When worlds collide: diverging beliefs

At Pennsic this year I taught the latest in a long string of classes on Anglo-Saxon history. This one diverged from the others in that rather than starting out with the warning that, while I’ll always give the best information that I have, my experience has shown that as we learn new things, much of what I learned when I started has since turned out not to be true; that issue was teh focus of this workshop.  The past half century has discovered so much information through archeology, DNA analysis, pollen sampling, climatology, dendro-chronology, tooth enamel analysis, and other specialties that didn’t exist before, that we have moved from using them to support the small amount of information we were able to get from ancient historians, to the awareness that they may actually refute much of what we thought we knew from those sources. (In this case, that the Saxons ‘invaded” and took over Britain from the Celtic population. It seems more likely that despite the cool myths about King Arthur, Saxons were among many immigrants who moved into Britain to a continued Romano-British state, and in the sixth century Saxon styles of pottery and jewelry styles of decoration were adopted by most of the folks there. Assimilation, not invasion, how tame.)

Just about the only written account about Britain in the 6th century is from Gildas, but sadly, it begins to appear that using his account could be likened to trying to reconstruct the history and culture of the 20th century United States by using only a diatribe from Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell. The problem with Gildas is that what historians think they know is based not only directly on Gildas, but also from Bede who used him as a contemporary source, and later historians who used Bede.

This problem in finding true history illustrates a greater issue.

When we are tiny children we learn things from the world around us- especially our families. We learn to walk, to talk, to dress ourselves; we learn that this is the way to the store, this is the way to the playground,…. We learn the names of colors, numbers, and categories. We learn that weather changes, and so do seasons. We learn that some people and activities are pleasant, some exciting, and others can hurt; also we learn how we are “supposed to” react to situations both pleasant and unpleasant (both what we’re told, and what we discover for ourselves minimizes discomfort). We learn to differentiate between a joke and a lie; we learn about dreams and premonitions (what’s considered real and not real); and we hear stories about things we never saw. Then we usually forget about learning all these very important things. They become, instead, the basis for how we understand what we learn later in school. They are the foundation on which we build our knowledge, the boxes in which we store all the later things we learn in our minds.

When a foundational premise turns out to be false, it can make the entire field of study seem unstable. This is why we sometimes adapt the later information to make it work with the shifting base- like the way the Leaning Tower of Pisa was built, as the foundation sank each new stage was built to adapt to then current horizontal and vertical. So we can get excited about new discoveries, revising older views in light of new information (although care is needed so we don’t go overboard). I’ve watched when some draw over-extended interpretations from a piece of new information, such as arguing about how many “witches” were burned in the early modern period, or what colonization really did to the indigenous peoples, or, worse, how many historical figures were gay or black or secretly women. There are many over-extensions one can point out. This may be necessary, since before we can achieve balance, the statements recognizing previously unacknowledged contributors must be really pushed in order to penetrate the resistance of those who think they already know. The things we learn earliest, on which we base the rest of our studies, have to be as solid as “day follows night” and “two and two is four”. We assume they are, but we are often wrong.

What can cause big problems is when those foundations include “how life works”. There is a huge difference between “Success comes by getting ahead of the other guy” and “Success comes from making sure everyone around you is doing well”. These lessons may be taught to us both intentionally by other people, then reinforced by our experiences; and those differ by individual and in groups. Whether we are male or female, European (white) or non-white, healthy or handicapped, rich or poor, all these things change what we are told and how life experiences reinforce them. The problem is that when the understanding of how the world works has been learned during the period before we can even remember it, it’s hard for us to even recognize much less adapt those beliefs, even in the face of contradictory evidence. They have become foundational and almost impossible to change.

Some things make us more open to accepting changes in our understanding- travel, knowing more than one language, being raised in a culturally diverse area. Some things make it harder, like surrounding oneself with others who reinforce our foundational beliefs. In order to help people change a foundational belief, we need to help them create a new foundation under their crumbling one that will support the new information where their old one could not.

Just as when we stand on a floor that we fear may not hold us up, it’s uncomfortable to feel that our understanding of how the world works might fail under us. No wonder people who were brought up to (for example) accept that the Bible is the literal word of God, and should be interpreted to mean that men should control women, that being gay is wrong, that punishment deters crime, that European domination of the world shows that whites are superior to all other “races”, (etc. ad nauseum) are so confused to find that the modern world does not support what they see as God-given rights to abuse women and children if they see fit, subjugate nature and non-white races, torture anyone who they see as “lesser” (makes them feel uncomfortable), and that it’s holy to force others to view God the way their branch of the Church does.

I know that that’s a pretty extreme way to describe it, but what the current administration is doing: abusing refugees including families and children, raping the environment, and blocking attempts to save it, denying women bodily autonomy, etc. Not only are these actions unconscionable to me, they seem to be against the teachings of Christianity as I was taught it. There has got to be a huge disconnect to allow them to support policies that harm children. (I occasionally wonder if they really ARE trying to trigger Armageddon so that their expectations of being taken to heaven will happen sooner.)

These seem to be the actions of people who are making a last desperate stand to protect themselves against what they see as an attack on “the way the world is supposed to be”. It is not surprising that people who can still remember when women were financially dependent on men, blacks couldn’t raise their eyes much less their hands to white men, people who loved others of the same gender had to hide it, may find living in a world where this is all not simply accepted, but protected, are feeling that their world is being attacked. That world-view is being attacked. What I’m saying is that the way to help them through this without violence is to recognize what they’re going through as traumatic, and help them find new things that will support them. A stronger reliance on a loving Jesus who does not condemn is probably a good place to start. Extending their experiences to counter their prejudices (“I have black friends, but most blacks…”), one on one, they’re usually fine. It’s the skewed beliefs they got from scared parents that are tripping them up. People lash out when they feel threatened, so let’s not try to force our ways on them, but help them feel less threatened (without backing down from requiring them to give everyone equal rights).