Friday, November 22, 2013

From whence cometh my help?

On what seems to be the new theme of my blog -- theology and movies -- I got into a discussion over at the B-Movie Cathechism  recently about a very geeky question (are the Asgardians in the Marvel universe really gods or not?) that brings up some interesting larger questions. What exactly is a god, anyway? And what do we mean by "worship"?

The latter question came up because I was arguing that if beings as powerful as the ones depicted in the last Thor movie really exist, the biblical ban on idolatry doesn't really make sense.
if the Aesir et al. are the ones who actually do stuff like save the world -- or the universe -- why SHOULDN'T the people worship them? Give them offerings, thank them for their works, beg them for favors, pretty much like people do with earthly rulers anyway? It doesn't necessarily exclude the worship of a higher being -- some pagan religions recognize both kinds -- so I don't see why Yahweh would come down so hard against idolatry unless he really did cut out the middleman?
Eegah answered:
if we followed that line of reasoning, why then wouldn't we worship guardian angels, soldiers, doctors, or even ourselves, since we are the "hands and feet of Christ" in the world? Because, from the Catholic standpoint at least, we recognize a God who works through his creations all the time, but we reserve our worship (or we're supposed to) for the creator himself. 
 In a sense, though, we already do worship those people, at least in the ways that I described in my post. Sacrificing a goat might seem esoteric to us nowadays, but as far as I can tell the pagans conceived of it as just an extension of their gift-exchange economy -- if you want to get on someone's good side, especially a powerful person who can do you favors, you give them presents. So what is it that distinguishes worship from that normal sort of schmoozing?

In the Bible, the main issue does seem to be mistaking who is actually doing things for you. Hence when Aaron rolls out the golden calf, he declares, "These are your gods, Israel, who brought you out of Egypt," because why else would they worship it? The Israelites were living in a world of god-kings who claimed power over the forces of nature; events like the plagues of Exodus were meant to show who was really in charge.

So attribution is one aspect of worship. But the other aspect is interpersonal. I mean, we all know that we depend on the sun for our very existence, but even people who don't care about the First Commandment don't worship it, because they don't think the sun actually cares whether you worship it or not. And in fact, pagan religions have deities such as Olorun, who are above the other gods but indeed are so above it all that there's no point in trying to interact with them. The persistence of voodoo in theoretically Catholic Haiti shows that if you think the Christian God is just like Olorun, you can continue your relations with all your traditional lower-level spiritual beings without seeing a conflict. I think that was the real problem I was having with Eegah's theory -- yes, there could be a Creator more powerful than the Aesir, but the more indirectly he works with the world, the more he looks like Olorun instead of Yahweh.

In fact, to the extent that the Aesir of the Marvel universe are being worshipped inappropriately, I would venture to say it's not for their acts of world-saving but for all those daily small-scale functions that pagans attributed to them. The last time I considered this subject I theorized that even if the Aesir were aliens, they would have been mistaken for gods that the ancient Germans already believed in, because pagans saw gods not as intruders upon the natural order but as running the natural order itself. So the sin of the Aesir would have been in letting the humans believe they could actually hear and respond to all the petitions for rain or for children or for victory in battle or what have you, as they were off fighting their big important battles.

Out in the real world, those small personal prayers are increasingly being answered by technology, and therein lies the paganism of the secular age. As much as philosophers may argue that Christianity and science aren't inherently in conflict, on that basic Old Testament question -- who can do what for me? -- there has been a conspicuous shift in the last few centuries. At one time, the sick went to faith healers like Jesus, whose abilities were evidence of their spirituality; now you go to a doctor whose relationship with God is irrelevant, so long as he has the right equipment and technical training. In some ways, we're all in Olorun's world now, that impersonally provides our livelihood but can't be adored or bargained with. And maybe that's why we still like to populate our imaginary worlds with gods.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Life of Pi and WTF?

I finally watched the film Life of Pi on video last night -- not the way to first see it, I know, but for one reason and another I didn't see it during its theatrical run. I haven't read the book, and that may be why at the end of the film I was wondering if I hadn't actually 'gotten' it. Or was the message ultimately as thin as it looked? (Spoilers follow, for those who care.)

The film's basic theme seems to derive from the fact that there are two versions of the story of Pi in the lifeboat: the one that we see on film (call it the Tiger Story) and the tale of murder and cannibalism that Pi relates when the investigators fail to believe the first one (call it the Human Story). As Pi says, neither of them explains why the ship sinks, and neither of them is supported by any hard evidence either way. So Pi asks his writer-interviewer, "Which story do you prefer?"

"The one with the tiger. That's the better story."

"Thank you. And so it goes with God."

OK, I get that it's an allegory for the human condition: neither science nor any religion really explains the predicament in which we find ourselves, and the past is mostly lost to us, so people believe the story of humanity that best resonates with them, whether it be religious or secular. Fair enough. What kind of rubs me the wrong way about it is that Tiger Story is presented as God's version while Human Story is the atheist version. In fact, we're told more than once that Pi's story "will make you believe in God." But why, exactly? What are the crucial differences between the two stories?

The obvious one is that Tiger Story totally avoids the issue of human depravity. Sure, Pi is a vegetarian who believes that animals have souls, but clearly telling the story with animals instead of people creates emotional distance. They're just acting the way animals act, so there's no moral corruption implied in their acts of violence. They have a strong and uncomplicated survival instinct.

The movie's attitude towards the survival instinct is one of the weirder things about it. A few months ago I outlined Charles Taylor's distinction between the worldviews of ancient paganisms, based in a premodern conception of nature, and the religions of the "Axial Age", which in one way or another sought to transcend the natural order and its worldly goals. In that taxonomy, Pi -- who calls himself Hindu, Catholic and Muslim all at once -- is trying to follow an Axial Age ethics while immersed in a powerful natural world that seems distinctly pagan -- more magical than the scientific one, but no more ethical.

And God's role in the story, at least as Pi interprets it, is to keep jiggering things to make this possible. So when Pi compromises his vegetarianism by killing a fish, he decides that Vishnu incarnated himself as the fish in order to save them. When Pi is hungry enough that he finally turns on Richard Parker, a school of flying fish (more avatars?) suddenly blunders into the boat, yielding enough food for them both. Pi, in other words, keeps being spared having to choose whether he's going to give up his ethics or sacrifice himself to them.

There's also the curious episode where a terribly weakened Pi announces that he's ready to accept death, dreaming of a heavenly Axial Age afterlife, when the boat washes up on the strange floating island of carnivorous plants. I don't totally know what to make of that island -- which perhaps explains why I don't totally get the movie -- but it offers him both food and a vision of death that renews his will to live. "Even when God seemed to have abandoned me, he was watching. Even when He seemed indifferent to my suffering, He was watching, and when I was beyond all hope of saving... He gave me rest and gave me a sign to continue my journey."

In other words, the savage survival instinct that Pi shows in Human Story is outsourced in two directions in Tiger Story: to Richard Parker, and to God. It's as if God is saying to him, "Actually, death is a terrible thing that you want to avoid! Get back to civilization where you can avoid it longer!" Which does not really sound like him, honestly. As Taylor points out, seeing death as illusory or at least temporary is a key element of Axial Age religions, precisely because ethics that call for something like a life of vegetarian pacifism mean overriding your survival instinct. Ancient pagans, I expect, wouldn't have had a big problem with most of the moral issues that wrack Pi; avenging his mother would have been the right and proper thing to do, and all the animals on the boat would be food. (Cannibalism is another issue, admittedly; that depends on what pagans you're talking to.)

So, yeah: I try to look at it different ways but can't help feeling like it's living up to some of the worst stereotypes of religion's critics, proposing that faith is a better story because it makes you feel better about yourself and God is your magical escape artist. But as I said, I could be totally not getting it.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

How Not To Pick Your Art

Well, the blog restart seemed pretty short-lived, didn’t it? Sorry about that. I’ve had various distractions to deal with, and maybe A Secular Age is proving too much for me after all. So rather than wait till I’m ready to post about that again, I figured I’d go into something lighter. After all, my blog used to be about more than one thing!

Recently on Facebook, Eve Tushnet posted a link to her article on a book called The Artificial Silk Girl, with some basic comment like “I read The Artificial Silk Girl.” The first comment on it was from some reader who asked “Is it good?”

Of course, the obvious answer to that is READ THE DAMN REVIEW, but it’s also possible that the reader actually did read it but didn’t see a direct answer to the question. There’s no score, no grade, no commandment to run out and buy it. And I know from personal experience that a lot of people don’t have the patience for anything else. The comment, in fact, sent me hurtling back in time to the early 1990s, when I was working at a movie theater counter. If I had a dollar for every time a customer showed up and asked, “What’s that movie about? Is it good?” I would probably have been able to pay for grad school up front. It was an early lesson for me in how different other people’s consumer behavior is from my own, because it had never occurred to me before then to ask a random college student working at a movie theater to basically pick out my movie for me.

I guess some people may have misunderstood the business model of a movie theater — this was an upscale suburb, and maybe they were used to going to restaurants and clothing stores where the staff was specifically trained to help them choose what to buy. Believe me, that was not the case with us — we worked for minimum wage and knew no more about movies than the next person. But what really flummoxed me was how many people still seemed to believe that goodness is an objective fact about a movie, which could therefore be stated in one yes/no answer. I don’t think you need an education in postmodern theory to know about personal taste, and I also don’t think that recognizing it means throwing out artistic standards. The trouble is that a cultural canon takes quite a while to form — hence the cliche about great artists not being recognized in their time — so appealing to transcendent standards of Art isn’t really going to tell this person whether this newly released movie is a good way to spend a Saturday night.

A movie industry worker who goes by the pseudonym Film Crit Hulk has written some interesting articles on this subject, particularly one from last year called What Makes A Movie Good? It is, I admit, overly long and you have to get used to his gimmick (semi-imitating the voice of the Incredible Hulk), but I like his overall point that subjectivity of response isn’t a problem to be overcome in film viewing/discussion, but actually part of what makes it meaningful:



Listening is, I think, what people are trying to circumvent when they ask, “Is it good?” Because as Hulk indicates here, listening doesn’t just mean trying to understand other people’s headspace, it means trying to understand our own. That is, when you listen this way you come to see that your love for your favorite movies doesn’t just reveal your excellent taste (because those movies are objectively good), but reveals something about who you are and where you’re coming from. And only when you have that self-awareness are you really going to be very good at guessing which unseen movies you’re going to enjoy.

Because even a lot of experienced filmgoers don’t understand why they reacted to movies the way the did. Elsewhere in the essay Hulk mentions that people keep getting distracted by the “tangible details” of movies, and I certainly experienced that one too. I remember when people used to ask about one movie that was playing at our theater, Muriel’s Wedding, a colleague would respond by asking, “Do you like ABBA?” Now, I saw Muriel’s Wedding and I can see how if you absolutely hate ABBA that would be a problem, but otherwise that doesn’t have much to do with whether you’d enjoy the movie — the heroine’s favorite band could just as well have been someone else, and nothing would have changed. More recently, I remember trying to convince a friend that just because he liked Shakespeare in Love didn’t mean he was going to like Anonymous, because the two movies have nothing in common except that they both have to do with the creation of Shakespeare’s plays. (He saw it anyway, and still sounded befuddled as to why he didn’t like it as much.)

So actually, it can take a long acquaintance to be able to guess whether a person is going to like a particular movie/book/whatever. I’m still frequently surprised by Eve, and we’ve been talking and blogging about this stuff for ten years. And I’m still sometimes surprised by myself, even though the acquaintance is far longer.

Friday, August 23, 2013

'This isn't like going to Earth, where you summon a little lightning and thunder and the mortals worship you as a god!'

I've recently been laid up at home with a broken toe, comforting myself by rewatching some of the recent Marvel Comics movies on Netflix, and got to thinking about the popularity of the Chariots of the Gods hypothesis. You know, where the ancient pagan gods were actually aliens. Marvel used it as the premise for the Thor franchise, and it's also turned up in Star Trek, Prometheus, and a the most recent Indiana Jones movie, just to name a few off the top of my head.

I think it's so popular because modern Westerners, whether Christian or materialist, don't believe those gods really exist, but it seems rather strange and unsatisfying to say that they were just plain made up. They were so universally believed in, and while each pantheon was different they were similar enough that pagans seemed to readily identify their own gods with those of others. The idea that they were aliens, despite its total lack of scientific or historical support, provides an appealing way to honor the old stories without swallowing them whole.

But after reading Charles Taylor's description of paganism in A Secular Age, I'm even less inclined to think it's true. The image of gods as aliens fits with the modern view of gods, gods as 'extras,' beings who intrude upon a mechanically functioning universe with extraordinary, miraculous events. Paganism, though, was more about the day-to-day realities. Even if some ancient version of Marvel's Thor did show up and summon a little thunder and lightning for the frightened mortals, I don't think they would have assumed him responsible for all thunder and lightning unless they had some notion of a thunder-god already.

I'm no expert, but I can't help thinking that our image of ancient paganism has been distorted by the fact that the main thing that we know about it is the wild stories. So we all know about how Zeus impregnated Leda disguised as a swan, but only the specialists know anything about how Zeus was habitually worshipped. However, I suspect that the ancient priorities were different, and one clue to this is how they identified each other's gods. Take Odin the king of the Norse gods, for instance. Sounds like Jupiter, right? But actually, Jupiter was identified with Thor, while Odin was identified with Mercury the god of commerce. It doesn't really make sense unless you consider their points of interface with humanity. Jupiter and Thor were both creators of storms, while Odin and Mercury were both psychopomps, who escorted the souls of the dying to the next world. Their mythical personalities and relationships seem to have been less important than those tangible roles in human life.

I suspect that the Chariots of the Gods theory is also based on the modern idea that the heart of religion is believing that certain things happened for which you have no proof. That is obviously influenced by Christianity, in that belief in the events described in the New Testament forms the basis of the whole religion (especially for Protestants, since they are so Bible-focused). But here, too, the point of interface between God and humanity is the key; it's just unusual in that it's so focused on one point of interface, one that grows more distant from us as time goes on. Describing the revolt against sacraments in the late Middle Ages, the Catholic Taylor injects a bit of editorializing when he suggests that maybe, even if God isn't "magic," he might distribute his power through sacraments and rituals to allow for the fact that we are embodied beings and not just creatures of pure, ethereal faith in things not seen. Maybe so.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Secular Age Part 4: The Disciplinary Society

In my last entry on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, I described how in the late Middle Ages a theory arose in which the natural world is a sort of machine that God controls for his ultimate purposes. As always, the concept of the natural order was echoed in the concept of the social order:
Living a godly life in this world is something very different from living in the order Aristotelian Cosmos of Aquinas, or the hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius. It is no longer a matter of admiring a normative order, in which God has revealed himself through signs and symbols. We rather have to inhabit it as agents of instrumental reason, working the system effectively in order to bring about God’s purposes, because it is through these purposes, not through signs, that God reveals himself to the world. These are not just two different stances, but two incompatible ones.
It’s here that we get the beginning of a view of society that we modern Westerners probably take totally for granted: that it’s something to be constantly reformed and re-engineered toward a never-achieved ideal of justice and order. In my first post in this series I wrote about how strange it was to try and mentally inhabit a world where communities don’t really need to have a purpose to exist, but that appeared to be the attitude of most of the ancients. They lived primarily in families, after all, and families are what you live in when you don’t consciously leave and do something else (especially if you live in a society without institutions like schools and corporations that suck you away from the nest). But once Protestants — especially Calvinists — gained positions of power, they started to act on the idea that society could be reworked to be made more godly.

Some of the changes they brought are the classic anti-fun ones we tend to associate with Calvinists: no dancing, no prostitution, no Carnivals or feasts of misrule. But some other changes are still with us, and indeed taken completely for granted.

One of the most interesting changes, to me, was in the attitude towards poverty. According to Taylor, in the Middle Ages the rich looked down on the poor just like always, but this was counterbalanced by a sense of Christian sanctity about poverty. It was voluntarily taken on by the holiest members of society, and even the involuntary poor were seen as occasions for sanctification, as the wealthier folks took to the biblical maxim that giving to them was giving to Christ.

But the Protestants, both in the interests of social reform and in the rejection of separate classes of vowed religious, came to see poverty the way pretty much everyone does now: as a social problem in need of a solution. This brought with it the famous ‘Protestant work ethic,’ which in Taylor’s view was a double-edged sword for the poor themselves. On the one hand, it made improvement in their condition thinkable. On the other hand, it put pressure on the poor to go along with whatever agenda for their improvement their leaders had come up with, thus creating the inevitable division between the ‘good’ poor and the ‘bad’ poor. Voluntary poverty, far from leading to holiness, could get you shipped to the workhouse. (Taylor notes in passing that madness underwent a very similar change in social position, leading eventually to the horrors of Bedlam.)

Another hugely significant shift that endures is the lowered tolerance for interpersonal violence. The medieval noblemen comprised a warrior class who were regularly embroiled in brawls, vendettas, and feuds, so they didn’t hugely care if their subjects did the same, so long as it didn’t get in their way. But toward the end of the Middle Ages, Taylor suggests, violence started to reach critical levels, partly due to the religious disputes themselves, and also because of various social and economic dislocations of the time. Couple that with the Calvinist ‘rage for order’ and the rise of the merchants and bureaucrats at the expense of warrior-nobles, and the idea begins to take shape that the government’s primary job is to keep domestic peace.

Although Protestant governments adopted this most strongly, Taylor says many traditional Catholic monarchs such as the kings of France also adopted these reforms when they realized how useful they were. The Protestant work ethic was helping to make whole countries richer, which meant more money for the treasury as well as more disciplined armed forces. Only Spain, in reactionary Catholic mode at that point, resisted the new order.

But government policy alone can’t make order from chaos. The view of the individual self was also changing in parallel with the changing view of the natural world: no longer the helpless ‘porous’ self, the haunt of spirits and magic, but the self that rules its own animal nature like the Calvinist God rules the universe. Taylor writes that this was influenced not only by Christian movements but by a revived version of Stoicism, the old Greco-Roman philosophy that put a premium on overcoming the passions.

There’s an interesting little paradox in here that I noticed. Taylor describes how, on the one hand, the rejection of traditional Catholic asceticism and religious stratification brought a more positive view of the physical world, so that it became a form of devotion to examine and admire nature as such, instead of just looking to it for religious symbolism as the mystics tended to do. On the other hand, the ‘rage for order’ meant seeing nature as something barbaric and gross that must be suppressed by civilization. There is thus a sharp divergence of nature and morality that — again — everybody nowadays just seems to take for granted. I remember in some of my many past discussions about natural evil on this blog and elsewhere, some Christians were just baffled by the idea that nature should have moral meaning at all; ethics are only for sentient creatures who can choose between good and evil, and therefore there’s something inherently unnatural about them.

This is, I think, why that whole medieval concept of universals I tried to describe in Part 2 seems so strange. The universals are both real things and normative things, and the human will is less an agent of superior morality than a disruptive force, threatening to carry you away on your doomed individual path. Granted, I might be reading a bit of Bhagavad Gita into this, but that’s how I see it. However, if nature is no longer an imperfect instantiation of universal forms, but simply what is, then we have a problem that would eventually lead to arguments with God himself. The nature documentarian David Attenborough once explained his agnosticism this way:
“…when Creationists talk about God creating every individual species as a separate act, they always instance hummingbirds, or orchids, sunflowers and beautiful things. But I tend to think instead of a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, [a worm] that’s going to make him blind. And [I ask them], ‘Are you telling me that the God you believe in, who you also say is an all-merciful God, who cares for each one of us individually, are you saying that God created this worm that can live in no other way than in an innocent child’s eyeball? Because that doesn’t seem to me to coincide with a God who’s full of mercy’.”
And yet Attenborough — like so many who take that view — also loves nature, so much that he’s spent his life studying it, camping out in it and telling the world about it. This is not a Manichean rejection of the material world as evil; it is, I think, an expression of the persistent division within the Western soul, wondering at the natural world even in its violence (maybe especially in its violence, going by the popularity of Shark Week), while at the same time finding it ethically appalling.

And yet I would still say that our conceptions of the natural world and the social world continue to mirror each other. That, however, is a subject for a later post.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

A Secular Age Part 3: Nature's God

In my last post on Charles Taylor's magnum opus A Secular Age, I described how Protestants rejected a "magical" understanding of the Church's sacraments and rituals by asserting a purer monotheistic vision of a God who is above the forces of nature. This eventually resulted in the modern mechanistic view of nature, which runs so smoothly by itself that God can seem superfluous. But it took a few more steps to get there, since, Taylor argues, the original impetus for this move wasn't debunking but devotional.

Comprehending the shift requires understanding pagan European philosophies of nature in a bit more detail. As I said earlier, pagans tend to see natural forces and objects as inhabited by consciousness; but apart from such directly experienced aspects of nature, the spirit world was inhabited by what Jung called archetypes. The gods personify certain abstract qualities of human life: love, war, beauty, wisdom, male, female, youth, old age, and so on. Of course, belief in such gods was discouraged once Christianity came along. But among the literate classes at least, a more highbrow philosophical version survived through Christians adopting the classical Greek concept of universals.

Here I admit that my lack of philosophical education will probably make me screw something up, so I cede the floor to David Opderbeck:
Philosophically, the question relates to whether “universal” substances exist apart from their particular instantiations (“universals”), or whether substances are merely names for particular instances of things (“nominalism”).

Consider an apple.  What is an apple?  Is this particular apple on my kitchen table one instantiation of the substance “apple” – a substance with some sort of universal metaphysical  (“beyond-“ or “above-“ physical) properties that are shared by all apples?  Or is “apple” simply a name I apply to this object before me as a result of some observable similarities with other objects (other things we also call “apple”) that have no metaphysical connection to the “apple” on my table?

For many who claim a modern scientific worldview, there are only particular objects called “apple,” which are more or less related to other particular objects in morphology and chemical composition, all of which are categorized as “apples” for the sake of convenience.  What is “real,” in this view, is merely chemistry and physical laws, not any substance “apple.”  In contrast, for those who believe in universal properties, “apple” implies properties that are real and transcendent of any one apple.
Opderbeck and Taylor both point to 13th-century thinker William of Occam as the prime example of the shift to the modern view, called nominalism, and it was driven by a concern for God's sovereignty. As Taylor says: "The Aristotelian notion of nature seems to define for each thing its natural perfection, its proper good. This would be independent of God's will, except that he it is who created the thing thus. But once created, it would appear that God cannot further redefine what the good is for that thing." Nominalism, on the other hand, sees things as instruments of God's will, as interlocking parts in his ongoing project.

That at first might not sound very scientific. This is the God of Intelligent Design, the God of the purpose-driven life, and (much to Opderbeck's annoyance) the God that a great many American conservative Protestants believe in. But nominalism also did something extremely necessary in the move toward modern science, in that it turned the material world into inert "stuff," whose meaning and purpose comes only from the intelligence who created it and uses it. Nature is no longer archetypal, but instrumental.

This discussion was rather difficult for me to follow, but if I understand it right it does help to clarify the difference between "purpose" as understood in, say, Thomas Aquinas and other Natural Law theorists, and "purpose" in modern scientific thinking. I mean, while it's true that some will say that purposelessness is the defining characteristic of scientific materialism, on the other hand the narrative of cause and effect does make it possible for, say, a scientist to agree that sex is "for" reproduction. What's lacking is the inherent connection between the general purpose and every particular instance, and along with it  the connection between form and function. So, for instance, conception achieved in a lab instead of in a woman's body equally well achieves the purpose of reproduction; conversely, if you cancel the reproductive purpose of sex through birth control or sodomy, and use it for your own emotional fulfillment, then that becomes the purpose of that particular sex act just as surely as reproduction is in another case. The idea of universals, by contrast, seems to say that only reproductive sex is the universal form, and while you may more or less tolerate deviance in individual instances, those deviations can never really participate in the universal.

This, I think, pretty well explains how the culture war has gone. Because if I have trouble wrapping my head around universals -- and I am both attracted to mythopoetic thinking and kind of a prude -- then it's going to be pretty well impossible for someone with more skin in the game, like a partnered gay person. Because we moderns live in a completely instrumental world. I mean, the archetypes are nice in theory, but I have no idea how to actually live as both a woman and as an instance of Woman. Without a sense of the reality of the universal, this idea simply turns into a pile of pointless restrictions: you can't do this or that because you're a girl.

Even the conservative side of the argument tends to think instrumentally: traditional marriage and family are good for society because statistically children are better off in this way and that. But as Eve pointed out a while ago, statistics can't entirely resolve our moral problems -- in part because we have to decide beforehand just what purpose we're using them for.

But anyway, long before these culture-war arguments broke out, the shift towards nominalism was changing society. The next post will look at how that began to play out.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

A Secular Age Part 2: The Revolt Against Magic

So the first post in this series brought us up to the Middle Ages, with an entrenched social division between the Christian “virtuosi” and the other folks who were still going about their worldly business, participating in the Christian life more indirectly by supporting the Church, taking the sacraments, and praying to saints, often embodied in holy relics. Taylor writes that this sort of social arrangement was common throughout Christendom, and indeed everywhere that the more otherworldly religions had become established, such as Platonism and Buddhism. But, the late medieval era in western Europe was distinguished by people being bothered by it.

Here Taylor (who is Catholic) differs somewhat from the Protestant version of history that I learned, in that he sees this concern about religious inequality coming as much from the elite as from below. He admits that he doesn’t know exactly why they were so concerned about it at that time, but offers a few plausible theories. For one, even the 1200s were beginning to see the appearance of new elites, alongside the old landed aristocrats, who would come to define modernity: the merchants, the scholars, the bureaucrats, and so on. They were, in other words, early meritocrats, so I suppose it’s not surprising they’d be bothered by a gap between standards and practice. Another point Taylor makes is that, while Christianity in its eastern Mediterranean homeland had a chance to spread as a grassroots movement before it became a state religion, those in the Germanic world adopted it much later — Sweden didn’t officially go Christian until the 1100s — and often at the fiat of a king. So Taylor suggests that the peasants in these regions were still pagan in many ways.

In Taylor’s view, the peasants basically absorbed Christianity into their worldview by seeing the Church as a source of beneficial magic. In some ways this was not hard, because of medieval Catholicism’s use of rituals, sacred objects, and pilgrimages, which fits paganism’s view that certain places and things are “charged” with magical power. However, due to the worldly concerns of paganism that I mentioned in the last post, the way people tended to interpret “beneficial” was “beneficial to me and my kin in some practical way.” So we have reports of people taking home the eucharist and trying to use it as a love charm, or saying a funeral Mass for someone who’s still alive, in the hopes it would make him die.

The reformers at the time — which included wandering freelance preachers as well as some actual church officials — tried to counter such behavior by emphasizing the transience of those worldly concerns in the face of eternity. In time, according to Taylor, this turned into a kind of obsession with death. Apparently this era sees the birth of the evangelism tactic we all love to hate: “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven?” Which was a change in practice not just because of its emphasis on fear, but because of the whole idea that when you die you’ll face immediate judgment. This was, actually, something I’ve always wondered about, because it seems to take away the whole point of the Last Judgment that the Bible spends so much time on. And indeed, Taylor writes that in the first millennium of Christianity, once the idea of an immediate apocalypse faded, the Last Judgment was basically tacked onto the end of the existing popular view of the afterlife, where the soul separates from the body and persists as a kind of shadow.

The new emphasis on instant judgment scared people not only on their own behalf, but also on behalf of loved ones already dead. Taylor writes that the conflict over the sale of indulgences for souls in purgatory, which was such a hot issue in the Reformation, was set up by the public’s rising fears about the departed’s suffering and corresponding sense of responsibility. But the people’s rising sense of their own sinfulness also scared them away from the more earthly manifestations of God. Taylor points out that another feature of the pagan view of magic is that even when it’s beneficial it can be sort of dangerous to work with, like electricity. With God’s moral judgment so at odds with their own desires, many common folk started avoiding sacraments altogether, even communion, for fear that contact between God’s magic and their own wickedness would make something bad happen.

But one lesson that Taylor draws from this — which I can always get behind — is that if you scare people too much, you’re setting yourself up for a backlash. Thus, even before the Protestant movement as such got going, some late-medieval heretic groups such as the Waldensians were challenging the idea that the sacraments and relics actually had powers at all. They did this basically by invoking the purity of monotheism, and claiming God’s power over and above all magic, unconstrained by particular places, times, and things. Martin Luther, for one, believed in sacraments, but you can see how his doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, answered the overriding concerns of the time. Essentially, it assured the fearful masses that God’s grace was not a magical energy force, but an act of forgiveness and love, and to be a Christian is simply to believe in that. In this way, God’s action moves from ‘out there’ to inside a person’s soul — a first step toward the buffered self.

But it’s not like anyone back then was going to instantly displace the enchanted world with a modern mechanical one, because such an theory of nature didn’t exist. This emerges in Taylor’s answer to a question all this raised in my mind: if one of the key features of Protestantism was demystification of magic, why did Protestants participate in the witch-hunting craze that broke out at that time? Taylor suggests that came from the developing view that since the Church was no longer a source of ‘white magic’, all magic was black — the work of Satan, whom all the reformers definitely believed in. And actually, when I think about it I can imagine how depriving the populace of white magic could in its own way lead to paranoia. In societies nowadays where witchcraft is practiced, the way to fight magic is with magic: if you think someone’s hexed you, you go to the local sorcerer to figure out how to undo it — and perhaps cook up a revenge hex of your own. If Christians now believed they couldn’t do that, but still believed they could get hexed, it’s not all that surprising they tried to violently stamp out witchcraft altogether.

The actual development of a mechanical worldview in which magic is totally ineffectual would take much longer. And that is the subject of the next post.

A Secular Age: Part 1

Yes, I’m still alive! After a stretch of physical therapy and a regime of regular exercise, I feel ready to at least try the blogging thing again. Because it still seems like the best medium for discussing Serious Books. And I’ve been reading a doozy.

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is one of those books to which it seems apt to apply the aphorism created for A Brief History Of Time: “Millions bought it, and thousands finished it.” Only in this case, I expect that both numbers are a lot smaller. But anyway, way back in April 2008 I mentioned to Russell Arben Fox that I was in the first chapter of the book. And so I remained, for quite a while. But now, after my third attempt, I’m in the fourth chapter! And so I blog.

So yeah, Taylor isn’t the world’s most page-turning writer. But I keep going because his subject is so interesting, and so huge: why did the modern West, of all places and times, bring the birth of secularism? And a sub-question, of particular interest to me: how did the world become disenchanted? I mean, we all know that at some point in the last few hundred years a whole lot of people stopped believing in fairies, witches, demons and so on, and this made it a whole lot more difficult to believe in God. But how and why did that happen? Obviously scientific discovery was a factor, but you have to be in a certain frame of mind to be looking for those discoveries and interpreting them in that way. And this is what Taylor attempts to explain.

To set things up, however, Taylor does a remarkable job of describing the “enchanted world” of ancient pagans and how it was different from ours — both on the societal level and on the level of individual consciousness. As he puts it, to live in the enchanted world is to live with a “porous self,” in which experiences that we attribute entirely to the brain could originate elsewhere in the body or come from outside the body entirely. This does not just refer to the experiences that we would now call hallucinations or mental illness, but emotions, meanings, and morals. So if you fall in love, for instance, that is a personal experience of yours, but it also means you’ve come under the aegis of Aphrodite, or some similar being.

In contrast to this, Taylor defines the modern self as a “buffered” self, a relatively detached consciousness in a world of inert matter. Even with the advent of modern neurology, there’s still a notion that the “self” is in some private untouchable place; as Taylor points out, someone who’s told that they’re depressed because of a neurochemical imbalance can distance themselves from the experience, and say “it’s not really me.” By contrast, an ancient person might have been told that he has an excess of black bile, but that doesn’t somehow separate it from his consciousness; black bile was not just seen as a cause of melancholy but melancholy itself, unmediated.

In one way, this is all very weird; but in another way most of us know it if we remember back far enough. Children naturally tend toward the enchanted world, a fact which adults regard with a mixture of nostalgia and contempt. So parents read fairy tales to their children and tell them about Santa Claus, but then tell them that these things are make-believe and make-believe things don’t count in this world. More subtly, those experiences that might seem to come from spirits — dreams, artistic inspiration, flashes of insights, sudden uncontrollable emotions — are rounded up and put into the domain of the mind, and thus become the responsibility of the conscious will. The dismissal of the enchanted world as juvenile is, according to Taylor, a large part of how we enforce modern thinking.

But in the days when people grew to adulthood and elderhood in the enchanted world, this way of thinking had profound effects on how they viewed society and nature. One important thing to realize here is that all these spirits and gods, which we call supernatural, actually were considered nature by pagans. Spirits were just what made nature run, and they had their own interests and desires that could be in conflict with human beings or with each other. And for the ancient pagan, nature was the all in all and couldn’t be escaped from, merely adapted to. By the same token, a person’s goals were very natural and worldly: health, prosperity, honor, sex and so on.

It’s when this is translated to the social and political realm that the modern brain really needs to stretch itself — or at least mine did. Because in the modern way of thinking, any time people come together — whether as a family, a social clique, a business, a church, a political unit, or whatever — it seems to require some purpose. It may be a purpose as frivolous as having a good time on a Saturday night, but it may be as grave as ensuring the well-being of millions of people. Either way, though, there is this assumption that the structure and roles within the group are geared toward some purpose — and if something else works better for that purpose, feel free to rearrange.

However, the ancients mostly saw human community not as instrumental, but natural. Of course, nowadays when someone talks about a “natural order of society” it usually prefaces some dubious theory about evolutionary psychology and genes. But the ancients didn’t think in biology either. The analogy Taylor makes is that society was thought of as a kind of organism unto itself, which like other organisms, has a state of being “healthy” from which deviation is “sick.” And thus it is evaluated not by looking forwards towards a goal, but by comparing the state of things to an archetypal “form.” Yet to say that keeping to the forms is entirely a matter of human will would also be thinking too much like a buffered self; according to Taylor, forms were thought of as growing into maturity just like organisms. Thus humans defied them at their own peril.

The basic shape of pagan society is what Taylor calls “hierarchical complementarity.” And here some might object that he’s painting with an overly broad brush. After all, there was, and is, a great range in the amount of hierarchy found in pagan societies — from the god-kings of Egypt to the democracy of Athens to a great many independent clans that had no government at all. But I would say, in my capacity as an amateur student of anthropology, that even the most egalitarian pagan societies don’t think of equality in terms of modern Western legal and moral equality, which is ultimately about interchangeability — everyone has the same rights regardless of their particulars. Think about how many discussions of fairness involve counterfactual swaps, e.g., “Would you say the same if that happened to your daughter? If you switched the races/genders? If you’d been born in the time/place that that person was?” Instead, everyone in every kind of ancient society was embedded in a family, a clan, and thus their identities and moral duties were defined by their particular relationships with those particular people. And this itself made them vulnerable to some particular forms of hierarchy, which some ancient societies took to the nth degree.

One primordial source of authority was age. Even if you’re living in a simple hunter-gatherer clan, you know that state of dependence on your parents and other older relations. And even when you grow up, the elders have wisdom and knowledge and experience over you (and are also “libraries” in non-literate societies). And — here is where the enchanted world comes in again — that respect for your elders doesn’t have to end just because they die. Shamans the world over have made it their business to communicate with ancestors, and regular folks frequently have rituals to honor, placate, or care for them. It’s not uncommon for dead ancestors, especially if they distinguished themselves in life, to be thought of as gaining supernatural powers in the next world, and thus becoming godlike. Officially, this was what the Roman imperial cult was about: and emperor could only be deified after his death, though some regarded this as a license to act like gods while they were alive.

However, if we can’t understand pagan relationships by limiting them to the living, we also can’t understand them by limiting them to the human. As I said earlier, the ancients saw nature as a realm of sentient spirits, some of them very very powerful. So some ancient rulers clothed themselves in the authority of these nature gods. The most obvious example of this is the pharaohs of Egypt, who associated themselves with the sun god, and participated daily in rituals that were believed to ensure the annual flooding of the Nile and other natural events that Egyptians depended on.

In the first millennium B.C., however, religions and philosophies started to spring up that challenged this view of the natural/social order. For our purposes, let’s just focus on the obvious one. The strict monotheism of the Jews challenged the powers of god-kings, as we see in Yahweh’s showdowns with Pharaoh and Baal. But this isn’t just a case of two tribal gods duking it out. Yahweh wasn’t a god representing a natural phenomenon, a god “of” something or other. He was a god above all those things, who used nature as his instrument. This would turn out to be very important in the secular age, as we shall see.

Christianity, when it came along, questioned the natural order even more radically, by saying that the apparently eternal order of nature isn’t actually God’s ultimate plan. Jesus talked on and on about how this order was going to be turned upside down, and what looked like human flourishing was actually the opposite. So love your enemies, lose your life so you might gain it, the humble shall be exalted, don’t worry about tomorrow, don’t save money. After Jesus rose from the dead, Paul concluded that death was not, in fact, an integral part of nature but an evil that had been conquered.

Needless to say, the near-term apocalypse that a lot of early Christians seemed to be expecting didn’t happen. Instead they found themselves in the place where Christians still live today, in an age when the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God coexist. And even more needless to say, the amount of faith required to live in the kingdom of God when the kingdom of the world is so real and immediate is beyond the grasp of a lot of people, a lot of the time. Thus a bifurcation formed between what Taylor calls the religious “virtuosi” — the saints, monastics, hermits and others who gave everything up for Christ — and the ordinary folks who were in it because it seemed like the way to get along or get ahead. And so the church eventually was absorbed into the very hierarchical complementarity that it challenged. “From the beginning, mankind has been divided into three parts,  among men of prayer, farmers, and men of war,” wrote Gerard of Cambrai in the 11th century, describing the three-part harmony of medieval society.

However, it wasn’t long after he wrote those words that it all started to unravel. That will be the subject of the next post.