Why isn’t Leap Day a holiday? From ancient times early civilizations that used a solar calendar realized that the 365 day year doesn’t really work out. (Must have been a calculation error in the divine calculus on day one, I suppose.) Even though the solstices and equinoxes come and go with astronomical regularity, the earth’s orbit around the sun is a little out of sync with its wobble on its axis. The difference doesn’t make itself very apparent in a year, or even a decade. If you let it keep going, however, the calendrical months, like the seasons themselves, begin to migrate. Given enough time January would become summer in the northern hemisphere. Intercalary solutions ranged from adding extra days to saving them up, in some cultures, and adding an extra month to the year. The error of the gods then slipped back into mathematical precision. The one thing that the ancients recognized in common was that this extra time was a gift, a day to be celebrated. In the modern, post-industrial world, it is just another day to go to work while politicians get an extra day to campaign.
Time is perhaps the greatest theological challenge. People have limited time. Since we seek pleasure and comfort—even when we don’t attain it—most of us prefer to remain alive to try again. We sometimes forget how great a gift this is. One of my favorite songs growing up was Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.” But alas, time is a bandit—as Jim Croce’s tragically short life illustrates a little too well. As the ultimately unrenewable resource, time reminds us of the folly of politicians and the fickleness of fame. Wasting time is the greatest sin imaginable.
Above all, time is a religious problem. Faced with human mortality, all religions address, in some way or other, what happens after the end. When time runs out. We can’t conceive this world without us, but as the calendar implacably shows, it’ll get along just fine. That’s why today should be a holiday. It is a freebie—one of those rare, saving up for a rainy day moments when after four years of scrimping we’re given a new day. It has celebrate written all over it. Time is a bandit, robbing us of the sensibilities of our ancient, cultural forebears who used this time to party while we use it to labor. “Time in a Bottle,” it is said, was written for Croce’s son A. J. The son is a musician like his late father. As I sit here hearing the seconds tick away on the clock, I realize that every great once in a while the bandit gives as well as takes. In that light, every day is a holiday.
I have been tweeting the Bible for nearly a month now, and tomorrow—the thirtieth tweet—will see the end of Genesis 1 and the first words of Genesis 2. One of the occupational hazards of having been a biblical scholar for many years is the constant rereading of the same text over and over. I couldn’t even guess how many times I’ve read Genesis 1, in numerous languages, trying to find a key to unlock what is going on there. It is definitely not science—for that it would have had to have been written after science had been invented. Religion and science share that feature: they are human endeavors to understand the matrix in which we find ourselves. Anyone who is truly honest will admit to not being able to trust her- or himself all the time. We have all been betrayed by our convictions now and again. In this day of arrogant religious leaders and arrogant scientists we have little hope of coming to an armistice. Those who claim a special position for the Bible really couldn’t handle the truth in any case.
My twitter verse for today reads, “I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so. And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the even”. Sense units in any text are where we, the readers, draw the limits. Taking this bit as a cue (indeed, the whole of Genesis 1 supports this), God intends humans to be vegetarians. The predatory gleam in the eyes of our religious politicians and televangelists belie their convictions given in public forums. The first rule God instates, after informing our primordial couple to have lots and lots of sex, is not to harm other creatures. At least the sex part seems to have gotten through, although many branches of Christianity repudiate it. The harm part we have received with ambivalence.
In a related development, an op-ed piece in yesterday’s newspaper gives instructions for properly disposing a worn-out Quran. While Christianity has no uniform opinion about where an old Bible goes to die, I find in this question a snapshot of the contradictions inherent in holy writ. We treat certain texts as sacred, and yet, is not the human expression in written form itself some kind of sacred act? Book-burning, no matter the book, strikes deeply at a visceral level those who’ve ever tried to reduce their ideas to what might be replicated on a page. It is our highest human achievement. All texts are sacred. Some may be misguided, and others are blatantly wrong—perhaps even evil—but they are the essence of a human endeavor. Perhaps this is the key I have been seeking all along.
Let there be light
Posted in Bible, Bibliolatry, Genesis, Posts, Religious Violence, Science, Twitter Bible
Tagged Genesis 1, Genesis 2, Quran, religion and science, Twitter, vegetarianism
Monstrosity and religiosity are sacred siblings. Both are focused on that which is outside—the Other. Now, I have to confess being a bit rusty in my philosophy reading, and I sometimes wonder how I made it through three degrees without ever really encountering post-modernism in all its complexity. Reading Richard Kearney’s Strangers, Gods and Monsters (Routledge, 2003) was therefore a challenge. Like many of those raised in an uncompromising religion, I am innately attracted to monsters. Maybe it was the vivid images of Hell and its denizens; one of the earliest nightmares that I remember was of being dragged to Hell. Some authors suggest Revelation gave Christianity its monsters, but, as Kearney suggests, the connection goes back much, much further.
We fear what we embrace. It is the old division of sacred and profane—a line that has blurred considerably over time—that gives us our monsters on a separate plate from our deities. Otherness contains within itself both bane and blessing. People fear that which differs from them, a fact demonstrated every day by racism, sexism, and homophobia. At the same time, many look to the ultimate alterity for salvation from the mundane. God is just as “other,” more so even, than any human or monster is. Any creature/creator beyond the reach of our feeble grasp should be considered dangerous in our view of the world. And yet the further we get from the middle, the more the ends seem to come together in an ouroboros of divine monstrosity. Those who read Kearney need to be prepared.
While not taking on monsters as I expected he would, Kearney does address them with a sensitivity appropriate to the recognition of the closeness to deity. Nowhere is this clearer than in his superb chapter on melancholy. Being caught between the monstrous and the sublime, the melancholic learns to cope with a disinterested sadness that at times borders on insanity, yet produces flashes of light often more brilliant than those who think their way through problems. This is the affliction of Hamlet who stands on the cusp of being or non-being. For all who believe in a divine power, a strong divide must separate that realm from ours. That same realm, however, also contains our beloved monsters and strangers of every description.
Posted in Books, Deities, Monsters, Posts, Religious Origins
Tagged Gods and Monsters, Hell, melancholy, Monsters, Richard Kearney, Sacred and Profane, Strangers