With Heart

“We don’t have religious tests for our compassion.”
President Barak Obama

“‘Every day seeing death and destruction… through horrific high definition images fed directly to their smartphones and social media feeds.
This is unlike any other generation, being exposed to so many traumatic uncensored images.
This has a really quite profound effect on them. When young people have no-one to talk to – and express their ideas to – it’s deeply unsettling for them.
For some kids it might manifest into [joining] a gang or binge drinking or anti-social behaviour or self-harm.
It just so happens that for young Muslims it manifests itself into extremism, for some of those kids.
It’s the counter culture they gravitate towards.’ …
Many Islamic State recruits believe they are taking part in an ‘important episode of human history’.
IS thinks what is happening in Syria marks the start of the apocalypse.
They believe in Muslim prophecies that an epic battle between Christianity and Islam will lead to the appearance of the anti-Christ and eventually the day of judgement.”
BBC Why People Want to Join the Islamic State, quoting the imam Alyas Karmani


The other form of the Dark Youth Lashing Out At The World phenomenon raised its ugly head in Paris this week. The lives of a school shooter and a fundamentalist bomber are worlds apart; they share no motives in common, the results of their actions could not be more different politically and yet both are choosing to make their statement by murdering innocent people, both tend to be of the same age ranges and gender. Both are obviously products of the modern world’s environment of neoliberal globalization and Eco-Crisis. Perhaps both share some of the same biological and physiological markers we have been discussing as indicators of a propensity to psychopathology. These are interesting speculations, particularly if they prove to be a tentative diagnosis of a new global phenomenon of youth killing youth on unprecedented scales.

I prefer the term fundamentalist bomber to terrorist bomber because it identifies what I think is the single most critical ingredient; the conviction that brooks no doubts that in killing you, I am doing some god’s work. No religion has an exclusive market on fundamentalists and bombs dropped from drones are not all that different than bombs strapped to vests for their victims. A starker example of the importance of intention would be hard to find because there is in fact a world of difference between acts of violence carried out in an apocalyptic fever and those executed for the protection of the dignity and well-being of a threatened community after rationally exploring diplomatic alternatives.

Sometimes you have to kill the monster but in doing so great care is needed else you become a monster yourself. As one religious tradition with a strong apocalyptic element faces off with another religion with equally strong apocalyptic features we as individuals would do well remembering this.

Regular readers will have noted the mention of the graphic images of violence in the imam’s words quoted above. When working on the front lines with our youth this concern about the radicalization of images is not an ivory tower subject. As contemplatives who understand some of what the true power of images can be, we need to stand for their skillful use and against their abuse. In a culture suffering a hypnotic fascination from its saturation in violence and torture “entertainments” it might seem a hopeless task to ever reestablish an aesthetic worthy of our human dignity, but we can speak the idea. The self serving gerrymanders against censorship should not be allowed to continue to shut out any and all real public conversations about the types of public images we want. The culture you save could be your own.

I wonder if the Eco-Crisis darkening our children’s futures is not acting as a psycho-physiological pressure with symptoms we are starting to see. The school shootings and fundamentalist bombings are like traumas of a species being squeezed. If the cycles historians like Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler claimed to have discovered are real, the symptoms will not end here; Caesars, war bands and other Dark Youth lead developments can be expected as our fossil fueled industrial civilization continues its long descent.

Previous civilizations have degraded ecosystems and environments as part of their fall but the way in which our situation is global and our powers are on the scale of Homo Colossus adds an unprecedented risk to the rise and fall of civilizations as they have played out over the long centuries of recorded human history. We can play business as usual and pretend normal still exists but it looks like our children are not being fooled. Life reacts to the environment it finds itself in and if these ecological critiques are accurate, that environment now contains signals about numerous tipping points having already been crossed. Already baked in the cake is a devil’s brew of crop failures, immigrations, costal destruction. And how might we react to these things? With resource wars and lots of talk about curbing carbon as it continues to increase year after year. Oh and those resource wars, they are very likely to disrupt the flow of oil one day and then everything would suddenly get a whole lot more interesting, quickly.

There are echoes of crusades and inquisitions between the headlines these days. It is hard to miss. When a public figure suggests the only Syrian refugees the U.S. should accept are Christians, bells should go off.

If I am not mistaken there are going to be plenty of apocalypses to go around. As the wheel of history turns, the play could well be ‘I’ll see your apocalypse and raise you one better,’ as it were. Right now the focus is on the provocation of the Islamic State and its ideology, which, as the quote above illustrates, includes a very explicit threat to Christians as Christians. We can be sure a number of preachers are setting their pulpits on fire throughout our country in response.

At such a juncture it might prove profitable to examine our own western ideals and ideas a bit, clarify for ourselves what our Christian roots have bequeathed to our institutions but more importantly, our intuitions. How we each come to think about world events when they go pear-shaped is an important ingredient in the witches brew of causes and conditions from which the future will unfold.

As the western calendar turns towards the Christmas season and in light of Pope Francis’ recent ecological encyclical and finally because I sense there is a tantalizing link between apocalyptic symbolism and the phenomenon of the dark youth I want to try and tease out, we are going to explore a bit of the esoteric within western traditions.

Ultimately the Eco-Crisis has been created, or at least unprecedentedly exasperated by, the unique dynamism of western cultural institutions and history. These, arguably, have gained their initial justifications from their roots in Christianity. In 1905 Max Weber famously sketched The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism as a classic in the genre. In it he proposed that the secular pursuit of wealth and private gain was a result of the Protestant work ethic applied to the task of proving one is blessed by god and predestined for salvation among the elect. However it is Oswald Spengler’s 1926 characterization in Decline of the West of ours as a Faustian culture which will be more important to our analysis. This however, is getting far ahead of our story.

Last week the subject of the heart was raised. A quick review of what lead us to here might be useful. As we cast about for whatever allows us to make some sense of the world in the age of limits we positioned ourselves ecologically, then in evolution’s deep time. Next we examined our biological development eventually getting to the role of the nervous system and finally the human brain. The next important aspect of neuroscience we examined was the role of emotion in the act of reasoning. Following this clue lead us to dive into the under-appreciated role of cooperation and empathy in the overall story of life. Focusing on the care of the young displayed by mammals lead us to the subject of compassion. Compassion wants to relieve suffering so we looked at the heart of darkness; the suffering involved when human beings kill one another. Which lead us to the heart of the matter, or is that the heart of matter?

Guided by our hearts to listen again to the living heart of the world, a mindful ecology is one in which the biophilia within a grateful heart bestows a heart of gladness on its practitioners. All the animals are singing the song of the love and intelligence that drapes out planet in wonder, only among some of us two-legged will you find unbelievers in this most fundamental sense.

From that heart lifted up in gladness we will approach a few of the so-called western mysteries. In Egypt Maat weighed the heart against a feather, the Jewish mysticism of the Kabalah features the heart as the bond between heaven and earth, in Christianity there is the sacred heart royally crowned and the sacred heart crowned with thorns, indeed the world over people speak of the heavy heart, the broken heart and the previously mentioned, heart of darkness. The heart will be our Ariadne’s thread as we try to find our way through a labyrinth of religious ideas and symbols in which it is very easy to become confused and lost.

Faustian peoples are willing to use the earth to the point of killing it and to use other peoples, the poor and seemingly powerless, the same way year after year. We should not be surprised to learn they are also willing to use God, to make idols out of infinity and eternity in an attempt to force it to do the bidding of their unrestricted pride. Humility is not the Faustian culture’s strong point, which is sad as it is the only reasonable attitude to the mystery that surrounds each of us both outside our skins and within it. Lucky for us the heart cannot be held captive for those willing to listen to it with humility.

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