Writing the Cosmos

EvermoreOn occasion those with great wealth try to give something back to society. One such gift takes the form of libraries. The J. P. Morgan Library on Madison Avenue in New York is a touch pricey for those who live in humbler domiciles, but the Edgar Allan Poe display proved too immense a draw to ignore. Standing inches away from manuscripts written in Poe’s fine hand was a kind of communion. It wasn’t too difficult to believe he might have somehow been there. In Baltimore last month I didn’t have the opportunity to revisit his grave, but I picked up a book by one of his modern cousins, Harry Lee Poe. This Poe has theological training and an interest in seeing that his famous cousin isn’t theologically shortchanged. Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe is a rare look at Poe and religion. Treatments of the theology of writers are hardly rare, but since Poe wasn’t openly religious, he was typecast a little too readily into the putatively godless camp of those of us with a taste for the macabre.

Evermore may not convince everyone that Poe was a profound religious thinker, but Harry Lee Poe marshals substantial evidence from both Poe’s published writings and letters that he was often caught in that crux between science and religion. Indeed, there is no evidence that Poe was an atheist. He wrote on what were considered lowbrow topics because those were the kinds of pieces that would sell. Since Poe was perhaps the first American to attempt to make a living solely by his pen, he had to pay attention to what people wanted to read. Evermore, while not a biography in the usual sense, does point out that Poe wrote across genres and that his life, while often tragic, had many spells of happiness and some contentment. Poe was a victim of character assassination after his death by a second-tier clergyman, Rufus Griswold. Much of the book is spent dispelling myths.

Perhaps above all, Edgar Allan Poe had a clear mind that could keep imagination alive in the religion and science debate that was to explode shortly after his death with Darwin’s Origin of Species. For Poe, the universe was a story being crafted by God. Creativity was essential to beauty, a concept that haunted Poe. A writer must be introspective, and this will often leave him or her open to criticism by those who prefer simpler answers. Great beauty can be found in complexity, however, and the practice of ratiocination requires a healthy dose of imagination to help make sense of a world that often seems to make no sense any other way. And standing here, my face inches from a handwritten copy of “The Bells,” I can almost hear them ringing.

Silver and Gold

“He has also set eternity in the human heart,” old Ecclesiastes lamented at the end of the most famous passage in his book, noting that it is nevertheless impossible to conceive. We mark the passing of time in centuries. I suppose we like a good round number, but it is also a convenient frame since few of us make it much beyond the century post, so we can keep it in our eye as a reminder of how long we might have left. Life has held more fear for me than death, so I approached and passed my fiftieth birthday without much anxiety. When it comes to others, however, the caviler perspective soon fades. Centuries are important. And so are halves. And so are quarters. At twenty-five the world stretches endlessly before you. But to what have we really committed to twenty-five years? How much have we changed in that time? Today is my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. The “silver” anniversary they call it. Although I’m not much of a Hallmark kind of guy, the fact that one woman has put up with me for a quarter century continues to amaze me, and we had made plans for a grand celebration. Then Routledge slashed my job. Fortunately, Oxford University Press came to the rescue.

Ah, but with provisional requisites. You see, I had saved a week’s worth of vacation so that I might spend my anniversary at home (or on a little trip) with my wife. Publishers do not get the week between Christmas and New Years’ off. While our academic counterparts are sleeping late and spending time with their families, we’re rising early, commuting into the City, and sending emails that won’t been seen for a few weeks at least. Business rules. Routledge took away my accumulated vacation days, carefully squirreled away during the long year, and since I’m a new hire at Oxford, I haven’t earned any vacation yet. Twenty-five years, and I can’t even give my wife a day. Silver in a world defined by gold. It’s not easy being married to me.

I began work at age 14. With a single exception I have never quit a job. I am a very hard worker and I have never had a performance review that did not say as much. Since Nashotah House set about ending my academic career, I have suffered through three dismissals, all following very positive reviews. You may be forty, forty-five, or fifty, but you are starting over again. Bottom of the pay scale, bottom of vacation days earned. Child in college and eternity in your heart, you have to watch those pennies and be to the office on time. Nobody’s stopping you from going to a nice restaurant (as long as it’s not too expensive), but the bus will drop you off about 7 p.m. and you’d better be asleep two hours after that so that you’re not groggy at work the next day. My old friend, Ecclesiastes, you are wiser than your years. And Kay, thanks for an amazing quarter century. I know of nobody else who would’ve put up with it.

A young couple's anniversary in Wales.

A young couple’s anniversary in Wales.

Vive la différence

Scientists, those to whom society has passed the responsibility for knowing, have an increasingly difficult time defining humans as opposed to other animals. Still, we know a person when we see one. That’s when the crucial ethical issues arise: how should we treat others? Two unrelated articles about human rights recently came across my virtual desk: one about Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and another about how religious rights sometimes/often hamper human rights. There’s so much to sort out here, and I’m not even one of those that society deems fit to do such sorting. Well, I am human, so perhaps I can give it a shot anyway. In an article in Friday’s The Guardian, Deborah Orr points out that for progress in human rights to move forward, rights for the freedom of religion have to take second place. Clearly she’s onto something because, historically, one of the greatest enemies of human rights has been religion. Labeling suffering as virtue, it’s relatively simple for religions to suggest that the lot of the oppressed is to bear suffering so that the faith can continue untainted. After all, those religions with an afterlife, in any case, declare that it all gets sorted in the hereafter.

Orr makes a very good point: we are all human, but we may not all share religion. Isn’t the need of the whole greater than even the need of the many? Utilitarianism would declare it so. So would common sense. (Science warns us not to trust common sense, however.) Some of the harshest violators of human rights continue to be religious traditions. Others are heathens, pagans, infidels, heretics, beasts—take your choice—and therefore displeasing to some divine being, generally male and either hetero- or asexual. Oh, and he’s from the Middle East, ethnically. Over on PhotoBlip.com, a piece about Beauty and the Beast makes the point that Gaston, the strapping, über-masculine antagonist of Belle’s provincial town, is frightening because the people so easily follow him. He whips the crowd into a frenzy because, as a thoughtless but handsome (and ripped) figure, people naturally do what he tells them to. He is a dangerous, selfish bully, and many politicians have learned their tactics from him. Belle, a bookish girl, is considered odd and in need of domesticating. The beast is deformed and in need of killing.

We could learn a lot.  (Photo credit: Brian Forbes, WikiCommons)

We could learn a lot. (Photo credit: Brian Forbes, WikiCommons)

These two stories, from very different sources, point in the same direction: tolerance is the only humane response to a complex world where lots of different types of people live. Still, the problem isn’t wholly a religious one. Human rights insist that all people have access to the basic necessities of life, and, ideally, the possibility of flourishing into what they desire to be. Some, however, desire to dominate. With or without religious backing, this Gaston-esque drive to bully is all too real since might does seem to make right, and even some political darlings get their way by being bullies. One of the most poignant points that religion has ever made is that you can identify the divine by its willingness to lay down power and identify with the weak. We are seldom presented with that side of the gospel truth, for there is a paradox at the heart of it, and people want clear answers, not puzzles. Even science, however, when pushed far enough must answer with a paradox. Is light a wave or a particle? Some religions would say that light is a gift of the divine.

The Subtle Elephant

“Beer,” the list reads, then “Sex, Tacos, Weed.” At the top of the list, “Jesus.” “Which one of these is best?” the magazine page virtually shouts. Not Playboy, but Wired. At times I have difficulty figuring out what is an advertisement and what is an article in Wired. It is the future, I suppose. Anything’s for sale as long as there’s lucre to be generated. The page is topped with “Wired Insider,” so I suppose it’s a whimsical pop culture section, but I’m not really sure. The page seems to be promoting an app called Proust. I’m still pondering this list: “Jesus, Beer, Sex, Tacos, Weed.” One of these things is not like the others…


While there may be nothing inherently wrong with beer, sex and tacos (the jury’s still out on weed), such indulgences are often labeled “vices.” Jesus, until recently, never really populated such lists. Even those who do not claim divinity for Jesus of Nazareth do tend to see his teachings as embodying virtue rather than vice. In the media, however, we often see Jesus turned into a kind of addiction, a vice, if you will. What I mean is that Jesus has become a kind of iconic symbol, emptied of tolerant teachings and benevolence toward all. He has become a “white man,” who does not put up with anyone who deviates from the McCarthy-era lifestyle. He is Ozzie (Nelson, not Osborne). We know so little of the historical Jesus that it is difficult to say anything definitively, but I might suggest that he may have felt more at home at a Black Sabbath concert than watching Leave it to Beaver. There is, after all, value in shock value.

Some scholars now confer about the Iconic Book (i.e., the Bible). The Iconic Book is where the Bible is used not for what it says, but what it represents. Swearing on a Bible means nothing to an atheist, and yet we persist. These hollow symbols become powerful indicators of social norms, while losing their radical content. Many might think the Bible utterly conventional, but there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth on Wall Street if people actually read it and took it seriously. Jesus, it seems, has also become iconic. I don’t mean that icons are painted (although they are), but that he has become a hollow symbol for some. In a world where gaining as much money as possible is called “Prosperity Gospel,” despite what the iconic man in the iconic book supposedly said, I guess it isn’t unusual to find the erstwhile savior among the vices of the world.

“Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless”

Yes, Mr. Eliot, this is the way the world ends.

Shaky Ground

HigherGroundFor the past few years I have been drawn to the spiritual memoirs of women. I suspect a deep disconnect prompts this interest. Religions—in this case primarily the monotheistic traditions—put a premium on fairness and justice, yet treat women as somehow outside these mandates. Women nevertheless respond to the human religious impulse somewhat more seriously than most men. This leads to a dissonance that surfaces in women’s memoirs. Carolyn S. Briggs’ Higher Ground: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost proved somewhat of an epiphany for me. In this story of an Iowa girl’s encounter and seduction into a Fundamentalist faith that never quite managed to smother her rationality, I recognized many aspects of her adopted religion from my own tenure in literalism. The real strength of Briggs’ account is her vivid recollections of how her own Fundamentalist mind worked. For many of us who’ve gone through that spiritual wasteland, dredging up those memories can be a harrowing experience. What shone through in Higher Ground, however, is how the fantasy-prone literalist imagination loses its tenuous hold on reality while promising deliverables that are always pushed off into the future. It is not a faith for the here and now.

The non-denominational, yet Calvinistic, Briggs’ church home convinced the author, for some years, that she was inferior to her husband. There can be no doubt that this is “Bible-based” teaching, for the Bible is the product of a patriarchal age. Literalism grows more oppressive with the passage of time, for despite neo-con posturing, society is better for many than it was in the “good old days.” Fundamentalist traditions seek to reestablish the mores of the first century two millennia later, as if a simple transfer were possible. Society has offered progress for women while literalism is rife with regress. This double standard led to the loss of one of their own because over two thousand years much water flows under the bridge and brig.

Higher Ground is not an easy memoir to read—the accounts of those who experience repression seldom are. Religion is generally a conservative force in society, even if based on radical principles. The sayings of Jesus, for example, remain revolutionary even today, but they are often hidden behind the (male constructed) facades of organized religious movements. In school we teach our children that the sexes are equal, in Sunday school the opposite. Fundamentalism is not, however, in any danger of dying out. As Briggs demonstrates eloquently, the very thought process of a rational person is altered by it. Briggs leaves us guessing at what happened after the story ends but she has nevertheless contributed yet more evidence that demands a verdict. Until the judgment of fair and just can be rendered, religions will repeatedly be called to the witness stand.

God Spell

I had some good news from God recently, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses are to be believed, anyway. It had been a trying week in some ways, and who wouldn’t welcome good news? Back when I was unemployed, I used to natter with the Witnesses when they came around. Like a stray that you feed one time, however, you’d better be expecting them back from time to time. I was reminded of a phone conversation I overheard (in New York City generally everything is overheard by at least someone) where a woman was saying, “I keep praying Jehovah will straighten her out.” I didn’t know who the “her” was, but I did wonder why the Witnesses keep using a name that we know is technically incorrect. “Jehovah” is actually what you get when you read the Masoretic device of using the vowels from “adonai” with the consonants for “Yahweh,” in a Germanic language. Since Jews don’t pronounce God’s name, they used this little symbol to remind the reader to use the sobriquet “lord” (adonai) instead. Some literalists lined the letters up and came up with a Teutonic-Hebraic name that was never historically used for God.


Well, the good news volume of the Watchtower addressed that. Sort of. Chapter 2, “Who is God?” notes “In English it [God’s name] is usually pronounced ‘Jehovah.’ But some people pronounce it ‘Yahweh.’” Historically and critically it is the other way around, but who’s counting? Orthodoxy doesn’t always make somebody a good person. In fact, most of the Witnesses I’ve met have treated me better than the majority of people in my own faith tradition. Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. Religion often has a way of bringing out the worst in people. Since this was the good news, I decided to accentuate the positive. I turned to chapter 8 to learn “Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering?” Theodicy is probably the largest generator of atheism that monotheism faces.

“Evil began on earth when Satan told the first lie.” Although, I wonder how you define a lie? According to Genesis 3.17, the conclusion to God’s first word to Adam was, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The last part of the sentence, “surely die,” is an emphatic in Hebrew, the original language of Jehovah. But it doesn’t literally happen. Most literalists allow this infelicity to stand, or explain it away as a “spiritual death,” while the Hebrew is quite plain in its meaning. Thou shalt surely die is non-negotiable. Not exactly true, however. I’m no theologian. I’m just a reader attempting to make sense of the world I see around me. Good news is there certainly, every now and again. But that theodicy question trips me up every time. Until we can face the implications of not surely dying, I’m not sure we’ll ever find out.

Make Light

Despite the war on Christmas, it came. To be honest, I haven’t yet gone to the window this morning to see if smoky remains litter the street of my small town, but there is something decidedly positive inside me that tells me that it’s Christmas. Religious holiday or not, any celebration that can make people feel at peace for even just a day is worth it. Christmas has always been a time of sharing. Not to exclude our southern hemispheric and equatorial companions, but the darkest time of year requires something to lift the human spirits. I wonder if even the Romans back in their salubrious Mediterranean climate felt a bit of a pinch at this time of year as they planned the festivity that marked the shortest day of the year. Without precise timekeeping, it is difficult to know exactly when the solstice is—to me for about a fortnight is looks dark pretty much all the time. I catch the bus to work in the dark, arrive at work before sunrise, leave work in the dusk and by the time I’m on the bus home it is dark. These few days around the solstice I know that I could use a little break.


How like human nature to take such a wonderful concept and turn it into something to fight over. I don’t know the religious preferences of everyone at work. I suspect a large number might be Jewish, and some are likely Muslims. Many, I suspect, have no religious leanings at all. Yet today they all have a gift, tree or not. They are paid for not working. The gift might be extra sleep, or it might be the light that neighbors shed in the darkness with gaudy displays of Christmas lights, or holiday lights, or just colorful lights—what is the difference, really?

The whole concept of a war on Christmas has to do with feelings of superiority. Those who take up the war cry feel proprietary rights to a holiday their religion did not invent. We don’t know when Jesus was born. The best guess scholars have is that it was in April, around about the time we celebrate Easter, I suppose. Christmas was despised and scorned by many Christians until the nineteenth century, the very ancestors of the conservative factions that claim Christmas as their own banned the holiday for its papist trappings and pagan undertones. Now they wish to claim Christmas as uniquely theirs. Like the Grinch up on Mount Crumpit, I put a hand to my ear and learn something new. Christmas is for everyone. Any holiday that can bring peace to this troubled mind for a few hours is a day to be shared.