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Sunday, October 24, 2004

Of Mayans and Pharisees

I was half-listening to two college professors chatting. Something about Von Daniken and Velikovsky; they both enjoyed them. One was advising the other what books to read next. Then something about the Mayan pyramids in Mexico being identical to the early pyramids in Egypt. But the Church had destroyed the Mayan writings.

The International Catholic Conspiracy had struck again.

These were in theory very educated people, holders of advanced degrees. These are the people educating our young.

How is it that so much of what they “know” is apparently merely superstition and prejudice?

The experience was not unique, nor did I find it surprising. I am myself an academic. I have been around many water coolers and faculty lounges and have heard many urban legends. This actually seems par for the course.

Let’s look at this bit about the Catholic Church suppressing Native American culture. I have heard it many times before, generally from the well-educated and fashionably opinioned. And, notably, never from a Native Canadian. All the Native Canadians I know are devout Christians.

In fact, I what records we have of the Mayans were preserved by Catholic clergy. The Popul Vuh, the Mayan sacred epic, was preserved and translated into Spanish by Father Francisco Ximanez in 1702. Without him, we would know nothing of the Mayans.

And this is true throughout the Americas. In most places, where the native peoples have a writing system, it was devised for them by missionaries. Where languages have been preserved, it has been through grammars and dictionaries made by missionaries. Where we know the old legends and beliefs, these were recorded by missionaries. Missionaries commonly worked hard to preserve native culture. Back in Kamloops, Father Jean-Marie Raphael LeJeune published the Kamloops Wawa from 1891 to 1923: a regular newspaper in the Chinook language, reflecting Native concerns.

Native culture was changed forever –one might say it was “destroyed,” but that in the end is a value judgment, and debatable--by plagues, alcohol, and the sudden availability of higher quality goods and more efficient technologies from abroad.

Christianity was one part of this mix. Christianity replaced the Native religions, just as it had replaced native religions across Europe. At the same time, it did what it could to protect the Natives from alcohol and plague. And the change from native to Christian beliefs was hardly by compulsion. I, too, would be pretty eager to embrace a new faith that condemned human sacrifice, slavery, and torture, preached the equality of man, and protected from curses, loss of soul, and demonic possession.

Was that a great loss, or a great gain, for Native culture? I would call it a great gain, and in itself no more a matter of “destroying” Native culture than the evangelization of Europe “destroyed” European culture.

But I digress. We were talking about two college professors. Why do they believe something so obviously false?

Whenever occurs a great evil or a great good, whenever right and wrong appear in the world in the raw, a mystical process begins. All of us who have a vested interest in concealing the truth—which probably means all of us--start to work, spinning silken threads out of our own innards, and begin to conceal matters under thick cobwebs of misinformation. The guilty are gradually exonerated and rewarded, the good blamed and punished. We do this so we can live with ourselves, for we know we are too often not good and not right.

Case in point: the evils of Fascism and Nazism are now commonly blamed on the Catholic Church, which was at the time almost the only voice against it.

Case in point: pedophilia, which was almost accepted by Kinsey and the Sixties “sexual revolution,” is now commonly blamed on the Catholic Church, which was at the time almost the only voice against it.

Case in point: racism is now often blamed uniquely on White Anglo-Saxons, to the British and the Americans; Andrew Young’s famous claim that the English invented racism has been eagerly taken up in many places. But these were, historically, the people who fought most fiercely against it, against Hitler, against slavery, against caste in India.

Case in point: racism now masquerades as “anti-racism.” The White Anglo-Saxons, as above, are now racially stigmatized themselves, by “anti-racists,” in terms hauntingly similar to those once used against Jews.

Case in point: Jesus was crucified. By the scribes and Pharisees, by the Roman civil authorities, with the assent of the mob. But surely those who were first and most fierce against him were the scribes and Pharisees.

By the scribes and Pharisees; by the teachers and intellectuals of his day.

Teachers and intellectuals. Essentially the same class Plato called “Sophists.”

Of course there are good teachers and honourable intellectuals: we have all known some. And they are pearls of great price. But there is a great and persistent truth here.

Precisely because our universities and colleges are supposed to be the bastions of free inquiry and deep thought, this is also sure to be where the cobwebs most gather. Because we are all frightened of truth; we all have something to lose from it.

I suspect the only thing that can give us the courage to face truth is deep religious conviction. It is no surprise, therefore, that the great universities were all founded as religious enterprises.

And it is equally no surprise, perhaps, that, stripped of this religious sense of mission and secularized, they have become so commonly places not of free enquiry and deep thought, but of ignorant prejudice and group thought. Even places frightened to death of independent thought or free enquiry. Whose main mental exercise seems to be to believe six impossible things before breakfast. In the words of Abigail Thernstrom, “islands of repression in a sea of freedom.”

Woe unto us, scribes and Pharisees.

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