I’ve been reading about the most incredible difficulties those individuals of unorthodox thinking had around the turn of the 19th century (that is 1890’s to 1910’s or so). Public awareness of ideas questioning religious dogmas, racial inequities, subjugation of women and the like, often resulted in ostracization for any mindful individual who voiced such thoughts. Condemnation by a powerful fundamentalist clergy and demonizing by the mainstream press were powerful disincentives to speak out and those courageous enough to do so were often censored or ignored.
It must have been really hard to have a creative mind back then. New ideas were often seen as blasphemous or heretical by the majority; absolute truth ruled the day and made it easier, I suppose, for those who didn’t want to think too hard about the big questions.
These days it seems the majorities, consuming as they do their preferred sound bites, butt heads pretty much on a daily basis. Knowing their own truth leaves small room for considering the complexities, gray areas or subtleties of today’s issues, leaving free thinkers without much of a voice.
Some things never change, I guess, but resistance to free thought can be pretty disturbing sometimes.
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 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.
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.
I’ve been working hard lately to subdue my natural inclination to make blanket judgments, but intersecting ,regularly, heavily touristed areas has brought me into contact with, among others, large contingents of camera and selfie-stick wielding Japanese who seem much more interested in capturing their likeness in front of the canons of western art than in viewing and contemplating said art. In addition they’re loud and seemingly oblivious to those around them. I find them quite annoying. To be honest it all just reinforces my cynical nature of mankind in general.
Deep breaths; deep breaths; let it pass; focus on Here and Now.
I’m wondering what they’re thinking, you know, the Japanese. Are they recording their travels in order to bore they’re friends, relatives and neighbors once they arrive home: ‘Here we are in front of a painting by Monet, what a wonderful time we had.’
Let it go; let it pass; I see blossoming trees; beautiful in the sunlight; breeze lightly moving; petals raining; sweet delicate aroma; deep breaths.
I hate those annoying Japanese tourists.
I really need to work on my meditative practices.
I was speaking with a very insightful young Florentine during my recent travels. He commented that the state of American politics (of which I must admit to being a bit embarrassed) isn’t surprising to most Europeans given the populist anti-immigrant goings-on in Italy and throughout Europe. “What we don’t understand about the Americans,” he said, “is the guns.”
This got me thinking about a Goethe quote I ran across recently that goes: ‘There are times when all consolation is base and it’s our duty to despair’, which resonates, no doubt, but I have to wonder how much value there is in despairing, you know, all by itself.
I’ve recently visited a place, an arena where, around two millennia ago, Christians, who apparently didn’t fit in well at the time, provided great spectacle as prey for very angry and very hungry lions. I must admit this particular place has lost a lot of its potentially grizzly impact since becoming a tourist magnet, you know, cleaned up, no blood anywhere. Nowadays the pushing and shoving amongst the hordes of Christian visitors themselves suggests a sort of sadistic propensity for pain.
Anyway, the culture in charge at the time, a couple millennia ago, found the minority sect to be disrespectful of the established gods so lion fodder they became. Of course a few centuries later the Christians were torturing and burning those they found to be heretical to their faith.
Considering the religious maneuverings in politics these days one can only be dismayed at how slowly the wheels of evolution turn.
I was noticing during my recent travels that Rome has a Giordano Bruno Avenue just a block down from one named after Savanarola. It got me wondering, being so close to the Vatican, if there’s a sense of atonement here given the fact the church saw fit to burn the two men for heretical behaviors.
There’s little question Bruno was inclined toward the occult, Hermes Trismegistus and Fra Savanarola was one of the original reactionary fundamentalists, burning books as he did. Still, burning and dismembering the two seems a bit harsh coming from a religion that espouses Christian charity.
The church fathers would seem to present a bit more enlightened front these days but if push came to shove one wonders if there wouldn’t be job openings for inquisitors.