Spirituality

Navigating 21st Century Hopelessness

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Published on The Doomstead Diner July 16, 2017

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Is our techno-industrial way of life fundamentally benevolent?  Is it advisable to continue perpetuating a civilization that is predicated by non-renewable fossil energy sources as well as unsustainable rates of renewable resource extraction?  Our civilization requires an ever growing GDP to be considered healthy.  This is a measure of production in terms of consumption.  Our literal benchmark for the health of our society is based on how much we can consume in a year as a nation.  The reason for this is to create monetary profit for the individuals of this society whom have shares in the corporations controlling this production.  The actual physical wealth of the world is subjugated to the tune of dollars and cents.  To make this pathway possible it requires a proletariat class willing to sell their lives for an hourly rate.  This hourly rate is the lowest possible rate so as to not reduce the profit that’s stolen from the resources of the Earth and the energies of its peoples.  This hourly rate is about making money and not about stewardship of any kind.  It does not have to be like this, but that is a delusory sentiment based on idealism. 

The road to ruin for our species began with agriculture.  Before agriculture emerged there was no need for money, and so it did not exist.  Agriculture allows for civilization which requires money to function.  With the creation of money we stratify into economic classes of people.  Once money is created life becomes about servicing this need for monetary acquisition.  Before money life is about engaging with nature to acquire food, fuel, fiber, medicine and shelter.  In aggregate these actions create a healthy human culture.  Agriculture allows for money and removes the limiting factors for our numbers.  Before agriculture the limiting factor is the amount of food that can be sustainably hunted and gathered.  The hunter/gatherer life is mostly nomadic as we follow the animals and plants through the seasons which define their lifecycles.  Our lives are imbued with rich somatic meaning as we engage with the body of nature.  We are from this Earth, and we inhabit it as a corporeal being made of the elements.  We evolved both physically and spiritually within the framework of our physical Earth.  Our health depends on engaging with nature to create life and its meaning.  The fall from paradise began with domestication which is nothing less than the taming of wild nature.  Domestication is tandem to agriculture and literally creates civilization.  What is being civilized if not the opposite of wild?  The two are anathema to one another. 

Agriculture means that we stop moving around.  It means that we domesticate ourselves as well as the wild beasts of nature.  It sets up the conditions that allows for a great competition between us and nature.  All of a sudden our culture becomes one of domination and control rather than harmony.  Being rooted in one place we begin building monuments to hubris.  We get bored and invent competition.  We stockpile food and create war and plague.  We set up the conditions for disease and famine and warfare (although nomadic people still do occasionally fight with opposing tribes).  We argue and debate and create inequality amongst our people.  Life becomes a struggle to create meaning and avoid boredom.  Eventually, as we move further and further from our natural origin, habitat, and culture the enchantment of being evaporates. We are left with a driving urge to consume to fill this void of meaning that emerges due to our domestication.  Time continues forward and our habits create technologies to service convenience.  We become lazy and our bodies grow fat with our sedentary nature which arises from our domesticated captivity.  No longer do we need our bodies for anything more than acquiring money.  We then want pleasure to fend off boredom and meaninglessness.  Life is no longer about dancing in the wild where we are from and where we return to.  Civilization is nothing more than something to do in the great illusion that we create for ourselves.  This is the way that it is.  The Matrix was born with the first surplus of cereal grain. 

Is there anything that can be done about this?  It seems to me that we are at the end of this failed experiment in hubris.  There is no harmony in domination and control and consumption.  There is only waste, disease, and poison by way of ecocide and genocide.  Our quest for the production of unlimited energy against the gradient of entropy has created cancer.    In the end we cannot dominate nature.  Aside from money the quest for domination  is the great fallacy of civilization.  We cannot think our way out of the limiting factors of ecology.  Our modern techno-industrial civilization will run out of the fossil blood that sustains it.  We will lose the capacity to safely maintain the nuclear power plants that liter the surface of the Earth.  They will spew out DNA damaging clouds of radioactivity as they have already begun doing.  The rain will become poisonous to life.  As we fight to continue this failing technotriumphalism we will continue increasing the CO2 in the atmosphere which will continue heating the human supporting biosphere.  Natural disasters will continue increasing in number and severity.  Our hubris has metastasized into a cancer that will shrink our settlements as the habitable regions atrophy.  Nothing is going to stop this process now.  All that remains is answering the question of what to do about this inevitability.  We have entered into the age of doom. 

There is no escaping this destiny that we have perpetuated.  The most unfortunate aspect about this hopelessness is that man cannot live without hope.  Hope makes life worth living.  Is hope itself a delusion?  What are we to hope for?  The nature of existence is a destiny with death.   The time we have between birth and death needs to be animated by meaning.  Meaning is derived from a harmony with all life.  Our civilization is marked by domination and control.  There is no harmony in control.  The great struggle is finally about the nature of life because life wants to live.  We must maintain ourselves within the boundary of our skin while we are here walking the Earth.  The overwhelming desire is to do this devoid of pain and misery.  The tragedy of man is to think that he can avoid his own nature by the creation of a technological utopia.  Life cannot be about domination and control, but that is what man forces it to be.  We are teetering in a suspended animation just before the moment of expiration.  We are flailing about in denial of this process of resolution.  Maturation as a species must culminate in an acceptance of suffering and death.  We must accept our temporary nature, stop struggling, and lie down in the great current of life.  We swim against this entropic process everyday as we participate in this civilization.  We collectively attempt to keep the center from flying apart under the pressures of our own technologically created centrifuge.  We struggle in vain against the pressures of physical dissolution.  We create illusions to fight against the natural process of becoming to fall apart. 

The first act was rife with physical struggle within the framework of existing in harmony with nature.  Hubris arose and we thought we could become gods using the power of physical manipulation.  We thought we could master the universe with our cleverness.  We are collectively a breaking wave, and nothing will stop the pull of gravity as we are recycled back into the void which we originally manifested from.    Idealism is nothing more than the ravings of a mental lunatic.  Idealism is a delusion that is born from the struggle to acquire more than we need.  Fighting against entropy is finally not worth it.  Yet this fight is what it means to inhabit a physical body. 

In the final analysis life must be about observing beauty.  Without beauty it is not worth living.  We have made a mess of this beautiful blue/green orb that’s floating about the universe.  We have partied our way to desolation.  Yet the Earth keeps spinning around in outer space in its dance with the sun that sustains us.  Every morning the sun reemerges to give us another day of life.  Our great challenge is to honor this life by creating beauty and not it’s opposite.  We have created a lot of ugliness.  Maybe the secret to this 21st century hopelessness is to learn how to make beauty out of malevolence.  Or maybe we should just stop struggling and accept the final act of misery which we have written for ourselves?  Or maybe we can simply embrace our collective ugliness with grace?  Without love and beauty this great struggle that is life is not worth it.  The greatest challenge that we face is learning to love and observe beauty even as love and beauty vanish under the oppression of our own collective delusions. 

The nature of a body is to act.  How are we to act?  We should act to minimize suffering for all sentient beings while honoring our bodily nature.  Every day is a new day to make the right decisions.   Yet every day requires a certain amount of money.  This is why my conclusion is that a lifestyle that requires no money is the only truly benevolent lifestyle.  That lifestyle is a fiction in this world we have created.  This world is quite literally hell on Earth.  Therefore we must learn to love and find whatever beauty we can while in hell.  We must not resist as we realize our ultimate destiny of assimilation with the machine we have created.  I’ve tried finding work arounds to the truth that life is suffering, but the only way to win is to let go, stop resisting, and accept the nature of this great delusion.  Manifestation is transience in action, and our resistance arises within that transience only to dissolve back into the void that is death.  All that is created within that resistance is more suffering.  Yet still we must act in the world, and how should we act when our actions only serve to create more suffering?  The heart of our civilization is the creation of suffering, and to participate only adds to this toll.  Not participating in this civilization can be our only spiritual redemption.  For the life of me, and my children, I cannot figure out how to not participate. 

The Week In Doom October 13, 2013

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Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on October 13, 2013
Discuss this article here in the Diner Forum.

 

e-pluribus-unum-1944

E Pluribus Unum

 

“Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the ‘wall of separation between church and state,’ therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.”    ― Thomas Jefferson

 

 “When fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and waving a cross.” ― attributed to Sinclair Lewis

The Latin phrase “e pluribus unum” is translated as “out of many, one.” This phrase, the first motto of the United States,  is featured on America’s Great Seal, representing the different cultures that make up the American people.  E pluribus unum represented the founders’ intention in forming a new nation. It was replaced by “In God We Trust” in 1956 during the height of the Red Scare by  paranoid nativists afraid of both “the red menace” and their own shadows. Then as now, the nativist right was eager to slurp up any expression that struck a blow against godless communism. But now the right has availed itself of a militant, apocalyptic millennialism, which inverts the nominal Christianity in which the nation takes overweening pride and restates it in terms of service to materialism, hierarchy and retrograde politics, otherwise expressed as “the American way of life.”
This attitude can be summed up by these bon mot:
“All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell [the Bible] teaches us how to run all our public policy and everything in society.”
–Rep. Paul Broun (R)

 

 

“I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won’t have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!”
— Jerry Falwell

 

 

We have been at war with the very pillars, the very foundation of this country …  what really gets me as a Christian, is to see the ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian beliefs and then a senseless, crazy act of terror like this takes place.
You know, when people say, where was God in all of this? …We had a principal of a school, and a superintendent or a coach down in Florida that were threatened with jail because they said the blessing at a voluntary off-campus dinner. Where is God? Where, where? What have we done with God? We told him that we don’t want him around.

–Rep. Louis Gohmert

 

And then there are the coded Obama death threats embodied in posts to various message boards urging people to “Pray for Obama–Psalm 109:8,”  which reads,

Let his days be few; and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children be continually vagabonds, and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.

Our colleague Golden Oxen has recently observed within the Diner Forum that an evil presence seems to have settled on the land. That we are in the grips of some nameless, unspeakable evil  beyond control and recall.
What does that look like? Esquire’s Charlie Pierce had some observations about the latest exercise in Freeeeeeeeduuuuuum about the death about the death of a former Wheeling cop moved to shoot up the local courthouse:

 

There is a wildness abroad in the land. There is a wildness abroad in our politics. It is infectious, this wildness. It spreads quickly. It spreads through the air, through the unmoored political Id of a thousand talk shows. It spreads through indirect human contact, through the unmoored political Id of hundreds of chain e-mails and direct-mail fundraising pitches. It spreads through direct human contact, one conversation at a time drawn from the unmoored political Id that has been unleashed like an unknown virus into what used to laughingly be called The Body Politic. There is a wildness abroad in our politics. There is a wildness abroad in our very heavily armed land.

 

State Police spokesman Sgt. Michael Baylous said officers arrived and shot the suspect, killing him. Witnesses reported hearing dozens of gunshots, he said. U.S. Marshal Patrick Sedoti said the man was armed with an AK-47 and also was carrying a Glock pistol. Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie said police who briefed him earlier Wednesday told him Piccard was a 20-year-plus veteran of the force who retired 13 years ago. . . 

 

The wildness has its basic etiology in the encouragement at all levels of our politics of the notion of government as the ultimate Other, which coddles and feeds and nurture all the other Others who live off the rest of us. It can be found in the idea that government is an alien entity, a Thing Outside, a rustling in the bushes, a strange shadow on the wall, something to be feared simply for its existence, and not for anything that it may or may not have done. The wildness has its fundamental source in the rejection of the idea of a political commonwealth, and of the idea that self-government is an ongoing creative project of that political commonwealth. Once you reject that idea, and once you accept as axiomatic that government is the ultimate Other, then no rules need really apply. Crash the government when you don’t get your way in the legislature, or the courts, or at the ballot box. Finance those who will do it for you. Cut up the rules regarding fair representation in the national legislature. Rig the national government the way you’ve rigged the national economy.  Cover yourself by ginning up the unmoored Id out in the country until, one day, somebody starts shooting. Starve the beast, Kill the beast. Drown the beast in the bathtub. See tyranny behind every rock and tree. Second Amendment remedies, sold over the counter.To fight the ultimate Other, there can be no rules. We were lucky this time that it was only a building that was shot. We were lucky this time that the gunman’s only victim was a symbol.

 

… We, as a nation, have allowed the wildness to spread unchecked through our politics until we have accepted debilitated self-government as a kind of permanent condition. We have weakened the national immune system. And all we ever do is drink down as much patent medicine as we can. Our politics are sick and we insist on poisoning them further. The contagion is raging. The entire country is a hot zone.

 

Could it possibly be that the perverse version of Christianity now proffered by the  Robertsons, Bachmanns, Gohmerts and Brouns of the United States is the distillation of that evil?   This nation asserts itself as proudly, resolutely, aggressively Christian. Yet, the true message of the Prince of Peace, handed down in the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes, has been perverted, co-opted, and swallowed whole by the great majority of self-professed nominal Christians as the excuse for irrational consumption, materialism, and devil-take-the-hindmost social policy. The message of Jesus is understood as one of acceptance, forgiveness, and grace. In the hands of bigots, demagogues, charlatans and paranoids, it becomes a sorting tool to separate the saved from the heathen, the “true Americans” from the “Kenyan socialists,”  the “us” from “the other.” Ah, the Other…

 

We’re really good at demonization of “the other.”  Americans have been doing this for several hundred years. We elevated “manifest destiny” over the Ten Commandments in our desire to extend the commercial Gospel and eradicate the troublesome red native peoples who failed to share our enthusiasms for grift and scam. In the 1850s, the first recognizably named group of American nativists managed to pull its drunken head out of the gutter long enough to make its feelings known about  Irish and German immigrants.

 

The Know Nothing movement was an American political movement that operated on a national basis during the mid 1850s. It promised to purify American politics by limiting or ending the influence of Irish Catholics and other immigrants, thus reflecting nativism andanti-Catholic sentiment. It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, whom they saw as hostile to republican values and controlled by the pope in Rome. Mainly active from 1854 to 1856, it strove to curb immigration and naturalization, but met with little success. Membership was limited to Protestant males.
Before the Know Kothings, there were the Jacksonians. After the Civil War the Ku Klux Klan, the “Red Scare” of the post World War I era, the original Fascist Front operating prior to World War II,  and then the McCarthy era, today’s Christian identity movement, et al. Certainly the end times eschatology offered for public consumption by Michelle Bachmann and her fellow Christopath travelers takes a curious and perverse glee at the prospect of the end of the world. This apocalyptic millennialism drives the energy of what some call the Tea Party (but what we will here address by its proper name, the Fascist Front) in their haste to destroy the economy and discredit the government of the United States just to see it break.  These demonstrate the same lack of morality and empathy for others that one sees in disturbed children who pull the wings off of flies.

 

What troubles Golden Oxen, Agelbert, and me, as well as others of a certain age, is that we have lived long enough to have seen what appeared to be a different country at work.  I may be deluding myself; these musings may be just the wistful reverie of an old man. But I do recall a time when government was the guarantor of the rights of common people, where there appeared to be meaningful recourse for addressing grievances, and we collectively seemed to believe that a rising tide would lift all boats.
The extreme economic inequalities realized since St. Reagan’s administration, now escalated over the past decade, bring the difference  between then and now into sharp relief.  The prevailing attitudes now seem to run to, “I got mine; fuck you,”  which seems inverted to the sense of common purpose that informed our public institutions in the days of e pluribus unum.

 

Even what used to be called common decency is in decline.  An example. At least once a month, Contrary and I are privileged to attend a salon of sorts in the home of our esteemed collaborator Jaded Prole.  It is a gathering of activists, occupiers and other assorted interested souls who show up to discuss the issues of the day. A man and his wife who we had not previously met were present, offering their opinions. The fellow went on to say how he had in past years been the organizer for a highly regarded local arts festival. He made much of the fact that, having obtained a permit from the city, they were free to exclude anybody who wish to exercise free speech.  He made a point of saying they excluded pamphleteers and people wishing to distribute information. As you might imagine, this did not sit well with some of us, especially Contrary, who made several barbed comments.  Perhaps the most annoying thing was not so much what the man said, as the sense of perfect entitlement with which he said it.

 

But the end result was no surprise: in this country, property rights trump all other rights, including individual rights. At a time when the only rights that people seem to be exercised about are their Second Amendment rights, the point that having secured a permit from the local city gives the permittee unfettered ability to trump free-speech rights seems very small beer indeed, seeing as how it sprung from that most sacred of American rights, that of property.

 

How far we have fallen in 50 years.  Now we have free speech zones, the kettling and pepper spraying of protesters, gratuitous police violence and arrests, militarized law enforcement, and drones in the air. Is there any connection between the fact that Americans are less religious than ever and the fact the rise of the surveillance state? As the social safety net is continuously rent, and the prerogatives of middle-class life now devolved only to those in gate-kept professions or to military families, with the rest of us left to poke in anthills to make a living, is there any connection between the lack of of a commonly accepted sense of moral purpose and the common enterprise espoused in e pluribus unum?

 

And then there is torture, or, as the folks at National Pentagon Radio would have it, “enhanced interrogation,”  which used to be called waterboarding, but now is apparently a fit subject for levity in some circles. (We will leave for another time the entire subject of debasement of language that such euphemisms signal.)

 

Dick Cheney is ready to laugh about waterboarding.

Conservatives gathered at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan Monday night to roast the former vice president at an event where many of the biggest laugh lines touched on the most controversial policies of a key architect of his administration’s war on terror. At the gathering, hosted by Commentary, figures including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey drew a mix of chuckles and winces with jokes that left few lines uncrossed, according to three guests.

Former Sen. Joe Lieberman “said something to the effect that it’s nice that we’re all here at the Plaza instead of in cages after some war crimes trial,” recalled one person who was there. . . 

Scooter Libby, for his part, made light of his conviction — and lack of a presidential pardon. “Libby said George Bush sent a note: ‘Pardon me, I can’t make it,’” one guest recalled.

As you can see, these guys killed.

 More than any other story that I’ve seen in recent years, the story and others like it about this Cheney roast encapsulate the moral rot of American society.

 

 

When I was a boy, e pluribus unum meant that we were all in this together. It informed lessons about the “melting pot,” in which we learned about past waves of immigration, and how immigrants helped make this country strong through their unique qualities and added vigor. Now there is none of that. Among members of the Fascist Front,  Immigrants are virtual 5th column, ready to steal SNAP benefits and Obamacare, not to mention our precious bodily fluids. Public education is derided as “government schools,” where rabid Marxists indoctrinate your children with godless communist propaganda. Captive regulatory agencies fail to regulate, and pliant, paid-for legislators create permissive laws on behalf of their benefactors. The very notion of a common purpose is thus eroded, congressional session by congressional session, year by year, and each successive generation learns that government is more foe than friend, and remains ignorant to the fact that a common purpose ever existed.  Thus is even the very notion of a government held in common vitiated and eroded, and its legitimacy negated.

 

 

 E pluribus unum may always have represented an ideal. We certainly find it easier to be at one another’s throats than sharing a foxhole and a common objective.  But even that unitary ideal would be far preferable to the alienation and mutual loathing that now passes for our public life. I for one am nostalgic for E pluribus unum, and envision the time and place where Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Druid, tree hugger, nature worshiper and atheist can hold their relations to one another at greater value than the calculations at the bottom right-hand corner of the daily spreadsheet.  And recognize that we are all in this together.

 

This Week In Doom October 6, 2013: Franciscus

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Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on October 6, 2013

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Franciscus

“I believe in God, not in a Catholic God; there is no Catholic God. There is God and I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation. Jesus is my teacher and my pastor, but God, the Father, Abba, is the light and the Creator. This is my Being. Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good. … Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

“Despite all the slowness, the infidelities, the errors and sins [the Church] could have committed and can still commit… it has no other sense or end but that of living and witnessing Jesus: He who was sent by Abba ‘to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’ (Luke 4:18-19)”

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible.The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

“I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.”

Jorge Mario Bergoglio

***

My record as a public scold on these pages has been one of pursuit of social justice. Whether writing about the cold structural injustice of the economy, the worship of Mammon in a nominally Christian nation, the Occupy movement from one man’s perspective, its foibles, or current events, my view has been consistent: That the economy is a Ponzi scheme kept afloat by the Fed, the net effect of which is to  transfer wealth from the middle class to the upper one quarter of one percent. That the government, once the refuge of common folk, is now the oppressor, its regulatory agencies captured by the corporations they were intended to regulate. That our technology has outstripped our moral capacity by at least several centuries, and that we are awash in both toys and weapons of mass distruction without ethics guiding their employment.  That the courtier media is as corrupt as it is obsequious. . .  and on and on.

This week’s effort will mark a departure from the usual diet of clucking at the weekly record of Indications The The World Is Going to Hell. Thus in a week where the moral midgets of the Midway bring government to a screeching halt, where those whose votes are directly responsible for putting over 800,000 people out of employment defend their actions and  their  paychecks under the guise of, “I need my paycheck” ,  where a man sets himself on fire on the National Mall, where we learn that the NSA continues to sort and sift every electronic communication we originate, and where a whistleblower reveals how the global elite rule the world (and aside from Michael Snyder (and the Diner), nobody notices), it is easy to elevate Blake to the level of Old Testament prophecy:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(Blake, The Second Coming)

The Inauguration Mass For Pope Francis

Amidst the din and clamor, the utterances of one man caught my attention this week.  Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio,  has been making both statements and simple acts of faith that signify a sharp break with recent Vatican history.  The Pope’s visit to Assisi this week gathers many of these threads into one strand. Many assumed that like Benedict before him, he would be a caretaker pope, having been elevated at the age of 76.  In the brief months since his elevation, Francis has shown himself to be anything but.

After his election, Esquire’s Joe Keohane observed:

He won’t wear the shoes. He doesn’t bait the gays, or hound the nuns, or call Mohammed “evil and inhuman,” or fear the mean-girl Vatican cardinals whose solid gold multi-millennium party he’s so genially wrecking. Instead Pope Francis spends his days publicly worrying about social justice, calling attention to the problems of runaway capitalism, and entreating people to be decent to one another. He even washed the feet of a Muslim woman, which is about as double a whammy as a Pope can possible execute—especially after eight years of old Emperor Palpatine there.

 

What Francis says is important because as the head of the Roman Catholic Church,  his statements have a profound effect upon the lives of over one billion Catholics worldwide, especially in the global South where Catholicism is growing most quickly. But the behavior he models may be even more important.

For starters, he eschewes the opulent Vatican apartments for life in a small guest cottage.  He carries his own bags, and cooks his own dinner. He places his own calls to reporters. He prefers tooling around in a Ford Focus to the papal Mercedes-Benz. One of his earliest acts of piety was, per above, to wash and kiss the feet of a dozen young prisoners, two female, and at least one Muslim.  The ritual of footwashing is told to us in the book of John, historically seen as an act of humility. If in the last hours before his crucifixion Jesus could humble himself to clean the feet of  fishermen and camel herders, what was he telling them? And us?

It says here that Jesus’ message was one of selflessness and love. By his actions, Jesus says to take care of one another. Put the other first. Serve one another, and love one another. In a column last week, Leonard Pitts asks:

We should ask what it tells us that a pope models humility, inclusion, unpretentiousness, concern for the poor and nonjudgmental, small “c” catholic love — and people are surprised. Indeed, it generates headlines around the world.

What it should tell us is that people are not used to seeing those virtues from people of faith. Their praise, then, amounts to a stark indictment.

The political discussion advanced by the insurgent right, fueled by the Gospel according to Rand, the views the poor as so many “takers,” little better than pests seeking SNAP card handouts from the virtuous employed. Such is the drumbeat of right wing rhetoric, where people of “faith” make public statements to keep Muslims away, or pray for the president to die, or be replaced by a military coup. Against the backdrop of a decline of organized religion (with mainstream Protestantism suffering the most attrition) and a Church scandalized by  continued exposure of semi-institutionalized sodomy,  this Pope’s words elevating the rights and dignity of the poor, the humanity of those at the margins, and decrying materialism  resonate so clearly.

Francis recently criticized Catholics narrowly “obsessed” with abortion, contraception, homosexuality. He openly called for the church to be for the poor. He even, horror of horrors, said that God loves atheists too.  What Francis is done is to attempt to shift  the focus of the church from being Vatican-centric to being people-centric.

 This past week, Pope Francis visited Assisi, the birthplace of his namesake.

The pope used the occasion of the Feast Day of St. Francis to retrace the footsteps of a holy man widely respected even among people of other faiths. The pope visited the site — now a shrine — where the saint is said to have heard the voice of Jesus and been converted.

The carefully choreographed pilgrimage was sprinkled with impromptu moments, too, as the pope appealed to the church and to Christians worldwide to divest themselves of worldliness, which leads to “vanity, arrogance and pride,” because “it is bad for us,” he said.

What the Pope says is important because he sets the tone for  the church.  Carefully chosen words are one thing: actions are quite another. Since his election, Francis has initiated a series of measures for reform. These include investigating allegations of mismanagement and corruption, changes in the way the church litigates sexual abuse allegations against priests and other clergy, changes in the Vatican hierarchy, appointing a commission to investigate the Vatican bank, even choosing a Group of Eight Cardinals as his personal think tank. He has said he wants to place the Curia (the administrative arm of the Vatican) in service to the universal church, rather than the locus of centralized power.

 Perhaps it’s best to take this pontiff at face value in his own words. In a story that will be referred to, but rarely read in its original,  Francis gave an interview to the atheist editor of Italian daily La Repubblica.  The pope even called publisher Eugenio Scalfari himself  to schedule the interview. Some highlights:

“I’m not Francis of Assisi and I do not have his strength and his holiness. But I am the Bishop of Rome and Pope of the Catholic world. The first thing I decided was to appoint a group of eight cardinals to be my advisers. Not courtiers but wise people who share my own feelings. This is the beginning of a Church with an organization that is not just top-down but also horizontal.”

 “The real trouble is that those most affected by (narcissism) — which is actually a kind of mental disorder — are people who have a lot of power. Often bosses are narcissists. … Heads of the Church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy.”
 
“The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don’t even look for them any more. They have been crushed by the present. You tell me: Can you live crushed under the weight of the present? Without a memory of the past and without the desire to look ahead to the future by building something, a future, a family? Can you go on like this? This, to me, is the most urgent problem that the Church is facing.”

“I believe … that our goal is not to proselytize but to listen to needs, desires and disappointments, despair, hope. We must restore hope to young people, help the old, be open to the future, spread love. Be poor among the poor. We need to include the excluded and preach peace. … I have the humility and ambition to want to do something.”

Thoughts on the essence of his belief:

“I believe in God, not in a Catholic God; there is no Catholic God. There is God and I believe in Jesus Christ, his incarnation. Jesus is my teacher and my pastor, but God, the Father, Abba, is the light and the Creator. This is my Being.”

“Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good. … Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place.”

Not what we are used to from the arch conservatives who have attended to the throne of Peter for the last several decades. This pope’s utterances have been enough to upset doctrinal conservatives and others of a more fundamentalist Christian stripe who are eager to see in Francis’s ascension the “Petrus Romanus” allegedly prophesied by St. Malachy.

Among the contingent that lights their own farts, we have the “Petrus Romanus” cock-and-bull story. In sites like these, where banner ads announce , “Fear No Man- Learn to Fight” targeting their audience of mom’s-house-basement-dwellers, there is this sort of thing, appealing to those whose daily  sustenance requires a steady dose of fear and loathing-

Petrus Romanus rising: Pope Francis at the Vatican to revise the church’s constitution-

Conservatives and traditionalists, however, have reacted with dismay and downright alarm at the direction Francis has taken, particularly in the interview with the Jesuit-run La Civilta Cattolica, in which he bemoaned the church’s obsession with “small-minded rules.”

If these are the people that Francis is upsetting, this gives me all the more reason to approve of what he’s doing.

 

In an interview conducted by the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, an Italian Jesuit journal,  Francis doubled down:

“It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently.

“We have to find a new balance, otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

 None of this goes to change church doctrine or church policy, but it marks a sharp departure in tone. For the first time in many decades, liberal Catholics, long an endangered species in the American Church, found  room for optimism.  Charlie Pierce asked if the runners-up in the Clan of the Red Beanie might not be asking the Holy Spirit for a recount:

Faith without works is dead, and I’m not seeing HMC actually budging on some of these issues very soon. But, still, if you think this isn’t shaking some of those guys all the way down to their red socks, you’re fooling yourself. This guy may turn out to be the biggest curveball since the Blessed John XXIII.


Some will talk about Bertoglio’s possible past collaboration  with the Argentine junta during its era of repression. We’ll leave that discussion for better scholars, and another time.  For this writer, it is enough that this ostensible “authoritarian,”  who has openly called for “a poor church for the poor,” is prepared to meet with Gustavo Gutierrez:

Francis… will meet in the next few days with the Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian theologian and scholar who is considered the founder of liberation theology. The meeting was announced on Sunday (Sept. 8) by Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, during the launch of a book he co-authored with Gutierrez. It’s a remarkable about-face for a movement that swelled in popularity but was later stamped out by the conservative pontificates of John Paul II and his longtime doctrinal czar, Benedict XVI.

And on this matter, it is enough for me to give the last word  to Charlie Pierce:

Creeps.

One of the great disservices that JP The Deuce [John Paul II] did to HMC  [Holy Mother Church] was to squash the liberation theologians, some of whom were actually martyred, not that it mattered to the bureaucrats in the Holy Office. If this pope is willing to let them back into the general theological life of the church, that’s nothing but a good thing, if only because it will piss off all the right people.

In Treatment

From the keyboard of Morris Berman

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Published on Dark Ages America on September 17, 2013

In Treatment

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In Treatment was an HBO TV series that debuted in 2008 and ran for three seasons, starring Gabriel Byrne in the role of a psychotherapist named Paul Weston. It was based on an Israeli series of the same name (Be Tipul, in Hebrew); apparently, many of the episodes were verbatim translations of the Hebrew originals. Personally, I found the show highly addictive. Dr. Weston has a veritable parade of troubled patients traipse through his office, and their problems are unfailingly gripping, even mesmerizing. He seems to be a good therapist, although the results are rather mixed: some folks improve, some seem to go nowhere, one may have even “accidentally” committed suicide (triggering a lawsuit from the dead patient’s father). But the most powerful aspect of the show is that in the fullness of time, nothing is quite what it seemed to be. Paul’s own therapist (played by Dianne Wiest) seems to be empathic and supportive, but winds up using Paul as material for a novel she writes, in which the “Paul” character is cast in a very bad light. One of Paul’s patients, an Indian man living in an unhappy situation with his son and daughter-in-law, tricks Paul into getting him deported back to Calcutta, which is where he wants to be. Paul falls in love with his second (and final) therapist (played by Amy Ryan), but knowing how the mechanism of transference works, can’t decide if it’s love or illusion. What she gets him to see, in the course of a few weeks of therapy with her, is that he has spent his entire career getting over-involved with his patients as a substitute for having a life of his own. At age 57, the ground has shifted from under his feet; he has no way of knowing what is true and what is invented, and as he tells his therapist, “I’ve lost my way.” He even wonders if he ever loved his ex-wife, or whether he is capable of love at all.

The final session is a tour de force by virtue of being anti-climactic. Paul ends his therapy and walks out into the Brooklyn night, having nowhere to go and nothing to do. This is as un-Hollywood as it gets: no satisfying wrap-up, no happy ending, just a state of wandering through the world with no meaning and no sense of direction. The most one can extract from this last scene, if one insists on being optimistic, is the Socratic dictum, “Ignorance is the beginning of wisdom.” Maybe. But for the time being, existential loss is just that—loss. The gray night of the soul, perhaps, except that to me, the non-resolution of the story had an almost religious quality to it.

Which is probably why I watched the last episode several times, on DVD. I had been in Paul’s situation at age 28, when I came to the conclusion that my academic career was a farce; or at least, unreal. I remember I was living in England, on leave from my university in the United States to write my first book, and a British graduate student came to see me for advice about his research and his career. I can’t remember what I told him, but I remember feeling hollow, formulaic. Could I encourage him to pursue something that I no longer believed in? It was late afternoon by the time he left, and it was already starting to get dark. I sat in my chair and looked out across the room, feeling depressed. I had no idea what life was about, or how I might ever feel happy again. I felt like an empty shell. As the months passed, the dark night of the soul became increasingly dark.

How all that got turned around is another story, and a rather involved one, best saved for another time. But in a nutshell, it involved faith, which to me meant betting everything on something that was invisible, and in contemporary American culture very much of a long shot. Not God, I hasten to add; but definitely something involving the life of the spirit. I guess, at the end of the final episode of In Treatment, I wanted to pull Dr. Weston into a nearby café and talk to him about belief. Why, I’m not sure. Perhaps because he’s such a sympathetic, earnest, and honest character; perhaps because I felt that people with that level of integrity deserve a good life. Perhaps because I would have felt lucky to have had him as a therapist, or at least, a friend. I really don’t know. But belief is not really transferable, in any case. It’s hardly a matter of an intellectual decision, but rather something that emerges from your body, in a visceral way. There are no shortcuts in the life of the spirit, as it turns out; each of us has to find our own way.

I guess it says something that In Treatment ran for three seasons. Americans are not big on ambiguity, or non-resolution, after all; they aren’t a terribly sophisticated people, in my experience. But are Israelis so different? I guess I would have to say yes: more honest, more in-your-face. Two Israeli films come to mind that have this quality of non-resolution, and are (like Be Tipul) very powerful because of it. The first I saw about twenty or thirty years ago, and can’t recall the name; but it involved a New Age guru living in the suburbs of Tel Aviv, and his devoted followers, who come to his apartment once a week for a group session. The guru, meanwhile, gets increasingly wigged out, until he finally becomes convinced (inasmuch as everything is supposedly in the mind) that he can fly. So he jumps off the roof of his apartment building, only to discover that gravity has other plans for him. In the wake of his death, his disciples are not able to put their shattered lives back together, and become like the children of Israel, wandering through the desert, but without Moses to guide them. I found it a very courageous film.

The second film is called The Footnote (2011), starring Shlomo Bar Aba and Lior Ashkenazi as a father and son caught up in an epic Oedipal struggle. I won’t bother to recap the story here, except to say that it ends on a huge existential question mark. The moment of truth has arrived in the relationship, and it is up to the father to bite the bullet or cop out, in accepting or not accepting a prestigious award that was actually meant for his son. As he is in line to be called and walk up to the podium, the film ends. It’s unclear what he is going to do. (At this point I had actually stopped breathing.) All three of these stories—Be Tipul, the flying guru, and The Footnote, affected me very deeply, and in recent weeks I’ve been trying to figure out why. Because they are Israeli, and I’m Jewish? Nah, that didn’t really ring true. And then it hit me: all of them involve uncertainty. Of course, if you were to ask me how I feel about uncertainty, I would tell you that I hate it; but I’m not sure I do. I may not love it, but I’m certainly intrigued by it. My first memory, at age two-and-a-half, was precisely about this theme; and I recall that Camus wrote somewhere that our first conscious moment contains the issue that we will dance around for the rest of our lives. As one psychoanalyst puts it, the infant’s first sensory experiences presage the way he or she will view and construct the external world. But here’s the catch: the external world that we seek out is in synchrony with our first sensory experiences; and if those experiences are, for example, ones of uncertainty, then what the adult will seek out—for comfort(!)—is uncertainty. This, then, is a paradoxical type of harmony, what this psychologist calls “primal confusion,” or the paradox of finding solace in uncertainty.

In the Jewish tradition, when you paint your house, you are supposed to leave a small but visible section of one of the interior walls blank. The idea is that only God is perfect, so it’s important for us humans to be imperfect as a reminder of this. I believe there is a similar tradition in Navajo weaving, of leaving one strand loose, unwoven, so that there is a place for the Great Spirit to enter. And the asymmetry of Japanese art may be based on the same sort of premise. Uncertainty—things out of order, out of kilter, unfinished and incomplete—is, on this interpretation, a great gift. Dr. Weston left the therapist’s office to float around Brooklyn like a rudderless ship; but if his therapist was right, he had never really lived an authentic life, and now that terrifying opportunity had been presented to him. Ditto, the devotees of the flying guru. And something similar is going on at the end of The Footnote, where the father could, if he chose, abandon his need for a hollow Oedipal victory and come clean—in public, no less.

I have not enjoyed uncertainty in my life; I have endlessly pursued ways to be able to stand on terra firma. But I have never escaped the aura of that first primal awareness, which stimulated me to search for the sources of security in human life for the next sixty-seven years. Nor is it an accident that my current research is on Japanese culture, which is based, like karate, on the creativity of empty space—the “meaning of meaninglessness,” as one Japanese philosopher called it. I have always envied those who were blessed with a deep sense of security, who moved through life free of anxiety—or so it seemed. I guess I still do. But there is no getting around it: for better or worse, without uncertainty I wouldn’t be, to quote the epitaph on Kierkegaard’s tombstone, that individual.

©Morris Berman, 2013

Morris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College (San Antonio), the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 1982-88 he was the Lansdowne Professor in the History of Science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Berman won the Governor’s Writers Award for Washington State in 1990, the Rollo May Center Grant for Humanistic Studies in 1992, and the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity (from the Media Ecology Association) in 2013. He is the author of a trilogy on the evolution of human consciousness–-The Reenchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses (1989), and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000)–and in 2000 his Twilight of American Culture was named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times Book Review.

Perspectives on Faith & Science

Off the keyboard of Ashvin Pandurangi

Published inside the Doomstead Diner on August 1, 2013

Discuss this article at the Spirituality & Mysticism Table inside the Diner

 

Finding the Proper Perspective on Faith and Science:

A Rebuttal of John Michael Greer’s, The Quest for Common Language

*All quotations attributed to John Michael Greer in green are sourced from the following two articles, and all emphasis on such quotations are mine – 1) Held Hostage by Progress ; 2) The Quest for Common Language

In two back-to-back articles, John Michael Greer of The Archdruid Report has strayed away from his general rule to avoid making arguments about specific religions. Here is a clear case, in my opinion, in which rules are NOT meant to be broken…

In Greer’s view, conservative Christians who interpret the Bible “literally” are not accurately representing the Faith. Instead, they are inserting scientific assertions into the Bible where, in fact, there are none. I understand that this is a very common view among “liberal/progressive” Christians and religious non-Christians. BUT, I have yet to come across ANY Biblical evidence to support such an ahistorical and simplistic view of the rich Biblical traditions that have been preserved for posterity.

While denigrating the Christians who find scientific truths in THEIR religious traditions (i.e. the Bible), Greer seems to take great pride in alleging that HIS religious tradition promoted biological evolution before Darwin even came on the scene. Apparently, what’s good for the goose is not what’s good for the gander. As support, Greer quotes “part of a ritual dialogue” that features prominently in his religion:

“The traditions of modern Druidry, the faith I follow, actually embraced biological evolution even before Darwin provided a convincing explanation for it. Here’s part of a ritual dialogue from the writings of Edward Williams (1747-1826), one of the major figures of the early Druid Revival:

“Q. Where art thou now, and how camest thou to where thou art?”

“A. I am in the little world, whither I came, having traversed the circle of Abred, and now I am a man at its termination and extreme limits.”

“Q. What wert thou before thou didst become a man in the circle of Abred?”

“A. I was in Annwn the least possible that was capable of life, and the nearest possible to absolute death, and I came in every form, and through every form capable of a body and life, to the state of man along the circle of Abred.”

Greer then explains that this ritual continues on, but the above is enough to “give the flavor and some core ideas”. OK… now compare this ritual dialogue with the opening verses of Genesis Chapter 1 (NIV, 1-13):

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

And God said, “Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.” So God made the vault and separated the water under the vault from the water above it. And it was so. God called the vault “sky.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.

And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.”

(like Greer’s Druid ritual dialogue, this descriptive narrative continues on at some length…)

Can anyone look at these two sources of religious tradition and honestly claim that one contains scientific assertions while the other does not? It strains all reason and credulity to claim that the author of Genesis did not INTEND to make positive assertions about the origins of the Universe, the Earth and life on Earth; assertions that are clearly within the remit of scientific inquiry. Contrary to prevailing opinion, the principle of “Biblical literalism” has always been centered on the INTENDED meaning of Biblical texts rather than a wooden interpretation of specific words used. Greer attempts to sweep away this centuries long-tradition of interpretation with the following claim:

“Third, the value of the Bible—or of any other scripture—does not depend on whether it makes a good geology textbook, any more than the value of a geology textbook depends on whether it addresses the salvation of the soul. I don’t know of any religion in which faith and practice center on notions of how the Earth came into existence and got its current stock of living things. Certainly the historic creeds of Christianity don’t even consider the issue worth mentioning. The belief that God created the world does not require believing any particular claim about how that happened; nor does it say in the Bible that the Bible has to be taken literally, or that it deals with questions of geology or paleontology at all.”

The loosely constructed straw-man used above claims that the Bible is not a “geology textbook” – the implication being, anyone who finds scientific assertions in the Bible is treating it as such a textbook and failing to notice its primary theological purpose. Nothing could be further from the truth. Any serious and considered reading of the Bible reveals that Biblical theology cannot be artificially separated out from culture, politics, history, science or anything else. While the theology may not “center” on how the Universe, Earth and life came into existence, those issues are certainly featured FRONT AND CENTER, and the Biblical authors make no qualms about doing so.

JMG wrote the following in his first foray into the hypocritical bashing of “conservative” Christians:

“Nonetheless “Thou shalt not evolve” got turned into an ersatz Eleventh Commandment, and devout Christians exercised their ingenuity to the utmost to find ways to ignore the immense and steadily expanding body of evidence from geology, molecular biology, paleontology, and genetics that backed Darwin’s great synthesis.”

Although Greer is specifically dealing with Darwinian evolution here, the implication is that Christians are going way beyond the scope of the Bible’s intended message when they make scientific debate a part of their evangelical ministry or mission. It makes you wonder, when is the last time JMG actually read the Ten Commandments??

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20: 8-11)

Who can read the above and yet still claim there is no connection between the origin narratives of Genesis 1 and the theological discourse of Exodus, specifically Moses’ interaction with God on Mount Sinai. Regardless of whether you believe any of what is described in the Bible actually happened, it’s nearly impossible to deny that the author(s) of Genesis and Exodus intended to communicate a great intersection between God’s creation of the Universe and God’s personal relationship with humanity. We find this intersection between God’s creation of the Universe and DELIVERANCE of humanity repeatedly reinforced throughout the traditions of the Biblical prophets:

It is I who made the earth and created mankind on it. My own hands stretched out the heavens; I marshaled their starry hosts. I will raise up Cyrus in my righteousness. I will make all his ways straight. He will rebuild my city and set my exiles free, but not for a price or reward” (Isaiah 45:12-13)

On top of ignoring such clear assertions in the Bible, Greer, in what can only be best characterized as a gross neglect of Christian history, cites the “historic creeds of the Christian churches” as evidence that the Bible was not intended to contain scientific truths which reflect on core theology. He claims that conservative Christians should get back to the primary message of these creeds, but fails to mention the wealth of historic Christian theologians and scientists (usually both) who read their Bibles and concluded the exact opposite of what Greer professes. After all, the rallying cry of the Christian Reformation movement was sola scriptura – that core Christian theology is not based on the Creeds of any church, but rather on scripture itself.

Leading “natural philosophers” of the Reformation era, with increased access to scripture and confidence in God’s word, confirmed that the study of the natural world is not distinct from the study of God’s glory and love revealed in scripture, but instead that the pursuit of both studies are INEXTRICABLY linked together as we ask the basic metaphysical questions about human existence, nature and purpose. The following are quotes by some of those courageous Christians who were at the forefront of the Scientific Revolution.

Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543)
“To know the mighty works of God, to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate, in degree, the wonderful workings of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge.”

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1627)
“It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion; for while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them confederate, and linked together, it needs fly to Providence and Deity.”

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)
“Geometry is one and eternal shining in the mind of God. That share in it accorded to humans is one of the reasons that humanity is the image of God.”

Gelileo Galilei (1564-1642)
“It seems to me that it was well said by Madama Serenissima, and insisted on by your reverence, that the Holy Scripture cannot err, and that the decrees therein contained are absolutely true and inviolable. But I should have in your place added that, though Scripture cannot err, its expounders and interpreters are liable to err in many ways”

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
“Therefore, those to whom God has imparted religion by intuition are very fortunate, and justly convinced. But to those who do not have it, we can give it only by reasoning, waiting for God to give them spiritual insight, without which faith is only human, and useless for salvation.”

Isaac Newton (1642-1727)
“The most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”

Michael Faraday (1791-1867)
“The human mind is placed above, and not beneath it, and it is in such a point of view that the mental education afforded by science is rendered super-eminent in dignity, in practical application and utility; for by enabling the mind to apply the natural power through law, it conveys the gifts of God to man.”

Robert Boyle (1791-1867)
“shewing that, being addicted to experimental philosophy a man is rather assisted than indisposed to be a good Christian.”

The quotes above only scratch the surface of what these men believed about the role of God’s word in science and vice versa, and obviously the list of people and number of quotes could continue. The point here is not that the Bible is inerrant when it deals with scientific matters, but that, contrary to Greer’s assertions, it DOES deal with scientific matters. As proof of fact, we see that all of the scientists above relied heavily on Biblical assertions when conducting scientific investigation – i.e. that the material Universe had a distinct beginning, was created by an Intelligent Mind and therefore it was governed by fixed, uniform and intelligible laws that humans could use to understand its workings and, more importantly, personally relate to its Creator.

It was only the Modernist era which gave rise to the widespread (and dangerous) belief that science and religion must be kept in separate “containers” of consideration and discussion, where never the twain shall meet. Greer, perhaps without knowing it, is simply reinforcing this artificial dualistic or “binary” mode of thinking that he often laments when discussing other topics. The question is not whether conservative Christians are right or wrong about Darwinian evolution based on modern scientific evidence, but whether there is any Biblical basis for them to argue that certain scientific theories are in tension with Biblical theology, and therefore make such arguments a part of their Christian ministry or mission in life.

The answer to this question from Greer’s perspective is a resounding NO. His only support for this answer, however, is the artificial duality that he imposes on the Bible and those of faith. It is true that many Western conservative Christians ignore proper scientific inquiry and simply attack theories on the basis of what they have been taught to believe. That fact is clear enough from the widespread conservative Christian critique of Big Bang cosmology. This critique is just as harsh if not more harsh than attacks on evolutionary theory, despite the fact that Big Bang cosmology supports the Bible’s claim of a beginning to all space, time, energy and matter!

Many of them have simply been taught to equate the Big Bang with “evolution”, thoroughly mixing up the sciences of cosmology and biology in the process. So it’s true that such ignorance and blind passion is prevalent, but Greer’s assertion here is also trite and irrelevant. He is trying to base an entire argument about historic Christianity, Biblical interpretation, science and theology on this one trite observation. Therein lies the binary mentality he fails to recognize in his own thinking (the following is MY take on his thinking):

“Either you are ignorant and blindly impassioned like THOSE Christians, or you are ‘progressive’ and well-versed in modern science like US”…

“Either you read the Bible ‘literally’ like THOSE Christians, or you read it metaphorically and allegorically like US”…

“Either the Bible is a scientific TEXTBOOK or it has ABSOLUTELY NO relation to science at all”…

The truth about the Bible is not so dualistic and simple. Like most good literature, it contains many different genres and literary devices – historical narratives, biographies, apocalyptic writing, military accounts, love stories, poetry, parables, metaphors, allegory, etc. The intention is not to create fiction or obscure reality but to convey truths about reality in brilliantly impactful ways. There is no reason to say that these truths are limited to “theological” truths rather than historical or scientific ones, or that those fields do not overlap and complement one another in the Bible. Such an argument presents an artificial and unnecessary duality, one that was NEVER incorporated into the historic Christian faith.

On the contrary, and as the evidence above makes clear, the historic Christian faith held to by many “conservative” members of the Church today has made no qualms that its theological messages are deeply intertwined with its historical and scientific assertions (or data points, if you will). Nowhere is this Biblical truth made more evident than in the very heart of Christian doctrine – the incarnation, ministry, death and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in the region of Palestine during the first century AD.  Christians assert that the entire Bible from front to back revolves around and points to this one God-man – the divine Logos, the Word made flesh (John 1:14), through whom “all things were made” (1:3).

Greer asserts that the core of Christianity is faith and grace, which is TRUE, but then requires Bible-believing Christians to greatly suspend their disbelief when asserting that the Christian faith is not compatible with, or cannot be based on, intellectual and rational inquiry into other fields of knowledge.

“This, of course, is what a great many religions have been saying all along. In most of the religions of the west, and many of those from other parts of the world, faith is a central theme, and faith is not a matter of passing some kind of multiple choice test; it’s not a matter of the intellect at all; rather, it’s the commitment of the whole self to a way of seeing the cosmos that can be neither proved nor disproved rationally, but has to be accepted or rejected on its own terms”

The above is an exceptional encapsulation of Modernist dogma regarding religion. Greer has now thoroughly associated himself with the thinkers and pundits of the last few centuries who have attempted to quarantine spirituality from logic, reason and empirical evidence. It should be readily apparent how absurd this dogma really is when stripped down to its bare essentials. But, seeing as how I stand on the shoulder of pre-modernist giants, I will conclude this rebuttal by quoting Paul’s famous argument in 1 Corinthians 15, which flatly contradicts much of what Greer has asserted in his recent articles. Paul takes Greer’s grossly misleading, ahistorical caricature of Christianity and puts the Faith back into its proper historical perspective.

“But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (12-19)

On the Far Side of Progress

Off the keyboard of John Michael Greer

Published on The Archdruid Report on July 31, 2013

Summer_Solstice_Sunrise_over_Stonehenge_2005

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The pointless debates over evolution discussed in last week’s Archdruid Report post have any number of equivalents all through contemporary industrial culture.  Pick a topic, any topic, and it’s a pretty safe bet that  the collective imagination defines it these days as an irreconcilable divide between two and only two points of view, one of which is portrayed as realistic, reasonable, progressive, and triumphant, while the other is portrayed as sentimental, nostalgic, inaccurate, and certain to lose—that is to say, as a microcosm of the mythology of progress.
According to that mythology, after all, every step of the heroic onward march of progress came about because some bold intellectual visionary or other, laboring against the fierce opposition of a majority of thinkers bound by emotional ties to outworn dogmas, learned to see the world clearly for the first time, and in the process deprived humanity of some sentimental claim to a special status in the universe. That’s the way you’ll find the emergence of the theory of evolution described in textbooks and popular nonfiction to this day.  Darwin’s got plenty of company, too:  all the major figures of the history of science from Copernicus through Albert Einstein get the same treatment in popular culture. It’s a remarkably pervasive bit of narrative, which makes it all the more remarkable that, as far as history goes, it’s essentially a work of fiction.
I’d encourage those of my readers who doubt that last point to read Stephen Jay Gould’s fascinating book Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle. Gould’s subject is the transformation in geology that took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when theories of geological change that centered on Noah’s flood gave way to the uniformitarian approach that’s dominated geology ever since.  Pick up a popular book on the history of earth sciences, and you’ll get the narrative I’ve just outlined:  the role of nostalgic defender of an outworn dogma is assigned to religious thinkers such as Thomas Burnet, while that of heroic pioneer of reason and truth is conferred on geologists such as James Hutton.
What Gould demonstrates in precise and brutal detail is that the narrative can be imposed on the facts only by sacrificing any claim to intellectual honesty.  It’s simply not true, for example, that Burnet dismissed the evidence of geology when it contradicted his Christian beliefs, or that Hutton reached his famous uniformitarian conclusions in a sudden flash of insight while studying actual rock strata—two claims that have been endlessly repeated in textbooks and popular literature. More broadly, the entire popular history of uniformitarian geology amounts to a “self-serving mythology”—those are Gould’s words, not mine—that’s flatly contradicted by every bit of the historical evidence.
Another example? Consider the claim, endlessly regurgitated in textbooks and popular literature about the history of astronomy, that the geocentric theory—the medieval view of things that put the Earth at the center of the solar system—assigned humanity a privileged place in the cosmos. I don’t think I’ve ever read a popular work on the subject that didn’t include that factoid. It seems plausible enough, too, unless you happen to know the first thing about medieval cosmological thought.
The book to read here is The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis—yes, that C.S. Lewis; the author of the Narnia books was also one of the most brilliant medievalists of his day, and the author of magisterial books on medieval and Renaissance thought. What Lewis shows, with a wealth of examples from the relevant literature, is that nobody in the Middle Ages thought of the Earth’s position as any mark of privilege, or for that matter as centrally placed in the universe. To the medieval mind, the Earth was one notch above the rock bottom of the cosmos, a kind of grubby suburban slum built on the refuse dump outside the walls of the City of Heaven. Everything that mattered went on above the sphere of the Moon; everything that really mattered went on out beyond the sphere of the fixed stars, where God and the angels dwelt.
The one scrap of pride left to fallen humanity was that, even though it was left to grub for a living on the dungheap of the cosmos, it hadn’t quite dropped all the way to the very bottom. The very bottom was Hell, with Satan trapped at its very center; the Earth was a shell of solid matter that surrounded Hell, the same way that the sphere of the Moon surrounded that of Earth, the sphere of Mercury that of the Moon, and so on outwards to Heaven.  Physically speaking, in other words, the medieval cosmos was diabolocentric, not geocentric—again, the Earth was merely one of the nested spheres between the center and the circumference of the cosmos—and the physical cosmos itself was simply an inverted reflection of the spiritual cosmos, which had God at the center, Satan pinned immovably against the outermost walls of being, and the Earth not quite as far as you could get from Heaven.
Thus the Copernican revolution didn’t deprive anybody of a sense of humanity’s special place in the cosmos; quite the contrary, eminent thinkers at the time wondered if it wasn’t arrogant to suggest that humanity might be privileged enough to dwell in what, in the language of the older cosmology, was the fourth sphere up from the bottom! It takes only a little leafing through medieval writings to learn that, but the fiction that the medieval cosmos assigned humanity a special place until Copernicus cast him out of it remains glued in place in the conventional wisdom of our time. When the facts don’t correspond to the mythology of progress, in other words, too bad for the facts.
Other examples could be multiplied endlessly, starting with the wholly fictitious flat-earth beliefs that modern writers insist on attributing to the people who doubted Columbus, but these will do for the moment, not least because one of the authors I’ve cited was one of the 20th century’s most thoughtful evolutionary biologists and the other was one of the 20th century’s most thoughtful Christians. The point I want to make is that the conventional modern view of the history of human thought is a fiction, a morality play that has nothing to do with the facts of the past and everything to do with justifying the distribution of influence, wealth, and intellectual authority in today’s industrial world.  That’s relevant here because the divide sketched out at the beginning of this essay—the supposedly irreconcilable struggles between a way of knowing the world that’s realistic, progressive and true, and a received wisdom that’s sentimental, nostalgic, and false—is modeled on the narrative we’ve just been examining, and has no more to do with the facts on the ground than the narrative does.
The great difference between the two is that neither medieval cosmographers nor late 18th century geologists had the least notion that they were supposed to act out a morality play for the benefit of viewers in the early 21st century. Here in the early 21st century, by contrast, a culture that’s made the morality play in question the center of its collective identity for more than three hundred years is very good at encouraging people to act out their assigned roles in the play, even when doing so flies in the face of their own interests.  Christian churches gain nothing, as I pointed out in last week’s post, by accepting the loser’s role in the ongoing squabble over evolution, and the huge amounts of time, effort, and money that have gone into the creationist crusade could have been applied to something relevant to to the historic creeds and commitments of the Christian religion, rather than serving to advance the agenda of their enemies. That this never seems to occur to them is a measure of the power of the myth.
Those of my readers who have an emotional investment in the environmental movement might not want to get too smug about the creationists, mind you, because their own movement has been drawn into filling exactly the same role, with equally disastrous consequences.  It’s not just that the media consistently likes to portray environmentalism as a sentimental, nostalgic movement with its eyes fixed on an idealized prehuman or pretechnological past, though of course that’s true. A great many of the public spokespersons for environmental causes also speak in the same terms, either raging against the implacable advance of progress or pleading for one or another compromise in which a few scraps are tossed nature’s way as the engines of progress go rumbling on.
According to the myth of progress, those are the sort of speeches that are assigned to the people on  history’s losing side, and environmentalists in recent decades have done a really impressive job of conforming to the requirements of their assigned role.  When was the last time, for example, that you heard an environmentalist offer a vision of the future that wasn’t either business as usual with a coat of green spraypaint, a return to an earlier and allegedly greener time, or utter catastrophe?  As recently as the 1970s, it was quite common for people in the green end of things to propose enticing visions of a creative, sustainable, radically different future in harmony with nature, but that habit got lost in the next decade, about the time the big environmental lobbies sold out to corporate America.
Now of course once a movement redefines its mission as begging for scraps from the tables of the wealthy and influential, as mainstream environmentalism has done, it’s not going to do it any good to dream big dreams. Still, there’s a deeper pattern at work here.  The myth of progress assigns the job of coming up with bold new visions of the future to the winning side—which means in practice the side that wins the political struggle to get its agenda defined as the next step of progress—and assigns to the losing side instead the job of idealizing the past and warning about the dreadful catastrophes that are sure to happen unless the winners relent in their onward march. Raise people to believe implicitly in a social narrative, and far more often than not they’ll fill their assigned roles in that narrative, even at great cost to themselves, since the alternative is a shattering revaluation of all values in which the unthinking certainties that frame most human thought have to be dragged up to the surface and judged on their own potentially dubious merits.
Such a revaluation, though, is going to happen anyway in the not too distant future, because the onward march of progress is failing to live up to the prophecies that have been made in its name.  As noted in an earlier post in this sequence, civil religions are vulnerable to sudden collapse because their kingdom is wholly of this world; believers in a theist religion can console themselves in the face of continual failure with the belief that their sufferings will be amply repaid in heaven, but the secular worldview common to civil religions slams the door in the face of that hope.
The civil religion of Communism thus imploded when it became impossible for people on either side of the Iron Curtain to ignore the gap between prophecy and reality, and I’ve argued in an earlier series of posts that there’s good reason to think that the civil religion of Americanism may go the same way in the decades ahead of us.  The civil religion of progress, though, is at least as vulnerable to that species of sudden collapse. So far, the suggestion that progress might be over for good is something you’ll encounter mostly in edgy humor magazines and the writings of intellectual heretics far enough out on the cultural fringes to be invisible to the arbiters of fashion; so far, “they’ll think of something” remains the soothing mantra du jour of the true believers in the great god Progress.
Nonetheless, history points up the reliability with which one era’s unquestioned truths become the next era’s embarrassing memories.  To return to a point raised earlier in this sequence, the concept of progress has no content of its own, and so it’s been possible so far for believers in progress to pretend to ignore all the things in American life that are blatantly retrogressing, and to keep scrabbling around for something, anything, that will still prop up the myth. In today’s America, living standards for most people have been falling for decades, along with literacy rates and most measures of public health; the nation’s infrastructure has been ravaged by decades of malign neglect, its schools are by most measures the worst in the industrial world, and even the most basic public services are being cut to Third World standards or below; the lunar landers scattered across the face of the Moon stare back blindly at a nation that no longer has a manned space program at all and, despite fitful outbursts of rhetoric from politicians and the idle rich, almost certainly will never have one again. None of that matters—yet.
Another of the lessons repeatedly taught by history, though, is that sooner or later these things will matter.  Sooner or later, some combination of events will push cognitive dissonance to the breaking point, and the civil religion of progress will collapse under the burden of its own failed prophecies. That’s almost unthinkable for most people in the industrial world these days, but it’s crucial to recognize that the mere fact that something is unthinkable is no guarantee that it won’t happen.
Thus it’s important for those of us who want to be prepared for the future to try to think about the unthinkable—to come to terms with the possibility that the future will see a widespread rejection of the myth of progress and everything connected to it. That wasn’t a likely option in an age when economic expansion and rapid technological development were everyday facts of life, but we no longer live in such an age, and the fading memories of the last decades when those things happened will not retain their power indefinitely. Imagine a future America where the available resources don’t even suffice to maintain existing technological systems, only the elderly remember sustained economic growth, and the new technological devices that still come onto the market now and then are restricted to the very few who are wealthy enough to afford them. At what point along that curve do the promises of progress become so self-evidently absurd that the power of the civil religion of progress to shape thought and motivate behavior breaks down completely?
It’s ironic but entirely true that actual technological progress could continue, at least for a time, after the civil religion of progress is busy pushing up metaphorical daisies in the cemetery of dead faiths. What gives the religion of progress its power over so many minds and hearts is not progress itself, but the extraordinary burden of values and meanings that progress is expected to carry in our society.  It’s not the mere fact that new technologies show up in the stores every so often that matters, but the way that this grubby commercial process serves to bolster a collective sense of entitlement and a galaxy of wild utopian dreams about the human future. If the sense of entitlement gives way to a sense of failure or, worse, of betrayal, and the dreamers wake up and recognize that the dreams were never anything more than pipe dreams in the first place, the backlash could be one for the record books.
One way or another, the flow of new products will eventually sputter to a halt, though at least some of today’s technologies will stay in use for as long as they can be kept functioning in the harsh conditions of an age of resource scarcity and ecological payback. A surprisingly broad range of technologies can be built and maintained by people who have little or no grasp of the underlying science, and thus it has happened more than once—as with the Roman aqueducts that brought water to medieval cities—that a relatively advanced technology can be kept running for centuries by people who have no clue how it was built. Over the short and middle term, in a world after progress, we can probably expect many current technologies to remain in place for a while, though it’s an open question how many people in America and elsewhere will still be able to afford to use them for how much longer.
Ultimately, that last factor may be the Achilles’ heel of most modern technologies.  In the not too distant future, any number of projects that might be possible in some abstract sense will never happen, because all the energy, raw materials, labor, and money that are still available are already committed twice over to absolute necessities, and nothing can be spared for anything else. In any age of resource scarcity and economic contraction, that’s a fairly common phenomenon, and it’s no compliment to contemporary thinking about the future that so many of the grand plans being circulated in the sustainability scene ignore the economics of contraction so completely.
Still, that’s a theme for a different post. The point I want to raise here has to do with the consequences of a collective loss of faith in the civil religion of progress—consequences that aren’t limited to the realm of technology, but spill over into economics, politics, and nearly every other dimension of contemporary life. The stereotyped debates introduced at the beginning of this post and discussed in more detail toward the middle will be abandoned, and their content will have to be reframed in completely different terms, once the myth of progress, which provides them with their basic script, loses its hold on the collective imagination. The historical fictions also discussed earlier will be up for the same treatment. It’s hard to think of any aspect of modern thought that hasn’t been permeated by the myth of progress, and when that myth shatters and has to be replaced by other narratives, an extraordinary range of today’s unquestioned certainties will be up for grabs.

That has implications I plan on exploring in a number of future posts. Some of the most crucial of those implications, though, bear directly on one of the core institutions of contemporary industrial culture, an institution that has derived much of its self-image and a galaxy of benefits from the historical fictions and stereotyped debates discussed earlier in this post. Next week, therefore, we’ll talk about what science might look like in a world on the far side of progress.

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