Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Finding the Historical Impact of Jesus: The Struggle of Christianity Against the Church

In the course of Western Civilization, there is an ongoing struggle between two opposing forces, each of which wants to claim for itself the titles of “church” and “Christianity.”

The central presence of the church and the Christian worldview in European cultural history makes it a central project for the historian to figure out what they really are, and not merely what they claim to be, or what others label them to be.

It should be simple: ‘Christianity’ is the name given to body of thought presented by Jesus; ‘church’ is the human organization whose task is to implement those thoughts.

Jesus followers attempt to put distinctively Christian values into practice: peace, justice, equality, education, liberty, freedom, etc.

So we see, e.g., Francis of Assisi visiting Egypt to broker a ceasefire, or the Peace of Westphalia negotiated largely by clergy: peacemaking missions. We see women’s suffrage and other measures toward women’s legal equality from the Magna Carta of 1215 to the Wyoming legislature of 1869: the mission of equality. As Andrew Wilson writes,

In many ways, the story of Christianity is full of light — mission, education, art, healthcare, abolition, compassion, justice — and I have read, taught, and loved that story for many years.

A simple happy story, right?

Sadly, no. The words ‘Christian’ and ‘church’ have often been used by those who opposed the ideas of Jesus. Some who hate the church and hate Christianity often call themselves by these very words, for the purpose of undermining the credibility of them.

One need think only of the so-called “Westboro Baptist Church,” an institution which constantly works to oppose the Christian faith. The Westboro Baptist Church is a group of non-Christians, or anti-Christians, who ensure that they are publicly perceived as a ‘church’ or as ‘Christians’ and then commit outrages so that the name and reputation of both are smeared.

There are many examples of this in history. Andrew Wilson tells us that

But there is an undeniable dark side: attacking, burning, crusading, drowning, enslaving, flogging, ghettoizing, hunting, imprisoning, Jew-hating, killing, lynching, and so on.

Through the centuries, repeated attempts to discredit Christianity follow the same pattern: first, an individual or a group creates the impression of being ‘Christian’ or of being a ‘church.’

Once that false impression is firm in the minds of the public, they perpetrate all manner of evil, so that this evil is then blamed on Christianity. The church is held responsible for the misdeeds of those who actually oppress the church.

How is a historian to untangle this mess in which two opposing parties both claim the same title?

If Christianity is the collected ideas which Jesus presented, and if the church is the institution which seeks to make those ideas into reality, then we must start with those ideas.

Jesus, depending on your interpretation, is either moderately pacifistic or radically pacifistic, but in both cases, Jesus is pacifistic. By extrapolation, to be ‘Christian’ or to be a ‘church’ is to be pacifistic.

While there is some gray area regarding precise definitions, it is still clear that unprovoked aggression - that starting a war - is beyond Christianity. Nonetheless, throughout history, there are numerous examples of those who would call themselves ‘Christians’ and yet instigate conflict.

Such actions, despite the ubiquity of the label ‘Christian,’ cannot possibly be Christian. In fact, they are the very opposite: they constitute an opposition to, and an oppression of, Christianity.

History, then, suffers from a confusion of terminology on a massive scale.

Perhaps the best solution is to jettison the words ‘church’ and ‘Christianity’ altogether, and instead simply identify individuals, groups, and movements which either correspond to the ideas of Jesus or which oppose those ideas.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Rational Insight Demands Action: Plato’s Philosophers are Obliged to be Kings, Even If Against Their Wills

Human action, and the psychology which drives it, explain the course of society, culture, and civilization. An insight into the deliberate choices which people make carries with it the power to act on that knowledge.

That power, in turn, might carry with it the obligation to act: to move from the potential of acting to the reality of acting. As economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe writes:

Just as rationalism implies the desire for system and completeness, so it implies political activism. To rationalists, human beings are above all rational animals. Their actions, and the course of human history, are determined by ideas.

People self-consciously redesign their societies by means of reflection and action based on reflection.

The power of an idea is such that it creates both the desire and the moral obligation to put it into practice.

In the economic realm, this property of ideas guides the introduction of new products into the marketplace, and new technology into manufacturing. In the arts, this principle leads to new styles and genres.

In politics, it is motivates every sincere effort, and distinguishes the sincere efforts from cynical efforts toward merely obtaining power for power’s sake.

Ideas can be true or false, but only true ideas "work" and result in success and progress, while false ideas lead to failure and decline. As the discoverer of true ideas and eradicator of false ones, the scholar assumes a crucial role in human history. Human progress is the result of the discovery of truth and the proliferation of true ideas - enlightenment - and is thus entirely in the scholar’s hands. The truth is inherently practical, and in recognizing an idea as true (or false), a scholar cannot but want it to be implemented (or eradicated) immediately.

The thinker’s desire or obligation to instantiate a thought explains both every failed revolution and every successful one, because revolutions are above all ideological (a coup, by contrast, is a mere seizure of power and not a true revolution, even if its perpetrators use the word ‘revolution’).

The danger exists, however, in our hyper-Romanticist and postmodernist world, that feelings or emotions usurp the role of thought, even among scholars.

When videos, soundbites, and 144-character messages replace the art of the political essay, then passion has replaced reason and feelings have replaced thought. A fictional character in a Star Wars movie advises: “Feel, don’t think!”

The imperative for modern people who seek justice in any form, who seek what’s best in culture and society, who seek to improve government and civilization, is: “Think!”

One need not, and should not, lapse into the opposite extreme. We do not issue the imperative: “Don’t feel!”

It would be foolishness to attempt to prohibit or ignore emotion, exactly as it is foolishness to privilege passion over reason.

Knowledge and reason beget power, and power, as numerous proverbs tell us, brings with it responsibility.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Napoleon’s Army: Overextended

An analysis of Napoleon’s military activity yields the conclusion that his reach simply exceeded his grasp. To fight in Egypt, Spain, and Russia, and to contemplate an invasion of England beyond this, is ambitious to say the least.

With more modest goals, Napoleon might have succeeded and been able to retain both territory and his title as emperor. Archeologists find evidence which documents how his army faced insufficient supplies, as historian Samir Patel writes:

Between 1803 and 1805, Napoleon stationed armies along the French, Belgian, and Dutch coasts for an invasion of Britain that was abandoned after he decisively lost the Battle of Trafalgar. Recent analysis of charcoal excavated from one of these camps shows that official supplies of firewood were apparently not enough to keep the soldiers warm and fed, perhaps because sources were overtaxed by the war. Rather, the men supplemented by collecting their own locally.

Napoleon’s strategy of choice was to focus a conflict into a major battle, instead of a series of small battles. When this strategy worked well, it was a brilliant success. But it required huge armies, with massive amounts of equipment and supplies.

France’s national economy, even with whatever was commandeered or conscripted or impressed from conquered territories, was simply hard-pressed continuously to provide for Napoleon’s ever-expanding field of action.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Emergence of Archaic Greek Peculiarities

If Greek history is displayed on a timeline, which event marks the starting point? Naturally, there will be some ambiguity and controversy around any answer given to that question.

The Greek area - Greece proper, plus the surrounding waterways and islands - was originally inhabited by other nations. A group known as the Minoans, who seem to have their origins on the island of Crete, planted themselves on the Greek mainland and became known as the Mycenaeans.

But they were not the Greeks.

Starting around 1600 B.C., several waves of invasions brought Indo-European settlers into Greece. These tribes were, in order, Achaeans, Aeolians, Ionians, and finally the Dorians.

Although the Dorians were in some ways technologically advanced, as is seen by their use of iron, they were part of a pattern of instability in area, and so civilization is often considered to have been in decline during the Dorian era.

The distinction between being civilized and being technologically advanced is worth considering.

As the social and political structures gradually stabilized, the new tribes absorbed some aspects of the Mycenaean cultures and blended them with their own Indo-European culture. The result is what might be called the beginning of Greek civilization. As historians Ralph Magoffin and Frederic Duncalf write,

During the three centuries which followed the period of invasion and settlement in Greece, the Greeks laid the foundations for their particular form of civilized life. Being self-reliant folk, they established a form of society in which the individual person had the freedom of self-expression. Wherever Greeks lived they preferred small, independent city-states. They never became cooperative enough to unite in large states.

Already at the beginning of Greek history, the characteristically Greek trait of independence appears. Greece as unified nation-state will not exist until many centuries later.

It is misleading to speak of the ‘ancient Greeks’ - it is more accurate to speak of Spartans, Athenians, Corinthians, Eretrians, etc.

The ‘Greeks’ were a handful of fiercely independent city-states, who occasionally cooperated with each other for mutual military defence, but who were as likely to attack each other.

Why did both independence and individual self-expression emerge as typical Greek qualities? There is no clear answer, but perhaps the origin of the Greeks as a sort of “melting-pot” of various Indo-European and Mycenaean influences was a contributing factor.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Wenceslaus - The Original SJW?

The Bohemian nobleman Wenceslaus is perhaps best remembered as the protagonist in the narrative contained in the song, “Good King Wenceslas” (note the variant spelling of the name).

But there’s more data about this man. His grandmother had been murdered because she had taught Wenceslaus about Jesus. In those days - he was born between 905 and 907 A.D. - Bohemia was still a largely pagan territory.

Corresponding to the territory of what is now the Czech Republic, the heathen traditions of Bohemia included human sacrifice, torture, and a general low regard for the value of human life. Women were considered as property, and could be bought and sold.

Ludmilla, the grandmother of Wenceslaus, helped to spread the teachings of Jesus into the region, and paid with her life. He would do the same. When “Wenceslaus became king of Bohemia in 922,” writes historian Bert Ghezzi,

He instituted a Christian rule over a people who were only partially converted to Christianity. Thus, a cadre of powerful pagan nobles opposed him and ultimately conspired to have him murdered.

As a follower of Jesus, Wenceslaus worked to reduce the frequency with which defendants were sentenced to capital punishment. He also reduced the amount of time which convicts were spending in prisons, instituting instead a form of ‘restorative justice.’

His efforts to stop the practice of human sacrifice and to raise the status of women angered the heathen leaders. Sometime between 929 and 935 A.D., he was assassinated.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Milestones in Sci-Fi Writing

Anyone’s list of the “best” or “greatest” or “most noteworthy” books is, obviously, subjective, and ultimately, mere opinion. The reader must view such lists, as entertaining as they may be, critically.

In August 2011, NPR published its list of “Your Picks: Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books” on its website. Despite NPR’s many crimes, which prevent any naive acceptance of its reporting, the list is at least thought-provoking.

Like many books on the list, The Forever War is dystopian, depicting a future in which much has gone wrong and little has gone right. The protagonists, a man and a woman named Mandella and Marygay, see what’s wrong and represent the reader’s and narrator’s perspective. Written by Joe Haldeman, the novel conforms to a common sci-fi paradigm.

The Sword of Shannara belongs to the ‘quest’ category of fantasy novels, quite similar to Tolkien’s fiction.

One of the earliest novels about space travel, Out of the Silent Planet is an effort by C.S. Lewis to work with the hypothesis of intelligent life on other planets, as scientists from earth travel first to Mars and then (in a sequel novel) to Venus.

This pattern is reversed in Rendezvous with Rama, when a mysterious spacecraft enters our solar system.

In a variation on the dystopian theme, A Canticle for Leibowitz is set in a post-apocalyptic future in which monks study to recover lost science.

In some plots, the dystopian phase is overcome, and the storyline points to a hopeful future. In Magician, there’s a rift between two worlds and an army from one world invades the other. Peace is only achieved when the main character obtains powers of wizardry and manages to force the end of the war through magic.

Another common device is the “save the world” narrative, e.g., in Dragonflight, where a blight from space will wipe out everything on the planet unless the heroes manage to defeat it. Of course, in sci-fi and fantasy, “save the world” doesn’t necessarily mean our world; often it’s a different planet.

Using artistic liberty, writers often blend elements of the medieval past with a high-tech future. This is the case in Mistborn: The Final Empire. In this book, society has been rigidly stratified into two classes, creating a plot device of political oppression.

In Lord’s Foul Bane, a leper is transported to another world (which he doesn’t believe is real) and is no longer a leper. The people in this world think he’s there to save it from the oncoming evil.

Class structures and political scenarios likewise shape the narrative in The Diamond Age, in which the protagonist, a girl named Nell, aspires to raise herself from the bottommost class.

Exile and expulsion also shape plots. In A Spell for Chameleon, the protagonist has no magical talent and unless he gets one, he will be kicked out of his magical kingdom.

Naturally, Isaac Asimov has to be on a such a list, but in addition to I, Robot, NPR also chose Caves of Steel.

Other obvious inclusions were Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Herbert’s Dune, Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Huxley’s Brave New World, Shelley’s Frankenstein, and other titles by Heinlein, Stephen King, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne.

Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is an interesting choice for the list, as it’s categorization among the “sci-fi and fantasy” titles is somewhat arguable. The list also includes Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

While not definitive, the NPR is at least an introduction to the genres. The plural noun is justified when the reader surveys the diversity of the list.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Education and Peace: The Complexities of the Medieval World

To say anything at all about the Middle Ages is risky, inasmuch as one cannot clearly define the ‘Middle Ages’ in either time or space.

Roughly, it began around 476 A.D. with the fall of the Roman Empire. But arguably it began earlier, with the great migrations of the Völkerwanderungen, and it began later, inasmuch as the afterglow of Roman society lingered after the political leadership was surrendered.

The Middle Ages might be said to end in 1453 with the emergence of mechanical print, or in 1517 with the Reformation, or in 1215 with the Magna Charta, or in the mid-1300s with Petrarch’s writing, or at any other arbitrary but plausible point in time.

In terms of geography, the Middle Ages are often conceptualized as a European phenomenon. But the northernmost regions of Scandinavia and the Slavic regions on the easternmost edges of Europe seem to have taken a separate cultural path, despite being on the continent of Europe. And some Mediterranean islands, North African cities, and parts of Asia Minor engaged in medieval patterns, despite not being on the continent.

Despite this ambiguity, scholars continually explore and reflect on medieval society. Clearly, this era holds an attraction and a fascination. Victor Davis Hanson writes:

The medieval world was a nearly 1,000-year period of spectacular, if haphazard, human achievement.

The medievals laid the foundations for modern mathematics and physics with their ruminations on the structural roles which geometry and algebra play in the universe. Thomas Bradwardine, e.g., worked as one of the ‘Oxford Calculators’ and formulated rules for using exponents in calculating the velocities and accelerations of moving bodies. He died in 1349.

Bradwardine’s work was representative of medieval scholarship, as Hanson notes:

The great medieval universities - at Bologna, Paris and Oxford - continued to make strides in science. They were not unlike the medical and engineering schools at Harvard and Stanford.

It is easy to overlook the common humanity of the medievals. Like most people they generally prefered peace to war, and like most people, they often had to endure wars which they did not want. As historian Irma Simonton Black writes,

The serfs went to the little village churches and prayed, “Oh Lord, let us have peace.”

The medievals, in fact, worked to stop warfare, introducing notions which foreshadowed the modern concept of a ‘ceasefire.’

Medieval society was built on relations of mutual obligation. The nobles were obliged to provide for their serfs, exactly as the serfs were obliged to work for the nobles. This legal bivalency was intended to have equal and reciprocal force.

This represented a departure from the “top down” rule of the Roman Empire. A serf actually had a legal claim upon his lord, while a Roman slave did not.

Concerning these nobles, Irma Simonton Black writes,

Many were kind and generous. They gave their serfs good homes, and if there was a shortage of food, fed their serfs as much as they dared from their own supplies in the castle granary or storehouse.

The political structure of the Middle Ages - mutual obligation - facilitated a climate of intellectual creativity. Roman absolutism had a ‘chilling effect’ on intellectual activity.

The emergence of the university played a key role in medieval thought. Because debate was considered an essential form of instruction, the universities of the Middle Ages, by their very structure, fostered intellectual freedom.

Students at these institutions were required to debate both side of any subject. A thesis was presented, and students worked to produce argumentation, both in support of, and in opposition to, this thesis.

In this way, the medieval European university was a departure from the narrow dogmatism of schools like the Al-Azhar Madrasa in Egypt, where Saladin and other Muslim leaders burned over 100,000 books in the twelfth century.

Likewise, the earliest universities - Bologna is often cited, having been founded around 1088 A.D. - were a departure from the doctrinaire rigidity of institutions like the Al Quaraouiyine Madrasa in Morocco.

The Middle Ages, then, laid the foundations not only for modern science, but also for modern political liberty.