Monday, January 11, 2010

How Did We Get Here? Interpreting the Myth of Modernity

We're going to be discussing Michael Gillespie's The Theological Origins of Modernity, which I just finished yesterday. It's so full of implications, that I'm having difficulty wrapping my mind around it. Perhaps I should just begin with a synopsis, and then go from there.

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.

45 Comments:

Blogger julie said...

This is an interesting subject. I'm currently working my way through both Sherrard's Christianity and Schuon's The Fullness of God (iPhone/ Kindle version; and hearkening back to the discussion on media the other day, the fact that you pay full price for a virtual tome is a total crock. But anyway...), which if I'm not mistaken both come at the topic from different perspectives, focused mainly on the metaphysical, not actual, violence involved.

What I've gotten from it so far is that little room was left for the raccoons and hermits; it's as though the ends which already existed implicitly wrenched violently farther apart, became explicit, and erected massive barriers between them, generally disallowing the possibility of a viable means to a higher and wholier verticality. And since then, Christianity has become spiritually Balkanized. At least, that's the impression I've gotten thus far.

1/11/2010 09:11:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Yes. As it pertains to contemporary times, it is very much as if the traditionalists want to revert back to before the split, while the postmodernists reject modernity from the other end, plunging us into chaos, irrationality, and dark night. Both approaches are wrong in my opinion. Details to follow.

1/11/2010 09:18:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know as its only the readers of your book that have an "adequate synthesis."

About 30% of the adult population has a functioning sythesis. God and science have been integrated, and there are no major obstacles left in terms of spiritual, mental, physical devlelopment.

About 50% of the population discerns no need of a synthesis; they couldn't use one even if you gave it to them.

About 20% are conflicted and in need of teaching.

In terms of how we are situated historically: high in the saddle. We have embarked on a new Golden Age; we don't know it but future historians will.

Chances of future genocides: growing dimmer.

And, the Turks must pay for what they did to the Armenians. That account is still outstanding.

1/11/2010 09:22:00 AM  
Blogger Jamie Irons said...

Bob,

You wrote:

Einstein was a genius, but what if he had been born before calculus had been discovered?

It's interesting that you chose to say "discovered" rather than "invented," suggesting that you are (as I am) a (mathematical) Platonist.

Not all mathematicians take this view; some (maybe even a majority today, I don't know) argue that mathematical truth is in a sense a construction, there is nothing "out there," we just make mathematics up as we go along, being careful that we are consistent and fruitful along the way.

But others, and this is my view, limited as I am in my understanding of mathematics and everything else, feel that mathematical truth exists prior to man. Gödel was among these.

Jamie Irons

1/11/2010 09:26:00 AM  
Blogger Warren said...

You're really getting into some good stuff now - more, please!

This topic interests me more than almost any other - it's a subject so big that it encompasses literally everyone and everything in the modern Western world, but nobody sees it.

>> [Protestantism] led to the desiccated secular fundamentalism that now dominates culture

True enough - atheism is really just end-stage Protestantism (which is why the New Atheists and certain fundie-Prots sound so much like each other). But to be fair, Protestantism also led to things like America and capitalism.

>> what they were proposing was a Christian humanism

If they had only realized it, they already had that in the doctrines of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Unfortunately, of course, the Church was in a very decadent and degraded state then (happens from time to time), and they often betrayed their own teachings. Thus arose the modern West, which is based entirely, in all its aspects, on revolt against the Church. So we've now spent 500 years searching for something we once had but threw away - and we're looking for that something everywhere except the place where it can actually be found.

>> one of the principal characteristics of modern man is the idea that he is autochthonous -- self-born and self-made

I would say that this is THE principal characteristic of modern man, the thing that underlies everything else about us. "We created ourselves and so we can do whatever we want." The Original Lie, going stronger than ever. Of course, five minutes of quiet reflection would convince any reasonably intelligent person that this premise is logically absurd, can't possibly be true - but apparently that's expecting too much, since in my experience nobody ever so much as questions the premise.

1/11/2010 09:27:00 AM  
Blogger Ricky Raccoon said...

OMG. I was just humming to myself this morning, “What came first, the Mozart or the piano?”
STG.

1/11/2010 09:27:00 AM  
Blogger Warren said...

>> In terms of how we are situated historically: high in the saddle. We have embarked on a new Golden Age; we don't know it but future historians will.

Speechless.

1/11/2010 09:29:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Warren:

Yes, that's why I was saying that the subject is so capacious that it is difficult to wrap my mind around. All of our contemporary disputes can be situated right there, and they definitely haven't been resolved.

And you are also quite correct about the corruption, which opened the gate to Luther, but then created a backlash within the church, that also ended up lashing out at the poor Christian humanists, as they got lumped in with the Protestants. So then the only outlet for humanism became secular humanism, and all of the hermitic/pagan wisdom was lost. Or, you could say that one form of hermetic wisdom transformed into science, while the other transformed into various schisms and new age cults.

But the really frustrating thing is that, as you said, it was all right there already, within the Church, something that few people apparently recognize, Unknown Friend being one of them...

1/11/2010 09:38:00 AM  
Anonymous Jack said...

We are, perhaps as always, at an interesting intersection in History. I've been thinking a lot about the next 30-40 years and the technological change alone could be staggering. Pomo "thought" isn't going to get us through it, to say the least, except provide faux-depth for the shallow--as neither will some "return" to some supposed golden age.

I've been thinking/exploring this from a musical angle. Yes, I listen to a lot of Arvo Part (and even Gregorian Chant etc). But that doesn't seem to be--I hate to say it--"enough". I've also been drawn to likes of Jon Hassell and Steve Tibbets (both on ECM) and, for a while now, Bill Frisell.

I feel like I too, as a musician, am groping towards something. Right now it feels chaotic and unsettled in me...I guess that may be part of the process? So this new topic is *exactly* what I may need.

1/11/2010 09:39:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Jeremy:

I'm pretty sure that the majority of elite mathematicians are philosophical realists (i.e., Platonists -- cf Hardy's little classic A Mathematician's Apology). It's the middling ones who don't give it much thought, and don't concern themselves with metaphysics or intellectual consistency.

1/11/2010 09:42:00 AM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

Jack;

In many ways, the groping is the finding, because it means you're in the orbit of the Great Attractor. I am reminded of something Keith Jarrett wrote in the liner notes to one of his collections, which parallels the Raccoon credo:

"The jazz musician goes onto the stage hoping to have an encounter with music. He knows that the music is there (it always is), but this meeting depends not only on knowledge but on openness.... It is a discrimination against mechanical pattern, against habit, for surprise, against easy virtuosity, for saying more with less, against facile emotion, for a certain quality of energy, against stasis, for flow.... [It is] an attempt, over and over, to reveal the heart of things."

1/11/2010 09:52:00 AM  
Blogger xlbrl said...

The civil wars of France made a million of Atheists, and 30,000 Witches--
George Herbert d.1633

1/11/2010 10:35:00 AM  
Blogger Van said...

"Nah. Let's begin with some self-indulgent bobservations, so the focus stays where it should, on me."

I think I just heard our aninnynarcissi's head go boom.

wv:sying
No, more than sighing, I distinctly heard a 'boom'

1/11/2010 10:56:00 AM  
Blogger Jamie Irons said...

Bob,

I know Hardy's book well, and am familiar with some of his mathematics, my main interest being (mathematical) analysis.

You probably know this story:

Hardy greets Ramanujan (the Indian prodigy Hardy discovered, befriended, and mentored) saying that the number of the cab (1729) that brought Hardy was a dull one. Ramanujan immediately responds,

"Not at all, Hardy! It is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways."

(1^3 + 12^3 = 1729 or 9^3 + 10^3 = 1729)

;-)

Jamie Irons

1/11/2010 11:30:00 AM  
Blogger julie said...

Possibly related (to the main subject) is this article at First Things.

American exceptionalism did not create the strange world of American religion. It was instead, the wildness and the wackiness of American religion that created the historical oddity of American exceptionalism.

1/11/2010 11:49:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well if you're going to be Christian, might as well be Catholic.

All else is just watered down stuff.

Go to church, read the bible, avoid sin, and love Jesus.

There really isn't much more to it than that.

So don't let me catch you at home this Sunday. Get out there.

1/11/2010 12:11:00 PM  
Blogger Martin said...

Utterly unrelated link for a youtube of a raccon thief.
href=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=erGCcM69PrE>Raccon

1/11/2010 12:34:00 PM  
Blogger Northern Bandit said...

There really isn't much more to it than that.

Man, you don't know much about Catholicism, do you?

1/11/2010 12:51:00 PM  
Blogger Northern Bandit said...

Bob I agree with Warren that this is an exciting new direction which will have me refreshing my browser repeatedly each morning.

Also perhaps this will keep the trolls at bay for a bit. Their non-stop puking and mewling is seriously annoying.

1/11/2010 12:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Don't Tread On Me said...

America Rising!

1/11/2010 01:06:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tread, the video is an interesting piece of propaganda.

However, Bush was the engineer of the bailouts. That is the truth.

Democrats didn't do it. Your own people did. How sad.

Come over to our side. It's better over here. It is, at least, more intelligent.

1/11/2010 01:57:00 PM  
Blogger Ricky Raccoon said...

Bush?
Bush who?
Now he's an engineer?
I thought he was a moron. Or Hitler. Or something.
Why are we still getting bailouts.
I'm confused. Is he still president. Must be the new math.
Where do I sign.

1/11/2010 02:06:00 PM  
Blogger Ricky Raccoon said...

"I mean, if you are intellectually satisfied by the idea that your existence is explained by "selfish genes,""

Selfish, huh.
Not satisfied.
No self-respectin' Raccoon would be satisfied with that.
I want to know how they got to be so smart and why.
Why is this subject closed.
Why so selfish?

1/11/2010 02:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Cells on the bottom of your feet said...

Selfish!
Why I aughta..

1/11/2010 02:24:00 PM  
Blogger julie said...

I blame the viruses. Once they attach to your genome, it's all about them.

1/11/2010 02:34:00 PM  
Blogger Matteo said...

Great topic, and one I've been puzzling over since the late 90's (a few years after my conversion to Catholicism). With my now much more Medieval soul, I look at the modern world and continually ask myself: How in the HELL did this happen?!?

It is indeed a great puzzle.

BTW, I highly recommend The Last Superstition by Edward Feser, which is a profound and bare-knuckles defense of the old Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics. The abandonment of this metaphysic--not because it was proven wrong, but because it was inconvenient--is a big piece of the puzzle.

1/11/2010 02:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Job said...

gag-
think you give mankind way too much credit.......(you optimist you) believing that those in power in the 1500's would go quietly into that good night instead of raging against the failing of the light....er, loss of power.....
not hardly!
Especially when you "know" you are preserving the true faith.......
And by the same token, if a couple of your family members have been...ummm...er...elongated on someones rack, you don't forgive and forget...and mostly, you get the heck outta Dodge for the new world...
just ask the Armenians, the Jews etc, etc, etc,
The higher and the holier comes from one's belief in Christ...not much else....

1/11/2010 03:02:00 PM  
Blogger Van said...

job said "And by the same token, if a couple of your family members have been...ummm...er...elongated on someones rack, you don't forgive and forget...and mostly, you get the heck outta Dodge for the new world...
just ask the Armenians, the Jews etc, etc, etc,"

I think you'd do better to ask Machiavelli, who, instead of turning and running, 'began' the turn of the rudder which eventually turned the whole structure of the West in upon itself.

Job, I like your book... but did you read it?

1/11/2010 03:21:00 PM  
Blogger Ricky Raccoon said...

Maybe he ghost read it.

1/11/2010 03:24:00 PM  
Blogger Warren said...

GB,

Yeah, I share your frustration. But like you, I am well aware that there's no going back. However, I suspect that I am more pessimistic than you are as to what lies ahead of us. Maybe you can convince me that some kind of new and higher synthesis (or whatever) is possible - I certainly hope so. But for myself, all I can see is yet one more outwardly powerful but inwardly sick and decaying society whose eventual death the Church will easily outlive, as she has done so many times before....

1/11/2010 05:17:00 PM  
Blogger Warren said...

Matteo,

Maybe you and I can start up an Ed Feser Fan Club among the Coons....

I was really impressed with Ed's intelligence until I found out that his favorite Scotch was Laphroiag.... gahhh!

1/11/2010 05:23:00 PM  
Blogger The J.R. said...

All right, all right. So, my wife has been after me to start reading so please be gentle with the nubie. Thanks. Question; do your figures on WWII include the 40 to 50 mil of Stalin's or the 50 to 80 mil of Mao's fellow country men sacrificed for their socialist omelets??

1/11/2010 05:50:00 PM  
Blogger Ricky Raccoon said...

(envelope to forehead)
Your wife's name is Joan.

1/11/2010 05:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Jack said...

"The jazz musician goes onto the stage hoping to have an encounter with music. He knows that the music is there (it always is), but this meeting depends not only on knowledge but on openness.... It is a discrimination against mechanical pattern, against habit, for surprise, against easy virtuosity, for saying more with less, against facile emotion, for a certain quality of energy, against stasis, for flow.... [It is] an attempt, over and over, to reveal the heart of things."

Wow. I couldn't agree more (though I'm not sure that for most of us, myself included-- virtuosity is ever "easy"--just a quibble, we're not all "Jarrets").

But as an improvising musician, at least in particular--"mechanical pattern" is at the razor's edge.

To play an instrument at all means learning how to make a lot of relatively sophisticated movements automatic and even unconscious. Let alone the mental conception of what one is engaging musically from moment to moment keeping in mind the larger formal arch. Yet at the same time using the mechanical as a springboard towards something free and deeply from the Source.

To be *original* is not just doing something no one has ever done before (or even that), but being from "the origin" aka "the heart of things".

It's a lifetime, at least, of work and who knows how many (or few) times one really feels it flow through one so completely...it feels more like one is a conduit than anything else.

Oh but once you feel it...even just once. Oh, boy-- look out! There is little chance of things ever being the same again. Every musician of sufficient depth, no matter what they consciously might think they believe, is inherently religious/spiritual. There is just no other way to do it right.

1/11/2010 06:12:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

ghost read? ... TOTUS is reading OC and commenting as Job?

Wow.

wv says puzzati -- no, I'm not touching that one.

1/11/2010 06:51:00 PM  
Blogger mushroom said...

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?

Slightly off what you're talking about, but it struck me how -- convenient? coincidental? -- it is that certain people are born at certain times.

Imagine the drain on society Bill Gates would be if there were no PC's in need of an O/S. Now it's just his O/S that's drain.

Or, on a much lesser scale, I don't know where I'd have had as much fun as I've had programming.

1/11/2010 07:10:00 PM  
Blogger Ricky Raccoon said...

Who's for science?
HT Gil Bailie

1/12/2010 05:41:00 AM  
Blogger Ricky Raccoon said...

Bob,
RE the current series, here is the second of the only two opening quotes to Pieper’s “End of Time”, which seems so far (25 pages in of 150) to be a great little short story on the philosophy of what “history” really is, or means; it’s purpose:

“The will, which is today growing even greater, to create a condition that shall hold within it an exemplarily complete essence of humanity and an enduring peace, is burdened by the heavy paradox that it is not humanity which is the goal of the Incarnation.”
KONRAD WEISS

1/12/2010 05:54:00 AM  
Blogger The J.R. said...

Ricky,
Yep

1/12/2010 09:10:00 AM  
Blogger Ricky Raccoon said...

Ah, welcome aboard, Captain.

1/12/2010 02:14:00 PM  
Blogger Susannah said...

"To play an instrument at all means learning how to make a lot of relatively sophisticated movements automatic and even unconscious." I'm cimc (chuckling in my chair) because I can't even seem to master the pennywhistle, having given up on the guitar. Maybe I'm missing a required innate...something. Well, excelsior...never give up...

1/12/2010 02:40:00 PM  
Blogger River Cocytus said...

Jack...

"Originality means to remain faithful to the Originals." - St. John of Damascus.

It is a funny paradox that those who claim originality and innovation tend to tell us all of the same things in slightly different ways, but those who claim to be only transmitting what they were told tell us new things every day.

1/12/2010 05:15:00 PM  
Blogger River Cocytus said...

By the way I've been reading Maximus Confessors set of works: 400 Chapters on Love, 200 Chapters on Theology & The Church's Mystagogy.

It is mind-blowing! I've lost so many gaskets at this point there's no point in trying to rebuild it the way it was...

1/12/2010 05:18:00 PM  
Blogger Gagdad Bob said...

River:

Maximus is one of the earliest Cosmic Raccoons. I'm quite sure he is *directly* blowing your mind. He likes to do that.

1/12/2010 05:54:00 PM  
Blogger Susannah said...

"It is a funny paradox that those who claim originality and innovation tend to tell us all of the same things in slightly different ways, but those who claim to be only transmitting what they were told tell us new things every day."

I'm sending this quote to hubby. He's always saying the same thing, but you put it so well here...

1/12/2010 08:20:00 PM  

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