One of the curiosities of life is how fiercely people believe things that to an outsider make no sense. I've been thinking about that in different ways since reading an introduction by Richard Tuck to Hobbes's works last week, when I was on the train to Bath.
Tuck argued that one of the points about the seventeenth century, which I'm fascinated by, is that its thinkers tried time and again to grapple with what we'd know as relativism. After 1525, and in truth for a hundred years before that since the crushing of the Cathars, the Islamic invasions and the discovery of America, the minds of Europe had been unsettled and in crisis. With Catholic certainty dethroned, men had to come to terms with the possibility that no one could ever know anything for real. This led, in a century of devastating war, to the possibility not that everyone was wrong but that anyone could be right.
Some, like Grotius and, after him, Hobbes, attempted to scale the impossible mountain. They suggested that it might actually be possible to understand the outside more than the inside of the eyes. That is to say, by studying optics, or by applying reason to the affairs of men, it might be possible to come to a sense of order in the world. Low motives properly directed might lead to high peace, and to understanding of a sort (though never as complete as that of God, whom they set aside on a sort of comfortable shelf they dusted occasionally).
They operated within a milieu in which this sort of thing was innately welcome. People were full of fierce belief in that long ago time, and war raged in the centre of Europe for decades not necessarily in the name of Christ so much as in the name of certainty and order. It is one of the ironies of the time that basically decent men who sought a secular foundation that might restrain vice and therefore promote a tempered and hard virtue, like Machiavelli before them, are associated today with godlessness and the brutality they despised.
The alternative was to accept the proposition that the world could not be without meaning because God would not have deceived his creation and had left signs to see his order all around. This idea, which, outside of the logic of Catholicism is perfectly logical for Protestants who do not accept the tradition of secular reason, is still with us today. It hasn't always resulted in Anabaptist lunacy or evangelical bigotry. It staffs genuine aid missions in benighted parts of the earth, for instance, and soup kitchens across the globe. I'm not comfortable with it but I am not keen on sneering at it. It also questions evolution and has some people defining human beings by sexual acts and not using light switches on sundays.
However, sometimes you do have to wonder about the capacity of human beings to avoid logic. My girlfriend, who is writing an elegant history of Machiavelli and Erasmus that seems to have lasted about a quattrocento, sent me the tale of the Texan church that believes that the Highway between Duluth and Laredo--I-35-- refers regressively to the passage in Isaiah 35:8 relating to the 'highway of holiness'.
I have absolutely no right to cast aspersions on their holiness. However, I do wonder about this sort of thing.
A little noodling on the web made me even more suspicious. Pat Robertson (Iowa Victor 1988 and wannabe assassin of Hugo Chavez, inter alia) and his incredibly rich Christian TV empire seem to be behind it. Funny how those on the nationalist right who hate the idea of immigration and globalisation for the dispersion of sovereignty it brings with it should be sanctifying the US-wide highway that would be instrumental in any enhanced free trade agreement between Canada, the US and Mexico.
Where is that roadway church getting its money or its ideas from?
Ah well. Here is a demented instructional video in which 'Supermadge' saves American teens from the Catholic Church. That's me off to bed. Happy Martin Luther King Day.