Tag Archives: modernism

On the dangers of our centrated thinking


One of the most critically satisfying phrases in the modern era was the reductionist phrase “nothing but” as in “that’s nothing but a typical Freudian Electra complex at work” of “that’s nothing but a typical Marxist class struggle” [etc.] (Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christian)
“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.”
(C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)

AnkocToday’s post is one of those things I need to write down so I can link to it later, instead of having to give this explanation every time… The Brian McLaren quote above doesn’t only describe the problem I’m talking about quite well, but it also might foreshadow some later thoughts on some of the things that ‘the emerging church’ promised to go beyond without any such thng ever happening. (The problem sometimes is even more perfected in American ‘progressive Christianity’ as far as I can see…)

The term ‘centrated thinking’ in the title is borrowed from Piagets theory of psychological development by lack of a better word to describe it elsewhere, but I will use it in a much broader sense. Let’s first start with the wikipedia definition for those who are uninitiated in the theory or have forgotten it bPiagety now:

In psychology, centration is the tendency to focus on one salient aspect of a situation and neglect other, possibly relevant aspects. Introduced by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget through his cognitive-developmental stage theory, centration is a behaviour often demonstrated in the preoperational stage.

Yes, I do know that Piaget is speaking about small children in the pre-operational phase here as he calls it, but the same thing he described but manifesting in other forms is also happening all the time in adult human thought. We always look at the world through a certain lens. We are not omni-present to look at a situation from every side, cannot calculate all angles in, and would not have the time and energy to do so even if we could.

So very often people tend to frame their thoughts through a very specific lens, finding only one aspect or dimension of reality important or even real, and ignoring or negating all the rest. Often the idea is that whatever lens they have is the most important thing that explains everything, while all the rest is just irrelevant.
This has something to do with out human hunger for a simple explanation for life, the universe and everything. (Well, duh, 42!)
The ancient Greek philosophers for example were busy looking for the archè or principle on which the whole of existence was based. For Thales of Miletus it was water on which everything was based,his pupil Anaximander thought it was the Anaximandermore vague ‘indefinite’ or apeiron, while Anaximenes would say that it’s air. (Yes, all 4 elements have been seen as archè by one Philosopher or another in those days, and they were first combined by Empedocles as the 4 elements we know now, but that’s another story) Pythagoras on the other hand posited that everything was based on math and numbers.

Not much has changed since the centrated woldviews of those ancient bearded guys on their faraway Turkish or Greek coast… Freud said that everything in human behaviour is based in sex, and both communists and ‘capitalsts’ have fallen for the dangerous idea of Marx that reality should first and foremost be framed in terms of economics. And then there are more postmodern theories that have the archè of our humanity based in language, or power dynamics, etc…

Let me repeat that nothing is wrong with looking at the world through a certain lens and thus ignoring other parameters or whole dimensions. It’s unavoidable even, and we need to do this if we want to be able to understand the world around us at all! The more parameter we leave out, the more we can focus on details and really look at what’s going on.

But we should NEVER forget that it only is a lens. Power games are only one of the many things going on in human relationships and certainly not always our main motivator. Economics are one dimension of our reality, but to say it’s more important than other things is not reality but a choice. A very dangerous one. And so on…

If we forget that any of these centrated ways of explaining reality and our human existence are just possible lenses that focus on only certain dimensions of existence, we get in trouble easily. There are always more factors that can be looked at and probably even more that we aren’t even able to see, and reducing any issue to just one angle is always doing violence to the complicated reality we inhabit!

Nuance, and looking to all viewpoints and stories is always needed. And evidently it is always dehumanising to reduce people to just one aspect of their being and then completely fold their identity into that aspect, no matter if it’s sex/gender, race, culture, status in power/privilege, whatever… People are always more than that, and cannot be reduced to any of those. Relationships and human motives always based on more things than we know.

So I have to end with a warning about a certain line of thought that’s pervasive in certain social justice circles nowadays. No matter on what side of the line they are, dehumanising someone as an ‘oppressor’ (a common way to centrate human animalfarmidentity on in certain contemporary circles) and then dismissing them as a human being that has nothing to contribute is as dehumanising as the things the whole attitude wants to erase. Things that should be erased indeed, if we are to treat others like humans, but animal farm revolutions are NOT the way

Humans are always more complicated. Reality is always more complicated. We need centrated theories because that’s how we operate as humans. But we also need to see them for what they are, and to never take any theory at all as comprehensively describing Reality, humans, or God (yes, the same problem is very present in modernist and other theology too, but I don’t have the time here to go into that). We’ll only do violence to whatever we describe if  we think that our centrated theories describe all there is…

Always stay humble, be open to learn, and be open listen to everyone in a certain issue. Open your eyes for nuance, and don’t forget that the world is often not black’n white, nor grey, but it has many colours, some of which we can’t see. (Which doesn’t mean they aren’t important.  Bees can see ultra-violet marks of flowers for example)

What do you think?

Peace

Bram

See also the following posts:

Lust is not about sex but power and control?
The unhelpfulness of words like ‘conservative’, ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’.
The virus of evil: animal farm revolutions and the cycle of violence…

 

 

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No, the ‘Islamic State’ isn’t medieval.. (it’s even worse: it’s modern!)


Someone on facebook linkkromzwaarded to an article from the Guardian about the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (formerly known as ISIS, and still called that in the article), the Islam-based terror organisation that reigns over parts of Iraq and Syria and has committed atrocities against humanity. If found it very interesting in making some connections that are easily missed, giving some historical background on modern Jihadism and deconstructing some of lazy assumptions that are often parroted in the media.

The Islamic State is one of the things dominating the news nowadays, even though they seemed to come ‘out of nothing’. They are a threat to our modern way of thinking and living, and tend to be quite absolutist  in their enforcement of what they consider an ‘Islamic state’ to be, in such a way that those who are not considered part of their particular type of Islam do better run away as fast as they can when the IS comes near…
And that category does not just include Christians (the Orthodox Churches of Mesopotamia are (were) among the oldest Christian communities on the planet), Yezidi and ‘heretic’ Shiites and more mystically inclined Islamic followers of Sufism but also anyone who doesn’t agree with them, even if they are as much of a Sunni Muslim as they are.

Some people like to call the things the IS does not only barbaric but also ‘medieval’. Which totally ignores that the worst things that are generally seen as ‘medieval’ are actually from the renaissance (like the European religion wars, the extreme witch hunts, …) But since most of us do are not very historically-minded and believe the englightenment-myths that the medievals believed in a flat Earth (almost everything believed in the Ptolemaic round-earth geocentric model) or that medievals had no place for reason. (Anyone who has read the scholastics will know that a lot of medieval thinkers were closer to excess rationalism than to shunning reason.)

But there actually is not much that can be called medieval (in an Arabic or European sense) about the IS. They are much more (post)modern with a lot of modern Western influence, and the IS  actually could never do what they do without the modern mass media for example. Without the internet and our  sharing of videos they couldn’t have had the effect on the rest of the world that they do now. For anyone who knows even a little bit about history it’s very clear that the IS is not really going back in time to reclaim something very old, (they wish though)  but something new and unique that can only exist in this day and age…

We also should watch out about being too categoric the link between IS and Islam. Yes, IS claims to be Islamic, but so do a lot of the people killed by them. Saying that the IS or any violent group is ‘the real Islam’ and that Islam is nonsense and dismisses all those Muslims who do not agree with IS at all as bad Muslims. (It only affirms the validity of IS anyway…)
On the other hand, saying that IS has nothing at all to do with Islam is also nonsense. They do claim to represent Islam and at least base themselves on a faulty image of Islam. even if they would be excluded as heretics by all other muslims, then it’s still nonsense to say they have ‘nothing to do with Islam’.
The Jehovah witnesses might not be considered as inside of Christianity, but to say that they have nothing to do with Christianity is just nonsense…

But there is another source for the IS, and modern Jihadism as a whole, that we might not like to see. Note the second word in the name ‘Islamic State’. The idea of the absolutist modern nation-state is as central to the IS as Islam is.  The earlier mentioned  article from the Guardian that inspired this post has the very interesting title “Isis jihadis aren’t medieval – they are shaped by modern western philosophy” and as sub-title “We should look to revolutionary France if we want to understand the source of Islamic State’s ideology and violence.”

For those with a short memory, the French revolution is not that long ago, and brought us the guillotine for those who disagreed, and brought on the modern absolute state which differed enormous from the way politics were done before that time.  Those were violent and barbaric times, in the name of progress, science, the enlightenment, and all that yadda-yadda… (Yes, the guillotine was seen as progress too, a new and modern way to execute people with superior technology…. Beheading might be barbaric, but it’s in no way incompatible with modernity!)

It needs to be said very clearly: contemporary jihadism is not a return to the past. It is a modern, anti-traditional ideology with a very significant debt to western political history and culture.

When he made his speech in July at Mosul’s Great Mosque declaring the creation of an Islamic state with himself as its caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi quoted at length from the Indian/Pakistani thinker Abul A’la Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami party in 1941 and originator of the contemporary term Islamic state.

Maududi’s Islamic state is profoundly shaped by western ideas and concepts. He takes a belief shared between Islam and other religious traditions, namely that God alone is the ultimate judge of a person, and transforms this – reframing God’s possession of judgment into possession of, and ultimately monopoly of, “sovereignty”. Maududi also draws upon understandings of the natural world governed by laws that are expressions of the power of God – ideas at the heart of the 17th-century scientific revolution. He combines these in a vision of the sovereignty of God, then goes on to define this sovereignty in political terms, affirming that “God alone is the sovereign” (The Islamic Way of Life). The state and the divine thus fuse together, so that as God becomes political, and politics becomes sacred.

Such sovereignty is completely absent in medieval culture, with its fragmented world and multiple sources of power. Its origins lie instead in the Westphalian system of states and the modern scientific revolution.

The absolute power of the state (here mixed-up with the sovereignity of God) is indeed completely foreign to the medievals, who had different spheres of authority that were often competing. The middle ages in Europe did have a constant battle for power against the Pope and the kings and emperors, because they both wanted power, and every lower feudal lord did have their own sovereignty in their little part of the world. Nothing like the absolute modern state or the even scarier theocratic version of IS was conceivable to them.

Which is the reason that the French revolution tried to erase all religion, because it could not tolerate another source of authority apart from the State like the Pope. Or even God.. The proclamation that ‘Jesus is Lord’ if understood properly is problematic in the modern absolutism, but since most people spiritualise that it’s not such an issue right now. The communist regimes of the 20th centuries did the same thing and tried to ban all religions, sometimes with a lot of violence.

When we mix this modern absolutism of the State with an Islamic theocracy, we get something like the IS:

In revolutionary France, it is the state that creates its citizens and nothing should be allowed to stand between the citizen and the state. That is why today French government agencies are still prevented by law from collecting data about ethnicity, considered a potential intermediary community between state and citizen.

This universal citizen, separated from community, nation or history, lies at the heart of Maududi’s vision of “citizenship in Islam”. Just as the revolutionary French state created its citizens, with the citizen unthinkable outside the state, so too the Islamic state creates its citizens. This is at the basis of Maududi’s otherwise unintelligible argument that one can only be a Muslim in an Islamic state.

Don’t look to the Qur’an to understand this – look to the French revolution and ultimately to the secularisation of an idea that finds its origins in European Christianity: extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the church there is no salvation), an idea that became transformed with the birth of modern European states into extra stato nulla persona (outside the state there is no legal personhood). This idea still demonstrates extraordinary power today: it is the source of what it means to be a refugee.

It’s probably because we don’t understand the middle ages very much (how can we, every Hollywood movie about that time is filled with contemporary modern though projected back upon the past) that we associate this stuff with the middle ages. But it’s much closer to us, closer than we like.

Also note that the use of violence by the IS is not medieval, but very modern, postmodern even, since it is used as a means of worldwide propaganda through the postmodern means of the internet.

I will close here with the conclusion of the Guardian article, which is very important. The IS wants to be seen as a continuation of older forms of Islam, but we should not validate those claims. Their ‘caliphate’ (as well as that of Boko Haram in Africa) is no return to the caliphate of the earlier days of Islam, it’s something completely new that they try to validate by using that name.

Central to Isis’s programme is its claim to Muslim heritage – witness al-Baghdadi’s dress. Part of countering this requires understanding the contemporary sources of its ideology and its violence. In no way can it be understood as a return to the origins of Islam. This is a core thesis of its supporters, one that should not be given any credence at all.

 

Atheism, the supernatural, gaslighting and modernity…


Note: Note that I do live in a secular country where materialist naturalism is the norm, and were atheism might not be the absolute majority, but it is a respectable tradition which seems to be the absolute norm in most academic disciplines. Supernaturalism is frowned upon and seen as non-existing by most people, or even worse. (The same tactics can be used by a community with false claims about the supernatural and atheists btw)

I

We have a very peculiar and complicated system for religious education in public schools here in Belgium, where every student in secondary and primary school can choose their own religion out of a list of official religions including catholic, protestant, Islamic and Jewish lessons, which will be given to them for 100 minutes every week. For the non-religious children there’s a seperate subject called ‘niet-confessionele zedenleer’ (which means something like ’non-confessional study of ethics’) which is based on liberal humanism.

The guy I was talking to was a ‘zedenleer’ teacher who taught secondary school pupils, and as more of his colleagues he was also a very convicted atheist. The type of atheist even that has a stereotypical ‘there is no God’ sticker on his bag and was a fan of people like Richard Dawkins.
He was actually talking about another subject, but suddenly he voiced his opinion about prophets and said something like the following:

“In the older days people who heard voices were regarded as prophets were followed as prophets, but now in our modern tie we lock them up in a psychiatric clinic”

Quite a judgemental broad-brush statement, and a bit extreme too if you ask me… Not only rejecting every prophet of every religion, but outright stating that they all should have been locked up because they were just mentally ill.

I’ve heard and read this same sentiment from atheists on more occasions, sometimes stronger, sometimes said in a milder tone. But in the end too often it all boils down more generally to the idea that everyone who claims to have had any experience of the supernatural is seen as either a fraud or a lunatic who should be locked away… (I wish I was caricaturing here, but I really have met people thinking like this!! It seems a very common idea in certain atheist circles.)

Apart from the stigma attached to psychological disorders that seems to underlie the way the original statement was voiced (which is unfair to those suffering with mental illnesses.) there is something very troubling about the way in which the supernatural is waved away as if there could not in a million years be another option… Materialism and naturalism are unquestioned axioms that should not be questioned lest you want your mental sanity questioned…

II

The world I grew up in is almost the opposite of all of this: I grew up in pentecostal and have afterwards always been part of charismatic churches (the vineyard) where hearing from God was seen as something very normal, something that was encouraged for all people. Other supernatural things were also seen as quite natural. Speaking in tongues (sometimes with translation by the Spirit, sometimes with someone recognising the language), healing, prophecies and words of knowledge in which people supernaturally had information via the Holy Spirit that they could not have, and so on…

Now it is true that I’ve seen a lot of questionable prophecies, abuses and stuff that might have been not 100% kosher, and that I do ahev my questions about some things. (I have never met anyone who abused the supernatural or a fake version of it for money though) But that does not take away that I’ve seen an experienced too much of the supernatural to disbelieve in it. It is e that some things are more human in origin or could be explained otherwise.

To complicate the matter more, I have spoken in my life with people from a lot of places with a lot of backgrounds, and the supernatural is presents in other cultures, traditions and religions too. Even if am quite sceptical and think a lot of things I’ve heard might be exaggerated, wrong explanations, etc… There is no way I can ever accept claims that brush it all away and say that none of this does exist. That is simply not an option for me.

III

On to the word gaslighting in my title , a word I’ve seen used first by poost-fundamentalist bloggers to describe a form of abuse in which the experiences of the victim are completely dismissed.

The idea word comes from an old movie I haven’t seen, but there’s a very good example of a very ingenious form of gaslighting in one of my favorite movie ‘Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain’ (I think the title in English is just ‘Amelie’) in which the person the movie is named after gets fed up with the way the grocer in the neigborhood treats his helper, a mentally challenged young man who might be a bit slow in his work, but who is very friendly. Amelie then takes revenge bameliefarmstandy gradually changing small things in the house of Mr. Collignon: lightbulbs with lover light, switching doorknobs, and so on. When she changes his clock and alarm he goes out to work before everyone else and fall asleep, and in the end when it all becomes too much he takes his liquor (replaced by something quite undrinkable) and then as a last straw calls his mother and ends up calling the psychiatrist. Revenge complete, and Mr Collignon is psychologically destroyed..

This is an extreme example of a very complicated and well-prepared prepared case, but the same dynamics can apply to other situations where things happen that do not fit into the worldview of others. Post-fundamentalists who escaped the world they grew up in and have seen their old worldview crumble are told that whatever they’ve experienced is nit true, not valid, that theyre crazy or whatever, because nothing can exist that does not align with the beliefs of the community…

These kind of tactics come up automatically to protect any status-quo worldview from whatever deviation that might disturbs it. “Whatever you may claim, it could not have happened according to our Truth so you must be wrong, or maybe crazy even. Shut up or we’ll silence you! It is a very logical way to protect any orthodoxy from thing that undermine a worldview that should not be questioned…
If we use the word gaslighting here for these kind of worldview-preserving tactics, we do have to note that those doing this are, unlike Amelie Poulain, not always knowingly deceiving, just as fundamentalists that use the technique on those leaving are generally not trying to lure others in deceit, but just are just defending their worldview from data that does not fit and might destroy it. I actually think this is is a very common reaction from the more powerful world when two worldviews collide and the less powerful side has experiences that disprove the accepted ‘orthodoxy’ of those in power…

IV

The same principle is at work in the logic from the teacher I described earlier. It’s a mentality of ‘our truth is that reason says that the supernatural does not exist, so therefore you cannot have experienced the supernatural. So you are or deluded and we must see the light of our truth, or a fraud that should be stopped, or mentally not well and should be helped/locked up. The least you could do is shut up…’. What I feel from some atheists is indeed that if someone would come with a claim of something supernatural, that they indeed would like such a person to shut up, or be locked up. Such a thing cannot exist and must be disposed off. Like the inquisition I Gallileo’s days, the orthodoxy of the status should not be disturbed, the boat should not be rocked, the ‘Magister dixit’ of the enlightenment tradition should not be spoken against…

This can lead to actual discrimination too: There was a case here in Belgium recently when a person, who is a Pentecostal Christian who believes in healing, was fired from a function in an university because he had a website in which he claimed to believe in miracles, even though the work he did had nothing to do at all with this.

There is something very absolutist in certain forms of modern atheism. I would not in a million years trust this kind of modern atheists more in a position of power more than any supposed ‘theocraty’ in which any religion is abused to keep a certain religious group in power. They would indeed rid the world of everything supernatural as much as they could, if needed with violence or by breaking people’s spirits in a psychiatric clinic…

V

All of this ironically does fit in very well with the roots that modern science and technology do share with actual magic: the quest for power over nature. C.S. Lewis even called magic and science twins for this reason, and this has been the major occupation of modern humanism: conquering nature, getting more power. (Which also means that the elite who does this work gets more power over the others.) Modernism has created a very closed worldview, in which the natural sciences have had an enormous development which made a lot of extraordinary things possible through manipulation and mastering of the natural world (from medical science to nuclear weapons).

But the worldview has become absolute, and it has become for some an orthodoxy that should not be spoken against. The inquisition and Galilei have switched sides…

Underlying still there is the fear of the unknown, the fear of thing bigger than us. We tamed the natural as far as we could (and destroyed half of the planets ecosystems and brought on the greatest mass extinction since the end of the Cretaceous time) but we don’t even control ourselves (and sometimes shush ourselves with neurocalvinist nonsense that we don’t have the free wil to this, not realising that this idea completely destroys any notion of ‘conquest of nature’ and just proclaims the absolute victory of nature over man on the end…)

But in the end, unless there will be a very totalitarian atheist dictatorship in which anyone who dares to say anything about the supernatural get ‘cured’, it cannot be stopped or erased from this world. Reality just is regardless of any of our descriptions of it, and it will never fit the mold of our pet theories about how the universe workd. The world is bigger than we want it to be, there are things we cannot investigate with naturalistic science nor control with technology.

We are not in control of everything.

And it’s fine..

Peace

Bram

Some interesting things elsewhere IX


So here we are back with another edition of ‘Some interesting things elsewhere’, after quite a long absence…

A picture of a Snowy owl, which has been taken just before newyear, here in Belgium close to the Northsea coast. This is an arctic species that very seldom come so far to the South, and scientist do think that this specimen does not come from Northern Scandinavia, but has taken a boar from Northern Canada… No matter where it comes from, it’s a beautiful picture of a beautiful bird. (Picture via natuurpunt on facebook)sneeuwuil

Lana Hope has started an interesting series about what is modernity that looks quite promising. Speaking of modernity and Christianity, Roger Olson had a series too a while ago that is worth reading: Christianity and modernity: oil and water? Part 2 part 3. As someone who does identify as postmodern and who wants to connect more to the non-modern roots of my religion those things are very interesting…

David Russell Mosley from the letters from Elfland has written a very interesting artcile On the economics of Elfland for the birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien. I recently reread the Lord of the Rings trilogy (which I like a lot) and watched the second hobbit movie (which was quite disappointing, you can’t make a movie of the hobbit without including the gradual arrival at Beorns house, and a love triangle with a female elf captian Kili the dwarf and Legolas who isn’t even in the book is just too much…) so I’m still in a Tolkien mood anyway.

To show how different life and gender issues can be in other places: Indian Eunuchs adopt to fulfill motherhood. The eunuchs in questions are living in special brothels, and the person the article speaks about identifies as ‘she’, and has a heartbreaking story. No matter how different and difficult their lives, they are humans like us!

Did you hear my EP instant pocket apocalypse from last summer, which might have been the least advertised release ever? It switches from abstract electronic instrumentals to weird semi-electronic indierock and other not-so-common stuff. I will never be able to play any of this live though…

Zack Hoag quits the progressive Christian internet for 2014 and I completely understand him. As a non-American I don’t even understand all the calling-out for using the wrong words and all the shibboleths of that strange niche…

On new years eve we had ‘de tijdloze’ in Flanders on the radio station studio Brussel, when the listeners choose the top-100 of classic rock-songs, including some hard ones. For the first time #1 was Led Zeppelin with ‘stairway to heaven’, which kicked ‘smells like teen spirit’ from its first place. (#3 was Pearljams ‘black’, a song I don’t care for much. Also, the weird song Mia (click for my blogpost about that song), a former #1, fell to 22, which means the end of an era… (singing that the middleclass rules the country better than ever before isn’t accurate anymore?)

And which means that there wasn’t any Belgian song in the top-20 left… (Only Americans and Brittish ones even, speak of colonialism? -edit: Wait, isn’t the arcade fire Canadian?-)

This sociological piece about American fundamentalism confirms my suspicion that unlike whatever it might claim it is not at all built around ‘the bible only’ at all, but more like a complex man-made (made up on the way?) tradition.

Speaking about American fundamentalism, this slice of life story at the broken daughters blog (by an American ex-fundamentalist girl currently studying in Germany) is quite funny to me. Don’t ask me why…

And this is just a fraction how we humans are being an abomination against nature and Creation: 10 animals that went extinct in 2013 (or declared extinct)

Another sad statistic from last year: 70.000 Christians killed in 2013

And then there’s this genius piece from the onion about brainwashed idiots feeding the poor (yes that’s satire, but it sounds like some atheists I’ve met)

What did you see that caught your eye?

Peace

Bram

A rant on Christian modernism and stuff…


uk1999fi

I just posted this on twitter (in 11 parts) as ‘a rant that might cost me followers’:

I think I do know why the America-centric Christian blogosphere seems to irritate me and feels so irrelevant so much of the time. I realised just don’t even care about the fundamentalist/liberal dichotomy as both seem equally irrelevant to me as a Charismatic (as I am probably to them…) and 2 sides of the same old boring utterliky unrealistic ugly modernist coin to me. Even if I’d lose my Christian faith I’d rather follow the closest new-ager or any tribal pagan than fall for naturalist materialism anyway, which is the privilege of ivory-tower Westerners and solipsistic academics. And although I liked the ’emerging church dialog’, where the ’emergent’ stuff falls into some kind of liberalism 2.0 it just loses any credibility to me. I can understand liberalism as the godless capitalism it is in Europe, it is honest but evil, and I don’t care for it. Socialism, non-marxist communism, anarchism, even monarchism, whatever… Bring on organic church, neo-anabaptism, Eastern Orthodoxy, indigenous expressions of Christianity, even insights from all kinds of other religions and philosophies where the Creator has sown the seeds of Truth. But please no modern Western liberalism, ‘new atheism’ or modern Christian fundamentalism please, they all seem connected to me and don’t convince me at all. The world is already ugly enough, thank you…

Maybe I worded it too strong, but it’s how I feel…

Any pushback or questions?

peace

Bram

Thoughts about the spiritual ecological naivete of modern Westerners


dodoliedI more or less recently finished rereading a book called ‘the song of the Dodo’ (in Dutch translation though) by David Quammen, a very readable popular-scientific book about island biogeography and extinction among other subjects. It also touches on related topics like evolution on islands, the size a national park needs to have to keep a viable population of an endangered species, and the way Charles Darwin might have been evil towards Alfred Wallace, who was developing the same ideas he became famous for, at the same time as he was writing ‘on the origin of species’… It was probably the first book about evolution I read that did not just sound convincing, but also intrigued me in the subject when I was a lot younger… It is also a very interesting read, well-written, with both a lot of interesting stories and anecdotes and thorough scientific information.

One term that he uses that I find very interesting is ‘ecological naivete’: an animal evolved in a place without natural enemies, like on a remote island, will not have the concept of ‘enemy’ even if one comes along. It will look ‘tame’ to humans, but also will not run away from introduced predators (until it’s too late that is). So a Galapagos iguana or giant tortoise will not even bother if a human being approaches it, and a dodo on Mauritius didn’t run away from a hungry Dutch settler with an axe, but maybe just ran towards it to say ‘hi’… The few specimens of a species that do learn to get away from predators and keep their young away from them might be the only ones that remain to start a new line of the species more adapted to the new situation with predators in it, but such a thing rarely seems to happen, and a lot of ecologically naive species on all kinds of islands have been exterminated when a predator, like the common house cat had been released.

This is because it’s ancestors have never had any form of natural selection on how to react when a predator comes around. Here on the continent there is a heavy selection by predators, and only those animals who can stay out of the mouth of a predator long enough to make and raise babies will be able to reproduce… And the predators are being selected in the same way, if they are not able to catch enough prey they will not stay alive either. It is sort of an arms race… [I don’t want to start a discussion here if ecological naivety is cultural (learned from parents and other older animals) or genetically inborn, it’s not my field of expertise, and most probably a combination of the 2 anyway, and it would lead us far astray…]

What’s so interesting about this term is that it can be used to describe something that at first sight seems absolutely unrelated: the way some Westerners seem to be attracted to ‘the spiritual’ without hesitation, in any form that will present itself to them, without even being careful about ‘the invisible world’. (I’m not in the first place speaking about God here, more about the invisible part of our world)

We as Western moderns do live in a world with a seemingly complete absence the supernatural, and we do everything to keep up this illusion that it doesn’t exist in no way at all… People are conditioned to see the world this way, have learned to not bother about those superstitions. But is this reductionist naturalist world the real world, or is it just what we want to see? Isn’t a life of materialism and naturalism, like a lot of us have in the ‘civilized’ part of the world (especially academic circles…) the privilege of ivory-tower Westerners, more like a form of wishful thinking than ‘the only rational way to view reality’ as some claim it to be.

From a few things that I’ve experienced, and a lot of things that I’ve heard from different sources around the world, the influence of the supernatural is not always as easy to put away as ‘superstition’ as it is here and as we would conveniently be able to do. People in a lot of countries do even live in fear of it, sometimes out of real superstition probably, but sometimes not without a good reason nonetheless…

I agree that it’s in a way very convenient to have a world that is completely ‘rational’ and that can be described solely through ‘the laws of nature’ as modern science defines them. But do we have such a world? We have at least been living like we have in only a material world, for a few hundredths of years. Since the enlightenment we’ve been denying the supernatural here in the West, telling ourselves it does not exist… Which also means that we generally stopped almost all of our contact with it, and we got completely our of touch with it… We built up a world in which it has no place and is not supposed to exist!

And still it did not go away, and it won’t… No matter how much we cry to the sky that it’s empty, the world is and has always been more than just ‘natural’ in the modern sense. Things I’ve experienced myself, as well as heard from witnesses do convince me that there is something, whatever it is…
Nothing convinces me that all the explanations given about them are true though… Neither the demonologies of certain charismatic Christians that I’ve met nor the weird worldviews of new-agers and neo-pagean hippies seem really satisfying in describing and explaining all of ‘the invisible world’, which is as the words say invisible and not quite as easy to investigate as the natural world.
This is in itself no reason to not believe in it, except if we’re blinded by human chauvinism ‘If I can’t investigate and explain it it isn’t there’ is more like what we call ‘ostrich politics’ over here. Think about the proverbial ostrich hiding his head in the sand when something undesired comes his way. It will not at all stop the lion that wants to attack it Our ideas of what should and can exist and what not based on a particular worldview do not have any effect on the world, but they will have a lot of influence on how we perceive it…

Back to the ecological naivete and how it fits in our story: just as with our dodo saying hi to the Axe-wielding Dutchman, some modern Westerners are completely ecologically naive when they encounter the supernatural.. The supernatural is so unknown, that some just want to have tea with every spirit that shows up. But this can be quite dangerous. Not every Spirit is safe. Not every spiritual experience is positive.

(I do have a dystopian picture in my head now in a world where the same is happening with the natural world, and some people who think ‘animal is good’ that are accidentally where there are still animals, trying to pet a giant crocodile as much as a baby deer…)

I get a creepy feeling when I see what some people write about psychonautical experiences for example. Why would anyone think it’s safe to use drugs to go into other dimensions or the spirit world just without any form of guidance? A shaman in a tribe has to learn a lot of things and be initiated before they can do such things in a supposedly ‘safe’ way, and not without a reason.

The invisible world has the disadvantage that it is invisible, like I already said with a terrible pleonasm, and that we don’t know much about it, and so can easily project our theories onto it… But if there’s something there that’s dangerous, it will not play according to our rules, just as the things in the natural world do follow their own rules…
Hippies, new agers, ‘spiritual types’ and certain Christians all seem to share in this ‘we are safe, we know what we’re doing’ sometimes with the Spiritual world. Thinking that something is harmless just because it’s ‘spiritual’ or ‘supernatural’ is as stupid as thinking that something is harmless because it’s natural (sorry to destroy one of your arguments, you Cannabis-freaks…), or did you not hear of the venom of snakes, the poison of the deathly nightshade, the claws of wolves, etc.???

So that’s what I meant: modern man, coming from a place shielded from everything spiritual, tends to be completely ecologically naive when catapulted into a world that still has that connection with the supernatural… I just give this as a warning, do with it whatever you want…

peace

Bram

 

C.S. Lewis, Ayn Rand, and science and magic as twins


CSLewis_PipeYesterday I came onto this blog post, in which Ayn Rands marginal notes are quoted like  she has scribbled them into C.S. Lewis book ‘the abolition of man’, a book that I’ve read several times in my life. As someone who knows the ideas of this book, I was quite surprised not only by the vitriol of her comments, but also by how irrelevant some of them are to the text they’re criticising. Update: the complete marginal notes from Rand can be found here (thank you Arend Smilde for the link)

For those who don’t know the book (which can be read online here): Lewis is mostly known for his Christian books, but this is a more a philosophical book that’s actually not particularly Christian. The main point of the book is 2-fold: First there is an Orwellian critique to the modernist project of man conquering nature, in which Lewis states that the final step of this conquering will be ultimately self-defeating on the part of man. The second point is that there is a more or less absolute set of values inherent to this world, which he calls the tao,  with a word borrowed from Eastern philosophy, of which all meaningful human values in all cultures are derived. I do not agree with every detail, and I don’t get more than half of his references, but  I’ve always found the basic ideas of the book, and it’s critique to modernism, quite compelling. (But you need to read the whole book to understand his conclusions, including some weird parts that are hard to read.)

(I also have the idea that some of her remarks about middle ages and the renaissance would not have been made if her issue of the book would have included, like the Dutch version does,  De despcriptione temporum, his inaugural lecture from the chair of mediaeval and renaissance literature at Cambridge University (1954).)

One of the things Rand reacts quite strongly to is the idea that magic and modern science are related:

The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak.

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.

Lewis as a scholar of medieval and renaissance literature (see also the ‘de descfriptione  temporum’ text I’ve linked to) knows what he is talking about, and anyone who knows something about the life of Isaac Newton for example, who was both a scientist and an alchemist who did weird studies in the occult (and a Christian who wrote bible commentaries)  should know what he’s talking about. Newton can indeed be considered as one of the last great Western magicians as well as one of the first great scientists…

Very important here is what Lewis means with the words science and magic. Both are not means of mere knowledge for him, but of power, power over reality, including power of the one who has it over other humans. Magic is a way to get power using the supernatural, science (and technology) is a way to get power using the natural world. Note also that ‘magic’ as used here is the opposite of astrology, which has the purpose of conforming to the influences of the stars and the supernatural!

Lewis himself does not deny the existence of science as a search for knowledge, and indeed explicitly notes that there are scientists who are seeking for pure knowledge, but that’s not the goal of most applied science both in the 16th century and the momdern time, which shares indeed the goal of magic: to subdue reality to the wishes of men.

I don’t think Lewis would say that this is always a problem, he’s not a luddite and used technology himself, and never rejects it. But what he wants to show us is a dark side that is inherent to modern (applied) science. A dark side that might remind us to the lie of the snake, that told the first couple that they would be like God.

And indeed, science has been used for ‘playing God, and abused in a lot of abominable ways to get power, not only over nature, but also over other humans. Most science nowadays is subdued not to those who want pure knowledge, but to those who want power and money.  This is how we came to have the atom bomb, genetically engineered crops that are very handy in making multinationals richer, etc, (While some other scientific fields not useful for securing power and money are underfunded!)

So what happened to magic? It lost because it didn’t seem to work the way science worked, and was pushed out of the modern worldview which became more and more hermetically naturalistic. But its goal is still the same goal of a lot of modern science.

The point of self-control to be able to conform ourself to reality is also something we should not forget. We are not the creators of the universe, and there are things higher than us we should conform to, like certain laws of nature. I do not mean this deterministically, we should not let every thing we meet rule over us, man is indeed able to fight back when reality is hostile and evil, but we moderns should not forget that we can never be free without self-control

what do you people think?

peace

Bram