Thursday, May 5, 2016

Discerning Our Historical Context

It’s helpful to know history because it’s important for us to be able to place ourselves in some meaningful historical context. This way we avoid thinking about our challenges in harmfully short-sighted ways. Where we are now is the result of long-term historical trends. Responding to contemporary challenges, even correctly identifying them, requires similarly long-term thinking and an avoidance of any imagined quick fixes.
In past essays, we have talked about different historical ages. Each age is characterized by the emergence of a new religion. Around 4000 BC, we had our first historical age, that of Olympianity. After that we experienced the Ages of Yahwism (1921 BC-AD 1), Christianity (AD 1-622), and Islam (622-1648).

In 1648, we witnessed the beginning of the Age of Exuberant Olympianity. Latin Christendom had ruined itself in a vicious civil war that began in 1521 and didn’t finish until all sides had exhausted themselves in 1648. With the end of that war came the end of the Age of Christianity in what had been Latin Christendom. That war completely discredited Christianity as a meaningful witness to the only true god of truth, freedom, love, and vitality. After 1648, the most creative minds in what had been Latin Christendom devoted themselves to the Olympian gods with renewed enthusiasm.
It is this exuberant Olympianity, this enthusiastic devotion to six conventional but destructive gods of power, which has led us to the civilizational collapse we face today. These gods are just that happy to lead us into death through our devotion to them.
In his book, The Twilight of American Culture (2000), Morris Berman summarizes and critiques a different understanding of our historical context, one developed by sociologist Pitirim Sorokin in his Social and Cultural Dynamics (originally published between 1937 and 1941). According to Pitirim, there are two basic types of civilization. The first he called ideational. We will refer to it as transcendent because this type of civilization is based on realities, like God and Heaven, which transcend what we can perceive through our five senses. Pitirim called the second type of civilization sensate, because it focused only on those realities which we can perceive through our five senses and excluded all others.
If transcendent and sensate civilizations are the two basic types, there is a third transitional type. Pitirim called this type idealistic. Historically, this type is rare and relatively short-lived. According to Morris’ understanding of Pitirim, in the history of Olympia, an idealistic civilization has only emerged twice: first, in Hellas between 500 and 320 BC, during the golden age of Athens; then, in Latin Christendom between 1200 and 1350 (104).
According to Pitirim, Latin Christendom was an exemplary transcendent civilization between 500 and 1100. “‘If at any period in the history of the Western mentality the philosophers and the people as a whole felt that they were in possession of the truth, it was in these centuries. There was no skepticism, no questioning, no doubt, no relativity, no hesitation, no reservation’” (104). During these centuries, truth was known by revelation as interpreted by established authorities and expressed in church dogmas. This truth was intellectually affirmed by all and participated in through church rituals.
Beginning in the late 1000s, however, ways of understanding the truth broadened beyond revelation to include reason and even sensate observation. These new ways led to Latin Christendom becoming an idealistic civilization between 1200 and 1350. According to Pitirim, the Summa Theologica (1265-1274) of Thomas Aquinas represents one of the most balanced affirmations of revelation, reason, and sensate observation ever.
The balance represented by Thomas didn’t hold. According to Pitirim, Western Civilization abandoned its affirmation of both transcendent truth and reason and became a sensate civilization after 1350. “By the early twentieth century, this [sensate] culture began to show signs of fatigue and self-destruction” (105).
With Pitirim, we may observe certain patterns. A civilization begins in a transcendent phase, transitions through an idealistic one, then becomes sensate. Sensate civilizations decay to the point that they are abandoned and another civilization, based on a new transcendent truth, begins. In terms of this pattern, if our current sensate civilization is indeed collapsing, a new transcendent one will eventually replace it.
Let us pause a moment to recognize a Chalcedonian pattern here. We have transcendent truth and we have sensate truth. We don’t want to separate the two, as is done in transcendent civilizations as well as sensate ones. We don’t want to mix the two, as is done briefly during idealistic civilizations. But we do want to affirm the higher priority of transcendent truth. It gives us the meaning which provides the context in which sensate truth must find its place.
Morris praises Pitirim’s understanding of civilizations for predicting important aspects of our current crisis. In the 1930s, Pitirim anticipated today’s inability to distinguish truth from falsehood and good from evil, our loss of intellectual creativity, a worldview lacking logical and aesthetic coherence, the flood of mediocre products with little of quality, and our preference for power instead of freedom. Pitirim knew that, today, instead “of classics, we shall have best-sellers; instead of genius, technique. Real thought will be supplanted by information. Security will fade, and catastrophe will ensue” (106).
Still, Morris also expresses some logical misgivings about Pitirim’s ideas. Pitirim regarded our coming transition to a new transcendent civilization as good. Morris is less fond of the idea. He finds the transcendent civilization of Latin Christendom, from 500 to 1100, as rightly referred to as a Dark Age.
Pitirim believed Western civilization went sensate and bad after 1350. Morris thinks that it may have gotten more sensate at that time but definitely didn’t start to decline that early. His reasoning: “The period from 1350 to 1850 was surely Europe’s most fertile and creative era” (106).
Pitirim talked about transcendent, idealistic, and sensate civilizations. I think it’s more helpful to think of those as phases of a particular civilization. In that light, we might say that our exuberant Olympian civilization began in 1648 with an emphasis on reason at the expense of revelation. That phase, when reasonableness reigned, we call the Enlightenment. It gave way eventually to what become an almost exclusively sensate one. We are now in the decaying period of that phase.
In previous essays on different historical ages, I said that the Age of Exuberant Olympianity extended from 1648 to 2008. I chose eight years ago as the end of the age because that is when the global economic system suffered a failure from which it has yet to recover and likely never will. Worse, that economic crisis triggered (and is now compounded by) other crises. I identified 2008 as the end of the age because that year, I believe, marked the beginning of the terminal decline of the civilization of exuberant Olympianity.
According to Pitirim, our next civilization will be a transcendent one. At least that’s been the pattern. I think it would be more helpful, however, for us as prophetic witnesses to Jesus Christ to affirm both transcendent and sensate truths while affirming the greater importance of transcendent truth. I think our task now is to discern and affirm ways of doing just that as an alternative society and culture.

Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci.
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