Novatian and the Rule of Truth. (6/25/99)
Citing what he refers to as the "Rule of Truth," Novatian, an early church Father who was ultimately deemed a heretic, and thereafter always compared to a Raven, not so much for what he believed and said but because he abandoned the church under threat of persecution, describes the essential relationship between God as Creator and the world He created in the following terms (from The Treatise of Novatian Concerning the Trinity):
"He has lifted up the loftiest mountains to a peak, He has thrown down valleys into the depths, He has smoothly leveled the plains, He has ordained the animal herds usefully for the various services of men. He has also established the oak trees of the woods for the future benefit of human uses. He has developed the harvests into food. He has unlocked the mouths of the springs, and has poured them into the flowing rivers." (Chapter 1)
The idea that God has created every mountain, valley, and level plain for mankind's pleasure and use, while also giving up every animal and tree to her/his useful service, perfectly expresses the highest level of everything anyone can mean when saying that Eurocentric civilization is driven by a singular and unrestrained greed to dominate, exploit, and destroy natural reality. With regard to rivers and oceans, Novatian also notes that God was not content with the simple fact of opening the springs but took precautions to enclose their "limits with shores," so as to prevent the possibility that "the roaring and rushing waters should seize upon a foreign element at the expense of its human possessor." He also argues that (wo)man can be instructed in obedience by springs and rivers because they almost always obey the natural restrictions God has placed on them by remaining within their banks. When they fail to obey God's Rule of Truth, however, we often find a human victim of the resulting flood standing in the rubble of his/her washed out lakefront, riverside house who says with great pathos and sincere lament "I cannot understand how God could have let such a thing happen to me." What he/she means is that God's "natural" system of banks and levees has failed somehow, inexplicably, to prevent the wild rush of raging waters from seizing on the "foreign element" that used to be that person's house and has carried it off, like a boat, to the Gulf of Mexico. One local woman actually admitted that she has made such a lament on at least fourteen occasions over the past ten years.
For a person who lives in southeastern Louisiana, in a below-sea-level-bowl sandwiched between the Mississippi River on three sides and Lake Pontchartrain on the fourth, standing as it were in one of the most likely places on earth where "roaring and rushing waters" can do you serious harm, maintaining vigilance against weather is as natural as breathing. Having God's infinite wisdom and mercy to fall back on as a divine Creator of such a place as this, while that might provide some comfort and solace in the minds of the truly insane, only tells any rational person that it is time to get out of here as soon as the first sign appears that one of God's marvelous creations, a category five hurricane, for instance, has set out on a course across the Gulf that threatens to bring it within five hundred miles of this place. Being somewhere else is the only way there is to survive the potential strike of an event like that.
Long time local residents of New Orleans, the ones who remember "Betsy's" 16 feet of water in the 9th Ward in 1965, who remember the bodies of their neighbors that came to rest on their front porches after the water receded, insist, against the facts of that memory, that the city is protected from such disasters by the Church of Our Lady of Prompt Succor, held together and maintained by the Ursuline Sisters, near the corner of State Street and Claiborne Avenue in Uptown New Orleans. The photograph of the "crowtower" at the top of this page shows the highest point of the complex of buildings at that location. After every near-miss that the city suffers, offerings of various kinds and descriptions appear on the steps of the church beneath the statue of the Virgin Mary in thanks for the fact that once again "we" dodged the bullet that will eventually put this place off the map of the known and inhabited world forever. In conjunction with "Our Lady," of course, the local Levee Board, which has lately been spending most of its appropriations in an attempt to build a state-of-the-art movie studio on property it owns near the airport it maintains at a cost of $10 million a year, has the authority and duty to keep and maintain the levee system that also is expected to preserve the city from God's wrath. There are over a hundred flood-gates that can be closed to seal the city off from the rising waters that always accompany a ten or fifteen knot wind from the south or southeast. Any sustained wind at all from that direction lifts the waters of the Gulf of Mexico in the marshes south of the city two or three feet higher than a normal tide will do. Given a choice between "Our Lady" and the Levee Board, the thing to do is be prepared to run like hell at the first indication that any kind of tropical development has started up in the Gulf of Mexico.
Several major problems inherent in creationist ideology, of course, are precisely the kind that are implied here. When natural events like floods and storms happen, and human lives and property are destroyed, God becomes a convenient target for whatever resentment people feel over the losses they have suffered. Blaming God for the fact that you do not have enough sense to live securely away from the threat of natural disasters, which have nothing to do with God anyway, especially in a place like this because He does not force anyone to build a major city within crow's flight of an ocean on land that is eight feet below sea-level, nevertheless is simply the turned around notion that He will protect you from a stupid decision when you do choose to live in a place where rising water is a fact of life two or three times every year. Even as I speak these words, I am watching the water rise in the street for the second time in ten days from the effects of a prolonged thunderstorm that is dropping more water on the city than the pumps can remove into Lake Pontchartrain from the flood-control canals that interlace the area and prevent it from flooding literally every time it does rain.
Novatian, prior to becoming a heretic, explains this part of the "Rule of Truth" of Christian ideology, in the context of depending on God's mercy to save (wo)man from her/his own folly, when he asserts that God "also placed man at the head of the world" and created her/him "in the image of God, to whom He imparted mind, and reason, and foresight, [so] that he might imitate God" by behaving rationally and reasonably at all times. There is a single point of qualification that Novatian mentions; namely that "the first elements of his body were earthly, yet the substance was inspired by a heavenly and divine breathing," which is a reference to the idea that (wo)man, as a handful of dirt, became a "living soul" when God breathed on it (?) in Genesis (2:7). The problem with any of this reasoning, of course, is the fact that by thinking you have been "placed . . . at the head of the world" you are also encouraged to believe and expect that no substantial restriction, short of a commandment by God, can or should be placed on how and where you freely chose to live your life. Hence, nearly 2 million people have freely chosen to live in a place that will experience rising flood-waters during the normal course of practically any prolonged thunderstorm and may disappear altogether when the next super-hurricane runs itself up the mouth of the Mississippi River as "Betsy" did in 1965 and as "Georges" nearly did less than a year ago this past fall.
My wife, our dog (who is a natural historian named Strabo), and I were not here to watch the eye-wall of "Georges" pass just to the east of the city last September. We took to I-10 west six hours ahead of the mandatory evacuation and managed to get through a construction bottleneck south of Baton Rouge, one that reduced open lanes of Interstate traffic to a single line of automobiles that backed traffic up to a standstill four blocks from our house back in New Orleans. Eventually, the line of traffic leading into that particular hurricane death-trap got to be more than twelve miles long. It only took us about two hours to drive through the 8 miles of construction. The ones who came after us spent eight to fifteen hours trying to get through it. As it turned out we spent three days living in a "whore" motel in Alexandria, Louisiana, called, appropriately or not, "The Cavalier." If "Georges" had taken a track less than twenty-five miles west of the one it did, New Orleans would have been on the right-hand side of the eye-wall and would not be anywhere on the face of the earth anymore. When you choose to live eight feet below sea-level, that is how you can expect your life to evolve.
After Novatian became a heretic, by leaving the church behind when confronted by the possibility of having to become a martyr for the faith, an act considered by other Christians at the time to be an unforgivable sin because so many of them actively sought that fate so as to be transported all the sooner into heavenly bliss, an anonymous tract appeared, supposedly written by a north African Bishop, even St. Cyprian according to some scholars, which compared him to the Raven that Noah sent out to see if any land had reemerged after God's first flood had destroyed the world in order to rid it of (wo)man's intractable depravity. The Raven never returned and so has always been seen by Christians as a tool of the devil. Like the Raven, according to the anonymous Bishop, Novatian would never be allowed to return to the church because his betrayal of its principle of seeking a martyr's death was one so horrific that not even God's infinite grace could be expected to welcome him back into the fold. Being eternally exiled and apostate, Novatian probably left north Africa and made himself available for a photo-op above the tower of the Ursuline Academy. I was fortunate enough to be there when he flew by and have provided photographic evidence of his goings and comings. Not so oddly, many native American tribes in the Pacific northwest, unlike early Christian bishops in north Africa, consider the Raven to be the spirit that sustains all life on the face of the earth.
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