Ok, I am not referring to an end to this blog….though I am less inclined to write these days. And I am not referring to an “end of the world” as this is usually seen by Christians of all sorts. But I would like to call your attention to a kind of “end” of our civilization as I see it coming and some reasons for this and perhaps a hint or two about what to do. These thoughts, insights and reflections come from various folks and various directions, but they are all people I deeply respect and admire and have learned much from them.
A. Walker Percy
Catholic novelist, prominent in mid-20th century, admired by Merton, a doctor by profession. He was not afraid of treating religious topics, and he had a scathing portrayal of the shallow religiosity of both conservative and liberal Christianity. He portrays a culture in total decline, sinking ever deeper into an abyss that is a strange amalgam of banality and insanity. Not too long ago I came across a review of his work by none other than Chris Hedges. Here’s a few excerpts. Hedges:
“Walker Percy in his 1971 dystopian novel “Love in the Ruins” paints a picture of a morally degenerate America consumed by hedonism, wallowing in ignorance, led by kleptocrats and fools, fragmented into warring and often violent cultural extremes and on the cusp of a nuclear war. It is a country cursed by its failure to address or atone for its original sins of genocide and slavery. The ethos of ceaseless capitalist expansion, white supremacy and American exceptionalism, perpetuated overseas in the country’s imperial wars, eventually consumes the nation itself. The accomplices, who once benefited from this evil, become its victims. How, Percy asks, does one live a life of meaning in such a predatory society? Is it even possible? And can a culture ever regain its equilibrium when it sinks into such depravity?”
“Percy, echoing the Christian existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, argues that the capitalist, rationalist ethic that crushed empathy and understanding and replaced it with the primacy of personal gain, cruelty and profit doomed Western civilization. The basest lusts are celebrated by capitalism. Success is defined by material advancement, power and the attainment of celebrity. Those, like Donald Trump, who amass enormous wealth, often by cheating, abusing and defrauding their employees and associates, are treated like pagan idols.
“Percy, who like the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov was a medical school graduate, was steeped in the classics, theology, philosophy, literature and history. He knew the common denominators of decaying societies. The elevation of the morally degenerate in the last days was never accidental. These corrupt elites embodied the warped values of a dying culture. They reflected back to the society, as does Trump, its spiritual emptiness. The feckless Romanovs in Russia, the megalomaniacal Kaiser Wilhelm II in Germany and the doddering head of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Joseph I, in the last days of the European monarchies exhibited the same stupidity, self-delusion and self-destructiveness seen in the late American Empire.”
Percy is totally relentless in his satire even of religion and especially modern Christianity. He makes Saturday Night Live seem like amateur night!:
“In Percy’s novel, the Roman Catholic Church has rebranded itself as the American Catholic Church, based in Cicero, Ill. It celebrates Property Rights Sunday. The priest raises the Eucharistic host in the Mass, conducted in Latin, to the tune of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Sermons focus on how the rich in the Bible—Joseph of Arimathea and Lazarus—were specially blessed by God. Evangelical Christians stage ever more elaborate spectacles and entertainment, including nighttime golf—the Moonlight Tour of the Champs—advertised with the slogan “Jesus Christ, the Greatest Pro of Them All.”
If modern liberals think they have a superior vision of things, well, Percy dissects them also as Hedges explains:
“Today’s secularists have their own forms of hedonism, self-worship and idolatry. Spirituality is framed by puerile questions: How is it with me? Am I in touch with myself? Have I achieved happiness and inner peace? Have I, along with my life coach, ensured that I have reached my full career potential? Am I still young-looking? What does my therapist say? It is a culture based on self-absorption, a vain quest for eternal youth, and narcissism. Any form of suffering, which is always part of self-sacrifice, is to be avoided. The plight of our neighbor is irrelevant. Sexual degeneracy—narcissists are incapable of love—abounds in a society entranced by casual hook-ups and pornography.”
Every culture, every society has what you might call an “original sin” situation that then colors and haunts the mindset of that culture for the long term. Very few societies come to terms with this “sin” –in fact I don’t know of any. And this becomes an integral part of the demise of every society. Here is Walker Percy’s powerful depiction of our “original sin”:
“The old U.S.A. didn’t work! Is it even possible that from the beginning it never did work? That the thing always had a flaw in it, a place where it would shear, and that all this time we were not really different from Ecuador and Bosnia-Herzegovina, just richer. Moon Mullins blames it on the niggers. Hm. Was it the nigger business from the beginning? What a bad joke: God saying, here it is, the new Eden, and it is yours because you’re the apple of my eye; because you the lordly Westerners, the fierce Caucasian-Gentile-Visigoths, believed in me and in the outlandish Jewish Event even though you were nowhere near it and had to hear the news of it from strangers. But you believed and so I gave it all to you, gave you Israel and Greece and science and art and the lordship of the earth, and finally even gave you the new world that I blessed for you. And all you had to do was pass one little test, which was surely child’s play for you because you already had passed the big one. One little test: here’s a helpless man in Africa, all you have to do is not violate him. That’s all.
One little test: you flunk!”
B. Chaco and Chris Hedges
It appears that Chris Hedges recently visited the famous Anasazi archaeological site in New Mexico. I have been there myself, and all the Anasazi ruins are haunting and intriguing. Chaco flourished from about 850 to 1200, and it developed into a complex and sophisticated culture, initially peaceful, artistic and quite skilled in early astronomy and building. Here is how Hedges begins the story:
“The Chaco ruin, 6,200 feet above sea level, is one of the largest and most spectacular archeological sites in North America. It is an impressive array of 15 interconnected complexes, each of which once had four-to-five-story stone buildings with hundreds of rooms each. Seven-hundred-pound wooden beams, many 16 feet long, were used in the roofs. Huge circular, ceremonial kivas—religious centers dug into the earth, with low masonry benches around the base of the room to accommodate hundreds of worshippers—dot the ruins. It rivals the temples and places built by the Aztecs and the Mayans.
“Radiating from Chaco is a massive 400-mile network of roads, some 30 feet wide and still visible in the haunting desert landscape, along with dams, canals and reservoirs to collect and store rainwater. The study of astronomy, as with the Aztec and the Maya, was advanced. Petroglyphs and pictographs on the canyon walls often record astrological and solar events. One pictograph shows a hand, a crescent moon and a 10-pointed star that is believed to depict a 1055 supernova, and one of the petroglyphs appears to represent a solar eclipse that occurred in 1097.
“A few thousand priests and ruling elites, along their retainers and administrators, lived in the Great Houses or palaces. They oversaw the trade routes that stretched to the California coast and into Central America. They maintained the elaborate network of lighthouses whose signal fires provided rapid communication. They built the roads, the long flights of stairs carved into the rock formations, the bridges, the wooden ladders to scale the towering cliffs, and the astronomical observatories that meticulously charted the solar observations to determine the equinoxes and solstices for planting and harvesting and for the annual religious festivals when thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, would gather.”
Needless to say, this would not last–in fact the good years lasted about as long as the present age of the United States. And when the “good times” ended, it was a catastrophic conclusion. Hedges continues:
“But this complex society, like all complex societies, proved fragile and impermanent. It fell into precipitous decline after nearly three centuries. The dense forests of oak, piñon and ponderosa pines and juniper that surrounded the canyon were razed for construction and fuel. The soil eroded. Game was hunted to near-extinction. The diet shifted in the final years from deer and turkey to rabbits and finally mice. Headless mice in the late period have been found by archaeologists in human coprolites—preserved dry feces. The Anasazi’s open society, one where violence was apparently rare, where the people moved unhindered over the network of well-maintained roads, where warfare was apparently absent, where the houses of the rich and powerful were not walled off, where the population shared in the spoils of empire, was replaced with the equivalent of gated, fortified compounds for the elites and misery, hunger, insecurity and tyranny for the commoners. Dwellings began to be built in the cliffs, along with hilltop fortresses, although these residences were not close to the fields and water supply. Defensive walls were constructed along with moats and towers. The large, public religious ceremonies that once united the culture and gave it cohesion fractured, and tiny, warring religious cults took over, the archaeologist Lynne Sebastian notes.
“Lekson, a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, believes the Anasazi rulers during the decline increasingly resorted to savage violence and terror, including the public executions of dissidents and rebels. He finds evidence, much of it documented in Steven A. LeBlanc’s book “Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest,” that “Chaco death squads” were sent out across the empire. LeBlanc writes that at Yucca House, a Chaco Great House near Mesa Verde, as many as 90 people were killed and tossed into a kiva and at least 25 showed signs of mutilation.”
“Chacoan violence, concentrated and brutal, appears to represent government terror: the enforcement of Chaco’s rule by institutionalized force,” Leksonwrites in the article “Chaco Death Squads” in Archeology magazine. “Violence was public, intended to appall and subdue the populace. Chacoandeath squads (my term, not LeBlanc’s) executed and mutilated those judged to be threats to Chacoan power, those who broke the rules.”
So much for that idyllic and idealized picture some of us have of Native American life!! When complex societies collapse they never do it in a “nice,” quiet way!
Now I would like to consider two other very different scenarios–not as “solutions” to what seems like an accelerating decline of our society, but just something that points in a very different direction. Be aware: we are not going to “solve” anything by “reform”–kind of adjusting the knobs of our social, economic, political, and religious world. You know, the old saying about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, or giving the deck a new paint job! Most people seem quite content in their pursuit of “the good life”: a good family, a nice home, a rewarding career, and then on top of this the accumulation of more and more stuff and the diversions of manifold entertainment. It is pretty much like drinking salt water; you get thirstier and thirstier; “more and more” only leads to a desire for more and more. The “average good guy” sees very little wrong with all this, as long as it is all moderated by this or that concern….not realizing that all this merely sets the stage for an endless cycle of decadence, corruption, violence, lies, greed, etc. Donald Trump, for example, is not as an individual some anomaly that got elected somehow as president–he is more a reflection of the state of our collective soul, an unmasking more or less of what we are really about. Getting rid of him will not truly solve the problem that lurks at the core of what we are.
And neither will revolution, the proposed alternative to reform. One set of scoundrels replaces another set of scoundrels in what appears to be a “new start” but it turns out to be merely a new version of the old problem–this is generally the history of all revolutions. Both reform and revolution are approaching the problem from the outside where we are very much tempted to focus our attention–simply because it is so much easier to objectify the problem as something “out there” where we can manipulate “reality.” But actually the problem is right there at the core of our own being, our “heart” as it were. Just like the great religious traditions always said it was. However, here is the sad thing: organized, institutional religion of any of the great traditions seems extremely ineffective, almost impotent, to address the real problem. They all have compromised more or less with the culture, and so their voices, when they do manage to say something important, are hardly believable. It should not be surprising that there are numbers that show that a whopping 40% of millennials do not affiliate with any religion. One only has to remember the child molestation scandals affecting various churches in Ireland, Australia, Latin America, and the U.S. and church officials desperately denying and covering up—like some politicians. Then there’s the insane Hindu nationalists in India and the list goes on and on depressingly. Much too often religion seems as part of the problem more than a way to some solution.
No, there is no easy or simple solution to our slipping deeper and deeper into this pit of deterioration. The only thing we can say for sure is that some sort of change has to take place in the way we live and in the way we look at the world. It’s only then, when this change begins, that we will also begin to see our solution. Here I will point to two very radical examples of the change in vision and lifestyle that is needed, but I want to emphasize that this is NOT the only possibility and that each person/persons has to find their very particular kind of change that they can embody and bring about so it is clear that they are not simply doing “business as usual.”
C. Jack Turner
Let me tell you about this guy. He grows up as a “normal good kid,” goes to college, gets advanced degrees in philosophy and Chinese and becomes an academic. In his own words: “In the mid-1970s I was an assistant philosophy professor at the University of Illinois. I was about thirty years old. I was very unhappy. One day I went to the Lincoln Park Zoo to sneak some meat to the snow leopards, as I did on occasion. It was a crappy day, cloudy and dim and snowing, and I thought to myself: I’m as trapped as these wild cats. I decided that I didn’t want to live my life working indoors. Since then, I’ve worked inside — a forty-hour-a-week, punch-the-time-clock type of job — for only two and a half years total. The rest of the time I’ve been working outside or writing in my cabin.” He pursues rock climbing and mountaineering and becomes a mountain guide in Wyoming for a living. That physical change leads to a very significant inner change in how sees the world around him. He discovers the importance of what might be called “intimacy with the wilderness”–loss with this contact, Turner emphasizes, is a loss with a significant part of our humanity. He fears that way too many people in our society are crippled by this loss of “intimacy with wildness.” It becomes a serious vision problem where you can’t evaluate what is and isn’t important to your life as a human being. Very hard to explicitly explain how the wilderness can touch your life like that, but you do see it sometimes very clearly in some people–like John Muir for example.
At first Turner did some mountaineering in Asia. About that experience he relates: “I think that anybody who goes into a wild place like that for the first time is simply stunned, not only by the land but by the differences in lifestyle. The average per capita income in Baltistan [a region in northern Pakistan] at the time of my first visit was seventy-three dollars a year. I quickly learned that Western ways of classifying people according to education and career are meaningless. There are brilliant people who can’t read. There are ways of living that don’t have anything to do with our way of living. People in the Hindu Kush knew virtually nothing of the U.S., nothing of our ways of life, and their own ways of life were thousands of years old. And there was the marvelous unfamiliar wildlife, too. I saw markhor and ibex and blue sheep and snow-leopard tracks. You simply cannot imagine the wildness of the place, the animals, the humans. Years later I led the first trek to the north side of K2. There is no place on earth wilder than the Karakoram.”
But Turner’s main focus is on our situation right here and his increasing concern about the disconnect people have with the wilderness:
“And here’s the problem: nowadays very few people directly experience voles, coral reefs, redwoods, and whales. You can live in San Francisco, ride a Google bus to work, stare at a screen, come home, stare at a screen, repeat, repeat, repeat. I’ve asked my environmental-studies students how much time each day, on average, they spend in contact with raw wild nature. Thirty minutes, they say. And what are they doing then? Walking between classes.They’ve told me they look at a screen eight to twelve hours a day, on average. These kids have not spent much time hiking in remote areas. They don’t have much personal experience with wild creatures. They also don’t have much experience with isolation. These days parents can hardly get their children to participate in an outdoor program, such as a backpacking trip, because it will cut them off from Facebook for two weeks. At Exum Mountain Guides Climbing School we forbid our students to bring music into the Tetons. They hate not having music. They don’t want to be alone. They are hive creatures now, far more so than generations past, fiercely attached to their social network, which is a large part of their identity. I’m part of the amateur astronomy community here in Jackson Hole. Our club has more and more trouble getting young people to come out in the dark — the cold, scary dark — and look at stars. They want to watch the night sky through video cameras. They want to use computers to connect to a telescope in Chile. They want to look at the stars on a screen. But the immediate, raw experience of being out in the dark, of being in the ocean with sharks, of seeing a bear, is far different from any simulation on a screen. If you don’t have contact with a wild place, a wild animal, or a wild process — and I mean experiential, bodily contact — then why would you ever vote for conservation and environmental measures? That’s a long-term problem for the American conservation movement. Sure, there are still Sierra Club trips and Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and families who cherish the outdoors, but in terms of a general population trend, it doesn’t look good…. This doesn’t bode well for the natural world, let alone the quality of these people’s lives. I fear there will come a day when people won’t understand the writing of Thoreau and John Muir. It will be unintelligible to them. They just won’t get it.”
Turner again: “In my youth I did a lot of skin diving. One time I was ten feet underwater by some undulating eelgrass, and suddenly it opened to reveal a five-foot shark against the sand. That does something to your nervous system. It’s the same when you come across a bear in the wild. And you can have these experiences with people, too. I once ran into a sadhu [a Hindu holy man] way up in the Himalayas. It was sleeting and snowing heavily. He had a long beard and wore nothing but a loincloth. His eyes were huge! I said hello. He nodded. I pointed to the camera on my chest, indicating that I’d like to take a photo of him. He politely asked me not to in perfect English. I replied by saying something incredibly stupid: I asked him where he’d learned English. He said, “From my parents; where’d you learn English?” Wham! That guy was something else. Whether it’s with sharks or bears or sadhus, that type of wham experience shakes your foundations in a way an iPad never will. It has to do with contact. As Thoreau wrote in The Maine Woods: “Contact!Contact!” You can’t get contact from a screen.”
And one last quote from Jack Turner: “Getting people to slow down — young people, in particular — is important to me. I’m not saying that anybody needs to formally meditate. A far less loaded word is contemplate. What’s going on in your life and your relationships? Think about it. Reflect. Most people don’t contemplate anymore. They just go, go, go. Every one of the luminaries from the American conservation movement — Thoreau, Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Margaret and Olaus Murie, E.O. Wilson, and many others — spent a lot of time alone on the seashore, or in a canoe on a lake, or in the forest, or in the mountains, or digging in the soil, and always in silence. I don’t think the conservation movement is going to get anywhere if we have a citizenry that no longer wants to be alone and experience silence.
There is no need now to encourage most people. There was when Muir started leading large groups of the public into the Sierra Nevada to acquaint them with the values of wilderness. Now the values claimed for such areas are well-known. The problem is that the people who go there don’t care about the wildness; they care about the other human values of our culture: money, gear, family, friends, having fun. Most people who do go into the natural world are going for recreation, not contemplation. They use their beloved stuff — skis, fishing rods, backpacks, rafts — in the playground of their choice. Many are in the wilderness business, servicing clients, often hordes of them, at thousands of dollars a whack. These visitors do not have to confront the loneliness, existential fear, silence, and indifference of the wild, nor do they contemplate what these things mean for a human life.”
All of the above quotes came from an interview of Jack Turner by LeathTonino, entitled “Not On Any Map,” in The Sun, August 2014.
D. The Chinese Thing
Among the great spiritual traditions of the world each of us, I think, finds one or another of these traditions as particularly attractive/inviting/inspiring. It might not even be “our home” but something we just visit for special insights. In my own case, I love the Sufis; I find the sannyasa ideal in the Upanishads unspeakably profound; I am deeply impressed and illumined by the Tibetan Buddhism of the Dalai Lama and Milarepa; and my original home and where I “live” is the hesychasm of the Christian East. But what I can’t explain is the absolute fascination I have with the ancient Chinese Daoism of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu and early Chinese Zen and the mountain poets and artists of ancient China and some of its Japanese inheritors. Today there is a resurgence of interest in the ancient ways and a considerable number of young Chinese are “changing” their view of what constitutes “the good life.” I won’t say anymore except that everyone should see this short film, “Summoning the Recluse” to know what I am trying to point to. It is all in Chinese but with English subtitles. It is incredibly beautiful, profound, very realistic, and gives us some hope for the future. Here is the link to that movie, “Summoning the Recluse.”