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The Last Two Hundred Years

From the foreword of an upcoming book:

Unavoidably, it seems, whenever we talk of the past, we look at it through the lens of the present. When we consider that, over the last two hundred years or so, society, at least in the West, has proceeded down a firm path towards a general viewpoint more and more centred around materialism, it is hard for us to picture what any other viewpoint might have been like. To try to grasp earlier conceptions of the universe, we have to dust off that very part of ourselves which the last two hundred years has progressively pushed further and further into the attic: our imaginations.

Even the word ‘imagination’ has become a pejorative: ‘It’s just your imagination’, ‘She was imagining it’, ‘It was only imaginary’ are all expressions which have their origins in a culture rooted in materialism, a culture where the ‘scientific method’ rules, and one in which the evidence of the dominance of matter is all too prevalent. To open the door to the Imagination with a capital ‘I’ is, for many, likened to cracking open Pandora’s Box and loosing upon the world a horde of uncontrollable demons. ‘If we,’ they say, ‘allow Imagination into our world of experimentation and equations, we also dismiss any stable ground and throw out the most successful approach humanity has ever taken to its environment, namely the scientific one.’ Admit imagination, goes the argument, and one throws out the principle of Occam’s Razor, which states that simplicity is the aim: one must seek the hypothesis which makes fewer assumptions and is therefore more easily provable. ‘If we don’t do that,’ cries the protester, ‘ then anything goes.’

Cold rationality, in which only the evidence of the five material senses under strictly controlled conditions can establish ‘truth’, must stand — look at all the sciences which we have developed, and the technologies which have grown out of those sciences, and the betterment of material conditions which have stemmed from all of that. To bring in the Imagination, to give equal status to a faculty which cannot be so easily measured, to permit subjective experience to compete with objective analysis, seems to many to suggest that the end of the world is approaching, or at least the brink of sanity.

Is this a valid fear?

Dusting off our imaginations, let’s try to picture how the last two hundred years might have seemed to someone from an earlier age, before the slow divorce between rationality and subjectivity took place. An educated monk of, say, the fourteenth century, if things could be satisfactorily explained to him in some way, might conclude that it is we who have gone mad. For such a personage, it was certainly true that materially, things were very grim indeed: simple things like hygiene or principles of food preparation or medicine in general were quite differently understood. With no material knowledge of human or animal biology or astronomy or physics as we know these things today, it is easy to assume that our monk lived in a barbaric world, enduring a savage life of pain and distress and loss, ignorant of so many of the pleasures which we enjoy. And he did, on a material level: life was generally short and physically unpleasant in many respects.

But subjectively? To the monk, the world as he perceived it with his five senses, was far from being all that there was: the cosmos was infinite, and only a small part of that was material or earthly. His body and everything that happened around him was subject to a divine power which was the source of all Love; nature was full of bounty, not by genetic accident but through the designs of a loving God; the sky above was a structured dance of angelic bodies, which, while vast, had limits, and beyond those limits was an incalculably immense and glorious Heaven, radiant with positivity, occupied to the point of overflowing with beneficent beings. The lack of material understanding which we perceive through our twenty-first century lenses was filled to the brim with an imaginative/spiritual comprehension of how everything worked and fitted together and was in harmony with itself. Even the bits which didn’t appear to be harmonious to his mortal understanding were clearly part of an immense and complex and beautiful Plan which extended far beyond anything his mind would ever be able to take in.

As far as he could be brought to understand our own picture of things, he would probably say that our last two hundred years had been a long process of ‘uncolouring’ the universe. We have been engaged, he might say, in a programme of removing nuances, vibrancies, connections, meanings, pertinencies, and replacing them with a binary system of black and white clarity — intensely clear and highly useful materially, to be sure, but drab and dead and soulless in almost every other respect. We know, he might admit, much about our material bodies and have been able to intercede far more effectively in making them function better — but at the cost of our knowledge of the soul and its relations with that body and with everything else. We know, he might go on to confess, far more about the operations of forces and energies and microbes and everything to do with the physical laws which underpin them — but we have lost track of any connection of any of it with ourselves in any meaningful way. We have been like children, he might say, eager to establish how something works and breaking it apart to find out, without realising that, in that breaking, the essential wholeness might be lost.

As our society moved more and more into a material mode, achieving tremendous physical successes through the Industrial and Technological Revolutions, moving to explore space and the oceans and the microscopic world with triumph after relentless triumph, Occam’s Razor came more and more to be a double-edged sword: with each material breakthrough came a spiritual unplugging; with each step toward objectivity came a loss of perspective. Hence, around the time when materialism began to rise remorselessly in the nineteenth century, we see a renewed and parallel interest in the spirit as a set of ‘phenomena’. Spiritualism developed alongside science; the world of the scientist seemed to demand that similar methods be applied to try to reconnect humanity with something that it seemed to be losing. As the twentieth century rolled on through the Holocaust and nuclear weapons, through existentialism and despair, through the success of functionalism over aesthetics, through the painful growth of mental health issues as the disconnections and meaninglessnesses mounted, so the desperation to recontact the lost world of the soul grew more intense. New religions thrived; sects and New Age practises abounded; efforts were poured into reestablishing verities which had been known to humanity before but were now receding into ancestral memory.

Thus these letters.

Herein are a set of letters found amongst forgotten notes years ago, assembled anew for the elucidation of today’s generations who are seeking something that on one level they barely know is missing because they cannot name it, but on another level something for which they cry out with every breath: a reconnection with the wider world of meaning and spirit.


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