Monthly Archives: January 2014

NC-17

HolySh*tHoly Shit (in the philosophical mention sense, not the use sense), by Melissa Mohr, is a book I had intended to write. I’m glad Dr. Mohr beat me to it, however, since her treatment would be difficult to top. Few ideas are so arresting as the forbidden topics, and Mohr shows us that swearing occupies a compartment of the brain separate from regular speech, and it may even have therapeutic qualities. A Brief History of Swearing, to use the less offensive subtitle, is not an easy book to read in public. Since most of my reading time is spent in densely packed transit vehicles or waiting areas, I always wonder who might be reading over my shoulder. As a short guy that’s always an issue. Nevertheless, Mohr’s book is fun and informative, and I suspect I will read it again for all the information packed into it.

You see, Mohr uses both words of the title in a literal sense. Beginning with the Romans, but then stepping back to the Bible, clearly swearing has religious origins. While the Bible doesn’t prohibit coarse language in any direct sense, it does believe in oaths. Swearing oaths was serious business, and that seriousness led directly to the concept of swearing. Combine that with the idea of cursing (which the ancients also believed effective—ask Saint Peter) and you get the spectrum covered by the concept of “bad words.” (At least up until modern times.) Although I’ve studied religion my whole life, I was surprised how much I had to learn about the more earthy aspects of spoken sacred language.

As Mohr amply demonstrates, what counts as swearing changes with time. Giving the case of the Lindisfarne Gospels, she illustrates how a glossing priest causally dropped the equivalent of a medieval f-bomb right there on the pages of the holy Gospel. It wasn’t considered swearing at that historical moment in time (and besides, a fair amount of it goes on in the Bible). How far we’ve come. I recall one of my Nashotah House students telling me how he had to take a rather freely expressive classmate aside and tell him he was pretty sure that the f-word was an inappropriate adjective to use when referring to the Trinity. But now I see the wisdom of the ages at play. People use their most powerful words for what moves them most deeply. I doubt Mohr had quite that in mind, but if you read her delightful study you can find out what I may be full of after all.

Retire Me This…

We’re all getting older.  My daily, grudging glimpse in the mirror reminds me that my beard wasn’t always gray, and there was a time *gasp* when no beard grew at all.  One of the realities of the brave new world we inhabit is that career stability has become a myth.  My father, in the brief time I knew him, worked as a house painter.  My stepfather worked in a sewage plant for a small town and drove a snowplow in winter to make ends meet.  These utilitarian jobs seemed never to end.  I made the mistake of going into higher education, not realizing that the risks were much higher and that I would make more money working in a sewage plant than I have ever made in my professional career, PhD in hand.  So it rankles me when I hear professors complaining about being too busy in retirement.  Retirement: what a concept.  When the guy who has custodianship of my minuscule retirement account from Nashotah House, after his gentle awaking from the defibrillator, looks at my records he always informs me, “you’re not well placed for retirement.”  Talking to my big brother we agree—our retirement plan is to die on the job.  So, when someone asks you to write another book, remember maybe it is some guy your own age who is trying not to starve.

As a society we’re aging.  Those who managed not to be fired by Fundamentalists have had a secure, tenure-ridden ride through the occupation that some of the rest of us were denied.  Busy in retirement?  Some of us will never have that privilege.  Funny thing is, it’s not funny.  I sometimes lean back in my editorial chair and realize, if this hadn’t happened to me, I would probably look at it the same way.  I would have published that second, third, and fourth book, and people would actually think my opinion mattered.  I would’ve become a resource to be tapped rather than a dancing monkey who hopes for anything shiny.  Is that another gray hair?

I don’t belittle the hard work of higher education—it’s not an easy profession. But writing books? That’s the fun part! Privilege induces blindness. How rare an opportunity it is to teach! While we as a nation devalue it, in many parts of the world those who shape future minds are revered. Yet elsewhere in the world there are those who are far worse off even than an editor—those for whom life is constant suffering and surviving another day is not reasonably assured. How easily I forget this as I neglect to balance my checkbook for fear of what I might find. We shouldn’t complain when someone asks us to give back, even in retirement. Those of us capable of writing books sometimes lack only the bona fide of a college or university position to do so. Otherwise I might hope to retire as well some day.

"Photo by Chalmers Butterfield"

“Photo by Chalmers Butterfield”

Who Loves You?

DarwinLovesYouWonder is too easily lost in a reductionistic world. Even when we get to the level of quantum mechanics we’re told, “it’s just physics.” How depressing. Such ideas seem to have been in the mind of George Levine as he wrote Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-Enchantment of the World. Don’t get me wrong, Levine does not back away from the secular starkness of biology. What he does, however, is ask whether or not evolution by natural selection shouldn’t create a kind of secular enchantment. Almost from page one Levine has to address religion, the tyrannosaurus in the room. Religion, for all its shortcomings, has provided people with a sense of purpose, even enchantment, from days long before any temples or priests existed. The materialist response of “buck up, there’s nothing more than biology going on here,” has proved to be of little consolation to the vast majority of people on the planet. One of the reasons, and I speak only for myself here, is that it just doesn’t feel true.

Truth is a slippery concept. In origin the word seems to derive from something like “to have good faith.” In terms of factuality it also has the meaning of conforming to reality. Reality, however, is equally perilous when it comes to authoritative definitions. Reality means nothing if it is not perceived. Perception may actually bring something to the table, if particle physics are to be believed. Empirical method is pragmatic—I believe that every time I grudgingly climb aboard an airplane, or turn on a computer. At the same time I sense that there may be more to it than that. No matter how much science I read, that perception simply won’t go away. The professors of materialism have learned to quash that still, small voice. The hollow feeling with which it leaves me, however, may be significant.

Evolution and religion are inextricably interwoven. Religion, although poorly defined, has to do with finding meaning in a world that is often harsh and cruel. No doubt such feelings evolved, and some of our animal kin may share them with us. When molecules break down into atoms, they generally lose the characteristics of the molecule. We now know that we can keep breaking even the invisible apart until we’re left with only theory as to what might be below. This may be true. At the same time, the wonder with which we might stand before a cyclotron or a little robot rolling around the surface of Mars, the question of truth emerges like a rock that wasn’t there just a few days before. A gnawing sense that we don’t have the full picture. A sense that no matter how far we tear apart, the total will always be far more than the sum of parts. Levine is right; evolution can induce wonder. And truth, at its very heart, is a matter of faith.

Weather or Not

The internet’s nothing if not self-referential. A post by Fred Clark over on Patheos, pointed out to me by my brother-in-law, has received 235 comments (at the time of this writing) for a topic I’ve addressed repeatedly, to no avail. I know my place. In any case, the topic which brought such furor was that severe weather is caused by divine displeasure, something I’ve addressed a time or two. In fact, I’ve written a book about it. Never mind, some of us revel in obscurity. Fred is writing about the remarks of former Tory David Silvester that the UK has been suffering unusually severe weather because of homosexual marriage. That’s really old news to those of us over here in the colonies; Pat Robertson told us as much after Katrina (although he didn’t limit the sins to homosexuality). Sex tends to stir up storms of its own, regardless of divine voyeurism, while we ignore the obvious culprit—global warming. (Culprit of unusually severe weather, not of sex.)

Global warming, as a recent conversation with a very smart undergraduate confirmed, is a poor name choice. Those of us on the northeastern coastal corridor have been shivering a lot this winter, and snow has remained on the sidewalks of Manhattan for more than a single day at a time. You call this global warming? Yes. The science behind climatology tells us that warming the overall temperatures of the globe will result in erratic weather, including uncharacteristically cold and freezing in some locations, dampness in others, while yet others experience, yes, warming. We know it is real, we know it is happening. We just don’t know what to call it. Some choose to call it God’s wrath. Others choose to name it more properly human shortsightedness. After we hunted the last mammoth down, we decided to start building bigger fires to warm the ice age up a bit. Those fires have been burning ever since.

IMG_3659

My book on the weather, by the way, suggests that divine control of the elements is an essential part of the biblical mindset. To ancient folk this was a no-brainer. God is in (his) heaven and messing with the HVAC system is one of the ways (he) passes the time. Down here we may shiver, become parched, or get washed away. It’s all a matter of the divine thermostat. As Fred Clark points out, the divine temperament sets the temperature based on human activity. Sin leads to unusual weather. Unwittingly, however, David Silvester may have gotten it right. There is a sin involved, and that sin is called global warming. No deity need be involved. We have shown that humans are quite capable of messing with the thermostat on our own. And the day I get 235 comments on anything it will be a very cold day in a place famed for its heat.

A Girl Named Cthulhu

It was only a 25-word blurb in last week’s Time magazine. A Canadian couple decided to let the internet community name their daughter. As of the time of writing the third most popular suggestion was Cthulhu. WWLD? The internet has brought Lovecraft’s sleeping deity to life. Ironically this evil, belligerent, and fearsome god tends to have more fans than some of the more loving, cuddling varieties of deity around which western culture arose. Children are a parent’s ultimate investment (or should be) and the name we bestow will influence their view of life. I still recall the scandal of when I first showed my Mom a baseball card where the player was named Jesus (Spanish pronunciation, please!). I innocently asked if that was allowed since we’d been taught that although other biblical figures were fair game, the name of God was a retired number. There was only one Jesus, and this baseball card a monument to sinful arrogance.

Cthulhu

Of course, we lacked the biblical training to know that Jesus is only the Greek form of Joshua, a name of fair game to any young lad. Naming after a deity was otherwise verboten. Of course, that has all changed now. Names are up for grabs, and it is getting harder to find unique ones. H. P. Lovecraft, who died in relative obscurity, could find publication only in pulp fiction magazines—the lowbrow literature of his day. The divine fruit of his fertile imagination has now taken on the dimensions of true divinity. How many potential names are out there on the internet? Lovecraft alone gave us many gods. All the Dianas, Thors, Carmans and Dylans out there are in good company. Why not name a child after a god?

Names do effect a child’s view of life. Growing up in a biblically literate family, I often thought of the Stephen of the New Testament. The first Christian martyr, he died with a vision of heaven in his eyes, earning the meaning of his name, “crowned.” I aspired to live a selfless life, in as far as such a thing was possible in the twentieth century. It was my name—it was my destiny. There are no other “Steves” in my family, and when I was old enough to comprehend that many children bear family names, I asked my Mom whence mine had come. It turns out that I was named not after a family member or even a saint, but after a cartoon character. Touché, Cthulhu! Long may those of us with unorthodox namesakes stick together. The world is our myth.

Tweeting Treason

Partisan politics can be very depressing. Religion seldom helps. Good ol’ boys hepped up on Jesus and lynchings creep me out a bit, especially when they’ve got political ambitions. Florida’s continual struggle with reality reawakened this fear when I read, in a Huffington Post story about Joshua Black’s recent tweet. A Republican candidate for the state house, Black is a former street evangelist who allegedly tweeted that a hanging is the way to solve, in his not-so-humble opinion, ills in the White House. To be fair, Black suggests that a trial for war crimes should precede the stout rope, but I’m afraid I’ve lost faith in due process. Anyone who’s tangled with the evangelical version of justice knows that there’s just no way to win. And yet, despite the many compromises on the political front, the religious right takes any excuse to make ever more outlandish claims.

Looking back over the history of Christianity, I wonder where hatred entered the mix. Jesus, according to the Gospels, had a temper but he never suggested the death penalty for his political enemies. Even standing before Pilate and Herod, he didn’t trump their human political ambitions with the divine trump card to win earthly power, hands down. As I recall, the early evangelists spent quite a bit of time huddled in dark corners for fear of the rule of government. They didn’t suggest hanging Tiberius, although one has to wonder what even the Romans made of Caligula. There were, no doubt, multiple Christianities as play in those early centuries, but the biblical picture, the one that evangelicals claim as their own, shows the true believers frightened and utterly subservient to the dictates of empire.

That haircut will never pass Evangelical muster

That haircut will never pass Evangelical muster

Constantine may be the most important figure in western history. The religions we recognize as Christianity today may have largely been crafted by Paul of Tarsus, but they would never have become the foundation of empire without Constantine’s conversion. The Christianization of the Roman Empire grew into the immense power of the Vatican in the Middle Ages, and fueled the political ambitions of colonists to this land that they claimed theirs by manifest destiny. And our presidents, no matter their personal predilections, have become more and more Christian ever since. Thomas Jefferson could not be elected in today’s political climate. Even Jefferson repented of having held slaves. There was a time when accusing a law-abiding president of war crimes would itself have been considered treason. A lot of water has passed under the Watergate since then, and partisan politics now holds hands with an uncompromising Christianity that suggests the death penalty is more to be desired than health care for all.

Material Goods

Few ideas are as insidious as the reductionistic materialism touted by some of the New Atheists. Atheism and materialism need not walk down the same garden path, but the idea that we are determined by the thoughtless playing out of particle physics can only be achieved by sweeping the vast majority of human experience off the table to attempt a sterile analysis that applies, it seems, only in a vacuum. I often ponder this dilemma since those who think through the implications seriously soon find themselves locked out of the room. Materialists want nothing to do with those who challenge a system that is a little too neat, while ardent believers in religion have trouble letting go of what are obviously the mythological underpinnings of belief structures. The rest of us, trying to be intellectually honest, know that strange things happen and that materialism’s strong arm is powerless to uphold a system that is simplistic.

Indeed, scientists have moved away from utility as the sole criterion for explaining the universe. Beauty, or elegance, is frequently considered to be key to a Grand Unified Theory. It may be a gut-level reaction, but it speaks to something deeply human; we need to make sense of our world. We can do that, however, only if we’re willing to be honest. I’m not sure we can be honest without acknowledging that our minds range far beyond the sum of all the electro-chemical activity within an individual brain. If they didn’t, religion, for one, just couldn’t survive. Beauty, as a qualifier, is said to be in the eye of the beholder. Philosophers, however, maintain that aesthetics, the study of beauty, constitutes a branch of philosophy that requires hard thinking and specialized training. Beauty is a driving force for many aspects of life. Otherwise we wouldn’t hire architects to design since buildings on university campuses. A pile of bricks sufficiently mortared will do.

450x230_q75

The issue is trenchant because a generation is growing up with this idea firmly in place. Scientific studies, if scientists are to be believed, demonstrate that a strict materialism erodes empathy, the sense that what others experience matters. The logical conclusion to a reductionistic world is a kind of cold solipsism where the only spark of consciousness that matters is the one that takes place inside this head. All the rest are just formulas and equations. And yet, don’t even materialists enjoy a good novel, movie, or fine meal? The world is a complex place, and we haven’t even taken the first adult steps to begin exploring the rest of the universe with the five basic senses we acknowledge. Even down here, however, there is much that reductionistic materialism can’t explain. I wouldn’t stick a god in that gap, but a dose of humble wonder, I suggest, wouldn’t hurt.