The Third Way, 47: Saviours and Salvation, 3 – Estrangement

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“People felt a yearning for the absolute, intuited its presence all around them, and went to great lengths to cultivate their sense of this transcendence in creative rituals.  But they felt estranged from it.  Almost every culture has developed a myth of a lost paradise from which men and women were ejected at the beginning of time.  It expresses an inchoate conviction that life was not meant to be so fragmented, hard, and full of pain.  There must have been a time when people had enjoyed a greater share in the fullness of being and had not been subject to sorrow, disease, bereavement, loneliness, old age, and death.”

Karen Armstrong, The Case for God.  (Vintage Canada Edition, 2010), p. 14.

Like H.G. Wells in our second instalment of this series, Karen Armstrong offers a speculative account of the rise of religion in early humans.  Neither the Modernist nor Postmodernist view of reality has a satisfactory or convincing answer to what Karen Armstrong calls humanity’s innate “yearning for the absolute” and our “sense of… transcendence”.  As we observed in our previous post, the human feeling of “estrangement” from the absolute and the desire to know the transcendent is virtually universal and has existed throughout our recorded history as a species.  It relates to what Ms. Armstrong aptly calls “a myth of lost paradise from which [we] were ejected at the beginning of time”.  A word of caution about the word “myth” before we go on.  “Myth” does not mean untrue; rather it is a quest to put into words that sense of the transcendent which, at some point in life, almost every human being experiences.  It may very well be based on experienced reality, but its source has faded into the deep recesses of our “collective memory”, as Carl Jung expressed it.

How could such convictions evolve?  Why could we possibly develop a need, let alone an ability, to “intuit’ them?  What possible advantage in the evolutionary struggle could this bestow upon homo sapiens sapiens over against our rival species for primacy in a contest of “survival of the fittest” and the process of natural selection?  From a strictly survivalist perspective, it would seem a pointless diversion of focus and energy, subtracting from seeking definite and powerful practical advantages over other competing species. 

It is a completely inadequate response to say that “primitive” civilizations needed religion and superstition to ensure group organization and hierarchical authority structure which gave us a collective, cooperative power no other species can match.  There are surely other, more direct methods of organizing hierarchy, especially for intelligent, self-aware beings, than a massive diversion of energy and resources into “creative rituals” to cement community identity.

Interestingly, as secular, culturally logical, and mature beings, as we now fancy ourselves to have become, we still adhere to group rituals and ceremonies and identity rites as much as the “superstitious primitives” ever did.  We have different, more “enlightened” and sophisticated ways of explaining such things through sociology and anthropology, but we still look for something greater than ourselves beyond our crass, material limitations.  It seems that the hunger for the absolute and the transcendent, as a quest to take ourselves out of ourselves, beyond ourselves, and to connect with some ‘Higher Reality”, is as alive as ever in the human psyche.

But, having outgrown “religion” and the “supernatural” as the road to connect with such realities, inasmuch as they may exist outside of our subjective minds, we now look to ideologies and concepts such as the “nation”, the “people”, the “human spirit”, or the “New Humanity”. It is proposed that we are evolving a higher consciousness and deeper unity with the “One” which subsumes and connects all things.  Quite simply, however we choose to “explain it” by naming it differently, we are still “yearning for the absolute”.

The deep sense of our estrangement from some vital transcendent truth remains, no matter how we strive to mask it and drive it underground.  It is more obvious than ever to almost everyone alive that we are estranged from nature, of which we conceive ourselves the pinnacle in terms of evolutionary development. 

We talk of nature as of something apart and separate from ourselves, even as we insist we are but one aspect of it.  No matter how we idealize it and speak of reintegrating with it, we cannot get there.  We have too much power over it, power to manipulate it and control it and change it.  Thus, all pious protestations to the contrary aside, we actually do not believe in our innermost soul that we are merely another part or facet of it, not essentially greater than an insect, with no more right to be than a microbe, a mouse, a fish, or a sparrow.  We can intellectually declare such things, but we don’t and can’t really believe them. 

Our ideas and words betray us at every turn.  Our interventions in it, from the least (recycling) to the greatest (even now as we speak of our ability to “scrub” the very atmosphere) demonstrate it.  Even by evolutionary calculations we are “above” nature.  We have not outgrown it yet, but we rise above our own natural limitations.  We use nature and what we find there to do extraordinary and even “miraculous things”.  We travel on the ground at speeds multiple times faster than the fastest human or horse can run.  We fly, despite not being biologically evolved to do so.  We travel in space,  we explore the macrocosm and microcosm with means we have made to “astronomically” exceed what our unaided physical senses could ever do.

While mortal and limited, we are godlike.  In old Biblical terms, we are “made in the image of God”, and other faiths have very similar concepts.  We have powers and abilities to remake and refashion this world that so far exceed any other living being of this planet (the only one we know which actually has life on it), that it is dishonest to say we are “just another creature among many”.  We are not.  We are creators and destroyers, preservers and remakers.  To pretend otherwise is simply disingenuous, or perhaps downright dishonest because we deliberately deny what we know in our hearts, beneath all the false humility.

Why then do we “yearn for the absolute”?  Because, as Kohelet said (see previous series), we are beings that, as part of our very nature, “have eternity in our hearts”.  Why do we “intuit its presence all around us”?  Because we can perceive that there is a reality that is far more than anything our mere physical senses can tell us.  We have “intuition” or some sort of “sixth sense”, an immaterial side or “sense” tuned to what we know is actually there, even if unseen, even though our bodily senses do not register it.  And it is not hocus-pocus.

Why do we spend so much energy and effort and resources on “creative rituals” to “cultivate” this sense of the transcendent aspects of reality?  Because we somehow know that we are connected with this transcendent reality, this source of the absolute.  Because we know that we were made or have been evolved to be connected to this absolute transcendence that lies within and above and beyond the limitations of what we can know and experience through these limited physical bodies.

Whether we were created directly with this need and sense or evolved into this state of intuitive awareness is, at this point, irrelevant to our discussion.  Here we are.  As far as we can tell, thus has humanity ever been since humans as we know them first appeared on Planet Earth.

Until this is accepted, we cannot even begin to recover from our “estrangement”.

The Third Way, 44: Kohelet 8 – Judgment

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

Kohelet 12: 13 – Complete Jewish Bible

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

Tom Robbins , 20th Century American novelist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having observed these things, he puts them in perspective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Third Way, 37: Kohelet, 1

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

Book of Ecclesiastes 1:1-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecclesiastes 3:11.

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

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1836.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Third Way, 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