On the Varieties of Martyrdom: Past and Present, Interior and Exterior (11.24.10)
It is interesting that early Christianity spread by virtue of the violence done to its adherents, in direct opposition to Islam, which has only spread by virtue of violence perpetrated upon others. We have no real way of knowing how many actual Muslims there are in the world, for how many would remain Muslim if given the choice? How rapidly would Christianity spread in China and the Middle East if the authorities allowed anything like a free marketplace of religion?
Very odd as well that Muslims call their mass murderers "martyrs," but it is nevertheless consistent with their bloody history. According to Birzer, the actual Christian martyrs of the second and third centuries were "an inspiration to a decadent population, devoid of any higher understanding, but still seeking something higher than itself." He cites the example of St. Perpetua, who, "when a gladiator approached her in the arena... took the gladiator's trembling hand and guided it to her throat." Repeated countless times, these saints "became the dying witnesses to a purpose in this life and the life beyond. Their blood led to mass conversions among a lost Roman people." But who would convert to Islam as a result of watching teenage boys engage in mass murder after being manipulated by psychopathic and genocidal fanatics? Where is the appeal, except to eternal hatred?
Interesting as well that, once Christianity became the state religion and the era of persecution ended, a new kind of "interior martyrdom" began, as serious seekers fled for the desert in order to find God in the solitude of the heart. I've read a fair amount of the literature from this period, for example, in the Philokalia, but some of it is rather difficult to relate to, so uncompromising was the self-immolation involved. It was a kind of crucifixion of the ego that is difficult for us comprehend.
Then again, there are spiritual challenges in our day that people from even 100 years ago couldn't imagine. Most of us will never know what amounted to "constants" among pre-modern people, including famine, plague, war (up close and personal, not in a distant land), chronic pain, constant loss, and early death. Thus, for any thinking person, the utter futility of the world must have seemed quite obvious. It's the same with the Buddha's advice -- it's not nearly as difficult to detach from the world when the world has so little to recommend it.
So in an odd way, the present world undoubtedly requires its own kind of spiritual athleticism in order to transcend it, since the temptations are so much greater. In a way, the more fulfilling the world is, the more pain there is. How did people in the past endure the routine loss of a child? I would guess that infant mortality was so high, that the vast majority of parents had lost at least one child. Nowadays, this constitutes a tragic minority. Indeed, even a miscarriage is an occasion for grief, whereas I can't imagine premodern people giving it a second thought.
As I wrote in One Cosmos, this must have affected the way the premodern psyche grew and developed. We now know that the psyche is formed on the basis of attachment to early objects, and that any kind of disruption in the attachment process leaves emotional and cognitive scars for life. I have read that prior to modernity, parents didn't invest a lot of emotional energy in their children until there was a good chance they'd survive infancy, so I don't see how this could not have resulted in what we would call "schizoid" (i.e., detached), depressed, or paranoid personalities (i.e., bitter, distrusting, and angry people) on a widespread basis.
At 2 years, 8 months, my son is at a particularly cute age. In fact, he might be at his maximum level of cuteness. When interacting with him or even just watching him, I often think of how this is "heaven on earth." The modern world is so alluring, that we can forget all about transcendence. And yet, this attachment to the world probably just makes us feel less secure. A few weeks ago I read about a new particularly severe cold virus that has killed a few children; or you read about the alarming increase in little scratches resulting in a fatal infection from flesh-eating bacteria (which my sister-in-law actually died of). So in a perverse way, the more secure we are, the less secure, because we expect things to go perfectly.
I am sure this is what animates the angry and hysterical left, who obsess over "civil rights" when there is virtually no chance of any of us having our civil rights violated in modern America unless we are subject to an income tax audit. Likewise, they obsess over the environment, when it has literally never been better, or about the treatment of homosexuals and other minorities, when they have literally never had it so good. Without a doubt, 21st century America is the best place there has ever been to be black, female, or homosexual.
When you think about it, political campaigns operate mostly at the "margins" of life, trying to make what is already almost "perfect" (by historical standards) even better. For example, unemployment really can't get any lower without spurring inflation. Adjusted for inflation, gas is no more expensive than it was in the 1950s. Even the national debt is lower than the historical average, taken as a percentage of GNP. Water and air are the cleanest they've been since it has been possible to measure them, and healthcare is mainly expensive because there are so many drugs and procedures that didn't even exist a generation ago. If you want to save on healthcare, just limit yourself to the treatments that were available in 1975. But this is about as likely as wealthy liberals voluntarily giving more money to the government, instead of forcing others to do so.
To a "cultural conservative" -- no, not that kind -- it is obvious that the greatest contemporary threats are to the soul. The whole debate over this is rather clumsy, since it is generally framed in terms of radical secularists vs. "fundamentalists," neither of whom see the problem particularly clearly, the former by definition, the latter by virtue of a naive and anti-intellectual spiritual materialism.
Dawson felt that (in the words of Birzer), history involved a "battle for possession of the human soul," and that "to protect the order of the culture and the polity, one must first protect the order of the soul. Without the order of the soul, all will fail." What he wrote in the 1940s would apply with equal force today:
"England and the whole world are passing through a terrible crisis. We are fighting not merely against external enemies but against powerful forces that threaten the very existence of our culture. And it is therefore vital that all the positive intellectual and spiritual forces of Western culture should come together in defense of their common values and traditions against their common enemies." It is ironic that a Christopher Hitchens is one of the few leftists who has marshaled his obviously gifted intellect toward these ends, while simultaneously undercutting them in even more profound ways. He is literally trying to preserve that which he would wish to see destroyed.
But preservation and destruction are constants in history: "to the Christian the world is always ending, and every historical crisis is, as it were, a rehearsal for the real thing." "The defeat of totalitarianism... 'depends in the last resort, not on the force of arms but on the power of Spirit, the mysterious influence which alone can change human nature and renew the face of the earth.'"
In this regard, it is critical to bear in mind that evil ideologies are never creative, i.e., "not a creator but merely a creature" and therefore ultimately subject to the entropy and degeneration of the world: "The tyrannical ideologue can neither be creative nor imaginative," and is "merely a shadow of the true Enemy, himself just a creature, albeit a very powerful one within time." Islamism on the one hand and leftism on the other are "blind powers which are working in the dark, and which derive their strength from negative and destructive forces."
I don't worry at all about the things that seem to consume liberals, such as what the weather might be like in 100 years, whether we harshly interrogate terrorists, or whether open homosexuals should be allowed to serve in the military they so despise. What troubles me is whether we sill soon no longer have an environment capable of sustaining the human soul, and whether, because of various technological developments, we are able to live in such a way that we can imagine that there are no consequences for our spiritually self-destructive behavior.
In short, the spiritually "dangerous and treacherous" have "been made artificially safe," so that "the distinction between wisdom and folly would seem to be an irrelevance." As Bolton writes, "high forms of culture can usually continue for at least another generation after traditional moral restraints have given way, creating the impression that a society can have the best of both worlds." But this is only a "fool's paradise." The bill eventually comes due.
If there ever was a widespread conversion to truth as a vocation, most of the problems of society would solve themselves, since it would remove the basic evil of aimlessness. It was for this reason that Pascal said that the whole calamity of mankind was owing to the fact that a man cannot remain quietly in one room for any good purpose.... [O]ne must needs be a moral person while engaged in [the pursuit of truth], or it would quickly turn into something else. For this reason it has been described as the only really unselfish activity which is available to most people most of the time....
This is bound up with the idea of a special category of knowledge which does not serve any ulterior purposes, but is worth knowing for its own sake. Those who are most involved with such knowledge would therefore be in their own persons the realization of all the practical purposes which are pursued in the world around them.... This is why the the security of any society depends on the presence in it of minorities and individuals who are spiritually alien to it, who have a mission which goes far beyond the basic practicalities which rest one everyone. --Robert Bolton, Keys of Gnosis
Suffice it to say that none of us would be who we are had it not been for the existence of such impractical men -- interior and exterior martyrs of various kinds -- in the past.