The Third Way, 44: Kohelet 8 – Judgment

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“Here is the conclusion, now that you have heard everything: fear God, and keep his commands/principles/ways of living; that is what being human is all about.  For God will bring to judgment everything we do, including every secret, whether good or bad.”

Kohelet 12: 13 – Complete Jewish Bible

“Teachers who offer you the ultimate answers do not possess the ultimate answers, for if they did, they would know that the ultimate answers cannot be given, they can only be received.”

Tom Robbins , 20th Century American novelist

We have observed that the ancient sage, Kohelet-Solomon, sounds and reads uncannily like a postmodernist apart from one deviation: he does not lapse into existential despair or let his cynical realism overwhelm his underlying wisdom.  In this closing instalment, we consider his final word on keeping things in healthy perspective: there is a Creator, despite all appearance to the contrary, and this Creator “will bring judgment to everything we do, including every secret, whether good or bad.”

Thus, as he ends his Zola-like[i] survey of the world as it is and has been through all recorded history, he is out of sync with our age’s equivocation about ultimate reality.  Or rather, we are out of sync with the wisdom of the millennia, smug in our conceit of being devoted disciples of reason and science without superstition.

Unlike us, Kohelet does not shrug and say there is no such thing as final truth.  He does not cop out of the quest by saying that truth is whatever you happen to decide it is for you.  He does not commit intellectual hara-kiri with the patently absurd affirmation that everyone has a right (a duty?) to “find their own truth” (a statement that no one really believes in practice), as if there can validly be seven billion different all equally valid versions of “truth”.  Kohelet baldly declares what, in their heart of hearts, almost everyone knows:there are real, unavoidable absolutes, however much we would like to deny and forget them.

Robbins suggests that those who want to compel us to believe in some ultimate answer that they have for us are really trying to convince themselves of it via the back door.  After all, we will take a faith-based position, by hook or by crook, consciously or unconsciously.  Those who rage about others accepting “their chosen truth” are covering and smothering their own doubt by seeking reassurance that, “If I can get others to accept this, it must really be true.”  But, really, “ultimate answers cannot be given, they can only be received.”

We spend most of our lives running from inevitable truths, such as we are all going to die and that, as Kohelet put it, despite death lurking and creeping up on us, there is one truth even prior to that one: we are all born into a world over which we exercise little control.  The when, where, and by whom we came to be is never in our hands.  Neither do we have a lot of control over most of the wider exterior context of our lives.  Our only “true” area of partial control is in our responses to what comes our way, and to the things we find churning in our souls as a result.  Our actions flow from these responses and are our way of exerting some control.  But we cannot control the responses of others to our actions.  Even in this, our feeble bodies, limited senses, and fallible minds too often betray us.

Kohelet-Solomon, in his time a man of great power as the world measures such things, does not issue a kingly decree or prophetic declaration about what to believe.  As he might have put it, there may be a proper time and place for such things, but no decree can resolve “what being human is all about”.  “Ultimate answers can only be received”; it takes a revelation, an unveiling of the hidden, of the thing we missed as it passed us by or as we passed by it without seeing, hearing, and understanding.

To search into such deep things it takes humility instead of our culture’s intellectual bravado and hubris.  We must begin with two “ultimate questions”: “What does it mean to be human?” and “How can ultimate answers be received?”  But surely by now we can answer them via the scientific method, as the West’s great (or at least most widely acclaimed) luminaries have told us since the mid-1600s.  Will not clever reasoning in philosophy and proper research in psychology and the hard sciences at last give us the essential insights to finally solve the mystery of who and what we are and why we are here in the first place?  Could we not then formulate scientific social and educational methods to get everyone in line with this “truth”?

Imposition of “truth”, even disguised as science, has never worked in the past, nor is it at all likely to work in the future.  Remember the pseudo-science of Nazism, Communism, eugenics (genetic engineering is alive and well), racism, etc?  All claim science as their father—using euphemisms like “scientific socialism” or the “economic laws” of Capitalism.  As Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha, another very great ancient sage, said, “The enlightened are not themselves the way, they can only show the way.”  (There is one probable exception to this aphorism, but of that another time.)  The way must be shown and exemplified, but the invitation to enter it and live by it must be received as a gift.

For almost four centuries the West has boxed “Enlightenment” into a matter of reason and science.  Like all tools, these two can be and have been used to do great harm as well as much good.  Scientists can discover how things are done.  They can even calibrate how things interact and behave with great accuracy, but they always fail to explain why they work that way, why they came to be as they are.  The actual marvel of being, let alone of being as we know it, is so finely balanced that it defies all probability, it escapes their (and our) grasp.  Insistent and much inflated pretentions that we actually explain why  things are as they are by describing what happens and how it happens persist nonetheless. 

Engineers can use what scientists have revealed about how things work and what to expect from them to design and build amazing things offering all manner of easier access to necessities and conveniences.  But scientists and engineers also give us addictive drugs, gas chambers, bombs, and all manner of nefarious contrivances.  It is not a question of human ability, but of the human heart and soul and why it so readily turns to “the dark side”.

Without pretention that he can explain what his mind cannot fathom, Kohelet offers a very few simple pieces of advice about finding a path through life which offers hope and comfort: (1) Fear God; (2) behave like a human is supposed to by living according to your Creator’s design and purpose; (3) live in awareness that everything, even the most secret things, that we do and say will be judged/weighed/evaluated by the Creator who made us.  Earlier he had also advised his hearers to “remember your Creator in your youth”, i.e., start practising #s 1, 2, and 3 while you’re young enough to make them a pattern for life.  Because, if you wait till you’re too old, you may well never start, and you will end up as an ultimate fool.

Kohelet’s definition of a “fool” is quite simple: a fool denies there is a Creator and therefore denies who and what he/she is at the most foundational level.  There is no hope for any ultimate wisdom or answer for such a person.  It is not about IQ or any other measure of intelligence.  Neither is it about level of education or status within the academic, social, political, cultural, or financial pantheon, however much any individual may ascend in the eyes of the world in any of those domains. 

It is about one very simple thing: do you really understand what being human is about, where it starts?  For if you completely miss the point of departure, you will journey into complete and utter futility.  This is when it all becomes “Meaningless!  Meaningless!  Everything is meaningless!”?  Kohelet’s great service to us and every generation since his time is to guide us through that journey into the depths of meaninglessness and futility and out the other side.  That is the essence of what Kohelet has described for us so well in this incredibly poignant treatise. 

Quite simply, you will have proved a complete fool if you take the wrong bus, train, or plane and end up in spiritual oblivion and present-life hopelessness.  That is why, in another place in this essay, Kohelet quips, “Better to be a live dog than a dead lion.”  For the “dog” still has hope that he/she may yet come back to the right departure point and start on the right journey.

In the 21st Century, we have all become a mixture of moderns and postmoderns.  As such we have become very adept at creating terms and scenarios about finding personal meaning, “self-actualizing”, and declaring who we choose to be to the rest of the world.  Such declarations are mostly about what we imagine we have a right to in our ultralized version of individual rights.  For some, it is a declaration about group rights within which we shelter as individuals. 

From our assumed position of (self-declared) rightness (the new way of being self-righteous, after all), we can affirm that no one else can deny whatever we choose to say and claim about ourselves, no matter how outlandish it may ultimately be.  After all, “It’s all about me!”  At least, we strive mightily to make it so, knowing very well in our souls that all our personal and group yelling “won’t make it so”.  All my bombastic wand-waving will still not make a thorn tree into a fig-tree, as another ancient sage, Yeshua ben-Yosef of Nazareth, once put it.

Kohelet’s wisdom has never been outdated.  It stands as strong and solid today as it did when he first recited it to the cynics and skeptics of his own time.  Hear him once more: “Being human starts, and ultimately ends, with knowing we have a Creator.  The Creator has made us to live and care for His/Her world according to the “commands, ways, principles, manner of being” the Creator has established.  “Being human” can only be achieved within these simple parameters.” (My paraphrase, of course.) 

There is just one final, quite sobering bit at the end of these priceless pearls of wisdom Kohelet leaves us with.  If you are like me, you feel quite uncomfortable with “For God will bring to judgment everything we do, including every secret, whether good or bad.”  But I cannot escape the niggling suspicion that even this bit is part of the bedrock I need.  It pushes me to endeavour to live the balanced, fruitful life to which the Creator calls us all.  If, as I believe, we are those whom He/She made in His/Her image to steward the amazing gift of life on our dazzling jewel of a planet, how dare we do otherwise?


[i]  Emile Zola, great French novelist of the Realist school.

The Third Way, 43: Kohelet, 7 – Pascal and Kohelet

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“All truth is God’s truth.”

Clement of Alexandria, ca. 200 CE

“The worship of novelty is closely related to belief in inevitable progress.  The assumption that the new will be better than the old follows naturally from that presupposition.  The extraordinary thing is that it survives in the face of irresistible evidence from every auction room that in a dozen departments of life the new just cannot match the old.  Where is the instrument maker who can produce a violin to match those made by Antonio Stradivari three hundred and fifty years ago?  Where is the writer of today who can be classed with Shakespeare, Dante or Homer?”

Harry Blamires, The post Christian Mind. (Vine Books, Servant Pulications, 1999), p. 91.

Kohelet-Solomon, our ancient sage and anachronistic guide to post-modernism, has been leading us all over the intellectual and worldview map.  Like an existentialist filled with angst, he laments the seeming futility of everything that is and has ever been. Yet somehow he still affirms that there is a Creator who holds it all together and who will someday bring everything and everyone to account.  But then he lapses into his prototype of post-modern scepticism, “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.  They have no further reward and even their name is forgotten.” (chapter 9, verse 5a).

He illogically follows that with “Go and eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. . . . Enjoy life with your wife [mate, spouse] whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. . . . Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” (chapter 9, verses 5-10)  He seems to believe that death is the end of personal existence, but, nevertheless, says there is an infinite Creator-Judge whom we should take into account in choosing how we live and treat one another.

Postmodern response: if it is really all meaningless, ultimately futile, and of no particular benefit to strive to be a good person except to avoid being caught and punished by the authorities, then taking God into account as a factor makes no sense.  If death is the end of existence (except perhaps for God, if there is one), why shouldn’t I just be an Epicurean and “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow I die”?  That is what Kohelet seems to say in just slightly different words—like Epicurus 800 years later suggesting that there is still an element of proper order, boundaries, and morality involved.  “Enjoy life with the wife [spouse] of your youth. . . . whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. . .”

Perhaps Solomon-Kohelet and Epicurus needed to meet someone like Blaise Pascal (1623-1662 CE).  In his Pensées, Pascal reflects on discussions he had with skeptics and atheists of his own day (the earliest proponents of the Enlightenment, such as the Deist Descartes) that even if you don’t believe there is a Creator and Divine Judge, living a moral and upright life is still a road to greater personal happiness.  For whether you hold with God or not, you cannot escape your conscience, nor can you escape the shame and ostracism of others for reprehensible behaviour.  And if that is still not enough to deter outright amoral hedonism, which he noted was rampant among the young and the trendy set of his time (there truly is “nothing new under the sun”), there is the increasing likelihood of dying an early death and finding nothing more than momentary pleasure in this brief life, with it ending full of remorse at having added nothing of worth to the world. 

Like Solomon-Kohelet, Pascal sounds remarkably contemporary with our own time in his address to the skeptics and thrill seekers of his day, always running to some party or flashy event, always trying to outdo their peers in fashion and novelties (see Blamires above), always drinking and philandering, oblivious to the reality that they were in fact gambling with their souls’ destiny in eternity, as well as establishing themselves as socially worthless persons in the here and now.  And all this does not take into consideration that they were participating in the ruination of other lives in the process.

Pascal was a child-prodigy, a renowned scientific and mathematical genius (still much studied) before he became a passionate Christian at age thirty following a near-death experience.  His precocious career-fame gave him a platform to speak about the disastrous spiritual condition of his society.  Part of his critique was of the entrenched religious hypocrisy he found all around him in both fashionable society and Church hierarchy, including the foremost intellectuals in both spheres who spent their time justifying practices and doctrines which were in fact crippling society and the Church’s witness.  Once more we are reminded of Kohelet’s observation that “What is has already been, and what has been will be repeated again.” Pascal’s treatise, Provincial Letters, was a reasoned, brilliant and easy to read excoriation of these faults and a massive best-seller for the time (over 200 000 copies sold at a time when the reading public in France numbered perhaps two million).  The Pope condemned it and ordered it banned and all copies burned, so it must have hit home very hard.

Perhaps what brings Pascal closest to Kohelet, our guide in this series of reflections, is what has been called “Pascal’s Wager” (found in Pensées).  This argument was certainly used orally by Pascal during his lifetime in his discussions and comments among his peers about the state of affairs in his society.  It is still a brilliant piece of apologetic, although modern philosophers and anti-theists have long since discounted its validity, on rather dubious grounds one might add.  One suspects that, in their eagerness to shove it into some dark corner lest it disturb them too much, we are hearing the postmodern scientific and philosophic equivalent of Hamlet’s soto voce comment about Ophelia’s remonstrations that what he had said to her was not true, “The lady doth protest too much.”

The following summary of the “wager” will not do it justice[i], but roughly it goes like this:

“You say there is no Creator to whom you will ever have to give an account, and that when death comes, you will simply go into oblivion.  Thus there is no reason to be concerned with the consequences of your selfish and even brutish behaviour, let alone your milder and most secret indulgences, unless you attract the attention of the law and lose your freedom to do as you please.  As long as you avoid this extreme, you can do whatever you fancy and spend your time, energy, and wealth pleasuring yourself with whatever maximizes your enjoyment while pursuing whatever you conceive happiness to be.

“Now, you may be right (although I certainly don’t think so).  If you are, when you die you will never actually know, because when you die you will no longer know or be able to know anything at all.

“However, the possibility that you may actually be wrong is at least as strong as the probability of the option you have chosen.  After all, no one ever has ever returned to tell us what, if anything, actually transpires after death.  Or so we are told ad nauseum.

“Thus, the choice of how to live your life becomes a sort of wager, a gamble.  The odds of making the wrong choice about where you are headed are in fact 50/50.  However impressive, science cannot help you here, nor can philosophy, at least not if it is merely a tool you employ to justify all your self-centered behaviour.  In the end, it is a question of faith. 

Your faith tells you that you need not fear any god or God to whom you will give an account for the things you have done, said, and thought during your very short time on this earth.  But you really do not know whether you are right or wrong.  You are taking a great gamble, like staking everything, absolutely everything, on a single flip of a coin.

My faith tells me that there is a Creator, a Being whom I will face when I die, and who will call me to answer for what I have done, said, and thought, and for what I have not done but should have, etc.  But my faith also tells me that this Being is not only just, but merciful, compassionate, and loving.  He does not desire for me to go into the fires of condemnation and eternal separation from His love.  Therefore, He offers me forgiveness and pardon.  He points me to the One who came to open the way to His love, and if I will turn to that One, the One who actually did rise from death, I too can be with Him for eternity.

“But in your innermost soul you already know that you have this choice.  My question for you is, “Are you willing to wager your eternal destiny on the one in two chance that you are actually right?”  You say that you are, but consider the terrible shock you may well experience when you arrive face to face with the one you say either does not exist or who made you with no greater nature than to die like an animal and cease to be forever.  What then will you have to say in your own justification?

“I, on the other hand, am willing to wager that this Being whom you scorn or say is imaginary will be there when I die, and that He will receive me according to His mercy, grace, and compassion in light of my faith.  What have I gained if I have chosen well?  Everything! An eternity so full of wonder and love that it is beyond any words or imagination to express.

“If, perchance, I am proven wrong, what have I lost in spending my life living according to the faith and principles which flow from my faith?  Nothing! Nothing in the next existence because it is not there to lose.  And nothing of real worth in this realm.  By living out my faith and principles in this realm, I will have ultimately given hope and love and care to some, and even myself.  And that is worth something right now. I will have known the joy there is in giving myself for others.  In contrast, the life centered on self-fulfilment finds itself empty and remorseful in the end.

“You may protest, “One may live a good life without bowing to a fable or myth of a Supreme Judge waiting on the other side.”  I admit, it is not entirely impossible to live well according to high principles because it is good for oneself if others are helped by what we do for them.  But the motive is still to benefit myself for my own ultimate peace and sense of well-being.  And then, at the end, should I discover that the Judge is not a fable, His question for me will be “Why did you despise Me? All I asked was for you to live well for love of Me and others rather than for your own benefit.”

“My friend, you cannot avoid this wager; you cannot escape it, whatever you may think.  Indeed, you make it every day you do not choose to accept the offer of free grace and pardon which remains on the table till your dying breath.  But when you have taken that breath, the offer has gone forever.  You may now make light of it, and you may amuse and distract yourself to avoid facing it.  But whether you wager or not, you have wagered.  And the ante you have put on the table is your eternal soul.  The coin is in the air; how will you call it?  A word of caution: making no call is the same as saying “No” to the offer lying on the table, and to the One who had made the offer.”

In our conclusion to Kohelet’s ancient reflections about meaning in a universe which seems totally futile, we will find that the ancient sage was rather more in tune and sympathy with M. Pascal than first meets the eye.


[i]  Pascal died far too prematurely at age 39.  Pascal’s mastery of written French dazzled his contemporaries and inspired later writers as different from him as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire.  He was called “le Maître”. Some have called him “the Cicero of French”. His French was so articulate, clear, and beautiful stylistically that he has served as a model ever since and greatly influenced the development of French prose writing.  The Académie Française often refers to him in determining the best usage.

The Third Way, 42: Kohelet, 6 – “Folly is in their hearts”

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“Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?  When things are going well, enjoy yourself; but when things are going badly, consider that God made the one alongside the other, so that people would learn nothing of their futures.”

Kohelet 7: 13, 14 (Complete Jewish Bible)

“This state of affairs has led to three things in particular which I see as characterizing the new problem of evil.  First, we ignore evil when it doesn’t hit us in the face.  Second, we are surprised by evil when it does.  Third, we react in immature and dangerous ways as a result.”

N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God.  (IVP Books, 2006), pp. 23-4.

Bishop Wright refers to the “new problem of evil”.  By this, he does not mean that evil is a new problem.  In the preamble to this statement he explains that the old problem has taken on a very new twist in the last two centuries.  Modern/post-modern humans are continually astonished at the manifest “wickedness, roguery, and rascality” (see Embersley, quoted in the previous instalment) effervescing from individual humans who have been taught better things and intellectually know better.  This undying denial of what is obvious to any objective observation is maintained despite all the empirical evidence to the contrary that has continuously bombarded the human race for millennia, including the West with its entrenched doctrines of progress and human perfectibility.  Incidentally, it is always convenient to forget that this very doctrine was borrowed from, and then mutilated and eviscerated of, its spiritual origins in Christianity.  

Western culture and society persist in believing in a doctrine of inevitable and ineluctable progress rooted in the idea of the inherent goodness of humanity which will one day evolve into some sort of epiphany of an evolved quasi-divinity.  There is manifestly no historical or observational evidence to sustain this unshakeable faith. 

A few examples, going back 3000 years and more, of the indisputable, well-documented, contrary evidence (roughly in chronological order): the Israelite massacre of the Canaanites, the Assyrian slaughters of their conquered peoples, Roman genocides of the Carthaginians and Jews and various others, the Muslim onslaught on and slaughters in (Zoroastrian) Persia and (Christian) North Africa, Genghis Khan and the Mongol terror over most of Asia, Tamerlane (Timushin), a reprise of dear old Genghis.  And for sanctimonious North Americans (including our indigenous peoples): the Aztec terrors in Central America, followed by Spain’s ‘merciful’ deliverance, the Iroquois genocide of the Hurons followed by the white American genocides of many of their indigenous peoples.  Then there is the generalized wretchedness (including massive body counts) of slavery throughout all history in every continent and down to this day.  Oh, and we mustn’t forget the perpetual exploitation of women, and rampant racism with all its wickedness. 

Oops!  Can’t leave out World War 1!  And how about the Turkish genocide of the Armenians (1915-6)?  World War 2, anyone?  The Holocaust, anyone?  Stalin and Mao, anyone?  The Khmer Rouge, anyone?  Rwanda, anyone?  ISIS (Yazidis, Assyrian and Chaldean Christians, 2013), anyone?

You get the idea.  As the New Testament puts it, “All have sinned and fall [far] short of the glory of the Creator” and “There is not one righteous, not even one,” the self-proclaimed glory of humanism notwithstanding.  

But apparently it is only the believers in a Creator who are guilty of blind faith and only they have ever done any mass killing.  It’s the religious factor that apparently makes religious fanatics specially reprehensible—more than the ideological terrorists like Robespierre, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol-Pot, Baghdadi (just-slain ISIS Caliph), and Hitler.  Admittedly, if you proclaim a God of mercy and love and proceed to massacre those who oppose you, defy you, question your truth, and threaten your control, it is perhaps extra-specially despicable and abhorrent.  But it is all too “human” within the general character of human behaviour.  So it is not the religion that is the root cause, but the “wickedness, roguery, and rascality” that lies in darkest depths of the unchanged human heart.

In Kohelet’s words, as he speaks on our behalf from our extremely limited perspective, we dare to say, “God’s ways are crooked”, therefore He/She is not a good God.  Yet, as we have noted, God made this implacable universe out of love. 

Thing is, the nature of love demands a universe where evil is possible because free creatures made for love must have the freedom to choose not to love but to do evil in its stead.  But to avoid blame, guilt, and responsibility we must then blame God, or deny Him/Her altogether, because we don’t want to look ourselves in the face—especially since, as we are told over and over these days, humans are not fundamentally flawed in their nature.  Nevertheless, as we have just observed, in all the greatest evils inflicted on the human race throughout its history, it was other humans doing the accusing and condemning, then wielding the swords, guns, and machinery of destruction one upon another, expending incalculable energy and creative imagination to find new and better ways to pile evil upon evil and body upon body in the name of vengeance, justice, or plain old avarice, power-hunger, and blood-lust.

In the middle chapters of the Biblical book called Kohelet (Ecclesiastes to we English-speakers), Solomon-Kohelet seems to lose his way through the maze of wheels within wheels of causality and depressing socio-economic analysis, as we would now call it.  In this he is very much like a modern or postmodern sociologist.  He tries to take the stance of a neutral observer, striving to sort out the conflicting stories and sets of evidence from this series of what we would now call “case studies” which constitute his raw material.  His questions (which I herewith paraphrase) abound:  “Why do I see really good people continually being crushed and destroyed while wicked people live long, prosperous lives?  Why are good, honest, upright people so hard to find anywhere, anytime?  Why are wise people so hard to find anywhere, anytime?  Why do we understand so little about why things happen, even when it’s so obvious such things will happen?”  (Perhaps this can be stated as “Why don’t we ever learn anything from history, at least not for long?”)  Finally, “Why do the authorities continually ignore and fail to act against flagrant evil and injustice?”

Solomon-Kohelet never blames the Creator for any of this, despite the temptation to do so (which the supposedly wise people of our time find impossible to resist).  He offers three poignant observations (a diagnosis?): “. . . on looking over all of God’s work, I realized that it is impossible to grasp all the activity taking place under the sun. . . . the righteous and the wise, along with their deeds, are in God’s hands—a person cannot know whether these people and these deeds will be rewarded with love or with hatred; all options are open. . . . Truly the human mind is full of evil; and as long as people live, folly is in their hearts; after which they go to be with the dead.” (8:17, 9:1, 9:3)

First, no human mind or any number of human minds can possibly see or understand “all of God’s work . . . all the activity taking place under the sun”.  What is the implication?  That it is supreme human arrogance and hubris for humans to pit their minds and “wisdom” against the Creator.  They thus set themselves up as prosecutor, judge, and jury of their own infinite Creator, and then pronounce sentence.  They are in fact themselves the condemned by their own choices to defy the Creator’s intention for them and the creation He/She placed them in.  Even if we have millions or billions more years (an extremely dubious likelihood), as per the evolutionary story, we will never reach the end of understanding the Cosmos that is stretched out before us.  To quote the current Swedish climate-Messiah, “How dare you/we?” make such an assumption.

Second, it doesn’t matter who we are, rich or poor, powerful or a social nonentity, wise and well-educated or foolish and uneducated (and these do not necessarily coincide), “their (our) deeds are in God’s hands”.  We can imagine that we are autonomous, independent agents fashioning the future and changing the world (or perhaps just our own tiny part of it) according to our own lights, but ultimately, that level of competence and real power belongs only to the Creator who both made us and all that is, and still directs all things, continually willing them to continue to exist first of all.  He/She is not denying or removing our ability to choose, but whatever we choose, it will be brought within the Creator’s orb and integrated with all other things.  And we simply cannot see enough, either in time or distance, to know the outcome of even ordinary decisions and actions: “whether these people and these deeds will be rewarded with love or with hatred; all options are open.”  What is unchangeable in all of this is the nature of the Creator who loves His/Her creation and creatures (including us humans) and respects our power to choose, precisely because of this love.

Third, and most unpalatable and unworthy and undignified in our current spiritual, psychological, and sociological climate: “Truly the human mind is full of evil; and as long as people live, folly is in their hearts; after which they go to be with the dead.”

Of this, more next time.

The Third Way, 41: Kohelet, 5 – The Dare of Love

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“The three most formative thinkers. . . of the modern era are Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche.  In one way or another, most baby boomers [born 1947-68] were fed a steady diet of heightened awareness of human exploitation, oppression, and illusion, coupled with the insight that the received world of common opinion and tradition was a chimera. . . .  Baby boomers were ill-prepared for a world of deceit, treachery, and misfortune, where absence of gratitude, reciprocity, or compensation – and the need to pander to others’ desires and anxieties – belied the mythology of their youth. . . . they were incredulous when the world they created in their own image turned out to be a detestable mixture of wickedness, roguery, and rascality.”

Peter C. Emberley.  Divine Hunger: Canadians on Spiritual Walkabout.  (HarperCollins PublishersLtd., 2002), pp. 36, 38

“. . . God takes no pleasure in fools, so discharge your vow!  Better not to make a vow than to make a vow and not to discharge it.  Don’t let your words make you guilty.  Why give God reason to be angry at what you say and destroy what you have accomplished?  For [this is what happens when there are] too many dreams, aimless activities and words.  Instead, just fear God! If you see the poor oppressed, rights violated and justice perverted. . . don’t be surprised. . . . the greatest advantage to the country is when the king makes himself a servant of the land.”

Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 5: 3-7 (Complete Jewish Bible)

As one of the early cohort of the baby boomer generation, I understand Emberley’s analysis of “what happened on the way to the Forum”.  Here we now are in “the Forum” scratching our heads about why everything seems so shallow, sour, and inhumane.  We (I) acutely notice the lack of simple grace in life, the prevalence of deceit (politics, anyone?), treachery (the old belief in a handshake being a contractual bond is long gone, and even written contracts are made to be broken), and absence of gratitude (entitlement to whatever you believe is your right has long since replaced thankfulness and acknowledgement of service rendered).  We could continue with the Professor’s all-too-accurate description of the spirit of our age, which, by our example, the cynicism of current education, and general practice, has thoroughly infected the younger generations following behind us.

As for the “incredulity” in discovering that “the world they [we boomers] created in their [our] own image turned out to be a detestable mixture of wickedness, roguery, and rascality”?  Is this really such a surprise?  Only because we have swallowed and continue to swallow the illusion about the innate and fundamental unsullied “goodness” of the human heart and soul as it emerges pristinely in the newborn.  It is the humanist wish-fantasy à la Jean-Jacques Rousseau of the human child being a blank page waiting to be inscribed (Emile), or the noble savage corrupted by civilization’s nefarious influence (Le contrat social).  It is the Progress meta-story of our age about human perfectibility by the powers of evolution through reason and development  towards a better world and a higher order of (human) being.

Kohelet’s take on the unwelcome revelation of human wickedness, roguery, and rascality, based on the above mentioned die-hard fables is once more refreshingly prosaic: “don’t be surprised!”  Or perhaps, “Are you so shocked that this world is not the delusion you created for yourselves?”  Changing basic human nature and millennially ingrained patterns, engrams, behavioural algorithms – use whatever analogical terminology you like to describe who and what we really are and do – is not just a matter of “All you need is love”, writing protest songs, handing out flowers to police and soldiers, screaming protests, speechifying in outrage “How dare you!”, denouncing hypocrisy, and marching against war, climate change, abuses of all kinds, or whatever other chosen cause.  Most the above have a proper time, place, and context.  But shaming and blaming only beget more of the same in return.  And they also expose the shame-blamer to the strong possibility that their own sins will find them out.

Solomon-Kohelet’s fundamental point of reference is far removed from that of the modern and post-modern age of outrage: “God takes no pleasure in fools. . .  Don’t let your words make you guilty. . . this is what happens when there are too many dreams, aimless activities and words.  Instead, just fear God!”  As to the oppression of the poor, violation of rights, and rampant injustice – “Don’t be surprised!”

Many of us boomers were taken in by all the chimeras of utopian ideas of tearing down the system; simplistic notions of love overcoming war (the worst form of all of oppression), peace somehow breaking out if enough people would just opt out and cop out and “give peace and love a chance”.  The pop-philosophers, hip gurus, and cool new psychologies all promised it could be done.  And while waiting we could take the fast road to bliss via drugs, sex, and rock-‘n-roll.  When the hangover of disillusionment hit, as with a super-hangover after a prolonged binge, in rushed the bad taste, the reality shock – “a detestable mixture of wickedness, roguery, and rascality” – to take the place of the dreams-turned-nightmare.  Mom and Pop must have been right after all when they said, “Just get a good education, a good job to make lots of money and be secure.  Get married, get a nice house with lots of nice stuff, have a few kids, and go for the gusto of lots of neat gizmos and new experiences to fill the void of the lost dream.”

Kohelet’s diagnosis of the boomer age (“too many dreams, aimless activities and words”) would be no different for the generations following with a whole new list for “authentically self-actualizing” themselves and their potential, and denouncing the evil establishment which perpetrates and perpetuates the current world-crisis of climate change.  His prescription for “getting real” (really just staying real) is ultra-simple and ultra-relevant, then and now and through all the centuries in between: “God takes no pleasure in fools, so discharge your vow!  Better not to make a vow than to make a vow and not to discharge it.  Don’t let your words make you guilty. . . Instead, just fear God!”

Translation: Don’t give your word if you can’t or won’t keep it.  Don’t say things you don’t really mean.  Don’t claim things you can’t sustain.  Better to say nothing at all than to speak what you know you don’t mean or can’t or won’t do and make a fool of yourself, and lose all credibility.  And you are accountable, even if you don’t think you are – to the Creator, who does not suffer fools gladly.  As to being a fool, it starts with denying that there is a Creator in the first place.  For there is no greater folly than denying who and what you really and were made to be.  There is no greater folly than shutting Him/Her out, pretending to be independent of Him/Her and instead inventing a universe without Him/Her to sustain it and bring everything into accountability – especially the beings He/She made to manage its most precious jewel called Planet Earth, Terra, Gaia, Midgard, etc.

What about using money, toys, and cool stuff and experiences to fill the void? 

“The lover of money never has enough money; the lover of luxury never has enough income. . . .  When the quantity of goods increases, so does the number of parasites consuming them; so the only advantage to the owner is that he gets to watch them do it. . . .  Just as he [you, I] came from his [your, my] mother’s womb, so he [you, I] will go back as naked as he [you, I] came. . . tak[ing] nothing.” (5: 9, 10, 14)

And as to all the evil being done by humans to one another, Kohelet does not say that oppression, violation of rights, and perverted justice are OK.  He simply says to expect it, while suggesting that its only (partial) antidote (perhaps short of God ruling directly) is “when the king makes himself a servant of the land”.

But “Aye, there’s the rub,” as Shakespeare put it – the king (President, Prime Minister, Governor, Boss, etc.) making him-/herself “servant of the land” (the Pope uses the title “Servant of the servants of God”). . .  In another place, Solomon (Kohelet) is said to have written “Many proclaim their loyalty, but who can find a faithful person/a person of real integrity?”  Once more we find the same issues at play – treachery, roguery, rascality – interfering and edging out the good intentions.  The lure of the temptation of power is great, and few successfully resist it for long.

The Third Way, 40: Kohelet, 4 – Riches, Power, and Injustice

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“Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only.  Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”  Henry David Thoreau, On Walden Pond.

“Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton

“At no point does the [Biblical] picture collapse into the simplistic one which so many skeptics assume must be what religious people believe, in which God is the omnicompetent managing director of a very large machine and ought to be able to keep it in proper working order.  What we are offered instead is stranger and more mysterious: a narrative of God’s project of justice within a world of injustice.”

N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God.  (IVP Books, 2006), p. 71.

Twenty-first Century humanity is obsessed with the inequities and injustices, real and imagined, of its own society.  Outrage is the tone of the age.  When it comes to considering the claims of a Creator, or the mere existence of a Creator, the principal objection is the existence of evil in the universe.  After all, don’t all the believers in and defenders of a Creator present this Being as infinitely good and loving, or at least benevolently neutral? 

Even pantheists and panentheists come in for scorn and mockery as they try to explain their concept of divinity being inextricably entwined in the very fabric of the Cosmos, indeed as the very fabric itself.  To achieve this, the Cosmos must be in proves of becoming a sort of living thing moving itself towards a sublime summation of all that is in a sort of infinite, amorphous, quasi-conscious bliss of ecstatic communion.  It is amazing to watch how even the great icons of Cosmic science (e.g. Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking) seem to edge ever closer to this sort of “numinous universe “à la Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man)”.  (Once more we run up against the restless human heart with its God-shaped vacuum at its center, as per Augustine and Pascal. . .)

According to the prevailing meta-story of our current culture, if we opt for a personal Creator, we are simpletons and moronic dupes relying on a phantasm because of our moral and intellectual weakness.  Or, if we opt for an impersonal sort of idolization of the Cosmos moving itself towards numinescence and awakening, we are still fools because we can’t bear the weight of being mere burps of an amoral, meaningless, completely random explosion.  In that case, isn’t “evil” really a meaningless concept?  Things just are what they are—no morality involved.  The “laws” of physics and evolution apply at all times and in all places—survival of the fittest, strongest, most adaptable, luckiest, etc., gyrating in the great quantum.  How can the quantum mass of particles and energy have a moral outcome? 

Nonetheless, in our more thoughtful moments when we can absent ourselves from surfing and tweeting, most of us still can’t avoid or evade a nagging sense of something being dreadfully amiss, out of order, off-center, wrong!  There just shouldn’t be this (or any) degree of suffering and pain involved, especially inflicted on the innocent and defenceless—at least among ourselves and, by extension, other living, sentient beings.  Pain as a survival mechanism, perhaps, but as a moral agent. . .?  And, as our hearts and souls tell us as we lie abed a-night alone with our fragility and vulnerability, the greatest wrong, which we see when we watch those we love go through the hardness of life and unprovoked and unmerited strife, pain, and affliction, is death!

But we repress this horror.  We scientifically rationalize: death is part of the natural order; it is the evolutionary order and rule.  It is the agent for elimination of the weak and of renewal and change to make way for the stronger, faster, better which is ever-emerging.  Life needs death – otherwise the planet could never support life if nothing ever died!

But we are still left with an insoluble paradox: why do we, the pinnacle of evolutionary consciousness and incarnation of cosmic self-awareness, have this agonizing, unshakeable sense of unfairness, inequity, injustice?  And death is the “unkindest cut of all”!  How is this innate capacity to conceive ineffable ideas like justice, good, and beauty, and their opposites, of any evolutionary benefit?  How did we ever evolve such conceptions? 

Perhaps they are a means to preserve our species by restraining us from indiscriminatingly slaughtering one another and other species.  They subdue our innate aggressive and competitive instincts; they control our intellect’s capacity to create destructive instruments. 

Until recently, these “controlling mechanisms in the human psyche” were almost universally accepted as instilled by humanity’s Creator (or creators in polytheistic societies).  Remove the sanction of the Creator watching and reserving judgment and, it seems, the only sanction and restraint left is Mutual Assured Destruction (the 1970s MAD principle during the Cold War) which will result from excessive anti-social behaviour.  As the question has been framed, “(How) Can we be good without God?”  Nietzsche proposed that, honestly, we can’t because there is no motivation to be “moral and good” without a Judge waiting to pass sentence.  It all boils down to social convention, not conscience.

Can we be good without God?  Aristotle (see his masterpiece The Nichomachean Ethics)and modern secular philosophers answer “Yes!”  But it still begs the anterior question: “How do we even have a concept of good to begin with?”  And within that, “How do we have a global, almost universal understanding, across all cultures and times, of many elements of what ‘good’ means?”

Fundamentally, there are only two, diametrically opposite, answers: (1) evolution made it happen for reasons we can only dimly speculate about, or, (2) the universe’s Creator made us that way for His/Her own reasons.  And the main argument against the second choice is that evil and wrong and pain and suffering exist.  Surely an infinitely wise and good Creator would not make such a flawed Cosmos, one in which cruelty, deliberate evil, the infliction of pain and suffering abound.  If the Cosmos is a reflection of the Creator’s nature, the Creator Him-/Herself must therefore be a cruel, unworthy being.  And who would want to serve such a God?

Which brings us back to Kohelet, our ancient sage, once more.  Solomon-Kohelet does not defend the Creator, even though he continually acknowledges Him/Her.  Instead, he observes (very dispassionately, like a modern social scientist) the world as it is with all its apparently random outcomes.  The “good and just” sometimes suffer evil and calamity in the same way as fools and criminals; the unjust and wicked too often seem to live easy, fat, comfortable lives while the innocent, the good, and the just suffer.  He never facilely resorts to blaming God for this state of affairs, nor does he ever mention a ‘devil’, a demon, or any other supernatural entity as an instigator; such things just are.  But he still has something to say as to why they are as they are, and his insights are right on target to this day.

In short, the perpetrators of most of the afflictions and injustice humans fall prey to are other humans.  He does not deal with what we call “acts of God”.  His concern is what he observes about the treatment of our fellow humans, one to another, one upon another.  “I realized that all effort and achievement stem from one person’s envy of another. . . . something else under the sun that is pointless: the situation in which a solitary individual without a companion, with neither child nor brother, keeps on working endlessly but never has enough wealth. . . .”  And, as to the zealous young person determined to prove him-/herself greater than any predecessors, attaining acclaim and power (royalty in his language) and all that: “Nevertheless, those who come afterwards will not regard him highly.  This too is certainly pointless and feeding on wind.”  (See Chapter 4 of the Biblical book Kohelet.)

Not doing life alone is always better: “Two are better than one, in that their cooperative efforts yield this advantage: if one of them falls, the other will help his partner up.”  A wise, poor youth is better than an old, arrogant king who no longer listens to anyone’s advice—the corruption of power theme again, which he knew well firsthand.

Having observed these things, he puts them in perspective.

“Watch your step when you go to the house of God.  Offering to listen is better than fools offering sacrifices, because they don’t discern whether they are doing evil.  Don’t be impulsive, don’t be in a hurry to give voice to your words before God.  For God is in heaven, and you are on earth; so let your words be few.  For nightmares come from worrying too much; and a fool, when he speaks, chatters too much.” (4:17-5:2)

Thus, the Creator is not intervening to stop people from acting like fools and doing wrong to one another, but He/She is quite aware of it.  We sail along in our ambitions, self-centered goals to “get to the top”, prove others wrong, accumulate what we covet and make our mark with little or no thought of what we’re doing and, more particularly, how we’re doing it.  Perhaps there is some token gesture towards the Maker here and there—“fools offering sacrifices”.  They are fools because there is no desire or attempt to “discern whether or not they are doing evil.”

Kohelet is not here discussing the “great evils”—natural disasters, plagues, famines, wars and slaughters—which everyone can see and abhor while condemning the human perpetrators when appropriate.  That is another discussion.  At this point he is concerned with the petty evils of everyday life, our habitual mindsets, attitudes, and self-centered behaviours that inevitably injure those around us.  The “fool” is the one rushing and toiling along thoughtlessly, heedlessly as if there is no responsibility, no accountability, and no consequences.

If we live like this, we will spend our lives “chasing after wind” and never seeing it because we have never bothered to “go to the house of God”—turn towards the Creator.  Some of us still pay lip-service in that direction in order to appease our consciences (or please someone else, or create a good impression as part of our public persona), but this is “fools offering sacrifices”.

The only way to escape this trap, this treadmill of “feeding the wind”, is to mindfully, deliberately, and humbly turn to the Creator and begin to listen, even more than you speak, “For God is in heaven, and you are on earth; so let your words be few.”

There is much more insight Kohelet offers.  We will pick it up in the next session.

The Third Way, 39: Kohelet, 3

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“As modern beings, the theological explanation of “facts” cannot be true for us.  No events or persons can be special, as conduits to a different dimension of reality. . . .  Yet nearly everything else in Christianity – and the most cherished ideals of the secularized worldviews which were derived from it, and which still largely inform our present lives – follows from the truth of these facts: theologically, the covenant of God with man, the reality of human sin, the promise of deliverance and salvation; politically and morally, the unconditional goodness of simple existence, the dignity of the person, the equality of all human beings.  Disbelief must, of necessity, dislodge belief.  But. . . .”

Peter C. Emberley.  Divine Hunger: Canadians on Spiritual Walkabout.  (HarperCollins PublishersLtd., 2002), p. 7.

Our 21st Century Western spiritual, emotional, and psychological schizophrenia is described here by Emberley.  In his prelude to the above statement, Emberley lays out the whole psyche of our age, having adopted the scientific, reason-alone approach to understanding existence and any purpose for it.  As he explains  “. . . it has brought us to the recognition that the sacred is no longer a dimension of our consciousness, but an abandoned stage in the history of human consciousness.  Recognition of the innate goodness of individuals, and the potential for limitless perfectibility, renders ideas of human sin and evil, or the need for divine consolation and intervention, unnecessary.” (p.6)  Accordingly, we 21st Century wise-ones hold that, if we can analyze them, we can also figure out how to fix the problems of life and society without appealing to any supernatural agent for assistance, wisdom, or comfort.

And that, of course, is the whole case for ditching any supernatural or mystical element in diagnosing any claim to have witnessed or experienced such things.  Such “events” must be aberrations and delusions which may amount to a form of mental illness (as they were often treated in the Soviet Union and still are in pseudo-Communist, neo-Fascist China).

Even so, insisting and declaiming and psychologising about people’s mistaken hope in spirituality doesn’t seem to convince billions of people today, or explain why the great mass of humans over thousands of years disagreed that that other “dimension of our consciousness” is not really there at all and never was.  We simply can’t be convinced that all mystical sense and experience was/is nothing but a superstitious hope that some imaginary super being will vouchsafe to intervene and save us from ourselves or the natural forces we cannot control.

As a Professor at Canada’s Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Emberly is certainly one of those enlightened, reasonable, rational modern people who knows better.  Yet he cannot help being fascinated as he observes people on pilgrimage in India, or Arabia, or Rome.  Hosts of extremely well-educated and sophisticated, progressive people (who should know better?), “quite suddenly are on spiritual walkabout.  Whether they seek consolation, spiritual ecstasy, an exit strategy from everyday busyness, or hope. . .” (p.7)

Maybe they just irrationally “got religion!” (and will eventually get over it) and we can just move on shaking our heads in amusement at their baffling resort to discredited superstitions.  After all, religion was once all very well in its proper place, like a birth ceremony such as baptism or circumcision, a wedding, or a funeral, but smart people gave it little thought otherwise.  But even though we no longer have much regard for formal, institutional, traditional religion, a large majority of heart-hungry humanity still thirsts for ‘authentic spirituality’.  It seems that many really smart people also feel the pull of the “God-shaped vacuum”, as Pascal called it in his Pensées.

Which brings us back to Kohelet, our ancient guide who is so in tune with our modern malaise. That is why, from even his blasé, jaded perspective, there is no point in engaging in an endless, fruitless, frustrating debate about the existence of a Creator.  Contrary to our dominant, cutting edge view held and propagated by the who’s who of current scientific understanding, we in fact still do “have need of that hypothesis.”  The heart and soul starve without nourishment, and the dry C-rations of evolutionary astro-physics and macro-biology leave these sensitive parts of the human entity starving and withering away. 

Thus, as Kohelet moves forward in his roller-coaster tour of the state of the human heart and soul, he recognizes the paradox and dilemma of what we experience and what our innermost being tells us even in the face of what too often appears as “chasing after the wind.” 

“I have seen the burden God has laid on humanity.  He has made everything beautiful in its time.  He has also set eternity in their hearts; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from the beginning to the end.  I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.  That everyone may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God.  I know that everything God does will last forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it.  God does it so people will revere him.” (3:10-14)

Here is the paradox: this creation, this Earth, so cosmically improbable and tiny with its teeming life, is incredibly beautiful.  We awake and awestruck humans perceive it, but in our struggle to survive, thrive, and understand we are burdened beyond bearing.  Our burden is not merely like that which other creatures know—to find sustenance and reproduce.  It is much greater, the burden of yearning for much greater things—“eternity in our hearts”.  All around us we see the manifestation of this eternity—the infinity of the universe and the sense of complete wonder of it all, from the tiny to the immense, and an innate awe of its Creator, a being we intuitively know had to have made all this.  There is an order of things and being that is vastly greater than this mundane scrabbling and quarreling about “I, me, me, mine,” as the Beatles put it fifty years ago.  My stuff, my rights, my anger at the wrongs you’ve done to me (but not the ones I’ve done to you), my right to be outraged, to have recompense, to get back, to have my turn on top. . . .

What Kohelet is saying is that none of that will bring you the peace you crave and or wholeness your heart and soul hunger for underneath all the competing, consuming, and condemning.  Truly, we “cannot fathom what God has done [and is still doing] from the beginning to the end.”  Contentment and “happiness”, one of those “inalienable rights” the Creator has endowed us with according to the American Fathers and the Enlightenment “lights”, is an inner state found at least in part by “doing good” to others, not in endlessly chasing stuff and fame and fortune and renown and prestige and pleasure and vengeance, which are counterfeits that Solomon calls, from his own super-sated experience, “chasing after the wind”.  Finding satisfaction in simple toil, in work, in doing things well according to what you’ve been given (or decide) to do, that is a key.  But to get there, it has to be seen for what it really is—not a burden but “the gift of God”.

It is no good for us to endlessly “kick against the goads” as Jesus once told Saul of Tarsus he had been doing.  Saul had inflicted great pain and suffering on many others in his own battle to somehow win God’s favour through his zeal.  So too with so many of us—if only we could get them to see things “the right way”, to act “the right way” (and the right way is, of course, my way).  When we remove the Creator as the source of all good things, which means all of creation which He/She made “very good” from the very beginning, the only lens we have to determine the “right” way from the “wrong” way is how I/we have analyzed things should go, how we feel about things, especially when it comes to how the rest of humanity does goes about life.

So the fundamental missing link in any hope for our quest is to find, to go back to, the only worthy and reliable starting point—the Creator and the nature of what He/She has made.  And, from there, to confess, to agree, that what He/She has done, which reflects His/Her inevitable nature, is “unfathomable from beginning to end”.  This puts us in our proper place—humble, without arrogant hubris, and in need of facing this great, unfathomable Being with reverence, with respect, with a sense of awe—just as we look into the heavens which He/She “spoke” into being and stand in awe, or as we look deep into the micro-universe and behold in awe.

If we can get this proper beginning perspective and still our hearts and minds and souls to receive this roaring-loud, super-Technicolor truth which dazzles our eyes and overwhelms our ears when we unblock them, we will find the first place of rest and begin to be able “enjoy our work because that is our lot.  For who can bring him/her [us] to see what will happen after him/her/us?”  (3:22)

It is a matter of doing our best to honour the Creator and the creation with what we know and have, in order to “do good”—leave something good to those coming after us.  Nevertheless, we can’t control them or keep them from being fools.  They too have to face the Creator and be accountable.  They too must find their way to the first level of rest, the first repose in understanding and accepting who and what they really are and were made to be.

Peace and harmony can never truly begin to take root until we turn around and face the Maker.  That is Kohelet’s first lesson.  It is as true now as it was three thousand years ago.

The Third Way, 38: Kohelet, 2

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“When the mind is thinking, it is simply talking to itself, asking questions and answering them, and saying yes or no.”  

Socrates

“Humanity has to travel a hard road to wisdom, and it has to travel it with bleeding feet.” 

Nellie McClung

As Qohelet begins his inquiry into futility, he follows the path of both Socrates and Nellie McClung (or rather, he blazed the trails they trod after him).  We are very fortunate that the rabbis later wisely incorporated his musings into that ancient mini-library we now call The Bible.  We now get to read this great sage’s reflective journal, full of the questions he asked himself and the lessons he gleaned as he nears the end of his life-journey with much scarred feet.  If we come with open minds, we can easily recognize ourselves, or at least our times, in his journey.

But just how scarred can his feet be when he lived a life of great privilege and unfettered ‘self-actualization’, as we would now progressively call it?  He had it all, starting with royal blood and great wealth from birth, which only increased over his lifetime.  Add to that almost unlimited power, lakes of fine wine, a huge harem of the most voluptuous women, and the best live music every day—as much as and more than his appetites could ever crave of all these things.  He had fame, renown, and prestige, and was feared by all his rivals.  He could indulge his slightest whim and explore any question he pleased, ordering slaves and servants and ministers to fetch and remove, build and destroy.  Tribute flowed into his coffers from as far as Mesopotamia, southern Arabia, and East Africa, and his traders and merchants moved far and wide to satisfy his curiosity and bring him things he had never seen or perhaps even heard of.

Yet when he had enjoyed all this to the max, his heart was empty, untouched.  Like all great tycoons, he discovered that once you have it all, what’s left?  He discovered that he had been trying to fill a vacuum that no amount of ‘stuff’, admiration, adulation or sycophancy could fill.  No amount of cheap sex could bring the peace and harmony of spirit that one real loving relationship could bring.  No amount of wine or other intoxicants, fine food, beautiful clothing, posh dwellings, brilliant live entertainment, or partying could do more than give a temporary reprieve, be more than a ‘fix’ to relieve the inner hunger and briefly salve the soul-wounds perturbing his conscience.  He read many treatises and listened to many readings; he collected advisors and composed his own proverbs, but his heart and soul remained incomplete.  He tried religion, lavishing immense treasure on it, hoping its ceremonies and rituals would bring favour and comfort, but they did not do that or give peace. 

When it was all said, done, and explored, he still sighed that, “It is all futile and chasing after the wind.”  He realized that when he died, all that he had accumulated would just be passed to a successor who would probably behave like a fool and retain none of his hard-earned wisdom.  No amount of trying to educate a son-successor could prepare him or prevent his becoming a fool if that son’s heart was unreceptive and he chose to behave like a typical young idiot who thinks they already know more than their parents.

As a good Israelite king Solomon knew how to rule according to God’s idea of good government.  He wasn’t supposed to use his position and power to accumulate stuff and lord it over the people like a tyrant, as the kings of the other nations did.  But bit by bit he had contravened virtually everything he knew not to do:  gathering an enormous harem to show off his power and indulge every sexual fantasy; imposing heavy taxation to pay for all his great projects; levying heavy tribute on the conquered provinces, guaranteeing that they would become rebellious in the future; building lavish personal dwellings even more ornate than the much-gilded Temple; erecting powerful fortresses and garrison towns to display his military might and cow any opposition; amassing state of the art chariot forces on top of all that.  “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired …. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done, and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind …” (2:10-11)

Having acquired everything wealth, power, and ambition could give him, he finds it empty.  Yet, as he predicted, three thousand years later we still find these pursuits to be the main goal of life for masses of folk all over the world. Granted, most people do not usually chase these goals on the same scale as Solomon (although the several hundred wealthiest people on Planet Earth today could probably directly relate to a great deal of what he said), but from the USA to China, India, and Kenya, people are still seeking “more and better” of whatever peculiar portion of Solomon’s universal lust for ever more has “turned their crank”. All modern economic theory is built on this covetousness.

Empty-hearted and soul-starved Solomon then reverts to something from his youth. He had once told God something was worth more than any of that other stuff. God had told him he would grant his wish, plus give him all the other stuff he hadn’t asked for. His wish had been for wisdom to rule well and be a godly king.  Now, several decades later he says, “Then I turned my thoughts [hello, Socrates] to (re)consider wisdom, and also madness and folly.  What more can the king’s successor do than what has already been done?”  His conclusion?  “Wisdom is better than folly … but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both [the sage and the fool].”  So, “What do I gain by being wise …. This too is meaningless.”  Whether sage or fool “in days to come both will be forgotten.”  Both must die and disappear from memory.  He confesses to then being very low. “So I hated life … all of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (2:17)  Existential despair anyone?

Much like Solomon, most of us in the West speed along from one thing to the next hoping to “get ahead” and find the sweet spot when all the material concerns seem to look after themselves.  Occasionally we find ourselves with a little too much time, and a few deep questions rear their heads. So to escape them we turn to distractions and amusements, hoping they will go away and leave us alone.  But eventually reality crashes in on us, “For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it …. All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest.  [Retirement shock, anyone?] This too is meaningless.”

He is brought up short, standing on the precipice of despair about it all, like what French signature existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called la Nausée.  For most people in the rudderless West today, where is there to turn at such pregnant life moments?  They have no resources within themselves capable of landing anywhere, and the current dominant meta-story underlying our culture and society says there is really only random evolution in back of it—a process so huge, even if true, that it can give no comfort at all at a personal level.  The old myths about a Creator reaching out to the beings He/She created in His/Her own image have been shown to be empty, haven’t they? 

Perhaps meditation and mindfulness can help.  But, as healthful and beneficial as these practices can be in bringing personal rest and internal calm and self-acceptance, what are we reaching for through them?  Typically, we say we seek connection with something greater than superficial self, once we move beyond the physical preliminaries.  They may become another quest to find “the true self” or even the “Greater Self”, or the “Non-Self”.  We will leave a discussion of this quest aside for the moment.

Having meditated long on these perplexing issues and examined his own mind, having dialogued with himself and read his own wayward heart after all his striving, here is where Solomon lands.  “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.  This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?  To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner [not a popular word any more, but one that begs for explanation beyond the usual knee-jerk reaction of outright rejection within our culture] he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over …” (2:24-6)

We are left with many questions to explore from Chapter 2, and as this episode of “The Third Way” ends.

The Third Way, 37: Kohelet, 1

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“Meaningless!  Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless!”

Book of Ecclesiastes 1:1-2

The Book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet in Hebrew) in the Jewish Bible (the “Old Testament” to most Christians) addresses almost every existential issue we moderns and postmoderns contend with.  The title roughly translates in English as “the Teacher” or “the Preacher”.  The long-held traditional view is that the author was King Solomon, modestly described in the Bible as “the wisest man who ever lived”.  Modern Biblical critics heartily dispute his authorship, citing the practice of ancient Jewish writers to attribute the name of a well-known, respected and venerated historical figure to their work to give it authority. 

The book is remarkable regardless of its authorship.  Its tone and content seem to have little in common with anything else in the Bible.  Its closest kin is The Book of Proverbs, also attributed by the ancients to Solomon, as was another anomaly, The Song of Songs.  The subject matter of these three treatises is neither historical nor prophetic, unlike most of the rest of the Jewish Bible, at least marginally.  They are grouped in a sort of ‘miscellaneous’ category, “The Writings”, along with Psalms, Job, Daniel, Lamentations, the two books of Chronicles (heavily historical, but with a strongly theological bent), Ruth, and Esther.  Some of these, like Lamentations, Ruth, and Esther, clearly relate to a specific historical episode.  ‘Solomon’s’ writings are stand-alone, although their style and content very much reflect the culture in which they were penned.  For purposes of simplicity in this discussion, we will call the author Solomon.

So what is it that makes Ecclesiastes particularly relevant for our time?  The author has a very postmodern perspective in his approach to finding meaning.  He summarizes and reflects upon his own life-journey, or at least the kind of journey a person such as Solomon might well have traveled in his quest to find meaning and purpose in a world which appears to encompass no inherent meaning at all.  His musings sound an awful lot like the choices people make today to fill in their emptiness as they seek to escape futility and despair.  (The Hebrew words translated as ‘meaningless / meaninglessness’ could be just as readily rendered ‘futile / futility’.  The old English rendering was ‘vanity’.)

The one (very important) difference with the typical post-modern seeker is that the ‘Teacher’ simply declares that there is a Creator.  Yet even assuming that there is a God, the whole business of existence still seems meaningless when we get down to the nitty-gritty of what life is like for most of us.  As we have seen repeatedly in this blog, multitudes today reject a Creator as a starting point, thus making their quest for meaning that much harder, perhaps even truly and finally “meaningless” and “futile” in the spirit of Solomon’s opening thrust.

Over the centuries many pious souls have questioned why this book, with its cynicism and incipient hopelessness, is even in the Bible.  Personally, I am very glad it is.  It brings a strange sort of comfort, a gut-level “reality check” to the tendency to turn the Bible into a super-spiritual, other-worldly story-book easily dismissed as having little to do with real life.  It does not offer easy answers, but instead some common-sense, practical life-advice, reminding us that the Creator, with His/Her baffling ways, is going to remain a mystery, and that I am not God, despite how much I might like or pretend to be.  It tells us that He/She does not owe us explanations, although He/She may occasionally condescend to provide one, even if only dimly and partially.  The other very significant insight it offers about the Creator is that He/She must not be confused or confounded with the creation or any creature, however wonderful or great.

Solomon first observes that, to all appearance, life flows along in an ever-repeating cycle.  Round and round everything goes: “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.”(1:4)  Human life follows the natural pattern; the sun rises and sets endlessly; the wind goes round and round; water flows endlessly into the sea but never fills it.  (There are remarkable hints of some understanding of the patterns of air currents and the hydrologic cycle, and no hint of superstitiously attributing such affairs to the caprices of some supernatural force.)  “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”  The language is often beautifully metaphorical and the composition in the original is quite poetic, but the tone could not be bested by the strongest 20th C existentialist or 21st C postmodern cynic.  “There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.”(1:11)  Historically, Solomon himself is a good example of this sage reminder of our illusion of personal importance: other than he, whom else do we remotely remember from the 10th C BCE?

What evidence does Solomon offer that there is a Creator to give even a shred of meaning to this seemingly age-old, endless merry-go-round?  He does not offer any within the Book; he simply declares that there is One.  Is he just making a typical, weak-kneed leap of blind-faith?  Is he just caving in to the ancient cultural milieu to unquestioningly accept gods and goddesses everywhere?  There is no hint of polytheism or reference to demons or other entities haunting humanity’s daily existence. He has at least advanced to holding to only one God rather than many.  But how can anyone as wise and intelligent and observant and perceptive as he seems to have been take such a superstitious fundamental position, not even deigning to argue it for future generations to consider?  Perhaps in his wisdom he had resolved that you simply cannot argue anyone into believing in God.  If people cannot (or willfully refuse to) see the Creator in the creation and in the amazing things that are done every day ‘under the sun’, how can the most strenuous argumentation show them?  We of the West have conclusively demonstrated this over at least the last 500 years.

In 1806, the French Enlightenment scientist Lamarck told Napoleon, who had an insatiable desire to know what to believe about ultimate things, that the “God-hypothesis” was no longer required by science to explain the universe because some day Reason and the Scientific Method would explain everything, including how things began.  As a man who believed that God/Providence had chosen him for great things, Napoleon was not convinced.  In the 1980s and ‘90s, in his teaching Stephen Hawking echoed Lamarck.  He put it in print for posterity in his conclusion to A Brief History of Time.  He declared this dogmatically, despite admitting that a Creator was the most efficient and satisfying answer to the most basic ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions.  It is fascinating to observe that the basic argument has not changed in 3000 years, despite all the new knowledge and sophistication in methods of inquiry. 

Napoleon’s answer to Lamarck echoed Solomon, believing that God was still real and had chosen him specifically for great things.  Solomon simply accepts that no other conclusion than that there is a Creator is plausible, despite the apparent everyday banality of everything.  If Solomon had pursued this issue, he could and (I think) would make his case from historical and personal experience more than any appeal to logic and observation of the natural order, as eloquent as that is for “those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.”  After all, Israel’s whole history was a demonstration of it.  His own father, King David, was a direct witness of it, if the stories were to be believed.  He, Solomon himself, had encountered this Being of beings when he had built and dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem.

The argument from personal and historical experience is considered among the weakest by logicians and empirical scientists.  It is an ancient debate, but still a decisive one for many.  But in courts of law personal, eyewitness testimony outweighs almost everything else, although photographic, audio, genetic, and forensic science can now often provide powerful corroboration (or refutation) of personal testimony.  It is interesting to note that when we discuss questions of a spiritual nature, we somehow find personal testimony and experience inadmissible, or perhaps evidence for some sort of psychological derangement of those adhering to it.  We are quite as selective in our dogma of a mechanistic, purely materialist model of the universe as any medieval or ancient authority was in the dogma of God’s existence and the supernatural nature of reality.  We are quite as capable as these died-in-the-wool ‘agents of superstition’ of eliminating and ignoring masses of data which run contrary to our accepted models and paradigms. 

As Solomon said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”  The model of reality we must seek, the way ahead in our time of so much spiritual turmoil, must be one which gives us the best match with what we observe in the outer Cosmos as we learn about it and meshes with what we know and experience in the spirit and in the history of humanity.  And this tells us that we are not mere accidental ciphers emerging from chaos with delusions of grandeur. 

Perhaps this was the basic reason Solomon shrugs off the cynical perspective on the most basic of all issues, that of ultimate origins, even as he seems to adopt it with respect to how we experience life.

We will see more of what he has to say next time.

The Third Way, 36: “The Cloud of Unknowing”

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“He [the Creator] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

Ecclesiastes 3:11.

“It was not man who implanted in himself the taste for the infinite and love of what is immortal.  These sublime instincts are not the offspring of some caprice of the will; their foundations are imbedded in nature; they exist despite a man’s efforts.  Man may hinder and distort them, but he cannot destroy them.”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1836.

“By making “God” a purely notional truth attainable by the rational and scientific intellect, without ritual, prayer, or ethical commitment, men and women had killed it for themselves. . . . For Marx the death of God had been a project—something to be achieved in the future; for Nietzsche it had already occurred: it was only a matter of time before “God” would cease to be a presence in the scientific civilization of the West.  Unless a new absolute could be found to take its place, everything would become unhinged and relative. . . . The [19th] century that had begun with a conviction of boundless possibility was giving way to a nameless dread.  But, Nietzsche believed, human beings could counter the danger of nihilism by making themselves divine.  They must become the new absolute and take the place of God.  The God they projected outside themselves could be born within the human spirit as the Übermensch (“Superman”) who would provide the universe with ultimate meaning.  To achieve this we had to rebel against the Christian God. . . . As an incarnation of its will to power, the Übermensch would push evolution of the species to a new phase so that humanity would finally become supreme.”

Karen Armstrong, The Case for God. (Vintage Canada, 2009), pp. 256-7.

“Nameless dread.”   That is how Karen Armstrong aptly describes the spirit which descended on the West’s intellectual and spiritual “überclass” as the 19th C ended and the 20th dawned.  The Law of Karma certainly seems to apply.  In Biblical terms, when we “sow the wind, we reap the whirlwind.”  Truly, “You reap what you sow.” 

The dominant view in the West’s intelligentsia had (and remains) determined to divest itself of all the vestiges and encumbrances of prescientific “superstition.”  But, despite all their most strenuous and constant efforts, then and now, they have not been able to remove “eternity” from their (or most of humanity’s) hearts.  De Tocqueville, a brilliant French sociologist, political scientist, and student of human nature who was so fascinated by the great American experiment in representative democracy as it evolved in the early 19th Century that he spent two years in America to observe it, was speaking of the peculiar role of religion in the new, rapidly growing nation when he wrote the quote above.  Seldom has anyone been so prescient about a nation’s fundamental character and the tensions it would have to resolve in order to survive and flourish in the future.  And seldom has any writer so pointedly and precisely described the truth about the essentially spiritual nature of the human soul.

In the 21st C we find ourselves in a “Cloud of Unknowing”, as the Medieval mystics called it.  The essence of reality escapes us despite all our scientific sophistication.  The more we discover about how the natural universe seems to work, the more we discover about how incomprehensible, how fundamentally inexplicable it all is.  We simply drive the ultimate questions back one more step every time we think we have discovered an elusive primal pre-particle or some echo or trace of the moment of ‘creation’ — the Big Bang, if you prefer — (without God, of course, thank you!).  Creation ex nihilo, spontaneous and without any apparent reason or cause, without any point of origin or ultimate purpose or design.  Somehow, it just appears, and in the same instant explodes, like an abracadabra moment.  Supposedly, this is not sorcery or superstition or even “faith-based” assertion.  We are told over and over again that it is indubitable scientific ‘fact’.

But the hunger for eternity remains in the heart, and even the most determined rationalist still sees what is in awe and stupefied wonder.  Having entered the “Cloud of Unknowing” we now see that, with no other point of common reference, it can only begin with the self, the consciousness each individual has of itself residing in and being part of something much greater.  So where to start? 

Enter mysticism, yoga, mindfulness meditation, or whatever label and technique of probing beyond the mere scientifically observable phenomena (which are awesome enough in themselves but stand outside us). We now face a smorgasbord of choices which, we are told over and over, all lead to the same ultimate destination.  You amy choose one and adhere to it almost exclusively or mix and match from the buffet. Only begin from “emptiness”, where the mind loses its attachments and distractions, the multitude of encumbering sensations that block the ability to penetrate beyond self, beyond the boundaries of a body and this physical realm that holds our true being captive to time and space.  Becoming “awake and aware” of being alone, “just being”, that is the place of meeting, the place of becoming one with the oneness of all things, of knowing, if only for a moment, how I too am one with the One.  No longer just this isolated sliver of awareness adrift on a cosmic ocean searching for its true place of rest, but One with the One-in-all.

This is Hinduism’s highest goal, what they call Brahman.  Buddhism names it ‘extinction’.  For both, abiding in the restful bliss of this state is nirvana.  It is the end of karma and all strife, and obviates any need to return to this illusory realm, maya, to continue the fruitless cycle of birth and rebirth.  The most direct route to enter this state is raja yoga — rigorously practiced, guided meditation, as led by a master, a guru. For Western dabblers and samplers, enter gently via some introductory classes, then grow/go deeper.

But is the human mind really capable of such stillness, such “extinction”?  Are humans really “made” to lose their individual awareness and be ultimately absorbed into anonymity and a sort of “pure being” without awareness?  Or is this too an illusion?  Is the Cosmos mere “maya”, a sort of karmic maelstrom-agglomeration of eons of outcomes based on all choices since the One exploded and countless errant entities went astray from the One? Or is extinction and Brahman another kind of maya?

The human predicament of the 21st Century is that we answer both “Yes!” and “No” to these ultimate questions at the same time.  On the one hand, the materialist West with its scientific and technological prowess tells us that this Time-Space continuum, however multi-dimensioned it may be in theory, is all there is.  It had a beginning and it will have an end.  Who we are in it are a sort of freakish accident that has gained self-awareness, against all probability.  We have seen how demoralized and rudderless we have become traveling this road.  In contrast to our schizophrenia, the greatest of all gurus once said, “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’. . . . You cannot serve two masters.”

Our “sublime instincts” demand that there be a meaning beyond simple recognition that we are an accidental blip with no more significance than any other outcome of what we call “evolution”, that our true destiny is to become “extinguished” in the great cosmic “Om”.  If extinction of self is what we are here for, why do we so stubbornly hunger to know and to be known as persons?  The guru emerging from the deep meditative state remains a self with awareness.

Why do we have such an ineluctable drive and ability to study the wonder of what exists to the very limits of the Cosmos, to learn, to fashion it in new ways, to admire it and stand in awe of it?  Finally, why do we insist on attributing meaning to it if, ultimately, there is no final purpose, or only a purpose which, as individuals, can satisfy nothing of our natural sublime hunger since we will not even be aware when all is resolved in ‘the One’, or when ‘evolution’ reverts to devolution and extinguishes everything once again?

This hunger, this innate predisposition for eternity which lives in the very core of our being, cannot, indeed will not, be denied.  When we deny it, what is becomes horribly ugly.  Once more, de Tocqueville nailed it: “Man [humankind, if you prefer] may hinder and distort them [the sublime instincts], but he cannot destroy them.”

The Third Way, 35: The Allure of Rome, Part 14 – Finale

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“The spiritual state of our time is characterized by curious paradoxes.  On the one hand, modern man is a naive realist—even a dogmatic absolutist—the material, sensual data being to him unquestionable reality.  If he speaks of reality in terms of indisputable certainty, he points to the material world, to the world of space, filled with matter.  But it so happens that modern science has shattered and riddled this compact conception of the world in such a way that modern man, without giving up his naive conception of reality, has at the same time become a sceptic…. Reverence for the quantum is, so to speak, the new version of the golden calf.”

Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilization, 1.  (London: Nisbet and Co., 1947), p. 31.

Brunner’s observation on the spiritual state of the world post WW2 is no less true 72 years after he pronounced it in a lecture in Scotland all those years ago.  Our sceptical, postmodern, progressive intelligentsia insist on the one hand that no such thing as “spirit” exists, or at least plays any role in what we experience.  Yet they appeal to the invisible absolute all the time in the domain of science; the unseen quantum and the unfathomable random govern all while we somehow, in complete contradiction, observe what seems like organized and analysable phenomena on every side.  We have the conceit that only today do we really know anything worth knowing (yet don’t really know what we profess to know)—even as we discount and eliminate whole categories of experience and accumulated wisdom that we cannot fit into these extremely narrow and limited models.  As Brunner puts it, “… the material, sensual data [are] to him unquestionable reality.”

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel said, “What experience and history teach is this—that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.”  (Quoted in Metaphors be with you, an a-to-z dictionary of history’s greatest metaphorical quotations by Dr. Mardy Grothe.  HarperCollins, 2016, p. 191.)  Despite the likelihood that our long history with Rome will not teach us much, if anything, Rome will not go away, either in life or in this blog.  We ignore the weighty heritage we have received from it at our peril—yet ignore it we largely do and probably will continue to do in future.  Similarly, just as Rome will not go away, neither will our heritage from Christianity, as much and as vehemently as so many might like it to. 

The EU’s atrocious and gratuitous revision of the historical record in 2003 (see previous blog) notwithstanding, Europe is saturated with cathedrals, universities, institutions, ideas, ideologies, cultural treasures, memories good and bad, and consequences so deeply and complexly intertwined with its present that all the wishing in the galaxy cannot make it go away.  Europe, the birthplace of the West, is the product of an ancient super-state that lasted over 500 years.  But it is just as much, and perhaps even more, the product of an ancient faith that has infused its spirit and inspired so much of what it stands for that it is culturally and civically suicidal to abandon it.  Nonetheless doing its best to abandon it, the West slides ever deeper into hopeless confusion about what it is and who it is and who we, its sons and daughters, really are in our heart of hearts. 

But there it is: the city of Rome with all its reminders of past glory remains one of the top five tourist destinations in the world.  Europe from the northern reaches of England to the west bank of the Elbe in Germany, from the coast of Portugal to the Bosporus in Turkey, remains filled with Roman ruins and monuments that the curious dabbler and serious student can visit for the rest of their lives and never reach the end.  Much of the Middle East has all kinds of Roman remains as well, but conditions for touristic or scholarly visitation there are less than conducive at this juncture. 

Like the city of Rome, the Roman Catholic Church still stands and is likely to continue to do so, despite its beleaguered reputation and the disdain of multitudes.  It is good that it should, both as a historical institution that encapsulates so much of the West’s heritage and history, and, when it actually succeeds in acting more like what Jesus was aiming at, as a positive social and spiritual voice.  Protestants, Roman Catholicism’s wayward progeny, will also remain around, and they would do well to cast fewer stones at their living progenitor.  “Those who live in glass houses” and all that…

The West emerged from the ancient twin colossi of Imperial Rome and the Imperial Roman Church after a thousand years of struggle and reconfiguration.  That millennium, conventionally called “the Middle Ages”, was an adventure in figuring out what to do with the massive mountain of Roman remains — material, intellectual, spiritual, psychological, sociological, psychic, economic, cultural, etc., etc. — filtered by each of the successor people’s existing and developing characteristics as they emerged from barbarism.  Even conflicted Russia, on the cusp of where Europe meets the Orient, could not escape.  Japan, which decided 150 years ago to create a hybrid of Western and its own indigenous society, did not escape. 

Even China, still officially idolizing the likes of Marx and Mao, has not escaped and cannot escape.  After all, Socialism, Marxism, and Communism are derivatives of a progressive, utopian view of life and history rooted elsewhere, as is Capitalistic social democracy.  That “elsewhere” is a Biblical conception of linear time from Creation to Final Judgment and the coming of the Kingdom of God at the end, when all things will be resolved in love, peace, and justice for all, regardless of any distinction.  (“In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” wrote the Apostle Paul.)  And the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth is the core message of Jesus and Christianity, at least when it is not suffering from amnesia.  That message has, by and large, been disseminated world-wide by the missionaries of the West.  Unfortunately, it was taken abroad much alloyed with other baggage which had wrapped itself around it and so became much confused with it.  This contamination has led to enormous negative side-effects which have greatly obscured the fundamental positive story of who Jesus is and what He did and is still doing.

As unpalatable as it no doubt is to some billions today, the reality of our global human society and current path of social evolution is that most of our major ideas and governing practical paradigms have emerged from the West’s specific ethos rooted in Judeo-Christian-Greco-Roman soil.  It may not be politically correct to admit it, and it may be debated and denied among the academic hoi-polloi, but the human ecology and landscape of the 21st century is as it is because Rome and Judeo-Christianity have made it that way.

 That is why Brunner says justly, and as aptly now as when he first said it, that our progressive evolutionary paradigm is actually terribly naive and fundamentally flawed.  It is a dead end as a road of hope.  After all, what is the ultimate purpose?  Death and extinction lie at the end of it—however long from now that may prove to be.  There is nothing else, and all the struggles to make life better, more tolerable, more just, more equitable, are based on an ideology that is rooted in concepts of a perfect society borrowed from a faith that the same people who, nominally and perhaps really, strive for it profess to despise.

When they cannot face this they demonstrate a lack of integrity.  It is they who become guilty of the sin of willful ignorance of which they love to accuse the supposedly blindly naive and superstitious believers in a fundamentally good and beneficent Creator.  They cannot honestly face the reality that without a Creator their quest is only a plea to lessen misery while existence lasts.  There are so many contradictions in this that it would take a great volume to elucidate them all. 

It is a deliberate choice, quite succinctly put thirty years ago by Stephen Hawking, the supreme icon of postmodern Science.  In his conclusion to A Brief History of Time, the great astro-physicist and cosmologist admits that God is the admittedly most straightforward solution to the existence of time, which represents everything that exists.  But he then completely illogically jumps past his own logic, declaring, “We no longer have need of that hypothesis [God].” 

He is really saying that we (the ‘real’ scientific elite), cannot admit that that is the clear and most obvious and practical solution based on the evidence.  Somehow, sometime, based on pure faith in Reason and Science (the modern, postmodern, Enlightenment substitutes for Castor and Pollux, the twin gods of good fortune and hope in ancient Rome), we will find a non-God answer.  Until then we choose not to turn to God, although He/She/It is the elephant occupying almost the whole room we find ourselves in.  That is what Hawking was really saying without saying it.

As we observed in a previous post, the most admired philosopher of modern times among our intelligentsia is Friedrich Nietzsche, who already saw all these contradictions at least a hundred and twenty years ago.  Like Hawking, he deliberately chose to continue to hold on to them.  Eventually he drove himself to suicide because, as he well knew, his own solutions to our meaningless existence (such as a Superman ruling a Super-race which would emerge to lead humankind into the next exalted phase of evolution) were really soulless and empty.  That ideology was later adopted and personally believed as applying to himself and the German people with vicious zeal by a certain Adolf Hitler and his movement.  We all know the results, but we have begun to forget them to the point that we may well set off down the repeat-history road warned of by Schlesinger’s shortened version of Hegel’s observation: “Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.”

Nietzsche’s most famous line is, “God is dead and we have killed Him.”  We live in a culture that thinks that because we declare God, the Creator, dead, that means that, for real, He/She/It is actually dead—never existed in fact.  The old Enlightenment philosophes used to call hard-core religionists “invincibly ignorant” because they seemed immune to all appeals to Reason and Science (the modern “Golden Calf” as Brunner puts it) to make them understand that there is no God and never has been.  No doubt for most of our entrenched postmodern neo-philosophes, people who cling to faith in (to their mind) an invisible, unknowable Creator, of whatever description, still are “invincibly ignorant”.  As we have seen, the shoe fits them as well as and even better than it does those who “cling to faith in a fictitious Deity.”

If turning once more to the Creator is part of our way forward, we must not make the mistake of trying to resurrect past failed approaches to Him/Her.  Yet that may well appear to be the most natural way of going about trying to restore or initiate such a relationship.  Hegel’s and Schlesinger’s warning is just as applicable in this respect.  Christendom (distinct from what Jesus really taught and meant) was not the answer, as we have seen in abundant detail over the course of this blog.  Trying to reinstate some sort of Christian-Secular Hybrid State will never bring the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in Heaven.”  Neither will an outright theocracy à la Islam where a Church-State holds all the power and enforces a slew of rules to compel everyone to behave rightly, justly, etc.  Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, Krishna and many other great spiritual leaders emphatically denied the road of political power as a way to bring mass ‘salvation’ to the human race. 

The one major and unfortunate exception to this rule was Muhammad.  If history teaches anything about using the sword and harsh laws to compel and sustain belief, it is that ultimately this path will fail, but not before it inflicts terrible suffering and massive death.  Eventually the failure must and will become blatantly evident.  Then, if the oppressors will not mend their ways, and as Jesus once so cogently put it, “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.”

What, then, is the ‘Third Way’ which we seek?  We have seen what it is not and cannot be.  What can and should it be, or, more aptly, what could it be like?  That is our quest.

The Third Way, 34: The Allure of Rome, Part 13 – Back to the Future

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                By 1650, it was quite clear that the shattered unity of Christendom was irreparable.  Humpty-Dumpty had fallen and all the Kings’, Emperors’, and Popes’ horses and men could not put him together again.  Surely at this juncture the hankering for Roman-type hegemony would fade into the dim pages of history?  There was now neither an Empire nor a Roman Church to unify the squabbling peoples of the West.

            Besides, a new way forward towards wisdom and understanding, one that was freeing the West from the shackles of religion which had cost millions of lives over more than a century of fraternal war, was awakening hope of a better, saner, and more balanced and rational future.  Everyone needed to break from theological fanaticism and dogmatic condemnation and anathemas.  It was even beginning to be safe to voice such ideas in some places.  The dawning of tolerance and toleration of differences within society was edging over the horizon in a few lands, such as England, the Netherlands, some minor German States (until 1806, Germany was a crazy geo-political jigsaw puzzle of over 300 sovereignties), and Switzerland.  Incidentally, these areas all happened to be Protestant.  If you were a dissenter in a Catholic land, best to keep your head down and your mouth shut, for the Inquisition was lurking and would continue to do so until the revolution in France (1789-99) broke the Church’s secular power once and for all.

This new way was Science, the path of Reason, rational discourse and discovery.[i]  Its early proponents and practitioners had to proceed cautiously, especially if they happened to be Roman Catholic and carried on their research in a Catholic state.  Everyone knows the story of Galileo (although few really know it, but rather a much mutilated version of it).  Incidentally, the real story of the relationship of religion (mainly Christianity) and science is also much mangled and has been caricaturized in stereotypical revisionist textbook accounts more like fable than the historical reality.  (Fake news anyone?)  We cannot really deal with this issue here today, but it would be worth a visit of some length in the future.

            For the increasingly militant proponents of the new knowledge, there were models to admire and emulate and to study ardently in the new curricula being gradually established in the universities.  National Academies were being created to reward research and grant recognition to the best and brightest.  The best-known example of this was England’s Royal Society, whose declared purpose was the promotion of new science, the scientific method, and discovery of all kinds based on rational pursuit of empirical knowledge.  England’s lead was imitated and followed widely and with success in France, the Netherlands, and Prussia, a new, rising power in Germany.

            Aristotle once more came forward, along with a host of other ancient Greek thinkers and philosophers who had dabbled in science (Pythagoras, Hiero, Ptolemy, etc.), and even the Romans, those most practical of ancient people and the master engineers of History.  Cicero, Juvenal, and Lucretius were much admired Roman rationalists.

            What was most admired among these ancient authorities was the ability to think independently, setting aside religious issues and questions.  After all, paganism was so varied that insisting that one set of gods and practices supersedes all others was a completely pointless exercise.  Those eminently sensible Romans simply said, “Believe in whatever gods you choose, or none at all.  Just observe the public ceremonies and acknowledge the ‘divinity’ of the Emperor for appearance’s sake.”

            Thus, we turn once more to the Greeks and Romans, as did many Enlightenment thinkers.  How should we pursue truth?  Well, let’s see how those admirable ancient sages did so.  Let’s discuss their thoughts and proposals.  Let’s study their literary output in depth.  Let’s really understand how language can be used and developed as a tool to express nuance—no better exemplars than Ciceronian Latin and Attic Greek.

            Let us do as Aristotle did, or Euclid, or Pythagoras, or many others, analysing nature and all sorts of subjects with insatiable curiosity and relentless application of observation and classification. 

Another subject needing elucidation in the light of science: what kind of government is most admirable and effective?  Two principal models stood out: Athens and Rome.  By far the most effective in all history was Rome.  But by far the most elegant and admirable in principle was Athens.   Regrettably, tumultuous Athens also proved the fragility (folly?) of democracy, whereas Rome had demonstrated five hundred years of continuity and two hundred years of rock-solid stability and relative tolerance, Christians aside, during the Pax Romana, (27 BCE -180 CE).  This was the doing of a series of “Enlightened Despots” (especially those beginning in 98 CE with Trajan and ending with the death of Marcus Aurelius, the remarkable ‘Philosopher-King’, in 181 CE), so that seemed to be a tenable option.

            Edward Gibbon’s monumental The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a remarkable best-seller by late 18th C standards, was translated into every major European language.  It was the Enlightenment’s paean to the glory of ancient Roma.  It was a manifesto against the debilitating and nefarious effects of Christianity on the greatest civilization of all time (at least as Gibbon portrayed it).  By inference, it was the negative eulogy of a dying faith, at least as the Enlightenment philosophes conceived the upcoming eclipse of Christianity in favour of rational Deism, the updated version of that most venerable ancient philosophy, Stoicism. 

Gibbon’s verdict was that, like moles and termites eating the foundations of a magnificent edifice, Christianity had sapped the Empire’s moral and martial spirit and its general morale, destroyed the central vision and unity of a truly transnational, tolerant state, and betrayed all that was noble in the ancient world.  In its place, it gave Europe a millennium of Dark Ages (rather than Paradise on earth), religious bigotry, and factionalism.  It was time for the West to free itself from these chains of suppression, ignorance, superstition, and fanaticism.

            Other Enlightenment rationalist writers and thinkers (e.g. Diderot, D’Alembert, Voltaire) offered many other commentaries based on similar ideas.  They were great communicators and savvy manipulators of the mass media of the age, particularly print in an age of rapidly increasing literacy.  They invented newspapers and popular magazines, pamphlets and broadsheets, and that massive compendium of new learning, the Encyclopedia.  They founded coffee houses, salons, and new clubs to carry their torch and spread their gospel.  The overall tone of these learned works and places was (often not-so) subtly anti-Church and anti-Christian, although rarely overtly anti-Christ.  Once more, all this is far beyond what we can discuss at length here.

            One general effect was to resurrect the legacy of Rome and its Empire, to brush it off and reburnish it, once more making  its “Golden Age” (minus the infection of Christianity) a symbol and ideal which could be admired and even, perhaps, in the right circumstances, partially restored.[ii]

            Let us therefore see some of what we retain from the Romans in our history, besides a lot of interesting scenarios for nifty books, TV series, and spectacular films (The Robe, Ben-Hur, Gladiator, etc.).  Well, we have Latin, to begin with!  One of the Latin synonyms for ‘Emperor’ is Caesar (simply the retention of Julius Caesar’s name as a title).  The Germans and Austrians adapted it as ‘Kaiser’, while the Russians turned it to ‘Czar/Tsar’.  Via Napoleonic France, most of Europe’s legal codes are based on Rome’s massive law traditions as systematized under Justinian (Emperor of the East, 527-565 CE).  Via the Church, administrative and civil service models were to be found in the later empire’s methods, particularly as developed from the time of Diocletian (Emperor 284-305 CE) to Theodosius I (the Great, 379-395 CE).  For more than a millennium the Roman model of education (Trivium and Quadrivium) formed the pattern of western education right to the university level (once more via the Church).

            Imitation and emulation are the greatest forms of flattery and honour.  For 1500+ years Western governments, governors, and magistrates have continually resorted to the Roman model in practice and symbolism.  National, institutional, heraldic, and educational mottos have rarely used any language but Latin.  After the fall of the West (476 CE), for centuries the successor barbarian kings pretended allegiance to the Emperor in Constantinople in order to legitimize their rule in the eyes of the former Imperial subjects who formed the mass of the conquered population. 

The barbarian kings relied heavily on the resident Roman educated class to carry on a semblance of orderly rule, then on the Roman Catholic clergy.[iii]  They rather crudely tried to emulate Roman military organization, which had so long defeated them.  The Holy Roman Emperors used the eagle as their power symbol.  Remnants of Roman engineering prowess aided in construction and siege warfare.  These antiquities remained subjects of study then as they remain now.

            Imitators and claimants to the title and prestige of “Imperator” (Latin for Emperor) have remained part of European history, culture, and society since Charlemagne earned the title of “Emperor of the West and Holy Roman Emperor” in 800 CE.  Perhaps the most ardent and successful modern admirer and aspirant to this distinction was Napoleon Bonaparte, self-styled “Emperor of the French” (1804-1814, 1815). He deliberately avoided the phrases “Emperor of France” or “Emperor of the West” to show that his rule was based on the will of the people and his own efforts. 

Like Charlemagne, he was invested by the Pope (1804 CE), although he took the crown from the Pope and placed it on his own head.  Napoleon’s imperial legions used eagles as their martial emblems, like the Roman legions.  His Marshals carried batons with eagle-heads as their authority symbols.  Before being Emperor, Napoleon used the titles “Consul, First Consul, Consul for Life.”  Like Constantine, he made a strategic alliance (the 1802 Concordat) with the (Roman) Catholic Church to unify his people and cement his rule.  As mentioned above, his legal code, the “Code Napoléon”, which is still the foundation of French law and that of much of Europe via the expansion of French domination during Napoleon’s meteoric career, was inspired by and modeled on Justinian’s great code.

The United States has its share of Greco-Roman emulation and symbology, from its sloganry to its eagle, and much else.  Tsarist Russia used the two-headed eagle (facing east and west), an adaptation of Byzantium’s (East Rome’s) imperial symbol.  And the Kaiser’s Germany sported an imperial eagle on its very flag, while Nazi Germany stylized this for itself and had it emblazoned on military uniforms and symbols of power all over Europe.

The legend and mystique of Rome is still much with us, both “late and soon”.  As the West sleepwalks its way into abandoning and losing its heritage, the ghosts of the Caesars and the Eagles haunt us still.

Where does all this leave us in our spiritual meandering and searching for some sense of meaning and contact with the true, the just, and the beautiful? Perhaps there is another echo whispering, one of a resurrected Lord meeting Peter on the Via Appia as he headed into a Rome the Apostle had just fled, and Peter asking, “Quo vadis, Domine?”

Of that, more next time.


[i]  The capitalization of Science and Religion here is deliberate, as, for the “new thinkers” of what became known to us as “the Enlightenment”, they rapidly assumed the status of dogma.  Faith and belief are part of human nature and even our genetic makeup, so simply removing ‘Religion’ from one’s primary worldview does not obviate the need to believe and serve some kind of ultimate truth and reality.

[ii]  It is interesting to see how long this effect has lasted.  As recently as 2003, when the EU was adopting a constitution, its preamble pointedly ignored and virtually outright denied any debt to Christianity in the making of Europe as a society and transnational culture while extolling the great debt owed to the ancient glories of the Greco-Romans.  Revisionist History à outrance!

[iii]  In the year 212 CE, all free residents of the Empire were granted Roman citizenship, thus eliminating all local allegiances and national distinctions.  So a resident of Gaul became a Roman, as did an Egyptian, a Greek, a Syrian, a Macedonian, a Briton, a German, or a Spaniard.

The Third Way, 33: The Allure of Rome, Part 12 – Christendom’s Civil War

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“This doctrine of the Kingdom of Heaven, which was the main teaching of Jesus, and which plays so small a part in the Christian creeds, is certainly one of the most revolutionary doctrines that ever stirred and changed human thought…. the doctrine of the Kingdom of Heaven, as Jesus seems to have preached it, was no less than a bold and uncompromising demand for a complete change and cleansing of our struggling race, an utter cleansing without and within.”

H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, Volume 1.  Revised and brought up to date by Raymond Postgate and G.P. Wells.  (Doubleday and Company, 1971), p. 445.

Peter Waldo, 12th Century; Francis and Clare of Assisi, 13th Century; John Wycliffe, 14th Century; John Hus, 15th Century; humanist reformers like Erasmus and Thomas More, 15th and 16th Centuries; Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther, 16th Century.  This is a very short list of radical idealists seeking serious reform of the Roman Church and European civil society over the last 300 years of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.  But before we consider how the explosion of the early 16th Century, which historians now call the “Protestant Reformation”, blew apart the long-standing Medieval consensus, we must give credit where credit is due. 

First, let us recall that a church is primarily the people who are its members. For a thousand years the Roman Church had often been an agency of great good, restraining the civil powers from behaving without conscience and scruple towards the humble folk under their rule.  Often, when no one else stood up for the suffering peasants, serfs, and labourers, the Church did.  The Church provided for the poorest of the poor, for widows and orphans, What medical help and relief for the starving and destitute there was came almost entirely from the Church via its monasteries, hospital foundations, dioceses, and parishes.  The Church brought solace to the afflicted, comfort to the grieving, relief to the suffering, and hope to the downtrodden—even if only that they could eventually be with God after they purged their faults in purgatory.  The Church forced secular rulers to behave with more restraint and to follow law rather than thier own arbitrary whims of justice.  It compelled rulers to control exorbitant financial exploitation of those who were forced into debt.  It made it clear that even kings and lords must answer to a yet higher authority and be subject to laws they themselves did not make.  When plague and disease swept through, those who most often stayed to help at the probable cost of their own lives were the monks, nuns, and parish clergy, assisted by some selfless physicians and lay persons.

We must not confuse the 16th Century’s widespread disgust with the largely corrupt and self-indulgent hierarchy, and frustration with their stone-walling mindset, with a desire for revolution or a wish to tear apart the fabric of a continent-wide society the unity of Christendom.  This society had functioned rather effectively to create a kind of general consensus and awareness of being one under God, despite the numerous rival national and ethnic rivalries.  The ethos and foundation for this had largely been the legacy of Charlemagne, all things considered one of the truly great monarchs of world history. 

Like Charlemagne, the monarchs and princes of the Middle Ages all named Christ as the supreme King of kings, although many of them with far less conviction than their archetype.  Following his lead, scholars, ecclesiastics, and many of the rulers agreed on most of the principles they adhered to, having been educated to think of their world as one under God through the Church, with the Latin language as a symbol of their essential unity.  What divided them was human sinfulness manifested as greed, pride, arrogance, lust, and ambition.  But all sought absolution from God’s servants in the Roman Church.  A priest from Germany, France, Italy, England, or Poland was just as competent to absolve as any other.  A well-qualified, conscientious, and intelligent scholar or lawyer trained in Padua, Paris, Oxford, Salamanca, or Cologne was as competent to educate and advise a leader as any other and, speaking Latin, could rapidly integrate in a new setting.

When, on October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther posted a Latin document railing against the abuse and injurious effects of indulgences exploiting the gullible to finance Church debt and build the new St. Peter’s in Rome, he was not trying to be obscure.  He was conventionally offering to engage any who cared to debate the issue, which was a well-recognized long-standing grievance, especially among the myriad principalities of Germany who had no strong central monarch to advocate their cause.  By this point, the Holy Roman Emperor was more like the CEO of a loose Confederation who depended largely on the voluntary cooperation of the local princes.  Because of this central vulnerability, Church financial exigencies oppressed the German states more than the united kingdoms of France or England, for example.  

Making a public post such as Luther did was not a radical move in itself.  What was radical was the challenging nature of several of his “95 Theses”, as this document has become known.  Why it had the effect of a tocsin call to action that reverberated across Germany was not due to Luther’s simple action, but to that of his enthusiastic students and the readiness of educated Germans to heed what it said as echoing much of what they felt themselves. It also fueled political fires and the ambitions for more autonomy of certain princes over and against the new Emperor, Charles 5th.

As we would say of a social media “post” today, it “went viral”.  The students of Wittenberg University took it to the local printer and copied it so it could be physically carried to other towns and cities then reprinted, reposted, and individually distributed.  This action was the explosive catalyst, along with the students’ enthusiastic “preaching” of its contents among their peers in the taverns and universities they visited.  Luther at first had no control and little to do with this spontaneous outpouring.  He unwittingly found himself the center of attention, but realized he could not now avoid it unless he retracted his most controversial criticisms.

We cannot here retell the story of the Reformation in detail.  As Luther galvanized Germany, so did Ulrich Zwingli shake Switzerland from his home church in Zurich.  Both of these rebel clerics would eventually be excommunicated, both would be declared heretics, and both would preach most of the same things, dividing their countries and societies.  Their followers would derisively be called “Protestants” (today we would say “Protestors”) by loyal Roman Catholics leaders and rulers, who sought and failed to eliminate them, their followers, and their teaching.  Germany and Switzerland would soon be engulfed in religious civil war which would spread to much of northern and central Europe and not finally end until 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia.

No matter how “righteous” the cause may be or appear to, strong leaders must be strong-willed and, when driven into a corner, will often even display a ruthless streak.  The major leaders of the Reformation period (among whom we find Luther, Zwingli, Jean (John) Calvin, Guillaume (William) Farel, Philip Melancthon, John Knox, and many more perhaps less well-known figures) were far from faultless.  They said things and committed or authorized actions that were much less than charitable, merciful, or gracious. The Gospel and Saviour they professed to restore and serve could only be used to justify these excesses with greatly strained elasticity.  As theologians trained in the Medieval scholastic method, they were accustomed to elastic analogy and allegory. They rightly denounced the Catholics for persecutions and massacres, but those whom they inspired often did the same things, and sometimes with approval directly from their very mouths (as when, in 1525, Luther told the German nobles to crush the Munster peasant radicals “like wild dogs”).

How was the Roman legacy mixed up in all this?  First, through the continued claims of the imperialist Roman Catholic Church to represent and enforce the Creators’ intention that all those who took Christ’s name should acknowledge the Pope as his rightful Regent on earth.  The Pope called on the Emperor and the Kings of Europe to bring the Protestants to heel and to inflict the due penalties for apostasy and heresy.  Secondly, through the education that all had received in the universities and schools of the time, where the curriculum and subject matter so heavily reflected the Greco-Roman heritage.  Thirdly, through the well-entrenched and proven administrative apparatus of both Church and State bequeathed from Imperial Rome via the Church and the scholars and advisors trained by the Church to work with the secular rulers.  Fourthly, via the still accepted notion that all subjects must publicly practice and adhere to the same religion with the same rituals and official formulae in order for a society to remain stable.  Private belief might be otherwise, but universal public adherence to the approved religion was essential for order and stability in a society.

In the West, we have become so accustomed to the notion of “the separation of Church and State” (although ‘Church’ in our time means personal religious opinion more than anything else according to progressive court and tribunal reinterpretations) that we cannot imagine religious belief being imposed and enforced by an approved religious authority via the government legal system.  However, there are many countries where the religion, or approved, official ideology and government are bound together and act as one power to enforce conformity.  Most Muslim countries are like this, as are communist and fascist regimes.

In truth, all ideologically founded impositions of standards of public speech and behaviour, or prohibitions on some types of public and even private behaviour, are theologically rooted. Thus there never has been nor can be a complete separation of theological (religious) opinion from society and law-enforcement. Even an atheist is expressing a religious opinion and, when it is publicly imposed via education or restrictions on freedom of expression in some kinds of discussion, such as certain kinds of ‘human rights’ claims, a religious or a-religious perspective of what is at present a rather small minority is being imposed on the rest of society via the legal machinery of the state. Language is not theologically or religiously neutral, unless we interpret ‘religion’ to be an institutional affair. But over the last fifty years in the West it has been inserted into certain approved and disapproved opinions being publicly asserted, even to the point that those who hold the current ‘disapproved’ perspective are prohibited from speaking publicly on pain of penalty or sanction.

In Europe in the 1500s, the result of the polarization of Roman Catholic rulers facing off against the minority of those who had become supporters of Protestant views was to be what we have come to call a series of “religious wars” lasting into the mid-1600s.  Imperial Rome had had many civil wars, and now its successor civilization in the West would be engulfed by a massive one centred on whether the spiritual descendant of ancient Rome, the Roman Catholic (Imperial) Church should still hold sway.

TO BE CONTINUED   

The Third Way, 32: The Allure of Rome, Part 11 – Dam Burst

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“… the rise and break-up of the Roman system … the obstinate survival of the idea of theEmpire in Europe, and of the various projects for the unification of Christendom … at different times.” 

H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, Volume 1.  Revised and brought up to date by RaymondPostgate and G.P. Wells.  (Doubleday and Company, 1971), p. 3.

There have been two “Roman systems” in the History of the West.  The first was that of antiquity and the Roman Empire created by Julius Caesar and his adopted son, Octavian, better known as Augustus, the first Emperor with the title.  It lasted 503 years (27 BCE-476 CE[i]), and its Eastern Mediterranean successor, the Byzantine (East Roman) Empire, lasted almost another thousand years until the Fall of Constantinople to the Muslim Ottoman Turks in 1453.

The second was the spiritual empire of the Popes, the Christian Patriarchs of the West within the Catholic Church as it emerged after the collapse of Rome’s political hegemony.  Apart from the Avignon hiatus during most of a century in the Middle Ages, the Popes remained in Rome and, for much of the time from about 800 CE until 1870, were the temporal sovereigns of the center of Italy.  But the Papal claim to imperial status was spiritual.  As the “Vicars of Christ on earth”, the successors of the “Prince of the Apostles”, St. Peter, and “Pontifex Maximus”, the Supreme Priest designated by God on earth to stand before and officiate at His altar on behalf of sinners seeking His mercy, the Popes of the “High Middle Ages” declared their authority to be above that of any earthly sovereign.

The New Testament calls the Church “the Body of Christ” and the “Family of God”.  The Catholic Church emerged from the ancient world as a united institution declaring itself the sole legitimate presence of Christ on earth.  In 1054 CE, it fractured into two branches, East and West, or “Orthodox” and “Roman Catholic”. 

Inevitably, the Church was also very much imprinted with the human character of the society and culture into which it was born in time and space.  Today’s church(es) are as much imprinted by their culture and history as those of yore.  Without denying the hand of the Creator through Christ in the Church’s origin and continued existence, we must recognize its very human nature.  This cannot be a surprise, for, in Christian theology, Jesus is both fully and equally God and human in one person.  If the Church is the chief agency of Jesus’ continued presence in the world, we cannot be much astonished to find that it is “fully human”, as Christian theology says the same of Jesus.

But, unlike the Founder, the Church is not also “fully God.”  Christians believe that it is imbued with God’s Spiritual presence and nature, but it is as much defined by the character of the humans who make it up as by the presence of God’s Spirit at its heart.  Christians have done and do amazingly good things but, as ‘sinners’, they must still “work out their salvation with fear and trembling”, as the Apostle Paul once put it.  Therefore they also mess up pretty badly and pretty regularly.  So too, and repeatedly, have the Church’s human leaders.

Being a sinner is not so much the problem, but rather being too proud, arrogant, and stubborn to admit when we get it wrong, and sometimes horribly wrong.  That is a manifestation of the common humanity of both every human individual and every historically recorded human institution and society.  It is the same old pattern that has plagued humanity since its beginning, whether male or female, or any other gender we may care to define into existence according to certain postmodern lights who insist on redefining reality on their own terms.  In any sense we care to look at it, humanity is broken and out of sync with the Creator’s original intention, or His/Her “will” as the Christian Bible terms it.

All this to say that the Church, or ekklesia as the Greek in the New Testament calls it (it means the assembly, congregation, or gathering of the Body of Christ on earth), first began in a First Century Jewish culture, itself already much influenced by the syncretistic Hellenic culture of the Eastern Mediterranean.  It then rapidly expanded into the Hellenistic-Roman milieu, reaching as far west as Rome itself within the first generation.  The ekklesia was both like and unlike other social groups of its time, but it quickly ran into serious difficulty because of its challenging differences with the host culture. 

It did not fit any models; it was not confined to a particular class or ethnicity.  It recognized the full humanity of slaves and women and took no notice of race or language.  It challenged accepted standards of public and private morality.  But, most serious of all, it called its adherents to a higher ultimate allegiance than that to the Emperor or the “genius of Rome”.  It proclaimed another King above even the divinity sitting on Rome’s throne, a King who could and would call to account even “Divine Caesar”, as Emperors had began to be called even in Augustus’ day (although he and his first successor, Tiberius, never officially adopted that title).

As we read the Book of Acts, the various Apostolic letters, and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, we cannot but be struck by the almost immediate adaptation of the Christian message to the society and culture that enveloped it.  Since then, this is the ongoing story of the presence of Christianity and the Church in our world.  It can only be thus, for Christianity is not a fixed “system” meant to be cemented into an immutable set of rules and practices issuing from the mouth and mind of an unchangeable philosophy.  It is a message about reconciling the parties in a very broken primary relationship (God with humanity), and then the relationships of human-to-human and humanity with the Creator’s creation.  It is a message that every broken human and every struggling generation must hear and respond to for itself.

If we understand this dynamic from the start, there is always room for discussion about how this needs to be communicated and acted upon in the midst of the ebbs and flows of life and the ongoing saga of every society’s and culture’s evolution through time.  However, it does not mean there are no firm principles or that there is no basic perspective or fixed points of reference.  It is the ballet of finding the balance as the rocking vessel moves with the waves.

What emerged from the chaos of the thunderous crash of what had seemed like “Eternal Rome’s” collapse  was an institution which had imbibed a great deal of the ethos and structure of the secular society and system of the Late Empire.  It was this that gave an immediate anchor to help stabilize much of the West for a few centuries, helping it survive and emerge as “the West” as differentiated from “the Orient”.  But even success has its drawbacks when we identify a fixed system as the primary reason for the eventual triumph of those that latch onto it, and make its forms, rules, and laws immutable because, for a time, they helped to achieve survival and bestow eventual supremacy over all rivals. 

Within the emerging civilization of “the West”, the Roman Church had been the anchor, and the Patriarch of the West in Rome had been the Father-figure who offered connection to the revealed truth and traditions and assured their pure transmission.  To a large degree, the Pope (the title is an adaptation of “Papa”, the familiar Latin word for father, a word still used in Italian and Spanish) was truly seen as the universal, earthly “father” of the family of God to which all the baptized belonged.  Such a well-rooted emotional and cultural attachment cannot be very easily broken, even if it is eventually revealed as a construct which has passed its expiry date.

As we have seen, the sense of the Pope’s failure to be a faithful father and true “Vicar”, or stand-in, for God’s Son, had become more and more acute by the early 16th century.  The hierarchy’s failure to restrain both Papal and its own exploitation of the “sheep of the flock” reinforced the conscious and unconscious (for many) sense that the ordained clergy had forfeited the right to the title “Father”, as the priests were to be addressed, and hardly even qualified for the humbler and simpler appellation of “brother” or “sister”.  Some noted the verse where Jesus had cautioned his disciples to call no one “father” except God (Matthew 23:9).

All that was lacking for the storm to break out was a catalyst.  In 1517 in Germany, a Dominican monk named Theodor Tetzel provided that catalyst. It would provoke a locally popular but obscure University of Wittenberg professor named Martin Luther to challenge Papal authority on a specific question.  This challenge would prove the chink that fell out of the dam and let loose the flood of all the pent-up resentment, frustration, disillusionment and doubt.  The rapid acceleration of what at first looked like a “tempest in a tea-pot” into a raging hurricane would take everyone by surprise.  Within a generation it would have permanently shattered the illusion of the unity of Christendom and shaken the spiritual Imperium of Rome to its very foundations.


[i]  27 BCE is the year Augustus was officially granted the title, or rather the Senate ratified the fact of Octavian being, “Imperator”.  Octavian was also named “Augustus”, or “highly honoured and esteemed.  He was given life-long command of all Rome’s armed forces, as well as reconfirmed for life in many other honours, such as Pontifex Maximus and Princeps (First Man of Rome, hence the title “Prince”).  This made the Emperor the supreme military, religious, and civil official of the State.

The Third Way, 31: The Allure of Rome, Part 10 – Reform Longings

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“As the Middle Ages drew to a close, many advocates of reform were convinced that the greatest ill of the church was the obscurantism of what soon would be called the “dark ages.”  The printing press, the influx of Byzantine scholars, and the rediscovery of the artistic and literary legacy of antiquity gave credence to the hope that the furtherance of scholarship and education would produce the much-needed reform of the church.  If at some point in the past centuries practices had been introduced that were contrary to original Christian teaching, it seemed reasonable to surmise that a return to the sources of Christianity—both biblical and patristic—would do away with such practices. 

This was the program of the humanist reformers.”

Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 2, The Reformation to the Present Day.  (HarperSanFrancisco, 1985), p. 10.

This hope, that “a return to the sources of Christianity—both biblical and patristic—would do away with such practices,” inspired Erasmus, Thomas More, and others like them as thed into the 16th Century.  But the signals from the top were not very promising.  The series of “wicked Popes” that afflicted the Roman Catholic Church as the 15th C ended and the 16th began seemed to point to ‘more of the same’ and perhaps even worse, with open depravity and debauchery fouling the Holy See.  The Conciliar Movement had been swept aside by the brazen highhandedness of the nepotistic Curia under these Pontiffs.  There was open flaunting of the law of celibacy even at the Papal level and no evidence of observance of chastity or self-control.

A radical named Girolamo Savonarola had briefly brought a sort of revival and purging of the most flagrant abuses and moral outrages in Florence in the mid 1490s, but when he began denouncing the outright ‘paganism’  and ‘anti-Christ spirit’ of the current Pope, said Pope had manipulated his overthrown and subsequent condemnation and burning as a heretic in 1498.  A little later the massive fund-raising campaign to rebuild St. Peter’s and the Vatican as state of the art manifestations of the new cultural glories began.  All over Europe there were outcries from the humanists and the religious reformers alike at the grandiose scale of the undertaking to be financed on the backs of the whole continent, but the instructions from Rome were to forge ahead and ignore all the carping.  Prelates were directed to send contributions from their dioceses. Eventually, a supplementary campaign would be directed to the gullible unwashed who would buy into the indulgence promises for their dead loved ones and themselves when they would pass on. The “unwashed” did.  Local needs must be met by local tithes and offerings on top of everything else.

For the 99% of the at least nominally Roman Catholic population of Europe west of Muscovy and north of the Balkans in the early 1500s, Rome was the ‘Holy City’, the awesome place where dwelt the exalted personage of Christ’s earthly representative.  They held all kinds of fantastic notions about the place and the person who sat on the lofty gold-leafed throne that shone like heaven’s seat itself.  To make pilgrimage to Rome was an ambition only next to the now all-but-impossible idea of pilgrimage to the Holy Land, once more locked firmly in the mail-fisted Islamic grip.

Pilgrims traveling to Rome in the last 100 years before Western Christianity blew itself apart, disillusionement often proved tbiggest outcome.  The tawdriness of Rome in those days quickly disabused many visitors.  The ardent pilgrims were viewed as sheep to be fleeced by the wily Roman populace.  Everything in Rome came at a price—access to pilgrimage sites, masses and novenas for the peace and remission of one’s own or one’s loved ones’ sins, a brief instant of audience time in the Papal presence, outrageous prices for food and accommodation, and the prospect of being waylaid and robbed on the roads and byways around or in the city itself. 

Visitors to the city often left minus the aura of holiness they may well have arrived with thanks to the army of priests and mountebanks peddling relics, medals, rosaries, and making outrageous claims for the spiritual blessings and benefits they came with.  It took a heavy dose of credulity to accept that the red-robed “Princes of the Church” parading in jewels and expensive robes and carried to and fro in fancy sedan chairs or carriages by legions of liveried servants and escorted by Papal guards were the living vessels of Christ’s grace and mercy who dispensed His favour to a yearning people.  If the Pope was even glimpsed, he seemed far removed from the pictures of the poor, simple Jesus one saw in the stained glass of the churches or heard about in the Gospel stories.

Such a visit, in company with other monks of his Augustinian Monastery, illuminated and disillusioned the mind and spirit of a young German monk named Martin Luther in 1510.  Luther never forgot that visit or its impact on him.  He remained an obedient servant of his Order as he departed, but his awe for Rome and its Papal monarch had evaporated.  The full fruition of this would explode a little over a decade later.

The humanists were not the only ones hoping for some miracle of awakening to turn the hearts of the people and the drift of the church and society away from some sort of cosmic upheaval.  Surely the renewed advance of Islam into Europe after the dismal failure of all the Crusades to stem the tide, and most recently the Fall of Constantinople, the bastion protecting Europe’s Eastern door, were signs of God’s judgment and displeasure?  And yet the secular Princes did not seem to care as they set out to enrich themselves by seeking to “do and end-run” around the Turks to the fabled riches of the Orient.  True, they had found some distant new lands far across the great ocean, and there were barbarian pagans there to exploit and perhaps convert— if they weren’t first massacred by Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors posing as agents of Christ the King via his stand-ins, their earthly sovereigns.  But the tales of Spain’s newly found riches and some thousands of forced baptisms hardly boded a massive spiritual renewal.

More quietly and far less conspicuously, the Brethren of the Common Life worked at the grass roots level, seeking to build community in the towns and cities where the regular institutional church agencies mostly failed to touch the hearts and souls of simple people.  The Brethren did not seek Papal benediction.  Nor did they always approach the Pope’s hierarchical deputies, the Bishops, or the Bishop’s deputies, the parish priests, for approval to establish houses, schools, and centres. 

They focused on providing education to the less advantaged.  They encouraged daily prayer and meditation and study of Scripture and the lives of the saints.  The principle of voluntarism allowed adherents to choose their own level of involvement.  Some took personal vows, but there was no obligation to remain single and take a lifelong vow of chastity or obedience to religious superiors.  They all contributed to a common purse, but having some of one’s own money was allowed as well.

It is unfortunate that the culture of the time gave few options to young women.  Girls’ education, including literacy and numeracy, was entirely at the discretion of the parents, and especially the father.  If not done at home with a tutor or perhaps through the mother or, very rarely, the father, the girl might be entrusted to a convent.  But it is still possible to see the hunger for relationship with the Creator among women very much in evidence, and there were indeed very notable exemplars of some who even gained high reputations and influence.  Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich are two such, and there are many others.

There seemed a sort of ‘quiet before the storm’ as the 1510s moved along.  Perhaps it was more the numbness of hopelessness, what with the holders of temporal and spiritual power so firmly anchored in the status quo when the need for drastic spiritual and social reform was so evident to all—even the peasants and labourers in the countryside and cities.  National rivalries continued to fester and block meaningful steps forward, lest somebody lose some real or perceived position of advantage or influence.  Radicals such as the remnants of the Waldensees and Lollards were still hunted and executed, despite a growing grass-roots sympathy for them.

Perhaps the most salient critique of the absurdity of the situation came from Erasmus of Rotterdam, the most reputable Christian humanist of the day.  His The Praise of Folly (1509) was a scathing exposé of all the clichés of superficial Medieval spirituality—pilgrimages, relics, physical self-punishment (such as auto-flagellation), fasts, the corruption of so many monasteries and convents, and the flagrant wealth and exploitation of the laity by the church hierarchy.  He wrote the book as a satire in order to avoid censure and condemnation as a heretic for his exposition, and he got away with it.  Even the most obtuse reader could identify everything he “praised” as sadly all too true.  The book was an immense success in terms of the literate public of the day.  But, if everyone with a conscience knew how true it all was why was it so impossible for anything to be done to address all these abuses?

The time for action was past-due, and the patience to wait was fast evaporating.  Kings and Emperor laughed in their sleeves at the Papacy while continuing to pay it lip-service and depend on its role to maintain a spiritually flaccid populace.  The successive Popes were happy to receive tithes and due honours while enjoying the immense benefits of a seemingly unassailable ultimate authority over people’s allegiance.  The Renaissance humanists applied their newly gained philosophical and cultural perspective rooted in the ancient masters of Greece and Rome to find solace from the moral and intellectual wasteland they saw in the decaying body of Christendom.  They advised other discomfited thinkers and sympathizers to do likewise.

TO BE CONTINUED

The Third Way, 30: The Allure of Rome, Part 9 – Renaissance

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“… the Romans serve all gods.  That is why the power and the authority of the Romans has embraced the whole world…. they respected the divinities of the conquered, seeking everywhere for strange gods and adopting them as Rome’s own, even setting up altars to unknown powers and the shades of the dead.  Thus, by adopting the rites of all nations they of Rome became entitled to rule over them.”  Minucius Felix, third century Christian apologist, from his work Octavius. 

Cited in Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid.  (W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), p. 14.

As we arrive at the dawn of the Modern Age, the European Renaissance humanists vastly admired the cultural achievements and syncretism of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  In their disillusionment with what they found around them, they extolled the virtues of the Classical Age and found what had taken its place following 500 CE squalid.  With so much of the “Classical Age’s” art, philosophy, and literature renewed as the 15th Century turned to the 16th, the shadow of God’s wrath seemed to be lifting.  Unsettling questions had begun to percolate deeper as the new ideas found their voices; new poetry, music, prose, art, sculpture, and architecture burst forth. “What is man?” queried the humanists, deducing that humanity was glorious in and as itself, not as a mere sinful thing deserving the Creator’s most severe judgment. 

Italy was the cradle and the nursery of this ferment, and the Italian Renaissance rapidly found its way into the European hinterland to the north and west, along with new ways of financing speculative endeavours and new curiosity about the world and nature.  It was the cultural and social equivalent of Rome’s conquering legions setting forth once more to make Italy and ‘Rome’ (the old imperial, cultural mystique, not the spiritual harlot that had insinuated itself into its place) mistress and saviour of (Western) civilisation. 

To retain an image of relevance among the new cultural (g)literati, the Popes of those decades adopted the trappings and aspirations of being Renaissance connoisseurs while lip-serving the role of spiritual guides.  They hired the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael to embellish their monumental edifices. Some of the Renaissance Popes were so little concerned with spiritual matters that they allowed a corrupt Curia to run affairs like a Mafia while they used the huge Papal wealth to satisfy their appetites for art and less savoury things.  They showed up for official functions and gave audiences to the select of the upper crust, but did little else as ‘Holy Fathers’.

All this ‘rebirth and renewal’ required vast outlays of capital to stage and maintain the show.  “Let us have only the best of all this new art and sculpture and architecture to honour God.  Let us rebuild dilapidated old St. Peter’s (and the sprawling Vatican enclave) as a fitting monument to the Prince of the Apostles and his successors as Vicars of Christ, for the seat of Christ on earth is falling into ruin from neglect.  Let us use the [still contested] power of infallibility to assert Christ’s delegated spiritual authority to release the unworthy souls of the departed from almost everlasting torment in purgatory in return for a proper contribution to the erection of this stupendous monument to the glory of the Roman See as the spiritual seat of God’s Kingdom on earth.”

The strictly humanist perspective on the Renaissance, as the humanists themselves named this cultural resurrection, was one of breaking the fetters of what they were already calling the “Dark Ages”, those wretched in between centuries when fear, superstition, Divine wrath and barbarism crushed the human spirit.  Knowledge had been at a premium in those days and the world had seemed a harsh and hard-scrabble place.  Humanity had seemed powerless in the war between God and the Devil, circumscribed and doomed to a fate it had no ability to alter.  The climax of the Black Death and the prolonged wars and depredations of the late “Middle Ages”, as the in-between time also began to be called, had only seemed to confirm this.

But the new humanism had now broken this thrall.  Humankind was glorious and worthy in its own right.  Even Scripture was now found to confirm this, as in Psalms 8 and 82.  (The creation of chapter and verse referencing of the Bible was a Renaissance innovation to facilitate scholarly analysis of the sacred text.)  The invention of the movable-print Printing Press (the mid 1450s was the momentous time when Johan Gutenberg printed the first type-set multiple copies of the Bible[i]) had opened the floodgates to mass education and literacy.  Vehement Papal injunctions against the ignorant laity gaining possession of the Bible for themselves (ignoring that most of the parish priests and monks in monasteries were just as ignorant and illiterate), including, God forbid, women!, could no longer be sustained.

The 16th Century thus opened with a social and cultural clash between rival claimants to the Roman heritage in Rome’s successor civilisation in the West.  Fading from view in this spiritual and cultural Cold War was the hope of the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven.  In this gathering confrontation there were a few increasingly isolated voices watching with great concern, men such as Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas More of England.  It would become more and more difficult to find tenable middle ground.  Listening to spiritually reasoned argument based on humility and simplicity in seeking and hearing the Creator’s call to loving-kindness, patience, mercy, and reconciliation in and through Jesus alone would be shouted down in passionate denunciation and condemnation of the errors of one’s opponents.

Power and the acclaim of position is an addiction in whatever form one hears its seductive siren call.  Each ‘hit’ of this spiritual-psychological ‘drug’ one gets is like a little confirmation of one’s petty godhood.  Jesus knew this and admonished his first followers about it repeatedly.  He practiced what he told them constantly so that they would really understand, not just hear an intellectual-moral principle:

“The one who lives by the sword will die by the sword.”  (The ‘sword’ is any weapon you select as a brutal, exciting, fast-tracking means of taking power.  Your chosen ‘sword’ will be the weapon you find you are most effective and proficient in.  Perhaps it is a form of emotional manipulation and psychological coercion.  Or perhaps it is a straightforward tool of actual physical violence and intimidation.)

“The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”  (God’s Kingdom does not value prowess in the means and methods of gaining and exercising power as per the usual techniques of the present ‘age’.)

“You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.”  (To actually do this you have to physically bow down in front of the person whose feet you are washing.  Pretty hard to take a haughty, lordly posture with them after that!)

“The Kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves ‘Benefactors.’  But you are not to be like that.  Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves…. I am among you as one who serves.”  Except, perhaps, vote-hunting politicians, and pretense to the contrary, our culture largely despises the elderly and relegates them to the sidelines.  Not so in Jesus’ day, or with almost every generation up to the last few, in the West at least.  The youngest had to apprentice and prove themselves worthy of honour and respect.  They had to serve those who had won the right to lead.)  We could add many other remarks of Jesus to the same effect.

“It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice.  It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.” (Italics are the author’s.)

“Marks of the New Monasticism: Peacemaking”, Common Prayer, a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.  (Zondervan, 2010), p. 382.

The imperial way is the way of long-established pattern humankind’s way of directing its societies and deciding what is to be valued. It is based on humanity’s presumption that we can bootstrap our own way into a utopian society, whatever version of that we aspire to.  For a thousand years, the hybrid called Christendom had seemed to offer a way out of that trap.  But as the ‘Middle Ages’ gradually morphed into something new and as yet unpredictable, the hope that the hybrid called ‘Christendom’ could lead to the Kingdom of the Creator on earth seemed like a mirage always moving farther into the horizon.  Were we to cease hoping?  Or was it only the failures of those who had preceded the dawning light of the Renaissance that had driven hope almost out of sight?

TO BE CONTINUED
[i]  1453 – The Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks sent hundreds of Byzantine scholars, nobles, and merchants with great wealth fleeing to the West, particularly Italy.  Along with the material wealth usually entrusted to the Italian banking families, they brought hundreds of manuscripts of the classics of Greco-Roman literature and a huge influx of new teachers and craftsmen to give a massive, accelerated boost to the Renaissance.  This exodus had already been well under way since the Council of Florence in 1439 had futilely attempted another reunion of the Greek and Roman Branches of Christianity.  By that point, the writing on the wall for the final demise of the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire was quite visible to almost everyone, but the Byzantine Emperor’s appeals to their Christian brethren of the West fell on deaf ears among the fractious, quarrelsome rivals of the emerging national kingdoms.  France and England were locked in the climactic stage of the Hundred Years’ War (Joan of Arc and all that); the ‘Empire’ was rocked by civil war (the rebellious Bohemian Hussites were rampaging into Germany itself) and Italy’s most prominent powers (Tuscany, Milan, Venice, Genoa, The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Papacy) were obsessed with seeking advantages over one another.  Castile and Aragon in Spain had their own crusade to rid Iberia of the remnants of the Muslim Caliphate still anchored at Grenada and Seville.  Italy’s dozen or so principalities were perpetually fighting among themselves for one reason or another.  Thus, the Pope’s appeal for a new Crusade to drive back the Turks was still-born.

The Third Way, 29: The Soul of the West

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(Note to readers: The series on “The Allure of Rome” will be continued at a later time.  Periodically, it will be interrupted by other topics.)

“The totalitarian revolutions, with their practice of inhumanity, lawlessness and depersonalising collectivism, were nothing but the executors of … so-called positivist philosophy, which, as a matter of fact, was a latent nihilism, and which, towards the end of the last [19th] and the beginning of this [20th] century, had become the ruling philosophy of our universities and the dominating factor within the world-view of the educated and the leading strata of society.  The postulatory atheism of Karl Marx and the passionate antitheism of Friedrich Nietzsche can be considered as an immediate spiritual presupposition of the totalitarian revolution of Bolshevism on the one hand and National-Socialism [Nazism] or Fascism on the other.  That is to say, the prevalent philosophy of the Occident had become more or less nihilistic.  No wonder that from this seed that harvest sprang up which our [the WW2] generation reaped with blood and tears …”

Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilisation, First Part: Foundations, (London: Nisbet and Co., Ltd., 1948), p. 3.

Little has changed in the mindset of “the educated and leading strata” of Western society since Emil Brunner spoke these words in 1947 as he began the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews University in Edinburgh, Scotland.  We may add the newer variation of nihilism called postmodernism, but Nietzsche and nihilism still command a huge following, supplemented with Foucault, Marcuse and other more recent, trendy figures, including some hard-left feminist voices.  Existential desperation and despair still rule academia, and no hope of more than a very transient and contingent reprieve is even hinted at.  Meaning in the cosmic sense has faded from view.  We now find only stop-gap contingencies to prolong our tenuous hold on hope—causes to fight for (climate change or gender mutability, anyone?), methods of “self-actualizing oneself to the fullest” during the brief candle of our swiftly-passed sojourn on our freakishly incredible little speck of cosmic dust we call Planet Earth.

Literally, “nihilism” means belief in nothing (nihil = nothing in Latin, + ismus = belief in).  On its own, it is a strange and self-contradictory term.  No one can really believe in nothing, for one must at least believe that one exists in order to actually ‘believe’ a thing, even if we declare that belief as ‘nothing’ or non-existence.  The belief itself, however abstract and ethereal, is a thing we believe and believe in.  One can believe that it all means nothing, but not that nothing exists, at least not with real conviction.

In truth, a nihilist cannot really be a nihilist.  She may be like Descartes, who began his Meditations on the nature of reality with his famous declaration of universal, radical doubt that anything at all actually exists, even himself.  But she can only at last arrive at the same place as Descartes—admitting that she is actually ‘there’ (wherever ‘there’ is) because she is thinking.  As Descartes concluded, it will not answer to posit that perhaps, after all, I am merely an idea in another, greater being’s mind.  In that case, even if that were a possibility (which it can be shown not to be since one has the actual power of independent thought), at least the other, greater being exists to have the ‘thought’ which self-identifies as “I think, therefore I am.”

Brunner’s lectures were given in the immediate wake of World War 2, and he was seeking to understand how the West had “come to this pass.”  His diagnosis is completely brilliant and as relevant, and perhaps even moreso, today as when he composed it and shared it.  We may have seen most of the totalitarian dictatorships crumble into the dustbin of history since 1945, but nihilism and Nietzschean despair live on.  Mockery of the Creator and even the idea of His/Her existence also lives on, declaring, like Sergeant Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes, in the face of the ever-increasing, quietly accumulating scientific (yes, scientific!) evidence to the contrary, “I see nothing; I hear nothing; I know nothing.”  Schultz was choosing to see, hear, and know nothing, and so do our ultra-modern-postmodern nihilists.  As an old friend used to say, “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts!”

After all, a real, existing Creator, leaving His/Her stamp, image, and signature everywhere for “those who have eyes to see and ears to hear” to perceive, will actually require me to admit I am not my own creator and god, and neither am Ithe actual creator of my own reality.  If I am to be the least bit really honest about that reality, I must admit that I don’t control it.  Then I will have to admit that I am truly accountable and responsible to Someone/Something much greater than myself for the of life I have been given.  As the New Testament puts it, “You are not your own; you have been bought with a price.”  I would need to seek the Creator’s purposes and my place within them in order to achieve harmony with what really is, including within my own being.

It is all very well to say, as the ‘progressive’ nihilists who may confess a sort of transient, temporary (and, yes, even fifty billion contingent years is temporary) existence of something destined to implode and return to nothing that, as the only (as far as we know) self-aware extrusions of the Cosmos, we are responsible to care for the fragility of life in all its forms until we and it inevitably pass into oblivion.  The greatest of nihilist gurus, Nietzsche, has already given the simple, callous, and brutal but completely realistic answer, in the form of a question, to this apparent altruism towards an ultimately meaningless and aberrant ‘something-out-of-nothing-destined-to-return-to-nothing’: “Why?”

Nietzsche is rarely read straight-up by those who claim to proclaim his gospel.  Rather, he is read and admired in dribs and drabs by the “‘wise of this age”, as Paul of Tarsus described the similar folk of his day two thousand years ago.  But Nietzsche is not really taken at his word even by those who claim to be his evangelists.  He said that the meaning of everything, in so far as any meaning is to be found, is only in seizing “the will to power”.  “God is dead and we have killed him,” he said.  (A Theist wag’s reply to this from God’s perspective: “Nietzsche is dead and I’m still here!”). 

The angst-driven, postmodern existentialist turns the “will to power” into, “The will to make yourself whatever you choose, to make meaning whatever you choose.”  Although Nietzsche would not contradict this, he would chide, “But this is not enough.”  I-myself as “God” is so small as to be ridiculous.  But most humans do not have the courage to admit that underneath this revolt against the Creator there really IS nothing to support the claim that we can define reality as we see fit.  The void left by the Creator can only be finally and fully filled when I, the creature, accept who I really am in relationship to Him/Her, the Creator.   Most of us cannot live with true nihilism, for the only position really left to the true nihilist is despair.  Even Nietzsche finally killed himself because he couldn’t find real hope even in his own myth of the Superman and Super Race.  We all desperately want our own existence to mean something real,and we cannot live without some substantial meaning to which we can anchor our lives and identities.

Brunner observes that worldviews inevitably shape the civilisations where they take root.  He then looks at the West and its relationship to Christianity, and the consequences of the West’s rejection of its strongest foundation.  This suicidal rejection is an exceedingly perplexing phenomenon, just as the emergence of anything called a “Christian civilisation” was a mystery in the first place, given that The New Testament says nothing whatsoever about creating such a thing.  It talks much of “the Kingdom of God” and how it contrasts to “this age” or the system of “the world”.  It is radically countercultural in the truest sense, and yet, when it took hold, it spawned the richest and most open culture and society the world has ever seen.  And now we find that the children of this culture have decided, like children so often do, that the parents know nothing and never did, and they can do infinitely better without all that old-style discipline and talk of morality and moderation and accountability to a greater Being and greater good.

Our journey in this blog has been to explore elements of this story and, like a blind person with a walking stick, to tap our way forward towards a “Third Way” of truly knowing the Creator and understanding our relationship with Him/Her.  As we move forward, we also need to look backward, for our fore-parents were not stupid and probably not as blind as we have chosen to make ourselves or make them out to have been.  People across all cultures and ages have been seeking harmony within themselves and with the creation and whatever or whomever brought it into being.  Therefore, wisdom and insight can be found in various traditions and quests, as well as insight in how not to travel this road.  In every age people have blundered into ditches or, even worse, a terrible morass by adopting insane, reality-denying and destructive notions of what is and what it means.  Now, in the 21st Century, the West has lost its way and must once more go seeking its soul.

The Third Way, 28: The Allure of Rome, Part 8 – Wycliffe and Chaucer

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A good man was ther of religioun,

And was a povre Persoun of a toun;

But riche he was of holy thoght and werk.

He was also a lerned man, a clerk,

That Cristes gospel trewly wolde preche;

His parisshens devoutly wolde he teche.

Benign he was, and wonder diligent,

And in adversitee ful pacient …

Geoffrey Chaucer is the best-known English poet of the Middle Ages.  His lifetime also happens to span the period of tremendous turmoil we were considering in the previous post to this one.  He and most of those he served at England’s court as a secretary and bureaucrat survived the ravages of the Plague, while witnessing the early stages of the Hundred Years War.  He was an early Renaissance man, and helped English finally emerge as the dominant language of government and society in England.  He made himself a master of it and did much to fashion it into the flexible, powerful communication tool it has become.  He played a role in making it “respectable” for educated people to use it every day at court and in official business because, despite being a great linguist in his own right, he preferred it over the ‘superior’ tongues of Latin, Italian, and French, all of which he knew and spoke with facility.

Chaucer was a contemporary with another great scholar and force of that age, John Wycliffe (1320-1384).  There is no evidence the two ever met, but it is certainly not impossible, and is even probable.  Wycliffe was a chaplain to King Edward III for some years in the early 1370s and Chaucer was frequently at court.  Wycliffe was also a master of Latin and certainly knew French.  He was a professor at Oxford University, and for a time was considered the leading light among its faculty and quite popular with students.  His work would have enormous impact on Western culture and society over the next two centuries at least.  In his way, he contributed perhaps even more to the emergence of the modern world than Chaucer, although he is now mostly a footnote in religious and cultural studies. 

Chaucer was religious in a conventional way, as was required of those moving in the upper echelons of late Medieval society.  He would not ‘rock the boat’—although his unfinished ‘magnum opus’, The Canterbury Tales, raised many of the really important issues facing the culture of that time.  He had already published other, well-received works.  The Tales were only published posthumously, whereas Wycliffe’s work went very public during his lifetime and shook the very foundations of English society. 

It would have been extremely interesting to have listened to these two converse about the problems of their age, especially of society and church.  They had a common link which could have made that happen: they both enjoyed the patronage and protection of John of Gaunt (Gaunt being Ghent in Belgium), the ‘black sheep’ of the royal family.  Gaunt was also known as the Black Prince, and was the fourth son of King Edward III.

Wycliffe sought what we have been calling ‘The Third Way’.  He diligently studied the New Testament, assessing the whole ecclesiastical and social system of the time as aberrant from Christ’s true Kingdom.  He lamented the alienation and estrangement of the humble folk from the sacramentalism which seemed most suited to hold the populace bound in submission to the clergy and their lordly allies as they used their hard-won and meagre wealth and offering little solace and practical support in return.  He became more and more convinced that the paradigm of Christendom had to change and that it represented very little of what Jesus had taught by example and word. 

After all, Jesus had not gone to the religious establishment of his day to initiate the Kingdom of God.  From the day of his birth he had lived, ministered, and died among the humble, the outcasts, the downtrodden, the hopeless, those scorned and rejected by the rich and powerful.  From the first, the worldly powers, in the person of Herod the great, had sought Jesus’ death. 

Wycliffe agonized about how to bring Jesus back to the common mass of people of his time and country.  The whole sacral system depended on everyone meekly accepting their God-ordained lot as serf, free holder, landless labourer, apprentice, etc., while turning to the Church to ensure access to God’s mercy and grace for the hereafter.  The priest and prelate were the instruments dispensing this mercy and grace via the sacraments and sacramentals, the intermediaries ordained to advocate with the great Judge. 

Wycliffe concluded that the Good News had to be taken directly to the people, just as Jesus and the disciples had done.  He determined that Jesus had eliminated the need for a special class of intermediaries when he died on the cross as the ultimate, final sacrifice for sin and alienation from God.  The true and final authority in God’s family was his Word, not a Pope or set of “Princes of the Church” who mocked God with their scandalous lives and opulent lifestyle supported by the poor and hard-working faithful.  God the merciful and loving is everywhere and does not need a special ‘holy place’ to meet his people.  The people themselves are his temple and his body.  The people had to be able to hear and even read the story for themselves, ending their dependence on half- and even un- educated priests who cared little if at all for their temporal welfare, let alone their fate in eternity.

Wycliffe’s predecessor at Oxford, William Ockham  (1280-1349), had shared many of the same views about the Papacy and the Church.  He had been condemned as a heretic in 1326 and excommunicated.  Similarly, the dissidents in the 12th and 13th Centuries in France and Italy, the Waldensees and Humiliati, had already been much persecuted and killed for holding many of the same views and their stubborn remnants were still hunted. Thus Wycliffe fully understood his eventual probable fate.

Wycliffe was too outspoken, and for this he was ejected from his teaching post at Oxford and his royal appointment as a chaplain.  He was confined to his parish of Lutterworth where it was hoped he would fade into obscurity.  But he did not.  Many of his students and hearers followed him.  He began a great project of re-evangelization of England, knowing his time was limited and he could look forward to ultimate condemnation and probable execution.  His enthusiastic disciples agreed to help him to translate the Bible into English, make multiple manuscript copies, and then take it to the humble folk in their villages and towns.

Wycliffe was condemned as a heretic in 1384, six years after the western Great Schism of two rival Popes began.  John of Gaunt was politically forced to withdraw his protection.  The priest of Lutterworth was to be arrested, but he inconveniently died before they could get to him.

The sheen of Rome’s appeal was much tarnished in those years.  Kings, Princes, and Emperors all resisted and resented the imperial Papacy and ultimately refused to accept its claims to final authority in things temporal as well as spiritual.  But the allure of absolute spiritual sovereignty still carried great weight.  There was still the call to unity in Christendom, at least in theory and doctrinal and ritual conformity. 

If, as Scripture says, there is “one God, one faith, one baptism, one Lord and Father of all” then to threaten the unity of Christendom by questioning the Church’s central authority to define “God, faith, baptism (who is in and who is not)” was to threaten the very community under the Lord and Father of all who had created the Church and given it the final authority over spiritual things, including matters of salvation and how to achieve it.   But that was the very nub of all the disputes that were brewing. Was the Church under an absolutist spiritual monarch the true Church as Jesus and the Apostles had first created it, the church of God’s family?  Or was it an aberrant, corrupt hybrid, as more and more were beginning to suspect and question?  Was the whole office of “Pope” and “Vicar of Christ on earth” a human usurpation in the old pagan Roman spirit rather than the Holy Spirit’s way of guiding those seeking to know and worship the Creator “in spirit and in truth,” as Jesus had put it?

TO BE CONTINUED

The Third Way, 27: The Allure of Rome, Part 7 – Black Death

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“I AM WHO I AM; I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE; tell them that I AM has sent you.” Yahweh-Adonai to Moses, Exodus 3: 14.

The scholars were awake.  The artists were awake.  New-old knowledge and truth was beginning to bring excitement and hope to the longing lands of the West in the early decades of the 14th Century.

Then came the horrendous Black Death (1347-51), coupled with the calamity of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) engulfing the western Kingdoms of France and England.  A war on that scale and of that duration could not but greatly impact the neighbouring states as it ran its course. Tentacles reached into Spain and Portugal, Italy, the Lowlands, and the Empire.  The Plague devastated all of Europe, North Africa, and western Asia in a few brief years.  We forget that it had already snuffed out millions in Central and Eastern Asia in the late 13th and early 14th Centuries.

Surely it must be the Apocalypse!  And on top of all this there was the festering Papal schism, the Pope in Rome versus the Pope in Avignon, in the Western Church.  It seemed a fitting retribution for provoking the yawning divide between eastern and western Christendom in the Great Schism of 1054.  Christendom seemed reduced to a shadow, a shattered community, and the dual and then triple Papacy’s claims to spiritual leadership a mockery.  The secular leaders ignored the plight of their suffering peoples and the spiritual leaders squabbled, blamed, and anathematized one another.  Who really cared for the poor survivors of the sweeping devastation unleashed by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?  Even the dedicated caregivers perished along with those they cared for.  Best to flee and hope you could somehow escape God’s wrath.  Even God seemed to have turned his back and declared that the edifice of Christendom should be torn down to the foundations.

Now, almost eight centuries after these horrific multiple whammies, which historians and other analysts estimate to have wiped out between a quarter and third of Europe’s total population of perhaps eighty million between 1347 and 1351, we have mostly forgotten this even occurred.  We imagine the calamity of World War 2 to have been the worst event in human history, but it pales in proportion to this period of woe.  The devastating Spanish flu of 1918-19, the last real pandemic in recent history, pales in perspective despite its estimated global death toll of sixty million.  The plague did not tear or bomb down structures, but it left whole towns and regions deserted, ghost-like vestiges that the wilderness swallowed in a few decades.

Losing twenty to twenty-seven million of eighty million meant economic and social chaos for entire countries.  In comparison, the Soviet Union lost 22 million out of 160 million in WW2.  Germany lost 6 million out of 80 million.  Only the Jewish loss of 6 million out of a world population of about 12 million (9 million in Europe) is comparable, but the Jewish population was dispersed among many nations rather than concentrated[i].  (This is not meant to minimize the Holocaust or any nation’s national loss in WW2 in any way.)

If God had seen fit to unleash such wrath on Christendom, gross spiritual and moral bankruptcy must be the cause.  Had not Francis of Assisi and other reformers been sent to prophetically warn and call the faithful to repentance?  And had their call not been ignored or reduced to a token by those who should have heard and led the way back to the Creator and his order for creation and humanity?  Who could have faith in leaders who spent their time seeking power and reward in this world, living as if the poverty of Christ had been completely irrelevant to his whole message?

Repentance seemed in order, and, with families and communities destroyed, crowds of penitents took to wandering and preaching judgment and repentance, punishing themselves in pleas for Divine mercy.  Others refugees resorted to pillage and banditry, as local authority disintegrated and resources were scarce.  Besides, who was to stop them (except when God’s judgment finally caught up)?  In areas where the devastation had somehow been lesser, a semblance of order was reasserted by local lords or towns, and the lords used their men-at-arms to chase the outlaws and vagabonds off to easier pickings, as did the town magistrates by recruiting town militias of upstanding citizens.

What was to be gleaned from the catastrophe once it became clear that the end of the age had not come, but that God had granted a new reprieve?  As with all disasters, the responses were of two kinds: (1) to see the hand of God and the need to reform life both collectively and personally, (2) to decide that the Creator, if He/She is there at all, is not the benevolent, merciful being they had been told about, but either a capricious fiend or an indifferent tyrant.  If the first, change and renewal would have to come from the people, for the leadership were mired in their sin and showed no signs of turning from it.  If the second, then it would be best to begin to enjoy what there is to enjoy in this world and not waste time on appeasing an unappeasable or indifferent Creator.

At any rate, how was it possible to return to what had been before, to reassert the old bonds of fealty and order and duty of each of the three Orders (Estates, as the French called them)—clergy, nobility, commoners?  Nobles and clergy may have suffered somewhat less by being able to isolate themselves more effectively when the plague had passed through their region, but all had been severely affected.  Serfs found their masters dead, vassals found their liege lords gone, or lords had lost those who were supposed to support their rule and receive their fealty.  Many had lost most and even all those they cared about in the world.  Serfs abandoned their lands and wandered to find more generous situations, or went to the towns to live as free townspeople.  Old records were burned or became irrelevant. Labour was scarce and money was to be made.  Men-at-arms went to find more favourable lords or ran off to become freebooters.  New lords asserted themselves by taking control of areas left without a lord, then offering fealty to whichever superior liege would give the best terms.  Towns gained greater autonomy in return for direct loyalty to the sovereign, thus gaining independence from feudal obligations in return for taxes and militia during war.

But where was hope to be found?  Was life just short and brutal with no more significance than finding the maximum comfort and least pain in its brief span?  Few openly questioned that there was a Creator-God, but if there was, how was He/She to be related to?  The Church had lost much of its moral authority and its leaders offered no answers except more of the same old rituals and dogmas, or the idea of being more diligent in piety and abnegation.  Certainly, there were movements in that direction, and new devotions and strivings, but there were huge questions still hanging: Why?  What must be done? 

There were voices suggesting God must be sought apart from and beyond these things, or that the Gospel (and therefore Jesus, the Lord) had in fact had been betrayed by the selfish elite. He must now be rediscovered and made real once more.   There was also an awakening to the challenge of new knowledge and ancient wisdom.  Were we to continue to deny the goodness of the creation we find all around us?  Were we not made to appreciate it and discover God’s love within it?  In this, the ancient sages had much to tell.  If the Golden Age’s sages and example were to be taken seriously, it might help find a way forward.

Like a tremendous earthquake, The Black Death sent aftershocks.  For example, more localized outbreaks brought more horror to London and southern England in 1368.  The people found the Church unable to answer, but surely God must stay his hand in answer to all the prayers, entreaties, flagellation, repentance in sackcloth, pilgrimages, and works of charity which the survivors proliferated.  The quarrels among rival Popes and prelates and the political manipulation by Kings and Emperor of these rivals only bespoke the complete bankruptcy of hoping for renewal from on high.  It would have to come from the grassroots, and, it seemed, it would need to be more assertive about the evils at play than Francis’ inspired and admirable way through submission to authority while preaching self-denial and the Gospel of poverty.  It would also have to surpass Thomas’ intellectual spirituality in accessibility, using simpler means to communicate the Gospel truth in a way everyone could receive.

TO BE CONTINUED


[i]  In the 1930s, Poland and the Soviet Union had the largest Jewish populations, and the three million Polish Jews were almost wiped out by the Nazis.  This represented about 10% of Poland’s pre-war population, a very significant number.  Soviet Jewry lost about 1½ million, accounting for about 1% of the Soviet population, and 7% of all Soviet war deaths.

The Third Way, 25: The Allure of Rome, Part 6: Francis & Thomas

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“Two things … laid the foundation for what was now to follow: first, the gradually awakened cultural thought and awakened piety of the Middle Ages: and second, an increasing distortion of the teaching of the Bible and the early church.” 

Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, Volume 5, A Christian View of the West.  (Crossway Books: Wheaton Illinois, 1982), p. 105.

One year after Francis of Assisi died, Thomas Aquinas (1227-1274), another great of the Middle Ages, was born.  Both Francis and Thomas came from wealthy Italian families.  Both displeased their parents by choosing a church life instead of following their fathers into the family business.  Both would profoundly challenge the church and their contemporaries to do better as Christians in building the Family of Christ on earth.  Both were humble, self-abnegating and self-effacing examples of piety and devotion to God.  They sought wholeheartedly to further the coming of his Kingdom as their lights directed them.  Both became great saints in the Roman Catholic tradition soon after their deaths.

But they were also vastly different.  They represented two very contrasting ways of seeking “the Third Way”.  Yet both sought a road back to direct experience and relationship with the Creator, a way past the stultified, stifling, hierarchical, rigidly controlled legalism and forms of an increasingly oppressive and imperial Church version of Christendom. 

As he matured, Thomas knew the tales and legends of the towering figure of St. Francis.  He was certainly very aware of Francis’ extremism, his disturbing, flamboyant radicalism, and his enormous legacy and impact, as was everyone in Italy and much farther afield.  But this was not for him.  He chose to become a more conventional monk, taking a semi-isolated and inconspicuous path towards the Creator.  Nevertheless, his impact would be remarkable in its own right during and after a life just slightly longer than Francis’.

Devoted to study and prayer, Aquinas became a scholar among scholars.  After his death, he would be proclaimed a ‘Doctor of the Church’—an honour conferred very rarely and only upon those considered theologians of the very first rank, just beneath the Apostle Paul, a sans pareil

At first, he seemed the most unlikely candidate possible to reach such a pinnacle.  He was extremely taciturn; he was not eloquent when he chose to offer his views.  He was mocked as ‘the [dumb] Ox’.  But, maturing under the mentoring of Albertus Magnus, the most prestigious scholar of the generation prior to Thomas’, he flourished.  The brilliance and depth of his mind and deep spirituality of his spirit emerged.  In the end, even the Pope would turn to Thomas for insight.

On the other hand, in practice if not in theory, Francis had largely abandoned the institutional forms of Christianity (except Mass and the sacraments) and even refused ordination to the priesthood, whereas Thomas strove to purify and strengthen the institution in order to conform it more closely to what he conceived as God’s design for it.  He believed that truth is truth, wherever you find it. 

When the works of Aristotle, perhaps the greatest and most systematic philosopher of antiquity, and certainly the most prolific in written output, became available via migrant scholars bringing treasures of forgotten documents of antiquity from Constantinople and Muslim Cordoba in Spain, Thomas eagerly delved into them seeking new revelation about the nature of Creation and humanity.  His reading and profound study brought him to conclude that human reason is a means of knowing God almost on a par with Biblical revelation and Church tradition.

This contrast in approach between radically pure simplicity (Francis) and seeking to reform from within via reasoned persuasion (Thomas) is not new.  It recalls Jesus facing the institutional forms and scholarship of the ‘Judaisms’ of the First Century.  Back then, the Essenes were the extremists rejecting the whole establishment as corrupt and beyond redemption.  The Sadducees were the thorough conformists, seeking this-worldly power and position to preserve and maintain the system and their own privileged position as the elite.  Another party within Judaism were the Pharisees, who, like Thomas, represented a sort of reasoned midway position between the extremes of Essene and Sadducee.  Finally, the Zealots, like the Medieval Crusaders, sought violent purification of the land in order to ready it for the coming of the Messiah-King who would make Israel (Catholic Europe under Rome) supreme. 

Jesus fitted nowhere comfortably in any of these ‘parties’, although theologically he most closely resembled a Pharisee.  He was a threat to all of them, as well as Rome over the long haul, and paid with his life.  He had called his disciples to “take up your cross daily” and challenge the supreme authorities with the declaration that God’s Kingdom is “not of this age.”  Kosmos is the Greek word often translated as “age”, and in its New Testament context it connotes the whole way we relate to God’s creation by force and manipulation rather than by seeking to work in true harmony with God’s purposes for it and us.

The early Church, still keeping close to Jesus’ first impulse, emerged as a real threat to establishment Judaism and Rome.  For its first two and a half centuries the primitive Church weathered the assaults of the ‘powers that be’ rather well, although it had begun to absorb the marks of institutionalization from early times.[i]  With Constantine’s coup in recruiting the Catholic (Universal) Church to serve as an imperial adjunct in the early Fourth Century CE, ‘official’ Christianity passed from its age of innocence into the murky realm of political, moral, social, and economic compromise and manipulation for the purposes of furthering its own agenda as conceived from on high (at the Patriarchal level).  In effect, it became imperialist—Roman!

A great irony awaited the Imperial Roman Universal (Catholic means universal) Church as the Middle Ages drew to its dénouement.  Having become quite Roman in system, form, and ambition, blessing it all with elaborate ceremony and invocation of God and Christ, who had preached both “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are the poor,” the Church would re-import the seeds of its former great enemy, pagan wisdom and its worship of human reason.  A new hunger for more ancient wisdom would arise from the rediscovery and dissemination of Aristotle’s amazing works.  The Crusades had opened the doors to a trickle, which then became a steady flow, of Byzantine and Muslim scholarship based on many ‘lost’ works from the glory days of Rome and Greece.  Italy was the first area of the West impacted, but the new Italian scholarship began to expand into the Holy Roman Empire, France, the Low Countries (now called The Netherlands and Belgium), and England.  The New Testament in Greek was ‘rediscovered’ as part of this package.

From this influx of new-old wisdom written in beautiful, classic Latin and Greek came admiration of that ancient literature and poetry and drama and science, and, as absorption grew, so did the desire to emulate it.  Next came the imbibing of the spirit of these ancient sages, the spirit of ‘humanism’.  It seemed to the ‘humanists’, as the new generations of scholars began to identify themselves, that the essence of the ancient civilization of Rome had been rooted in a delicate and noble recognition of human beauty, form, and dignity not dependent on a slavish servitude to gods (including, by implication, the God of the Bible).  The philosophies of the lost Golden Age had been noble efforts to formulate the perfect balance in life and a reasoned-out approach to the Creator or whatever really existed in a spiritual sense.

It is beyond our scope here to go into detail on the progression of this recovery of ancient humanism in the West.  The movement it sparked has been called the “Renaissance”—a French term meaning rebirth.  It took form under the guidance and direction of a group of 14th Century Italian scholastics.  They won support and admiration from their peers, and the movement spread into art, sculpture, and architecture.  The results reverberated across the culture and challenged some very basic Medieval notions, including the inviolability of Papal authority and Church dogma.  The rediscovery of the Greek New Testament opened up a profound re-examination of the established paradigm of the Gospel and the formation and history of the Church itself.

When all of this is married to the growing dissatisfaction with the imperial, established Church system and the increasingly obvious distortion of holiness into formal sacramentalism and the suppression or cooption of all attempts to return to a spirit of simplicity in seeking God, the makings of a great upheaval were at hand.

Ironically, the Renaissance of ancient humanism rooted in pagan Imperial Rome would play a significant role in fracturing the unity and supremacy of the imperialist Roman Church.  The 13th Century saintly giants, Francis and Thomas, stood as precocious signposts to the roads that would diverge from the main highway in the 14th  and 15th Centuries and generate revolutionary events in the 16th Century.

TO BE CONTINUED

[i]  Institutionalization seems inevitable this side of the Second Coming of Christ.  The struggle is to keep the institutions we are compelled to form and use to make life livable from becoming tools in the hands of the ambitious and unscrupulous.  Those who propose anarchy as a realistic solution are completely naive or misled about human nature and live in a dream.  But that is another topic for another time. 

The Third Way, 24: The Allure of Rome, Part 5

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“Make me a channel of your peace; where there is darkness, let me bring your light;  where there is injury, your pardon Lord …” St. Francis of Assisi

 Charlemagne’s dream of reunifying the West under the banner of a ‘Christian Empire’ died with him in 814 CE and faded from view in the secular sphere.  Henceforth, jealousies and rivalries among rulers would close that door.  But there was one place where the goal of Rome’s supremacy remained very much alive—Rome!

True, there was no longer an Emperor there, but there was an imperial claimant of another sort—the Bishop of Rome, the Patriarch of the Western regions of the (not yet Roman) Catholic Church.  Even with Charlemagne, the alliance between the Imperial throne and the throne of St. Peter had been an uneasy one, as the Popes had come to view their place with a spiritualized imperial eye.

The claims of the Popes to first place in the power hierarchy of the West, and indeed the universal Church, had been growing since the late Roman Empire.  With the Empire’s hold over the lands from Italy north and west evaporating, and the Emperor in distant Constantinople, the only prominent authority figure left with a general claim, for Christians at least, was the Pope.  The West’s Patriarch within the Church hierarchy claimed the prestige and authority of the two greatest apostles, Peter and Paul, who had both finished their lives in martyrdom at Rome.

The argument ran that since Christ is the King of kings his authority supersedes that of any earthly sovereign.  When Christ ascended into heaven, he had commissioned his apostles with his authority to carry his Kingdom to the ends of the earth.  Peter was the primus inter pares (first among equals) among the Apostles, because, just before his ascension, Jesus told him to look after his flock as its shepherd.  And prior to that Peter had given Peter ultimate authority to “bind and loose” things on earth in Christ’s name. Jesus had also given Peter the “keys to the Kingdom” of Heaven.

But how did the Bishop-Patriarch of Rome inherit Peter’s authority, assuming that this is what Jesus had really done and that it didn’t just die with Peter?  The rationale was that anyone who stepped into the role of Peter in Rome (Bishop) also stepped into the commission and special authority Peter had received from Jesus.  In effect, he became Peter’s stand-in, and Peter had been Jesus’ designated stand-in.  Ergo, the Patriarch of Rome was the “Vicar” (like a Regent) of Christ on earth.  But how was the line of authority from Peter transmitted to the Bishop of Rome?  Had Peter directly delegated it in some way?  Did he even have Christ’s authority to do such a thing?  Answer to the jeopardy question: the power to bind and to loose! The Church’s greatest ancient historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, who just happened to be a great fan (and personal friend) of Constantine and his imperial commissioning of the Catholic Church to assist the Emperor in ruling the great Roman domain, delineated the direct succession to many of the apostolic and post-apostolic generation of leaders in detail, so tradition confirmed it!  Thus, just as the Emperor designated governors and prefects, Christ designated the spiritual government via the Apostolic Succession.

This line of transmission was nowhere to be found (except by inference) in the New Testament.  After all, an imperial claim of the magnitude the Pope was asserting could not rest solely onso me ambitious ‘Successors’ of Peter’ claims to go one-up on their other Patriarchal colleagues.  (Other Patriarchs hailed from Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem.  The only one in the West was Rome.)

The large majority of Christians tended to be in the cities and towns for the first few centuries.  When inevitable controversies grew over how to interpret Scripture, what to believe, how to live a Christian life, and how to incorporate converts into the “Body of Christ”, the leaders of smaller centers and congregations looked to those of the larger ones.  And among the larger ones, disputes about whose guidance and direction was to have primacy arose.  After a while, it boiled down to just a few senior leaders, “Father-Rulers”—Patriarchs—especially the two in Rome and Constantinople.

Because claims to senior authority had to be backed up, it came down to “the Apostolic Succession.”  This concept declared that the Apostles had the power to pass on their authority to bind and to loose spiritual truth and rules to successors “by the laying on of hands”, i.e., designating a chosen successor upon whom they laid their hands and prayed “ordination”[i]—the impartation of their authority to this chosen successor.  These successors then had the same power to bind and loose and ordain and even condemn.  Thus, as Eusebius recounted it, all true authority in the Church had been handed down in a direct line, via proper ordination, to the Bishops in office, who also then ordained local elders (presbyters [priests]).

The Patriarchs of Rome asserted that because Peter had ministered in Rome for the last few years of his life, he had designated Rome as the locus of his successor, and he would be the “Primate”, the foremost of the chosen leaders of the whole Church.[ii]  Eventually, as Medieval society reached its quintessential expression, there arose a number of truly “Imperial Popes”, claiming both supreme spiritual and temporal power, even the right and authority to enthrone and dethrone monarchs and deny whole countries access to mass and the sacraments, which were held to be the principle channels of God’s mercy, grace, and favour. 

Personal faith in and relationship with the Creator had little to do with any of this.  Certainly there were many good and saintly Christians with deep personal faith, but the official Church had little room, less comfort, and scant patience for such zealots who could and sometimes did radically challenge the proper imperial ordo rooted in Rome’s still potent ambition to reassert Empire via a different route.  It was abundantly clear that whatever spirit was really at work here, it did not bear the marks (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control) of the work of the Holy Spirit.  The high water mark of Papal Imperialism came under Pope Innocent III (quite the ironic patronym).

So what to do with the fanatics who saw through this charade of using all the levers of secular power to assert Christ’s authority to rule and reign (largely in the same old way by the same old rules)?  First tactic: divert them into less menacing channels and get them to accept the hierarchical model, as with the co-opting of the Franciscan movement even during Francis of Assisi’s lifetime.  It was fitting that that most imperial of all Popes, Pope Innocent III, had to deal with that humblest and most unpreposessing of saints, Francesco Bernardone (1182-1226), the greatest radical and most serious challenge to imperial Christianity of the Middle Ages, and perhaps of all time. 

It was said that Francis died of a broken heart, choosing self-imposed exile in a simple forest habitation rather than one of the proliferating fine new abbeys being built for or handed over to the newly established Franciscan Order.  Francis rejected this seduction and was deposed as leader of his own movement.  But being who he was, Francis could not be left alone.  He was well tended to by his most faithful disciples even as he slowly starved (fasted) himself to death.[iii]

Francis was a pacifist through and through and he preached peace and reconciliation. He was neutralized by the seduction of his followers, but for those who would not be diverted, best coerce them into silence by threats and fear.  If they would not be coerced, eliminate them by excommunication and condemnation as heretics (Albigensians, Waldensians, Lollards, Cathars, etc.), then hunt them down and subject them to the proper penalty for blasphemy and heresy, or perhaps for witchcraft and sorcery and consorting with demons.  Thousands of “wise women” and not a few men who would not go into a convent to practice ‘proper’ spirituality were disposed of this way.

Many ordinary, simple folk looked on in disgust, seeing right through the facade.  There had to be another way, a “Third Way” to know God—not the old imperial way or the increasingly corrupt hybrid called Christendom.  People grew more and more disillusioned and many set about seeking that “Third Way.”

TO BE CONTINUED

[i]  “Ordination” is a very Roman word designating someone’s official, approved acceptance into a distinct “ordo”, or class of persons with special status and rights and privileges, setting them apart from others who thus became lesser and who could then be “patronized”—another Roman term—given gifts and favours from the higher order to the inferior classes.  Being a patron carried weighty responsibilities, but bestowed great prestige and “gravitas”, the air of authority and position the bearer had earned or inherited.  This whole ancient Roman social system is still quite visible in the Roman Catholic and other very hierarchical Christian denominations.  It was one of the principle goals of the Reformation and especially the Anabaptists to shed this imperial (and very unbiblical) religiosity.

[ii]  The English word “church” with its building-centered and cumbersome administrative baggage almost completely misses the real meaning of the Greek word it supposedly translates.  That word is ekklesia and, in the time of the New Testament, it carried a semi-democratic meaning.  It meant ‘the popular assembly’, or the assembly of citizens who had political rights in the local polis, or civic community.  It is certainly debatable that Jesus intended to leave a heavily autocratic, rigidly hierarchic institution to carry forward his mission of bringing the “Kingdom of God” into the world after he departed.  One may be excused for suspecting that another, older pattern based on humanly constructed (Roman) power paradigms usurping the Master’s real intention is at work here.

[iii]  Many hold that the Medieval, and Roman Catholic Church (as well as the historic Church in general) missed its greatest opportunity to return to the “straight path” with Francis.  If his amazing vision and beautiful spirituality had been fully embraced and perhaps given a tweaks for folks who could not match his inner fire, it would very probably have truly, radically changed the direction of both the Church and society.  Even as it was, it brought hope and real spiritual renewal to millions even in Francis’ lifetime.  For many, St. Francis was/is the greatest Christian since the Apostle Paul.

The Third Way, 23: The Allure of Rome, Part 4

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The allure of Rome flows from our very human desire to achieve the ideal society.  Somehow, for many, the saga of ancient Rome’s centuries-long ‘glory’ seems to have reflected that ambition.  The lustre of memory too easily forgets the ugliness of how Rome achieved and maintained its enduring supremacy.  That is why the wide-winged eagle remains a prime symbol of power and sovereignty for nations with imperial aspirations—the Hapsburgs, Tsarist Russia, Napoleon, the USA, Nazi Germany.  Those who aspire to political and social greatness in the eyes of their fellows find Rome’s tale fascinating.  Surely with all our science and technological prowess we can do even better! 

Selective memory is not a new phenomenon.  The much idolized Alexander the Great created a vast empire by cutting a swath of ruthless destruction from Greece to Afghanistan and the borders of India.  He sought immortal fame and glory, claiming he was chosen by the gods, and was in fact a “son of god”, variously named Ares, Zeus, Baal, or Amon-Ra; he claimed them all as “father” according to the audience.  If he was lenient from time to time it was strictly for political reasons; in general he squashed the resistance like bugs, utterly annihilating Thebes (Greek, not Egyptian) and Tyre, for example, and slaughtering hundreds of thousands.  He spared Athens from this wrath only because of the pleas of Aristotle and some other of his advisors.  Yet, despite his megalomania and concomitant atrocities, he is revered as a great unifier, humanity’s benefactor and promoter of universal brotherhood.  Islam even elevates him among the twenty-eight recognized prophets.

Rome’s genocides were multiple, but the most complete were those of Carthage (149-146 BCE) and Judea.  Carthage, Rome’s major competition in its ascendance to empire, was utterly, deliberately, and permanently destroyed.  Not a stone was left standing on another and the city site was plowed level and sown with salt.  An estimated million people were slain in that hecatomb.

The Roman conquests of Gaul (France, for the most part) and Britain included the extermination of whole recalcitrant tribes and the relentless extirpation of the Druids.  Even the imperial Roman historian Tacitus reported a British chieftain’s observation that the “Pax Romana” was founded on total destruction of opposition: “They created a desert and called it peace.”  After all, it was for “greater good” over the long term.  The barbarians who refused Rome’s mission to pacify, unite, and “civilize” the world must be erased and room made for those who were more worthy (compliant and complaisant).

Judea was effaced permanently from the map in two separate wars of rebellion.  In the first (Zealot) rebellion (66-73 CE), the estimated carnage was 1-1.5 million killed and another half million enslaved.  The second (Bar-Kochba) rebellion (133-135 CE) saw another half-million put to the sword.  Jews were banned from Palestine and Jerusalem rebuilt as a Roman city called Aemilia Capitolina—no Jews permitted under Rome.  It became a largely Gentile city for the next 1700+ years.  It was given its original name again by Constantine.

Rome’s vaunted tolerance and clemency was strictly limited to the dictates of imperial policy.  Generally speaking, slaughtering the population was bad economics, although many got rich on the spoils.  Depopulation is not conducive to a healthy tax base.  Europe’s ‘tolerance’ during the Middle Ages and into modern times was also largely a matter of convenience, although some Christian leaders objected to pogroms and massacres promulgated in Christ’s name.  The oft-extolled toleration of the Islamic Caliphates and Ottomans was no better, and too often reflected the work of Alexander, Rome, or Genghis Khan to qualify as anything like Allah’s primary qualities of mercy and compassion.

The Roman Emperor Constantine I, the ‘Great’ (305-337 CE), officially tolerated Christianity, making it an accepted and encouraged faith, but not an exclusive one (Edict of Milan, 312 CE).  Theodosius I, the ‘Great’, ended Rome’s brief era of real toleration and, in 385 CE, made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, denying paganism and Judaism any standing and closing their places of worship. 

After Constantine, the Catholic Church, the official, orthodox expression of Christianity, had become increasingly an organ of the state, an auxiliary to the established secular power.  (The term ‘secular’ as we understand it never applied to ancient, Medieval, or early modern states.  It was used strictly as an adjective indicating ‘of this present age before the Millennial Reign of Christ’.)  It is from this time that we may speak of the emergence of the idea of ‘Christendom’—the lands where Christ is acknowledged as the ultimate, Divine ‘King of kings’.  In the concept of Christendom, earthly sovereigns hold sway while, at least theoretically, they owe Christ allegiance.

For more than a millennium Rome’s old spiritual ethos seemed to have lost the war to stay in control.  The new political regimes and gradually evolving national kingdoms  paid lip service to Christ’s Kingdom of humility, compassion, mercy, and caring for the downtrodden, but delegated these sorts of humane and compassionate service to the Church as Christ’s ‘mystical body’ at work in the world until his real, visible, physical return, whenever that might be.  For centuries, this system worked more or less effectively through the dedication and commitment to selfless service of many persons who sought to be Christ’s hands and feet to the suffering and oppressed. 

But, as we know, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” (a truism coined by Lord Acton, a British 19th Century historian).  The old allure of Rome’s distant echo rose from the ancient ruins and distant memories: “Once upon a time there was a great empire … Remember?  Once upon a time, there was unity among the peoples, and there was a golden age of peace and plenty (the 200-year Pax Romana) … Remember?  Once upon a time there were no petty kings and squabbling, feuding nobles sowing destruction and mayhem wherever you turn; there was a single great Emperor who gave wise, or at least firm, government and preserved peace and order.  The Emperor ensured safety and protection from marauders, pirates, bandits, and barbarian invaders … Remember?  Look about and you can see the remnants of the monuments, the great cities, the splendid roads and aqueducts bringing clean, safe water to everyone.”

In the seventh and eighth Centuries CE Islam’s fanatical armies exploded out of Arabia and thundered across North Africa and South-Western Asia, bringing down the 400 year-old Second Persian Empire and all but obliterating Zoroastrianism in Persia’s old domain (Persia is now Iran).  Paganism was mercilessly erased from all Islam’s vast new expanse “In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful”.  The Byzantine bastion of Constantinople (the successor of the East Roman Empire, which still called itself ‘Roman’) was almost taken, barely surviving a terrible siege in 714 CE, while the East Roman domain was reduced to a rump in Anatolia (central and western Turkey) and the Balkans (Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro).

In the early 8th Century the Muslim hosts crossed from Morocco into Iberia (Spain and Portugal).  By the second decade most of Iberia was Muslim and Muslim forces were raiding and scouting into southern and central Gallia (France).  The dominant power in old Gallia (the Roman name) was the Frankish Kingdom, and Charles Martel (Martel means “hammer”) decisively defeated an invading Muslim army in 732 CE at Poitiers.  His grandson, another Charles, came to the Frankish throne in 768.  He had conceived a much greater ambition than merely consolidating the “Carolingian” Frankish hold on old Gallia.

The grandson of Charles Martel is now known as Charlemagne (a distortion of the Latin Carolus Magnus),Charles the Great.  Charles soon to be “the Great” dreamed a great dream of reuniting the lands of the West under his banner into a ‘Christian Roman Empire’ and driving back the invading Muslims.  He would bring the still pagan barbarians of Central and Eastern Germania and the Slav lands into the Christian fold.  He had a “holy ambition”.  He was relentless, rarely spending a whole year in one place.  He moved his capital to Aachen, now a city in northwest Germany, in order to be more central.  He campaigned with monks and priests and at least one bishop to Christianize the conquered peoples—for conquer profusely he did.  He used a combination of carrot and stick, but when a people like the Saxons proved too stubborn to convert, he reverted to the ancient Roman way of ruthlessly setting examples of what resistance would cost.

For his fervency and dedication, he won the East Roman (Byzantine) Emperor’s approval to resurrect the title “Emperor of the West” and use the Roman Eagle as his imperial insignia.  He was crowned by the Pope on Christmas Day in the year 800 CE.  He wanted his realm to be known as a truly Christian state and so coined the term “Holy Roman Empire” to differentiate it from the old pagan version.  When he liberated Rome itself from the infidel Lombards, he granted the Pope sovereignty over it under his protection.

Charlemagne’s dream was certainly more noble than Constantine’s, and the new Emperor of the West seems to have had a very sincere faith in Christ and a desire to see it established and inculcated into the hearts, minds, and culture of the peoples under his sway.  He promoted learning and study and extensively built churches, monasteries, convents, schools, hospitals, and castles for his garrisons.  He was devout in his personal observance.  But he still used fear and force to convert the reluctant or make examples of the too stubborn.

“Life is too short.”  Worn out by many years of hard campaigning and trying to administer a vast domain at a time when roads and bureaucracy were rudimentary, with large areas still only half-subjugated, he died in 814, ruefully leaving his realm to be ruled by his three sons, and sensing that his unfinished mission would probably die with him.  Here the parallel with Constantine becomes closer.  Like the three sons of Constantine, Charlemagne’s three sons quarreled.  Rather than sharing the rule of a unified empire, they jealously divided it and then conspired to intrude into one another’s kingdoms, which is what the three portions became.  The senior son, “Louis the German”, held onto a nominal precedence and the title “Emperor”. 

Within two generations, only two kingdoms remained standing—Francia, which became France, and the Kingdom of Germania, the titular “Holy Roman Empire”, ruling Slavic and even Italian areas.  Instead of a united West, the newly emerging Christendom was divided.  But the dream and memory of the glory of old Rome lived on.  Charlemagne had given its revival a valiant effort, but he alone could not overcome the obstacles.  Charlemagne’s hard-won title, “Emperor of the West”, was not transferred to a successor, as none proved worthy.

TO BE CONTINUED

The Third Way, 22: The Allure of Rome, Part 3

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“… no matter the vigilance of any ethnarchy, it cannot withstand the siren song of the larger society that encompasses it.”

Thomas Cahill, The Desire of the Everlasting Hills, the World before and after Jesus.  The Hinges of History, Volume III, (Doubleday, 1999), Kindle Edition, Location 480.

During more than five centuries, for many millions who never saw the imperial metropolis, Rome was the siren singing the song that bewitched (or oppressed) a quarter of the world’s population.  More than 1500 years later, the song still echoes around the world.  Its lyrics were sung in Latin and Greek.  These two imperial languages have infiltrated every significant society in our world via English, French, or the other languages of the European colonizers.  The vocabularies of the Western tongues are replete with Latin and Greek derived words and terms, sometimes imported unaltered: sine que non, pro tempe, ad lib., extempore, rigor mortis, et cetera (etc.), halitosis, archetype, pantheon, -etc., etc., etc.  Modern medicine developed first in Greek, and was absorbed by Latin.  It has retained much of the original vocabulary in anatomy, diagnosis, etc

The well-known and respected historian of Western Civilization, Thomas Cahill (The Hinges of History is his multi-volume magnum opus for the layman and well worth reading), quoted above, also points out that a language is not solely and simply a means of verbal communication:

“Languages bring values with them, and one cannot learn a language without making one’s own things the civilization that developed the language considers important …. the Greeks had their own powerful words and phrases which, once learned, gave the speaker a specifically Greek outlook …. Similarly, common English words and phrases adopted nowadays throughout the world give even simple people, living in cultures bound by non-Western myths, access to such values as progress, democracy, technology, and capitalism, even if one should see these values through the eyes of inflexible traditionalists: as contempt for traditions of authority and discipline and love of chaos and of self at the expense of the common good).”

(Cahill, ibid., Location 306)

Languages are imbued with the worldviews of those who developed them, encapsulating the common factors underlying the culture and society whose principle tools of communication they are.  As such, they are spiritual vehicles; they carry the soul, the ethos (a Greek word we have simply imported) of a people, a tribe, a clan, a nation.  The West drank so deeply at the Greco-Roman well for so long that the European civilization that succeeded Rome is still steeped in a Greco-Roman worldview. 

There have assuredly been other major influences as well—the Judeo-Christian and Germanic contributions being most significant.  But when these three cultural tributaries of the Western Amazon merged over time during the Middle Ages (in itself, a loaded ideological term entirely dependent on the idealization of the Greco-Roman “Golden Age”), unquestionably the one which ended up “winning” the merger was the Greco-Roman stream. 

Part of Rome’s genius was adoption and adaptation—the ability to absorb and assimilate all comers, repurposing them to serve Rome’s dominant vision as the great civilizer of the world, the great unifier giving everyone equal access to the same gods and guiding principles.  The Emperor was the supreme symbol, the creator and maintainer of this unity—the “Saviour of mankind”, the “Son of God” (Jupiter, Zeus, Amon-Ra, Baal, whichever high deity was relevant to the people in question).  Every subject and citizen of the Empire owed their final allegiance to the Emperor as the incarnation of Rome’s “genius”, or “Spirit-Guide”.  

If we change the vocabulary and eliminate the divinities, this has a very modern sound and feel to it.  Louis XIV declared to the French in the 1670s, “L’état, c’est moi. (I am the state.)”  In the early years of the 19th Century Napoleon declared that he was the embodiment of all the true values of the New Revolutionary France—liberty, equality, brotherhood–with himself as the God-appointed guardian of France and its people (and, via France, Europe, which he had been divinely commissioned to liberate).  Hitler said, “I am Germany, and Germany is I,” and he said repeatedly that “Providence” had led and guided him to fulfill his ‘sacred mission’ to purify the Master Race first, and then the world.  Stalin and Mao made closely parallel declarations regarding Russia (the Soviet Union) and China  as the lights of the emerging socialist utopia. They engineered even more horrendous slaughters of their subject peoples than Hitler did of most of the peoples of Europe combined. 

Until early modern times, European monarchs claimed “the divine right of Kings” as the basis of their rule.  God and the state were joined at the hip, and to challenge the anointed order was to engage in treason, lèse-majesté, and perhaps even heresy or blasphemy.  (In many Islamic countries, blasphemy is still a crime and punishable by death, and blasphemy is considered anything that puts into question Muhammad’s word or character, as well as anything raising an issue with Allah’s revelation in the Quran.)

The spirits of Rome did not simply vanish when Odoacer the Ostrogoth said there was no longer a Western Roman Emperor in 476 CE.  The spiritual principalities and authorities that stood behind Rome had already been presciently transferring and insinuating themselves into what would emerge as the Empire’s real successor. This was no longer a temporal empire held up by military might, intimidation, and coercion.  Rather, it was the newly rising spiritual power it chose to migrate to—the Catholic Church.  This was a much more subtle but perhaps effective method of entrenching itself in the hearts and minds of humanity—especially those of the West.  Reintroduction into the cruder methods of temporal sovereignty could come later.

Cultures and societies cannot “live by bread alone.”  They have a soul.  The Bible speaks of these powers and influences as actual spiritual entities—“the Prince of Persia” which opposed the angel sent to answer Daniel’s prayer, for example (Daniel 10:13).  The Apostle Paul speaks of “rulers, authorities, principalities, powers, spiritual forces of wickedness in heavenly realms,” operating behind the facade of visible powers (Ephesians 6:12 is one reference to this).  When Jesus spoke with Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, he told him, “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.”

Judaism and Christianity are not alone in suggesting the presence of spiritual powers behind and within governments, societies, and regimes.  We scientific, sceptical moderns are now averse to using this kind of “woo-woo” language, but the reality of mysterious collective psyches and group dynamics remains.  The great psychiatrist Carl Jung postulated “unconscious collective [viz. hereditary] memory” to explain it.  Sensitive, attentive people frequently pick up such “vibes”.  We talk of “school spirit, team spirit, national/army/corporate morale” (a fancy word to describe the same essential dynamic at a group level).  Many people (including this writer) have personally experienced the phenomenon of sensing “the spirit in a place/person/home/group”—describing it as “positive, joyful, happy, peaceful, tense, explosive, angry, dark, etc.”  Migraines aside, people who see auras often diagnose these operative spirits with uncanny accuracy.

Rome bequeathed its operant, dominant spirits to the West: its sense of “divine mission” to civilize and bring equality and ‘liberation’ (subjugation to its superior system) to the ‘barbarians’, the lust for power, for control, for wealth, for cultural hegemony.  We see all of this abundantly displayed in the history of the West both in the actions and programmes of its governments and its long- and one-time most dominant cultural, social, and spiritual institution, the Roman Catholic Church.  Neither has it been absent from the Protestant and Orthodox branches of Christianity.

That is not to say that other imperialisms have not done likewise at different times in other locations—China and the Islamic Caliphates for example—or seek to do so today .  But the modern/post-modern era has been characterized by the rise to dominance of Rome’s successor civilization, that of the West.  Even if the West now defines itself as secular and Post-Christian, it is demonstrably neo-Roman.  In fact, it is now more Romanesque (Roman-like) than at any time since 476 CE. 

The parallels to the late Empire are uncanny, our cynical, blasé, jaded spirit and dependency on greater and greater displays of wealth poured out to entertain, divert, and amuse our increasingly disillusioned populace, for example.  Our art and cultural refinements and tastes are more and more dystopian and apocalyptic and less and less subtle and ‘refined’, just as the cultural producers and products of the third to fifth centuries CE of Rome had become mere tawdry imitators and imitations of the greats of the past. 

Like the late Roman regime of those last centuries, our governments tax heavily and almost crushingly in order to finance the increasing demands of a less resilient and more demanding populace.  As in those days, debt piles up with no end or prospect of ever repaying in sight, and the balance of payments slides ever more into the negative in favour external suppliers of the special luxury products which have become ‘necessities’ while we become less and less able or willingly to provide for our own real necessities.  Our money is more and more devalued and less and less based on the real economy.  The military sucks up huge outlays in order to protect a fading hegemony and keep the ‘barbarians’ outside the frontiers, while multitudes on the outside clamour to move in and get a piece of the lucrative and much easier to access pie which they see on the inside.  (The late Empire’s greatest cry of terror was, “The Goths are coming!”)

Like the later Emperors, our rulers have no solutions or even a clue as to how to manage an increasingly desperate global outlook.  Governments are made and unmade by the unscrupulous manipulation of popular will by elites seeking to gain some advantage over their rivals.  Back then, changes were made by coup and assassination of one faction against another.  Today, a degraded and increasingly discredited and highly manipulated ‘democratic process’ is the main instrument, although cruder methods are not entirely out of the question. 

In any case, during the late Empire, it was Rome’s ponderously ubiquitous and heavy-handed bureaucracy and judiciary which really ran things.  The ruling cadres were more and more oblivious to the real needs and cries of the mass of the population who watched the old foundations which once gave stability to life and dreams of fair opportunity for all sliding into impotency.  For Rome, credible moral leadership had all but vanished, and it was anything goes in the theatres and arenas—even the most outrageous displays were not only tolerated but lauded as great cultural examples and performances.  The most outstanding charioteers, athletes, and gladiators fascinated and enthralled the diversion-seeking populace.

Do we not recognize ourselves in this mirror?  Subtract our glitzy technology and the trappings of our wobbling democracy, and we are staring at a society that acts and smells and, on the inside, looks like our twin.  (If it looks like duck …) Just a tad upside down here and there.  Our elites mock Christianity and religion in general as outmoded superstition that has afflicted our consciences with false guilt while trumpeting the real guilt of religious genocide, of which, as the enlightened, the elites are not guilty.

Jesus once excoriated the Pharisees of his day for outwardly extolling the prophets while whitewashing their tombs–thus unconsciously demonstrating that they actually approved their murders by their own ancestors. Today’s secular rights legalists often “whitewash” or conveniently forget the misdeeds of their own logical ancestors–Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and, yes, even Mussolini and Hitler. Religion (Christianity above all) can now be discarded, or at least ignored because only the superstitious, unwashed masses insist on hanging on to some of its vestigial appurtenances.  The ancient elites up to the late Fourth Century CE also mocked the bothersome pretentions of Christian activists as outrageous and a drain on the empire’s moral, social, and military strength.

Sooner or later, the spirits (authorities, powers, principalities) that overshadow and characterize a place, a people, a group, a corporation, a union, a political party, and even a nation will flagrantly manifest themselves.  Jesus used to say, “Let those who have eyes see; those who have ears, let them hear!”  The ancient is now the modern—Rome reprise.

TO BE CONTINUED

The Third Way, 21: The Allure of Rome, Part 2

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“[Virgil’s Aeneid and the legendary tales of early Rome] tell us something about how the Romans saw themselves: war-like by nature, as descendants of the god of war [Mars]; empowered with the strength and cunning of the wolf who nursed their founders [referring to the legend of the orphan twins, Romulus and Remus, being nursed and raised by a she-wolf]; and established by desperate men who successfully fought everyone around them for survival.  Many Romans believed that just as it was the fate of the Greeks to bring culture to the world, it was the fate of the Romans to bring order [ordo] to the world …. the Romans from a very early period believed they were destined to rule.  They believed that they were better suited by nature and ability for rule than were other peoples.  And they believed that the gods had selected them for this task.  Perhaps this way of looking at the world underlay their actions somewhat like the concepts of “manifest destiny” and the assumed superiority of Europeans underlay the movement westward by European immigrants in nineteenth century United States.”

James S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era, Exploring the Background of Early Christianity, (IVP Academic, 1999), pp. 295-6.

The Creator is never far removed from the creation.  We go through life most of the time like sleep-walkers, barely aware of the amazing nature of the cosmos and of how the Creator has made us.  This does not annul the glory of what envelops us and which we share as the sole beings who, as far as we know, actually can perceive and gain some understanding of it and experience it.

Although we are made to reflect the Maker’s glory within the creation, our lust after petty godhood has made us blind and deaf.  We see this played out in plain sight and hearing every day in the way we react to hindrances, frustrations, and impediments to our progress towards whatever ambitions or fancies we have currently placed before us.  We grumble and complain about how such-and-such and so-and-so has blocked us and infringed upon our rights.  We denounce those who encroach on our comfort and challenge our “territory.”  After all, as ‘gods’ we are born to rule, aren’t we?  The only problem is all those other people who think they are gods too!

We are trapped in this conundrum whether conscious of it or not.  Most of the time, we don’t think about, we just feel it.  It is the resting, normal position of the rebel whose rebellion is so ingrained that it is now unconscious, subconscious—until something brings it to the surface, like a direct claim and challenge to recognize that there is a Creator who alone is God, which means I am not and I must give up my throne.  Or perhaps another petty god is more powerful or well-positioned than I, and I must defer to him/her.

While all the great religions do not perceive the Creator and creation in quite the same way, all, in one way or another, recognize the fundamental flaw in human nature.  We are internally broken, finding as much wickedness lurking in our souls as goodness.  If we were to release it, it would consume us, and sometimes the only reason we don’t is that we fear being caught and held to account.  We are bound to fail to fully keep whatever good laws we establish (we are not speaking of disobeying wicked laws), even those we privately make for ourselves to rule ourselves.  No one (except Jesus, some would say) has ever succeeded in living perfectly by what his/her own conscience tells him/her.  Even Buddha abandoned his young wife and child, and he must have known deep down that this was a rather callous thing to do.  Even Muhammad ordered massacres, and he must have known deep down that this was hardly what a God of true compassion and mercy would command.  Even Moses lashed out in anger.  Even Abraham lied about his wife to save his own skin.  David was a murderer and adulterer. 

The great religions attempt to resolve our brokenness differently.  Hinduism explains that our true nature is as errant aspects of the One Reality, the “World Soul (Brahman),” to which we must return and into which we must be reabsorbed, forsaking individuality to achieve nirvana, the bliss of total rest within the all-consciousness without struggle.  Buddhism describes this quest as “non-existence,” similar to the Hindu idea but with no real consciousness adhering to any shadow of the illusion of self.

The three monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, do not see humanity as parts of the One seeking reintegration through a very long cycle of life, death, and rebirth, but as beings created to honour and serve God within the creation.  The ‘orthodox’ view within these three is that humans rebelled and continue to rebel, and the Creator has sought to offer restoration of the broken relationship.  They differ in how this is to be done and what role is assigned to humans in the restoration.  Is it by exemplarily obeying rules and performing rituals, or by accepting God’s mercy and appealing to the Creator’s gracious offer of renewal through a chosen Saviour and Redeemer?  Or perhaps a combination of the two—grace and obedience?

We do not have time or space to examine these approaches and their nuances in depth in this post.  That may be for another time.  We are considering the West’s continuing, strange fascination with Rome, the longest-lived and most successful empire in Western history and perhaps in world history.  Like all human endeavours and achievements, no matter how great, it eventually failed.  But its longevity and “glory” still carry a dim lustre and a sense of nostalgia and wonder.  The West cannot escape Rome’s still potent cultural, historical, and spiritual legacy.  Neither can it escape its spell.

For those who admire manifest power, Rome presents a model and a standard: “If only I/we could create something that could equal what they did!”  For those who long for a united world that brings everyone into order and unity with common values and symbols and similar ideals and goals, Rome’s success continually fascinates and puzzles anthropologists, sociologists, historians, psychologists, philosophers, political scientists, and even some politicians who manage to have a sense of history.  For admirerers of military prowess and martial glory at its pinnacle, Rome offers endless material for study.  Rome’s political and martial prowess was not the story of a one-off genius such as Alexander or Napoleon shooting like a comet across the heavens of history.  It was a system honed to perfection, granting the most perfect instrument yet devised which leaders of talent and ability used to rise to the summit of power and fame.  Julius Caesar did not create the Roman genius for government or the unbeatable fighting machine of the Roman army; he used and honed them to further his own rise to power. Afterward, they functioned more or less well regardless of the frequent stupidity emanating from the throne. Rome’s aura often kept its enemies at bay even when its armies were wavering or engaged in slaughtering one another in civil wars.

What is the mystique of Rome; what lies behind it?  Deep beneath what we see played out we find a hunger that longs for a final answer.  It is a spiritual thing—the quest for the last best realm that will endure and bring true, lasting, unbreakable peace and harmony into the life of humanity, giving everyone a fair shake, a fair chance to be the best they can possibly be.  It is more than a hunger, it is the most basic need all—to know who and what we really are and are really made for.  We know it cannot be found in our endless wars and destructive, competitive behaviour—our addiction to assert ourselves above others which brings only more of the same in return as we seek to “get even, get back.”

The Orientals say we must finally quell this hunger as illusion, drive it out by emptying ourselves of self and ceasing to identify ourselves primarily as individuals, ultimately denying any individual personhood and slipping into the anonymous bliss of nirvana.  That is what the Bhagavad Gita is really about; that is what the Upanishads reveal; that is what Buddha’s Three Baskets disclose, in a somewhat different way.  That is what underlies yoga at its heart, and Zen.

Jesus said that it was all about entering “the Kingdom of God,” and this was the core of his teaching.  He spoke of losing our lives in order to find them.  He spoke of taking up one’s cross to follow him and not doing things the old way, the imperial way, the way of pursuing the glories of “this age.” 

When he taught and exampled what he meant, he was speaking of the way of Rome on the one hand and of compromised religion on the other, both ways of glory achieved at the expense of others, in all the ways that this is done—by economic, social, military, political, cultural, and even religious manipulation and brinkmanship.  In the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Creator, there is no room for any of this.  All of these methods are the “way of the flesh,” the way of our brokenness and rebellion against how the Maker originally made us and what He/She originally made us to be and do.  They are all ways of serving ourselves first, of maintaining and asserting our ‘right’ to be little gods.

TO BE CONTINUED

The Third Way, 20: The Allure of Rome, Part 1

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The saga of Rome has never lost its allure.  It remains seared in our collective memory.   Even in the 21st Century, when history is so little valued, almost everyone in the West knows the names of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra (although not a Roman, she was intimately connected to him), mad Emperor Nero, and Constantine.  Only Classics students now study the great Greek and Roman literature, but the tale of Imperial Rome remains with us like a talisman.  Travelers to Europe find impressive reminders of Rome’s one-time glory from Great Britain to North Africa, and from Armenia to the coasts of Portugal.  The Mediterranean (Middle Earth) Sea was once “Mare Nostrum” (Our Sea) on Roman maps.

The Roman Catholic Church kept the legend and memory of Imperial Rome alive by locating its headquarters in “the Eternal City.”  The Pope co-opted the old Roman title “Pontifex Maximus” (literally, “Greatest Bridge Maker”), a pagan title for Rome’s High Priest of the cult of Jupiter, Rome’s supreme god.  The core of the Roman Catholic Church’s administrative apparatus is an adaptation of the late Roman Empire’s imperial administration.  During the Middle Ages, what Roman emperors had once claimed as the supreme authority on earth as divinely appointed “saviours” and “sons of Jupiter,” the “Supreme Pontiffs” reclaimed as the “Vicars of Christ on earth”—a sort of Regency status that supposedly gave them authority to enthrone and dethrone even the most powerful secular rulers of Christendom.

Less than a century after the Western Empire’s collapse, the East Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Justinian sent his best general and finest troops to attempt to recover the lost western provinces.  General Belisarius made a valiant and almost superhuman attempt, restoring Italy, North Africa, and most of Spain to allegiance to ‘Rome’ (really Byzantium with its capital at Constantinople).  But disease, famine, and war in the East with Persia sapped Byzantine strength and most of Byzantium’s Western reconquests were eroded by local resistance and by the massive Muslim invasion in the 7th and 8th Centuries.

Rome is still a popular subject for dramatic films and TV series.  Conquerors since the collapse of the Western Empire have dreamed of recreating the Roman hegemony in some form ever since.  Perhaps the most successful of these was the Frankish King, Charlemagne, who took a Latin name (Carolus Magnus ) and title (Imperator) to legitimize his great ambition to be recognized by the Byzantine (“East Roman”) Emperor and the Pope as the first restored “Emperor of the West” since Romulus Augustulus. That boy-emperor’s reign ended with a whimper of ignominy in 476CE at the decree of the Ostrogoth “King of Italy,” Odoacer.  Charlemagne gained what he sought, but his personal charisma and aura of anointed power proved immune to transfer to his heirs.

Part of Charlemagne’s legacy was a rump “Holy Roman Empire” which lasted, on paper at least, until Napoleon simply abolished it in 1806 after crushing the Austrians, whose Hapsburg rulers had generally worn the largely empty title of Holy Roman Emperor since the late Middle Ages.  Napoleon mockingly said, “I am the only Emperor that the West needs.”  The other half of Charlemagne’s legacy was more permanent—France, Napoleon’s actual base of operations.

Here is a short list of Caesar wannabes—Napoleon, already mentioned (although he fancied Alexander the Great above Caesar), Mussolini (who boasted of returning Italy to her ancient glory and remaking the Mediterranean into ‘Mare Nostrum’), and Hitler, who claimed Caesar as an ‘Aryan’ and said the Third Reich would last a thousand years and surpass the glory of Rome in extent, achievement, and legacy.

Why does the mystique and aura of Rome continue to fascinate 1500+ years later?  The answer lies in human nature.  Human beings are created “with eternity in their hearts,” as the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes puts it.  This hunger for eternity is rooted in the hunger for relationship with our Creator, who made us to know and love Him/Her and to be loved by Him/Her.  We are made in the Creator’s image, made to reflect the Maker’s nature within and to the creation.  We too are makers, creators, formers.  We hunger for ‘glory,’ to know and be known to one another and by one another.  We are made in such a way that humans must have love and relationship if we are to thrive and become all we can be, each one in his/her own unique way.

‘Glory’ (gloria in Latin) is the manifestation of the nobility and worthiness of the one(s) who possess it.  We are all made to possess it because we are all made to be like our Maker, whose glory is manifest in all created things.  For some, achieving ‘glory’ becomes an obsession, and, once it is achieved, it frequently becomes an addiction.  Seeking ‘glory’ for oneself is rooted in our addiction to being our own gods, because all our ‘glory’ is really borrowed from the Creator who manifests Him-/Her-self in all His/Her works, but most completely and specially in us, the human race which the Creator placed on Earth to be His/Her stewards and caretakers.  Humanity’s true glory is in direct proportion to the fulfilment of our actual created purpose.

Having usurped the Creator’s mandate in order to express our own ‘glory’ and greatness in preference to the Maker’s, we are driven to prove our worth and nobility.  Most of us are satisfied to get some minor portion of it during our lives, but some are driven by personality, character, and life-influences to pursue it insatiably.  Hence Alexander, Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Hitler, etc.  Hence the relentless quest for ever more success in their respective fields of business tycoons and seekers of fame and renown (and even notoriety) of all stripes.

Sometimes we give other names to this hunger for glory through extraordinary achievements: ambition, honour, recognition, and renown.  We are created with a hunger to achieve some token of worth, but first and foremost to pursue and achieve knowledge of the Creator and the Creator’s works.  Within that order, we then properly ‘share’ in His/Her reflected glory and win honour and recognition, but without hubris.  This is the picture of Moses descending Mount Sinai after forty days of face-to-face audience with God. 

Seeking the right kind of glory is not evil.  It is natural.  What is evil and ‘unnatural’ is the perversion of these things into idolatry, addiction to adulation, and obsession with dominating others in order to prove one’s worth.  This kind of perverted glory-hunting results in actions that disregard the inherent worth, honour, and nobility of others.  The extreme manifestation of this perversion of ‘glory’ is the oppression, suppression, and wilful slaughter we see in the wake of history’s greatest ‘glory-hunters’.

Which brings us back to the West’s (and even the world’s) continuing and sometimes great fascination with Rome and its legacy.  There are noble things in this legacy.  Roman law and jurisprudence is the foundation of much of the West’s legal system.  Rome absorbed and transmitted most of what we have of the best of ancient thought, art, and literature.  Rome’s engineering prowess was unmatched and a model for all that followed.  The Roman military machine was a marvel for over half a millennium and still gives lessons to students of war in military academies.  Roman government and administration is still studied and sometimes even imitated, despite its weakness at the top because of its susceptibility to the whims of too often misguided imperial potentates.

It is Rome’s claim to ‘immortal glory’ (the ‘Eternal City’, the ‘City chosen by the gods’) that signals Rome’s spiritual dimension.  The allure of the ascent to divinity beckons us.  Roman emperors were usually deified upon death—a precedent set immediately after Julius Caesar’s assassination.  Rome was not a secular state.  It always had an official religion and invoked the favour, blessing, and protection of ‘the gods’ and, after Constantine, of the ‘the Christian God.’

We now fancy ourselves living in a ‘secular age’ which gives no preference to God or any set of gods.  But, despite our official secularism and domi,nant worldview of atheistic materialism (among our social and cultural gurus at least), the truth is that we humans are spiritual beings as much as we are physical beings.  Even in business and corporate institutions, in social associations and clubs, we speak of the ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ of the entity.  Nations and states also have a governing ethos, a soul, or ‘spirit,’ at work beneath the symbols and external manifestations.  For instance, we speak of the ‘democratic spirit’ in the West, or of the ‘evil powers’ at work in some regimes.

We may well believe that we are speaking only figuratively when we use such metaphors, but, if we are perceptive and honest, all of us have a sense of what spirit is at work in many situations.  Back in the 1960s and ‘70s we talked about ‘vibes’.  For those who have traveled to some degree, you definitely feel the essential spirit of a location and even a country when you arrive there and reside there for even a few days.  That is why religions use terms like ‘the spirit of holiness,’ ‘the spirit of righteousness,’ ‘the spirit of lawlessness,’ ‘the spirit of iniquity’ in speaking of perceiving the ‘reality behind the reality’—what we perceive on the surface versus what is truly operative inside and beneath.

Rome had an operative spirit which claimed universal dominion for its sovereignty and divine status as “Saviour, Lord, Son of God (Jupiter)” for its reigning Emperor.  Rome claimed divine anointing as the chosen instrument of the gods to civilize and unite all the races.  At its peak, Rome’s dominion encompassed a quarter of the world’s population, giving some plausibility to its claims, at least in the eyes of Roman citizens.

Rome incarnated a direct claim by humans to establish an eternal kingdom on earth by right of conquest and coercive power.  Local gods could bow and be absorbed into Rome’s in order to survive, or be annihilated like those of the Carthaginians and Druidic Celts.  The Jews and Christians challenged Rome’s nature at its root.  Both paid a massive price in millions of lives for continuing to seek and honour the true Creator.

TO BE CONTINUED

The Third Way, 19: Titanic

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In the “The Third Way” series, we have been seeking a moral and spiritual way forward for the deeply troubled global civilization of the 21st Century.  The world can no longer be treated as a set of loosely connected cultures and societies.  We are all in the same boat, one which unfortunately most closely resembles the Titanic.

When the Titanic sailed to its doom in April 1912, it was an unwitting time capsule.  Its passengers and crew were from all classes and backgrounds—the mega-rich to the dirt-poor seeking a new life in a new land.  Their accommodations and the ship’s physical division into segregated class areas reflected the huge disparities within society.  So did the crew.  The ship itself embodied all the latest and best that technology, engineering, and scientific advancement could then offer—especially to those who could afford it. 

As we look at the people aboard the great vessel, we find ourselves looking in the mirror.  After all, it is only two less than average lifetimes ago.  Then, as now, the rich were not all bad and greedy people and the poor were not all nice and kind people.  Most of the passengers and crew believed in God, at least nominally, but, like us, most of them had little time or use for the Creator, except to “Dial 9-1-1” in an emergency, as most of them were soon to do.

A great deal has been researched, discovered, written and speculated about why that icon of human progress went to its doom with so much needless loss of life.  Mostly, it boils down to pride, hubris, stubbornness, selfishness, neglect, and human error.  Then, as now in a crisis, some stepped forward with acts of selfless heroism and bravery while others revealed the worst about themselves, mastered by their fear or their sense of entitlement regardless of the needs of others, and their over-inflated (and downright wicked) belief in their own indispensability and petty godhood.  Crises have a way of swiftly clarifying what is really on the inside.

Now, aboard a global Titanic, we are full of our own “I, me, me, my” ideology, with all the rampant entitlementism possible to conceive.  Even so, multitudes have a dawning sense that a great glacier drifts towards collision in the current.  Heedlessly, the elite-class tycoons still control and manipulate everyone for their own profit and greed while they urge our “Captain Smiths” to push on at “full-speed ahead” in enabling the economy to achieve new levels of magnitude.  The middle-tier passengers just want to be left in peace to enjoy life comfortably, while the steerage classwant a little recognition and a “fairer piece of the pie.”

 In the current in which our ship is caught up, the angry, recriminatory, name-calling, blame-attributing, self-aggrandizing and self-justifying ethos is toxic.  With a smidgen of ‘sense and sensibility,’ it should be clear that the promises of a great golden age of general peace and prosperity based on fair treatment and justice for all, inspired by the great achievements of science, technology, and the benevolence of generous leaders is hollow.  Two things mitigate against it: our militant selfishness, and the accompanying rampant pillaging of Earth’s resource base with its concomitant contamination of its (our) environment.  We do not need more of the same old; we need a new heart and mind.  We need a revolution of the soul and spirit, what the Bible calls a heart transplant – a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone.

“The Third Way” begins with some straightforward ideas: the recognition that there is a Creator; that the Creator is a personal Being we usually call God; that the Creator made us as reflections of Him/Her-self; that we are stewards and trustees of the creation we find ourselves in, particularly here on Planet Earth; that we are made for relationship with our Creator, and that the Creator’s primary (but far from sole) manifest personality trait is abounding, passionate love for all the He/She has made. 

But He/She will not wait forever for us to turn the ship.  The iceberg is still there in our path.  Turning to the Creator with more than tokenism will take our focus of ourselves and begin to change our minds about exploitation of the creation and others around us.  It may yet teach us enough humility to humble ourselves before Him/Her.  It may give our rudder enough of a nudge to avoid the fate of the Titanic.

Secondarily, we must admit the inadequacy of our crippling cultural and social paradigms based on defective worldviews.  In this respect, the two major old rivals in the West remain in place: (1.) an inadequate version of syncretistic Christianity often named “Christendom” and (2.) the Enlightenment’s atheistic “scientific materialism.”  Neither of these will do any longer.  On the one hand, Christianity must break free from its obsession with (re)gaining power and control— bowing to what the Apostle Paul called the “god of this age.”  On the other hand, scientists and Scientism must resign their hubris and find a new paradigm that does not a priori decree, “Thou shalt have no other god before me.”  When they look into the marvels of creation, they must remove their wilful blindness and see the eyes and hear the voice of the Creator looking and shouting back, like the Whos in Whoville, “We are here! We are here! We are here!” (Dr. Suess, Horton Hears a Who).

What would “The Third Way” look like in practice?  I would not presume to more than suggest a few characteristics. The Creator’s Spirit will guide us in the way as we humbly search it out.  I strongly believe that, as we humbly and sincerely go seeking the Creator, we will find Him/Her.  I fervently trust that true-hearted seekers will not end up finding and adhering to a counterfeit.  Anything that leads away from peace, love, mercy, and compassion is not from the heart of the Creator.  Anything that excludes any person or persons based on ethnicity, age, gender, or any other of the hateful forms of discrimination practiced so often in the name of God and religion (or “scientific” or other “racial purity”) is not the Way of the Creator.  Religion can also be a hindrance to truly seeking the Creator, although it may serve if the seeker’s heart is turned aright.  After all, God is not limited to abiding by our human expectations of discovering Him-/Her-self according to our pre-defined dogmas when we come seeking Him/Her “in spirit and in truth,” as Jesus once put it.

There is no conclusion to a quest such as this.  It is integral to the journey of life, and, ready or not, believing or not, each of us will meet our Creator sooner or later.  Personally, I would rather it be before my body “gives up the ghost.”  It makes more sense to do something about getting acquainted with this Someone before I “step over” and rudely discover that He/She has been there the whole time waiting for me, but I have arrogantly and presumptuously chosen to ignore or even deny that there is “any such Person.”

Not that the meeting won’t be a surprise and shock (I trust in a positive sense) in any case.  I am sure that even the best hypotheses, philosophies, and theologies are but pale shadows of the Reality they so inadequately attempt to categorize and classify.  That is why died-in-the-wool dogmatism and rage-engendering, foaming, murderous fanaticism are so wrong.  The fanaticism of “superior understanding” is quieter but just as deadly in the long run.  Fanatics assume we can put the Maker in a box (or pretend He/She doesn’t exist to hold anyone to account) to suit our own utterly arrogant (and sinful) fixations and deluded self-justifications. 

The personal Name the Creator gives Him-/Her-self in the Jewish and Christian Bible is “I am Who I am/I will be Whom I will be”.  This is light-years from our modern conceit of “God will be for me what I want and I will take Him/Her/It on my own terms.”  To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, ‘God is not a tame Being’ – (“Aslan is not a tame lion.”)

We have become so full of ourselves that we think we can make God into whatever we like or need at the moment and owe Him/Her homage only to the degree we need to persuade Him/Her to meet our needs.  I suspect that the Creator of the Universe, Multiverse, or whatever version of creation we may choose to fancy is not impressed by the pretensions of beings of microscopic proportions in relation to His/Her creation and Him-/Her-self.

My personal conviction is that the Christian story and worldview is most compatible with the nature of reality and the evidence of science and human experience.  The sad fact is that, in our present social and cultural climate, it has become almost impossible to communicate meaningfully about these supremely important questions.  Rather than dialogue, many run away from them and ignore them. 

Almost every issue is now polarized into questions of “individual freedoms and rights” that are in fact an entirely self-centered, strident insistence to hold any opinion, even the most outrageous and offensive, without having to defend it in any rational way.  It is, in reality, the running amok of the desire to be accountable to no one and to avoid responsibility for anything not centered on oneself (and often not even that).  It is our addiction to personal godhood, self-actualization, and total validation of anything I choose to do and be.  And the consequences of this delusion of total self-importance and self-absorption are extremely self-destructive, and incidentally highly damaging to society at large.  It is “b–l-s—t”  that my personal choices concern no one but myself. Ask the people closest to you how true that is! Ask youself when they make those kinds of “personal choices.”

Evolutionary mythology is irrelevant to the two main constants of discernible history: 1. that we humans are inextricably rooted in Planet Earth in our physical nature and in relationship with the Creator in our spiritual nature; 2. that as far back as we can see into the past, the records tell us that human nature has not changed in any fundamental respect.  We are no more “advanced” in any meaningful way than our genus homo progenitors of as many generations ago as we can find evidence for and imagine behind that.

Shalom and Pax tibi till your next visit, dear reader.

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The Third Way, 18: The Jugular and the Son

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“Most people …. may hold a philosophy of materialism or Darwinian naturalism, yet in practice they live in ways that contradict those worldviews.  After all, who really treats their convictions as the products of natural selection, and not really true but only useful for survival?  Who could survive emotionally if they really believed that their self-sacrificing love is nothing but “pseudo-altruism”?” 

Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth, Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity.  (Crossway, 2004, 2005), p. 319

“If Darwin had announced his theory of evolution in India, China, or Japan, it would hardly have made a stir.  “If—along with hundreds of millions of Hindus and Buddhists—you have never believed that humans differ from anything else in the natural world in having an immortal soul, you will find it hard to get worked up by a theory that shows how much we have in common with other animals.” [Quoted by Pearcey from Gillespie’s Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation.)  The West’s high view of human dignity and rights is borrowed directly from Christianity.  “Humanism is not an alternative to religious belief, but rather a degenerate and unwitting version of it.””  

Pearcey, p. 320.

There are a number of ways to believe in and honour the Creator.  Judaism gave birth to Christianity, while Islam arose from the influence of both these previous faiths on Muhammad and the Arabian tribes.  Hinduism does not have a single point of view on creation, while Buddhism does not require a Creator at all.  One may believe in the Creator without adhering to any of these religions, for example by practicing traditional some indigenous forms of spirituality.  The question of revelations by the Creator to specific individuals and ways of relating to the Creator which are more in harmony with His/Her true nature is not the issue at this point of the discussion, although it is an issue in a larger sense to which we may need to return at some future time.  

There are many points of intersection among the three major monotheistic faiths which seek to bring humanity into harmony with the Creator.[i]  All three believe that the Creator is personal and present in the creation—not a distant “Deity” no longer taking an interest in the stuff He/She has made; not an anonymous ‘World Soul’ hiding behind a crust of illusion.  Muslims, Christians, and Jews all believe that this Cosmos is real, created by a personal Creator.  That is what Muslims signify by God (Allah) being as close as your jugular vein.  Christians, Muslims, and Jews all believe God is immanent [no, this is not a spelling mistake!], very close by, “permanently pervading the universe” (Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary).  Thus, if your jugular vein were suddenly severed, you would simply step across into God’s manifest presence.

If God is so intimately connected with the creation at all times, why do we not see Him/Her more often—or even at all, in the case of most of us?  Jesus used this expression: “Those who have eyes to see, let them see.”  He also used a converse referring to wilful blindness: “But their eyes have been blinded, lest seeing they would see …”

The Bible of Judaism and Christianity states that humanity, both male and female, is “made in the image of God.”  The ancient Greek translation of the Tanakh (Old Testament) used the term ikon for “image”.  God did not break His/Her own commandment against making any image of God.  God made a walking, talking, living, breathing image who was a personal being bestowed with immense dignity and mandated with great responsibility to represent the Creator on earth.  Although monotheistic, Islam does not have the same view of human beings.  In the Quran, we are not really God’s partners and certainly not His/Her ‘images,’ for any image or incarnate representative form of the Creator is anathema.

In the Judeo-Christian worldview, humans are “children of God,” albeit mostly rebellious ones.  We are estranged from the family, but the Creator reaches out in love, mercy, and compassion to restore the relationship.  The Creator longs for our return, for reconciliation, for our restoration and redemption.  He/She is prepared to go to extreme lengths to achieve it.

The ‘Old Testament,’ the Tanakh, highlights this deep desire.  Although it is sometimes difficult to see the love, mercy, and compassion of the Creator in the rocky story of ancient Israel’s relationship with the Creator, a final reconciliation was promised when God would send His/Her ‘Son’, His/Her anointed and incarnate final ‘Word’, the Mashiach (Messiah, Anointed One, in Greek the Christ).

This is the ‘Son’ we are invited to kiss, because the coming of ‘the Son’ is the Creator’s ultimate, definitive appeal to His/Her wayward children to come home.  The ‘Son’ is the unique personal incarnation of God.  He carries the very personality of God, embodying the ‘Way’ we must follow.  He shows us how to turn away from the way of death and destruction we have chosen now for millennia up to this very day.  The Son said everything the “Father,” as He calls the Creator, had to say to us.  He told us everything we need to know to return to the family, showing us what living in harmony and intimacy with the Creator and the creation actually looks like in the flesh.

The Son invites us to kiss him as we kiss our family members when we come home from a long journey.  Then we give one another the kiss of true peace.  We can freely extend mercy, grace, and compassion to the rest of God’s children, wayward or not.  Turning our backs on the Creator’s ultimate appeal is taking the great risk that, at some point, “he [may] be angry and you [may] be destroyed in your way,” as Psalm 2:12a puts it—not because of his vengeance, but by our own stupidity.  

This is far from the same old story of the wrathful, vengeful God which “we” [the West’s enlightened intellectual class] worked so hard to free ourselves from.  It is a simple, very real statement of how life and relationships work. If, as we have been observing, the personal Creator has left His/Her signature everywhere and patterned the universe on His/Her character, and made humans to be the embodiment of how the creation is supposed to relate to the Creator, why is it a shock to find that, in the time-space continuum in which our drama is lived out, time runs out and opportunities disappear?  While the Creator is eternal and His/Her love infinite, in the arena of time and space people are given choices to make and opportunities to seek, find, and pursue relationship with the Creator who made them.  As we see in our relationships with one another, opportunities are not endless and choices limit what follows.

The Creator’s love is on free offer 24/7 “as close as your jugular vein.”  You don’t have to understand much anatomy to know that the jugular keeps you alive as long as it brings the blood back to your heart in a continuous flow.  So too with our invitation to “kiss the Son while he may be found.”  Some day those who wait too long or refuse too many times will no longer be able to find him or get close enough to “kiss him.”

Pearcey’s powerful book on the cultural captivity of Christianity, especially in the USA, points to this deliberate rejection of the invitation to meet the ‘God of the jugular’ and ‘kiss the Son.’  For well over two hundred years we have chosen to block out the evidence of the Creator’s immanence in ‘the Book of Nature,’ which is what the jugular refers to, and the voice of the Creator’s constant appeal to come and ‘kiss the Son.’ 

The modern myth of progress in human rights, freedom, and dignity, and the emergence of a more compassionate, freer society says that our bright new modern world was fashioned out of ‘whole new cloth’ by the Enlightenment crusaders after exposing and discrediting the bankruptcy of Christianity and the futility of trusting the ‘fable’ about a beneficent Creator.  This wonderful tale of the liberating Enlightenment is a myth which we have largely bought into.  The truth is that those Enlightenment ‘pioneers’ owed almost everything in their basic thinking to the work of Christian, or at least theist, predecessors, including the whole notion of ‘Progress’ itself.

We do not have time or space here to deconstruct that myth, but it is plain to see that what we have now in the West is cultural deadness of soul and spirit tinged with creeping despair.  But the Son’s voice of hope is still calling and inviting us to enter the family of the Creator who gives us being and meaning.  It is time to listen to the advice of Psalm 12 and ‘seek the Son’, the Creator’s face turned toward us in full love, while he may be found.  If that is too tall an order for now, start with finding the courage to turn your face to the Creator poised at your jugular vein.  There is a promise to claim: “Seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you.”


[i]  I do not include Hinduism or Buddhism here for the reason that neither conceives the universe as being the work of a single, personal Creator.  Hinduism as practised by the vast majority of its adherents is a polytheistic religion which does not have a unified theology of creation and the Cosmos.  We in the West see it mainly in truncated, idealized form—meditation and yoga to get in touch with our ‘true inner self’, which is supposedly the same as getting in touch with the ‘Universal Soul,’ the essence of being hidden within all things.  The goal is to be absorbed, ‘to lose yourself’ and become one with the all.’  This discovery may take many lifetimes, thus reincarnation is a central tenet of Hinduism.  The ‘creation’ we experience is maya, a sort of illusion which deceives us and entraps us.  It must be escaped, not valued and enhanced because the Creator (who is not really there anyway) made it and pronounced it ‘very good’.

Buddhism sprang from Hinduism, but Buddha refined the Hindu perspective.  He simply bypassed all the ‘gods,’ saying that, if they exist, they are in no better case than everyone else trapped in the cycle of suffering.  Buddhism does not offer a theology of creation, rather focusing on inner harmony and union with the inner essence of all things.  The object is to free oneself from struggle, pain, conflict, suffering, birth, death, and rebirth.

Therefore, neither Hinduism nor Buddhism offers a way of rediscovering who we are and why there is meaning in the here and now.  They are escapist and rejectionist, saying we need to leave this ‘prison’ behind.  That is not to say that there is no truth to be found in them regarding the human condition as we experience it, or help to be found in learning to discipline our passions and bear the sufferings of life. There are some quite practical things to be found there when careful discretion is used in discering them. As an old Reformed adage puts it, “All truth is God’s truth,” no matter whose mouth it comes out of, as long as, as Francis Schaeffer used to put it, it is “true truth.”

The Third Way, 16: True Truth

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“You have given me a mere handful of days, and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight; truly, even those who stand erect are but a puff of wind.We walk about like a shadow, and in vain we are in turmoil: we heap up riches and cannot tell who will gather them.”

Psalm 39: 6,7

Many Jewish and Christian scholars agree that parts of the Tanakh, which Christians call the Old Testament or Old Covenant, are probably the oldest written records of God’s relationship with humanity.  Advocates of other faiths would naturally dispute the honour.  Hindus say that the Rig Veda predates anything other religious written record.  Secularists disagree with all of them and point to Sumer and Egypt as the original cradles of “institutional” religion, while Muslims declare that all records prior to the Quran are distortions of the true message once revealed to the prophets Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, which Muhammad finally clarified and set down in its final, perfect form.

The truth behind the rival views is that the Creator is seeking restoration and healing of the brokenness in us and the creation we have been entrusted to guard, heal, cherish and tend into full flourishing.  Scholarship may help us assess which sources are most ‘original,’ but if there is truth to be found it must penetrate the heart and soul and resonate there in our innermost being, bearing fruit in keeping with its nature.

For the seeds we plant in our hearts and minds always bear fruit in keeping with their nature.  If we sow bitterness and anger, fear and rejection, competition and aggression, we reap their fruits and our actions become wounding, destructive, coercive, and even violent.  Jesus once said, “By their fruit you will know them,” and “If you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind.”

The old Western imperialism was straightforward—the superiority of the European, “Christian” civilization was clear and it was the “white man’s burden,” as Rudyard Kipling put it, to enlighten the rest of humanity and teach them their place in the “natural order.”  The most horrendous example of this was, of course, Nazism’s attempt to assert the primacy of the “Master Race.”

Many would call Jesus the best and wisest human ever to have lived.  His method of assessing things and behaviours by their fruit is probably the surest way to move into the “spirit of truth,” upon which the Third Way depends.  Jesus also said, “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free.”

Finding “truth” in the 21st Century is perhaps the greatest conundrum we face.  It has been relativized into absurdity.  Two thousand years ago, a Roman judge facing Jesus asked him, “What is truth?”  We do not know enough about Pilate to say for certain if this was a cynical quip seeking no real answer, or a genuinely puzzled wish to explore the issue, but knowing there was no hope of pursuing it under the circumstances.

In our age we face a growing sense of cultural, social, environmental, and spiritual crisis. It overshadows human consciousness everywhere; there is no more critical question.  We seem far from any consensus regarding truth, and the fundamental divisions seem to be growing wider.  The ‘old truths’ are under siege, and, if there is any new truth, it shifts and reforms so quickly that it is like trying to catch your shadow.  The West is trapped in its Enlightenment paradigm of truth: reason-logic-science will lead us to it.  The West’s technological and economic ascendancy (now under threat from the rising stars of the Orient in particular) have engendered enormous backlash, even while those reacting to it adopt its main characteristics.

Has truth disappeared?  Is the search for it really a cynic’s game, as Pilate’s question implied?  Or is it that we have lost sight of it while it has been “hiding in plain sight?”  Is truth a mere convention arrived at by general consensus, and mutable as the consensus changes?

Evolution over billions of years is now the ‘accepted truth’ which represents the ‘consensus’.  Thus, humans and all the other living (and non-living) things are outcomes, end-products of the self-organizing and self-formulating properties of the essential energy that underlies everything.  The trend in evolutionary theory is to attribute some sort of proto-consciousness and will to matter.

It is a strange metamorphosis.  As the French say, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”  A useful philosophical principle called “Ockham’s Razor” suggests that the most obvious and simple solution to a logical, philosophical conundrum is usually the right one.  In this case, because the bankruptcy of a purely mechanistic and materialist explanation for the Cosmos and ourselves has become rather obvious, we now find even the most ardent believers in the Scientific Model of existence returning to attributing rather esoteric and mystical properties to matter and its sub-tending most fundamental energies—including quasi-consciousness and quasi-personal characteristics.  The Medieval Academic Ockham would forthrightly say, “Oh!  You mean God!”  But Stephen Hawking replies, “We no longer have need of that hypothesis.” Instead, because the whole notion of God has become anathema a priori, we are left with sheer fanciful speculation about matter somehow being predisposed to organize itself to present the appearance of meaning and purpose.  Ergo, the Cosmos created itself ex nihilo.

As I stare into the newest contortions of circumlocution aiming to block the hoary old notion of a personal Deity reasserting itself after all the tremendous efforts of the last two centuries to erase even a trace of His/Her presence, I find myself ironically amused.  I also find myself weary, wishing the Creator would just appear and, as C.S. Lewis once put it in the metaphorical terms of a poker game, “OK boys, the game has gone far enough.  The Dealer is calling in the cards and reclaiming your chips before you are so far gone you totally wreck the place and are really convinced you are god.”  (Apologies to Lewis buffs: I have grossly misparaphrased the metaphor.)

 While the ‘Dealer’ will someday say, “Time’s up!” and call in the chips, He/She is far more patient than any of us, far more forbearing, and, as one New Testament version puts it, “Not willing that any should perish, but desires that all should be saved.”  The creation is on a clock, whether a short- or long-wound one.  Evolution says it has perhaps another fifty billion years to tick.  But humanity’s clock is unlikely to be so generous, and certainly our personal clocks are “but a brief candle,” with some of us much nearer burning out than others.

Why are we so averse to turning our faces to look the Creator in the face?  Why are we so wilfully unwilling to look at all that He/She has made and displayed in all its awful and awesome glory and splendor and see His/Her handiwork and signature?  Every day is a gift; every being a masterpiece. Yet we see mere forms and outer shells to be used and exploited for “personal peace and affluence,” as Francis A. Schaeffer puts it.  Or we attribute semi-magical properties to the components rather acknowledge the incredible worth of the Maker who allows us to gaze into His/Her very heart, soul, mind and strength, longing for us to come to Him/Her with our own hearts, souls, minds, and strength so we may know and be known and become the children the Creator made us to be.

Instead we engage in absurd and futile avoidance strategies, because we are addicted to our own petty ‘godhood’ which absolves us of real accountability.  It will not do to say we are a strange, temporary, personalized, and self-aware extrusion of the mysterious Cosmos.  Personhood is not a strange and inexplicable phenomenon allowing the essence of the Cosmos to futilely and dimly observe itself before it reabsorbs these ‘bubbles’ into the anonymous and amorphous ‘Om’ where there is only blissful impersonality which somehow knows all and nothing at the same time.  Personhood is a gift from the Creator which reflects His/Her own essence, and extends itself to love and be loved in return.  It is married to individuality—and we see both at work indivisibly everywhere we look.  It will not do to say that it is all mere maya, illusion masking ‘the Real.’

The meaning of things is not to become nothing.  It is to be born again in spirit and in truth, and for the body and soul to be truly one and healed in the embrace of our Maker.

The Third Way, 15: I, We, You

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“Le Coeur a ses raisons que la Raison ne connait point. – The Heart has its reasons which Reason does not comprehend.” Blaise Pascal, Pensées

“So religious discourse should not attempt to impart clear information about the divine but should lead to an appreciation of the limits of language and understanding.  The ultimate was not alien to human beings, but inseparable from our humanity.  It could not be accessed by rational, discursive thought but required a carefully cultivated state of mind and the abnegation of selflessness.”  Karen Armstrong, The Case for God (Vintage Canada Edition, 2010), p. 26

The Enlightenment promised material utopia created through the ineluctable processes of evolutionary progress.  Driven by the almost limitless fruits of the continuous application of reason and logic via the infallible methodology of science, technologies would lead us once more into Eden, or as near as we are capable of approximating it.

The Enlightenment’s leading lights and main proponents relegated ‘Christendom’, the West’s previous guiding paradigm, based on a stumbling and ad hoc attempt to apply assimilable elements of Christianity to the generality of human life and experience, to the realm of superstition and ignorance.  Education, law, and society have long since been recruited and engineered to foster this transformation.  Now in the 21st Century the influence of the ‘Old Time Religion’ has been largely effaced across the board.

The West’s imperial, scientific and technological prowess has spawned worldwide envy and resentment, while its culture and worldview has invaded and intruded everywhere, eroding the old paradigms of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.  The “imitation game” is afoot, with former bastions of other ‘Old-Time Religions’ succumbing to the western values of material progress, personal affluence and comfort, and ‘self-actualization’ as the ultimate measuring sticks of ‘success.’

But while the economic, material, and social model of the West has gone global, the shallowness and hollowness of its interior life has met resistance, generating fundamentalisms claiming to represent the traditional values and spiritual heritage of the societies they spring from.  This too mirrors the West’s own experience, where resistance to the current ruling paradigm has not wholly died.

What is the West exporting inside its flashy, glitzy, bling-encrusted allure but a worldview without a soul, a two-dimensional, flat-earth, flat-cosmos illusion?  The Emperor has no clothes, but no one but ‘fanatics’ are willing to call it out.  Even the West’s much vaunted interior critique called Post-modernism has failed, because it cannot or will not see and name the void on the inside for what it is. 

In the first half of the 17th Century, scientist, mathematician, and philosopher Blaise Pascal was reflecting on the emerging mentality of his day. Its advocates would later modestly name it ‘The Enlightenment.’ There was no attempt to dissimilate a spirit of humility as that later generation proclaimed themselves the philosophic luminaries rescuing humanity from ‘the Dark Ages’ and the shackles of the spiritual slave-masters of the Church. Pascal said that what he found on the inside of every human being was a God-shaped vacuum rather than a lack of reason and logic searching to be liberated from God and superstitious darkness.  The vacuum certainly cried out to be filled, and would inevitably be so, but it could not be filled by anything except what it had been created to receive: the love of and for its Creator.

Pascal agreed with the later philosophes that one of the major problems facing every human being is ignorance—but not the ignorance born of superstition.  Superstition is indeed ignorance, but it points like a great sign to hunger and inner need—the vacuum that only God can fill, that only the Creator can completely satisfy.  The rationalist solution to this need and hunger was totally irrational—to deny it even exists, or to say that it is not of a spiritual nature because spirit is an illusion.

The Third Way is not a return to a reconstructed Christendom, nor a desperate appeal to breathe new life into materialistic Progressivism.  It begins with a fundamental affirmation that we humans did not make ourselves and that we are not mere accidental, freakish extrusions of the chaotic but somehow self-creating and self-organizing genesis-energy of the Big Bang.  Beyond all of that, but still immanent within it, is the One, the Person who bestows existence with meaning on all that is and on each one He/She has made, is making, and will yet make.  Somehow, as creative agents who reflect His/Her own nature back at Him/Her from the creation, we participate in all that.  That is part of what it seems Karen Armstrong is articulating.

At this point it is not a matter of resurrecting old quarrels and disputes such as ‘What is the one true religion?’ and ‘Who has the most accurate picture of God?’  It is first and foremost a matter of recognition of who and what humanity is, where we are, and why we are here.  It is a matter of admitting that our old formulations, which I have called the First and Second Ways in regard to the West, have driven us into a bleak, dark, deep canyon. 

There are currently many voices diagnosing our situation, like a symphony orchestra tuning up—dissonant and even discordant, but all pointing in the same direction—our need for a rediscovery of our true nature.  In The Phenomenon of Man,Teilhard de Chardin spoke of the “numinousness” of the universe and of humanity’s place in it as the fine point of that “divine presence” in the creation. 

I agree with this description, although I otherwise find a great deal to disagree with in de Chardin’s theological philosophy, or philosophical theology, depending on which end we want to begin from.  The old theology said that “God is omnipresent; God is omniscient; God is omnipotent.”  But if the Creator is only an impersonal principle which permeates and pervades, it is no more than the Tao of Physics, the self-organizing and self-propagating principle now being imputed to the original energy particles or strings, or whatever we want to call it, that generated and emerged from the “Once Upon a Time Kaboom!” story.

The sticking point for we poor, ignorant, superstitious humans, who seem to long for spiritual connection with one another and all the rest of the creation (even as a product of the Big Bang it is a creation, just not one attributed to a ‘Being’), is that we exist as persons with a personality and personal identity.  (I hesitate to use the term ‘individual’ with all its increasingly negative and self-absorbed connotations.)  We may try to subdue and even strive with yogic might and main to erase this ‘illusory self’, but we are still locked into the locus of our particular point of reference within life and the river of time, place, and experience.  It is like saying that, because there is so much similarity in so much that is, there are no essential differences to be found.  But this denies the eternal paradox that I am not and cannot be you, and you are not and cannot be me, and this mountain is not that one, or Planet Earth Planet Mars, etc., despite the fact that we are all made of atoms.

All of creation cries out that the Creator is not just a general notion, a ‘World-Soul’ which absorbs and erases all the individual variations so that there will be no ‘self’ over which to ponder or through which to experience.  It screams aloud that every star, every galaxy, every planet, every plant, every animal, every cell, every tree and rock and river, and, yes, every human being, is made by and stamped with the Creator’s artistic signature, made uniquely, a one-time only production.

Therefore, the issue of value and merit is moot because the Creator valued it so much as to bring it to be.  Our basic problem is both  individual and collective at the same time—for we all have turned away so that we could usurp the Creator’s prerogatives and proclaim ourselves, individually and collectively, our own makers.  We are running in circles saying we are the made and the makers at the same time.

TO BE CONTINUED.

The Third Way, 14: The Quiet Revolution

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“The greatest problems are problems of the heart.” Anonymous

The Third Way, which has been the subject of these posts over the last several months, is the way of return to the Creator.  It is the way of rediscovering who we humans really are and were made to be.  It is a way which resigns hubris and every way of coercion of one over another.  It is a way of accepting that we humans are not the real lords and masters of our domain on Planet Earth.  We are caretakers and stewards who must give an account to the Creator who placed us here and who is the real Lord. 

It is a way of mutuality and true equality, without racial or other distinctions, classifications, or gradations attributing superiority or inferiority to categories of people.  There is no acceptance of racism, no relegation of any group or individual to sub-human status based on origins, cultural traditions, or discrimination based on the usual categories.  The only ‘discrimination’ is in showing sure discernment of what is good, wholesome, and beneficial for bringing health, hope, and healing.

In short, The Third Way is our turning towards and moving into the Creator’s Way with our whole hearts, minds, souls, and strength, as the Bible puts it.  It means an end to arrogant, proud and coercive ways, methods, and means of doing business and ruling and controlling one’s fellow humans.  It is the way of life versus the way of death.  It is the way of service versus domination and power based on fear, intimidation, and coercive manipulation.  But it is not the way of naiveté about the nature of the human heart or the contrary propensities of the human mind and imagination.

The Third Way means that a “Quiet Revolution” (to borrow a phrase from Quebec history) must take hold at the grass roots level, because, in ‘the way of the world as it is,’ those who hold the reins of power never (or as rarely as hen’s teeth) give it up willingly.

Turning (back) to the Creator risks fear of disappointment, of knocking at the door and finding the house empty.  We fear looking the fool and what others will say or think.  And there is the fear of losing one’s identity, one’s sense of self, of having to ‘give up’ “x”—fill in the blank.  And, unless you are already what some call a ‘saint’, the truth is that, yes, by and large you will have to give up stuff—the type of stuff mentioned above: manipulation, coercion, abusing oneself and others, playing the victim so we can use the means just mentioned to get our own way, etc.

Turning one’s life over to the Creator is risky.  There are quite a few who talk about the Creator in some form, who pray, meditate, and even attend religious or ‘spiritual’ group meetings, whom one otherwise would never know that honouring the Creator was really part of their lives.  Knowing and honouring God is not about intellectual assent to a set of propositions.  It is about relationship and trust.  Propositions can sometimes be helpful for clarification of one’s belief, but on their own they cannot change our minds or fill our souls.

At this point, it is not about advocating the superior merits of one spiritual or religious tradition or set of principles over another.  It is about seeking restoration and renewal of our relationship with the One who made us to be like Him-Her/self and to be his/her living, breathing icons in the creation.  If we begin to seek with a sincere heart and mind, we will find.  Many traditions make this claim, and the Bible, as the basis of the West’s major spiritual tradition, says “Seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.”  We must approach the Creator with trust that He/She will meet the seeker.  We were made for this relationship.

But we must also understand that it is not a relationship of equals, despite our modern-postmodern arrogance that says we can choose our own version of God or truth. Our conceit and self-deceit claims that there is no absolute, so no one approach to truth can be superior to or more valid than another.  That is our quintessential modern-postmodern hubris, born of the arrogance of elevating human reason, logic, and science to the supreme throne that used to be occupied by the Creator.  Reason, logic, and science are necessary tools and valid means of discerning some sorts of truth about reality.  But these tools are subordinate to the One who made them primarily in order that we might know Him/Her and discover how the creation the One made works and how we relate to it. But because our nature as humans is to find a central dominant modus and ethos for ordering life, when we deny our original purpose we automatically move to something that will take that ruling position once we dethrone its proper occupant.  As Bob Dylan wrote and sang, “You’re gonna serve somebody.”

Personalizing the central perspective we hold on life is not accidental, because, as persons who perceive reality from a personal perspective, whatever is not a person sitting at the center will soon begin taking on quasi-personal characteristics.  Which is why we talk about ‘Nature’ as a quasi-personal entity with defining characteristics and personality.  It is why the ancients always had personalized pantheons of the major powers and forces at work in the creation.  And why indigenous cultures (and others) continue to characterize the cosmos in this way to this day.  It is only the West with its determination to despiritualize the Cosmos which has denied the essential nature of all our traditions, and the testimony they give to what the creation really is and where it comes from.

But the Third Way does not hark back to restoring superstitions and taboos and magical thinking.  It places science in its proper place and revitalizes it with a more holistic, integrated understanding.  The scientific method was first proposed and developed by pioneers who still strongly held to the Creator and his/her ordering of the creation so that it would make sense and enable us to understand its workings.  We have turned science on its head.  The term ‘Science’ etymologically denotes ‘knowing in depth’, ‘seeing inside’.  The Enlightenment sought to gut and successfully expelled the inside so that all we can now see, like a person blind in one eye, is the exterior with no depth-perception.  The Third Way declares that our blindness has taken us down a dead-end detour which cannot issue in anything deeper than, “We must survive by developing science and technology alone and survival alone is the only ultimate goal.”  Survival for survival’s sake with no deeper purpose is what it boils down to.

These jewels of scientism are dry bones for the hungry heart and spirit which innately know that there is much more at stake than mere species survival for its own sake.  The Third Way points us toward the exit. But first we must turn around and look up to see the “EXIT” sign screaming at us.

TO BE CONTINUED

The Third Way 13: Points of No Return

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Common cliché: There are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. Modified common cliché: The only certainties in life (after birth) are change, taxes, and death.

Points of no return abound in life.  Every choice is made at the expense of some other possible choice.  In the case of most everyday choices, the consequences of one choice over another are almost always trivial, but occasionally even a trivial, almost unconscious choice may have drastic, even life or death, consequences.  Everyone who has lived for some time discovers this.   My wife’s life was once saved by turning her head to talk to me a split second before an exploding aerosol can struck her a glancing blow in the lower jaw.  If she had not turned her head, the projectile would have ripped out the left side of her throat, and nothing could have saved her from rapidly bleeding out.  She still bears the scar.  Soldiers tell of deciding to step one place instead of another, and an instant later a comrade was killed by a chance bullet, an explosion, or a fragment of shell when he stepped where they had been.  You undoubtedly can supply your own accounts of such decisions you or a loved one experienced.

Lately we have been hearing a chorus of increasingly alarmed voices decrying the whole world’s looming point of no return, prophesied within the next fifteen years or two decades at most.  Impressive statistics compiled by impressive phalanxes of climatologists and environmental experts have been assembled in intimidating array to back up this disquieting new eschatology.[i]

I am not a climate-change sceptic; I believe in it absolutely.  Climate change has existed since the earth began, whether mere thousands of years ago as the strictest Bible Creationists would have it, or billions of years ago, as the now generally accepted orthodoxy would have it.  And, once more as both stories (and all those in between) would have it, climate change has sometimes been rapid and catastrophic.  Just recently, convincing evidence for the Yucatan Comet strike that, we are told, brought about the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, has been found.  Such a massive strike certainly brought about shattering climate change in a hurry, with mass extinctions and changes in both flora and fauna in the seas and on land.  Or, if we take the story of the Noahic Deluge as a catastrophic alternative agent, the changes it wrought would be at least equal in permanent, devastating results.

What I have difficulty with is the eschatological hyperbole we are being subjected to, or rather bombarded with, in regard to the degree of climate change we have seen over the last two centuries and the human causality of whatever these changes have been and may yet be.

In the post previous to the present one, I referred to a much more subtle but significant “point of no return” which we have perhaps already reached, or, more probably, are on the cusp of reaching.  It involves the looming demise of the West as a culture, civilization, and society.  Many have predicted this demise and if it becomes an historical fact, some centuries later historians will strive to decipher the causes of the collapse.  Meanwhile, we who live in the midst of the West’s increasingly decadent cultural semi-chaos and political malaise and disease thrash about looking for sense, answers, and blameworthy villains.  As Toynbee would ask, “Just who are the barbarians about to kick in the door and knock out the main support beams?”

As Toynbee and others have told us, if only we could hear them, we might just gain some more reasonable perspective by looking backwards.  Instead we resort to ranting and raving about the latest interpretations of instrument readings from select times, places, and dates over the last two centuries while having no wider perspective (or choosing to ignore any that might be on offer) in which to assay them.

The real truth about points of no return is that they are also turning points and, in that sense, no different than so many other decisions, or non-decisions, which we miss by ignorance or choose to make, avoid, or ignore.  Many decisions have led us to this sense of crisis, which is indeed based on a real crisis in our relationship to our planet’s physical environment.

We do have to choose, but if our choice to reform our approach to our planet’s global ecosystem is isolated from the even greater need to make better choices in even more critical domains, we are merely delaying the final ‘point of no return’.  Ultimately, it not’s just “about the environment, stupid.”  It’s about who and what we are, and why we are who and what we are.

It’s about facing the truth that it is not just ‘all about me/us’.  Groping towards that truth, a growing movement is adopting a sort of mystical, spiritualized view of nature and the cosmos.  But this still leads us into a blind alley, however titillated and tingling we may feel when we ‘get the vibes’.  Deifying the cosmos, whether by pantheism or panentheism or even a sort of quasi-polytheism, still leaves us empty at the core.  We’ve been there and done that.  People still pursue this and get some spiritual ‘buzzes’ from doing it.  But it does not really tell them who they are or why they are here in the first place.  It just removes the critical issue by another layer, to another level.  It may even enable the practitioner of that kind of spirituality to find some occasional sense of ‘connection’ to the core ‘energy of the universe’ or the universal soul, so to speak. 

This kind of projection of inner hunger onto nature, however conceived, demonstrates that we cannot avoid searching for the deeper meaning of life and existence.  But, in the final analysis, we can only search according to how we as beings experience the reality of the cosmos.  We experience it as personal beings with individual consciousness—that is how we search and how we relate to it.  It is always a person conducting the search, hungering for personal connection.  It comes with an accompanying awareness that others are also searching, giving a sense of community and belonging which brings comfort and relieves the loneliness and aloneness.

In our normal experience of life and reality from birth to death, this sense of wanting and needing connection and communion never leaves us.  Besides nourishment and shelter, there is nothing more essential to a newborn than being loved, being connected, belonging—first to mother, then to a family, then to a community.  That is how everyone comes to know and be known, to become validated and valued, by knowing one is loved, wanted, needed, and valued as a person.  It is so from the first breath of life.  It is as great a need, even greater than physical food and drink.  No one can flourish or become fully human without it.

Our climate ‘Point of No Return’ may be as serious as the propaganda is claiming.  It’s hard to tell when all dissent is being shouted down and demonized.  But the real turning point masqued by it, which may well be a real point of no return, is a moral, ethical, and spiritual crisis of the first magnitude. 

It is about the spiritual destitution and void lying at the heart of the West and, ultimately, the whole human race.

TO BE CONTINUED


[i]  Eschatology – the study of the end times; “a branch of theology concerned with last things, e.g. death, judgment, heaven, hell.” Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002.  I deliberately use the term “eschatology” to refer to the current mounting alarmist crescendo regarding our planet’s fate.  It is really a kind of ‘theology’ about creation without admitting its faith foundation in a sort of ‘Gaia’ connection with ‘Mother Earth.’  Earth is not about to explode, implode, or disappear, and life is not about to be driven to utter extinction by human action in burning fossil fuels, although the rhetoric increasingly being used, even by many serious academics who should know better, is creating this impression.  There is a very real threat of the collapse of the present human civilization based on massive exploitation of certain of the planet’s resources.  But that is a different issue.  Unfortunately, the human capacity to overpower other species is creating a crisis of survival for them far beyond that of our own selfish wish to continue living like royalty with unlimited resources and no one to hold them responsible.  But hyperbolic doomsdayism is not a helpful manner of dealing with this need to turn away from our terrible, immoral behaviour.

The Third Way, 12: Comedy of Errors

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The Third Way, 12: Comedy of Errors“God writes a lot of comedy, it’s just that he has so many bad actors.”  Garrison Keillor, American comedian quoted in Common Prayer, (Zondervan, 2010), p. 222

            By all appearances, we have painted ourselves into a corner.  There have been many bad actors involved in this self-inflicted crisis.  Perhaps the Divine perspective on this ‘comedy’ is a sort of irony that the Creator can see but seems lost on us poor wayward mortals.  We typically blame Him/Her for the tragedy of what we mostly do to ourselves and one another.  But, comedy, irony, or whatever we want to call it aside, I doubt that the Creator is laughing.

I suspect that we will only be able to see the ‘joke’ quite a bit farther down the road.  I am reminded of the catastrophic predictions of the famous “Club of Rome” in the early 1970s.  Mass famines and plagues as per Malthus anyone?  Then there was the Far-Right panic about a global Masonic takeover and One-World Government in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.  And then there was the worldwide Y2K apocalypse panic which made billions for techies but was no more than a hyper-inflated burp.  And let us not forget the various 9/11 conspiracies (it wasn’t really Al-Qaeda, eh).  Finally, for Bible-thumpers, there is the perennial “Jesus is returning on Day X at 12 noon” and for Koran thumpers, the Mahdi is about to emerge any day. 

There are quite a few of us who would like to blame the Supreme Tragic-comedy Writer for the whole mess.  But then we would have to accept there is a Creator to blame.  Instead, it is more expedient (and atheistically consistent) to blame, at least in part, the poor, ignorant and benighted souls who still believe there is a Creator.  On the other side of that coin, believers in that mythical being can blame the fools who don’t believe there is a Creator, or the ones who do but believe in Him/Her the wrong way.  Whoever there is to blame, it is their fault because they have stubbornly opposed and resisted, and continue to oppose and resist (circle the correct answer, as per your chosen villain): (a) the kind of progressive measures that would save Planet Earth from the immediately looming climate change apocalypse, (b) acknowledging and submitting their lives to the Creator, or (c) getting themselves lined up with the real truth about the Creator and abandoning their errors.

Admittedly and regrettably, more than a few very conservative religious types, Christian and other, can be identified among the groups that latch most fervently onto the kinds of scenarios mentioned above (Y2K, etc.).  Too often and sadly, those boldly wearing the label “Christian” seem to be over-represented, but they are not the only ones to shouting, “The Barbarians are at the gates!”

Our latest doomsday prophecy is the Climate Apocalypse, impressively supported by the now official ideology of “climate change science”.  We have just been told that the world has twelve to fifteen years at most to turn things around and that in many respects we have already passed “the point of no return.”  We can all plead guilty to pillaging the planet’s hydrocarbon and forestry resources at a rate that cannot be sustained.  We are told that it is indubitably human action that is irreversibly desertizing enormous swaths of once-fertile land as we burn up the stored energy of the sun and emit enormous clouds of Green-House Gases which the earth’s forests, atmosphere, and oceans cannot cleanse fast enough.  We have been doing this recklessly and without forethought for the last 200 years, at least in that ‘land of the usual suspects,’ the West.

The ultra-alarmists on this one are not, this time, the neo-Fascist Neanderthals on the Far Right.  (Incidentally, we should stop slandering the poor Neanderthals, who, anthropologists now tell us, had larger brains than we do and were just as intelligent, did not drag their knuckles, and did not talk in inarticulate grunts, having fully evolved vocal capacity.)    To undo our Neanderthal slander, we should have our Parliaments and Congresses, and perhaps the UN, move official apologies to them and all their descendants, along with legislation for appropriate compensation.

The UN’s science directorate and various other official and semi-official organisms (a long list that continues to proliferate and clamor for funding) have reached the conclusion that whole small nations, and coastal regions of larger ones, are about to be flooded by torrents of glacier-melt-water causing rising sea-levels, while in the interior of the continents, heat-waves will wither and kill the vegetation, or burn it all because of uncontrollable wildfires.  Lakes and rivers will dry up by the thousands as ground water sinks in depth and quality.  Meanwhile, buried nuclear waste is a ticking time-bomb poisoning the substrata so that monstrous mutations will someday emerge and destroy whatever remains of ‘normal’ life.

Is there any way to gain a bit more objective perspective in the midst of this near-hysteria?  Between 1934 and ‘61, the brilliant British meta-historian Arnold Toynbee wrote A Study of History,an immense analysis of the patterns of history.  As a minor historian of sorts, I found and still find Toynbee’s attempt to synthesize and make sense of the whole human saga fascinating.  Toynbee exhaustively recounts the rise and fall of all the major civilizations throughout recorded history, beginning with the first empires of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and India, down to the modern day.  As he was completing his massive survey and synthesis, he was witnessing firsthand the final collapse of the European colonial empires, uncannily conforming to his observed pattern.

Toynbee proposes that one can only really get a grip on what is occurring in one’s own time, society, and culture by having a deep understanding of the repeated cycles of the rise and fall of kingdoms, empires, and civilizations through centuries and millennia.  Unfortunately in the 21st Century West, we have become blind and deaf to, and abysmally ignorant of, who and what we are and where we have come from.  Long-sighted historians have often said that the key to understanding the present is knowing the past.  Likewise, the key to forecasting the future is in knowing what people have typically done in response to similar circumstances in the past.  This procedure works pretty well overall because the constants in all such studies are human nature and human behaviour, neither of which have changed in any essential throughout recorded history.

But the West as a society and civilization no longer knows or values its past, let alone appreciates the values and beliefs that used to underpin its life.  Socrates once said that the key to living a good life was to “Know thyself.”  We no longer do and are close to reaching another “point of no return” from the one that our climatic eschatologists tell us we are swiftly approaching. 

This other point of no return is that of the wayward child who has repeatedly refused to come home, choosing to spend all his/her capital on false promises and hopes proffered by countercultural snake-oil salesmen and ideological Newthink, Newspeak, Soma.  It is a familiar story whose archetype can be found in Luke’s Gospel in chapter 15 of the New Testament.  If you have not read it, I encourage you to do so, as it has been called the most effective short story every composed.  It is also a story offering hope when all seems lost.

Meanwhile, at this juncture of human history, we are on the cusp of a true, classic paradox.  The West’s leading ideological elite blame all the old ways and ideals and declare ‘all of THAT’ false and, worse still, the root cause of our ruthless pillaging of the planet.  But the irony is that, in more and more pockets coalescing below the materialist veneer of the dying civilization of the West, spiritual hunger and awareness is bubbling up and resurfacing.  There is a gut-hunger for reconnection with reality beyond the mere “quantum, random order-out-of-chaos somehow but for no reason we can discern” worldview that leaves us desperate to try anything.  A huge irony in it all which borders on comedy is that the West has lost control of reason, its most sacred, valued, and vaunted tool and bequest to the human tribe.

Arnold Toynbee diagnosed precisely where we were going sixty  and even seventy years ago.  There were others too, if any had really been listening—C.S. Lewis and even Winston Churchill among them.  For his part, Toynbee was clearly and accurately defining the stage our civilization and culture had reached—the evening shadows of a lingering empire that still had outward form and clung to the shadow of what it had once been.  But it was tottering on the brink, even then.

Toynbee says that civilizations finally collapse in one of two ways, both involving “barbarians”, “barbarians” being a term he deliberately chose to typify what happens at the end, and the ‘end’ is always humanly enacted.  The ‘end’ may appear to be sudden and swift, but it has almost always been slowly and gradually coming on, with a final kick administered by violent agents.  The barbarians may come from the outside or the inside, but they are barbarians nonetheless even if they are internally generated.  (Think French and Russian Revolutions for internal, and Goths and Huns for external.)

As a final thought today, it has become completely silly to blame God for our sorry pickle.  We virtually booted God out of the house after World War 2, yet we have the nerve to continue to revile Him/Her for what has happened.  Of course, God’s detractors had been reviling the Creator long before that horrific bloodletting.

It really is high time that those who decry where we are and what we have become stop blaming the non-existent and therefore, to their mind, impotent Deity, and also stop blaming those who still insist on remaining attached to the Creator, but who have been relegated to irrelevancy in their economy.  The anti-Creator faction has been in control now for long enough for Truman’s ‘buck’ to sit firmly on their desk.  In reality, no one wins the blame game.  As a Bible passage puts it in old language: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” “Sin”, in New Testament Greek, is a word which means “missing the mark or target; falling short”.

It matters not whether you are a Theist, Desist, Agnostic, Polytheist, Pantheist, or Atheist.  All of us are guilty of “missing it, falling short”.  If we listen to our consciences, they condemn us, every one of us, regardless of our starting presuppositions about the nature of reality.

The complete picture of our apocalypse is not merely about climate change’s “point of no return,” as dire as that may be.  Regardless, Planet Earth will survive humanity’s rape of its hydrocarbon resources.  Over time, it will regenerate if we eliminate ourselves in the ultimate tragicomic dénouement, or if we succeed in stopping our environmental barbarism.  But we need to read the real road-signs as we approach an even more critical junction.  To rightly read our trajectory into the future, we have to go much deeper into the heart and soul of the matter.  Which is where old-style sages like Socrates, Jesus, Buddha, C.S. Lewis, and Arnold Toynbee can still help us.

The Third Way, 11: Imagine

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“Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace

You may say that I’m a dreamer

And I’m not the only one

I hope someday you will join us

And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions

I wonder if you can

No need for greed or hunger

A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world

You may say that I’m a dreamer

And I’m not the only one

I hope someday you will join us

And the world will live as one

John Lennon, Imagine, 1971

John Lennon’s most famous song is an anthem, almost a lament, for the fading dream of the Sixties Counterculture.

John Lennon and The Beatles remain iconic almost fifty years after their break-up.  Sir Paul McCartney remains a superstar in his own right, the only one of the “Fab Four” to have aged gracefully and remained a credible voice in the culture.  The cultural legacy of this legendary band is probably impossible to compute.  Their creative genius inspired many in everything from hair styles, clothing, musical innovation, to aspirations to make the world a better place.  At times, they provoked great controversy.  Many tales were spun of their supposed nefarious schemes to drag youth into drugs and eastern religion and promiscuity.  None of these ravings proved real.

For many “back in the day,” John Lennon was the real group rebel, the ‘bad boy.’  After all, was it not Lennon who brought about the end of what many have considered the greatest popular music combo of all time?  Didn’t he forsake his first wife and childhood sweetheart and take up with Yoko Ono, a wailing Oriental anarchist-poet, thus sowing bad feelings among his fellow Beatles, who much disliked Ms. Ono and sympathized with his abandoned first love?  Didn’t he want to take the group down a road of ‘countercultural radicalism’ and activism, which he modelled by his peripatetic “naked bed-in for peace” crusade?

The Beatles were the most salient symbol of the flux and turmoil of the Boomer Generation.  They were the master minstrels of the age.  Their early idealism and optimism was followed by a search for deeper meaning.  They playfully explored alternatives to the Establishment formula of ‘good job/career/get married and have a nice life, and do religion in the traditional way.’  It was a time to question, to challenge norms, to seek greater meaning and make love and peace.  The old ways had produced two world wars and brought no peace.  They had generated crass materialism as an answer.  Ironically, the Beatles as icons of challenge and change were multi-millionaires many times over, fêted, celebrated, and knighted, but, somehow, they symbolized the search for a new way of ‘being real.’

John decided he would actually take up that challenge and seek the missing deeper meaning.  Yoko was his guide and mentor.  George had found it in Krishna and attached himself to Guru Mahesh Yogi.  In contrast, Paul was no mystic or great idealist.  He was a professional entertainer who saw his mission in offering people relief from their stresses and burdens.  Ringo wanted to find his own way, and not just live in the shadow of John and Paul.  The band broke up like a bitter divorce, citing ‘irreconcilable differences.’

John’s answer was to shuck all mysticism and spiritual ‘mumbo-jumbo.’  Reality is this world as we have it, the only one we can know, and we are destroying it and threatening to kill ourselves with our hatred.  He wanted to be an apostle of peace.  When The Beatles were at the peak of their popularity he had once cheekily said, “We’re more popular than Jesus Christ.” Half-believing his own propaganda, he would travel the world as a living demonstration of the gospel of ‘Make love, not war.’  The anthem was “All You Need Is Love.”  In this, his diagnosis was partially right. 

In seeking the true ‘point of departure’ for finding a better way forward than the dead-ends of moribund Christendom and illusory, evolutionary, materialist Progressivism, love is indeed an essential element.  It is also the oft-professed core of Christianity, which declares that the Creator’s most essential characteristic is ‘love’.  (“God is love.”)

Other religions, theologies, and philosophies speak of love, and even of God’s love.  We cannot here engage in an extensive philosophical, ideological, and theological comparative analysis of all these worldviews.  Neither would it be helpful to resort to a polemical tirade about the superiority of one system over another.  As a writer, and in fairness to the readers of this little effort at dialogue amid the factional shouting of our time, I openly confess my own position as a long-time follower of Jesus.  I am not an especially good disciple of ‘the Master.’  I am simply striving to achieve more clarity about who we are, where we are, why we are in a mess, and what we can do about it.  I invite others to likewise seek clarity.  Maybe then we will have better “eyes to see and ears to hear.”

Back to John Lennon and what he represents as an icon of our age.  We know that ‘Sir John’ was murdered by a deranged man seeking his Andy Warhol moment of notoriety.  He was much lamented and mourned by millions of fans and the cultural glitterati of the sixties and seventies.  His death was also symbolic—the end of a sort of Don Quixote quest to idealistically set the world to rights by symbolic windmill tilting.  Lennon did not, as the poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) put it, “Go gentle into that good night.”[i]

But the world has not changed.  War rolls on; dictatorship, avarice, and leaderly deceit still crush and suborn.  The wealthy manipulate and coerce and control, and revolutionaries find power intoxicating and become oppressors in their turn.  The human heart remains a fickle and slippery thing.  Good impulses are overcome by subtle selfishness masquerading as altruistic motives.  Unless …

A prophet of olden times once said, speaking for the living Creator who named Himself I AM, “In that day I will put a new spirit among you.  I will remove from [your] bodies the hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh … as for those whose hearts go after the heart of their loathsome things and disgusting practices, I will bring the consequences of their ways on their own heads …. make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit …. I take no pleasure in the death of anyone …” (Ezekiel 11:19, 18: 31. 32a, The Complete Jewish Bible )

In every age and nation and among every people group, we have walked for millennia under the mastery of the old ‘heart and spirit of stone.’  The modern and postmodern West’s solution to this is completely illogical, despite its arrogant claim that it is the polar opposite.  The West has taken to denying that the heart and spirit even exist and saying that only stone exists.  We are told that somehow the stone can and will ‘evolve itself’ into a new sort of substance that will overcome the perpetually overpowering urges of the old. 

John Lennon was once the icon of the West’s errant fancy, saying that, somehow, love is the answer and we just need to love, and that we have the power to love this way within ourselves.  The Icon John Lennon, a tragic figure of quasi-martyr status, was succeeded by others, among whom is Stephen Hawking.  Hawking was no sentimental dreamer, but a man absolutely dedicated to the primacy of reason, logic, and the scientific method.

Like everyone else, Hawking found it much more difficult to live by his convictions than to promulgate them.  In the conclusion of A Brief History of Time, Dr.Hawking stated, with extreme reluctance, that the best answer, the simplest answer, the most efficient and logical answer to the evidence of the origin and nature of the cosmos and that very mysterious phenomenon called time, is GOD!  But, unable to digest his own conclusion, he declared that “we no longer have need of that hypothesis.”  He went on to make a very religious creedal statement that he had absolute faith in science that some time, someone would find the missing pieces in the puzzle and the “God-hypothesis” would lapse into its rightful place—a curious relic of an earlier age of credulity.

These examples reconfirm that, as we have seen demonstrated over and over now, the current path of our society is a dead-end.  Neither can we return to the old ‘Christendom’ model which finally expired in the 1960s.  Nor can we reasonably expect that by mere wishful thinking and a more determined effort we can progressively ‘fix this.’  We need a new way to move out of our morass.

We must go (return) to the departure point we have finally begun to glimpse through the fog of malaise and despair.  “Remember your Creator,” as Solomon said.  We must finally turn our faces to the Creator and become humble, admitting we desperately need a new heart and a new spirit, both individually and collectively. 

Our next questions are, “How do we get there, and what do we do when we do?” 

To be continued …


[i]  Dylan Thomas’ famous poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night”:

                First stanza: Do not go gentle into that good night

                                       Old age should burn and rage at close of day

                                       Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The Third Way, 10: Point of Departure

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“I have ruled out … any possibility that the problem of evil can be solved in terms of developmental progress or evolution.  If the world gradually gets better and better until it turns into a utopia—though we should in any case be appropriately cynical about such a possibility—that would still not solve the problem of all the evil that has happened up to that point.”


N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God.  (Intervarsity Press, 2006) pp. 135-6.

“Never, never, never give up!”  Winston Churchill, 1940.

Above are citations from two quite different Englishmen.

Nicholas Thomas “Tom” Wright is a well-known Anglican Bishop and a pre-eminent New Testament scholar and Christian apologist of the Boomer generation.  He has written prolifically at both the popular and highly academic levels, everything from profound investigation into the reliability and validity of the New Testament and the historical context of Jesus to Jesus’ own operative psychology.  His scholarship on the Apostle Paul is enormous.  He has a global reputation and has taught at Oxford, Cambridge, McGill, and St. Andrews Universities.  Only extreme liberals discount his work.  They label him as too traditional, while fundamentalist-style conservatives label him as compromised because he maintains strong dialogue across the perspectival divide on the Bible and does not “toe the line” according to their rigid criteria for Biblical interpretation.

Winston Churchill’s resolution in 1940 is legendary.  In June, France had fallen to the German blitzkrieg in six weeks and Britain stood alone against a triumphant Nazi Germany.  Britain’s only allies were its Dominions, of which Canada was the largest and most important.  With no slight to Canada, this did not generate much hope at the time.  World opinion, including that of the USA and Soviet Union, was in agreement with the defeated French Army Commander, Maréchal Weygand, that Britain would not last three months and would “have her neck wrung like a chicken.” 

Defiantly, Churchill waved off an unofficial German peace feeler via Sweden and declared that Britain would “fight on the beaches … in the fields and on the landing grounds … in the cities and in the hills” and even, “if necessary for years, if necessary alone.  We shall never surrender …” Churchill called forth the deepest well of hope, determination, and courage in an entire people, inspiring other nations in the process, when everything suggested that it was all pretty much over.  Britain and the Commonwealth stood defiant beneath the storm.  Churchill took the long view, waving aside the defeatists even in his own country and government. He later said that he almost never doubted eventual victory, but became absolutely certain of it when the USA finally joined the fight.

A cliché says that the light is never lighter than when the darkness is nearly total, and “the darker it gets, the lighter the light shines.”  The West is in quite a dark place.  Most of us cannot see it, but that is a characteristic of darkness as it sets in.  For a time, our vision begins to adjust to less light.  By straining our eyes and focusing on points that remain more visible, we succeed in convincing ourselves that it is not, after all, so dark as all that.

At this moment, Wright is a point of light in our cultural darkness.  A few generations ago, Churchill was a bright point of light in the darkest hours of modern history.  Across three generations, these two giants join hands in diagnosing the West as having reached a time of crisis and that, at bottom, the crisis is moral and spiritual.  Churchill was no religious zealot, but he identified the world struggle of WW2 as a war “to save Christian civilization” from “a new dark age”.  (These are sentiments he publicly declared in his famous speeches of 1940-41.)

While the Grand Alliance won WW2 and Nazism was destroyed, along with Japanese Military Fascism in Asia, ‘Christian civilization’ (really the remnant of the old Christendom) was only given a reprieve.  It was already quite far gone. 

As Churchill rallied the nation, C.S. Lewis, a much quieter voice of the same era as Churchill (the two died within two years of each other), had been diagnosing the decline and demise of the West with immense perception and insight, even speaking dozens of times on BBC radio in the 1940s and 50s to do so.  Many of his talks were transformed into brilliant and easy-to-read treatises for ordinary people.  Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, The Four Loves, The Screwtape Letters, and The Abolition of Man are a few titles along these lines.  There are many more.  His better known Narnia Chronicles are a series for children using the back door of fantasy to reintroduce the basic Christian message and worldview to many who would avoid church like the plague.  In this, Lewis was a pioneer in a genre few would take seriously back then.

Previously in this series, we noted that in the 10th Century BCE King Solomon diagnosed the essence of the human condition with uncanny accuracy.  His analysis applies to every human society that has ever existed or is likely to exist.  As he says, there are all kinds of ways for us to try to discover meaning for our existence as a species and as individuals.  Solomon tried about all there is to try, clinically describing his results like a sociologist conducting experiments.  His conclusion: “It is all meaningless …” Unless …

He states the “unless” succinctly: “Remember your Creator in the time of your youth.”  His conclusion, born of so much misadventure and waste of energy, time, wealth, and genius, is the only valid point of departure possible in order to make any sense of the cosmos as we find it.  He had tried everything else and ended up back at what he had long since abandoned. 

Gandhi once said about finding the non-violence strategy to convince the British to leave India, “I have travelled such a long way, only to end up back home.”  Now we of the West, or at least enough of us who identify with ‘the West,’ need to “find our way back home,” to the only point of departure that can bring us any true hope.  If the West (not to be understood geographically) can find this road, something may begin to happen among us which may become a point of light for the rest of humanity.

But how can turning back to encounter, or re-encounter, our Creator as a community be a serious proposal in this time and culture?  The West is now post-Christian, in practical terms Godless (except for the supreme god of ‘self’), officially and proudly secular—in effect, an atheistic society and culture, at least at the ‘applied’ level.  How can it be in any way reasonable to propose we turn onto a different road, a Third Way?  How can we find our way back to a point of departure our intellectual, social, economic, and political leaders have abandoned (or at least think they have abandoned) decades, if not centuries, ago?

Remember; we are speaking of the Post-Roman West, the supposedly “Christian” West.  The truth is that this point of departure has never been abandoned because, in reality, it was never found, let alone accepted.  As we said in Part 9, “When we begin a journey, we can never get anywhere if we never even find the departure point….  if we get on the wrong flight and never even realize it we will arrive with brutal surprise at a destination we never wanted to reach.”  That is exactly where we are!

 The First Way of the old “Christendom” was never based on going back to the very first ground of departure.  The simplicity of the original Christian “Good News” was swallowed by the imperial ideology and the face-to-face encounter with the living Creator obscured by new levels of mediation and hierarchization.  Very simply, the AWOL staring point is the recognition that we can build nothing that will answer the real need of humanity unless we begin with an absolutely basic transaction between ourselves and our Creator.

Theology itself became a weapon, blocking the ordinary people  from seeing the Creator with any clarity.  The theological sword (and I use the term quite deliberately), has been stretched, violated, and abused for over 1500 years to justify and excuse enormous departures from what the first messengers of the revolutionary ‘good news’ brought.  Theology is a fallible tool, too often quasi-deified as a substitute for the living Creator.  Therefore, we must divest ourselves of the shackles of predetermined categories and limits and old quarrels and bitter recrimination.  God will not sit quietly inside our favourite boxes.  For too long Theology has arrogated a sort of Gnostic insight unto itself and thus shut out myriads of regular folks who only want to meet and know their Maker.  Theology has too often rendered its adepts, pseudo-adepts, and self-proclaimed adepts at least partially and sometimes totally deaf, dumb, and blind to any voices but their own.  We need theology like we need any other tool, as a help to understand and construct a workable framework within which to “live and move and have our being.”  When we take it beyond that and use it to condemn and judge and exclude, even with hatred and enmity and rage, we have ourselves lost contact with the real Creator-God whose nature we purport to defend.

If we are to gain any traction in our present society and culture, we must start from the position of a suckling child, as individuals and groups, humbly and almost without preconceived conceptions of what this world of marvels is and who we are within it.  We remind ourselves of the old funereal formula, “Naked we are born, and naked we die.  Dust to dust, and ashes to ashes.”  Our theologies traditions and quirky habits will evaporate when we “no longer see through a glass darkly, but see face to face.”  If we are to have any hope of inviting the human and greater cosmos to listen, we must once more learn to listen ourselves, and to see without pre-judging what we are seeing according to those old formulae. 

We say there is a living Creator who has spoken.  But He/She is still speaking, still creating. Our senses tell us this all the time as we watch life flow through its cycle, as we watch our children grow and become.  He made us to both manage this creation and the creative process and co-create with Him, at least here on this tiny cosmic jewel we call Earth.  As Jesus once said, “For those who have eyes to see, let them see; for those who have ears to hear, let them hear!”  But the first to see and hear must be those who claim to know the Creator, or we stand in peril of hearing something else: “Depart from Me, for I never knew you.”

The Third Way, 9: The Aloof God

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“In most premodern cultures, there were two recognized ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge.  The Greeks called them mythos and logos.  Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary…. Logos (reason) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function in the world.  It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality…. it had its limitations: it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggles.  For that people turned to mythos or “myth.”

“Today we live in a society of scientific logos, and myth has fallen into disrepute.  In popular parlance, a “myth” is something that is not true.  But in the past, myth was not self-indulgent fantasy; rather, like logos, it helped people to live effectively in our confusing world, though in a different way…. A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time.”

Karen Armstrong, The Case for God, (Vintage Canada, 2009), p. xi.

           “Anything can happen to anyone; the same thing can happen to the righteous as to the wicked…” Ecclesiastes 9:2a (The Complete Jewish Bible).

Anyone who has lived for a few decades realizes that good and bad stuff seem to occur pretty randomly.  You find yourself in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time and the results can be amazing or devastating.  “Righteous” and evil-doers all die in natural disasters, in terror attacks, in accidents, of cancer and heart failure.  If one of these sudden things doesn’t take you, you will die of old-age or some malady, hopefully more peacefully and ‘expectedly’.

Religious people are prone to attribute nastiness to ‘evildoers’ and, perhaps, ‘Satan’ or ‘the Devil’.  Solomon never does this in Ecclesiastes.  It’s just the way it is, so get used to it.  If God is ordering what happens to us in some way, by Solomon’s reckoning we can rarely see it or discern it.  What we see at our level is “that the same events can occur to anyone.”  Religious people fresh from doing their religious stuff are as readily killed or die as the complete sceptic or atheist.  Or perhaps, as we have seen too often in recent years and months, right in the performance of their religion.  There are frequently totally opposite results from what we would normally expect of a just God:

“There is something frustrating that occurs on earth, namely, that there are righteous people to whom things happen as if they were doing wicked deeds; and, again, there are wicked people to whom things happen as if they were doing righteous deeds. I say that this too is pointless [meaningless, vanity].” (8:14)

This is a constant refrain of the Ecclesiast, who recommends:

“Enjoy life with your wife (spouse) you have loved throughout your meaningless life that He has given you under the sun, all the days of your futility…. Whatever task comes your way to do, do it with all your strength…” (9:9a, 10a)

Qohelet is not counselling despair.  He is simply acknowledging the reality of life as we see it play out.  Yet we persist in attempting to relate things to whether people have been “good” or “bad”.  Some people say of the victims of tragedy in far-off places we have no vested interest in, “They must have done some really bad stuff to have deserved “that’” – the “that” being some horrendous terror attack or natural calamity or terrible accident. 

If people who believe that God is a perfectly good and benevolent being can be honest with themselves, the disconnect between expectation and reality can be very wrenching and disquieting.  Most Christians and Jews would say that, as Francis Schaeffer puts it, “the God who is there” is just, merciful and, above all, loving.  But we are faced with the cruelty and brutality of nature, the randomness of disaster and the flagrant evil of human behaviour towards their fellow humans and the creation.  All this brings inevitable, disturbing questions: “Why does a loving, merciful, just God permit this to go on and on?  Why did He/She allow it to corrupt the creation in the first place?  Why doesn’t He/She intervene to put an end to it, or at least to punish the perpetrators?”

The Preacher does not answer these questions; he doesn’t even try.  He has no nice, pat answer.  He is like us, despite the tradition that he was the wisest man of his day and one of the wisest who has ever lived.  His summation of the mess is very modern and current.  Honestly folks, human nature has not really evolved in the last three thousand years.  We have only improved our superficial understanding of how things work and how to create more powerful and efficient ways to create stuff to do either good or evil.  For the rest, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

What can we take away from Solomon’s extended commentary on the human condition?  We can begin by looking at what this ancient sage took away from it himself.  He had seen everything there was to see—the best and the worst of what humans can do, right inside himself as well as all around him.  He had seen ( and perpetrated quite a bit of it himself) profligate and super-extravagant excess of every kind, the administration of justice and the malfeasance of it, the exploitation of the poor by the rich for their own benefit (his own ‘kingly prerogative’ putting him right at the top of the heap of that category of sinner), and great piety right beside complete disregard for any claim of God or recognition that there is any deity to whom we will give an account. (Again, we see him meeting God face to face in the dedication of the Temple and allowing all kinds of pagan shrines to be built in Jerusalem cheek by jowel with Yahweh’s temple to please his foreign wives.) His critique is a devastating indictment—of himself and his regime and of the way humans treat one another and have always treated one another.

Where does he end up? In his conclusion (chapter 12) he says,

“Remember your Creator while you are young, before the evil days come…. fear God and keep his [covenant] commandments; this is what being human is all about.  For God will bring to judgment everything we do, including every secret, whether good or bad.” (12:1a, 13)

As I write this, we are in the season of Lent with spring coming slowly to Canada after an especially harsh winter (climate change notwithstanding).  Lent is a good time to reflect.  It is one reason that the early Christians adopted it as a ‘sacred season.’  Too many of us take little and even no time to reflect on why they even have a life to live, let alone on what it actually means.  Just as Solomon chose to run all over seeking wisdom without finding it, the frenetic kind of life we moderns now live is, to more of a degree than we are willing to admit, a choice, a choice which Solomon would label ‘meaningless’ / ‘vain’ and foolish, like all the other kinds of things we can choose to pursue which he analyses in his brilliant treatise.  

Everyone can identify themselves at some point on the journey that Solomon has described: rich or poor, or in between; young and vigorous and seeking new adventures, or old and accepting that those days are done; free and full of potential, or bound in a prison of circumstances by oppression and suppression; powerful or powerless, or, for most of us, somewhere in between; religious or irreligious; spiritually inclined or atheist or agnostic.

When we are young we see the day when “God brings to judgment everything,” even the secrets we (think we) succeed in burying, as very far off.  Distance from a destination often renders it almost invisible. A long road can mean we even sometimes forget where we are going.  But Solomon reminds us that, some day sooner or later, most likely when we don’t expect it and quite abruptly, we will arrive.  If you believe that just means oblivion, then obviously you will not care about the idea that “God will bring everything to judgment.”

However, when we arrive it will not matter whether you believe there is a Creator or no such entity; you will face Him/Her and be called to give an account. God exists whether I or anyone chooses to believe in Him or not.  My belief or disbelief in His reality has no more effect on Him than the ant believing I am here has on my being here.  That is why Qohelet says “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth (KJV Translation).” After all, youth may be the only days you ever have.

In Proverbs/Mishlei, the other part of the Tanakh traditionally attributed to Solomon, he says “The fear of Yahweh [the LORD God who is] is the beginning of wisdom.”  When we set out on a journey, we will wander aimlessly if we never even find the departure point.  We may set out to go somewhere firmly convinced that the route we are taking will take us there, or at least take us to an intersection or transfer point that can take us to the destination.  But if we get on the wrong flight and never even realize it, we will be brutally surprised when we arrive at a destination we never wanted to reach. 

The journey of life has an intended destination, and it is not just the grave for my body.  Of course, the Great Debate is what the destination is supposed to be, or even if there is any destination apart from the Reverse Big Bang in about 50 billion years or so.  There are a few clues out there, but we Westerners and post-moderns can’t even agree on the basics of why we even have a chance to make the journey. 

In 539 BCE, a mysterious hand wrote on the Babylonian King’s palace wall, “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin” – “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.”  The ‘First Way’ we of the post-Roman West took was the old marriage of Christianity with imperial aspirations and temporal power—‘Christendom’.  It was (and is) a dead-end, and the calls of some to seek some form of return to it are, as Solomon would put it, “meaningless vanity.”  

Scientific, atheistic, materialist Progressivism was ‘the Second Way’- a ‘de-Godded’ distortion of the First Way, clinging to the utopian paradigm (the New Earth, minus the “New Heavens”) but declaring humans don’t need God to get there.  It too is a dead-end road.  (I include the extreme deviants of this ideology, Communism and Fascism, in this ‘Second Way’.)

For all its stark prognosis, Solomon’s sober reflection on our common human plight in Ecclesiastes/Qohelet is a sign-post pointing to the starting point of the ‘Third Way.’  We will begin there next.

The Third Way, 8: Escape from Vanity

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“… we need … to imagine a world without evil and then to think through the steps by which we might approach that goal, recognizing that we shall never attain it fully during the present age but we must not, for that reason, acquiesce meekly in the present state of the present world.”


N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, (IVP Books, 2006), pp. 125-6

“Vanity of vanities!  Everything is vanity!”


Ecclesiastes 1:2

(Unless otherwise specified, Bible citations are from the New American Standard translation.)

The Hebrew word often translated as “vanity” also means “meaningless.”  Star Trek, Stargate, and Star Wars notwithstanding, as far as we know or are likely to know any time soon, humans are the only beings who ascribe meaning to existence.  History, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and psychology  indicate that humans have sought meaning in life since they appeared on Planet Earth.  Humans are hard-wired to seek meaning in life, both in general and for themselves as individuals.  Even some genetic research points to this.

Saying that this ‘meaning-seeking’ is a mere residual effect of evolution just won’t cut it.  The instinct to survive is the strongest of all, we are told.  Other species have survived by developing (or being endowed by God with) superior strength and speed, special cunning, or unusual adaptations.  But none of them have ever sought to understand “WHY?”  It is probable that no other species (at least on earth) is cerebrally equipped to undertake such a quest.  That in itself raises the question why humanity is so uniquely endowed. 

Evolutionally, wasting time and energy on seeking meaning may be seen as an actual impediment in seeking maximum security.  We could escape this dilemma by the circular reasoning of saying that survival and preservation of existence is all the meaning required.  Soit—for every species but homo sapiens.  But we all know that circular reasoning is invalid.  It is akin to saying, “That’s just the way it is.”

But humans have this insatiable innate curiosity to know why, what, how, where, when, who.  On top of the general drive to know and be known, each member of the species has an inescapable sense of individuality.  Each of us will seek our own way of understanding the answers to these questions.  Even if it is just by accepting the community story, we are bound to search for our own place in it and the meaning we can find in that.  This universal human drive and need to know and understand, so little relevant to mere survival, has given us religion, philosophy, culture, and science, and no reasonable human being would suggest we would really be human without these aspirations.

In ancient Israel, King Solomon (or Qohelet as the writer of Ecclesiastes calls himself) traced his search for meaning through all the typical roads people of means take, regardless of the century and culture they live in.  Having the means and leisure to explore as he desired, he went deep into each of these typical paths.  He was very modern and postmodern in his approach—anything and everything was grist for his mill.  The difference between the rich and poor in seeking meaning as Solomon did is largely a matter of opportunity, after all.

First, “I set my mind to know wisdom and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind.”  The reputed wisest man of his age did not consider a debate about God’s existence as relevant.  It was self-evident.  (Modern atheists can say the same thing from the opposite side, of course, but the large majority of humans continue to disagree with them.)  “Solomon” described himself as searching out answers to all manner of mysteries.  According to what we read in Ecclesiastes, he found that “the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.”(12:12) 

Modern scholars and scientists pride themselves in searching tirelessly for understanding of the cosmos in the hope that somewhere within it they will find the answers to the ‘big questions’ (see list above). The more we search the more perplexed we become.  The secret of life eludes us.  The mystery of order in what we perceive is mocked by quantum chaos.  Purely material explanations come up empty.  The cosmos appears like chaos at the most micro level, yet we experience things as awesomely wondrous in an incredible amazing appearance of ultimate order.  It is all so delicately balanced and arranged as to defy the greatest minds of every age. 

Wearied by the endless quest for understanding, Solomon the proto-postmodern turned to pleasure, just like so many of us do. “I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure.  So enjoy yourself.” (2:1) He partied (laughter, gaiety, wine, acting crazy (folly)), he built splendid houses (palaces), he completed great projects, he planted vineyards and parks, he acquired hundreds of servants and enjoyed as much sex as he pleased (which seems to have been a great deal according to the Biblical account of having three hundred wives and seven hundred concubines), he piled up possessions and money to a legendary degree.  What was the point of ‘seeking wisdom’ when he would just die like any other person who doesn’t bother?  And then when you die you just hand all your riches and stuff down to someone who will waste it like a fool.  So this too is “striving after the wind.”

He was the quintessential modern-postmodern example of ‘success.’ Richer than Bill Gates or any other tycoon we could name, and an absolute political ruler to boot. He didn’t need to use the backroom lobbyists to get his way.

Then he comes back to his senses.  God had not asked or directed him to do any of this.  The rich and powerful just end up worrying constantly about all their stuff, all their prestige and position.  “Even at night his mind does not rest.  This too is vanity.”(2:23) Solomon shrugs and concludes, “There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good … from the hand of God [the necessary condition to make it good].  For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?” (2:24)

Rich or poor, the first step towards true wisdom and understanding is the realization that God made us to be in relationship with Him.  Only then do we begin to find enjoyment and peace.  It is not about religion, but about who I was really made to be.  I cannot find peace until I accept that I am no accident cast adrift in a vast and meaningless cosmos.  God made me to have a relationship with Him and I will be accountable to Him. 

Qohelet then tells us:

“He has made everything appropriate in its time.  He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.”(3:11) Another translation renders this: “He has made everything suited to its time; also, he has given human beings an awareness of eternity; but in such a way that they can’t fully comprehend, from the beginning to the end, the things God does.” (Complete Jewish Bible)

But neo-Enlightenment reductionism reduces humanity to a mere carnal machine, an extremely unlikely “accident” vomited into existence by a cosmic explosion of unlimited proportions.  There is no room for eternity in the heart, even though the material cosmos heavily hints at it with its virtual limitlessness.  The human beholding this physical marvel is filled with wonder and a hunger to look into the ultimate.  But we are told repeatedly that we must relegate our awe and wonder to the realm of ‘superstition.’

Yet the Ecclesiast is no super-spiritual dreamer.  He is the ultimate pragmatist, without giving into cynicism.  His musings tell us that to get on in the world we first have to see it for the way it is, not the way we wish it would be or how we imagine we could remake it if we only had the power to make people ‘behave.’  “No!” he says.  There is a time and place for “everything under the sun.”  Sometimes, we just have to accept that “shit happens”.  Things and people will not conform to my will and desires.  And God isn’t going to make them do it the way I would like.  And there is no point in blaming God.  “God is in heaven, so let your words be few.”  He has His ways and reasons, and, by nature, we are not equipped to know or understand His mind.

The way it is: We plant, we harvest, then plants die.  Birth and death have their place and time.  Healing is good in its time, but even killing has a time.  We covet peace, but there will be war.  Sex is good, but there is a right time and place (“embracing and refraining from embracing”).  Everything works like that.  Over it all, God has set an order, but humans are not his puppets and He will not reduce them to that.  We are free to question God’s goodness and purpose.  But we can’t see very much or very far, so who are we to question Him?  Denying He is even there because you decide you don’t like the way his creation or He works will  not solve your problems or make Him go away.  And you won’t help yourself by shaking your fist in His face and ignoring Him.  You will just cut yourself off from any hope of even arguing with Him. (And, as Job shows us, you really are free to argue with God, although you won’t win.)

The Ecclesiast, Qohelet, Solomon, has much more to tell us about the world as we really experience it.  It is full of oppression and sorrow.  We must live in community and we learn how to do that only with struggle and accommodation and mutual respect.  We must learn how to give God His proper place too.  It’s not “all about me!” despite my delusion to the contrary.

Even so, from a normal human perspective, God does seem unjust and callously aloof much of the time.  What the hell do we do with that?

It is all grist for Qohelet’s mill.  But we will have to carry on this conversation with him next time.

The Third Way, 7: The Sins of the Fathers

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The Third Way, 7: The Sins of the Fathers

“I know our civilization is built on bloodshed and robbery, but I also know that every civilization is built on bloodshed and robbery… I reaffirm the value of the West we have known …. Such a movement [as the ultra-right neo-fascism and populism that has grown so quickly in recent years] could never have claimed to represent the West if the other people who seek and transmit the true values of a civilization and are responsible for the renewal of the culture had not too readily scorned and rejected the positive heritage of the western world.  Our intellectuals have sunk into a kind of self-destructive rage and lost the meaning of the great western adventure. ” ….

[the Arab invasion of North Africa (7th century)]: “…what was that but colonialism, and indeed something worse than colonialism? And what of the Turkish invasions that created the Ottoman empire[14th-15th-16th Centuries]?  and the Khmer invasions that created the Khmer empire?… and the terrible conquests of Genghis Khan, which were doubtless the most terrible conquests of all, since Genghis Khan probably slaughtered some sixty million people in the course of his reign, or more than Hitler or even Stalin? and the Bantu invasions that created new invader kingdoms in two-thirds of the black continent?  What of the Chinese invasions of a third of Asia? and the Aztec invasions of their neighbors that led to what we are told was the wonderful Aztec kingdom that the fearsome conquerors [the Spanish Conquistadors] destroyed, but which was itself in fact nothing but a frightful dictatorship exercised over crushed and conquered peoples?  The reason the outside conquest was so easy is that the people under the Aztec heel rebelled against their overlords.”  Jacques Ellul, The Betrayal of the West, 1978 (pp. 9-10)

So far in this series, we have found the utopian promises of post-Christian, atheistic Progressivism to be largely an empty shell.  In a previous series (The Demise of Christendom), we traced the rise, decline, and fall of Christendom and decided it too had failed the test of leading us into a bright future. 

Our culture, and indeed the whole world, has arrived at a place where it seems we need a new synthesis.  There is simply no substitute for a heart rooted in principles and relational commitments founded on real, true values.  As we have noted, the only thing remotely akin to an absolute value coming out of Progressivism is tolerance.  Unfortunately, it too has been voided of content and thus leads nowhere—which is what the Greek word utopia actually means! 

Post-modern tolerance and acceptance of every moral posture and of all forms of transient ‘self-realization’ and ‘self-actualization’ are impotent standards by which to judge the truth and validity of anything.  \They create no necessary distinction among ideas, actions, or persons even when there are some decidedly very nasty ideas and horrible actions being perpetrated by people even of their onw persuasion. People who, in any sane estimation, could only be considered wicked and bent on real evil actually exist.  Unless, of course, we have ruled out the existence of evil itself as a mere convention.

“The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.  That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done …. There is no remembrance of earlier things, and also of the later things which will occur there will be for them no remembrance among those who will come later still.” Ecclesiastes, 1: 8b, 9a, 11 (New American Standard Translation).

The Book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible (Qohelet is the treatise’s Hebrew name), what Christians call the Old Testament (the Tenach for Jews), puts it cogently when it declares that “there is nothing new under the sun.”  Scientifically and technologically we can of course refute this, but that is not the intent of the ancient writer.  The ancient sage was well aware that gadgets and inventions change.  He may have had a few ingenious ideas himself.  What is not new is human nature, which has been and remains the same from generation to generation. 

American philosopher and historian George Santayana famously said, “Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it.”  The flaw in this adage is that even when we don’t exactly ignore it, we repeat it anyway—or deny that it really happened so that we can excuse our desire to repeat it.  (Holocaust denial is a flagrant extant example of this.) Of course, the repetition of history is not in the exact details or context, but in the repetition of the same patterns, mistakes, attitudes, and rationalizations.

The ancient philosopher (traditionally identified as King Solomon) who wrote Ecclesiastes said, “I set my mind to seek and explore wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven.  It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with.  I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after the wind.” (1: 13-14)

Modern and post-modern humans, Christian, post-Christian, atheist or any other persuasion, could do much worse than to spend an hour or so reading this ancient text.  “Solomon” went searching for wisdom, and what he found is simple and profound, straight forward enough for a child to grasp and deep enough for the greatest mind to spend a lifetime cogitating.  It speaks directly to the heart of our own culture and rudderless global society.

Ecclesiastes is constructed around a series of ‘gambits’ the author has tried and explored in depth over the course of his life in a search for truth and wisdom.  As we read the account of his search, he sounds more and more like a post-modern man, like a sort of incarnation of the search many in hte last century have undertaken—the way of pleasure and self-indulgence, the way of wealth, the way of power and prestige, the way of knowledge, the way of religion and piety, the way of respectability and duty.  I will not give the game away by stating his ultimate conclusion at this point.  A little time spent journeying with him can help us come to grips with our own time, culture, society, and individuality.

How can a theological-philosophical treatise that is perhaps three thousand years old provide any insight and guidance to a society such as ours?  “Solomon” can have had no possible insight into the type of complex, global society we encounter, let alone the furious advance of science, technology, and intellectual expertise in so many new domains of which he could have had no conception.  Or couldn’t he, or they, or whoever authored this extraordinary document?

Unless one is of the lunatic fringe which denies that anything Hebrew-Jewish can have any originality or value, there is really no way to deny this brief treatise a place in the all-time great works of literature, as well as one of the greatest works of philosophy, theology, and psychology.  Of course, there are some who discount and demean it because it accepts a priori the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, inscrutable, personal Creator-God.  Let them be the poorer if their self-imposed bias deprives them of taking it seriously.

Like every other writer who contributed to the Bible (of whom it is estimated there were at least forty, and, contrary to the usual sanctimonious denunciations of this amazing book, one or two of whom were possibly and even probably women[i]), Qohelet (it means ‘Preacher’) simply assumes and accepts that there is a God and that people will answer to Him.  There is no debate of the issue—it is, in his view, a self-evident fact.  The world, the cosmos, is there in all its splendor and complexity and wonder and beauty.  Un point, c’est tout!  To debate the point would be folly—arrogant casuistry whose only purpose can be to escape responsibility and accountability. It is an utter waste of time.

Our modern, postmodernWestern intelligentsia is an unparalleled historical phenomenon in its obsession with self-criticism and its renunciation of the foundations which made it.  Despite our self—flagellation over the sins of our Fathers, we cannot escape our past or its legacy.  As Ellul points out in our opening citation, the Western intellectual elite has most effusively beaten itself and our whole culture up with it, just like the Medieval flagellants we so despise.  But our intelligentsia has tried to purge us of blame for the worst of our crimes and misdemeanors by attributing them to those semi-civilized, unenlightened religious zealots, the Christians.  Thus we must now strive with might and main to expunge our Judaeo-Christian identity.  It is that poisonous delusion called Christendom which is really the root of all that the vicious and aggressive West has inflicted on the rest of the world and nature since the end of Rome, or at least since the Crusades.

But it is precisely here that we must part ways with the post-modern, post-Christian delusion of innocence and join King Solomon [sic] in searching out real wisdom and truth—about who and what and where we are, not according to another mythology constructed around the (not-so) new tale of evolution and progression and utopia.  Rather, we need to come to look reality as it is in the face and discover another way forward into meaning.


[i]  For example, the Judge-Seer Deborah in the Old Testament, and Priscilla, who was a well-respected teaching elder in the New Testament.

The Third Way, 6: Path 2—Zealotry

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fanatic – 1. Person filled with excessive and often misguided enthusiasm for something. 2. excessively enthusiastic.  (Derivation – Latin, fanum – temple)

zealot – 1. An uncompromising or extreme partisan; a fanatic.

Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002.

In the post previous to this one, I suggested that the ‘Second Way’ for humanity to go forward is to rediscover zeal and ‘heart’ in contrast to Progressive Materialism’s exclusivist appeal to reason, logic, and science.  I would suggest that the usual negative connotation of the term ‘zeal’ given by the West’s dominant modern, postmodern, post-Christian cultural and social paradigm must be reclaimed.  The denial that ’emotional’ concepts like ‘heart’ and ‘soul’ add nothing to wisdom and knowledge must likewise be rejected.  Emotion in balance with reason is a form of knowledge and a path to wisdom.  The legitimacy of emotional wisdom and knowledge have long been recognized by modern psychology as essential in becoming a healthy whole person.

In Part 5 we noted that nothing of lasting significance has been done in human history without fervent enthusiasm, dedication, and perseverance—characteristics flowing from the heart and will—areas of the self traditionally assigned to ‘the soul.’  Motivation to see something through to the end cannot come from mere reasoning that ‘it’ is a good and right thing to do.  Striving to move above and beyond what is and what may even be thought possible in any domain cannot occur without the qualities of mind and spirit that zeal imbues.  In other words, anyone who wants to excel, to be the best they can be, to give the best they can give, must be a zealot in the best sense.

The bloody and horrific legacy of the recent past has turned zeal into an almost purely negative concept akin to the despised ‘fanaticism’ for many Western ideologues.  It is only fair to note that the worst atrocities of history—the Holocaust and other horrors of WW2, the Communist massacres in the Soviet Union, China, Kampuchea—were not the work of religious zealots, but twisted people inspired by grossly distorted notions and principles coming from the Enlightenment stream.[i]  We can formulate a long list of extremely negative results from fanaticism and misguided zealotry.  The dictionary calls a fanatic someone “filled with excessive and often misguided enthusiasm for something” and a zealot someone who is “an uncompromising or extreme partisan.”

Even definitions found in dictionaries come from an interpretive perspective.  The key words to question in the above definitions are “excessive,” “misguided,” and “extreme.”  These are value words.  Dictionary editors and composers have a set of values they impose on their work, just as much as any scholar or scientist in any serious discipline.  Is there really any way to measure when enthusiasm has become “excessive” or “misguided,” or when zeal has become “extreme?”

The converse implication of these definitions is that there is a degree of acceptable and appropriate, (“guided” as compared to “misguided”) enthusiasm.  Likewise, there is a converse implication that a partisan can be moderate and reasonable (“compromising?”), rather than “extreme.”  A primary implication is that to be uncompromising, extreme and excessive (however that is assessed) is inherently wrong.

Common sense suggests that zealous people cross the line into “fanaticism” when they condone and perhaps even advocate killing, oppression, and suppression of opposition by force and coercion.  Oppression and coercion can take many forms, both direct and subtle, but any method that denies basic human rights and respect would qualify as “misguided,” “excessive,” and “extreme.”  Killing is simply beyond the pale at any time, except perhaps in the case of a ‘just war” or in self-defence or defence of one’s loved ones.

No ideology of any description—religious, political, economic, social—has a monopoly on common sense, pure logical reasoning, or moral consistency.  Neither does any have a monopoly on moderation in and consistent just treatment of its adherents or those who oppose it.  However, it is manifest that some tend to practise better treatment than others in this respect.  To put it ‘progressively,’ they are more tolerant of dissent.  Historically, no ideology, philosophy, or religion can win hearts if its founders and first propagators are not enthusiastic and zealous about what they preach, teach, and model in their lives.  Let us once more recall the work done by the abolitionists.  It is hard to imagine they would have gotten far if they had been only tepid, moderate, compromising, and unpretentious.  Many other examples would demonstrate the same point.

History shows conclusively that we have only imperfect and flawed exemplars to work with.  Any system which we may choose may succeed in offering us a fine theoretical picture—some with better and more consistently thought-out concepts and principles than others.  But, for any that have actually been implemented at least partially, we have another measure—the historical test results.  This, for history, is the only ‘scientific’ method available, the historical equivalent to the experimental testing of the hypothesis.

We can no longer pretend, à la Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Plato, or Aristotle, that we can devise a perfectly objective method of thought and impartial judgement.  Not even our “pure scientists” at their best can pretend to achieve such a condition, not even Mssrs.Dawkins, Hitchens, or Hawking.

We have been focusing on the West and its society, culture, prevailing ethos, and traditions.  But we find ourselves in a world increasingly dominated by the values and ethos of the West, regardless of geography.  The influence of Western thought, science and technology, and values has infiltrated everywhere, from top to bottom, from pop culture to ‘high-brow’ culture, from philosophy to religion.  

One response to the present Western paradigm built on Progressive Materialism is to simply reject it.  But even those who reject it ideologically are unable to escape its tentacles.  Islamists bent on murderous and suicidal terrorism use the West’s technology to network and infiltrate, and to kill, steal, and destroy.  They typically binge on self-indulgent, Western-style hedonism before carrying out attacks, holding that, as martyrs with a free pass to Paradise, their sins will not be counted against them.

Previously adamantly Communist societies like China and Vietnam see the bankruptcy of the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist paradigm and shift to a hybrid of Western style capitalism and big business, mixed with a State-directed and controlled socio-political system.  They maintain the fiction of “Communism” while having shifted to what is really neo-Fascism.  Ironically, Fascism is a uniquely Western ideology which uses select elements of Enlightenment concepts from the social, religious, and scientific revolutions while distorting them to justify its peculiar nationalist and particularist agenda.

In the seventeen centuries since Constantine gave birth to Christendom, so much has been tried, and nothing seems to have really answered the purpose.  Humanity still faces the same issues and dilemmas that emerged millennia ago with the establishment of the first civilized societies: Who are we? Where are we? Why is there so much pain, suffering, death, and disaster? How can we make a better future, a better world? What is death and is there anything beyond or after it?

“Who” speaks to just what humanity is, just what I as an individual am.  The where speaks to what this world is and what the cosmos we find ourselves in is.  The next questions are about why this cosmos seems so bound up with what, to our human understanding, seems to be unnecessary, arbitrary, cruel, feckless afflictions—the worst of which is death, a sort of cruel joke for self-aware creatures like humans, who have such a hunger to live, explore, and appreciate the wonder and beauty of it all.

Every society ever known has struggled with these issues.  Our age is no different.  For the mass of people living from day to day, these questions are not front and center.  But all normally functional humans will face them and struggle with them from time to time.  As our own mortality looms larger, finding some kind of answers assumes greater and greater importance.  Some event some time will crash through our self-absorbed cocoon and jolt us into uncomfortable and perhaps agonizing revelation that we and all we know and care about share this common destiny.  Most of us do not simply shrug complacently in the face of “The Grim Reaper” or “go gently into that good night.”

As we have observed repeatedly in this blog, the West’s assumed posture is that all that exists is a product of time and chance, or perhaps some unknown innate directing quality within matter itself.  (Hmm – this doesn’t sound much like science, more like magical thinking!)  But, for the rest—the pain, suffering, disaster, and death—there is no special meaning behind it; it is just how things are and must be.  Modernist, atheistic materialism says that our predilection for “finding a greater meaning” is a sort of evolutionary relic that continues to deceive us and divert us.  Our real task is to get on with making ourselves as comfortable and ‘successful’ as possible for however long our strangely self-aware species can survive.

Perhaps it is time to move on from this position to search for another. 


1. I am sure that the champions of the Enlightenment and its legacy would take strong exception to this observation.  However, the Communists, Fascists, Japanese militarist Fascists, and Nazis did not derive their ideology and hate-filled search for “utopia” from the tenets of any major religion which has been the usual historical whipping boy of militant atheists and Progressives seeking the ideal religion free society.  It would be a long discussion to trace the roots of these ideologies, but, except by the wildest kind of loose reasoning, they cannot be foisted on any of the three great monotheistic faiths, or Buddhism or Hinduism for that matter.  They were militantly atheistic (except the Japanese variety with its veneration of the Emperor, the living descendant of the sun-goddess.)

The Third Way, 5: Fanaticism, the Second Way

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fanatic – 1. Person filled with excessive and often misguided enthusiasm for something. 2. excessively enthusiastic.  (Derivation – Latin, fanum – temple)

zealot – 1. An uncompromising or extreme partisan; a fanatic.Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002.

Humans are “hard-wired” for language and for belief, for faith.  Recent genetic research has strongly suggested these conclusions.  As a parent and grandparent, one has only to observe the marvel of a new child’s development to see the reality.  Fundamentally, we simply cannot live without meaning.  Evolutionist Progressivism tells us there is no inherent meaning but that which we may existentially choose to attribute, but, nevertheless, we must and will still search out meaning of a deeper sort. 

Holocaust and Gulag survivors repeatedly observed that the victims of horror who survived seemed to find some sort of meaning even in the midst of the most terrible circumstances.  This gave them purpose to keep on going and not just revert to the despair of animal savagery.  Ironically, the victims often retained their humanity while the inflictors surrendered theirs.  Even from an evolutionary perspective, humans must find a cause worth living for in order to find the will to survive.  “Progress” simply doesn’t fill the hole in the heart and soul.

“We cannot get to the full solution to the problem of evil by mere progress, as though, provided the final generation was happy, the misery of all the previous generations could be overlooked or even justified …”

N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God. (IVP Books, 2006), p. 96.

At one level, meaning can be found in the care for a loved one, the protection of family, or even in revenge.  But sooner or later, whether this immediate purpose is achieved or fails, caring for another, or revenge, prove hollow in themselves and something more profound and visceral must fill the heart’s hunger.  Perhaps that is why we sometimes witness and hear of “death-bed conversions.”

Some stories of “death-bed conversions” of some of the famous are possibly apocryphal, but they demonstrate a truth (beyond the perhaps wishful thinking of the ‘faithful’).  One of the best known concerns the famous French “father of the Enlightenment” Voltaire (1694-1778).  Voltaire was especially vitriolic in his scorn and hatred of the Church and Christianity for most of his celebrated life.  During his last twenty years he lived in a château hard by the Swiss border so he could escape arrest in France should they come for him.  As a famous author and promoter of Enlightenment values, Voltaire tirelessly advocated freedom of expression and the primacy of reason and science as the beacons for future progress.

During the 1770s, King Louis XV was seeking a more liberal approach to society and the economy and, with greater toleration in the air, Voltaire returned to Paris amid great acclaim in 1778.  The excitement and strain on his 84-year-old constitution proved too much and he collapsed.  He lay for days unspeaking in his bed, dulling his pain with opium.  When it was clear that he was dying, he began to rail in delirium.  He is reputed to have cried out, against all that he had declared so often about God and superstition, “I know there is a God and that I am going to hell.”  When asked if he wanted a priest to give him the last rites, he refused and turned to face the wall, speaking no more. 

There is a similar story about Charles Darwin.  It says that, as he lay dying, he wished he could retract all that he had written.  He agonized about how he would answer to God for all the harm he had done. 

While these are not ‘conversion’ stories, and I am not claiming that they are necessarily historically true in every detail, they illustrate the innermost hunger in the human soul to know who and what we are.  They show that the most reasonable and ‘scientific’ interpretations of reality do no more than superficially plaster the hole in the center of our being – what Blaise Pascal called “the God-shaped vacuum” and Augustine of Hippo called the “hunger of the soul.”

It is not fashionable in our post-modern, post-Christian West to display too much zeal, to be a ‘fanatic.’  Unless of course it is in adulation of a sports star, a rock star, a great entertainer, or one of the reputable causes such as advocacy of action to control Climate Change.  One has only to observe to see that there is no greater fanatic or zealot for a cause than a new convert to it.  Despite our public distaste for too much zeal, only real dedication and zeal will push a person to achieve something extraordinary.  Many of us might say that we wish (however fleetingly) we could ‘be like that.’

Zeal and dedication are a matter of choosing.  Such a choice requires a strong enough motivation, a cause you believe in so strongly that you are willing to become really enthusiastic, committed, dedicated to – perhaps even dedicate your life to.  Worthy goals and a worthy purpose in life must be strong enough to sustain you when persevering gets really tough. This is so even in the best of relationships and in living with real commitment according to what is true and right.

Zealots or fanatics may be motivated by a variety of influences, including hatred, anger, and a desire for vengeance, or perhaps fear.  But the paradox is that these powerful emotions are actually perversions and distortions of love.  The cause of fear is often ignorance, but its cure is often knowledge, and knowledge is an essential step towards love.  We may be infatuated by someone or something we know little about, but we can only really love someone or something once we really begin to ‘know’ the person or ‘it,’ to become intimate with him/her/it. 

And, in our deepest core, we all long to be known in this way, to be loved and to love.  Love is what makes us thrive as babies, and that never changes for the rest of life.  If we know we are loved and that we can love and be accepted in turn, we can endure the most tremendous and terrible things–even death.  As Jesus said, “No one has greater love than to lay down his/her life for a friend/a loved one.”

When it comes to the crunch, love can even overcome the instinct for survival.  You do not need to choose to feel the instinct for survival.  It is like the need for food and water and the desire for sex.  But love is chosen—at least at the level of application.  The choice of love will bring a mother to starve herself in order to give food to her child.  It will inspire someone to plunge into danger to save another even when death may well be the consequence.  It will even allow someone to choose to refrain from the fiery desire for sex out of esteem for the well-being of the other for whom one has the desire.

The Postmodern, Postchristian West has a crippled view of zealotry and fanaticism.  Because of their identification, especially by our controlling social and cultural paradigm of Progressive Elitism, with the scandals and wrongs of religious excess and ‘superstition,’ we do not know how to truly harness the immense power of the innate need for faith.  Therefore we channel it to frivolities like sports teams and performers, heaping recognition and adulation upon them.  These are ‘within the bounds,’ just as the Romans gave the mobs ‘bread and circuses’ to keep them docile.  A few other causes are permissible within the pale: climate change activism, gender equality and choice, for example.  Even certain brands of ‘spirituality’ (but let us not call it ‘religion’!) may qualify.  On the whole, however, Christianity and, at least sometimes, Judaism cannot be tolerated except as ‘private and personal.’

In our next discussion, we will examine The Second Way, the road of zeal and fanaticism, in more depth.

The Third Way, 4: The Heart Vacuum

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“ … our modern relativism begins by asserting that making judgments about how to live is impossible, because there is no real good, and no true virtue (as they too are relative).  Thus relativism’s closest approximation to “virtue” is “tolerance.”  Only tolerance will provide social cohesion between different groups, and save us from harming each other ….

“But it turns out that many people cannot tolerate the vacuum—the chaos—which is inherent in life, but made worse by this moral relativism; they cannot live in a world without a moral compass, without an ideal at which to aim their lives ….”

Dr. Norman Doidge, MD, “Foreword” to Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, an Antidote to Chaos, (Random House Canada, 2018), p. xx.

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”  Blaise Pascal, Pensées.

IN the first three instalments of this series, we have deconstructed the limitations of the Progressive Way forward for humanity, based on classic Enlightenment tenets and values.  We have not denied the enormous achievements of modern science and technology in raising the much of humanity out of the worst afflictions of poverty, ignorance about basic needs in sanitation, hygiene, medical care, a liberalized market economy, and human rights.

However, Enlightenment Progressivism as an ideology has the fatal flaw of badly distorting and misunderstanding human nature by denying a whole side of it which cannot and will not submit to logic, reason, and scientific method.  As long ago as the late 1700s and early 1800s, this flaw was perceived and critiqued by individuals and groups who were later mockingly labelled as the ‘pre-Romantics’ and ‘Romantics’ (as contrasted to the materialist realists).  By the mid-19th Century, Enlightenment liberalism had reached its most perfect philosophical expression with John Stuart Mill (On Liberty).  Its proponents developed the Higher Critical approach to systematically deconstruct virtually every area of traditional learning.  Its primary initial targets were, interestingly and strategically, the Bible and orthodox Christian doctrine and theology.  After all, in the West Christianity has always been the main roadblock to the secular humanist socio-politic0-cultural revolution and the ‘great liberation’ of humankind from the shackles of ‘ignorance and superstition.’

This technique of militant deconstructivism is now almost two centuries old and has resulted in the state of affairs described by Dr. Doidge in this post’s opening quote.  We face a culture and society which has lost its bearings.  It has no moral or spiritual compass except that of relativist ideals which it confuses with virtues (but which are in fact neither ideals nor virtues in any real sense).  As Doidge says, the closest approach to a ‘virtue’ or an absolute value this ideology can reach is ‘tolerance’, but not tolerance in any virtuous sense.  Rather, in practice, it aligns much more closely to ‘indifference’ and the quest for what Francis Schaeffer calls ‘personal peace and affluence.’  In practice this means that the rest of the world can go to hell as long as it leaves me and mine alone to engage in our own version of the pursuit of happiness.

In other words, the Progressivist Emperor and his imperial courtesans cannot see (or face the fact) that they have no clothes on and their bank vault is empty.  It cannot satisfy; it cannot provide materials to build on.  As Jesus once put it, it offers a house built on sand, not on rock, and the winds and rains are coming in.

Before we leave this extended critique of the Progressive Road to begin exploring the potential ‘Second Way’ forward for humanity, I beg the reader’s indulgence if I engage in setting a few historical facts straight about the foundations of the Enlightenment itself and of its most cherished and sacred claims for achievements in such salient areas as the enshrinement of reason, logic, science, health advancements, and human rights.  As these are relatively easily verifiable historical facts, I will not tax the reader’s attention by providing extensive source citations.  I have mentioned similar things in the previous series called The Demise of Christendom (Parts 1-8).

It is time to demythologize the Enlightenment mythology about the state of affairs in the West in the thousand years or so that preceded the self-anointed ‘Enlightenment’ Era.  I repeat that I accept some of the critique made by the ‘stars’ of the late 18th Century salon scene – Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire, D’Alembert, Hobbes, Comte, Gibbon, Lamarck, Lyell, Kelvin, Agassiz, Darwin (not Charles but his grandfather), etc.  The Church had failed in its duty and been the instrument of much suffering, oppression, persecution, and inexcusable slaughter.  It had partly betrayed the trust of the people and the commission of Christ Himself to be the light of the world and the hope and succour of the downtrodden.  In the name of ‘truth’ it had protected, it had sometimes even enforced ignorance and protected villainy.  The (institutional) churches – Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, had much to answer for before God and humanity.

But there is always an ‘other hand.’  On the other hand, because evil was done alongside the good, you cannot just write off the enormous positive, powerful, and irreplaceable work and contributions of centuries of previous scholarship and achievements made by people who held to faith in Christ and firmly said that their faith in God not only inspired them, but gave them the daring and courage to explore the unknown even against much opposition and at great personal cost.  A very long list of examples could be assembled to demonstrate this, but we will have to satisfy ourselves at this point with a very short one: Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, Albertus Magnus, Nicholas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Andres Vesalius, Francis Bacon, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, William Harvey, Blaise Pascal, René Descartes, Isaac Newton, etc., etc.

Francis Schaeffer explains it this way:

“ … not all the scientists [in this list] … were individually consistent Christians.  Many of them were, but they were all living within the thought-forms brought forth by Christianity.  And in this setting man’s creative stirring had a base on which to continue and develop.  To quote Whitehead …, the Christian thought-form of the early scientists gave them “the faith in the possibility of science.”

“Living within the concept that the world was created by a reasonable God, scientists could move with confidence, expecting to be able to find out about the world by observation and experimentation.”

Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? Volume 5, Complete Works. (Crossway Books, 1982), p. 158.

Schaeffer explains that the claim that the Renaissance recovery of the (ancient) Greek tradition “would have been in itself a sufficient stimulus for the Scientific Revolution” does not hold up.  It was “the Christian factor” which drove the Revolution forward.  Otherwise, we must ask why the ancient Greeks themselves did not generate the sustained momentum in scientific and technological advancement we find in Europe?  And why did it not “take off” in Arabia when Islam had its ‘Golden Age’ of learning?  Or in China, where so many ingenious inventions were first conceptualized but afterwards seemed to wither away?  Most of the Royal Society of London’s Charter members in the later 17th Century were “religious men” according to the great British historian of the period, George Trevelyan.

The other areas mentioned above – advancements in health and human rights, for example, could just as readily be shown to have been pioneered, engineered, and driven to conclusion by “religious people.”  Once more, we must restrain ourselves from making this post even longer than it already is.  We could look to who founded all the earliest and now most prestigious universities, who founded the hospitals and first common schools, the orphanages and homes for the destitute.  But I will confine my example to but one illustration – the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the 19th Century. 

Other than vague pronouncements about some of the brutality and inhumanity of slavery and its horrible accompanying trade by a few of the philosophes, we find little by way of Enlightenment contribution.  While it is true that the French Revolutionary Republic abolished slavery in French territory for a short time in the 1790s, it was reimposed later by the Directorate. 

The slave trade resulted in the death of perhaps 2 million Africans over 2½ centuries during Trans-Atlantic transport aboard villainously wretched slave ships, but the Enlightenment ‘stars’ are conspicuously silent and notably AWOL in action, even after the facts began to be really understood and screamed for action.  How did it happen, then? 

It began with a tiny minority in Britain and Pennsylvania – the Quakers.  By themselves they could do little.  But they could and did set an example by freeing their own slaves and refusing to participate in the trade.  They wrote and published about the evils of this business.  At that time, slavery and the slave trade were truly a multinational big business which underwrote a huge percentage of the colonial, commodity, and mercantile economy in the British and other Empires. 

In the late 1780s, a prominent English MP decided to make it his lifework to eradicate the perfidious trade and, eventually, the institution of slavery itself within the British Empire.  His name was William Wilberforce and his motivation was the rock-like conviction that Christ himself had called him to do this.  We will not lengthen the tale.  Wilberforce and the group of MPs who gradually rallied to support his cause eventually changed the mind of the British people and Parliament itself.  Some of Britain’s major Enlightenment liberals actually opposed the cause for a while!  The slave trade was abolished in 1807, and slavery itself in the Empire in 1833 as Wilberforce was on his death bed.

Christianity and the Bible are not opposed to reason and logic.  In the prophet Isaiah, God invites, “Come, let us reason together,” but we are reminded that we do not have the intellectual capacity to outthink God, or to fully understand either what He thinks or how He thinks.  That is because He is God and we are not.  To presume we can understand Him and His works fully, let alone judge what He has created and how and why, is to place ourselves higher than God Himself.

And that, we may say, is the real issue.  The Enlightenment declares the full independence and autonomy of mankind – “we have no [further] need of that hypothesis”, to quote Stephen Hawking once more.  It is the Post-Christian West’s declaration of independence and rebellion, if you like.  We look around and see a Creation full of death, senseless and ceaseless suffering, pain, injustice, and what appears to be uncaused disaster and destruction with terrible effects on innocent living things.  We are told that if God is good and omnipotent, He could and should have made it without such horrors built into it.  If He did not choose to but could have, He cannot truly be good.  If He could not create it any way but as it is, He must not be omnipotent.  If He is not omnipotent, He cannot be God.  If He is not perfectly good, He cannot be God.  We do not see a perfect, totally fair, benign, painless Creation; therefore, God is either not good or not omnipotent.  Either way, the Being we call God must not exist.

On the surface, this appears to be an airtight argument.  A person wanting to posit God must either reply something like: 1. “We cannot judge God or understand Him or His ways, and therefore He does not need to explain Himself to us.  We just have to believe that, in the end, it will be resolved for the best by Him in His own good time.  Then we will fully understand His reasons and purposes.  In the meantime, we must persevere in living as He has said we should, even in the face of all the misery that exists around us and in our own lives.” (Or: ‘Just take it on faith!’)  OR.  2. “We admit that there is terrible evil and suffering in the Cosmos.  But God did not make it to be that way.  As the Creator, He must take responsibility for the way it has turned out.  If He really exists, we should reasonably expect Him to do whatever it takes to set it right, even though, as creatures, we cannot compel Him to do anything or reasonably accuse Him of not doing as we think He should.”  (The reader may have a better formulation of this classic theological and philosophical dilemma.) 

These two formulations will provide the jumping off points for our discussion of the Second and Third Ways of conceiving and approaching humanity’s journey towards a better future.

The Third Way, 3: Humanity’s Search for Meaning

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“…. [since 1950] certain key words have been taken over by the secular humanists and  given connotations twisted to conform to their program of destabilization.  We may cite words such as “freedom,” “rights” and “discrimination.”  These words, and many others, have acquired connotations explicitly adapted to the secularist agenda for decomposing the social and intellectual frameworks on which Christian civilization has been built.” Harry Blamires, The Post-Christian Mind.  (Servant Publications, 1999), p. 18.

If the subtitle of this post sounds familiar, that is because it is.  It is adapted from Dr. Viktor Frankel’s profound book, Man’s Search for Meaning.  Frankel was a Jewish psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor.  Both his character and work were admirable.

Survivors of the Holocaust and similar horrors, like the Soviet Union’s Stalinist Gulag described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (his trilogy The Gulag Archipelago won the Nobel Prize), have much to tell us about both the dark side of human nature, as well as its nobility – sometimes both even glimpsed in the same individual.  Eli Wiesel points this out in his Nobel prize-winning personal account (Night) of living through hell on earth in Auschwitz.  Even a Nazi guard was occasionally capable of some glimmer of compassion and human fellow-feeling.           

As Steven Pinker and other Progressives have amply illustrated with an abundance of metrics on the material advances of the modern age across all nations and civilizations, there is no denying that life for the great mass of humanity has vastly improved since World War 2.  The question is whether this is ushering in a new social, cultural, and material golden age.  Many assumptions must hold true for that to really happen. 

Imagine it is 2119 in the perfect Progressive world.  War as an instrument of policy has been universally banned.  Violent crime is fading.  We have solved the climate change crisis, controlled and balanced the human population at an optimum level, found ecologically and environmentally friendly methods of providing sufficient food and resources for everyone to enjoy material comfort.  We have been able to allow earth’s other, non-human inhabitants to live in peace without further threat of extinction (at least at human hands).  Progressively speaking, the opportunity for happiness and fulfilment should now be universal.  We dispose of the few sub-standard foetuses before they are born.  We engineer our offspring.  We have amazing technology to do all the grunt work.  We are in the Star Trek world! 

The pursuit of happiness is among the most basic societal and individual goals according to Enlightenment thought.  So says one its most iconic products, the American Declaration of Independence.  But: Is all of this material and social success enough to fulfill the human heart, to capture and satisfy the human soul, and to calm the insatiable trouble-making curiosity of the human mind?  At this point, the historian in me begins to raise some warning flags, to whisper (or perhaps bellow) some doubts.

But in this 2119 scenario each human has the choice and time and leisure and resources to explore his/her/er’s/their innermost aspirations and release the ‘true self’.  The era of true “self-actualization” has arrived!  It is merely a choice to stretch out for the stars and discover who one truly is deep down.

As only Shakespeare knew how to phrase it, “Aye, but there’s the rub!”

Doesn’t the same science and enlightened reason that have given us paradise in 2119 also say that as a species and individuals we really are nothing but a freak after all?  My whiff of a life has no more meaning than the existence of the rock or tree or butterfly in the meadow, for we are equally improbable outcomes. 

Yet my restless mind and heart protest at this affront!  If so, then why have I been endowed (Pinker’s term, or should we say cursed?) with this drive to discover a (illusory?) deeper meaning behind it all?  Why can’t I just be satisfied with ‘what is’ and enjoy the esthetic beauty of form, colour, function, and ineffability, rather than persisting in the notion that it really must point to something greater and higher and nobler?  Oh yes!  I forgot!  This drive to find meaning is a survival mechanism which has made homo sapiens the fittest.  What else could it mean?  This circular answer is the snake oil elixir of the evolutionary Big-Bang paradigm.  We don’t get it now, but we will later – but it really only leads back to the same sticking point in an endless regression.

This debate is far older than our modern-post-modern conceit that only the last 200 years count as the road into ‘truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’.  The Romans and Greeks, Confucius and Lao-tse, Buddha and Zoroaster, all knew about this problem.  The general consensus of humanity before our era was that we are more than this material stuff.  The general consensus remains the same.  But the Progressivist response is that such persistent illusions about existence and its meaning are, like the appendix at the end of the intestine, evolutionary residue clinging to our psyche.  Some day we will grow out of it, we’ll be all grown up and truly independent, mature, and free.

It is true that everyone who thinks will, at some point, suspect that it is “all sound and fury signifying nothing”, as Shakespeare once had one of his characters say.  Senseless violence, cruelty, abuse, undeserved suffering and pain, inevitable death – all confront us with THE QUESTION.  Why? Why? WHY?  The modern-post-modern response is “Because!  That’s just how it is.  There is no why.  Just be thankful you live for a time and can enjoy it while you do.”

But scientists and Progressive thinkers cannot seem to live with it themselves – always delving deeper with that insatiable human curiosity seeking the answer to still another why, or how.  “How does it work?  Why does it work that way?” All the while everyone, at least occasionally, stops along the way to admire the incredible complexity and beauty and efficiency of nature, even within the cruelty.  (There we go again, seeking and imputing a reason – the survival of the fittest strategy.)

Fundamentally, within this Great Debate which lies at the very heart of humanity’s search for meaning in existence, there have been and still are only two basic positions available – duly observed that there are many variations on each of them.  1. IT is all just an accident with no independent exterior cause.  2. GOD (whatever that means) did it.  Both of these basic positions must start from the same body of evidence to present their case: there is a universe, and we are part of it.  Speculation aside, for all we know we are the only self-aware, consciously intelligent agents acting within it with some power (however feeble) to manipulate it for our own ends.

To get a grip on this mind-boggling dilemma, we resort to stories to explain who we are, what we are, how things are, and what role we play in it all.  Everyone chooses a set of basic answers to these issues, consciously or not.  Our chosen answers are neither purely reasonable and logical, nor purely emotional and irrational.  We come to our operative life-paradigms via both roads and call it “common sense”.  What have you experienced?  What have you observed?  What have you been told and taught?  What have you felt?

The point is that we cannot come to a really complete and profoundly satisfying position by declaring, on faith, that reason, logic, and science can and will deliver all we need and want to know or can ever know for sure.  There is a whole other side of human nature that remains unaccounted for, no matter how deeply we may succeed in probing into the “mysteries of the universe” via the pure and applied sciences.  Simply telling us that religion and mysticism are residual holdovers from the ‘olden days’ of ‘ignorance and superstition’ and that we should do our best to discard them, or at least minimize their hold on our psyches cannot ‘cut it.’ By this reckoning, some day we will simply evolve beyond the sense of mystique, mystery, awe, and wonder.  When that happens we will have lost our deepest longings to truly know, be known, be loved, be recognized as worthy of love. If that ever were to happen, we would cease to be human. Surely that is not what Progressives wish for!

We will continue this discussion next time.

The Third Way, Part 2: Progressive Redemption, an Analysis

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Progressive Redemption, an Analysis

redeem – 1. buy back; recover by expenditure of effort or by a stipulated payment. 2. make a single payment to discharge (a regular charge or obligation0. 3. convert (tickets, bonds, etc.) into goods or cash. 4. Theol. Deliver from sin and damnation. 5. make up for; be a compensating factor in … 6. (foll, by from) save from (a defect). 7. refl. Compensate for past failings, esp. so as to regain favour. 9. Save a person’s life by ransom. 9. Save or rescue or reclaim. 10. fulfill (a promise).

redemption – 1. The act or an instance of redemption; the process of being redeemed. 2. Christianity – humankind’s deliverance from sin and damnation. 3. a thing that redeems.

Canadian Oxford Compact Dictionary, 2002, p. 859.

            In the first part of this series, we began discussing the Progressive version of humanity’s future.  We cited Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now as a quintessential statement of that vision.  Accordingly, we find that this redemption comes through the human capacity for recursive reason and language allowing us to “deepen our capacity for sympathy-for pity, imagination, compassion, commiseration”. 

                Thence begins a process he describes in this way:

“As the spiral of recursive improvement gathers momentum, we eke out victories against the forces that grind us down, not least the darker parts of our own nature.  We penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos, including life and mind.  We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences.  Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by others.  From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe.”

Humanity finds itself ‘endowed’ and ‘blessed’ with the resources it needs – recursive reason and the capacity for language being the most salient, it would seem.  On the physical side, one might add begin bipedal and so having upper limbs free to develop prehensile fingers and thumbs with which to manipulate, mold, fashion, and create new things born in our recursive reason (imagination).

As we remarked in Part 1, this progressive tale of redemption partakes of a religio-mythical aura and vocabulary.  It develops its own symbology.  It adopts the language of faith, but asks us to leave behind the connotations of ‘primitive superstition’ which only breeds ignorance and bigotry and division.  If human nature is endowed, who, or what, is the endower?  If it is only the blind forces and chances of natural laws and processes, how is this an endowment?  How is it a ‘blessing’ rather than the mere ‘luck of the draw’ directed by ‘natural selection’?  Endowments mean a gifts, which means there is a giver.  Is the endower mere time and chance, accident?  Statistical near-impossibility? 

So much of evolutionary thought and language reverts to quasi-personification, as if there is a real directing force or (unconscious?) mind built into ‘nature’.  The quantum universe paradigm presents a model of random directionlessness and chaos at the sub-atomic level.  But somehow, despite the seeming chaos, it gives birth to stupendous and stupefying evidence of order and purpose – not just on Planet Earth, but everywhere we can perceive.  There is no way to calculate the ‘odds’ against such an outcome.

As many of our top astro-physical theorists and speculators would have it, the Progressive tale posits endless Big Bangs, so given enough Big Bangs, I suppose this universe could happen once.  We just happen to be the lucky ones this time around – sentient beings with all of these incredible endowments who can self-awarely contemplate our own ultimate futility.  So we must consider ourselves blessed by this eternally self-replicating Big-Bang cycle so that we can pleasurably ignore our meaninglessness. (But so many of us don’t enjoy our brief sojourn in consciousness before out atoms scatter into the wasteland of entropy.) 

So what is the ‘heroic’ tale of our ‘redemption’ in our blessed age of Enlightenment when we can finally fathom just what we are? What does our lonely little idiosyncratic terrestrial blip in an quasi-infinite universe amount to?  Are we left with a reprise of ancient Epicurean philosophy (“eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”) softened by John Stewart Mill’s compassionate Utilitarianism?  Epicureans believed it was best to live and act as if there is no afterlife, no God or gods to whom we must give account.  Enjoy life to the maximum without harming others, respecting their right to enjoy life to the max too, as long as they respect yours.  In other words, as we now say, whatever two consenting adults agree they can and want to do with one another in private, within a few limitations like not killing each other or causing each other permanent injury, so be it.  As for the rest, be prudent and enjoy! Mill’s modification comes with the principle of trying to do the greatest good for the greatest number in all things, when such things go beyond our personal and private lives – as in developing a more compassionate society.

When we add in our modern and post-modern scientific and technological prowess, the fruit of our recursive reasoning and linguistic endowments, we find our capacity to explore how these guiding principles can be applied and reshaped exponentially expanded.  So we shall not ‘go gently into that good night’ meekly accepting our eventual extinction at the hands of relentless entropy and the Big-Bang in reverse in fifty billion or so years – or whenever our sun gives up the ghost and goes supernova.  But we may yet recursively reprieve ourselves by solving the mysteries of interstellar travel in the interim, and so find a new haven to prolong our ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ existence, knowing full well that, along with everything else that lives, we will die as a race in some distant tomorrow.

If I have caricatured the Progressive epic in my interpretation, this ‘true Progressive myth’ (Pinker’s term, not mine), I do not think I have been out of step with the spirit of it.  We will ‘eke out’ our redemption, bit by bit, step by step, hopefully finding the right balance not to extinguish ourselves or irretrievably ruin our little jewel of a planetary home. We will all learn how to get along and help one another to be as content as possible.

Having, I hope, given a succinct and just description of this ‘true’ (because founded on science and reason) mythological vision of Progressive Redemption, let us consider it from the religious angle.  The Enlightenment Progressive will here protest, “Objection!  We are not practicing a religion or engaging in superstition and pseudo-scientific quackery!”

Perhaps not, but perhaps so, even if it is not ‘religion’ in a sense you choose to consider religion, as Andrew Sullivan so cogently explains in his article “America’s New Religions” (New York Magazine)cited in a previous post on this blog.  This is not a semantic game of setting up a straw man and tearing it down to make the other point of view appear ridiculous by implication.  Progressivism has taken on many of the trappings of a religion without appealing to a Deity.  That is why Progressives so frequently find themselves attracted to Buddhism, at least the brand of Buddhism which does not deify Siddhartha Gautama.  (Actually, most Buddhists do deify him.)If Christianity would relinquish its claim and attachment to a divine Jesus, no doubt many Progressives would esteem him and his teachings (minus his own inconvenient claims to be God’s Son, which, as N.T. Wright has so forcefully and convincingly demonstrated in his epic work, he really made) in the same manner.

For the Enlightenment ideology, once we get past the earlier philosophes and scientists like Locke, Hume, Descartes, Newton, and Galileo, etc., etc., (even Kant was still a Deist), as Stephen Hawking famously put it in A Brief History of Time, when it comes to the suggestion of God, “we have no further need of that hypothesis.” Interestingly, Hawking’s conclusion flew in the face of his own admission a little earlier in that work that the evidence as it existed seemed to suggest design and a Designer.  However, as a scientist with a commitment to (faith in) scientific reason’s powers, he simply could not bring himself to accept that conclusion.  He invoked his own Deus ex machina.  Somehow, sometime, our reason and logic, our ‘recursive reasoning endowment’, will lead us to the truth and we will find the Holy Grail – ‘the Theory of Everything’ – which will tie up all the loose ends.

Does this sound a little like religious faith?  Hebrews 11:1 in the New Testament defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”.  It is not anti-reason or superstition to believe in something as yet unseen but for which we find convincing substance and evidence –for example, the conviction that my life-partner of 45 years loves me.  I cannot “see” this love except by the evidence of action and experience.  This is not always scientifically demonstrable.  A whole host of non-scientific ‘evidence’ goes into it.  Yet it is quite reasonable for me to believe that it is so. I experience the substance of it every day.

The Enlightenment Progressive has chosen a faith-position, just as much as the Theist.  Defining his premises to exclude other approaches to reason and the same body of evidence a priori does not, as Captain Picard in Star Trek Next Generation puts it, “make it so.”  Defining the universe so that only that which can be ‘reasonably concluded/accepted/posited’ by ‘recursive reasoning’ (please read as Enlightenment Progressivism defines it) does not really define what cannot really be delimited and perceived by human minds.

We can explore chemistry and physics and psychology forever but still not know what life is, what consciousness is, what self-awareness is, what moral intuition is, why we innately experience awe and reverence, or where any of this comes from – and, beyond all that, why it became at all.  To say it is a result of purely cosmic processes and chemico-electrical activity fits the materialistic, ‘reason and science alone’ paradigm for knowing, but denies the experience and intuition of individuals and societies since humanity emerged into the light of day.  Even some animals seem to “get this” at times, apparently stopping to mourn and pine in the presence of death and loss, expressing individuality and personality.

The universe cannot be reduced to a sort of time-chance, dissonant (from the statistically predictable outcomes of the behaviour of the basic energies of whatever is) chemico-physico-atomic-subatomic strange ‘machine’.  The human species cannot be reduced to a sort of accidental conjunction (unless the ‘law of natural selection’ eleminates the chance) of heterogeneous elements that display extremely unusual characteristics because of strange electro-chemical activity in a gelatinous mass of cells located in its uppermost appendage (our heads).

Progressive ‘redemption’ and ‘salvation’ suggests the best possible future as a least-painful, most comfortable, safest possible sort of existence for the greatest possible number, perhaps with a little adventure thrown in from time to time to add a little ‘danger’ and ‘risk’ (which seems to be a necessary stimulus for progress to continue).  The goal seems to be survival for the species for the longest possible time-span.

Is this enough for our species to thrive?  Or is it really a chimera which would, in the long run, stultify and smother who and what we really are?

We will continue to explore this in our next instalment.

The Third Way: Part 1

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The Progressive (Enlightenment) Road

Introduction

This post initiates a new series in this blog.  It will be entitled “The Third Way”.  This series is a sequel to the series of posts under the title “The Demise of Christendom” which extended over eight parts. 

For readers who have not read “The Demise of Christendom”, that series surveyed the journey of Western society and culture over 1700 years, during which the prevailing paradigm of the West’s identity as a society was assumed to be based on the values and story of Christianity.  As we moved through the ‘History of Christendom’, as we may term that long saga, we recall that the model of ‘Christendom’ was flawed from the beginning, having attempted to marry (Roman) imperial, coercive power, as per the typical world order born millennia before during pre-Christian times, with ideals born and derived from the example and teachings of Jesus and his Apostles.  Jesus’ saying that his Kingdom “is not of this present age (way of doing, being, ruling, ordering – the term is kosmos in Greek and is often mistranslated as ‘world’)” was suborned by the temptation that, with the aid and authority of the government holding ‘the power of the sword’, the ‘Kingdom of God’ would be established on earth[i] before Christ’s promised return.

I will not recapitulate the whole story of how that illusion collapsed and finally and only recently has faded to mere phantom memories.  Anyone desiring to learn more of that story is invited to peruse “The Demise of Christendom”.

The Progressivist Road 

I begin this series with an extensive quote from Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.  Pinker is a highly acclaimed Harvard academic of the first rank who enjoys a well-earned, positive international reputation.  As a prominent point-man and proponent for the Enlightenment and its undoubted contributions to the material improvement of humanity, Pinker has produced a sort of ‘manifesto’ for Progressive Ideology.  It is presented as the true faith and only real hope for humanity to avoid self-destruction, or devolution, or even the complete annihilation of life on earth.  Here is how he concludes Enlightenment Now, his magnum opus, his ‘manifesto’:

“ …. human nature has … been blessed with resources that open a space for a kind of redemption.  We are endowed with the power to combine ideas recursively[i], to have thoughts about our thoughts.  We have an instinct for language, allowing us to share the fruits of our experience and ingenuity.  We are deepened with the capacity for sympathy-for pity, imagination, compassion, commiseration.

“These endowments have found ways to magnify their own power.  The scope of language has been augmented by the written, printed, and electronic word.  Our circle of sympathy has been expanded by history, journalism, and the narrative arts.  And our puny rational faculties been expanded by the norms and institutions of reason: intellectual curiosity, open debate, skepticism of authority and dogma, and the burden of proof to verify ideas by confronting them against reality.

“As the spiral of recursive improvement gathers momentum, we eke out victories against the forces that grind us down, not least the darker parts of our own nature.  We penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos, including life and mind.  We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences.  Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by others.  From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe.  Much suffering remains, and tremendous peril.  But ideas on how to reduce them have been voiced, and an infinite number of others have yet to be conceived.

“We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one.  But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.

“This heroic story is not just another myth.  Myths are fictions, but this one is true-true to the best of our knowledge, which is the only truth we can have.  We believe it because we have reasons to believe it …. it requires only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.”

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, (Viking, 2018) pp. 452-3

It is not my desire to dissect Pinker’s projection of humanity’s future in detail here, as tempting as that is.  However, I invite the reader to note a few salient points.  First is Pinker’s use of religious language to speak about the kind of future he hopes for and aspires to for Humanity and Planet Earth.  He says “human nature has been blessed with resources that open space for a kind of redemption. [Emphases are mine.]  He speaks of humanity’s having received ‘endowments’, and anthropomorphizes concepts such as ‘history’ and ‘journalism’, endowing endowment with some sort of autonomous power [which hints at a kind of magical thinking].

Like almost all Enlightenment progressives and their post-modern kin, Pinker does not attribute much, if any, of human progress to the contributions of ‘religion’.  Rather the opposite, if not explicitly, certainly by weighty implication.  He cites a figure of 55 million deaths in wars of religion which the adherents of the major monotheistic religions waged on one another or on pagan miscreants.  In the same quote above, he ends his book [it is the actual last sentence] by saying “knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance”.  I will not dispute his closing statement because I agree with it wholeheartedly, as I in fact do with most of the citation – except to say that it actually requires something more than “only … convictions” which he lists.  Any ‘reasonable’ person would agree with those convictions, including we ‘religious types’ who actually believe we are reasonable – no doubt a largely oxymoronic statement to an Enlightenment Progressive.

Another example of the actually quite religious flavour and fervour of Pinker’s manifesto’s resounding conclusion is his talk of ‘heroic tale’ and ‘myth’.  His use of ‘heroic tale’ is of course borrowed from the (mainly religious) heritage of the West, beginning with the Greeks, whose heroes (such as Achilles, Odysseus, Ajax, Heracles) were all intimately connected to deities (such as Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Hera, Ares, Hephaestus), the Romans, who had their own parallel pantheon guiding and protecting their destiny, and the Vikings. 

A heroic tale is a specific literary genre involving supernatural elements and the conflict of good against evil, light against darkness, justice against injustice.  It is easy to understand why Pinker and Progressives would frame their story in such terms – to inspire!  The saga of ‘heroic reason’ does not sound very inspirational.  Inspiration needs emotion and enthusiasm, belief in a higher cause, and heroic protagonists who actually act heroically.  Such is the forte of ‘religion’, not science, reason, and logic.  (Not to say that there have been and are no heroic philosophers and scientists.  But even there, conspicuous by absence in Pinker’s heroic tale is the amazing fact that a good many of them were Deists, Theists, and, heaven forbid! – even Christians!  Progressive History is largely revisionist history.)

Then there is the wholly egregious negativism towards a category of story Pinker calls myth.  He implicitly divorces ‘myth’ as he has defined it (“fiction”) from truth, because truth is only attained by the application of reason.  This is the supreme tenet of the Enlightenment.  He wants to have his cake and eat it too – elevating the Enlightenment Progressive Story to the status of the one and only ‘true myth’ – an oxymoron by his own definition.  The problem is that, for us to be converted to (or renewed in our faith in) the Enlightenment Now vision and version of “redemption” – his term – he needs the religious symbolism and language.

He sounds much like Auguste Comte in his invention of the Religion of Positivism as a necessary substitute for (then outlawed) Christianity at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th Centuries as the French Revolutionaries, invoking all the most noble principles of the High Enlightenment, devolved into tyranny and mass killing to rival any done by the ‘Christianity’ they so deplored and excoriated.  It seems that appealing to high philosophical principles and the light of Reason and Science alone simply does not inspire much hope or commitment among the ordinary unwashed masses who just don’t know any better.  The ‘truth’ has to be dressed up with religious vocabulary, regardless of the century we find ourselves in.            

In our next instalment, we will discuss the idea of ‘redemption’ à la progressiste


[i]  Unfortunately some die-hards in extremist groups who still identify themselves as ‘Christian’ would still love to take over the government and then use the ‘power of the sword’, as the Apostle Paul called it in the Letter to  of Romans, to create a ‘Christian’ theocracy.  Sorry guys, we’ve been there and done that and moved on.  It was ugly and would be just as ugly second time around.  Look at Iran or Saudi Arabia.

[ii]  “recursive/recursively” – an academic term referring to the faculty of using an ability or skill to improve itself by tweaking it through new uses and situations.  Simply: a fancy way of saying ‘practice makes perfect’ – like a mechanic or musician learns a new, more efficient and elegant way to do old things and then, from that, finds improvements and makes ‘advances’ in their area of expertise.  In this context, we get better at reasoning by reasoning; we get better at communicating by communicating.  We get better at science by applying previous science and trying new stuff with it.  We get better at helping people in real, practical ways by helping them in real practical ways.  All in all, we learn from our mistakes – but there are always new mistakes to learn from.

The Demise of Christendom, 8 (Conclusion)

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 “Seduced by scientism, distracted by materialism, insulated, like no humans before us, from the vicissitudes of sickness and the ubiquity of death, the post-Christian West believes in something we have called progress – a gradual ascent of mankind toward reason, peace, and prosperity – as a substitute in many ways for our previous monotheism.  We have constructed a capitalist system that turns individual selfishness into a collective asset and showers us with earthly goods; we have leveraged science for our own health and comfort.  Our ability to extend this bonanza to more and more people is how we define progress; and progress is what we call meaning.

“But none of this material progress beckons humans to a way of life beyond mere satisfaction of our wants and needs.  And this matters.  We are a meaning-seeking species.

“Our modern world tries extremely hard to protect us from … existential moments [when we really look at death as our own destiny and feel our emptiness]… Netflix, air-conditioning, sex apps, Alexa, kale, Pilates, Spotify, Twitter … they’re all designed to create at world in which we rarely get a second to confront ultimate meaning – until a tragedy occurs, a death happens, or a diagnosis strikes.  Unlike any humans before us, we take those who are much closer to death than we are and sequester them in nursing homes, where they cannot remind us of our own fate in our daily lives.  And if you pressed, say, the liberal elites to explain what they really believe in – and you have to look at what they do most fervently – you discover … – “an orthodoxy – the belief in improvement that is the unthinking faith of people who think they have no religion.

“But the banality of the god of progress … never quite slakes the thirst for something deeper.  Liberalism is a set of procedures with an empty center, not a manifestation of truth, let alone a reconciliation with mortality.”

Andrew Sullivan, “America’s New Religions,” New York  Magazine, December 7, 2018 (nymag.com)

Sullivan’s brilliant article can be found in its entirety in New York Magazine.  I encourage those interested to visit the relevant site (see above). 

Sullivan is not a religious fanatic but an insider among the “liberal elite” he takes to task, exposing the sheer banality and hollowness of what the Enlightenment ‘faith’ has left us in place of the West’s much-neglected Christian roots.  His comments are among the most incisive and perceptive recent deconstructions of and insights into the parlous condition of US society and politics.

As severe as he is with the liberal progressives and their hypocrisy, he is equally devastating and perceptive in dealing with the mortal illness eating away at the “Right” in the US – its tendency to default to superficial religiosity and cultism.  Nevertheless, he has very positive things to say about the influence of true Christian values and contributions to the US  in the past.  He recognizes that there is probably no real replacement for the ‘true spirit’ of the faith of Christianity to be found.

What Sullivan describes about the state of society, culture, and politics in the US is just as true across the rest of the West.  No room for Canadian ‘smugness’ or European superiority here.  As the leading state of the West, the US is the lightning rod which most poignantly illustrates what the West has become without Christ.

The last gasp of  Constantinian-style ‘Christendom’, with all its contorted manifestations over the past 1700 years, was seen during the two World Wars.  In World War 1 both sides (the Allies led by Great Britain, France, and, later, the US) appealed to God.  The Allies looked to maintaining justice, liberty, and equality, invoking God’s endorsement for their crusade to tear down the godless, pagan, ‘Hun’ tyranny that threatened to destroy ‘Christian civilization’.  It was a curious mixture of Christian and Enlightenment values.  The Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Bulgarians, and Turks, the ‘Huns’ in question, invoked God as well.  The mindless slaughter and misery of millions belied the sentiments of all, suggesting that God was not taking sides, and did not take sides in such wars.  Many privately arrived at the conclusion that a God who permitted such senseless evil must not be just or good at all, or simply didn’t exist.

The Post-World-War 1 West slid farther away from any sense of attachment to God or the old Christendom paradigm.  As Communism took hold in Russia and its empire millions more perished in the quest for the new egalitarian utopia.  Western liberal progressives were at first bewitched by the apparent end of privilege and the leveling of classes and opportunities in the Soviet experiment.  It took ten years before the truth began to set in, and even then during the thirties the illusion that Communism could create the society of the future died hard.  One of its first acts had been to wipe the vestiges of Christendom out, but still paradise did not emerge.

The extent of the demise of Christendom was further highlighted by the emergence of Fascism, which replaced Christ and King with the new political-Messiah figure of the ‘Great Dictator’, as Charlie Chaplin aptly satirized it in his great film of that title.  During the 1930s, Fascism adopted all the trappings of a religious cult, substituting the ‘Leader’ (Duce, Fuhrer, Caudillo, Emperor in Japan) as Messiah for Christ and the Nation for the Church.  The Fascists denied the legacies of both Christianity and the Enlightenment and called for the ‘New World Order’, the ‘New Roman Empire’, and the ‘New Order in Asia’ based on the emergence of the Nietzschean Superman and Super Race.

Meanwhile, the democratic nations of the West were breathing the fumes of the old Christendom in order to recover enough courage and moral fibre to finally resist this neo-pagan onslaught.  Their own new cult of maximum material comfort in the here and now along with progressive evolution into a new utopian society had betrayed them as well, their faith deeply shaken by the paroxysm of the Great Depression.

As this epic drama unfolded, the West found two voices to stir its memory and once more tap into the last reserves of Christendom – Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.  Neither of these men were model Christians, but both still adhered to some core Biblical values and foundational concepts of a just society.  Both saw the heritage of Christianity as having a key role to play in establishing ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’.  In 1940, at the height of Britain’s lonely struggle for survival, Churchill openly called the war ‘a struggle to preserve Christian civilization’.  He gave this as one reason Britain and its empire must ‘never surrender’ and carry on to the very end ‘if necessary alone, if necessary for years’.

Like all great people, Roosevelt was flawed, with deep personal secrets (but none as serious as what has come to light about some more recent presidents).  But he had a strong faith in God throughout his life.  In declaring the US’s resolve as it entered the war in December 1941, he appealed, with great and true conviction, that the US and its allies would fight ‘so help me God’ – echoing the Presidential Oath of Office – in ‘righteousness might’ to bring the tyrants crashing down and from the ashes create a better world.

However, since World War 2 it is almost impossible to trace any true operation of the old Christendom in action.  A few remnants may stubbornly persist – as in taking oaths on the Bible ‘so help me God’.  As Sullivan notes in his article, quoted above, the West has turned full-bore to the Progressive Religion.  And, as we are now beginning to witness more and more clearly, it too is being ‘weighed in the balance and found wanting’.

The ‘true believers’ in the Progressive Vision, the ‘Left’, will doubtless continue to believe and push its agenda, just as, on ‘the Right’, the true believers in some sort of neo-Christendom will endorse the writhing severed tentacles of that moldering corpse.

For those of us not enamoured or captured by the Postmodern religious ideologies or the dying husks of the old ones, we are left with the task of finding ‘a Third Way’ to move forward and avoid existential despair.  Perhaps the ‘Third Way’ is already with us, but we must wake up to see it and begin to act on it.

There are many voices ‘out there’ seeking this way.  We may discuss some aspects of this quest in future posts. 

Comments and responses to the ideas presented in this series are welcome.

The Demise of Christendom, 7

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The Demise of Christendom, 7

In our tour of how ‘Christendom’ has lived and died, we have remarked that it was a flawed concept from the beginning.  Lest I be misunderstood, I am not saying that the Kingdom of God coming into this world is a chimera or will never happen.  I am merely saying that the concept that it could be made to happen by having the Church partner with an imperial, absolutist system operating from fundamentally conflicting principles (Caesar is Lord instead of Jesus is Lord) could not bring it into being.  Even Caesar mouthing submission to Jesus but just carrying on business as usual cannot change who Caesar is and how he does business.

The West found its identity as ‘Christendom’ in tatters as the 18th Century drew to its close.  Two political earth-quakes seemed to confirm this – the American (1775-83) and French Revolutions (1789-99).  The two are closely tied, despite taking place on different continents.  The American Republic drew its founding principles from the Enlightenment idea of ‘the social contract’.  But the prevalence of a strongly committed Christian minority among the Founding Fathers tempered  and ever since in American society has tempered the full expression of atheistic Enlightenment progressivism. 

Not so in France, where that Revolution pushed the Church, and any strong Christian voice, right out of any role in the newly emerging Enlightenment Republic.  Within a few years, the ‘Republic of Reason’ became the ‘Republic of Terror’.  Churches and religious houses were closed, sacked, burned, pillaged, clerics persecuted and sometimes killed, nuns raped, and dissidents guillotined or chased into hiding or exile.  Civil war and foreign invasion followed, and only a military Messiah named Napoleon Bonaparte saved the Republic, and then converted it into his personal ‘French Empire’ with himself, Napoleon I, as ‘Emperor of the French’.

Nevertheless, some good things came from the long-drawn-out and tortured journey down the winding track of Christendom.  God has not abandoned the world in frustration, like a long-suffering parent who finally throws up his hands, sighs heavily and says, “I guess they’ll never learn, so I’ll just have to leave them to wallow in their misery.”  The Biblical narrative of the people of Israel with their many failures shows us clearly that that is not his way.  God has not given up on Israel, and neither has he given up on the world, the Church, on Christianity, or on Christians.

All through the 1500 or so years of the ‘Christendom’ saga, God was still present.  He inspired people to do wonderful works of charity and love for the poor, the needy, the afflicted, the oppressed, the broken, and the sick and maimed.  They founded thousands of refuges and homes, hospices, hospitals, schools, universities, communities, and agencies to reach out to the victims of famine, plague, war, and natural calamities, and to train and educate those who otherwise had little hope of a path out of these miseries.  They worked within the flawed structures of Christendom to turn them away from oppression and extortion, even if only partially successful.  They worked to break injustice and inequality and restore dignity and hope.  They were Jesus to those they touched, who were in turn inspired to live out ‘Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.’  The results were at times astounding, overcoming incredible odds and barriers.  And why should this astonish?  God’s way has always been to use ‘that which is nothing’ to humble the powers of ‘this age’.

Enlightenment advocates love to point out the work of the secular humanists in abolishing slavery and fighting poverty and injustice.  When this is true, it is right to praise such work and those who do it.  But is necessary to redress the balance by saying that  it was not the vehement and caustic eloquence of the Voltaires and Jeremy Benthams and John Stuart Mills who ended African slavery, but determined Christian activists like the Quakers and the Anglican Evangelicals like William Wilberforce, and William Lloyd Garrison in the USA, and Afro-Americans such as Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. 

The greatest work in bringing an end to child labour and abominable working conditions in the early Industrial Revolution was done quietly and with the enormously costly perseverance of determined Christian men and women like Lord Shaftesbury, John Owen, Hannah Moore, and William and Catherine Booth, not by the Socialist, Anarchist, and Communist theoretical radicals such as Rousseau, Marx, Engels, and Proudhon, who would rarely dirty their own hands to go alongside the actual workers in their poverty and misery.  In Canada we find a very similar pattern.  All the early feminists, such as Nelly McClung, were convinced Christians.  Egerton Ryerson, a Methodist Minister in Ontario (Upper Canada in those days) set the example in making education available to everyone regardless of creed, socio-economic standing, race, or gender.

When these unsung heroes and heroines laboured in the trenches of social justice, there was still a mainly Christian consensus in Western society, despite all the stridency of its critics who decry Christian atrocities, oppression, and injustice from the sidelines.  We are not excusing such abuses where they have occurred.  Christians are ‘sinners’ like everyone else.  But to suggest that things were better before Christ gave us a new way of living, and would have been better without the Christian leaven in the lump, defies the evidence.  Things were not  better before, and, despite some nice Greek of Confucian philosophies and religious ‘advances’ such as Buddhism, what other hand of mercy was on hand or even on the horizon to actually work from within the general brokenness of ordinary humanity even among its lowest and most downcast to create a more compassionate and merciful society?

The Christian consensus and society that emerged in the West was not because of the power-construct of ‘Christendom’ as handed down from the ancestors but in spite of it.  It was a manifestation in the here and now of the true nature of Christ’s coming Kingdom, over against the machinations of greedy and power-hungry men (and occasional women) masking their sin in claims of ‘Divine Right’ and a mandate to rule handed down by God . 

The pattern remains the same today.  If we really look into who is doing most of the hard, dirty work in social justice and relief of the most terrible afflictions of the 21st Century, whom will we find there doing the bulk of the work – quietly, anonymously, humbly?  (The question is rhetorical, in case you haven’t guessed.)  Once more I say, ‘Why should this astonish us?’

In the early 19th Century, Napoleon strangely attempted to revive a sort of echo of the old Christendom.  He made a Concordat with the Pope to allow Catholicism to return to France and re-establish its official status. He marched across Europe as a sort of self-proclaimed Messiah for the cause of “Liberté, Ēgalité, Fraternité” as if people had never heard of such things before.  The revolutionaries who had overthrown the ‘ancien régime’ had packaged the Church as part of the problem along with the aristocracy and gentry, and inasmuch as it had acted as an agency of the old ‘Christendom’ they were right.  But Jesus had long before said that if people turned to him (not an institution using his name but acting like Caesar) he would set them truly free from their root bondage to sin[i] and fear and death.  He had long before demonstrated that in him and in his Kingdom (as opposed to Christendom) there is ‘neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female’, but all are equally children of God, regardless of race, creed, color, language, age, or gender.  The Gospel covers the whole revolutionary and Enlightenment panoply of ideals and values.

Napoleon discovered that you cannot impose the ideals of freedom, equality, and brotherhood (or sisterhood or whatever other term you prefer) by either law or military and police coercion.  Same old story, new cast. 

A little over a hundred years later, Communism failed even more woefully than the French Emperor to usher in the Golden Age of liberty, equality and fraternity, as demonstrated when the ideals of Marx were imposed on massive populations in eastern Europe and Asia only to butcher all dissidents by the tens of millions.  The excesses of applied secular, ‘de-religioned’ ideology were far beyond any perpetrated by Christendom’ crusaders and inquisitonists.

The basic problem, which the Enlightenment thinkers from Hobbes to Mill, and including modern-day Enlightenment proponents like Dawkins and Pinker, can never seem to grasp is that, in their hostility to Christianity, born of their contempt for Christendom, which they understandably but mistakenly identified as Christianity itself, they idealize human nature and, in doing so, completely misunderstand who and what we are.  When you eliminate a Creator, this misapprehension becomes inevitable.

We will conclude this series of reflections on ‘The Demise of Christendom’ with the final instalment in Part 8.


[i]  “Sin” is a word almost no one accepts anymore, as part of our redefinition of reality.  That little word now carries an enormous connotational baggage of Pharisaical judgment and condemnation.  The New Testament uses the word hamartia,  which really means “falling short, missing the mark.”  This is a far more relatable concept.  All of us know, regardless of our faith perspective, that we “miss the mark” – even if only of our own standards of right and wrong, justice and injustice, equality and equity, or just allowing others the freedom to be themselves (without abusing others), etc.  That is one reason that the Apostle Paul could tell the Romans, with complete ‘justice’, “all have sinned (failed to live up to the mark) and fall short of the glory of God (or of acting like true children of God).”

The Demise of Christendom, 6

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The Demise of Christendom, 6

“The utopian dream of the Enlightenment can be summed up by five words: reason, nature, happiness, progress, and liberty.  It was thoroughly secular in its thinking…. Here was man starting from himself absolutely.  And if the humanistic elements of the Renaissance stand in sharp contrast to the Reformation [which started from the Bible], the Enlightenment was in total antithesis to it.  The two stood for and were based on absolutely different things in an absolute way, and they produced absolutely different results.

“To the Enlightenment thinkers, man and society were perfectible…. If these men had a religion, it was deism.  The deists believed in a God who had created the world but who had no contact with it now, and who had not revealed truth to men.  If there was a God, He was silent.”

Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live, The Complete Works, Volume 5, A Christian View of the West. (Crossway Books, 1982) p. 148.

“What is enlightenment?  In a 1784 essay with that question as its title, Immanuel Kant [one of the pre-eminent German and Enlightenment philosophers] answered that it consists of “humankind’s emergence from its self-incurred immaturity,” its “lazy and cowardly” submission to the “dogmas and formulas” of religious or political authority.  Enlightenment’s motto, he proclaimed, is “Dare to understand!” and its foundational demand is freedom of thought and speech.”

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. (Viking, 2018), p.7.

As we have seen in previous instalments, the old paradigm of ‘Christendom’, a pan-European and, indeed, a united, world-wide society founded on and unified by the teaching of and allegiance to Jesus Christ, had been splintered by the Reformation, then shredded even further by over a hundred years of religious wars and millions of dead among the competing European kingdoms and empires.  With the discoveries of whole new continents, these divisions had been exported to wherever rival colonies had been established, often nominally in the name of Christ “to civilize and Christianize the heathen”.

It was a sorry dénouement to what was once a noble ideal based largely on fulfilling Christ’s ‘Great Commission’.  It might have been, perhaps should have been, foreseen.  Christ’s example and teaching that the power-politics of this world could not bring about the coming of His Kingdom on earth had been rationalized away by the fourth century.  The operative concept of ‘Christendom’ that then took hold had been founded on mixing and taming old-style imperial and temporal power, politics, and ambition with the saving and redeeming work of the Body of Christ on earth, His Church.  Jesus had said to Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world.”  (Kosmos in Greek – this world-order, this age, the age of power and coercion by fear and force as kings and emperors do).  Constantine had been Satan to the Church, tempting the emerging prelates to bow and receive all the kingdoms now as a reward.  Unlike Jesus, her Master, the Church had put the Emperor’s seal-ring on and been bewitched by it ever since.

At its highest echelons, the Church of the Middle Ages had succumbed almost completely to the delusion of using secular and material power and means to assert the Dominion of the King of kings.  Instead of acting like counter-culture yeast working from within to transform society to become Christ-like, Popes, Patriarchs, Cardinals, Abbots, and Bishops had turned to the allure of wielding power and gaining influence in the present age ‘in the name of Christ’. 

Lest we call anathemas down on their heads too quickly, let us remember that power, wealth, position, and prestige are highly addictive and few can give them up willingly, even if ‘serving the Lord’.  This pattern was not broken by the Reformation ‘Masters’ either.  Lutheranism replaced Catholicism in northern and central Germany and Scandinavia.  Reformed Churches replaced the Catholic Church in much of Switzerland and the Netherlands.  The Dominies of these new churches held onto the secular-spiritual stick and carrot methodology of control over their flocks, persecuting the non-conformists (especially the Anabaptists) as hotly as the Roman Curia had done.  Let us remember that our present society is not immune to this pattern either – even those claiming to be ‘the children of the Enlightenment’.

Bitter disillusionment with (Christian) religion (whether Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox) and its abuses of power, including persecution and slaughter in the name of the Prince of Peace and Lord of love since the time of Constantine, had left most of Europe’s educated class with little use for Christianity and its claims by the time the 18th Century rolled around.  It has remained to the present, and this ethos has traveled around the world wherever Europe’s intellectual heritage has taken root.

The newly ‘enlightened’ intellectuals of the 18th and 19th Centuries determined to set themselves and Western society free from the shackles of superstition, dogma, and persecution.  Their tools would be the liberating powers of reason and science that would set aside Christianity, superstition, dogma, and absolutist ideology – as they saw it, all pieces of the same cloth.

The new prophets of science and reason, the Enlightenment philosophes, would show the way forward.  Steven Pinker (an influential and enthusiastic modern advocate for the legacy of the Enlightenment and the continued relevance of its core values) explains the Enlightenment mentality thus.  “If there’s anything the Enlightenment thinkers had in common, it was an insistence that we energetically apply the standard of reason to understanding our world, and not fall back on generations of delusion like faith, dogma, revelation, authority, charisma, mysticism, divination, visions, gut feelings, or the hermeneutic parsing of sacred texts.”  (Pinker, p. 8)

A brief look at three of these new prophets will help us understand the roots of the Enlightenment ethos which dominates the West today.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) studied at Oxford University in the Humanities but became fascinated by science.  He reached the conclusion that only material things exist and that everything can be explained by physical properties, particularly by laws of motion.  He did original work in optics and attempted to synthesize everything into a single system.  In England’s civil strife between the King (Charles 1) and Parliament, he was a Royalist because of his lifelong connection to the Duke of Devonshire (Cavendish) and his family.  Rather than having to take an active part, he fled to France from 1640-1651, by which time England had become a (short-lived) republic under Oliver Cromwell.

Hobbes is most famous for his political treatise, Leviathan.  In this book, he was the first to articulate the principle of the modern liberal doctrine of the ‘social contract’ between a people and a sovereign or a set of rulers.  His ideas were completely secular; religion was a human invention based on ignorance and superstition.  All can be explained by laws of nature that can be discovered, even laws governing human behaviour.  We would now classify this as psychology and sociology, although those terms did not then exist.

David Hume (1711-1776) was also a convinced materialist and sceptic.  His most famous work is An Essay on Human Understanding, which one might call the first modern textbook on psychology, although it was categorized as philosophy.  Hume built on Hobbes’ and Locke’s work, and was close to and probably influenced Adam Smith, the ‘Father of Modern Economics’.  Hume was also an atheist, although he skirted the issue in most of his writings, choosing to imply there is no God rather than say so.  He worked closely with the French encyclopédistes, Diderot and D’Alembert, and knew Voltaire and Rousseau.  He was influential in launching the Enlightenment in France, and his ideas penetrated Germany as well.

John Locke (1632-1704) was the most ‘practical’ and important of the ‘British Trinity’ we are discussing.  Locke knew Hobbes and inspired Hume, but his writings had enormous impact far and wide.  Locke was not an atheist, always considering himself a Christian.  But, in practice, he was a materialist, and is considered the founder of the modern philosophy of ‘Empiricism’. 

Locke wrote voluminously.  His two most important works were An Essay on Human Understanding and Two Treatises on Government.  Both were ‘tours de force’ and are still considered foundational to the modern West.  Locke argued that human nature does not come pre-imprinted with certain ideas about truth and morality, but that experience and abstraction teach us what truth is.  There are no ‘eternal categories’ (such as Plato argued) guiding our perceptions, although there is a Creator who has sent the Messiah to guide us to salvation.  Later Enlightenment thinkers, such as Hume and Voltaire, rejected Locke’s ‘religious perspective’ as a strange anomaly in an otherwise brilliant thinker’s work .  They were happy to endorse and use Locke’s brilliant analysis but dispense with his theology. 

In Part 7 of ‘The Demise of Christendom’, we will examine some of Christendom’s vestiges in the last two centuries.

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Progress

Progress

The Ideology of Progress subsumes all Progressive thinking as we find it in the 21st Century West.  It is a peculiarly Western invention.  It depends on the foundational construct that time is basically linear, having a beginning and an end, however distant in the past and future, and moving ‘forward’.  It also assumes that things generally improve over time.

Evolution depends entirely upon this idea, characterizing the ‘progress’ of life forms from ‘lower’ to ‘higher’ or ‘primitive’ to ‘advanced’ according to a set of criteria set by the ‘experts’ in evolutionary biology.  The experts most probably don’t even think about why they use such classifications but assume they are self-evident.

One might say that simple observational common sense reveals the linearity of time: living things are born, grow, age, and die.  Even non-living things undergo the ravages of time: forming (or being formed by exterior factors), breaking down, eroding, rusting, disintegrating.

And therein lies the rub.  As rational, self-aware creatures we live within and experience this linearity and inevitable entropy, unable to return to the past and undo what has been done, and always living with the consequences of all that has preceded us.  We cannot stop the future from coming either, even though we are quite aware that it will come, come what may.  We can only live and act in the present, not fully comprehending what effect the past is having as we act, and seeing only dimly, if at all, what effects our present actions may be projecting into the future.

The ancients clearly understood and appreciated all these paradoxes.  They formulated different responses to the ‘timeless’ dilemma of what to make of time and its story of devolution and dissolution.  They did not see an inevitable progression from inferior to superior and would have laughed at the idea.  There was no evidence to support it, unless you were a Roman of the Augustan Age (like Virgil) writing revisionist history that all eras and previous events had merely set the stage for their emergence as the final world empire.

Among the ancient Greek greats of thought, Aristotle was probably foremost in trying to find meaning in the nitty-gritty of daily existence.  ‘In the end’, even this giant among theintellectual titans of the ages could find nothing more profound to conclude than thatinscrutable Fate controlled everything, even the gods.  [1]

Around the same time, oriental gurus proposed a cyclical construct of time, an eternal round of birth, death, and rebirth through endless repetitions.  For them, there is really no ‘eternal’ or teleological purpose.  Nirvana gives only temporary (although for a long time) surcease from the round of suffering and travail that relentlessly engulfs the mortal sphere.  One can only hope to achieve nirvana relatively early in a cycle so as to suffer the least possible.  Ultimately it all dissolves and restarts along the same path.

In this context, ‘progress’, as we would understand it, is a meaningless concept, and the motivation to ‘improve oneself and the world’ is also meaningless aside from reducing suffering for oneself in some way.  Even helping others to reduce their suffering is really but a means of accumulating ‘good karma’ to reduce one’s own present and future suffering from past bad karma.

We are thus left with the question of why and how only the West, among all the great civilizations, has hung its hat so stubbornly on the idea of Progress.  Just what does this Western concept entail?  As we have seen, Biological Progress (Evolution) is conceived as moving from primitive, one-celled organisms with no consciousness to the pinnacle of humanity as the most ‘highly evolved’ organism.  Humanity is the apex of ‘biological progress’ because humans are self-aware, consciously able to create, improve, and reach beyond themselves towards an idealized future where ‘all will be well’ and ‘all will be harmonious’.  Ideally, we will live forever, or at least for a very long time, eliminating sickness, aging, and strife, fully reaching our (unlimited, except by the end of time) potential (whatever that is), truly self-actualized and self-realized.

We must repeat that this idea of a definite progression from lesser to greater is an historical oddity and novelty, a completely revolutionary idea.  The sages of China, India, Persia, Mezo-America, Africa, or even ancient Greece and Rome did not and could not conceive it.  Nothing forecast its emergence.  But the seed was already planted in ancient times.  To whom do we owe it?

In The Gifts of the Jews, Volume 2 of his historical tour de force “Hinges of History”, Thomas Cahill cogently argues that, at the most fundamental level, the West owes much of its unique worldview to one of the smallest, most insignificant (politically, economically, socially) peoples of antiquity, the Hebrews or Jews, as they became later.  The Jewish story is of course found in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, as non-Jews call it.  The story has a definite beginning – creation – and moves forward to a definite conclusion – the coming reign of God for eternity.

Christianity tells the same story, derived from Judaism and declaring the fulfilment of the Jewish story.  Christians proclaim that God has already sent His Messiah, His Anointed One, in the person of Jesus, His incarnate Son, to inaugurate the preliminary manifestations of the coming Kingdom of God in the present in order to give people hope as they await the complete fulfillment of the promise.

Therefore, it is the Jews who gave us the original notion of progress through time from a definite beginning to a definite end, not to be repeated, but culminating in something far better and greater than what now is.  Christianity, as Judaism’s offspring, completely agrees with the Jews and has been the principal instrument of disseminating this worldview to the wider world, adding that we can now belong to God’s Kingdom through adoption into His family via our acceptance of His Son as the chosen Redeemer and true Lord.[2]

I am not presenting this summation as a soft-shoe evangelistic plea.  Whether you are a Christian, Jew, atheist, polytheist, or any other ‘-ist’, or a Muslim, Hindu, Taoist, or Buddhist is irrelevant to the historical reality I am presenting.  It simply is what it is.  The liberal, democratic, Progressive West derives its most basic worldview principle from a source that most of its intellectual establishment shuns.

Talk of the supposed horrific historical misdeeds and ‘evils of religion’ is irrelevant to the issue of why ‘Progress’ has been rooted so deeply in our psyche.  It will not do to claim that our basic worldview is virtually entirely and exclusively derived from the great thinkers of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution.[3]  Supposing they really did ‘set us free from all the ignorance, superstition, oppression, and persecution perpetrated by Christianity’.  It is still patently absurd to declare that they retained nothing of import or value from the 1500 years of Christian (and Jewish) heritage before their time.  This is nothing less than historical revisionism à outrance.

Gibbon’s monumental Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire remains the quintessential example of how this view was propagated.  Gibbon wrote so well and convincingly that his portrait struck home and twisted much of our understanding about the realities of our ancient and Medieval past.  Gibbon knew he was deliberately distorting history as he avoided ancient sources which contradicted his point.  Instead he substituted a vitriolic condemnation of Christianity as the reason that Rome fell and the West plunged into a thousand years of ‘Dark Ages’.

As Cahill points out so well, the ‘Dark Ages’ never really happened, and medieval Christian scholars actually did enormous service in preserving so much of the ancient past in the midst of the chaos of pillage and carnage as Rome’s Imperium collapsed and a new order slowly emerged.  The Enlightenment philosophes rejected this well-known story and instead sought to sever the ‘Classics’ from the ‘despised superstition’ whose scholars had actually saved it for them.  Earlier Renaissance humanists such as Rabelais and Montaigne had already set this tone.

Careful historical work over the last century or so has completely discredited Gibbon’s anti-religious and especially anti-Christian manifesto.  (Gibbon was also a vehement anti-Semite.)  Yet the myth he created remains entrenched.  Late Enlightenment thinkers, such as Auguste Comte, even attempted to surgically remove the concept of Progress from its true source in the Judeo-Christian worldview.  Comte’s formulation is actually rather pathetic if viewed objectively.  We unfortunately still suffer from the disease of historical revisionism inspired by the same hostility or plain ignorance passed on by the well-rooted distortion.

All protestation to the contrary cannot change the historical truth.  The historical truth, as Francis Schaeffer put it, is that:

“Our daily habits of action … are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco-Roman antiquity or to the Orient.  It is rooted in, and indefensible apart from, Judeo-Christian teleology.  The fact that Communists [and liberal Progressives, Socialists, and Greens] share it merely helps to show what can be demonstrated on many other grounds: that Marxism, like Islam, is a Judeo-Christian heresy.  We continue today, as we have lived for about 1700 years, very largely in a context of Christian axioms.”  (Pollution and the Death of Man, in “The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, a Christian Worldview. Volume 5: A Christian View of the West, 1985.”) p. 63.  [Square bracketed insertion = my words, not Schaeffer’s.]

If we hope to restore integrity and hope to our fractious, fractured, embittered society in the West, we must first face the challenge of why we are who we are, and that much of the heritage we live in, with, and by is uniquely valuable, even if it arose from sources many now find uncomfortable and unpalatable.

The notion of Progress divorced from real hope simply cannot inspire the kind of charity and tolerance we claim to aspire to.  Evolution as a story is ultimately empty in and of itself.  It starts with nothing and ends with nothing.  However, if we start with God and arrive at eternity with God in the kind of existence we all long for, we might have something really hopeful to work with.  “It beats the hell out of the alternative.”

[1] Aristotle formally accepted the existence of the gods but argued that whatever or whoever they were, they were in fact no better off than mortals in the long run, having no control over the decrees of Destiny and Fate, which were unknowable and whose source could not be known.  He and Plato differed widely on how to interpret the nature of reality, but both posited the idea of some unknowable, inscrutable Supreme Deity which remained hidden from mortal senses and beyond mortal reason’s ability to fathom.

[2] Perhaps Christianity’s essential Jewishness is why Christianity has, along with Judaism, become a favourite whipping boy of the ‘Progressive West’.  The vitriol towards ‘religion’ so frequently expressed by certain ideologues and liberal progressive academics is often but thinly disguised hostility towards Christianity, pointedly omitting any similar criticism of Islam or the Oriental religions.  Similarly, anti-Semitism is not far below the surface of much ‘anti-Zionist’ rhetoric and policy advocacy.

[3] Incidentally, all the scientists who launched the Scientific Revolution were Theists, and most were lifelong practicing Christians, including the hero of all scientific iconoclasts, Galileo, as well as Newton, greatest of them all.