08 February 2007

This is another brief break in the "Blind and the Blind" series. Although I am a staunch supporter of reducing the paternalistic trends of the past in regards to missions, Mr. McCaughey makes some very important points in this article:


In running too far from the one problem, namely being enlightened white-men saving the heathen savages with our civilized Gospel (missionary colonialism, if you will), we must beware beginning another harmful trend: missionary neo-colonialism.

My essay is due to resume soon. I wonder if my readers can guess where we are headed next? Remember, unless otherwise indicated, the opinions expressed in "The Blind and the Blind" are not necessarily my own, in fact, I question many of them myself.

But now, I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this article, as, I'm sure, is Mr. McCaughey.

-- Corineus the Galatian

P.S.: Ironically, I'm typing this from a computer in Jules Ferry School. Président Ferry was a leading proponent of "la mission civilisatrice", that is, "the civilizing mission" of (white) France towards the rest of the world (e.g. Indochina, Algeria, &c.).

19 January 2007

Addendum: it is distinctly possible that experimental science was actually born in somebody’s garage, rather than any institution of higher learning (as previously stated). Universities always like to take credit for “scholarship” but some of the greatest discoveries have often come about when people have too much time on their hands and are goofing around with dangerous substances. I mean, have you ever wondered how the ancient people of South America finally discovered that, after enough selective breeding, a potato wasn’t poisonous? Who was crazy enough to take that first dare and actually climb up onto the horse (I’m guessing his name was something like “Ari”, an early form of “Leroy”)? Or how about this fateful but forgotten scene from the Bacon household:

“Frank, for the last time, stop transmuting that old piece of junk and come inside right now; the goose is getting cold!

15 January 2007

The Blind and the Blind, continued

[author's note: Like its predecessor, this is only a fragment of a larger essay that is being written and published in segments. It is not meant to be treated as a complete essay in itself, although the author welcomes all savvy criticism by his friends, colleagues and even strangers. In order to better appreciate the whole, as much as possible considering that the essay is not, as yet, published in its entirety, the author invites his readers to start at the beginning of the essay and read through to the end of the latest post as this is the manner in which it is intended to be best enjoyed. Bon appetit !]

“How now, who’s that which snatched the meat from me?”
-- the Pope, “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus”, scene 7 (Marlowe)

So, to recapitulate a little: the reason that the Enlightenment is upheld as the great distinction between the West and the Islamic World (a.k.a. the East) – between “us” and “them” – is because one of the most important concepts that emerged from Enlightenment philosophy is that of the “separation of Church and State”, that is, Jefferson’s so-called “wall of separation” that would prevent a single religious faction from using the State as a vehicle for oppression.

To Be European

The European experience (excluding, as usual, the Byzantine and Slavic east) has been indelibly marked by Christianity (and, with it, the existence of the Roman papacy) and a longstanding struggle between the religious and the secular. This is not to say that similar struggles have not taken place elsewhere, but perhaps nowhere has the foundry been heated as much and for as long as in places like France, Spain, Italy, Germany, the British Isles and the Low Countries from which fervent flames Enlightenment philosophy was born. The states of western, central and northern Europe were born from the struggle between Prince and Pope and even if they did, like Spain, tend to side politically with Rome, they nevertheless used it as a way to establish a distinct identity vis-à-vis their more rebellious neighbors and centralize power within the confines of this developing geopolitical entity called the State. The notion of Christendom was no longer as straight-forward as it had been, at least in theory, when the likes of Innocent III and other power-glutted Cluniacs were running rough-shod over the crowns of Europe.

Again I say that, in one form or another, Christianity has played a defining role in European history, indeed, in defining what it means to be European. As a Christian myself and as someone of European descent, it is difficult for me to remain entirely detached in this matter. I read once that as many as one-third of western Europeans could be descended in some way, however indirectly, from Charlemagne. The Battle of White Mountain meant something very profound to my ancestors at one time in history, even if their descendents eventually forgot it. When the lords of the Picts exchanged their druids for Columba’s monks, even if my ancestors were more concerned with breeding sheep and brewing beer at the time, they were there nonetheless. If I don’t have any Bogomils in my family tree, it wasn’t because there weren’t any around. This isn’t just something that may have happened a long time ago in a far away place – this is to be European.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment – such ilk as Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Locke, Hume, Smith, Kant and Hegel, among others – fit closely into this European context and it remains a matter of debate as to whether or not they can truly be removed therefrom. They looked behind them, through the imperfect lens of recorded history, and saw something very much like what I have previously described: a “Christian” epoch defined by theocratic tyranny, violent religious fanaticism, blind superstition, trivial dogmatism and, amid it all, horrible yet preventable suffering on a massive scale. It is hardly surprising that they were repulsed, as well they should have been, I think, upon viewing matters in such terms. That is, of course, to presuppose something about human nature, i.e. an innate sense of right and wrong, which was as much a matter of philosophical debate in the eighteenth century as it is now, but, to play the idealistic American, I’ll let it slide for the present, leaving it to be analyzed some other time.

Feeling their oats as educated sages hoping to contribute something of lasting value to this “humanity” of which they thought so highly, the Enlightenment philosophers looked to republican and Augustan Rome and to Athens in their quest for a better world governed by Reason and temperance. Standing at the vantage point of Cicero, Aristotle, Xeno and of all their learned colleagues from the bygone golden ages of Classical Antiquity, the Enlightenment philosophers beheld an appalling scourge of cultural decadence that came to infest both the Greek and the Roman cultures and that coïncided with an increased interest in mysticism and the afterlife. Between Cicero, with his celebrated meditations on “the good life”, and their own time the Enlightenment philosophers perceived a gulf – a yawning chasm rather – filled with raw sewage, enslaved masses, penitential mortification, witch burnings and the blood of countless victims of holy war. These were the “Middle Ages”. Historian Edward Gibbon famously concluded that the adoption of Christianity by Constantine and his successors precipitated, to a large extent, the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The image of Gibbon sitting among the ruins of the Roman forum, his contemplation rudely interrupted by the clanging of church bells is indeed an excellent metaphor of the pervading view of history during the Enlightenment. Indeed, the problem of “the fall of Rome” is intimately associated with the thought of both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, that is, with “modernity” as it is now contrasted with “post-modernity”.

An Unexpected Eulogy

Before I leave this well-trodden highway and strike out into the wild woods of intellectual heresy where I plan to remain for the rest of this blog, let me give a brief eulogy, devoid pro tempore of all sarcasm, to a band of truly wise and learned men that I have come to deeply respect and admire, even if I believe them to have been gravely mistaken on certain points and even if they were all, simply, men.

When I was younger and had both lived, thought, prayed and studied less, I used to despise the philosophers of the Enlightenment. How could they have been so blind and conceited as to reject out of hand the reality of the supernatural, I wondered (oversimplifying matters tremendously)? Indeed, I did not fault them so much as I did their contemporary followers, for context can be brought to the defense of the former more readily, perhaps, than it can the latter. I suppose that I still hold this opinion to a certain degree, however, the more I read Descartes, for example, the more I see in his discourse the exasperated words of Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes. Likewise, it is difficult to blame Voltaire’s globetrotting character Candide for resolving, in the end, to content himself with his garden. It is hard for me, as a lover of the simple life, not to be enticed by the naïvité of the world imagined by Rousseau. Living in France near the birthplace of Montaigne, as I am at this writing, I have come to appreciate the exasperation with religion that ultimately feeds agnosticism, for, indeed, if it really is possible to know G-d, then why is there such scant evidence that anyone ever has? Finally, if ever I reach the end of this gargantuan essay and you, my patient reader, are able to look back upon it in its entirety, I hope that there can be no doubt as to my indebtedness to Hegel and the wisdom of his dialectic approach.

Therefore, I sincerely salute the philosophers of the Enlightenment, and, by extension, the so-called Age of Reason for daring to think, for attempting to know and for seeking after wisdom, if indeed, that was their aim, and I believe that it was. I mourn their passing and I believe that I will have accomplished much in the course of my lifetime to match only half of the wisdom of any of these men.

Maintenant, je dis : « en garde ! »

* * *

16 December 2006

The Blind and the Blind

[author's note: this is a fragmentary document, published as the first instalment of a lengthier essay on Postmodernism, the Englightenment and Christianity. The author would like his readers to understand that this is not meant to be an exaustive treatment of any subject, certainly not of Islam, which will only be introduced, like the other topics, for future discourse on this blog. The author would like further to warn his readers that he is in the habit of using intense quantities of sarcasm in his writing. This article should not be read by persons who are pregnant or who may become pregnant or who may make someone pregnant or who are the result of someone else's pregnancy without first consulting a physician named O'Brien.]

"Good Sir Topas, do not think that I am mad; they have laid me here in hideous darkness!"
----- Malvolio, "Twelfth Night" Act 5, Scene 2 (Shakespeare)

One popular notion that has really bugged me for a while now is that the reason the "Islamic world" is so "backward" is because, unlike the "West", it has not experienced an "Enlightenment". Liberal and Conservative pundits alike love to bring up this sorry argument time after time in order to explain everything from terrorism to socio-economic class disparities in Islamic states. "We in the West are this way and they are obviously different, and here’s why."

The reason that this provokes me almost to the point of losing my composure is because it comes from the dark bowels of a prevalent school of thought that I find quite repugnant indeed. I’m not sure what to call it; "ultra-humanism" might work, but I think that there must be a better way to put it. Typically it is oversimplified under the general heading of "Modernism" or over-specified under names like "scientism" or "materialism" that fail to capture its adaptability. Frequently it is incorrectly termed "humanism" ("secular humanism" is better) or just rendered into a ridiculous ball of rhetorical fluff with the term "progressivism". Either way, one of its favorite pastimes is to group history into gross chunks like "Classical Antiquity", "the Stone Age", "pre-Modernity" or, my favorite, "the Middle Ages". It is also very fond of highly questionable terms like "Western Civilization", "Eastern thought" and "the Caucasian race". Move from the ivory towers of academia to the peanut gallery of the masses and one will hear phrases like "old-fashioned thinking", "their generation/our generation" and "living in the past", among others. If you have uttered these latter phrases in my presence, it is testimony to the durability of our relationship and my good manners that I did not grace your visage with a coup de main right then and there. Then again, it might be a more effective way of bringing real reform than simply writing essays all the time.

Okay, okay, so maybe I’m just a grouch. That’s probably true. Be that as it may, however, I would like to attempt to make a point, since I have been thinking about this all day and I am in one of my introverted hide-in-my-apartment-with-my-bathrobe-and-a-cup-of-tea-and-think-about-deep-stuff-while-listening-to-Baroque-music moods. Later this evening I might go listen to polka music, eat sauerkraut and drink beer with some lederhosen-clad French people pretending to be Germans to add some balance to my day.

Alright, now to seemingly wax eccentric for a moment in order to lose the casual readers while I poke about for a place to start . . . so, yeah, you got this pope guy who says he speaks for G-d – what’s up with that? Well the answer is quite simple, my son: the Church is the Body of Christ, a catholic community of believers indwelt with the Holy Spirit and, therefore, we must conclude that when the Church speaks it is speaking under divine inspiration, and individual revelation must take second place to the collective voice of the Church. Consequently, the Church is the chief authority on scriptural interpretation, too. Now, you see, the Pope has inherited the spiritual office of Saint Peter, to whom Jesus Christ gave the keys of Heaven and Hell and to whom Jesus declared that "upon this rock I will build My Church". It is very simple, really. Thus we can safely conclude that when the Pope speaks as the Rock of Saint Peter, from the Holy See, he does, in fact, speak on behalf of the whole Church of Christ. Since G-d speaks through His Church and since the Pope alone speaks on behalf of the whole Church, one can logically conclude, my son, that the Pope, indeed, speaks on behalf of G-d Himself. He is the Vicar of Christ here on Earth.

Pope and Prince, Church and State

Now this presents a little problem for the ambitious "Christian" ruler, since whatever he does, he can never escape the fact that by being a baptized "Christian" and having been annointed with "holy" oil upon his coronation, he has signed onto – or has been signed onto – the roster of a club that is run by some over-stuffed, mitered mob boss in Rome. The club has its executive perks, to be sure, but there is one major drawback: the Prince can never be truly free from his spell. For you see, my son, His Holiness, as the Head of the Church, controls a considerable portion of the real estate in the Prince’s realm – and not just in his realm alone, but in those of all of the Princes in Christendom. On that extensive real estate there are convents upon convents of pious monks and nuns belonging to international "orders" and who take their calls directly from the papacy (in theory, at least). Each one of these devout souls has taken a vow of poverty, that is, they have renounced material wealth in favor of "storing up treasures in Heaven". These convents are not poor, however; for, in addition to the lavish donations of the affluent pious, they collectively control manorial estates of their own, for the glory of G-d and His Kingdom which is not of this world. What godly Prince would ever dream of taxing a holy community such as this?

Oh but it gets better: some of these convents are full-fledged castles and their inmates are formally-trained and fully-equipped fanatic warriors such as the Knights of the Temple, the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem (the Hospitalers), the Knights of Saint Mary (the Teutonic Knights) and the Brothers of the Sword. These hybrid chivalric/monastic orders are international (like the other monastic orders), their leadership answers directly to the Pope and they have an office in every major city. Not to mention the fact that they also run the international banking community and have exclusive control of some very nice beachfront property in the Baltic – even if the Palestinian enterprise has admittedly gone a bit sour.

Then there is the episcopate. Some of the wealthiest and most powerful nobles in the land are the bishops. They are hand-picked by the Pope (if he can get his way) and sometimes they are complete foreigners. Their headquarters (cathedrals) are the site of the most impressive edifices around, which tower over each principal city as a daily reminder of the role of Religion, specifically the Pope’s religion, in la vie quotidienne (everyday life), their lofty steeples pointing heavenward like Peter’s key (and also like their architectural antecedents, the phallic obelisks and menhirs). Oh, and did I mention that the educated community is officially dominated by the clergy as well? History, Philosophy and even international diplomacy are the realm of the cowl and the Pope’s Latin.

Most importantly of all, however, the Church is a place for everyone, great and small, and the small people all over Christendom have been thoroughly browbeaten into believing that the only way that they will ever escape their miserable existence is by doing exactly what their priest tells them to do, without question. There is an extra-national chain of command that begins in the Vatican with the pope and runs through two tiers of bishops (some of whom are "cardinal" bishops -- "the princes of the Church") to the parish priests and cathedral canons who have a direct and regular influence on the masses at large.

The Pope: he owns much of "your" kingdom and its wealth, he has a regular army garrisoned in your country, he has a swarm of itinerant friars and trinket-hawkers wandering around the countryside actively promoting his religion, your subjects believe that he can send them to eternal damnation, his property is meant to be exempt from your taxes, yet he has an international tax of his own ("Peter’s Pence"), his bishops are virtually untouchable, he can call a "crusade" against "infidels" and "heretics", his inquisitors are everywhere, he can excommunicate you and thereby render you on the same level as an infidel, releasing your vassals from their feudal allegiance – heck, he can even damn an entire kingdom by placing it under interdict. Basically, he has the Prince by the shorthairs, and the Prince has no way out.

Wow, who died and made him the king of the world? I mean, what happened to good old-fashioned sovereignty?

Oh, but don’t you see, King Porsaperic, you and your predecessors never were sovereign! It’s not that the Pope is "taking" any power from you or that you have a special right to be sovereign based on some ancient precedent. When your barbarian forebears came rampaging through the Roman Empire and established their little "kingdoms" they did so as officers of Rome. Odovacar, Theodoric, Clovis (Clodovich) and the rest officially ruled on behalf of the Emperor. The Emperor gave his power to the Pope* and the Pope proceeded to appoint emperors as he saw fit (e.g. Charlemagne, Otto and Frederick Barbarossa). The "kings" established "kingdoms" within the Roman Empire and merely replaced the old provincial administration with a new, more rough-hewn one that remained subject to Rome, its Church and its bureaucracy. Basically, the imperial governors replaced their togas and tunics for cloaks and trousers, wore mustaches and eventually stopped barbequing their joints with garum steak sauce. It is simply absurd to think that just because you’re the "king of Gallia" or whatever you call it now that you don’t have to take orders from Rome. So just pipe down and drink your wine like a good boy!


How can one man have so much power over the minds of the people? Well, you see, this was a time when people were very, very superstitious. Their world was filled with elves and gnomes and merrows and ettins and green-men and angels and demons and saints and witches and golems and ghosts and dragons and shape-shifters and changelings and dry cows and healing fountains and sacred grottos and haunted forests and castles beneath meres and phantom islands and giant’s tombs and standing stones and . . . well, all sorts of "magical" things. Furthermore, their everyday existence was monotonous at best and frequently quite miserable indeed. Life was basically perpetual torment and the only good thing about it was that it was short. The consolation that the Church offered was that one might hope to attain heavenly bliss in the hereafter. On the flip side, one could go to Hell, and go on being tormented by fire and the creatures of your worst nightmares for eternity. In short, Religion and the supernatural offered an escape from the harsh reality of the natural – but the supernatural is by its very nature perilously volatile and the Church claimed to be the only authority that could mediate on behalf of the average Joe Schmo. "See, look at that statue of Saint Peter over there – he has two keys: one for Hell and one for Heaven. If you play his game, you can go to Heaven – wouldn’t you like that? No, don’t thank me; thank the One who died on the cross for you . . . and thank His compassionate mother, the Queen of Heaven, who intercedes on behalf of little worms like you before a Just God who would rather roast your sinful little soul in Hell than look at you. . . . Here, buy a trinket."

There you have Religion, and there too you have the sole prevailing paradigm of "the Middle Ages". Life was focused on G-d, the supernatural and the hereafter. The spirit was at war with the flesh, and, in like manner, Christendom was an embattled "City of G-d" besieged from without by pagans and infidels and hindered from within by disbelief and heresy (wrong belief).

Did I miss anything?

Enter Protestantism and Renaissance humanism. Given the perplexing plight of the princes of Europe and their emerging "states" vis-à-vis Rome as discussed in brief above, it is not surprising that some of them – Henry VIII of England being the classic example – seized on the opportunity to justify open opposition to Rome. In its place, however, they instituted state churches of their own and essentially established little papacies within their domains. Other princes used the rebellion of their fellows as a way to find their own key to absolute power through the papacy (e.g. the Habsburgs in Spain). The battle lines were drawn and the "Wars of Religion" raged throughout Europe for decades before they gradually stumbled to an end, exhausted and disillusioned.

Meanwhile, the intellectual community was stewing over the novel prospect that Man and his world might, in fact, be worth more than simply an embattled cluster of grimy hovels filled with animated corpses waiting to die and that this life could be improved in the here and now. From the pulpit there was the resurgence of Millenarianism, in the university there was the birth of experimental science and in the guild-hall men (the masculine kind, of course) began to speak of "rights" and even representative government.

Life could be improved. Why then had people been mucking around in diseased pig-sties for all these centuries when they could have enjoyed the benefits of Science and Reason? Well, because they had been deluded by superstition, that’s why. "Medieval" people were driven to desperation by their miserable existence, they were told that life neither could nor should be any better, so they looked to the afterlife. How had the Pope been able to raise crusader armies to wreak havoc from Constantinople to Jerusalem to Carcassonne? By promising an absolution of sins. How had the Roman Church been able to raise enormous funds while the princes of Europe were drowning in debt? Through the donations of the pious – wealthy and poor alike – and the sales of indulgences in order to alleviate the suffering of dead relatives in Purgatory. Why had Protestants and Catholics fought so many long, bloody wars that utterly ravaged the continent of Europe? Because each side firmly believed that following the True Doctrine was a matter of Heaven and Hell. How had the Pope been able to control the nations of Europe for centuries? Because prince and pauper alike believed that he possessed the keys to eternal bliss and eternal damnation – or at least the masses believed it so firmly that the princes dared not risk the Pope’s withdrawal of their legitimacy in the form of excommunication. This was an "age" of autos-de-fé, divine comedies and Emperor Heinrich IV standing barefoot in the snow before the papal palace as penance for his insolence in daring to interfere with His Holiness’ governance of Christendom.

And now it was over. Reason had triumphed, and by the dawn of the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment was in full swing. Religion had been tamed by being regulated to a limited sphere in social life. No more was it allowed to so dominate the minds of the masses as in the Middle Ages. The Pope could no longer hope to successfully call a crusade, arrest heretics or be taken seriously if he placed a nation under interdict. For some reason, in the sixteenth century Queen Elizabeth had not felt the need to do penance for offending the Pope by rejecting his religion. It became a trend.

The divorce of Church and State is a product of the Enlightenment. Under Islam, however, sharia law ensures that Religion and government remain fused. As an oft-cited example, President Ahmadinejad of Iran and his parliament are subject to a hierarchy of Islamic clerics (Ayatollah Khamenei and the Council of Guardians) who reserve the right to dissolve his government if they disapprove of it. Furthermore, they have a direct influence on the imam-s in the local mosques, who, in turn, have regular contact with the average Joe Schmo. Sound familiar? It is as though countries like Iran are "stuck" in the Middle Ages and need to adopt an enlightened doctrine of separation between Church (or, in this case, Mosque) and State in order to become truly modern and progressive nations. Maybe they could learn something from the experience of the West. What were they doing all this time anyway – herding camels?

* * *

Here ends the first part. If you, Gentle Reader, are confused regarding the point that I am attempting to make, do not fear, for I have not made it yet. In fact, I am about to "deconstruct" much of what I have already written, and it is only then that my main point will emmerge from obscurity, if ever it does. Therefore, if you are either encouraged or enraged by my writings, you are probably misled, so if it please you, Gentle Reader, be kind in your commentary and criticism, lest later you regret your rash words.

* The author is here refering to the so-called "Donation of Constantine", a legal document supposedly composed by Constantine circa 330 when he officially moved his administrative capital from Rome to "New Rome", that is, Constantinople. In the document, Constantine grants the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) the full executive authority over the Western Empire, in order to more efficiently defend it against the Saracens. This document was first used to justify papal hegemony in 800 with the crowning of Charlemagne as "Emperor of the Romans". Erasmus later proved this document to be a forgery as the "Saracens" in Spain and Mauretania that were so problematic in 800 were not a serious threat in 330, especially since the Prophet Muhammed would not be born for over two centuries yet.

My reference to the official status of Theodoric et al. as officers of Rome is not meant to be entirely sarcastic, however. Henri Pirenne discusses this further in his book Mahomet et Charlemagne (1939). For all of the apt criticism that Pirenne and his famous thesis have received over the years, I would offer that his notion of the endurance of "Romania" is not without some merit.