Babylon and Renaissance

“The [Babylonian] exile began with the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and its Temple and the ending of the Davidic monarchy in 586 BC. Following a failed rebellion by the kingdom of Judah against the Babylonian Empire, Nebuchadnezzar besieged the city of Jerusalem, and deported most of its inhabitants over the period 597-581 to Babylon. […] They would remain in exile until the fall of Babylon to Persian king Cyrus the Great in 539 BC.”

Alister McGrath, The Great Mystery

In the Christian tradition, Babylon has come to symbolise exile in an alien land where we don’t belong. We are “strangers in a strange land”. It also carries the suggestion of a corrupt world, a socio-political system of oppression and injustice. This is a central concept for Rastafarianism, for example. Some Jamaican immigrants to Britain after the Second World War felt this sense of exile keenly, and developed a negative view of their host country, which they experienced as a demonic web of petty, complicated bureaucracy and arbitrary laws, a “Babylon System”. This then became associated in the popular counter-cultural imagination with the capitalist system, represented primarily by the most powerful capitalist country in the world, the United States.

In the original meaning given it by Medieval Christians, however, Babylon represented exile from our true spiritual home. There was a sense that, even safe in their own country and in their own homes, Christians don’t really belong in this world. We are like pilgrims on Earth, temporary travellers en route to another, better world. This “other world” was variously called The New Jerusalem, The Promised Land, Zion, Paradise, Eden or The Kingdom of God. The longing for this true home, the deep spiritual home-sickness that it engendered was personal evidence that we really were in exile. As St Paul wrote, “here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14) And as C.S. Lewis famously put it in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world”.

In my thinking about our place in the world over the past few years, I have made extensive use of the Bhavachakra, the Tibetan Wheel of Life, which seems to me such a powerful depiction of the different ways in which we become spiritually lost. It consists of six realms, which can be understood as six different ego states: the Heavenly Realm (Devaloka), the Hell Realm (Narakaloka), and four other realms, the Human, Titan, Hungry Ghost and the Animal Realms. We might say that during our brief sojourn on Earth, we find ourselves exiled in any one of these realms, populated respectively by Divas, Demons, Muggles, Muppets, Addicts and Victims. As a whole, the Tibetan Wheel of Life might be characterised as The Wheel of Babylon.

Things can seem hopeless, even bleak, as we survey the world around us with a critical eye. Babylon is strong. Sometimes it feels so strong that there seems to be no way out, as if it were the very fabric of existence, the creation of a malevolent demiurge perhaps, forming an underlying matrix from which it is impossible to escape. But as in the film The Matrix, could there be a red pill that can pull us out of the Wheel of Babylon?

When I think of mainstream Western culture and its formative ideas and influences, I cannot help agreeing with Iain McGilchrist’s pessimistic diagnosis in The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Everything seems to point to the increasing disenchantment, mechanisation and dehumanisation you would expect from chronic left hemisphere dominance. The totalitarianisms of the twentienth century, the wars and genocides, the shallow consumerism of late capitalism, the Utopian myths of progress, the mass hypnosis of the media, the existential meaninglessness of materialism, all point to the tightening of the grip of Babylon on people’s hearts and minds.

But there is cause for hope. Starting in the the fourteenth century in Italy, the European Renaissance uncovered the treasures of the antiquity, which had lain almost completely forgotten for centuries. The humanities were born, invigorating Western culture through a rich education in the arts, rhetoric and philosophy. Plato and Aristotle, Pindar, Homer, Cicero, and a whole pantheon of classical authors were studied and used as a springboard for new insights into life and the human condition. Pico della Mirandola, Erasmus, Marsilio Ficino and others spearheaded the great cultural and spiritual movement that came to be known as Renaissance Humanism. The word “humanism” is derived from the Latin phrase studia humanitatis, which basically means “humane studies” or “liberal arts”. It actually had nothing to do with “secular humanism”, an invention of the twentieth century, which defines itself in opposition to religion. The original humanists had a much broader and more liberal view of humanity, including religion and spirituality as central components of the human experience. The Renaissance humanists were almost exclusively Christians.

There is a lot of talk and excitement recently about a Psychedelic Renaissance, a rediscovery of the beneficial therapeutic and transformative effects of these miraculous compounds, which for decades have been demonised and criminalised as part of a wider war on drugs. The original pioneers, Albert Hofmann, Alexander Shulgin, Aldous Huxley, were actually initiating the rediscovery of a much more ancient tradition of the spiritual use of psychedelics (or entheogens) in the West, reaching right back to the Eleusinian Mysteries and earlier, in Egypt for example, as well as the shamanic traditions of Siberia, Africa and the Americas.

Since the end of the nineteenth century and picking up speed in the 1960’s, there has also been an enormous rise in interest in Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and other Eastern religions in the West. This has fed into developments in Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychology, the Human Potential Movement and the New Age. Although under the surface of mainstream culture, and in some senses associated with the counter-culture, this blossoming of Eastern wisdom and practices such as meditation, yoga and martial arts, can itself be considered a significant renaissance of its own. We might call it the Eastern Renaissance.

Since the end of the eighteenth century and reaching its apotheosis in the middle of the nineteenth, there has also been another renaissance, associated with poetic sensibility and a deep human connection with the natural world, known as Romanticism. An associated trend was a renewed appreciation of Medieval chivalric culture, which represented for certain romantics a more authentic mode of being than the limited view of humanity peddled by the Enlightenment architects of the Age of Reason.

Babylon can appear all-powerful. It seems to almost completely control public discourse, and to strictly determine what we can and can’t say, think and do. But beneath the implacable surface of the “Babylon System”, there is the vital, spiritual dynamite of a germinating Spiritual Renaissance, at the same time Christian, Humanist, Romantic, Eastern and Psychedelic, which holds out the promise that we may yet chant down Babylon and enter the Kingdom of God.