On time passing
September 1, 2009
Today is the first day of the Byzantine year 7518 (see the post Happy New Year). It is the beginning of the ecclesiastical year, a day that the current Patriarch of Constantinople has seen fit to consecrate as the Day for the Protection of the Environment. It also marks the seventieth anniversary of the start of World War II, and the second anniversary of the founding of this blog. I’d like to reflect briefly on some of these things, on the passing of time, and on the state of this blog and my other work.
When I was a child, I viewed the events of the 1930’s and 40’s as ancient history. They had occurred a quarter of a century before I was born. That seemed to me the distant past, a bygone era when cars had running boards and events unfolded in flickering, black-and-white newsreels. Now that I am fifty years old, a quarter of a century seems like a short blip in time, a nothing. The Great Depression, the rise of Nazism in Germany and of Stalinism in Russia, the Second World War, the beginnings of the Cold War, all occurred in a brief period comparable to the time from Reagan’s presidency to the present. Human memory is short, and plays tricks with perspective.
Hardly a day goes by when I do not read one or more of the Psalms. I do this so habitually that I tend to think of them simply as contemporary prayers, applicable to my own current situation. Yet, if one accepts the ascription of most of the Psalms to the historical person, King David, these writings are older than Homer, older than the oldest surviving literature in a Western, Indo-European language. All of Greek literature is, relatively speaking, new, as the Greeks themselves were aware (see Plato’s Timaeus 22b Ὦ Σόλων, Σόλων, Ἕλληνες ἀεὶ παῖδές ἐστε, γέρων δὲ Ἕλλην οὐκ ἔστιν). The Greeks learned their alphabet from a man named Cadmus, the founder of the city of Thebes; the name is a Semitic one; kedem in Hebrew means both “East” and “old.” Cadmus was the old man from the East.
I once came across a very strange book with the title Hebrew is Greek (see reviews of it on amazon.com). The author, Joseph Yahuda, presents the thesis that Hebrew is a variant of the Greek language (not, curiously, the other way around). My knowledge of Hebrew is not good, but I know enough to feel certain that the thesis is basically preposterous. Nevertheless, the author finds enough linguistic parallels to convince me that there were cultural contacts at a very early, pre-literary stage. A couple of the parallels that seem most persuasive: ἀγάπη and ahava, according to Yahuda, are cognate (both terms for “love”), and so are tsedekah, and δίκη/δικαιοσύνη (the DIK root, meaning “justice,” is common). When I was teaching in Albania, I was surprised to learn that the Albanian word for ship, anije, is the same as the Hebrew word אניה (öneey-yah, Jonah 1: 3, 4, 5, etc.) — probably a relic from the early days when the only ships the Illyrians came in contact with belonged to Phoenician traders.
A possibility suggests itself. The Philistines could have been Pelasgians, a people who were widely spread in the Eastern Mediterranean before the arrival of the Greeks; the names are sufficiently similar to warrant considering this possibility. If there are deeply rooted linguistic parallels between the Greek and Hebrew languages, the Pelasgians/Philistines could have been a mediating agent of this.
None of this is perhaps very important. Yet it helps give me a sense of perspective on current events. Two years, or twenty five years, or seventy years, is not a long time in historical terms, much less so in geological ones. Human life is very brief. But, by the same token, much can change in a very short time.
I confess that some days I find it hard to concentrate on John Bekkos and events of the thirteenth century; some days, I would rather concentrate upon things that are unfolding before my own eyes. I would like to say that I have a great confidence in the future of humanity, but, if I were to say that, I would be misrepresenting my own sentiments. I would like very much to think that the future is bright; but I do not actually or habitually think this. The visible prospects for the continuance of the human race on earth are, at best, obscure. It is no longer something one can simply take for granted, as a natural fact.
Why do I say that? Some reasons:
- I take global warming, and the substantial contribution to it by human activity, to be sufficiently well-established to deserve to be called facts. What is not yet clear is how far it will be allowed to progress; but anything beyond a rise of 4º C in global temperature, it is said, would be utterly catastrophic and perhaps irreversible, and such a scenario is well within the bounds of possibility.
- The possibility that we are at or near a peak in global oil production also appears very real. While this does not spell an end to human civilization as such, it does portend possibly catastrophic economic consequences, as a global economy predicated upon perpetual growth in production comes up against the natural limitations of the earth’s resources. As was seen two years ago before the recession hit, the price of oil affects the price and availability of everything else — in particular, food, but also all oil-based products, which nowadays means pretty much everything since plastics are so ubiquitous. The idea that there will be a single energy source that will replace oil is the sort of assumption made by people who are unacquainted with the constraints of physical reality; after not much more than a century, a resource that took hundreds of millions of years to come into being, and that is the life-blood of the modern global economy, has been largely used up. Just as American oil production peaked in the early 1970’s, so, inevitably, the production of oil in countries like Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, will also peak, probably in the not-too-distant future. And after that, who knows what kind of competition will take place over the remaining supplies?
- There is still the possibility of a nuclear war; in some ways, this possibility seems more imminent now given the nuclear ambitions of countries like Iran and North Korea. There is also the possibility that a nuclear weapon, or some similarly heinous weapon, could be made use of by a non-state organization like Al-Qaida.
There are other worries I have, but these are probably sufficient for showing that apprehensions about the long-term prospects of, at least, the current political order of things, if not of humanity itself, are rational.
What about the rationality of hope?
Hope is a Christian virtue, and, as it is founded in the ultimate reality, God himself, it cannot be false. But one must not confuse hope with rash confidence. As a Christian, I have hope that God will save me, in spite of my many sins, because of the blood of Christ; but if I conclude from this that I have no changes to make in my life to conform it to the will of God, then I delude myself, and my hope is found to be, not hope in God, but a rash, unfounded confidence in my own innate invincibility. So, similarly, when Christians claim to have a firm hope that God will see humanity through the hard times ahead, but then do nothing to address the present challenges they face, but instead pretend that things are fine and are going to remain just fine and that nothing in their lives needs to change, such Christians act irresponsibly; they show, not true Christian hope, but a rash confidence, what St. Paul calls a “confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3-4).
Of course, it is no part of Christian doctrine that the world should last eternally. But, as we are stewards of it, we have a duty to preserve it; we have no right to think that, in hastening its demise, we are doing God’s will.
I suppose that what I am advocating here is an end to the divisions between liberals and conservatives on some fundamental issues. Both sides should be able to acknowledge that abortion is a moral evil, and that irresponsible sexual practice corrupts both personal life and families and whole societies. So also, both sides should be able to acknowledge that the proper stewardship of the earth’s resources is a moral imperative, given the current human situation. It is a life issue. It is wrong to think that the one is a conservative issue and the other a liberal one: both are basic to the common good and to any long-term continuance of civil society. Indeed, any social platform or political agenda that does not look to the common good is inherently immoral and, for that reason, unchristian. If Christians cannot agree on such things, if we bicker and accuse each other, we are simply wasting our time, and might as well eat, drink, and be merry with the pagans, for we are no better than them.
The possession of a blog is a great temptation to being foolish, a kind of permanent soap-box onto which to climb and give speeches before an invisible public. It is all the more foolish when the speech-giver is unemployed and has nothing to show for himself. After two years of writing this blog, all I can say is that the work on John Bekkos continues. Perhaps I shall find useful things to say about him in the months ahead.