No Singing Matter

Canticle for LeibowitzA Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr., is one of those books that I read years ago, and when I picked it up again found that I remembered very little of it. I suppose this is one of the hazards of extensive reading—some important things get lost in the noise. I recall having read A Canticle for Leibowitz when I was a grad student at Boston University, and I remembered the detail of a grocery list being taken for holy writ in a post-apocalyptic world where, in a strange reincarnation, monks have once again become the guardians of knowledge. Little else remained. Perhaps part of the reason is that the book requires more experience with the church than I had in those days. One might suppose a seminarian would have about as much ecclesiastical experience as one might need. Not so. It did teach me, however, to read provocative books.

Like most dystopias, there is a deep bleakness to A Canticle for Leibowitz. In the light of recent developments in the papacy, the book is remarkably prescient. In the final pages of the final section, a radiation-sick woman and her young child, in constant pain, seek the government sponsored euthanasia camp. Abbot Zerchi, however, condemns this as a sin against God. Doctrine takes the place of compassion, and only moments later the final atomic strikes wipe the abbot and his monks off the earth forever. Yet there are monks on a spaceship, ensuring that any future planets will have the same uncompromising doctrine planted there as well. For a book published in 1959, it sounded incredibly contemporary. Miller’s anger still echoes throughout. The church builds societies that destroy themselves. A cycle of futility.

I wonder what the result would be if more people read such stories. It is, of course, easy enough to shut out any implications we don’t like and claim it is all a silly piece of fiction. The problem is that Miller is not too far off base. Our civilization does own much to its religious institutions. Those institutions sometimes have considerable trouble relinquishing control when society finds its grounding in science and technology. It is difficult to believe divine proclamations from above in the age of the space telescope. Yet, even so, we still elect to power politicians who look back millennia for the instructions on how to treat those of other genders or races. To do so, as Miller recognized, is to begin building bombs all over again. And even old Ecclesiastes declared that there is, in a Leibowitzian twist, nothing new under the sun.

Com-Passion

I suppose it is always premature to hope that ancient institutions are likely to improve. Like many other followers of developments in religion, I was pleasantly amazed to read reports of Pope Francis declaring that, in my vernacular, that the church should not be so stuck in the rut of doctrinal abstemiousness that it forget mercy and charity. How sad to see that hours later he was forced, Galileo-like, to recant somewhat. The forces at work are far more powerful than the vicar of Christ. In some minds religion is doctrine. I know whereof I speak. For several years of my professional life I worked for a doctrinaire institution where any hint of mercy was considered a kind of Protestant mewling before a God who would’ve made even Jonathan Edwards tremble. Although officially released “without cause,” I can’t help but think that my own pastoral sensitivities were at fault. I don’t believe that religions thriving on condemnation deserve the title.

Ironically, I was at Notre Dame University when headlines about the Pope’s declaration that the church should not obsess about homosexuality and abortion appeared in the papers. It was with a kind of wonder that I heard an academic say, “the Pope is sounding more Lutheran all the time.” I’m not naive enough to suppose that the pontiff is suggesting a change in doctrine—there are rocks so heavy that the Almighty himself can’t lift them—but that the leader of the world’s largest church was suggesting mercy and compassion outweigh legality felt as if Amos or Micah had just walked into the Vatican. The next day the Pope had to come out and strongly condemn abortion. Politics, it seems, will always trump human understanding.

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We live in an era of iron-willed religions. The human element often vanishes beneath a frowning providence that wishes for clocks to be turned back decades, if not centuries. These religions have no place for improving the human lot in this sinful world—it is much easier to condemn than to contemplate compassion. Religion is hard, for people find forgiveness a difficult doctrine to accept. Jonathan Edwards dangled his spider over the eternal fires of hell, but ecclesiastics today suggest that swift shears taken to that silken web would solve all the problems. Time for change? Not in this century. Religions, too, evolve. But evolution doesn’t equal improvement. Many an agnostic has become so because of the reality of “nature red in tooth and claw.”

From Darkness

All things being equal, most religions side with light. Let there be light. Enlightenment. Dewali, the festival of lights. The light of heaven is as much the appeal just as the darkness of hell is its antipode. Today, as the autumnal equinox turns us toward the darker half of the year, many religions mark the occasion with some kind of notice of the fading of the light. In the Celtic calendar, so indicative of the old religions of Europe, the recognition of the triumph of the dark comes at Samhain, or Halloween. It is the realization that darkness always follows light, and even the relative carelessness of summer has its limits. We are, half the year, no matter our location on the globe, in darkness.

Despite the habits of some college-age folk, people are not, by nature, nocturnal. Biology has evolved our sense of daylight, color-rich sight as a main means of our survival. Our religions have taken our fear of the dark and valorized our experience of light. Even as the winter solstice rolls around, festivals of many religions add more and more lights to ward off the encroaching night. The equinox is a moment of stability. It is a tenuous moment, occurring only twice a year, when darkness and light hold an uneasy truce. We are poised to move into shorter days, cooler weather, and the apparent loss of life. There is a melancholy to it, beautiful and compelling, if somewhat sad.

As I reflect on the fading of the light, I realize that the southern hemisphere, whence light seems to be rising, is facing the vernal equinox. Their summer is about to begin. Days will lengthen and light will be abundant. Our religious calendars tend to be keyed to the experience of those in the northern hemisphere. Those in the south, following the dictates of Rome, celebrate Christmas in summer and Easter in the fall. After my rainy visit to Indiana, where, on a rainy Thursday evening I saw a rainbow in the east, I awoke to a rainy Friday and saw a rainbow to the west. Fractured light. The light of a fading day broken into its myriad shades and hues. Light is that way. It is always daylight somewhere in the world, but religions focus on the light where we find ourselves at the moment.

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A Certain Man Went Down

Among the progeny claimed by Wabash College is Dan Simmons. I’ve read a couple of Simmons’ ghost novels, although in reverse order. I read A Winter Haunting, which I quite liked, and followed it up with Summer of Night. Having lived in the Midwest many years, it was easy to visualize the scenes. Then came the time for my trip to Crawfordsville, Indiana. I started the day in South Bend, finishing up my meetings at Notre Dame. I’d noted on the map that, as is often the case, the places I need to get to just aren’t connected by anything resembling a direct route. Although the forecast said “30 percent chance of rain,” I’d awoken at 4 a.m. to a thunderstorm and it had been pouring all morning long. I could swear they were making plans to convert the great Notre Dame stadium into an ark. Perhaps I’d forgotten just how persistent Midwestern storms can be. Soaked, I crawled into my rental car to tool down to Crawfordsville. At least the rain had finally stopped.

On one of those highways in the middle of corn fields as far as the driver’s eye dares look, the low tire pressure light came on. I dutifully pulled over and called Hertz. The suggestion was to find a gas station and put some air in the offending tire. Someone could be there in three hours. Looking about me at the amber waves, I thought of the spirits of Dan Simmons’ stories. A car breaking down in the heartland. No one around to offer assistance. The illusion allusion was shattered when a stranger pulled over and asked me if I needed help. I recall a priest friend once tearfully confessing to me that he had, on a rainy night, refused to stop to help someone with a flat because of fear for his safety. I understood completely—it can be a scary world out there. “And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.”

With multiple stops to put air into my slowly leaking tire, I limped my way from town to town, reaching my destination after dark. Along the way a fierce rainbow appeared to the east as the sun began to set. Once you’ve abandoned the interstate in Indiana, there’s no going back. I began to notice just how many churches dotted each little village through which I drove. Samaritans, I thought. As I write this in Crawfordsville, I think of the corn, sorghum, and soybean fields that inspired Dan Simmon’s ghosts. I think of a stranger, a woman of minority demographics, stopping to see if I needed help along a lonely highway. She was among those our society would deem vulnerable, and yet she was the only one who stopped. And I think of parables. “But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?”

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Our Lady of Culture

So I’m in the land where sport and religion become one.  Notre Dame is an intimidating university for a small Protestant like myself.  Like on a first date, I’m never sure what to do with my hands.  Standing below the famous “touchdown Jesus,” more properly, the “Word of Life,” I feel small indeed.  For a long while in US history, Catholicism was treated like some kind of cult.  Those of us reared Protestant were taught to fear “them” and their ritualistic ways.  I’m more afraid that someone might ask me about football stats.  Sports is a religion I’ve never studied.

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Culture is like a colossal Cuisinart.  Lots of stuff goes in, all of it more or less equal, and the blades begin to whirl.  Sports, religion, fast food, alcohol, a dash of education, and we’ve got an American classic.  The only time that sports come to my mind is when they start to take on the flavor of religion.  The level of the devotion of fans is the envy of many a church.  In fact, the word “fan” was borrowed from the lexicon of religious behaviors.  It is not difficult to sense the pride in football here, but then, sports are often a civilized way to assert one’s self-worth in a culture where self-worth feels under threat.  It is hard to recall a time when the Fighting Irish were not mainstream.

“High culture” has put itself on the endangered species list by becoming inaccessible in a culture that doesn’t value education (not to reflect on the academics I’ve seen at Notre Dame, which are pretty impressive).  I cringe, however, when I see polished politicians basking in their lack of introspection on issues that impact the entire human race.  They seem proud to declare themselves untainted by education.  They will support sports, however, and particularly football where violence is padded, but still encouraged.  It is culture for those who enjoy the lowest common denominator.  In the airport I noticed another “touchdown” character who, in some quarters in more recognized than the deity soaring over Notre Dame’s venerable stadium.  I was in the true presence of culture even before I boarded the plane.

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High Tide

While the devastating rains in Colorado this month are a very serious concern, over the past several days I heard and read the adjective “biblical” associated with them several times. Even the National Weather Service made reference to “biblical rainfall amounts.” It’s true that the Bible does contain the most famous, if not exactly original, flood story in the modern world. The tale of Noah easily goes back to the Sumerians, and there are deluge stories from around the world that rival it in most details. Even in this secular age, though, we all still know that floods are the province of providence. It is of interest, however, how the word “biblical” has taken on a distinctly negative connotation. The most noteworthy of biblical materials are high literature of optimism and potential for good—and sweet heaven when we die. And yet, floods, droughts, plagues of insects, these are the “biblical” events in our lives.

Floods can indeed be devastating. They demonstrate the illusion of solidity under which we try to assure ourselves that the high ground is the safest place to be when the globe warms up, or God grows somewhat impatient with human antics. Biology has implanted deeply in our psyches the desire for a safe haven, a place where we can store our stuff securely. In fact, the “net worth” of an individual—so noteworthy when we die—is measured in terms of the material goods which we control, or “own.” The quality of a person’s inner life is not something of their “net worth” to society; it can’t be divvied up by lawyers and investors, and, in terms of legality, is unimportant. We are valued for our things.

That’s why floods are so pernicious. I don’t devalue the lives that have been lost, but the headlines declare the dollar amounts more loudly. Here is where the obvious clash between the days of Noah and our own come into play. The only goods the delugonaut took aboard the ark consisted of food and life itself (although the Sun Pictures version shows his family with anachronistic metal knives and even some furniture). When the whole world is flooded, the only property valued at all is that on the deck next to you. Our society values people by what they acquire rather than by who they are. Floods wipe out the former, leaving the latter harried but hopefully intact. If we were to build arks today, no doubt as the clear-cutting of rain forests with the subsequent extinction of countless species shows, we would use the choicest wood and would cram every last square inch with our stuff, while people and other animals outside beg for entrance onto the boats that we “earn.”

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Grace, Virtually

Although Yom Kippur is now over, I have a confession to make. My wife just showed me eScapegoat, the website where you can confess your sins over the virtual priest laying electronic hands on a disturbingly cute animated goat. Even before I owned a computer (or one owned me), and even before I knew of the internet, I used to joke with friends what the technological revolution would mean for religions. Would we eventually go to an ATM for virtual communion? Would the screen glow with the words of the eucharistic liturgy, Rite 1, or would it be more contemporary (Jesus raised the glass and said, “This blood’s for you!”)? Would a physical wafer come through the slot? If so, would it have to have been pre-consecrated? So our bemused musings ran. But our idle thoughts held a touch of prophetic insight, it seems. Can the force of religion come through the keys upon which your fingers rest? The monitor that glows like heaven itself? Whence electronic salvation?

There can be no doubt that religion is a huge topic on the internet. I generally don’t go looking for it, because it will come to me. Religions, by their very nature, spread. They are aggressive memes, wanting desperately to replicate themselves. Our frail human minds want so much to believe that we have found the truth, and once we have, we want to share it with others. Bibles were among the first books off the first printing press. Television soon evolved televangelists. The internet became the home of virtual religion. For some it is reality, nothing virtual about it. Concepts such as grace, however, defy any kind of clear exposé, there’s always shadows in this room. Can it make its way, preveniently, through the wires and waves of the internet?

eScapegoat is lighthearted, but I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a more serious side to it. Confession on the internet can be cheap. Anonymity (excepting, of course, the NSA) is easily maintained. Your confession, visible to the faith community, is really between you and the Almighty, right? The book of James tells us confession is good for the soul, or something similar. We all know that admitting a mistake has its own cathartic release, but I found confession, in my Anglo-Catholic days, terribly invasive. Surely I knew that I’d made errors, and I knew that I felt badly about them. Did I really have to tell someone else so that I would feel bad about them all over again, reopening wounds that had already begun to heal? Isn’t this the beauty of eScapegoat? You can make a serious confession that others will see anonymously as a joke. Our poor, blinking goat will pay the ultimate price.

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