Equality and Relativism

I am watching VIKINGS on Prime at the moment. I've just watched the second season of The Last Kingdom and really enjoyed it, VIKINGS seemed like an appropriate follow on. In both series, unsurprisingly, religion plays a major part and this has been a growing irritation for me, largely because whoever is behind both stories seem to be almost completely religiously illiterate, quelle surprise!

In The Last Kingdom, religion is portrayed as some sort of pious rouse used to foster self-importance and manipulate "the little people". No one really believes it, it has no value and the Norse "sky-faeries" are as useless as the Christian one ultimately. Alfred the Great is portrayed as a sort of religious fool, wasting his time in prayer when he could be doing far more useful things, like the hero of the series Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Uhtred is called "the godless" and, raised by Danes, a Pagan. He heroically, has no time for Christianity yet displays all the quality of a true hero: compassion and a desire to protect those weaker or less fortunate than himself, a shrewd mind, etc, etc. By contrast, Alfred the Great is petty, jealous and reliant on Uhtred for all his victories. The Christians are portrayed as pretty pitiful and lacking reality, the sacred things they revere (like the incorrupt body of St. Cuthbert) are blatant falsehoods, which, let's face it, fits well with a contemporary view of religion.

Vikings (I'm only half way through season 2) is inspired by the sagas of Viking Ragnar Lothbrok, one of the best-known legendary Norse heroes and notorious as the scourge of England and France. The show portrays Ragnar as a farmer who rises to fame by successful raids into England, and eventually becomes a Scandinavian king, with the support of his family and fellow warriors. Vikings is a bit schizophrenic in a way, because it portrays Ragnar as a great dad and husband, a wise and compassionate leader who puts his family first and cares about all the people he is responsible for, but also as a ruthless murderer of innocent men, women and children who has no problem with torture and loves violence. The narrative fits well with the modern idea that no one does good or evil, we are all just the product of our circumstances and therefore cannot be held to account for out actions.

In Vikings, the Norse mythology is portrayed as having some basis in reality, with legendary characters like Aslaug being real and ravens who turn up to spy for the seer in Wessex. "The gods" are mentioned constantly (I wonder how accurate this is) and the Norse religion is simplistic in a "god of the gaps" kind of way (everything beyond human ken is put down to the gods). Some of the characters are very zealous (Floki for example) and all the characters reference the gods as a daily part of discourse. The same can be said of the Christians to a large extent, there is certainly an exploration of the contrast through the character of Athelstan, a monk of Lindisfarne captured by Ragnar on his first raid. This raid is appalling, the monks are slaughtered and the episode makes them look stupid for preferring a life of peaceful reflection over violence and raiding. Obviously we are shown the events from the Viking's side and I found that really interesting. How strange the monks must have appeared to the first raiders and how strange and terrifying the raiders must have been to the English. Athelstan is not killed, but taken back home by Ragnar as a slave, and becomes somewhat naturalised over time, eventually returning to England as part of a raiding party himself. He never fully renounces Christ though: I found that whole character arc really interesting.

Anyway, the point of all this is to explain how my thoughts turned to efficacy (I say returned, you may know this is where they have been since I was a teenager myself). The portrayal of religion in both these series is as something it seems to me no man would be remotely interested in unless pressurised for some reason.

Both series, it seems to me, along with pretty much all of contemporary culture, have completely missed the whole point.

Take the portrayal of Christians as weak fools overly occupied with a piety which has no practical use. How, given the military superiority of the invaders, would the Christian faith be seen to be a choice worth making over the Norse gods? If all that happened to Christians were that they were slaughtered and their prayers were unanswered, why would a Norse king like Guthrum ultimately convert to Christianity?

The answer is the missing point, and the answer is in the peace enjoyed on Lindisfarne in VIKINGS before the first raid by Ragnar. The answer is the society building, divinising, transformative power of the Christian faith and the individual benefits of a life turned to God and focused on building personal holiness. These benefits have real consequences personally and in relationships, marriages, health, etc., etc. But let me illustrate with a much broader brush.

Pico della Mirandola (1463-94) was one of the moving spirits of the Renaissance. In 1486 he completed his monumental theses, Conclusiones philophicae, cabalasticae et theologicae, on the entire range of human knowledge. To accompany them he wrote his Oration on the Dignity of Man, widely regarded as a manifesto of the Renaissance. In it he argued that the human person was the centre piece of creation, the one being other than God Himself who had no fixed nature. Endowed with freedom, he could rise higher than the angels or fall lower than the animals.

Pico's Oration reminds us that Renaissance humanism was initially a religious humanism. The heroes of the Renaissance were Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, et al, all men enthralled by the possibilities of science and technology. They explored perception and rediscovered perspective in a movement that constituted, in part, the rediscovery of the classical tradition of ancient Greece and Rome. But there was another element which can clearly be seen in Pico's writings: the human person is the likeness and image of God, never more so than when he uses his intelligence and understanding to fathom the universe, Our freedom and creativity are what connect us to the divine. Pico understood that it is precisely in our freedom that the human person most resembles God.

Modernity's fall from Renaissance humanism to the present position, which constantly reaffirms our worthlessness as merely an organism among organisms constitutes a tremendous loss of dignity, if it was a drama in several acts, extended over several centuries, from Copernicus to Newton, to Spinoza, to Marx, to Darwin, to Freud, to the neo-Darwinians with their assault on the one thing humans could perhaps still pride themselves on: their altruism. So we are nothing, our planet is insignificant, our existence a mere caesura in time. Even our noblest thoughts conceal base intentions. There is no freedom, just necessity. There is no truth, just hegemonic narrative. There is no moral beauty, just a sordid struggle for survival.

And so we start to see the ideas of the Western intellectuals of the 19th century being foisted on society once more in the name of freedom. Neitzche, Spencer, Haeckel and others are the progenitors of the ideas of the eugenics movement, the selective breeding of humans, the sterilisation of mentally handicapped and those otherwise declared unfit (in reality this was a programme pioneered by Darwin's half-cousin Sir Francis Galton and supported by, among others, H.G. Wells, george Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Compulsory sterilisation of certain classes of individuals was undertaken by thirty states in America between 1907 and 1963. Only final realisation of the scale of the Nazi genocide finally rendered such programmes unacceptable.

The rise in eugenics leading up to the Holocaust is documented in the vast literature Claudia Koonz calls 'the Nazi conscience', the rationalisations the Nazis gave for what the were doing. These are specific ideas of social Darwinism--the strong eliminate the weak, the Aryan race must be protected against pollution--but the overwhelming sense of the authority of science, whatever the science, is particularly striking. Of course a more scientific approach is a more pragmatic approach. Having undermined the classic conceptions of humanity, Marxist, Darwinian and Freudian accounts tragically removed the great constraints on human behaviour (each in a different way, but all three subvert the force of the "Thou shalt not"). When nothing is sacred, nothing is sacrilegious. The lesson history teaches us here is the way in which science is a justification which supersedes religious observance serves only to deconsecrate the human person, it cannot but do so, and in doing so it opens the gate to a possible desecration. All this thinking reduces people to commodities which need to be managed. We see this exact thing today in the abortion debate across the world, but most evident recently in Ireland and Argentina. And also in the commodification of children for sale to homosexual parents through surrogacy.

So now we are up to date. This is where we are. Now we see why VIKINGS and The Last Kingdom lack religious authenticity to anyone religiously literate. It is because the reality of the Christian idea has been the key civilising and society-making principle of the West for 2,000 years. It won over against competing ideologies because it works in action. It works because it is a revelation from God which reveals the truth about who and what we are: more than a race or a colour, more than a commodity, or a sexuality, we are the image of God and so we must treat one another with dignity and respect and empathy, even if contemporary society more commonly sees Christianity in the shadow of its failures rather than the light of its successes.

Now, taking this idea a little further: it seems to me we sit of the precipice of a new time where Christianity's dangerous idea will once again be forced underground. Has the wheel turned full circle?

My question is this: as we awaken to individual dignity, we become more unified in our diversity. This is the only true equality and it can only be truly achieved and has only been properly articulated through the Christian message. All people, irrespective of race, colour, creed, age, ability or disability, born or unborn, are of equal dignity. But as our Western society has developed based on these principles, enshrined in our constitutions, laws and social structures, have we come to supplant the good of our societies and communities with the desire of individuals? Is this the dictatorship of relativism which Pope Benedict XVI warned us about, where individual wants and desires overtake all other considerations to a point where society cannot hold together as there are fewer and fewer agreed moral norms? Can we survive as a people if we are infinitesimally divided against each other in myriad ways, with such divisions amplified and broadcast through social media? How do we understand the benefits of individual dignity juxtaposed with relativism? Is this the ultimate importance of a revealed objective truth? And if it is, how do we begin to move to a position today where other people begin to recognise that?


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