Saturday, May 27, 2006

Da Vinci’s Other Code

It’s unfortunate that so much of the discussion surrounding The Da Vinci Code has centered on whether Jesus of Nazareth married Mary of Magdala and fathered a line of children.

This is what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin – a side issue that distracts from the larger issue. In this case, how the Christian church subordinated women almost from the beginning, though rabbi Jesus treated women – even Samaritan women - as equals. In 2,000 years, the Catholic Church has not yet found ten mothers worthy of sainthood.

But Christianity behaves no differently than any other ‘religion of the book.’ Judaism and Islam likewise have a history of subordinating women, reflected in Miriam’s cry: 'Does God speak only to my brother Moses?'

This is a tragedy that many have begun to address in recent years. What has concerned me over this time is that parallel to Christianity's subordination of women, has been its subordination of the mother of all mothers – Nature herself. The belly of Mother Earth is seen as the place of damnation.

This meant that Christianity lost its voice during the two greatest developments of the last 500 years: the scientific revolution and the technological (industrial and information) revolutions.

To get a sense of how things might have been, consider the case of Leonardo Da Vinci. As a scientist, his curiosity led him to address a wide range of issues, including manned flight. In that spirit, he envisioned and drew working diagrams for a helicopter.

But Da Vinci was also in-formed with a moral compass, and so recognized that if such a machine were built, princes would use it against civilians in siege warfare. So he drew the plans, but did so using a code which took centuries to decipher. (Although the code was simplicity itself: hold the text up to a mirror and it becomes legible. The secret was hidden in plain sight.)

Da Vinci correctly understood that science is embedded in conscience, and tech-knowledge is the external manifestation of self-knowledge. In effect, he threw The Ring back into the fire before it could get out of the cave and do damage in the world. He was one of the last to act with such insight.

And because institutional Christianity — like many other religions -- had no appetite for studying nature and the appropriate use of its forces, it lost the authority to speak knowledgably regarding science and technology, or to encourage a Da Vinci-like attitude among the members.

(Ironically, the Catholic priesthood produced some great scientists, though most were silenced for their work: Roger Bacon, Nicholas Copernicus, Gregor Mendel, Georges Lemaitre, Teilhard de Chardin).

In time, Christendom became ‘the developed world’ where science and technology are preeminent, but where issues of values and appropriateness are an afterthought, if they’re considered at all.

About 2,500 years ago, in a period known as the Axial Age, people in China, India, Judea and Greece independently came up with the notion that to be happy as individuals and as a society we need to develop universal compassion. How this developed in these four regions is the subject of an excellent new book, “The Great Transformation; The beginning of our religious traditions,” by Karen Armstrong.

Whether or not we are living in another Axial Age, we are certainly living in one of those uncomfortable times in history when the old gods are dead and the new ones haven’t shown up yet. Or, more accurately, the old answers seem inadequate for the new questions.

In every other respect, the Lord’s Prayer is a wonderful expression of petition, contrition, worship and thanksgiving. But the “Our Father who art in Heaven” part is a bone that many can’t chew anymore.

When the ‘new revelation’ comes – if there is still time – it will have to cut through centuries of dogma and institutional intolerance to return to the simple, core Axial insight: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

But now, beyond seeing ‘the face of God’ in our enemy as well as our friend, as the wisest Axial thinkers did, we must learn how to see that transcendence in the blade of grass and the grain of sand. We can no longer dismiss such notions as archaic, pagan or Wiccan, but rather as the marks of true wisdom, and essential to our survival and to our sanity.

The supernatural is found within the natural. And it is a mark of humanity’s developing maturity that we understand and act appropriately on that awareness.

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