Malleus Practice

Misfortune takes a quiet seat in the back of the bus for many people, but it is always there riding behind you. My recent trip to Salem is now over, but it has left me with that haunted feeling that sometimes tragedy just won’t let go. Reading up on the history of witches and the belief therein, it is pretty clear that the whole idea began as a form of theodicy. Misfortune happens. When a one-to-one correspondence attends it, people don’t worry too much. (John has a stomachache. We know that John slapped Bob, and Bob punched John in the stomach so there’s no supernatural agent at work here.) When the adversity comes out of nowhere, to all appearances, we naturally look for a cause. As long ago as ancient Sumer, and probably before, the answer was sometimes the baleful influence of enemies with supernatural powers. The witch was born.

This idea has remarkable longevity. Even as the eighteenth century dawned, just a few short years after the tragedy at Salem, Puritans and politicians embarrassingly looked at their feet and admitted this mockery of justice had been an unfortunate error. Yet they still believed witches existed. The concept is alive even today in parts of the world minimally influenced by schooling in science and logic. (I taught at a seminary where various witch hunts still took place; books were even burned.) Who doesn’t know the feeling that a totally natural disaster was in some way targeting them? Whether tornadoes, tsunamis, or rain on your Memorial Day picnic, the normal human response is one of a minor (or major) persecution complex.

To solve the riddle of witches, horseshoes and witch bottles are not necessary, but education is. Witchcraft was not considered Satanic until the late Middle Ages when apocalyptic fever raged through Europe with the Black Death. Not understanding microbes, the populace supposed a great war presaging the end of times was escalating between God and Satan. The minions of the Dark Lord were spawned by witches and demons. (Add Tim LaHaye and you’ve pretty much got Left Behind.) To solve the problems of the righteous, sacrifice a few innocent victims. If we call them witches—actually any undesirable name will do, eh, Senator McCarthy?—we will feel justified in doing so. The real solution, namely, working together to overcome natural and human-made afflictions, is really just too hard.

Witch Kitsch

Salem is a town with a conflicted identity. The true history of the death of innocent women and men for a fictional crime is sobering. In a day when few take witches seriously—certainly not many believe that supernatural, green-faced hags fly the unfriendly skies—it is difficult to sense the utter terror the idea once comprised. We are still afraid, but our fears take more current forms. So with its lugubrious history, Salem now demonstrates itself as a model of tolerance. One local source cited the fact that eight or nine hundred modern witches live in the city. Modern Wicca, while taken very seriously by its practitioners, is laughingly appreciated by those who find release in the caricature of fictional, idealized witches. The police cars in the city of Salem even have witches riding broomsticks on them.

In this day of triteness and easy entertainment, it is easier to project the fictional image of the pointy-hatted witch and laugh at our past mistakes. Salem bills itself as “Witch Town” and hosts several witch museums, varying in historical accuracy. Shops throughout the town exploit this image of the harmless witch. It is difficult for the visitor to know which witch believes his or her establishment to be authentic and which is just out for a quick buck.

Places have a feel to them, as any pilgrim knows. The National Park Service, in its visitor center for Salem has a question-board that asks, “How Many Witches were Executed in Salem?” The answer underneath is “None.” Instead, twenty regular people were murdered for a crime they didn’t commit. The witch hysteria happened so early in the history of the town that it appears foundational for all its later developments. Who would go out of their way to visit yet another thriving mercantile port of the eighteenth century, were it not for the tragedy underlying it all? Like children laughing while making guilty eyes at their parents, those who prosper over Salem’s sad history realize that whether modern witches live there or not, religious intolerance is never a heritage to wear proudly. Exploiting a tragedy to make a profit is a time-honored American practice, and the real witch to fear is the one who says, “cash or credit?”

Lesson of Salem

I married a witch. I suppose I ought to clarify that a bit. My wife is descended from Rebecca Nurse’s brother Jacob. Rebecca Nurse was one of those unfortunately hanged as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. My family has been spending the last couple of days touring Salem, seeking to get in touch with our heritage. Yesterday we had the rare opportunity to tour the home of Rebecca Nurse which, remarkably, still stands over 300 years after the tortured events of the late seventeenth century. Our tour guide was impressively knowledgeable about the witch hysteria. She noted that in the Puritan (Reformed) mindset, with no science to speak of, evil could only be explained by the Devil. If misfortune came, the Devil was to blame. Even after the “witches” were exonerated (too late to save 20 lives), it was understood that the Devil incited the girls to make their false claims against their ultimately and penultimately righteous neighbors. Without the Devil none of this made sense.

The Rebecca Nurse homestead

Salem was founded as a utopian community free to live out its Puritan religion. It was named after Jerusalem, a city of peace (!). As our guide noted, religious freedom was not the same as tolerance; the Puritans wanted the freedom to celebrate their own religion, but were extremely suspicious of all others. One of those hanged as a witch, George Jacobs, had nearly beaten a neighbor to death simply because he was a Quaker. Rebecca Nurse, however, at 72 years old, was no threat to anybody. She was a member of a Christian community that turned on her. Condemned for charges the nearly deaf woman could not even hear properly, she was hanged for consorting with a mythical Devil.

Rev. Parris's house, where the witch hysteria began

No doubt the religion of the Puritans was a harsh religion with a God nearly as unforgiving as that of Sweeny Todd. The problems occurred, however, when the law came into the hands of religious leaders. There is an allegory and a moral to this story. Today many of the tourist attractions in Salem focus on the need for true tolerance. They no doubt come closer to the spirit of the founder of Christianity than the Puritans ever did. As I stood looking over the hole in the ground that is all that remains of Rev. Parris’ parsonage—the very location the witch hysteria began as his daughter Betty started to act odd after hearing the stories of the slave Tituba—a profound sadness afflicted me. Twenty people died and many lost all their worldly possessions because of an uncontrolled mythology of a church convinced of its own righteousness. An allegory and moral for the twenty-first century indeed. Have we yet learned the lesson of Salem?

Agnostic Gnostic

Ever have the feeling that you’re being watched? While touring the Salem Towne House in Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, that fact that Mr. Towne was a Mason became abundantly clear. In the ballroom of his historic house the “eye of God” was looking down from the ceiling, and those who are astute observers could find other Masonic symbols in the house. Indeed, the ballroom walls were painted with cedars of Lebanon, the very trees Solomon was said to have utilized in the construction of the first temple in Jerusalem. Historically nothing is known of Solomon and the tradition of the Masons originating with that event can be nothing more than folklore, yet the connection is taken very seriously by some Masons.

Cedars of Lebanon

My grandfather was a Mason, but the desire to join the secret society never blossomed in me. I’d read Holy Blood, Holy Grail long before The Da Vinci Code ever drew attention to it, but being of a somewhat skeptical bent, I found most of it unbelievable. There is no doubt that the Masons had a very influential, if secretive impact on early modern history. I never seriously researched the group, but it is clear that their origin myths are very religious indeed. I looked right into God’s eye yesterday—how was I to question it? I was standing amid the cedars of Lebanon, after all.

Somebody's eye is watching you.

The desire to possess secret knowledge runs profoundly throughout history. Those who possess knowledge possess power. The Gnostic tradition is based on this very idea; God has revealed secret knowledge to some while the rest of us grope in the dark. Best to keep that knowledge clandestine. The Masons, wittingly or un, are part of this tradition. They are the putative guardians of esoteric knowledge, hidden amid the shadows of cedars and behind the clouds in the sky. In this day of abundant, free knowledge—it is given away every day on the Internet, for those who know how to discern—it may be difficult to comprehend that much can be hidden. As I stood looking God in the eye yesterday, however, I realized that there is far too much for any one scholar ever to learn.

Metamorphoses

“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” I borrow the opening words from Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis since upon rereading it yesterday I found it consonant with much of mythology. Even the title chosen by Kafka resonates with Publius Ovidius Naso’s (Ovid’s) Metamorphoses. Transformation at the hands of the gods. The idea lives on in the concept of conversion, the religious experience of profound change at the behest of God; some claim a willful hand in their conversion while others simply give God the whole credit. Kafka, one of the great existentialist writers of the twentieth century, considers the transformation without the gods and the terrifying results.

Having discovered the existentialists in high school, I was immediately taken by their writings. Characters find themselves cast into a world devoid of meaning, a world that they can’t understand and in which they often suffer unusual consequences. Little did I know that I was in training for my own experience in the academic world. Academia involves a major metamorphosis, one from which the victim cannot return, and after which she or he will find him or herself ineligible for employment. Reading The Metamorphosis as an often displaced instructor who’s only ever received positive evaluations, I saw much in the novel this time that I could not appreciate last time I read it. In short, I had metamorphosized.

Gregor Samsa, discovering he is now a bug, immediately worries about how to get to work. The painful description of his financial worries and ultimate rejection resonated a little too clearly. Is conversion a positive phenomenon? It is difficult to evaluate. In my experience, those who’ve converted tended to have been pretty decent people in the first place. As Ovid notes over and over again in his lengthy epic poem, when the gods make you into something else a sadness will pervade this new existence. If you survive. As Gregor slowly starves to death (in a fate hauntingly similar to Kafka himself) he finds no divine consolation. The situation is absurd—best just come to terms with that. Kafka could have been a struggling academic in the century after his death and he would have found the same situation applies.

Eye in the Sky

No one is safe. The calamitous tornadoes that have been devastating the south are indeed tragic. Some years ago while working on my weather in the Psalms book, I experienced a brooding fascination with tornadoes. Since I was living in Wisconsin at the time, this was natural enough, but the facet that always gleamed the darkest was the arbitrariness of it all. Tornadoes are notorious for destroying one building while leaving the one next door unharmed in a rapture-like abandon. And there are those who claim the righteous survive while others soberly state the good die young. The fact is life always ends in death, and if tornadoes don’t get you, earthquakes, comets, or microbes will. Our religions help us cope with the fact that consciousness leads to a sense of victimization—things are always after us. Religions teach us that something (God, spirits, Tao, karma) will balance it out. We so hate to see the bad guys win.

Tornadic devastation does have the divine edge, however. Apart from the randomness are the celestial origin, the sharp distinction between those reaped and those sown, and, of course, the angry brow of the frowning wall cloud. What is purely a natural event feels like punishment from our species-specific view. And who doles out the punishment if not a parent stronger than the cowering children? Does religion reassure in this case? The one who is begged for comfort is the same one who sent the storm. As humans the best we can do is help those who are within reach.

The photos emerging from Joplin, Missouri are heart-rending. The more we build the more we stand to lose. Long before European settlers laid claims to this land, cool, dry air masses tumbling over the Rocky Mountains collided violently with warm, moist air flowing in from the Gulf of Mexico. For as long as prevailing weather patterns have been established, there have been tornadoes. Believing in God’s protection and blessing we build on dangerous fault lines, in drought-stricken plains, and in the shadows of biding volcanoes. Disasters are a matter of perspective, for they are as natural as the air we breathe. Perspective transforms them to divine chastening and us into helpless children.

Coming for you?

God’s Guards

That past informs the present in an oblique way. As religions continue to evolve they often depart from their original purposes. In preparation for my one surviving summer course, Ancient Near Eastern religions, I’ve been reviewing textbook choices. The procedure has reminded me of the unusual nature of ancient Egyptian religion. I have long contended that the environmental and social circumstances of a people determine the character of their religion. In Mesopotamia and the Levant, where rain is not always cooperative and impressive storms roll in, the gods often represent the awesome power of the atmosphere and the unpredictable will of the divine. In Egypt the fertility of the soil is assured by the regular flooding of the Nile. Rain does not play the same role in agriculture in such a system. Whereas the gods of the Mesopotamians are often stormy and violent, those of Egypt are generally peaceful and serene.

Egyptian religion developed independently of ancient Asia. Relatively isolated in the narrow strip of rich soil along the Nile and in the wave-dominated fan of the delta, Egypt reached an early cultural apex. Their religion emphasized the balance and continuity of life. Of course, it helps when your king is a god. This religion was based on the premise of an afterlife, the very fire-insurance that lends urgency to many Bible-thumpers today. Instead of believing the short, and often harsh life experienced by earth-bound mortals was the full picture, those placid eyes of stone pharaohs stare off toward a continued existence beyond that of life in the desert.

This tranquil religion did contain violent elements as well, but overall stability was valued and change unwelcome. Now as we see violence erupting in Egypt as the great ethical monotheistic religions clash for superiority, it is legitimate to wonder what has gone wrong. When did benevolent Ra become subject to the combating ideologies of Yahweh and Allah (who are, in terms of pedigree, the same deity)? Religion has become a tool in the utility belt of political power players. Since no one steps down willingly, the gods must duke it out. Even within Christianity, as is evident in America, multiple gods claim the title of creator and master. Perhaps it is the price of democracy. Otherwise we might experience the fact that even those pharaonic eyes did not always smile.

You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.

Decomposition

The following video report addresses a number of issues recently raised on this blog: apocalypses, zombies, fear, and humor. Zombies, of course, have been clawing their way to the top of the monster pile for a few years now. Media analysts have suggested that they represent the triumph of the working class—no sartorially suave vampires these—instead they are spattered with blood and gore, multitudinous, and clumsy. Having watched the most recent apocalypse come and go, and having been a victim of an unstable economy for several years of my professional life, I think zombies represent something else. Instead of being the triumphal usurpers of vampiristic free markets, zombies represent the breakdown in culture we are experiencing in the present.

If history gives us anything to go by, we know that powerful world empires ebb and flow. The Persians succumbed to the Greeks, and the Romans could not stop the Goths. The Holy Roman Empire was dissected into the nations of the modern European Union (roughly), and the sun now sets regularly on the British Empire. The United States, the capital of the zombie craze, has perhaps passed its zenith and the zombies know it. Since the 1970s we’ve watched as religious extremists have made a mockery of a political system that had already grown problematic. Like decaying corpses that won’t go away, the factors that propelled the United States to a place of prominence have been undermined so that the non-undead can continue to feather nests already stuffed with down as high as Babel. In the constant see-sawing of political parties the imperialist trends of the obscenely wealthy have rocked their way into the dominant. Is it any wonder that zombies are brainless, yet insatiably driven?

What does it feel like to watch the azimuth decline on a great empire? It is difficult to say. History, as the aphorism states, is written by the winners. Revisionist history has become quite fashionable to those who find that the facts refuse to bow to their worldview. Zombies are those who, historically, do the will of their masters without question. Instead, the zombie of the twenty-first century bows to no master. Pure selfish survival is its sole aim. Perhaps the CDC is too late, the zombies have already overrun us.

Newsy.com’s Report

First Byte

The scientific study of religion poses dangers to the native environment. It doesn’t take a specialist to realize that different people respond to different religious stimuli; some like smells and bells and others prefer the stripped-down Puritanical style. Even beyond that some people get their religious thrills from nature, others from meditation, and some from controlled substances. In a story on CNN late last week, it was revealed that some Apple users find worshipping their favored brand a religious experience. A study by British neurologists discovered that the same areas of the brain are stimulated by both thoughts of the deity and Apple gadgets. MRIs have been utilized for many years now to study where the brain “lights up” during intense spiritual states. It seems we now have proof that God is a Mac user.

While some would cite this story as an example of idolatry, others would interpret the results in a more technological way. Our brains resemble motherboards, in some sense. Even Stephen Hawking’s famous interview of last week had the genius saying that human brains are just like computers. (I must confess to siding with Stuart Kauffman (Reinventing the Sacred) on this one—the brain does seem to be more than the sum of its parts.) If our brains are computers, then the Mac question is a literal no-brainer. Having worked in offices where every PC tries to be a Mac knock-off (wake up, folks! Windows is a Mac emulation environment) I too can sense a superior being behind that Apple with Eve’s first byte removed.

Should we attempt to explore where religious impulses originate? As intimated by Newberg, D’Aquili, and Rause (Why God Won’t Go Away), if we are able to find the God centers in our gray-matter and stimulate them electronically, we may trigger religious rapture on demand. How does this artificial stimulation differ from the religious experience brought on by years of meditating, praying, or fasting? Or Apple products? Our brains are complex and only imperfectly understood. Religions have been around long enough for us to get a grip on their origins. Billions of believers worldwide, however, would prefer that other people keep their hands off their Apples.

Original thin?

And I Feel Fine

“Is something supposed to have happened?”—Jane Banks in Mary Poppins. The world was supposed to have ended yesterday, but I haven’t yet looked out my windows to make sure. I suspect that everything is pretty much the way it was on Friday. Nevertheless, I have to admit to a tiny bit of relief. I do not believe in a mythic end of the world, and yet there is always that taunting doubt that maybe somebody knows more than me. To calm my jitters, I watched Chicken Little last night. This particular Disney movie has never been one of my favorites, but yesterday it struck me as a parable for our times. Even better, the original folktale is a parable for our times. No one knows when the story originated; it is an example of a folktale that belittles paranoia and the mass hysteria that tends to accompany it. A common ending has a fox eating all the concerned animals as they make their way to the authorities.

Our culture is rife with end-days beliefs. Since this is an idea clearly traceable to non-biblical origins, one might suppose that Fundamentalists would eschew it, but as we have seen the last few days, quite the opposite is true. Those who like Chicken Licken or Cocky Lockey go around declaring the end of all things clearly believe they will be rewarded for their special efforts. Instead, history will class them along with Goosey Loosey and Turkey Lurkey—those who are easily led. Perhaps the oddest result of this recent scare is that many people will not abandon the belief, but will simply push it off. We have another scheduled apocalypse for the end of 2012. Is it because we are now so closely connected by the umbilical Internet that our natural fears have become international?

The claims seem to be arriving thick and fast. I remember the end of the world scare of 1979 when I was in high school. There seemed to be a hiatus until 1999, and since then the dates have begun to bottleneck. What we are seeing is the role-playing of a Christian mythology, and herein is the real danger. A true believer can try to initiate the end times. We only need recall 9/11 to test that. Like most religions, Christianity has developed its own unique mythology that freely borrows elements from both other religions and popular culture. The apocalypse has a history, you know. Overall the false scare of the end of all things has been good for this blog. It was not without irony that I noticed my post for May 21 was number 666. But like the clock that is still ticking, this post will clear that hurdle, and the world will be around for a long time yet to come. Now I need to go and pull back the curtains, just to make sure, and keep an eye out for Foxy Loxy.

Eyre the Apocalypse

Finishing Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre last night proved timely from the point of view of today’s much anticipated apocalypse. (I hate to leave a book unfinished as the final trump begins to sound.) As I stress to my students at Rutgers (when I actually have a class), the Bible surrounds them whether they are aware of it or not. Quite aside from the present rapture-envy—that one’s just too easy—reading literature of the nineteenth century is an excellent way to show the Bible’s influence on western culture. Jane Eyre is suffused with biblical allusions and direct references, even with the faulty theological notions that the Scriptures had hatched in that century. Of course, the Bronte sisters, all successful novelists, were the children of a clergyman, but other writers of the period demonstrate an equally biblical worldview. In fact, much of the dramatic tension in the present novel revolves around distinctly biblical issues.

Interspersed with my reading of classical novels, I read many more recent literary explorations as well. A couple of weeks ago I completed Stephen King’s It, not a particularly favorite novel, but one that at times demonstrated that even masters of the macabre frequently draw on the Bible. For modern literature the Bible is the ultimate foundation. It would be interesting to live long enough to see if it still has any relevancy at the end of the present century. Jane Eyre, perceptive as most nineteenth century novels are, also pressed directly the wound that currently afflicts much of our nation. Cast upon misfortune, Miss Eyre is mistaken for a beggar. Miss Bronte observes, “Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education,” a line that should be emblazoned upon the door of public officials who feel it is their right to withdraw funding from public education. You want an apocalypse? That’s the recipe right there.

Nevertheless, Miss Eyre presses on until she reclaims the man who had once “stood between me and every thought of religion,” dodging an impassioned missionary along the way. In revealing the manipulations of the cousin who dies on the mission fields, enriched by Miss Eyre’s beneficence, once again Charlotte Bronte displays her perception of how the church may ultimately rob a soul of its true potential. Upon learning of his death, the now Mrs. Rochester ends this penetrating novel with his words, strangely appropriate for this day of fictional endings: “’My Master,’ he says, ‘has forewarned me. Daily he announces more distinctly—“Surely I come quickly!” and hourly I more eagerly respond, —“Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!”’” Of course, St. John is here quoting Revelation 22.20. Since I am scheduled to run a 5-K in a couple of hours, if the second coming is about to happen, it would be convenient should it transpire before I end up exhausted in my own personal apocalypse.

Jane Eyre stopping one of the horsemen of the apocalypse?

Dog Gone Rapture

With the world about to end tomorrow, a friend pointed me to a story of a savvy entrepreneur. The idea is so obvious that I’m completely jealous I didn’t think of it myself. Among the Fundamentalist camp it is widely acknowledged that animals don’t have souls. They do, however, make wonderful companions nevertheless. When their good Christian owners are raptured to the skies, Rover is consigned to a cruel death by starvation if his soulless biological form is left inside. Poor soulless, sinless Rover! Reason (such as any theological thought can be called “reason”) and emotion clash. Bart Centre comes to the rescue. His company will break into the now abandoned private property that God had blessed you with, and rescue your pet. For a reasonable fee. As an atheist, Centre is pretty sure he won’t be going anywhere.

At notable—and even some rather forgettable—points in human history, people have guessed that it is all about to end. This is a strange belief when parsed apart from its original context. Ancient mythical thought tended to be holistic. We humans, with our own cycle of births and deaths, have trouble imagining anything that doesn’t follow the same pattern. All things must have beginnings and ends. Zoroastrianism began as a persecuted sect among the Old Persian religious realm. Persecuted sects tend to want an end to the suffering, and so it is no surprise that Zoroastrians gave us the end of the world. When Judaism was under the severe predation of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, it too looked for a radical change. Christianity under Nero and Domitian looked for a triumphant culmination of a universal purpose. And no end came. Instead, under Constantine Christianity gained a privileged position. With only periodic outbreaks, concern for the end of all things was pacified.

Today with the ease of lifestyle among most American Christians, it is surprising to see such antipathy toward the world. In the words of the Metatron, “Was Wisconsin really that bad?” Or maybe I have read it wrong. Perhaps this is the final culmination of the Prosperity Gospel: Christians have got it so good that the only way to better their lot is to end it all? Religions have always demonstrated their acquisitiveness either in terms of souls or currency. When you’re on top of that world, what direction is there to go but out? But you can’t take it with you, including your soulless friends. Perhaps that’s the real lesson in all of this: humans struggle to mix reason and emotion into one psyche, despite their diverse evolutionary paths to consciousness. We may readily accept the mythical but still wonder who will take Rover for his walk.

Cafe Press's take on the issue

Of the Zombies, By the Zombies, For the Zombies

In what is sure to be a controversial move, the Center for Disease Control has posted an official government blog post entitled “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse.” (Be warned, if you click on this link it may be considerable time before the page loads—it has been receiving a tremendous number of hits.) Written by Ali S. Khan, the Assistant Surgeon General and head of the CDC, the article is actually about hurricane preparedness, but with zombie furor being what it is, many on the Internet are taking the warning seriously. Literally even. Citing the tsunami in Japan and the concerns for leaking radiation, the article begins with a lighthearted fear-fest that then reveals the actual concern. Humor in the government? This is something we should all encourage!

The analogue with the current rapture fever was immediately obvious. I grew up in terror of the rapture, but when I began to take courses on the Bible from scholars who knew about apocalyptic literature, its context, and what it was intended to do, I realized that the rapture was invented in the nineteenth century by evangelists with no critical training, misreading the book of Revelation. As much as we like to break history into discrete units, time simply keeps flowing and the current of fear generated in the nineteenth gushed into the twentieth century culminating in the birth of the Christian fundamentalist movement. For many people in the twenty-first century, fundamentalism and Roman Catholicism are the two ancient strands of Christianity that legitimately lay claim to the title. At least half of this history is backward.

The Bible itself, when read in context, shows the errors of the rapture-hungry. The idea is a blend of obscure bits of Paul’s letters, mixed into Revelation and stirred vigorously. Then half-baked. The Bible does not give us a rapture. The CDC does not give us a zombie apocalypse. We know where the myth of zombies originates (I have posted on the topic before) and we know zombies are as fictional as griffons and centaurs. Nevertheless, faith springs eternal. Those dissatisfied with all that life has to offer turn to zombies for an equalizingly grim future for all humankind. It’s all gonna rot, baby. Except, of course, for those who’ve been raptured before it happens. When the zombies fail to show up after Saturday’s non-event, all of us will feel pretty silly just looking at each other as Ali S. Khan comes up with his next zinger.

The author, upon reading the CDC blog.

Stephen Hawking’s Heaven

CNN’s Belief Blog, apparently open to contributions only by “successful” (i.e., university employed) religion scholars, nevertheless occasionally comes up with a thoughtful story. One of yesterday’s posts focuses on the fact that Stephen Hawking says Heaven is a “fairy story.” First of all, I have admit being surprised to see that Hawking is still in Cambridge—I could have sworn he was working in the Princeton public parking garage because it is his voice that comes out of the ticket machine. (Times being what they are for academics, I figured he might have needed a second job.) Ah, but appearances can be deceiving! I have had great respect for Stephen Hawking for many years. My own scientific interests must be relegated to a decidedly lay position among the collegiums of scientists, but Hawking writes books that people like me can (mostly) comprehend. Echoing an idea I stressed earlier—we came to the same conclusion independently—Hawking noted in a recent interview that Heaven is an idea devised to cope with fear.

Cosmologists, such as Hawking, speak with authority on the literal heavens. Ironically, the word “heavens” continues to retain its usefulness, even among scientists, for describing everything that is out there. Humans are assuredly small and our place in the universe is miniscule. In our heads, however, we conceive lofty ideas that seem to place our own consciousness outside the unlimited bounds of this universe. Is it any wonder that we can concoct gods? As deeply as they peer into the cold, dark recesses of outer space, astronomers and cosmologists find no room for Heaven. This cosmic inn, no matter how many aliens there may be, is largely empty.

What I find interesting is that journalists of religion find skepticism among scientists newsworthy. While being a rational thinker, as science demands, does not necessarily forego divine entities, using gods as explanations and having trans-dimensional heavens tucked away behind some far asteroid does somehow devalue the power and majesty of our eternal home. We expect our scientists to be skeptical—we wouldn’t often visit a doctor who sacrificed a goat on every office visit to consult its entrails concerning our health. And yet it is newsworthy when a scientist says in a forthright statement that Heaven does not exist. It would be like an evangelical preacher saying evolution never happened. The biggest miracle of all may be that whether it is Dr. Hawking’s doing or not, I actually manage to find parking in Princeton.

Billions and billions, but no angels with harps...

Response

Chaz,

I am not sure if this cycle has a name—sociologists have noticed it, I’m sure—but is as old as at least civilization itself. My experience with it has been in the realm of religious studies. A number of years ago I read a study that indicated that within a decade of the founding of a religion it will have changed beyond the recognition of its original form. In other words, it will evolve. I suspect this is true of most memes. In literary studies this recognition goes by the sobriquet of “Reader Response” theory. Once an author (or any initiator of something new) produces a written work s/he has lost control over what it “means.” Each reader interprets a piece in the light of her/his own context, some perhaps close to the original intent of the author, some far distant. In the broadest sense of the word, this is a corruption. According to Reader Response theory, it is natural and to be expected.

On a larger scale, human endeavors are often beset with divergent agendas. A founder may start a school with the intention of training teachers. Soon interest and clientele grow and further program options are offered. The teacher’s school becomes a college. If the college meets a larger societal need, it becomes part of a university. Universities, despite all posturing and muttering, are becoming very much alike through the mediation of the Internet. Is this a corruption? Perhaps not in the sense of being a benign development, but it general terms it reflects the dilemma of changing ideals. Various religions point in different directions to explain it, but most explanations are mythological. The “fall” in Eden does not fit the view of the Hebrew Bible, but it is a popular Christian explanation for why corruption sets in.

A more humanistic response might call it “human nature.” We are fully capable of lofty ideals. In my admittedly limited experience, I have found that those with such ideals are often ill-equipped to realize them. Those who grow such ideals into institutions tend to have an entrepreneurial outlook that benefits from following the greatest returns. To court investors, a tangible payback must be included. We see this all the time in churches: popes, archbishops, televangelists—soon they find themselves powerful people with access to great wealth. A far cry from a working-class carpenter preaching love. The pattern is ubiquitous throughout history, and there seems to be no cure other than, as you suggest, to begin again.

Chaz and I would like to invite comments and discussion on this issue. Idealists and more pragmatic types are both encouraged to reply!