Sacred Herstory

NunsBehavingBadlyHave you ever read a book thinking the author was a woman, but later learned that it was written by a man? Or vice-versa? This creates a disturbing kind of cognitive dissonance, and I suspect that it is hardwired to our communal instincts. We want to know whether it is a man or a woman who is talking to us. Expectations of gender are deeply embedded in all societies, and they become problematic when they ossify into rules. Gender roles, in earliest societies, were a matter of biological necessities. In a modern, urban context such roles are obsolete, and certainly damaging—especially to women. Craig A. Monson’s Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art and Arson in the Convents of Italy raised this issue to a conscious level once again. Christianity, always very sensitive to issues of sexuality, had developed in a social context of women as property. In the Middle Ages, where dowries were expected, families couldn’t afford to marry off all their daughters, and convents provided an easy, if not always spiritual, solution. Monson’s book, although not filled with salacious tales, illustrates the point well. In a society where wage-earning was limited to males, females had few options.

Monson narrates the stories of five different convents where a nun (or sometimes groups of nuns) refused to play by the rules established by the male hierarchy. The infractions, viewed from the twenty-first century, seem minor: playing with magic, singing, producing art work, wanting to go outside the cloister walls, visiting (gasp!) an opera! (There are a few more complex issues too, such as arson and the love that dare not Ave Maria its name.) In each case, the masculine authorities were called in to investigate, punish, and restore order. The end result is, although fascinating, somewhat melancholy. These willful women were often acting against boredom. Their lives had no impact beyond the convent wall, and, ironically, I learned, even their enclosures had prisons. A nun could be moved from her cell to the cell. And sometimes the only crime was wanting to hear a professional singer perform.

Nuns Behaving Badly is a clever title for a book. As I read the histories, however, I became increasingly convinced that those behaving poorly were not the nuns. A society fabricated on the premise that men are the divinely ordained masters of their universe is no stellar example of men behaving well. Even the occasional bishop, archbishop, or cardinal who sided with the accused had to bow to the will of the Holy Inquisition. The victims, although not physically tortured, were women who had thrown their entire futures into the service of the church, in one of the few roles allowed females in an era already pressing into the early modern age. The nuns were not behaving badly. They were simply being human. The truly bad behavior came in the form of a male hierarchy that brooked no dissent.

Scholar Universe

One of the resources that editors use to find scholars of obscure fields of study is a website called Scholar Universe. Now, before you all rush to the site and crash the system, I should warn you that you’ll need to purchase an account and get a password to use it. Frankly, for our society it really isn’t worth the effort or expense for most people. The information on Scholar Universe is often outdated, and not always accurate. Once, when searching for who’s who in classical mythology, I was surprised to find my own name. I did teach classical mythology at Montclair State University for three semesters, but my longer and more complete career of teaching biblical studies was nowhere to be found. How quickly our contributions, meager though they be, disappear. In any case, when a contact breaks down, the website lists the position of a scholar as “Last Known.” More than once I’ve searched for a more updated record to find “Last Known” as a circumlocution for “deceased.” There are a few things I think I’d like to ask some dead religion professors.

I recently came across a couple of academics who had, in separate instances, been murdered. One, rather gruesomely, attacked with a hammer as he walked home from the train. We tend to think that education will somehow protect us from the vicissitudes of a world caught up in its own madness. Some of us came to this profession grasping for some sort of immortality. Higher education, while based on great ideals, is nevertheless just as susceptible to taint as any human enterprise. I have been watching as higher education has followed after the role model of business for the past few decades. There was a time when learning was thought to be worth the investment, no matter what the cost. Now a pleasant deception will do, thank you, as long as there’s cash in it.

The history of higher education has been, from the beginning, tied up with religion. The earliest universities coalesced around theological faculties, while others studied law. The two are never far apart. Even in the “New World” our early universities were formed, initially, in the service of the church. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, William and Mary, and many other colleges and universities were founded with the ideal of theological education firmly in mind. Concerns for the affairs of the world, however, inevitably came to preoccupy higher education. Secular schools have little time to study real world phenomena such as religion and spirituality. Unfortunately, those are the areas, our news sources often inform us, that would benefit the most from a bit of sensible learning. But not as long as there is money to be made elsewhere.

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The Science of G-d

ScienceGodWhere, exactly, do science and religion come together? Since both are human mental enterprises, they must at some point at least glance off one another. Both religion and science attempt to make sense of human experience in the world, and, given the limitations of human time, being a true expert in both may be impossible. The John Templeton Foundation, as any religion scholar knows, supports research and awards handsomely those perceived to have succeeded, at least somewhat, in bringing the two together. A single lifetime, however, is not long enough for either, let alone both. Gerald L. Schroeder’s The Science of God illustrates this point. Subtitled The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom, and produced by a major publishing house, the pitfalls of applying the Bible to a scientific worldview become apparent almost from page one.

Somewhat unusual in the field, Schroeder is an Orthodox Jew addressing the questions that the Bible raises for science. He is also a credentialed physicist. Most attempts to force religion and science into bed together come from Christian researchers—secular scientists usually have a headache—and a hidden agenda is often not too difficult to discern. I read The Science of God knowing nothing of Schroeder’s religious sensibilities. By narrowing the focus from science and religion to science and Bible, however, I knew the enterprise was doomed without even opening the cover. The Bible is one of the least scientific of all human writings. That’s not to say it has no value, but it is an honest observation by a lifelong reader of the Bible who believes science has a proven track record for making some sense of the world. Schroeder begins with that most specious of arguments, the anthropic principle. Few ideas raise such ire in my limited scientific understanding. The suggestion that the universe is fine-tuned for life is a moot point in principio. Who are we to say that life wouldn’t have emerged if the Big Bang were one degree cooler or hotter? It might have been life with different parameters, but the anthropic principle seems to point to nothing more than the tenacity of life.

While Schroeder does raise some valid points, it is clear from his challenging of the fossil record that the Bible will only ever sleep uneasily with science. For a physicist, Schroeder spends an awfully long time using God-of-the-gaps reasoning to fill in biology. In a disguised day-age “hypothesis” he gives us the creation order of Genesis 1, while skirting around Genesis 2 where humans are created before animals. And, I’m sorry, but the Bible does not mention dinosaurs anywhere. It’s a pity really. Schroeder’s book addresses some important issues, but using the Bible as a measure of scientific credibility fails every time. The science of God, it seems, is more a concluding unscientific postscript, but without the philosophical sublimity.

To Obey the Scout Law

Society’s prurient interests have been on display again with the intense media blitz concerning Boy Scouts of America and the fraught issue of sexual orientation. As is to be expected, certain religious bodies have sounded the final trump once again as they frenetically posture against equality. The story is so old it is difficult to see how it counts as news. When I saw that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the oldest sponsor of Boy Scouts and the denomination with the highest numbers) had made a statement about the issue, I almost didn’t even click on the link. We already know the official stance of such conservative groups, right? So I was genuinely surprised when I saw the note. This Mormon Church has no problem with the admission of homosexual boys since, and rightly so for a youth organization, the members are expected to behave according to the code of conduct. That code forbids sexual relationships, no matter a boy’s orientation, no matter with whom.

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We all know that ideals are seldom observed. We should lead by example. I spent my high school years deeply involved in the feeder program for future clergy in a major Christian denomination (the one with the second highest number of Scouts). The youth programs frequently involved having hundreds of youths together for multi-day events. Chaperoned, of course. But kids with active hormones are about the most clever creatures on the planet. I frequently heard that opportunities to find some time alone with your favorite “spiritual advisor” were not difficult to arrange. And when I enrolled in a program to study for the ministry officially, I learned that the name seminary was somehow overly appropriate. Codes of conduct exist for a reason, and those who hold to them reward the trust of adults who institute them. Society can’t operate without such rules. What happens in reality, however, is a different matter. Anyone who reads the headlines can see that.

I applaud the Mormon Church’s stance on this issue. The Boy Scouts is a social organization with nary a merit badge for sexual knowledge or experience (at least not in the Handbooks I’ve seen). Those matters, as with adults, are private. Religious groups often act as if admitting admitted homosexuals somehow changes the Jamboree into a Woodstock. The problem is with the imagination of puritan adults. The solution to the anxiety is rather simple. For those concerned, volunteer to lead a troop. Attend a meeting. See what actually goes on. The fact is, kids will be kids, and making rules to satisfy uptight adults will not change that. Many groups could learn from the Mormons here: Scouting is not about sex. It takes the imagination of adults to make it so. Boys, as the saying goes, will be boys.

Girls Rising

While I was home watching Bruce Almighty, my wife was attending a local screening of the documentary Girl Rising. (There was a good reason for this discrepancy; you’ll need to trust me on this one.) Chances are that many readers haven’t heard of Girl Rising; I know that if I weren’t the husband and father of Girl Scouts, I’d likely have missed it myself. Isn’t that part of the problem? Why does our society make females invisible, unless sex objects? Tabby Biddle has a thoughtful observation about this in the Huffington Post. She notes the importance of the film, but laments that the only way to make it through to the masculine mind is to pose the argument that educating girls will increase the GDP of less fortunate nations. Girls should be educated for their very humanness, Biddle suggests, but our view of a masculine God often prevents this from happening. While Biddle may have fallen a little under the spell of Marija Gimbutas, she makes a very valid point: there is no human reason that girls should not receive equal opportunities with boys. The fact that I even have to write that in the twenty-first century saddens me. It is not just “Third World” girls that have to struggle to gain what is rightfully theirs.

In my career I have been passed over more than once so that a woman might take the advertised position. (I have even been informed of this fact by friends on search committees.) Somehow I can’t find any injustice in this situation, as much as it has personally disappointed my hopes and dreams. Men have been frustrating female hopes and dreams for millennia. Maybe the matriarchy that Gimbutas envisioned never really existed, but the concept is sound: women and men both contribute to this thing we call civilization. Our religions, as they developed in our societies, have held the mirror up to the might-makes-right paradigm from the very beginning. Wouldn’t a male god with a more muscular upper body shove a fair, and giving goddess out of the way every time? Just ask Zeus. Or Odin. Or El. Divine civilization is only human projection, and we just can’t relate to a genderless God. So he becomes the excuse for female repression.

The face of divinity?

The face of divinity?

We’ve firmly entered a new millennium, and, looking at our treatment of half of our species, we still have an incredibly long way to go. In much of the western world, traditional religion has lost its grip, but I’m a little frightened by what I see taking its place. There are a few pockets of female-friendly religions awaking, but there are many more backlashes from the traditional male preserves of conservatism, patriarchy, and free enterprise. It is time for all men to consider that none of us would be here without our real-life goddesses. Some may rail against unorthodoxy, but unfair structures must be imploded for a new, and true, orthodoxy to be established. Women and men—not women for men, not women for profit—that is the only right teaching. So we should promote Girl Rising, and we should seek to move beyond the mere financial benefits for a free market to find the divine spark that masculine interest seems to have lost.

God has Left the Theater

When teaching religion at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I realized that an effective way to engage students was through popular culture. I could assign them just about any choice of movie and have them look for the religious themes of whatever class in it for a short paper. Of course, most went for the low-hanging fruit, over my teaching years, and I eventually had to ban movies with obvious religious themes or premises. One of those movies was Bruce Almighty. In a fit of nostalgia, I recently rewatched it. Never a big Jim Carrie fan, I nevertheless always enjoyed Bruce Almighty—it was such an improvement over those truly dreadful Oh, God! movies that were so popular in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I never found George Burns funny, and he made for an awfully feeble God. Everyone was buzzing in the new millennium when God was portrayed by a black man, Morgan Freeman. Still, we await a director who dares cast a female God. Patriarchy runs deep.

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One of the features that movies portraying God run up against is showing a believable omnipotence. The powers granted to mortals always seem so petty. Theodicy is always raised in these kinds of movies—why people suffer if God is good and all powerful—and since movies rely on directors and writers rather than theologians, they often leave the answer at the doorstep of free will. Human suffering is our own fault. In our society we can’t have a movie that actually pins the blame back on the divine, because that wouldn’t be funny. And movies where people meet God are almost always comedies. But Bruce Almighty is actually a bit more sophisticated than it seems at first. That is best seen in the outtakes perhaps, where Morgan Freeman seems to care more about people than George Burns did. Of course, my memory on the older movies is hazy. They were considered slightly blasphemous three-and-a-half decades ago. Today they seem tame.

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Why do movies with God in the cast rake it in at the box office? A couple of reasons suggest themselves. As humans, we like to place ourselves in the role of the divine to consider what we would do with unlimited power. Who wouldn’t, like Bruce Nolan, at least include their own satisfaction in the package? I think, however, there is a deeper, more serious reason. We do genuinely wonder about God’s motivation. Most of us don’t have the training to know how to grapple with the often incomprehensible arguments that theologians make. Even when we do, they still make no sense. Our movie gods appeal to us because they are so terribly Freudian—made in the human image. We can’t conceive of a god who’s not like us, so we at least make the situation funny. If we can’t achieve omnipotence, at least we can hope for a few laughs.

Witching Fiction

WitchesRoadLiterary fiction is a rich trove of religious thinking. Consuming fiction sustains the soul as well as the mind. Sheri Holman’s Witches on the Road Tonight was an impulse buy. The title, the cover, the intricate implications, the price were all right. It turned out to be a rewarding story that involved, possibly, witches and certainly religion. Not that it is a story about religion—definitely not. Yet, the protagonist is a weatherman who dresses as a vampire to present old monster movies on late night television. His relationships define him and, as his daughter learns, he may be the son of a witch. Deeply textured with the earthy reality of the rural poverty-stricken, at several points in the novel a thoroughly naturalized biblical vocabulary effortlessly flows. At crucial moments the story is poised on the crux of heathenism and religiosity. It is a book difficult to forget.

The fascination with witches has deep explanatory roots. When hopes are not realized as they are carefully planned, people naturally seek a scapegoat, someone to blame. Too often in history the blame has fallen on the powerless, the marginalized. Too often on women. In the somewhat enlightened twenty-first century it has become passably safe to declare oneself a witch. Our scientific worldview allows it as a harmless delusion, but the issue is more than it might seem. For some, witchcraft is the only channel available for a power that should belong to all. For others it retains a taint of evil, primarily because of a biblical point-of-view.

Israel in antiquity was a patriarchal culture. It was a man’s world that kept most women from any seat of power. “Witches” in this world are simply those who continue the trajectory of a kind of animistic faith in the vibrant life of nature. Prior to “revelation” it was self-evident that nature itself was full of vitality—spirits—if you will. When God was added to the equation, the life-force of nature fell on the “less than” side of the comparison. Even today children recognize the shaman under the name “witch-doctor,” euphemistically applied to those closer to nature than to the Bible. Reading Witches on the Road Tonight brought all of this back to me. Although largely set in New York City, it spoke to me as a rural urbanite who left something valuable in the woods of my childhood.

Iconic Book

A recent Associated Press story celebrated the achievement of Phillip Patterson. In an age when we just can’t get enough technology, when we live with, sleep with, and dream of electronically generated reality, Mr. Patterson was feted for his arcane accomplishment. Decidedly low tech, at that. After four years Phillip Patterson has finished copying a book, word-for-word. I don’t even have to mention which book, because we already know it can only be the book that Americans recognize without reading. It is the iconic book. The holy book. Sometimes working up to 14 hours a day on the quest, according to AP, Patterson was not undertaking a spiritual journey here. He was simply wanting to learn about the book. If it had been any other book, it would hardly have been newsworthy.

An iconic book (photo by David Ball)

An iconic book (photo by David Ball)

I have recently been introduced to the concept of the iconic book. A colleague of mine kindly shared the idea during a campus visit. He and I happen to share advanced training in reading the same book, but, as he pointed out, it is the book and not its contents that our society recognizes. This is what makes it an iconic book. When we go to court we are asked to place our hands upon it and swear—something the book itself would doubtlessly consider some form of idolatry. We use it for inaugurating the highest officials in our land. We see it laid out in public places and private homes. We consider harming or disrespecting it to be an act of sacrilege. To us, it is more than paper, ink, leather and glue.

The dedication of Phillip Patterson ought to be celebrated. As he noted, to learn more about a book, you have to be willing to dig deeply. Look at every single word. Not that such treatment is fashionable. In a society enamored of power, we prefer the power of the iconic book over its often troubling content. It is certainly much easier trumpeting it than reading it. As I listen to the debates about public policy, the endless attempts to legislate morality, I ponder how little people actually read Mr. Patterson’s book. That’s what makes his accomplishment so remarkable. In producing an iconic book, a book that I don’t need to name because anyone might figure out what it is, our protagonist actually read it. In this age of technology, that is an accomplishment to be celebrated indeed.

Inhumane Society

AnimalsMatter“I’m a member of PETA,” I’ve had more than one wag say, quoting bumper sticker wisdom as if it were profound, upon learning I’m a vegetarian. “People Eating Tasty Animals,” they then spell out with a smirk. I stopped eating animals at about the turn of the millennium, and since then I’ve discovered more and more reasons that it was the correct decision. I’ve just read Marc Bekoff’s Animals Matter: A Biologist Explains Why We Should Treat Animals with Compassion and Respect. It saddens me that in our world where nothing escapes being posted on Facebook, people still tend not to notice the suffering we impose upon animals as a matter of course. I’ve always been inclined to look closely at things, including animals. Watching them, it is clear that humans are indeed animals only differently evolved. Our mannerisms, our emotions, even our expressions, can be found among our animated kin. We share a planet on which we all evolved together, so why do we find it so easy to exploit other creatures?

One of the reasons Bekoff notes, without being judgmental, is that some religions inform us that people alone are special because we bear the image of God. Although God is supposed to be altruistic, we don’t wish to share that exalted status with any other species, apparently. Even in the twenty-first century many otherwise intelligent people still claim that animals feel no pain. Can’t reason. Are mere machines. We’ve been taught to distrust common sense that informs us that if an animal in distress acts like a human in distress that it experiences the same anxiety. The more we study animals the more human they become. The theology of Genesis has much for which it will be called to answer.

It seems, however, that the Bible is used as a mere excuse here. We exploit other animals because we can. We have taught bovines and ovines to trust us so that we may more easily slaughter them. Perhaps this is an exercise in divine image bearing, but somehow I doubt it. Reading Animals Matter in many ways felt like listening to a scientist who has taken the message of the Lorax to heart. We treat animals the way we do because we don’t understand their language, but we are morally obligated to speak for those who have no tongues. Although accessible to younger readers, Animals Matter is nevertheless a profoundly disturbing book. What does it say about the highly evolved when they exploit their relatives who’ve not learned the language of humans? Or, more accurately, who’ve not learned to vocalize like humans. Other animals speak, just like people sometimes, if we would only translate their actions into words.

Oklahoma

The tragedy outside Oklahoma City transcends petty human differences. Tornadoes, no matter how we dress them up, look like the wrath of God incarnate. The fifteen years I spent in the Midwest were filled with literal nightmares of tornadoes and even a few hours spent cowering in the basement. Such phenomena remind us that we are quite small in the face of nature, and the news reports are full of religious sentiment as people want assurance that God hasn’t abandoned them. Nature doesn’t favor humans over anything else that happens to be in the way of whirling 200 mile-per-hour winds. Even one’s belief might get blown away. Yet it doesn’t.

Although a tornado hit New York City last year, my terror of the storm evaporated when we moved back east. In the Midwest, although there were hills, I felt so exposed under the open expanse of the heavens. In the utterly flat part of central Illinois, I recall some truly awe-inspiring storms. The sky was so ubiquitous and overpowering, and you could see clouds towering thousands of feet over your head, throbbing with constant lightning. It was then I began having the idea for my book on weather terminology and the book of Psalms. Humans helpless in the face of nature. This is the raw material of religion. Like children we pray to God to make it go away. Storms do not obey prayers.

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By their very nature tornadoes are capricious. We like to believe the good are spared and the evil punished, but as schools are destroyed and children killed we have to face the cruelty of nature. What happened in Oklahoma was a random act of nature, as much as hurricanes Andrew, Katrina, and Sandy were. We can’t help, however, any more than the people of the Bible, supposing that God must somehow be behind the weather. We may influence it, as global warming has repeatedly demonstrated, but seldom for good. And when we look for the divine in the fierce winds, we will end up facing tragedy.

Heaven Forbid

Cars can be a nuisance—they consume resources, pollute the environment, and have a habit of being very expensive to repair. We’ve been pretty good about taking our car in for its regularly scheduled Toyota check-up. Since the garage is several miles away and my wife and I both work, it is often a matter of the one who can most easily work from home the day of the car doctor appointment taking it in. Our Toyota dealer has in-store wifi for those who can’t live without the internet. For some of us, work is almost exclusively internet. So it was that I drew the short straw and dutifully drove out to the dealership. I was pleased that my VPN connected so easily; this was going to be a snap. I was working happily away when I had to find somebody on a university website. I googled the name and clicked. I received a forbidden website message (copied below) explaining tersely: “Block reason: Forbidden Category ‘Religion’.” I tried again on the Society of Biblical Literature website—same message.

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Now I can understand workplaces blocking pornography sites, and even Facebook (I found the latter to be blocked at Toyota some time ago, but I’ve never tried the former), but religion? I am a religion editor. How am I to work when I can’t access websites that contain the word “religion”? The more I pondered this—I could still check my email, and do VPN-type work with files from the office—the more it bothered me. On the television in the background inane daytime talkshow hosts were interviewing someone who’d written a book about God. How many more businesses out there are biased against internet religion? That means my blog is blacklisted along with the scantily clad and overly chatty. I fully support the disestablishment clause, but I also subscribe to the freedom of religion. Smirks aside, there is a serious undertone to all of this.

I have no desire to be proselytized at work. I also agree that it is the right of others to expect the same. Sometimes, however, a little religion might help work go down like a poppinian spoonful of sugar. One time when I worked for Ritz Camera in Brookline, Massachusetts (I seem to have a knack for working for businesses that are on the way out), I had a tough day. Some of our customers could be quite abrasive, and since the customer is always right, we had to take personal insults with a smile. One lunch-hour I told my manager that I needed to recoup my moxy (I didn’t use those words). I ducked out the door and stomped to the first church I could find and asked if I could just sit in the pew for a few minutes. The church secretary, a complete stranger to me, said “of course.” Ten minutes later I returned to work collected and able to face more unreasonable customers for the rest of the afternoon. Maybe it wasn’t religion, maybe it was only the calm of sitting in what some believed to be a sacred space, but my capitalist company got better performance out of me that day because of it. Ironically, at Toyota, my religion editing is cast in with the tax collectors and prostitutes. Only the tax collectors, I’m pretty certain, are always permitted to work.

Godly Violence

Just a full-term human pregnancy ago, a disturbed young man murdered two grocery store employees in Old Bridge, New Jersey. He then shot himself dead. Of course, such events will never sway those who staunchly defend our right to bear arms. The ratio isn’t too severe after all. Just two to one. We’ve had worse. But that was nine months ago. Earlier this week a police report revealed that Terence Tyler, the perpetrator, had a tattoo on his chest that read, “If there is a God he loves violence. It is his gift to mankind. It is truly magnificent and for this I am thankful.” The newspaper used the understated adjective “disturbing” to describe it. As an erstwhile biblical scholar, my first inclination is to exegete this strange scripture a little bit.

411px-B_Facundus_145“If there is a God.” The mind of the shooter is one for hedging bets. God is an unscientific proposition, and, we are told even by theologians, unknowable. Long ago Pascal urged a wager: God may not be real, but the safer bet is on the divine—you can’t really lose by believing. “He loves violence.” I’m sure many believers disagree, but those who read the Bible will have to admit that Tyler had a point there. There is an ancient kind of bloodlust that hangs heavily over demands for genocide and animal sacrifices. Even, according to mainstream Christianity, the death of an only son will serve divine ends. “It is his gift to mankind.” This may seem counterintuitive, but again, the Bible would seem to back this up, at least in part. Without violence the 144,000 martyrs wouldn’t have much to sing about. “It is truly magnificent and for this I am thankful.” Were this a biblical passage we would probably have to posit a redactor here, or at least an interpolation. Such editorializing doesn’t fit the spirit of the previous three verses.

Religions, while generally abhorring violence, too often condone it. This mostly comes through literal readings of ancient texts whose contexts have changed so much that the originals are unrecognizable by today’s standards. Bibles and Qurans must be understood by those who’ve managed to outlive them. They become the basis for, the excuse for violence that, as a whole, they condemn. In the United States, however, we trust cordite over creed, and guns over gods. We have moved on from the Old Bridge shootings, already for those outside the families of the victims and the local community, the headlines took a minute to jangle the bells of distant recollection. Not much has changed; the NRA still claims, even more vehemently than ever, that guns are our best friends. And, one can almost hear as a subtext, in good eisegetical style, “if there is a god he loves violence.”

Divine Election

Jesus, it seems, has given up appearing on tortillas and hedgerows to start endorsing political candidates. Of course, this is not really new news. Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and now Anna Pierre, candidate for mayor of North Miami, all claimed their campaigns were endorsed by the Almighty. Seems that God isn’t that great at picking winners. Anna Pierre, according to a story on NBC, came in last in the polls. Is it any surprise? Jesus always did have a soft spot for the underdog.

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American culture is an odd mix of secular and religious. We seem to want it both ways. Citizens like to believe that they are autonomous in their daily lives, free to choose their non-religious professions and pass-times, and on Sunday God takes over for an hour or two. Charged up on religious conviction, we want society to become more sacred, less trashy. But we still want to watch Fox at night. This disconnect has long fascinated me. No matter how many times God loses the election, a new crop of candidates will spring up with divine endorsements. The electorate, at least a significant part of it, will mindlessly follow along. Perhaps we prefer to believe in a deity whose hand is too short to save. Perhaps omnipotence is best left to boasts rather than belief.

The divine approval of a candidate has become so hackneyed that it has become almost the starting point for political contests. Where do you go after you’ve invoked the highest trump in the deck? Whose word means more than the Lord’s? In the heat of the campaign when policies and platforms just don’t sway the masses, who else can you trust? Often those who play such tactics consider those of us on the liberal side of the spectrum to be cynical. Theirs is religion in the service of the higher good, apparently. We wouldn’t want to be thought of as cynical, now, would we? Otherwise we might note that although Jesus may save, it seems that he certainly can’t vote.

Holding out for a Hero

Over at Religion Link, a story about superheroes and spirituality was posted recently. I guess it should’ve been clearer to me as a child with his head in the clouds that the superheroes buzzing around up there were really gods. Well, in an ultra-thou-shalt-have-no-other-gods setting, that wasn’t really a possibility my young mind could even comprehend. They were just guys (almost always) with super powers. In the Bible they would have been miracle workers. I dared not think of Samson in the same thought as the Incredible Hulk. Heroes, after all, are about wish-fulfillment. We all want to be more than we are—I can imagine a better me (speaking strictly for myself), so why not present that self in the form of a hero? The Greeks, and before them the Mesopotamians did it. Heracles was a Europeanized Gilgamesh, perhaps through the mediation of a Levantine Melqart, after all.

Gods or heroes?

Gods or heroes?

The brief article on Religion Link points out that young people identify with gods in popular culture more than a God in the pew. A veteran of many, many hours in church, I think I can understand that. What adults say is going on in the service is arcane and not prone to any empirical verification. What child sitting in church hasn’t wanted to be home watching real superheroes fight evil on television instead? The movies of the past decade or so have shown us flawed gods. Heroes with troubles. These are the gods for the twenty-first century. Omnipotence isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

Scholars of religion are beginning to pay serious attention to superheroes. Books are beginning to appear offering analyses of these god-men, and a few god-women, among us. Funnily enough, some people find them more believable than the traditional gods. Perhaps that is the draw of heroes from the very beginning. Gilgamesh, after all, is asking the very human questions we still ask today. Where can I find a true companion? Why can’t it last forever? Why must we die? To find the answer Gilgamesh is sent off on an impossible task. He has fought monsters, he has defied the very gods. And when he finds the plant that offers a kind of immortality, it is stolen away by a snake. The story clearly influenced the tale of Eve and Adam in Eden. It has also inspired the more recent incarnations of superheroes, and we are beginning to realize that they often fly in the face of the divine.

Evolving Morals

CNN recently interviewed Frans de Waal about his new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates. Of course the book immediately went on my “to read” list. I’ve followed de Waal’s non-technical work for years and I have come to trust his judgment. As director of part of Yerkes Primate Research Center, de Waal knows apes better than most of us know our neighbors. He has been exploring the origins of altruism and empathy in the great apes and has come to some amazing conclusions. His past work has shown that much of what we have attributed to special revelation has actually arisen in people through regular evolution. The apes, particularly the bonobos, but also chimpanzees, show startlingly human reactions to moral situations. In the interview, de Waal notes the implications for religion. In his opinion, morality predates religion since the former is seen in other primates while the latter is not.

As much as I trust de Waal’s judgment, the unanswered question remains: what exactly is religion? Animals display rudimentary religious behaviors, but in human-speak religion is often intertwined with belief. In watching a recent episode of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole—“Is There Life After Death?”—it was clear that while scientists tend to stand on the “no” side of this divide, in the end it comes down to a matter of belief. Not all religions, however, are tied to belief. Some religions assert that what you believe is not important, but rather, what you do. In such religions morality is much more like our primate kin’s version of religion. As Freeman points out, you really can’t know what another person believes. You can ask, but if you believe their response is always an open question. Here is the dilemma of religion as a matter of belief. Even Jesus putatively said, “by their fruits you will know them.” Morality here sounds like religion.

Frans de Waal suggests in his interview that morality differs from religion by being earlier in the evolutionary scale. If, however, religion evolved—which it surely did, as we can continue to observe its evolution today—it may be of a piece with morality. We object to suggesting animals have religion; this suggestion would knock humanity off its pedestal as the only species to which an incredibly human-like god revealed (as it is said) himself. What de Waal has gone beyond proving in his previous books is that much of what qualifies as religion is found among the great apes. De Waal doesn’t put it in those words, but as a lifelong student of religion I have observed the connections first-hand. A scientist may not feel qualified to define religion, just as a religionist is not qualified to correct a scientist. I eagerly await the chance to read The Bonobo and the Atheist, but I already know that I will find much of what de Waal writes to be beyond question, and we may all be much closer to the origins of religion than we realize. Even our great ape kin.

Michelangelo's muse? (Photo by Greg Hume)

Michelangelo’s muse? (Photo by Greg Hume)