Category Archives: Atheism/Religion

Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man”

British poet Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man” (1734) captures perfectly the symbiotic mindsets emerging during this time period from a religious believer’s perspective; wherein the hitherto dominant worldview based on faith-based reasoning–which was simultaneously nurturing, incorporating, but also quite often competing with–alternative naturalistic philosophies growing among cultured circles of Europe.  But unlike similar works of the time touching on near identical themes, Pope’s poem conveys a unique dose of optimism at the cooperative relationship between faith and science, and the former’s inevitable superiority of the latter.

It begins rather pointedly:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.

If there is one thing that the Enlightenment is known for it is the gradual shift from a focus on a Divinely guided understanding of the world, to one that places greater emphasis on empiricism to study the natural order of things.  That is not to say that all Enlightenment thinkers eschewed the Almighty in their personal philosophy, but that the intellectual work they produced began to rely more on naturalism to explain life, than appealing to the supernatural (this is evident even in works that set out to support the existence of the supernatural realm–like Descartes–while still using largely rationalist arguments as opposed to metaphysical ones to make their case).  What Pope is characterizing in the the above lines is not new, of course, but a reversion to the ancient adage of Protagoras where “Man is the measure of all things,” which had once again now become the starting point of the philosophers of the poet’s day, from whence they advanced all remaining premises and deductions they set out to theorize and prove.

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,

Pope’s diction suggests that man, at his core, exists in a state of constant conflict.  His great wisdom, a feat that has made him capable of attaining unprecedented knowledge, also has the capacity to give rise to great arrogance, stifling modest and balanced introspection.

He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;

Despite man’s reasoned understanding of his great intellect, he nevertheless cannot help but be constantly confronted with his innate limitations.  Least of all, how no matter the vastness of his capability to study and learn expands, this same knowledge betrays the undeniable fact that–just as all things in nature–the fintie mortality of every man, of every talent and intellect, is ever-present and inescapable.

In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;

Unlike the rest of nature, man holds an added burden that while all other creatures have the fortune to maintain a level of blissful ignorance regarding their mortality, man alone must carry forward with full knowledge that there awaits an end to the road of life.  He also carries with him the knowledge that the advent of man in nature, both physically and intellectually, is traced by a tradition of succumbing to an innumerable number of falsehoods, often as direct result of his intellectual limitations.

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;

It is man’s greatest gift–his intellect, his ability to reason and contemplate the natural world–that is the source of his greatest misery.  Seemingly, the more man understands about the world, and ultimately about himself, the more he is torn as he is confronted with doubts, fears, and insecurities regarding his place in the grand scheme of nature, which his perception places him master of, but his intellect relegates him from.

Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

The conflict between science and religion is a well-attested phenomenon in the modern age, whether one agrees or disagrees with the validity driving either side of the argument.  And it was during Alexander Pope’s lifetime, with the advent of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment ideals, that a true push for alternative ways of understanding the natural world began to take root among the intellectual circles of Europe.

For a devout believer like Pope, these naturalistic alternatives would seem ultimately unsatisfied and foolhardy.  However, unlike the more authoritative stance taken on by religious institutions both in Pope’s days and generations past, the poet doesn’t give a modicum of resistance in his writings to the new scientific values and trends man is leading himself towards:

Go, wondrous creature! mount where science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time, and regulate the sun;
Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere,
To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;

Pope personally rejects the notion that man is the measure of all things, as he accepts the existence of a higher plane of knowledge and being.  Therefore, he gives no credence to the idea that the finite intellectual pursuit of the modern, enlightened man can have any bearing on the infinite knowledge of God.  For the former is by the nature of its earthly creators’ limitations, doomed to fall short of the omniscience and glory of the Creator of all things in existence.

Or tread the mazy round his followers trod,
And quitting sense call imitating God;
As Eastern priests in giddy circles run,
And turn their heads to imitate the sun.

Whatever threat might be perceived by some as coming from the advances in intellectual realms of science, Alexander Pope remains unimpressed, and sees them as self-defeating imitations of the deeper satisfactions and knowledge revealed by spiritual truths, which for the poet far surpass the wisdom and musings of even the cleverest of God’s creations, precisely because they are still God’s creations; be they aware of it, or not:

Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule—
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!



Pope, Alexander.  An Essay on Man: Epistle II.  1734.

Hypotheses non fingo, hypothesis non egeo

“A god without dominion providence, and final causes, is nothing else but Fate and Nature.”[1]

Much of the 18th Century Enlightenment can be explained by the approach framed by one man, Sir Isaac Newton, whose emphasis on analysis and observation served as a model for future scientific generations that sought to follow in his footsteps.  But unlike many of the minds that would succeed him, Newton was a devout believer in divine authority, and saw no reason to dissever the word of the Almighty from the laws of Nature—ultimately deducing them to be one and the same.  Although Newton saw no contradictions in appealing to the supernatural as a valid explanation to matters of scientific inquiry, the empiricism of 18th Century France began to direct science further away towards the realm of strict materialist rationalism.  In the late 18th and early 19th Century, mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace, admiringly called the Newton of France by contemporaries, was the embodiment of the latter sentiment; working relentlessly to understand and solve the minute details Newton had either overlooked or deemed divinely guided.

Laplace’s work was an ambitious attempt to account for how the solar system works; hence appealing to agents beyond the scope of man’s intellect (meaning his intellect) was not just unsatisfactory, but downright unacceptable.  This naturalistic mindset is best illustrated by the oft repeated exchange he had with Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802: the story goes how upon receiving one of Laplace’s latest manuscripts aiming to systematically account for the functions of the universe, Napoleon turned to the mathematician and asked Laplace why it is that he had written an entire book about the intricate details of the universe with no mention of God in it, to which Laplace answered bluntly, “I have no need of that hypothesis.”[2]  This exchange reveals much about Laplace’s personal weltanschauung concerning the utility of accepting metaphysical analyses.  Ironically, it also further imitates Newton’s legacy by setting a precedent; a standard of doing science that influenced the subsequent generation of European thinkers to come.  Except in the model set by Pierre Simon Laplace, theology and deities could have no role in scientific reality.

In Laplace’s quest to decipher the mathematical properties of the universe, he committed himself wholeheartedly to Newton’s theory of universal gravitation as proposed by the English natural philosopher in his Principia Mathematica.  To Laplace, if there existed a concept that could bring all the functions known to science at the time together it was gravity as described by Newton, and it is of importance to note that when it comes to his mathematical calculations, Laplace is a strict Newtonian.  And the system he deduced to be at work from all this was self-operating, and firmly set, rendering appeals to the supernatural redundant in the highest degree.  Thus, Laplace must have been baffled to know that Newton himself was not as strict a Newtonian as Laplace was, because despite laying out a mechanical approach to understanding the cosmos, he still left room for a supernatural agent—i.e. God—to not just set the mechanism in motion, but also tinker with it as the he saw necessary.[3]

One particular case that Newton noted as evidence of occasional divine intervention in the solar system concerned the gravitational interactions of Saturn and Jupiter, whose strange pattern of accelerating and decelerating as they revolved on their orbits produced certain mathematical irregularities that suggested that the planetary system would become unstable over time.[4]  And it is in this sort of an apparently scientific anomaly that Newton asserted that the hand of God is required to sustain and stabilize the system into order.  Laplace could not accept Newton’s conclusion on this problem, and would spent a significant amount of his professional career providing mathematical evidence as to why Newton was wrong to presuppose divine assistance when his own work points to quite the opposite.

Laplace’s earliest attempt to answer the dilemma posed by the Jupiter/Saturn problem, presented in 1773, resulted in his conclusion that the gravitational attraction mutually exerted by planets was negligible, even nil.[5]  However, he did not find this answer satisfactory, and presented another—what he considered more thorough—explanation a decade later to the French Academy of Sciences, in his famous 1785 paper, Memoire sur les inegalites seculaires des planets et satellites.  Here, Laplace approached the Jupiter/Saturn problem by stating that the discrepancies observed in regard to planetary orbits, and how their motions affected the relative stability of the solar system, can be accounted for mathematically because they do in fact regularly reverse themselves when one maps out their motions on a long-term basis, proving the system to be stable after all.[6]  Though we know today that Laplace’s calculations exaggerated the stability of the solar system (there exists quite a bit of irregularity in the cosmos), his unyielding pursuit of a naturalistic explanation to the problem gives a lot of insight into his staunch determinism, where every event is caused by a verifiably preceding event and will result in a predictable consequent, excluding supernaturalism from its framework.  It is the principle around which Laplace would strive to orient his scientific career, and establish his personal ideals under.

By 1802, the year of his famous encounter with the First Consul of France, Laplace was 53 years old and highly regarded as one of the greatest living mathematicians in France.  He had survived the turmoil of the French Revolution that had taken the lives of so many of his colleagues by always maneuvering himself in the right political circles, but never associating himself to any one group closely enough to suffer their eventual downfalls.  Throughout the mid-late 1790s, Laplace began to have an increasing presence within political circles, starting with a string of leading positions in the founding of the Bureau des Longitudes (created in 1795 for the advancement of astronomy in the French Republic) and the Institute National des Sciences et des Arts (serving as a successor to the defunct Academy of Sciences, organized for the purpose of utilizing science for the benefit of the new Republic).  Laplace’s role as a leading figure in France’s scientific community made his inclusion in these activities a necessity for the state, and brought him closer into the spotlight of the national scene, meaning closer to the man who was accumulating more power within France, Napoleon Bonaparte—the recipient of Laplace’s blunt statement about God’s absence in the workings of the universe.

A lot of Laplace’s influence in the early 19th Century can be attributed to his personal relationship with General Bonaparte, who upon seizing power in 1799 appointed the mathematician as his minister of the interior. This gave Laplace his first taste of true political power (even though Napoleon soon regretted the decision, as the ministerial post proved to be a poor match for the meticulous scientists).  Later in life, Laplace would comment how when it comes to politically ambitious individuals, “rather than crave their lot, I am more likely to pity them.”[7]  Though he relieved Laplace as minister of the interior soon after appointing him, Napoleon ensured Laplace’s position in a more politically ceremonial role in the newly forged Senate in late 1799, naming him secretary of the Senate in 1800, and eventually chancellor of the Senate in 1803.  Laplace used his sway in politics to benefit science and its practitioners, and indeed it appears as if his primary actions involved the advancement of scientific institutes,[8] earning him much praise from the rest of the academic world.[9]  This is very much in contrast to his idol Newton, who mostly shied away from the public eye all through his life.  Also unlike Newton, Laplace did not care to allow potential successors to arbitrarily follow in his footsteps, but sought to carefully select the best and the brightest to be included in his scientific projects; founding an elite social club for budding scientists called the Societe d’Arcueil in 1806 to promote what is referred to today as the Laplacian program.  The Laplacian program of precise experimentation and consistent mathematical theory set-up by the Societe would influence the direction of French scientific learning for nearly two decades, only fading out close to Laplace’s death in the 1820s as the group virtually imploded in its overreaching quest to account for everything in existence.

The standard by which Laplace was eager to frame and promote the study of science was a clear reflection of his own ambitious attempt to explain the nature of the various components, and how they operate to make up all the matter surrounding life and the universe.[10]  Thus, the only logically consistent position this sort of mindset could lead to for someone like Laplace is that as far as he is concerned the laws of nature are static, leaving no room for miracles of any sort, chiding past and contemporary scientists for straying away from what he thought ought to have been their better judgment and slipping into the realm of unfounded superstition.[11]

Laplace clearly idolized Newton, and was thoroughly committed to Newton’s theory of gravity as a universal truth that gives a sufficient account of how the solar system functions.  But he never shared Newton’s strong religious convictions, and never understood how a mind so great as to practically invent physics, did not reach the same metaphysical conclusions Laplace himself had done through his own work on calculating the cosmos.[12]  Whereas Newton asserted that the observation of peculiar patterns in the motion of planets and other celestial bodies was a sign for the occasional suspension of natural laws to validate the necessity of a Supreme Being’s oversight in the ultimate structure of the universe, Laplace saw these same peculiarities as natural consequences of these very same laws Newton was willing to suspend, seeing no function for God to play in what he considered to be a wholly deterministic system.

Laplace was a young man he was dubbed the “Newton of France,” but, unfortunately, Newton had not left a lot of unexplored domains for his intellectual heir to discover, leaving the ambitious Frenchman to be content with exploring the areas where his forbearer had been negligent: working out the minuscule details that combine to make up the grand picture.  To a devout believer such as Isaac Newton, the presence of God within our reality is the grandest of all explanations; to a man like Pierre-Simon Laplace, focusing on the minute workings of the larger framework, the concept of God can never reach more than a hypothesis.  A hypothesis that might be satisfactory to the philosophically inclined, but to Laplace, the empiricist, the scientist, it is a hypothesis for which there is no need.

[1] Newton, Isaac.  1687.  Principia Mathematica. “Rules of Reasoning in Philosophy, Rule IV”.

[2] Hahn, Roger. The Analytic Spirit, ed. Harry Wolf. “Laplace and the Vanishing Role of God in the Physical Universe” (Ithaca, 1981), p. 85.

[3] Newton, Isaac. 1776.  Principia. General Scholium.

[4] Gillispie, Charles Couston.  Pierre-Simon Laplace: A Life in Exact Science (New Jersey: Princeton University Press), 1997, p. 47.

[5] Hahn, Roger.  Pierre Simon Laplace: A Determined Scientist (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press), 2005, p. 78.

[6] Laplace, Pierre Simon.  1785.  “Memoire sur les inegalites seculaires des planets et des satellites.”  A detailed account that helps to clarify some of the technical jargon of Laplace’s conclusions can be found in Chapter 16 of Gillispie’s book, titled “Planetary Astronomy”, p. 124-145.

[7] Hahn 2005, p. 130.

[8] Hahn 2005, p. 133-134.

[9] Monatliche Corrospondenz zur Beforderung der Erd-und Himmels-Kunde 6, 1802, p. 272-278

[10] Laplace, Pierre-Simon. 1801. Mecanique Celeste, p. 121-122.   

[11] Moniteur Universal. 28 January 1795, p. 530.

[12] Hahn 2005, p. 201.

Exploring William Blake

In his poem “The Shepherd,” from Songs of Innocence, William Blake describes the scene of innocent sheep being diligently watched over by a sweet shepherd.  The obvious message is the absolute sense of tranquility that is found by the herd from having a benign celestial father alertly protecting them.  But, as is with much of Blake’s writing, there is also a sense of a sinister totalitarianism being exercised by the benign shepherd.  He asserts guard over his sheep from “morn to evening,” “following his sheep all the day,” and, “his tongue shall be filled with praise.”  The Shepherd’s benefit from this relationship appears to be a self-aggrandizing one, basking in the sheep’s dependence on him.  The sheep, for their part, blissfully bask in innocent ignorance, enjoying the peace of mind grated to them through the shepherd’s protection.  Though the poem diverts the reader’s attention from sensing anything menacing with the strategic usage of gentle words like sweet, praise, innocent, tender, and peace, the dire message here can be read as indeed one of solace for both the sheep and shepherd, but also of a particularly menacing variant, reminiscent of captive victims who have learned to identify with their captors (Stockholm Syndrome).

In contrast to “The Shepherd,” Blake’s poem in Songs of Experience titled “The Angel,” approaches the same theme from a different standpoint.  Here, a maiden is being guarded over by a benign angel, similar to how the sheep were watched over by the shepherd, except unlike the sheep the maiden is filled with anguish rather than bliss.  The telling piece in the poem is that the angel is by no means a brute, but a concerned protector, yet the maiden seems to resent his presence anyway.  Whereas “The Shepherd” is comparable to a child yearning for the fawning of an overbearing parent, “The Angel” is that child maturing into adulthood, and desperately yearning for independence from her parents’ authority.  When the angel does flee the situation and the maiden is left alone, she “dried [her] tears, and arm’d [her] fears,” and upon the angel’s return she states, “I was arm’d, he came in vain,” because through her maturity she has made the conscious decision in her advanced years to—if need be violently—break free from the self-deprecating condition the angel’s preoccupation with her has created.

In line with the underlying anticlerical message evident in much of William Blake’s work, both “The Shepherd” and “The Angel” can be read as subtle, but stern, condemnations against church establishment.  “The Shepherd” illustrates the churches relation towards the youth of their flock, instilling within them a herd-like obedience towards its own authority and at the same time teaching them to praise this same authority.  It is fitting that “The Shepherd” is in the Songs of Innocence collection, since it appeals to the time in people’s lives before they are capable of reflecting on a situation and figuring out on their own what decisions are best for them.  It is the sort of innocence, which according to Blake, can be easily corrupted by organized religion and lead men further away from the truth of God in favor of expanding its own power; crushing creativity for the sake of conformist obedience.  Mention must also be given that the poem is written in third person, meaning that the true thoughts of the sheep are ultimately closed off to us, and the entire narrative serves as a representation of the oblivious public that gives cover to a harmful system because it itself is incapable of noticing that the dependence the shepherd had trained in his sheep is a form of mental submission, rather than sincere devotion.  On that same note, “The Angel,” from the Experience, shows a first person narrative, giving a personal account into the loathing and grief experienced by a creative mind craving to be free from an overbearing guardian.  Whereas, the young sheep sought the guidance of the shepherd because their reasoning skills were not developed enough to know better, the aging maiden’s experienced rationale had rebelled against her guardian.

Just as the church in Blake’s view seeks to do what it thinks is best for the salvation of man’s soul, “The Shepherd” and “The Angel,” demonstrate the irony of how the imposition of guarded and conditional deliverance can only be perceived as virtual imprisonment, and will–contrary to its own goals–impose a token brand of cerebral tyranny.

The Tower of Babel: An Alternative Perspective

When people speak of a need for their faith in God/s, they almost always come around to expressing how–though they’ll readily grant that organized religion, as an institution, may at times fall short of the ideal–the faith and grace of the Almighty still resonates in the hearts of all mankind (whether they acknowledge His omnipresence or not), and serves as the one true guiding force by which we may hope to find solidarity; through which we can strive to attain peace of mind, and (ultimately) peace on Earth, as surely as we are to find it in the coming hereafter.

When looked through the scope of the narrative found in the Book of Genesis, important events like man’s banishment from Eden, and the subsequent Great Flood meant to purge the world from the sinfulness that man had spawned in the world thereafter, are further reassurances of the need man has for God’s eternal presence in his life, without which he is doomed to be lost to both personal solace and eternal salvation.  Moreover, if we dwell further into the Christian perspective, it is in the figure of Jesus Christ–wherein God became man, and died at the hands of man, for the sake of absolving said man of his sin so that he may once more gain eternal life in Heaven at the side of his Creator–where we find the long awaited mending of the rift between man and his spiritual soul, and bring peace between the physical and metaphysical realms.

Given all of the above, the Tower of Babel stands as a rarely explored peculiarity to the common narrative.  The story of the Tower begins in the first verse of Chapter 11, in the Book of Genesis (this is after the banishment from Eden, and after the Great Flood had already taken place):

1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.

2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

The whole earth was of one language, and presumably of a common understanding, as evident by the fact men journeyed and lived in some sort of union.  Though subtle, the placement of this story at this point of the Book is very significant in its relation to the theological underpinnings explored at the beginning of this post.  The story continues:

3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.

So united was man in his pursuits, he begins to set the stepping stones for architecture and human innovation by improving on common building techniques.  A symbolic act indicating the advent of greater civilization meant to sustain a decently sized population.

4 And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”

The common theological perspective is that this verse signifies how, rather than a symbol of man’s ingenuity, the Tower is a symbol of man’s pride.  The emphasis being on the hubris of mere men wanting to make a name for themselves by reaching the realm of God by earthly means, rather than spiritual ones, thereby making mockery of the very concept of salvation through the grace of God.  This reasoning is satisfying to many faithful, but rings hollow on a number of accounts.  The first of which being that nowhere in the verse is there any reference to God, his grace, subverting his grace, or even wanting to reach Heaven to reside there against the wishes of God.  At it’s most basic interpretation, what the verse does demonstrate is a wish to push human innovation beyond its limitations, to surpass our natural inhibitions and master it to our advantage.  And if this is a grave sin, then one might as well deduce all modern technological achievements to be sinful (and if you’re reading this post, by means of some technological device, one can safely assume you are not of this opinion).  Furthermore, such speculation is rendered moot by the subsequent verses, wherein God clearly states his reasons for disapproving of man’s construction of the Tower:

5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.

6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.

The construction of the Tower isn’t the problem for God.  His concern is the implication it holds concerning man’s collective potential to rise higher than his nature (where nothing “they plan to do will be impossible to them”).  There’s no mention of man’s pride–his hubris, if you will–nor is it even hinted that God’s concerns rest in anything other than his own self-interest, as he only identifies two contentions he holds with man’s construction of the Tower: 1. They are doing it as one people, 2. the construction of the Tower symbolizes man’s power to be limitless.  Now, God’s solution to this problem is a simple one.  Since 2 stems directly from 1, he sets out to undo 1:

7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.

Bible scholars will easily identify the Tower of Babel as being a clear example of an etiological myth, meaning a myth/story/legend meant to explain the origin of a phenomenon (i.e. think of the tale of how man received the gift of fire after Prometheus stole it from the Olympians).  In this case, the phenomenon being explained through the legend of the Tower of Babel is the origin of the diversification of languages.  Acknowledging this, from a philosophical/theological perspective, the actions of God as a character in the narrative are far more interesting of an indication of the dynamic between man and the Divine.  Because, for those who take this narrative seriously, God’s actions are not just responsible for the diversification of man’s languages, but also man’s segregation into different tribes, many of which undoubtedly grew to become opposing tribes, which inevitably led to these tribes waging war on one another on account of these differences.  Therefore, as the instigator of the tribalism among men, God can be credited as the direct catalyst of the warfare that came about as a result from said tribalism.  That is, if one takes the narrative seriously.  For those with a more scholarly interest in the subject, the greater plot implications between the characters are still equally intriguing.

Thus, to summarize the whole plot:  In a world following man’s banishment from paradise, following the Great Flood–a world just about all theologians and the faithful identify as being fallen and plagued by sin–humanity managed to surpass these great odds stacked against it and unite as one people, and coexist in such unity that it not only survived, but thrived in the harsh environment on the basis of its ingenuity alone.  According to the Bible itself, this great human unity did not need an appeal to the Divine to be achieved, nor did it require a blood sacrifice on the part of the Creator to bring peace and solace to the hearts of man.  And, amazingly, it was not man’s sins that halted this progress.  Nor was it man’s inherent wickedness that tore at the base of this serenity.  It was God, Himself.  Why?  In accordance to the story it can be simply put as God being afraid of man.

As heretical at it might sound, this underlying fear of man’s potential is not an uncommon theme throughout ancient mythology (when stories like the Tower of Babel would have been crafted).  The lineage of the Greek pantheon is a direct testament to this very concept.  The Titans were deposed by the very Olympians they had spawned, just as the Titans themselves had deposed the ancient gods that preceded them.  Given this tradition of cyclical deicide, it is not a farfetched interpretation to read the constant demand the Olympian gods place on being revered and worshipped by mankind not as a testament of their strength, but as a revelation of the fear that their own creation–man–will one day follow in the same traditions that all the higher beings in their history have done, and depose the makers that made them.

Aristotle could never rationally fathom way any god would be concerned with the daily happenings of a lower order of beings like mankind, and proposed a deity that took a laissez-faire approach towards human endeavors.  But perhaps Aristotle was not thinking creatively enough.  For what are gods without worship?  How many gods throughout the ages have met their fate in the graveyard of mythology simply because man stopped minding them any attention?  From this perspective, the prospect of man turning both inward to his own strength and ingenuity, as well as to that of his fellow man, is antithetical to the interests (and downright survival) of any halfway competent God.  And the God of the Book of Genesis is no exception to this, as shown by His own conduct in story of the Tower of Babel.

Friedrich Nietzsche on Religion and Atheism

Believe it or not, there actually exists some contention in Nietzschean circles about the philosopher’s religiosity (or lack thereof).  While most people maintain that Friedrich Nietzsche was undoubtedly an atheist, a few contemporary thinkers see his creeds against Christianity as being indicative of a deeper understanding of the mystical; leaving room open for a belief in the divine.  Adding to the possible confusion for some readers comes from the popular writings of certain cranks (i.e. Thomas J.J. Altizer), who promote a wholly bizarre “Death of God” theology that stretches Nietzsche’s writings to absurd lengths.

But the best way to put the issue to rest is to go straight to the source himself.  In his final and most autobiographical full book, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche begins the second chapter, “Why I am so Clever,” by plainly stating his position on religious matters.

He states:  “‘God,’ ‘immortality of the soul,’ ‘redemption,’ ‘beyond’–without exception, concepts to which I never devoted any attention, or time; not even as a child.  Perhaps I have never been childlike enough for them?”  Here, he clearly sets his worldview as being completely divorced from what one would call religious sentiments, and, one could argue by the inclusion of ‘beyond,’ as devoid of the supernatural in general.  It is important to bring attention to the way Nietzsche claims to have never “devoted” any time to anything vaguely religious, because it is vital in understanding the manner by which he addresses theological positions in his writings.

Some have quoted the next paragraph in the text, where Nietzsche says, “I do not by any means know atheism as a result; even less as an event,” to indicate that Nietzsche might have still held to a spiritual sort of mysticism.  But this is unfounded in the actual text, because it places too much emphasis on the first part of the sentence, while ignoring the last.  Nietzsche qualifies that his did not know atheism as a result or event, precisely because his unbelief was not the product of some grand epiphany; he did not lose faith, because he never had it to begin with.  He goes on to explain, “it is a matter of course for me, from instinct.  I am too inquisitive, too questionable, too exuberant to stand for any gross answer.”  To Nietzsche, disbelief is his natural disposition, his inquisitive nature demands him not to accept anything more.

Now, I mentioned earlier that it is noteworthy how Nietzsche never bothered to entertained any notion of the supernatural, and how this sentiment affected his approach to theology.  Unlike other prominent atheist writers of the 19th Century, who saw fit to argue against the existence of deities and religions, Nietzsche never bothered to engage or refute any of the arguments for the existence of gods.  He repeatedly affirms that gods do not exist, but his affirmations are meant to be taken as solid proclamations, rather than logical arguments.  The reason for this is that Nietzsche would have considered such engagements as insulting to his person, because to him, “God is a gross answer, an indelicacy against us thinkers–at bottom merely a gross prohibition for us:  you shall not think!”  To even go so far as to refute the standard theological arguments would have been too big of a concession in Nietzsche’s mind.  To him the nonexistence of gods was a given fact, unworthy of debate (a position that greatly influenced later existentialists thinkers, like Jean-Paul Sartre).

This might seem odd, since anyone who has read Nietzsche can attest to the fact that he spends a multitude of pages mentioning God.  Indeed, it can be argued that the topic seems to be somewhat of an obsession to the philosopher, even if he claims to not devote any time to it.  However, one must be very careful here.  In much of his writings, Nietzsche’s atheism takes on a very post-theistic tone (The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, etc.), where he asserts the death of God, not as an actual entity, but as a psychological concept.  Primarily, because that’s all gods are to Nietzsche, man-made concepts, whose humble origins have been forgotten.  What he discusses in his writings is not any sort of deity recognizable to the religious, but the role, power, and influence the concept of God has had on the psychology of humanity, as well as how modernity is leading to the gradual (and unavoidable) erosion of this concept from our psych, as supernatural suppositions become more and more untenable in contemporary discourse.

In these regards, Nietzsche’s post-theistic atheism is a unique take on the issue on religion and God, but one should avoid assigning to it any deeper meaning than even the philosopher himself intended.


Nietzsche, Friedrich. Ecce Homo. “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 1.

The specific translation I used for the quotes in this post, come from Walter Kaufmann’s Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 1967 (2000 reprint), The Modern Library: New York, pages 692-693.

William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

William Blake is a fascinating character in the world of literature.  A deeply spiritual man, whose writings seek to promote what he saw as the ideals of Christian virtue, but equally antagonistic towards all churches and established expressions of religion.  It is this sort of irony that is raised repeatedly in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), which explores ideas of traditional theology and ethical logic, to uncover what the poet thought to be the true spark of man’s divine spirit.

Anyone looking to seriously discuss the doctrine of Contraries set forth in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, must first grasp the rhetorical, and perhaps more importantly, the theological implications that come along with realizing that notions such as good and evil are not and cannot be described as antitheses of one another.  Plate 3 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, firmly calls on the reader to reflect on how s/he could honestly be able to fully comprehend positive components (such as attraction, reason, and love), unless there exist negative contraries (in this case, repulsion, energy, and hate) that must be known and understood to truly see the goodness of its opposites.  If these negatives (i.e. Evil) are absent, then there is no rational way to detect the positives (i.e. Good), thus gaining an understanding of evil is detrimental in recognizing good.  Plate 3 goes on to imply that Evil is the driving force of knowledge; it is the active factor that through its guiding principle, energy, focuses the senses of the passive recipient, Good, and allows its guiding principle, reason, to judge a given situation.  Blake finishes by affirming, “Good is Heaven.  Evil is Hell”, a clear attempt to distinguish between the two concepts.  But, while it is certainly true that the existence of Heaven is not contingent on there also being a Hell, any description associating Heaven with Good will lose all meaning in the absence of Hell.  If Heaven is the sole transcended plane, then to label it Good (or anything else for that matter) is an arbitrary description, akin to saying that Color is Heaven.  In such a case, what would anything outside Heaven be, non-Color, but what would that describe?—Nothing, which is precisely why it is vital for us to be able to articulately conceive of the Evil of Hell, so that we may understand the Good of Heaven.

It must be kept in mind that in Blake’s spiritualist view, these traditionally divine and damned settings are considered to be more psychologically real, than physical representations of actual places (as the churches teach).  Thus, Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil, are dependent on one another to ensure the promulgation of both entities in human consciousness.  A fact that is acknowledged and plainly stated by Blake, and (in his view) secretly acknowledged but never stated by the churches.  In plate 4, the voice of the Devil is presented in the form of a rational argument (even though reason is a component of Good), articulating Blake’s stance that although transcendent experience is real, any attribute we give to it is limited by the imagination of our minds, thereby making this real entity imaginary when we aim to analyze and categorize it rationally.  Resulting in irony, because whereas reason is supposed to be a principle of Good, it becomes entrenched by our energetic drive to grasp it (energy being the principle of Evil), which ultimately takes us further away from the divine truth but also gives us our only possible insight to divinity.  Meaning that, unlike what the church or organized religion teaches us, our physical and mental cravings are neither sin nor salvation, but manifestations of one transcendent property incapable of being dissevered.  Our projection outward towards the heavens is in truth just a reflection inward—where Heaven truly resides—towards our soul.

Synod of Whitby, and the History of Dating Easter in Western Christianity

In the 7th century, British Christianity was defined by two differing models of the same religion:  The Church of Iona, founded by St. Columba on the distinctly Irish traditions of Celtic Christianity, and the Church of Canterbury, which followed the guidance of Rome.  Despite being confined to separate regions of the British Isles, the two churches came into direct conflict in a highly unstable region that was prone to usurpation and political strive, called Northumbria.  The issue was a simple one, but immensely divisive for the competing churches, as it concerned the most important Christian traditions: how to properly date Easter.  Both had come up with their own methods to date the feast, and the Christian church in Britain was heading towards crises as the Celtic churches in Northumbria refused to concede to Roman customs.  The dispute ran deeper than a mere quarrel over when it was proper to feast or fast in celebration of the Christian faith, beneath this was a persistent social divide between the conservative mores of a dwindling generation being challenged by a relentless call for modernity from the evermore increasing youth.

Fearing a schism, and perhaps sensing a political opportunity, King Oswiu of Northumbria called a synod (a church council) at Whitby to resolve the conflict.  Both sides were to present their case for Oswiu to consider before passing the final judgment on which practice would be observed in the kingdom.  The Synod of Whitby was a defining moment in the history of British Christianity; its inception lies in a combination of religious and political factors that must be examined in order to gain a concrete understanding of the historical significant, and its role in creating a unified church, and more importantly a unified people.


Before the Conflict: the End and Reinstitution of Roman Christianity in Britain

The first decade of the 5th century was the last for the Western half of the Roman Empire.  In Britain this meant that roughly 470 years of Roman authoritative control was over, taking with it any established Romano-British identity that may have been formed by the native inhabitants of the British Isle.  What followed is a remarkable abandonment of Roman customs and traditions, as the native Britons no longer viewed themselves as being part of the Empire.

Amongst the discarded traditions was Christianity, which had been imported to Britain from Rome in the early 3rd century but apparently—outside of the higher Romanized sectors of society—never became fully integrated into the daily lives of the common villagers (hence how the Latin word for villager, paganus, eventually came to mean the pejorative pagan).

The exact process of how Christianity disappeared on the island is a mystery, no doubt a combination of social apathy and Anglo-Saxon raids played a role, but ultimately this period in history is one devoid of concrete records or narrative chronicles and largely left to speculations.  What is known is that from the 5th to 6th century, Britain underwent a drastic process of exogenesis, where its people willingly started to identify with the warrior rulers of the invading Germanic (mostly Saxon and Angle) tribes, who came from across the English Channel, settled, refashioned and integrated the native Britons under their own customs.  Immersed within these customs was the adherence to Germanic tribal religions, their native Heathenism (again a term referencing the uncooperative country villagers that will make its way into the Christian lexicon), which was readily adopted by the British people who dwelled under Anglo-Saxon rule.

The story of Britain’s rechristening under the Roman faith traces back to continental Europe, where in 596 Pope Gregory I saw it as his Christian duty to send missionaries to the island and save the souls of the nonbelievers.  The man he sent was Augustine, a prior of the Church—equivalent to an office administrator—who along with a handful of monks, headed north to make claims in the name of Christ.  The journey was a daunting one. What sort of barbaric peoples awaited the missionaries?  Have these unbaptized Anglo-Saxon any idea of civility?  Will they be able to communicate God’s word to the pagans in their foreign tongue?  Such questions must have been heavy on Augustine’s mind as he crossed the English Channel, making landfall in the Isle of Thanet, and headed towards Canterbury.  Unknowingly to the administrator, his first steps on the British coast would turn out to be the defining moment of English ecclesiastical history.

Upon his arrival, Augustine set up his congregational base in Canterbury within the Kingdom of Kent, where he restored several abandoned churches from the Roman era to conduct services and conversions.  Conversions were slow as the mission was constantly plagued by Augustine’s infuriating habit of getting bogged down in administrative jargon.  Throughout his time in Canterbury, Augustine had regular correspondences with Pope Gregory in which he shows a pattern of indecisiveness in dealing with issues (mostly concerning theft and marriage practices) that even for the most blase of theologians would have seemed palpable.  Gregory himself grew irate with this habit and often responded to Augustine in a patronizing tone, “You know your Bible well enough, just use common sense.”  However much of a nuisance it may have been for the Pope, Augustine’s lack of confidence would be of great consequence for the British Church, and eventually Western Europe:  Setting the precedent of always looking to Rome for guidance.  But any such significance was arcane to the early Christians involved in the mission, as the church itself could have easily fallen into oblivion were it not for the support and protection received from the King of Kent, Aethelberht.

Aethelberht was a pagan, but through possible persuasion by his Christian wife Bertha, he allowed Augustine to preach the Christian faith from Canterbury.  And although he resisted at first, by 601 the heathen king is known to have converted to Christianity (either out of sincere conviction or political motive to establish closer ties with Europe, or both).  Upon the fateful conversion of their king, the people of Kent followed suit and gave the young church the success needed to cement it as a legitimate institution of the land.  Pope Gregory was so pleased by the progresses of the mission that he had Augustine ordained a Bishop, with full authority over all British churches.  The intention was to create a lineage for the church to ensure its lasting presence in the region for generations thereafter, but what it did was undermine the authority of a possible ally Pope Gregory didn’t even know existed, namely that of the forgotten British Christians who had survived the Anglo-Saxon raids.

Unlike that of continental Europe, the existing British church had not had its development influenced by the turbulent political circumstances which had arisen in Europe after the Roman Empire fell.  Instead, the remaining few Christians moved West, away from the invading Germanic tribes settling into the island, and closer towards the influence of the growing Irish Church, whose practices in this era of early Christianity would not have been very dissimilar to their own.  Both sides underwent a process wherein Christian ideology begin to define itself within the context of the individual society of its practitioners, and more and more separate traditions formed in the two churches, completely independent from one another until Pope Gregory I sent his missionaries to the island to introduce Christianity to what he thought was solely a heathen land.  Once contact was established through Augustine’s presence in England, it became clear that the two sides had different views on what constituted true Christianity.  For one thing, the British church made no attempt to convert the heathen Anglo-Saxons, and instead chose to retreat away from social life in England altogether; a move Pope Gregory saw as counter to his evangelization efforts.  The original goal of the mission was to take the island for Christianity, but once the existence of the British Church was found out a pressing concern for Gregory and Augustine became to gain the trust of these rogue Christians in order to bring them in line with the Roman style of the faith.  Unfortunately, Augustine himself ruined any such hopes from the first meeting he had with the British priests.

The story goes that prior to the meeting, the British priests decided to test the Roman: “If he stands to greet us, then he is of sound moral character, but if he sits then he is too arrogant in demeanor.” When the meeting came Augustine remained seated throughout, and negotiations between the two churches broke down immediately as a consequence.  Even though the scenario is keeping in character with Augustine’s questionable competence for initiative, there is also a more divisive reason for the growing tension between the two Christian authorities.

The celebration of Easter, the most important feast in the Christian calendar as it celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, was the issue that grew to be most discordant for the early church.  During the two centuries that the British and Roman Christians existed independently of one another, both sides develop their own method by which to date the feast.  By any means, determining on which day Christians are supposed to observe Easter is a complex matter.  The general system agreed upon by Christian authorities is that it had to fall on a Sunday, on the third week of the first lunar month of the year, but the first full moon could not fall before vernal equinox.  In the early-mid 6th century, Dionysius Exiguus came up with a system that became widely promoted by Rome, and carried by Augustine to Britain in 596.  Although Dionysius’ Easter table was not immediately adopted in Europe (the concept of Papal authority was not yet established), Pope Gregory was determined that the heathen converts adopt the traditions he considered most true to the Christian faith; a move that conflicted with the already present British Church, which dated Easter based on the system established by the Irish Christians, independent of Rome.  When the British refused to abandon their traditional observation of the feast, Gregory grew discontent, and deemed the practices of Celtic Christianity as heretical in nature, and in need of correction.  Unfortunately for Gregory, the British did not submit to his will, and their Irish counterparts were even embarking on an evangelical mission of their own just north of Augustine’s base.


Celtic Christianity:  Faith in Isolation

Ireland had never been part of the Roman Empire, yet due to the close proximity between Roman Britain and the Irish island cultural influences were inevitable.  How exactly the Irish became Christianized is another of the vast mysteries surrounding this period.  St. Patrick writes in his narrative how he converted to the faith after being kidnapped into slavery, thereby providing one possible means of transmission by which ideas (and religious conversions) could have spread during this time.  Whatever the exact details are the fact remains that after the fall of the Roman Empire Ireland’s spiritual life developed in isolation from the rest of Europe, spawning a seperate form of practices and traditions that can be described as uniquely Celtic in character.

By 600, the Irish church has developed a level of academic scholarship unseen by the European continent at the time.  In isolation Irish monks attained a mastery of Latin grammar, biblical exegesis and the indispensable discipline of chronological computation (a mathematical system by which to determine important dates on the Christian calendar), and revitalized monasticism as the functional structure of the early church.  These achievements gave Irish scholarship a high reputation and soon gave rise to the practice of Peregrinatio, where Irish monks went into self-imposed exile to Britain and Europe, thereby bringing their learning to these regions.  In the context of these cultures, which valued the protection of tribal and clan allegiances, exiles were deemed the worst punishment one could receive short of death because it placed the individual outside the protection of his clan.  Peregrinatio was a way for monks to show devotion to God by taking on the worst punishment for themselves and suffer as Christ had done.  A leading example of this sort of devotion would be personified in the person of St. Columba.

The details of St. Columba’s life and actions are often muddled in hagiography—literally the study of saints, but largely a term used to describe a form of hero worship—by his earliest biographers (as churches held a monopoly on literacy, and thereby history).  What is known is that he was born in Ireland to the powerful Ui Neill clan (often anglicized as O’Neill), and entered the monastery at a young age where he became a monk and subsequently was ordained a priest.  Circa 560, Columba was caught in a scandal over the ownership of a Psalter (Book of Psalms).  Columba had made a copy of the scripture from a manuscript belonging to St. Finnian, with the intent to keep the Psalter for himself.  Finnian charged that allowing Columba to keep the copy devalues the book, and as the source of the original material Finnian should be given ownership of Columba’s copy.  Formal judgment ruled in favor of Finnian but Columba refused to relinquish his book to Finnian, and got his family to defend him on the issue.  In 561, the dispute came to a devastating finish at the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne, where Columba’s side emerged victorious.  Although his side had won, the death toll of the battle was so high that a council of clerics threatened to excommunicate Columba for having caused and taken part in the battle.  Columba suggested he would put himself in self-imposed exile (Peregrinatio) as penance, to bring as many souls to heaven as have died from the consequence of his actions.

In 563, Columba founded his monastery in Iona, off the coast of Scotland.  He would spend the next three decades as a scholar, diplomat, and spiritual authority in the region.  From his base in Iona, he established missionaries in North Britain with the sole goal of evangelizing Christianity to the heathen populace and their rulers.  Consequentially, as a member of the ruling Ui Neill clan in Ireland, he served as a vital political liaison between the two islands, even mediating a territorial dispute in 575 between his home clan and the Scottish Kingdom (then known as the Kingdom of Dál Riata).  But, by far, Columba’s greatest significant lies in the legacy he set up in North Britain by founding a system of monasticism with the strictest intention of seeking conversion and spreading Christianity.  The turning point into true dominance for his church will come in the early 7th century, after his death, upon the conversion of the Northumbrian dynasty, thereby providing a political means by which to expend the influence of Iona into mainland Britain.  St. Columba died in Iona in 597, and was buried in the monastery he founded.


The Council: Confrontation between Two Ideologies

Throughout the early to mid-7th century, both Iona and Canterbury continued to seek converts to their faith and establish spiritual supremacy over the British people.  Augustine’s church went through some turbulent times after his death in 604, as his successors struggled to keep the Anglo-Saxon rulers and their subjects from reverting to their native Heathenism.  But, after several setbacks in the 610s-630s, the situation stabilized as many incoming rulers saw the political advantages of embracing Christianity in terms of legitimizing their sovereignty to Christian Europe. By 663, Canterbury was an integrate part of Britain’s political scene.  Iona, on its part, embedded itself firmly within the Northumbrian Dynasty, important in maintaining its stronghold over northern Britain.  Although the Roman Church of Canterbury was exercising its authority over a larger population than the Celtic Church of Iona, Iona held sway over the Bretwalda (overlord) of Britain at the time.  Thus, causing the unresolved strives between the two sides over their traditional disagreements, primarily concerning the dating of Easter, to remain at a tense stalemate.

While all these events were occurring, it is important to note there was no such thing as a unified British state.  Britain was composed of various kingdoms, each ruled over by individual kings, where usurpations were common and borders were never decisively established.  Policies were dictated by the most dominate power (a very unstable pattern of governance). In Northumbria, King Oswiu—who ruled as close to a British overlord as would be possible for the times—saw Christianity as an important factor of commonality for his subjects, and took great interest in the development of the church.

King Oswiu was an observer of the Celtic Easter, but was married to Queen Eanfled who feasted according to the Roman tradition.  He found it odd that he feasted while she fasted, and saw the unresolved disparity as a dispute that would prove catastrophic to Britain political/spiritual structure.  He sought to end the debate between the two Churches, and referred that each side present its case to him at Whitby, so he could decide on which resolution would be the best for Britain to follow.

In 664, the Synod of Whitby met, with Bishop Colman of Northumbria defended the Ionan position, while Abbott Wilfrid argued in favor of the Roman practice.  Colman maintained that the Celtic system was the one advocated by St. Columba, who himself was following the tradition of St. John, and as holy men their judgment should not be questioned.  Wilfrid retorted by appealing to St. Peter as the founder of the Roman Church and gatekeeper to heaven.  With respect to St. Columba, it would be of the utmost folly to act counter to the will of St. Peter, and that in light of everything it was only Iona which was resisting Roman custom (Ireland itself had recently accepted the Roman Easter tables).  After the cases were made, Oswiu rose and asked both sides as to whether or not they agreed that St. Peter was pronounced by Christ as the rock on whose model the Church would be built, as both sides affirmed the truth of what he said, King Oswiu proclaimed that between St. Columba and St. Peter he is obliged to side with St. Peter as the ultimate authority of the Christian Church.

Along with settling the dispute over how to date Easter, the decision reached at Whitby also enabled the English Church to become unified, and unite the British wholly back to the European continent (a political move Oswiu must have been aware of prior to making his choice).  The influence of Celtic Christianity did not disappear altogether, instead its imagery and scholarship blended with the English Church, and gave it a uniquely British individuality.  By the end of the 7th century the English Church, presiding from Canterbury, became all about ecclesiastical order and unity, which allowed it to rise and become an indispensable factor in defining the future British state.


Further Readings:

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Adamnan. The Life of St. Columba

St. Patrick. The Confession of St. Patrick