How Did We Get Here? Interpreting the Myth of Modernity
Nah. Let's begin with some autobobographical novelgazing, so the focus stays where it should, on me. At the time I began writing my book, it was in response to the nagging question, how did I get here? In order to provide anything like an adequate response to that question, one must approach it from a multitude of angles and dimensions, from the strictly scientific to the theological, from the genetic to the psychological, from the historical to the the anthropological, from the biological to the linguistic, and much, much more.
If we fail to take this multiply-indisciplined approach, we end up treating ourselves as children by simply mouthing one of officially sanctioned myths of the day, whether of science or religion, it really doesn't matter. I mean, if you are intellectually satisfied by the idea that your existence is explained by "selfish genes," you shouldn't ridicule people who believe they were created directly by God, because both are more myth than reality. In the former case, one reduces an extremely complex and multifactorial process to efficient causation, while in the latter, one reduces it to formal causation, but both are inappropriately deterministic and exclude way too much reality.
I would agree that God is our formal (and final) cause. But an awful lot of things happen between us and God, both on an individual and collective basis, everything from the parents one is stuck with to the culture and historical epoch one is born into. Yes, Mozart's soul was "created by God." But does anyone believe his life would have been similar had he been born into a time or place that didn't have pianos, harmonic musical structure, and a sophisticated technique of musical notation? Yes, Einstein was a genius, but what if he had been born before calculus had been discovered?
So there is an obvious tension -- and paradox -- between who we are and how we get that way. But much of the paradox comes down to the fact that we are necessarily situated in time, which means, among other things, history, developmental maturation, progress (and decay), etc.
You might say that Gillespie's book takes a magnifying glass to an insufficiently understood transition in our collective development -- the transition from premodernity to modernity. As soon as you think about it, it's very strange, so it's no wonder that most people simply gloss over it. Really, it's as mysterious as the questions of how an embryo becomes a human being, how monkeys came to inhabit a linguistic world, or how a Stone Age baby becomes a proper human being. And in order to adequately answer any of these questions, one must again approach it from a multitude of vectors, both horizontal and vertical.
Consider also the fact that the transition from premodernity to modernity was one of the bloodiest -- if not the bloodiest -- in the grim history of humanity. Indeed, it is still taking place now, for this is what is going on between us and the Islamists, who are specifically in revolt against modernity and all it implies. To suggest, as do liberals, that this is about poor Muslims wanting what we want, is as absurd as suggesting that the crazed religious wars that engulfed Christendom between the early fifteenth to mid-sixteenth centuries were really about food.
A violent psychic rupture took place at the transition between premodernity and modernity, and one of the questions we will be exploring is whether it could have turned out differently, and whether we can ever recover the path that wasn't taken with the great schism between Catholicism and Protestantism -- the latter of which in turn led to the desiccated secular fundamentalism that now dominates culture.
One of the most fascinating chapters in the book discusses the Coonish men -- people like Petrarch and Ficino -- who proposed a "third way" that might have avoided much of the mind-boggling violence and bloodshed of the religious wars, but these voices were easily drowned out by the louder and more passionate voices and interests.
For what they were proposing was a Christian humanism (not Christian humanism, which soon devolves to mere secular humanism), that in my view was easily capacious enough to reconcile human individuality with divine sovereignty, while preserving the traditional spheres of nature, man and God. In such an approach, it is quite easy to reconcile science and God, immanent and transcendent. But if you reject it, you end up where we are today, with a secularized science that is absurdly incomplete and incapable of an intellectually or spiritually satisfying account of man, in opposition to a willfully obtuse fundamentalism that thinks it must reject many of the central findings of science and blessings of modernity in order to preserve itself.
In many ways, the transition from premodernity to modernity reminds me of the transition from childhood to adolescence. Yes, you can draw a straight line from child to adult, but how misleading that is! Collectively speaking, we are analogous to pseudo-mature adults who remember nothing of the extraordinary turbulence and rebellion that took place during our adolescence. But why did it take place? What was really going on beneath the surface? And have we really resolved anything, or have we simply repressed the conflict, banished it to the historical unconscious, so to speak?
Gillespie implies that we have, for one of the principal characteristics of modern man is the idea that he is autochthonous -- self-born and self-made, so to speak, a product of pure reason standing above the insanity of history, purged of religious myth and superstition. But Gillespie easily dispatches this simplistic belief system, showing that it is very much rooted in one of the theological streams that opened up in the transition to modernity. For it transparently partakes of divine omnipotence, only absurdly displaced into secular science. In contrast, the followers of Luther preserved divine omnipotence, but at the cost of denying all of the secondary but nevertheless real causes explored by natural science.
Here again, this is the wedge that violently split the medieval synthesis down the middle, and we are still very definitely dealing with its implications today. For nothing has been resolved (unless, of course, you are one of the virtually dozens who have read my book). But one of the most eye-opening revelations of Gillespie's book was again the fact that there were a handful of Raccoons around at the time, trying their best to avoid the holocaust that occurred when the medieval synthesis fractured and unleashed hell on earth.
People talk about how secular ideologies were responsible for the death of some 100 million people in the 20th century, and that is entirely true. However, around here we value intellectual honesty above all else, so we have to consider that awful figure relative to the total population. And the religious wars of sixteenth and seventeenth centuries "were conducted with a fervor and brutality that were not seen again until our own times. Indeed, the ferocity of the combatants may have even exceeded our own, for almost all the killing took place at close quarters, often in hand-to-hand combat, and thus without the emotionally insulating distance that modern technologies make possible" (Gillespie). The extent of the slaughter and cruelty is indeed literally inconceivable, just as with the nazis or the Islamists.
I don't want to dwell on examples of the atrocities, but they were the norm, not the exception. The bottom line is that "by conservative estimates, the wars claimed the lives of 10 percent in England, 15 percent in France, 30 percent in Germany, and more than 50 percent in Bohemia." By way of contrast, "European dead in World War II exceeded 10 percent of the population only in Germany and the USSR. Within our experience, only the Holocaust and the killing fields of Cambodia can begin to rival the levels of destruction that characterized the Wars of Religion" (Gillespie; but I also wonder about the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians, which was a Holocaust in its own right).
But what was really going on here? What we want to do is put collective man on the analytic couch, so to speak, and try to uncover the real issues. For his cover story is analogous to the individual patient who comes in for therapy. In the beginning, he'll relate his "story" to the therapist, which is nothing more than the personal myth he has constructed for himself. But one of the reasons he is in emotional pain is that the myth excludes too much reality, so that he must disassemble it, venture down into the unconscious, and assemble a new and more encompassing myth that colonizes more of the Real.
This will be the ultimate purpose in our ongoing discussion of The Theological Origins of Modernity.