Medieval Entertainments

I’ve been reading that entertainment in late medieval France involved, for many of the unlettered inhabitants’ activities and performances we today might find a bit disturbing.

The Church was always on the lookout for those among the population whose behaviors might suggest possession by the devil (or devils, I guess). Exorcisms were a popular occurrence attended by the citizenry who looked with rapt attention as devils were extricated from the possessed by various means sometimes involving holy water enemas.

Women who were known to employ magic were considered in league with the devil and so declared witches subject to burning at the stake or drowning unless she floated in which case she would be burned. Such events were another well attended attraction no doubt.

These uneducated medieval folks saw most everything in terms of the supernatural. Fear of the Devil was a significant aspect of their reality. Satanic power begets respect leading many to participate in Black Sabbaths where the Evil One was worshipped, moral abandonment the rule, promiscuity encouraged, and great fun was had by all.

I guess for the average medieval townsfolk all was not pain and hardship, entertainments were there to be had if one could avoid becoming the focus of attention.

The Talentless Hero

I’ve been reading aphorisms by the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran. E. C. was an extreme misanthrope of such pessimistic belief it led his distraught mother, unable to understand his negativity to tell him she wished he’d never been born, that had she known what he’d become she’d have aborted him.

As I seek something enlightening (or at least redeemable) in his writings I find him relating that, while life is a misery, chronically painful, that suffering is universal and never ending and that most people are too pathetic to do anything about it, sustainable existence may lie in hope and the distractions engaging in arts activities might offer. But for the talentless, the disaster which is reality will be overwhelming. E. C. thinks better to give one’s life to heroic acts since there really is nothing to live for. The talentless hero can at least have a sort of remembrance.

As for me, I’m not sure how fair it is to reduce the heroism of, say, a combat troop who falls on a grenade to save his comrades to lack of talent. Still, it’s hard to imagine that an inner life of some sort wouldn’t keep one from diving for cover in such circumstances.

Easter Visions

I’ve been thinking about the influence Christianity had over the people of the Middle Ages. The fact that the peasants, poor as they were, would sacrifice to enrich the church and volunteer back-breaking labor to erect the cathedrals must have meant extreme piety. Their most important event of the year would have been Easter, celebration of the resurrection.

I’ve been reading, though, that perhaps religious experiences, the visions, messages from God so common to these medieval folks might have had something to do with chemistry; an inadequate diet brought on by Lenten fasting as well as the hallucinogenic effects of the ergot that formed in the grain bins as supplies ran low in the spring.

If such was the case for the medieval peasants, any means of tempering the harsh realities of their existence might certainly be thought of as a gift from God.

Trickster Gods

I’ve been thinking, lately, about the trickster gods polytheistic religions have conjured or otherwise discovered among their myriad deities. Tricksters like the Nordic Loki and Kokopelli, God of the indigenous tribes of the desert southwest, are known to be instigators of chaos, are blamed when life’s routines are interrupted or seen as tempters when one strays from the straight and narrow. Deceit, betrayal and treachery are the domains of the tricksters.

In contrast the monotheistic religions, who, of course, do have Satan to blame when things go awry, have the dilemma of reconciling their infallible, all-powerful Deity with the idea He would allow evil to occur, that He is unable to thwart the Satanic demons mortals struggle with.

On the one hand we have the pagans, who, keeping things simple, perform rites to solicit favor from gods they recognized as having faults as well as attributes, who may or may not perform as desired. On the other hand, the intellectual discrepancies monotheists are continually confronted with in order to sustain faith in an Infallible God must consistently be addressed.

When it comes down to it, though, I guess the real issue isn’t about specifics of belief but the mystery of belief in the unknown itself.

Belief in God

As things began spiraling out of control she wondered if belief in God was a viable option.

Well, maybe belief was the wrong word. It seemed to her unlikely one can suddenly ‘believe’ something not believed or at least had taken to be credible at some earlier time in life. Something, some idea, introduced to her, possibly in childhood that kind of drifted along in the sub-conscious for years until some sort of existential shock brought it (the belief) to the surface and seemed suddenly to be just the things the extraordinary times required.

So maybe it was more like expedient, practical to seek and find a supernatural entity to appeal to in these dire times when her resources were strained and uncertainties about her very survival constantly pressed. She had settled, after all, as she had thought about it over the years, on an enlightened agnosticism not a hard atheism. God as a concept was elusive but not easily dismissed in totality and now seemed the time to, if not make re-acquaintance, at least allow the embedded idea to come a bit closer to the surface. There is something comforting about the idea of a benevolent overlord, protector, benefactor in these uncertain times.

If only maintaining belief was that simple.

A Cosmic Road Trip

A recent long road trip had me listening to audio books of the sort providing lots of easy-to-follow action. The books I listen to while traveling are ones I would likely not spend time reading but they’re books I find helpful in passing the time during the long expressway miles.

One of the books I listened to offered believable (but pseudo, I suppose) science that got me thinking. The idea that caught my attention was Spontaneous Creation. The beginnings of life on earth, the book’s protagonist explained, was not due to the Big Bang or an Act of God but by natural physical processes responding to thermo-dynamics, the energy required to ward off entropic disintegration: the idea being that the sun’s heat brings sub-atomic particles into alignment eventually forming complexities that evolve over time into life as we know it.

The idea seemed pretty sound to me but, as the author pointed out the ‘laws’ of thermo-dynamics and entropic disintegration imply the existence of a First Cause, something above and beyond imposing order on the universe. A well-reasoned assumption, I guess, but a cynical nature has me wondering if, perhaps, the author was thinking less about science than about book sales.

Does skepticism Inhibit Emotional Development?

I’ve been thinking about two essays I’ve recently read by the 19th century philosopher William James. The essays were delivered to the philosophical society and YMCA at Harvard and Yale, respectively, where, it appears, enlightenment thinking had not surprisingly undermined religious beliefs of many faculty members and students.

The thing that has stuck with me as I think about his essentially pro-faith rationale is his fervent assertion that skepticism about belief in God (in whatever form it may take), if sustained will inhibit emotional growth. One must have the will, he maintains, to choose, make an informed decision and move forward in that belief or disbelief until new experiences lead to reassessment.

I find this position to be counter to my own fairly skeptical nature. My thought processes are organized to entertain possibilities without the need to choose one. So, I guess I must count myself among the timid non-choosers wondering what it must be like living in the rarefied air of firm belief.

An Enlightening Perspective

I’ve been reading essays, lately by the 19th Century philosopher William James. W. J. believed the best path to a healthy happy existence passed through religious belief, which, he writes, involved embracing the best, ‘more eternal’ things in life. He poses his argument at a time when many were coming to grips with the revelations science had uncovered about the natural world. Mysteries previously attributed to the supernatural became understandable; an Enlightenment world view undermined religious belief for those who thought about such things. W. J. argues philosophical pursuit of ‘objective truth’ will only yield, in the end, a deadly dogmatism, an intellectual dead end unable to accommodate experiential re-discovery. Such a pursuit lacks grasp of the realization that scientific knowledge is but a drop in the sea of the unknown.

Our philosopher maintains all of us, everyone, has an ‘inner voice’, an intuitive sense beyond our rational, logical minds that we sometimes suppress, but, when acknowledged can contribute to a superior life experience. One must, he suggests, exercise intellectual bravery, seeking answers to Life’s Big Questions, to not fear being wrong, to conjure the faith to believe. Skepticism he writes delays man’s emotional, intellectual development, is no more than a delaying tactic for those afraid to be wrong. A foray into the metaphysical, the supernatural world is an enlightening prospect, a means of realizing possibilities of eternal entities which will convey a sense of optimism to those religiously embracing that which is beyond the confines of science.

On the face of it, to my 21st century mind, W. J. seems a bit too optimistic. Was the late 19th century a simpler more naïve time? Well, certainly not. It’s just that we’ve put the front and center LBQ’s on the back burner these days.

An Audience with Lord Ganesha

Natural De-Selection

A few years ago, I made a hike into the Burgess Shale in British Columbia. The site contains fossils of pre-Cambrian life forms, many of which barely saw the light of day before fading into extinction. The most unusual of these early animals were asymmetrical, having three and sometimes five appendages, which, I suppose, might explain why these animals didn’t make it to the Cambrian era and beyond. It seems unlikely they’d have been able to compete well in a gravitational environment and it appears they were naturally de-selected in favor of the mobile superiority of bi- and quadrupedal life. I guess it will always be the case that some life forms will be naturally de-selected for an inability to adapt in a hostile and competitive world.

Given our difficulties dealing with our current dilemmas (i.e. dreaded virus, nuclear arms proliferation, political alienation, et. al.) I’m just wondering how close humanity may be getting to the top of the de-selection list.

The Downside of the Reformation

I’ve been reading about the Roman Church’s extreme influence over the population of medieval Europe. Papal authorities demanded monetary compensations for all sorts of things. The sales of indulgences was particularly lucrative. Parishioners were assured such investment would reduce the purgatorial sentences of one’s departed loved ones.

By the early 16th century people began to realize the scam: that their hard earned money was funding a papal court engaged in extravagant living rather than winning early release from purgatorial Hell, which resulted in a serious collapse of papal influence not to mention the drain on monetary resources. The people though, still as religious as ever and now without an absolute overseer to guide them to the after-life (which had they thought about it wasn’t all that wonderful to look forward to anyway) found that they really didn’t need to be led at all, could interpret scripture for themselves and make their own way into God’s good graces.

The problem was that if anyone and everyone could make up his (or her) own mind about ‘True Faith’ then there would probably end up being a lot of differing opinions about what exactly the ‘True Faith’ was and whose side God was on, which is indeed what happened. As it turned out people discovering their own personal ‘True Faith’ weren’t particularly amenable to being contradicted by someone else’s idea of ‘True Faith’ which led to some pretty nasty and bloody conflicts, wars, beheadings and burnings that continued for over 100 years.

I guess, in the end, the tumult did bring about needed social reform and, you know, re-establish a semblance of authority.  The means to achieve it, though was certainly a far cry from the message of the gospels.