The Toxicity of Linear Time

A subject that has increasingly preoccupied me in recent years is time. This isn’t just because I’m getting older; or, rather, my aging probably is a major factor–but only because I begin to understand more of what’s happening around me, not because my own hour-glass is running short of sand.

I perceive, for instance, that people become less concerned about their moral duty as they become more convinced in the relentless linearity of time. Today is soon yesterday. You’re not the same person now as you were ten years ago (as cliché thinking would have it), and ten years from now you’ll be yet another being. Promises therefore fall by the wayside quite naturally–for how can a butterfly be held responsible for the commitments of a caterpillar? And you are supposed to grow wings, aren’t you? Isn’t that a good thing–to change and grow, to “evolve” in your thinking? You’re caught in a circle if you’re not moving in a line; but as long as you keep moving forward, there’s a chance that you’re also moving upward…

And so on, and so on. I’ve come to find these truisms very tiring. They’re excuses for so much duplicity, cowardice, and slovenly thinking that I’m near to declaring them void of any truth at all. That wouldn’t be fair, of course; but the “morally evolved” person, even when he sees that his perspective of yesterday was short-sighted, continues to stand by promises made yesterday upon which others depend–or else he accepts the penalty for not doing so without complaint. How many people of that sort do you see around you right now?

The linear/progressive view of time, by the way, hasn’t always been around. In fact, it’s a very recent arrival, characterizing none of human pre-history and perhaps one tenth of our recorded history. A far more natural perspective (to judge from its statistical dominance) has been that of conforming oneself to the values and examples of one’s ancestors. An ethos collects from the practices of several centuries; it has been refined by the process of trial and error and has withstood the “test of time”. Why should we assume that we can break with precedent and suffer no consequences? On the contrary, only a fool ignores the directions of those who have preceded him down the road of life.

For much of the Christian era, we of the West have adopted a fusion of the two views. We were no longer looking back over our collective shoulder at the Heroic Age, but forward, rather, to the end of earthly time and the fulfillment of our identity in a loving, purposeful god. We struggled to put the Old Man behind us and live in the New Man; yet that New Man was ascending to complete a circle whose first movements were embedded in our basic nature, not “boldly going where no man has gone before” in an indefinitely extending exploration of the physical universe.

Science has thrust us upon this Star Trek trajectory wherein change may either have little sense or may, indeed, end in disaster, since it is no longer magnetized to a transcending, metaphysical objective. We morph into multi-sexual beings who no longer reproduce: that’s “progress”. We fuse with robots to reduce our susceptibility to disease and prolong our material presence: that, too, is “progress”. We introduce our hybrid selves into solar systems far from our own but not endowed with any property that will prove more salutary to the soul than was Planet Earth; and that will be styled progress, as well… but I wonder if it might not be eternal Hell by any other name?

Linear time can become a toxic drug. We would do well not to pay too little attention to ourselves today as we await the new-and-improved beings we imagine ourselves becoming tomorrow.

Advertisements

Martyrdom… or Blasphemy?

This is my farewell to Eusebius. I’ve now finished the Loeb edition of his Ecclesiastical History that was in my possession… and my sanity, which has taken so many hits in recent years, might not have remained intact if I’d had another twenty pages to go.

I had intended to type out a few paragraphs of my author’s pious bellyaching over the Montanist (or “Thracian”) bid to steal the A Team’s thunder by churning out its own prophets and chatterers-in-tongues. I find that I lack the spiritual stamina, however, to complete that scholarly exercise: I already feel a fit of psychic vomiting dangerously near.

The early church, you see, appears to have been riddled with such controversies as these even as a roomful of pre-schoolers bristles with fights over who gets first dibs on the Silly Putty. “My speakers-in-tongues did it before yours, and they’re not possessed by putrid diabolical vapors carrying noxious lies and blasphemous filth!” One would have hoped for more, especially at a time when those who professed the faith might truly be arrested, tortured, and brutally executed. Usually such treatment separates the wheat from the chaff. In this era, it seems to have brought the slag to the top.

For rival cells of Christians were competing even over who had the most martyrs and whose martyrs suffered the most hideously: if the printing press had been around, I’m sure we would have seen Martyr Bubblegum Cards with stats for number of hours on the rack and number of lions in the arena. Most of Eusebius’s evidence for this wrangling appears in Book 5; earlier books (some of which I mentioned in previous posts) portray the “faithful” vying to see who can starve himself the most, survive with the least sleep, and abstain from all forms of sex with the greatest fervor. (Some of these cultists went so far as to castrate themselves, though I do not recall any reference to them in Eusebius.)

One of the difficulties of getting old is the volume of disillusionment which you must absorb as you acquire a modicum of wisdom. I had always pictured the early church as illumined by genuinely devoted souls still close to the source of their spiritual ignition. Now I find it a miracle that the later church was able a) to survive the miasma of cultic fanaticism that immediately descended upon the faith, and b) to crystallize eventually into an uplifting belief system. Eusebius’s translator Kirsopp Lake appends a note to one of the final pages about how a glancing mention of Aristotle and the Platonists points the way to certain influences upon that crystallization. Of course, the mention in the Greek text was a sneer, charging the classically instructed with rank heresy.

Constant, inviolable honesty; fearlessness in advocating the truth paired with humility about one’s shortcomings as an advocate; imperviousness to worldly threats and applause alike; inexhaustible generosity to the weak sheathed in ringing denunciations of those who encourage weakness for selfish profit… such are the qualities (among others) of the ideal Christian. That this paradigm, within a few generations, should have decayed into verbal warfare about whose followers had thrown themselves before more freight trains is depressing on a colossal scale.

And my “freight train” metaphor is less tropological than you might think; by the merest of coincidences, I also happened to hear—for the first time in my life—of the “circumcellions” this past week. This Heaven’s Gate of yesteryear would send its followers out with blunt clubs to attack Roman soldiers, the objective being to irritate armed men of war sufficiently to get oneself impaled on spears or swords and “exit this life in martyrdom”.

It’s worse than lunacy: it’s blasphemy, of the real variety. To transform a holy message into the pretext for a suicidal ego trip… how loathsome. Again I say, Don’t show me how many pieces your martyrs were torn into before they expired: show me how you yourself handle the dreariness of earning your bread every day, the challenge of resisting advancement offered on condition of duplicity, and the fearful task of providing a model to young children. Show me how you live, not how you die.

Moral Chernobyl: A Place Where Kids Die Young

As the father of an only child who just graduated from a college in—of all places—Colorado, I was deeply saddened to hear that disgraced FOX News personality Eric Bolling’s only child Chase was found dead at his campus in Boulder. Apparently the boy had overdosed on some drug or other. Naturally, speculation about suicide runs rampant, given the notoriety that Eric had lately collected about the family name. At the very least, Chase must have been driven to the drug in a retreat from a situation that, by several accounts, was tremendously upsetting to him.

And understandably so. When your dad is accused of photographing his membrum virile for the benefit of certain women he wished to impress and sending them the portrait—and when his defense is a heated, “I don’t remember doing that!”—your filial universe has to be turned inside-out. Really, Dad? You don’t remember? So that’s something you just practically never do with the photos you take of Mr. Johnson?

At the same time, it occurs to me that a good many other segments in our society might share a little of the blame for this boy’s fate. What about the U of Colorado, and our colleges in general? What have they done to curb the culture of easy hook-ups, boozy parties, easily available drugs, and aloof professors? Professors, yes… for most of this boy’s teachers are bound to have known who he was. Because his dad was a hated Trumpista employed by the hated FOX network, did they decline to reflect for a moment that he was probably going through a very hard time? Did they, perhaps—God forbid—even add to his burden with a snarky comment or two? I almost don’t want to know.

Of the state of Colorado and pharmacophilia, I will say nothing, for I think little more needs to be said than this: when you acknowledge before young people the acceptability of altering unpleasant moods artificially, you purchase a small share of tragedies like Chase’s.

I’m not going to let neo-feminism off the hook, either. I think Bolling Senior probably has some utterly disreputable behavior to answer for, as I wrote weeks ago; and his “manly” bluster on behalf of Mr. Trump did not reassure me last year that his and my notions of male maturity had much in common. Yet as a young man in the Eighties whom women frequently refused to date a second time after the first adventure failed to land us in bed (thanks to my religious scruples and my distaste for exploiting giddy fools), I sincerely wonder just how many guys living in Eric’s New York fast lane get good results from obscene selfies and all the rest. I’m guessing that certain women must respond to such things in an encouraging manner; and I’m willing to suppose, even, that some of the women who accused Bolling months after the fact weren’t overly insulted until the hunt for his head was on.

How much of this crap—the lewd photos, the leers, the pawing, the dashes to a hotel at midday, the frolics on the office couch… the later fallings-out, the belated charges, the counter-charges, the broken marriages, the public disgrace, the professional meltdowns… the drinking, the drugs, the deep depression, the longing to be out of this world—how much of it would envelop us if feminists long ago had decided that imitating the very worst male behavior wasn’t necessarily the best way to prove they “had balls”?

How many young people have died because the older generation has created a moral Chernobyl amid whose toxic fumes they were somehow supposed to find adulthood without guidance?

A Skeptic Looks at Martyrdom

Around the beginning of his fifth book in Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius claims to insert a chronicle of Christian martyrdom in third-century Gaul (today’s France) drawn from the very words of the beleaguered congregants. These passages are deeply disturbing. They are so first of all, naturally, because of the savage cruelty they detail that was unleashed on a peaceful religion simply for its novelty. Slanderous stories had circulated that attributed the most lurid debauches to the Christian order of worship; sons, for instance, were said to copulate with their mothers as intoxicated gatherings deliriously applauded. Since the Christians themselves denied performing such horrendous acts, they and their relatives and servants were all put to torture. Yet the faith of the true believers saw them through the nightmare, according to these accounts. One report has an old man, burned and torn limb from limb before he was briefly released, re-imprisoned for further “questioning” in a better physical state than he had been upon his first arrest. Another has a woman bringing some of her fellow sufferers back to life miraculously in their common dungeon. Several accounts mention victims being surrendered to ravening beasts in the arena as crowds cheered… then being extracted from teeth and claws and held for execution until another day.

Such narrative overplaying of one’s hand is, in a way, just as disturbing as the tortures themselves; for by infusing the tales of martyrdom with obvious embellishments, the scribes leave one wondering how severe the actual martyrdom could have been. How much of the anguish do we owe to the recorder’s Muse? When a story that takes you from A to M lies about D, G, and L, how do you know that C, F, and H were not also fabricated?

The ecstatic state of mind is prone to such misrepresentation, unfortunately. That’s one reason that accounts of mystical experiences often attract the derision of savvy detractors, and are sometimes silently endured by fellow believers who, however, dread seeing a mature belief compromised by childish fictions. It happens in “secular religions”, too. How many people will patiently hear out the UFO report of a pilot or an astronaut after so many New Age visionaries wearing talismans around their necks have been fouling the air with their communiqués from alien ambassadors?

There’s a final point, too, about the Gallic martyrs that bugs me. Some of them appear to want to be tortured a little too much. Being torn to pieces by infidels is perhaps the easiest escape route if you have failed to figure out how to live the good life in a quotidian context. Are telling the truth, avoiding brutal pleasures, working hard for your day’s bread, and setting time aside to meditate on the ultimate purpose of being just not enough for you? Too tedious—not enough fireworks? Could it be, in some cases, that making one’s exit on a pile of smoking timber is not so very different from touching together the two wires of one’s suicide vest?

Don’t show me nothing but people who died in a blaze of glory for their faith; for death comes in a few hours, or maybe a couple of days, even in the most protracted of tortures. Show me, as well, a few people who lived long and righteously in the shade of worldly obscurity. Of the two, the latter is the tougher act to replicate.

The Decline and Fall of Christianity in Denver (II)

I’m going to have to parse my verbs and decline my pronouns very carefully here. The Denver minister at my son’s church whom I wrote about last is probably a fine human being; and when he proceeded in the second half of his sermon (having flailed himself and the rest of us for a “white guilt” over events in which we played no part) to an appeal for contributions to feed hungry Dominican children, his heart was certainly in the right place. Even on such solid terrain as this, however, one may still stumble.

Query: if charity does more for the giver’s soul than for the recipient’s, as the preacher rightly maintained… then do we need an inexhaustible supply of recipients to keep our souls moving in the proper direction? If we cannot find truly needy people, like the hungry children of the Dominican Republic, will we not proceed to create a “suffering class” to uplift? And is there not a risk that this class may in fact grow to have no realistic need?

For instance, is it healthy or spiritually improving to designate a certain race as disadvantaged so that we may shower its members with freebies and continually feel good about ourselves thereby? At some point, wouldn’t we really be showing more charity not to pass out free goodies… say, wide-screen TV’s and smartphones? Sure, our self-image prospers from the deal… but what about spiritual growth in the victims of our generosity?

Query: if the impoverished residents of a certain nation massively immigrate—legally and otherwise—to our shores in order to partake of our wealth, and if we throw open our doors to all comers (legal and illegal) in the spirit of charity, then are we not aiding and abetting the abusive government of their native land? Do we not deprive that land of the movers and shakers who might make it a better place, and even bolster its arrogant ruling elite by allowing expatriate workers to send their paychecks back home? Isn’t this a version of the Malthusian dilemma, where you feed a hundred thousand in this generation so that a million in the next may starve?

Query: if God sees that the charitable prosper, then is that prosperity of a material sort? Really? How many of this church’s young parishioners left the sanctuary actually believing that their gross income would rise if they “adopted” a Dominican child during the food drive? Material resources are not unlimited: shouldn’t the faithful, especially the naïve among them, be made to understand that the prosperity in question is unlikely to be monetary? (And in any case, wouldn’t they be motivated by the wrong objective if they gave under that illusion?) On a related matter, should a young person take a well-paying job so that he may dedicate more of his income to charity… or should he, rather, seek out a job of lesser salary that satisfies him more and brings him into a more productive spiritual contact with the human community? I’m sure the minister would endorse the latter option… but how many of his young congregants understood this?

That’s my problem with such churches: the impression they create upon those of minimal experience with real life. The stupefying music that I wrote of puts them in a daze before the first word is spoken from the pulpit; then they are exhorted to take a collectivist approach to racial issues, viewing themselves as guilty of a KKK rally just because their skin tone is light. How, in that frame of mind, are they expected to respond to an appeal to feed starving children? Hopefully, they will respond with great generosity; but my true question here is, what concept of charity are they acquiring? Might they not be embarking upon a life of “search and destroy” charity, where they desperately need to find “needy” people lest they despair of their soul’s health? Is this not the precise analogue of the white person who needs to find a person of color to hug so that he may feel the poison of racism drain from his being?

And does not all of this disjointed, impulsively emotional thinking play right into the designs of the centralized nanny state, where what you earn is not really yours, where certain groups designated as underprivileged have a right (backed by legal force) to your possessions, where the ruling elite advances from guaranteeing food for all to medicine—and then entertainment, and then happiness—for all, and where the national debt plunges into such a chasm that only those same elite cynics survive the eventual riots in the streets?

To see the Christian church devolve into the handmaiden of an irrational (and irreverent) secular utopia in this manner is terribly disappointing and worrisome. The young, particularly, are the lambs being led to the slaughter.

The Decline and Fall of Christianity in Denver (I)

I love my son, I love (in a different way) the Christian faith, and I appreciate the efforts of the minister at an upscale, buzzing non-denominational church in Denver to draw one closer to the other. But from what I witnessed during a recent visit, I have to wonder if that’s happening.

The media-manufactured national crisis in Charlottesville was on everyone’s mind, or at least on this particular minister’s mind; so he jettisoned most of his notes on Saturday night (he said) and decided to let the Lord guide his words on Sunday morning. Now, I confess to being somewhat skeptical of the “give it to God” approach when dissecting moral or spiritual issues before a large audience. God gave us a rational intelligence, and He has also embedded in our mature nature an understanding of the distinction between self and other. A lot of times, when you really want to burst out with something, you don’t do so because you know a) that you haven’t thought it through on its own merits, and b) that you may be indulging a self-centered sentiment without adequately weighing how it’s likely to strike others. Belting out an opinion after announcing that you’ve given God the rein of your tongue usually doesn’t end well, in my experience.

And the violence that erupted at the KKK demonstration in Charlottesville actually begs for careful analysis. I myself, as a Southerner, am highly annoyed that the KKK presumed to come anywhere near General Lee’s statue. Lee freed his own slaves before the war began and was not in favor of secession—but felt honor-bound to fight on behalf of his country when it was invaded. By the way, Virginia was that country: it was an independent state which had surrendered some small part of its sovereignty to a central government, mostly for reasons of defense and over such commercial necessities as a common currency. A majority of Southerners who resisted the Union invasion also held this view. The slaveholders among them were a not-insignificant minority—but only a very small minority of these possessed more than five slaves.

That’s a history lesson for another day—and my intent is certainly not to defend the institution of slavery (although I might add that Lincoln’s parents had owned slaves in Pennsylvania, and that his Emancipation Proclamation in fact declined to free slaves held in Northern states). My point here is just this: the situation was represented in the broadcast media as a simple case of American racism rearing its ugly head over the issue of demolishing Confederate statues wherever they might be found. Extremely suspicious circumstances about this particular incident soon emerged, as well: e.g., the presence of a strong Obama supporter as an agent provocateur among the KKK ranks and an inaction bordering on incitement displayed by the Charlottesville police. Evidently, people in high places knew that the whole thing could be exploited for political gain. I wonder what gave them that idea?

Well, sure enough, our amiable man of God allowed the Holy Spirit to spring right off his tongue without attempting to secure any further facts about the case. I sat through a tirade about the evils of racism that, frankly, I found both demeaning and self-aggrandizing for all of us present. It was if we were being lectured on the wickedness of swerving out of your lane to run over a little child. White racists may compose about .002% of American society (unless you’re an academic who has ingenious ways of measuring these things, such as whether or not you’ve had an affair with a person of color). Naturally, everybody present in our church condemned and deplored racism: hence the self-aggrandizement. We could congratulate ourselves and each other because we were not among the wicked.

But not so fast. Our preacher foresaw this response and chastened it. We white folks—and he emphasized that the congregation was overwhelmingly white, as if pointing out that we hadn’t cleaned our plates after dinner—couldn’t just murmur, “Well, I sure don’t condone racism.” No; the fact that others of our race did condone it sufficed to implicate us. We must therefore make a point of seeking out the dark-skinned in our midst today and making them especially welcome. (“Oh, I didn’t notice that you were dark in the dim lights… I mean… hey, can I give you a hug? Well, or maybe a handshake and a big hound-dog howdy… I mean, because you’re… you know. And I really, really love you because you’re that way. I mean, more than I would if you weren’t. I mean….” Awkward, awkward, awkward, awkward!)

A young Hispanic couple that had squeezed into the row ahead of ours exchanged wry smiles in the dusky twilight. I had been trying to keep my eyes off the woman, because (speaking of “squeezed”) she was damn good-looking and wasn’t exactly dressed in loose sack cloth. Did the obvious fact that the surrounding Caucasian girls weren’t giving her any competition mean that, no, I really wasn’t a racist? Or did it just mean that I was a sexist pig?

But seriously, Reverend… you’re wrong. You’re just plain, flat, dead wrong. I am not responsible for the sins of Nordic people, or blond people, or even dark Celtic people like myself. I am responsible for nobody’s acts but my own. There is such a moral reality as communal responsibility, which involves multiple individuals allowing a dominant opinion to deafen them to their duty; hence even this is truly a lapse of individual responsibility. There is no such spiritual reality as communal sin, however. And as for congratulating strangers after the service for having dark skin… I’ll pass. It may just be that they attended your church thinking they might find a place at last where “content of character”, in Dr. King’s words, mattered infinitely more than tincture of epidermis. The way to welcome people into God’s house is to draw their souls into the transcending peace of the All Good—not to target them for special handshakes because they are black, or disabled, or dressed in sarongs.

The former welcome is that of a spiritual bridge-builder: the latter is that of a social engineer determined to create a secular utopia.

Christianity in Denver: Musical Marijuana

Had to travel to Denver again last week. I have tried to like the place: most people love it. For me… no, I’m just not going to make it up to the Peak of Affection. I can’t even make it out of the Abysm of Antipathy.

Since I’ll likely be writing about this subject from various directions for a week or two before I can get it all out of my system, let me start with the progressive church in the heart of Lakewood that I attended last Sunday. My son was kind enough to invite his mother and me, so I did a fairly good job of bottling up my bile after the service. After all, I really wanted to see just what he was taking in every weekend.

The entry phase felt like a sporting event. Personnel in bright vests direct you to a certain portion of a huge parking lot. Then you make your way to a sprawling structure with virtually nothing in the form of exterior windows, art work, or signage. It resembles, rather, the economy-model gymnasium of a ritzy private school that, for all its wealthy patrons, has begun to bleed a little into the red after the class buildings are finished. And for all I know, that’s the actual story behind this unique sanctuary: a cast-off gymnasium. Even on the inside, it looks for all the world like a facility for basketball, volleyball, and the rest with a great wrap-around corridor where tickets and refreshments are sold.

No hoops in the inner sanctum, however. At this point, in fact, we might as well have been in some sort of bizarre (to me) night club. While I’m not a clubber, the near pitch-darkness in which thousands of fold-out seats were arranged around a central stage where performers moaned a cry-in-your-beer species of praise and love to Jesus as guitars twanged and drums thumped had to be drawn straight from Friday night on the strip. I stood with everyone else (of the two or three thousand, I would estimate) as three of these numbers were belted out interminably. A finger was stuck in my left ear most of the time to reduce the pain of 140-decibel sound waves. A casual onlooker might have thought that I was holding up my finger to give my life to the Lord, or something of the sort.

I’m already so long in this entry that I can tell I’m going to have to retain my comments about the main event (a.k.a. the sermon) for next time. So let me just say this about deafening, pulsating noise in a religious sanctuary. It is a physiological fact that a steady stream of stentorian sound waves plunges the mind into a kind of drunken stupor. Loud, throbbing music can be a drug. The tom-toms of certain rituals in tribal, pre-literate societies are a means of “elevating” participants into a higher state. Contemporary rabble-rousers can also gin up huge crowds into irrational behavior by packing them into tight spaces and then allowing cranked-up amplifiers to project their rhythmic shouts.

Whether intended or not, this same effect must inevitably work upon the minds of masses crammed into a dark room where a rock band keeps orgasmically repeating variations of a verbal formula containing, “Jesus”, “love”, and “beautiful”. I wouldn’t begin to argue that no thrill, no poignant or passionate emotional surge, is drawn from many of the congregants by this method. No; the very thing that worries me is the thrill’s reality.

The Christian faith in churches like this has become a drug. One shows up on Sundays to get one’s “fix”. The rational mind gives ground, real-life concerns evaporate, the boundaries separating self from other vanish, and a psychedelic fantasy fuses the mass in a communion of emotional orgy.

Sorry… but this does NOT have the look of my God and my faith. And I’m not entirely sure that the effect is unintended, for the “message” that finally followed appeared to count upon a sort of indiscriminate group-think… but of that, more later.