How the Dark Ages Began

I’ve been reading, lately, about the extreme self-denial, masochistic behaviors really, some of the early Christians imposed upon themselves believing they could atone for their inherent sinfulness and bring them closer to God. In the third century the apparent suffering of choice was to walk off into the desert without food or water in the hopes that denial of basic human needs would gain them a foot up toward heavenly rewards, which, I suspect, they were looking forward to sooner rather than later. There were other ascetics, the Stylites, who tied themselves atop pillars where some of them would stand for years (really!) while their muscles atrophied, hoping to be swept upward when the rapture happened.

Well, such extremes didn’t work for everyone. There were many men and women who wished to gain spiritual acceptance by denying the needs of the flesh but only up to a point. Monasticism provided opportunity to practice a humble, ascetic life of obedience, gain mutual support from their fellow monks or nuns and engage in service to community as they knew God would want them to do.

Such an organization required a rigid structure, though, rules to help everyone maintain the necessary austerity such a life demanded. There was little room for self-expression or individuality; thinking for oneself was pretty much out of the question. Even those faithful individuals not inclined toward the monastic life understood the sacred duties of denial and following the dictates of the church.

Such behavior, it’s been credibly suggested, can account, at least in part for the Dark Ages lasting for 1000 years.

Politics and Reason

I’ve been reading that one’s social affiliation is the primary determiner of the position one assumes regarding the hot-button issues of the day. Well, maybe not everyone’s, but the suggestion is that a political stance is determined to a great extent by social relations, how one identifies with those around her: a kind of in-group, tribal association that leads to consumption and regurgitation of the appropriate sound-bites consistent with the ‘correct’ political view.

To support such a perspective my very credible source suggests that, when questioned, most on the political fringes (which now make up around 40% of the electorate) have little knowledge of the nuances of the issues: global warming, health-care for all, world trading agreements, capitalistic regulation, the social safety-net, the plight of immigrants are all seen through the lens of political bias; which accounts, pretty much, for the divisiveness in the contemporary social dialogue: each side demonizing the other aided and abetted by profit-seeking punditry.

So, I guess the question is, how to discourage unreasoned dogmatic belief and encourage critical thinking: thinking carefully about both sides of issues and side-stepping political flashpoints. It may fall to the younger generations to re-find enlightened thinking.  Their power is growing after all, funeral by funeral.

Faith over Reason

I’ve been reading how, early on, Christian thinking gradually undermined and overwhelmed the philosophical tradition of the Greeks and Romans who had made great strides toward understanding the natural world through empirical investigation.

The Early Christians had found something better: a realm not of this world that promised, with certain caveats, eternal bliss. Faith was the key to finding one’s way to God’s good graces and came to supersede reasoned thought, replaced it actually, subordinated it to the extent paradox and contradiction became acceptable. The conjured god was simultaneously terrible and loving, torturing the sinful while embracing the virtuous. Faith came to mean a leap beyond reason into absurdity in the interests of eternal salvation.

I find it amazing how such conceptions remain embedded in so many minds even today. Thoughtlessness, I wonder, or just wishful thinking?

Chalk One Up for Viral Life

I’ve been reading about how, as the hunter/gatherer of our pre-historic past transformed through domestication of plants and animals into sedentary farmer, became an unwilling host for viruses carried by animals. The enterprising virus found fertile ground to breed and grow and very little resistance to his (or her, who can tell with viruses) incursions into the human blood stream.

The results of this viral attack were massive die-offs of all but a small percentage of people who were fortunate enough to have a natural or cultivated resistance. These survivors passed their genetic wherewithal to their progeny and from there on to future generations, who would over time encounter new and exotic viruses they had never before encountered that would attack the unsuspecting and appetizing innocents and the cycle would begin again.

Civilizations evolved, became more complex and medical science made amazing advances. Hubris and inattention led to the belief we had won the battle with invasive viral infection.

I guess we have to chalk one up for the viruses.

The Walking Dead

Heading to Arizona as I am, masked, buying gas at the pump, maintaining a safe distance from others, in constant use of antibacterial wipes, eating in my car I feel pretty safe although people in the streets stare, seem suspicious and I speed by them. The recent health scare, the pandemic, has me thinking of ‘The Walking Dead’, you know, the TV series in which a few stalwart survivors find themselves in constant danger, being pursued by the ravenous infected hoards. Civilization has collapsed and our heroes are on constant lookout for temporary safe havens and stores of canned goods on which to survive.

I really don’t think civilization is in danger of imminent collapse, but my journey has taken on an air of excitement (trepidation?) and as someone of advanced age I’m led to believe my very mortality may be at risk. If you don’t hear from me next week you might possibly suspect the worst: I may be quarantined in a senior retirement community.

Anticipating Imortality

I was just wondering the other day about the idea of cryogenic freezing, what it’d be like to be thawed in a hundred years or so, whether I’d have any sense at all of the nature of things, how to function in that future time (if indeed mankind survives that long). Given the effort required to keep up with information technologies from year to year, here and now, I’ve a feeling that future century would be pretty mind-blowing.

Our, well, your descendants might even have devised a way to interrupt physical degeneration; immortality might be on the table. An intriguing thought, that, even though the reality of ever-lasting life would take a lot of the excitement away from our current tenuous daily existence, be boring even. I wonder if all those of religious faith out there realize what they’re hoping for.

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.

The Luxury Trap

As we humans we have striven over the years to improve our quality of life by developing innovative technologies that have provided everything from central heating to voice controlled communication devices, we have at the same time made life more complex, in some ways more frenzied.

I’ve been reading about early forager tribes living in the fertile Crescent of western Asia. This particular area was at the time rich in what turned out to be domesticable plants and animals. The foragers, over time, learned to harvest and plant wild wheat signaling the beginnings of the agricultural revolution.

I guess becoming farmers must have seemed a great idea. Having a reliable food source without having to forage everyday meant having a surplus and a sedentary lifestyle. As it turned out, though, after not so considerable a time (relatively, anyway) our early ancestors ended up working harder, eating a less varied diet, contracting unheard of diseases and, all in all, living shorter lives than they had enjoyed in their now long forgotten foraging days.

And so it goes, we as a species strive to produce innovations meant to improve our quality of life that all to often have produced negative effects like obesity, alienation and lives devoid of time for contemplative reflection.

Not that I’m a luddite or anything. I do love my various devices, easy access to friends and family miles away, ready availability of the arts I love. I just need to exert a bit more self-discipline, shut down the devices and get face to face with real-life on occasion.

Embodied Souls

I’ve been reading, lately, that there is reason to believe that the earliest notions of the existence of God, entertained by our primeval ancestors, may have been the result of an idea of an inhabiting soul; something existing within that transcends physical existence. I have to wonder, if my scholarly source is accurate, how such a belief came about.

The idea that a serendipitous organization of protrusions and gaps in an old gnarled tree might take on the appearance of a human face would reasonably, I suppose, lead to anthropomorphizing, to the idea of Being within, spirit even, a belief that might grow with the enthusiastic agreement of one’s cave cousins. The tree could be thought to be of a special sort, sacred even, and if ‘spirit’ existed in certain trees it reasonably follows that the same would be true of animated nature.

From such ruminations, I can’t doubt, the realization of a super-natural spirit could fairly easily grow into a hierarchical spirit world with a God in charge. The real magic in all this, it seems to me, is the wondrous imagination of the human animal.

 

Art as Catharsis

I’ve been reading a rather interesting perspective on the nature of art lately. The author’s interest is, apparently, to present art as a broader more all-encompassing enterprise: as something with the potential to reach deep into the psychic as well as philosophical realms of human Being. This advocate for the arts maintains that a total sensual and intellectual emersion on the part of the art consumer might potentially move him/her far beyond simple aesthetic appreciation onto a psychological plateau of unimaginable ecstasy or at least engagement: that art, when attentively considered might changer one’s way of perceiving and thinking about the world.

The idea, I guess, is that art at its best may produce psychic displacement, as in a nightmare when those around you are aware of information you aren’t privy to leaving you exposed, naked, alienated, outside of the common knowledge shared by everyone else. Such a shocking realization might then lead to basic questioning of all you previously took for granted: the physical and social norms of daily existence come into question.

Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. The author’s intent though is that the best art will provide the attentive consumer a truly cathartic experience. As I think about it, there’s nothing really new about the idea of art as catharsis: the ancient Greeks were creating such work millennia ago and it was pretty successful. Such art provided respite from the anxieties suffered during the disruptive wars between the city states. Given our politics these days I’m thinking we could probably use a bit of that now.