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.

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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.

Like Don Quixote, I Am Who I Am

A few months ago, when word of an impending high school reunion reached me, I marveled that so many people would want to reassemble after so many years. What was to be gained from it all? I for one (I wrote in this very space) am not remotely the same person now as I was in the Mesozoic Era. Why would you get a bunch of strangers together in a room for the purpose of pretending that they know each other, or of wondering how they happen not to know each other any longer, or of imitating what they once were to play out some long-forgotten game, or of otherwise spending hours and hours in a really unwholesome caricature of nostalgia?

Well, the emails continue to come as the event draws nearer… and I’ve stumbled upon a new realization. For me, the problem isn’t that I’m no longer that boy of all those years ago; it’s that I am precisely that boy. I’ve never changed, and I never will. I rather doubt that any of us ever really, substantially changes. We learn to insulate ourselves better from the risks entailed by our temperament; we learn to impersonate better the manners of whatever group we decide upon joining; but as for deep change… in myself, at least, I just don’t see it.

I can remember feelings that I had far back in childhood—and it hits me that I feel things the same way today. I recall, as a boy of about seven or eight, looking out from a treehouse early on a sunlit Saturday morning… looking across the neighbor’s back yard, across an old highway and a railroad track, far into a field of waving wild grass and a distant forest’s line that quickly dissolved into blue sky; and I recall, more than anything, the pain of that moment. It was as if I understood just then that I longed for something unspeakably beautiful and uplifting, and that I either wasn’t going to find it in this world or wasn’t going to have the strength to reach it.

At seven years old, I got a glimpse of how difficult life would prove for someone of my chemistry—and I knew, somehow, that I wasn’t just looking at a field.

I didn’t understand my classmates that lifetime ago, and they didn’t understand me. I wouldn’t understand them now, either, and they wouldn’t understand me. I intend no reproach here, and certainly no condescension. I could say that it’s as much my fault as theirs, or more my fault… but there’s no fault at all involved, really. It’s how things are. I’m put in a daze by things that people seem to enjoy en masse: cheering sideline participation at a football game, tipsy merriment over a round of drinks, the camaraderie of risqué jokes and endless reminiscences. I’m visiting another planet at those times—and I’m not at all comfortable there.

I have no other explanation. Where most people find enjoyment, I’m just not at home.

My initial error about the reunion was to suppose that people would look at me now and see what I was then, almost half a century ago. The truth is that they would see exactly what they saw then, which was no more what I really was then than what I really am now—but that my appearance would be a fully accurate distortion, now as it was then, given the filter through which I would be viewed. And maybe I just don’t want to be reminded of how much I stick out. It isn’t particularly pleasant, though I make no apologies and will undertake no correction. I’m okay with how God made me. I’m just not going out of my way to gather evidence, for the umpteenth time, that the mold was a very odd one. I’ll pass.

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.

Colorado, Where the Sublime Becomes an Amusement Park

A connoisseur of words and ideas would not say that the Rocky Mountains are beautiful; they are (in that useful but forgotten term of the eighteenth century) sublime. Beauty attaches to things that manifest an intricate, mysteriously harmonized order; sublimity belongs to things too vast to be appreciated by the human eye. The Milky Way, an ocean that fills the horizon, a cloudbanks whose muscular swells obscure each other as they obliterate the sky… these are natural objects that (according to yesteryear’s philosophers) cause a person to understand his puniness and to cringe in awe before the majesty of cosmic forces. Sublime sights may well reveal a dominating order to the theoretical analyst in his laboratory—but merely mortal eyes cannot behold them directly and grasp their logic from so shrunken, ant-like a perspective.

That’s an important idea to hold in reserve if you want to follow along as I try to explain how I feel about Denverites. I’m completely willing to grant that they appreciate natural beauty… but I don’t think they begin to understand sublimity. You treat a sublime object with trepidation and respect: you don’t go dance on it or throw a party beneath it.

My son led my wife and me up to Saint Mary’s Glacier during our brief visit. Having just come from a city about 500 feet above sea level, I think we two old folks acquitted ourselves well on the trek up to 11,000 feet. The climb was the more challenging in that the only way up was through a dry wash strewn with stones of every size from pebble to boulder. But a still greater challenge, we found, was the steady stream of local hikers who poured past us on their way both up and down. There were more than hundreds. Late that Saturday morning, as we began the ascent, I would place the figure at a couple of thousand up and down the two-mile arroyo. It wasn’t as bad as waiting to reach the ticket window of a Colorado Rockies game… but it was worse than negotiating the aisles of a typical grocery store on a typical weekday.

For these people, most of them young (since Denver is definitely a young person’s town), the jaunt was something like a weekly jog along an unusually scenic track. Believe it or not, a few even brought skis. They would continue their hike around the glacier’s lake and up to the top of its immobilized white blanket, then shoot down to its base. We saw a few actually doing so as we arrived (suffering from just a touch of altitude sickness) at the lake’s chilly but sunlit, placid waters. Others had galavanted all the way up to the highest ridges. I thought of the Lilliputians dancing and prancing on Gulliver’s recumbent form.

The whole thing seemed just a little bit insane to me. Do Colorado’s gorges not spill down torrents after sudden afternoon thunderstorms, as happens dangerously in the mountains of West Texas and New Mexico? Considering how quickly the weather changes in this area, I kept hearing a little voice repeat, “We can’t be here in mid-afternoon. Too risky.” Yet the trail of pilgrims showed signs only of thickening as we finally reemerged from the arroyo’s bottom and the sun increasingly ducked behind dark clouds. I recalled my feelings during last spring’s visit about seeing a huge open-air theater constructed directly beneath the titanic sandstone walls of Red Rocks—fissure-riddled cliffs that could release thousands of tons of rock at any moment. But, hey… marijuana is legal in Colorado. Chill out!

Among the young, supposedly educated demographic that claims to worship the environment and always votes for more state control of it, I’ve often been shocked at the absence of rudimentary scientific knowledge. The love affair that young Denverites have with their Rockies seems to me to be of a, “Hey, let’s play!” variety: somewhat infantile and disturbingly void of a healthy fear for nature’s raw power. I think of joggers in this same demographic who’ve gone running or hiking along Southwestern trails outside of LA or Phoenix and been attacked by mountain lions—sometimes fatally. More distance, please! If you really must live so close to this caged beast, then don’t lean up against the bars!

But the young citizens of Denver just keep right on hiking, biking, skiing, and sledding up or down any slope that looks fun to cuddle with. They certainly show no sign of suspecting that their sheer numbers are smothering the grand spectacle… and one can only hope that the gods of the mountains do not exact a terrible vengeance one day when they awaken.

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.