Thursday, June 28, 2012

Interviews with a Vampire Novelist IV: Final Encounter

(For earlier parts of the conversation, see Part I, Part II, and Part III.) 

A.  The Devil and Mrs. Rice

AR: I've been talking about Western Civilization.  And I do think the West is putting considerable pressure on the Asian and African countries to try to stop genocide, and female mutilation and other evils in other parts of the world. We have a long way to go, but this is the first time in history (the last fifty years) that the world has even seriously entertained the notion of human rights for all persons and putting an end to global hunger, genocide and war. I think we are doing marvelously well.

Stonings in the Middle East make international news. So do cruel applications of Sharia in Pakistan.

So does cruelty to women in Afghanistan. So bride burnings in India. And there is pressure put in all these places to stop these abuses and others.

AR: CAM, you do realize that for 2,000 years Christians have been predicting the Second Coming? You do realize that?   That Paul and Jesus were both wrong on the matter, according to
Scripture. Their predictions did not pan out.  And nobody's predictions since have proved to be true either, obviously.

AR: I do not myself believe in the Devil, or demonic entities. There may be some evidence for ghosts and discarnate beings, but I do not think there is compelling evidence for demonic possessions or demonic entities. So if young people or druggies "dabble" in the occult I do not see this as something serious or having much impact. My focus would be what they do
day to day in terms of real crime or cruelty.

DM: I have met at least one person (in Taiwan) who "dabbled in the occult," and seemed either demented or demon-possessed as a result -- highly manipulative, and possibly dangerous. Having heard of many such similiar cases, I am less skeptical on this point. One I heard of recently, from a friend who was his aunt, reminded me of the comment by Jungleman in Spirit of the Rainforest, a Yanomamo shaman, "All we shaman know that the spirits are happiest when we kill people."

I'm partly skeptical, still, but would also be cautious about dismissing the possibility.

AR: Yes, David, I see your point.  I'm seventy years old. I've lived in San Francisco, New Orleans and the environs of LA and other places. I've met countless young people who were Goths, New Agers, etc. dabbled with ouija boards and such.

I have never myself encountered anything tangible or real connected with the occult. Never met a Satanist. Never met anyone who claimed to be a "real vampire," or anyone who claimed to know one (crazy emails not withstanding.)

But I am familiar (through reading) with the nature of Candomble and Santa Ria and the interesting books people have written about their encounters with these belief systems. And I would not myself go out of my way to disturb a make shift offering or shrine in the streets of Rio de Janeiro.

B.  The moral legacy of the Christian faith. 

DM: Lawrence seems like a nice guy. I have nothing against him personally, and hope he has nothing against me, either. But he keeps on making claims about history, apparently often derived from one Archarya S, that are crackpot nonsense. People on his side of the argument here seem to take those claims seriously, even complimenting Lawrence for his historical insights.

Let me explain some of the many historical problems with just one short, sloppy, post (from Lawrence) that is just two sentences long:

The world plunged into the dark ages after the ascendancy of Christianity when it systematically attacked knowledge. It was not until Christiandom discovered Arab math in Spain 1,500 years later that the renaissance got under way.

(1) "The world" is not Western Europe. It especially wasn't Western Europe in 500 AD, when that part of the world was a relatively insignificant rump of a Roman Empire that had been declining already for hundreds of years. But our "Dark Ages" corresponded to Golden Ages in the Muslim world and in China.

(2) Many modern historians dismiss the term "Dark Ages," saying that the break was not as complete as once thought. Even between 500-1000, significant improvements were made, even in Western Europe.

(3) Christianity did not "systematically attack knowledge." In fact, it systematically preserved it, and in some cases, expanded it.

(4) The term "renaissance" is debated, with some historians arguing that the word has little value, except as a term of praise for "whatever the writer happens to like" in the late Medieval world.

(5) Anyway, it didn't begin "15 centuries" after the beginning of the Dark Ages (that would be the 20th Century), but in 14th Century Italy, more like 9 centuries later.

(6) Besides which, the 10th, 11th, 12th, especially 13th and early 14th Centuries, had already produced an incredible intellectual flowering and scientific dynamism in Western Europe, that exceeded even that of ancient Greece. The great universities had been up and running for centuries. Jean Buridan, Roger Bacon, and Robert Grossteste had been conducting experiments, among many others. Literature and art had reached a tremendous flowering.

(7) All of this intellectual advance was sponsored by the Church, and led largely by pious Christians.

(8) Arab math? Some ancient texts had been lost, and their rediscovery, after the Crusades, did spur intellectual development in Europe. But this is putting things way too simply. Among other things, some "Arab math" was actually Hindu math. Plus, the leading thinkers and translators in the Arab world were often Nestorian Christians, or Jews.

(9) Europe was on the cultural defensive for many centuries due not to alleged Christian dismissal of "knowledge," but to the initial demographic decline of Rome due to pre-Christian policies and low birth rate, then to foreign invasions. It was the Church that led Europe out of that period of decline, into the most dynamic period of intellectual innovation in human history.

Again, I suggest you begin with (James) Hannam or (Allan) Chapman, though I can offer other suggestions, if you like. Please don't delude people with this crackpot history.

AR: I'm not sure much is being accomplished by this back and forth between you and Larry.  I mean if others are learning from this, fine. But I think you're dealing with masses of material here with assertions and counter assertions.

Whatever the case, I respect Larry's posts.  My reading of history is hardly global, but I do indeed think there is abundant information to support the fact that Christianity did suppress a great deal of knowledge and learning, and did for centuries control access to much information.

As I understood it, the Dark Ages came--- and they were indeed quite dark --- for a variety of reasons including the barbarian invasions, and they resulted in an eventual breakdown of trade networks so that major parts of the world sank into poverty and crude living. In other words, villages and towns all over Europe which had once had a comfortable standard of living due to imported goods of all sorts, suddenly found themselves without imported pottery, and a local economy in which no one knew how to use a potters wheel. (This is one example of what happened).  It took a while for "the world" to recover from that immense breakdown of trade --- and the catastrophic loss of goods and services.

On the other hand the early industrial revolution of the Middle Ages saw inventions that the ancient world had not known: the barrel, the mill wheel, etc.

I guess what I'm saying is: these are vast subjects. And there are many ways of discussing them.

I tend --- based on the generalities posted --- to agree with Larry's take on things. That checks with my lifelong study of history.

Christianity today still includes segments who are diametrically opposed to science, deny evolution, don't want to hear about global warming, and home school children to keep them from learning facts about the biological world.

We've seen people in this thread and others proudly boast that they cut themselves off from all sources of learning except "the bible."

It is undeniable that many Christians are anti-knowledge, anti-education, and anti-science. And the seeds of these attitudes are in the religion itself.

If you believe Christ entered history to bring it to a close, that the bible is the inerrant record of what he did and what he wants you to do, that the world is going to be ending any minute --- well, you might not want to read about the Double Helix, or neutrinos or adult stem cells and the miracles they can sometimes help to work.

But certainly not all Christians believe such things. The nation abounds in Catholic universities, and their tendency to revolt against the tyranny of the pope and the bishops is well known.

Impossible to address the scope of your posts and Larry's. Simply too much is being summarized.
But I'm not opposed to summarizing. And this is my two cents.

DM: I have detailed a number of Larry's assertions that most unquestionably are demonstrably not just false, but fringy claims that pretty much any serious historian would reject. If I were you, I wouldn't endorse such crackpot theories, as much as you may like the man (I do, too, and appreciate his stories) or agree with his general perspective on life.

The fact that you may disapprove of the Republican Party in 21st Century America, in no way supports Larry's ridiculous claim that Christianity "systematically attacked knowledge" and that this brought about the "Dark Ages." That is the scholarly error known as "anachronism," also rather politically subjective. But you clearly recognize the genuine major cause, which was a series of invasions. (And, I would add, the demographic decline of the late Roman empire over several centuries that made it vulnerable to invasion.)

As someone who has read a lot about Egypt, for instance, do you admit what Egyptologists told Dr. Ward Gasque about Acharya S' "scholarship," cited above (note: Gasque wrote to twenty Egyptologists, and found none of them thought much of popular claims that the story of Jesus was based on ancient Egyptian myths -- theories that had been cited earlier in the conversation).     

AR: David, I think what happened to "knowledge" at the hands of Christians in late antiquity and the middle ages is a very complex subject. I do not endorse your version of things. I can't.
I lean more toward Larry's. I think your approach indicates "special pleading." 
Yes, of course Christian monasteries and schools did protect learning to some extent, but the negative impact of the Christian worldview on knowledge in the ancient world is well documented.  I'm not prepared to re-document it here. This is a huge topic.  My personal opinion is that Larry's view more realistically reflects the history that I have read. I wish I were better equipped to go into detail. Unfortunately I am not. It will have to remain for me a matter of opinion.

DM: Here again are Larry's historical claims:

"The world plunged into the dark ages after the ascendancy of Christianity when it systematically attacked knowledge. It was not until Christiandom discovered Arab math in Spain 1,500 years later that the renaissance got under way."
Do you really want to endorse those two sentences?

I pointed out nine gross historical errors in them. Which of my counter-claims do you seriously think are in doubt?

You argue in "support" of Larry's claims that "what happened to knowledge in late antiquity and the middle ages is a very complex subject." Is that evident in Larry's claims?

What this looks like, is the old liberal saw, "No enemies on the Left  . . . "

How can you play that game, and then accuse some Christians of supporting "junk science?" You're supporting junk history, which is what, as I showed, Larry's claims are.

The world did not "plunge into the Dark Ages" because of the rise of Christianity, and Christianity did not "systematically attack knowledge." Still less did the "renaissance" start in 2000 AD.

That is junk history. If you want to endorse it, be my guest. But by doing so, you forfeit all right to criticize, say, Young Earth Creationism, because you've sunk to the same level.

I've recommended two serious historians of science as alternatives to this junk history. You might enjoy listening to my interview of one, Dr. Allan Chapman of Wadham College, Oxford (where much of early science began). He's a charming and rather eccentric fellow with a marvelous breadth of knowledge of the subject at his fingertips.

I've also recommended (with reservations) the historical work of Rodney Stark, the eminent sociologist of religion, on the subject. Having spent some time in the early Church father, I regard the claim that they "systematically attacked knowledge" as simplistic twaddle.  (Note: I also mentioned and endorsed James Hannam’s book, The Genesis of Science, above.)

AR: I don't know that I'm endorsing anything.

It would indeed be wonderful if I had the time to thoroughly research all these different aspects of history all over again.

I don't.

As I mentioned to you, Larry's "version" resonates accurately with what I've read over the years.

I do think, on the basis of what I've read, that Christianity did indeed contribute to the ignorance and superstition of the Dark Ages.

I can't do more than offer a general opinion at this time. Yes, I would say that Christianity was anti-knowledge, anti-learning, anti-the classical world. And yes, it was a major contributing factor to the ignorance and superstition of the dark ages.

By the way, the mystery of the Fall of the Roman Empire is something I've been researching all my life. But not really to present a paper on it, or write a book or document a theory.

I'm sorry. This is about all I have to offer on the topic right now.

DM: You sanitized and significantly changed Larry's actual claim, to make your agreement with it more plausible. Did you notice that you did that?

But even the term "Dark Ages" is much less popular among historians than it used to be, as even the Wikipedia article acknowledges:

Originally, the term characterized the bulk of the Middle Ages, or roughly the 6th to 13th centuries, as a period of intellectual darkness between the extinguishing of the "light of Rome" after the end of Late Antiquity, and the rise of the Italian Renaissance in the 14th century. This definition is still found in popular usage, but increased recognition of the accomplishments of the Middle Ages since the 19th century has led to the label being restricted in application. Since the 20th century, it is frequently applied only to the earlier part of the era, the Early Middle Ages (c. 5th-10th century). However, many modern scholars who study the era tend to avoid the term altogether for its negative connotations, finding it misleading and inaccurate for any part of the Middle Ages.

Stark's work reflects that new consciousness.

What happened in those centuries was not the abandonment of culture by religious ideologues, but rather the fall of Rome to barbarian invaders, then the slow and intermittent political recovery and technological advance of Europe, led in almost all cases by Christian educators, reformers, monks, theologians, and scientists. (Lynn White shows this in great detail, but it’s also evident in every history of the period I've seen.)

Almost all books were copied by monks. Of course, Rome having been destroyed, a lot of learning was lost, but so it had always been, when human hands were required for copying. Most of the early scholarship and science in the Caliphate was also done by Nestorian and other Christians. What you get from reading Christian writings in these centuries is more often an intense hunger for knowledge. And then, of course, Christians founded the great universities, or developed them from cathedral schools that had been going for centuries. With all due respect, Anne, the generalization that Christianity was "anti-knowledge" and "anti-learning" in those years is a bad historical joke.

DM: One and all: This thread, like life itself, seems to be accelerating towards its conclusion. If it's all over by the time I turn on the computer tomorrow, let me just say that the conversation has been a pleasure. Thanks for keeping it lively, serious, and interesting.

AR: Thank you, David.

AR: David, as I've said, I'm unprepared to look into these questions now and fully document what I have learned about them. I am not as interested in this as you are, and again, Larry's posts seem accurate to me based on what I have studied for decades. I'm sorry that I cannot take the discussion further. Your views to me seem off.

DM: OK, you won't defend those ridiculous claims, but want us to think they merit respect because of your "decades" of historical study. (And because he's on your side, and one must circle the wagons.) Fine. That sounds like where we came in . . .

AR: David, I know you want a detailed historical discussion here. I understand.  But I am not prepared to engage with you on it. I have been quite open about that. Over and over, it seems you want to get into these tangential subjects and engage with some one on the level of debate. Yet your own posts often involve sweeping generalities too numerous for me to answer. What I'm trying to say is.... I can't follow you in all this. I'm sorry. Again, Larry's posts resonate with what I know of history.

DM: If you want to pander to junk history on your side, that's fine. But don't ask historians, like myself, to take you seriously afterwards when you complain about some Christians embracing junk science.

AR: I don't think Gibbons: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is junk history.
There are many who think Christianity was a force for ignorance and darkness in this world.
They aren't junk historians. You really do go about all this like a soccer player. Some of us don't enjoy those rough tactics.

And if you don't think Christians have embraced junk science, you're simply uninformed.

You know, I don't find you a very deep or persuasive thinker, David.

And there we end our conversation.  I would like to think Anne's parting comment is because she hasn't read any of my in-depth stuff -- I'd love to know what she would think of True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture, or Jesus and the Religions of Man.  But I don't expect we'll ever find out. 

Maybe if I'd been more patient with her, less sharp in rebuffing her claims, the conversation would have ended more positively.  She was very sensitive to what others thought of her, eager to praise those who agreed with her -- a common trait.  But she also seemed open and unaffected, expressing her views and willing to engage in some give-and-take, anyway.  May the Holy Spirit continue to work in her life. 

There!  Finally finished a series! 


steve said...

As long as you wore a turtleneck shirt, crucifix, and garlic necklace during the interview with Rice!

Domics said...

Maybe Mrs. Rice should know a Syriac Christian Bishop named Severus Sebokht.

"Severus... played an important role in the transmission of Indian intellectual concepts into Syria and ultimately into the Islamic world. In one famous passage, he praises the Hindu decimal concept and mentions for the first time in the Greek east the nine numerical symbols used in India...
Severus ... stands as an important figure in passing on Greek astronomical knowledge to Syrian scholars and thence to Islamic civilization... Severus was an important link in the transmission of the Greek tradition of the astrolabe to the east..."

It seems that also the Indian number system was trasmitted to the Islamic world by a Christian!