Leap Day

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.

Walking Monsters

It was a moment of weakness, or at least tawdry cheapness, that made me watch The Monster Walks. Just the day before the Cable Vision guy had stopped by, detailing how much money we could save by switching. We haven’t had television service since 2004, and even then it was only with a cheap aerial. Back in the days of Borders, I sometimes caved in and purchased the “Classic Features” movie boxes with 50 B, C, or D movies for what seemed a steal at less then 25 dollars. Maybe five or six of the movies from each set were actually worth the time spent watching them, but many of them proved an education. So it was with The Monster Walks.

Now, I readily confess to having a weakness for B movies. Made by people who were really trying, but who seemed to lack talent, I often identify with their efforts. So when I popped The Monster Walks into my DVD player, I had no idea what I might learn. The first revelation occurred in the opening credits where a character named “Exodus” was introduced. Since this was 1932, the character had to be African American. And comic relief. To spare you the pain of watching the movie, the plot is rather simple: rich man dies, helpless daughter inherits all to the chagrin of surviving brother and domestics, who plot to kill her by pretending to be a murderous ape. There also happens to be a murderous ape locked in the cellar. You get the picture. Aptly named Exodus is purely there as a foil for the educated, privileged white family. He was played by the talented but underappreciated Willie Best. As might (nay, should) be predicted, the scheme of killing the girl backfires and the ape kills the killer. Okay, so I can confess an hour wasted and get on with my reading. But the final scene arrested me.

Exodus wonders to the lawyer (who is there to read the will) why the rich man even had an ape. The lawyer, metaphorically transformed into a judgmental William Jennings Bryan, states that it was because he believed in Darwin’s theory of evolution. Exodus responds by noting some family resemblance to the ape. The blatant racism was hard to take, but in Black History Month the painfully obvious collective sins of our society should be laid bare. In 1932 Fundamentalism, often implicitly allied with racist causes, castigated Darwin’s theory for bringing all of humanity down to the same level. As long as a white god is creating the universe, the Anglo-Saxon can claim superiority. Never mind that Genesis was written by a Jewish writer living in Asia. Self-righteousness comes in many forms, but it always involves bringing others down to a rung below where the blessed stand. Has not the great Rick Santorum told us that even the Crusades were merely misunderstood?


“From Santorum to Graham, the ferociously religious are doing religion no favors at the moment, and it’s beginning to feel as though we may need to save faith from the extreme pronouncements of the faithful,” so writes Jon Meacham in this week’s issue of Time. Theocracy is a scary word. It didn’t work in ancient Israel, and it is difficult to believe that our society is morally more advanced than things were back then. I mean, they had Moses looking over their shoulders, and Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah to point out each misstep. We have Santorum, Bachmann, Palin, and Gingrich. This playing field would be an abattoir, and I have no doubts that the true prophets would be the only ones left standing should it come to blows. The odd thing is, the ancient Israelites, evolving into the Jewish faith, came to recognize that maybe they misunderstood some of what their stellar, if mythic, founders were saying. Rule by God is great in theory, but in practice it leaves a nation hungry.

It is difficult to assess the sincerity of modern day theocrats. We know that politicians are seldom literate or coherent enough to write their own speeches, and we know that they tell their would-be constituents what they want to hear. It shouldn’t surprise us that they belch forth juvenile pietism and call it God’s will, for we have taught them that elections are won that way. My real fear is that one of them might mean what they say. Could our nation actually survive even half a term with a true theocrat at the helm? W may have played that role, but there was a Cheney pulling the strings behind the curtain. Some guys like the God-talk, others prefer to shoot their friends in the faces. Either way it’s politics.

I take Meacham’s point. In all this posturing and pretending, the would-be theocrats are making a mockery of what the honestly religious take very seriously. If they want to get right with God there are conventional channels to do so. The White House is not one of them. They swear to uphold the ideals of the Constitution that, with considerable foresight, protects us from theocracy. The history they prefer, however, is revisionist and their constitution begins with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Their use of the Bible offends those who take the document seriously. Theocracies have never worked in the entire history of the world. Those who ascribe to mythology as the basis for sound government should add Thor, Quetalcoatl, and Baal to their cabinet and pray for a miracle.

The implacable face of politics

Darkness, of Sorts

“The horror! The horror!” During high school I was never assigned Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Neither was it required for the humanities core course at a highly selective Grove City College. Knowing that my daughter will be reading it for school, I decided to get ahead of the curve for once and read the book. I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I had gathered that it was set in Africa, but that is all I knew. I had even somehow managed to live through the ’80’s without ever seeing Apocalypse Now. Conrad layers the darkness thickly in his story of greed and cruelty in the material trade of ivory. The brief story does not dwell or linger on the suffering, but shows the deep scar never healed in Kurtz’s famous last words. It is a story still worth pondering profoundly.

By chance—in as much as anything happens by chance—I also watched Wolf Creek the same weekend. Again, I was unsure what to expect. I had heard about the movie before, but never with enough detail to give away the plot. Harshly critiqued for its exploitative narrative, the film presents a different setting that experiences the same darkness. Australia, 1990’s. Claiming to be based on actual events, Wolf Creek showcases the frightening duality of Mick Taylor, a character who holds many sleepless nights in store for me. Not that the movie itself is so terribly frightening, but the fact that people like Mick Taylor do exist, upon whom movie makers and novel writers base their characters, is darkness itself. It is the lot of humankind to be a mixed cast of characters, some of whom are decidedly unsavory.

I awake to newspapers bearing the cold, inhumane sentiments callously blasted from the lips of Santorum and Gingrich and their ilk stating that the poor can take care of themselves, the unborn have a right to be born into abject poverty, that women should be made to bow to the whims of men. My native naivety has worn off but slowly, hoping as I always have for sparks of kindness and genuine good will. Those who would be remembered as great leaders would do well to study closely the portraits of Napoleon and Stalin and their friends. And read a little Conrad. To find the still beating heart of darkness we need not venture all the way to Africa or Australia. We can find it in our own backyards.

NASA's view

Hidden in Plain Sight

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

Divine Monsters

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.

Gas Bubbles

Human brains display a strong preference for patterns. Looking out my office window at the repeating series of windows that make up much of Manhattan, there is a pleasing sense of symmetry. We seek meaning in patterns—this is likely what gave rise to the idea of prophecy; a pattern repeated in nature seems to bear divine significance. Now, I don’t claim to be the best analyst of patterns, but like all humans I look for them and try to make sense of them. With headlines declaring that gasoline prices are on the rise again, set to hit record highs in April, I think, like an elephant that doesn’t forget, over the past several election years and wonder if anyone else has noticed a pattern. When a GOP incumbent is in office, gas prices seem to go down in an election year. When a Democrat is in office, they tend to skyrocket in election years. This is not based on market analysis, but by the sharp pain in my backside that is caused by a starving wallet combined with repeated kicks by the petroleum industry.

Even as far back as high school I remember that alternative-energy cars were being designed. Keep in mind that this was over thirty years ago. When we asked why people couldn’t buy them, our teacher informed us that oil companies buy up patents for competing technologies. Television told us that such energy efficient cars were the stuff of science fiction. With Toyota often leading the way, we have seen, however, that electric-powered cars can perform on the highways as well as city streets. They don’t line the pockets so thickly for the big oil barons, so we’re lead to believe they’re wimpy and underperforming—not manly vehicles at all. To me it sounds like a lot of gas.

I’m not sure how America came to be under the ponderous thumb of the oil industry, but the finger-pointing and downright criminal activity of such companies as Enron and BP should be telling us something. It may be mere coincidence, but the past several Republican presidents have been very friendly with big oil. I remember when Clinton ran against Bush Senior that prices of gas dropped so low that a ten could fill the tank on our little Toyota. Here we are with a Dem in the House and prices are set to soar. Perhaps my cynicism is misplaced, but I don’t recall seeing many oil barons standing in the breadlines—not even after Enron imploded. No doubt we will be told it’s just the ebb and flow of the market, nothing more. No matter what the excuse may be, I have an idea which way the flow is going, and it has a pipeline from Americans’ bank accounts right into that internal combustion engine that is fueled by creatures long dead. Death and oil, by whatever means, go together.

Take me home, country roads

Ashes to Ashes

It was just a small blurb in the paper. Down at the bottom of page 17, it could have been easily overlooked. “Alleged witch killed by being set on fire” the small headline stated. And the date was 18 February 2012. This sad incident took place in Nepal. The story notes that “Each year hundreds of women in rural Nepal are abused after being accused of being witches.” Just last week, to the scorn of many, Cologne, Germany reopened the case of Katarina Henot, a woman burned as a witch 385 years ago. Katarina Henot was declared innocent because of the efforts of a priest to raise awareness of the persecution of women around the world. Five days after the story hit the news, Theganidevi Mahato was burned to death in Nepal. Although some called the action in Cologne a publicity stunt, it was anything but. We need to put names on those we continue to allow society to brutalize. Katarina Henot and Theganidevi Mahato, separated by 385 years and many, many miles, both died for the insanity that equates tragedy with women.

How blithely the word “witch-hunt” spills off the tongue. Each time we invoke it, the very phrase trails the ghosts of many thousands of women made to pay the price for society’s paranoia. The answers to why such tragedies occur may never be fully understood, but the events are preventable. The key is education. Even in the most advanced culture in the world, as we like to style ourselves, we heap contempt upon education, claiming that teachers barely work and that professors get paid for doing nothing. We have fallen into the fallacy that one size fits all—not all jobs can be measured by the wicked, black dip-stick of the oil industry, or the quick-cash-and-crash of the stock exchange. Education is a lifelong process, and as the political ridiculousness we constantly hear reminds us, lessons must be endlessly repeated until they sink in. Too many people think it is just easier to burn witches.

Witch-hunts arise when societies are stressed. Scapegoating is one of the most unfortunate legacies religion has left us. Evidence points to the scapegoat as being earlier than the Bible, although it takes its characteristic form there. We hear how the sins of the people were transferred to the goat on a day not so different from Ash Wednesday, to be symbolically born away where the animal would die instead of us. Somehow we’ve come to believe that burning the representative of our neuroses will somehow cure our society. Does it? Has it ever? This day as millions of Christians contemplate their sins and wear ashes on their heads, I suggest that we think of the women whom religion has allowed to become its victims. Whether due to the superstition of a remote village in Nepal or the irrational fear of “civilized” Europe with the blessing of the church, we’ve let scapegoating go too far. And those who’ve been killed are not the nameless females of forgotten times, but are the Katarinas, Theganidevis, Marys, and Rebeccas who were just as human as their neighbors.

What are their names?

Genesis Too

My Twitter Bible verse yesterday landed on a passage that has been routinely ignored by the church in favor of a different mythic construct in Genesis 2. Assuming the Bible to have been written by a human-like god, the natural expectation is that the manuscript would have been checked for inconsistencies before being sent to the publishers. Any close reading of the Bible, however, reveals a number of contradictions that have crept into holy writ through what seems to be poor editing. The verse to which I’m referring is Genesis 1.27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Readers and commentators have endlessly remarked upon the tripartite structure equating deity-male-female in this passage. This single verse, however, is soon forgot once the need to harmonize with Genesis 2 sets in. There man is given utter primacy and woman comes almost as an afterthought, even after the animals. That is the version fundamentalists consider inspired.

Readings of scripture are done only with the pre-decided outlook of the believer. We do this all the time, unconsciously, when we read. We approach texts with expectations, outlooks, and assumptions firmly in place. When dissonant notes sound, we try to harmonize. We’ve got a whole chapter stating that man was god’s first thought, and woman only comes later. We have only a single verse stating their equality. Before Paul and company distorted the story of Eden into a “fall” narrative—note the words “fall” and “sin” occur nowhere in the account of Eve and Adam—some ancient readers toyed with the idea that maybe the first human was actually intersexed (or hermaphroditic) and the word translated “rib” meant “side.” Genesis 2, in this reading, understood women and men to be equal and of the same creative moment of God.

Some in the early church, however, valued doctrine over equality. Afraid that heterodox teaching might win out—we know there were many early Christianities, not a uniform body only latterly split apart—what came to be orthodoxy rallied around Paul and his fallen humanity with man first and woman second. And thus it has stayed in the sand castles of power for two millennia. Setting aside the unreliable narrator, our present sensibilities for reading are generally to take the first information as correct and later changes to be embellishments. In the case of Genesis, this tendency is overlooked. Too many men have too much invested in male priority to suggest that the Bible actually says what it does. Such is the problem with sacred texts—they are far too serious to be read for its plain sense, which is, after all, its common sense.

We're all in this together

Christian Underworld

For constructing a mythology teeming with monsters, I must doff my metaphorical hat to the Underworld series of movies. Unrelentingly Gothic and stylish, I’ve watched the first two installments a number of times, but I have yet to see the last two (the latter of which is still currently in theaters). I have to admit that seeing Kate Beckinsale in her werewolf hunting gear two stories tall on midtown electronic billboards is some enticement to catch up with the story. Over the weekend I rewatched Underworld Evolution, number two in the set, to refresh my mind of the story. Quite apart from the implicit religiosity of vampires, the Underworld movies, while eschewing crucifixes and religious origins for vampires (which Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Francis Ford Coppola narrates to an explicit extent), nevertheless partake of the power of religion amid all the shootouts and weird transformations.

In Underworld Evolution, Marcus, the son of the original vampire, in a scene straight from Christian mythology, has the devil rebelling against his creator. As he is killing his powerful yet ineffectual father, Marcus predicts the beginning of a “new race created in the image of their maker—their new god. Me.” As he says this he has his own creator impaled on a demonic bat wing. Running him through with a sword he states, “And the true god has no father.” I admit I’ve been trying to read some post modern treatments of monsters, and this kind of reversal fits well with the conflicted outlook of the twenty-first century. Who is god? The good or the evil? The old certainties have grown gray and blurry. No wonder some people are uncomfortable.

Perhaps the most religious element in the film, however, is blood-memory. Blood is a cheap commodity in horror films, but it represents, in the Abrahamic traditions, life. In the Christian sense drinking communion wine is to consume the blood of Jesus, or at least to remember his death (the fancy word is anamnesis). Vampires, in Underworld Evolution, remember the lives of those whose blood they drink. The taking of life has a sacramental quality to it here. To a world less immersed in a Christian worldview, this concept might seem more macabre than it already is. Monsters often take their cues from the gods. So on a February weekend some of this feels terribly familiar. It may be a small underworld after all.


Once in a while an uncanny clarity penetrates this fog of an asphyxiating miasma that passes for a life in higher education. It was a rainy, gray day in February when I stood outside 13 West Range at the University of Virginia, looking into Edgar Allan Poe’s restored room. Poe, who is right up there with Melville and Moses among the greatest writers of all time, lived a life that was short, sad, and silenced. Or so it seemed. Dead by 40, with a career that never really got a foothold, Poe would seem to be the ideal model of a failure. His currency, however, has preserved the voice of unrest that pulses like the very life-blood through American culture. Even as a teenager, I identified with Poe. Knowing that I could never attain his level of polish and perfection, even listening to the cadences of “The Raven” can still reduce me to tears. So, standing outside his room in the gloomy rain was a private epiphany.

13 West Range

Undefined was the sense of loose ends and hopelessly tangled threads of a life I tried to weave without the blessing of Athena. I ended up at a small seminary where my influence was limited to the few students with open minds. It was truly a gothic experience, living at Nashotah House with its medieval mindset and matching physical setting. Daily watching my learning being shredded by the staunch dictates of undying dogma, I never forgot Poe. When my own career was jettisoned by a bloated theology that had no room for questions, I spent many months in a depression so deep that life had almost lost that spark of hope that makes it worth continuing. Again and again the waves crashed over me—this was the doing of the church. Those who putatively followed the teaching of a man who said, “Do unto others—” Fill in the blank.

Poe was forced out of school by an unloving foster parent who valued money more than his adoptive son. Traveling up and down the east coast looking for a place to fit his writings into a slot for a little money, he died from causes that will never be identified. Today we know he was a meteor—a brief, brilliant light in a darkened sky. He is the patron saint of all those whose voices have been silenced by an unfeeling establishment. Even in my wildest dreams, I never hope to approach the depth and grandeur of his pen, but I can stand here in the rain and commune with him. The emblem of the Raven Society stands perched in that room, and its single word is the dying word of hope in the face of an uncaring world. And that one word will be the epitaph of society that refuses, even now, to listen.

Denying Truth, For Profit

Sometimes I’m questioned about why I bother with creationism. Everyone who’s intelligent knows it is religious ideology masquerading as science and people will eventually figure it out. But will there be time? An editorial in yesterday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger pulls the curtain back on creationism’s incestuous cousin, climate-change denial. As the editorial notes, key documents of the Heartland Institute—one of the major propagators of climate change as “just a theory”—have been leaked and show that they have learned their lesson from creationist tactics. They want “debate the question” instilled in science classes in lieu of facts. And much of their money comes from big oil. It is the hope of such institutes that an American public already woefully pathetic at understanding science will be led to believe “just a theory” equals “likely not true.” The data are stacked completely against them and the entire rest of the developed world knows that.

While the issue may seem less religious than creationism—which is based on getting Genesis 1 in the classroom as science, no matter what you call it—it has deep roots in that same insidious cocktail of politics, religion, and dirty money. Biblical literalists tend to believe the world is about to end. The belief has been around for at least two millennia. It is a damning and damaging belief that declares the world was made for raping because it is about to end. This deranged thinking is fueled, literally, by unrestrained economic interests. Sometimes the groups can’t see beyond the Bible to realize that they too are being screwed. Science is objective, and it is science that has been challenged by various religious and political groups since the 1920s. Today, when there is far too much information for anyone to stay on top of it all, and in an American society deeply distrustful of higher education, I smell an explosive amount of methane in the air.

Climate change is real. The “theory” is so well supported by evidence as to be fact. Is anyone really surprised that supporters of the Heartland Institute have also backed Newt Gingrich’s campaign? We have placed ourselves in a very dangerous position as the last remaining “superpower.” I tried to read a book on environmental issues that Routledge published, but was so scared after the first three pages that I had to put it down. What is the lesson here, class? Is it not that money is the root of evil? And that, my dear literalists, is biblical.

The future of human economic evolution

Jefferson’s Legacy

With the gears grinding in the political machine and candidates for the GOP nomination each trying to show they are more righteous than the others, the name of Thomas Jefferson gets used quite a bit. Jefferson’s famous Bible, literally cut-and-pasted together by one of our better presidents, removed miracles from the picture, and Jefferson’s writings leave open the question of whether Deist or Atheist is a more accurate description. I’m in Charlottesville, Virginia right now, home of that paean to Jefferson, the University of Virginia. For a state university, UVA has perhaps the largest religion department in the country. I noted with some irony, that the religion department is housed just above the political science department in Gibson Hall. While waiting for my first appointment, I sat in an alcove where two students began talking about politics. (This was in the religion department.) My chagrin grew as my grin faded with their lament about how poor the Republican candidates are, “but we have to get Obama out of the White House.” In order to do so, they’d elect a man whom they believe unqualified for the office.

Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying a person who doesn’t start out as a liberal has no heart, but who remains a liberal as an adult has no brain—or some such nonsense. The fact is, compassion never should go out of style. It seems to me that somebody changed the terms and what they mean. “Conservative” used to equate to a fiscal position that, while it favored the wealthy, still had sympathy—or even empathy—for those less well-off built in. Now it has come to define “selfish disregard of those different than me.” We see it all the time, not just in political speeches, but in acts passed in the name of Christianity. Jefferson’s Bible is being trampled underfoot. And we are told repeatedly that America was founded as a Christian nation. Of the students discussing politics here, the more conservative of the two was the woman.

Does she not realize that without the liberalizing tendencies of the suffragettes her own future would be limited? That does not excuse in any way the patriarchy that made suffrage necessary in the first place, but it does speak to how quickly we are taught to forget. Even in the land of Jefferson, there are those who would protect privilege and call it divinity. “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” The words of Thomas Jefferson. In our great universities those who actually do learn are sometimes taught that empathy is weakness and fiscal gain is god. Unless it’s an election year. With great wealth going into the carnival we call the nomination process, we might legitimately ask what’s to become of us if those with no empathy are elected. After all, what are we, apes?

One of the few presidents worth casting in bronze

Love, Factually

Whet has Jerusalem to do with Trenton? As marriage equality is debated in New Jersey—with a governor as compassionate and reasoning as Captain Ahab determined to stop it—three local religious leaders have the courage to lay their cards on the table. When Bishop Beckwith (Episcopal, Newark), Bishop Riley (ELCA, New Jersey), and Rabbi Gewirtz (Millburn) penned a piece entitled “Religion shouldn’t sway Trenton in this debate” in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, it almost restored my faith in religion being capable of some good. The three leaders, from different theological perspectives, agree that the Bible can’t be used for a one-to-one correspondence to modern society on this issue. They correctly point out that theologians disagree and that the remit of the government is not to uphold the view of any one of those traditions. When church leaders start making sense, I begin to tremble.

Politicians are never among the most astute of theological thinkers—and I would include those clergy elected to public office in that number. The rare public official who is qualified to think about such things intelligently frequently has trouble swaying his (almost always his) colleagues who have visions of pork barrels dancing in their heads. Marriage is about commitment, not sexuality. Studies have indicated many sexless marriages exist, yet we applaud them for their consistency. For those with a different orientation, we outlaw formal recognition and call them sinners. In the name of a government sworn not to uphold any one religion. It is time our legislators awake from their snoozes and realize that many mainstream religions have gotten over homophobia, and their religion is discriminated against by such petty power plays.

I applaud the efforts of religious leaders to point this out to a governor who has gone on record saying he’s not one “who changes positions with the grace of a ballerina” (propriety forbids me from finishing that thought). If that chunky ballerina, however, has ended his twirl facing the wrong direction, doesn’t the audience expect him to hike up his tutu and correct his error? I note that our Roman Catholic compatriots did not sign the letter. If ever a church showed the signs of centuries of sexual neuroses, would we trust it to make informed decisions on who might sleep with whom? Is that what marriage has been reduced to in the minds of the celibate clergy? It’s all about sex? Maybe if politicians and unenlightened theologians could pry their minds out of other people’s bedrooms and learn to treat them as complex, descent human beings we might actually see New Jersey leading the world in the right direction for once.

What's love got to do with it?

Being Human

Within the first three pages, if you’re not mortally offended or inexplicably happy, you’re probably not an American.

Growing up with pets, I had a hard time understanding the hard and fast line drawn between animals and people. The failsafe fact used back then is that only people used tools. When we looked closer at animals we found that wasn’t quite true. Well then, only people have language. A large question mark has grown from that assertion too. The final fallback, the sine qua non was souls: only people have souls. It is also the safest of assertions, since it can be tested for neither people nor animals.

This way of thinking, according to Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy, arises from the western religious tradition—a religious tradition that grew up in relative isolation from other primates. Many world religions do not feel the necessity of making people absolutely different from our animal cousins. In Christianity at least, heaven itself rides on it. What are we so afraid of?

I posted, a couple years back, on Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape. Having just finished The Age of Empathy, I have reaffirmed my earlier accolades—he is one of the most sensible and important writers alive. Step by slow, evolutionary, cautious step, de Waal illustrates that one of the taboos of science—that animals don’t have emotion—is patently wrong. Not only do they experience emotion, but apes, cetaceans, and dogs at least, know empathy. Even scientists don’t like to admit this because science grew up in the shadow of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim worldview of human superiority.

But there’s even more at stake. As de Waal makes perfectly clear, the unbridled capitalism of the United States goes against nature. The unlimited acquisition of the vast majority of the resources by the few sets our primate sensibilities on end. Empathy, the ability to feel for another and take their perspective, is not only part of animals’ experience of the world, it is also a mandate of our religions. In order for society to survive, we must come to know this truth. Falsely applying Social Darwinism as factual, biological Darwinism, the few have taken more than either biology or religion permits.

The Age of Empathy should be on every school’s mandatory reading list and corporate climbers should learn that even selfishness has a very steep price tag. Not only for themselves, but for all of us.