Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Quest for Ancestry

It seems that in these unnecessarily interesting and unnerving times, many of us have become fascinated with our ancestry.  We investigate it not only in the old fashioned way--search of records--but are now able to do so by analysis of our DNA.  DNA presumably provides a far less detailed picture of our lineage than would a careful record search, but this hasn't prevented the marketing and sale of DNA kits.  People, or some people, long to know what groups of people have combined to produce them if not their individual ancestors themselves.

Why have many of us become inclined to investigate our ancestry?  The ancient Romans, or at least the patricians among them, valued their ancestors considerably.  Portrait masks of ancestors were made and displayed by them.  Actors would don those masks and famous ancestors would thereby make an appearance at important occasions like a triumph or games given in honor of a particular member of a great family.  None of these masks have survived, but we know of them from sculptures like the one appearing above.  The devotion of the Chinese to their ancestors is well known.  Ancestors were also important, and may still be, to some of noble descent, to kings and queens that remain.

This is a concern which hasn't been of much concern to most of us, however; not at least to the extent that it seems to be now.  But we have resources available to us now our ancestors didn't have.  Has this made a difference in our desire to investigate from whence we came?

Perhaps it has, but there may also be other factors at work.  We live rootless lives in a rootless time, I think, and seek roots as a result.

I say "rootless times" because it strikes me that what has rooted us in the past here in our Glorious Republic and perhaps the West in general no longer does so.  Traditional religion is uninspiring to many.  Liberal democratic values provide little support or comfort.  How could they, now, when it seems our democratic system, which was never all that democratic to begin with, is apparently failing?  We have gone from electing such as Washington, Adams and Jefferson to electing an ignorant and often incoherent buffoon, and have matched him with a venal, oafish crew of legislators lacking the intelligence needed to legislate and utterly without principles.

"Rootless lives" seems apt as we seem to lack the steadiness required to think intelligently ourselves.  Instead, we grasp at anything or anyone providing a simple answer to questions we face which in turn demands only the most thoughtless response to any problem.  In a sense, ignorance of anything new or different is indeed bliss, though, perversely, it is what we are quick to accept unthinkingly which demands new and different answers.

There's a certain comfort in being able to say my ancestors were so and so or such and such.   An association is created which we can use to provide ourselves with an identity, a character, ancestral customs, ancestral values, which already existed and perhaps have existed a very long time.  We have them ready-made, as it were; there's no need to manufacture them ourselves.

And it may be that we look to the past as it's unusually difficult, or maybe even disturbing, to look to the future.  There are times when many will have few expectations, and rightly so.  This, it seems, is one of those times for most of us.  There may be a "happy few" but their happiness becomes more and more extraordinary.

The past can be an escape, as many historians and fans of history have found.

Perhaps we seek hope in our pasts as we can have little hope in our futures.  That's a troubling consideration, but it's likely that as it is such, few will take note of it.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Selfishess, Salvation and the Supernatural

The Milky Way, the galaxy of which our world is but a tiny part, is itself only a tiny part of the unimaginably vast universe in which we and all we know exist.  Why do some of us insist there is "more"?

There is certainly more than we know, of course.  We know only a very little of the universe.  What I wonder, though, is why some of us believe there is more than the universe--by which I mean more than nature, i.e. the supernatural.

That very odd man, Cardinal Newman, in his Apologia, I think, wrote that he felt from an early age that the real world we know isn't "really real" but that there was something else lurking behind it, as it were.  I find this view as odd as the man himself, even odder.  What we insist on calling "supernatural" seems to me to be very much like what we know in nature made or perceived as strange.  Ghosts, for example, are eerie figures which were people and so resemble people or are people but in an unusual form.  The transcendent God many believe is, apparently, the perfect form or creator of all that we creatures of nature find admirable; but what we find admirable we admire because we know or believe it to be so naturally--we encounter or experience it within nature.

It strikes me that what we believe to be supernatural is more easily conceived of as being part of nature, of the universe that is, but part of it that we don't yet know or understand.  People ignorant of quantum physics too often refer to it as somehow establishing something or other.  I'm certainly ignorant of it myself, but what little I read and comprehend of it seems bewildering enough to indicate that we have much more to learn about the universe.  With so much more to learn, why do we purport to envision anything beyond it?  How can we even guess what that might be?

I would guess that belief in the supernatural results from a dissatisfaction with the natural.  That dissatisfaction can only be one arising from a very narrow point of view of nature.  This is necessarily the case because it must arise from the perspective of a dissatisfied person.

There's certainly enough to be  dissatisfied with, of course.  It's likely that's always been the case, and likely as well that there was even more to be dissatisfied about in the past.  But the fact remains that nature dissatisfies because our perspective of it is ultimately a selfish and, relatively speaking, small one.  The supernatural being unnatural or a-natural doesn't disappoint or rather can't disappoint because it isn't real and may be anything we want it to be.

Dissatisfaction with the world is necessarily selfish, and so it isn't surprising that satisfaction with the supernatural--that which isn't part of the world and so cannot be attained until we're not part of the world--is selfish as well.   In other words, the afterworld or otherworld where we go when we're out of nature is hoped to be what we would be satisfied with, unlike the world in which we now live.   We're thought to attain this desirable afterworld if we're worthy; if we're saved.  The reward for salvation is in that sense intensely selfish as well.  We are saved.  Others may be if they are saved; or they may not be.

So it seems to me, in any case, as part of this speculation or train of thought. 

This emphasis on the supernatural, on the transcendent, is therefore an exceedingly personal one.  Which to me raises the question whether it is truly moral. 

Concern for the welfare of others is a concern which is properly directed towards living in nature.  Concern for their "immortal souls" is a concern with the supernatural.  Perhaps that's why we've always been less concerned with the lives of others than we purport to be or than we say we should be. 

It isn't surprising that those who refuse to cherish nature believing it to be secondary and who maintain that we're apart from nature rather than a part of it should be supremely selfish, because the world and all that is in it is essentially not their concern.  It cannot be, not "really."  We suffer from a disregard of the universe though we barely comprehend it.  Our belief in transcendence dooms us to disconnection with the world and others.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Of Cupidity and Stupidity

The quote above is from one of Shakespeare's lesser-known (to me, at least) plays, Troilus and Cressida, and is brought to mind by...what should it be called?  A tsunami, an avalanche?  In any case, the continuous claims of sexual harassment being made on what seems a daily basis here in our Great Republic against quite a few people, that is to say, against various men, by both men and women.

It seems rather remarkable even to me; a lawyer and therefore someone accustomed to and perhaps even dependent on wrongdoing of one kind or another (by others, of course).  But even those of us who thrive on the misdeeds of humanity must admit to surprise at what seems to be a unique moment in tawdry history.

The law of sexual harassment has been around for quite some time, in the U.S. at least.  It's something I've known of professionally and have had cause in my practice to become to be acquainted with, now and then, over the past several decades.  One would think that employers and employees, in particular, would be aware of it and fear its application given the litigation and claims through state and federal administrative agencies which have taken place and the stern warnings lawyers and human resources types have issued for many years now.

So in one sense I find it puzzling that sexual misconduct of this kind is so apparently widespread.  How can anyone be so blithely unconcerned by it?  How can so many men indulge in it, that is to say, without fear of the consequences?

I also find it puzzling that there are those who feel that sexual harassment is, at least in some cases, something which shouldn't be of great concern, or can be excused as "boys being boys" or harmless play.  The law is the law.  It doesn't matter whether one agrees or disagrees with it, or whether it's thought of as too much or too little.  It's foolish to be anything but prudent and so to respect it even if one doesn't respect those it's intended to protect.

But fools we tend to be, particularly where sex is concerned.  I think that any more than casual observer of human conduct must acknowledge that lust, lechery, sexual desire--whatever it should be called--can render us extremely stupid.  I think that particularly in the case of men it makes great, gaping idiots of us all unless we take steps to control our own desire.  And, it's such a completely selfish, narrow and powerful desire or impulse that the consequences to ourselves and others are disregarded.

This isn't to justify sexual harassment let alone explain it, but to recognize that the urge behind it is there almost always and must be restrained.  If it isn't, we do stupid, harmful, cruel, immoral things and should pay for it in one way or another.

Add to this the understandable concern victims have that making claims of sexual harassment will subject them to shame and ridicule and even have financial consequences if the perpetrator is powerful and influential, and it isn't so surprising that it goes unchecked in too many cases.  It seems that could be changing, though.

Unfortunately, as Shakespeare or his character noted, lechery like war is always in fashion among us, and tolerated by us.  It must remain to be seen whether sexual harassment will diminish as a result of the rising intolerance towards it or whether our remarkable lack of sense and control in this area will continue.  I think it's a good sign that even those who have previously been given a pass, most ignominiously, in this area (yes, that former president for example) are being recognized and condemned as predators.

Given those accused, though, I wonder if older men are particularly prone to this behavior.  Do older men act in this fashion because they know their failing looks and powers make it less and less likely anyone will want to have sex with them?  It's been well said that there's no fool like an old fool.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Sancta Mater Ecclesia

Holy Mother Church, or Sancta Mater Ecclesia in Latin.  The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, just as it's said, also in Latin, in the interesting picture above.  Or, according to the inscription at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, built at the order of the Emperor Constantine and dedicated in 324 C.E. by Pope Sylvester I, omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput, the mother and head of all the churches in the city and the world.

Old Mother Church, in truth.  Quite old, really, as age is measured in human history.  As I've posted before, I have a sentimental fondness for it as it was at one time, during my youth.  It gave a certain joy to my youth, as we as altar boys said its God did as we went to God's altar, or if not joy a kind of distinction. 

It's curious how we refer to institutions, particularly those we look back upon in fondness, as "mother."  We call our old schools Alma Mater.  I suppose we can call Mother Church the same, as it can be said to have nourished us Catholics for a time.  But nourished us in what exactly?

It must be admitted that one thing Mother Church encouraged, probably throughout its long history, is reason, or more particularly reasoning, as it was developed before the Church came to exist.  That may seem an odd thing to say, given that the beliefs of Catholicism, taken literally, seem unreasonable.  That's likely why they often are not taken literally, particularly by those believers who reason or employ reason in its defense.

Regardless, though, I think it fair to say that the Church has always honored reason and reasoning.  The Church Fathers employed reasoning in condemning the pagans.  Tertullian, a lawyer, knew reasoning in the form of rhetoric at least.  That was a lawyer's tool, particularly in those times.  The Church Fathers, like Augustine, knew their philosophy (pagan, of course) well, and were educated in the manner in which ancient pagans were educated and had been for centuries.  The great pagan philosophers didn't take pagan religion literally, either.  Why should Christian philosophers?

So, I think the early Church soon abandoned the position seemingly taken by Paul, rejecting the "wisdom of the wise."  Instead, it accepted it; assimilated it, in fact, and made it serve the purposes of the Church.

I think its also fair to say that the Church has always honored culture, education, history.  It kept the wisdom of the ancients alive, through the work of its monks, even if they functioned as mere scriveners, patiently copying the great works of the past.  As a result it fostered great thinkers even during what are called the Dark Ages; Abelard, Duns Scotus, Aquinas, Bonaventure, William of Ockham; it's an impressive list.  It borrowed from the heathen as needed in order to do so, and so rediscovered Aristotle via learned Moslems.  Aristotle so impressed churchmen he was called "The Philosopher."  Thomas Aquinas famously modified Aristotelian thought so as to make it the foundation of Catholic philosophy--known as Thomism.  It still has its adherents today.

For these services Mother Church deserves honor.  I wonder, though, if in inculcating its sons and daughters with a love or reasoning, culture, history and education Old Mother Church gave her children the learning needed to lead them to think her cupboard of reason was, ultimately, bare, as that of Old Mother Hubbard was bare of nourishment.

Learning can be dangerous to a religion, especially when learning involves fostering the capacity to reason, to think logically, to ask questions.  Eventually, those questions address the fundamental premises of Catholicism and Christianity, e.g. the divinity of Jesus, Original Sin, Heaven and Hell, the Trinity, the redeeming character of the sacraments, transubstantiation.  What could be their justification?  How can they be justified, in modern times?  How could Jesus be both God and man?  What sense does the seemingly endless list of sins, so specific to human beings, and a belief in a God-man, make given the vastness of the universe and given that our world is such a tiny, tiny part of it?

To someone trained to reason, recourse to revelation and faith is unpersuasive.  It's a kind of resignation.

Mother Church certainly has managed to survive for centuries, so perhaps it hasn't arranged its own destruction after all.  Perhaps it hasn't undermined the fundamental beliefs which make it distinctive.  But it seems to me that it does, necessarily.  And so a choice must be made, to be Catholic by disregarding reason or accepting that fundamental beliefs or premises are not to be "taken literally."  But that, it seems to me, is to accept a Catholicism, a Christianity, which has lost all which makes it distinctive.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Some Thoughts on Modern Paganism

The word "pagan" is derived from the Latin paganus, which was used to refer to someone from the countryside, someone rustic, unsophisticated, unlearned; something of a bumpkin, I suppose.  As Christianity came to take hold in the Roman Empire, it began to be used, by Christians, as a term of disapproval or contempt, referring to those who were not Christians.  This may make a certain kind of sense, as those who recognized the old gods came to avoid urban areas which Christians came to control or where Christian intolerance was prevalent (except, perhaps, Rome itself, where the aristocratic old families remained stubbornly attached to the older religion).  The old beliefs and rituals survived in the countryside, it's said, for centuries after the advent of Christianity.  They may survive even now, in modified, Christianized form.

Halloween may be considered a particularly pagan time of year.  By Christians, that is.  I'm not sure, myself, just how pagan it may be.  I suppose Christians think it pagan because they associate it with Satan and his minions, and Christians have long thought pagan gods to be demons of one sort or another.  But Satan himself isn't much of a figure in traditional paganism.  There is no Satan among the Greco-Roman pantheon, for example; no Satanic figure at all, really, except physically in the form of Pan.  Pan, though, is otherwise not very Satan-like.  The Devil seems to be a peculiar fixture of the Abrahamic religions.

What's referred to as Modern Paganism, or Neo-Paganism, seems to be groups of people who for various reasons practice what they think to be ancient pagan rituals and hold what they think to be ancient pagan beliefs.  It's claimed that it's growing.  Some modern pagans are adherents of Wicca, a kind of witchcraft revival hatched in the mind of a retired British civil servant in 1954.  Some follow the Norse gods, or certain of them.  Some think of themselves as Druids.  Some are followers of a goddess or the goddess, and are convinced that such worship is in effect the original religion, when society was, it's claimed, matriarchal long before the advent of the sky gods.

Some hold various beliefs which involve nature-worship, theistic, polytheistic or pantheistic.  Some may be considered Deists.  Modern Paganism has been around for some time, I believe, and is in some respects a phenomenon of the late 19th-early 20th century when many became interested in occultism or spiritualism, or became enthralled with ancient Egyptian religion after the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen, when Madame Blavatsky and others sought to resurrect Hermeticism or something else which could be said to have a pagan pedigree.

It would seem that Christianity, though otherwise remarkably successful in quashing paganism for centuries, hasn't managed to destroy it utterly.  Nor has its efforts to assimilate it been entirely successful.  It retains its magic.  This shouldn't be unexpected, as it existed and flourished for thousands of years.

I doubt, though, that the pagans of our times live, or think, or believe as did the pagans of the ancient past.  It simply isn't likely that they could after all that's happened.  The picture at the beginning of this post is of a relief showing Marcus Aurelius making sacrifice.  Animal sacrifice was essential in Greco-Roman paganism, performed in complicated rituals.  Livers of animals were perused by haruspices in ancient Rome, a form of divination the Romans learned from the Etruscans.  Who today could honestly ascribe to such ceremonies the significance they were accorded by the ancients?  Who, indeed, could perform them?

Who knows what the Druids did, really, or what they believed?  Our sources of information about them are Roman and so unlikely to be sympathetic or entirely accurate.  How many moderns believe, sincerely, in witchcraft?  How many while joining hands and chanting at Stonehenge or some other ancient site can really claim to be believers of the kind who did the same, if indeed they did the same, so long ago?  None of them knew or had experienced what we know and experience now.  Given that knowledge and experience, would they believe now as they did then?  How could they?

There's no reason (unless we accept the view that they were deceived by demons) to think ancient pagans were not sincerely pious, and it must be assumed the beliefs of many of them were fervent.  But that piety can no longer be shared, or even imagined.

I suspect there's a great deal of Romanticism involved in the efforts to recreate paganism, as well as what may be a longing which cannot be satisfied now by Christianity as an institutional religion.  But we fool ourselves if we believe we can be what pagans were.  They were different from us in matters of faith, in mystic belief, in ways too profound for them to live again in us, or for their beliefs to be shared by those living now.