  • Adam and Eve turn away from each other, refusing responsibility for their sin
  • Humanity experiences alienation from creation as a whole.

History rightly examines many facets of various civilizations, and the collapse of various people groups  have political, economic, cultural, and geographic explanations.  But sin lies at the root of all misery, and since we are all sinners, all of us share responsibility for whatever is wrong in the world.  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Both the image of God and the fall of man mean that there is far more that unites, rather than divides, every person who has ever lived.   Even an Egyptian god-king from thousands of years ago and our next door neighbor still share these same characteristics.  Our differences remain skin deep.  Rod Dreher (a Christian) recently interviewed Louis Betty, a scholar of the work of the modern French author Michael Houllebecq.  Neither Betty or Houllebecq profess any allegiance to Christianity, and may not profess a religious faith of any kind. But Betty’s observation about the belief of the image of God in man are revealing.  He commented,

More concretely, you don’t get white supremacy if you believe that every human being has a soul fashioned in God’s image. Neither do you get far-left racial and ethnic identitarianism. Both are symptoms of a metaphysical deficit. It’s very easy to start dividing people up into tribal categories; after all, humans vary massively in just about every imaginable quality. It’s really something of a miracle that we ever came up with a notion of common humanity at all! We have the Judeo-Christian heritage to thank for this in the West. This is something secular people ought to consider before making glib criticisms of traditional religion.

The full article is here for any who are interested.

We see the confluence of the image of God and the Fall in every life and in every civilization.  We all seek order and coherence.  We all seek to create distinctions (just as in Genesis 1) in our lives, giving precedence to some things over others, and so on.  In this way we image the God who made us.  Yet we also see that we often choose to embrace death to create our personal/civilizational kingdoms.  We will hate others to make the kind of order we wish for our own lives.  Nations may literally kill and destroy others to achieve the peace they desire.

1 Corinthians 15:56 states that, “the sting of death is sin.”  This order might surprise us–we might expect it to be reversed.  Adam sinned and brought death to himself and his descendants.  In many ways, it is our fear of death, of the diminution of the self, that leads us into sin, as 1 Corinthians states.  We cut each other off in traffic, grab the last cookie, and declare war to obtain resources in order to preserve and extend our earthly lives.  We obtain life only through surrender to death, i.e., “He who wishes to save his life must lose it” (Luke 9:24).

Other areas of Scripture show the importance of History.  Much of the Old Testament simply records events without editorial comment.  We can read of various kings of Israel, for example, and the Biblical authors do not always insert, “And God thought ‘x’ about the king.”  No doubt God means for us to figure it out on our own from the context, and from what we already know from reason, observation, experience, and other parts of Scripture.  If History is important to God in Scripture, we can conclude that History itself serves as a kind of revelation, a revelation that will teach us much about ourselves, and God Himself indirectly.

Apart from a Christian context, History, however interesting, would have no real meaning for us beyond mere entertainment.  We will keep returning to these foundational truths, for History makes no sense without them. I told the students that this class may have started in an unexpected way for them, but we cannot understand History without understanding mankind, and we cannot understand mankind without understanding who God is. Next week, we will attempt to understand what makes a “civilization,” and how civilizations function.

Blessings,

Dave Mathwin

The Stripping of the Altars

A friend of mine and I sometimes argue about A.I. He contends that it is literally impossible for the Singularity to happen. I agree with Jonathan Pageau, who stated that whether or not the Singularity “actually” happens won’t matter if people believe that it has happened. Our perception of reality trumps “reality” all the time, and then calls that reality into being. If you believe that you have an imaginary friend you act on that belief and shape your life around it. Those choices count much more than the fact that Billy the Rabbit has no actual physical existence.*

Perception obviously shapes historical analysis as well and can easily trump “facts on the ground.”

Sean McMeekin has written The Russian Revolution: A New History that challenges the version of events that I (and many others) learned in high school. Because of newly declassified documents available, McMeekin has solid footing for his conclusions. Textbooks told us that,

  • Russia was hopelessly backward and corrupt
  • The people were starving
  • The army wouldn’t fight in WW I, but the Czar made them anyway
  • That the people rose up spontaneously with the Bolsheviks, etc.

Naturally, the Left in Europe and America eagerly accepted this narrative–it was a narrative they very much wanted to be true.

We now know that

  • Bolsheviks paid the modern equivalent of hundreds of dollars per person per protest, which came direct from German financing
  • The Red Army in the Civil War (1918-1919) had lots of help from Sweden, it was not a purely popular movement
  • The Russian army in WW I actually fought well most of the time and had high morale until the Provisional Government made catastrophic errors after Czar Nicholas abdicated
  • Czarist Russia actually had a milder justice/police system than most any other comparable westernized country.

McMeekin points out perfectly well that a) Communism is bad, and b) Communists lied and manipulated to get into power, and then promptly dreadfully abused said power. But what this doesn’t tell us is why Lenin and Trotsky won and could maintain power, if they didn’t necessarily represent the people.

Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 attempts something similar. The standard narrative of the English Reformation generally assumes, that, yes–Henry VIII was a bit of wild boar, but Catholicism had reached a decrepit state and the laity, on the whole, wanted change. In some ways, then, the Reformation proved a blessing in disguise for Catholicism, as it spurred on their own revival. Duffy’s extensive research seeks to change our perception of the Catholic church in England leading up to the momentous decade of the 1530’s. Duffy combines copious research with an intimate and engaged style. One can see why this book won awards for historical writing in England. Duffy avoids any direct comments on the theological controversies that surround the book, but stays engaged as a writer through the ebb and flow of events he describes.

Duffy uses a few different lenses to make his points. Many assume that the laity must not have understood services in Latin (however much Latin was known in AD 1000, it was the language of scholars and clergy by the mid-15th century), and therefore disengaged themselves from liturgical life. With multiple types of sources, one in fact sees almost the opposite. Participation in church life on Sundays and other important feasts formed a crucial part of the lives of nearly everyone. Many laity gave gifts to churches not just of money, but of items for liturgical use. Indeed, in the English church at least, the clergy had responsibility for the adornment of the altar, but the laity for the nave of the church. Different sources indicate that the laity saw this not as imposition or burden imposed from the clergy, but as a privilege and a chance to take responsibility for the “their” church. We do not see a distant, “authoritarian” clergy in England in the century leading up to Henry VIII. We instead see partnership between clerical authority and the people.

Ah, but perhaps the laity blindly followed along to a service and a faith of which they had no understanding? Certain treatises or plays from the time do make a boorish cleric or layman the butt of fun for his lack of knowledge. Duffy cites a few examples of such things, but urges us not to make too much of such texts. We should not assume that such characters reflected standard fare. Such literary characters had comic effect precisely because they defied typical expectations. No one laughs at a man walking down the stairs, but if he tumbled down, that would be different.

Another standard narrative has the printing press prepping the ground for the Reformation by giving voices to those outside the theological and cultural mainstream. Once people read such material, they jumped on board with change. Again, Duffy pulls the reins. Indeed many printers had a good business selling books . . . with Catholic theological primers and prayer books topping the list. The “Book of Hours” (a compendium of prayers for different times of day based on the prayers recited by monastics) topped lists, selling thousands of copies and going through several editions for decades. More surprisingly, most of these books were written in Latin, not English. The people bought them either in spite of, or perhaps even because of, this fact.

Duffy speculates at length what this might mean. He points out that having the books themselves served as a mark of devotion. The books contained many pious illustrations as well. But good evidence exists that people knew the content and meaning of at least some of the psalms and prayers through repeption, participation in church life, and so on. In the post-printing press world we assume reading the only path to knowledge, but it ain’t necessarily so.

Having started the freight train of revisionist thought, Duffy (who keeps his own religious opinions unstated throughout the book) keeps going . . .

Many Reformation scholars assume that restriction of lay participation in religious life created a great need that reformers could exploit. Thus, the Reformation succeeds not so much through doctrinal change but by giving the laity new roles and responsibilities in their worship. Perhaps a grain of truth exists in this, but overall Duffy disagrees, citing numerous examples of popular devotions and practices that if anything, the laity foisted on the clergy. From Duffy’s perspective a healthy lay input of practice and devotion existed across England during Henry’s reign, which combined easily with the universal liturgical worship.

Ok, but surely the Catholicism of the time with all of its “smells and bells” must have emphasized a remote, distant, God, one we can access only through Mary and the saints, and so on. Wrong again. Duffy devotes significant space to the place of saints in late medieval religion, prevalent as it was. But this devotion to saints took nothing away from their sense of closeness to Christ. Both in formal liturgical worship and prayer, and in popular religious expressions (often in the form of “mystery plays”) the consistent emphasis came down on the side of Jesus as our brother, sharing in our humanity and sufferings, and so forth.

Duffy adds little new to our understanding of Henry VIII. We suspect that Henry broke from Catholicism for political reasons overwhelmingly, and Duffy’s research backs this view. Henry concerned himself exclusively with stability. He wanted to keep people quiet and so keep “traditional” religion. His problem lay in that to break with Rome, divorce Katherine, and marry Anne, he needed the support of religious leaders who wanted much more than to simply replace Henry with the Pope. Henry occupied an island by himself. Most wanted to stay Catholic. Others wanted more evangelical Protestantism. No one besides Henry’s wanted his solution–he fell “in between two stools.” And so, while he constantly had to reign in more zealous Protestants who stirred up trouble by changing too much too fast, he could not get rid of them and have his various marriages legitimated.

Some Catholics resisted openly, but I think that–whether Henry consciously intended this or no (I think not)–Henry’s regular reigning in of people like Cranmer and Cromwell gave Catholics hope that he would return to Catholicism. They might legitimately think that time favored them. Perhaps Henry’s ministers caused all the problems, and he might dismiss them any day now. In other words, “rocking the boat” might easily appear against their interests. In actuality, this movement of two steps forward, one step back, brought them further away from shore over time. This can explain the relative lack of resistance to Henry’s changes.

Edward VI reigned but a few years, though certainly all in a Protestant direction. Then, a truly Catholic Queen Mary followed, and it looked as if the temporizing strategy of most Catholics during Henry’s reign might pay off. As Duffy indicates, a truly fair picture of Mary Tudor’s (“Bloody Mary”) reign has yet to emerge.** Duffy shows that Mary tried temporizing to a degree herself. She did not immediately try and revert to the full Catholic liturgical rites, but instead first pushed things back to the state of things during her father’s reign. Again, Catholics could see things moving their way. But Mary’s short reign threw things decisively in favor of Protestantism, as Elizabeth came next.

Duffy shows us convincingly that the movement towards Protestantism never had majority support until Elizabeth’s reign. So we then must wonder why the English Reformation happened at all. A few theories exist:

  • Catholicism had grown corrupt, the laity desiring change, but kept in the dark by dumb, corrupt, obscurantist clerics. If one only wants to accept half of what Duffy claims, this view makes no sense of the actual evidence.
  • The people wanted more things that were distinctively English, as a form of rebellion against the cosmopolitan elitism of the late Renaissance. Thus, the English Reformation had more to do with native/national feeling than religious belief. But this won’t fly either–Duffy points out countless examples of English Catholic churches “localizing” certain practices and celebrations of saints–often ahead of the church hierarchy. Their practice of Catholicism had distinctive English elements. Besides, while the liturgy continued in Latin, numerous other religious works existed in English approved by the Church.
  • Catholicism remained strong, but societal elites, from the gentry on up, had grown distant from popular piety through the distribution of private prayer books and private family chapels. The English Reformation worked because Henry VIII appealed to the aristocrats of little piety with gifts of land, and to other sincerely religious elites who disdained the “vulgar” and distinctly physical practices of English Catholicism ca. 1500.

I have strong sympathy with this view, but Duffy disagrees with it for a few important reasons:

  • Many aristocrats made it a point to furnish churches with liturgical decorations and stayed involved with church life
  • Many aristocrats made a point to continue to fund the printing and distribution of Catholic materials.
  • Many aristocrats became central pillars of Catholic resistance, especially during the reigns of Elizabeth and James I.

At least we can say that the English Reformation, while supported by some aristocracy, did not primarily involve class divisions.

Duffy never offers a direct answer to the question of how exactly the marginalization of Catholicism happended, but he leaves some bread crumbs for us to follow. Part of the success of Protestantism involved time. The slow, steady move away from religious practice of 1530 sometimes changed course, but the overall direction favored Protestant innovations or simplifications. By the 1580’s only a minority of closet Catholics and the very old would remember “the way things were.” From a Catholic perspective, Protestants eventually cooked the frog in the pot.

Another subtle attack made deep inroads, one that piggy-backed with prevailing Renaissance humanist methodology. Catholics believe/d that holy water actually contains spiritual power and grace from God. It is not only or even primarily a mental reminder of one’s baptism. Holy images actually serve as a way to enter into the real presence of the saints, not just as a mental reminder that they once existed and led holy lives. Because Henry wanted to change and also not change things, many of his lieutenants attacked not the images themselves, or the use of holy water in itself, but their meaning and interpretation. For Henry’s reformers, such things served only to remind us of this or that. Their continued use provided continuity, but this new interpretation laid the foundations for their eventual removal. As the saying goes, if to appreciate the music you have to listen to the notes they are not playing, well, you can do that at home. To change the reason or the meaning of the action will effectively change the thing itself.^ The proof lies with the pudding . . . what Anglican church today uses holy water, incense, or venerates images as part of their worship?

I say that this piggy-backed on humanist methods because with the Reformation one saw a contemporaneous change in other areas. Renaissance humanists wanted things clean and tidy. They removed multi-colored stained glass in many cathedrals and replaced it with clear panes. They significantly curtailed the so-called “mystery plays” done by the laity, so prevalent in medieval times. Previous historians wrote with an eye towards myth and meaning, but starting around 1500 historians switched towards embracing exacting accuracy, and “fact.” The general trend for these scholars involved moving away from a “messy” physical/spiritual interaction towards the clean, unfettered world of the mind. Henry’s use of this trend put him squarely on the crest of the wave of deconstructing meaning that has only started to reverse itself within the last four or five years.

Duffy’s justly praised work leaves us with some uncomfortable questions.

Though this is a minor point, those committed to a view of “temporizing” with change have to face up to the fact that this strategy failed miserably for Catholics. Maybe it would have worked had a few things been different, but we know that temporizing failed. I have a natural sympathy with the dictum of Don Fabrizio Cabrera in The Leopard who states that, “we must change so that things stay the same.” Maybe sometimes this would work. But just as obviously, sometimes it fails, and one needs to hold the line at all costs. We should acknowledge that our preference for either prudent compromise or steely resolve comes from temperament, and examples of the prudence of both approaches litter the pages of history. Hopefully we can cultivate wisdom to know when we need one or the other. In the case of the English Reformation, even if Henry kept everything the same minus the Pope, well–it turns out you can’t have Catholicism without the Pope.

More substantively, The Stripping of the Altars may challenge one’s view of history, as it has mine. I would say that up until about 7-8 years ago, I leaned heavily on the side of history proceeding mainly from the bottom up. That is, I saw things happening because for better or worse, “the people,” or “the culture” brought it into being. Unless someone decisively challenges Duffy, this emphatically was not the case with the English Reformation. Rather, a few people close to power at the top managed within a generation to end centuries of belief and practice. This picture fits with emerging work on the Russian Revolution, and possibly the American Revolution as well. It fits with the aftermath of the Obergefell decision has had on our culture. It fits too with how people have responded to COVID, and how quickly the world fell in line. History may very well proceed from the top-down even in our more democratic age. For as much as Catholics here and there found bold or wily ways to resist change in pockets, they lacked cohesive national leadership.

Perhaps one should lean towards compromise most of the time. But, regardless of one’s convictions, every man, culture, and faith needs a solid center that will not budge when it encounters the world.

DM

*For example, if we make a progressive algorithm and feed it to a computer, and tell the computer to make decisions based on the algorithm–or–if we made decisions based on the computer algorithim–who has agency and volition in this scenario? I say that in the above scenario we act as is the computer has volition, for we follow its commands. This matters much more than the technical origins of the algorithm.

**If we look at strictly the numbers, Elizabeth persecuted Catholics far more than Mary did Protestants, though of course she reigned for a much longer time. As a further aside, the image we have of Mary owes much to John Foxe’s Foxe’s Christian Martyrs, an indication of how a particular image/book at the right time can sway centuries of opinion.

^I.e., if you change the meaning of marriage from a sacramental union showing forth salvation to something instituted primarily for human happiness, you end up with marriage subordinated to human happiness–and there are plenty of ways to be happy as a couple without marriage.

Bull Logic, Bear Result

I recently heard an interesting interview with author Paul Kingsnorth. Some years ago Kingsnorth was a prominent advocate for the environment.. He ceased his activism, though has kept most of his beliefs about the environmental and sociological issues western civilization faces. Kingsnorth also recently converted to Orthodox Christianity, which–while not the same as moving to Texas and becoming a Baptist–still puts him at odds with aspects of many environmental movements (for a few at least, Christianity is the cause of our environmental degradation with its teaching about man’s dominion over creation).

Again–Kingsnorth agrees that many problems exist. But he has come to believe that

  • Some of the solutions many advocate are in fact part of the problem. Technological advances will not save us–be those advances in carbon reduction, green energy, etc. To look to “Science” and “Progress” for help is to look to what got us in this mess in the first place. For example, electric cars are no doubt better for the environment than gasoline engines, but one still has to do a lot mining to get the materials for the batteries of those cars.
  • Activism spends too much time telling people what to do (which naturally provokes resistance) and not enough showing them how to do it.

More importantly, he added that

  • People may want to change, but our choices actually have very little “choice” in them. The whole concept of the “market” has helped create many of our environmental problems. But–all of our “stories” we tell ourselves involve the market. We market ourselves, and our causes, on social media and elsewhere. We seek to maximize ourselves just as we seek to get the best deal on a mattress.
  • So, in the end–change seems impossible within current framework.*

Kingsnorth has now dedicated himself to trying to create a different framework for himself and others through rediscovering old stories and crafting new ones, something he has done with his novels, The Wake, Beast, and Alexandria. Of course, I hope I have represented his views fairly–I encourage you to listen to him yourself.

Hearing Kingsnorth made me curious to try and explore the question of the market, and this led me to Harvey Cox’s The Market as God. I tend toward conservatism (whatever that means), so I thought it important to check out a more liberal voice on the question. A few aspects of Cox’s analysis raised my ire. He critiques aspects of the Christian tradition, which I’m fine with as far as it goes. Certain aspects of Christian tradition should come in for critique.** But heaven forbid that Cox put other religions under the same lens. For many on the left, what is “other” always stands superior to what is one’s own. But Cox showed nuance and thoughtfulness in other areas that helped me read on (such as his correct refusal to name Adam Smith as the patron of self-interest and unbridled capitalism). He picks some low-hanging fruit, but also explores deeper questions about where we find ourselves.

Most analyses of capitalism focus too much on surface questions, i.e., how much utility does the market have for society? Cox moves through this territory quickly. First, people will inevitably create markets. And, markets obviously accomplish many functions that benefit society. Cox acknowledges the persuasive power of arguments within the Christian tradition on behalf of the Market. Michael Novak, a conservative Catholic, argues that

  • God made man in His image, which gives mankind the capacity to create things of value
  • Societies should be constructed so that this God-given aspect of man can flourish
  • Thus, whatever impedes this creative faculty in man, be it burdensome regulation, crony capitalism, and so forth, should be removed.

Novak understands the problems of unbridled capitalism combined with a competitive spirit. He also traces the effects of markets on those in poverty. Increasing opportunities for all means increasing them for the poor. Novak need not say that capitalism works perfectly to rightly argue that, while it likely will increase economic inequality, it will also raise the standard of living for all. Capitalism will not raise everyone out of poverty, but it will raise some, which is always better than none. Critics of capitalism have to acknowledge the benefits it brings.

But what I like about Cox’s book is that he is not concerned to argue about the relative pro’s and con’s of capitalism. This debate has gone on ad nauseam in many other places. He wonders not what good the Market brings (it obviously brings many benefits) but what kind of a person a Market society creates.

To start, if the Market served as a deity it would need holy days, or “feasts.” And so we have Black Friday, Prime Day, the Christmas buying season, and so on. A religion needs precepts, articles of faith. Cox mentions the idea of “trickle-down” theories, and given his background, could have leaned on this hard. But I give him credit that he went deeper to foundational ideas, not just politically divisive ones on the surface. Cox sees that every religion needs a topography, a uniform landscape where people can enter at any place. A Baptist should be able to walk into more or less any Baptist church and feel comfortable to an extent at least. The Market seeks efficiency and maximizes opportunity. For Cox, Market “faith” means much more than trickle-down theories. The Market teaches us fundamentally that we must choose, but within a set of defined parameters. Cox writes,

The Market calls not just for a monochrome outer topography. It needs an internal predictability as well. It needs people open to conversion. The Market mentality within us must match the Market that surrounds us or else the vital connection will misfire. . . . because profit derives from the mass production of countless blouses, cars, and wristwatches, a certain uniformity of taste must be generated. The problem is that human beings are not the same . . . So the Market God needs to transform people what what they once were into people prepared to receive and act on its message. . . . They have to be reconfigured to want the same thing, with manageable variations in packaging, color, and flavor.

Perhaps this explains why the Market tends to take over territory that in its inception at least, had nothing to do with Market incentives. One immediately thinks of the Super Bowl, which many now watch for the commercials. The game itself is practically secondary for many viewers. Cox briefly traces the path of Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and of course, even Christmas itself, and how the Market inexorably wormed its way into how we “observe” such days. President’s Day, Memorial Day, and so on, have at least been partially transformed simply into long weekends with inevitable sales and opportunities to buy. This presence of the Market, akin to “omnipresence,” shows the deep power of Market ideology.

In light of this, liberals and progressives might face temptation to chortle on the moral high ground. But hold the phone . . . progressives gladly support the idea of corporations and organizations supporting their causes. In fact, I would argue that liberals/progressives do a much better job branding and yes, “marketing” their ideas to the culture. How else did they win the culture wars? Those on the left believe firmly that their choices define them. Their bodies are buyers in the domain of sexuality much more than conservatives. They would cry “foul” just as much as a free-market capitalist if government or culture at large restricted their freedom of choice, their freedom to “create” themselves in the market of ideas, and causes.

This is Kingsnorth’s insight. Nearly all of our discourse on the right and the left takes place within the framework of choice, opportunity and allowing us to maximize our ability to choose.

Cox holds back from saying that the Market rules all, but admits it comes close. He floats the possibility that faith in the Market god may have peaked around 2015-16. He cites data showing that Black Friday shopping has declined in recent years. This he attributes not to people shopping less, but to stores following the lead of market rationale of providing more opportunities to shoppers, thus the new trend of stores opening on Thanksgiving evening. The logic here works, of course–the Market loves more opportunities and openings–but that same logic also works against itself. Cox cites interviews with Black Friday pre-dawn shoppers. Many told reporters that they were not there for the deals so much as the spectacle, or the ritual, of Black Friday. If they got a cheap tv, great, but they came for the Black Friday experience. Without that experience, why come?

Cox wrote his book before peak Amazon and advent of Prime Day, which, following the logic of the Market, has expanded into multiple days. Nothing testifies to the Market in all its glory like Amazon. One can buy almost anything from almost anywhere, all without “wasting time” driving too and from different stories (full disclosure–I bought The Market as God used on Amazon for the amazing low price of $3.49, I think). But the problem is the same as the ones retailers face with Black Friday. The Market seeks to expand choice and possibility. Amazon, the current apotheosis of Market ideology, has followed this creed better than anyone else. But spread the butter too thin and you won’t notice it at all. Amazon has no embodied communal rituals, and religions cannot survive without them.

In the medieval period most markets existed within the vicinity of the great cathedrals. Some see in this a co-opting of religion, or an unholy partnership between religion and the market. Some foolish folk even go so far as to see profit as the driving force behind the building of cathedrals themselves. Cox pleasantly surprised me by seeing it differently. The point of the medievals locating markets near churches only partially had anything to do with the fact that churches existed in the center of towns. Rather, markets only really work when they know their place in a proper hierarchy, which is under the shadow of the Cross.

DM

*Kingsnorth has no issue with markets per se, but their omnipotence. I would not say that Kingsnorth is a pessimist outright, yet it seems that the main thrust of his recent writing focuses on preparing us for death, and hopefully, new life afterwards. No civilization lasts forever, and most succumb to their own internal logic reaching the end of the line. For example . . . most emissions and environmental problems come from China, and perhaps India. How can we stop this? Europe, Russia, and the U.S. went through the same process of industrialization and urban centralization in the late 19th-early 20th century. Doesn’t “fairness” indicate that they should get their turn as well? If not–would we fight a war to stop them? Aside from the monumental human cost, war would involve much more destruction to the environment than the current situation. We are stuck. If we stop, we will lose to China and others, and if we continue, we will all lose together. At least, this is one possible outcome.

**Cox has read Max Weber much more closely than I, and, unwittingly or no, he indirectly confirms some of Weber’s key ideas. It is eerily remarkable how many ‘founding fathers’ of the Market came from some kind of Calvinistic background. A connection must exist that I have yet to fully grasp.

Telegraph, the Change

When you teach the same classes year after year as I have, one starts to realize that what seems like great material one year seems to fall flat in another. Many reasons exist for this, some of them obvious, such as whether or not you taught the lesson on a Tuesday or a Friday, or at the beginning or the end of the day. Sometimes more mysterious factors present themselves, such as whether or not you have a critical mass of students interested in the topic.

Thankfully, some things work even if you teach it last period on the day before Christmas vacation, such as Assyrian tortures with 8th grade boys, and the Kennedy-Nixon debates. I am always impressed how students, with very little context or introduction, immediately pick up that “somethin’ ain’t right” with Nixon–setting aside the infamous sweat on his lower lip.

What Nixon gets wrong has nothing to do with what he says. Students note, too, that the debate, while it suffers somewhat from the medium of television, has some actual substance to it from both candidates. The problem lies deeper, in the “atmosphere” around Nixon.

At times I think that Marshal McCluhan, for all his brilliance, sees everything as a nail, armed as he is with his significant insight into how the “medium is the message.” But his comments about this seminal debate in 1960 led me to following him down a rabbit hole of sorts, and wondering if our current cultural angst has its roots in transformation of our media landscape.

In a famous interview McCluhan describes the differences between what he calls “hot” and “cool” mediums, saying,

Basically, a hot medium excludes and a cool medium includes. Hot media are high in completion, and low in audience participation. Cool media are high in participation. A Hot medium extends a single sense with high definition . . . A photography for example, is “hot” whereas a rough sketch cartoon is “cool.” Radio is a hot medium because it sharply and intensely provides a great amount of high definition auditory information that leaves little or nothing to be filled in by the audience. A lecture is hot, a seminar is cool.

He continues by suggesting that television is not even a strictly visual medium. Its low definition (here we must remember that McCluhan is speaking around 1968. He might think differently about today’s “high definition” tv’s) means that we the audience have to be “drawn in.” Those who come across “hot” rather than “cool” will put off their audience. He continues

Kennedy was the first tv president . . . . TV is an inherently cool medium, and Kennedy had a compatible coolness and indifference to power, bred of personal wealth, which allowed him to adapt fully to tv. [Without this] any candidate will electrocute himself on television–as Richard Nixon did in his disastrous debates with Kennedy. Nixon was essentially hot, he presents a high-definition, sharply defined image . . . that contributed to his reputation as a phony. . . . He didn’t project the cool aura of disinterest and objectivity that Kennedy emanated so effortlessly and engagingly.

McCluhan’s analysis explains why those who listened to the debate on the radio gave the edge to Nixon. It has nothing per se to do with the content of their messages, but the medium itself.* Nixon’s earnest and direct manner worked much better on radio. McCluhan makes clear in the interview that the process of our interaction with this new media would transform western society–a society built upon the printing press.

I think McCluhan overstates his case a bit, but his analysis of media and culture have a great deal of explanatory power. I will try to present him as best as I can, starting with a long excerpt from the interview (slightly edited for clarity by myself–the ‘M’ is McCluhan):


M: Oral cultures act and react simultaneously, whereas the capacity to act without reacting, without involvement, is the special gift of literate man.  Another basic characteristic of [pre-modern] man is that he lived in a world of acoustic space, which gave him a radically different concept of space-time relationships.

Q: Was phonetic literacy alone responsible for this shift in values from tribal ‘involvement’ to civilized detachment?

M: Yes.  Any culture is an order of sensory preferences, and in the tribal world, the senses of touch, taste, smell, and hearing were more developed.  Into this world, the phonetic alphabet fell like a bombshell . . . literacy put the eye above all else.  Linear, visual values replaced an integral communal interplay.  The writing of the Egyptians, Chinese, and Mayan were an extension of multiple senses–they gave pictorial expression to reality and used many signs to cover a wide range of data.  The achievement of phonics demands the separation of both sight and sound from their semantic and dramatic meanings in order to render speech visually.  

As knowledge is extended in alphabetic form, it is localized and fragmented into specialities, creating divisions of function, classes, nations.   The rich interplay of the senses is sacrificed.

Q: But aren’t their corresponding gains in insight to compensate for the loss of tribal values?

M: Literacy . . . creates people who are less complex and diverse.  . . . But he is also given a tremendous advantage over non-literate man, who is hamstrung by cultural pluralism–values that make the African as easy a prey for the European colonialist as the barbarian was for the Greeks and Romans.  Only alphabetic cultures ever succeeded in mastering connected linear sequences as a means of social organization. 

Q: Isn’t the thrust of your argument then, that the introduction of the phonetic alphabet was not progress, but a psychic and social disaster?

M: It was both.  . . . the old Greek myth has Cadmus, who brought the alphabet to man, sowing dragons teeth that sprang up from the earth as armed men. The age of print, which held sway from 1500-1900, had its obituary tapped out by the telegraph, the first of the new electric media, and further obsequies were registered by the perception of curved space and non-Euclidean mathematics in the early years of the century, which revived [pre-modern] man’s discontinuous space-time concepts–and which even Spengler dimly perceived as the death-knell of Western literate values.  The development of tv, film, and the computer have driven further nails into the coffin.  It is tv that is primarily responsible for ending the visual supremacy that characterized all mechanical technology.  

Q: But isn’t TV primarily a visual medium?

M: No, quite the opposite.  . . . The TV image is a mosaic mesh not only of horizontal lines but of millions of tiny dots, of which the viewer is only able to pick out 50 or 60 from which he shapes the image; thus he is constantly bringing himself into involvement with the screen and acting out a creative dialog with the iconoscope, which tattoos its message directly onto our skins.  Each viewer is thus an unconscious pointilist painter, like Seurat.  

Q: How is tv reshaping our political institutions? 

 
M: For one thing, it is creating an entirely new type of national leader, a man who is much more a tribal chieftain than a politician. 

In his The Medium is the Message McCluhan quotes a poem of Yeats,

Locke sank into a swoon;

The garden died;

God took the spinning jenny

Out of his side

McCluhan sees the man’s interaction with media thusly:

  • Pre-literate man was essentially oral. He lived in an sensory integrated world, and an “immediate” world. He lived in a world he could cohere into a totality of experience. His sense of space-time, how he got his information, etc. came within an embodied context.
  • True–a few unusual people might have been merchants who traveled a lot, whose sense of time and space might have been somewhat different, but these people were rare, on the fringe of society.
  • The printing press both mechanized information and intensified how we received it, “assuring the eye a position of total dominance in man’s sensorium. . . . The schism between thought and action was institutionalized, and fragmented man, first sundered by the alphabet, was at last diced into bite-sized tidbits.”

Commenting on the poem above, McCluhan writes, “Yeats presents Locke, the philosopher of linear and mechanical association, as hypnotized by his own image, but the “garden” of unified consciousness had ended.”

“Literate Man,” as McCluhan names western man from 1500-1900, valued highly the detachment cultivated by textual interaction. Indeed–we have to detach ourselves to a degree to read at all. We see the values of literate man producing “detached” scientific exploration and experimentation, promoting distance, toleration, and a political transformation away from the directly personal monarchies to impersonal democratic republics. Perhaps we can say that such values peaked in the late 18th century. We begin to see with 19th century Romanticism a yearning for a more holistic way of life. McCluhan’s focus stays on media, with

  • The invention of the telegraph for McCluhan was the beginning of the end of “Literate Man,” a point he admits to borrowing from the enigmatic Oswald Spengler. The telegraph both began the process of altering our perception of time and space, and made information more direct and immediate, a feature of pre-literate experience.
  • The radio followed suit quickly, then tv, etc. We saw cultural conflict and disintegration in the 1960’s because television accelerated the process of a cultural transference away from literate man. Our educational system offered all of the values of literate man, a complete mismatch with the desire for holistic integration our interaction with modern media produces.**
  • Had McCluhan lived to see the internet (some say he clearly predicted it), he would likely say that such instantly available means of breaking down time and space might very well put the nails in the coffin of Literate Man and cause a deep cultural division. Indeed, McCluhan’s analysis can shed light on the division between Gen X–the last generation not raised with the internet–and Millennials, etc. Many under 30 today care little for the Literate Man values that helped found our country, i.e., rational debate, give and take, etc. They want a more integrated communal experience.^

Our current political struggle, then, pits not Republicans against Democrats–who knows what it means to be a Republican or Democrat anyway now?–but against literate/printing press man values of privacy, debate, and individualism vs. the tribal/internet man values of community and integrated life. We see this conflict running through different aspects of our society, such as in journalism. The old journalistic ethic taught that the reporter should cultivate distance and a degree of objectivity. The new school of reporting seeks engagement, communal change, etc.

McCluhan admitted that early in his career he saw the decline of “Literate Man” as a moral catastrophe, but by the late 1960’s he committed himself to trying to observe (ironically, perhaps, a quintessential Literate Man pose) and not attach value judgments to his preferences. But with an additional 50 years of perspective on the influence of new media, I think we should venture some conclusions about its impact.

I agree that no absolute moral difference exists between Printing Press Man and Integrated/Tribal Man. McCluhan’s focus on the telegraph makes one realize that the technological/cultural changes many of us think are 15-20 years in the making are really 150 years old. McCluhan points out rightly that the advent of the printing press, industrialization, etc. into traditional societies was at least in part “a psychic and social disaster.” But he put less attention on the switch back the other way–it too will be experienced as a “disaster” by Literate Man for society to go back to Integrated Man.

I agree too that something mysterious exists with our relationship to media, which includes not just radio and the internet, but all of the ways in which we seek to extend our being, including our clothes. A meshing of man and media leads to a switch in perception and how we act. For example, our reaction to COVID had just as much to do with the media we use as it did with the disease itself. I am not saying that COVID is just the flu, but it is not the Black Plague either. Without online shopping, Zoom, etc. we would never have taken the measures we did with COVID. Some will say, “Thank goodness we had Zoom so we did not have to go into work, and more lives were saved.” Others, like myself, see something not so much sinister as deeply skewed. The media we use focuses our attention, and our view of the world is “made” from where we direct our attention. COVID and the internet worked symbiotically to form our decisions.

McCluhan rightly points out the many advantages of pre-modern societies. He saw us recapturing some of those values as our media landscape transformed. I wouldn’t mind a return of some pre-modern values. But contrary to McCluhan (if I understand him rightly), we don’t see these values returning. Or rather, we see them returning, but in a distorted way. No question, visiting a waterfall would be an “integrative” experience–sight, smell, touch, etc.–in ways that seeing the waterfall online would not. The continual availability of a fragmented online experience has not given us a holistic society but one where, according to some accounts, one in four young adults take some form of anti-depressant. McCluhan might say that this is exactly what we should expect when we ask kids to spend 7 hours a day in a detached, “Literate” environment when the media they use calls them to an entirely different way of life. I would perhaps argue that what we see now is a combination of

  • Literate Man reaching the end of its days
  • No good Integrated Man alternative available.

One can argue that there was an “Anti-Nature” strand in the history of Literate Man, with its extreme focus on linear thought and the eye. But so far, the new Integrated Man all in all shows no signs of actually wanting to create a holistic society. For example,

  • Many of the same environmentalists who want us to be closer to nature also tell us not to have children. But few other things are more “natural” than men and women getting married and having children. How can one speak of integration of our experience while excluding humanity from that experience?
  • Many advocates of an extreme individual fluidty/”rights” with their bodies (abortion, sexual differences, etc.) also are quite rigid about certain other areas around race, speech, etc.

Most all of us use the internet not as a tool of integration but escape. Television, in some ways at least, brought people together, i.e., we all watched “I Love Lucy,” “The Cosby Show,” and the Super Bowl.

Richard Rohlin noted that one can define conservatism simply as love of one’s parents. By that he meant our biological parents, but also our spiritual fathers, our culture, our past. We need not believe that our parents are perfect, or even particularly “good.” We love ourselves and hopefully know that we have deep flaws that need work, but we cannot build or change anything by starting with a void, a negative. America’s problem, as it relates to McCluhan, can be boiled down to

  • Conservatives should embrace tradition, but American “Conservatives” hearken back to a tradition of individually oriented, linear, and “cool” world. This is perhaps one reason why appeals to the past in American politics never quite seem to work, and only seem to further individualism.
  • Modern progressives seem to seek a more communal and holistic vision of society, which has the earmarks of “Tradition.” However, progressives tend to reject the past outright as evil. They seek the impossibility of a traditional society constructed out of revolutionary ideology.

If neither vision can succeed, then our solution has to lie beyond adaptation or understanding of our new media. McCluhan shows us where we are better than most, but he can’t say where we need to go.

Dave

*McCluhan commented about Lyndon Johnson in a spot-on analysis . . . “[Johnson] botched [tv] in the same way that Nixon did in 1960. He was too intense, too obsessed with making his audience love and revere him as father and teacher. Johnson became a stereotype–even a parody–of himself, and earned the same reputation as a phony that plagued Nixon for so long. The people wouldn’t have cared about Kennedy lying to them on tv, but they couldn’t stomach Johnson even when he told them the truth.”

He also noted how Nixon rehabilitated his image by changing his tv demeanor, starting with his appearance on the Jack Parr show in 1963. “In the recent [1968] election,” he comments, “it was Nixon who was cool and Humphrey who was hot.” Correctly, he noticed in 1968 that this was a mask for Nixon. His presidency would prove this the case. If there is anything one can say about Nixon–he was not someone who “invited people in.”

**We see the maddening apotheosis of literate man in the form of the ultra-scholar who only seeks to point out facts, and never wants to commit to a conclusion, never wants to integrate his knowledge into anything cohesive or final. As for McCluhan’s point about “immediacy” and “participation,” think of the impact of television on the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. Everyone could see the images, the marches, and participate to a degree in the “cultural moment.”

^Note the stereotype of the detached, unengaged Gen X’er, with slacker anti-heroes, i.e., The Breakfast Club and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, etc. — very different movies, but with the same overall theme. Today’s heroes tend to be about “family”–think Amazon’s series The Expanse and the Fast and Furious franchise.

The Bottom of the Mountain

“Whatever we may think of Alexander–whether Great or only lucky, a civilizer or a sociopath–most people do not regard him as a religious leader. And yet religion permeated all aspects of his career.”

This opening line of the book blurb for F.S. Naiden’s Soldier, Priest, and God: A Life of Alexander the Great, sucked me right in. I too had viewed Alexander nearly solely through a narrow political and moral lens, and had never really considered his religious views and acts as central to his successes and failures. The book was too long for me. I would have preferred if he assumed reader knowledge of the standard elements of the Alexander narrative. But what Naiden draws out from his expertise in ancient religious rituals helps us see Alexander afresh in certain ways.

Historians tend to think about Alexander along three standard deviations:

  • Great visionary and magnificent strategist, one of the truly “Great Men” that, naturally, and tragically, few could truly follow
  • Fantastic military leader with flawed political skills. After Gaugemela in 331 B.C., his political skills become more necessary than his military skills, and so his fortune waned and his decisions got worse
  • A thug and barbarian who lived for the chase and the kill. He never really changed, or “declined,”–he always was a killer and remained so until his death.

Soldier, Priest, and God tries to bypass all of these paradigms, though touches on each in turn. Naiden’s Alexander is a man who mastered much of the trappings and theater of Greek religion, which included

  • The hunt
  • Prowess in battle
  • A religious bond with his “Companions,”–most of whom were in the elite cavalry units.
  • Responding properly to suppliants

As he entered into the western part of the Persian empire, i.e., Asia Minor, he encountered many similar kinds of religious rituals and expectations. The common bonds and expectations between he and his men could hold in Asia Minor. But the religious terrain changed as Alexander left Babylon (his experience in Egypt had already put some strain between he and his men, but it could be viewed as a “one-off” on the margins), and he had to adopt entirely new religious forms and rituals to extend his conquest.

Here, Naiden tacitly argues, we have the central reason for Alexander’s failures after the death of Darius. Some examples of Naiden’s new insights . . .

Alexander’s men did not want to follow him into India-they wanted to go home. Some view this in “great man” terms–his men could not share Alexander’s vision. Some view this in political/managerial terms–his army signed on to punish Persia for invading Greece. Having accomplished this, their desire to return was entirely natural and “contractual.” Naiden splits the horns of this dilemma, focusing on the religious aspects of their travels east.

Following Alexander into the Hindu Kush meant far fewer spoils for the men. Some see the army as purely selfish here–hadn’t Alexander already made them rich? But sharing in the spoils formed a crucial part of the bonds of the “Companions.” The Companions were not just friends, as Philip had created a religious cult of sorts of the companions. It wasn’t just that going further east would mean more glory for Alexander and no stuff for his men. It meant a breaking of fellowship and religious ritual. This, perhaps more so than the army being homesick, or tired, led to Alexander having to turn back to Babylon.

Alexander killed Philotas for allegedly taking part in a conspiracy against him. Others see this as either Alexander’s crass political calculus, or a sign of megalomania, or paranoia. Naiden sees this action in religious terms.

  • Philotas was a Companion. To execute him on the flimsy grounds Alexander possessed could amount to oath-breaking by Alexander, a dangerous religious precedent. “Companionship” bound the two together religiously, not just fraternally.
  • Philotas did not admit his guilt but presented himself as a suppliant to Alexander and asked for mercy. True–not every suppliant had their request granted, but Philotas fit the bill of one who should normally have his request met.

Killing Philotas, and subsequently Philotas’ father Parmenio (likely one of the original Companions under Philip), should be seen through a religious lens and not primarily psychologically (Alexander is going crazy) or politically (politics is a dirty business, no getting around it, etc.).

We also get additional perspective on the death of Cleitus the Black. We know that he was killed largely because of the heavy drinking engaged by all during a party. We know too that Cleitus had in some ways just received a promotion. Alexander wanted him to leave the army, stay behind and serve as a governor/satrap of some territory. Why then was Cleitus so upset? Naiden points out that Alexander had not so much promoted Cleitus, but made him a subject of himself, as well as exiling him from the other Companions. The Companions shared in the spoils equally, and addressed each other as equals. As satrap, Cleitus would have to address Alexander as king and treat him as other satraps treated the King of Persia. Hence, the taunt of Cleitus (who had saved Alexander’s life at the battle of Granicus), “this is the hand that saved you on that day!” came not just from wounded pride, but as an accusation against Alexander’s religious conversion of sorts. Alexander had abandoned the “Equality” tenet of faith central to the Companions.

We can imagine this tension if we put in modern religious terms (though the parallels do fall short):

  • Imagine Alexander and his men are Baptists of a particular stripe. They grew up in Sunday school, reciting the “Baptist Faith and Message.” They join Alexander to punish Moslems who had tried to hurt other Baptists.
  • As they conquer, they link up with other Baptists. There are Southern Baptists, Regular Baptists, Primitive Baptists, and so on. They go to worship with these people, and while it might be a bit different, it is still familiar. All is good.
  • Flush with success, the go further. Now they meet more varieties of Protestants–some non-denominational churches, some Assemblies of God, etc. Ok, it’s getting a little weird, but we are still more or less on familiar ground.
  • Now we go to Egypt and–what!–Alexander seems to be joining in on a Catholic service. Ok, this is bad, but at least very few in the army saw this, and we don’t have to spread the news.
  • Now as we get into Bactria and India Alexander seems to be converting to something unrecognizable. He seems to be breaking with the Baptist Faith and Message and repudiating his past. Or is he? He might be converting to Catholicism or Islam, or what else, I have no idea. We can no longer worship with him. In hindsight, his killing of Philotas was a decisive move in this “conversion.”

Naiden points out that Alexander never officially becomes king of Persia, and attributes this largely to the religious ideology behind the Persian monarchy that Alexander could not quite share or, perhaps understand. As he went into Bactria and beyond, not only had he grown religiously distant from his men, but he could no longer understand or adapt to the religions he encountered. He found himself constantly torn between acting as a king to those he conquered, and as a Companion to his army. In the end he could not reconcile the two competing claims, and perhaps no one could.

Alexander stands as perhaps the most universal figure from the ancient world. Obviously the Greeks wrote about him, as did the Romans, but stories cropped up about him in India, Egypt, Israel, Byzantium, and within Islam as well. Naiden mentions this but fails to explore its meaning. Naiden has a remarkable ability to find facts and present a different perspective. But he never explores how and why most every ancient and pre-modern culture found in Alexander something universal. Though it will strike many as strange he most common image of Alexander has him not riding into battle on his famous horse, but ascending into the heavens, holding out meat so that large birds will carry him up into the sky.

This image comes from a medieval Russian cathedral:

The story comes from the famous Alexander Romance, and runs like so:

Then I [Alexander] began to ask myself if this place was really the end of the world, where the sky touched the earth.   I wanted to discover the truth, and so I gave orders to capture the two birds that we saw nearby.  They were very large, white birds, very strong but tame.  They did not fly away when they saw us.  Some soldiers climbed on their backs, hung on, and flew off with them.  The birds fed on carrion, so that they were attracted to our camp by our many dead horses.  

 I ordered that the birds be captured, and given no food for three days.  I had for myself a yoke constructed from wood and tied this to their throats.  Then I had an ox-skin made into a large bag, fixed it to the yoke, and climbed in.  I held two spears, each about 10 feet long, with horse meat on their tips.  At once the birds soared up to seize the meat, and I rose up with them into the air, until I thought I must be close to the sky.  I shivered all over due to the extreme cold.  

Soon a creature in the form of a man approached me and said, “O Alexander, you have not yet secured the whole earth, and are you now exploring the heavens?  Return to earth quickly, or you will become food for these birds.   Look down on earth, Alexander!”  I looked down, somewhat afraid, and I saw a great snake, curled up, and in the middle of the snake a tiny circle like a threshing-floor.  

Then my companion said to me, “Point your spear at the threshing-floor, for that is the world.  The snake is the sea that surrounds the world.”

Admonished by Providence above, I returned to earth, landing about seven days journey from my army.  I was now frozen and half-dead.  Where I landed I found one of my satraps under my command; borrowing 300 horses, I returned to my camp.  Now I have decided to make no more attempts at the impossible.  Farewell.  

Here we have the key to understanding the meaning of Alexander, not merely information about why he did or why he did it.

The person of a king becomes the focal point of “bodies.” For example, a single, jobless, man living alone in his parent’s basement has only himself as a “body.” His identity includes only himself–his identity includes nothing outside of himself. Thus, he grows stale. This unnatural condition perhaps explains why such men are usually overweight–if they cannot add “body” to themselves naturally they do so unnaturally.* Now imagine said man gets a job. He adds the identity of others to his own. If he gets married, now he has bound his identity to another person. This is why marriage has always been viewed as a religious rite and act–only God/the gods can effect this change in a person. Then the couple has children, and the man has added more “body” to himself. Then one day he has grandchildren and ascends to the level of “paterfamilias.” His “body” includes multiple families.**

A king of Macedon has more “body” than the average Macedonian. As we have seen, Macedonian kingship didn’t function like kingship elsewhere, either politically or religiously. Still, kingship has roots in every culture. But everyone knew that this kind of adding of body involved something of a risky and religious transformation–something akin to marriage. If one goes too far you risk losing everything. We can think of Alexander as holding folded laundry in his hand. He bends down to pick up a book, and can do that, then a plate, and it works, then a cup, etc.–but eventually one reaches a limit as to what you can add to oneself, and everything falls to the floor.

I have written before about the biblical image of the mountain in Genesis. Adam and Eve seek to add something to themselves that they should not. As a result they must descend down the paradisal mountain, where more multiplicity exists, and less unity. This leads to a fracturing of their being, and ultimately violence. This is King Solomon’s story as well. He receives great wisdom–the ability to take in knowledge from multiple sources and achieve penetrating insights (many scholars have noted that the biblical books traditionally ascribed to him contain tropes and fragments from cultures outside of Israel). But he goes too far–he strives for too much multiplicity, too much “adding of body,” as is evidenced by his hundreds of marriages to “foreign women.” This brings about the dissolution of his kingdom, the same result Alexander experienced after his own death. But before Alexander lost his kingdom, many would say he lost himself, with executions, massacres, and other erratic behavior. Like Solomon, he lost his own personal center in his attempt to add body to himself ad infinitum.

The story of the Ascension of Alexander hits on these same themes. He tries to ascend to a unity of the multiplicity through the multiplicity itself (note the use of body in the form of the meat to accomplish this). But it can never work this way. When you attempt to ascend via a Tower of Babel, you get sent back down.

The universality of this problem manifests itself today in these two kinds of people:

  • Conservatives who say that “all is lost” because some form of legislation slightly deviates from the interpretation given to Article III.3 of Constitution by John Adams in 1790. Here we have an excess of purity–which inevitably grows sterile. After all, most of the time you can pick up that extra sock.
  • Liberals who want to stretch anything and everything to fit anything and everything. No exception ever endangers the rule–everything can always be included. Here you have the flood–undifferentiated chaos with nothing holding anything together. Eventually you reach points of absurd contradiction, and then, conflict.^

Alexander’s life fits this tension between purity/unity and multiplicity:

  • He could take in Greece
  • He could take in Asia Minor
  • Perhaps he could just barely take in Egypt
  • But beyond that–though he could “eat” other kingdoms further east, they certainly didn’t agree with him.

Indeed, why invoke a blessing from God on food before we eat? We ask, in fact, for a kind of miracle–that things dead might be made life-giving. We too ask for help on the potentially treacherous path of making that which is “not us” a beneficial part of our being. We cannot have real unity without multiplicity, and vice-versa. But no blessing will save us from every deliberate choice to drink from the firehose and ingest foreign gods.

Dave

*Ok–so lots of married/”successful in life” might be overweight. But if you think of the “type” of the guy living in his parents’ basement, his “Platonic form,” you likely envision someone overweight.

**There are obvious connections between food/eating, sexuality, and ultimately, the eucharistic feast, that I cannot explore here due to my own shortcomings. Fortunately, the topic has been wonderfully mined by others. These connections may also explain why so many ancient kings were polygamous with marriage, and had concubines. It is an illegitimate expression of their legitimate function of being the focal point of “body” in the kingdom.

^As many have pointed out, such conflict seems inevitable between those who advocate for trans athletes, and those who advocate for women athletes. Their claims eventually reach a point of mutual exclusivity.

The Year 0

I have never been much for math but the concept of the ‘0’ has always intrigued me, perhaps because of its philosophical nature. How can one count or measure something that by definition has nothing to count or measure? The ancient Greeks, obsessed as they were with perfection, never came to terms with it. The Romans–ever practical by nature–used numbers for recording, bartering, etc. only, so they seemed to have no need for it, or never thought of it. Or perhaps, they feared and consciously avoided the 0, dimly perceiving its immense metaphysical weight.

In ancient cultures, from India, Egypt, China, and Meso-America, the ‘0’ had a differing but overall overlapping meaning. A ‘zero’ is the “space between” what we can measure. A zero dwells where reason cannot. As a practical example, the Roman Ptolemy apparently used a ‘0’ to measure the time of solar eclipses, when it was day, but not day, as one might interpret it. In China, a 0 functioned in writing as a “full stop.” One hits the reset button with the 0. More poetically, we might say that in calendars, a 0 functions as a beginning outside of time. The 0 creates time, or certainly at least, the meaning of time. Something has stopped, something else will begin, a new demarcation.

Over the last several years, we have seen the rise of BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) to mark our passage through time. This shift has happened without anyone in particular decreeing it so, an interesting fact in itself. I came across a description of this change here from a reputable encyclopedic website, where they make two basic claims:

  • That the change from BC/AD to BCE/CE has “nothing to do with removing Christ from the calendar and everything to do with historical accuracy, and
  • That calendars should be concerned only with scientific accuracy.

Regarding the second point, Robert Cargill writes,

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. According to multiple ancient sources, Herod died in 4 BCE. If the Gospel of Matthew is historically accurate, this would mean that Jesus of Nazareth was born on or before 4 BCE—meaning Jesus was born 4 BC (4 years Before Christ)! If we add to these 4 years the fact that Herod the Great did not die immediately after the birth of Jesus, but, according to Matthew, ordered the death of all children two years of age and younger in an attempt to kill Jesus, we can add an additional two years to the birth of Jesus, making his birth approximately 6 BCE. If we also add the missing year zero, it is most likely that, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born around 7 BCE!A

Thus, the BC/AD system is fundamentally flawed in that it misrepresents the birth of Jesus by approximately 7 years. This means that Jesus’ ministry did not begin around the year 30, but instead around the year 23. Likewise, Pentecost and the origin of the Christian Church should not be dated to “33 AD,” but to about 26 CE.

An even greater problem still exists with the BC/AD system: the year of Jesus’ birth differs depending on which Gospel one reads. While the Gospel of Matthew states in chapter 2:1 that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, the Gospel of Luke states in chapter 2:1-2 that Jesus was born during the first census of the rule of Quirinius, governor of Syria. According to ancient sources, the date of this census is about 6 CE. Thus, the Bible is internally inconsistent regarding the year of Jesus’ birth. (2)

The article explains that the phrase “Common Era” (instead of A.D.) should not be viewed as a bow to political correctness, for scholars in the 17th-19th century used the term when communicating with non-Christians. The article notes that,

Non-Christian scholars, especially, embraced the new designations because they could now communicate more easily with the Christian community. Jewish and Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist, scholars could retain their calendar but refer to events using the Gregorian Calendar as BCE and CE without compromising their own beliefs about the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. Since the BCE/CE designations corresponded to the Christian BC/AD, Christians could correspond back just as clearly. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, “common era” was used frequently with a respectful nod to Christianity in phrases such as “the common era of Christ” or “the common era of the Incarnation” until, by the late 20th century, it again reverted to simply “common era”.

All in all, the article’s author Josh Mark tells everyone to calm down. The Gregorian calendar is not really accurate, and the new designations make communication easier across cultures.

But I disagree. This change, now adopted across western-speak, portends a great deal. To make this case we first need to understand something of the nature of time itself.

As to the question, “What is time?” many things could be said. In his book The Ethics of Time John Pateleimon Manoussakis makes the observation that time should be primarily thought of as “movement.” We might assume this an obvious given, but some ancient philosophers thought movement essentially impossible. Zeno’s paradox suggests the impossibility of movement. Parmenides concurs, writing that Being

is simple, immovable, and without end. Nor was it ever, nor will it ever be; for now it is, all at once, one and continuous . . .

Heraclitus seems to promote movement, but his concept of flux remains so completely continuous, that we can truly said to go nowhere at all because we lack a solid reference point from which to measure. Without this, we cannot truly know if we have moved at all.

Anaxagoras broke this mold by claiming that Parmenides reached his conclusion by the movement of thinking, the movement of the “nous,” I.e., the “soul” or “heart” of a man (the word has various translations). This movement of our inmost being need not take us away from, but rather towards our perfection. To the question, “How does something become what is best for it?” Anaxagoras answered, “By being moved.” Plato tells us that Socrates joined in with Anaxagoras’ approach, and Manoussakis summarizes Socrates’ thoughts thusly:

If then one wishes to know the cause of each thing, why it comes to be or perishes or exists, one had to find what was the best way for it, the best way for it to be, or to be acted upon, or to act.

St. Maximus the Confessor, likely quite familiar with Greek philosophy, saw as one of its problematic manifestations this fundamental disbelief in movement through the idea of “eternal return.” Anaxagoras and Socrates broke free from its clutches to an extent, but lacked a definitive goal. For St. Maximus,

rest is not simply the cessation of motion, but its intensification, so with the human will whose willful self-surrender to God’s will finds its fulfillment, a fulfillment that will never know any satiety.

The Ethics of Time, p. 90

We can heartily agree with Anaxagoras, Plato/Socrates, and St. Maximus, but only if we know where we begin and where we should go. We can only discern “movement” with a fixed point of reference. With this in mind we can tackle the two main claims above.

Sure, the move to ‘BCE’ has some precedent, but it also obviously means to alter the Christian reference point. I have no love for the French revolutionaries, but at least they perfectly understood the meaning of time. When they wanted to change society, they changed the calendar, declaring the French Revolution itself as their ‘0’. To say that some in the 17th century used the term “Common Era” fails to answer the question. The question should be–what is meant by the change? Anyone who knows anything about the history of the west knows that a movement away from a strictly Christian conception of the world began in the 17th century. Scientists like Kepler wished to set aside a Christian way of speaking so that they could engage in where their treasure truly lay–scientific research and discovery.

Secondly, no calendar can have scientific accuracy as its main concern. Every philosopher and mathematician of repute acknowledges that the ‘0’ of any system has to lay outside the system itself. Every pre-modern dating system puts their ‘0’ outside of time, or at least on the margins of time and eternity. But one cannot use the tools of the system to measure outside of the system. Every calendar, then, is at root a religious enterprise, and not strictly scientific.

So too the switch to BCE/CE involves religion more than science.

We have yet to receive an explanation as to what this new reference point means by “common” (as in “Common Era”). I can think of two possibilities:

  • It is the first salvo of a move to reorient time in another direction. Obviously, “Common” is without meaning but we will replace “Common” with what we really mean when we have got rid of Christian conceptions of time. Or,
  • The meaning of time is that it really has no meaning. There is no real past for us to be concerned about–i.e., many made arguments in favor of gay marriage by simply stating, “Hey, it’s 2015.” In other words, “We live now and this is what we want to do, so . . . your objection is . . . ?”

This second view basically assumes that what matters is getting along and not thinking about such things like a ‘0’ or the meaning of time. Best to live our lives, watch what we want on Netflix, and buy what we want on Amazon.

All well and good . . . people have fought and killed each other over the concept of ‘0’ and the meaning of time, and people with the 2nd view are not likely to do this.

But we can’t live this way for long. We have to have a point of reference.

On a podcast that serves as the impetus for this post, the host and his guest made the observation that in many non-western countries, very few people know their birthdays. This perplexes many Americans–they can’t quite conceive of such a world. They obviously have the technical capacity to know this information, but it has no importance for them. When asked, “When were you born?” they get the quizzical response, “When my mother gave birth to me.” Their concept of themselves and their place in the world has no need of such precise information.

The fact that we have a hard time imagining our world without this information (think of how often we use our birthday as a means of identifying ourselves to companies, etc.) means that we may have found our own personal ‘0’ for our lives. Perhaps this explains why no one has put up much fuss over how we perceive the past. Our shared sense of things need not matter if we surmise the world began with us.*

Dave

*Evidence that birthday party celebrations may be what we truly have in common: