Monday, December 26, 2005

Burning the Library

What I truly love about this kind of discussion, is how truly ignorant it usually is.

People who know nothing about religion are not afraid to weigh in on it and even "prove" what religion is "for," even though they have no training in psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, or theology. When people with a similiar ignorance of science critique evolution and promote "intelligent design," they are derided as fools and interlopers in the hallowed halls of reason. And while I accept the claims of science without having to study biology sufficiently to establish the validity of Darwin's basic theory myself (or even to read his works), I recognize in that acceptance that I could be sufficiently swayed by another well articulated and well grounded theory, too.

But that is because I am not trained in evolutionary biology. At asome point I have to accept what is presented as a reasonable explanation for certain aspects of the material universe. I am trained in religion, however. And I weary of the "experts" who have learned a crumb of knowledge and think they have discovered a hidden "truth" the rest of us have long ago lost.

Mr. Dobny mentions, for example, that Christmas was not a national holiday until 1885; but does he know why? Does he know that the Puritans, as devoutly religious as anyone could be, knew full well the "origins of Christmas," and so rejected the celebration as irreligious? In my "Christmas Sourcebook," a Catholic publication, I find this passage:

HOW far Christianity had seized hold of the imagery of the sun god and appropriated it for her own use can be seen vividly today in the necropolis excavated under St. Peter's in Rome during the search for the apostle's grave. Not far from the traditional site of the tomb there is a small Christian burial chamber of the third century, hemmed in between two pagan mausoleums. The walls of the interior are decorated with biblical themes-fishermen, the Good Shepherd, and Jonah-but in the ceiling there is a splendid mosaic of Helios in his chariot of the sun, drawn by white steeds. His right hand (now lost) must have been raised as a signal for the journey to start. He stands erect, his mantle fluttering in the breeze and his left hand holding the world orb. But it is the nimbus of light rays round his head that reveals his true identity. The lower rays are fashioned into a T cross, a design unknown in earlier pagan examples of this type. The Helios is Christ. No wonder Christian apologists had to deny so often that the members of the church were sun-worshipers!
This kind of data is shocking only to the ignorant, and I have to count Mr. Dobny among their number. His silly generalizations about religion demean the contributions to Western culture of Aquinas, Augustine, Anselm, and so many people I cannot start to mention them all. Indeed, it is Thomas Cahill's assertion that the Irish saved civilization, and they did so in the name of religion. Literacy, that beacon of reason so fundamental we insist every one in a civilized country learn to read, was once the province almost solely of monks and priests, and the books Mr. Dobny no doubt prizes as much as I do, were kept alive from the time of Heraclitus by religious people. But not by an irrational fear of death, or a perplexed group of benighted fools who couldn't explain a solar eclipse in Newtonian terms.

Was it indeed the fear of death that drove Martin Luther King, Jr.? That led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to a prison cell in Nazi Germany, where he was executed?Or, in our own time, is that what drove Nelson Mandela? Is that the explanation Mr. Dobny has for their actions, for what motivated them?

Of course, the sheer arrogance of assuming that we alone are truly "enlightened," and that previous generations lived in ignorant darkness, in Carl Sagan's "demon haunted world," just underscore Mr. Dobny's lack of credentials in anthropology or sociology, or indeed even anything more than a grade school knowledge of world history. Such 19th century imperial European views of the "barbarians" (another legacy of the Roman empire) have long been displaced by better understandings of Europe's place in the global village. Mr. Dobny is amazed at how much American religious tradition has regressed since the “age of enlightenment.” I am amazed at how much his attitude about culture and history, and religion, resembles the imperialist view of dead white men from 200 years ago.

What we really see here, and what I want to comment on later, and seperately, is how knowledge passes from generation to generation by the thinnest of threads, and we spin those threads anew in every generation. Mr. Dobny considers himself an educated and "enlightened" man, and yet he is more benighted and has less knowledge than the average Christian would have had even 100 years ago. I have an album of Christmas music recorded by the Kingston Trio, and one of the songs tells stories derived from the apocryphal "Infancy Gospel of James." (I hope to post the words in a subsequent entry). Obviously at some point in the past those stories were well known enough to pass into folklore as a song. Yet today, some people discuss that gospel as if it were "gnostic" knowledge known only to the enlightened few. What happened? How did the thread of knowledge wear so thin, break so easily? Is this a legacy of decay since the Enlightenment? Or is this the normal state of human affairs, one merely accelerated and emphasized in this "Information Age"?

The Enlightenment is usually the touchstone for such arguments. It represents as supposed "Golden Age" in which reason reigned supreme. But, of course, as Michel Foucault among others has pointed out, that is also the convenient position that leaves the 'rational' people in charge, the 'reasonable' ones in a superior position; because, after all, they "know better," and know "what is good" for the poor, the ignorant, the despised. Those whom it can be just as reasonable to ignore, as it can be heartless and cruel. It is just as foul to see religion, especially Christianity, used to such an end. But proclaiming the "superiority" of reason, is not the same thing as proclaiming a more humane way to organize society and improve the lot of all. It wasn't, after all, religion that relegated people in the 9th Ward of New Orleans to their rooftops; it was the surpremely rational conclusions of utilitarianism.

I will elaborate on this point a bit later; but the idea that we stand on the edge of the light, and before us and behind us all was darkness, is not a result of our superior knowledge or our good fortune to be born in a world ruled by reason. It is our arrogance and our ignorance that tells us we know all we need to know, and that whatever knowledge has been lost was unnecessary knowledge anyway. It is a sign of how thin the thread is that binds us to previous generations, how little we know or understand the world around us and our place in it, our relationship to it, or to one another, past and present. It is the attitude that burned the library at Alexandria, because those with the torches, couldn't read.

In a very real sense, there are many today who are no more literate than those barbarians.

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