As Things Now Stand

Anyone who has attempted to understand our contemporary malaise, as I have for many years now, must begin with the death of God. This is an uncomfortable topic and one that is dismissed by many. But if we contrast our current ethos with that of, say, the medieval period, it is clear that God plays a very small part in the lives of the vast majority of people in the West, at the very least. I have blogged about this from time to time and will not repeat here what I have already said. But a passage in one of Dostoevsky’s major works, written in his maturity, raises the issue anew.

Like Nietzsche, Dostoevsky was aware, toward the end of the nineteenth century, that he was living in a new age, an age in which God was no longer the viable force He had been during the Dark Ages when faith was paramount, the Cathedrals were being built and, as it has been said, there were no atheists.

In any event, Dostoevsky’s novel The Adolescent (previously translated as Raw Youth), brings Arcady Makarovich and his father Andrei Petrovich Versilov together toward the end of what is a rather long prelude as the novel nears its conclusion. Arcady’s father is imparting his wisdom and while doing so reflects on the godless age in which they are living and imagines what he calls a “fantasy” in which those who once loved God now turn toward nature and toward one another and embrace their fellow humans, “. . . each would tremble for the life and happiness of each.”

“The great idea of immortality would disappear and would have to be replaced; and all the great abundance of the former love for the one who was himself immortality would be turned in all of them to nature, to the world, to people, to every blade of grass. They would love the earth and life irrepressibly and in the measure to which they gradually became aware of their transient and finite state, and it would be with a special love now, not as formally.”

To prepare us for this insight, we are told that

“. . .after the curses, the mudslinging and whistling, a calm comes and people are left alone as they wished: the former great idea has left them; the great source of strength that had nourished and warmed them till then is departing, like the majestic, inviting sun . . ., but it already seemed like the last day of mankind. And people suddenly realized that they remained quite alone, and at once felt a great orphancy. . . .I have never been able to imagine people ungrateful and grown stupid. The orphaned people would at once begin pressing together more closely and lovingly. . .”

Indeed, neither the narrator not the author himself can think of people as “ungrateful and grown stupid.” But apparently they are. While Dostoevsky drew on his five years of imprisonment in Siberia and his tortured existence before reaching the autumn of his life, he was convinced that humans have a deep need to love and in finding themselves unable to love God any more — after the curses and mudslinging — they would turn to nature and to one another. Without the ability to draw on that experience myself, I find it difficult to say that people have, in fact, turned to one another and to nature. Their need to love, which I cannot deny, seems to have turned upon itself. Humans exploit and destroy nature for their own purposes, ignore one another, and find themselves alone in a labyrinth with no one to love but themselves. Or is it because they love themselves that they are alone in the labyrinth? It is not clear. But either way, Dostoevsky’s “fantasy” is just that. It is wishful thinking on the part of a brilliant and deeply pious mind.

I do not share the man’s brilliance. Nor do I share his deep piety. In any event, from where I sit I see only a perverted love of self that has taken the place of a deep and abiding love of something greater than the self, something “out there” that takes the person out of himself or herself and into a world of wonder and joy — and hope. This may be a mistake on my part, but if it is even partially true it would help explain our current state of mind, our collective anxiety, our sense of despair that is so deep that we would, in this country at any rate, choose an ignorant and callous man, a man who exudes hatred from every pore, to lead us to a brighter place

 

We Just Don’t Know

Like many of you, I suspect, the reality of last Tuesday’s election is slowly sinking in — along with fits of depression. But I have discovered that much of the depression I have experienced is due to imagined scenarios. When it comes down to it, the only things we really know for certain about Donald Trump is that we don’t know much of anything.

Oh, to be sure, he put much, if not all, of himself “out there” during the campaign and it was an ugly spectacle indeed. But we also saw him lie and prevaricate and leap from one position to another as those who doubted him had the audacity to question him. As I have said to one of my favorite bloggers, pinning the man down is like nailing Jello to the wall. There’s simply not much substance there and it is truly impossible to know for sure where he will be standing at the next moment.

Much of my depression, I have come to realize, results from imagined scenarios based on the things he has said and done the past few months. Most of these scenarios are deeply worrisome and I need not mention what they are for the purposes of this post. But I will say that I have worried most about the fact that so many people wanted this man for our president — not a majority, recall, but still a great many people. A great many of them, I suspect simply wanted change, any change. And, as Garrison Keillor recently said in a most eloquent essay, those voters wanted change and they are going to get it. I suspect most of them aren’t going to be happy with the changes. They ignore the obvious fact that all change is not necessarily for the better. But there will be change. That is perhaps the only certainty.

Many others voted for Trump because they “hated” Hillary, even though they knew her not. Many were sincere in their fear of a liberal appointment to the Supreme Court who would uphold the Roe v Wade decision that has made abortion legal. Their faith, which I am not really in a position to question, didn’t allow them to vote for a liberal candidate and they saw Donald Trump as their only viable choice. I have read a blog post or two defending this position and I do believe those people were sincere. From my point of view this seems a bit narrow, since there are so many other huge problems facing all of us, but, again, it is not my place to question.

There are those, many I suspect, who saw Trump as the answer to their prayers, a man who would empower them and make possible the realization of their basest hopes for White Supremacy and the elimination of “foreigners” from this land. There is no question that he hit a responsive chord in the bigoted hearts of a great many people and that is deeply disturbing. But, again, we don’t really know what the consequences of having turned over those particular rocks will be.

We know the man does not favor “big government” and the regulation of greed among those whose lives are devoted to accumulating more wealth than they could possibly spend in their lifetimes. And we know a few other things that are equally disturbing to those of us who care about the planet and struggle to make sure it survives the human onslaught. But, again, we can only imagine how this will turn out in the coming years.

And that is my point. The blend of imaginings and speculation with what we think we know about this man is the basis for most of our fears. And, as we have told ourselves throughout this campaign, fear is based on ignorance. We pointed our collective finger at those on the other side whose hatred is based on their fears, but we must recall that our own ignorance about the future and our fears about what this man will actually do once he takes office is based on just that, speculation and imaginings.

So I will try to find some solace in the fact that I don’t really know what this man will do in the next few months or years and even try to find some solace in the thought that he will almost certainly prove himself totally incompetent and alienate most, if not all, of Congress in the coming months and will not long thereafter face impeachment. I regard this as at least as  likely as any of my other imaginings and it is the one that promises me the most hope.

Hope

An inscription over the gates of Dante’s Hell, we are told, reads: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” As Dante is guided through Hell by the poet Virgil, he finds dozens and dozens of people who live forever without hope. Several times he feels sorry for the sinners but he is admonished by Virgil. After all, who is he to second guess God who, in His infinite wisdom, placed those sinners where they are? The New Testament tells us that there are three great virtues, Faith, Hope, and Love. The greatest of these is love and Dante finds very little of it in hell. Indeed, at the frozen core of hell he finds those who are incapable of love, whose hearts were frozen long before they died. The medieval thinkers married those three Christian virtues to the four pagan virtues wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. These seven comprise the cardinal virtues of the medieval church, virtues that are all but forgotten today in our work-a-day world. But permeating through Dante’s Hell is the sense of lost hope. It is dreadful, indeed.

We here in Minnesota know about hope. Those of us who follow our sports teams live on hope, hope that next year they will achieve the Great Prize that almost always eludes them, and hoping we can forget last year’s disappointments. “Hope springs eternal.” For my part I hope that the world will be a brighter place for my grandchildren than in my darkest moments I fully expect it to be. I know in my heart that my generation is not leaving the world a better place than we found it — as we most assuredly should. I continue to hope that somehow the world will find itself at peace and that those who profess love for one another — as the New Testament admonishes us all to do — will in fact embrace this code fully and not merely pay lip service to those wise words. And, on a very mundane level, I hope that this twisted and convoluted political battle we see going on around us will somehow resolve itself without further violence and that a man or a woman with a grain of wisdom will finally be placed at the head of a fragile government that needs wisdom now more than ever.

I do hope for these things because without hope there is only cynicism and, while I tend in that direction, I refuse to allow myself to go there, because I know that to abandon all hope is to be living in Hell. The greatest virtue is of course love, but right behind it, surely, we find hope abiding.

 

 

Study In Contrasts

I suppose there are those who would say that it makes little sense to study the past: what’s done is done. But I am not one of those people. I think we study the past in order to better understand the present and anticipate the future. Indeed, I have had a special interest in the Medieval period for many years, not because I would like to have lived then, but because I am astonished by the depth of medieval faith and the character of a people who stand in such sharp contrast to most “civilized” people I am aware of. Like so many “uncivilized” people today they seem to have been so much happier than we are, despite their many privations. I have referred in previous blogs to Henry Adams who visited Mont Saint Michel and Chartres for several months and studied the two remarkable cathedrals at great length, reading copiously in the literature of the era, in order to better understand the age in which they were built. He also thought it would help him better understand the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the age in which he lived. In his discussion of Chartres, for example, he remarks, almost in passing, about the depth of commitment the people made who built the great cathedrals:

“According to statistics, in the single century between 1170 and 1270, the French built eighty cathedrals and nearly five hundred churches of the cathedral class, which would have cost, according to estimates made in 1840, more than . . . a thousand million dollars [in 1840 dollars!], and this covered only the great churches of that century. The same scale of expenditure had been going on since the year 1000, and almost every parish in France had rebuilt its church in stone; to this day France is strewed with the ruins of this architecture, and yet the still preserved churches of the eleventh and twelfth centuries alone, the churches that belong to the romanesque and transition periods, are numbered by hundreds until they reach well into the thousands.. . . Just as the French of the nineteenth century invested their surplus capital in a railway system in the belief that they would make money by it in this life, in the thirteenth century they trusted their money to the Queen of Heaven because of their belief in her power to repay it with interest in the life to come.”

The juxtaposition of ideas in these sentences provokes considerable thought, as does so much of what Adams had to say. To begin with, the devotion to an idea in the medieval period is astonishing and dwarfs anything Adams had witnessed in his lifetime — even the building of the French railway system! And when it comes to expenditure of our precious treasure today, the only possible comparison would be the immense amount of money we spend on what we like to call “defense.”  This suggests that our age exhibits less hope and greater fear than either the age of Henry Adams or the age of the great cathedrals, the age in which Christianity was most influential.

It is an easy inference to say that the birth of industrial capitalism killed Christian belief, for all intents and purposes. But this may be a bit simplistic. Surely, the conviction that a railway system and steam power could take us all to the promised land was widespread in Adams’ day, as is the deeply held belief in our own day that the billions of dollars we spend on the military will keep us safe and happy. Those beliefs have assuredly helped turn people’s attention away from the Christian belief in life after death to life here and now. However, those beliefs pale in contrast with those of the people who had so little in the way of material goods and yet were willing to devote their lives to making the great cathedrals — most of the people who helped build them not living long enough to see them completed. And just consider the staggering numbers of cathedrals built in the period Adams alludes to and the countless number of people who must have been involved in that building — especially considering that they had to haul solid granite boulders of immense size and weight from a quarry five miles outside of Chartres to the top of a hill where the cathedral was built and then raise them to a height of 370′ just to construct the towers at the West entrance! We really have nothing to compare it with in our age, not even putting men on the moon — which very few of us were involved with. And the fact is that most of the things we would point to proudly as accomplishments of modern men and women would reveal beneath the surface the motive of profit and personal gain; so, if we hesitate to claim that capitalism killed Christianity, we can safely say it helped render it irrelevant.

Be that as it may, the contrast that interested Adams most is that between “ignorance  fortified by a certain element of nineteenth century indifference which refuses to be interested in what it cannot understand [and] the thirteenth century which cared little to comprehend anything except the incomprehensible.” Dare I suggest that we share that nineteenth century ignorance born of indifference while at the same time we refuse to recognize our ignorance and arrogantly insist that that there is nothing we cannot comprehend? What Adams found most unsettling, however, was the absence in his age of “the good faith, the depth of feeling, the intensity of conviction” that he found everywhere he looked in 11th and 12th century Europe. Seekers who have attempted to ferret out truths about subsequent ages have tended to echo Adams’ concerns.

In any event,  it was certainly the case that most, if not all, of those working on the cathedrals in the twelfth and thirteenth century were convinced that their efforts would buy them a shorter period in Purgatory and almost certainly an eternity in heaven with the saints and others who shared their views. Thus, while we might want to question their motives, we must remember that the church taught in those times that those who did good deeds in order to get into Heaven would be disappointed. Motive was all: the motive was to do good for its own sake, not for the sake of a reward. The brilliant Henry Adams, who had the childlike gift of being able to transport himself back to another age, is convinced that those who worked on Chartres had only one motive: to create a palace for the Queen of Heaven.

Thus, while we might resist the temptation to draw hasty conclusions about industrial capitalism and the demise of Christianity, once we begin to explore even a brief passage such as this one, we see layers of thought that take us much deeper into an understanding of our age in contrast with that of those ordinary, and extraordinary, (unsophisticated) people so many years ago. People have not changed that much, but the focus of their lives has changed dramatically. While they prepared to defend themselves from attackers, virtually all of those who peopled Europe in the medieval period devoted themselves and their fortunes to the building of monuments to glorify God; we spend our worldly wealth to build weapons of war while we seek longer and more pleasant lives. We do not come off well in such a study of contrasts, since for all of what we call “progress” we are far behind in so many ways those who were dedicated to something outside themselves, who shared a living faith in something greater than themselves and an abiding hope in a better day to come.

Conservative Numbers

A recent story from ABC news about the growing number of “conservative” voters around the country raises interesting questions. The story reads, in part, as follows:

“Even the general public has increasingly leaned to the right. In a Gallup poll last month, 40 percent of Americans identified themselves as conservative, 35 percent as moderate and 21 percent as liberal. The numbers marked the third straight year that conservatives outnumbered moderates, which have declined steadily since the early 1990s. . . .

“‘In recent years, conservatives have become the single largest group, consistently outnumbering moderates since 2009 and outnumbering liberals by 2 to 1. Overall, the nation has grown more ideologically polarized over the past decade,’ the analysis stated. ‘The increase in the proportion of conservatives is entirely the result of increased conservatism among Republicans and independents, and is also seen in Americans 30 and older — particularly seniors.'”

I especially like the last sentence where we are told that the proportion of conservatives has increased because of “increased conservatism.” Is it just me, or is that circular? It tells us nothing. In fact, the entire article tells us very little because (as I have said before) we really don’t know what these terms mean.

But there are several reasons why the country as a whole seems to be drifting to the political right. To begin with, the population is aging and as we grow older we tend to become more conservative — meaning we don’t like change. And, given that we are talking about “dollar conservatism,” in a weak economy people naturally want to hold on to their money. Nothing startling here.

But the really interesting question is why people tend to become conservative in the first place. As suggested, we tend to be more liberal when we are young and more conservative as we grow older. The key factor, it seems to me, is fear of uncertainty. As young people we fear change less because we are more hopeful (naive?) that change will bring us success (in the terms we tend to measure success in this country). The young tend not to fear much of anything: they think they are invincible. As we grow older we realize that we are not invincible and that change doesn’t always translate into success. In a word, we become more fearful. And this seems to be the root of the issue.

Again, using the terms in the rather loose way we use them, the people who identify themselves as “conservative,” include those in the camp of the spiritually certain who fear that the country is going to the devil. In the middle of that group are those who want to do away with sex education, the teaching of evolution, reintroduce prayer in the schools, and/or do away with government entirely. But the “conservative” group also includes many who do not identify themselves as Christian enthusiasts but who are nevertheless fearful of change in any form. There is some reason for this as the face of the world seems to exhibit so many frowns at present. There are a great many things to fear in a world in which not only the economy is tottering, but violence is forever in the news, terrorism is an ever-present possibility anywhere and at any time, and hatred seems to be the rule of the day. It takes a person who is either in denial or who has a great deal of hope to be sanguine these days. And there seems to be a smaller number of these people as each day passes.

Hope is regarded in the New Testament as one of the three cardinal virtues, along with faith and love. And the hope mandated in the New Testament is based on the conviction that a better day is coming, and that particular conviction grows weaker every day — even among the religious right that should be the one group in this country that has hope in abundance. The expectation that there is a better world, the hope that we will be happier after we leave this world, has grown weaker since the First World War, as cultural historians have noted many times. As long as one focuses attention on this world — and especially on the kind of “lifestyle” one wants to achieve in this world — there can be hope only as long as there is considerable optimism, as there was in this country just prior to the Great War. And as things in this world seem more and more uncertain and even frightening, it follows that we will become more and more conservative, clinging to the things we know and are closest to us and fearing anything that threatens to take those things away.

In a word, it stands to reason that as a culture the more we focus on this world the more fearful we become. The more fearful we become the more conservative. The thing we fear most is change, because there is too much of it, and it always seems to make things worse. Conservatism grows along with uncertainty and fear.