When Evil Comes, 12 – Rebirth, 3

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“If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?

Adonai is in His holy temple.

Adonai, His throne is in heaven.

His eyes see and test humankind.

Adonai tests the righteous…”

Psalms 11:3-5a (The Complete Jewish Bible)

Rebirth from above, the way Yeshua/Jesus defined the way to enter the Kingdom of the Creator, Adonai – is completely contrary to how humankind conceives its salvation and redemption.  It cuts completely against the grain of our gut-sense that we have to do it.  We innately believe that somehow we must find within ourselves the means, the will, the motivation to fight, climb, and work ourselves out of the pit of our weakness and brokenness. 

All across the millennia of recorded history, religions and philosophies, whether Oriental or Western, have taught and inculcated, consciously or by osmosis, as well as by reflexive, unconsidered action, that our personal and collective efforts must appease and win the favor of whatever gods there may be.  Or, if, after all, there are no gods to appease and cajole to be favorable, or perhaps such “gods” as there may be are unworthy of esteem, we must find the right techniques – mental, spiritual, emotional, psychological, ideological, personal and collective – to move ourselves from the pit of misery to the apex of individual and community happiness, peace, and well-being.

Even in the extremely secular modern-post-modern world of today, this quest for salvation and redemption goes on through the application of progressive, ideological, science-based, or science-justified, social engineering.  Religion has been relegated to the fringe for weak people who need a crutch, or repurposed as an individual, private pursuit of “spirituality”. 

Even the vocabulary of rebirth has been repurposed as “revival” and “revivalism”, or renewal and reform.  But in his conversation with Nakdimon (Nicodemus) in Yochanan’s (John’s) account of Yeshua/Jesus, that is the farthest thing from what Yeshua was saying.  We saw in our previous post that this declaration of the necessity of “rebirth from above” was about something called agape, a Greek word we translate in English as love – and in its equivalent in any other western language (e.g. amour, amor, amore, liebe, etc).  But the term “love” is so vague that it cannot grasp what this vastly different sort of “love” meant by agape encompasses.  In English (or French), it means everything from fuzzy sentimentality to sexual passion, or even a special preference for some food or fashion, etc.

Another part of the immense truth of agape is its direct connection to the nature of “Adonai”, the Creator-God.  The Creator is its source, and the power to really agape others, and even oneself, cannot be found within the brokenness of the human heart, soul, mind, and spirit.  For us, love is conditional and dependent and ebbs and flows according to conditions and reciprocity.  From time to time we may find some exceptions in its durability and commitment.  From a Biblical perspective this still flows from our “God-connection” in that humans are made in the Creator’s image and therefore retain a capacity to reflect the Creator’s characteristics, however feebly and partially.

The Kingdom of God is all about agape and entering it can only be by that road.  Otherwise, we are once more trying to prove we can do it ourselves, trying to prove we don’t really need the supernatural power of the Creator to really love the agape way, the way the Creator loves each of us and everyone, and indeed the whole Creation that Adonai made in the beginning.  Even those claiming to be Adonai’s children are not automatically agents of agape.  It still hinges on being born again from above, by the coming of Adonai’s own Spirit into the very soul and spirit of the one calling on Adonai to partake of this rebirth from above. 

Huge numbers of books and treatises have been created and expounded on how this happens and what its effects are when it does.  This writer and blog will certainly not attempt to sum up the past nearly two thousand years of those discussions and debates among Yeshua’s followers and those who have critiqued them, whether sympathetically or with hostility.  In fact, at least to some degree, the whole history of the Christian faith and its component divisions into three major “Branches” (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) and a myriad of subdivisions (denominations and sects), is due to differences in how all of this works in theory and in practice.

I will limit this discussion to saying that the evident fracturing of “the Church” into hundreds and even thousands of subsets was hardly what Yeshua had in mind when he told his first followers “I will build my ekklesia (badly translated as “Church” in English) and the gates of Hades (“hell”) will not prevail against/overcome/ it.”  Whatever infernal powers there might be would gladly lay claim to having overcome Yeshua’s disciples, at least to some extent, by shattering them into many fragments fighting, wrangling with, and even killing, one another.  Such agents are hardly ushering in the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Even the Church needs to be born again from above, just as every individual “naming the name of Yeshua/Jesus as Lord” does.  A rebirth of this sort in agape means death – death of the old way, of the illusion of self-salvation, of self-sufficiency and autonomy.  It does not matter what form of this “realization of true self and potential” the individual is choosing, it is begin from the wrong starting-point, the same old one seen since the first legend, myth, history of humankind began.  It begins the primeval lie that we can be god ourselves, that we are wise enough to discern and really understand for ourselves the “mystery of iniquity” as the Apostle Paul-Saul once phrased it.

Whether there was/is an actual malevolent supernatural being or set of beings that seduced toe first humans into believing they did not need the Creator and could manage their own affairs, as well as those of the planet, without the Creator-Adonai is not finally the question.  If “the satan” was present at the beginning as an actual spiritual entity of malice, it did not compel those first humans to choose themselves and their own “godhood” over against the limitless agape-goodness of Adonai.  Until that point of decision when “Adam and Eve”, the progenitors of humankind, had moved and flowed in union with Adonai in agape.  After, they had lost it and could not, by any power or method at their own disposal, return to it.

Likewise, with Yeshua’s sojourn among humankind, there came the offer and open opportunity to turn back to Adonai and His agape, as to a Father who had come to his lost children to offer full reconciliation.  When the offer is accepted, the gift of agape is extended and poured into the broken wounds and empty heart.  Then there comes a new mind and a new heart, empowered by agape.  From that, everything else flows and becomes possible.  That is rebirth from above and the coming of the Kingdom of God.  Yeshua-Jesus is its embodiment and the Father’s extended hand and actual human presence.

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 11 – Rebirth, 2

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“…evil is not an essential part of creation, but is the result of a distortion within a basically good created order.  As a result of this distortion, humans have lost the glory of the creator, that is, the wise stewardship of the creation…. any attempt to state a monotheistic doctrine of whatever sort carries certain implications about the analysis of evil in the world.”

N.T, Wright, The New Testament and the People of God.  (Fortress Press. Minneapolis: 1992), pp. 258-9.

In the statements above, “Tom” Wright, an Anglican Bishop and eminent scholar of the New Testament, sums up the foundational perspective of both Judaism and Christianity concerning the presence of evil in the creation.  The work in which he wrote these statements is the first volume of his monumental study of the foundations of Christianity, Christian Origins and the Question of God.

Of all the great religious books, the New Testament has provoked more controversy, venom, and sublime exaltation than any other.  Despite the numerous hammer blows it has taken over the last 100 years from its detractors and denigrators, both from within its main historical base in the West, and from its outside opponents, Christianity still remains the largest faith in the world,. 

The major source of its cultural and ideological fall from grace has been its own adherents’ cataclysmic failures and lapses through engaging in actions and proclamations of truth contradictory to their faith’s declared ideals and the character of Yeshua/Jesus, its founder.  Those abysmal events and distortions have given all the ground needed by its enemies to lambaste it and claim its irrelevance as a spent force which should now be relegated to the trash heap of history.  Forgotten in the recriminations are all the positive contributions that the fundamental message of Jesus and his best followers have bestowed on both the ungrateful West and the larger world.

Those immense positive gifts begin with the idea of rebirth, or new birth – being “born again from above” so that a vision of the Kingdom of God takes hold in the heart, soul, mind, and spirit, supplanting the destructive obsession with “me, myself, and I”.  The beginning of understanding the necessity of this new birth from above is monotheism, which makes a declaration that there is a Creator who designed and made the universe from nothing other than His/Her will and “word”.  (“Word” here is not a passive idea, but a personal active power.) The Creator designed and made all that is according to His/Her own nature.  That nature is one of goodness, love, and compassion – along with other attributes such as perfect wisdom, perfect justice, and perfect mercy.  All of these characteristics, or personality traits (attributes in theological and philosophical language), are perfectly balanced.  The Person and Nature of the Creator is far beyond a creature’s ability to understand, and what the Creator makes must of necessity reflect Who the Creator is.  It cannot be other. It is supreme arrogance and hubris of the creature to presume to judge the Creator for not behaving as the creature conceives “godhead” – an arrogance really based on making ourselves god, and therefore God’s judges.

The bedrock of the Western view of humanity for the better part of two millennia was that humans are “made in the image of God” but that, by rejecting the Creator and seeking to replace Him/Her with the god of self we have created – a distorted, contorted, corrupted image of what we ourselves are intended to be.  Out of this broken image flows all the twisted, broken, destructive results one would expect – all the abuses and pain and suffering we humans inflict upon one another.  At this point we no longer know, or even really wish to know, who we are.  Even within the wider “Church”, effective denial of this truth has intruded. 

Instead, we find the general proposition, apparently based on psychological “science”, that there is nothing basically awry in the human heart, soul, or mind.  Evolution’s perspective tells us that we are simply what we have been made to be by ineluctable evolutionary development.  We are called on to “progress” in our individual and collective development, and part of that is to affirm that pretty much anything that makes us feel better about ourselves, even in a delusional sense, is to be encouraged.  We can verbally, and by a sort of Nietzschean decision based on willpower, declare the changes we want to embed – for example changes in the meaning of identity as humans, changes to biological gender realities, changes to morality and ethics that prove personally inconvenient.  We appropriate and promote social constructs of which some are manifestly much more destructive and productive of terror and horror for multitudes than others – all in the name of “progress” towards the “higher good” of the new, utopian society where personal liberty and choice is all, regardless of how it will really play out in our families and communities.  Everything is a heroic struggle because nothing is a duty or the plain old “right thing to do”.

Yeshua speaking to Nakdimon about “spiritual rebirth from above” was talking about true radical change, because more of the same – using the power of the state, of religion, of fear and manipulation and control to compel outer conformity, whether by actual law or social pressure, cannot produce true readiness and willingness, let alone ability, to enter the Kingdom of the Creator.

The New Testament uses a word for the heart of this birth from above, a word which is repeated over and over in the writings of Yochanan and Saul-Paul, in imitation of what Jesus/Yeshua taught and lived out with his disciples.  That word is agape.  It is  translated as “love”, but has a different denotation and connotation from other Greek words also translated as “love”- philia – the love between friends and siblings, for example.  Eros applies to sexual love and passion, and storge applies to parental and protective love.  Some modern psychologists have added two more, but the ancient Greeks distinguished among these four. 

The three besides agape are “normal”, human forms of love that we all know and experience to some degree.  But these three are incomplete in themselves and imply a dimension of personal benefit and good.  In the case of eros the mutuality is quite evident – the reward of sexual fulfillment and intense pleasure and a mutually supportive intimate relationship makes it very desirable.  In the case of philia, the same can be said minus the sexual passion.  In the case of storge, there is perhaps more of an element of self-sacrifice, at least in the short term.  Dependents grow up and, hopefully, can be positive supports and affirmers of their parents, guardians, and mentors as they age.

But agape is used as the “love from above” – a love that is given freely regardless of the merit and reciprocation of its recipient.  It is characteristic of the Creator’s love for His/Her creatures and creation, and most especially of those who bear His/Her image.  It is also the love that His/Her image-bearers were made and called to lavish upon one another and on the creation which they were originally made to steward, to care for, to bring into its best and fullest manifestation of what the Creator intended it to be and become.

But, in our self-directed usurpation and rejection of what the Creator designed and made us and that creation to be, we brought in all the elements of destruction, death, and futility that we find now all around us in ourselves and in the Cosmos.  The Cosmos too knows the futility and expresses it by letting us undergo the aberrations of its brokenness – natural distortions and disorders we call “acts of God” or the terror of nature’s sheer power-out-of-control.

There is no cure or healing possible of any of this without a reordering, a rebirth from above by turning back to the Creator and receiving once again the infilling of His/Her agape so that we may once more know who we are and what we and all that was made truly were made to be and become.  The coming of the Kingdom of the Creator is the return of agape to each of us, individually first, then as a community, and finally in making it real in the human and natural Cosmos within we “live and move and have our being”.

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 7 – The Moral Compass

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The nitty-gritty of our struggle with the evil within is not resolved by abstract reasoning.  It is faced every day in our decisions about how to treat family members, friends and acquaintances, business and work colleagues, schoolmates, strangers, and our planet.  Most of these decisions are made casually, on automatic pilot so to speak.  They are made in accordance with an (however unconsciously) internalized set of principles and criteria we have imbibed from our family of birth, our more extended community as we grow and mature, and the cultural influences we encounter and move in and through along our road to maturity.

Traditionally, religious communities and institutions played a vital, primary role in the moral and ethical development of the members of a family, clan, tribe, and nation.  Here in the West, we have adopted a public posture of “secularism”, or “no-religion”, and we propagate this perspective in our publicly funded education system.  The secular, Enlightenment-based concept of human nature holds that religion is, at best, to be tolerated in the private sphere but not to enter the public realm.  In consequence, morality and the judgment of evil has become largely a private concern, as long as they do not cross legal boundaries which are set according to current socio-ethics.

There are historical justifications for this approach to efface God and religion from the societal framework of right and wrong.  These justifications involve the once deplorable excesses of various brands of Christianity in persecuting and eliminating dissidents and “infidels”, even to the point of mass-killing in persecutions and crusades.  The problem generated by removing religious concepts of good and evil and their origins from our public life is that we must then provide a plausible substitute for holding to any durable, quasi-absolute standards of what is good and what is evil.  As said above, such substitutes have proven rather fluid since they have been increasingly adopted over the last fifty to sixty years.

In the still early years of the 21st Century we have reached a stage when the elimination of God has really begun to matter far more than the Enlightenment philosophes who pushed it so hard could ever have anticipated.  Those earlier generations of Enlightenment thinkers were supremely confident that religion was an almost wholly pernicious force and that reason and science could provide a much “purer” guide to finding a moral compass.  However, the forerunners of modern relativism left their successors with scant intellectual equipment to begin developing any practicable alternative to the Judeo-Christian order of things in the area of morality and issues of good and evil.

However much we might wish to do so, the truth is that here in the West (or anywhere humans live in societies) we simply can’t escape that discussion, no matter how militantly we strive to exclude it from every area of public discussion, whether in politics, economics, social order, education, climatology, personal living, and, yes, even science and technology.  We may wish desperately that it would just go away for “good”, but it just won’t.

“But,” you object, “hasn’t all that been settled once and for all?  Haven’t we declared God dead, except maybe as a nice, comforting personal crutch when we’re desperate?  Haven’t we demonstrated with sufficient proof that bringing the Deity into the public picture only engenders fanaticism and terrible excesses?  Hasn’t recent world history reconfirmed all that outside the West, allowing us to congratulate ourselves and thank our forebears for removing that sort of ugliness from our society?”

If only it were so!  Or, perhaps more appropriately, if only our intelligentsia over the last two hundred and fifty years had not thrown out the baby with the bath water.  There is now a remarkable phenomenon beginning to stir among the neo-philosophe heirs of the Enlightenment.  Where once they asserted as a firm dogma that morality and a sense of strong moral compass do not require God or the Church, there is a growing awareness that without a foundation based on an absolute standard and origin, there is no anchor, no central position or authority from which to make pronouncements that some things are always wrong, always evil, never acceptable or justified.  And without such an anchor, it seems we cannot escape the eventual admission that everything is equally valid in the moral and ethical sphere.  Or it is all just arbitrary according to the current majority view or the officially sanctioned view.

Some of the more astute thinkers among previous generations of Enlightenment-principle proponents saw this clearly and strove mightily to find some new foundation for a firm, immovable set of moral and ethical standards and the judging of questions of good and evil.  A few such figures include Auguste Comte, Immanuel Kant, Georg Friedrich Hegel, and, in his own way, Karl Marx.  And then there is the gigantic, clairvoyant figure of Friedrich Nietzsche, the bravest of them all in his strict adherence to total intellectual honesty.

The others, Comte, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Darwin, and some lesser lights of their ilk danced around the issue.  Nietzsche faced it squarely, honestly, and with brutal frankness.  If we “kill God”, we are only left with ourselves.  We must then choose what we will and find the will to live with it, to make the world we choose come to be.  But only those of superior will to power, the forerunners of the new humanity, can find such a will.  They must transform themselves and bring the rest of humanity with them.

All Kant’s torturous intellectual dancing around “pure reasoning” (a self-contradictory term to begin with) and “critical, practical reasoning” were about finding a way into moral life without the Creator.  Perhaps there was/is a Creator to set up the Universe, but the rest is up to us.  But, in the end, Kant couldn’t find the way into it and left those who tried mightily to follow his convolutions baffled, although quite intrigued.

Hegel read and admired Kant but decided to take a different route, returning to the basically Socratic methodology of the dialectic.  We begin with an assertion of “truth” – a “thesis”.  At some point, the “thesis” is exposed as problematic when evidence seems to contradict it.  This generates a basic question such as, “What if the opposite of this thesis is as true as the thesis?”  The opposite is the “antithesis”.  We then struggle with finding a way to combine the elements of both which seem to be true.  Finally, we find a formula which satisfactorily brings the opposing concepts together, and this becomes our new “thesis”, our new assertion of what is true, right, good, etc.  Until new evidence crops up that we still haven’t arrived at the final truth.  And on the process goes, possibly forever.

Marx loved Hegel’s adoption of the dialectic.  He used it to find the “thesis” he believed the society of the West was operating from in its economic and social dimensions in the 19th Century.  The thesis was Adam Smith’s version of economic development – free-market, laissez-faire liberalism and personal rights.  Marx said it didn’t go far enough.  Only the rich and powerful benefited.  The antithesis was the overthrow of this exploitative system.  That was the next, necessary step in human progress (Auguste Comte’s contribution was the Philosophy of Progress).  This overthrow had to happen and it had to be violent in order to free the oppressed laboring classes and create a socialist society.  The final synthesis would be a sort of purified form of socialism called Communism.  However, this could not happen without the intermediate stage of Socialism.

Darwin added the refinement of not even needing a Creator to explain the natural world.  He also effectively short-circuited all discussion of absolutes in any moral sense.  After all, if the two ruling laws are survival of the fittest and natural selection, what does talk of “good” and “evil” even signify?  The only “good” is survival for its own sake.  The only “evil” is extinction.

How do we find the solution to where evil comes from and how to deal with it from among this cacophony?  Here are some succinct summations of the “answers” which come out of the various approaches cited above. 

For Comte, whatever denies progress based on science and the supremacy of reason must necessarily be evil.  

For Kant, the liberation of the human intellect from dogmatic entrenchment will, over time, enable us to discover what the real absolutes are, based on “pure reason”.  (He never resolved how pure reason could evolve given the subjectivity of human life and experience.)  At that point, we will be able to create a society based on the final, distilled purity of knowing what right and wrong are. 

For Hegel, there is no final version of right and wrong, of total moral certitude.  We can only, hopefully, improve our understanding of such things as we dialectically engage them.  Ideally, as with Comte, humanity will begin to approach a Utopian society based on its ongoing ability to improve itself.

For Marx, there is a shortcut to this hoped-for Utopia: diagnose the present situation, viz., a terribly oppressive, exploitative system benefiting the few and crushing the many for the benefit of the few.  Take affirmative, strong action to overthrow this system.  Create an interim system that will enable the once-oppressed masses to move into the desired totally egalitarian, decentralized Utopia.  Voilà!  No more revolutions or changes necessary!  Earthly paradise!  God is then really dead because the Deity is just a tool of the now-eliminated old Oppressor class to keep the oppressed in line.

Final question for today:  Do any of these lead us to a final answer as to why evil still and always has been so prevalent and persistent?

Short answer: No!  We will discuss why they don’t and can’t next time.

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 6 – The Two “Wisdoms”

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“Behind the technical revolution of the last two hundred years there is a much deeper spiritual process. . . This process begins with the Renaissance, leading on to the Enlightenment, and beyond it to the radically positivist secularised man of today.  Modern technics is the product if the man who wants to redeem himself by rising above nature, who wants to gather life into his hand, who wants to owe his existence to nobody but himself, who wants to create the world after his own image, an artificial world which is entirely his creation.  Behind the terrifying, crazy tempo of technical evolution, there is the insatiability of secularised man who, not believing in God or eternal life, wants to snatch as much of this world within his lifetime as he can. . . . the tempo of its development is the expression of his inward unrest, the disquiet of the man who is destined for God’s eternity, but has himself rejected his destiny. . . the necessary consequence of man’s abandonment to the world of things, which follows his emancipation from God.”

Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilisation, Volume II. (London: Nisbet & Co., Ltd., 1949, 1955), pp. 4-5.  (Originally given as the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrew’s University, 1948)

Brunner’s analysis and diagnosis has lost nothing of its validity in the last seventy years since he first pronounced it.  If we exchange a couple of words (technology for “technics” and humanity or humankind for “man”) it is as bulls-eyed as when he first composed these lectures.  Of course, if you are one of the secularised of whom he speaks in general terms, you rejoice in the “emancipation from God” but deny that humans have rejected their destiny as eternal beings made to be in relationship with their Creator.

Notwithstanding, how better to describe modern-post-modern Westerners than striving to “redeem [themselves] by rising above nature” and wanting “to gather life into [their] hand[s], who want[] to owe [their] hands to nobody but [themselves], who want[] to create the world after [their] own image, an artificial world entirely of [their] own creation. . . . who want[] to snatch as much of this world within [their] lifetime[s[] as [they] can. . .”?  Other than his politically incorrect use of “man” to refer to the generality of the human race, would Brunner need to change one word of this to describe our ultra-frenetic media-obsessed and information and sensory overloaded society of the 21st Century?

What is the relation of this to our discussion of confronting the evil we find in our faces?  A great deal.  We ended #5, “Know Thyself”, by suggesting that the fundamental disconnect in our present (mis)understanding of ourselves is “on the level of who we are really meant to be, or what we have really been created for.  In other words, we were not meant to be (become) agents of evil, and, being such now, we are not meant to remain in that condition.”  Much of the evil we find distorting and even destroying so much of what is good and noble and admirable, worthy of value and life-enriching, is perpetrated by our own species on us and nature because of our blindness, our loss of “In-sight”, and our failure to grasp who and what we really are and are meant to be.

It is easy in our scientific smugness to lament the superstitious ignorance of our ancient and Medieval forebears in their idolatry and ritualistic flummery.  We mock their use of idols and temples but fail to see our own equally and perhaps even greater idolatry and flummery.  If the old priesthoods and shamans were reprehensible in their manipulation of the poor masses they bamboozled, we are even more guilty because our manipulation and control is more occult, for we pretend to be enlightened and to no longer need to use such deception as we practice it even more powerfully via our technological prowess.  

Meanwhile we have bamboozled ourselves that we owe nothing to anything or anybody, except perhaps to some mystification of the Cosmos that unaccountably could burp up such creatures as ourselves who cannot prevent themselves from believing that they are somehow destined for eternity.  As Qohelet said, we are made with “eternity in our hearts” and cannot seem to expunge that conviction, no matter how hard we try to eradicate it by science, technological overstimulation, and thundering, Goebbels-style [Josef Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, 1933-45] repetition.

Socrates is still sitting in the agora warning “Know thyself!”  Jeremiah is still in the temple courtyard thundering, “Your hearts are above all things deceitful!”  Buddha is still calmly admonishing, “The self you think you are, that is illusion.”  As Brunner points out so well, we have rushed forward with proud science and technology outstripping any moral and spiritual advance we fancy we have made.  In fact, if we believe the evidence of history, we have regressed in the very areas which raise us above the level of mere sophisticated animality.  Unless we really are just cranially enhanced animals .

“In-sight” allows us to see the wonder of the Cosmos and especially of our living planet and of our own incalculably astonishing nature as beings who can in fact “see into”, look above and beyond and deep into the depths and nature of what is.  Our reductio ad absurdum conceit that we understand what the universe, life, and being are because we can see how much of it seems to work is the height of hubris and conceit.  Describing how in no way defines what or tells us why.

By denying the wonder and incredible, unfathomable character of what is and where and who we are, we are laying the foundation of evil itself.  The root of evil lies within, just as the root of knowing the potential for all that is noble and beautiful and worthy lies within.  We encompass within ourselves the ability to conceive and perceive both, and to enact what portrays and produces both.  What is wonderful and terrible both lie in the human heart, and so we see both coming forth in our personal lives and in the history of families, communities, and whole nations and peoples. 

“. . . no one can  tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.  With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come both blessing and cursing,” said James the brother of Jesus in an ancient text admonishing the early followers of Jesus. 

He goes on to contrast the two types of wisdom that flow from the human mind and heart.  One directs us to pursue ambition and pleasure and self-fulfillment.  This, he says, is “demonic” because of the bitterness which it produces like a curse on our lives.  It is “restless poison”.  “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.”

James describes the other wisdom as “from above. . . pure, peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.”  (This discussion is found in the Christian New Testament Letter of James, Chapter 3.)

For many of us, the last few months of living with a global pandemic have, perhaps for the first time ever or in a very long time, brought us up against some of the deeper questions that we have buried or pushed out of sight.  Occasionally we may have glimpsed them when someone dear to us has died or when we ourselves have skirted the shores of Charybdis and seen Hades approaching.  But we usually succeed in rushing on with a fleeting concession that “someday I’ll think about that stuff, but for now I’m basically a good person.”  For many, too much procrastination amounts to the day of taking account of “that stuff” never coming, or finding it comes so abruptly that there is no time to find the path through it.

This moment is an opportunity for many to actually reconsider what we are here for, what our being is about, why we live in the crazy way we do, how much time, energy, and money we spend on “vanity” as Qohelet put it.

The other thing that swims to the surface is this whole issue of evil, whether of the variety that comes anonymously from a natural source, or the very personal kind coming from a fellow traveler or group of bandits on the road, or even from within our own hearts.

If we confess that there is real evil, we must also conclude that there is real good, and that there is a choice to be made.  As James puts it, which “wisdom” will we pursue?  Where has “emancipation from God” actually brought us?

TO BE CONTINUED

When Evil Comes, 5 – Know Thyself

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“Know thyself.”

The Oracle of Delphi and Socrates

We finished last time with this Hebrew Bible quotation: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick.  Who can fathom it?”  (Yirmayahu/Jeremiah 17:9)

If you are like me, you don’t usually see yourself or your heart as “deceitful” or “desperately sick.”  The culture of the late 20th Century and 21st Century West encourages us to see ourselves in exactly the opposite sense.  “I’m OK; you’re OK.”  I/you/we don’t do anything really bad, so we’re all good people.  And, if you hold with an afterlife, we all get to “go to heaven”, whatever that might mean.  In other verses, the Bible even tells us to love ourselves, and to love others the way we love ourselves. 

It would appear that loving ourselves and understanding how deceptive we can be and often are about what’s really going on inside are different issues.  It can be quite a challenge to love myself when some of the dark stuff buried inside my heart leaks up into the light.  If I can be honest about that, it should make it easier to have compassion for others in their brokenness, even when their darkness lashes out at me or others. It it about loving myself just because, or despite what I sometimes manifest in my nature that is quite unlovable? And does loving myself have anything to do with knowing the truth about myself? These are deep questions which we are now sadly ill-equipped to deal with.

Despite our pop psychology about all being “good people”, I am (and I suspect you are) ready enough to see the deceit in others.  The world is not out to get me, but our common behavior in a competitive society encourages us to fudge our own self-aggrandizing antics and exaggerate the failings of others.  Knowing myself with some clarity (even if only in a backhanded way) makes me suspect their good intentions, for mine are all too often less than purely altruistic. 

Another ancient Hebrew proverb declares, “Many proclaim their loyalty, but a faithful person (or person of integrity) who can find?”  I am adept at hiding my own deceit behind rationalization and evasive manoeuvres resembling fine motives.  I’m so good at it that I have become largely immune to my own slipperiness.  I don’t care for too much personal examination of my less admirable motivations lurking in the shadows, but I quite readily impute such subterfuge to others.

When Socrates taught that the road to wisdom began with “Know[ing] thyself”  was he preaching pop psychology 101 of the “I’m OK; you’re OK” variety?  Asked what he meant by such an enigmatic declaration he said that few ever care to learn what’s really buried inside them or to learn the truth behind their common preconceptions.  His “Socratic Method” of perpetually and dialectically probing was designed to uncover the deepest roots of what is hidden.  He made so many people in power so uncomfortable that they decided to frame him as an atheist and a subverter of good morals and social order. He was condemned to death for “leading the youth astray”.

Socrates still makes people uncomfortable.  The Oracle of Delphi named him the wisest man in the world.  Asked why, Socrates replied that the only way that made any sense was because he understood that he really knew nothing.  Knowing how little we know is the first step towards wisdom because it is the first step to teachability, correctability, and taking responsibility for finding out what we don’t know but pretend or delude ourselves that we do.

We see the same idea reflected in an even older source – the Proverbs of Solomon: “The fear of Adonai ⁄ the Lord ⁄ God is the beginning of wisdom.”  The unfathomable Creator is the true Source of all that is, including our personal being.  Surely wisdom begins with a bit of healthy fear of the One who made all that is!

Again, we are confronted by the contrast of our modern-post-modern paradigm of our innate, basic goodness which, in the end, approves us as all “good people” regardless of any amount of destructive and hurtful stuff we’ve perpetrated over our wind-puff lives of a few decades.  We reassure ourselves constantly with this refrain about being good people when we dig deep even as we live mostly selfish and self-indulgent lives.  We can rime off some good deeds along the way and think that that much shorter list compared to the other one erases all the not-so-good stuff.

Of course, if there is no Creator what does it matter in the cosmic scale anyway?

Our version of the Creator is of a sort of Super-Being made in our own image, rather than the much more ancient idea about us being made in His/Her image.  Inasmuch as a Deity is accepted in 2020, He/She is a Great, Loving, Grandparent up above who could  never think badly of us no matter what we are and do.

After all, why should I fear my loving, supremely indulgent Grandparent above?  How can fear rather than love be the beginning of wisdom?  How does Socrates’ insistence on digging and probing into what goes on underneath help us anyway?  Exploring your inner stuff, as in psychotherapy, never ends, because we are masters of self-deception.  We comfort ourselves with being a good person because what we really mean is “because I/he ⁄ she never do ⁄ did anything really bad, we must be “good”.” 

As numerous scientific polls and personal discussions about people’s belief in an afterlife tell us (think about all the funeral-parlor visits, wakes, memorials and funerals you’ve attended), we are ready to believe in some sort of heaven or nice “place” for the departed, but very few (even self-proclaimed Christians and Jews) believe in a “Hell” any more.  After all, the loving, grand-parently Creator whom 60-70% of us now believe in could not send anyone to hell just because they were wicked.  Well maybe a few especially sordid individuals like Hitler, Stalin, or Mao, or mass-murderers and sadistic killers, rapists, etc.  Even the Great Heavenly Benefactor must have a few limits, right? After all, even we have a few limits.

However, it seems rather counter-intuitive that good people often seem to die more cruelly and earlier than bad ones.  And too often as victims of the bad ones.  This is an observation found in numerous ancient sages and modern commentators on the human condition.

Perhaps that isn’t the way the Creator intended it to be in the first place.  Perhaps there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface of our truncated empirical, physical-material worldview.  Perhaps, as we saw from C.S. Lewis, we have gone “blind” to anything but the atomic structure of trees (and anything else we believe we can sum up by measuring it), so that we no longer have “In-sight”.

Maybe, if we could begin to lift our eyes from our self-absorption and take our noses out of our navels, we might begin to fathom what Socrates meant about “Know[ing] thyself” and what Jesus meant when he said things like, “Those who have eyes to see, let them see,” and “If you want to save your life, you must lose it.”  Buddha and other Oriental sages said, “What you imagine to be your self is illusion.  You are not that.”

In the Christian Bible, the Apostle Paul spoke about “the mystery of iniquity” and “the son of lawlessness.”  There is also talk of the “spirit of antichrist”.  Our own duality remains very much a mystery.  As the ancient Christian teacher (Saint) Paul observed in one of his letters to a group of Christians in Rome (Romans 7), he found the evil inside himself baffling.  He wanted to do good and be righteous but found himself doing the nasty things he despised.  He cried out, “Who will deliver me from this?  How can anyone be saved?”

His answer was that, contrary to our modern-post-modern conviction, we actually can’t bootstrap ourselves out of breaking our own internal commandments (let alone any we accept from the Creator), even simple things like New Years’ Resolutions.  We need help on two levels.

First, we need help to find the strength to fight the battle of defeating the continuous urges to do and say all kinds of stuff that, in our honest moments, we know is going to hurt someone, or whole groups of someones.  Why do we have such urges?  Because we get some advantage over others in comfort, nice rewards, pleasure, feelings of power and control, etc.  It is natural to want pleasure and control and safety and the rush of power, of victory.

Why should we even fight to repress these urges?  Some today would say we shouldn’t, just learn to wait for the right moment to indulge them. But there are many reasons to resist them, not the least of which is that we may end up as pariahs. A list of reasons to resist the evil within us would be long and tedious.

What is Paul’s second level where we need help?  It is on the level of who we are really meant to be, of what we have really been created for.  In other words, we were not meant to be (become) agents of evil, and, too often being such now, we are not meant to remain in that condition.

TO BE CONTINUED

The Third Way, 51: Saviours and Salvation, 7 – The Jesus Story, 3

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Santa has returned to his Polar enclave for another year.  Gifts have been exchanged and appreciated.  Family and friends gatherings have been enjoyed.  The northern hemisphere is locked into its white winter blanket for the next few months.  Dieting and detoxing from the annual binge of “holiday cheer” is under way.  For many there is a residual glow of well-being abiding for at least a few days, perhaps even a week or two.  For those of us who have nodded in the direction of the old Christmas traditions of the Bethlehem birth by singing carols and attending a church service or two and having a ceremonial crèche on display, we can return such things to their closets and go on with normal life.

If only the rest of life were so conveniently classified.  As long as things hum along in their expected course with only fairly minor inconveniences, we can mostly manage to keep all the big questions quiet.  But… sooner or later … there is always something.  “Stuff happens!”  Nasty stuff, painful stuff, even deadly stuff.  Sooner or later, it comes, and we all have to face it.  As Maximus in Gladiator tells Emperor Commodus before their final combat (paraphrased), “Every man stares death in the face; all you can do is smile back.”  It is a question of how we face the hard moments when they come.

Shall we be “as those who have no hope?”  Or shall our answer be courageous as we take our stand.  Shall we rail and scream at the injustice of it all, like Dylan Thomas advising, “Do not go gentle into that good night … Rage, rage against the dying of the light”?

Ancient cultures typically offered little hope of anything looking like “salvation”.  It was more like facing what appeared finally to be “sound and fury signifying nothing” (Shakespeare).  But what about the cycle of samsara (Hinduism and Buddhism)?  After many reincarnations one could achieve moksha  and enter nirvana and so be (re)absorbed by Brahman, at last finding bliss and peace, although ceasing to exist as a person.

Perhaps a Buddha, a bodhisattva, would come along and show and teach the speedier way out of the cycle of suffering via the discipline of raja yoga, the way of very disciplined deep meditation.

Perhaps some prophet would reveal the strict path that would satisfy the wrath of the gods or the one God through a scrupulous adherence to these precepts.  Then, when you died, you might be promised a place in some realm of peace beyond the grave, or at least spared from the worst suffering of the spectral realm.

Or, perhaps, when you die you are just dead and no longer exist.  Then at least your personal pain is over, although the cosmos goes on in its meaninglessness (vanity), as Solomon put it in Kohelet.  If you are one of the most unfortunate for whom life has indeed been largely a “vale of tears”, this is quite possibly an acceptable outcome.  Solomon didn’t actually think so, though, with his cogent comment, “Better to be a live dog than a dead lion.”

In the end it all boils down to what the universe really is, and who we really are in it.  “Why are we/am I here?”  That is the seminal question which, sooner or later, haunts everyone who thinks.  As long as we seem to have the strength and means to avoid it by finding temporary sources of meaning, or at least distraction, most of us run from it pretty quickly.

When it comes down to it, our final answers are faith-based.  Even an atheist answer is every bit as much faith-based as a “religious” answer.  Everyone who thinks takes a theological position for or against the existence of a Creator, a personal supreme Deity who made everything that is.  What one says about this foremost of all questions directs everything else in our life, consciously or not.

The real reason we have a Christmas time is The Jesus Story.  This story begins with affirming that all that is was created by a personal, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator.  Over and over in this blog we have discussed this as the very ground of reality.  It is the most economical and consistent explanation of why anything at all “is”.   Even great scientists who do not accept a Creator have admitted this.  By turning from it they are compelled to expend enormous time, imagination, energy and resources in searching for alternatives—such as evidence that matter is a constantly changing and morphing manifestation of eternal energy.

But even the most refined science and imaginative theoretical constructs cannot answer that still haunting question, “Why? Why does that energy even exist?  Where does it come from?”  (Usual answer: “Nowhere!  It just is!  It just came to be!  It is just always coming to be!”)  And on to, “Why am I here?  What does it mean that I am here?  Why does it look and feel like it really does have meaning?  Like I should have meaning?  Why do we spend so much time looking for this primal ground of existence and purpose if, after all is said and done, there just isn’t a purpose?”

And, perhaps more immediately applicable in a time of “Climate Crisis”, “Why are we so torn up about the crisis of our tiny little speck of existence called Planet Earth if it isn’t really special at all?  Why are we so driven to cling to our meaningless personal and species existence as if it is really wonderful and awesome in some way, and not just an illusion of being special and awesome and wonderful?”  Etc., etc, etc.

As we have said again and again, the best and most sufficient answer to all of this, the one answer that answers all the basic questions and is thus most probably the real truth (“true truth” as Francis Schaeffer put it), the “Ockham’s Razor” answer for any philosophic types reading this, is: “There is a Creator who made all that is, who made us to know Him/Her and be in relationship to Him/Her, and to learn about all that He/She has made as a way to knowing Him/Her and becoming all that we are made to be.”

The best answer is the answer that most completely, directly, and simply answers the most basic questions all across the spectrum of our search for understanding and truth.  Out of all our contrasting theologies and worldviews, how can we settle on the one that is “best”?  How do we weigh the competing claims?

The Postmodern approach is, “Don’t bother.  Just choose one and go with it.  When it no longer works for you, just switch to another, or invent your own.”

The Modernist approach is to swear off all mysteries and religion and stick to “the facts, only the facts” as reason, logic, and Science, the greatest application of the first two, reveal the “true facts” to us via the proper methods of research and inquiry.

As to the claims of the Great Religions of human history – Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, in chronological order of appearance – it becomes a bit of a mug’s game to try to “prove” the superiority of one over another.  From an apologist’s point of view, all of them can be argued, although it can also be said that they do not all stand up equally well to serious examination regarding the integrity and verifiability of their sources, evidence, and the character of their major leaders in history.

For Christians and Christianity, it all boils down to Jesus.  And as to this faith’s founder, it all boils down to a series of “True or False” and “Yes or No” questions.  Theoretically, this should make Christianity a basically simple faith to discredit, if that is the agenda a questioner is adopting, as so many have since the 18th Century.  And what should make it even easier to discredit this particular candidate for “most probable true story” is that its most basic elements are historically based, or at least purport to be.  Just prove its history is false, and voila!  

But first, we must first hear/read the story.  Then we must consider its historicity and what it tells us about the historical person Jesus/Yeshua.  Only then can we examine what it might mean, including what others have said it means.  At that point, we are in a personal position to decide meaning, and what we will do with the decision we reach.

It all sounds very rational, even “scientific” in the methodological sense of the “Social Sciences”.  But no one comes to a quest unbiased.  All hold expectations of what will be discovered, what we hope to discover, however loosely formulated or consciously held.  We all have presuppositions.  

Today we will end with a short list of basic questions that must be considered by anyone wanting to find out the “truth” about Jesus.  The reader may have other questions, or may have better versions of those listed here.  I offer these:

1. Is Jesus of Nazareth a real historical person?  (When?  Where?)

2. Did Jesus of Nazareth do the kinds of things claimed in the New Testament story?  (Miracles, healings?)

3. Did Jesus of Nazareth really die on a Roman cross?  If so, why?

4. Did Jesus of Nazareth claim to be the Messiah?  If so, did he offer any proof?

5. Did Jesus of Nazareth ever claim to be God in the flesh, the Son of God?  If so, what did he mean?  Did he offer any proof?  How is that even possible?

6. Did Jesus of Nazareth really rise from the dead as his followers claim(ed)?  What proof is there?  If so, what does that mean?

7. How believable is this whole story?  And what does it mean now?

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

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

Ecclesiastes 3:11.

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

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1836.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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