Tag: religion

The Meaning of Life: Mediaeval vs. Modern Perspectives

The Meaning of Life: Mediaeval vs. Modern Perspectives

If today we examine the mediaeval worldview[1] – and we rarely do – we find it utterly[2] alien[3]. Church and society were coterminous[4] and the social structure was ordained by God. The place into which each individual was born within[5] the hierarchy was his or her rightful[6] place and the best thing to do was to submit[7] and conform to one’s preordained role in society. The aristocracy[8] were better people than the rest of the population; nobility meant being aristocratic and being a (noble (= good) person. Fortunately, the nobles practised gentilesse[9]; they knew their role was to protect those who were weaker than them. Meanwhile[10], members of the clergy prayed[11] for everyone and the majority – the peasants[12] – worked for everyone. It was a coherent system in which everybody contributed to society and everyone knew his or her place.

Within this rigid system private hopes and fears were insignificant, the individual was only important as part of society as a whole. In any case the individual didn’t control who he or she was. Character was determined by a complex interplay of class, horoscopy, physiognomy and humours[13]. One’s social role was God-given; nuances[14] were added to the individual as a result of when he or she was born. Moreover, physical deformities were a consequence of spiritual deformities. Finally, imbalances in the basic fluids that ran through[15] the body explained other personal idiosyncrasies. You – your essential being – were predetermined, not self-determined.

The Modern View

Now compare that to the modern Western worldview. The individual is centre-stage today. According to modern individualism, we are each responsible for our own success[16]. We teach children that anyone can do anything with sufficient effort and intelligence and luck. Nobody believes (I hope!) that aristocrats are better people than everybody else.

Yet[17] this worldview is as hollow[18] and nonsensical[19] as the mediaeval one. Society values fame, wealth[20] and status. But the idea that everyone has the opportunity to become a millionaire, a surgeon[21] or a political leader is myth in its purest form. We don’t believe that aristocrats inherit[22] noblesse[23] from their ancestors but we know that the rich, the famous and the socially advantaged inherit unassailable[24] privileges from their parents.

Today we tend to express our individualism by obsessing about a highly[25] specific aspect of life: a sports team, a sport, a hobby. We fuel[26] our individualism by focusing on this one pastime as a way of ignoring the meaninglessness[27] of our existence.

Today we don’t follow a rigid dogma as they did in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, the nearest we have to a societal value system is an arbitrary series of trite[28] internet memes – hardly[29] an all-encompassing[30] philosophical framework[31].

At least we no longer believe in physiognomy, right? Except that being considered physically attractive is probably more important today than at any time in history. Being tall for men and being beautiful for women are more important that qualifications in determining success.

But what is success? Ironically given our ‘individualism’, on a day-to-day basis, most of us value ourselves in terms of society’s appraisal[32]. In our day-to-day lives being ‘liked’ on social media is our primary form of self-validation.[33] In the longer term for most people success is working in jobs of increasingly high status and accumulating capital. However, we measure success in terms of consumption[34]. We are considered successful because of the car we drive or where we holiday.

We are complacent in our patronizing[35] attitude to the mediaeval worldview. However, does a society driven by ‘likes’, one that values people because they have bought the very latest iPad, really have a right to feel superior? Moreover, given social trends[36], our model will become untenable[37] soon. Self-fulfilment cannot come through one’s career[38] in a society in which work is increasingly scarce[39]. For instance[40], we are told that we will all have to work till at least 70 – in a labour market in which job opportunities begin to decrease rapidly after 50. When the majority have slid back[41] into mere subsistence because of lack of[42] opportunities, will we submit[43] to a permanent state of depression because we have failed according to all modern society’s values? Will our sports team’s occasional victory be enough to give meaning to our lives?

 

[1] worldview – philosophy of life

[2] utterly – completely, totally

[3] alien (adj.) – unfamiliar, bizarre

[4] coterminousone and the same

[5] within – in

[6] rightful – appropriate, legitimate

[7] to submit – capitulate

[8] aristocracy – (literally) rule of the best

[9] gentilesse – magnanimity

[10] meanwhile – at the same time, simultaneously

[11] to pray – intercede with God

[12] peasantsrural workers in a feudal system

[13] humours – (in this case) bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile that supposedly made people sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic or choleric, respectively

[14] nuancessubtle differences

[15] to run through (run-ran-run) – flow through, flow around

[16] successtriumph, prosperity

[17] yet – however, nevertheless

[18] hollowempty

[19] nonsensical – ridiculous, meaningless

[20] wealthaffluence, financial prosperity

[21] surgeonmedical specialist who performs operations

[22] to inherit – acquire genetically

[23] noblesse – nobility, magnanimity

[24] unassailable – impregnable, absolute

[25] highlyvery

[26] to fuel – assert, stimulate, confirm

[27] meaninglessness – futility, purposelessness, triviality

[28] trite – banal, vapid, clichéd

[29] hardlynot really, not exactly

[30] all-encompassing – universal, comprehensive

[31] frameworkstructure, system

[32] appraisal – evaluation, judgement

[33] studies suggest that most people check their phones over 80 times a day and touch their phones over 2,600 times a day. If that’s not fetishism…

[34] consumptionwhat we consume/buy

[35] patronizing – disdainful, superior

[36] trendstendencies

[37] untenable – unsustainable

[38] career – (false friend) professional trajectory

[39] scarce – insufficient, (opposite of ‘abundant’)

[40] for instance – for example

[41] to slide back (slide-slid-slid) – descend, decline

[42] lack ofabsence of, deficient

[43] to submit – acquiesce, accept, tolerate

The Godless Canon

The Godless Canon

Is English literature naturally secular or has the canon been designed to marginalize religion?

The most startling[1] aspect of the canon of English literature that has come down to[2] us is how, from the earliest times, it questions, marginalizes and ignores religion. If we include Beowulf (C.9th?) in the canon (rather than[3] seeing Anglo-Saxon literature as a separate tradition that had little impact on what came after), we find a confused mishmash[4] of pagan monsters, Wyrd[5] and an Old Testament God who is clearly hands-off[6] in His approach[7] to humanity.

The next major work in the canon is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1380s?). Here the protagonist is a keen[8] believer in the power of the Virgin Mary, though this belief is undermined[9] in our eyes by the coexistence in his world of magic. In other words Christianity may be explicit but it is hardly[10] confirmed by being placed[11] in a fairy-tale[12] context.

Chaucer

The great canonical work in English of the Middle Ages is The Canterbury Tales (1400). Chaucer offers us a cast[13] made up of[14] a crusader knight[15], a prioress[16], a monk[17], a friar[18], a pardoner[19] and a summoner[20] (among others). However, these are brilliantly sardonic portraits[21], which thoroughly[22] question each of these overtly Christian characters’ true adherence to the faith they profess. The crusading knight is in fact a mercenary; the prioress is viciously[23] antisemitic coquette who shows more compassion for little animals than for the poor[24]; the lecherous[25] monk dedicates his time to hunting[26], and so on[27].

Shakespeare

The Middle Ages came to an end with the Reformation and from then on[28], authors could not count on there being[29] a single set of religious beliefs that their audience shared[30]. Indeed[31], with a spectrum of beliefs ranging[32] from the Puritan to the Anglican to the Roman Catholic, most authors opted for marginalizing religion. For instance, Shakespeare wrote one religious sonnet out of[33] 154. However, Shakespeare goes further and when he does present[34] religious characters they are ineffectual (Friar Laurence[35]), hypocritical (Angelo[36]), ignorant (Oliver Martext[37]) or corrupt (the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely[38]). When Shakespeare includes a saint in his work – Joan of Arc – she is portrayed[39] as a witch[40]: La Pucelle. His most impressive creations are nihilistic worlds (such as the Albion of King Lear or the Scotland of Macbeth) or ones ruled[41] by magic (such as the Island in The Tempest or the forest in Midsummer Night’s Dream). It is true that it was illegal to mention God on stage after 1603 but Shakespeare made no serious attempt to incorporate religion into his plays even before that.

Milton

The exception to the rule should be the towering[42] work of the 17th Century: Paradise Lost. Here we have an epic poem entirely dedicated to recounting the foundational stories of Christianity. However, even here the canon undermines9 religion, albeit unwittingly[43]. Despite Milton’s best intentions, later generations have found Satan by far[44] the most interesting character in the poem, and in a formal sense he is the central character. The Romantics went further and saw Satan as the hero of the piece.

The Rise of the Novel

The 18th Century saw the rise[45] of the novel and here again religion was marginalized and stories tended to be morally ambiguous. Where religious figures do appear[46] they tend to be hypocritical buffoons like Collins in Charlotte Brontë’s Pride and Prejudice or Seth Pecksniff in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) or hypocritical villains like Mr. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre (1847) or Reverend Chadband in Dickens’ Bleak House (1853).

By the 20th Century the UK was one of the least religious countries in the world and the literature reflected the marginal place of organized faith in British society.

An Alternative Canon

What is fascinating for me is how artificial this focus is. Religious and moralistic literature has gradually been expunged[47] from the canon over the last 70 years. In fact, most surviving Anglo-Saxon poetry is religious. The ‘other’ great work of the 14th Century was William Langland’s Piers Plowman, a poem entirely dedicated to how to lead[48] a god-fearing[49] life. Earlier generations studied George Herbert and John Bunyan as essential parts of 17th-century literature. Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) used to be considered an integral part of the rise of the novel. Only the religious poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins[50] survives within[51] the canon as a testament to the long tradition of religious literature in English that existed alongside the modern canon.

I comment on all this not because I have any interest in restoring religious literature to its ‘rightful’ place in the canon but rather[52] to show how what we study as great literature is determined by contemporary tastes rather than[53] objective merit.

Indeed, the process of secularizing English literature has been reversed somewhat in recent years. This has not been because of a renewed interest in religion but because of a wish to rediscover women writers. As a result, the religious writings of Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Anne Locke and Christina Rossetti are all being read again.

 

[1] startling – surprising, shocking

[2] to come down to (come-came-come) – reach, be inherited by

[3] rather than – as opposed to, instead of

[4] mishmashmixture

[5] Wyrd – a pagan Germanic concept similar to destiny

[6] hands-offnon-interventionist

[7] approach – (in this case) attitude

[8] keen – enthusiastic

[9] to undermineweaken, debilitate

[10] hardlynot really

[11] to place – put

[12] fairy-tale (adj.) – magical, fantastical

[13] cast – (in this case) a group of protagonists

[14] to be made up of – consist of

[15] knight – mediaeval soldier who fought on horseback

[16] prioresswoman who manages a priory/convent (directly subordinate to an abbess)

[17] monk – religious man who lives in a monastery

[18] friarmember of a mendicant order such as a Dominican or a Franciscan

[19] pardoner – sb. licenced to sell papal pardons and indulgences

[20] summoner – an officer for a mediaeval ecclesiastical court

[21] portrait – (in this case) description

[22] thoroughly – effectively, exhaustively

[23] viciouslyfiercely

[24] the poorpoor people

[25] lecherous – lascivious

[26] huntingchasing and killing animals for pleasure

[27] and so on – et cetera, etc.

[28] from then onafter that

[29] count on there being – assume that there was

[30] to sharehave in common

[31] indeed – (emphatic) in fact

[32] to range – stretch, span, vary

[33] out of – from a total of

[34] does present – (emphatic) presents, creates

[35] in Romeo and Juliet

[36] in Measure for Measure

[37] in As You Like It

[38] in Henry V

[39] to portray – present, depict

[40] witchwoman who practises black magic

[41] to rulegovern, control

[42] towering – (in this case) exceptional, supreme

[43] albeit unwittinglyeven though this is not intentional

[44] by far – unquestionably, easily

[45] rise – (in this case) emergence, appearance

[46] do appear – (emphatic) appear

[47] to expunge – erase, delete, eliminate

[48] to lead (lead-led-led) – (in this case) live

[49] godfearing – devoutly religious

[50] an English Jesuit

[51] within – in

[52] but rather – (in this case) I comment on it

[53] rather than – as opposed to, instead of

Corpus Christi Controversies

Corpus Christi Controversies

On the news this week I saw people arguing[1] over seating[2] on the route that the Corpus Christi procession was going to take through Toledo. I wonder[3] how many of them know the origins, controversies and evolution of this tradition.

For the first 12 centuries of Christianity there was a disagreement among[4] theological linguists at the heart[5] of the Catholic Church. The problem is that Hebrew[6] expresses metaphors and statements of fact[7] in exactly the same way (you distinguish between the two using the context). Under normal circumstances this is easy. If I say “It was so hot that we were melting[8]” (or even “It was so hot that we were literally melting” as many native speakers would illogically say!) you know it’s a metaphor. However, religion is a context in which miracles do happen[9], so when Christ said, “This is my body… this is my blood[10]” he might have been talking metaphorically or literally.

The debate was finally put to rest[11] in the Catholic Church in 1264 when transubstantiation[12] was declared to be dogma. Incidentally, one of the big differences between Catholics and most Protestants is that Protestantism thinks that Christ was being metaphorical; most Protestants reject transubstantiation.

Paradoxically, just when[13] greater importance was being given to the Eucharist, the laity[14] weren’t allowed[15] to receive the body of Christ at Mass[16]. But because the Church insisted that the host[17] was literally the body of Christ, the congregation[18] felt that simply seeing the Elevation of the Host would be good[19] for their souls[20]. Gradually, in towns and cities across Europe people began running from church to church in order to see the elevation of the host as often as possible. This boisterous[21] behaviour[22] was, of course, antithetical to[23] the spirit of the Eucharist. To prevent[24] it, the Papacy decided in 1317 to establish the Feast[25] of Corpus Christi in which the Host would be paraded around[26] towns and cities for all to see as much as they wanted. Nobody was going to race[27] from church to church each Sunday to glimpse[28] the Host if he or she could gaze[29] on the Holy Wafer once a year during the procession. It worked[30] – except that now their descendants fight over seats for the best view!

[1] to argue – (false friend) disagree

[2] seating – seats, where to sit

[3] to wonderask oneself

[4] among – amongst, (in this case) between

[5] heart – (in this case) centre

[6] Hebrew – the traditional language of Jewish people, the original language of the Bible

[7] statement of fact – idea that is believed to be literally true

[8] to melt – (of solids) become liquid

[9] do happen – (emphatic) occur

[10] bloodred liquid found in veins and arteries

[11] to put sth. to rest (put-put-put) – settle, decide

[12] transubstantiation – the (supposed) conversion of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ during the Eucharist

[13] just when – at exactly the time that

[14] the laityordinary Christians who are not members of the clergy

[15] to be allowed – be permitted

[16] Mass – a celebration of the Eucharist

[17] the host – the bread consecrated in the Eucharist

[18] the congregation – assembly of ordinary people in church

[19] good – (in this case) beneficial

[20] one’s soul – one’s eternal spirit

[21] boisterous – undisciplined, tumultuous

[22] behaviourconduct

[23] antithetical to – incompatible with

[24] to prevent – stop

[25] feast – (in this case) annual religious celebration

[26] to parade sth. aroundtake sth. in procession through

[27] to race – run

[28] to glimpsesee for an instant

[29] to gazelook for a long time (in devotion)

[30] to workfunction, be successful