If you go to Mali in West Africa one of the first things you will invariably hear are the stories of the great Mansa Musa and his Malian Empire; of the Hajj when he took so much gold through Cairo that he collapsed the economy for a decade and sparked a rush to find Timbuktu, that fabled university town where books sold for more than their weight in gold and great Islamic scholars arriving to teach were turned away for remedial courses in Fez before they were allowed to ply their trade. You sit quietly by, listen to the stories, and walk down the dusty streets jumping over open sewage ditches and beside naked children on your way to observe something onetime grand; a 700 year old mosque, a dusty moth-eaten book which catalogs the first medical description of tuberculosis. It’s all very nostalgic and inspiring but as the tour guide beams you can’t help ask the question, if only to yourself, “Aha, very nice. But what have you done lately?”
We are remembering tomorrow 500 years of the Protestant Reformation. You remember, that moment when some unknown monk somewhere in the German hinterlands nailed a big list to an even bigger wooden door. Boy we have celebrated that event, haven’t we – we ‘children of the kindly west’. And why not? It gave us reading which gave us science which gave us invention which gave us immense wealth which gave us – Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian.
“But what have you done lately?”
Yes, we are living better than we ever have; at least than we can remember. Lifespans have doubled; medicine is better; people have more options; better understanding of the world around us has allowed us to (sometimes) solve problems before they become ‘extinction level events’. In Angus Deaton’s amazing book (review forthcoming) “The Great Escape” he uses his not-insubstantial economic prowess to paint this picture. To be sure, all our ‘advances’ pale compared to life before the biblical great flood, when people were living 900 years (Oh, object to me referring to the Bible? Isn’t that what Luther was fighting for after all?) But, seriously, what have we done lately? The relentless march of information, our Internet which half of the world uses to surf porn and the other half to hurl anonymous insults at each other? A generation stupider than the last, which was stupider than the previous and on in a regressive shame-march through history? How about mechanization, which has given us mono-cropping and a new landlessness which has allowed the advance of, oh let’s call it ‘the politics of no-skin-in-the-game’? Modernity, which gave us – post-modernity where people deny even what is before their eyes using sense that has not been common in a long time. Truth, reason, faith, freedom – all branded tired prejudices and ancient ‘reformation era’ anachronisms to be discarded by that most bitter philosophy of all which people like to call ‘intersectionality’.
Yes, we have Netflix and Burger King; but we also have modern art (a toilet nailed to a 2X4), existentialism, nihilism and – wait for it – communism. We have mega-churches and house churches and do-it-yourself churches and exclusive churches and Bibles, oh so many Bibles – again that was pretty much Luther’s whole point, wasn’t it? But when was the last time you read one? Or have you pulled a bait and switch with Luther, taking his reformation and using it as an opportunity to read Clive Cussler or, worse, Thomas Piketty?
We have space travel and the science channel and the Cern supercollider. But we also have nuclear weapons and forced labor camps and chemical weapons and industrial-grade murder. We all have an air-conditioner and a personal computer but we also have immense inequality which, as Deaton says is sometimes “(…) unhelpful – when those who have escaped (poverty) protect their positions by destroying the escape routes behind them.”
Have we taken the vessel of tremendous intellectual nourishment bequeathed to us by Luther, emptied it of its sustaining food only to refill it with candy-corn on this October 31st, the 500th anniversary of our amazing reformation? And does that same reformation now need a new reformation?
Well that was fun, a rant is always good for the soul 🙂 I am of course being tongue-in-cheek, because ‘what have we done lately?’ — as it turns out, as Deaton has pointed out, has been a lot. But how much of it is good and true; that which is befitting a life more abundant?
Great! …the rotting of Western Civilization. Miley Cyrus! Porn and anonymous threats! Gallows humor at its best. Good writing to wake up to. (I always thought how amazing that a jerk like Martin Luther could usher in such a profound effect on history.) But, what do I know…