Archives for: March 2013
Emperor's Old Clothes
If I ever end up at a job interview for an emperor, it will be an unmitigated disaster for I have absolutely no qualifications for the position. My royal lineage is spotty on a good day, I have no appreciation for opulent feasts and there are about 50 things I enjoy doing more than bossing people around. Oh, and I also have don't have much predilection for new clothes which - as far as I remember my fairy tales - is a total must for an aspiring monarch.
See, to me new clothes are like a straight jacket. They restrict your freedoms. Especially if you are a nature person.
I first noticed this as a kid. Any time I was hustled into new clothes my range of possibilities dwindled appreciably. I could not sweep the old concrete tubes lying by the roadside, I could not follow a creek into a tight underpass, I could not join a soccer match in progress, I could not sit down on a tree stump or a mossy boulder and contemplate the enthralling strangeness of this planet. Under the watchful eyes of my Mom, I was slowly becoming a prisoner of the textile industry.
Over the years I had to concede that new clothes do open certain doors, especially in business, but if I have a choice, I still feel much more comfortable in well worn, baggy, even slightly patched rags, preferably with colorful wash-cycle resistant stains from old escapades, delicious wild berries or chemical experiments.
It is not like I enjoy being dirty. It is more about the potential the old clothes bestow upon my world trajectory. If an opportunity presents itself I know I can pursue it to the full extent of my desires, without worrying that I will tear a sleeve or smudge my trouser leg. Sure, looking spiffy is cool, but the sense of freedom associated with adventure ready apparel can be outright intoxicating. That knowledge that should a fox whisk by I could dart right after it into the underbrush is what elevates me to a higher form of existence. Being a supreme emperor of my own destiny. And in that capacity, old clothes are the recommended formal attire for governing. And occasional mischief, too.
No disrespect to new clothes, but all you can really do in them is stand stiff like an ironing board and enunciate capaciously: "How do you do, Lady Harrington?"
The History of Early Church
The pope has resigned. Just like that.
When you witness something that last happened in 1415, historical reflections elbow their way into the forefront of your mind. And rightly so. There really are only a few social phenomena more fascinating than the continuing story of Christianity - the fortunes and misfortunes of the religion that has become a major force in the development of the Western civilization. Whether you believe in it or not, the world as we know it would have been very different without it.
Not so long ago I was browsing around You Tube and found a three hour documentary titled "Christianity, the First Thousand Years" - a riveting account of travails and growing pains of the early church and communities associated with it. Watching it was like making a trip to the springs of the Amazon river, exploring the little creeks and rivulets winding their way through jungles of human evolution, and yet knowing all too well what potent water giant they'd become 2,000 miles down the road.
Since that time I spoke with a couple of Christians and was surprised how little they actually knew about the origins of their own church. Most of them expressed the conventional belief that the history of Christianity had been a smooth and linear progression - a collection of small streams that grew effortlessly and steadily and eventually culminated in the robust hierarchy of the Catholic Church, placing monasteries, abbeys, cathedrals and other houses of worship at the feet of humanity. A development guided along by the almighty hand of divine inspiration, eloquently encoded and chronicled in the good book. In other words, their view of history resembles a retouched technicolor infomercial devoid of any signs of usual human fumblings.
For them, the movie is quite an eye opener. All three hours of it: from daily fights for the sheer survival of the new creed to subtle power struggles of an incipient player on the political scene. You get to understand the significance of rituals and sacred dates borrowed from old religions to facilitate the transition to the new belief. You get to appreciate the edge given to it by its emphasis on eternal life and social values. You get to watch its tentative maneuvering through the pantheon of contemporary gods as it searched for a place of its own. You get to admire its efforts to define itself against the backdrop of existing beliefs, especially against Judaism, from which it expanded. Never mind that at times it lead to such extremes as Marcionism which effectively proclaimed the difference of their respective Gods. And you also get to ponder how the growing church dealt with the problems of scale and how it tried to streamline and unify answers to some very basic questions lest it should fragment itself into non-existence, a multi-decade endeavor that came to a head at the Council of Nicea (325 AD). In other words, you get to marvel at the slowly rotating carousel of living history.
Another fascinating aspect which the movie touches upon is the composition and development of its canonical texts. Most of us might simply assume that the Bible as we know it was just handed down to us by higher authority. But the politics behind the holy scripture is as fascinating and intricate as the text itself. At first each congregation maintained sacred texts on their own. However, as the flourishing church tried to cope with the increasingly confusing spiritual legacy, a need to organize and consolidate their written heritage naturally arose. Soon after the Nicean council, today's Bible gradually emerged from numerous meetings of church's elders, from a mixture of literary hand-me-downs and - yes - from behind the scenes politicking. Considering how much was at stake in controlling the final message, it is not too surprising that many records fell through the cracks. Recent archaeological discoveries offer but a fleeting taste of what was left behind: the Gospel of Thomas - full of Jesus' recorded sayings, the Gospel of Judas - portraying its protagonist in a light much more favorable than other narratives, the Gospel of Philip - best known for its portrayal of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Mary - advocating more active role for women, or the Gospel of Peter - firmly rejected for its insinuations of docetism. The number of gnostic or apocryphal texts not only shows that there was no shortage of written testimonials to choose from, but their mind boggling variety also illuminates what the forefathers of the church deemed undesirable and harmful to its chance of success.
Needless to say, the movie could not skirt one of the most profound events in the successful campaign of the young faith - the battle of the Milvian Bridge - a truly turning point for the heretofore distressed church. In this episode of endless Roman battles for the imperial throne, Constantine and Maxentius fought over the route across the Tiber river. What made this one distinct was the fact that Constantine, allegedly inspired by divine vision, daubed the shields of his warriors with the Chi-Rho sign (Greek letters signifying Christos) and went on to win the battle. Whether this act actually brought about the victory is hard to say. What we can say is that for Christians it meant the end of prosecution, the beginning of religious tolerance (Edict of Milan) and after a few decades even promotion, encouragement and at the end the status of the official church. Flying on the wings of the sprawling Roman Empire, Christianity took off and never looked back.
The movie presents one more angle of looking at this event though. What if it wasn't the church that benefited from Constantine's conversion. What if it was the Emperor who used the wide spread appeal of Christianity as a glue to try and unite the crumbling empire. You be the judge.
Of course if you search YouTube a bit deeper you find many other intriguing links to follow. From Nicolas Notovich and his assertion that Christ was strongly associated with the already established buddhism and influenced by it to the extra-terrestrial connections in the vein of Erich von Daniken. One way or another, these tangential contributions further accentuate the prominent role of spiritual quest and search for higher forms of being in our life. But you don't have to venture that far into the video labyrinth. The History of the Church as presented by the movie is interesting enough. It shows that even divinely inspired action follows the same general dynamics as other social movements. They reveal the same anatomy of power. By understanding how this originally small and obscure sect survived 2,000 years and how it snowballed into a major religion, we can get useful clues about our present condition.
Truth or Consequences
When you drive from Albuquerque to Las Cruces in New Mexico, you will probably get a good chuckle when passing by the town of Truth or Consequences. Who on Earth - or any other planet for that matter - would name their town like that? But the reality is relatively prosaic. The place is named after a radio show from the 1950s whose host promised to broadcast it from the first town that would adopt the its name.
But I like this unusual name because it reflects one of the fundamental dilemmas of this world. Every now and then, we face a problem and in order to resolve it we have to choose between dealing with it directly (the truth) or postponing it until it grows into a full blown crisis that will enforce the resolution through its own cascade of uncontrollable events (the consequences). On the surface, understanding the roots of our plight (the truth) seems preferable, but untangling their snarled structure often engenders identifying culprits, which in turn invites conflict - and that is something most people are trying to avoid. For this reason, many of us let the problems fester until the consequences set off a cathartic waterfall of actions. Perhaps, there is a primordial belief in deus ex machina involved in this calculation. The drawback of this approach is that consequences can be unpredictable and eventually much more devastating that facing the truth early on. It's like worn brake pads. You can choose the truth and deal with them early (replacing them) or you can wait until some kind of consequences materialize themselves - which they often do as you speed down a steep grade road while sandwiched between two semis.
For couple of decades the western world has lived above its productive means and our time for choosing the truth or the consequences has arrived. What cannot be sustained for ever, won't be. So what shall we do? Going for the truth could be a tricky business as there were many beneficiaries of the ocean of liquidity that our financial bubbles created. Direct or indirect. Names would be named, profiteers singled out, clawbacks demanded. That would involve investigations and some pretty hard judgments about who did what and who didn't, who profited and who was shortchanged, whose wealth has been justified by hard work and talent, and whose has merely been a chance reflection of the associated game of smoke and mirrors. Separating these would be next to impossible. Not to mention that we'd also need to admit that much of our past wealth, and by extension much of our lifestyle, were illusive and a fair reset mechanism would have to be found. And that's a tall order. So for now we have been papering over the widest rifts and wondering whether the coming consequences would have the form of an avalanche or a tsunami.
To make this Gordian knot even knottier, the strength of recent economic turbulence has blurred the lines between causes and consequences. If the experts cannot agree on the flowchart of the problem, what chances do unwashed masses have? Consider this. One pearl of wisdom I keep running across in the comment sections of economic blogs is: "The current predicament of Greece/Portugal/Spain/Italy shows that austerity does not work". This statement always makes me scratch my head a little bit: what!? That is like saying that hangover shows that we should never have stopped drinking. Austerity is the consequence, having lived beyond our means for several decades is the problem. It's not like we are choosing austerity because it is cool. Just like we are not choosing to have a hangover. But most adults understand that when you do something silly, the way out will involve unpleasant things.
But I guess the main reason we get so easily confused is that consequences have a nasty habit of showing up at our doorstep uninvited and wearing patched camo uniforms. For a good example take a look at the Italian politics. After suffocating on the European fiscal periphery for a couple of years, supported only by a weak technocratic government, the Italian voters finally opened their door and guess who showed up for the party? An unlikely triumvirate of a comedian, a communist and a convicted corruptioneer. How is that for funny consequences? And I am not even peeking into their political programmes. That would be a real fiesta of camouflage. See the Achilles heal of democracy is that in general it rewards pleasers, rather than leaders. And bad things supervene.
That is why choosing the truth - however painful - is mostly the way to go. Being proactive rather than reactive - even if it entails an occasional conflict. For the resulting consequences are rarely the kind that you could bring home to Mom.