Fighting with Monsters

GothicThe Lady and Her Monsters reminded me of Gothic. A friend of mine in seminary showed me this “shocking” movie by Ken Russell just after it was released on VHS (I always was fond of ancient history). To my young eyes this was a challenging film, but it rated higher in moodiness than scariness. Roseanne Montillo’s book brought the movie to mind because, it turns out, several of the incidents in the movie were based on fact. Perhaps I need to take a step back because Gothic never made it big, and many may not realize that the movie is about the legendary night Mary Godwin (soon to be Shelley) came up with the idea for Frankenstein. In an early nineteenth-century walk of fame, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin, Lord Byron, and John Polidori decided to write scary stories, as a kind of contest. Only two ever made it to print, Polidori’s The Vampyre, which inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula many decades later, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The movie, with Ken Russell’s famous flamboyance, traced an unlikely story of the friends conjuring a ghost and then banishing it once again before the stormy night is over.

Ken Russell had the reputation for being obsessed with the church and sexuality. These interests are certainly well represented in Gothic, where Percy Shelley, famously an atheist and believer in the supernatural, struggles to make sense of it all. Polidori, Byron’s personal physician, is presented as a Catholic who admits, when each has to confess his or her deepest fears, that God terrifies him. The friends (perhaps in an unwitting prelude to a television series by that name) explore sexuality and the supernatural through the long night. Waking nightmares meet them at every turn. They even have a skull of “the black monk,” a character attested in all sincerity, at one time, at the most gothic seminary in the Wisconsin woods.

“He who fights with monsters,” Friedrich Nietzsche opined, “might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” That which we worship is that which we fear. Certainly the Christianity of the Middle Ages had as much of Hell as of Heaven in it. Bursting out into the light of rationalism, it seems, did not banish the darkness after all. We still have many questions left unanswered, and many intelligent people have begun to question whether any one paradigm fits all of the evidence. I suspect not. Human experience goes in multiple directions at once. We have ladies, we have monsters, we have scientists, we have God. And on rainy nights we have movies that make us see that we have combined them all into a tale often repeated but never fully understood.

Horsemanship

Hi ho Silver, away! I’ve been pondering academic freedom. (It was suggested to me that I might discourse on such.) My academic career, three years cold in the grave, seems a long way away. In religious studies it is kosher to fire someone for academic freedom issues. Doctrine permits no challenges, for it has already been decided. This doesn’t only apply to conservative religions, but to academic institutions of all stripes. Nobody likes to be challenged. Somehow, since 9/11 any academic dispute in religion is a potential threat. I have known many academics to have lost their jobs. I also know how it feels to see colleagues go from grace to grace because they have an institution that will vouch for them. I don my black mask and saddle up Silver. Those of us raised in working class families watched that show, you know, religiously. And Gunsmoke, among other campy westerns. Caricatures of good guys versus bad guys. You know the story.

In a moment of self-delusion, I thought I might be asked to deliver a paper at this year’s Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. I plodded along in my cumbersome way, reading a few books on academic freedom and interviewing a couple of its sacrificial victims. Turns out I was, well, self-deluded. It is probably for the best since I don’t wish to put myself forward as an expert on anything. Still, it felt like arriving at the front desk on that great and terrible day to find out your name’s not in the book after all, and so, where do you go now? Academics are running along as healthily as they always have. I was not raised knowing the difference between a salad fork and a meat fork. Some colleagues insist that universities crave the voice of hoi polloi; the authentic blue collar academic who worked his or her way up from a disadvantaged start through a doctoral program. I know it’s all just fancy talk. Academics are just as xenophobic as the rest of us.

Losing an academic position is easy. It’s like falling off a horse. I speak from experience here, having fallen off a big horse during a canter while helping underprivileged kids at horse camp one summer. It didn’t seem much like the wild west at the time. Seeing the world in a side view of the horse as you’re sliding off has a way of changing your perspective. You know the ground is coming fast. You just hope that your feet have slipped the stirrups. When it was all over the horse whisperer (or whatever they were called back then) publicly berated me for letting the reins fall from my hand. I should’ve slipped them over the saddle horn on my way down. Didn’t I know that the horse might’ve stepped on them? Rubbing my sore backside, I didn’t feel like such a masked lawman anymore. Silver had gotten away. At the dining hall I could feel the uncomfortable stares. Which one is the salad fork again? I never could keep my silver straight.

By Pleasure Island Uploaded by We hope at en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Pleasure Island Uploaded by We hope at en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fashions to Slaves

Howard Thurman was a theologian who held saintly status in my days at Boston University. As an African-American he’d experienced episodes while growing up that nobody should have to face. I remember him writing about being stuck with a pin in the hand by a caucasian girl who declared, “you don’t feel pain.” That image has stayed with me for decades. Unfortunately, that image hasn’t remained alone. I’ve been reading about slavery in the ancient world. No matter your race, slavery was considered a kind of ontological state. The color of your skin didn’t matter; your social status did. Slaves, you see, were less than human. When the slave trade began its hideous trans-Atlantic business ventures, essentially an entire race was classed as subhuman, because it is easier to feel good about mistreating a subhuman than it is a fellow being with a soul just like yours, if only purer.

This is not to deny the very real and troubling, criminal mistreatment that African-Americans experienced during the colonial period. The deeper problem with slaves was that of social status. If you look closely enough, you can always make someone “the other.” Heck, we’ve done it for millennia with those of the female gender. Something that has always bothered me has been how sociologists, political scientists, and historians constantly overlook the concomitant issue of class. In the new world we like to image we’re a classless society, but we’re not. The plight of many African-Americans today is economic. If you prevent people from having access to education and good jobs, they become much more easy to repress. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out, just someone with the will to look. Those who write the history are those comfortably ensconced in offices and with research assistants, and people who empty the departmental garbage for them after hours.

Photo credit: Jun, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Jun, Wikimedia Commons

How easy it is to suppose that the other is not the same as me! Most people do not like to challenge their preconceived notions. This is one of the real values of an education in religious studies. Take that intimate belief and put it under a microscope. Many would leave the lab screaming. Those who remain, patiently probing, learn uncomfortable truths. If the biologists are right—and there seems to be no reason to doubt it—all people evolved from common ancestors and we have more in common than we have that separates us. Skin color is only skin deep. Gender differentiation is merely in the service of species reproduction. What really makes us different is culture. And culture always requires classes. As even the ancients knew, some tasks are odious, and it is far more pleasant if we can compel someone else to do them. First, however, we must use our religion to explain why they can be made our slaves. If anyone doubts this, read Howard Thurman and see if he can’t change your mind.

Dark and Stormy Night

LadyAndHerMonstersI miss my monsters, especially when I stay away too long. I had eyeballed Roseanne Montillo’s The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece nearly a year ago in a busy Port Authority bookshop, and wanted to curl up with it right away. Well, work and the world intervened, but finally I found time for the beast. Although a member of the monster kid generation, as a child I never felt much kinship with Frankenstein’s creation. I think it is because there was so much human intention involved in his origins. Almost ungodly. Too godly. Vampires and werewolves, and even mummies, seemed to have come up on the wrong side of a curse and couldn’t be blamed for being what they were. Frankenstein’s monster had a willful, if neglectful, creator. A human being, and fully so. There was, it seemed, some kind of blasphemy at work here.

Montillo’s book, however, gives me pause to rethink this. I had never realized, foe example, that Shelley’s book unfolds over nine months, and that Mary Godwin Shelley had suffered as her own fate unfolded—or unraveled—after Percy Shelley’s death. Nor had I stopped to consider that in the lifetime of these young lovers scientists and poets were overlapping careers with philosophy holding them together. I also hadn’t realized that Percy Shelley also shared his beau’s enchantment with the fantastic. But Montillo gives us so much more, wandering through the seedy world of body-snatchers and scientists who experimented on the dead, often with an eye toward a secular resurrection.

Frankenstein’s monster has, of course, become an instantly recognizable fixture in our society. Indeed, it is almost the definition of monstrosity: the ultimate mischwesen while being technically only one species. A creature that crosses boundaries and is both dead and alive, a miracle and a curse, innocent and evil. Morillo places this creature in the context of a world where galvanism was thought to bring life and medical schools scrambled to find corpses to dissect and on which to experiment. A world where the Shelleys would visit Lord Byron and Polidori, literally on a stormy night, and give the world both Frankenstein and the prototype of Dracula. Where the three men of that night all died prematurely and tragically, survived by a struggling Mary who lived only to fifty-three and who gave the world one of its most memorable nightmares. Horror fiction was, and is, considered lowbrow entertainment, but there is something profound here. And we are richer, if more unsettled, for having it.

What I Mean

It might seem, in this world of constant misunderstanding, that we might get along better were it not for the Tower of Babel. I mean, we call it a language barrier, right? So why are some people upset about the extinction of languages? Rebecca Morelle writes of how economic success may be behind language extinction in an article on the BBC science and environment page. There are some—many entrepreneurs—who see no cause for mourning. I have to wonder, though. I cut my academic teeth studying dead languages. Koine Greek and “Classical” Hebrew are no longer regularly spoken, and really haven’t been for centuries. Then I moved on to rediscovered languages: Ugaritic, Akkadian, Epigraphic South Arabian, each sounding more exotic than the last. Would world commerce exist if we were all hampered with Sumerian? We got on fine without the wisdom of the past—why should we even care?

I see politicians, mostly male, arguing in the “most advanced” government in the world, that women shouldn’t be given the full benefits of health care because they misunderstand the Bible. It is easily done. As I told my many students of biblical Hebrew over the years, language is not just words. Languages are ways of thinking. No translation is truly perfect. If you want to understand the Bible, you must do it on its own terms: learn to conceptualize in Hebrew and Greek, then come back and tell me what you think. It is, however, much easier to let King James do the talking. A man’s man. Just don’t ask what he did after hours, right Robert Carr? Something seems to have gotten lost in translation.

Languages are more than just ways of expressing ideas. They are the basis of cultures. When languages die off, cultures soon follow. Do you suppose that everyone on Papua New Guinea goes to work wearing a tie? Just give it some time. We call it progress, and it is inevitable. It has happened even closer to home, for those bound to the States like me. It used to be that academics had a language that didn’t necessarily included economics. The rarified domiciles of words like trenchant and salient and boustrophedon soon became superannuated. What are you trying to sell here? Dictionaries? As business marches unstoppably ahead, consuming all in its path, our lesser languages quietly die. With those languages ideas also pass away. With each demise, the world becomes a poorer place. Maybe it’s time to start building a tower.

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Sustain This

Sustainability“Grant me chastity and continence,” Augustine famously prayed, “but not yet.” That tragicomic scene kept coming to me as I read Jeremy L. Caradonna’s Sustainability: A History. Few ideas can bear the sheer weight of irony than that of a human population destroying their own and only planet. We know we’re doing it, and yet for a few more greenbacks to flash before our fabulously wealthy peers, we don’t mind warming the place up by a few degrees. There’ll be time to throw on the brakes right before the crash. I once took a ride, perhaps unwisely, with a friend who believed nothing could go wrong. Although the car didn’t actually roll, it came awfully close, and I am haunted by what might have happened. The difference between that incident and destruction of the environment is that the latter has already happened.

I’m cynical enough not to believe in simple solutions to complex problems, and reading Caradonna was a sobering finish to a day that had started out optimistically. Such books are not easy to read. Science does not come charging over the hill like the cavalry to save us at the end of the picture. You can’t take your marbles and go home when the marble is home. Sustainability does not set out to be a bleak book. There is a guarded optimism to it, and I was particularly pleased to see that sustainists readily recognize that without some kind of just distribution of goods, no system will ever be sustainable. I had no idea, until I read this book, that some economists advocate for a steady state economic existence instead of the ridiculously illogical constant growth. Constant growth in a world of limited resources is the worst kind of delusion.

We’ve gone pretty far down the road to destroying our planet. Already it will take many decades to repair the damage done. If we can muster the will to address corporate greed with a good old dose of primate ethics. Society, in all honesty, may have to collapse before that happens. If it does, of course, the strong will survive. I have a prediction to make, and it’s one that rationalists won’t like. If we can’t avoid the wall that is right before us, and if society as we know it buckles under its own greed, the survivors will, as sure as gray matter, devise a religion to explain it. As a species we are all about myths. Like fabled saints we believe we can have our fossil fuels and consume them too. Before rising sea levels wash us all away, do yourself a favor and read Sustainability. And when you’re awake for nights afterward, tell everyone else you know to read it too.

Dystopian Paradise

Dystopias resonate with me. As I ponder why, two factors seem to rise to the surface: dystopias are inevitably populist in orientation, and I was raised religious. Each of these factors requires some explanation, but so does the choice of addressing dystopian topics on a cheerful September day. In an article by Debbie Siegelbaum in the BBC News Magazine, Project Hieroglyph is featured. Project Hieroglyph, which involves some people I know, is an attempt to write a more optimistic future back into science fiction. To understand my reservations, I have to confess to having grown up as a nerdy science fiction reader. The stories from the 1950s and ’60s to which I had access (growing up poor, and buying books at Goodwill and second-hand shops) tended to be optimistic—people colonizing other planets, creating great labor-saving inventions, traveling time itself. In the meanwhile I slept in torn sheets in a ratty room and had to work to buy my own school clothes, inevitably cheap. For a few years our house didn’t even have a bathtub or shower. It wasn’t an easy existence, and I found solace in religion and science fiction, both of which promised a better future.

Today, forward-looking literature tends to be pretty bleak. With reason. Optimistic futures are the luxury of the elite. The average working person labors under a constant threat of unemployment and no jobs to replace the one you have. Hey, some of the people I see begging in Midtown are not dressed in the rags of the classic ne’er-do-well. Their signs asking for help are articulate and neatly written. The elite may look to a brighter future, but from street-level things appear a bit more challenging. There’s no question that politicians long ago lost touch with the commoner. They have no idea what life is like for most of us. Same is true of most university folk (cited in the article); unless they’ve been cast out, I suspect, they can conjure a pretty rosy future. With tenure.

That’s the populist angle. Now for the religious. The basic idea of Project Hieroglyph is as old as Buddhism, or perhaps even older than that. Salvation. Religions promulgate the idea that people require salvation. Otherwise it’s pretty difficult to get people up on a Sunday morning and convince them to drop their money in the plate. Look, however, at what has been happening to mainstream churches. So technocrats and other elites think technology, rather than the gods, will save us. Those devices of optimistic 1950’s and ’60’s sci fi have turned on us, and we have become slaves to our own technology. Gee, it’s awfully gloomy in here! Perhaps we need a brighter vision of the future where technology makes things better. It sounds like a return to the stories I read as a child. Still, I can’t help noticing all the closed churches I see, and how much the penmanship of the indigent has improved with the passing of time. If only I could decipher hieroglyphs my future might look shinier too.

Is this paradise or what?

Is this paradise or what?

The Cost of Being Human

In last week’s Time magazine Joel Stein’s “The Awesome Column,” a humorous endnote for somber weekly news, spoke to me. Although Stein writes as light relief, when he addresses humanities education I have to sit up and take notice. Like being in class all over again. Although Stein is trying to be funny, I find the decline in the humanities to be no laughing matter. I don’t think Stein does either. As an uncle once said to a relative recovering from cancer—you might as well laugh about being bald, what else can you do? The humanities are so called because they are what makes us human. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Stein addresses this in the issue following that which commemorates Robin Williams. As I’ve written before, I don’t consider myself a Williams fan, but I can’t help but associate him with what I consider his best movie, Dead Poets Society. The humanities are what we live for.

I’m a little too nearsighted to claim to see the future clearly, but Stein makes the accurate assertion that our great ideas have tended to come from our humanities dreamers. Presidents and Popes, he notes, have not been drawn from the sciences, but from the arts. Herein, I suspect, many would suggest lies the problem. We are a schizophrenic society (with apologies to those who believe schizophrenic is a slur word). Who wants a warm puppy on your lap when you can have a warm laptop instead? Indeed, you can carry your computer under your arm, in your pocket or purse, or even around your wrist. Instant access to the internet and every other wired person all the time. Isn’t that what we really wanted? But then we come out of the movie theater complaining that the show was poorly written, if technologically flawless. We have just walked out of John Keating’s classroom, methinks.

Is this worth more than just money?

Is this worth more than just money?

“We live in a time,” Stein opines, “when smart people want to discuss only politics, technology, and economics.” Truth be told, the deeper you look behind any of these topics the more boring they become. Politics? Everyone wants to rule everyone else, what’s new there? Technology? Electrons dance better in some substrates, and if we can only get this confusing formula right… Economics? I want what you have, so why don’t we trade? How banal! Anyone who’s ever lost him or herself in a novel, a movie, or a song (even, dare I say, a prayer?) knows that transcendence trumps technology every time. As the weather begins its long decline into a bleak and icy winter, I’ll be sitting here with my laptop on my lap, but I can guarantee that this is one place where I can fully agree with the departed Charles Schultz. Happiness would actually be a warm puppy.

Disco Duck

From the Roman Empire, Holy or otherwise, to the British Empire upon which the sun once never set, human endeavors are inevitably temporary. We like to think we’re making lasting contributions. Not so long ago Phil Robertson could make claims on vast amounts of media attention for his homiletical, gun-toting brand of family values. Despite not being a television watcher, even I was drawn into the drama as Happy! Happy! Happy! became a bestseller. Perhaps because my pursuit of religion has never earned me three such exclamation points, I read the book to find the secret of success. It is a combination of unquestioning belief and a willingness to blow the heads off of ducks in flight. Not that I would know about such things. The Dynasty made its way into Time magazine and other media outlets as the most interesting thing reality television, which is anything but, could throw at us.

Then Phil made a statement that set many viewers off. Mistaking intolerance for true religion—rather a constant in the algebra of faith—Robertson expressed his views on homosexuality and the ratings began to slip. Last year as I walked into a department store, I found Duck Dynasty bobble-head dolls and even fake Dynasty beards for those with no gumption to grow their own. Golf balls and beer glasses and all sorts of merchandise. Yes, you could partake of the good life without even cocking or pumping your shotgun. Other members of the family wrote books. (I have friends who produce quality literature who can’t find publishers.) We love the self-made genius of a simple guy and his make-believe world. Happy. Happy. Happy.

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It has been some time since I’ve seen Duck Dynasty mentioned in the media. I wandered into the same department store this year to find stacks of Dynasty merchandise drastically reduced. You could buy Phil Robertson’s memoirs for even less than Amazon prices. In bulk, if you desired. My historically inclined mind turned to the great empires of antiquity. Did Alexander, I wonder, really know what he wanted? What about when you finally reach the ocean? What is off on the other side? Once you’re out of sight of land, you’ve lost your control back home. Next thing you know, Diadochi have fractured everything. The gods of empire, it seems, don’t have it all together after all. Happy? Happy? Happy?

Our Pigeons, Ourselves

You don’t have to be in New York City long to begin to see yourself as an expert on pigeons. The ubiquitous avians are ruthlessly castigated as “flying rats” and “filthy birds,” primarily because they like people food and poop everywhere. I have it on the authority of Gomi and Stinchecum that everybody poops. From what I’ve seen walking through the city early on the morning after a holiday, not everyone is discriminate about where—and I’m not talking only about the pigeons. Still, I can’t help thinking that pigeons are unfairly maligned. They are pretty birds, when examined individually. They have iridescent throat feathers and a pleasing, portly gait—almost jaunty. They manage well, despite hardships. Often I see one hobbling about missing a foot or otherwise physically challenged, and yet ebullient in their pullastrine way.

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Yesterday as the NJ Transit behemoth in which I was riding rounded the helix into the Port Authority Bus Terminal, I saw two depressed pigeons. Unlike the jolly bobbing and pecking they usually seem to enjoy, this pair was simply standing. On the ground before them was a dead pigeon. Now I don’t know the backstory here, but the two standing around didn’t look like murderers to me. It seemed that they’d come upon a fallen comrade and were, in their own way, offering respects. In the ongoing debate separating ourselves from other animals, I often wonder if we have by-passed many of the basics. I do know that many animals find dead of their own species distressing. This is well documented. Why not pigeons?

Pigeons—related to doves, which, according to some religious traditions have sacred qualities, eh, Mary?—are seldom classed as the brightest of birds. I’ve written about the intelligence of corvids before, but pigeons have uniquely adapted themselves to our polluting ways. I grew up in a small town where pigeons weren’t especially abundant. They gather in large numbers where many people congregate and drop their litter. And, based on my recent experience, contemplate the mysteries of death. Peregrine falcons lurk overhead, doling out death at over 200 miles an hour. All the pigeons want to do, it seems to me, is to get a free lunch in an uncertain world where those whose presence has conjured them despise them. Unlike their sacred cousins, they are, like us, utterly pedestrian. Maybe they too appreciate the simple value of life.

Exceptionalism

UnderTheBannerOfHeavenSome years ago I was invited to a famous person’s house along with some intellectuals—we’re all mature here, so names aren’t necessary. It’s no surprise that I ended up at the children’s table, being soft-spoken as I tend to be. The discussion had turned to international affairs, and since I can barely manage my own affairs I didn’t have much to say. Eventually it was suggested that if rule of law could take hold in the Middle East, strife would end. I finally spoke up, loudly injecting a “no” into the conversation. The problem with religious-based conflict is that the rule of law has been subordinated to the divine will. That is very well illustrated in Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. As Krakauer explains in his conclusions, he had set out to write a book that explored the history and background of his polite, abstemious, and law-abiding Mormon neighbors and friends. The story, however, takes a darker turn.

What Krakauer delivers is not a slam on Mormonism, but rather something far more difficult—an attempted even-handed history. As even Mormons at the various trials depose in the book, the faith has some strange beliefs. All religions do. For a religion less than 200 years old, the Latter-Day Saints also have an impressive violence in their history; parts of this book are like a fantasy novel, they seem so unlikely. Again, nothing unusual here. All religions have violent episodes. In general, religions aren’t violent—people are. The problems arise when the true believer (and there always will be) insists that religion trumps the rule of law every time. As Krakauer shows, those who violate society’s laws are not insane. They are, however, not judging the world by the same standards of the wider society. It’s just that, occurring as it does in the light of an historical period, the strangeness of how a religion starts is clearly illuminated in Mormonism. No number of apocalyptic horsemen will be able to stop the religious imagination once it is fired up. The problem with lines in the sand is that they easily move.

Perhaps the most disturbing tenet of Joseph Smith’s latter-day revelations is that of polygamy. Like a young Augustine, Smith had an eye for the ladies. Personal indulgence at the hand of a religious founder is not at all unusual. The problem is, the women in this book have been abused and traumatized in a religion, not unlike Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, that asserts (or has asserted) male superiority. Girls as young as thirteen or fourteen being married off to men three times their age to join what is essentially a harem doesn’t offer these young ladies a chance to become their own person. The majority of Krakauer’s study focuses on Fundamentalist Mormon sects, and not the mainstream Mormons who have great political power and occasionally run for president. Still, this is a very important book. It is not primarily about the Mormons. It is about those who can’t see beyond a blind faith in what would otherwise be a perfectly good piece of fantasy literature.

Waking Up in Galilee

One voice can’t be heard. Unless, of course, it has a publicist. For years, it seems, I have been suggesting in my obscure corner of the internet that we’re not quite ready for the death of religion yet. I’ve never really doubted science, but I have noticed that science frequently draws the same conclusions as religion. Evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists exclaim, with some surprise, that religion has a survival advantage. Of course, big men with white beards sitting on thrones in the sky just won’t do, but the underlying concept has utility. So we’re told. Now Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, one of the four horsemen of the new atheists, tells us that it’s okay to experience what has been known as, conventionally, a religious experience. Call it transcendent (I always do), but no matter what the chemical mix you concoct in the brain, it will feel good. Perhaps better than anything merely biological ever will. You’ll sell a million books. If you’ve got a publicist.

To me it seems that the religion question is a no-brainer. It wouldn’t persist if we had no need of it. Unlike the appendix, which seems not to have taken the hint that it is entirely vestigial, religion helps people (and perhaps some animals) survive. It doesn’t have to be sitting on an uncomfortable pew on a Sunday morning. It might be in the giddy heights of the Rocky Mountains where you can see to eternity and beyond and the rarity of the oxygen makes you lightheaded with a hologram of immortality. It might be the piercing peace that comes with light refracted through a glass so blue that superlatives fail you. It might be in imaginary vistas of an ice-bound Arctic where, you’re just certain, Nordic gods linger just out of sight. Transcendence can even come from traditional religious experiences, or so the stories of the saints proclaim. Anyone can participate. Those who have never forget.

The New York Times, in the Sunday Review piece by Frank Brunl (Between Godliness and Godlessness) introduces Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up. I know I’ll read it. According to the article, Harris discusses his own experience of transcendence. When Harris has such a revelation, it is a best seller. Or it will be. For those of us who quietly suggest moderation between bombastic religion and bombastic science, it is merely another day in the life of the quiet ones who observe without being heard. True, it takes courage in this culture to dole religion a knock on the head. It is not, however, going to send faith to a premature grave. We still need our religion. We might not call it that any more. Name it spirituality, or transcendence, or mystic mumbo-jumbo, but when it hits you it’s like an atheist in Galilee. Some call it a electrochemical reaction in the brain. Others call it walking on water.

Dore Walk on Water

Quantum Uncertainty

Physics has moved beyond the point of comprehension for the average citizen, if I might be permitted to class myself as that. I got the concept of the atom, although I always wondered about the spaces in-between. No god-of-the-gaps there, but it didn’t fit with experience that everything was full of holes. An article my wife sent me now has me wondering if I’m a hologram. Physicists began to lose me with quarks—I can understand atoms being made of something, but what of ups and downs and leptons every way to Sunday? Then string theory. Then those particles that can be two places at once, until you look. And now I’m being told that The Matrix may be more fact than fiction and quantum uncertainty rules the day. Indeed. Physics tells us what we’re really made of. Religion used to tell us what it all means. That precarious balance seems to have tipped and religion has no other role than to motivate violence and science will save us. Help me, Neo!

I can’t even figure out my taxes any more, let alone what the universe is made of. How we could all be jittery two-dimensional particles is unclear to me. Well, the jittery part I get. I was never really satisfied being limited to three dimensions of motion. Is it ever clear which way is really forward? Height and depth seem terribly geocentric, and even a circle could be divided into more than 360 degrees, a legacy of our Mesopotamian forebears. Spheres—my primitive view of atoms—only touch at the edges. I think there must be something more. Then comes the math. The truth is in the numbers, it seems. Glad I have a calculator.

Although I don’t have the weak nuclear force at my disposal, I have tried to build with marbles many times. You can’t build upward without the bottom row rolling away. Perhaps in our world spheres just don’t balance that way. They don’t hold together. Pixels, however, have edges. They seem to fit together more fully, but leave the universe full of jagged edges. That fits much better with my experience, I guess. Shards of reality lie all around me. Religion used to be the way of putting the pieces together, but, I’m told, that’s all a myth. Instead we have a universe that the average person is incapable of understanding, and that seems to be held together by forces that are fully explainable only by math. Once upon a time, Hell was a mythical, fiery place underfoot. Now it is a universe of formulas and equations that are held together only by quantum uncertainty.

"HAtomOrbitals". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HAtomOrbitals.png#mediaviewer/File:HAtomOrbitals.png

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Religion, Technically

Technology World HistoryOne of the truths of history is that technology has always been with us. Reading Steampunk stories always boosts my historical sense of the interaction of technology and civilization. Civilization, to the best of our knowledge, coalesced around the idea of religion. Kings rule at the behest of gods because, if it came down to just a matter of swords and games of thrones, there’s always somebody who’s willing to die for the sake of challenging authority, or taking it over. Unless the gods give it to someone. With this in mind I read Daniel R. Headrick’s Technology: A World History, a brief exploration into how we progressed to a hive mind (not his word) through smartphones from an initial band of scared apes two-footing it across the savanna with pointy rocks. The whole trip may have taken millennia, but once we reached a couple of flash points (the “Big Bang” of about 70,000 years ago when abstract artifacts began to appear, and then the birth of civilization about the time Sumer was organized) things sped up at a dizzying pace. Despite the anti-science rhetoric of the Religious Right, there’s no denying that we’re not in Eden any more.

We are accustomed to think of technological development as being cold and rational. Trial and error, based on brute mental power willing to bully through the dark forest of superstition, leading us to new heights. But from the early technology that led to Stonehenge and the pyramids to the coded message “What hath God wrought?” religious wonder has stood behind technological development. Indeed, in reading Technology it became clear that up until very recent times scientists got along with god, and sometimes even shared the credit for the devices they created. Reading about the Antikythera mechanism had me thinking along these lines: if someone had invented a kind of computer millennia ago, why didn’t it transform society in the first century before the Common Era? The answer can’t be that it sank beneath the Mediterranean, because other such devices likely existed. Why no Roman Empire Industrial Revolution?

Headrick makes it clear that early societies sometimes did not promote technologies. Technology was not just a matter of what we could do, but it was a means of social control. Those who charted the flow of wealth and power would have interest only in technologies that enabled the continued growth of that system. All the rest was just icing. People knew the basics of electricity long before a practical use was found for it. Petroleum products were known even to the Sumerians. The wheels of industry, however, are greased by more than just oil. We construct worlds, and gods used to direct our efforts. Now we let our technocrats call the shots. We write blogs wondering how religion fits into a nano-tech world. There may be some logic in it, but once we’ve left our footprints on the moon—who used to be a god—we’ve replaced the deities in the celestial sphere with those in our own heads. And there’s no going back.

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Labor Day marks the end of summer. Originally a day to commemorate all that the common laborer has contributed to society, it is now always a slightly melancholy day with the equinox fast approaching and the mighty rays of the sun growing enfeebled. Although the vast majority of us don’t have summers off any more, our employers sometimes devise summer hours to make the monotony of a commuting life a little less onerous. My academic colleagues have all switched their minds back to full engagement as students, lamenting the shortness of summer, stumble resentfully into classrooms to find out what they don’t know. To learn how to be laborers, increasingly. Once upon a time, children, higher education opened doors for you. You would climb that ladder. As an adjunct teaching night classes, I would often pass the janitor cleaning up and I would know s/he was making better money than I was. Labor Day must be upon us again.

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Unashamedly a populist, I still think of myself as a laborer. In fact, the longer I work in Manhattan the more like my blue-collar upbringing I become. Yes, I have stood in the presence of Lords of the realm, knights in academic armor, and even a Coptic pope. I can mind my p’s and q’s. If you keep your mouth shut, you’ll appear wise even before those who are truly smart. That’s not my wisdom—I paraphrased it from the Bible. I read the Bible daily when my jobs were labor jobs. My first opportunities were heavy work—moving, pulling, brushing, and occasionally smashing. The sun was so hot that I would find a vending machine and down three Mello Yellos in a row. Summer had no time for beaches, but it offered warmer working conditions and a sense of identity.

Labor Day brings us back to work. Summer’s bright grasp has begun to slip, and already the trees have started to yawn. Like the migrating birds I feel the draw to return. Even an animal knows the place s/he belongs. Perhaps we’ve wandered a little too far from the path that should’ve been evident before us. We paid the costs and went to college and found ourselves back where we started. Labor Day is one of those holidays with no religious connections. It is purely secular. Moved from May because of the Haymarket Massacre, we put it at not the beginning of sunnier times, but at the end. I would jealously watch the sun set, but there clouds forecasted to be in the way. Besides, I have to turn in early because tomorrow is just another work day. We only have to hold out to Memorial Day, so let’s enjoy our last taste of summer and wait for its eventual return.