I’ve been thinking lately about the implications spelled out in Dante’s Inferno and the pre-occupation of the middle-agers in one’s ultimate demise and the potential horrors of Hell.
In the book, Dante tells about being guided by the poet Virgil into the underworld, which is this huge pit containing the souls of all the people who have died and been found guilty of evil doings without having done anything, penitence-wise, that would have maybe gotten them to a more favorable eternal location. The first level of the underworld is for people who haven’t been baptized and, basically, all they have to do is wait around forever, but as Dante and Virgil go down deeper and deeper they discover each successive level holds souls who have been more evil than the last and are made to suffer worse conditions.
On level five heretics are encased in fiery graves and watched over by the Furies and Medusa. On level seven violent souls are submerged in a river of boiling blood and watched over by the Minotaur who, when they come up for air, shoves them back down. When the poets get to the very bottom they find Satan encased in ice and unable to move, so they climb up his huge body and escape from Hell.
It’s pretty clear Dante must have thought about Hell a lot. The amount of detail he goes in to is amazing. I wonder if he felt guilty about something or if he was just trying to warn people to walk the straight and narrow.
Anyway, I think people today think differently about what Hell will be like than they did in Dante’s day. It probably will have more to do with the loss of mobile communication devices and reality TV.
Having spent some time recently visiting a Christian pilgrimage site of some considerable significance to believers (and history buffs as well), it became apparent to me the penitents amongst the crowds stood out. It was pretty clear there is a deep emotional engagement, a heart-felt belief in the Christian dogma many of the pilgrims feel and adhere to.
It got me thinking about the sort of commitment other spiritual engagements require of their followers if their followers can be expected to remain followers. Other than Reformed Judaism which appears to be based pretty much on cultural tradition most other religious endeavors expect, if not an emotional commitment, an intellectual discipline whereby the metaphysical can be approached, the value of which for the honest participant is cultivation of a groundedness that is helpful in seeing through and beyond the petty and not so petty distractions life presents with considerable constancy.
Problems tend to arise when differences in doctrinal beliefs lead followers to deny the legitimacy of other traditions. It would be good, I think, if more adherents would focus on the common rather than the different and set aside the arrogance of an assumed superiority.
I’ve been reading lately about the strange and self-serving developments that followed Charles Darwin’s determinations of biological evolution. There were certain late 19th century thinkers that found it advantageous to apply the evolutionary theory to the social milieu: that the ‘fittest survivors’ referred to those most able to exploit the economic system, that material wealth meant social progress, and unimpeded pursuit of capital gains would lead to a better world, in the interests of which capital would not be wasted to shore up the least able, and, in fact, eugenic cleansing would provide a superior ultimate outcome.
In opposition or at least counter-point to such an hard-hearted position were those who saw man as a social animal, empathetic to his fellows and reliant on community to provide a reasonable, happy and successful life for all. These altruistic sorts saw social solidarity as evolutionary, naturally evolved over millennia, evidenced by primitive, tribal man whose very survival required social care and cooperation.
Anyway, the majority of folks found well-reasoned logic in both of these fairly divergent positions, the result being a populous which has since embraced philosophical contradictions between our natural propensity for empathy toward our fellows, our common humanity, and the conviction we’re not all equal, some of us being morally and intellectually superior.
We can only hope that, at some point in the not too distant future, recognition of our mental incapacities will be realized and we’ll come to our senses.
I’ve been reading a treatise by the much respected religious historian Mircea Eliade that offers the theory that religious man has a richer existence than someone without religious beliefs.
As Professor Eliade sees it, those who see the physical world as an embodiment of the sacred will more often be able to rise above the profane world to a spiritual plane, basking in and identifying with the sacred. Non-religious man, on the other hand must exist without such a dimension, limited to the hard reality of a profane existence and the anxiety of ultimate mortal extinction.
But, he says, even non-religious man hasn’t completely eliminated the structures of the spiritual from his reality. As religious man may, through ritual passage, be symbolically reborn to greater awareness of the sacred, so too non-religious man will likely transition between life-styles, new living locales and changing occupations, and will experience a sense of newness akin to spiritual rebirth.
I guess we can never completely discount our deeply embedded humanity.
I’ve been reading that, in centuries past, some very bright and talented men held that within human nature an ‘inborn knowledge’ existed. But, what exactly this inner faculty was, wasn’t so easy to explain or necessarily easy for folks to recognize being housed as it was (and still is, I guess) within the subconscious. This innate psychic potential could, it was believed, foretell future events to those awakened to the ability, and numerous examples of just such occurrences were collected by the true believers, among whom was Johannes Kepler (the renowned 16th century mathematician) who also believed, along with numerous others, that each of us is under the influence of astrological movements that form our characters and behaviors and feed our psychic awareness.
So, before science gained the firm grasp on our sense of reality that it has today, explanations of why we feel, behave and act the way we do had firm bases in the occult. And, lest we dismiss these ideas too quickly we must admit that we do have déjà vu moments now and again and there are times when I’m hard pressed to explain the nature of my sudden psychic discomforts.
I have this nagging feeling I’ve traveled these same roads somehow, somewhere before.
I’ve been reading this very credible account of how the historical, earthly, human Jesus of Nazareth became, over time, other-worldly and part of the Godhead; in essence, something entirely other. Whereas the historical Jesus was a compassionate advocate for the down-trodden masses, he was nevertheless put to death for what was seen as political ambitions. There were those not content to let the man they perceived as messiah, savior of the world to pass into oblivion before his promised kingdom of God on earth was established. A pretty good number of his most ardent followers swore on their very lives that the body in the tomb was re-animated, became once again a flesh and blood individual. The historical Jesus was thus re conceived as God Incarnate and the remarkable, admirable man, a role-model for all, was lost for all time.
The logical thinkers of the time found all of this pretty hard to believe; they were thinking, I guess, some sort of mass hypnosis or hysteria must have brought about the idea of a resurrected person who was, in addition, imagined to have been virgin born. But, logical progression isn’t necessarily the final determinant of what may or may not actually be the case; an open-mind must allow for the inconceivable, that unexplainable things occur all the time. (Just consider political occurrences these days).
Anyway, it appears that, when it comes down to deriving an honest perspective of the existence and workings of the universe the Christian believer will rely on his truth of God’s hand in it all, while the curious unbeliever will look toward continued scientific research to find explanations of why things are as they are while acknowledging the many mysteries of existence.
Seems pretty irreconcilable; truth eludes us; we all must just keep thinking, I guess.
I have just recently spent some time along the shore of the largest freshwater lake on the Continent.
The experience has me thinking about a poetic comment made by a local resident well familiar with the immense waterbody and its impact on the natural environs: the lake, he said, is God.
I’ve been reading how water functions as religious symbol, you know, as primordial formlessness from which all life emerges and as purifier, cleansing the world of the detritus and accumulating filth that profane existence necessarily produces. The big lake does seem to fit the profile in both cases. As I sat on the shore admiring the pristine beauty and vastness, a certain serenity did seem to subvene upon my restlessness. Maybe the lake is God.
My companion and I have recently completed a three week trip through southern Europe. One might call what we did a vacation, I suppose, but traveling the way we do it involves coordinating train schedules, locating pre-arranged housing, meeting voucher deadlines, acquiring foodstuffs that are compatible with cooking facilities, all requiring miles traveled on foot, all of which is hard work resulting in thorough and complete exhaustion at the end of most days. The rewards, though, are rich in personal encounters and experiences, and, in our opinion, well worth the effort.
Upon completion of such an adventure we are ultimately required by friends, relatives and acquaintances to offer a narrative. The shared experiences, however, don’t translate to a common story, which, I suppose, one could attribute to differing focuses of attention and/or memory lapse, but, it seems to me, the remembered experiences are so varied that one can only assume the unique worlds in which we each exist defy a common reality. We must, I guess, all get along day to day unaware, most of the time that the person next to us is a truly alien presence.
So, I was reading that the most hardened atheist more than likely has some sort of sense of the sacred. It may be in the remembrance and contemplation of a personal past experience or as an instance in time and space when an acute awareness of the efficacious natural world transcends the mere physical. I suppose there are all sorts of possibilities.
Anyway, after reading a very convincing tome suggesting the likelihood our universe came into existence from nothing: that’s no space and no matter for that matter and certainly no creative overseer, I’ve nevertheless come to realize a sense of the sacred is and always has been a part of my reality. As exciting as the new theories and discoveries in particle physics are I still, and suspect I always will, relish the enrichments I experience from a cool breeze on a warm summer’s day that often mean more, have a greater personal significance than can be explained by science.
As I sit here surrounded by nature, despite the potential distress the wood tick crawling up my pants leg may cause and the lack of potable water to quench my thirst and the ache in my back due to an unseen mud hole, the sacred, nevertheless is present.
So, particle physicists and cosmologists are theorizing that there are infinitesimal universes popping into and out of existence all the time and that these universes are occurring from nothing: no space, no particles, no gravitational fields, no electro-magnetism, no laws of nature: nada, zero. These universes, they theorize, are the result of quantum fluctuations of ‘virtual particles’ (here one nano-second, gone the next). And, the thinking goes, there is a very strong likelihood that the universe within which we live may very well be an inflated version of such a universe from nothing.
I must admit this is all pretty hard for me to grasp, has me wondering about what nothing is and isn’t, among other things. Does this mean, our universe having popped into existence, that it could suddenly pop out of existence as well? If it did would the resulting vacuum suck all and everything into a very large black hole only to reconfigure as a new universe: a mirror image of its former self?
I find these ideas pretty exciting and they have me wondering about what the quantum world will show us next. I imagine, though, theologians might not like the ideas very much.