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.