The Third Way, 16: True Truth

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

Psalm 39: 6,7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Third Way, 15: I, We, You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Third Way, 14: The Quiet Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Third Way 13: Points of No Return

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Third Way, 12: Comedy of Errors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Third Way, 11: Imagine

“Imagine there’s no countries

It isn’t hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace

You may say that I’m a dreamer

And I’m not the only one

I hope someday you will join us

And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions

I wonder if you can

No need for greed or hunger

A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world

You may say that I’m a dreamer

And I’m not the only one

I hope someday you will join us

And the world will live as one

John Lennon, Imagine, 1971

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued …

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

                First stanza: Do not go gentle into that good night

                                       Old age should burn and rage at close of day

                                       Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The Third Way, 10: Point of Departure

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

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

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

Above are citations from two quite different Englishmen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Third Way, 9: The Aloof God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Third Way, 8: Escape from Vanity

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

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

“Vanity of vanities!  Everything is vanity!”

Ecclesiastes 1:2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qohelet then tells us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Third Way, 7: The Sins of the Fathers

The Third Way, 7: The Sins of the Fathers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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