Sunday, January 3, 2010

AtF: Taking a Step Back

Towards the beginning of the eighth chapter of The Fourth Part of the World Toby Lester offers up one of those paragraphs that transcends the subject at hand and offers a breathtakingly succinct explanation of one of the biggest problems we face in modern America. It’s the sort of paragraph that can inform any and every encounter with a reality deficient member of the faith community, specifically the folks who still actively believe in the creation account in Genesis.
The standard prehumanist approach to the study of the classics in medieval Europe was to focus on how the writings of the ancients had anticipated or could buttress Christian ideas. This was what early Christians had done in appropriating the classical three-part model of the world, and it was what the scholastics had done in appropriating Aristotle’s theory of the cosmos. But because many of the pagan works of antiquity didn’t mesh with Christian theology, Latin authorities often argued that such works should be ignored or suppressed. “If anything happens to be out of harmony or discordant,” Cassiodorus had declared in his Institutions, “let us consider it something to be avoided.” Pre-Christian history had no real chronological texture in this view: it amounted to a two-dimensional backdrop to the present, containing people and places and stories and myths and ideas that, drawn upon selectively, could help flesh out a Christian worldview. This was the historical perspective embodied in the medieval mappaemundi.[1]
This is the exact same way of looking at the world that Biblical literalists use today. I think it’s also not at all a coincidence that they choose to decry humanism, secular society, and the Enlightenment[2] while they do so. But that’s why I must take a step back before I can really start the After the Flood stuff over again. No matter how much I try to wrap my mind around it I cannot fathom how the mappaemundi could possibly have realistically depicted a spherical Earth in the mind of, well, anyone. Medieval scholars were aware of the equator and the Arctic and Antarctic Circles (which, they believed, were completely frozen and uninhabitable). They believed that the temperate zone in which Europe, the parts of Africa they knew of, and Asia existed were to the north of what was known as the Torrid Zone, an area around the equator in which it was simply too hot to live. They also believed that the area of sea between the western edge of Europe and the eastern edge of Asia was between 1/6 and 1/4 of the size of the landmass itself. Put all of these bits of speculation together and try to come up with a way that the known lands of the world could fit in to a perfect circle. Mull it over. Pull out a napkin and sketch away. It just doesn’t work. It’s possible to take away elements of this cosmology and create a sensible explanation. Make the world flat and it works. Turn the world in to a cylinder and it can make sense. Drop the map on to an entire hemisphere or change the ratio so the known world is 1/6 the width of the ocean instead of the other way around and you’ve got yourself a possible map. But the story as it was told just doesn’t add up. And don’t even think about measuring it against reality. So this is the mindset we must take when we approach After the Flood and its ilk. And that’s why I’ve been going about deconstructing it wrong. It might even explain at least a part of my tendency to feel like I’m hitting my head against a wall and repeating myself time and again. See, I’ve made the mistake of treating Bill Cooper as a contemporary historian. What I should be doing is treating him like one of those sequestered monks from eight hundred years ago who fell asleep for a few centuries and has recently awakened and decided to take up the quill again. This is, in fact, how we should considered the works of all Biblical literalists. It makes so much more sense if we imagine them trying to figure out the exact placement of the Tower of Babel for their newest mappa mundi. It’s a little harsh, I suppose, but Bill Cooper has far more in common with Cassiodorus than he does with John Darwin. It therefore makes little sense to engage something Cooper wrote in the same way I would engage something Darwin wrote. Against a modern historian using the proper methods of historical inquiry you critique the arguments, root out questionable sources and search for better data. Against a 12th Century monk you engage the mentality and point out how the thought process itself is flawed. Consider for a moment Matthew Paris, the monk we met in part 5 of the master narrative series. He wrote prolifically about history and drew maps for a pilgrimage from London to Jerusalem. Yet his historical record for anything before he began recording the events of his own life was simply a copy of the record left by his predecessor. And he never actually walked that road from London to Jerusalem. He simply wrote out and illustrated an itinerary he’d received from someone else. He never went out and found his own information or tested any hypotheses. It was considered dangerous for a monk to go out in to the world. He might have to deal with temptation and no good ever comes from that. I had an interesting realization a couple of days ago. It really doesn’t do much good to simply look at something like After the Flood and say, “Okay, what does modern scholarship have to say about this topic?” We also have to say, “What did the people who came before have to say about this?” There’s a simple reason for that question. There was a net loss of information during the medieval period. The Renaissance was kicked off by a re-discovery of vast numbers of ancient texts, after all. More importantly, it was fueled by the realization that ancient Roman and Greek thinkers searched for an empirical explanation of the world and didn’t just ask, “So how does this bit of data support the account in the Bible?” It is then necessary to ask what information was available that Christian scholars didn't or actively refused to know. It’s sad, really. Here we are nearly seven centuries after the beginning of the Italian Renaissance and we still have writers who cannot get past trying to make every bit of data we have about the world around us fit with the Bible. We should be far beyond this now. But the Biblically literal crowd acts as a drag on society, holding back progress in all areas of learning, both theoretical and practical. They try to force us to avoid properly mapping the cosmos because it might upset their limited cosmology. They prefer, in short, their own wildly inaccurate mappae mundi and would like us to use it, too. So when we engage their arguments we have already lost. Facts and figures don’t work in changing the minds of people who believe that the landmasses of the world form a perfect circle that contains both Eden and Babel. It requires something different, something subtle. We must engage the mindset. -------------------------- [1]I read this paragraph about twenty-four hours after writing my post about mappae mundi. I’m always happy when things like that happen and make it a point to point out the general coolness. I was already planning on writing this particular post at that point, but hadn’t figured out quite how to tie it in to the master narrative series I’m working on. My problem was solved on page 151… [2]The Enlightenment being the philosophical grandchild of the Renaissance, which was kicked off with the birth of humanism. But we’re not quite to Petrarch yet. So that didn’t quite work out as well as I’d planned. That parts 4 and 5 were kind of supposed to go together, but there ended up being a lot more in them than I was expecting. Life’s like that sometimes, I suppose…


bluefrog said...

Yes. This. I'm still at a loss as to how to engage someone with the mindset of a 12th century monk in a conversation about present reality, but I can see that that's the only approach that wouldn't leave me beating my head against the wall.

John Darwin = Charles Darwin's smarter brother?

Geds said...

Sorry, no. John Darwin is an Oxford historian and holds some sort of chair or another. He's the author of After Tamerlane, which I've mentioned several times on the blog. He was also the first real historian that came to mind when I was writing the post.

bluefrog said...

Ah. Thanks. I remember _After Tamerlane_, but not the author. I looked him up: John Darwin, Beit University Lecturer in the History of the British Commonwealth, and a Fellow of Neuffield College, Oxford. He sounds like someone I need to read.

Fiat Lex said...

Good post as usual.

Also, safe journey and may Texas be delightful for you. Our weather, I've read, is already down there so you'll still feel at home!

Religion as i see it, in the broadest sense, is "the set of beliefs on which a person bases their identity." If one's religion happens to include a priori assumptions about the nature of external reality, then external reality *must* be stretched to fit the terms of one's belief. Otherwise one's identity is threatened, or in the worst case damaged--in the kinds of ways that sometimes lead to nervous breakdowns or clock tower shooting sprees.

Which is one reason fanatical literalists and fanatics of all stripes have such a hair trigger about their pet issues. Threaten the legitimacy of their beliefs, and you are threatening the very core of their being.

Cause apparently, y'know, to run your personality on that type of belief requires suspending your whole self from the weave of assumptions, like choosing to live in a hand-knit hammock that's swinging over the edge of a cliff. And ever smartass disbelieving pundit who comes along with their different points of view keep reaching for that one dangling thread, like they don't see what a terrible thing they're about to do.

XD That was today's unnecessarily convoluted metaphor. Hope it made sense!