The Freedom Afforded by Our Exoskeleton

sea-shell2

Photo: Courtesy of Charles Haynes.

I’ve pointed out in earlier essays how the dense network that we humans have constructed over ages — a contrivance I’ve come to call the Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton (NHE) — has conferred on our species immense, almost unfathomable intellectual, technological and even moral progress.

A Brief Re-Introduction to NHE

First, a brief refresher course on the NHE.   I believe that all of human progress can be attributed to a dense network, the first elements of which were put in place eons ago, as our distant ancestors began employing language.  This network is comprised of all manner of things: language, writing, technology, moral and ethical teachings, art and memes, to name only a few.   All of these elements are fused within this network, one that has become denser and more nuanced with the passage of time.

We ascribe human progress to the accomplishments of great men and women throughout history, but this is only partly the case.  Whether they happen to be political leaders, moral sages, scientists or philosophers, all of these individuals have been integrally influenced by the elements of this network, the NHE.  They function as nodes within a vast network — singular and important ones, to be sure, but nodes nonetheless.

In fact, I’ve chosen the term exoskeleton rather than network to underscore the immense scope and influence of this contrivance and the individual’s sheer smallness in the face of it. The NHE is more than simply a network: It not only drives human progress but also protects and sustains us.  We, in a manner of speaking, are ensconced within our exoskeleton. We are integrally linked to it and it is impossible to step out of it. In fact, our species would face rapid extinction if we somehow managed to separate ourselves from it.

Shifts in Binding

Yet, it’s important to underscore that our exoskeleton is not only affected by external environmental threats but also shifts within its own network binding.  These shifts can be far-reaching and can pose significant challenges to humans as they adjust to them.

Indeed, one could argue that we are still adjusting to the disruption to network binding caused by the advent of the printing press some 500 years ago.  The higher levels of literacy that followed this technological advance contributed to all manner of social forces, notably, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, which ultimately led to the ideology that underpins the culture of the West: liberal democracy.

One of the hallmarks of democratic liberalism is the dizzying array of choices it imposes on each inhabitant of advanced societies, even regarding subjects that were once considered sacrosanct and not subject to discussion or debate.

Indeed, our exoskeleton has expanded to the degree that we are free to reject conventional explanations of the transcendent – to work out our own personal view of transcendence or, for that matter, to reject all notions of transcendence.

As this emerging sense of choice expands, older, more conventional forms of faith recede. Conventional faith once comprised a critical component of our exoskeleton.  But within the last half millennium, dramatic shifts within the binding of our exoskeleton have essentially worked to outstrip the ability of older traditions to maintain compelling narratives among growing numbers of people.

The Vast Expansion of the Exoskeleton

There is another factor that cannot be ignored.  The freedoms we enjoy, particularly, the freedom to create our own personal ethos, is an outgrowth of the vastly extended, highly specialized society that we have managed to create through our increasingly complex and nuanced exoskeleton. Such freedom would have been unimaginable only a few centuries ago.

It is also worth considering within the wider historical context. How much freedom do we have within this exoskeleton — really? It has greatly optimized our range of personal choices, yes, but to what degree has it expanded our personal autonomy? These are complicated questions that will have to be taken up at a later date.

Freedom and choice are outgrowths of shifts within our network.  Moreover, both are highly relative terms within the perspective of the human exoskeleton. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger spoke of freedom within a temporal sense, but questions of human choice and autonomy have been explored within considerably wider contexts. Moreover these two concepts have been subject to dramatic revisions across eons.

There is another critical issue to consider: Until the last several decades, Western concepts of freedom and choice had been closely integrated with and tempered by other binding within our network, namely a system of ethics and morality heavily influenced in the West by orthodox Christian teaching.

These connections will adhere, at least, to some degree, for the foreseeable future, but this binding is coming under increasing threat. And if our history has taught us one thing, it’s that we have every reason to heed the lessons of the past and to search for ways to weave the older binding of our network into emerging elements. In fact, we ignore this older binding at our own peril.

Dizzying Arrays of Choices

We must also understand that our  dizzying arrays of choices are a direct byproduct of the extended society that has emerged from our exoskeleton.  To express it another way, we are able to exercise some degree of individual autonomy only because our exoskeleton has grown so large, so complex and so extended.  Western monarchs were forced to undertake sweeping institutional changes that led to a parliamentary government as well as the civil liberties that we take wantonly for granted in the 21st century.

To put it another way, we owe the immense size and complexity of our network, our exoskeleton, an immense debt, though the scope and density of this exoskeleton present a new set of unique and, in the view of many, insurmountable challenges.

Much of this could be destroyed following some environmental apocalypse or technological calamity in which much of our scaffolding, particularly our technological scaffolding, was eliminated.

Following such a calamity, we no longer could take much of our autonomy for granted. We would have to deal with new systems of morality and ethics imposed by the new scaffolding that emerges.

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

A Remarkable Generational Dialogue

Grow-OldThe title that renowned filmmaker Peter Jackson’s chose for his new World War I documentary is quite appropriate — spot on, in fact.

Indeed, I’m convinced that “They Shall Not Grow Old” is the most apt title he possibly could have chosen for this magnificent work.

The documentary is like few others I’ve encountered over a lifetime of viewing documentaries. Its effect is raw, immediate and surreal — almost mystical, in fact. Yes, I know, this sounds glowing, almost hagiographic, but I can conceive of no other way to describe what he has achieved through all of these scripting and technological feats — one simply can’t depart the theater without being struck that something resembling a dialogue has occurred with long-deceased people across a century-old chasm.

In a very palpable sense, these soldiers haven’t grown old. Through Jackson’s artistic foresight, they have, in a manner of speaking, returned through the remarkable medium of colorized, digitally restored  film to teach us a lesson about our species in all of its damnable complexity — its dogged persistence and courage in the face of almost incomprehensible adversity, its wanton cruelty when pushed too far, and, yet, in spite of all this, its remarkable capacity for compassion and forgiveness, even in the midst of the most appallingly unpropitious circumstances.

Four years ago, the British Imperial War Museum offered Jackson, best known for his directorship of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit trilogies, a daunting but remarkable challenge: to work thousands of hours of war footage and interviews with long-deceased veterans into a coherent narrative to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War.

Jackson ended up parting significantly from the conventional script.  He used the latest advances in digital technology to enliven — I now of no other way to put this — all of this material into an epic and thoroughly unconventional narrative.  In crisp, three-dimensional, colorized form, we gain a glimpse of war in all of its banality and horror: images of men draping their bare buttocks over logs to defecate into pits and going about the daily business of burning lice out of their tunics, battlefields strewn with rotting corpses and the flesh-eating rats that fed off them, and wet, fetid trenches, miles upon miles of them, and the gangrenous cases of trench foot they produced.

Equally impressive was the way Jackson organized the film, which starts with carefully restored 3-D monochrome footage of everyday British rural and urban life, followed by the training and overseas deployment of Brtiish recruits. Initially, the images do not span the full screen.

Then, suddenly, there is an unanticipated transition to a full-screened image of troops standing on the perimeter of a sprawling trench. There they stand in 3-dimensional, colorized form, appearing to gaze directly at the audience. It is a quite jarring effect – a kind of communion with human beings long departed. Later in the film there is another scene of a British soldier, quite likely doomed, marching through a trench directly to an engagement. Yet, as he marches forward, he is unable to break his backward gaze toward the camera. Once again, one gets a sense of being in a kind of communion with a fellow human being, nameless and deceased, from a century ago.

Edmund Burke characterized society as “a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection.  As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

Leaving the theater yesterday, I could not stop thinking of Burke, of his characterization of society as a dialogue among the generations, both living and dead.  “They shall Not Die Young” is one such dialogue— a truly remarkable one. And there is more than a trace of irony in this fact, because the very technological achievements that arguably are working most to erode this generational dialogue — Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and sundry forms of digital technology — are also laying the groundwork for a remarkable glimpse into our past, perhaps even our very distant past.

We need more of these kinds of films in an age when technology seems to detract from our immediate and distant past as well as  many of the most basic human realities.  To be sure, the unrelenting march of technology ultimately may lead us down a path, a very dangerous path, that ultimately may culminate in horrors to which the battlefields of WWI pale in comparison.

Yet, Jackson’s film may have provided us with a glimpse into a silver lining of technology.  Perhaps one day our children and grandchildren my come away sobered, if not deeply chastened, by the insights these expanding technologies garner into the human condition by venturing deep into our species deep past.

This film will show one more time on the big screen on Dec. 27 in theaters throughout the United States.  Don’t pass up the opportunity to experience one of the most remarkable dialogues of a lifetime.

The Trailer for “They Shall Not Grow Old”

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A Fate Worse than the Talosians?

Talosian

The Keeper, from Star Trek’s first pilot “The Cage. Photo: Courtesy of Paramount. 

If you are a regular visitor to my blog, you’ve likely concluded from my writing, that I am a huge Star Trek fan.

I’ve posted below one of the most iconic scenes from the entire Star Trek genre, when Picard meets Kirk in the Nexus in Star Trek Generations. I’m especially intrigued by this scene because it embodies the  theme that was expressed loudly, boldly and confidently throughout the entire original series: an unrepentant faith in scientific progress and the eternal perfection of man.  In that respect, Star Trek embodied the values of 18th century Whig liberalism.   It served as a paean to modernism and the unrelenting, undaunted, march of scientific achievement, at least, what remained of it in the late 1960’s, in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and the midst of the Cold War and as the United States became more embroiled in the what ultimately proved to be the travesty of the Vietnam Conflict.

Civilizational Aspirations

Indeed, looking back more than a half century to its first season, I’m struck by how frequently Star Trek, particularly the original series, dealt with the danger of humanity’s becoming untethered from these lofty aspirations and with reality in general and, as a result, falling prey to some malignant force that would prevent our species from attaining its full potential.

Recall that the first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, dealt with this threat in the form of the illusion-making power of the wily, cerebral Talosians, whose atrophying civilization teetered on the verge of extinction — ironically, as the result of acquiring this remarkable skill.

As I’ve pointed out a number of times in this forum, this is one of the  things I’ve always found especially interesting and even inspiring about science fiction: Its having taken on many of the characteristics of religion by pointing humanity to threats, particularly technological threats, that traditional faith, perhaps because of its ancient lineage, is arguably not as well-equipped to do.

Warnings Seemingly Unheeded

In fact, as we move deeper into the 21st century, we seem to be on the verge of harnessing Artificial Intelligence in ways that bear a rather unsettling resemblance to the technology that ultimately threatened the fictitious Talosians. Indeed, quite a few public intellectuals, from the recently deceased cosmologist Stephen Hawking to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and historian Yuval Noah Harari, have essentially picked up where The Cage and other works of science fiction have left off, warning us about the myriad of dangers associated with this rapidly expanding technology.

In the years leading up to his death, Hawking warned us about the danger of our ultimately facing a threat from highly sophisticated, deadly robots, eerily portended in Terminator movie series.  More recently, Kissinger has raised the specter of AI’s imposing on us a set of ethics or morality not of our choosing, much as the technologically advanced Spaniards imposed their religion on the hapless Incans some 500 years ago.

In his most recent book, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” Harari warns that humans ultimately may be drawn incrementally into a future in which AI increasingly anticipates and assuages every human need and whim without our even having to ask for help, to the point where we are ultimately reduced to a coddled but enslaved species little different from the Soma users in Huxley’s Brave New World.

Equally remarkable is the fact that these warnings seem to be falling largely on deaf ears.  It seems there was a time, certainly when I was a boy growing up in the 60’s and early 70’s, that human beings seemed more fully attuned to these threats. Indeed, Star Trek was only one of several science fiction works that alerted us to these threats.  The films “Colossus: The Forbin Project,” and “Westworld” come to mind. Yet, in hindsight, this strikes me as a time long ago when people, especially Americans, still possessed a strong confidence in civilization and its capacity to adjust to rapid change.

Civilizational Ennui

Today, though, we seem to be beset by a kind of civilizational ennui, if not fatalism, one perhaps reflected in the opioid addiction and suicide epidemic that has much of the American hinterland it its grip. One gets the impression that tens of millions of people, not only ordinary people but also many elites in the United States and throughout the developed world, have essentially succumbed to a sort of post-modern malaise, concluding that the  challenges facing us are simply too complex, too intractable to resolve.

I’ve even wondered a time or two if some of us, whether consciously or unconsciously, harbor some measure of comfort from contemplating our species’ demise.  As I’ve observed before, some science fiction movies even seem to have touched on this theme, however gingerly, notably “The Invasion,” an updating of both the 1956 and 1978 versions of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

As with the two previous versions, the aims of the alien invaders are ultimately thwarted, yet in the final few minutes of “The Invasion,” a broadcast commentator almost seems to evince regret that humanity has been granted a reprieve from extinction. Moreover, one of the film’s principal characters, Yorish, rather dolefully observes, “All I’m saying is that civilization crumbles whenever we need it most. In the right situation, we are capable of the most terrible crimes. To imagine a world where this is no so, when every crisis did not result in new atrocities, where every newspaper is not full of war and violence — well, this is a world where human beings cease to be human.”

We seem to have traveled a long way from the heady optimism of Star Trek. Sometimes I even find myself succumbing to the view that we humans no longer possess the will nor the courage to save ourselves from what awaits us.  Perhaps more of us are coming to resemble the disillusioned and nihilistic Dr. Stephen Falken in the 1983 thriller WarGames, clinging to the hope that what ultimately supplants humanity eons from now will be better — more attuned to what threatens them, better equipped to avoid the malaise that seems to be consuming us.

Picard Meets Kirk in Star Trek: Generations.

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A Very Unorthodox 2018 Advent Message

ax

Photo: Courtesy of b.gliwa.

Every so often at around this time, I’ve feel compelled to craft some sort of seasonal message, an Advent message, of sorts.

These messages are not only heartfelt but also are intended to express two things: my evolving views on the Christian faith but also my deep-seated gratitude for this faith, which was instilled into me by my loving, diligent parents and other authority figures. I tend to feel this sense of gratitude rather acutely in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

The Incremental Nature of Christianity

For the last few years, I’ve reflected on the incremental nature of the Christian faith. As strange as this may sound, I relate it to how an exquisitely sharpened ax is driven into the trunk of a tree, particularly in terms of how this contact with the trunk occurs. If this were captured millisecond by millisecond by a high-resolution camera, we would see the unfolding of something remarkable. The initial impression would be expressed as a tiny indentation, a mere fraction of an inch in diameter, though becoming much deeper and wider over the course of only a tiny span of time.

Throughout history, the initial effects of political and religious movements have been similarly expressed. Indeed, in the vast majority of cases, these political and religious movements seldom extended beyond tiny impressions, almost as if some hidden force stopped a blade only a millisecond or so after striking into a tree.

Like an arrested ax, these movements, irrespective of their beliefs, either fail to gain traction over the course of time or are absorbed — preempted — in some measure by larger and more prominent political and religious groups. That has certainly proven to be the case with the vast majority of aspiring American political parties and religious sects throughout our history.

Yet, in rare cases, the initial impact deepens and, over the course of time, exerts deep indentations into human consciousness, much as a sharp ax driven into a tree trunk.

The Jesus Movement

So it was with the Jesus Movement. Jesus’ crucifixion initially amounted to a tiny pinprick on the human consciousness. But over the course of the days and weeks that followed Jesus’ crucifixion, his small circle of disciples and followers were compelled to reflect on his horrific suffering on the cross. They undoubtedly asked themselves, “How could a life so precious, so selfless and seemingly so significant be snuffed out through such ignominious and humiliating suffering and death?”

How this question ultimately was worked out over the course of the next few centuries transformed the fate of humanity.

A quarter century ago, I recall reading a rather compelling argument by the late diplomat and statesman George F. Kennan. He contended that the universal religion that eventually emerged out of the Mediterranean Basin, which we know today as Christianity, had to be the work of some deity or entities operating with the best aspirations for humanity. As he saw it, the remarkable confluence of events at around the time of Jesus’ birth could not have occurred without supernatural intervention.

At this point in life, I’m inclined to challenge that argument. As I’ve contended time and again, human fortunes have been driven by a network that our species, almost entirely unconsciously, has constructed over eons, one that has grown denser and more complex across time.

The human impulse for survival forced our distant forebears to develop very incrementally across the eons a kind of protective layer, what amounted to a networking of religion, culture, and technology, one that has been constructed via language and, more recently and far more significantly, writing. This protective layer has grown denser and far more complex across ages and has, in a manner of speaking, enabled us to sculpt all that we now regard as essential to the human condition. In a sense, God is embedded in this structure, this network, which I’ve come to call the Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton (NHE) to underscore its indispensably formative, protective and sustaining role on behalf of humanity.

NHE is a mouthful, I know, but I can’t conceive of any term better to express its nature of this contrivance. It has served our species in a myriad of ways, essentially in the form of a multi-generational dialogue that has allowed us to connect and build on ideas and concepts across time, whether these happen to be religious, political or cultural in nature.

The rudiments of this exoskeleton could not have been established eons ago but for the invention of language. Language enabled us to construct a few of the critical facets of this network, one that significantly surpassed the social interaction of simian species. But it was the much later invention of writing that enabled this network, this exoskeleton, to undergo great leaps in density and complexity. Writing enabled humans not only to refine their dialogue but to expand it across generations.

As this network, this exoskeleton, grew denser and more refined across time, it enabled human beings to organize political and religious structures spanning entire continents. And given that these massive political structures encompassed many different languages and cultures, this allowed for the cross-fertilization — the meeting, mating and morphing, as I have come to call it — of many different ideas.

The “Adjacent Possible”

In his superb book “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation,” science writer Steven Berlin Johnson, borrows a concept known as the “adjacent possible” from biologist Stuart Kaufman to illustrate how the cross-fertilization of ideas essentially provides a doorway to newer, more refined ideas and ways of doing things.

This is the critical factor that I believe accounts for why the eastern half of the Mediterranean Basin provided such fertile conditions for the formation and spread of the universal monotheistic religion we know today as the Christian faith. As journalist and religious writer Robert Wright aptly observes in his book, “The Evolution of God,” the Roman Empire provided an open platform of sorts, a means by which all manner of political and religious ideas could be propagated across vast distances.

The Mediterranean Basin during the Roman imperial period provided an unusually rich medium for the merging of the ideals of Greek and Hebrew thought that characterizes present-day Christianity. Indeed, this merging arguably enabled the Jesus movement to make the critical leap to become the world’s first universal religion, a development that held profound implications not only for the Roman Empire but also for future generations of human beings across the planet.

Much of this was portended in the God Fearers — as their name implies, the monotheistic-minded Gentile Roman subjects throughout the empire who identified with much, if not most, of the theology of Judaism, which was practiced throughout much of the Mediterranean world.

It is also worth stressing that Christianity, as the world’s largest and most globally dispersed universal religion serves as its own open-source platform for the formation of new ways of thinking, particularly in terms of how this relates to ethics and the quest toward humanity’s connection to and wider function within the universe — not surprising, considering how deeply Christian views of compassion and transcendence are now so deeply embedded within the human exoskeleton.

In of very real sense, the kenotic (self-emptying) effects of Christianity are still being expressed.

To return to my earlier analogy, it is as if the sharp edge of the Christian ax is still being applied to the trunk of human civilization. And while this impact, in the view of some, is becoming more attenuated over the course of time as a result of secularization, its effects are still profound. Humans, especially in the West, are still engaged in a dialogue that is still profoundly Christian. In a very real sense, the contours of the Christian faith are still being refined.

Perhaps across time we will discover that other advanced species throughout the cosmos have constructed and benefited from similar networks, structures built across eons to protect their species and to pass essential knowledge from one generation to the next.

Fanciful Thinking? 

Some readers may discount all of this as simply fanciful thinking. But it reflects my own protracted struggle to pull disparate threads together into a coherent narrative, one from which others may derive some measure of value.

Recently, a very bright and committed orthodox Christian confronted me with a argument, one with which I’ve struggled with for many years. As she stressed, the problem with taking any view that leaves out a formal Christian god intervening throughout human history amounts to asserting that good and evil simply cannot exist. As she expressed it, “all there can be is mere personal preference.”

Granted, I am no orthodox Christian. I believe that our understanding of God and transcendence is entirely a byproduct of our exoskeleton. Even so, I believe that this greatest of all human contrivances, this exoskeleton, not only has afforded us with grand conceptual and technological leaps but has also enabled us to garner real insights into our species — its genius as well as its acute limitations. In a very real sense, this exoskeleton has enabled us to discern good from evil. And as we refine our understanding of this exoskeleton and how God is embedded within it, we must afford conventional religion, particularly the Christian faith, immense credit. It has played not only a vital but also an indispensable role within this network. Indeed, the march of human progress would not have been possible without the presence of religion, particularly the Christian faith.

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Iceberg Morality: The Christian Moral and Ethical Legacy of the West

iceberg

Photo: Courtesy of AWeith.

I have become an avid Twitter follower of Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option, who has offered a lot of thoughtful and valuable insight into the implications of a post-Christian West, particularly in terms of how this is reflected by the State of New York’s passage of a law that would allow abortions to be performed up to the time of birth for several reasons.

I am no orthodox Christian.  As a matter of fact, I’m a nontheist and a Darwinian evolutionist. Moreover, I am by definition pro-choice: I believe that the choice of continuing or terminating a pregnancy should be left to the mother up to the end of the first trimester.

Even so, I respect historic Christian, particularly Catholic, teaching regarding the abortion issue. And I believe that Dreher is as right as rain about how the left’s enthusiastic embrace of more extreme views on abortion reflect the ongoing decline of traditional Christianity within Western society.

How is that for  convoluted thinking?

I would argue that what we perceive as morality and ethics in an advanced society reflect the culmination of centuries of informed, impassioned and even acrimonious discussion and debate.  To put it another way, prevailing perceptions of Western morality and ethics represent only a portion of all the painstaking thought and discussion that has been invested across eons and that enabled humanity to eke out a coherent moral and ethical code.

That is what we are missing, to the great detriment of America and the West. And as hard as it may be for many secular-minded people to accept, much of this moral scaffolding we take wantonly for granted today was derived through religious thought and sentiment.

Western morality and ethics are inextricably bound up with Christianity. I know of no simpler way of expressing it.

To put it another way, I would argue that Christian moral and ethical teachings could be likened to an iceberg.  Much of what comprises the moral and ethical foundations of the West is largely indiscernible, much like the bulk an iceberg.

Traditional Christian teachings are so bound up with the scaffolding of Western culture that we can’t begin to discern where Christian moral teaching ends and where its newer secular counterpart begins.

One even could argue that aside from being hatched out of Christian moral teaching that secular morality and ethics simply lack the subtle distinctions that characterize two millennia of Christian teaching.   And that is not all that surprising, considering that so much of what we know as secularism is an outgrowth of 18th Century Enlightenment thought, which was focused far more on expanding human freedom rather than on circumscribing the pernicious outgrowths of it.

Moreover, I think that the recently enacted New York law that loosens rules on abortion attests to the shortfalls of secular morality and ethics. There is no secular moral or ethical teaching of which I am aware that evinces anything approaching Christianity’s emphasis on maintaining a high threshold for life.

Those with a more secular world view invariably would argue that there are countless numbers of  “good and decent” secular people who possess moral and ethical systems just as evolved and nuanced as those of many Christians.

I don’t dispute that fact.  I know quite a few of them.  I would even count myself as one.

But I would counter with the question: How many self-identified secularists stepped up to oppose the Nazi euthanization program in the years leading up to the World War II?

For matter, how many secular ethicists evince so much as a passing sympathy for the Catholic/Christian side of the abortion debate raging throughout the United States and much of the Western world today? How many secular ethicists uphold an uncompromisingly pro-life standard amidst this increasingly acrimonious debate?

One isn’t required to be a cradle Catholic or a zealous covert to admire the historic Catholic stand on abortion as well as the church’s historic affirmation of the sanctity of human life. They reflect the church’s deep thoughts and reflections over centuries regarding humanity’s role in creation and in its relationship to God. Historic Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life has served a critically important role in refining debate in Western society, not only regarding the perennial abortion issue but also other contentious issues such as euthanasia and the long-term implications of transhumanism, to name a few.

Yes, the increasingly attenuated voice of Catholicism and other forms of dissident speech in the marketplace of ideas concerns me. It should concern all of us. And this has been widely and, I would argue, justifiably, ascribed  to the increasing ideological rigidity of much of the left.

Many on the left would dismiss traditional Catholic views on abortion and the sanctity of life merely as the ravings of “cis-gendered” celibate and comparatively privileged males. That, needless to say, is a totally uninformed view, given the fact that Catholic views not only were shaped by men but also by a number of women through the ages. Among the prominent Catholics are women who, after abandonment by a lover or facing some other contingency, terminated pregnancy and thereafter spent a lifetime reflecting on the implications of their decisions. The great Catholic social worker and Christian apologist Dorothy Day was one of them.

Honestly, if progress is to be defined in the future as the complete rout of historic Christian thought from the venues of respectable debate, then we are approaching very dark days indeed.

I will end by posting a final couple of questions: How far down the road will we be in another few decades, after the Christian scaffolding of the West undergoes further erosion? How many people will be inspired to affirm the value of life as it has been historically viewed within an orthodox Christian context?

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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.

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