The religious worldview
In light of this it is evident that to understand the present we have to deconstruct that past. It is what I propose to do in this article about the Christian worldview.
1. On becoming the official religion of the Roman empire
While expanding to the West, to Rome more particularly, Christianity had already integrated Aristotle's dualistic Metaphysics. A further reinforcement will be operated in later stages:
The Edict of Milan, between the Roman emperors Constantine (West) and Licinius (East) in 313, ensured religious tolerance for Christians. Basically the agreement granted religious freedom to all and ended the Age of Martyrs. Emperor Constantine immediately adopted a hostile attitude towards Pagans. Their sacrifices were forbidden and treasures in their temples were confiscated and transferred to Christian churches. Constantine advanced the cause of Christianity and it soon became apparent that the creed needed unification. Until then the church had indeed been an assemblage of diverse groups and sects having each their own books and rites. Among them was the sect of Arianism which was deeply dividing the Christian creed. Constantine's main problem was the uncontrollable disorder rising from the belief in numerous gods and the unavoidable ensuing conflicts that were a thorn in the social fabric. He called an official Council of religious authorities at Nicaea that is considered today as having been the first 'Christian Council'. This was an attempt to standardize all religions in the empire by developing an all-embracing belief system during a period of irreverent confusion. The Council of Nicaea , in 325, established God as being a Holy Trinity. This was a rejection of Arianism which held that Jesus is a subordinate entity to God his Father. The Council was a first step on the path to a consensus about the establishment of Christianity as a unified official church of the Roman Empire.
Christianity was made the official religion of the Empire in 380 AD under the rule of emperor Theodosius who was the last emperor to rule over both the eastern and the western parts of the Empire. Roman emperors had traditionally assumed the role of chief priest of whatever the popular religions of the time. Now that Christianity had been adopted as the official religion the pope was recognized the title of 'Pontifex Maximus' (head priest). The Pagan faith was further sanctioned with severe punishments and Arianism was declared a heretic sect and forbidden. By the beginning of the 5th century the pope had grown his power to equal that of the Roman Emperor himself. Becoming the official religion of the empire was thus accomplished by:
St. Jerome was commissioned in 382 by Pope Damasus to produce a new Latin translation of the Bible. The Greek Septuagint (1) was the accepted version of the Old Testament by the Nicene Creed (2). Jerome translated its 46 books. That translation was upheld as the 'Latin Vulgate Bible' and was affirmed as the canon of the Old Testament at the Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397). The 'Latin Vulgate Bible' has been the 'de facto' standard Bible of Western Europe over the following 1000 years and continues to be for Catholicism to this day.
In order to maintain unity and avoid conflict the church needed to agree on one interpretation of the bible. St Augustine's writings satisfied the need for a simple explanation. He reinforced Aristotelian Metaphysics in Christianity with simple statements like this: "It is enough for the Christian to believe that the only cause of all created things, whether heavenly or earthly, visible or invisible, is the goodness of the creator, the one true God; and that nothing exists but Himself that does not derive its existence from Him."
From then on everything that humanity ever discovered about nature or human relations, that did not fit the 'Latin Vulgate Bible', was banished. The Bible was indeed affirmed as the sole source of knowledge. Books were destroyed. Knowledge was lost. A dark age had descended upon Western Europe that would last for more than a thousand years. In the process the knowledge base of Animism, that had been collected as the result of tens of thousands of years of patient observation of the rhythms of nature and human relations, was destroyed or at the least pushed underground while the knowledge accumulated in Greece would only be partially recovered during the crusades through books that were conserved in Arab universities.
Knowledge had not only been castrated; henceforth it would become a privilege of the priests. Illiteracy soon was total. Nobody could write or read except the priests and monks who shared Latin as the vehicle of communication over the whole of Europe. Even kings and emperors would not be spared illiteracy and out of necessity bishops were made their ministers. Europe would have to wait for the revolutionary violence of the French revolution to relegate this state of affairs to the dustbin of history.
In a milieu characterized by complete illiteracy spreading the Christian creed inevitably was relying on visual signs for sharing the knowledge of the time with all citizens. Music was used to infuse a sort of awe for the unknown and to model the mood of believers to the necessities of different situations. Architectural gigantism was an exercise at reducing the 'me me me' in the human by instilling in his mind the idea of his insignificance and the fear and respect of power. This lasted for more than 1000 years...
Having been brainwashed for more than 50 generations Europeans have internalized cultural and ideation automatism that turn out to be extremely difficult to get rid of. The citizens of Europe and its derivative territories have indeed inherited and largely continue to share a common Christian worldview to this very day. It's only during the last decades of the 20th century that the religious worldview started to be neutralized by consumerism but it is still present in the minds; it has not been annihilated only waiting for a spark to be re-awakened. A, very, very small fringe of Western citizens willingly smashed that worldview to pieces. First it requires some knowledge to deconstruct it and then it requires a lot of courage and patience to cleanse one's subconscious of all that worldview's bits and pieces that have been stored there as inheritance from our ancestors, our family, our schooling and our social life. Perhaps the deconstruction and the cleansing are a never ending task that only future generations shall succeed to complete after engaging in the new era of what comes after Modernity. But enough for now about that. I'll have the opportunity to come back to this idea later on when I'll discuss Late-Modernity.
2. About the religious worldview
Dualism is central to the axioms of Western civilization. That means that our actions, yes we Westerners' actions, are constantly attracted to one of the opposites at hand. In the model of the 'good versus bad' duality we identify good with our own ways of thinking and doing while rejecting what is different from our own ways simply because we view 'the other' as being bad. This forces us then to eliminate the bad from our sight... or to combat it in the hope of changing it in our own image. The present foreign policies of the West are a particularly relevant and striking illustration of that principle.
The Christian worldview, as well as Modernity, are rooted in such a dualism and the actions of their adherents are thus automatically driven by it without them even being conscious about it.
The narrative of the Christian worldview starts by positing a starting point in the human adventure. God is the ultimate cause of all and everything there is and as such his adherents take a creationist view of reality. God created this, god created that. Evolution is thus considered to be merely one theory espoused by scientists among thousands of other. The fact is, they say, that science does not prove that evolution is the truth of the matter of life. Science is evidently not well placed to answer such affirmations. Science is indeed no more than a method to observe facts. It does not have a narrative about everything as religions do. In other words science is not a worldview. It is a method that was devised purely for its functionality. The method is an agreement between people who try to understand a topic at hand and that agreement stipulates that all observations have to be replicable. That means that if one researcher says that he discovered X he needs to indicate the environment and the procedure he followed in his observation to let other researchers try to duplicate the fact resulting from that observation. What the verifiability of a stated fact does is that it instills trust in the fact in question; trust that the fact is true. Trust then allows the scientific community to build upon the body of scientifically accepted facts in order to eventually discover newer facts or push new theories.
Religious belief is no more than the belief in a religious narrative. That means that religious belief takes at face value anything contained in the narrative without any concern for its 'scientific truth'. This view will eventually be tempered by believers who will argue that they do not automatically believe in everything the narrative of their religion states. But this is merely an escape route for it's a discussion about the words that are being used in the religious narrative. That narrative was written in an earlier time and, for sure, it uses the images and ideas that were accepted in that time which became eventually obsolete in our own time. What is really important here is not the words nor the visual analogies. What is important is that a believer has to accept the doctrine of his religion because if he were questioning the doctrine he would place himself outside of his religion. Religion means 'religare' in old Latin which means binding together or being bound together or being glued in a same belief. In that sense there is just no way you can question its authority.
If the religion, or the order, were based on an idea of openness or of acceptance of the ideas of others then it no longer would impose a narrative and would appear embracing all and any faiths. But then such an open belief system would nevertheless need some rules to practice the openness and formal rules would then need to take precedence over content (form over content).
A 'scientific truth' is not an 'absolute truth'. The scientific truth is indeed no more than a fact that has been verified by others. That means that from the vintage point where and when the observation is being conducted the observed fact is confirmed as being repeatable. But that begs the question what happens when the vintage point changes.
In other words what scientists observe as true is perhaps only valid within the confines of the little ensemble, or the bubble, all scientists live in. Once the scientific bubble bursts all scientific truths eventually dissolve.
What I try to show here is that scientific truth is operational within the ensemble of our 'island universe' in the present. But what about in the future of the ensemble of our 'island universe'? What about when the vintage point lays outside of our 'island universe' which is inaccessible to human observation? What about when the vintage point lays outside of our universe? These questions just show the limitations of scientific truth. Science is valid in the present and within the confines of our 'island universe'. This should be amply sufficient to validate the scientific method as 'ultimately pragmatic' to access all that impacts humanity. The farther reaches of what impacts humanity is indeed the furthest humanity shall ever be able to search for knowledge. Truth is thus relative.
This digression was useful, I think, to better point the qualitative difference between religious truth and scientific truth. These are indeed notions that have their own internal reasons to operate as they do. A religious belief should not be attacked on the merit of the veracity of what is posited in its narrative. The belief of the beholder is indeed most often concerned only by the 'religare' aspect of his belief and most believers don't give a damn about the intrinsic logic of the narrative. But this should not distract us from the price to pay for believing. I mean that if you're listening your whole life to the same disk you will inevitably come to believe that the narrative on that disk is the only narrative available and you will unmistakably start to think that this narrative is the truth about everything and you will then end up closing yourself to anything that does not fit its story.
We Westerners have been listening to the same disk and have been watching the same visual signs that entered our brains since we were born. The brains of more than 50 generations, before us, internalized those visual signs and sounds for more than thousand years, at the exclusion of any other, and so they naturally ended up affirming their veracity in our minds which in turn led us to act accordingly and automatically. It's as if we all had been living all that time imprisoned in a bubble without any connection, any interaction, with the outside of the bubble and in the rare occasions we accidentally encountered others our axioms of civilization ordered us to kill them or, depending if we had a need for energy to power some work, to make them our slaves. Today, in Late-Modernity, we have the illusion to have grown a little bit wiser. We only impose on the others to behave in the same way as we do and if they refuse we bomb them back to the dark ages. I'm not sure this is any better than our earlier behavior. We still seem to be acting like barbarians.
Now when we think about the content of the Christian narrative we are forced to observe that it contains nothing that relates to the production of our daily lives. No principles to help us become more proficient in gardening, health maintenance, weather prognostication, handling human relations, and so on. Only 10 commandments relating to our behavior towards our fellow citizens and our society. What those commandments do is to ensure calm reigns in our societies. It's as if Constantine at the council of Nicaea had been primarily interested in a pragmatic worldview to help him governing his empire into stability. This idea is expressed by many others than me who argue that Constantine was not really interested in Christianity as a belief for himself but as a simple worldview to help him stabilize his empire that was afflicted by total confusion resulting from hundreds of gods pitched against each others by their promoters and from confrontations with invading outsiders.
The more I come to think about the impact the Christian worldview has had on us Westerners the more convinced I become that it built us into easily manipulable simpletons. This worldview was at the service of power; the power of Rome and the power of the state. Both powers were indeed served well by Christianity. Nothing the like can be said of their citizens who were kept in the crassest ignorance and used as 'beasts' to toil the land to supply the needs of those in the power bureaucracies (3). I hear VanGogh's visual representations, in his farmers series in Brabant, echo my words or perhaps it's more like my words are echoing VanGogh's paintings. Those paintings were assuredly a turning point in Western art. Gone were the portraits of those living in the palaces and the mansions. Oh scandal! VanGogh was projecting on the canvas the raw image of the 'beasts' nursed by the Christian worldview. How was he possibly daring do that? (4)
Looking from far away the whole story of the Christian worldview seems even more pitiful. Chinese farmers' life was not in paradise, for sure, but a representation like VanGogh's farmers has no place in the history of China. It's not as if all Chinese were geniuses or exquisite people; far from that. It's more like the wrinkles on the face of the poorest old fellow in Shanxi is conveying a pinch of wisdom that plunges you in his humanity. In China power was deemed far away and people always thought that they could do as they please as long as they were not caught. This resulted in a national character strong on individualism and resourcefulness. Nothing the like in VanGogh's Brabant farmers. It's not as if VanGogh had wanted to demean those people. On the contrary he was sympathizing with their fate. His paintings were a highly political statement rejecting a society that could abuse its citizens to such a point that they were stuck in an un-civilized fate. VanGogh, it seems to me, broke with the traditional social representation of the 3 obliged subjects of Early-Modernity that was centered on the bourgeoisie (5). He appropriated those 3 obliged subjects and focused them on the cause of the working class which was revolutionary on its own terms. His was social realist art by excellence.
3. Visual signs under a religious worldview
Power introduced specialization. First it professionalized the use of force and after having caught up with the reality that force was not sufficient to control large populations it eventually made peace with the men of knowledge. Or better it made peace with those men of knowledge who had succeeded to gather large bodies of followers. In other words men of power were cynical opportunists who used, in their own interest, the power of conviction of those men of knowledge who had large followings. Their interest being to stabilize the control by their state machinery over their populations and to reproduce the control of that machinery over the generations.
Once a kingdom or an empire had an agreement with popular men of knowledge they professionalized their knowledge and its diffusion through visual signs. Priests and monks were in charge of the knowledge forming that worldview and image makers were put in charge of illustrating that worldview for all to share.
The men of knowledge were granted a high social status comparable to that of the secular nobility while the image makers were considered among the lowest.
Image makers had no freedom whatsoever. They were ordered to give visual signs of the priests' narrative. Their sole freedom of initiative was limited to the form of their works. It is thus not surprising that Middle-Age painters and sculptors were searching refinement in the execution of their works. Technique became their refuge and many works from that era leave us indeed completely baffled by their technical virtuosity. A total absence of freedom in term of content gave rise to technical mastery and a pleasing and rich aesthetic. It appears to me that it would be most instructive to confront that fact with our present reality in the arts. The total freedom that has been unleashed by Modernism very rapidly weakened the content of its works and it also gradually degraded the technical abilities of artists to the point that nowadays many artists' technique is totally nonexistent. This translated in an aesthetics of poverty. Not only is there not much left to share any longer, in term of knowledge content, but the little knowledge that is still being shared is now also poorly rendered leaving us often with the impression of an un-mastered technique. All in all the content of Late-Modern art impresses a feeling of free wheeling down the societal slope in poisoned air that leaves us choking and grasping for a straw to inhale rare breaths of fresh air.
These conclusions about the problematic of an 'absence of freedom versus total freedom' in the arts are disturbing to say the least. It does not sound politically correct for sure to attach technical virtuosity and high aesthetics to an absence of freedom or a loss of technical mastery and a loss of content to total freedom. This does not sound right. Does it?
But is it really wrong?
I suppose that we all can agree on the fact that Middle-Age fine-arts were executed in the absence of freedom by low social status image makers. I suppose everyone will also recognize the deafening technical skills of those artists and the highly aesthetic character of their works. We will also agree, I suppose, that the content of their works is mostly of no interest to us late moderns. Now about late modern arts, if we try to be honest with ourselves, we will recognize at the least that something is not right; that content is nearly nonexistent and that form is mostly not pleasing and that the aesthetics of Late-Modernity are very poor to say the least. If we agree on all this then it begs the question "what are we missing here?".
So what is it we are missing?
I don't think that freedom is at stake here. Our uneasiness at being confronted with such political incorrectness has a reason that resides in our dualistic thinking. What I mean is that when we talk about freedom we refer to a quality that relates to the individual and when we speak about non-freedom we refer to a problem that comes from our society. But in reality we are mixing up everything and our reasoning is totally confused. I think that we urgently need to abandon dualism and adopt an intellectual approach based on polarities. In the situation I'm speaking about this would lead our thinking along the following lines:
The Middle-Ages as well as late-Modernity are both, in their own right, historical eras of excess at the extremities of polarities. Both reached that rare place at the extreme end of the line of humanity's polarities. One had a strong worldview that kept societies alive over a long time span and banned any freedom of thought forcing its artists to seek refuge exclusively in the technique of their craft. The other has lost the benefit of societal cohesion procured by the sharing of a worldview. Its artists are totally free to delve into nothingness while finance speculates. But as a consequence of atomization it corners itself in a very short lifespan.
But why did the Late Middle-Ages appear to offer a more coherent artistic picture than Late-Modernity? What are we missing here?
I think that the answer lays in the relative importance of the polarities of humanity: the individual and society. Take away society and the individuals lose their capacity to survive. By focusing so exclusively on the individuals Late-Modernity has weakened the natural mechanisms of societal life to such a point that, in the eyes of the establishment, totalitarianism appears the only remaining societal escape. Being a function of societies the arts are engulfed in that struggle. During the Late-Middle-Ages societies were strong and the arts assumed automatically and unquestioningly their natural function. During Late-Modernity societies have lost their natural balancing mechanisms and the arts have lost their footing:
What I just did here was sketching an answer in very broad brushstrokes. These brushstrokes will most certainly not appear satisfactory, to many of my readers, in intellectual terms I mean. But bear with me here dear reader. I plan to address all these questions in detail after having terminated the historical exposition I'm presently engaged in.
1. The Greek Septuagint: "translation by seventy interpreters" of the Greek Old Testament. According to legend seventy Jewish scholars were ordered by the Greek King of Egypt Ptolemy II Philadelphus to translate the Torah from Hebrew into Greek for inclusion in the Library of Alexandria. The work was completed in late 2nd century BC. Much of St. Jerome's version of the Old Testament was translated directly from Hebrew rather than from Greek. Over time his translation nevertheless won the day under Western Christianity while under Eastern Christianity the Septuagint was the exclusive material being translated exclusively from the Greek. From here arose a differentiation between Catholic and Orthodox Christianity.
2. The Nicene Creed: the Council of Nicaea , in 325, established God as being a Holy Trinity thus rejecting the interpretation of Arianism that considered Jesus to be a subordinate to God his Father. Arianism considered that Jesus was created as a human being while his father is the ultimate cause or the starting point of the Christian narrative and is thus eternal and as such not human.
3. Beast versus human: beasts have a "different way of life from ours — civilized people"(see note 4). The dualism of our axioms of civilization are coming to the surface here that imposed their automatic pilot to VanGogh in the form of "we civilized versus them non-civilized". But reading his letter further we discover that he was thorn by that idea acknowledging that "the peasants are a world in themselves, so much better in many respects than the civilized world."
4. The Potatoe Eaters by Vincent VanGogh. In letter n# 497 to his brother Theo Vincent wrote the following: "I really have wanted to make it so that people get the idea that these folk, who are eating their potatoes by the light of their little lamp, have tilled the earth themselves with these hands they are putting in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labour and — that they have thus honestly earned their food. I wanted it to give the idea of a wholly different way of life from ours — civilized people. So I certainly don’t want everyone just to admire it or approve of it without knowing why. ... Painting peasant life is a serious thing, and I for one would blame myself if I didn’t try to make paintings such that they give people who think seriously about art and about life serious things to think about."
VanGogh was sympathetic to the poor working people as he stated "I so often think that the peasants are a world in themselves, so much better in many respects than the civilized world."
5. The 3 obliged subjects of painting in Early-Modernity: the 'nouveaux riches' long distance merchants were not interested in religious paintings any longer and invariably imposed as subject of the paintings they ordered:
- or portraits of those living in the mansions and palaces
- or landscapes around those mansions and palaces
-or stills of what lays on the tables in those mansions and palaces
Painters who accepted to work for those 'nouveaux riches' had to abandon the illustration of the religious creed and illustrate the merchants economic success. Representations of economic success, in their eyes, enhanced and reinforced the ideas of private property and individualism that were the values at the core of their new paradigm of the reason of capital that later came to be called 'Modernity' in opposition to the old ways of Christianity..
Video of the week
One of the great videos I watched this last week
Article of the week
One of the great articles I read this last week
The Invention of Clumsiness by Alexi Worth in Cabinet magazine. Issue 54 The Accident Summer 2014.
This article is about something we discussed abundantly on LinkedIn Forums with Titus, Paul and others.
Overgrowth by George Monbiot, in the Guardian 17th December 2014
Visual artist of the week
One of the great contemporary visual artist I discovered this last week
Daniel Nevins’s Vibrant Abstract Paintings of a Floating World