Let’s take an imaginary trip back 600 years. This would put us toward the end of the “Middle Ages.” Let’s go back to some arbitrary place in Europe. We could go back to Asia or Africa or even the Americas, but the history of Europe at this time is a little less unfamiliar.
And now let’s imagine what life is like for the typical human being of, say, 30 years of age. (There were not very many people around in their 60s and 70s! Life expectancy at birth is about 30, though if you made it to 21 you are likely to live into your early 60s. The death rate for children is staggering.)
Let’s say you are a typical person, most likely a peasant farmer. Here are salient pieces of your life:
- You are illiterate. And virtually everyone you know is illiterate. Language is oral. (At least there was no email.)
- On a typical day you will not venture very far from where you sleep.
- Most days you will not meet anyone whom you do not know by name. Actually, you know a lot about the people you deal with every day. You meet very few strangers and do not trust those you do meet.
- Death is common. And so is suffering. Children die all the time. If you are 30 you have probably lost one or two of your own. There are no antibiotics, no surgery, no pain killers. For that matter, there are no eyeglasses or dentistry. Indeed, if you live in Europe 600 years ago you live in an area that had recently been depopulated by one third by the bubonic plague.
- When you do meet people from some distance away, say a village 20 miles away, you may have a bit of trouble understanding what they say. Your accent and dialect mark your social class and location.
- The local parish church is a center of communal life. You do not know anyone whose religion is other than yours.
- You believe that human beings have existed for a few thousand years. You know nothing of other continents and have no sense of the earth as a sphere. The earth is the center of the universe. (Well, the “universe” is not a concept that makes any sense.)
You get the idea. Today we literally live in a different world. Our sense of our place in the great scheme of things is completely different. We live longer. In an urban area we encounter (we don’t really “meet”) hundreds or even thousands of strangers every day. Not only is the earth not the center of the universe, the earth is an unimaginatively tiny part of that universe.
As I look at fundamentalists still fighting the teaching of evolution, at millions of people in denial about climate change and at the fact that a few years ago a quarter of Americans believed that the rapture (where believers get whisked up to heaven) will happen in their lifetimes, I am struck by how the ideas and stories that give people identity have not kept up. A huge number of people still live with a medieval world view.
And while it is tempting to look condescendingly at their ignorance, it many ways our world is as mysterious as their world. I mean, can you actually explain how the GPS on your smartphone works? How much most of us really understand about general relativity and quantum mechanics? None of us has ever seen an electron or a quark or a neutrino.
We have a foot in the medieval world of villages and a foot in an urban world bombarding us with messages. So how do we find common ground? How do we create a common language? Quite literally, how do we keep from going crazy? And how do we create meaning for ourselves and relationships with our neighbors?