Network Binding and the Course of Human History

United-Methodist-Communion

A United Methodist elder participating in the Rite of Communion. (Photo: Courtesy of Rev. Dr. Gregory Neal.)

The naysayers among us may be right: We Homo sapiens may indeed be on the verge of destroying our planet and ourselves over the long run, but we remain singular creatures, at least, in one sense.

Unlike every previous hominin species, we have managed to settle every region of the globe and even to master an array of radically different geographies and climates.

And why is that?  What special trait do we hold over our hominin cousins?  I would argue it is because we exist within what I’ve come to call a Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton — essentially, a network of culture, language, religious beliefs and technology that, among other things, not only provides us with a large measure of physical comfort and even psychological succor but also functions as a kind of second cerebral cortex.

Our Unique Exoskeleton

Previous hominin species very likely developed their own exoskeletons, though nothing that compares to what our forebears achieved.

One could describe this as exoskeleton in many ways.  It functions as a kind of intangible amniotic fluid, because, in a manner of speaking, we, like a human fetus, are not only encased in it but also depend on it for our survival.  It could also be regarded as a kind of cultural womb in which all of the elements are intricately joined.

These analogies could be extended considerably further, but I am assuming that by now you, the reader, have acquired at least a serviceable knowledge of the concept.

It’s also important to understand that our network — our exoskeleton — undergoes constant change. Imagine standing on a foundation of bricks that are constantly being swapped out or replaced entirely.

The elements comprising our exoskeleton are undergoing similar change — constant repositioning and replacement.  And shouldn’t that be expected of a networked in which all of the disparate parts are so closely connected?  Here’s another way of expressing it: All the elements of our exoskeleton are bound in a network and are contingent on the binding of other elements.

Over the course of time, as the constant shifting and replacement ensues through this network, significant change follows.

Sometimes this change can be relatively rapid and extremely disruptive.   And this applies to all facets of the exoskeleton, whether it happens to be culture, religion, politics or technology.

Luther’s Epiphany

I was reminded of this fact recently reading Fatal Discourse: Erasmus,  Luther and the Fight for the Western Mind by Michael Massing.  As the title implies, the book explores the feud that eventually engendered between Martin Luther and moderate reformer Desiderius Erasmus.

As Massing relates in the book, Luther’s theological epiphany regarding his relationship with God significantly affected the manner in which the elements of the Christian faith are bound together, at least, within many of the sundry variations of contemporary Protestantism.

One of the more remarkable examples of how this binding was drastically altered is reflected in Protestant eucharistic traditions.   The Eucharist continues to carry immense significance within the Catholic faith, though significantly less within its Protestant counterparts.

One could make the strong case that Luther’s theological epiphany was almost entirely responsible for this dramatic shift in network binding.   And this is not surprising, considering that Luther’s theological epiphany centered around the nature of his relationship with God.

This represented a drastic alteration of previous thinking.  Luther had been raised and educated in an ecclesiastical system that regarded the church as the primary means through which one achieved and sustained salvation.  And this was secured through a series of sacraments that not only included the Eucharist.

Luther challenged this through his new view of grace, namely grace received from God through faith in the atoning power of Jesus Christ.  Little did he know, initially, at least, that this new doctrine ultimately would work as a solvent of many longstanding Christian practices.

Luther’s doctrine of grace also worked to drive a stake in the heart of indulgencies, which has stoked much of the anger that culminated in the Reformation.   Even more significant, the newfound emphasis on sola fideism (the doctrine of faith alone) resulted in the Eucharist no longer being viewed among many Protestants as an end in itself, which, of course, is the nature of a sacrament, but merely as a means of enhancing the individual believer’s understanding of the role of faith as the basis of Salvation.

This sweeping doctrinal innovation was expressed in many ways.  In a relatively short time, Protestant church architecture began to reflect this new doctrinal emphasis.   The pulpit, a symbol of the preaching of the Gospel, replaced the Communion table as the focal point in many Protestant churches.

Other traditional Catholic sacraments were downgraded or eliminated altogether.  Within the more radical Protestant churches, Communion ceased being treated as a sacrament at all and regarded instead as an ordinance. Indeed, some radical Protestant traditions rejected the Real Presence doctrine altogether, viewing Communion simply as a visual means of memorializing Jesus’ atoning sacrifice.

Luther, ironically, strove to maintain a higher standard for the Eucharist, holding to a slightly revised doctrine of the Real Presence known a consubstantiation, which holds that that the flesh and blood of Christ existed alongside the consecrated bread and wine.

The Ebionite View of the Common Meal

Ironically, Luther’s intransigence regarding his modified Eucharistic doctrine resulted in the sundering of Protestant unity, one that took centuries to heal.  And it must be stressed that the Protestant Reformation was not the first time that the Christian Common Meal underwent a significant shift in network binding.

Some 1,500 years earlier, the Ebionite followers of Jesus regarded the last supper of the Messiah not as a sacramental meal at all but rather as messianic banquet signifying the post-apocalyptic meal that would occur within the future kingdom of God.

Scholar James Tabor, who specializes in early Christian origins, cites a passage in Luke that occurs immediately before a verse that portrays the meal in classic Pauline terms.

“And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.  For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” (Luke 22:19-21)

However, the other significant branch of Christianity, led by Paul, viewed the last meal in an entirely different light, borrowing significantly from predominantly Greek thinking predominant in the eastern half of the Mediterranean Basin, where the bulk of Paul’s ministry was conducted.

Paul asks in Corinthians, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?  The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16).

Tabor also contends that this Pauline interpretation of the last meal is an expression of theophagy, “eating the body of one’s god,” a practice derived from Greek rather than from Judaic religious traditions.  He cites a Greek account written approximately during Paul’s time about a spell involving the consumption of a ritually consecrated cup of wine representing the blood of Osiris.  Consuming this consecrated wine purportedly enabled one to participate in the spiritual power of the love Osiris held for his consort, Isis.

Why have I gone to the trouble to embark on this long and rather tedious exploration of Eucharistic history?  First, to underscore that all facets of our human exoskeleton undergo incremental change as ideas and practice “meet, mate and morph” with other ideas and practices.  Consequently, the network binding that characterizes our exoskeleton undergoes constant change, though, in most case, these changes occur slowly, painstakingly slowly, in most cases.

But there are periods of disruption, when shifts in network binding occurs comparatively rapidly.  Luther’s crisis of faith is an example of one such disruptive event, causing a radical shift in the network binding of the Christian faith’s sacramental structure.

And Luther never could have anticipated just how disruptive this shift would be.

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Posted in Jim Langcuster, Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton, Religion, Religion and Culture, Religious Faith | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Toward a New Religious and Secular Fusionism

Yonada

The High Priestess of Yonada confronts the Oracle in the Star Trek Original episode “The World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky.” (Photo: Courtesy of Paramount.)

I often tell friends that everything I learned about life I learned from Star Trek — the Star Trek original series, that is to say — and I say that only half jokingly.

My exposure to that series when it was in syndication in the 1970’s challenged my world view in many respects. Aside from my World Book Encyclopedia library, which was the late-Baby Boomer’s precursor to the Internet, there really wasn’t much intellectual stimulation available to teenager, especially in small-town northwest Alabama in the late 1970’s

One of the Star Trek Original episodes that has especially stuck with me over the years was “The World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.”

I’ve wondered a time or two how that rather irreligious episode got past the standards department at NBC in the late 1960’s.  As memory serves, I viewed that episode for the first time on a Sunday Morning waiting to leave for church with my parents.  Talk about a study in cognitive dissonance! I even remember my father, a closeted agnostic who grudgingly went along with Mother’s avid religious enthusiasm, furtively listening in, and, at one point, peering into our den and observing, “Gee, that’s a bit sacrilegious!”

A Spaceship Designed as An Asteroid

The episode centers around an extraterrestrial humanoid species that inhabits a computer-guided spaceship disguised as an asteroid. The ship, known by its inhabitants as Yonada, was designed and launched into space by a long-extinct species known as the Fabrini, whose solar system faced imminent destruction by a supernova.  The Yonadans, encased in a spaceship disguised an asteroid, were bound for a new world that the Fabrini had deemed suitable for colonization.

To ensure social cohesion across the long, multigenerational voyage, the Fabrini, invented a religion  — a rather wrathful Old Testament-style relgion, I should add — governed by highly sophisticated computer dressed up as an oracle, which communicated with the people via a high priestess.  The religion also encompassed a book of sacred scripture known as “The Book of the People,” the mysteries of which would be revealed upon arrival in the new world.  Finally, apparently as an extra guarantee against dissent thought and social fraying, each inhabitant was injected with a subcutaneous device known as an “instrument of obedience,” which inflicted intense pain on anyone impudent enough to engage in heretical speech.

The Plan Goes Awry

As it turns out, despite all of the Fabrini’s meticulous planning, the ship’s onboard computer developed a glitch deep into the voyage that not only threw Yonada  off its trajectory but also placed it on a collision course with Daran V, an inhabited planet Federation planet.

Alerted to this threat, members of the Enterprise crew — Captain Kirk, Commander Spock and Dr. McCoy — intervene.  Despite a couple of violent run-ins with the oracle, they manage to adjust the computer to avoid a planetary collusion and to place the ship back on its predetermined course.  But in the course of outwitting the oracle, they have to reveal the secrets of the Fabrini to Natiri, the high priestess.

Natiri, however unwittingly, is forced to embrace the truth about the origins of her faith. She learns that her faith is not so mystical or enchanted at all.  It was invented — improvised — by mortals just like her. She is presented with the challenge of imparting moral precepts to her people in a new light, fusing the teachings of the ancient faith with the new and rather jarring discovery that this faith was contrived — conceived by her forebears to ensure that a tiny remnant of their civilization would carry on in spite of the Extinction Level Event that awaited them.

In a very real sense, the Frabrini conceived and designed for their descendants a version of what I’ve come to call the Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton, which I’ve explored in some of my previous writings. They not only designed a spaceship but also an intangible protective covering for the Yonadans — a womb, of sorts — comprised of language, culture, law, technology and, most important of all, religion, to ensure that they reached their final destination safely.

The Value of Science Fiction

“The World is Hollow…” and many similar works are among the many reasons why I value science fiction so much.  As I’ve argued before, science fiction is more than mythology:  It functions as a sort of improvised add-on to religion to help us contend with challenges for which many, if not most, forms of conventional faith traditions simply are ill-equipped. And in a very real sense, the challenge presented to this fictitious high priestess, Natiri, closely parallels what is transpiring on Earth today in the 21st century, particularly in the increasingly secularized, religiously disenchanted West.

Like the Yonadans, we live out our lives within our own vulnerable ecosystem — Planet Earth.  It’s not a hollow ball like Yonada, though we are encased, in a manner of speaking, shielded from the frigid vacuum of space only by a thin and rather fragile layer of atmosphere.  Moreover, like the Yonadans, we depend solely on resources available within this fragile ecosystem to sustain us.

Also, like the mythical Yonadans, the resources we depend on to survive not only include food and water but also an intangible protective shroud — the ideals, practices and technologies our forebears have improvised over eons to enhance our chances for survival in a hostile natural world — the human exoskeleton.

Our Own Earthly Confrontation with Reality

And, finally, we, like the Yonadans, have been confronted with our own brush with facts, though, unlike the Yonadans, we’ve not encountered this reality all at once.  After some two centuries worth of advances in all manner of knowledge, particularly the insights we have garnered from textual analysis of sacred scripture and new insights into the evolutionary origins of our species and of the cosmos, we have been presented with a reality that many of us still regard as exceedingly painful, if not unbearable: the mundane origins of our religious traditions.

We have been presented with the reality that our forebears invented religion not only to provide themselves with a measure of social cohesion but also to secure a sense of meaning and purpose in a hostile environment.

To be sure, these precepts and beliefs were not invented from scratch.  They were not planned and designed by some ancient race like the Frabrini and handed down in toto to future generations.

Religious precepts and beliefs were improvised by human beings in response to all manner of necessity and laid down in imperceptibly thin layers across eons.  Indeed, our forebears had no multigenerational master plan in mind.  They had no inkling of the shape their religions ultimately would take. For example, some 3,500 years ago, none of the Jewish intellectuals and scribes who conceived Jewish monotheism in Babylon following the defeat and dispossession of their civilization could have imagined that an offshoot of their faith would be practiced many centuries later by Gentiles in structures known as praise centers scattered across the sprawling plains of a yet to be discovered continent.

It’s also now apparent that quite a few religious mystics, including Jesus, were preparing for an anticipated religious apocalypse.  They carried on their worldly ministrations assured that the world as they knew it would end shortly. They weren’t concerned with building an intricate, enduring system of religious dogma but rather on saving their people from a cosmic upheaval they regarded as imminent.

Like the Fabrini of Star Trek fame, the founders of our ancient religious faith traditions were mortal human beings, traveling through space on a vulnerable ball of mud, and, though they weren’t aware of it at the time, struggling to eke out a sense of purpose and meaning out of and existence that often seemed random and meaningless.

A Heavy Psychological Burden

Yet, this discovery — this demystification of faith— has imposed a heavy psychological burden on countless millions of us.  To be sure, the philosophical and scientific insights that we have gained within the last few hundred years have carried us a long way, certainly in material terms.  But they have also worked to fracture society — to impose a sense of disenchantment, normlessness and even a sense of nihilism among many of us.

Many among our intellectual elites are inclined to discount religion for the simple reason that much of it was invented by pre-Enlightenment, often illiterate or, at best, semi-literate peasants whose experiences with the transcendence became permanent facets of faith only because they were shared with others and somehow were regarded as compelling enough to gain traction and to be recorded.

religious-meme

One of many memes circulating on social media that deride the primitive origins of conventional religion.

I am reminded of a popular social media meme that derides conventional religion as merely primitive superstitions invented by people who didn’t know where the sun went at night.

There is certainly an element of truth to that, but the advancement of knowledge over the past few hundred years has also revealed another vital truth: that religious faith provided the moral scaffolding upon which human beings, particular Westerners, succeeded in constructing the modern secular foundations on which science, technology and liberal democracy were built.

The religious faith traditions that many of our intellectual elites deride today as pre-literate and unenlightened provided much of the deep, richly nuanced moral scaffolding for the far-flung, highly specialized and technological society that prevails today.  And we are in greater need today of well-defined, richly nuanced morality for the simple reason that society is so far-flung and complex.

In very real sense, we are presented with the challenge of the Yonadan high priestess.  We must find a way toward what I’ve come to call a new fusion.  We must find a way not only to reaffirm the value ancient religious teachings but to fuse these teachings with the deep insights that we have garnered from advances in science and technology within the last few centuries.   We must understand that both religious faith and the advancement of knowledge were indispensable in carrying our species out of the dark mists of ignorance into the broad uplands of discovery, deep insight and self-mastery.

To express it another way, we must find a way to bridge the vast distance between Athens and Jerusalem.

Posted in Jim Langcuster, Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton, Religion and Science, science fiction | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Embedded God: A Personal Theology

Introduction

conch3

I typically use a shell to symbolize what I call the Non-corporeal Human Exoskeleton (Photo: Courtesy of BrianO918.)

I watched an interview recently with former Gemini and Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell, one of history’s most celebrated and gifted aviators and explorers — a truly singular man.   I am struck by how all those hours logged in space — and, incidentally, in spacecraft not much larger than phone booths — shaped his views of transcendence and humanity’s place in it.

Lovell was one the three intrepid Apollo 8 crewmen who undertook humanity’s first translunar voyage in December, 1968.  As the commander of the Apollo 13 mission, which followed in 1970, he played an instrumental role in guiding the damaged Command Module safely home, not only saving the crew but also safeguarding the long-term prospects of U.S. manned space missions.

But Lovell is also remembered for the thoughtful impressions he brought back from his lunar voyages.  His fellow Apollo 8 crew member, Bill Anders, used his onboard camera to the capture the famous Earthrise picture, the first image of Earth from deep space.  This image, which thereafter became indelibly embedded in human memory, also made a searing impression on Lovell.

His realization of earth as a fragile ball of mud, a vulnerable ecosystem suspended in space, prompted some extended thinking about humanity, our planet and our place in the universe.

In time, Lovell, turned the conventional religious narrative upside down, and his spirituality took on a this-worldly form.  He gained a deeper appreciation for our planet’s stark singularity.  After all, Earth not only possesses the right amount of mass and gravity to contain water and an atmosphere, but also, due to its distance from the sun, is exposed to just the right amount of warmth to facilitate the evolution of life on Earth.  And aside from all of this good fortune, we are born into a socially evolved human existence that, conceivably, at least, affords opportunities for all manner of contentment, personal growth and self-actualization, certainly if one is fortunate to be born in one of the world’s developed countries.  That’s undoubtedly what Lovell means when he argues that being born on Planet Earth effectively amounts to going to Heaven.

New Ways of Thinking

Yet, this remarkable existence is finite. We are transient beings whose life on this tiny, vulnerable ball of mud affords us the potential for a deep well of pleasant experiences and opportunities, but eventually and inevitably our lives run their course.  And as Lovell stresses, it’s essential that we humans not only understood this finitude but also embrace it, living our lives consciously and deliberately, knowing that our genetics have allocated us only limited time in this singular place.

Of course, Lovell is not alone in his views.  He is expressing a spirituality, if one chooses to call it such, held by growing numbers of well-educated people across the planet — not surprising, considering the long distance humanity has traveled in scientific and technological terms within the past 200 years.  We’ve achieved great leaps in our understanding of our universe, the evolution of live on earth, and even the origins of sacred scripture.   Given what has been revealed, is it really that surprising that millions of humans have deviated from the religious dogmas improvised over centuries to account for the origins of the cosmos, our world, and our species’ place in it?

I’m one of those people who have deviated significantly from the views I acquired growing up.  Indeed, my views roughly conform to those of Lovell.  I’m a nontheistic — a culturally Christian nontheist, to be a bit more exact — whose thinking has been inspired by several nontheistic religious philosophers, notably Don Cupitt and Lloyd Geering.

After sampling their writings and those of a few others, I’ve reached the conclusion that God represents a kind of congealment of thought and conviction that has unfolded over eons, the result of centuries of struggling with and thinking about transcendence — all those things that we humans perceive as lying beyond our perception and intellectual grasp and that cannot be fully articulated.

All this thinking about what we call God is the culmination of many different factors: our genetic heritage, the subsequent development of language and writing, and our early struggles with nature.

In recent centuries, this ongoing narrative of God has also been shaped by our struggles to come to terms with the implications of the increasingly sophisticated technologies that we have developed over the course of time not only to cope with the demands of nature but also to address the myriad of challenges bound up with human progress.

In a very real sense, nature and human existence have been significantly decoupled, because the knowledge and technologies we have improvised over eons to contend with the challenges of the natural world have grown so big and complicated that they now present their own distinct challenges.

Transcendent Bound in Human Existence

Both Aristotle and Spinoza — and, for that matter, Einstein — characterized God as immanent, embedded in the natural world.  I deviate from that view.  I would contend that our understanding of God has been filtered through what I have come to call the Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton. (More about this presently.)

As presumptuous as this may sound, I see that as a critical distinction from the thought of Aristotle and Spinoza.  To be sure, this noncorporeal exoskeleton grew out of our struggles with nature and it remains tethered to it in many ways, but increasingly, our ongoing struggle to articulate transcendence and, with it, God, at least within the West, is bound up in human thought, culture and, to an increasingly significant degree, in technology, all of which comprise our exoskeleton.

And while I can’t reject outright the possible existence of some impetus that drives the evolutionary forces on Earth and throughout the universe — some kind of Elan Vital (vital impetus), as Henry Bergson described it —   I would contend that we only can be reasonably certain of one thing: namely, of how our yearning for the transcendent has been shaped by human necessity.  Gaining a clear perspective of God, will always elude our grasp.

The only thing of which we can be certain is how we have conformed our yearning for the transcendent — God — to the sundry demands of our species’ existence across eons. Our present understanding of God represents the culmination of thousands of years of human struggle, not only against the forces of nature but also the complexities that have arisen from humanity’s increasing mastery of the natural world.  And over the course of time, as this mastery has been enhanced and perfected, our dialogue with the transcendent has been as much a struggle against the culture and technology, the byproducts of our struggle with natural world, as with the natural world itself.

The NHE

God is both transactional and intergenerational.  Our understanding of him has been constructed largely through language and daily interactions that have ensued across generations.  This intergenerational dialogue has occurred within a network or ecosystem, one that has undergone constant change across centuries.  This ecosystem, which has increased in density and complexity over time, is what I’ve come to call the Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton (NHE).

Our understanding of God represents the distillation of thousands of years of thinking about the world and our species’ place in it as it has been filtered through this exoskeleton.  In a very real sense, our exoskeleton has provided the means of revising, or, to put it another way, sculpting our thinking about God and transcendence.  And, of course, this ongoing dialogue about the nature of transcendence has contributed to the refinement of other facets of society that we now regard as secular and that encompasses law, technology, the arts and many other facets of society.

There are many ways to describe this exoskeleton.  The exoskeleton is part extra layer of cerebral cortex, part amniotic fluid, part nervous system, part filtering system.  Indeed, it evinces many of the properties of a nervous system.  The synergized elements in this networked system – language, writing and technology – ensure the transmission of memes, symbols and concepts throughout the human collective and, ultimately, across time.

In many notable respects, this networked synergy serves the same purpose among humans as pheromone does among ant and mosquito colonies.

Raw, Unfiltered Experience with Nature

Amniotic fluid is an apt analogy too.  In a manner of speaking, we swim within the dense network of language, writing, culture and technology that comprise the human exoskeleton.  Our exoskeleton not only provides protection to our species but also a sense of connectedness, identity, civilizational knowledge, and even emotional and psychological well-being.

Compared with us moderns, our distant forebears experienced a raw, unfiltered access to nature.  But our human exoskeleton increasingly stands in the way of any sort of raw, unfiltered communing with nature.  Our species’ contemporary perception of nature not only is based on 6 million years of evolution but also on the exoskeleton — the nervous system and filter — that we have constructed over eons to cope with the vicissitudes of existence.   And I should stress again the importance of distinguishing between nature and existence.  Our perennial struggle has been as much a struggle against existence as nature in the sense that the exoskeleton that we have evolved over time to cope with the exigencies of nature have also supplied their own challenges, partly in the form of mental pathology.

Our experience with nature no longer is so raw and unfiltered and has not been for centuries.  Yes, until fairly recently in human history, life has been incorrigibly hard and remains so in certain parts of the world, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, where, for example, women spend large parts of their day gathering water for drinking and cooking.

Many species have essentially evolved technologies to preserve or to enhance life.  But humans have achieved this technological enhancement over an immense scale. Language, which was enhanced centuries later by writing, has proven instrumental in enabling our species to extend our perspective beyond the present – to look ahead, albeit through a mirror darkly, in many cases, and, likewise, by looking backwards, to reflect on the implications of the past.

Fire initially provided us with a source of warmth on frigidly cold nights, effectively providing us with an extra coating of fur.  But over the course of time, we also discovered how fire could be used to cook our food, which effectively freed of us of the need to evolve a second stomach.

Likewise, Clothing has provided our species protection from the elements without otherwise having to evolve heavy layers of fur, while advances in foot covering that eventually culminated in shoes secured us cushioning similar to what eons of evolution provided ruminants in the form of dense, keratin coverings known as hooves.

To the sure, these technological advances occurred at painstakingly slow rates across eons. Many of the disparate intellectual insights that grew out of and were preserved by writing were for centuries limited almost exclusively to an elite coterie of scribes and other specialists.  Even so, this slow eking out process appears to have been periodically disrupted by remarkable innovations that significantly accelerated the rates of progress.

One of the most significant examples of such disruptive technology is the printing press, which, like few other technological innovations, transformed our exoskeleton, not only expanding it but also enhancing its complexity.  Indeed, even in the face of our species newest revolution, the Digital Age, which already has dwarfed the advances associated with the printing press, human beings arguably are still sorting through the social and technological disruption wrought by the printing press, which occurred five hundred years ago.

And this brings us back to one of the most unique exoskeletal innovations of all: God.  While it may sound heretical, if not blasphemous, to many readers, God is as much an innovation as language, writing and technology.  And like the other innovations, the evolution of this concept has carried our species a very long way. The evolution of God essentially amounts to a ponderously slow but nevertheless monumentally significant software upgrade.

God is Bound in Our Exoskeleton

And like language, writing and technology, God is bound within this network, this exoskeleton.  And his standing within his network is closely bound up with other elements. And as all these elements undergo constant change and new elements added, God’s binding within this network undergoes alteration too.  We are talking about an embedded God — a nonsupernatural and nonrealist God, though one who has exerted immense influence over the course of human history.

And as this network mutates, our understanding of God changes, too.  And to an increasing degree technology, in addition to language, has molded our conception of the transcendent.  And these advances in technology in recent decades, have afforded us a greatly enhanced understanding of how networks function, which, consequently, has only accelerated these trends.

This heightened understanding of networks has enabled us to expand the boundaries of human knowledge.  We are using this enhanced knowledge not only to extend our gaze into space and into the origins the cosmos but also to look back into our distant past to understand the origins of our pre-hominin forebears.  And through this enhanced knowledge, we’ve also gained critical insights into how our distant ancestors first began formulating rudiments of mental scaffolding associated with religion.

As presumptuous as this may sound to some, we have gained a stronger stewardship over our understanding of God.

It’s worth pointing out the enormous gifts that have been conferred on Homo sapiens, not only by evolution, namely in terms of how it contributed to human consciousness, but also by the NHE, which influenced significantly the development and enhancement of consciousness.   But these advanced have also imposed an enormous psychological burden on humanity, because the expanded perspectivity afforded by our highly evolved consciousness has encumbered us not only with an awareness of our mortality but also with an appreciation for all the acute risks bound up in all aspects of life.  For countless millions of human beings across the ages, this awareness has imposed tremendous psychological suffering, expressed in neuroses and even psychoses.

Under the circumstances, is it little wonder why religion and spirituality have been improvised across eons to fill this void and to become an integral part of our exoskeleton?

Our growing knowledge of transcendence has simultaneously worked to liberate many and to frighten others, especially among those in the West, particularly in the United States, who continue to express transcendence in the form of a divine, sovereign creator.   Some contend that the time has come not only to rearticulate our understanding of God but even to express transcendence in new ways.  The great German-American theological Paul Tillich offered the concept of Ground of Our Being for expressing our new understanding of transcendence.

Without Conscious Planning or Design

Yet, we should be reminded that this scaffolding was most often built not so much through conscious planning and design — or, for that matter, revelation — but rather through our intermittent brushes with necessity.  Spiritual and religious innovation have been improvised, sometimes rather quickly, when seemingly intractable situations demanded it.

The God many evangelical Christians still worship fervently in praise centers across the red heartland was likely conceived in Iraq some three-and-a-half millennia ago as displaced Jewish theologians and intellectuals, desperately seeking a psychological escape from defeat, cultural debasement and exile at the hands of the Babylonians, crafted a new universal monotheistic God

In a very real sense, religion evolved along with us and the many crises throughout history that have beset us.

While this may strike some as terribly banal, if not sacrilegious, one could argue that religious faith serves a role remarkably similar to to stomach flora.  We and the bacteria in our stomach have co-evolved across eons. In a manner of speaking, flora, in exchange for safe harbor in our gastro-intestinal tracks, have enabled us to digest food.  In a very real sense, religious belief, occupying space in our minds, provide psychological aid and comfort through the vicissitudes of life.  In this sense, it functions in a remarkably similar way to stomach flora.  To put it another way, religions have provided scaffolding within our exoskeleton to help us endure all the trials and tribulations of a mortal life.

Meeting, Mating, Morphing

And much of this evolution of religion has taken place in the course of meeting, mating and morphing with other religious faiths.   One could even argue that this effect is not only inevitable but also provides religion with a kind of hybrid vigor.

The religious historian Karen Armstrong has contended that Islam grew out of a genuine desire among nomadic Arabs to build a cohesive culture and ethos that were as influential and that provided as strong a social bond as those of the Jewish and Christian faiths, which existed in close proximity to the Arab World.

Likewise, Christianity grew out of an impulse among many in the eastern Mediterranean Basin to build upon the scaffolding of the Roman Empire – to merge monotheism and the high Jewish standards of moral and ethical probity with philosophy of the Greeks to forge a new universal religion.  Indeed, the case could be made that Paul, a Hellenized Jew, rather than Jesus, was the principal founder of Christianity.

Jesus arguably was simply one man from a long line of apocalyptic Jewish prophets.  What he preached was not radically different from other prophets.  And his preaching of brotherly love and tolerance toward the Roman authorities may simply have been a reflection of his belief that the end was nigh and that there was no reason to fret or to become angry about the daily cruelties and indignities meted out by an imperial order that God had consigned to extinction.

Jesus likely not only died an excruciating death on a cross but his body also was likely removed and thrown into a ditch with other religious and political dissidents convicted and executed for sedition.

Paul, however, inspired by Jesus’ sacrifice and, presumably, his oral teaching, wove all of this into what became, centuries later, the world’s principal Abrahamic religion, borrowing not only from Judaic but also Hellenistic traditions and propagating this faith using the transportation and legal infrastructure of Rome.

Much earlier in history, a multigenerational dialogue of Jewish prophets and intellectuals transformed the tribal faith of a defeated and dispossessed Semitic people into a monotheistic religion that, over the course of time, provided the scaffolding for the other two principal Abrahamic faiths.

There seems to be a deep-seated human need to ascribe miraculous turnabouts in human history to intervention by a higher power. Writing very late in life in his memoirs, “Around the Cragged Hill,” the great American diplomat and statesman George F. Kennan believed that something miraculous occurred in the Middle East leading up to the advent of Jesus’ ministry.  So many things seemed have been remarkably aligned for this ministry to have occurred and for Jesus’s teaches to have been propagated over the next few centuries throughout the Mediterranean Basin.   Kennan ascribed this to intervention to a higher intelligence.  But given all that we have learned through networking as well as through emergence theory, a simple secular explanation can be offered.   And for eons, the Middle East has provided fertile soil for the emergence and cross-fertilization of many religions, notably Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

For centuries, the vast majority of human beings were oblivious to the this process of cultural cross-fertilization — how disparate ideas, symbols and memes meet, mate and morph, gain traction in human minds and, in some instances, become viral, spreading far beyond the initial point of cross-fertilization.  But, of course, that is not surprising, considering that the Enlightenment tools of scientific investigation had not yet been invented. And in sheer psychological terms, the prospect of looking beyond conventional thinking is painful, if not terrifying, for many people.  But beginning in the 18th century, advances in human understanding enabled a handful of exceptionally rare and intellectually astute individuals to perceive a reality beyond the intellectual fetters of their time.

It was as if they were able to climb to the highest reaches of the scaffolding of their era to acquire a wider perspective of the human condition, one that would enable subsequent human beings to construct more scaffolding.  And these seminal thinkers — Kant, Newton, Darwin, Nietzsche and (Max) Weber, to name only a few —point the way toward a new understanding of transcendence.

The Mixed Blessings of Enhanced Human Understanding

But this new and enhanced understanding presents our species, particularly Westerners, with a double-edged sword as well as a mixed blessing.  For many people, particularly physicists, cosmologists, and evolutionary scientists, our enhanced understanding of the natural world has pointed away from an omniscient, omnipotent personal God.  And one of the consequences of these new insights is a kind of cultural bifurcation, in which culture is divided between elites, those who perceive the need for a new understanding of transcendence, and those who still hold to old orthodoxies.  And this stark cultural division over the nature of transcendence has bred a sense of disconnectedness, normlessness and even nihilism among millions of people.

To be sure, advances in a host of disciplines — biblical scholarship and archaeology, evolutionary science and cosmology — have conferred immense intellectual and material advantages on our species, but these advances have been accompanied by the heavy psychological and social burden that the late German sociologist Max Weber characterized as disenchantment.

Seeing Beyond and Even Before Time

One of the incomparable gifts of existence, NETWORKED EXISTENCE, is that we have enabled ourselves to see beyond time.  Language and technology have played indispensable roles in this. And seeing beyond time not only applies to the future but also to the past.  And thanks to a combination of things – genetics, Big Data and artificial intelligence, to name few — we not only have acquired better tools to project far into the future but we are also increasingly equipped to extend our perception to our species’ deep past, to prehistory.  We are garnering an increasingly clearer picture of the human species in all of its damnable and, until recently, elusive complexity.  Indeed, in a very real sense, we humans have acquired insights that we have historically been ascribed to God. We have eaten bountifully from the forbidden fruit and, barring some unforeseen natural or manmade calamity that propels us into a new dark age, there really is no turning away from these new insights.  We are stuck with them – married to them. Yet, after roughly 200 years and in spite of all theremarkable insights that we already have gained, we are still digging our way out a considerable measure of psychic shock.  We are still trying to construct a new ethos to replace the one that was shattered by the like likes of David Strauss, Charles Darwin and Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century.

Perhaps the time has come to develop a new way to understand the nature of our existence and mortality and what lies beyond them.

The Embedded God

I personally prefer the term the “embedded God, rather than simply God, to express our emerging views of transcendence.  It better comports with my understanding of transcendence as a culmination of centuries of conceptual scaffolding. And this scaffolding has proven invaluable in guiding the fortunes of species throughout some of its most challenging periods.  This understanding — this scaffolding — is a multigeneration construction.

God is embedded in this scaffolding and in the network this scaffolding comprises.

This new way of looking at transcendence must also combine the insights of visual art, science fiction and other forms of artistic and literary expression.

In his new book on creativity, “The Origins of Creativity,” the eminent biologist E.O. Wilson related the tragic life of artist Tolouse Latrec, the French aristocrat born with a series of crippling abnormalities.  But as the legacy of his art reveals, his deformities, particularly his diminutive size, afforded him a closer intimacy to his subjects and also to his choice of colors. Indeed, this is one of the remarkable things about art: the unique perspective of every artist has essentially afforded subsequent generations multiple glimpses into reality.  In a very real sense, God has been revealed in much the same way, through individual perspective and through human dialogue across the ages.

Yet, while art and literature provide centuries of accumulated perspectives, the sheer volume of these works prohibit their being curated in ways that provides us with this deep transcendent insight.  But imagine if, in some distant future, some potent combination of AI and Big Data enabled us to combine or correlate these multiple perspectives in a way that gave us an unusually compelling and deeply nuanced grasp of reality. Would this somehow enable us to bridge, if not to transcend, many of the divisions that seem to be rending the world, particularly, Western society, apart today?  This is not exactly Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point, but it would amount to a technological leap that provided us with a perspective that we mortal humans have normally ascribed to God.

Such a culmination may be beyond our grasp for the foreseeable future.  For now, though, amid all the wrenching divisions of the present day, we at least can derive some consolation from the fact that science has provided us not only with deep insight into our past but even into our deep past.  We have a clearer understanding than ever of how our species groped its way out of the darkness and into a comparatively well-lit broad upland.  We have managed to construct a reasonably coherent view of our place in the world and, to an increasing degree, in the universe.

Our Expanding Sensory Capacity

Yes, we still have immense amount of work ahead of us, but we have come very far.

Compared with other species, our sensory capacity is grievously limited. Nevertheless, we have harnessed our limited sensory apparatus along with our the increasingly complex exoskeleton to broaden our horizons significantly —to the point where we’ve managed to reach out beyond the parochial confines of our planet to a vast universe beyond to contemplate the origins of life and our place in this vast cosmos.

Our emerging understanding of networks have altered the way we understand the nature of all things.  They have even shed considerable light on how we have constructed the human ecosystem, the exoskeleton, across time. And this new understanding has instilled us within keener understanding of just how complex this network is and how many layers have been laid, one on top of another, across eons.

It has also challenged our very understanding of human sovereignty.  We are not the sovereign entities we once thought that we were, consciously and deliberately expanding our intellectual, scientific and technological horizons, but rather far less singular creatures reacting to necessity, much like worker ants.

In fact, advances in networking have now rendered the human understanding of God too complex to be expressed by the traditional creeds and liturgies of the church.

Too Complex to Be Expressed in Creeds

And partly because of this, the matter of worshipping God has become more problematic.  Indeed, even the more expansive, open-ended approaches to accessing transcendence, such as the Quaker testimonial approach, no longer seem comprehensive enough.

Perhaps the only alternative for people, at least, the ones actively seeking insight into these questions, within the 21st century is to quit thinking so much about the nature of God and to focus instead on becoming as deeply imbued with the attributes of God and, over the course of time, to share their own experiences of personal growth with the aim of serving as a beacon for others — in other words, to focus more on orthopraxy and less on orthodoxy, living rather than thinking the right way.

Curating our Spiritual Walk

To borrow a common networking term, perhaps it is time for seekers to curate their faith — to arrange their life experiences in the most optimal ways to provide a roadmap for others.  Perhaps this orthopraxic faith is the most realistic way to practice spirituality, or what passes for it, in a post-Christian, post-orthodox age.

In a sense, this is a harkening back to the writings of Nietzsche, who addressed the so-called “death of God” as an entity “out there,” beyond space and time, directing the fortunes of our species.

Every human being is now the product of a vast and very dense network.  Within this sprawling, sophisticated network, we collectively are equipped not only with a highly developed and nuanced exoskeleton but also with an immense exobrain, which most of us carry around in our pockets or purses in the form of a smartphone, which affords us virtually instantaneous access to all of the extant knowledge of the past 5,000 years of recorded human history. And this affords every citizen of the Western world with an immense degree of intellectual freedom, the breadth of which was almost inconceivable to humans a few centuries ago.

Ironically, though, the vast majority of us are now overwhelmed by a surfeit of information. And this immense tide of information has increasingly diluted the ability of every institution in the West, including the church, to impose its idiosyncratic views on individuals.

Consequently, for better or worse, it falls on the shoulder of every practitioner of spirituality, whatever that form takes, to become a curator of his/her lifetime journey.   In a very real sense, the technology and moral developments that have followed in the footsteps of the digital age have called each of us to become Martin Luthers, to become, in a sense, our own reformers and our own spiritual lodestars.

These technological forces have utterly destroyed the traditional structures through which religion — faith — has previously been explored and practiced.

The followers of Don Cupitt have improvised a community known as the Sea of Faith Network to explore the implications of Cupitt’s new religious philosophy. But the mixed success of these networks only underscore the difficulty of creating a community in the midst of rapid social, cultural and technological change when the body of knowledge is expanding at such volumes and at such rates that human beings lack the ability to improvise new social structures to adjust to these changes.

Looking Beyond Mundane Existence

Many of us have become increasingly addicted to the conveniences afforded by these new networking technologies, if not imprisoned by them.  And therein lies the irony of these new technologies: They offer humans an incomparable measure of freedom — freedom of which earlier generations of scientists and philosophers scarcely could have conceived. They have freed us, arguably, at least, from the ignorance that imprisoned many of our grandparents only a few decades ago.  They supply us with the real potential to look beyond our mundane existence — to utilize the benefits of these networks to become highly informed fully actualized human beings.

Yet, like most technological advances, networking technologies have presented our species with as many challenges as they have immense opportunities for personal enlightenment and growth.  Indeed, a growing number of scientists and philosophers have expressed concern that these new technologies will ultimately grow so complex that they will consume and enslave us. Small wonder why the Borg of Star Trek captured viewers’ imagination: they provided a plausible, if not deeply disturbing insight into our distant future or, as the case may be, near future.

Our existence (dasein, as Martin Heidegger termed it) is intimately bound up our exoskeleton and the cultural and technological advances that have grown out of it have provided us with the most incomparable of gifts.

It has afforded us with the capacity to become ubermensch (over men), as Nietzsche conceived this term.  But its growing complexity has robbed us of all the certainties that characterized previous generations, and each of us increasingly and rather unwittingly is forced to undertake our own solitary walk through life.

To be sure, there remain millions of us who are content to adopt ready-made templates. But they, too, are as much participants of this leap into the dark, though without being as consciously aware of that fact.

They, like everyone else, can only follow the bread crumbs left behind by earlier generations. They are simply embracing templates sculpted by earlier generation, all acting in response to necessity and to our evolving exoskeleton.  Yet, like no other previous generation on the planet, we are interacting within an exoskeleton more evolved and nuanced than ever, one that arguably supplies us with the tools to undertake and complete this solitary journey.

A Reaction to Network Complexity   

The strong case could be made that human history is not so much a reaction to the uptick in knowledge as to the increasingly complexity of networks that follow this this uptick.  New insights stemming from advances in knowledge typically spark network disruptions, and these disruptions occur as a result of shifts in what I’ve come to call network binding.

A good example is the advent of the printing press.  This created an uptick in knowledge, all kinds of knowledge.  Especially significant, it afforded new insights into the founding texts of Christianity, particularly those of St. Augustine, which exerted a major influence on Martin Luther.  This caused a major disruption to the Christian faith, the largest and most influential network at the time within the West, particularly in terms of how it altered the way 16th century northern European kings, intellectuals and other elites viewed the authority of the church.  Consequently, the role that the church occupied within this network shifted.  To put it another way, the manner in which it was bound in the network, the larger exoskeleton, underwent sweeping change.   And in a very real sense, Christianity and the West have not fully adjusted yet to these changes, even as it faces the next big disruption: the effects of the Digital Age.

Back to that remarkable irony: We are faced with a literal surfeit of information — information that represents the culmination of thousands of years of human thinking and striving.  Human beings should be drinking from this firehose.  Yet, in most instances, we are dying of spiritual and intellectual thirst.  And what accounts for this?

Patrick Deneen, a University of Notre Dame political philosopher, is right: The spiritual and political impasses in society are due significantly to the success of modern liberalism.  Liberalism’s comparative success lies in the fact that it has enabled human beings to access and to capitalize on the benefits of our exoskeleton like on other competing ideology.

Indeed, some futurists have even contended that our exoskeleton may grow so dense and complex that it ultimately will attain consciousness that, over time, will dwarf and even devour humanity.  It’s as if a mollusk, enclosed in well-nourished and dense shell, is ultimately  devoured by it.

Elites Will Always Be With Us

And in the midst of all of this, large segments of the West’s population, namely elites, have moved away from the religious tradition that still provides the principal scaffolding of the West: Christianity. And this largely accounts for the cultural war that is raging throughout the Western world, though particularly in the United States.  This scaffolding is worn and outdated, as all scaffolding tends to become over the course of time, but that does not detract from the fact that this scaffolding still provides the underpinning of much of our cultural and legal traditions.

Yet, even as this scaffolding is abandoned by elites, we have not yet managed to improvise new scaffolding to replace it.  At best, we have only laid down the broad contours of this new scaffolding, and it’s conceivable that the West may never manage to lay out anything as comprehensive and as nuanced as the Christian ethos that has underpinned Western culture for the last 1500 years.

One of the mainstays of modern elitist thought is that capitalist greed has driven the fortunes of the West and that much of what we associated with modernity and human progress is bound up economic exploitation — a variation of the Marxist narrative.

To be sure,  the history of human striving, which has culminated in the construction of the NHE, has always been bound up in elitism. Elites have always enjoyed a distinct advantage simply because they have more assets to leverage.   Elites have tended to predominate in all cultures because of the assets they bring to the struggle, namely singular intellectual and moral, emotional and even physical attributes.  And if, eons ago, humans had somehow succeeded in flattening the competitive landscape, our exoskeleton arguably would not be as dense and refined as it is.

To be sure, the flattened landscape that has emerged from the digital revolution has contributed immensely to the remarkable and rapid uptick in knowledge and technological innovation.  Some undoubtedly cite this phenomenon as an example of how a relatively flatter class structure could contribute to scientific and technological progress.  And, granted, this flattened landscape has leveraged the voices and talents of many remarkable people who otherwise would be marginalized in the previous industrial era.

But the flattening was made possible principally by outliers — intellectually and entrepreneurially gifted elites.  And these outliers, despite the democratizing effects of the digital revolution, still exert a vastly disproportionate share of influence.

Nietzsche and Foucault raised a valid point in arguing that history, rather than being studied dispassionately and in its totality, should be mined for the insights that can be employed to enhance our present-day quality of life.

One of the great tragedies of history, though, is that humans, great and ordinary alike, have failed to understand the unusually refined and complex nature of the human exoskeleton, which not only is disproportionately and necessarily influenced by outliers but that, by its very nature, requires that change occur only incrementally.

Human efforts to dismantle huge swathes of the exoskeleton and to reconstruct new elements from scratch — the totalitarian regimes of Soviet Russia, Maoist China and Khmer Rouge Cambodia, for example — conferred immense human suffering from which our species is still recovering.

From Orthodoxy to Orthopraxy

In this post-Christian, post-orthodox world, one characterized by a high emphasis on orthopraxy, right behavior, the emphasis on morality, deep morality, has become more important than ever.  Orthodox Christianity has historically supplied that deep morality.  And with its effective loss, the West has been deprived of an ethos that essentially enabled Westerners to function on something resembling autopilot.

Rabbi Irwin Kula is among several religious leaders and sages calling 21st century humanity to recognize religion as a form of technology, which essentially amounts to the building up of scaffolding to enable our species to better understand the nature of the transcendent and to drive more meaning and enjoyment from our mortal existence and, in the course of which, to apply meaning to reality and to order it in a way that better ensures we coexist with each other in peace. But compared to our forebears, we operate under a distinct disadvantage, because this mortal struggle is shorn of the mystery — the enchantment — that characterized earlier ages.

It’s important to stress, though, that there was no nefarious plot by monarchs, the illuminati or anyone else to deprive the West of its enchantment. It simply worked out that way in the course of our exoskeleton’s response to necessity.  And this fact underscores that we humans are not sovereign in the way we always have imagined ourselves to be.

In a sense, the scales have fallen from our eyes. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain has been exposed, and, as it turns out, there is no man or entity at all, simply an eons long struggle on our part to improvise responses to all manner of exigency, and, in the vast majority of cases, without our being scarcely aware of the implications of our actions or their connectedness with other elements of our exoskeleton. Indeed, for eons, we have been scarcely aware of this exoskeleton and how the disparate parts of it affect other parts of this vast, largely incomprehensible human projection.

How Then Should We Live?

This brings us around to the vital question:  How then should we live in this post-Christian age?  Moreover, how is possible to live freely and deliberately in a world in which we are conceivably being overwhelmed by our exoskeleton, something on which we have never exercised full stewardship from the beginning?   To express this in even more ominous terms, how do we exercise freedom in an era in which our exoskeleton grows increasingly more complex with each passing day, even to the point where it could overtake our species entirely and even supplant us as the dominant entities on this planet?

In one notable respect we are free —free in the sense that Nietzsche envisioned freedom roughly two centuries ago.  We have been liberated, however unwittingly, by our own technological advances.  All of us —not just professionally trained, philosophers, theologians and clergy — are being challenged as never before to look beyond the historically prescribed notions of good and evil and to search for grains of truth within this immense, digitally flattened information landscape.

To be sure, there will always be spiritual versions of those whom the Objectivist Ayn Rand disparagingly and rather unjustly characterized as second-handers — conformists, people who do not wish to take a leap into the dark and who are content to follow orthodox expressions of faith: Catholicism or one of the numerous iterations of Protestantism.

They will likely represent the overwhelming majority of seekers for the foreseeable future.  Yet, even these more conventional paths amount to leaps of faith, because within this new information order, orthodoxy no longer is regarded sacrosanct, as it once was. In this digital age, even they are forced, however unwittingly, to choose among many alternatives associated with human existence.  And we should recall that Luther’s wrenching conversion occurred in a steadfastly Christian milieu and essentially amounted to a binary choice between Catholic dogma and one that Luther perceived as an older, and far more orthodox one espoused by the Apostle Paul and Augustine.

Curating and Creating Our Own Sacred Spaces

However, for the rest of us, a rather embattled but growing minority, it seems that the only alternative is to determine, each in our own way, how to become as deeply imbued with the attributes our civilization has historically assigned to God.

This brings us back to the challenge of curating our lifetime journey— sharing the experience of this solitary, lifetime walk with others.

In a very real sense, our individual responses to the exigencies of life amount to their own acts of creation. Lloyd Geering has observed that each of us is born into and cultivates over the course of a lifetime his or her own womb of culture. He offers a memorable quote by Austrian scholar, writer and inventor Josef Popper-Lykeus: “Every time a man dies, a whole universe is destroyed.”

To view it another way, the advances in digital media and the tidal wave of information that has followed have transformed us not only into unwitting Nietzscheans but also into Martin Luthers. By that I mean that many of us, secularist and orthodox believer alike, have, in the course of dealing with the exigencies of life, undergone our own transformational Tower Experiences, much as Luther did.   In many case, these have placed us on a moral and ethical path.

Improvising Our Own Solitary Treks

While the Digital Age may be undermining our ability to keep pace with societal change and may even be eroding our personal freedom as human beings, it has afforded us with greater opportunity than ever before to compile a digital record of our thoughts.

By curating what we learn and discover on our own, we not only conceive and create our own sacred spaces but also share our personal journeys for the enlightenment of other spiritual sojourners.

We are being challenged — perhaps forced would be a choice of words in this context — to improvise our own solitary treks through life. We are being forced to undertake Kierkegaardian leaps into the dark as we carry on with tour individual lifetime treks through the vicissitudes of life.

All we really have in the end is our own personal fortitude and courage to travel through this mortal existence and to follow the bread crumbs dropped by earlier generations of wanderers — that and the freedom to reflect on our own experiences and to leave behind bread crumbs of our own for future generations of wayfarers.

And that brings me back to the question:  How do we affirm personal freedom and sovereignty in the digital age?  As I see it, some 5,000 years of recorded human history have demonstrated that we have an obligation not only to follow the bread crumbs laid down by earlier generations of human beings but also to lay down our own crumbs for present and future generations.  We have an obligation to relate to others the lessons of our own lifetime journeys — to become curators on behalf of others.

In carving out our own paths, we, in the course of our own solitary struggle, should create our own unique but sacred spaces. And as we reflect on our own experiences in life — how we not only adapted to the inevitable exigencies but also learned from them — we should consider sharing these with others.  Like earlier generations, we should strive to lay our own breadcrumbs.

Posted in Evolution, Jim Langcuster, Religion, Religion and Culture | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Solvents of Faith

Catholic-Eucharist

Catholic Eucharist. Photo: Courtesy of Marie Lan-Nguyen

I have to say that I found Rod Dreher’s recent musings on the disillusionment with and abandonment of Catholicism by his friend, Tommy Tucker, not only perceptive but also deeply moving and even prescient reading.

Indeed, it served as a backdrop in an e-mail exchange I hard earlier this morning with a relative, relating to her what a thoroughly anti-institutional Christian apostate I’ve become, certainly within the last few years.

Disillusionment with Evangelicalism

My spiritual metamorphosis was somewhat different from that of Tucker’s. I grew up in the Southern Baptist faith, and from a very early age, I tried desperately to articulate why this faith simply didn’t click with me. It finally occurred to me at some point that I shared one thing in common with the late German sociologist Max Weber: In terms of religion, I simply am not musical. I don’t relate to religion as most people do and likely never will.

That turned out to be one of the great psychological epiphanies of my life, and cleared space for an enormous amount of personal growth and creativity.

Like many other adults in the 21st century, that realization his inspired me to eke out my own philosophy, though borrowing significantly from Christianity. I strive, however inconsistently, to live my life as compassionately as possible but also in freedom – or, at least, what I define freedom – free of the institutional fetters of any church authority, free to call sacred moral and ethical cows into question.

Granted, I’ve never suffered the loss of someone exceedingly close to me or been faced with a terminal illness. And I concede that those two prospects alone conceivably would be enough draw me back into some form of conventional faith. But following a lifetime of struggle with spiritual issues, I consider myself significantly happy and reasonably well-integrated. And, needless to say, I don’t think that I am alone, even in the Deep South. Lots of people who have undergone severe spiritual crises have also managed to work their way through them and have even succeeded in building a coherent post-Christian vision.

An Enduring Affinity for the Christian Faith

Yet, I still feel a special affinity for Christianity. I still maintain a residual, cultural affiliation with Protestant Christianity through membership in the United Methodist Church, a denomination to which I gravitated in college. But that’s only because I share a common culture and a modicum of religious affinity with many individual United Methodists.

I also remain a conservative who believes that functioning, healthy societies require an ethos that is grounded in deep thinking about how we should relate to each other as well as how we fit into the larger natural world. And for this ethos to serve people adequately, it must be widely supported virtually every member of the community.

The Decline of Mainline Protestantism

Christianity has historically supplied the foundation of this ethos. But I agree with Dreher and other traditionalists that United Methodism and other forms of mainline Protestantism essentially amount to ghosts and are increasingly ill-equipped to contributed to any sort of significant moral dialogue. They are in steep decline and will exert little cultural influence among rising generations of young people in the future. While Evangelical Christianity likely will exert a significantly larger share of influence, it will never summon the intellectual and cultural clout that has historically defined Catholicism and, until a few decades ago, mainline Protestantism.

This brings me to Catholicism. As my father, a closeted agnostic, once astutely and aptly observed, Catholicism IS the principal scaffolding that has supported the civilization of the West. One develops a deep appreciation for this reading the works of G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Catholicism possesses unique traits and strengths that other Christian faiths lack and have lacked from the very beginning of the Reformation. And it is worth pointing out that northern Germany experienced an acute decline in public and private piety following the advent of Luther and Protestantism.

Over the course of 1500 years of institutional evolution within the scaffolding of the old Roman Empire, Catholicism has developed a kind of gestalt that no other form of Christianity has come close to approximating. And that is why I, despite my secularism and apostasy, always read with a sense of sadness and even despair about the precipitous decline of Christianity, particularly Catholic Christianity.

The Catholic Gestalt

Even so, I’m not sure that what has been broken can ever be fixed. This Catholic gestalt functioned for almost two millennia because other cultural forces at work in Western society not only comported with it but also sustained it. Indeed, a largely beneficial cultural symbiosis prevailed in the West because of how all these cultural forces hung together. But the die was cast roughly half a millennium ago with the advent of the New Learning and the printing press: the cultural and technological forces that have emerged in the West have steadily hastened the erosion of this symbiosis – this gestalt.

In the face of all these challenges, Catholicism, compared with other Christian traditions has been equipped with one rather formidable asset. Its gestalt has been comprised of all manner of things – doctrine, liturgy, martyrs, shrines, and saints, to name a few – but the church’s highly elaborate and developed hierarchy, backed up by the doctrine of Apostolic Ascension, has functioned as the principle adhesive.

The Catholic sex scandals with the last decade have done much to erode the moral credibility of this hierarchy and, consequently, the Catholic faith in general. But erosion has been setting in for centuries, and as simplistic as this observation may strike some people, I believe that rising levels of scientific and cultural complexity, which have necessitated increasingly higher levels of mass education, have been the driving factor of this erosion. They comprise the Pandora’s Box of the spiritual decline of the West. The better educated people become, the more inclined they are to question entrenched authority, irrespective of its nature.

To be sure, the fear of everlasting torment worked against these trends for a considerable time among many Catholics and conservative Protestants, but even the most basic doctrines of the church are now challenged by some 200 years worth of textual criticism, virtually all of which are now readily accessible on the Internet through search engines and a few clicks of a mouse.

Somehow this takes me back to a comment I ran across years ago by the nontheiest political philosopher and Anglican priest Don Cupitt, who once recalled his own materially deprived childhood in WWII England as well as the rapid societal change that followed in the wake of the Allied victory, particularly in terms of how this change afforded greater access to higher education.

“We’ve all grown up!” Cupitt observed.

In some respects, our species has grown up, and the greater access to higher education throughout the Western world has played a significant role in this maturation.

The Hispanization of the American Catholic Church

Under the circumstances, it is small wonder why the fortunes of American Catholicism are so tightly bound with future of Hispanics, particularly Hispanic immigration. Immigrants are in a very different place than the middle-class American Catholics that many aspire to be like some day. They currently lack the levels of higher education to which the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of previous waves of Irish, German and Italian immigrants have taken virtually for granted in recent generations. Small wonder why Hispanics will comprise the bulwark of Catholic orthodoxy for some time to come. But, in time, they will ascend the economic and educational ladder, much as their Irish, German and Italian antecedents have, and over time, Catholicism inevitably will faced with the same maladies as declining mainline Protestant faiths.

Education, particularly higher education, is the great solvent that challenges all forms of authority, particularly religious authority.

As the Sovietologist Archie Brown has related, Soviet and Eastern European communism succumbed 30 years ago to a myriad of factors, but one of the principal ones was the rising levels of education that Soviet and Eastern European political elites instituted among their citizens to foster economic growth.

Perhaps Dreher is right in arguing that after a long Dark Age humanity will grope its way back to orthodox Christianity. As I see it, if advances in science and technology are sustained throughout this dark epoch, humanity may ultimately emerge centuries from now with an ethos that borrows heavily from Christianity but that deviates significantly from it.

Whatever the case, I am one Protestant apostate who bemoans the loss of the Christian scaffolding of the West. particularly as it is expressed within the Catholic faith. A society this extended and complicated requires a deep well of morality and ethics.

Catholic Christianity once comprised this deep well.

Posted in American Religion, Jim Langcuster, The Passing Scene | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When Parents Push Too Hard

football

Way back in the 70’s as a adolescent, I learned a valuable life lesson, one that I tried to practice in my own relationship with my two precious daughters as they were growing up: namely, the dangers of pushing kids too hard and too far.

I grew up with a special challenge. As fate would have it, I was one of the most uncoordinated and untalented “athletes” who ever passed through the intramural and school-sponsored sports programs of Russellville, Alabama – a bitter reality for a small-town Southern boy, and one rendered even more difficult by the fact I was the son of a stellar athlete. My father was an All-State high school football player who went on to complete college on a four-year football scholarship at Troy State Teachers College (now Troy University).

I was the ultimate athletic cipher. I knew it, my coaches knew it – and occasionally pointed it out in exasperation, often in front of the other coaches and kids during practice – and, deep down, I think that my parents knew it too.

Yet, my mother and father, who were otherwise excellent, diligent parents, insisted that I play football all the way from intramural to Varsity football. I always wondered if they thought that I eventually would throw some switch and metamorphose into some sort of gifted athlete.

The fact was that I was too short-legged to be a running back and too small to be a lineman. Yet, for some reason, my parents were unable to admit this.

Between my Dad’s obstinance on this particular issue and my mother’s Wages family mule stubbornness on just about every topic under the sun – well, they comprised a pretty formidable duo.

Indeed, Mom, in particular, was convinced that I was all talk and no action. And she had concluded, along with Dad, that my conspicuous athletic failure was a troubling harbinger of a indolent adulthood. Mom even resorted to invoking the name of someone in town who was born into a decent family but who, sadly, had never amounted to much of anything, flunking out of college and ending up in a menial job.

I’ll just use the name Charlie Whiteburg for purposes of illustration.

“Jimmy, you’re going to end up just like Charlie Whiteburg – all talk and no action! I am going to drive by the (place Charlie worked) some day and see you sweating and grunting alongside him in the summer heat!”

This particular guy was rather rotund and had a tendency, in Bob Hope fashion, to wear his pants well above his hips, almost up to his nipples.

In time, I unwittingly built him up in my mind into a sort of doppelganger. I’d occasionally conjure up images of my finishing high school, failing college and, in the end, looking just like poor, rotund Charlie, with my pants hiked well above my waist – an incorrigible flunky yoked to a menial, dead-end job for the rest of my life.

And, not all that surprising, I was frequently overcome by panic attacks for many years after that. And though I got that pretty much under control 30 or so years ago, I would still visit a counseling psychologist every so often to enhance my coping skills.

About 8 or 9 years ago, I was referred by a very close friend to a crackerjack therapist – a woman from an Orthodox Jewish background who grew up in Boston.

In the course of my therapy, I related my childhood fears of mutating into a Charlie.

“Jim,” she said, after about 6 weeks of visits, “I have built a very lucrative career dealing with Southern Protestant guilt and anxiety, and among all the clients I have ever dealt with, I have never encountered anyone who was served a bigger helping than you!”

We both got a hearty laugh out of that one.

Parents do their best – and I was fortunate to have two truly exceptional and accomplished parents – but based on my own experience with intramural and high school athletics, I vowed that I would try to give my kids as much leeway as possible and in every facet of their lives.

I didn’t always succeed because, after all, old habits die hard.

My oldest daughter decided to drop out of karate just short of her black belt. Her decision initially bothered me – a lot – and I initially gave her a bit of a dressing down about not finishing what she started.

But I thought about those seven MISERABLE years of football that my folks imposed on me, and I apologized. And, of course, neither she nor I ever evinced a moment of regret about her decision.

It was the same with soccer for both my daughters. After a couple of years they had their fill, and I readily assented to their dropping out.

And both ended up finding their own passions and ended up embarking on happy, fulfilling lives.

You can’t mold children in your own image. You may attempt it, but all that you will get in return are neurotic, embittered kids. Truth is, all you can do is to establish a moral and ethical template, though with broad parameters to accommodate your children’s unique personalities, temperaments and interests.

That’s not a foolproof child-rearing strategy – not by a long shot – but based on my own experience, it’s the most realistic gameplan for raising happy, self-actualized children.

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An Old Map that Inspired

colonial-America4

I owe this framed map of the post-colonial United States, which hung in my parents’ den for many years while I was growing up, an immense debt.

For starters, it invokes happy memories of my parents and of a secure, childhood of storytelling and enriched learning.  The prominent place this map once occupied in our ranch-style home speaks speaks volumes about them – their training as public school teachers as well as their profound sense of patriotism. Indeed this map arguably embodies the immense pride that many Americans, particularly in my hyper-patriotic native region of northwest Alabama, took in their country in the years following World War II, as America ascended to the pinnacle of greatness.

These sorts of images, which were  routinely displayed in medical and dental offices all over the United States in the 60’s and 70’s, not only were intended to invoke national pride but also served, however unintentionally, as a reminder of the protracted human struggle involved in settling this vast continent. For many Americans, most assuredly my parents, these sorts of images stirred memories of accounts that had been passed down by their pioneering forebears.

colonial-America5Incidentally, I find it interesting that this image, which is at least 55 years old, also paid homage to the many indigenous peoples who inhabited the continent.

Aside from invoking happy memories of my parents and childhood, I also credit it with instilling me with a life-long passion for history and geography. And in roughly the mid-Seventies, after Mom replaced this map with something else, I ended up displaying it prominently in my bedroom in close proximity to my model of the U.S.S. Enterprise, which I suspended from my ceiling.

Looking back, it’s amazing to me how this depiction of post-Colonial America provided a conceptual scaffolding for subsequent learning. Case in point: I remember reading about the conquest and division of Germany after WWII and how only its western half – a part that not considered as the historical defining core of German national identity – carried on as the only fully sovereign German nation from its establishment in 1949 to German reunification in 1990.

Indeed, reading about all of this for this first time brought me back to this old map. I related Germany’s post-war plight to a scenario in which the United States was conquered by some foreign power, which, after a period of time, allowed only the section of the country west of the Mississippi to reorganize and govern itself as as a reconstituted American Republic.

I could picture this truncated western American republic just as it appeared on this map, boldly asserting its independence and marshaling its resources to reacquire sometime in the future the section of the country that had once defined American nationhood, much as Soviet-dominated Prussia once represented the bedrock of German identity. This comparison helped me understand what a psychological burden this conquest and division must have imposed on the Germans.

And, of course, I drew similar comparisons from my reading of the conquest and division of France into Nazi- and Vichy-occupied regions in 1940.  Relating France’s conquest to that old map helped me understand immense sense of dispossession and shame that Nazi conquest imposed on them.

Needless to say, the map’s depiction of the rich matrix of Native American cultures that occupied the the vast North American continent underscored the massive dispossession and relocation that followed European settlement of the so-called Back Country in the 19th century.

Little did my folks know that this display of a map would prove to be such an invaluable aid for visual learning.

Small wonder why I feel such a strong sentimental attachment to this old map. It ended up providing me with a trove of lessons related to history, culture, geography and geopolitics. And I am grateful to my parents for displaying it in a prominent place in our home.

I just wish that more kids had exposure to this sort of rich visual imagery at a young age.

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Five Remarkable Facts about D-Day

Omaha-BeachMost of us are familiar the basic facts of D-Day from watching movies such as Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers.

So, today, I thought that I would share a few of the facts relating to the fascinating backstory of D-Day — a few of those factors and events of which most people are unaware but that account at least partly for why the Normandy Invasion, also known as Operation Overlord, is remembered as one of the most seminal events in history.

Yet the first remarkable fact about D-Day is that almost never happened. 

When a recently appointed Major General named Dwight Eisenhower was dispatched to England in 1942, part of his mission was to discuss the buildup of American forces in England so that an invasion of France could occur, preferably sometime that year.

But Britain regarded this idea with a measure of reluctance, if not a significant amount of dread.  It was locked in a desperate struggle to keep Rommel out of Egypt. And the thought of driving the scourge of Nazism out of the heart of western Europe seemed like a distant pipedream in early 1942.

Aside from that, the British had a long, very painful memory of the costs of fighting on the continent against Germans. For that matter, they regarded amphibious invasions in general with dread.  The ill-fated Gallipoli invasion, which was conceived by Churchill and aimed at knocking Turkey out of World War I almost put an end to the future prime minister’s political career.  And it is still remembered today as one of the bitterest disappointments in British military history.

And let’s not forget that the memories of World War I were still fresh in 1942.  And the evacuation of Dunkirk, in which most of the British Expeditionary Force and many French troops were miraculously snatched from the maw of the German Wehrmacht was still a very fresh memory.

Churchill had always regarded the invasion of France as a cosmic roll of the dice.

And what if it failed?  A defeat would not only kill any prospect for a return to continent but it might also lead to the Soviets working out a negotiated peace with the Germans.

Remember that the Soviets, to preserve their regime, sued for a similar peace in 1918, not only renouncing their claims on Poland, Finland, Belarus, the Baltic states, and Ukraine.  And considering that the Soviets were in a far better position, territorially speaking, in 1944, there was the distinct possibility that they would do so again.

The British held to a strategy that had served this maritime power reasonably well over the course of its 200-year imperial history.  They preferred a kind of Sun Tzu strategy by which choke-points were applied to German power, ideally in the vast and vulnerable underbelly of Southern Europe, employing its most formidable weapons:  the Royal Navy.

For a time, they had their way with the Americans, which is a long and fascinating story in its own right.  The British unwillingness to undertake a full, frontal assault of northern France in 1942, led the Allies instead into the Mediterranean and northern Africa, ultimately driving the Nazis off the continent and destroying Italian naval power in the Mediterranean — a crucial concern for the British, because this vast sea was not only considered their personal lake but a primary artery in the supply line to India and the dominions of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

The North African victory also positioned the Allies to invade Sicily and Italy — another key choke point that not only had the potential of taking Italy out of the war but also forcing the Germans to invest additional manpower that was sorely needed in which was fast becoming a desperate fight for survival in the Soviet Union.

Churchill also eyed the Dodecanes islands in Greece in the hopes of bringing Turkey on the side of the Allies, a getting a foothold in Greece, and ultimately taking part in the Soviet invasion of Eastern Europe.

But Americans also saw this ploy for what it was: a veiled attempt to preserve British power in the Mediterranean by guarding the Greece and other parts the eastern Mediterranean against the encroachment of Soviet power. Americans eventually bought into that argument, but only after the war as the Cold War heated up.

In the end, we went some distance with the British. We collaborated in the invasions of Sicily and Italy, but after that, we insisted that the next strategic target would be France.

But we remained in a bitter and sometimes recriminate war of words with the British.  The British were determined to soldier on in Southern Europe, probing for weak spots.  To be sure, some British military leaders, notably Gen. Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, were open to an all-out-assault on France, but only after it appeared that Germany had been mortally weakened elsewhere.

But we held firm. We owe much of that resolve to the Army Chief of Staff, George C. Marshall.  He remained the most unwavering proponent of the invasion of France.   In one notable respect, he knew better than the British.  He knew that democratic peoples lose interest in protracted wars. He knew that the fight would have to be taken to the plains of northern Europe where America’s industrial might, expressed in armor and air power, offered the best prospect for ending the war as quickly as possible.

In fact, a time or two, he even told the British pointedly that we would take our ships and tanks and troops and focus on the Pacific War with the Japanese.

And he was right.  The route through northern France offered the most direct path to the heart of Nazi military power: the Ruhr industrial region, which supplied the German war machine, and beyond that, Berlin.

Marshall was right — history has confirmed that.  But, in a sense, so were the British.  They were proven right in several notable respects.  There was no way that the Allies could have staged an invasion of northern France in 1943.  The comprehensive strategic bombing campaign over Germany, which ultimately badly disrupted the ability of Germans to move troops and supplies from one part of the continent to the other, had not yet begun.

And the Germans had only just begun sustaining what would ultimately become the mortal blows of stiffened Soviet resistance.

And that brings us to remarkable fact No. 2: that we have Hitler partly to thank for the success of D-Day.

Aside from Hitler’s decision not to invade Britain in 1940 — or, barring an invasion, not allocating sufficient naval forces to destroy her Merchant Marine and starve her out of the war — was his decision to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941.

Through the rest of that year, German victories were swift seemingly and effortless, but things began to change as the German’s drew closer to the defenses of Moscow.  Soviet resistance grew increasingly desperate and matched the Germans in its levels of ferocity and brutality.

To Hitler’s credit, his stand and fight order before the gates of Moscow in December, 1941, arguably was the one factor that prevented a complete German rout.

But following the disastrous battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, the most realistic generals had concluded that the German effort in the East was unsustainable.  It was no longer of a war of conquest but a life-or-death struggle against Bolshevism, one they feared, would be carried to the very gates of Berlin.

And the toll that this war in the East was taking on Germany’s military machine was evident in France.

French civilians in the town of Montebourg noticed the troops marching behind mounted officers down the main street were not singing the usual “Heidi-Heidi-Hos,” which had been such a familiar strain since 1940 but something strangely different.

They were so-called Ostruppen — eastern troops that had been recruited into the German armed forces largely to avoid death from starvation and disease in German POW camps.

Their deployment in the East had met with little success, so many of them were consigned to Andrei Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army.  Many of these had been sent to France and organized into battalions, though the German attitude toward Slavs had changed little.

German attempts to stiffen their resolve with propaganda about the plutocratic Americans and British didn’t help.

Many of these troops were used primarily in anti-partisan activities, and, predictably, many ultimately escaped to join the Resistance.  After the invasion, many others surrendered to the Allies at the first chance.

Only a couple of these battalions actually fought with resolve.

One of the most remarkable examples of an Ostruppen in Normandy was a Korean named Yang Kyongjong, who had originally served as a Korean conscript in the Japanese Imperial Army — Korea at the time was a Japanese colony.  He was captured by the Soviets during the undeclared border war with the Japanese known as the Battles of Khalkhyn Gol in 1939.  He was subsequently consigned to a labor camp but was released and impressed into the Soviet Army, unwittingly becoming embroiled in one of the most desperate land wars in history.

He was later captured by the Germans at the Battle of Karkhov and then impressed into the German Army.  He was finally captured by the American Army near Omaha Beach.  Think about that for a moment: This hapless 24-year-old soldier had travelled the entire breadth of the Eurasian landmass at the hands of three different captors.

Initially misidentified as a Japanese in a German uniform, he eventually was released from POW camp and lived out his life in the United States.

The coastal defenses were also manned by a large number of German hard-luck cases from the Eastern Front.  The Army units consisted of 850,000 men of very mixed quality.  Many of the units were known as “ear and stomach” battalions, comprised of soldiers from the East who had suffered combat-related stomach wounds or significant hearing loss — a rather sobering reality for the German High Command considering that these troops were expected to follow oral commands.

Of the 36 Infantry divisions that comprised this group, more than half lacked transport and mobile artillery.

Curiously, in spite of these deficiencies, Hitler actually looked forward to the invasion. He believed the Allies would quickly be flung into the Channel.  And the Germans could then go about the desperate business of pushing the Bolshevik hordes back across the Russian steppes.

Remarkable Fact No.3: that Dwight D. Eisenhower was far from the natural pick to command D-Day.

We are often inclined to think of Ike as the inevitable pick for the D-Day.

He wasn’t.  Ike had proven himself as a capable commander in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, though he had made his share of mistakes.

Aside from that, the then-four-star general was a relative newcomer to high command.

Scarcely a year before the invasion, he still held the permanent rank of Lt. Colonel.

And to his credit, Ike had accumulated a significant amount of staff experience working as a military liaison to Congress and, later, as MacArthur’s right-hand man in the Philippines in the 1930’s.

During his brief tenure as a war planner, he drafted the initial plans for provisioning the southwest Pacific, which essentially involved writing off the Philippines as a loss and removing the bulk of Allied efforts to Australia.

But despite all this experience, Ike had never commanded a battalion in battle.

And there were two older, considerably more experienced men who enjoyed support in unusually high places: General Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, Churchill’s choice for Supreme Commander; and General George Catlett Marshall, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, whom Roosevelt considered to be the natural choice for this position.

In Brooke’s case, he had been promised the position by Churchill.  To underscore his determination to award Brooke with the command, Churchill had even mentioned it to Brooke’s wife.

And to be sure, Brooke was an impressive candidate.

Brooke had had significant combat experience in World War I, notably introducing to the French creeping barrage technique to the British during the Battle of the Somme.

He had had significant experience in northern France in 1940 helping extricate the battered British Army and directing it to Dunkirk, where it was miraculously rescued.  His organizational skills were so impressive that he was later sent by Churchill to France to oversee the repatriation of the remaining British troops.

He also possessed an unusually keen intellect and extensive strategic and logistical knowledge.

He had previously served as a lecturer at the Imperial Defense College and possessed a very strong knowledge of the men who would ascend to key leadership positions in the British Army in World War II.

As chief of the Imperial General Staff, he also commanded the strategic effort of the British imperial forces, largely through the force of his intellect and personality, even though Churchill served as his own defense minister.

But at staff meetings, he talked down to the Americans, regarding most of them as lacking strategic sense. This did not bode well for his prospects, considering that the Americans would have the chief input into the appointment.

George Catlett Marshall was Roosevelt’s choice.

His command experience was very similar to Brooke’s.  He was considered the country’s leading authority on logistical and strategic planning.

Marshall’s personal discipline was truly on the order of George Washington’s.  A mediocre student in school, he determined to follow older family members to Virginia Military Institute and to excel — a determination that only grew stronger when his overheard his older brother predicting to his mother that his attending VMI would end up bringing reproach to the entire family.

He exceeded all expectations.

Churchill described him as the organizational architect of victory in World War II.  He served as director of training and planning for the First Infantry Division in World War I and was responsible for planning the engagement that led to the first American victory at Cantingny in 1918.

Marshall was later transferred to the Headquarters Staff of General Pershing and became a key planner of military operations. He was instrumental in the planning and coordination of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which contributed to the defeat of the German Army on the Western Front.

After the war he was a key planner and writer in the War Department and later commanded the 15th Infantry Division.

In 1939, he was appointed Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army by President Roosevelt and thereafter invested his formidable logistical knowledge in the reorganization of the Army, laying the foundations that would transform this rather provincial institution into the global army that it is known today.

His command of the D-Day landings was his for the asking.  And there would be an American, rather than a British commander.  Roosevelt would see to that because beginning with D-Day, the American contribution to the war effort would increasingly dwarf that of Britain.

But in keeping with his deep for respect for democratic values and civilian control of the military, Marshall left this decision to President Roosevelt, who desperately wanted to keep Gen. Marshall in Washington to serve as Army chief of staff.

Even Roosevelt expressed his profound regrets.  As he acknowledged to Eisenhower shortly before his decision, every Civil War buff could name the principal field commanders in the conflict, though very few could name the Army chiefs of staff.

And for this reason, Marshall remains a relatively obscure American historical figure — one of the greatest tragedies of American history. He is arguably among the ten greatest Americans who ever lived, embodying a character and a commitment to American principles on par with that of Washington and Lincoln and serving a role every bit as indispensable to this nation’s fortunes.

We were fortunate to have Dwight Eisenhower at the helm on June 6.  But the man who conceived, planned, and lobbied for D-Day — typically against stiff opposition by the British — is the one who should have commanded it.

Remarkable Fact #4:

Another remarkable but largely unknown fact about D-Day was the operation that concluded the Allied Campaign in Normandy some two months after the initial assault on the beachhead: the battles of Falaise Pocket.

It’s an important operation not only for the role it played in ending the Normandy Campaign but also for the way it illustrates how Allied technology was brought to bear on the Germans with devastating and horrific effect.

In August, 1944, British General Bernard Montgomery had taken Caen, while Patton’s Third Army had wheeled around to the south of Montgomery’s operational area, leaving a large German-controlled remnant known as the Falaise Pocket.

The pocket was subjected to unremitting ground, artillery and aerial attacks.  Germans sources recall the conditions within the Kessel, or cauldron, as they typically described such pockets, as closely resembling conditions in Stalingrad.

I have little time to recount these horrific events, but the complete account is available via a simple Google search.

Unfortunately, Montgomery, who had primary responsibility for closing the Falaise Gap, allowed tens of thousands of Germans to flee.

But it did mark the beginning of the end of German resistance in France, and it drove home to growing numbers within the German military leadership that the continued resistance was futile.

As Dwight Eisenhower recalls after touring the pocket:

The battlefield at Falaise was unquestionably one of the greatest “killing fields” of any area.  Forty-eight hours after the closing of the gap, I was conducted through it on foot to encounter sees that could be described only by Dante.  It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh.

Fifth and finally, do you know the most remarkable thing of all?

I’m standing here this afternoon in an air-conditioned conference room in the most materially prosperous nation in the world, speaking about one of the most seminal events in history because tens of thousands of 18, and 19 and 20-year-old kids summoned the fortitude to storm a shore to rid the world of history’s greatest threat to freedom and human decency.

While you celebrate your weekend, which will mark the 71st anniversary of the D-Day landing, reflect for a moment on those 18-year-olds kid in that landing craft approaching the shores of Utah beach – shaking from fright, vomiting their guts out, thinking about how desperately they wanted to be home – on that farm in Kansas, on that factory floor in Detroit, in that college lecture hall in Auburn – anywhere but there.

D-Day and the military successes that followed were achieved by the sacrifices of young men, primarily between the ages of 18 and 22 who not only safeguarded but affirmed all of the values that we take wantonly for granted today in the 21st century: an America that, despite enduring some serious setbacks within the last 70 years continues to inspire millions throughout the world.  And through the peace secured by these young men, America stands alongside a prosperous, unified Europe, with a democratic, unified Germany at the center of it all.

The preceding was a series of reflections on D-Day delivered to the local Opelika Kiwanis Club commemorating the 70th anniversary of the landings. 

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