Who would have thought that a world which only one-hundred years ago seemed so hidebound to rational explanations would not only become in thrall to the infinite, but also in thrall to the infinite because of rational explanations?
In one sense at least, this is the most exciting time in which to live since The Middle Ages. The contents of the world are, yet again, entirely unknown. The perfect harmonies in the Age of Newton and Kepler are replaced by the dissonant anxieties in the Age of Einstein and Heisenberg. And with this age comes the chaos of guesswork - our greatest certainties being not of our place in the universe but in what we see on earth, because more than the Age of Einstein, this is the Age of Darwin.
The Middle Ages was an era of extreme optimism when people joyfully proclaimed their disregard for the agonizing squalor of their world as but a mere trial before the joys of the world to come. This post-modern age is an era when people agonizingly embrace the manifold joys of the moment with the knowledge that those joys may not exist a minute from now, and may never exist again. In both cases, and for diametrically opposed reasons, life has taken on the quality of a carnival or a vaudeville show, in which anything can happen from moment to moment. Nothing in the Middle Ages was recorded, and therefore everything could be believed. Almost all music, all stories, all human thought existed almost completely in oral tradition. Who was to say that one version of a story was more true than another? All stories were equally unprovable, and therefore all stories about the world had to be believed. Today, everything is recorded: everybody’s music, everybody’s writings, everybody’s movies, everybody’s thoughts. Everybody's movements are recorded online, and everything online can be doctored to suit people’s purposes, therefore our instinct is to believe as much in nothing as Medieval Man’s instinct was to believe in everything.
I recently heard an NPR piece about the tremendous upswing in popularity for a pilgrimage in Spain called the Way of St. James. The pilgrims walk across Northern Spain to the monestary where it's alleged that one of the twelve apostles is buried. In the Middle Ages, such pilgrimages were made by foot and with the flimsiest of footwear. A pilgrimage which today’s Christians could do in a few hours would take more than a decade for yesterday’s, and held no guarantee that the pilgrims would survive to return home. A pilgrimage was the ultimate adventure - a trek into utterly unknown woods, with grave chances for disease, violence, death, excitement and adventure along the way. And for those who were not soldiers, it was their only chance for such adventure. Unless people went on pilgrimage or to war, their existence was completely stationary - plowing the same crops, walking the same trails, seeing the same views every day for their entire lives. Existence was monotonous.
Compared to any previous era of human history, our existence is the precise opposite of monotonous. What is today’s city but an urban forest; in which excitements lie in store for us on every corner, and dangers beyond our imaginings await should we stray down the wrong path? We live far longer than our predecessors, and we also die of disease for far longer. We can view every piece of the earth by satellite, we can mechanize every work process, we can ameliorate every irritation. Perhaps life has grown so exciting, that it’s become... monotonous?
The world is no longer a mystery. And as life becomes less of a mystery, we attempt to find ways to ways to make it so. In order to truly contemplate the mysterious, we have to turn toward things we truly don’t know. So we look to space, or to the sea, or to nature, or perhaps again to the divine. Eventually, perhaps space and the sea will be as well-mapped as the earth. And every time we venture out into the sea or into nature, we have modern provisions to ensure that our experience of it holds nothing like the dangers - and therefore, nothing like the excitement - of our forefathers. All that remains for human beings to revive their sense of purpose in this world is religion, and perhaps the remote possibility of space travel. But who can doubt that even space travel, should it ever happen on a large scale, would eventually be as child proofed as any jungle gym? However, were we to evolve past religion, would humans have the purposefulness to survive even another hundred years?
I would like to think so, and yet I doubt it. No matter what their religion or creed, too many people need a sense that their life’s petty frustrations and deep agonies are undertaken for a purpose. Without that sense of purpose, what reason would so many unfulfilled people have to carry on their struggle to make their lives better? And without that sense of purpose, even the rewards of such a struggle make life nothing more than a series of petty frustrations. It is especially in our era, when so many lives are consumed merely by frustrations and malaise, that the world asks: why do we go on? The people who experience deep agony look at the merely frustrated with seething rage, while the merely frustrated don’t enjoy their good fortune enough to defend it. Decadence breeds war, which breeds rebirth, and the life cycle of human civilization starts over again just as it has so many times before. In the meantime, these Christians will walk the Way of St. James. They're no less decadent than the rest of us, so this pilgrimage will take a week or two. They will fly to the trail's beginning point, without taking twenty years to walk from their country of origin. If they like, they sleep in hotels along the way, or at least sleep in a strong tent next to an artificial campfire. They can take bathroom breaks at very least in a port-o-potty, and they can visit all sorts of gift shops along the way to buy presents for the family members they'll see again next week. But maybe, just maybe, a few of them will truly experience some small semblance of the stillness and illogic which life once held for our ancestors - and if they do, it will be the most exciting moment of their lives.