Buying the Kingdom

Who doesn’t admire the presidential wannabe who can take a personal hit without flinching? We are, after all, a nation of tough-minded individualists who think they know quite a lot about God and the way the universe works. So Donald Trump has been, according to Steve Benen on MSNBC, been saying the Bible is his favorite book. As Benen notes, when asked to point to some specifics, the ultra-rich contender prevaricates, recently saying that of the Testaments, he liked both equally. I wonder which verses are really his favorites? I’m guessing Proverbs 11.28 must be among them: “He that trusteth in his riches shall fall; but the righteous shall flourish as a branch.” Or 28.22, “He that hasteth to be rich hath an evil eye, and considereth not that poverty shall come upon him.” Or maybe Ecclesiastes 10.6, “Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place.” It could be that the New Testament has a slight edge over the Old. “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 19.23) must be right up there. Or Luke 6.24, “But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.” Maybe James 5.1, “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.”

Actually, a near constant vexation to those who try to take the Bible seriously is it’s refusal to take one position on wealth. Written by many people over hundreds of years, it is clear no single viewpoint emerges. Wealth is considered both a blessing and a curse. One thing, however, that the Bible refuses to countenance is the presence of great wealth while poverty still exists. Those who have riches are expected to make sure everyone has enough before enjoying their surplus. Who among the one percent, no matter how much they claim to give away, can ever honestly claim the Bible as their favorite book? There are places where the rich are let off easy, but they are few. Wealth corrupts, and those who have riches in great abundance don’t come off looking good. Still, you can’t be a presidential candidate without the Bible. And money.

I can think of no better use of the Bible as an iconic book than Trump’s claims to valuing it as his favorite, if private, book. This is a Bible containing no words. It is a hollow leather shell that can be used to buy votes—spiritual currency of the highest market value. When is the last time someone could be a non-religious candidate for the highest office in the land? If you can buy your way into the White House, you can surely buy it into Heaven as well. Every god has his price. If I were a rich man running for the presidency, I’d put my money in needles. If I were a literalist, I’d have one cast so large that I could easily walk through. This would be my best chance to inherit every possible kingdom through the use of money.

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Dog in a Manger

I’m easily amused. I suppose I never outgrew that sophomoric fascination with the little things that seem like big jokes. The other day, for instance, I was given a copy of the Chronicle of Higher Education to read. The supplement featured Great Colleges to Work For; what are we supposed to do with that? None of them have jobs, so why advertise? It’s so funny when those who have a great thing going advertise it, even though there’s nothing to it beyond bragging rights. Those of us who’ve tried repeatedly to get into higher education (and I even succeeded for nearly two decades, in some measure) would love to take a job at even the worst college to work for, but they’re not hiring either. Nobody is. So why does the Chronicle want to remind us that the fruit will always be just out of reach, and that the water will be just too low to sip—even if we’re bathing in it?

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The frustration that settles in when the laughter dies off is because everyone I know agrees that I should be teaching. Colleagues, tenured and not, former students, friends. “Why aren’t you a professor?” they say. Many of my best friends are. Full professors. Sabbaticals. Grants. Time that’s not spent on the bus or in the office. Perks of every sort. Ask them. Or ask the Chronicle. I can’t reach the grapes, but they’re probably sour anyway. I mean, I can’t help it that I spend hours on faculty webpages and see those who made the cut not writing the books I have like jets in a holding pattern over Newark. How can the get written when time is he one thing I haven’t got? (Oh, and money too, but you don’t need so much of that to write.) Any one of those Great Colleges to Work For appear on the advertisement pages? Anyone hiring a warmed over religion professor who reads a hundred books a year? Nah!

Just joshin’ ya. I poke fun at higher education like you can only tease a lover. I’m into exercises of nihilism as much as the next prof. Didn’t old Ecclesiastes say it centuries ago: learning is a zero-sum game? So the academic vehicle that doesn’t boost the number of jobs offered will continue to tell us where we should work, if there were any jobs. Perhaps professors of privilege demand more than I think. Just give me a classroom and a syllabus to teach her by. I’ve done so in very primitive conditions at a college that make no marks on the “Best of” scale. Real world experience, however, doesn’t count. We’re only telling you what you can’t have anyway. Isn’t that better than where you work now?

Interstices

College move-in weekend can be a stressful time. In our particular case it means crossing a couple of state lines and staying in a hotel. Well, I suppose we technically might manage to load, drive, unload, and drive in a day but that seems awfully abrupt. You need time to shop for those supplies that might have run out, wait for roommates to arrive, and spend the last quality time together before facing an empty nest for four months. So we find ourselves in a hotel. It’s the one closest to the university, but it is also the host to some kind of event that draws a lot of people but fails to make internet event calendars. We usually stay at this hotel, and they even emailed us at the start of summer to make reservations early. The clientele this weekend is a cross-section of town and gown. It’s a mixed group. In the hall I see other students about, but there are those here who’ve come for non-academic entertainment, whatever that might be.

The barking started about 6 p.m. I grew up with dogs and most members of my family still have dogs. In fact, evidence points to the dog—the wolf at the time—being the first of the domesticated animals. Before agriculturalists rounded up sheep and goats and cattle, the dog accompanied the hunter-gatherer and both engaged in a win-win scenario. The successful hunt of a large animal left food for both humans and their best friend. Ironically for dog-owning anti-evolutionists, dogs are among the most selectively bred of animals. Looking at a pug, or a maltingese, it’s difficult to conjure up images of the wolf pack. The dog next door, obviously lonely and abandoned, was the small, yippy sort with a high-pitched, insistent bark. It was clear there was more than one in there. And, of course, hotel doors are about the least soundproofed surfaces on the planet. It was like Fifi and company was in the room with us. When I turned in about 10, the barking was still going on, and the front desk said they were trying to locate the guests registered for that room.

What's that shining?

What’s that shining?

I grew up with dogs, and I understand the attachment. I do, however, sometimes wonder about the courtesy of others. Some actions impact other people in direct ways, and sometimes we just don’t think of the consequences. I don’t just mean dogs. Lying awake, listening to distraught pets, I thought of the point of higher education. It is an “industry” in which I have a strong investment. The point of it all is to make our life together on this planet better for everyone. There will always be those who can’t travel without their dogs. There will always be those who have to venture far from home to get the education they want. Can’t there be affordable hotels with doors to dampen the noise just a little bit? Or maybe some of us a just over-sensitive at times like this. Maybe it’s time for me to go back to school to try to figure it all out.

The Fall

“Herr, es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr gross,” go the opening words of Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1902 poem, “Herbsttag.” Autumn day. “Lord,” one might feebly translate, “it is time. The summer was very great.” The English words fail to capture the lyricism of the Teutonic original, but these words have been running through my head since about the middle of August when, standing outside before dawn waiting for the bus, some days, I think a jacket might be nice. Just a light jacket. Something to cover the parts of my arms not protected by a tee-shirt. And I realize, although autumn has always been my favorite time of year, it cannot come without a sense of loss. I’m no summer beach fan. Most of the time when I wander to the ocean it has already taken on its gray fall coat. But still, the passing of summer is sad, always sad.

At the National Watch and Clock Museum, we learn that Galileo, often presented as the antagonist of the church. got his idea for the pendulum from watching church lanterns sway from their chains. Time was passing, but it was “God’s time.” The growing season ends, and the harvest is at hand. Our children head reluctantly back to school after too few months of unstructured time. Time when sleep is abundant and the sunshine lasts long into the night. Adulthood robs us, perhaps, of such finery, but I can still appreciate it from a distance. Were I more mature, I might even say it is of greater significance for being further away. I’m a little too young, however, to have forgotten how summer can make me feel. I adore the autumn, but I miss the sun nevertheless.

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Here in that transition between hot, endless days and the chill release of Halloween, I find myself contemplating the religious nature of time. “If I could save time in a bottle,” Jim Croce wrote, and then his plane crashed on take-off. Time is like that. It promises eternity but gives mere seconds. Apart from the beach bums pining for endless summer, those of us enamored of autumn stand still and reflect on the cusp of seasonal change. Perhaps, like the year itself, this is all a cycle. The face looking back at me from the mirror has more gray hair than I remember growing. And yet the clock on the wall continues to tick. Work will always be waiting there on Monday morning, and the sun can reach quite as high in the sky as it did only last month. “Herr,” I sigh, “es ist Zeit.”

Teaching Vampires

VampireLecturesWhat do you get when you cross German literature, psychology, and the undead? The Vampire Lectures, of course. Laurence A. Rickels, one gets the feeling, must be one interesting guy in the classroom. When I was a student the thought that anyone would take vampires seriously enough to offer college credit to study them was, well, a foreign concept. We all know that there’s no such thing as vampires, or werewolves, or Frankenstein’s monsters, or mummies—wait, mummies are real, but just not animated. In the reigning cultural paradigm, if something’s not real, it’s a waste of time. The human psyche, however, disagrees. The fact is there’s an awful lot of mental baggage that the vampire addresses. So much so that the University of California at Santa Barbara can offer a twenty-six lecture course on the topic. The results are what we have in this unusual book.

Rickels has read widely in the literature of the undead. The vampire’s share of the material goes to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the novel that defined, in many ways, the modern concept of vampires. The lectures do cover earlier and later literary representations, but when movies began to be made, they started with Stoker. One of the most interesting aspects of the lectures is the utter breadth of movies Rickels addresses. Movies that I’d never heard anyone else mention, let alone analyze, are here, alongside the more famous examples. It becomes clear that vampires have been a favorite of film-makers as well as readers. Culturally they are omnipresent. One gets the impression that Rickels might have an inkling of why we have this fascination, although his analysis is often Freudian, he does come back to the concept of mourning. Vampires (who would’ve guessed?) mask our unresolved sense of loss.

The style of The Vampire Lectures reflects the kind of literary criticism that isn’t always easy to follow. The book has more puns per hour than any other academic title I’ve ever read. Perhaps such serious topics as loss, parental relationships, and sexuality require a good dose of humor to make them less overwhelming. Still, the puns show the shifting nature of the ground beneath your feet when you try to take a topic like this seriously. Not surprisingly, Rickels does spent some time reflecting on the religious nature of vampires. There’s no question that monsters trespass on—or maybe even arise from—sacred precincts. They also occupy similar mental spaces. Perhaps it’s no surprise that as the number of nones grows so do the fans of monsterdom. We need an outlet for our surfeit of fear and loss. Come to think of it, perhaps I need to take a class in this as well.

Monumental Time

One of my nieces works on the 10,000-year clock (aka Clock of the Long Now). I’ve written about the project before—the object is to build a clock that will run a myriad of years. For comparison, 10,000 years ago we were only beginning to tamper with this concept we call civilization. Clocks have been my muse this week. Monumental clocks have long fascinated people. The Engle Clock, in the National Watch and Clock Museum, was completed about 1878. In those days, these large clocks (it literally weighs half a ton) toured the country as technological marvels—something that fails to impress, I suppose, in an iWatch age. Nevertheless, this is a clock with all the whistles and bells—literally. Figures come marching out at various fractions of the hour, culminating with a skeletal death chiming the end of each sixty minutes. The figures are both secular and sacred, a mix that the people of the days just after the Civil War no doubt appreciated.

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At the top of the clock, at quarter to the hour, Jesus appears. Doors above him open and the “three Marys,” including, of course, his mother, come out. Meanwhile the twelve disciples process in front of their Lord, each respectfully turning toward him. The devil appears, shifting from window to window, and one disciple does not turn to greet Jesus. This is Peter who instead turns his back, and immediately, to borrow a Gospel trope, the cock above their heads crows. Finally, as the apostolic procession winds down, the Devil appears last in line. It is all quite elaborate. The clock took Stephen Engle two decades to build—time he would never recover. The religious message, I suspect, was taken much more seriously then than it is now. After all, the clock is a museum piece.

Throughout the museum, references to Christianity abound. Not only Galileo, but many Medieval time-watchers saw God literally in the face of time. Clocks were embossed with religious figures. Hours were kept to remind the faithful to pray. The time, as the New Testament insists, was short. Ironically, we still build monumental clocks. Some are based on the 9-billionth of a second vibration period of cesium, while others are made to last ten millennia. We have secularized time. Now its purpose is mainly to tell us when to go to work. When to wake up to go to work. And when we might eventually leave work. I might enjoy building clocks myself. The fact is, however, I don’t have that kind of time.

More Blessed to Give

Religions, we are told, are in violent opposition. There’s no denying that sometimes it’s true. It is a sad commentary on belief structures when one way of looking at the world only finds validation in the destruction of other perspectives. Despite all that, religions can, and do, reach beyond their parochial interest to assist others. Recently I mentioned a story in The Christian Century of an Islamic effort to raise funds to rebuild vandalized black churches in the US south. The idea of Muslims helping Christians reestablish their, by nature, heterodox teaching is, I believe, newsworthy. The most recent issue of The Christian Century has a story of a Jewish group in Israel raising funds to help repair a damaged church in the Holy Land. These two stories have made me wonder why we so seldom hear of Christian groups raising funds to help rebuild mosques or synagogues. Surely it must happen, but we, who rely on the mainstream media, so rarely read of Christians helping others that it becomes a surprise when they do. Is this reality or just what we’re taught to see?

Please don’t misunderstand—I’m not suggesting that Christians don’t help others. Indeed, one of the founding principles of the Christian movement was the care of others, be they pagan or orthodox. Still, in my own life I’ve experienced the heartless, cold treatment doled out by “conservative” groups who believe that maintaining their idiosyncratic view is the highest possible mark of faith. Well beyond reaching out a hand to those in need. Far and above the care of fellow human beings. This distortion of any kind of historical Christianity has become what the mainstream media presents as normal. Meanwhile, millions still attend church every week, trying, in some measure, to make the world a better place.

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This isn’t the same, all politics aside, as supporting Israel as a nation. Many Fundamentalist groups do. In fact, they insist that our national budget include aid for Israel. Not because they particularly care about the Jews. In some viewpoints, the end of the world cannot come without Israel regaining a status that some read into obscure Gospel passages and the book of Revelation. This is not the same as donating to rebuild a torched synagogue. It is worlds away from restoring a vandalized mosque. It is naive to suppose that there is one normative Christianity. Historians inform us that such a monolithic entity never has existed. Temples, synagogues, churches, mosques—these are all expressions of the deepest of human longings to find and be in communion with that which is beyond the everyday. Any religion can become radicalized. All, however, also have the potential to look beyond themselves. When they do it is newsworthy indeed.

Time in a Museum

Over the weekend we visited the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania. I became aware of the museum during one of my steampunk phases, and since we were running out of summer, it seemed the ideal time to go. I didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t anything quite so profound as what we actually found. Time, as we now know, is relative. In fact, up until just two centuries ago, nobody really knew what time it was. Well, maybe those people in Greenwich did, but the average person, even if s/he owned a watch, lived on approximate time. Try telling that to any boss today! The need for people to meet trains at various stations led to the standardization of time in the United States. Now the government declares official time, kept by atomic clocks. You could be a billionth of a second late for work and Uncle Sam would know. What happened to the days of looking for when the sun was directly overhead and guessing from there? Greenwich Mean Time indeed.

Time in inherently religious. For human beings, conscious of its passage, it is a limited commodity. Our concerns for our personal A.D. (“After Death” as the misnomer used to go) have led to religions suggesting that God, or gods, take a special interest in the passing of time. That became clear from the first display in the museum. Hardly a placard existed without some reference to the gods—people knew that time was somehow divine. Not only that, but the passage of time was punctuated by religious observances. Even such things as deciding when to harvest your crops could lead to religious revelations. Besides, time was set in motion by those ageless beings known as gods, and they mandated on-time performance. The ability to influence time was far beyond human capacity, thus deities informed us how to handle it. Into the Medieval period clocks maintained a regular array of religious imagery, reminding the user that this is the ultimate non-renewable resource.

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It was almost overwhelming, being surrounded by so many clocks. I remember being a young man—indeed a little boy—when time seemed to be in infinite supply. Religious observance was always a large part of that pool. Here I stood, a middle-aged man, spending my time pondering time. All the while, it was passing. Time is measured by regularity. Uniformitarianism is the geologic principle that informs us of the age of the earth itself. Beyond that, we’re told, the universe—so long ago—had its own beginning and anything that has a beginning will inevitably have an end. Such sobering thoughts amid the beautiful timepieces that so many spent their lives crafting. Now we only need glance in the corner of our computer monitors, or pull out our phones to glance the time. Taking a bit of it is wise, it seems to me, to explore our fascination with time itself. There is an air of eternity about the very enterprise itself. Well worth a summer’s day when forever is in your rear-view mirror on the way home.

Eternal Huckleberries

It began as a quest for immortality. Sometimes, however, you don’t recognize something even when it’s all around you. As an historian of religion, the quest for immortality is a familiar one. Certainly the ancient Egyptians believed they had found the keys, at least for royalty, and most religions haven’t given up trying since then. Some clonal plants have achieved extreme longevity. Since they grow by extending their roots, rather than by sexual reproduction, a single plant can remain alive as long at, at least 8,000 years. The specific plant to which I’m referring is the box huckleberry. I first learned to pick huckleberries for food in the Pacific Northwest. In that part of the country, I’ve learned to identify the plant from a distance and have spent many contented hours picking berries. Time, however, is something always endangered for those of us aware of its passing.

The box huckleberry colony in the Hoverter and Sholl Box Huckleberry Natural Area in Pennsylvania is about 1,300 years old. Summer is waning and my family wanted to see it. Indeed, for this particular colony, development probably destroyed parts of the system and so it has to be preserved. With that strange east-coast worldview, “just over there in Pennsylvania” comes to mean things are closer together in the imagination than they really are. Driving three hours just to see a huckleberry colony became more appealing when we combined it with the idea of visiting the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania. Both concepts were obviously related to the theme of time. They aren’t quite as close together as they look on a map. Map, after all, we are told, is not territory. The museum exists in a fixed location marked by a street address, so we went there first. There will be plenty to write about that later. As, ironically, we didn’t allow as much time as we should have for the museum, we had to head out further west and north to find the elusive huckleberry. All we had were the GSP coordinates and the name of a local town.

From the length of the line of cars behind me, the locals preferred to travel faster. Knowing only the relative direction and an approximate mile count, we stumbled upon Huckleberry Road and knew we must be close. Off into the woods we drove. As onetime manic geocachers, we had learned to both trust and distrust a GPS, but there was a trail head out here and a single parking spot. No one else was around. The signed indicated we were in the right place, but where were these ancient huckleberries? The ones we generally harvest grow knee-to-waste high with distinctive leaves. We walked the entire nature trail in frustration. How could a 1,300 year-old plant hide so well? Frustrated, we went back to the start. Fortunately, there were brochures. We found the box huckleberries. Indeed, they had been all along the trail, but we didn’t know what we were seeking. Just a few inches high, they cover the ground like a carpet. A few ripe berries poked through. We were in the presence of an entity that was older than Beowulf. Indeed, in the Middle Ages, this plant had been alive. Without the guide we’d never have realized we were standing in the midst of a kind of immortality.

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Clerk and Dagger

Photo credit: Luis García (Zaqarbal),, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Luis García (Zaqarbal),, Wikimedia Commons

Recently I had the sad duty to list a contributor to a volume as deceased. The standard means of doing so in typography is with a symbol called a dagger (†). When I was young, I thought this was intended to be a cross, but it became clear, as I looked more closely, it wasn’t that at all. The origins of typographic marks go back to the classical Greeks. Used to mark dubious places in manuscripts, the asterisk was to show places where something had to be added to the text while the dagger was used to show deletion. Well, it wasn’t a dagger then. The earliest form was called an obelus and it could be a plain line, but was often shown with the symbol we now painfully associate with long division: ÷. This odd sign was said to represent a dart, a spit, or the sharp end of a javelin. Since things were to be cut out of the manuscript, a sharp instrument would be ideal. Early textual criticism, then, gave us symbols that have now been commandeered by math.

These signed evolved with time. By the Middle Ages the asterisk and the dagger could be used to indicate a pause when reciting Psalms. (Those of us at Nashotah House in the 1990s know all about pauses when reciting Psalms.) Medieval scribes marked up manuscripts religiously. Eventually the asterisk came to be associated with footnotes—a function that it still has, mostly in non-academic texts. The dagger was used for a footnote if an asterisk had already been used on that page. Beyond that, the double-dagger came into play. The function and the form of the obelus had now evolved solidly into the dagger form. The obelus continued on in math, at one time to mean subtraction, but finally settling down to represent division. Appropriate, given its graphic origins.

The dagger and asterisk were the earliest signs of textual criticism. Literalists today still don’t understand the concept, since all ancient documents of the Bible are copies of copies of copies. Nevertheless, how did a sign indicating a spit upon which an animal was roasted come to represent the dearly departed? Since asterisk and dagger often work as a pair, the most obvious way that this worked out was in representing the birth and death years of a person. An asterisk before the name meant “born in,” while a dagger in the same position meant “died in.” As a kind of typographical shorthand, then, a dagger after a name meant the person had died. Although it sounds dramatic and not a little violent, it is really only death by textual criticism. That, I suspect, is something most biblical scholars especially will be able to comprehend.

When under Rome

ZealotA question that has no answer: who was Jesus of Nazareth? Well, no single answer, anyway. When Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth came out, there was uproar. (Something, by the way, that publishers love.) How could someone suggest that not only do the Gospels disagree, but that they’re not even literal when they do? For those of us who’ve studied the Bible academically, there’s nothing too surprising here. Aslan’s perspective is often refreshing, even if he makes some basic errors (those of us who study the Hebrew Bible are pretty forgiving). For me, having the social circumstances of the New Testament spelled out in terms of the intense unrest of the first century explained a lot. It was a period of unremitting violence and frustration on the part of those coming to grips with life under Rome. Jesus was born and came of age when any outré idea could easily get you crucified. When it happened in his case, it was, as the Gospels point out, fully expected.

What might bother many readers is that Aslan doesn’t accept the story at face value. Jesus wasn’t unique as a healer, revolutionary, or messiah in first-century Palestine. In fact, Rome’s appointed rulers grew tired of such sons of gods that thousands of people were nailed up to warn others of the costs. Still, unlike the others, Jesus remained in contention even after his death. The belief in the resurrection didn’t hurt. Since Aslan is writing history, he can’t judge whether the resurrection or the healings actually took place. The traditions, he notes, are strong. He is surely correct that the Gospels aren’t attempting history. Written well after Christianity was already established, the writers had theological templates at their disposal. Not only that, they also had Paul.

Something I’d never considered was the dispute between Paul and the Jerusalem church. Yes, I’d noticed the stark contradictions between the letters of Paul and the one of James, but seeing the underlying conflict of those who knew Jesus personally (James, Peter, John) and Paul just never occurred to me. Paul doesn’t dote over the historical Jesus. His Jesus is divine from the start, and those who try to preserve Jesus’ words get in the way of the theology he’s developing. His letters express anger at those who teach what Jesus said over who he was, spiritually, anyway. Only with the destruction of Jerusalem was the way cleared for Paul’s gentile Christianity that eventually won out over Jesus’ teachings. It’s all very interesting, but I can’t buy it all. There are too many convenient connections here, and history abhors neatness. Nevertheless, Zealot is well worth reading. It tells an old story from a new perspective. And even if your Jesus is different from Aslan’s you’ll find something profound here that will only make your image stronger.

Somewhere, Out There

With Pope Francis’s impending visit, the New York-Philadelphia corridor is abuzz with discussions of traffic and commuting disruptions. From a little further away, Irish Central is reporting that the Vatican chief astronomer has gone onto record stating that he believes in extraterrestrial life. (Despite the headline, the article doesn’t say anything about UFOs, and the astronomer, Fr. Funes, is noted as saying that he doesn’t believe extraterrestrials are flying here.) The real issue, however, is metaphysical, rather than physical. How would life elsewhere impact theology? Long ago the Vatican expressed some comfort with the idea of evolution. As early as Augustine of Hippo, thinkers have noted that reason cannot contradict truth and still be convincing. The evidence for evolution, overwhelming as it is, falls under that rubric. Life in space, at least according to orthodox science, is more a matter of mathematical certainty rather than experiential. And like any scientific idea, not all scientists agree with the astronomical odds in favor of life in space.

Funes, according to the article by Frances Mulraney, believes that aliens are not fallen races in need of salvation. The grand master plan laid out in the Bible was unique to this world only. Human beings sinned, we required divine intervention, and, as you’d expect from a Christian source, the incarnation, death, and resurrection of God’s only son. It does raise interesting questions about what the aliens might think of a chosen race. How could you not think yourself superior if you had no need of God’s special attention? One can only hope that ET isn’t the jealous sort.

Photo credit: John Fowler, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: John Fowler, Wikimedia Commons

For years those who speculate about non-earth-based life have argued over how religions would handle the news that humanity isn’t alone. Would religious observance increase or decrease? It might depend on what our fellow universalists have to tell us. This, in a nutshell, is the dilemma of ancient religions. Founded when worldviews were pre-scientific, back when the earth was the center of everything, they didn’t add an infinite universe into the equation. And infinity always complicates things. Fr. Funes says the Bible isn’t a science book, and indeed, biblical scholars have long known that to be the case. It’s the contingencies outside the ordinary of two millennia ago that are most worrying to literalists. Even with all we have learned of science, we have a great deal yet to comprehend. Religion is a uniquely human response to an uncertain universe. And since ours is apparently infinite and expanding, religion may very well be something we’ll need to take with us to the stars.

Brains and Selves

TellTaleBrainThe Tell-Tale Brain is an ambitious, yet humble attempt to find the self. V. S. Ramachandran is a neuroscientist with considerable psychology experience who is well equipped to take on, as the subtitle puts it, A Neuroscientist ‘s Quest for What Makes Us Human. The book will take you to some very strange places. And although he’s a scientist, Ramachandran keeps an admirably open mind. Right at the start he notes that he sees no reason for using “merely”s and “only”s when discussing brains and their realities. In fact, he knows that scientists aren’t qualified to answer the question of whether there is a god. Having grown up Hindu, he used to pray to many gods. A true scientist has no need to belittle beliefs. Belief, as Ramachandran demonstrates, is far more complex than most pundits would suggest. This is based on his close study of the brain and those to whom it has been less than kind.

Already in the first several pages it becomes clear that Ramachandran finds religion a useful trope. It illustrates something we all know. That doesn’t mean he (or you) has (have) to accept it, but we all recognize it. Studying how the brain works, in this book, means looking at patients with various disorders, most of which have tongue-twisting names, that are inherently fascinating. Phantom limbs, people who see the colors of numbers or feel the emotions of fabrics, or who can’t recognize their own mothers—all of these things really happen in the brains of intelligent people. For them these are reality. For Ramachandran, they can frequently be chased down to a neurological cause. And sometimes people even really think they’re God. One of the treasures of this book is to experience the non-normativity of western culture. The use of Indian art and religion as illustrations of what humans believe is refreshing.

Anyone who fears the loss of self take warning; we may not be who we think we are. Brain studies show that, in certain circumstances, brains can contain more than one self. Memories can be fabricated and the continuity that we call our life stories may well contain a healthy dose of fiction. Experiments on brains can change who we think we are. Descartes would, perhaps, go insane. Ramachandran doesn’t claim to have figured out the self, or consciousness. He may have ruled out some options, though. At the end of the book, however, he reintroduces the concept with which he started: science and religion. Quoting Darwin he shows that the main mind behind evolutionary theory refused to make an absolute declaration about the divine. Humility, it seems, may be just as effective in making converts as a Bible in hand. And to figure that out will take some brain power.

Being Sheepish

Being among the animals at the fair, you begin to notice things that are foreign to those of us with exposure only to the house-pet variety of fellow creatures. Up close, for example, sheep are bigger than you might think they are. Since they’re domesticated and wooly, I tend to think of them as little—maybe knee-high—and in need of constant attention. The truth gives the lie to such false constructs. It was in the course of seeing sheep that I found out about Shrek. Shrek the sheep, now unfortunately deceased, has his own Wikipedia page. This was a single-minded ungulate who decided that the ’70’s lifestyle wasn’t truly over. The New Zealander took off from his heard, to avoid shearing, so the story goes, and hid in a cave for six years. With echoes of Odysseus, the ruminant survived just fine without human help and grew a serious coat of wool. When finally discovered and, of course, sheared, he gave enough wool to make suits for twenty men. Shrek had to be euthanized four years ago.

The story might have ended there. Shrek, however, fueled the imagination of several Christian writers who saw all kinds of parables in the lifestyle of this prodigal sheep. After all, in the pastoral culture of first-century Palestine, sheep suggested themselves as the fodder for the original set of Christian parables. Sheep wander, get lost, and get saved. They need someone to look after them. A good shepherd, preferably. In fact, sheep tales go further back in time, even to the Hebrew Bible. Perceptive prophets noticed how similar we are to our distant, quadruped cousins. It would be very odd, in hindsight, if nobody had picked up on the story. The mental picture is simply too appropriate.

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Metaphors, some have argued, are what make us human. We can see ourselves projected into just about any part of nature, and looking at nature, we can spy ourselves. Parables, by their definition, are never literal. We have to peer into them and find truths that gainsay the obvious. If we’re honest, we’d have to admit to being very much like Shrek. Who doesn’t want to run away and hide from what “the man” instructs us to do, against our own will? Yes, sheep have wills. Like any sentient creature, they have a sense of what they want and the best way to survive. With our fancy neocortex, we’ve domesticated sheep and bred many of their natural tendencies out of them forever. Still, I’m heartened to learn of Shrek the sheep. The lesson I draw from his story may not be the same as many Christian websites, but it will be no less true, I should think, for being such.

Charity

On occasion someone will comment, either here or on my other popular writings, that I lack the objectivity of a journalist. This should be no surprise, really, since I’m in fact not a journalist and what I’m writing here is opinion—an extended op ed—if you will—from someone that society has decided should have no official voice. Who listens to an editor? They don’t make content, they improve others’ work. News, however, often leads to good commentary. A recent blurb in The Christian Century caught my eye. A group of Muslims, led by a student in Chicago, raised almost $50,000 to help rebuild black churches that had been destroyed in the south. A journalist, I’m guessing, might not find much of a story here. To me this show of goodwill speaks volumes.

In the news were hear about Muslims as terrorists and fanatics. How often do we hear that charitable giving is one of the five pillars of Islam? Many Muslims are charitable to those outside their faith community. In this case, they donated money to rebuilt houses of worship for a rival religion. There’s little to hate or despise here, so it really isn’t news. People are disposed, in general, to help one another. Indeed, biologists have long noted that we are a cooperative species. A friend recently pointed out that we are dissuaded from helping others more out of a fear of being sued. Money, as most religions realize, is antithetical to true belief. Most religions begin as an effort to make life better for people. When they become corporate, as with all things corporate, they turn inwardly and focus on how to improve things for themselves. There are still many, however, who understand the point behind religious traditions. It’s not really all about God. The ones who need our help are our fellow humans.

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Faatima Knight, according to the story, spearheaded the effort to raise money. She is a student at Chicago Theological Seminary. A Muslim studying in a Christian school, helping oppressed Christian people. The media, it seems to me, could do with a few courses in ethics. Is it ethically responsible to caricature religions as ignorant and spiteful? For all we know Christians fall into only one of two types: those who follow Pope Francis and those who want to teach your children that we didn’t evolve from monkeys. The good deeds done by those motivated by the teachings of their founders are quietly passed by. Yet they are among the loudest deeds people do. I have to wonder if most Christians would rally around an effort to rebuild a mosque destroyed by hate. I think I know the answer, but then, I’m only a guy whose opinion doesn’t really matter.