Book Ends

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 12.40.34 PM

It’s the end of another year of reading. Since Goodreads keeps track of my booklist, I see by their accounting I finished 95 books in 2014. The final day of the year seems an appropriate time to reflect on those that made the greatest impact on me. Starting at the beginning, Jacques Berlinerblau’s The Secular Bible immediately struck me as a book of high importance. In an era when religion is constantly considered irrelevant, Berlinerblau gives this trite brushoff the lie. Likewise Jeff Kripal and Sudhir Kakar’s Seriously Strange opens questions that must be addressed if we ever hope to find the truth. Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist and Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s Sex at Dawn both raise, in fundamental ways, the question of what it means to be human. Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty is essential to understanding the current crisis in higher education. Edward Ingebretsen’s Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell is a roadmap through the genre of horror and its importance to society. The Miracle Detective by Randall Sullivan again highlights the question of what counts as reality. Nonbeliever Nation by David Niose shows the importance of separating politics from religion. Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe brings science to bear on unanswered questions.

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 12.41.24 PM

Books specifically concerning religion also deserve some highlighting. Karen McCarthy Brown’s Moma Lola is crucial for comprehending, in a sympathetic way, voudun in a major city. Patricia Tull’s Inhabiting Eden makes a clarion call for religions to pay attention to the needs of the environment. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright is a good introduction to Scientology, while Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven serves a similar function in regards to Mormonism. Sam Harris’s Waking Up shows the need even atheists have for spirituality, complicating the sharp divide we are offered most of the time. Religion for Atheists, by Alain de Botton, also demonstrates the continuing usefulness of religion in a secular age. Vincent Bugliosi’s Divinity of Doubt calls both theists and atheists to task. Spirit Unleashed by Anne Benvenuti allows animals to have souls.

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 12.42.12 PM

Fiction always makes a part of each year’s reading as well. This year found me reading several ponderous tomes, but I very much enjoyed the lighter fare by Ransom Riggs, in Hollow City. James P. Blaylock’s Homunculus and K. W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices slaked my steampunk thirst temporarily. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita were both difficult to read as a father, but important literature nevertheless. All of these books and more have individual posts dedicated to them on this blog. I always feel compelled to make clear that I find the books I read, whether highlighted here or not, one of the most rewarding aspects of my year. The long daily commute I normally endure would be torture without my books. Each year, each day I’m thankful for those who write them, and I look forward to an equally stimulating 2015 spent with my face buried in books.

Screen Shot 2014-12-31 at 5.04.15 AM

Pope for the Planet

According to The Guardian, Pope Francis is about to weigh in on the faux question of global warming. Faux because there really is no question—we know it is happening. Some high ranking Catholic politicians, no doubt, will not be amused. Apart from the fact that Francis has proven himself a true saint from the moment he got out of the gate—distancing himself from European pontiffs far more interested in church politics than what really matters—he has brought a sensibility borne of knowing how people really live and what is really important. Global warming is real, and the science behind the assertions is unquestioned. Interested parties (such as big oil) have hired their spin doctors to confuse the voting public, casting doubt on one of the few certainties we have. Politicians, whose funding comes from business interests, of course choose what to believe. How anyone can be so shortsighted, or selfish, as to saw off the very branch on which they stand I can’t comprehend. Past popes were too busy trying to keep ladies out of the exclusive gentlemen’s club to worry about those who feel the brunt of global warming.

Photo credit: Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, US-Nav, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Chief Yeoman Alphonso Braggs, US-Navy, Wikipedia Commons

Of course, it will catch up with all of us eventually. I’m not much of a swimmer, and I’m worried. Hurricane Sandy (a superstorm only in the sense that it hit the affluent) showed us just how near sea level Manhattan is. One gets the sense that the fastest growing cities being in Texas is no coincidence. As long as it doesn’t impact me personally, what’s the worry? Some entire island nations stand at threat, but perhaps they should’ve considered that before they moved to an island. Here’s the news flash—all land is island. We need each other, and the lowlands are as important as the highlands.

Organized religions of all kinds have been under fire for years. As science began to explain more and more, religions had to explain their own existence. Many turned internal—not in the spiritual sense, but in the aspect of clarifying the precise points of what makes them right (i.e., different from everyone else). In the United States the small town without five or six different steeples was the exception rather than the rule. Meanwhile, the emissions continued. And continue. At least we know we’re right. At last there is a pontiff who is a realist. A priest who understands that church is all about caring for people—those in the lowlands as well as those in the highlands. Of course, politicians know how to turn off the religion when it gets inconvenient. As long as I get mine, all is right with the world.

Bible Stories

JosephSay what you will about it, but the Bible has some great stories. Based on classical measures of what makes a good tale, the Bible ranks up there with Greek mythology and other ancient fiction that is meant to teach us about being human. Stories do teach, and literature is among the greatest of pedagogues. For the past two decades, Plays in the Park here in the New Brunswick area of New Jersey, has been putting on a post-Christmas, pre-New Year production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (indoors, due to the time of year). With the kinds of production values you expect of many off-Broadway venues, the show is exceptionally well done, and due to the local color, never too serious. And they play before a packed house. The reasonable prices, I’m sure, have something to do with it, but the fact is the story of Joseph is classic. Full of radical reversals, dreams that come true, and reconciliation, the Joseph novella is one of the great stories of humankind. Unlike many tales of Genesis, God is rather in the background here, perhaps overseeing the event, but not interfering in the human drama.

Although the musical, like most adaptations, takes liberties with the story, it remains fairly true to the Bible. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice also had success with Jesus Christ Superstar, showing that, despite its detractors, the Bible still has some appeal. Negative sentiment directed toward the Bible largely derives from the wooden insistence of literalists that everything must be taken at face value. The Bible isn’t allowed its symbolic resonance. Perhaps we can get beyond a worldview where the sun literally goes around the earth, and pay attention to the very human dimensions of the stories it tells. Truth may be of scientific nature, but it may also be—indeed, it must be—human. The very concept of verity is human. We are the ones making up the story.

Scholars point out that even the colored coat of Joseph is based on a translation decision in the Septuagint (the Greek Hebrew Bible). For many people, however, who’ve never read biblical scholars, the truths of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat as just as legitimate. The rivalry between siblings is something many of us have experienced firsthand. While not many of us get promoted from prison to vice-president, we still dream that our lives could get better. Our dreams could come true. The upbeat score, of course, helps to reinforce the message—one might say it makes the message believable. That doesn’t mean that the tale is not true. There was no historical Joseph. The colored coat may be a translation error. The story is nevertheless true. Doubters should watch the show. Next year in the State Theater in New Brunswick just after Christmas would be an excellent opportunity to do so.

A Lot of Salem

SalemsLotVampires may seem out of place late in December, but they never really go out of season. That will be my excuse, anyway, for writing about Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, which I have just finished reading. Like many of King’s books, ‘Salem’s Lot takes a fair commitment of time to get through, and I actually started it back in November when it feels natural to have creepy thoughts. I suppose winter is more of a ghost season than a vampire season, but I have read what I have read. So, vampires.

The book is old enough now to have been a kind of prequel to the current vampire craze. Prior to picking up the tome, however, I didn’t know that it as a vampire story. I’m not sure it made as much of an impact as the shudder-inducing Twilight series (and that is a shudder of the most ironic kind). ‘Salem’s Lot is, after all, a fairly conventional vampire story—a Dracula reset in rural Maine. Instead of a Jonathan Harker we have a Ben Mears. Instead of Abraham van Helsing, we have Matt Burke. The plot is much the same, the end result is much the same. And vampires are banished by religious paraphernalia, as we’ve come to expect. For me the ultimate Maine vampire will always be Barnabas Collins (the kind fitting more the description of Jonathan Frith than Johnny Depp). Barlow, as a vampire, is entirely too self-serving. Barnabas is a deeply conflicted ghoul, a monster you can love. But not too much, because then we’d be left in the twilight. Mixing the vampire just right is tricky, and it seems that a soap opera was the place that got it right.

The movie Thirty Days of Night, based on the graphic novel, places vampires squarely in the middle of winter. In the thirty days of no sunshine in the Arctic Circle, the vampires of winter flood the town. Perhaps the idea relates to ‘Salem’s Lot for an entire town to come under siege. Or maybe not. When I read vampire stories I hope to come out transformed, I guess. Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian may have spoiled me in that regard. As with most King novels, however, ‘Salem’s Lot is artfully written and at least for the characters a new story with a small twist on the old ending. In at least one regard, it is true to life—although they learn that the church banishes vampires, nobody joins and they only pray as a last resort.

Mother’s Night

It wouldn’t be Christmas, in the Christian tradition, without Mary. Still, apart from her later enhanced role in Roman Catholicism, Mary’s part beyond Christmas is minor in the church. She seldom features in biblical accounts of Jesus’ life. It is easy to forget the female role that was so much a part of winter solstice celebrations that coalesced into our modern twelve days (really only one, for work purposes). That’s why I was glad that a friend sent me a link to a site about Mödraniht, or Mother’s Night. Honestly, I had never heard of this holiday before. Given the Germanic penchant for dramatic festivities, it comes as no surprise that Yule involved a night celebrating the feminine aspects of the season. Apart from the occasional references to Mary, we tend to think of this as the time a male son of a male God came to save mankind. What of the women without whom none of this would have been possible?

As Carolyn Emerick notes on her page, we know little about this sacred day because Christianity managed to wipe out most of the pagan traditions of northern Europe. Some, of course, survived and worked their way into Christmas. Modern holidays, being primarily days off work rather than deeply felt celebration (for we live in a world with no need for religion), have gravitated toward what had once been the male preserve of earning a living. Watching movies of Dickensian times, it is clear the women continued to work—likely even more than usual—to bring off a holiday celebration. It was the male prerogative to be the recipient of largess.

Photo credit: "Urban" WikiMedia Commons

Photo credit: “Urban” WikiMedia Commons

My concern is that gender equality may sometimes be confused with gender stereotyping, or even with patronization. How is it possibly to build equality into a system put into place by generations of men? Is civilization truly civilizing when half of the race and only a very small portion of the planet benefits? The Christmas season, even now rapidly slipping away, is a time for considering equality. Every year modern non-believers and humanists ask for equality—a dream always held at arm’s length, since the holiday earns record profits as it is, and the financial year revolves around it like a Pole Star. It is the time of year when we see if we’ve turned a healthy profit. The rules in the system were set long ago. Even with Mary in the manger, she blends into the background while shepherds, wise men, and other interested males plan to make a holiday of it.

Are You Fey?

SeeingFairies‘Tis is the time of year that one might make inquiry into elves and the wee folk without being thought too strange. Santa has his cadre of mythic diminutive helpers and even the shepherds have their angels. The two, it seems, are not unrelated. Marjorie T. Johnson’s Seeing Fairies is, in many respects, a charming book. Compiled by the author during a lifetime of corresponding with people who claim to have seen fairies, elves, pixies, sprites, brownies, gnomes, and even angels, the stories—as parsimonious as any sermon—do create an aura of mystery. It is clear that Johnson believed (the book is posthumous) sincerely in the unseen world. As the preface makes clear, she was influenced by Theosophy, and the majority of the material dates from the 1950s and earlier. There is an almost childlike credulousness to the accounts, with Johnson not questioning psychic dreams or astral projection, placing them side-by-side with eyewitness accounts. This is a good example of what an editor might have done for the book.

Many people assume a doctorate in the humanities is a soft thing—pliable in a way that the hard sciences are not. The point of advanced study, however, is to ingrain habits of critical thinking. Nothing is taken at face value. For those of us who study folklore’s first cousin, religion, the task is often to set aside belief in the light of evidence. What can we know about the unknowable? Of course, psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists are now supposed to be better equipped to answer religious questions. Religion, after all, is something people think and do, and what can we really learn from studying it per se? We need an interpretative device—an hermeneutic filter (or pneumatic hammer)—to guide us toward the reality of the thing. And yet science itself is based on observation. Accounting for what our senses reveal about the world around us.

Some people, it is clear, find the world around them filled with wee people. Recently a major road construction was halted in Iceland out of fear of disturbing the elfin habitat. And Icelanders are some of the most literate people on the planet. Johnson’s accounts (some clearly hard to swallow) range across the earth, but center in the British Isles and Celtic lands. Perhaps the light is somewhat different there. Perhaps nearing the North Pole things really do change. What becomes clear from Seeing Fairies is that some highly credible and educated people see, from time to time, what they allow their eyes to see. Believing is, after all, seeing. Johnson ends her book with a chapter on angels, beings she clearly views in continuity with fairies. The difference is that the monotheistic religions allow for, and perhaps even demand, angels. When they become travel-sized, however, the only evidence is that of those with very keen eyesight.

Lords a’Leaping

As I’m writing a not insubstantial check for the rent, as I do every 25th, I am participating in a Christmas ritual. Having grown up with trees, presents, cookies, and a general warm glow about the holiday where you got things for free and didn’t have to do any work (home or otherwise), it is hard to believe that this kind of Christmas is a modern invention. Some years ago I wrote an unpublished book about the holidays. In researching it, I learned that Christmas was only gradually accepted as a day of celebration. For many it was too popish, and for others it was too frivolous. It was the day when tenants paid their rent to their landlords—and here is the tradition in which I’m participating—for landlords who don’t make money from their tenants are no lords at all. Indeed, this commercial transaction gives the lie to the common lament that Christmas has become commercial. It has been commercial for a very long time.

Some suggest that Charles Dickens—who wrote not just A Christmas Carol, but several stories about Christmas—is largely responsible for our sentimental image of the holiday. Individual traditions of the day go back to Medieval or earlier times, but the conglomeration of events that occur around December 25 come from many sources. Human beings, entrepreneurial by nature, recognize the economy of bringing various disruptions to the flow of money onto a single day. Indeed, the day after Christmas is often a day to rival the holiday itself, with people returning items and purchasing more. Soon enough Epiphany will ring in austerity. In watching for economic recovery, Christmas is a mere indicator of financial health. There need be nothing more to it.

A capital Christmas

A capital Christmas

As I was sitting in my windowless cubicle this week, receiving little email from academics (who are the main business partners for publishers) already out on a semester break, my thoughts turned toward the deeper meaning of the holiday. Business is business. Meetings with recurring set dates popped up for Christmas reminding me of events that, one senses, are only reluctantly cancelled. The true entrepreneur can’t wait to get back to the office. I’m busy looking deeper. The trappings may be modern, but the idea of celebrating in the darkest time of year is very ancient. We are hoping for something better. We are looking for a new start. Christian or not, anyone looking over the sprawl that we’ve made of everyday life can appreciate the symbol of a baby on the day the rent is due.

Angels We Have Seen on High

Humans have always ascribed significance to what they see in the sky. Evolution, I suspect, has a great deal to do with it, but so does religion. As I suggest in Weathering the Psalms, the sky is the barometer where we seek the temperament of the divine. The weather is an indication of what God might be feeling, in the pious mind. Of course, as a child I used to lay back and look at the clouds to see what messages I might find there. Pareidolia makes the process good fun, and lots of random “noise” can be interpreted as “signal.” It’s all done in a light spirit. Still, if the internet is to be believed, many people take images in the clouds much more seriously. Apropos of the holiday season, a story in The Telegraph tells of a woman from Lincolnshire who, on her way to a Christmas gathering, saw an angel in the clouds. Or more properly, an angel of clouds. Being the anniversary of her father’s death, she saw this as a sign from above that left her in tears. Others would call it matrixing.

The photo the woman’s daughter took as they were driving is impressive (click the link above to take a look; I’ll wait). I understand how it could be interpreted as an angel. Or even a bird. The feathering on the left wing, along with the wing structure itself, is stunning. And of course, given the time of year, angels are much on the minds of many. What would any manger scene be without them? Although pareidolia is not a religious phenomenon by nature, it nevertheless is frequently interpreted that way. We certainly don’t take much personal comfort in a mechanistic universe. When a loved one is gone, we would rather consider the more human (and perhaps supernatural) aspects.

430px-Bernhard_Plockhorst_-_Schutzengel

Interpretation of information is a constant activity of sentient beings. We don’t want to miss anything that will be of survival value. In the case of the angel in the clouds, the survival is beyond that of every day. We are constantly reminded that death is the final word, and yet we can’t quite bring ourselves to believe it. Whether it is shepherds on a Palestinian hill in the first century or a woman motoring along A17, the sight of an angel is something that stops the viewer and inspires an openness that we otherwise have been taught to deny. It may be that all she saw was a pattern of water vapor in a December sky. But even water vapor can mean much more than two hydrogen atoms binding to one of oxygen. It can be part of the breath of life itself.

Weather for the Birds

As Christmas nears so does a warm front, dashing hopes of a white Christmas in New Jersey. Well, at least there are no tornadoes coming. The weather, as my readers know, has long been perceived as a divine barometer. In a time when patience is wearing thin with religion, and weary headlines ask if it will ever finally disappear, our animal cousins seem, as usual, to pick up on clues more readily than we. An article on the BBC science page describes how a set of tagged golden-winged warblers vacated their nest a day before a tornado struck. Scientists suspect that the birds—and likely other species of birds as well—picked up the infrasound of the tornadoes that is well below human hearing range. Sensing the danger, they flew nearly a thousand miles, stopping just south of the storm’s track.

1957_Dallas_multi-vortex_1_edited

Of course, tornadoes don’t last an entire day. If the birds fled that long in advance, they couldn’t, I suspect, have heard a tornado that hadn’t formed yet. Since I’m no scientist, I’m not really qualified to offer an explanation, but I do wonder if such behavior isn’t related to consciousness. Several books that I’ve read recently have explored the concept of animal consciousness, and although we are reluctant to admit them to the realm of the self-aware, I wonder how long we can deny it. No doubt, if the birds fled (and returned after the danger had passed) there was an intentionality to their actions. Jealous of our intelligence, we must find a way to explain that animals can predict natural disasters of many kinds long before humans detect their more obvious traits. Our technology gives us seconds, or minutes, of warning. Dogs, cats, and birds know well in advance. But we are the superior beings here.

One of the problems with consciousness is that we can never get outside our own. Other people act in ways similar to us, and describe similar mental states, so we assign them the same kind of consciousness we have. Animals, not using human language, also act in similar ways to us. We call it “instinct” and continue on to the truly important stuff. I have no idea if birds can detect infrasound; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they could. Without the ability to place it in the context of danger, however, I doubt they would take a thousand mile vacation just after their annual migration. We could learn a lot from our fellow creatures, if only we’d admit them to the conscious club and not the food club. And perhaps they might be able to explain to us why, despite all we know, religion never seems to go away.

X-mas Time

As predictable as crocuses in early spring are the controversies that crop up around holiday billboards. Even living in the quite blue state of New Jersey, I see plenty of advocating for the keeping of Christ in Christmas that the “keep Christ in Christie” campaign seems to lack. This year, however, the American Atheists billboard kerfuffle has shifted to Memphis and Nashville. There protests have been lodged that using children on “holidays for all” billboards is a kind of exploitation. And as we all prepare for the visit of baby Jesus, or Santa Claus, or any variety of mythical nighttime visitors, American Atheists are only asking that we all share the presents. It is an odd kind of culture war. Christmas, as we’ve long known, predates Christ. The holiday was usurped from pagan tradition and baptized into a holy day that was barely observed until the nineteenth century. The commercialization of the holiday gave it the current shape we recognize, and some Christian groups feel compelled to reclaim it in a kind of cultural crusade that will only end with complete acquiescence.

This is a holy war in which neither side is right. In the work-a-day world that I inhabit Christmas is above all a long weekend with a respite from the drudgery of a long commute to ensure that the system continues. Thousands stream into New York City, which, amazingly, does seem to transform for the holidays. The city that is, for most of the year, cold and heartless, suddenly displays a more human face. Giant wreaths and tall trees appear, bright decorations hang in windows. Menorahs and dreidels become manifest. Signs of Kwanzaa or other solstice-related holidays are evident for those who know how to spot them. People in general seem more generous than usual. Even many businesses relax their time-grabbing strictures a bit. Christmas did not begin as a Christian holiday, nor, it seems, will it ever be fully supersessionist.

IMG_1849

Celebration, I would suggest, is worth celebrating. Should atheists use a poster-child for the secular celebration of the holiday season? Should Christians have displays of mangers on church property where all passers by can see? Should Mensch on a Bench be displayed in stores? Should Santa be advocating for corporate giants who only want us to spend? Perhaps the answers are obvious. In my mind they are. We gather our families in, and in the northern style that has always resonated deeply with me, we look out the window and await the coming of the purifying snow.

When Darkness Reigns

I recently read an article about the Druids. The fact is, historically speaking, we know little of them. They are mysterious and silent and irrevocably linked in the imagination with the solstices. Cultures throughout the northern climes of the northern hemisphere have always treated the winter solstice with an extreme reverence. It is the day of the year when it seems like light just can’t come in any shorter supply. In the depths of that desperation, offerings are made to ensure that tomorrow, if only by the merest moments, the day will be longer. And so we begin the lengthy climb through frigid days to the point six months from now when light will reign supreme. We don’t know, historically, if the Druids gave the great significance to equinoxes and cross-quarter days that the Celts eventually incorporated into their religion, but we do know that much of the monumental architecture of the United Kingdom and Ireland is oriented toward the sun’s feeblest rays at the winter solstice. Stonehenge, New Grange, Maes Howe, and the list could go on and on. We are waiting for light.

Lawrence Hall of Science; photo credit: Tim Ereneta (Wikipedia Commons)

Lawrence Hall of Science; photo credit: Tim Ereneta (Wikipedia Commons)

The solstice seems to creep up on me these days. I work in a cubicle with no outdoor light visible. I leave for work in the dark and arrive home in the dark. I’m inclined to offer up prayers to Odin while I while away the hours before an unresponsive computer monitor. Business has already shut down in all but the greediest minds by this time of year. It is time to hibernate and await a brighter tomorrow. Even in the darkness there can be light. This weekend I attended a Hanukkah celebration, and looking at the menorah I was struck once again how fervently we seek light this time of year. Of course, Hanukkah is connected with the rededication of the temple after the desecration of the Seleucids, but is it coincidence that the candles are lit near the solstice? Perhaps I’m getting too old to believe in coincidences.

In the ancient apocalyptic mind, light and darkness were bitter enemies. Of course, today we recognize that people generally use eyesight as a primary way of interacting with the world—of keeping us from danger. With our diminished senses of hearing and smell, we feel vulnerable when we can’t see our potential predators. Light is the key to our successful preservation. Today technology has taken the place of ritual. We have artificial lights to help lengthen our working hours. We eschew the limitations of being associated with the earth’s rhythms. We are the masters of our own domain, and we can keep the forty-hour work-week going on all but the most insistent of holidays. Perhaps the wisdom of the Druids needs to be rediscovered. Perhaps only then will natural light really return.

M Is for Mary

While pre-celebrating Christmas with some friends recently, the topic of cats came up. This really isn’t surprising since two of the families present had been members of the local 4-H cats club. For a while cats were ubiquitous on the internet, but since I have so little time to browse the web anymore, I’m not sure if that’s still the case. Nevertheless, being near Christmas, someone narrated a story I’d never heard before. Tabby cats (like many jungle cats) have a distinctive marking in the form of an “M” on their foreheads. The legend suggests that on the first Christmas a tabby cat was in the manger. Seeing a mouse trying to crawl into the trough were baby Jesus lay, the cat killed the mouse, earning the thanks of Mary, who kissed it on the forehead, bestowing her characteristic M. It is a nice story (apart from the point of view of the mouse, I suppose)—an etiology to explain an evolutionary development in fur patterns.

Blessed is M...

Blessed is M…

Shortly after that my wife sent me a story on the BBC about the oldest inscribed human artifact. Zigzag marking found on a fossilized clam shell from Indonesia suggest that Homo erectus was an abstract thinker, I’m told. The markings, which must at least be 430,000 years old, predate the earliest known human markings by 300,000 years. If accepted by anthropologists this evidence could rewrite all of human history. We had no idea that Homo erectus had time to doodle on shells. Looking at the photos accompanying the BBC article, I couldn’t help but notice they’re in the shape of an M. Perhaps Mary kissed these shells too? So etiologies begin.

If you’ll pardon me for attempting to brush off my training in ancient languages, Mary of Nazareth was likely born into an Aramaic-speaking family. Her name, Mariam, would have been spelled with mem, which, although representing water is some scripts, took roughly this form: מ (assuming the Imperial Aramaic alphabet). If Mary were both historical and literate (the latter, at least, is doubtful) she would not have recognized the tabby’s distinctive mark as part of her name. It would have been an abstract symbol. Of course, God, being a natural lover of cats, may have had the Greek alphabet in mind, where the letter mu gives us our classical capital M. Mary, however, would probably still not have known what to make of it. We love to attribute significances to perceived patterns. The tabby’s distinctive M, as well as Homo erectus’s early exercises in penmanship present us with opportunities to continue making myths. And we should keep the myths in Christmas.

Moral Animals

CanAnimalsBeMoralFor all of my life that I can remember, I have felt an affinity with animals. Even when I was relentlessly taught that evolution was wrong—Satanic even—I still held onto the idea that animals are more like us than they are different. I know this is partially the great sin of anthropomorphism (although I secretly doubt it is a mortal sin), but when I’ve interacted with animals, or watched them interact with each other, they’ve convinced me that they’re thinking. Since, however, we are the very top of the food-chain, we can’t allow such things. That’s why I turn to philosophy. Perhaps public transit isn’t the best place to appreciate fully a book of philosophy, but it’s the only time I have. Those who think categorically and with such rigid logic surely must have something to say on the issue of our fellow creatures. Mark Rowlands’s Can Animals Be Moral? is one of those books that might not be best read on a bus. I found myself constantly wanting to draw diagrams to visualize the course of his thought as we hit another pothole, or an angry bird killed a green pig in the next seat over.

While the animal stories that make such an engaging case are not a major part of Rowlands’s book, they nevertheless, for many of us lesser thinkers, seal the deal. When an animal acts in a way that shows its own lack of self-interest (how un-human!) we should sit up and pay attention. The question of morality, however, is thorny. Philosophers of ethics and religious analysts of the same seldom come near one another in their conclusions. We don’t know why we think morally, but it is clear we often do. It is obvious that it isn’t solely because of religion, although religion sometimes has a hand in it. It is, at the end of the day, a matter of feeling what is right. I feel that it is right to treat animals as thinking, feeling creatures. But are they moral?

Rowlands shows that some of the implications of animal morality can be serious. It was not that long ago that some animals were put on trial for the harm they’d putatively caused. Some were executed. (I wonder if they were eaten afterward?) If we attribute morality to animals, can they be blamed for their actions? Here is where the brilliance of Rowlands’s carefully argued book comes out—animals can be moral subjects without being moral agents. That is to say, they can act morally, but they can’t reason it out. I’m sure that I’m not saying this right, but the basic idea still appeals to me. Reading his final chapter on how moral Martians might view the naked apes of this planet gave me the chills. When we take ourselves off the top of the food-chain, the view becomes very sobering indeed. Would we want to be treated by Martians the way we treat animals on our own planet? Morality lies at the answer to that hypothetical question.

Foundation and Empire

Foundation_gnomeIn a childhood full of science fiction I’m sure I read much material that was too sophisticated for me. After all, I grew up in a working-class family where politics amounted to lambasting the incumbent because things still weren’t getting any better. Even the conservative super-hero Ronald Reagan was mostly remembered for the government-issue cheese we received for free. We called it “Reagan Cheese.” In that setting much of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy must have been far beyond me. Still, I dutifully plowed through all three volumes as any budding science-fiction nerd was expected to. It was a required piece of the curriculum along with Frank Herbert’s Dune. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land would have to wait until adulthood. I remember rooting for the cosmic empire—the symbol of law and order—unaware that similar systems would eventually find me as a fifty-something, educated man unemployable for years at a time. Science fiction doesn’t bestow the ability to see the future.

Then I read a recent issue of Books and Culture, the bi-monthly publication review by Christian Century. An article by Philip Jenkins, reviewing a book I’ve not read, started off with a reference to Asimov’s trilogy. Suddenly I found myself transported hundreds of miles and two-score years from Midtown Manhattan to rural western Pennsylvania in barely adequate housing, holding Foundation and Empire close to my face. Jenkins, a noted historian of religion, was pointing out that Asimov often drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and based his character of the Mule—those of you who’ve read the trilogy remember him, I’m sure—on Mohammed. The thought had never occurred to me that the science-oriented mind of Asimov would ever delve into religion for inspiration. Still, with the little I recall of the story, it does seem to add up.

In fact, much of science fiction is deeply dependent on religion. Science fiction dares to dream of the future, and no matter how technical that future becomes, the religious are still there. Last century bold claims were made that we’d be living in the twilight years of religion by now. Mid-term elections fueled by religious fervor prove the pundits wrong yet again. Organized religion, fledgling or fully adult, is a political animal. Religion and politics are both about how we interact with one another as a society. It may seem that the concepts behind religious thought are unsubstantiated myths that transcend the mechanistic world in which we live. Even so, they continue to drive revolutions large and small. And somewhere in the attic I still have my copy of the Foundation trilogy ready to be seen by grown-up eyes. Or better yet, through the credulous eyes of a child.

Overcoming Justice

In college a friend I’ve lost track of (and I have, of most of them) turned me on to Irish protest music. I do have some fairly direct Irish heritage, although I didn’t know it at the time, still the righteous anger tied to memorable tunes made a strong impression. Music can move you in that way. In a recent New Jersey Star-Ledger article on protest songs, Lisa Leff raises the poignant question of where the protest songs have gone. In the aftermath of the travesty of justice in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, we find ourselves musically mute. As I sat in the theater awaiting Exodus, the preview of Selma brought tears to my eyes. Martin Luther King Junior knew the power of peaceful protest. “We Shall Overcome” featured in the trailer. Would there be an exodus after all of this at all? We used to voice our discontent. Now we click on to the next page, oblivious.

Bloody_Sunday-Alabama_police_attack

Justice has become a myth for many. Please understand, I’m professionally bound not to use “myth” in a pejorative way. No, justice has become a myth. Fear is powerful, and power is fearful. Juries are supposed to be impartial. Who is really not afraid? Why don’t we sing in the dark instead of drawing our weapons and firing? Why don’t we believe “I can’t breathe” is a statement made in earnest? Why don’t we insist on the “for all” part of the pledge? After all, even some recent presidents not known for their sense of social justice have pointed out that these court decisions are puzzling. I wonder where I put those old Irish protest-song records?

Anything you say can and will be used against you. I don’t know what to say. We have lost the ability to experience justifiable outrage. We see powerful lobbies continue to arm the mentally unstable while one percent hordes the wealth that could be used to help fund the solutions. If you walk past Trump Tower you’ll see that visitors are not welcome in one of the highest buildings in the city. We have forgotten how to sing. These most recent cases of Brown and Garner are only the most recent cases. Violence in the name of law has gone on for too long. I’m afraid when I rush past the fatigues in the Port Authority on my way to work. But I am a white man. Do they know that I used to listen to Irish protest music? I wonder where I put those records. Wait a minute, there’s something new in the iTunes store.