Live Long and Prosper

He lived long and prospered. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but the icons of my youth have been dying. I have to confess to having sat far too many hours in front of the television as a young person, but fantasy of all sorts helped me cope with reality. Leonard Nimoy was a kind of father figure, in a way. Similar to Jonathan Frid, Russell Johnson, and Fred Rogers, all of whom stood in for an absentee parent and showed me different aspects of what it meant to be a man. Watching them die is like having someone tear pages from the book of my life—they made strong impressions, even though it was all make-believe. It’s difficult to say why Leonard Nimoy’s passing hit me so hard. I guess that the conceit of Spock living far longer than humans took hold at some level, and the rational, unflappable Vulcan seemed like a stable, if somewhat emotionally cold father to a child who was, in his own mind, conceived by the television itself.

I don’t really consider myself a nerd. I don’t have the tech to back me up. I’m more like a hermit who spends weekdays in Manhattan. Still, when anyone says Kirk or Picard, there is only one right answer. I watched Star Trek when it was new, still in original reruns. My mother decried it as “silly nonsense,” but along with other monster generation kids, I had my face pressed to the screen waiting to see what new and weird form of life might appear. It was the late sixties and all of this was fresh and untried. Star Trek became a vital part of my childhood. I think it might have been because this was a place with no limits. No limits beyond a shoestring budget, in any case. Space, as I was learning, was vast. There were endless possibilities out there.

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As an adult, the possibilities seem somewhat severely effaced. I’ve tried to be rational and moral and conscientious, but I haven’t really held down a regular career. I don’t watch television any more, and instead read books and ask probing questions. Why does Spock resonate so much with me? Was it because he was apparently immune to emotion? Or maybe he was simply able to rise above it, since everyone knows he is half-human and even Vulcans have emotions, albeit deeply buried. Those of us who followed the original crew through the movies suffered through his death before. And his resurrection. This time, though, it’s not Spock who’s gone. Leonard Nimoy is one of those few people who, in their own lifetime, become a symbol. And symbols, if they are of any use, live long and prosper well after their creators pass on.

Scientific Belief

AtlanticThe human brain is a marvelous thing. Neuroscientists find all kinds of surprises as they probe the gray matter in our heads. One of those findings is that we don’t always believe what we say we do. Some time ago I read Matthew Hutson’s Seven Laws of Magical Thinking. Scientists didn’t like the book too much since it caught them with their empirical pants down. Really, there’s no shame in that. We are at the mercy of our own minds. In this month’s Atlantic magazine, Hutson has a brief piece entitled “The Science of Superstition.” In the space of just over two columns he runs down the evidence that even those who claim materialism is the answer to all life’s mysteries, even those scientists can’t escape superstition. Friday the thirteenth, a couple of weeks back, I walked under a ladder on my way to work. What happened? I had to go to work. Is that bad luck? I suspect it’s a matter of opinion. I’m the first to admit, however, that I did have fleeting reservations.

Study after study, as cited by Hutson, shows that physiological measures indicate anxiety when those who don’t believe in God say bad things about him/her. We all attribute cause to natural events, even those steeped in the hard sciences. Thinking about death reveals subconscious beliefs about God. It’s the way we’re hardwired. Hutson himself, if I recall correctly, doesn’t really attribute much credence to the supernatural. This is all a matter of what our material brains believe. Interestingly, we are evolved to be open to religious ideas. Many choose to believe, despite our brains, that we are evolutionarily deceived. Screwed by natural selection, as it were.

Far more interesting, in my deluded opinion, is that we don’t really choose what to believe. At least not at first blush. Our brains tell us to believe in the invisible causation that just doesn’t fit in a material world. To get beyond that takes some effort. It does give one pause, however, to consider that blind evolution has puckishly kept all this in the mix. Does evolution have a sense of humor? Perhaps we are all taking all of this far too seriously. Or maybe, just maybe, our brains are smarter than we think.

A Night at Culture

AmericanMuseumOne of the undisputed benefits of living in the greater New York City metropolitan area is the potential for culture. I know that culture exists everywhere, and that is precisely one of the points behind Douglas J. Preston’s Dinosaurs in the Attic. I picked this up at a used book sale because of my love of dinosaurs, but the subtitle provides more of a description: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History. Just when the first Night at the Museum movie came out, the American Museum of Natural History offered a program of nights to sleep in the museum, geared toward children. A generous family member bought us tickets and we got to sleep in the oceanarium under the giant whale dangling from the ceiling. We were allowed to explore galleries by flashlight, including the most famous collection of dinosaurs in the world. Who wouldn’t want to read about the backstory of such a museum after such an event?

As might be expected, with roots in the late nineteenth century, it was a different world in which this museum was conceived and built. Rare animals were shot to be part of exhibits, artifacts were acquired and shipped across national borders, and even world-class bird collections were bought to help an indiscrete baron avoid the humiliation of having an affair revealed by a blackmailer. Still, the religious element was clear. One of the founders for the museum, Albert Bickmore, went off in search of artifacts with his Bible tucked under his arm. Exotic places and peoples were still allowed to be called exotic, and the museum eventually became famous enough to star in a movie.

What struck me the most about this fascinating story, however, is when Preston points out that the most fragile, and valuable possession of the museum are the myths. Early ethnographers visited peoples that, even then it was already too clear would become extinct (culturally), and recorded their religious stories. This, and not the thundering Tyrannosaurus Rex, was the true purpose of the museum. Museums are about people. What we discover, what we make, and how we impact our planet. Myths, religious stories, are some of the most unique and delicate pieces of information that we can leave behind. Even materialists have beliefs. We all believe in something. Although nobody goes to a Night at the Museum to read dusty old stories, it is a source of comfort that they are there. Many of the cultures have indeed died out. Were it not for the foresight of those who could see where globalization would eventually lead, they would have been forever lost. And a world without myth is not a world worth living in.

Our Gods, Ourselves

The near-death experience, made popular by Raymond Moody in the 1970s, has hit the cultural mainstream with movies like Heaven Is Real. The now-familiar scenario of going through the tunnel toward the light and meeting something like God is so widespread that mention of “staying away from the light” can be a metaphor for remaining alive. Although experts (one of which I’m decidedly not) disagree on interpretations, nobody doubts that the dying often report such things. Some say it is the impression left on an oxygen-starved brain about to implode, while others postulate a soul has made an actual bid for freedom only to be returned to sender. No matter what you believe, it’s hard not to be intrigued. Not all the experiences are identical, however. A friend recently sent me a story from World News Daily Report that headlines “Catholic Priest Who Died for 48 Minutes Claims that God Is a Woman.” The story by Barbara Johnson, which ran earlier this month, is an interesting variation on the standard. Often the “being of light” met at the end of the tunnel is kind of asexual. After all, there are no physical bodies there.

This story has me thinking. Traditional Christian, indeed, Judeo-Christian thought posits that God is neither male nor female. Of course, given human experience, many people find that difficult to conceive. It does occur in intersex persons, and it is actually pretty widespread in nature where some animals change gender over their lifespans. Still, when it comes to the Almighty, people want to know with whom they’re dealing. Think about it. When you walk into a doctor’s office and meet a physician for the first time, your response will differ depending on their gender. The same is true of going into a car dealership, or a daycare facility. We use gender to give us the first hint on how to respond. A genderless God, let’s admit, is somewhat disquieting. What is the message you want to send to a person without knowing their gender? Or maybe like me you’ve read a book and discovered halfway through that you had the gender of the author wrong. Doesn’t it impact how you read the rest? So, what if God is a woman?

Interestingly, the case of Father John O’neal comes from a Catholic context. Along with Evangelical Christians, Catholics are among the most likely to hold a residual maleness to God’s identity. Theology of the Trinity, always beginning with “the Father” makes it hard to escape. Perhaps what Fr. O’neal unexpectedly encountered was a God-concept without judgment. That would certainly be disorienting to a faith that has a multi-layered afterlife including limbo and purgatory as well as heaven and hell. A deity who decides the fate of souls must be a judge, and although Judge Judy rules daytime television, the church still has a traditional mensch on the bench. What if Fr. O’neal really did get to heaven? What if he found God really was female? Could human religions ever recover? I, for one, am intrigued. Still, I’m content to wait another few decades before finding out. And maybe for the time we have down here we should all start practicing by realizing that gender is always far less important than the personhood that we all share.

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Lazarus, Come Forth

The red-cast face staring down from the giant LCD billboard this side of the Lincoln Tunnel has my attention. Having become an unwitting fan of horror movies, the genre was clear from the creepy, black-eyed gaze that found me even in mass transit. The Lazarus Effect, it said. I stored the information away knowing that it would be a movie I’d have to rent and watch alone—I don’t know many other true fans, and I don’t like going to a theater by myself. Then I started thinking about Lazarus. The man raised from the dead, according to the Gospels. When I was a child I always confused this Lazarus with the one from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. I’d never known anybody with that name, and to find it twice in the same book must imply, at some level, that they were the same guy, right? I mean, they’re both dead. So my juvenile thinking went. In the parable Lazarus, whose wounds are licked by dogs, is taken into the comfort of heaven when he dies. The rich man, it turns out, isn’t so lucky.

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This was a bitter cold day. Dressed like I was headed to McMurdo Station rather than central Midtown, I tried to keep my head down as the wind howled through the channels constructed by excess wealth. I am always distressed to see the homeless out and about on such days. I’ve got on more layers than an onion on steroids, and I’m still chilled through. What must it be like to face such weather threadbare? There, on Madison Avenue I saw a dog being taken for a walk. He had on a warm sweater and fancy purple slippers to keep his canine feet from touching the cold ground. That dog was better dressed against the cold than some of the people I’d passed. I thought of the dog licking the sores of Lazarus. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me,” the rich man cried.

“Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.” The words are almost as harsh as this wind. We’ve become a society that will spend more readily on our pets than on our compatriots. Dogs, at least the breed I saw on the street, have evolved to grow thick coats. I’ve seen pictures of huskies running across the snow like their wolfen ancestors. Indeed, the wolves, where we’ve not hunted them to extinction, still manage in the winter. But then, there’s the Lazarus Effect. I’m feeling guilty thinking about putting out the money to rent it, several months down the road. There’s a real life Lazarus who could use any spare change right now. And the well-heeled dogs, I’m sure, would be made to turn up their noses from even getting near enough to lick his wounds.

Four Gods’ Sake

AmericasFourGodsStatistically speaking, most people don’t like statistics. I’m one of those. Numbers can do funny things to a person’s perception of things, nevertheless, I appreciate those who can work with them and make sense of them. When I saw the title America’s Four Gods, my disappointment engine kicked in. Is this book going to be about numbers? It was written by a couple of sociologists after all (and even a couple is a number). I’ve read enough of Christopher Bader’s work, however, to trust him. Paul Froese should be the same. Subtitled What We Say about God & What That Says about Us is an appropriate introduction to the book. Based on the Baylor Religion Survey, this study looks at what one of the most religions nations on earth believes about God. Since God is a key political player these days, that’s not a bad idea. Their conclusions are well worth noting.

Froese and Bader find that belief in God is highly idiosyncratic. It is likely the case that, similar to sacerdotal snowflakes, no two ideas about God are precisely the same. Categories, however, help to analyze things, and America’s Four Gods does just that, suggesting four main images of God that have very different characteristics. The Authoritative God we all know well. This is Jonathan Edwards’s deity that dangles spiders above the fire—active and angry in the world. The Benevolent God is also active, but more avuncular and kind. The Critical God is not very active, but is still annoyed with us. The Distant God tends to be kindly, but is rather remote. Using these four kinds of God, Froese and Bader examine what people believe about all kinds of issues, from war to social reform to adultery. When Americans say “God bless America” they mean very different things.

When it comes time to troop to the poles, we listen to what our candidates say about the Almighty. It is a virtual certainty that an atheist is unelectable in these religious states, so we want to hear what the candidates have to say about God. What they say and what their listeners hear, however, are clearly different things. Still, religious conviction is one of the most important variables when it comes to selection a President, Governor (at least in some states), or congress-person. Some candidates, with God off the plate, have nothing left to commend them at all. So it is in one of the wealthiest, most powerful nations in the world. A basic truth that we choose to ignore decides our fate for us. Mired in a Gulf War? Who you gonna call? Chances are we all know the answer to that. Chances are equally as high that we all mean something different by it.

Parallelism?

An article in Mother Nature Network that a friend sent me suggests that “Parallel worlds exist and interact with our world, say physicists.” The article, by Bryan Nelson, discusses quantum mechanics and the many-worlds interpretation that suggest that these worlds interact. Perhaps they explain the anomalous happenings so often reported in this world. I find the “many interacting worlds” idea compelling. We all know, whether or not we’ll admit it, that strange things sometimes happen. It may be that interacting multiverses can explain some (although I somehow doubt, all) of this. Everything I read about quantum physics suggests that it is weird and we just can’t understand how it’s possible. That’s the kind of universe I’m glad to live in. Still, I wonder.

The many interacting worlds hypothesis suggests that at every juncture, every decision, in some universe we went a different way. Should I go right or left? And as I made that left turn, some me somewhere else went right. The problem is perhaps the sheer number of variables. The many decisions I’ve made, and I’m just one person, have multiple possibilities. Each of these possibilities links and intertwines with even more possibilities. It’s not hard to believe that this universe revolves around me and my petty problems. Add to this the variables of the billions of others who share the planet and soon I start to grow dizzy. Does each and every one of these take place somewhere, somewhen? And who are we to think that we even know what two possibilities might be? What if I type an e instead of an i? What will my post say in an alternate universe? At what level of insignificance do I finally admit utter ennui and say that life in this universe I know is just too full to admit of any others? Of course, anyone looking at my bank account knows I have no experience with large numbers.

Parallel worlds have always fascinated me. I suspect that deep down I know this can’t be all that there is. In some universe my Ph.D. led to a real teaching post. I wrote all those books that are rattling around inside my head. I attained tenure and showed the world that a kid from a blue-collar family with no connections can actually make something of himself. In another world I’m the one laying in the cold on the streets of Manhattan begging quarters from the other me, looking worried as he races to and from work every day. Or maybe this whole thing is just a dream I’m solopsistically having. Of course, if you’re reading this you’re welcome to my dream. Or any other universe that you might choose. I only ask that if you allow me into yours, may I please have tenure? I’d really like that universe best of all.

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Ultimate Superlative

“Push men too far and they fall off the cliff.  Push great men too far and they soar.”  The words are those of my novelist friend K. Marvin Bruce.  Unless you read this blog you’ve probably never heard of him; his novel publishing record is about as successful as my academic career.  Still, I think quite a bit about Marvin’s plight.  He seems to be a gifted writer—he sends me copies of his stuff—but publishers take no notice.  He’s had a few short stories appear in online journals; two of them even won prizes, but the internet is a very crowded place.  It’s not easy to get noticed. Those who try to make a living smithing words often face a dilemma; it feels like all the momentous words have already been taken.

Marvin on a superlative walk

Marvin on a superlative walk

I mentioned in a recent post that we are suffering from a crisis of superlatives.  The other day I was in a mall (this is a foreign activity for me—the people all look far trendier than I do, and they seem to think this is the place to be, not just where you have to go to have your laptop serviced).  I saw a mother walking by holding the hand of her maybe three-year-old son.  His little tee-shirt read “Über Awesome.”  I recall when awesome really meant full of awe.  And that was rare, reserved for things like towering, severe Midwestern thunderstorms alive with constant lightning, or gray north Atlantic waves crashing mercilessly into the cliffs of Maine. I stood, small and insignificant on the prairie or the coast, utterly at a loss for words. Yes, it was that impressive. My superlatives, however, have all been absconded. We live in a world where “greatest” sounds somewhat ordinary. Even the apocalypse has grown thin from overuse, and that used to be the ultimate end of everything. How weak it all sounds.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been watching the second Star Wars trilogy. While the special effects are impressive, it suffers compared to the original trilogy. One of the reasons, in my idiosyncratic hermeneutic, is that the Jedi knights were reconceived, or reconceptualized. They are action figures, hands on hips, ready to dart into a fight. “May the force be with you,” has become a mere “God bless you.” Was not the real strength of Obi Wan his silence and lack of haste? Was Luke ever more impressive than when he slowly walked into the cave of Jabba the Hut, light saber tucked away, only to be used when such an awesome weapon was called for? It takes a certain placidity of soul to stare long into the abyss. Perhaps this is a metaphor for our superlatives. Calm lives of measured, considered action. This seems to be what the world lacks. To find it would truly be experience simple greatness.

Incitatus Redux

What more is there to say about God and politics? Far too much, I fear. In a Sunday Review in the New York Times, Frank Bruni lays out a catalogue of what, in a rational universe, would be considered violations of the United States constitution by politicians who insist their (conservative) Christianity is the faith of the nation. This is, however, one of the philosophical conundrums of religious freedom. Religious believers are free to use their faith to try to change the system from within. And the fact that the media is telling us that religion has become irrelevant doesn’t help. Who should be afraid of what’s irrelevant? Can irrelevant substances harm you? Can irrelevant bullets kill you? Why, yes, they can! And so being told repeatedly by the media that religion is something we can safely lock into a box marked “Medievalisms Outdated” we step out the door to see politicians using a religion poorly understood to gain power. A recipe for an apocalypse, it sounds like to me.

Academics too readily fall prey to the media hype. University presidents and deans suppose that religion really is dead and shouldn’t be studied. Who’s going to help us through the morass of the upcoming election if people who understand religion are made indigent and put out on the streets? Good luck to the rest of society! We must, if we are to survive, understand religion. Its death, following shortly on that of God, was proclaimed early last century. And yet it’s showing no signs of dying. In fact, it’s just waking up. Who are we going to ask? Scientists? Accountants? Economists? What will you really learn about our laws being God’s laws in the minds of the wealthy and powerful? Don’t ask me—I’ve only spent some thirty-five years studying religion. What do I know?

I sometimes wonder what it must’ve been like to live in Rome as Alaric was whetting his sword among his Visigothic horde. Insane—literally insane—emperors wielded unchallenged power and lived lives of opulence amid the slaves and poor. Religion was front and center on the agenda, of course, because emperors were gods. You don’t have to listen too deeply to hear the same message even today. Those who proclaim God as the justification for their political ambitions know that God is the ultimate malleable deity. In fact, God can even be in the Oval Office. Lead can line your aqueducts and your horse can be made a senator. Lord knows an ass can be. And all the while let’s shut down the voices of those who’ve looked at religion, beginning in the Stone Age and up to now. If we want to grab power it’s vital that we keep it from public view that self-deification is as old as kingship and in a post-religious world, we have only to pretend.

Photo credit: Louis le Grand, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Louis le Grand, Wikimedia Commons

Material to Ponder

EndOfMaterialismFrom my youngest days I remember wanting to be a scientist. This desire was tempered with a real fear of Hell and wish to please. In my career, it seems, the latter won out. Well, mostly. I never planned on being an editor, but it was clear that I missed the hard-core science courses and would always lack scientific credibility. You see, I believed what scientists said, and that included science teachers in high school. To this day I still believe in the back of my mind that you can’t really see atoms with a microscope. One of my teachers had said it was impossible, and although electron microscopes were still a long way off, it was clear that atoms were just too small. The force of materialism first hit me in ninth grade physics. If what I was hearing was true, then if you had enough information, you could figure out the whole universe. But what of Hell?

I read Charles T. Tart’s The End of Materialism because of my need for reassurance. Materialism leaves me cold. To find a scientist who feels the same way is a bonus. Not all authorities agree that we’re just excited atoms that can be seen. Tart is willing to consider the spiritual as part of what the evidence reveals. He explores it in the context of psi rather than in the doomed attempt to test religions empirically, but he does make a case for more to this universe than Horatio’s philosophy ever dared dream. And some of that more is decidedly not physical. It’s what we know from our experience of the world. We don’t only reason, we also feel. I have to wonder if reason is really the friend of materialism after all.

You can’t walk across Manhattan without seeing an ambulance most days. Often they’re called out to collect some unfortunate homeless person who collapses from our collective neglect. If we are only matter, then why do we bother to assist those in distress? It’s just a little electricity and some chemicals in a biological organ, right? Consciousness is only an illusion, after all. Unless, of course, the person suffering is a prominent scientist. Then we should all make way for the ambulance lest we lose an asset of great value. Materialism is insidious in its take-no-captives mentality. Feel what you will, there’s nothing more to life than physical stuff. You can make a good living believing that. Why is it that I’m suddenly thinking of Hell again?

Biblical Script

The popular perception of the Bible generally does not match the actual contents very well. Like most books, the Bible has its highlights: Creation, Flood, David and Goliath, Jonah, Daniel and the lion’s den, Jesus, the Apocalypse. Between all the fascinating narrative, however, come the instructions. More instructions, in point of fact, than most people would care for. Nevertheless, over the centuries the Bible has acquired an aura in western civilization. It has become what some colleagues call an “iconic book.” It is this aspect of the Bible that stands out most clearly in the Fox series Sleepy Hollow. I wrote a post about Sleepy Hollow as I began to watch the first season on DVD. The headless horseman is an agent of the Apocalypse, and clergy and witches play a prominent role in the story. I wondered if the role of the Bible would diminish once the audience was drawn into the conceit of the four horsemen thundering out of Revelation into Sleepy Hollow. Just the opposite, in fact, occurred.

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As the series unfolds, the Bible is drawn more and more into the story. Demons and detectives both want to get their hands on it. Not to read the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, but because the Bible contains esoteric information. Those “in the know” can unlock its secrets and thereby save society. Ironically, this is a subtextual version of the biblical metanarrative. It is all about (from the Christian perspective) salvation. The means, however, are quite different. Jesus is not really part of the Sleepy Hollow story. The Bible belongs to George Washington, cryptically bringing politics into the story. The text is not secure; there are extra verses in Washington’s Bible, just as there are many excised bits in Thomas Jefferson’s. Washington leaves instructions for saving his fledgling nation from the evils that roamed its shores during the Revolution. Or is that Revelation?

Right up to the cliff-hanger ending of season one, the Bible comes back time and again, focusing the viewer on its magical qualities. It is a book of secrets and mysteries. Meanwhile in the real world, biblical studies positions are being slashed from universities as if the horseman’s axe were anything but fictional. We don’t want to know about the real Bible. Politicians, real ones, use it as their own sword to force their personal faith agendas onto the electorate, but we generally do not even understand what the Bible really is. We’ll fund economics, that dismal science, and business, and maybe even actual science. The humanities, however, the stuff that makes us human, we will gladly call luxuries and deny them fiscal security. So the Bible grows in stature even as it diminishes in stature. Those who don’t know the factual Bible can easily be swayed by the fictional one. Are those hoofbeats I hear in the distance?

Biblical Weather

On President’s Day, my wife pointed out an article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger headlined, “‘Biblical’ snowstorms battering New England.” She asked, reasonably enough, “What makes a snowstorm biblical?” Since I have written a book on the weather in the book of Psalms, I might be able to speak to that. First off, yes, there is snow in the Bible. It’s not mentioned often and it is a rarity, but the Israelites knew what snow was. In fact, one of the most difficult Psalm weather references is to snow, in Psalm 68. The man interviewed in the newspaper, however, was not being literal. “Biblical” has come to mean disastrous. I can exegete that a bit more: disastrous because of quantity. Too much of a good thing. Or bad thing. In Boston this year the weather just won’t quit. The topic that really has people talking, however, is the temperature. It has been very chilly. My daughter complained when her university didn’t cancel classes with the air temperature at about 9 below. Her note prompted my thoughts of a day to remember.

When I taught at Nashotah House, the weather did not stop us. Ever. It was a residential facility with both faculty and students living on campus. Everything was within walking distance. My close exposure to the weather was one of the reasons I wrote the book. One Lent, and this must have been in February, we had a quiet day. Quiet days were taken very seriously. On this particular occasion the day was to be used for a meditation in the Milwaukee Cathedral, some 35 miles away. The problem was the air temperature was -42 Fahrenheit. That isn’t wind chill, that’s how cold the air actually was. (For those of you reading in Europe, Fahrenheit and Celsius are the same at -40, then they begin to diverge again.) It did not stop us. We piled into the van and prayed earnestly that we’d get there safely. On the way home we manically recited Evensong from memory. When the wind blew the chill dropped to -70 (my Minnesota friends will believe me here). If ever weather was biblical, that day was.

I do wonder if overusing “biblical,” however, will wear it out. Where do we go after biblical? What is conceptually bigger than God? Anselm would panic. What if next year it’s even worse—how will we describe it? We’ve already used up the apocalypse. We’ve entered into a crisis of superlatives. Nothing is big enough any more. As I look at the early fading light of this President’s Day, the snow is beginning to fall again. When I was a child we had, I seem to recall, a simple word to describe it. We didn’t invoke the Almighty. We didn’t hear the galloping of distant hooves. We didn’t act as if a day out of the office were the end of the world. Our simple word for it was this: winter.

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Life Everlasting

ThruTheWormholeThrough the Wormhole is one of those series that keeps me coming back. I’m currently working my way through the second season because it is a show that I take in small doses. The episodes require thought (and often, more importantly, time—something of which I have too little). Watching the installment “Can We Live Forever?” I was astonished by the optimism of the writers and interviewees. Among a cross-section of scientists, at least, there is the belief that we can, and will, dramatically expand human life. To biblical proportions. And that life won’t be a decrepit, declining feebleness. Instead, we can be, to quote one of the scientists, quoting Bob Dylan, “forever young.” Well, maybe not forever, but you get the picture. Of course, God came up quite a bit in this episode. Immortality is the stuff of divinity. The life-force, which much of science denies exists, is strong. No matter how weak or old, we don’t really want to give it up.

Of course, death is the price of life. We live on a finite planet with dwindling resources. If we don’t die, we run out of space for the next generation. Some have postulated that we need to colonize other worlds—just the thing that got Europeans in trouble in the first place—in order to make room. Room for us. The dominant species. No doubt, we are “programmed” to age and die. As far as we know, all animals are. Even plants. That is to say, life as we know it ends in death. If it doesn’t, can it truly be called life? I would be fascinated to live for a long while and see what we can make of this world. Not the greatest fan of technology, still, I’m impressed how far we’ve come in the brief time I’ve spent on this planet. And I do wonder where we’ll end up. In my mind, however, there always is an end. Even to this infinite universe, about the heat-death of which I’ve often read. What gives us the right to live longer than nature dictates?

It is, surely, a matter of degree. These glasses perched on my nose certainly have prolonged my life beyond what nature would dictate. The vitamin pills I swallow, the fabrics that keep me warm while wicking away perspiration, the things physicians can stop in their germy tracks. We already prolong life. Nevertheless, the century mark has always been symbolically our final goal and sign post that it’s time to hand things over. Thus it was in the beginning. The Bible makes clear that, although the antediluvians lived centuries rather than decades, this was never intended as the lot of the majority. No, we were born to die. We live through our children. The thought of eternity is scary. Especially when we think of how humans are. Those who can afford to live the longest are likely those who least deserve to do so. Do we want to live forever with the plutocrats in charge? Perhaps there’s a reason that we all take that final bow. Still, I can never listen to “Forever Young” without getting misty eyed and imagining the possibilities.

Public Knowledge

Sometimes the media gets it wrong. If one were to believe in the tales of industry prognosticators, our libraries would be closing, we’d all own Kindles, MOOCs would have replaced expensive college courses, and New York City should still be shoveling out from the worst blizzard since the Ice Age. We thrive on extremism. Although I don’t regularly read the newspaper (who has time?), the internet makes news memes available just as they happen and I feel somehow cheated if I have to wait more than an hour for trenchant analysis of an event I’ve just witnessed. Still, the publishers haven’t all shut their doors yet, colleges are managing to stay afloat, and libraries can be happening places. This became clear to me when I recently attended an event in the quaintly named Old Bridge Public Library. It was a Saturday, the time of the week when the gripping fingers of employers feel their weakest. Although I saw no evidence of an old bridge anywhere, I made my way through the traffic to the library where I met with a surprise—the place was crowded!

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For those of you not fortunate enough to live in New Jersey, Old Bridge is probably best considered a satellite of New Brunswick, home of Rutger’s University stadium. (I think there may be a university associated with it too.) That is to say, it is an urban area, and any antique structures to convey one across the water have long devolved to only nomenclature. Like anything in north-central New Jersey, it’s not far from New York City. When I arrived for my event, the parking lot was already full. It was not because of the event, either. Less than 20 showed up for that. When I went inside I found the library a veritable hive of activity. And it wasn’t just lonely, homeless people trying to get out of the cold. Families with kids, people with their grandparents, even other middle-aged adults like myself, all found their way to this island in the sea of a municipal complex not walkable from anywhere. I left encouraged.

Yes, the world of books and education is changing. Publishers feel stress, but that stress mostly has to do with predicting the best form to provide for content. Self-publishing has become a phenomenon, but many know that the self-published book has a difficult life in front of it. Libraries, however, are not the graveyards we’ve been told that they are. We need repositories of information that isn’t on the internet. And more importantly, we need places where, although the librarian shushing us may be iconic, we can get together with like-minded individuals and truly educate ourselves. I do sometimes tremble when I think of the future. The values I acquired as a young person seem, at times, on the verge of extinction. I learned that when this seems to weigh too heavily on my mind, I need to head to the nearest public library and support the old bridge to knowledge.

Love the Sinner

Nashotah House, in the many years I taught there, was very saintocentric. Our daily lives revolved around Saints’ Days, many of whom I’d never heard. Not having grown up Episcopalian, I wasn’t accustomed to all the obscure people recognized as worthy of having their own day. I was, however, surprised to learn that the church did not venerate the two most well-known secular saints: Patrick and Valentine. Perhaps having its origins as an all-male institution, St. Valentine’s Day was considered a dangerous concept to commemorate? But no, he wasn’t even on the calendar of saints in the Book of Common Prayer. While the rest of the world was celebrating love, we were generally getting ready for Lent.

The truest holidays mark the observations of subtle shifts in nature. With our indoor, virtual lives, we’ve lost track of the fascinating rhythms of the natural world. The birds begin to pair off and mate, so the etiology goes, around this time of year. So to baptize that pagan erotic longing, St. Valentine was brought into the picture. So the story claims. Religions have always found love somewhat of a stumbling block. On the one hand, it is the highest ethical good—the greatest moral regard you can have for another person is love. (We try not to tell them that, because it might betray too much, however.) On the other hand, love can lead to physical intimacy and there things get a little dicey. Religions of all descriptions attempt to regulate sexuality. It may be a fearful thing, so perhaps we should put a saint’s face on it. Could act like cold water on the natural fires of biological creatures in February.

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So instead, Valentine’s Day has become a secular holiday. Kids send one another cheap cards indicating their enforced regard for one another. Guys carry flowers awkwardly through the streets of Manhattan. The clerk at the chocolate shop, even several days in advance, sends you out the door by saying “Happy Valentine’s Day.” It’s the secret we all know. Ironically, the church has backed away from Valentine. Perhaps, if our religious institutions took seriously what it means to be human, and promoted love as the highest good rather than political conformity, we would truly have cause to celebrate. But don’t mind me—more likely as not, I’m just gazing out the window, watching for birds and the hope of spring.