Tuesday, November 29, 2011

They Don’t Call them the “Dark Ages” for Nothing

The Dark Side of Christian History, By Helen Ellerbe, 1995

This short history of the truly dark ages, written by a pagan feminist, reminds us what Christianity did to Western civilization over a long, long period. This is not pretty stuff. And I quote Ellerbe: “As it took over leadership in Europe and the Roman Empire collapsed, the Church all but wiped out education, technology, science, medicine, history, art and commerce.” Nice. And not for 20 years either. Elements of direct Church rule lasted from its embrace by Emperor Constantine around 324 A.D. (sic) to the last of the Inquisition and witch hunts in the late 1700s.

Orthodox Christianity, as Ellerbe calls it, sold its soul when it became the official doctrine of the Roman Empire. The many tendencies of Christianity were crushed into one by people like Saint Augustine. Ellerbe seems to be a sort of early semi-Christian pagan, who feels affinity for the Gnostics, Kabbalism and Mary Magdalene, all extirpated from the official Bible. Echoing Nietzsche, she details the Catholic, and later Protestant, assault on human enjoyments like dancing, sex, drinking, theater, art, reading, nature and love, replacing them with the authoritarian principles of male chauvinism, obedience, fear and punishment. Which, as she uncharacteristically points out, any ruling class in the world would appreciate – especially the Kings and barons of Europe.

Ellerbe details the destruction of Jews, ‘witches’ and heretics brought about by the Inquisitions and the witch trials. She points out that book burning was also a method to combat heresy, which certainly sounds familiar. The trials were many times for material gain, as Inquisitors were allowed to seize the land and property of those condemned. The exact number of dead is unknown, but Ellerbe estimates in the millions. The Church openly authorized the holy use of bloody force and torture against ‘sinners’ and pagans. It also contributed to the spread of the Black Plague by opposing cleanliness, killing cats and dogs that were thought to be 'allies' of witches, and opposing any medical treatment but bleeding.

Ellerbe interprets the Crusades as part of the Church’s attempt to solidify its hold over Europeans by forging an alliance against the evil ‘Muslims’ – who, while obscurantist in their own way, did not drop to the depths of brutality as did the Church. Though a similar history could be written about the bloody rule of another group of desert fundamentalists, let's say the Saudi Wa'hhabists. The rape of Constantinople in 1204 stands as a monument to that most Christian ferocity. The Church destroyed the Carthars of southern France's Languedoc region in the Albigensian crusade, as they differed with the Catholics in a more liberal direction. Up to a million people of southern France were killed over 30 years of war, depopulating that part of France for many years.

Even Martin Luther’s attempt to correct the Catholic Church in 1517 did not really take Christianity in a new direction. Luther was as pro-Augustine and anti-Jewish as the next Catholic, and Ellerbe puts both trends in the same camp of orthodox Christianity. Ellerbe quotes Luther as calling for Jews to be enslaved or thrown out of “Christian lands;” that their ghettos and synagogues should be burned. In seems very clear that Nazi ideology in the 1930s was nothing but a return to earlier forms of Christianity. The 30-Years War was fought directly over Catholic/Protestant issues. The massacre of 10,000 Protestants on St. Bartholomew’s Day in France was more of the same. The founding of the U.S. by Protestant fundamentalists at Plymouth Colony and Boston would become a death knell for Native Americans. The first Thanksgiving was an accidental blip that Pilgrim colonists made up for 16 years later when they took revenge on a Pequot village of 400 souls over land issues, butchering all.

The Witch Hunts, which still existed in the U.S. in 1692, only ended in the late 1700s in Europe. They focused on women, who were many times mid-wives or carriers of herbal medical knowledge, both which threatened the Church. Ellerbe contends that the witch hunts destroyed Western herbal medical knowledge, and this accounts for why the tradition almost died out. Witches were burned, tortured, sexually abused – even girls as young as 9.5 years old could be accused. Ellerbe points out that, “Areas of political turmoil and religious strife experienced the most intense witch hunts.” Poor, older women – the classic knowledgeable ‘crone’ – were first and easy targets. The witch trial was both Catholic and Protestant church official policy. Figures of witch killings listed in Wikipedia are large undercounts, according to Ellerbe. She cites one Bishop of Wurtzberg who claimed 1,900 lives in 5 years, and a Lutheran prelate, Benedict Carpzov, who claimed to have sentenced 20,000 ‘devil worshipers.’ Orthodox Christian ideology made both the existence of God and the Devil necessary, and certainly, the devil must have his minions.

Ellerbe goes on to deal with the modern world, and in this part of the book, she fails. She spends time denouncing Darwin for being a ‘social Darwinist” (he wasn’t), ignoring his actual scientific accomplishments. She also denounces pre-Einstein science as purely a continuation of orthodox Christianity, due to its alleged infatuation with controlling nature. However, the scientific method has nothing to do with 'controlling nature.' She should note that it is scientists who are at present leading the fight against religious obscurantism's hostility to global warming, and in favor of environmentalism. It might be noted philosophically that Ellerbe’s pagan idealism is closer to Christianity in method than to science, and that it is she who shares the irrational mysticism of the fundamentalist Christlian, though in a different form.

Ellerbe promotes circular time as the correct and 'natural' way to view the world, all based on the seasons. She criticizes the concept of linear time promoted by religion, science and watches. However, she seems to be unfamiliar with the notion of spiral time, which more closely corresponds to the dialectical interplay of nature and linearity, combining the two concepts. After all, even in nature, every year is not the same - the theory of the anthropocene chronological period we are in shows that nature is not merely 'circular.' And as we know, time sometimes runs backwards in society in an historic and economic sense. Of course, for each individual, the clock always 'ticks.'

Ellerbe has no economic analysis whatsoever of the whole period of the dark ages, as if Catholicism and Protestantism happened in a material void. As a result, she cannot account for orthodox Christianity's relation to slave or peasant society or the birth of capitalism. Elerbe is an idealist who believes that the ‘divine’ needs to be wrestled away from the church. She believes that the source of orthodox Christianity was (and is) only a ‘belief structure’ and an ‘ideology’ held by evidently 'bad' or 'incorrect' people – and has nothing to do with material economic reality.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!

Red Frog, November 29, 2011

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