One God, many peoples I: JudeoIslamic universalism

This is the first of a 4-part series.

The reactionary blogosphere is largely a debate between Christians and secular or pagan antiliberals.  Thus, we argue a lot about whether Christianity is to blame for unleashing anti-cultural universalism and egalitarianism on the world.  The related but deeper question is what spiritual forces, whether or not they are distinctly Christian, have driven these movements. I’d like to start this little investigation by inviting a couple of interesting outsiders to have their say, reserving my own arguments for later.

First, here’s historian David Levering Lewis lamenting the victory of Charles Martel at Tours:

Had [Muslim general] ‘Abd al-Rahman’s men prevailed that October day, the post-Roman Occident would probably have been incorporated into a cosmopolitan, Muslim regnum unobstructed by borders … one devoid of a priestly caste, animated by the dogma of equality of the faithful, and respectful of all religious faiths … [T]he victory of Charles the Hammer must be seen as greatly contributing to the creation of an economically retarded, balkanized, fratricidal Europe that, in defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of religious persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy.

How about that?  Islam=equality, cosmopolitanism, and tolerance.  Christianity=particularism and hierarchy.  That’s the common wisdom among historians.  Not all monotheisms are the same, and if group loyalty is what you care about, you’re much better off with Christianity.  For their part, Muslims seem to be proud that their faith and its law teach individualism and equality, that it dissolves national and ethnic boundaries.

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Whether Leftism is a Christian heresy

Of course not.  And yet the claim is often heard from groups that otherwise agree on very little.  The neo-pagan and neo-reactionary Right say that Leftism is just the working out of noxious elements present in Christianity from the beginning.  Some say that these were temporarily offset by other, positive, elements of Christianity; others are under the impression that Christianity itself is pure Leftist drivel but only seemed otherwise because of its “Germanization”, i.e. a borrowed veneer of pagan virility.  (Remember, most people don’t know anything about the pre-Constantinian Church or the Christianized Roman Empire, so the idea that Christians were a bunch of pacifist, egalitarian hippies until the conversion of the Germans actually sounds plausible to them.)  On the other hand, we have all encountered Christian apologists eager to claim that, on balance, Christianity has been on the side of “progress”, that democracy, female equality, and anti-racism really are in some profound sense our ideas and could never have taken hold without the Gospel.

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Thoughts (for Students) on Language

Unexpectedly in mid-summer vacation, my departmental chair asked me whether I could assume supervision of some courses previously taught by a faculty member who had taken retirement on short notice at the end of the spring semester. One course concerned the Anglo-Saxon and Norman roots of Modern English and in general the history of the language. The other course concerned theories of language, of which it is designed to offer a survey, more or less at the instructor’s discretion. The clientele for both courses comes largely from the current cohort of teachers-in-training in my college’s School of Education and in some part from English majors. The new assignment required me to marshal my knowledge of the two areas and quickly to devise two syllabi. In writing the syllabi, I decided to introduce each course to its enrollment in the form of an essay. There is some repetition of ideas in both introductions, but that is inevitable given that the subject-matter of the two courses necessarily overlaps. I share the results with my fellow Orthosphereans.

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New Articles

Apropos of Kristor’s recent recommendation of an essay, available online, by the redoubtable René Girard (born ninety years ago), I call attention to my latest contribution at The Brussels Journal, “Globalism as Sacrificial Crisis,” a discussion in review of The Mark of the Sacred by Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who works from a declaredly “Girardian” perspective. The Mark of the Sacred is a courageous analysis of the existing crisis in terms of Girard’s concepts of mimesis and the sacred. The review is a follow-up to two earlier ones that also appeared at the Journal – those of Gregory Copley’s Un-Civilization and Eric Cline’s 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed. I am indebted, as always, to Luc van Braekel, for the handsome treatment of the text.

The article is here: http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5148

I am also indebted, as often I have been in the past, to Angel Millar, webmaster of The People of Shambhala, for posting my essay on “Ur-Civilization, Cosmology, and the Invention of History,” which couches a discussion of how much we know of the human past, and of how certain many people are of knowing everything about it, in the context of a quest for the merits inherent in what its detractors refer to as pseudo-archeology. Readers of The Orthosphere who are familiar with such names as Ignatius T. Donnelley or C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne, might find some modest pleasure in my paragraphs.  (As I hopefully predict…)

The article is here: http://peopleofshambhala.com/ur-civilization-and-the-invention-of-history/

The Enemy Speaks His Mind

Sometimes our Adversary hurls his mask on the ground and dances on it screaming with rage. In the video below you may see embodied the term toward which we ultimately tend, as things now stand, and so long as our current ideological tyrants continue to have their way. He’s Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, responding to the risible hashtag campaign against his gang’s kidnapping of 276 Christian girls.

To clear up any confusion about his plan, our Enemy makes it clear at 0.24 on the video: Kill Christians.

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The Moribund Orthosphere

Bruce Charlton recently noticed that things have been quiet around here lately, and wondered whether it might not be due to an insuperable incoherence in the notion of the “mere Christianity” to which this site has generally been committed as a de minimis condition of true – that is to say, godly – civilization.

It isn’t. Not for me, anyway. There’s a much simpler explanation. For me as for bonald, there has lately been much to write about and almost no time to write. I’ve had little alternative this summer so far but to focus all my energies on my business and my family (for reasons that are all both urgent and happy). There have concomitantly been some interesting developments in my spiritual life, related to the beginnings of my immersion in Roman Catholic spirituality, that have disinclined me to write for the last couple of months – not just here at the Orthosphere, but in my correspondence, and even in my private journal. These developments – not so much a correction as an elaboration, amplification and implementation of the Christian spirituality I had learned as an Anglican – strike me as salutary, but I don’t quite understand them yet. Indeed, with the ground shifting somewhat under my feet, all my understandings, in every department (such as they are), are likewise shifting. This gentle seismic motion is generating a torrent of grist for my intellectual mill – too much, so far, for me to get much of a handle on any of it. So it seems somewhat too early to write about it. But the shift is pervasive, and that means it has been tricky to approach writing about anything at all.

Nevertheless, I feel that I am now ready to begin again. Which will be a relief, because I have about 80 posts waiting to be set down.

The Orthosphere is in no sense coordinated. We don’t vet each other’s posts, and there is no plan about who will post what when. We just write what we feel like writing. I doubt therefore that the late quiet around here is due to any cause other than the happenstance that from time to time opens a moment of uncanny silence even in a room full of people happily chatting away with each other. Such silences are meaningless in themselves. But I find them strangely refreshing, as reminding everyone involved that all our discourse supervenes upon a wider world of far more powerful and urgent currents, with altogether other, bigger, wilder concerns, that nevertheless graciously stoops to admit and support our little engagements with each other.

I suppose that means that such “happenstantial” silences are not in fact altogether meaningless, even vis-à-vis the details of the conversations they punctuate. Silence, after all, is not noise.

In any event, they pass too quickly away, and the subsequent renewal of conversation seems then even more vivacious than before.

So I will not be surprised if things get a bit busier around here in the coming weeks. Or if they don’t. Conversation here at the Orthosphere is like weather. Sometimes there is a lot of it, and sometimes there isn’t.

None of this, of course, is to say that Bruce is wrong in his skepticism about the viability of mere Christianity. I’m of several minds about that myself.

Re-Post: Michael Powell’s I Know Where I’m Going (1945)

When, several semesters ago, my department chair asked me to teach the local version of the nowadays-pervasive “popular culture” course, I consented with some mild misgivings and, as I like to do, took a mostly historical approach to course-content. I have no investment in contemporary popular culture, the wretchedness of it striking me as consummate. My students, for their part, being morbidly, continuously immersed in contemporary popular culture, require no one to acquaint them with it. At least they require no one to tutor them in it directly, since it regrettably is their ubiquitous, hortatory guide, and their authoritative cue-giver, for all facets of life. But one might apprise them about the insipidity of existing mass-entertainment indirectly by putting it in contrast with the popular entertainments of the past, including the classic films that most of them have never seen and, more importantly, would never seek out on their own. One film that I showed to students was the Errol Flynn vehicle The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), directed by Michael Curtiz. Another one, not so well known as Robin Hood, was the Roger Livesey/Wendy Hiller vehicle I Know Where I’m Going (1945), directed by Michael Powell (1905 – 1990).

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Of Possible Interest

The second part of my essay on S. T. Coleridge appears at Angel Millar’s People of Shambhala website under the title “The Poet as Rebel: Inside Coleridge’s Pleasure Dome.”  The link is here: http://peopleofshambhala.com/the-poet-as-rebel-inside-coleridges-pleasure-dome/

I offer the concluding paragraph as a sample:

Traditionalists think of Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) and Joseph de Maistre (1753 – 1821) as the great counter-revolutionary philosophers. Coleridge belongs with them. Coleridge, like de Maistre, saw that the political upheavals of his time maintained an intimate relation with the diminution of consciousness implied by the doctrines of materialism and naturalism. Coleridge did not possess the word scientism, no more than did de Maistre, but he knew that which it signifies. He could see, moreover, that the diminution of consciousness under specious doctrines was a trend, and that, unchecked, it would be disastrously upward-trending. As an expression of “the brute passions and physical force of the multitude” acting under the sanction of “abstract reason,” the scientistic attitude, that monstrum hybridum of the age, would thrash like a Leviathan, leaving the wreckage of humanity in its path.

Of Possible Interest

I have an article at the website of the Pope Center for Higher Education on the difficulty of teaching a course on literary criticism in the prevailing post-literate condition. The link is here: http://www.popecenter.org/commentaries/article.html?id=3019. I have another article, or rather the first part of a two-part article, on S. T. Coleridge as a Traditionalist, at Angel Millar’s People of Shambhala website. The link is here: http://peopleofshambhala.com/a-vision-in-a-dream-s-t-coleridge-on-imagination-and-politics/. My review of James Kalb’s Against Inclusiveness, for The University Bookman, is here: http://www.kirkcenter.org/index.php/bookman/article/todays-totalitarians/.

PS. The Pope Center article is a version of an item that I first posted here at The Orthosphere a couple of months ago.

The Year Civilization Collapsed

At The Brussels Journal, I review Eric H. Cline’s new book 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Cline’s topic is the “Catastrophe” that afflicted the Eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age. Cline’s service is to have correlated the large monographic literature on the “Catastrophe” and to have organized it in complementary narrative and analysis.  The review is here:  http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5134

I offer an excerpt:

Just before reading The Year Civilization Collapsed I read Gregory R. Copley’s Un-Civilization: Urban Geo-Politics in a Time of Chaos (2013).  Copley sees the existing global economy as a distorted, unstable system already embarked down the slope of collapse.  The malaise of the contemporary system in Copley’s analysis stems from many of the distortions that Cline cites as contributing to the end of the Bronze Age: Centralized bureaucratization of the societies; overspecialization within the total mercantile network such that a disruption anywhere must spread its effects like ripples everywhere else; vulnerable infrastructure, such as, in the modern instance, the electrical grid; unregulated, massive migrations of peoples; and the development of enmitous social factions within societies, in some cases massively immigration-driven.  Copley predicts a crisis, one effect of which will be plummeting depopulation leading to the desertification of the distended World Cities.

The parallelisms between Copley’s assessment of the contemporary situation and Cline’s hypothesis about the causes and character of the Catastrophe are quite obvious and quite disconcerting.  Copley differs from Cline in his willingness to include moral failures as playing a role in the impending (as he sees it) debacle.  Cline explicitly disavows any gesture of “laying blame,” as when he criticizes invoking the “Sea Peoples” as agents of a general destruction in the concluding phase of the Catastrophe.  Nevertheless, The Year Civilization Collapsed is extremely valuable.  The Catastrophe is little-known – unlike the specious “Fall of Rome,” so often celebrated in novels and cinema.  It ought to be better-known, as it would serve as a useful reference in getting people to understand the terrible fragility of the civilized accomplishment.  One ingredient of total social calamity at which Cline hints but which he nowhere fully develops is the complacency of the people, their dumb belief that nothing can change in the way of life.  The psychological inertia of complacency plays a large role in the stultification of the existing “global order,” which more and more resembles ambient disorder.