“Some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.” So begins The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. As morning settles in on the twenty-first century, the light is starting to reveal a few incontrovertible facts. The most obvious: A lot has been forgotten. We stand on the brink of a new dark age, and the explosion of technology over the last seventy-five years has left humanity in a very vulnerable place. Human frailty is not new, but warring factions in the past never posed a planetary threat as they do today. Forget about the possibility of nuclear war for a minute. Still dangling over our head, it is suspended by that legendary horse hair. But let’s assume that it’s secure for a moment. We’ve already been hit by a giant explosion of another kind. Ignorance is the H-bomb of our time, and the aftermath is not going to be pretty.
Just a few generations removed from pioneers that tamed the wilderness of Kentucky, I’m one who often fanaticizes about the struggles and triumphs of my forbearers. On the farm where I grew up, there’s an old home site where the log house originally stood. In the late seventies, the house still stood there, surrounded by outbuildings and barns, and an old well. That brick lined well would be all that would survive to see the twenty-first century. A nineteenth century relic, it took decades for us to finally fill it in with enough earth to keep it from caving. To this day, I’m still cautious when walking in the area, afraid that the earth will swallow me up. Cropping around it for years, I always thought about the man who dug the well. How long did it take? Was he scared when he got to the bottom? Was it contracted, or dug by the land owner? How much was the digger paid? All these questions from a simple hole in the ground, and they can never be answered. Things like that make me wonder about all the other things that are lost to time.
The other night, I watched a National Geographic special about the “Gospel of Judas.” It’s an ancient Coptic text from the second century that tells about Jesus from a very unlikely perspective; the viewpoint of the man who handed him over to execution. As it turns out, there were something like thirty competing “gospels” in circulation in the early church. Eventually, the four that corroborated each other were canonized and accepted by the faithful as being authoritative accounts of what actually happened. Judas’ gospel was almost lost to time until it was discovered by a farmer in Egypt in the 1970’s. It offers a completely different view of Christianity, and was dismissed by the authorities of the early church as heresy, as were most other accounts of the life of Christ. As with most knowledge, the documentary left me with more questions than answers. Like the well, it provoked an acute awareness of how much I just don’t know.
The problem with modern society is our security in how much we do know, and the fact that a good bit of it is probably not true. We refuse to learn from history, and so we keep repeating it. Monasteries served as reliquaries for knowledge throughout the middle ages. While kings were warring for position and material wealth, men who took vows of poverty and obedience were holding the true wealth of the world: our history. Today, as I look around I see small minded men making the same wars for the same reasons as those medieval kings. I also see thirty-year-olds living with Mom and playing video games. They can’t point out Vermont on a map, but they have no problem finding the safe place to hide in the alternate reality of Call of Duty. At age 26, Nikola Tesla had his alternating current epiphany and set the wheels in motion for the electrical system that would change the world. Most people at that age now have barely finished college and probably learned very little in the process. Granted, Tesla was a genius, but there was a time when people had a lot of practical knowledge too. They built, had families, and lived life as soon as they were able. They didn’t wait till they were thirty to try and accomplish something. Like the man that dug the well, they did what needed to be done. Risks to life and limb be damned. They lived. The first step to conquering ignorance is admitting our own. Who will hold the knowledge during the next dark age? Louis C.K. said, “…you live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of.” And you and I, my friend, are the new monks destined to keep the flame alive. I only hope we can meet the challenge.