Monday, January 19, 2015

A Living Mystery

Bas relief from Nimrud—Palace of Ashurnasirpal II
Metropolitan Museum, New York
Circa 883-859 B.C.

In late December, my wife and I went to the Metropolitan Museum show Assyria to Iberia at the dawn of the classical age.

 This fine exhibition gives us a snapshot of the extraordinarily rich tapestry of cultures around the Mediterranean in the early pre-Christian era—that is, the thousand years before Christ. As Diarmaid MacCulloch points out in his fine book, Christianity — the first 3000 years, it isn't really possible to take the measurement of Christianity without understanding the thousand years that went before it, since so much of what Christianity consists of was born within the cultural matrix it emerged from. What is perhaps most astonishing about it is that it emerged from such an extraordinary variety of different cultures, all of which intersected with one another in unexpected ways.

If there's anything the Metropolitan exhibit emphasizes, it is the cross-cultural influences that  invasively and pervasively swept across the region from country to country and century to century. Looking at the iconography, it is more and more difficult to see Mediterranean civilization in the early classical era as many different cultures; one begins to comprehend them as a single culture with many different branches. The world was as cosmopolitan then as it is today— and to presume anything less than extraordinary sophistication, in both the arts and the sciences, would be (ultimately) to misunderstand where all of our religious impulses come from.

The arts, the level of aesthetic, and the sciences— yes, technologies —required to create the fine objects in this show, which represent a tiny fraction of what these civilizations produced at their peak, show us peoples as deft and able as ourselves; and not only their fingers, but also their minds, were equally adept. Let's not forget that the Babylonians produced the first comprehensive — and exceedingly accurate — catalog of the heavens and of astronomical events, a catalog freely borrowed from and adopted for the purposes of Egyptian and, later, Greek culture. The Archimedes screw, a device for lifting water, also has its origins in the technological genius of the Babylonian empire, not the latter-day Greek whose name it bears. Even the Antikythera mechanism almost certainly has its origins in Babylon, since — when the device was originally made ( possibly as early as 205 BC) — it already represented a very mature, tried, and tested technology that has to date from hundreds, if not thousands, of years earlier; and it incorporated astronomical knowledge which was, undeniably, originally gleaned by the Babylonians.

The classical religious philosophies of the Greeks must equally owe their origin to Assyrian and Babylonian philosophers, who, as the sophistication of these various earlier empires attest, were not just great builders — but also great thinkers. We sell ancient religions short when we think of them as nothing more than pagan idol worship. One could just as easily accuse today's rank and file Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians of being idol worshipers, if one chooses to — we have certainly created enough artifacts to advance the argument, even in this era.

 The great religions of the Middle East, Judaism and Christianity, both arose from these extraordinary and very ancient roots; and the religious schools that ultimately birthed Western religion as we know it today were all rooted in this Mediterranean culture, which, we might well argue, was even more deeply influenced by the Assyrians and Babylonians than by the Egyptians, who seem to capture our imagination in more powerful ways — undoubtedly because of the larger monuments they left behind, and their bizarre, elaborated rituals of mummification.

I think, though, that something changed with the advent of Christ and the Christian era. The influence, however one wants to characterize it — positive or negative — has been, undeniably, enormous; and it seems as though there is something different in the very atmosphere of the planet itself since the birth of Christ.

This is not a question that lends itself to rational analysis; it is something one feels in the gut, and by that I mean not the anatomical gut, but the spiritual one. The astral presence of the planet itself changed when Christ was born; and this is a question, a mystery, which does not lend itself to the statistics of archaeology, the cataloging of broken objects and forgotten lives.

It is a living mystery that we carry within us today.

 I think that these early classical cultures of the Mediterranean carried that same question and that same mystery within them in their own age; with or without Christ, we are called to understand ourselves.


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