Thursday, 18 February 2016

Progress or Regress?

Νίψον ἀνομήματα, μὴ μόναν ὄψιν.

That's a Greek palindrome, attributed to St Gregory of Nazianzus, which means: "wash my transgressions, not just my face." It was inscribed upon a baptismal font outside the great church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. It also found its way to provincial England, where you can find it upon the font of St Mary's, Nottingham. I hope the significance of this palindrome will become apparent as we proceed.

Look at the painting closely; it deserves very detailed study. The stone tower goes up and up to heaven. It is an impressive monument to the genius of man. Its foundations, immeasurably strong, lie in the depths where there are great courts and dungeons, from which it rises up in concentric tiers to a lofty crown, wreathed in clouds. But there is more, and less. The levels of construction are vastly incomplete in places, most noticeably at the foundations themselves, with great protrusions of raw mountainside and crumbling pillars of brick coming down to undermine the strength and stability of the good stone work on the left in a double helix pattern; c.f. Gimli's first impressions of Minas Tirith [1]. This helix pattern is the synthesis of progress and regress laid bare. The higher you scale the tower, the deeper you descend into hell. This is because scaling the tower is a counterfeit ascent, false progress, seeming advancement in spite of God. We marvel at Charles Darwin's theories, now almost universally-believed as self-evident fact. Is this progress or regress? He turned Man into a beast. The biblical life expectancy is seventy years [2], and yet modern science is so cruel as to extend that by another twenty, at the end of which life is wrested from unmanned and witless old men. Is this progress or regress? We balk at the idea of disease, poverty, ageing, slavery, the death penalty; anything that compromises the quality of this life. And yet we extend pregnant women the right to ensure that their unborn children can be profitably murdered, dismembered, and their parts sold right up to their due date. Is this progress or regress? We consider ourselves the exemplar of liberty with our democracies, and we scorn countries like Saudi Arabia, or even Russia. Yet what is "democracy?" To the Greeks it meant "mob rule;" for us it's the selection of obedient, careerist toadies by closed committees of rich, elite political parties. We have come this far from Runnymede, from the days of putatively crude dictatorships and superstition through great charters, civil wars and revolutions in a great epic of liberty. That's the hyperbolic narrative I remember from school. Is this progress or regress?

But there's really no such thing, is there? Progress and regress are cyclical principles, like the helix pattern of the Tower of Babel represented here by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, going round and round in an endless spiral of wrath and ignorance. As J.R.R. Tolkien so insightfully put in his poem for C.S Lewis:
I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God's mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name [3].
When truth is withered away from the land, progress is just as static as regress and inevitably comes at a cost, often at the cost of man's immortal soul. True progress is a pilgrim's progress, when a penitent asks of his confessor to wash away his transgressions, turning the spiral of man's wrath and ignorance on itself. His intent is then evangelical from start to finish and back to front. Like St Gregory's palindrome, or how Byrd beautified the turba parts in his Passio secundum Ioannem, rendering them the most poignant of all. When we put aside the false progress of faithless man and put on the garments of Christ we have no more need of Babel-builders and the power of this world, written into sky scrapers and ballistic machines. May we then account ourselves truly blessed to cry:

"Come, let us climb up to the LORD's mountain-peak, to the house where the God of Jacob dwells; he shall teach us the right way, we will walk in the paths he has chosen." Isaiah 2:3.

I was going to integrate more into this post; the liturgy of the dedication of a church; what Ghân-buri-Ghân said of the men of Gondor; &c, but I fear you might find it boring and pretentious.


[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Book V, Chapter IX.
[2] Psalms 90:10
[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, Mythopoeia.

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