Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Twilight of our present black night of materialism

I usually discuss quotes by Meher Baba. This time I wish to discuss a quote from Stay With God, a book requested by Meher Baba of his disciple, the Australian Sufi poet Francis Brabazon, on the theme of God Speaks. The book was first published in 1959. Baba had it read to him twice, and said it and God Speaks were the two most important books to read.

I wish to discuss a single line from Stay With God, found on page 94 of the 1990 edition.

The Dark Ages were the ages of light: the Renaissance
the twilight of our present black night of materialism.

What could Brabazon have meant? Did he know history? Did he not know the Dark Ages were an age of dreadful ignorance, and that the Renaissance brought back to man a reawakening? Was he not educated about the 'great fall' from the 'Classical' times, along with its witch-burnings, illiteracy, superstition, torture, and dogmatic clinging to orthodoxy and repression of science? These were the kinds of questions that irked at me just a bit when I first read Brabazon's words.

But due to Meher Baba's very high appraisal of the book that he himself had commissioned, I kept an open mind and began to do some research. I wish to share a bit of what I learned.

My sources are not simply glossed from Wikipedia, but I have linked to Wikipedia articles for people to check, as it is readily available to them.

I wish to set straight a few common misconceptions about the Christian era prior to the Renaissance known as the Dark ages. The Dark Ages traditionally span from the dawn of the Roman Catholic Church, about 380 AD, to the time of the rise of the Renaissance in the 14th century. Some scholars give different spans.

Witch-Burning See Witch-hunt

Myth: The Dark Ages were plagued with a belief in witches, a Christian idea, and witch-burnings were common. 

In truth the belief in witches and the practice of witch-burning were  both pre-Christian pagan ideas, prevalent in the non-Christian Roman Empire. Throughout the Dark Ages, the Christian Church continually worked to eradicate the belief in witches, calling it superstition and forbidding witch-burning.

The Renaissance, far from being the end of superstition, saw the return of these pagan beliefs. The Renaissance was, after all, a 'rebirth' of Classical Roman ideas, beliefs, and art, and with the Renaissance came also the return of the superstition about witches and the practice of witch-burning. The Christian witch-burnings we hear about were not in the Dark Ages, but in the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and were mostly Protestant.

The Flat Earth See Myth of the Flat Earth

Myth: In the Dark Ages scholars thought the world was flat. 

Many school children are still taught that Christians in the Dark Ages were so ignorant and backward in their understanding that they believed the Earth was flat, and one could fall off the edge. The story is told that Columbus risked persecution and inquisition for his heretical claim that the world was round.

Nothing could be less true. It was always commonly understood by Christian scholars that the Earth was round. The argument between Columbus and the scholars at Salamanca was not over the Earth's shape, but its size. Columbus was wrong. They were right, as they knew the approximate circumference of the Earth from the Greeks. Columbus' miscalculation would have led to his and his crew's death from starvation at sea had he not fortuitously stumbled into the Americas.

The lie about Columbus as leading ignorant medieval European scholars out of their superstitious ignorance about the shape of the world was invented by Washington Irving in his 1828 book, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus.

For a lengthy scholarly discussion of how the ancient world saw the world, and the systematic inventing of this and other misconceptions about their beliefs, see Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, by Jeffrey Burton Russell, Praeger Publishers, New York, 1991.

God on a cloud

Myth: In the Dark Ages, God was depicted as a bearded man on a cloud.

Sistine Chapel
There is an idea that the image of God on the Sistine Chapel in Rome  by Michelangelo (painted in 1512 in the middle of the Renaissance) was the medieval conception of God. This is untrue. All Christian theologians prior to this image understood God the Father as formless. There are no paintings of God the Father with a beard on a cloud in the Dark Ages. It made its debut in the Renaissance when Michelangelo painted an enformed God for the first time, based on pre-Christian sculptural representations of the Greek god Zeus.

In fact it is Zeus on the Sistine Chapel, and not God at all. Part of the concept of the Renaissance, as conceived in the mind of George Gemistus in conference with Cosomo de Medici at the Counsel of Florence in 1439, was the intentional revival of depictions of pagan forms, especially Zeus, rather than Biblical religious themes. Michelangelo's commission in Rome just prior to the Sistine Chapel was of the Greek god Bacchus, 1496-7.

You will not find a single image of God as a bearded man on a cloud (in a toga no less) prior to the Renaissance.

War on Knowledge See Library of Alexandria

Myth: Rioting Christians burned down the Library of Alexandria in the 4th century. 

While the exact facts about the burning of the Library of Alexandria remain uncertain, Plutarch (AD 46–120) wrote in the 2nd century that during his visit to Alexandria in 48 BC Julius Caesar accidentally burned the library down when he set fire to his own ships to frustrate Achillas' attempt to limit his ability to communicate by sea.

Some scholars question Plutarch's account, however there is no question that the burning of the library occurred prior to the 4th century. Otherwise, Plutarch, writing in the 2nd century, would not have mentioned the event.

Libraries and Universities did exist in the Dark Ages, and literacy continued, with scholars in medicine and law, along with theology.

Torture and Cruelty

The Romans prior to Christianity were extremely big on torture, and of course they had slaves and gladiatorial games, using bloodshed as a form of entertainment for the masses. Crucifixion is the most well-known form of torture we know of today from the ancient Roman period. Crucifixion and slavery were abolished with the rise of Christianity. The gladiatorial games were also closed. And Saint Augustine, writing in the 4th and 5th century, denounced the use of torture.

The dreaded Spanish Inquisition occurred in the Renaissance, with its return of the emphasis on torture. The return of slavery to the Christian world also coincided with the Renaissance (beginning with the first black slaves brought to Portugal in the 1400s).

Incidentally, the iron maiden, a presumed torture device associated with the Middle Ages, was an 18th century fiction, with examples created in modern times for display. They never existed in the Middle Ages.

Religious War See Religious war

When we think of the Christian era, we usually think of religious wars. But let's consider this for a moment. The Crusades began around 1095. There were no religious wars led by the Christian Church prior to this date. It might come as a surprise to some then that Christianity marked a period of relative peace for over 700 years, quite a long time compared to our modern time.

As a matter of fact, the schism of the Church into East and West called 'the Great Schism' did not become finalized until 1054, and was not marked with war, but argument. Many peaceful attempts to heal the division between the parties occurred right up to the Counsel of Florence of 1439, after which all further attempts were abandoned, which interestingly coincides with the dawn of the Renaissance (that Brabazon calls 'the twilight of the Dark age of materialism').

The famously bloody wars between factions of Christianity began, very notably, with the Reformation, which of course occurred in the heart of the Renaissance, and not in the Dark Ages.

The Inquisition See Inquisition and Historical revision of the Inquisition

Those who would like to know the facts about the Inquisitions (1054-), too often portrayed as being just like the Spanish Inquisition throughout the Dark Ages, ought to read Inquisition, by Edward Peters. Peters is Henry Charles Lea Professor of Medieval History at the University of Pennsylvania. Remember that the Spanish Inquisition, which was truly dreadful, began in the Renaissance -- not the Dark Ages.


The Dark Ages were only given their foreboding name in 1340. No one in the Dark Ages called their age 'dark.'

The Renaissance (or 'rebirth' in Italian) was given its illustrious name by the official family biographer of the Medicis, who began it in Florence.

After the Renaissance, historians began to develop a new concept of Western history as a kind of arch -- the 'Classical' (Ancient Greek and Roman period) and 'Renaissance' were synchretized, and the period that divided them was given the uninspiring name 'Middle' or 'Dark,' painting history as a rudely interrupted continuum from Roman to Modern times, with a dark middle nameless period, sometimes referred to as 'the great fall,' between the two segments. This was a modern re-conceptualization of the flow of history, with a deep bias toward our modern externally focussed era.

One of the best books I have read on this topic of inventing a 'dark age' of the Christian era is Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians, by, Jeffrey Burton Russell, 1991. Russell is Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

On the back of his book it says,
The Middle Ages were not "dark" -- the Christian Church and science were in accord on many substantive questions, including agreement on the spherisity of the earth.
Starting on page 65, Russell explains in scholarly detail the invention of the whole notion of the 'dark ages' being dark very carefully. The Church did not turn away from truth about facts of nature, but from a concern for it as paramountly important, and turned their focus inward toward purification of the soul.

Here then is the full quote by Brabazon from Stay With God.

The Dark Ages were the ages of light: the Renaissance
was the twilight of our present black night of materialism.
Once, men burnt their desires in the sacred fire
of devotion and austerity, made lovely their lives in His mould,
measured the reach of their hands and the range of their speech
by His word, then purely sang in words and notes and stone
Avatar’s deeds — thus pleasing God with works
in likeness of His own creativeness. Then men forgot that
“by association with saints all filth is removed,
“by association with saints the face becomes bright,
“by association with saints pride is effaced,
“by association with saints divine knowledge is revealed.”
That “One instant in the company of a saint is better than hundred years of sincere prayer.”

The Dark Ages were the Ages of Light. Then men denied the saint in them,
and the saint in them died, and the line of the saints
came to an end; and there were no channels by which the flow of truth
could be reflected in men’s lives. Renaissance, promise
of freedom from “two-dimensional form”: vision of smoke stacks
behind the eyes, ears twitching with anticipation
of symphony of machine. Spirit took wings —
to the terra firma of colonization, to solid commodities
sweated out of the labour-energy of other people
(armies of bees standing in line
sweating out wax of cement and steel):
colonization, last reach of, establishment of territories
in space from which to dominate the whole earth.

There is much more that I could add to this essay, but I feel I have hit enough points to make a point. I do not mean to idealize any period in the Kali Yuga. Cruelty and ignorance have dominated throughout in all times. But if we were to take the first 700 years of Christian history, we find no major religious wars, no inquisitional tribunals, no Church-sponsored witch-trials, no Jewish ghettos (they began from about 1300 on). If there was systematic killing of gnostics, a conception we hear a lot about, I cannot find a single reliable source for it. Maybe someone can help me out. The images of the Inquisition depicting naked women in torment, with bare fronts, sprinkled all over the internet, are in fact lifted from mid-19th century etchings done for anti-Catholic works of romantic fiction for a French and English audience that had a craze for seeing such sexual depictions of women tormented without clothes. It has been an industry since the Reformation to demonize The Church that was by then largely faded from dominance. History is full of false history.

But the deeper aspect is the spiritual, the fall from the focus on the internal to the external, now fully manfested in our machine age, and our space-age with its gazing at the stars for meaning. And I think this is Brabazon's main point. So I end with this quote by J.R.R. Tolkien, from The Lord of the Rings movie, which I think pretty well sums up again Brabazon's remark.

The following dialogue comes as Gandalf and Pippin are leaving the house of the steward, Denethor, after he tells them he will not give up his reign, that is not his to take, and will not yield to “this Ranger from the North,” Aragorn. Passing the white tree, Gandalf muses with some pain and disgust:

Gandalf: A thousand years this city has stood. Now at the whim of a madman it will fall. And the white tree, the tree of the king, will never bloom again.

Pippin: Why are they still guarding it?

Gandalf: They guard it because they have hope. A faint and fading hope that one day it will flower. That a king will come and this city will be as it once was, before it fell into decay. The old wisdom borne out of the West was forsaken. Kings made tombs more splendid than the houses of the living, and counted the old names of their descent dearer than the names of their sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry or in high, cold towers, asking questions of the stars. And so the people of Gondor fell into ruin. The line of kings failed. The white tree withered. The rule of Gondor was given over to lesser men.


  1. Great summing up of so many topics you have researched during the last few years, Chris. One thing I find unlikely is that crucifixion had anything to do with Greeks, except maybe for the period that Greece was under Roman rule. And even so I have never heard of any such executions taking place in the part that is still Greece today. At that time however, Greece had many colonies on the eastern coasts of the Mediterranean, which came under Rome's rule, and it could be that in these parts crucifixions may have take place.

  2. Thank you, Stelios. I take you very seriously as you are Greek and know your own history. I looked it up, and you are absolutely correct.


    Therefore, I am correcting the text where I said crucifixion was practiced in the pagan world, both in Rome and Greece. I did read this recently, but obviously had a poor source. My research isn't perfect. My major wasn't history. I think you get that it was my general point only, that the darkness of the Dark Ages has been exaggerated by our modern historians. Thank you again for correcting this mistake. Thank goodness for comments.

  3. I have changed the line: "Crucifixion is the most well-known form of torture we know of today from the ancient period, practiced by both Greeks and Romans . . ." to "form of torture we know of today from the ancient Roman period."

  4. Sta, Theresa of Avila circa 1550 and (?) St John of the Cross, and/or St. Catherine of Sienna--they worked during to renaissance period...and would be exceptions to the rule as propounded by Brabizon?

  5. What about St. Theresa and St Catherine?

  6. Baba named four Christian saints that he loved most, that I know of. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Francis of Assisi (1181–1226), Catherine of Siena (1347–1380), and Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582). I find it worth noting that all four were absolutely Orthodox Roman Catholics. The medieval Church was united until the East-West schism began to unravel it in 1053. The Crusades quickly followed after this schism (about 1099). The Reformation really began in Prague in about 1413, 100 years earlier than the start date of it that we hear of involving Luther in 1517. Teresa (the last of these saints Baba mentioned) was two years old when Luther's Wittenberg Reformation began, leading to the bloodiest sectarian wars in European history. Yet Teresa was not only Orthodox in her life (unaffected by this splintering), but is still to this day considered by the Roman Catholic Church to be a "Doctor of the Church." Hardly do we see any mention by Baba of a single Christian that was part of the new movements that appeared after this breaking up of the Medieval Church. Baba never mentioned a single Christian saint who was not Catholic. J.R.R. Tolkien (who I love and and Baba said his books captured images of the spiritual path) was so Orthodox a Roman Catholic, so wedded to the Middle Ages, that his grandson was embarrassed at church to see his grandfather shout the prayers in Latin that (since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s) had been changed to English. In fact Tolkien stressed his orthodoxy throughout his life, and said that Lord of the Rings expressed orthodox Catholic doctrine - although veiled.