“All truth is God’s truth.”John Calvin, ca 1560
(Photo credit – Quotefancy)
How does a society change? How does a culture shift? How does the basic belief system of a whole civilization turn in a new direction?
The casual reader may not have great patience for this kind of discussion. But in the West of the 21st Century, we signify the importance of such questions by referring to how things now are versus how they used to be, as recently as forty or fifty years ago.
Previously, we have noted that change is one of the very few certainties we can all count on. Even if we sit still and do nothing, the Law of Entropy decrees that everything will decay and fall into ruin and corruption over time. That is a law of physics, of inevitable change.
For some things, this is a rapid process – like the cycle of life for many plants, insects, and micro-organisms. Even stars, solar-systems, and galaxies manifest this Law. It is universal. At the personal level, our bodies remind us of it as we age and find ourselves gradually losing strength, agility, flexibility, hair, teeth, potency, visual and auditory acuity, and even height! Looking at photos of our families and relatives – and ourselves – is a good reminder of all this and keeps/makes us suitably humbler than we might otherwise be. “The old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be.”
As we see this inexorable process in nature, so too in societies, cultures, and civilizations. Arnold Toynbee’s monumental A Study of History is still a great introduction to how we see entropy in action over centuries and millennia of human societies. Like an individual’s life, it ebbs and flows – Conception of a society and culture, Birth of a Civilization, Decline, Partial Recovery, Final Decline as morbidity takes hold, Demise (Death), as the forces of decay set in beyond the ability to stave them off any longer. Often, even usually in the case of civilizations, outside powers, waiting for the signs that the time is right, issue the coup de grace by mercifully (?) kicking in the door and knocking down the derelict structure so they can take what they want from the ruins and expand or start their own time in the sun.
We describe the pinnacle of a civilization/culture/society’s existence and achievements as its “Golden Age”, and the later “Recovery” phase after a period of initial decline as its “Silver Age”. Humanity has also always yearned for an illusory “Utopian Age” – the time of the reign of the gods, of the heroes, of the legendary supremely virtuous founders who inspire us still with their example.
A civilization’s greatest flourishing happens its Golden Age, producing the greatest thought, the greatest art, the best and most beneficent rulers, the most equitable overall prosperity, an era of unparalleled peace and security, etc. When this departs, as it inevitably must, following generations hark back to it and to its great people with deep longing, drawing inspiration from them.
As in the film Gladiator when the old Emperor Marcus Aurelius says in his secret conversation with General Maximus, “There was once a dream that was Rome. It was so fragile that you could only whisper it…” our Utopias stir us with some deeper spiritual vision, so fleeting but so real, moving like a chimera in and out of our awareness that, as unreal as it is, it is still more meaningful than the “real” .
We in the progressive West live double-mindedly, with divided souls. We serve two masters trying desperately to please/serve both. We have self-induced amnesia about how that works out in the end. We have seen this saying before: “Nobody can serve two masters. Otherwise, they will either hate the first and love the second, or be devoted to the first and despise the second. You can’t serve both the Creator and wealth.” (Matthew’s Gospel in the New Testament, chapter 6, verse 24) It is from Jesus of Nazareth, historically the West’s once most revered figure.
We are riven between the lust for an ever greater degree of material comfort and pleasure built on a foundation of predatory capitalism, and, on the other track, dreaming of a Utopia of perfect harmony of rights and individual liberties coupled with responsible behaviour towards everyone regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, religious belief, etc., etc. The list of special status keeps lengthening by the year as everyone with some claim to exclusion comes to the table for recognition.
Buried in our Jungian collective memory and our civilization’s foundations there is an old dream. We now see and hear only its “whisper” as Marcus Aurelius put it. Its ghost is fading in and out of our ability to perceive it. It was the dream of a Christian world and a truly Christian society. Saul of Tarsus (the Apostle Paul), its earliest ideologue, described its inclusiveness in two ways, like the double-aged Roman sword of his time, a razor-sharp instrument that cut both ways equally.
“There is no longer Jew nor Greek; there is no longer slave nor free; there is no longer “male nor female”; you are all one in the Messiah, Jesus.” (New Testament, Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, chapter 3, verse 28.)
And then, “For there is no distinction: all sinned, and fell short of God’s glory…” (Letter to the Romans, chapter 3, verse 22b-23)
For more than a thousand years, the divide in the West’s soul created the dream of “Christendom” on the one hand while still lured and divided by the old habits of heart and mind of power, greed, and lust. The cynics, or perhaps realists, have always had plenty of ammunition to question the dream of the coming of the Kingdom of Christ in the warp and woof of human history – Christendom!
What brought that hard-fought battle for the soul of a civilization to a crescendo was the evidence of spreading rot at and in the heart of the official institution that stood as visible sign of the presence of Messiah on earth – the Church. The “Body of Christ on earth” – the Church – seemed itself to have succumbed to the three great temptations – power, greed, and lust – at least in its upper hierarchy, and the calls for purging of the sickness seemed to fall on deaf ears.
Finally, the most desperate of those seeking for a return to “first love” decided to challenge the very order of the Christendom which had emerged in place of the “peaceable Kingdom of Messiah”. That Kingdom facsimile was built as a hybrid of what Jesus and Paul exampled and taught. The old ways of power and control inherited from the Roman era with Roman-styled concepts of how to create conformity through the use of “this age’s” methods had taken hold. It had fallen far from “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female”.
We will not retell the long and complex story of the West’s weaving, sometimes staggering dance from right to left, longing after a sort of purer, cleaner “Christendom” and veering towards the other ditch of “wipe the slate clean and find a new way forward towards the “whisper””. Suffice it to say that after a very complicated “civil war of Christendom” that lasted about two hundred years (we will arbitrarily say from ca 1450-1650CE), the idea of Christendom itself was fading to chimera status.
In the 17th Century, thinking movers and shakers of a new sort emerged, proposing that the old Greco-Roman ideal of Reason, used now with the new methodology of Scientific method and logic, could show the way forward, could propel the West out of its delusion of “Christ-on-on-earth-in-his-people” being the way to create the longed for Utopia of harmony, unity, and liberty. But “Christendom” did not “go gently into that good night” and kept reappearing at the meeker, national scale rather than as a remodeled Roman imperialism. True disciples and believers sought to create smaller-scale models – a “City on a hill”, a “lamp on a lamp-stand” to give light to the whole house of fragmented Christendom.
One line of this thinking was that it could be better done in “the New World” west across the Atlantic if you just started with the right set of dedicated, committed people. Experiments of this sort were set up in New England, New France (Ville-Marie), and New Spain. Some were even tried in the Old World in areas less under the sway of conformist Imperial or Royal tyrants – (the Mennonites, Hutterites, Moravians, etc.) Idealist Roman Catholic attempts were made too, inspired by Jesuits to large degree.
The divergent Western path followed the new “Enlightened” philosophes, arguing and persuading that, however reformed, the old superstitions could not take us out of the darkness. These must be set aside all together. God could be kept on as a sort of magnanimous cosmic clock-maker who set out the laws of existence, but left the outworking of our sojourn in the Cosmic drama to us, to be done within his discoverable parameters within His/Its universal benevolence, justice, and equity. These Enlightenment “Deists” were the old Roman Stoics reprised.
The general target in all these notions, schemes, and attempts at implementation of the Great Dream was the “whisper”, the here-again-gone-again chimera of the ideal age and society of universal harmony and justice. The ideal of “progress” was born to indicate moving towards the goal at long last.
The game was on. Whose way would yield the most results – the team of Scientific Reason and Progress, or the teams of the model “City on the Hill, the New Jerusalem”?
Who would win the reins of influence and power to direct the future of the West?
TO BE CONTINUED