Category Archives: History
I had the interesting experience of reading Anne Cleeves’ The Crow Trap (Vera Stanhope series book #1) while listening to the audio book version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
Alcott and Cleeves are both superb writers, but what struck me was the contrast between the hope and optimism of the one set against the dysfunction and hopelessness of the other. Curiously, the circumstances ought to have brought out the reverse.
Four girls, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, along with their mother, are trying to survive in Concord, Massachusetts with their father away in the Civil War and having to make due with very little money. They live in an era before antibiotics or vaccinations when almost any infection could kill you and are in the midst of the deadliest war America has ever faced. Furthermore, it is long before the welfare state and the only help the very poor received, sprang from the generosity of others. Yet the March daughters had a strong faith, a profound sense of obligation toward others in need even if they weren’t family, a bright optimism for the future, and relationships with each other and their mother and father that made them want to spend time with each other.
Jump from 1862 to the late twentieth century and we have five women in England in the North Pennines. In contrast to the Alcott girls they live in a time of modern medicine, the welfare state, and a time of relative political peace where starving to death or dying from an infection is an almost unheard of event. Yet, one of the women has already committed suicide (Bella Furness), the three educated women conducting an environmental survey, are quite different, but each is beset with her own troubles that so consume her, that there is little evidence that she can care about anyone except herself.
Finally there is Vera Stanhope, a brilliant detective who seems obsessed with her own homeliness, loneliness and the poor relationship she had with her deceased father, Hector. She seems to take out her frustrations on her assistant (Joe Ashworth) who has a happy family life, or would have if Vera didn’t take such delight in calling him out at all hours of the day or night to help with some aspect of their investigation. She’s clever enough to know exactly how far she can push Joe before he quits, or Joe’s beleaguered wife insists he change jobs.
It may be true that Ann Cleeves is an accurate reporter on our times, but it still tells me how far we have fallen from the hope, optimism, and selflessness of our past, and how extensively hopelessness and relational dysfunction seems to color our world. Cleeves writes well, but it’s hard for me to spend extended time is such a world colored a dismal grey. I enjoy it in small doses and then read something more hopeful before I dive in again.
Picture yourself walking along a path of many steps, but a path where you can see clearly only one step ahead. You can’t see the end destination. It makes sense to you to take that one step, and you take it. After that, you can now see the next step ahead, and so on. The thing is, after you have taken many such steps, you look back to where you had begun, and realize that if you could have foreseen the end of the path at the beginning you would not have begun it. What has happened here?
What I believe happens is that the path changes you. Each step on its own changes you a little, and each seems no big deal. Or each step makes sense on its own if you don’t know the final destination. It is that sum of all the little changes, that you didn’t foresee at the beginning, that concerns me here.
I see that process in many places. It is part of everyday living, the unavoidable experience of everyone as we age, and ask ourselves, ‘What happened? Where did the years go?’ It happens as we become desensitized to pornography or violence in the media and advertising. It happens with controversial issues such as homosexuality, or divorce, or abortion, where adjustment gradually becomes acceptance, and then approval, and then there is a new normal. It happens in Christians as we interact with non-Christians socially, intellectually, legally.1 We may change them, but interaction
1 I should state that I consider myself a traditional Christian. My wife
and I attend a Baptist Church. I am comfortable with Roman Catholicism,
Protestantism, Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and so on.
I have not formally joined any denomination. I accept the Apostle’s Creed
as a statement of faith.
with them also changes us. The changes may be good, or worthwhile, or not, but we should be aware of the process so that we can choose to assent to it, or not, from the beginning. The two areas I will examine here are (1) the process where many young, university age Christians lose their faith, and (2) the tolerance of heretical ideas, of old heresies returning, such as Gnosticism.
The important thing is to become aware as soon as possible of the overall effect of the path, and decide whether or not and on what terms to continue. I can see three things to do when one is somewhere on the path. The first is to look back to the beginning, to recover one’s vision from there. The second is to take one step back as a test; and the third is to take a step sideways, off the path entirely. (To actually go back to the beginning of the path is usually very difficult, or impossible, and the changes to that point are usually a mixture of good and bad.)
An example of the first, for a Christian, is reading the Bible, or asking oneself what would Jesus do, or Paul, or Peter. What would they say about this path you are on, the changes in you? Would they approve? How do you feel about their reaction? (Not… ‘what do you think about that?’). Praying. Returning to your root experience as a Christian…
The second thing one can do is to take one step back. Find out how easy or hard it is, compared with stepping forward. The step back could be easier, or more difficult, or no different. An example of it being easier is a person trying to break an old, long-established bad habit, where backsliding is easy. An example of it being more difficult is when a Christian is alone or in a minority among non-Christians, where it is easier to go along with the crowd. There could be unspoken goals or beliefs among the majority that are not made clear until that backward step is taken. And if the steps forward and back are about equal in difficulty, one could at least stay there until things become clearer.
The third thing to try is the sideways step, off the path entirely. This is the most difficult of the three because it is the most original response, thinking outside the box. It is seeing the steps, the path, from a different and new viewpoint. From there, one could set off on a new path or direction, or return to the original one with new understanding.
A great many young Christians leave the faith they were raised in, especially when they go away to university. I believe one reason for it is exposure to the secular environment, perhaps actively anti-Christian, without the counterbalancing of home and church. The result is a slow leaching away of meaning, of habits and religious practice, to where their faith seems ridiculous, dubious, and restrictive. And their loss of faith feels like liberation to them, which makes it very hard to resist or argue against.
A change we grow used to becomes the new normal, and each small step can be a small surrender. But each step is also a small confrontation, asking if this path is right, with each person on their own in trying to answer that. Being a religious person in a secular environment is not the same as being a religious person in a different religious environment. A Christian interacting with Hindu or Buddhist people is challenged with a different religious truth. A Christian in a secular environment is challenged by an absence of religious truth, by ‘what’s the point of believing it?’ Key beliefs such as the Resurrection begin to seem ridiculous, irrational, unnecessary, and eventually untrue. Rational argument and scientific reasoning are compatible with and can support both Christianity and atheism, but somehow atheism has become the default position in secular society.
The person has to want to stay Christian, has to want it strongly. Without that desire, everything else in their faith is useless. With that desire, the three things to do on the path when in secular society make sense. Returning to one’s roots could be reading the Bible, or ‘practicing the presence of God’. Taking a step back could be doing a short prayer at meal-time, both with others and alone. Doing it visibly, not just secretly or silently. And leaving the path entirely could be going on a spiritual retreat to refocus; or starting a craft or art or physical activity that is neither religious nor secular, getting you completely away from the issues for a while.
Loss of faith is often perceived or felt by the person as a gain in freedom, but that feeling is a temporary illusion. It is easy for believers to not face that issue of feeling and to concentrate on the authority of the Bible, or on belief in the Resurrection, or the Creeds… But the feeling of freedom will undercut any argument. Freedom from feels like freedom to, whether it is sexual freedom, or gender identity freedom, or not having to read the Bible or go to church, or abortion freedom, or freedom to choose what laws to obey, beyond society’s laws. It feels like liberation from a Christianity seen as narrow, constricting, and nonsensical, and into a wider society of more choices.
Each step taken must be seen instead as a small surrender, not as a step of liberation. To return to the beginning of the path could be to focus on Paul’s gospel of grace, of the ‘Apostle of the Heart Set Free’2 , and then choosing a different path from that point. We must address the difference between freedom and license directly, and do it rationally, patiently, respectfully and humbly.
2Bruce; Paul: Apostle. Pages 119 and 141. Also 2 Cor 3:17-18.
I see a similar path at work in scholars whose ideas become more extreme and provocative as time passes. There is excitement and joy in generating and exploring new ideas, especially radical ones. Developing arguments, marshaling evidence, engaging in intellectual combat: the academic is trained for this, and our culture sees the exploration of radical ideas as heroic. And it is. Jolts of creative pleasure and intellectual satisfaction are addictive, as they should be. But also addictive are the rewards of public attention and recognition, and the regard of one’s peers. The outsider is seen as heroic. The academic’s earlier ideas become part of his or her mental furniture, and cease to be exciting. The excitement in exploring new, forbidden ideas, new possibilities, more radical and revolutionary ideas is also addictive. Each of us has a secret yearning to be the next Galileo, or Newton, or Einstein. But the scholar may be confusing the pleasures of discovery, and of motivation, with the truth. Our brains are inherent pattern recognition machines, and that of the scholar is trained to be even more so. A friend of mine is of the opinion that modern scholarship, especially in the social sciences, has institutionalized the goal of heresy.3
3Kazmaier, Peter M. Personal communication.
So what can the scholar (and the creative artist too) do when on a path into the unknown? He can think back to the beginning, back to first principles in his questions. We are all human: it could mean having to get to the root of one’s motives. For the scientist, how would it feel to let others have the personal rewards, the professional recognition, the verdict of history for your ideas and work? For the artist, perhaps the joy of playing/practicing his art with absolutely no audience for it, ever. Would each of them still walk that path, if joy of discovery was the only reward?
What would taking one step back entail? I see it as a test of resistance and a test of rightness. These are empirical tests, rather than logical ones, for logic alone will keep leading you forward along the path. See if you can reverse the chain of reasoning, which could make just as much sense. Find out what makes it difficult to take that step back. Public embarrassment about changing your mind? Afraid of being called inconsistent or erratic? Listen for a ‘still, small feeling of rightness’ and nurture it. Try to put aside the allure of novelty, of new possibilities that may be illusory. Compare the two steps, forward and back. When you turn and face the other way, the path looks completely different. And what would be an example of a sideways step, off the path entirely? Perhaps getting an opinion on your situation from someone in an entirely different discipline or craft. (Artist? Musician? Parent with small children? Manual laborer?) How well could you convey your situation to them, in their language?
Another area where this path of many steps effect is at work is in the tolerance of, or indifference to, heretical ideas. I see a deadening or desensitization similar to that to violence or pornography in the media, in our culture generally. The new, the exciting, the offensive becomes in time the new normal. An example of a heretical belief is that Jesus was just a man, a very good man, who didn’t rise from the dead. It is a coherent and persuasive belief that will lead to other beliefs and ideas. Traditionally, it is called Arianism and is a heresy that keeps returning and recurring in the history of the Christian Church.4 (An interesting side question: why do some heretical beliefs keep returning?)
4It is named after its Fourth Century advocate Arius, and has no
relationship to Aryanism, a completely different word.
There are two dangers in dealing with heretical ideas: the danger of intolerance and the danger of tolerance. The danger of intolerance is clear and obvious from our history: persecution of heretics, book burning, the Inquisition, religious wars, the importance of freedom of thought and expression. The danger of tolerance is more subtle. The issue with heresy is not one of different equal beliefs, but of right versus wrong. It is not a debate with a person of a different religion, but with a person of the same religion who you believe is wrong on a fundamental belief that is accepted as fact. That person is free to believe whatever he or she likes, as are we all, but if we believe the other person is wrong we must be clear in that, and hold to it. A debate format over a belief implies the two sides are equal, are to be treated equally, whether in a formal debate between two people, or in the informal debate within one’s own skull. Any idea should be considered with respect, but a debate about it ends with a choice, and we go on to other things. And we must. But there is a long term ‘wearing down’ or erosion if a debate keeps returning. A wearing down of the older generation having to keep refighting old debates, and of the younger generation not valuing the tradition, rejecting it for the new, the exciting, the different. Both the old and the young must each find their own way back to their common roots in order to better understand the common path they are on.5
5Two people opposed to each other could each consider their own beliefs to
be orthodoxy, and the other’s heresy. They would have much to discuss and
clarify. What concerns me is the many-steps process likely at work within
each of them.
As a society, and in the Church, we have both gained and lost. We have gained in freedom of thought and expression, but we have also lost by becoming less serious in our thinking. It is as if we believe the ideas we think and express have no consequences for us or for others. But they can have consequences, for us in our own personal lives, and for society.
Consider Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most influential philosophers. Perhaps his ideas contributed to his insanity, or they resulted from it, or both. But the Nazis took his ideas and misused them. And he continues to be influential and popular. Does he not bear some responsibility for his ideas? Or the scientists who helped develop the atom bomb, and who felt guilty for it afterwards. Or Marx, Darwin, Freud: They are intellectual heroes, role models, shapers of our world, and their ideas are part of us. Their ideas are so influential that we can’t go back in our thinking to before they existed. We can’t unthink their ideas, we can only agree or disagree with them, challenge them, build on them. We can’t remove their ideas from our heads. An idea, an image, even a powerful photograph, can have a long term effect, one for good, or for corrosive ill. If it is for ill, how best can one resist it?
If we are responsible for what we think and express, responsible at least to ourselves, and to others if we communicate, we must become aware of the little steps in the path of our thinking, our experience, all the little changes and acceptances we make, and to be prepared to stop, to wait, to reconsider and perhaps choose differently.
If the path of many steps is an intellectual one, leading perhaps to a heresy or unbelief, what could be the three responses I suggest?
The first, going back to the beginning of the path: you can’t unthink a thought or idea, once it is in your head, but you can consider other paths from where you are, perhaps other philosophical approaches or directions.
The second, taking one step back as a test, means facing the other way. A path looks quite different when you face the other way, and a common unexamined assumption our society has is one of faith in inevitable progress. What resistance is there to taking just the one step back?
The third response, stepping off the path entirely: perhaps concentrate on the non-intellectual feeling of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps doing some ordinary, everyday good thing that brings you back to Christ. As Brother Lawrence put it, practicing the presence of God is more to our essence as Christians than intellectual ideas about Christ and Christianity are. (Though how difficult the simplest things can be to do!)
The title, which I coined, is called a ‘venereal’ term6. There were many such terms in late medieval English, and knowing them was considered part of being an educated person A few such terms have survived into modern English. The best have a richness of meaning, of poetry and illogic to them: a pride of lions, a murder of crows, an unkindness of ravens, an exaltation of larks… Perhaps a creeping of heresies can help us each understand our own paths better.
6Lipton; Exaltation. Venery is an archaic word for hunting.
Bruce, F. F. Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977.
Lawrence, Brother (Nicholas Herman). The Practice of the Presence of God, With Spiritual Maxims. Grand Rapids: Spire, 1967.
Lipton, James. An Exaltation of Larks, Or The Venereal Game. New York: Viking,1979. Second Edition.
(c) Copyright Mark Jokinen, 2019
My parents are 94 years old this year and that has given me occasion, along with my siblings, to search through their books, memorabilia, and other historical documents as they downsize. Kazmaier is a relatively rare name and the Kazmaier branch of my family originates from small village (population 1,577 (December 31, 2008)) in Germany (Baden-Wurttenburg) called Grabenstetten.
I was delighted while searching, to come across a small book describing the history of Grabenstetten. The title Grabenstetten in Vergangenen Tagen (Grabenstetten in Bygone Days) provides a wealth of first-hand accounts of the village’s history and from time-to-time of the specific history of the Kazmaiers.
I thought, as a service to other Kazmaiers who are interested in our genealogy, it might be helpful to provide pieces of information from the book that might not readily available elsewhere.
- After 1800, 84 villagers emigrated to the United States, including five Kazmaiers.
- Forty emigrated to Switzerland including two Kazmaiers.
- In 1900 Johann Michael and Sofie Kazmaier emigrated to German South West Africa (modern day Namibia).
Note: Grabenstetten in Vergangenen Tagen was written in 1982 with no authorship listed. The Foreword is by Heinrich Schäfer and I surmise he might have been the author.
If you are interested in Peter’s SF and Fantasy novels check out … https://amzn.to/2qzzi4P
My book club is reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life; An Antidote to Chaos. As part of this reading program I have been listening to various interviews of Peterson and a recent one, taken from a talk and interview at Lafayette College , caught my particular interest.
After a lengthy and colorful introduction by the moderator, Peterson posed a question to the audience. I am going to tell you what I heard in my own words, but I highly recommend you listen to his comments for yourself.
In my paraphrase and summary, his preamble and question went like this:
So called “right wing thinking” is concerned about establishing hierarchies (which are necessary for survival and for society to function), while “left wing thinking” focuses on equality and fights for the bottom tier of the hierarchies that have been established (which is also necessary).
He went on to say that we know where “right wing thinking” crosses the line into extremism: when they claim one group (usually their own) is intrinsically superior to other groups. Peterson then asked the question: Where is the line for extremism on the left?
He went on to answer his own question. The line is crossed on the left when their zeal for equality for the lowest tier in a hierarchy causes them:
- To focus on equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity
- To compel a certain kind of speech and thinking because it’s the only way to get people to comply with their demand for equality of outcome.
What Has This to Do With the Old and the New Testament?
Note: I’m not especially interested into entering into political discourse, important as that may be, but I am interested in how Peterson’s comments affect my thinking about the history of Judaism and Christianity described in the Old and New Testaments. I will confine my remarks to that subject.
I thought about the points Peterson made, and it struck me how this analysis parallels what I see in the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, when primarily describing God’s dealing with His chosen people Israel, he clearly sets up hierarchies: indeed he set up a political one and a religious one each of which acted as a balances to the another. This structure enabled the Israelites to survive despite encountering many enemies and suffering under the afflictions they caused whether it be slavery in Egypt or captivity by Babylon. Even under the heel of the Roman Empire, their identity and cohesion as a people was preserved. When I look at it, the hierarchies in their culture and in their relationship to outsiders contributed positively to their survival and cultural cohesion. However, there was potentially the possibility of crossing the hierarchical line that Peterson articulated.
When Jesus came, he seemed to turn everything on its head. He came in at the lowest tier—as many thought—the illegitimate son of a Galilean carpenter. Yet Christ, while not destroying the Jewish hierarchy, taught that to be a leader in His Kingdom, the leader has to be servant of all. This seems very much like fighting for the lowest tier.
Given Peterson’s analysis, it’s striking to me how Christ came to restore a sense of balance to the hierarchies and keep the Jewish people (and hopefully Christians as well) from crossing the line into extremism where “chosen people” comes to mean “as a people we are superior.” This has been helpful to me because it shows a natural progression in the Old and New Testaments and shows how hierarchies and fighting for the lowest tier are both essential for balance.
Disclaimer: I know Professor Peterson has delivered some lectures on biblical topics. I have not listened to any of them.
©Peter Kazmaier 2018
The Importance of Focusing on the Ideal. A Lesson Learned from G. K. Chesterton’s WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE WORLD
I recently had a conversation with a friend at my cottage about one of the injustices that occurred in our past in Canada and the inevitable question came up: “What do we do about it now?” As various potential answers to this question were proposed, they seemed unsatisfactory. Indeed often they seem to propose a new injustice visited on people who were, of course, not alive one hundred or two hundred years ago to redress wrongs in which they had no direct part.
I was just reading G. K. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World at the time, and it struck how illuminating and helpful his work was for enabling me personally sort through this puzzle of separating good solutions from bad ones.
Chesterton made the point that so often when we try to fix what is wrong with the world, we pay insufficient attention to defining what the ideal is or should be (the picture of flower reminds me of an ideal). He uses the metaphor of a medical doctor. If a doctor is to heal a patient, he has to have an accurate notion of what a healthy person looks like. If he just focuses on defects or things that are wrong, then the remedial action may actually make things worse rather than better for the patient.
To use an extreme example to make a point, a doctor distressed by the lack symmetry in a one legged patient, may decide to restore the symmetry by removing the other leg, rather than enabling some walking capability by providing the patient with a prosthetic.
Similarly for the injustices in our past that face us now, I need to ask “What kind of society do I want to live in? What would make it fair and just? For me, asking this question, removes from consideration many options which simply implement new injustices to make up for old ones.
If you haven’t read Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World, I suggest you give it a try. I think it was first published in 1910 (some say 1900 but I think that’s too early since Chesterton first began writing books in 1900) yet it seems prophetic and anticipates so many questions facing us today.
I have previously published my review of Peter Kreeft’s excellent book, Back to Virtue. In this post I wanted to provide a more personal view of how the book changed or perhaps broadened my thinking. At one point, Kreeft talked about how Christianity brought together the best of what Hebrew, Greek, and pagan thought and tradition had to offer. This is depicted in the diagram below (reworked to capture my own musings on this important idea from a similar diagram in the book).
The Hebrew Foundation
If one reads the New Testament, one can’t help but notice how Christianity is grounded on, and grew forth from Hebrew history, revelation, and practice. All of the very early Christians were Jewish. The Old Testament is cited again and again in the New. Even the Christians called out of Greek and pagan backgrounds were steeped in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. When Paul spoke in 2 Timothy 3:16 about “all scripture,” he was primarily referring to the Old Testament.
Jesus had to be born into Jewish society because they had a high view of God: his Oneness and His creation of the world out of nothing. Had Jesus been born in Athens, as pantheists and polytheists, they would have happily put Jesus alongside Zeus and so missed the whole point of the incarnation. The shocking incredulity of the Jewish mindset to the incarnation was absolutely necessary for us to get the message and import of what was taking place.
This Hebrew ground or environment for the incarnation did not come without cost or loss. As far as I can tell from my reading, the first century Jewish people were remarkably free of idolatry. A by-product of this achievement was a complete lack of development of some of the arts such as sculpting and painting because they were too closely associated with idol worship. Kreeft helped me realize how this temporary omissions were build back in to the Christian community after the significance of the incarnation and resurrection of Christ were recognized.
The Greek New Testament
The use of Koine Greek (the lingua franca of the Mediterranean and Middle East) as the language of the New Testament had profound consequences. Not only did it bring the Good News in the common language of the Roman Empire, but it could make use of the nuances of language and thought brought into Greek by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. So for example it enabled the distinction between the old nature (flesh – sarx) from body (soma), drawing a clear distinction between Gnosticism and Christian teaching by putting a high value on the body as well as the spirit (Gnosticism values only the spirit). It also made God-guided reason an important way of testing truth claims and made reason an integral part of understanding teaching.
When viewed as a religious system, pagan polytheism was simply a branch of pantheism. But pagan practice had given rise to stories, plays, and poetry that showed a wonderful imagination and a longing for truth. Here again, it seems to me Christianity was able to keep the good. Much if not all of the ancient literature was preserved by the Church as the Roman Empire collapsed and the anarchy of the Dark Ages replaced it. The use of imagination as an engine of the written arts and also of science has played a significant role and life of the church.
So What Does This Mean to Me?
Kreeft’s analysis and synthesis has allowed me to see a number of things in a new way. Here are some of them:
1. God is always working toward the summum bonum, the greatest good.
2. Sometimes because of our weakness and frailty, we miss out on some things as the Israelites did as they were learning to avoid idolatry and so gave up some of the arts. These temporary omissions are part of our growing process.
3. In the end all genuine good comes from God and we as his people are not wrong to seek it. You cannot go far wrong if one truly seeks the good.
4. My own Christian walk is founded on my personal interaction with the Lord Christ through His received word and His Spirit. Imagination and reason play an important role in that interaction.
Note Added on “Reason”
In The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, Kreeft points out the differences in the way the word “reason” was used by Aquinas and how it’s used by modern philosophers. Aquinas and other ancients used reason to denote knowing, judging, as well logical processes such as inductive and deductive analysis. Modern philosophers, according to Kreeft, tend to use it only in the third sense.
This is another thoughtful book from Peter Kreeft with many valuable insights. Of particular significance to me was his observation (and my realization) that our society speaks of “having values” rather than “pursuing virtue.” This crafting of our language supports the subliminal indoctrination that channels us into believing or even espousing the idea the “the good or what is right” is not a real quantity like the natural laws but rather is made up or invented by people. Kreeft calls us back to pursuing virtue and abandoning the relativism that plagues us with moral equivocation. He sums up this idea by stating that society cannot long exist without virtue and virtue cannot long exist without religion.
A second important insight for me had to do with the strands of thought and practice that were brought together in Christianity. He argued that as Christianity built on it’s Jewish foundation, wrote it’s ideas using the Greek language and gradually brought more and more gentiles under it’s wing, it brought together three strands: conscience from Judaism, reason from the Greeks, and imagination from the pagan gentiles to craft the fabric of the faith.
Having said that, I will read this book over and over again because of the powerful and significant ideas it advances. I am less enthusiastic about the writing style. Kreeft often uses short sentences and the ideas do not flow well but rather come out like a machine gun barrage. I overlook the stylistic deficiencies because of the content.
I enjoy re-reading books. As a rule of thumb, after reading a new book, I’ll go back to revisit one I’ve read before. Recently I had a chance to re-read Isaac Asimov’s classic Science Fiction trilogy Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation.
I have been reading these books since high school. Although the books haven’t changed, I have and so has society around me and this observation is really behind today’s commentary on the series.
In the trilogy, Asimov imagines Homo Sapiens spread throughout the Milky Way galaxy participating in a galaxy-wide empire run by Trantor. This empire has existed for 16,000 years and is thought to last forever. The new science of psychohistory is able to predict the inevitable actions of large groups of people (an interesting metaphor for some theological reconciliations of predestination and free will) and Hari Seldon, the originator of psychohistory, predicts anarchy as the empire inexorably disintegrates. Seldon plans to mitigate the interregnum from 30,000 years of anarchy to 1000 years. That sets the stage for the formation of the Foundation at the fringe of the galaxy. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens.
What interested me in this reading was a simple statement that came about in the dialogue between Sermak and Bort who were discussing Salvor Hardin’s (Mayor of Terminus, the Foundation home world) use of a technology-based religion to control neighboring worlds (Bort and Sermak are dissidents). Bort is asked what kind of religion is it? He says (p95, first Avon printing):
[Sermak] “But what kind of religion is it Bort?”
Bort considered. “Ethically it’s fine. It scarcely varies from the various philosophies of the old Empire. High moral standards and all that. There’s nothing to complain about from that viewpoint. Religion is one of the great civilizing influences of history [italics mine] and in that respect, it’s fulfilling—”
When I read that statement “Religion is one of the great civilizing influences of history” written by Asimov in 1951, I wondered how we as a society have moved from “great civilizing influences of history” to the twenty first century mantra that “religion ruins everything?” After all our history hasn’t changed and the actual facts of church history known today are substantially the same as those Asimov’s considered in 1951.
As I thought about this, I realized our perspective has changed because the reporting on religious history, particularly the history of the Christian Church has changed. In Asimov’s time, as in ours, there were many aspects of the history that were positive, and others that were terrible. What has changed? Where we focus our camera and where we place our microphone as we report on the past has changed.
William Tyndale was burned at the stake (after being strangled) at the age of 42 on October 6, 1536 in Vilvoorde, near Brussels. His crime? Translating the Bible into English so that people could read the scriptures for themselves.
Tyndale’s execution (according to Foxe) was witnessed by the attorney and doctors of Louvain who then moved off to complete their day.
So what’s my point? One’s perspective on this story depends on where you point the camera and hold the microphone. I think in 1951, the camera and the microphone were pointed at William Tyndale, who’s love for freedom and the truth motivated him to risk and lose his life in a translation project that would give others the chance to read the Bible for themselves—an example of religion’s civilizing influence.
What about today? We point the camera and microphone at the religious power brokers—the attorney and the doctors who set up the execution. But that’s the difficulty. History is a mixture of power, politics, noble aspirations, courage, conviction, and tragedy. The message we receive from history depends on where we point the camera and how we use the images. Curiously today, we have a secular perspective that completely dissociates itself from any of these historical actions because they are presumed to be religiously (and not politically) motivated and from our modern perspective, thankfully we’re through our religious phase. The net result is a general villainization of religion in our culture.
An accurate reading of history compels a much more balanced view, a view that does not assume that modern secularists don’t have their own injustices that they foist on their own political and ideological opponents, particularly the religious. History, if we read it properly, will help us to avoid acts of injustice on our part, not just inflict them on a new target group.
To me this is one of the reasons for re-reading older books—it let’s me see the world through the eyes of someone from a different culture than my own, and lets me discover some of the assumptions that make up my own perspective.
Thanks for reading,