Monday, June 14, 2010

Women Move Forward Through History

The early Roman Catholic Church had clear, established roles for men and women. Although some formal leadership positions were open only to men, the Roman Catholic system actually gave women higher status than they had in previous systems (in Roman, Greek, or Norse polytheism, for example, the full humanity of women was denied). Although in some folk versions of Roman Catholicism women were considered inferior to men and easily coaxed by the devil, in the large culture of the faith, they were seen as able to take positions of spiritual authority. Although women spoke less in church, and did less in terms of teaching, and had less to do with the administration of the sacraments, they nonetheless made themselves heard and understood in high-level discussions about both abstract theology and the concrete practices of the church. While there was a popular attitude that women were not to participate in conversations about religious issues or leadership in the church, they did in fact do so, and with the blessing of the hierarchy and even the pope.

Specifically, women had some routes in which to express their religious zeal in the Middle Ages, including joining a monastery. In fact, medieval nunneries flourished. Scholastica, the twin sister of Benedict, started a monastery. Other nuns in Europe like Brigid of Ireland and Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, were prominent in areas of teaching and learning. There are many examples of women who were able to exercise their talents in a multitude of areas. Why is there this contradiction between the official thought and practice of the church, which acknowledged women's full humanity and embraced their participation, and the harshly anti-woman attitude in some of the local folk cultures? Was this a hangover from a pre-Christian paganism which saw women as less than fully human? As Christianity progressively rooted out the subtle traces of polytheistic mythologies from European culture, we see the forward movement of women toward equality, not only in the church structure, but in civil rights as well: ultimately, women would be allowed to vote, own property, etc., as a result of the eradication of pre-Christian paganism.

There are plenty of examples of Christian women who were able to rise above these pagan cultures and contribute in amazing ways to Western Civilization. Was Christianity actually liberating to early Christian women?

One of the clearest examples is Hildegard of Bingen. She was not only acknowledged by the pope as an official teacher of theology for the church, but she was also empowered to advise, council, and even rebuke royalty when she determined that the kings and princes had failed to act ethically. This was amazing leadership for anybody in the 1100's, man or woman.

Social Behavior in the Plague

History, ancient and modern, is full of plagues. The most famous one, perhaps, is the Black Death of the 1340's. The most recent one might be the 1918 influenza outbreak. Modern researchers speak of epidemics and pandemics, which are similar to a plague in the broad sense of the word. The word plague itself also has a narrower meaning, a specific disease: the Bubonic plague.

In the early part of the second century a plague broke out in the city of Antioch in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). A Roman solider dispatched a rescript to his superiors in Rome giving his report of the outbreak in which his writes that in light of the fact that the disease was spreading, the politicians, medical doctors and even family members had fled the city, and that he too found it necessary to pull his troops back to the periphery of the city to avoid contagion.

This solider then adds a curious detail: only one group remained in Antioch to tend to and bring comfort to the dying. It was, he reports, a sect of disciples of a man executed by his fellow Roman Pontius Pilate several decades previous. The solider found it incomprehensible that people would risk their very lives to bring comfort to the vulnerable and dying. These were early members of the sect of Christians.

In the Easter Letter from around 260 AD written by Dionysius, he indicates that while many Christians, especially the leaders, died, other Christians had survived the plague. Like most survivors, they were immune and were able to nurse many over the course of the plague. Others who had gained immunity by surviving the plague did not choose to care for the sick. This got the attention of the Roman officials. They desired that all citizens should demonstrate this concern.

Later, the Roman Emperor Julian, who hated these "Galileans", sought to get the pagans to imitate their care, but without success. Plagues reinforced faith rather than government edicts. Christianity embraced an new idea foreign to Roman mythologies; God expects his followers not only to worship him, but to care for others. This new religion, Christianity, demanded that its followers care for the sick, even the ailing Roman officials who had been involved with torturing and killing the Christians before the plague broke out. Caring for other humans beyond family ties, beyond business or political interests, as a religious requirement was a revolutionary idea.

Schools During the Industrial Revolution

John Pounds (1766 - 1839) was a teacher and Christian born in Portsmouth, and the man most responsible for the creation of the concept of Ragged Schools. These were schools which were totally free to the children living in the industrial slums of the large English cities; these inner-city neighborhoods were the direct result of the Industrial Revolution. After his death, Thomas Guthrie (often credited with the creation of Ragged Schools) wrote his Plea for Ragged Schools and proclaimed John Pounds as the originator of this idea.

Pounds was severely crippled in his mid-teens, from falling into a dry dock at Portsmouth Dockyard, where he was apprenticed as a shipwright. He could no longer work at the dockyard, and from then onwards made his living as a shoemaker.

He would scour the streets of Portsmouth looking for children who were poor and homeless, taking them in to his small workshop and teaching them basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills. This small workshop was often host to as many as 40 children at any one time.

Many years after his death, John Pounds has become a local hero in his birthplace of Portsmouth. Today a chapel named in his memory stands in Old Portsmouth. He was one of many Christians who worked to relieve the misery caused by the Industrial Revolution.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Rome Gets Stupid

Tenney Frank, in his book Life and Literature in the Roman Republic describes how the quality of literature decreased in the late Roman Republic. He notes that the literary writers acquiesced to the wishes of the audience. He writes "It is not surprising, therefore, that these audiences – eager for entertainment which might exclude all possibility of having to exercise the intellect – finally demanded an extravaganza that appealed solely to eye and ear," and the entertainment fare available catered to the whims of the audience.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Getting Valuable Things from the Past

Historians Will and Ariel Durant, whose socialist and communist leanings have made some of their books rather controversial, finished their book about the decades leading up to the French Revolution by summarizing the both the radical destructiveness of revolutionary trends and the stabilizing calmness of more organically sustainable change.

Tradition is to the group what memory is to the individual; and just as the sapping of memory may bring insanity, so a sudden break with tradition may plunge a whole nation into madness, like France in the Revolution.

The Durants considered their book to be about "The Age of Voltaire," but they perhaps missed one of the more interesting points to be made in this context: that Voltaire himself produced some texts in the radical Robespierre-Rousseau direction, and other texts in a more calmly reasonable Burke direction.

A Turning Point

As we observe how cultures and civilizations consciously re-design themselves over the centuries, occasional short texts can crystallize and highlight the developments. Take, for example, a quote from Homer, as the characters in his book contemplate their gods:

This is the lot the gods have spun for miserable men, that they should live in pain, yet themselves have no sorrow.

Homer's words capture a view of life as it was common before the development of Western Civilization or the Judeo-Christian tradition. Consider the contrasts: Homer's gods formed a "lot" for man, meaning that there was a fixed destiny or fate; now, in European culture, we see that there is chance for change, that people can influence their futures. Rather than a dispassionate deity contemplating our suffering, we have a concept of a God who is saddened by our suffering, and who voluntarily accompanies us in that suffering.

This change in society's concept of God over the centuries fuels the change in other social notions: that it is good to help the poor, that it is good to work for peace and seek to end wars.