Archive for Religion
Tim Noakes has learned many things from his journeys, most of them personal rather than geographical. About humility, honesty, perseverance. Not all of the lessons have been easy. They “taught me a heightened degree of self-criticism and self-expectation.”
Surrounded by fellow travelers, Noakes noticed things about them too. He saw patterns of behavior similar to his own “a love of privacy, an overwhelming desire for solitude, and an inability to relax or talk in company.”
They shared “mental behaviors that include daydreaming, absentmindedness, procrastination and … the eternal quest to understand the riddles of life.”
“The point is reached when fatigue drives us back into ourselves,” Noakes writes “into those secluded parts of our souls that we discover only under times of such duress and from which we emerge with a clearer perspective of the people we truly are.”
These are interesting points, if ones commonly invoked in the literature of exploration and adventure. What makes Noakes’ points particularly interesting though is that he is not describing explorers or adventurers.
He is talking about runners.
“Runners have been shown to score higher on psychological scales that measure needs for thrill and adventure, and one study has suggested that running may be an important method for thrill and adventure seekers to acquire sufficient sensory input to keep their needs satisfied.”
As I read this in Noakes’ thousand-page book, The Lore of Running, I took notice. It not only spoke to my interests as a scholar, but profiled me precisely as a runner.
I’ve loved running since high school, when I abandoned swimming for cross country. I didn’t think much of the switch at the time. Swimming was boring. In the blue nothingness of the pool, I felt like I was exercising in space, struggling to feel something in a sensory deprivation tank.
Running cross country, by contrast, set me on fire. The world moved by so quickly, in a blur of forest, root, and field. And each race was a story, a chase up and down muddy paths. It hurt. It was exhausting. It filled me up.
After high school, I ran less. Or more accurately, I ran too much and, once hurt, stopped altogether. In college and during my years in Egypt, I gave into other pursuits, found other ways of reaching “the secluded parts of the soul.” And since then I’ve oscillated between lifestyles active and passive, running, resting, running again.
But over the last twelve months I’ve come back to the road with new resolve. I’ve been offering the same justifications for it that I always have: It’s good for me. It calms me down.
Yet reading Noakes makes me realize that there are deeper motives too.
Thrill-seeking and risk taking were once a big — perhaps the biggest — part of my life, but it’s a part that I’ve had to alter to fit with my other roles as husband, father, and professor. This is a common experience, I know. We are led to believe that perilous experience, both physical and emotional, is a young person’s game, that age induces caution as if it were encoded into our DNA, as biologically determined as a receding hairline.
But is it?
Does the hunger for transcendent experience really fade? Or is it that our lives become more complicated, forcing this desire to become something else? Do we lose it, or simply transmute it into something less volatile, something that will fit within the structures of the middle-adult life without blowing it apart?
The explorer risks death. He spends months or years away from home. But the scholar of exploration sleeps at home at night, works inside, gives himself over to the experience of hypoxia and frostbite without trips to the hospital.
So too the act of running creates a world of thrills with comparatively few risks. Most of the time my runs are routine, but every few weeks there are moments which are special, even transcendent.
Last November, I went running in Phoenix at dawn. Mexican fan palms towered above me on each side of 9th Avenue. Even in the middle of the city, the mountains and sky seemed everywhere, the world so big and quiet that I felt, as Noakes would put it “driven back into myself” an experience of beauty and aloneness so profound I had to stop and give myself over to it. Maybe this was really the point, the true object of my perpetual motion. I thought about this for a minute. Then I kept running.
I’m not in favor of ducking debates, but in matters of science and religion, it’s best to keep one’s head down. Not that I mind giving and taking a few hits, but the slings and arrows hurled by various bloggers are not easily deflected by reason. Much of the time, arguments on both sides seem to proceed without any sense of historical nuance.
For example, creationists often speak about science as if they were playing billiards: science is a game of facts, observable, measurable, linked together by visible and predictable causes. Any forces that take place off the felt table (such as phenomena of the far away or the deep past) fall into the zone of “theory,” a pejorative term that comes to mean speculation or opinion. This works well with pool, but hardly science, where strict empiricism or “Baconian science” has been out of vogue since the 18th century.
On the other side, the polemical evolutionists tend to lump anti-evolutionary arguments together under the category of “anti-science.” This would have been news to nineteenth-century scientists such as Richard Owen and Georges Cuvier, both of whom advanced serious objections to evolution on scientific, not religious, grounds.
I bring these issues up not because I have picked up my sword and plan to fight the good fight, but because I’m reading an excellent book on science and religion by Colin Kidd called The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000.
Kidd argues that scriptures are largely color-blind, agnostic on the question of racial hierarchies. Yet he also argues that the Bible became the guide for western scholars trying to understand the origins of human races.
It is one of the central arguments of this book that, although many social and cultural factors have contributed significantly to western constructions of race, scripture has been for much of the early modern and modern eras the primary cultural influence on the forging of races. [Kidd, 19]
Even more interesting, Kidd argues that scriptures held racism or “racial essentialism” in check for much of modern history. As much as one can see rampent racism in the development of the Atlantic slave trade (pioneered by Christians and other followers of the Book), Europeans and Euro-Americans usually reaffirmed the common humanity of the races as “Children of Adam.” To do otherwise was to exclude some races from the original sin (and the promise of salvation) which emerges out of Genesis.
By the nineteenth century, certain scholars advanced the theory that non-white races were “Pre-Adamites,” humans who were formed by God in a separate act of creation. As religious theories of racial origin gave way to increasingly secular explanations, racial thinking became even more extreme, leading to policies of racial social control, eugenics, and genocide.
In short, the Bible was — unintentionally perhaps — a bulwark against the most extreme ideas of racial theory. If it promoted ideas of racial origin which now seem naive and far-fetched, it also protected the Atlantic World from some of the full blown horrors of racism realized during the more “scientific” age of the twentieth century.
It’s raining deadlines here in Hartford: grant proposals, course proposals, exhibition labels, article drafts, etc. All of it due this week or next. On top of it all, tomorrow’s the first day of classes. Time to polish up the syllabus, de-lint the sweater, iron the button-downs.
I just submitted a proposal to teach an honors course here (see below). The course grows out of my work in the history of exploration. I would love your feedback about the topic, how you think it coheres (or digresses), readings that you think improve the course, areas unexplored or under-explored in the syllabus.
HONB 110: The Search for Authentic Experience
Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick once said that all of his writings circled around two questions: “what is real?” and “what is human?” Dick’s questions extend beyond science fiction. Indeed, they traverse the scale of human history. If we traveled back in time to the fifth century BCE and asked Plato what sorts of things were on his mind, I suspect he would tell us much the same thing as Dick. Where does one look for the true reality of the world? And once located, how does one reach it?
These are the questions that structure HONB 110: The Search for Authentic Experience, a course that examines the long quest to discover what’s real and the processes by which people try to attain it. Questions of truth usually reside in the domain of philosophy, and debates about “what is real” could easily fit within an epistemology course from Parmenides to Karl Popper. Yet the point of Authentic Experience is to show how such lofty, stratospheric ideas play out on the muddy terrain of human culture. After all, it is not some esoteric exercise in metaphysics that inspires people to search for what’s real: it’s because people sense, in a deeply personal way, that what they experience is not real enough.
For example, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which students read during the first week of the course, can be viewed as a purely metaphysical parable in which a prisoner comes to realize that his life in the shadows of a cave is a poor imitation of the reality of the world above. Yet Plato’s allegory is not merely a thought experiment. It is also a specific critique of life in Athens, a society that feared the ideas of Socrates enough to make him a prisoner, eventually executing him.
This dance between philosophical ideas and specific cultural concerns frames the first five weeks of Authentic Experience. In particular, this section of the course examines the issue of worldliness and asceticism across cultures. Material luxuries — silks, spices, opium – have long been seen as enhancements to sense experience. Moreover, they have often served as a measuring stick of refinement and cultural progress. Yet others have seen them in darker terms, as distractions, leading people off the narrow path of enlightenment. Do such luxuries enhance our lives as Democritus and the Epicureans argue? Or are they the subtle gloss that separates us from the vibrancy of raw experience as St Francis of Assisi and Siddhārtha Gautama warn us?
The second section of the course takes up “the journey” in the pursuit of authentic experience. In his book on comparative mythology The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell identifies the quest as a key component in hero stories across cultures, including those of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Osiris, Moses, Budda, and Christ. Campbell noted that heroes prove themselves not simply by achieving their goals at the end of the quest, but by undergoing a transformation during the quest itself. The arduous journey is not merely the literary prop of myths and legends. It is a part of the real world, having been adopted by many cultures as a means of purification and enlightenment. In addition to reading excerpts from Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, the Bible, students will also read about ritualized journeys such as Christian pilgrimages and the Muslim Hajj.
The final section of the course looks at the search for authentic experience in the modern world, starting with 19th century Romantics who sought to move beyond the boundaries of empirical reason to achieve an experience of the sublime. Students will examine the landscapes of Frederic Church and his contemporaries, artists who traveled to the wild places of the world in hopes that it would get under their skin, alter their perceptions, and infuse their works with something unique. Finally, the course will consider twentieth-century quests for the real, such as the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s which sought self-actualization through music and hallucinogenic drugs. It will end by examining the current “Age of Adventurism” in which trekkers, climbers, and jumpers attempt increasingly risky, death-defying feats as the means for escaping the quotidian drudgeries of modern life.
The course will include two field trips: to the Wadsworth Athenaeum to view the collection of Hudson River School landscapes, and to Mt. Monadnock in Southern New Hampshire for a day-hike to the summit. It will also feature guest lectures by Steph Davis, elite climber and author of High Infatuation: A Climber’s Guide to Love and Gravity, as well as local scholars Heidi Gehman of the Hartford Seminary and Bill Major of Hillyer College.
Two weeks ago I wrote a post criticizing the modern commercial ethos of Himalayan climbing. As I continue to dig deeper into the history of Himalayan climbing (guided by the excellent book Fallen Giants), I am beginning to realize what diverse motives brought western climbers into the Himalayas and Karakorum. Nineteenth century climbers, like Arctic explorers, saw climbing in romantic and nationalistic terms, but they also viewed it in other ways as well.
The story of Sir Francis Younghusband, British Army officer, shows the importance of empire in the exploration of these regions. In addition to adding to the West’s geographical knowledge of these distant ranges, Younghusband spent his days outmanovering the Russians and trying to occupy Tibet. Yet Younghusband was, as modern climbers go, rather atypical. He did not seek to summit peaks as much as to survey and move through ranges. As much as he was an agent of empire, he was also deeply affected by the mystical traditions of India and Tibet.
So too was Aleister Crowley, whose role in the failed K2 expedition of 1902 has been eclipsed by his reputation as “The Great Beast 666,” and “The Wickedest Man in the World.” Crowley’s love of mountains was life-long and also an opportunity for spiritual reflection.
Alfred Mummery, on the other hand, saw mountains as the testing grounds for technical climbing and technological advancement. Mummery, inventor of the Mummery tent, first attempted to climb Nanga Parbat in 1895 and died in the attempt. It seems that Mummery viewed mountains tactically, rather than strategically, and thus, as Steward Weaver tells it, failed to see the Himalayas in their proper scale. For Mummery, the Himalayas were an overgrown version of the Alps.
Still others, such as Alexander Kellas, were “traversers” climbing up one side of the mountain and down the other – an enormously difficult and dangerous thing to do on 8000 meter peaks. Kellas spent his time on the mountain trying to figure out the physiology of altitude sickness, leading to new ideas about mountain acclimatization. One wonders what Kellas would have observed from the Royal Geographical Society’s Everest expeditions in the early 1920s. He died before reaching Everest base camp in 1921.
Readers who find these stories interesting should check out Bill Buxton’s excellent online mountain bibliography.
In 1336, Italian poet Francesco Petrarcha climbed Mount Ventoux in southern France. Mt Ventoux is not very challenging as summits go and Petrarch, as he would later be known, had plenty of help. He traveled with his brother Gherardo, servants, and I would imagine, a light-bodied Chianti. But what stands out about his ascent, or more precisely his writing about his ascent, is the fact that he climbed Mt Ventoux for no practical purpose at all. Petrarch climbed Ventoux because he wanted to “see what so great an elevation had to offer.”
Scholars have their doubts about whether Petrarch made it anywhere near Ventoux. This is beside the point. His writings about his ascent, whether real or fiction, express a new attitude towards travel, mountains, and the process of enlightenment. After a long day, Petrarch tells us that his party reached the summit of Ventoux where he looked down upon the clouds, the distant Alps, and “stood like one dazed.” For Renaissance scholars, the ascent of Mt. Ventoux represented a critical moment in the development of humanism, a desire to access truths about the world through secular experience, rather than rely upon prayer, church teachings, or the reading of Scripture. In Petrarch’s “seeing what the mountain had to offer” the modern ear hears an echo of George Mallory’s 1923 statement to the New York Times explaining that he wanted to climb Everest “Because its there.”
This secular vision of the mountain – a place for human achievement and perhaps self-enlightenment- is a modern thing as historical processes go. For most of recorded history, mountains were landscapes for the supernatural. Roman, Celtic, and Hindu cultures (among others) placed their gods in the mountains. I was struck, as I read Isserman and Weaver’s Fallen Giants this week, that the first Western descriptions of the Himalaya were not from climbers but from Christian missionaries who trekked through Nepal and China.
But I think we read too much into the secular nature of Petrarch’s ascent. After enjoying the view for a few minutes, Petrarch tells us that he pulled out his copy of St Augustine’s Confessions (not the secularist’s obvious choice for mountain literature) where it opened, miraculously, to a passage about mountains:
Now it chanced that the tenth book presented itself. My brother, waiting to hear something of St. Augustine’s from my lips, stood attentively by. I call him, and God too, to witness that where I first fixed my eyes it was written: “And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.” I was abashed, and, asking my brother (who was anxious to hear more), not to annoy me, I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned from even the pagan philosophers that nothing is wonderful but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself. Then, in truth, I was satisfied that I had seen enough of the mountain; I turned my inward eye upon myself, and from that time not a syllable fell from my lips until we reached the bottom again.
As I see it, the lesson Petrarch gleans from his mountain experience is the opposite of Romantic or modern notions about climbing: he tells us that one cannot find truth on the mountain through exertion and sublime experience. Indeed such spectacular landscapes present dangers to the pilgrim seeking real enlightenment. The true path, Petrarch tells us, is an inward path, one without the distractions offered by the wonders of the natural world.
It seems now that the world’s highest mountains have been shorn of their status as places of secular enlightenment and are now merely secular. Richard Salisbury and Elizabeth Hawley’s stunning piece of statistical work on Himalayan climbing makes clear that the 8000 meter peaks of South Asia are sought after more than ever before. Yet increasingly only a few peaks (Ama Dablam, Cho Ayu, and Everest) see increased traffic, mostly by commercial climbing companies which outfit expeditions for high-paying clients, a conveyor belt of climbers who don’t seem much interested in the process of climbing, the view, or anything much else except for the summit. Meanwhile, the other peaks of the Himalayas see fewer and fewer climbers, even “sacred” mountains such as Kangchenjunga. What thoughts goes through the hypoxic climber’s mind when he gets to Mallory’s “there” ? Does he see a vision of God? A warning from Augustine? Or only a picture for his blog site?
Read Petrarch’s Ascent of Mount Ventoux
Look at Salisbury and Hawley’s Himalayan Database