Meet the Neighbors

I was called “moon boy” and was otherwise taunted in ways I care not to share. As a child I openly spoke about my fascination of life in space and was ridiculed in the way children specialize in executing humility. So it was with great appreciation, but not much surprise, that I read that water had been discovered on Mars. Where there’s water, there’s likely life. I won’t say “I told you so.” Life, although I know I’m being premature—I’m a moon boy after all—has been one of the many tools in the God-of-the-gaps bag. God-of-the-gaps thinking is where a religion, in the light of scientific explanation, backs and fills by saying only God could do x, y, or z. The weather used to be a gap, but meteorology and fluid dynamics have started to explain many of the things that happen in the atmosphere. But life—life! Life was something only God could do, and it was only here on earth. Mind the gap.

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No, we’ve not yet discovered life on Mars. Those who spend every hour of their waking days combing at incredible magnification the photographs coming from Mars have suggested life forms. Some of them, I must admit, have been very intriguing. The official stance, however, has been that Mars is too cold for life because, as any trekkie knows, life has to be as we know it. I would venture to say that life will be announced on Mars before too long. Astronomers and astro-biologists are a cautious lot, but I think that life is probably a lot more common than we’ve been led to believe. And I have to believe that we’re not the most intelligent species possible. How else can we explain what’s happening in the run up to the Republican Convention? E.T. may not live on Mars, but somebody else might.

Often I ponder how strange our geocentrism is. Copernicus and Galileo more or less proved that we’re not the center of the universe. Reluctantly the church let go of that fiction, but scientists, in some measure, have held onto it. We are the only planet with life. Life on our planet is the most advanced that it is anywhere. And because we know that nothing travels faster than light there’s no possibility that life elsewhere has ever found its way here. To claim otherwise is to face a scientific inquisition. Water on Mars? Yes! This is a new chapter not in the history of the universe, but in appropriate humility in the face of the unknown. Take it from the moon boy—there’s a lot more yet to be discovered.

Forbidden Love

LadyChatterleyBanned Book Week is upon us. In that time of year when we begin to think of spooky, scary things, the prohibition of literature naturally comes to mind. Every year I try to read a banned or challenged book for the occasion. This year I went to perhaps the jugular vein of banned books, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence. Now, I’m not a romance reader, but I was curious about this sexually explicit novel that had been banned to the point of being outlawed and was now considered a classic. Lawrence’s last novel, it tells the tale of a woman escaping a loveless marriage with the help of lover below her social class. The steamy bits are tame by today’s standards, but Lawrence does use several words that are still rarely heard in the media due to their offensiveness. From my perspective the story was a bit too drawn out, and the fawning wasfs a bit over the top. What struck me even more, however, was the fact that this novel was largely about social justice. Not that Lawrence was an activist, but his concern for the poor and discarded of the industrial revolution is quite clear throughout the novel. The privileged having affairs within their class is acceptable. The scandal is that a titled lady falls for a common gamekeeper.

I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, a franchise that has made even romance writers jealous. From the criticisms I hear, however, the concern is less the sex than it is the lack of literary value. I’m sure Fifty Shades of Grey is a banned book in some location. Still, the deeper concern for humanity that runs through Lady Chatterley’s Lover is part of its appeal. Several times I put the book down thinking, “this isn’t just surface stuff.” It is, baldly put, the search for redemption. Sir Clifford is an invalid who wants to control others. In an era when men laid claim to control of women’s sexuality this was no small demand. He also sees his coal miners as pieces in a larger game that is, it turns out, only to his own benefit.

Although the book ends with the lovers parted, and hoping for reunion, Lawrence’s final words turn toward economic oppression. Mellors (the gamekeeper) writes, “If you could only tell them that living and spending isn’t the same thing!… If only they were educated to live instead of earn and spend…” He defines Mammon as “wanting money and hating life.” No doubt, the book was a vehicle for Lawrence’s desire to see writing about sex to be part of literature and not pornography. Still, there is something deeper here. The story is more than carnality, although carnality is what brought it to fame. It is a banned book that proclaims liberty that, despite the license of contemporary society, is not really as free as it might seem. As banned book week unfolds, it is a moral obligation, I believe, to read those books that have threatened settled mindsets and raised the ire of censors. In so doing, we learn what it is to be human.

Powerful Movies

PowerOfMoviesOur friends were shocked. I don’t even remember the title of the movie, but they couldn’t believe we had gone to see it. Not because of the content of the film, but because it had been shown on a Sunday morning. Why hadn’t we been in church? This was back in Edinburgh when we had very little money—wait, we still have very little money. This was back in Edinburgh, and we had won free tickets to an early screening of a new movie. The showtime was on Sunday morning. So in our own version of weak-willed athletes from Chariots of Fire, we’d skipped church to go see the movie. I don’t remember the title and I remember very little of the film. It had something to do with Richard Wagner and a conductor. An art film. We didn’t really feel too guilty missing church to go, since at the time, it seemed like a rare opportunity and the movie was, in some sense, religious. Or at least mythological.

Movies have a way of really influencing people. Thus it has been since the invention of the art form. We’ve all had the experience, I suppose, of a movie hitting us with a profound impact. It never really occurred to me to ask why. That is, until I read Colin McGinn’s The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact. I’d always thought that movies were simply a successful form of entertainment, and scholars seldom take entertainment seriously. As McGinn makes clear, there’s a lot more than casual watching going on when we slip into the theater. As a philosopher, McGinn is duty-bound to look beyond the obvious. Time after time in this profound little book I found myself pausing to consider the implications of what he says. Ultimately, he suggests that movies access the same areas of the brain that dreams do, not only giving them dreamlike qualities, but also making films emotional experiences like dreams.

At one point, McGinn draws explicit connections between going to church and going to a movie. Beyond the superficial aspects of a darkened building with a performance meant to impact a person, there are clear parallels between going to the theater and going to church. Both can be transformative experiences. The Power of Movies is a powerful little book. As much as we like to think that we have custody of our minds, the realm beneath the surface—that which gives us dreams and syncs with movies—has more influence on us than we’d generally like to admit. More and more, scholars are beginning to realize that films do have a profound impact on viewers. This is not just entertainment. It may not be worship, but after reading McGinn I think it might not be too far from it. The mind able to dream, after all, is a mind that’s truly free.

Rutgers Presbyterian

It is indeed an honor to be invited to address a church group on topics that matter. While I didn’t directly address global warming in my book, it was in my mind as I wrote it. Early in my teaching career, I wasn’t sure how to cinch up the gap between the lexicography I was attempting and the real world issue that it should address. The seminar portion of yesterday’s program focused on topics associated with the weather, and I was gratified to hear that many of those present felt that a profound weather event had made an emotional impact upon them. Weather has a way of reminding us that we’re small and that forces beyond our control still exist. I’d forgotten how nice it is to while away a few hours with intelligent people who think about the world we all inhabit. I only wish I could have recorded all the wisdom I heard. We tend to think if someone’s not speaking to us from a major media outlet they’re not worth listening to. I am glad to be reminded that this is not so.

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During our discussion of global warming, the question arose as to what we could call “climate change” to make it appropriately terrifying. Various suggestions were made such as poisoning the sky, suffocating the earth, and old-fashioned, and to-the-point air pollution. We are a species that seems bent on its own destruction. The atmosphere is so incredibly large, but, as our host reminded us, so very thin. Life is supported only in what might be considered, in his words, a thousand-story tower. Beyond that, life runs out. We need to take the limited nature of this small envelope of gas surrounding us seriously.

I’ve come to realize that my fascination with the weather largely derives from looking at the sky. Such an activity is so basically human and so profound, that we simply overlook it most of the time. The sky is superior to us. It was, for most of human history, far out of reach. We have stretched our hands up to the realm of the gods and smeared it with our industrial filth. Many of those present, although not Catholic, applauded the Pope’s insistence that the world must be view holistically and that we must stop polluting our home. Pollution used to be an ugly word, but we have been taught to change our language to add ambiguity. “Climate change” is so neutral, with no one to blame. But it’s not at all accurate when it comes to the real costs. We’ve already impacted the weather for a millennium into the future at least. And I, for one, left our session optimistic that intelligent people cared enough to spend a beautiful Saturday afternoon discussing it.

Pontificating

I’ve been in a few New York crowds, but this one seemed on its best behavior. I was in the city later than usual since I’m giving a talk today at a friend’s church in the Upper West Side. My wife came to meet me and, knowing the Pope was going to be saying mass at Madison Square Garden shortly after her train arrived at Penn Station (for out-of-towners, Madison Square Garden sits atop Penn Station) we decided to meet at Herald Square and avoid the other kinds of masses. I walked to the square from work and realized my mistake—34th Street was barricaded and there were crowds already beginning to form. The Pope had a procession through Central Park, but I neglected to check on the remainder of his route. My wife arrived and, taken in by the rush of the moment, decided to stay and see what we could see. We were literally one person back from the road. The police kept saying that they couldn’t confirm he was going to come this way, but the helicopters hovering overhead seemed to tell a different story.

The crowd was so well behaved. No pushing or shoving, and even loud talking was mostly absent. It was, believe it or not, kind of reverent. Sure there were people with placards suggesting that one should get right with Jesus, and the occasional pedestrian saying, and I quote, “Why is there so much people here? The Pope? You’ve got to be kidding—can’t we cross the street?” By and large, however, there was good will. One of my coworkers had emailed during the day saying she’d gone by Saint Patrick’s the night before, but couldn’t see him. The crowd, she commented, was kind spirited. Perhaps that’s what having a kind-spirited Pope will do. After we’d stood for nearly an hour, I was beginning to wonder if the motorcade had taken another route—7th Avenue was closed as well. Then the cheering began.

Pope Francis rode by, the window down, waving at the crowd. My glimpse was only a fragment of a second, but it was clearly him. I’d met an Archbishop of Canterbury or two in my time, but here I was, no more than thirty feet from the Pontiff, if only for a second to two. And it was all pretty much by accident. Life surprises us that way sometimes. Reading his words about climate change to the leaders of the world, I can’t help but think we’ve needed a leader like this man for a long time. He’s as human as the rest of us, and he knows that we have only one world and in that one world are millions of people in need. And global warming will hit them first and hardest. And the God of the evangelicals who say the planet is ours to destroy is not the God he recognizes. He’s just one man, but he is able to bring the largest city in the country to a halt, even if just for a second or two. This could be saying something important for those who have ears.

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Apostle

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I was teaching in a seminary when Robert Duvall’s The Apostle came out. Seeing the favorable reviews, I put it on my wish-list and somehow it never managed to rise to the top. Perhaps it was because I worked at a religious institution 24/7. Seeing a movie about church felt almost superfluous. Many years on now, my wife bought me the DVD (yes, we’re old-fashioned) and we finally sat down to watch it. I realized, as the preaching started, that I didn’t know what to expect. I assumed that Sonny would be a typical Elmer Gantry-type character, cynical and self-centered, but as I kept waiting for the sneering commentary to come, it never did. The movie didn’t valorize Sonny either—he is a flawed preacher who commits murder out of jealousy and flees the state to start a life elsewhere. Landing in rural Louisiana, he begins building a life doing what he does best—preaching. The local people benefit from his presence, so I was waiting for the cracks to appear, but they never did. The movie is amazingly respectful of Holiness, or Pentecostal religion. It left me quite thoughtful.

Having grown up in a non-denominational setting, the scene of the altar call was one that was familiar to me. Fiery sermons were also something I’d seen before. Theological education, of course, causes one to question much of this, which is why many Fundamentalist churches do not hire seminary graduates to be their clergy. Study tends to refine that ability to let go and have emotion become the substance of the service. Recalling my own childhood, steeped in the Bible and fervent fear of Hell, church was primarily an emotional catharsis for me, not an intellectual enterprise. The problem for me was that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That’s where it often starts to crumble for those who want to understand emotion-driven religion. It doesn’t mix well with rationality.

The Apostle is made all the more powerful for its use of actual Holiness preachers in the movie. When they’re preaching, they’re not acting. They’re preaching on film. Part of the draw, I suppose, for many viewers is that this is a foreign world. Mainstream church services are often subdued, perhaps even dour, by comparison. They are, however, more rationally driven. The substance of any mainstream liturgy derives in some form from Catholicism. Pentecostalism dismisses all of that, retaining the music and the sermon and the Bible. Otherwise, they are practically different species. The storyline of the movie isn’t anything grand. Preacher commits crime, repents, gets caught. Still, there’s an authenticity to it that makes it compelling. No Jim Jones here. No David Koresh. Just a man, in many ways typical, trying to make his way in the world in the only way he knows how. And that can be inspirational.

The Boy on the Bus

GirlOnTrainCommuting by bus isn’t the most efficient way to do research. While mostly I read non-fiction related to my research interests, monographs are difficult because of the concentration required and the constant interruptions of the road. Journal articles are, still, jealously protected by university libraries so that you can’t access them without an account. So once in a great while I read a novel on the bus to forget it all. I’d heard people talking—literally—about Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. It is a story about a commuter, and my wife was kind enough to give me a copy for my birthday, so I recently climbed on board to read it. The problem with reading fiction on the commute is that it is difficult to clear your head to negotiate the streets of the city when you’re done. You’re in an imaginary world for a while after you put the book in your bag. The nice thing is you can’t wait to get back on the bus to read some more. It makes commuting bearable. Almost pleasant. Especially when the protagonist’s commute is worse than yours.

I won’t throw any spoilers into this post, but I think it’s fair to say that the story involves trying to find a murderer. It is also a story about adultery. In fact, without adultery there would be no story. I seldom turn to novelists for a course in morality, but The Girl on the Train does have an underlying message that rings true: honesty is crucial for a civil society. The small cast of characters in Hawkins’ book have difficulty being honest with others and with themselves. This makes for a gripping ride, of course, but I couldn’t help thinking throughout that if people were honest the situation would never have occurred. Of course, then there would be no story. And I would’ve had to read something else on my commute.

My reading over the past few years has intimated that something about civilization has put a tremendous strain on people. Whether it is the constant pressure to increase productivity while time off is being stolen by ease of access (cell phones work in the middle of the woods. You can get your email while on a plane), we are never really offline. Our relationships, once the defining factor of who we are, have now become diversions from the time off work. Morality has reverted to what you can get away with. I can recommend The Girl on the Train for those struggling with a long commute. Once in a while I’d look up, surprised to find how fast the trip had gone. It might also give the reader pause to consider the larger implications. Honesty is an undersold virtue. Without it, this civilization we’ve built, and continue to build, cannot long last.

Spirit of Nature

WindInWillowsThe Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic, was a book I first read during my doctoral studies. In the UK professors are likely to be able to cite A. A. Milne and the fictional bits of C. S. Lewis as well as the current academic stars. Of course I’m over-generalizing. In my experience, however, I met many wonderfully rounded professors and I tried, during my too-brief stint in academia, to emulate them. My wife recently read The Wind in the Willows to our college-aged daughter and me. As I’ve mentioned before, we’ve had an accord for all our married life that I will wash dishes if she will read to me, and we have read well over a hundred books this way, from children’s titles to scholarly tomes. From my perspective, listening to a book read adds a layer of meaning to the text. The cadences, the intonations, and the editorial remarks all lend texture to the experience. I had quite forgotten, as it has been years since I’ve read the book myself, about the mysterious theophany in chapter 7, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.”

In a passage that is almost overwritten for today’s youth, Rat and Mole, in search of Otter’s lost son, encounter Him out on the river. The language is reverent, and languid. The two animals come upon a horned deity who is not named, and fall in worship. The fact that he has pan-pipes makes Pan an obvious candidate, but the description also reminds me on this autumnal equinox of Cernunnos, the horned god. The spirit of nature. I feel myself trapped in a world of cubicles and drywall and money. Who wouldn’t fall at the feet of even a pagan deity offering release from such shackles? We have allowed ourselves to be trapped here. We have bought into the system that enslaves us. “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing than simply messing about in boats.” Rat is my preacher; I am his acolyte.

Nature reminds us that we are evolved creatures and that civilization comes at a great cost. I never feel so alive as when I’m walking in the woods. I don’t pretend that I could survive alone, but having a position that requires growing heavier at a desk day-by-day feels out of sync with what I grew these feet to do and these eyes to see. Manhattan is a wonder, to be sure, but it too comes at great cost. Nashotah House was not a problem-free place, by any stretch, but it was in the woods. The trails on and near campus could restore a soul in the way chapel could never nearly approximate. So it seems appropriate to slip The Wind in the Willows onto my bookshelf next to my Bible, and to slip outdoors for one last untrammeled moment of summer before autumn begins.

Pope-ulation

My brother, who art near Philadelphia, recently told me that the City of Brotherly Love began towing cars from the no park zone a week before the Pope’s anticipated arrival. There are those apocalyptic concerns for the commute into New York City this week as well. Papal visits are always big news, but Pope Francis has captured the hearts of many, Catholic, Protestant, and non-Christian alike, because of his obvious and sincere care for people. Mercy, kindness, sympathy, and empathy have long been overlooked in many organized religions, and to have the head of the largest Christian body in the world emphasizing just those things has been a breath of well, spirit. As our world has turned increasingly towards materialism fueled by a rationalism that says this physical world is all there is, a hunger has been growing. People need to be assured that there is some meaning in being people.

Photo credit: Tomaz Silva/ABr

Photo credit: Tomaz Silva/ABr

Theological purity is all fine and good, but it is only, literally academic. We send our clergy to seminaries to teach them to understand the rational part of faith. Many laity may not realize that a Master of Divinity is a three-year degree because it has to allow time for spiritual development. I was unlike most seminarians, having majored in religious studies. Coming into ministry from all areas of life—science, medicine, politics, business—many seminarians aren’t accustomed to taking school time to get in touch with their souls. It is a foreign concept in a world where we’re daily told we have no souls. Pope Francis is a pontiff with a soul. And the world has noticed.

We need those to whom we can look up. We need heroes not only of the action movie variety, but those of more human dimensions as well. Two of the most populous cities in the country are preparing for a kind of epiphany. America has long been a country of laissez faire ethics. Leave it alone and it will all take care of itself. We can all see through that. The northeast coast is bracing for a different kind of hurricane this season. It will mean traffic headaches, for sure, and no doubt many will be chagrined at all the fuss. Still, I have a difficult time seeing this as anything other than a hopeful sign. Perhaps we have a need for religious heroes still, after all.

Soaring Prophets

EzekielSpaceshipOkay, so I pulled the book off the shelf, and I feel now like I need to read it. Call it an occupational hazard. Josef F. Blumrich’s The Spaceships of Ezekiel, despite its von Däniken-like sales, has never been taken seriously by biblical scholars. Blumrich, no doubt a brilliant engineer, simply had no street cred among biblicists. His handling of biblical passages is awkward and he leaves out anything that really can’t be explained by his theories. Not exactly professional exegesis. He suggests, of course, that the “chariot” vision of Ezekiel was, in fact, a spaceship. The figure Ezekiel assumes is God is actually a commander of the ship and the message (which accounts for the vast majority of the book) really doesn’t matter in this context. In my earlier post, having not read the book then, I made the error of supposing that the helicopters were impractical in space. Reading it, I instantly saw my error. This was engineered as a landing craft from the mothership circling the earth above our heads. Boy, do I feel stupid now.

The overall mistake Blumrich makes is the “unforgivable sin” of eisegesis. Suspecting that he has a well-engineered spacecraft on his hands, he draws out the implications—such as the propellers—which would not be necessary, but must be there because of a “literal” interpretation of Ezekiel. Once the eisegesis is done, it can be used to explain further episodes throughout the prophetic book. The message of Jerusalem’s destruction and the hopeful prospect of a return from exile get lost in the space dust raised by these propellers. Blumrich was quite right, however, that technical people and humanities people need to be willing to learn from one another. Ezekiel may have seen something unexplained, but his function was that of a prophet, and prophets say the strangest things.

Even more odd, from my unprofessional reading, was the sense that Blumrich saw capitalism as the default economic system of the galaxy. Time and again he mentions how expensive such interplanetary travel must have been. How do we know, I wonder, that aliens like to exploit each other as capitalists do? If they are a more advanced species, surely they must have an imagination that reaches beyond one percent controlling 99 percent of the wealth to aggrandize themselves. I can imagine a society without money. A society with fair trade where everyone is cared for by medical individuals who don’t charge an arm and a leg to treat an arm and a leg. A world where doctors don’t worry about being sued by lawyers. A world where dreamers are free to dream and society values it. Ah, I’d better be careful since, it seems, I may be beginning to sound like a prophet.

The Climate of Belief

As I’ve noted before, in our culture where an individual voice is hard to hear, those without institutional affiliation are generally considered self-promoting hacks. That’s really too bad, given that so many highly educated people end up in menial positions—our society’s “greatest resources” squandered away behind a counter or sequestered in a cubicle. So it was my great honor to be asked to present Rutgers Presbyterian Church’s Autumn Guest Lecture this year in Manhattan. When I taught at Nashotah House invitations to speak came frequently, even though it was a small school. I even once received an invitation to talk when I was an adjunct at Rutgers University. Since “going corporate,” it seems, I have nothing to say. It really is wonderful to be asked to speak again. Practicing my talk brings back many fond memories. Lecturing is in my blood. The Pastor asked me to come after my book, Weathering the Psalms, was published. Never intended as a best-seller, it has quietly sat on the sidelines, like its author.

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I suppose a bit of shameless self-promotion might be in order, but of course, I will feel ashamed for pointing out, when it’s all over. If you happen to be in New York City this coming Saturday and Sunday, so will I. Rutgers Presbyterian is located on the upper west side, not far from Lincoln Center and the Museum of Natural History. I’m always glad for an audience. See? Now I feel bad for having said so. My theme over the weekend will be “The Climate of Belief.” In addition to the weather, we’ll be talking about religion and science. Two worldviews that seem to be in constant conflict are not really the bitter enemies they seem to be. I won’t give away any spoilers since then you’d have no reason to come to my New York debut.

Further along, I am scheduled to give a paper at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in the Society for Comparative Research on Iconic and Performative Texts (SCRIPT) session on sensing scripture. My talk on that occasion will be on how the Bible is presented as an iconic book in the first season of Sleepy Hollow. Be sure to mark your November calendars now! It’s not too often that a person with no institution willing to back him gets to speak twice in a year. Someone who’s in a position to hire professors once told me that with so many candidates out there, you have to wait until you fall in love with one. Being a Don Juan, whether in amore or academia, has never been my strong suit. Still, if Elijah is to be believed, even an unamplified voice may carry. I’ll utter my “yop” for those who wish to listen.

Anabaptist Higher Education

There’s strength in numbers. This is a biblical concept as well as a folk saying (although it is worded differently in the Good Book). The power of conviction grows in a group, and that’s a reason that governments fear mobs, particularly angry ones. As biblical fundamentalism began to develop at the turn of the last century, those who opposed modernity found like-minded believers and gathered themselves together to stand on the same side of multiple causes. Not only fundamentalists, but all different religious outlooks—evangelical groups especially. The more “mainstream” and liberal groups, lacking the conviction of feeling like they’ve been left behind as society moves ahead, have felt less need to organize together. This is something the Democratic Party has felt ever since the Religious Right wed the Republican Party. It is an interesting dynamic. Banding together makes you feel like you’re not alone. So it was that the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities was founded. Higher education, which began in the church, had gone directions that made evangelical groups uncomfortable, so their institutions formed a coalition.

A story in the current Christian Century two Anabaptist member schools have caused waves of protest because they have decided that it is permissible to hire same-sex married faculty. Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College, sponsored by groups known for their primitivism, have surprised the CCCU with their surprisingly open stance. When is the last time the Mennonites made the news? In response, according to the Century, Union University, an evangelical school in Tennessee, has threatened to withdraw from the Council if this infringement is permitted. This is a perfect example of the dilemma faced by those who support higher education, but hold it to evangelical standards.

Homosexuality, over the past few decades, has become recognized as a basic form of human sexuality. As the stigma has begun to evaporate in the light of scientific, psychological, and sociological studies, the consensus has begun to shift in the wider world. With the Supreme Court decision in June (the first decision autosuggested as one Googles “supreme court”) rightfully following the evidence, any government barriers to same-sex marriages was pulled out from under the evangelical camp, and thus the CCCU. Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College have decided this presents no problem to their educational mission. Some members of the CCCU, it seems, disagree. The Century blurb asks if this is the beginning of the end of the Council. Probably not. Prejudice finds any hidden corner or recess that it can in which to hide and grow, like any fungus. Groups that identify by what they hate are loath to change, no matter how bright the sunshine. Rain encourages the mushrooms into the open, but the sunlight afterwards creates rainbows.

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Galileo’s Tool

GalileoMiddleEarly in my academic career I got into trouble not because a Harvard professor hadn’t adequately checked his data, but because I had pointed out that a Harvard professor hadn’t adequately checked his data. You see, I was a naive realist. I believed academics were objective, factual sorts who looked for the truth no matter how uncomfortable it was. My honesty didn’t earn me many friends, and I still can’t mention this professor by name because I have seen grown men melt into tears at his name, due to their overwhelming loyalty. By contrast, a fellow Edinburgh student once told me that he disagreed with our mutual dissertation adviser, “on principle.” As the old saying goes, nullius in verba, take nobody’s word for it. Reading Alice Dreger’s Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science drove home a number of important points, one of the most memorable being that academics take real risks when they won’t fudge the facts to fit the establishment’s expectations.

Although this autobiographically revealing book is about as honest as a writer can be, it deals largely with issues of social justice in the context of those who “don’t fit.” Intersex individuals, especially, are treated before they can give consent and live their lives based on other people’s expectations of what their gender “should be.” Like most people I was raised thinking there were only two genders. Science has consistently demonstrated that “gender” is a construct that occurs along a continuum. Some species change gender in their lives. Some have such complicated reproductive techniques that far more than two genders are postulated to make sense of it all. And yet, when it comes to humans, we suppose that we’re either female or male. And religions consistently claim that any sex outside those parameters is evil. We are so naive.

Dreger focuses her attention much more widely in this important book. She shows how universities, constantly becoming more corporate, often don’t support research that challenges their investments, or “branding.” She demonstrates first-hand the character-assassination that academic snipers use so well on those who follow the evidence. She is living proof that education and activism should go together. Intricate and with bizarre loops and twists thrown in, her account of what some people will do to silence others, and get it peer reviewed, saddens me. I’ve always believed that education is the surest way to solve social ills. Education, however, is increasingly being purchased by special-interest groups that protect the establishment. The establishment may no longer be the church, but we need another Galileo, and soon.

Ezekiel’s Drones

Drones have become a fact of life. Our robotic future is already present as unmanned vehicles do the bidding of their remote commanders. They are our conscience-free assassins and our great UFO hoaxes. They offer a chance to view the world from an angle previously limited to those with access to airplanes and pilot’s licenses. And academics are now starting to take a serious interest in the ethics of such remote viewing and remote warfare. Human to human interaction has always involved emotion. That’s what we’ve evolved to be—emotional thinkers. Even animals react emotionally to each other and to us. The drone removes all feeling from the equation. Programmed to fulfill a function, like Hal, it simply does as it’s told.

EzekielSpaceship

All this thinking about drones reminded me of a book that someone pointed out to me decades ago. I have a copy that I’ve never read, but I suppose eventually I should. This post isn’t about the book per se, but about the cover image (yes, people do judge books by these). Some time ago, I watched a young person playing with a quad. That word is so ubiquitous that I need to specify that I mean quadcopter. Quadcopters are popular drones, available for children’s amusement as well as for military and industrial utility. Their arrangement of four horizontal propellers gives them stability and maneuverability, as well as their sometimes annoying mosquito hum. The quad I saw reminded me of this book gathering dust on my shelf. Josef Blumrich wrote The Spaceships of Ezekiel to suggest that the psychedelic prophet saw space aliens coming to earth. I wonder if, in the light of developments, this thesis calls for refinement.

On the cover of the book is something that looks very much like a quadcopter. Even as a teenager, I wondered what these propellers would do in space travel. If there’s no atmosphere to give them lift, then they are rather superfluous and potentially an impediment. I would think that aliens would be a bit more advanced. Now that quads are a reality—just a block from work I can see a toy store clerk regularly flying one over the streets of Midtown—maybe Ezekiel was seeing into the future. Is that something prophets ever did? The biblical scholar in me says “no,” of course. Prophets were forth-tellers, not fore-tellers. Even so, I have a book in front of me that calls my beliefs into question. In the end, I suspect, that’s what most books are intended to do.

Doubting Dawkins

A recent Guardian introspective on Richard Dawkins reminded me of the dangers of idolatry. Dawkins, an internationally known intellectual pugilist, the article by Carole Cadwalladr intimates, is as human as the next guy when you can catch him off the stage. Ironically, it is evolved primate behavior to adore the alpha male, but, at the same time, to prevent abuse of power and to get away with what you can behind said alpha male’s back. We are worshipping creatures, at least when it suits our best interests. Anyone who’s been intellectually slapped down (something yours truly has experienced multiple times) knows that it is an unpleasant experience that one doesn’t willfully seek out. We try to keep out of the way of those who assert themselves, preferring the safer route of just doing what we’re told and apologizing for something we know isn’t really our fault. It’s only human.

Evolution

The media have provided us with ever more expansive ways to build our “experts” into gods. Dawkins, a biologist, has become one of the go-to experts on religion. The media don’t seem to realize that hundreds of us have the same level of qualifications as Dr. Dawkins, but in the subject of religion. Many of us are not biased. And yet, when a “rational” response to religion is required, a biologist is our man of the hour. Granted, few academics enter the field in search of fame. Most of us are simply curious and have the necessary patience and drive to conduct careful research to try to get to the bottom of things. We may not like what we discover along the way, but that is the price one pays for becoming an expert. Those who are lucky end up in teaching positions where they can bend the minds of future generations. Those who are outspoken get to become academic idols.

I have no animosity toward Richard Dawkins or his work. I’ve read a few of his books and I find myself agreeing with much of what he says. Still, a trained academic should know better than to “follow the leader” all the time. (Some schools, note, are better at teaching independent thought than are others!) The academic life is one of doubt and constant testing. Once you’ve learned to think in this critical way, you can’t turn back the clock. One of the things that those of us who’ve studied religion know well is that all deities must be examined with suspicion. Especially those who are undoubtedly human and who only came to where they are by the accidents of evolution. I’m no biologist, but I inherently challenge any academic idol. I’m only human, after all.