Monthly Archives: January 2016

Long Revision

Cecil_Rhodes_wwThose of us who write know all about revising. You go back to a piece you wrote, maybe even just days ago, and you see all the things you want to change. Corrections, improvements, deletions, retractions. Histories are particularly prone to being viewed in new ways with the passing of time. I once thought histories were factually true, but in this postmodern age we’ve learned that while histories contain some facts, they are largely interpretations of those facts. Even the Gospels are interpretations. Recently I’ve been reading about student movements wanting to efface some facts of history because they make current-day people feel bad. A piece in The Guardian, for example, explains how some students want to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, Oxford, because Rhodes was an imperialist and a racist. A similar movement is afoot at Princeton University to give Woodrow Wilson the old Akhenaton treatment for similar reasons. Student interest groups, as The Guardian points out, don’t want to be reminded of their once marginal status. Removing Rhodes (or Wilson) from his pedestal, however, won’t change history.

I wonder if those in these special interest groups have enough experience to realize the implications of their complaints. What if, for the sake of argument, one of these student leaders became a national leader? What if her (or his) nation became oppressive during her or his lifetime but s/he didn’t see it because it was the operating milieu of the age? And what if their nation later repented and brought those from their former oppressed colonies to their homeland and those who came turned against that past leader? The point of this scenario is to suggest that none of us—or at least very few of us—have the ability to think beyond our age. Can we be blamed for being children of our time? Will removing our mementos change the facts of history that will have transpired? Will it make us feel better to bury the truth of what happened?

What's behind that self-satisfied smile, Akhenaten?

What’s behind that self-satisfied smile, Akhenaten?

An issue that often weighs upon my mind when I hear of these groups of the marginalized is that there is a very large, and very diverse marginalized class that has no voice, even today. The poor. Sure, some of us raised in poverty can claw our way to a descent living, but succeeding in a world where you need connections and favors owed and special knowledge of how a system works will be forever beyond our grasp. I knew a refugee, once upon a time, who was a student of mine. He used to complain to me of the costs of having his shirts sent out to be laundered. His clothes were tailor made. He refused to use a washing machine. He was also quick to point out that I was the oppressive race. This he did without a nanogram of irony. Cecil Rhodes may have been as evil as some say he was. His money, however, made it possible for some of the heirs to his oppression to study in his shadow. And I write that with a heavy dose of irony. Do they not realize that Akhenaton is now considered by many to be the most interesting Pharaoh of them all because he was erased from history?

Monstrous Intentions

Atlas Obscura is one of those websites where you could spend all day and feel like you’ve just traveled the world. Featuring less know locations, and strange spots that you might like to visit, sometimes it also has stories about monsters. Well, at least one story about monsters. A friend of mine recently shared Cara Giaimo’s story about thirteen lesser-known monsters from history. While none of these are likely to keep you up at night, they do demonstrate the endless imagination people devote to the unknown. Monsters, like religion, defy easy categorization. Is something that’s “too big” or “too small” for its type a monster? Is it a monster if it is a mix of things that don’t normally come together? Or is it merely a matter of baleful intention? What doth a monster make?

Taking a page (almost literally) from John Ashton’s Curious Creatures in Zoology, the Atlas Obscura page runs down some monsters once believed to have existed. Some of them, despite our flattened world seen only through the eyes of rationality, were actually reported to have existed. The “monster” of Ravenna, for example, was apparently a sad case of a medieval/early modern birth defect that, in the popular imagination took on monstrosity. We now know that birth defects may contain throwbacks to earlier stages of evolution, or that genetic coding may contain mutations. None of this suggests any evil intention on the part of anybody. Accidents of nature may be the saddest kind of monster of all.

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 5.42.32 AM

A surprising number of the monsters from Ashton’s sampler here are mixes between human and animal. Indeed, that mix is still a potent force, theologically. One of the loudest voices speaking out against evolution is the one that says people are “not animals.” Having grown up with that belief, it took a couple years of college to convince me that we fit into the greater biological scheme of things. We fear that which resembles us, but is not quite us. Perhaps part of the mystique is that we haven’t quite yet learned to be humane to one another. Being a monster may just have more to do with what one does with prejudices than it does with physical features of their bodies.

When Gospels Mattered

SoskiceOnce I met with a group of writers and intellectuals in the Pacific northwest to discuss ancient—indeed, dead—languages and their cultures. I’d never before been accorded “rock star” status for what, for me, seemed a natural progression. I had spent my youth learning archaic languages and reading documents that few people had heard about and even fewer cared about. It was a delight, therefore, to read Janet Soskice’s The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels. I have to admit having never knowingly heard of Agnes and Margaret Smith, also known as Mrs. Agnes Lewis and Mrs. Margaret Gibson, nineteenth-century Scottish twins who chose to use their inheritance in finding, reading, and preserving ancient documents. To appreciate the importance of this avocation, as Soskice points out, in 1881 when a new translation of the Gospels went on sale based on recent manuscript finds, Oxford University Press sold a million copies on the first day of sale and carts carrying the Bibles caused traffic jams in London. Today a doctorate in those ancient languages and five bucks might get you a cup of coffee.

What makes this story so intriguing, admittedly, is that here were two women in a men’s world, accomplishing great scholarship when the University of Cambridge refused to grant women degrees. (The twin sisters lived in Cambridge.) It is with some sense of familiarity that I read how, after discovering and photographing the Syriac palimpsest which turned out to be perhaps the earliest complete copy of the Gospels known at the time, the sisters could not even get Cambridge professors to look at their photographs. Professors, as we all know, are too busy to bother with amateurs like the rest of us. As soon as one of the more promising Cambridge scholars almost accidentally viewed one of the pictures, the men stepped in eagerly claiming the discovery for themselves. The manuscript was in Saint Catherine’s Convent in the Sinai peninsula, a journey not easy to make, even today. Agnes had discovered the palimpsest there on a journey to discover ancient manuscripts. But she was a woman in a man’s Cambridge.

We can congratulate ourselves on many things in academia today. In many fields a woman stands a better chance than a man in landing a teaching job. But we still have far to go. Salaries for women continue to lag behind those of men for doing the same work in general. Healthcare issues that effect primarily women are decided on by legislatures that consist mostly of men. In many parts of the world, women are, by default, treated as the property of men. Two Scottish sisters managed to help upset the world, in their quiet way, at the turn of the twentieth century. They did it by acts of scholarship. Genteel, proper, and very Presbyterian. If only we could say that in the century since then we had reached equality, we might have done something of which we could truly be proud.

The Great Slumbering

Even in days of secular education—I am a product of public education throughout my childhood—Jonathan Edwards is a name that still retains recognition among many Americans. Perhaps best remembered for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Edwards thrived at a time when being a clergyman was a recognized path to success in this world as well as the next. Not that all ministers became famous, of course, but those with the inclination had access to books and time to study. They could write books and influence public policy. Indeed, Edwards was part of the “Great Awakening” that spread throughout the young United States, before its independence. George Whitefield had brought a showman’s sensibility to preaching, and people gathered to listen to roving reverends who brought their wisdom to new locations. In fact, revivals continue to this day—I had attended a few as a child—and they are largely responsible for the denominational map of American Protestantism even today. The “Second Great Awakening” brought Methodists and Baptists into the mainstream to stay.

The first major revivals, however, were fueled by a Calvinistic intensity. Having spent many of my educational years in schools established or supported by Presbyterians, I know their theology well. Judgment is important in the Reformed tradition. Indeed, without the element of threat, the heat is stolen from much of revivalism. Edwards’ sermon encapsulates so well the vital element of a theology that preached total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. In other words, unless God has already selected you, you’re out of options. As Presbyterian teachers were eager to state, you should still try to live as if you were saved (“elect”), even if you were going to Hell because of, well, you know, an angry God. Campus rules at Grove City embodied that ethic in a real-time way.

Jonathan Edwards went on to become president of Princeton University (the College of New Jersey, at that time). He died at about my age, having been inoculated for small pox—he was a believer in science—to demonstrate the value of the practice to students. He contracted the disease and died merely weeks later. Ironically, Edwards felt he was past his prime and had to be persuaded to take an academic job—somewhat of an extreme rarity today—and largely because his son-in-law, Aaron Burr, Sr., had recently died as the incumbent. Today, starting on the path to ministry is often a fast-track to job insecurity, popular derision, and poor earnings. For all that, it is difficult to be accepted in the ordination track without jumping through many hoops. So Jonathan Edwards came to rest in Princeton, New Jersey, as a famous, published, and highly respected man. A more different world then his in such a short time in the same location, is hard to imagine.

DSCN6140

Thinking about Thought

The history of thought can be compared to a slow-moving pendulum. At other times it can be more like a ping-pong game. Acceptability for ideas can take time, but sometimes the perceptions change rapidly. Having been raised in a small town in a Fundamentalist setting, it is difficult to assess where exactly the “status quo” was when I was growing up, but by the time I had reached college it was pretty clear that the challenge science posed to my particular brand of religion was pretty firmly entrenched. Materialism—in the philosophical sense—had obviously gained several champions. B. F. Skinner and his followers applied this template to human beings, and it became fairly common to hear that we were basically automatons. (Ironically, double predestination in the Calvinism I was learning about taught pretty much the same thing.) Today there are even more vocal heralds proclaiming that all that is, is material. If it can’t be measured empirically, it can’t exist. The pendulum, or ping-pong ball, has come to one side of the table, or arc, awaiting rebuttal.

An article in Scientific American from two years ago (my personal pendulum sometimes moves slowly as well) asks the question “Is Consciousness Universal?” The article by Christof Koch describes panpsychism, the theory that anything beyond a certain level of organization is conscious. Koch begins by discussing dogs. Those of us who’ve spent time with dogs know that they are clearly conscious, although a materialist would say they are just as much dumb matter as we are. But panpsychism goes beyond dogs and horses and other “higher” mammals. Anyone who has taken the time to study any animal in depth, particularly those that are obviously mobile and can seek what they wish to find, knows that animals have will, and intension. The loss of meaning only comes with materialism.

Integrated information is the term Koch uses to describe the baseline of consciousness. Of course, this would need to account for more than the merely biological. Computers may be sufficiently complex, but the information they “possess” is not integrated, thus keeping them from being truly conscious. I’m not enough of a scientist to understand all the technicalities, but I do know that something as simple as common sense suggests that consciousness is part of all animals’ experience of life. As some scientists have long realized, feeling, or emotion, is integral to the thought process. Only when we realize that we share this world with a great variety of conscious creatures will we begin to make any progress toward understanding the difference between mind and mindfulness.

DSCN5295

Hamilton

Religion and politics. It’s difficult to get over the wisdom instilled in your earliest years, and I was one of those who learned that religion and politics always cause potential friction in polite conversation. They are both, however, very important to people and knowing how to communicate about them irenically is a sign of maturity. While I can’t afford Broadway shows, I have read reports about the brilliance of a couple shows that feature—what else?—religion and politics. “Book of Mormon” has continued to be a success in the theater district, and, starting this summer, “Hamilton” joined the ranks of most popular Broadway shows. A hip-hop-inspired version of the story of Alexander Hamilton, the show offers history to audiences traditionally just out for a good time. I haven’t seen the show, but on a recent long car ride, I listened to the soundtrack and I have to admit that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. Part of the reason is the sadness of the story—the dual between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton ended up with one of the “forgotten founding fathers” dead, and another cast forever as a criminal.

IMG_2652

Although my interest in history has defined my career (such as it is), I don’t pretend to know much about the revolutionary period. One of the reasons is that I’m more than a bit ashamed by the treatment of American Indians by the colonials. It is hard to celebrate when you feel like a criminal yourself. Another reason has been that ancient history has always captivated me, and events two-to-two-and-a-half centuries ago feel too recent. Nevertheless, I find myself in New Jersey where much of the Revolution played out: Washington crossing the Delaware, the Battle of Princeton, the Battle of Monmouth, and many other famous episodes. The British of that time enjoyed the power of empire—keeping others down so that the privileged might see themselves entitled. In the musical, King George has a role, in my mind, similar to Pontus Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar.

I can’t help but think that what Lin-Manuel Miranda has offered in “Hamilton” is an extended kind of parable. The show is noted for its multi-ethnic cast in a story that was almost entirely, historically speaking, one of white privilege. Who can hear the songs swirling around the shooting of Hamilton and not think of the equally insane shooting of young African Americans who, like Hamilton, have no intention of causing harm? There are writers and poets and lovers who still try to find their place in a country that bathes the uber-rich with adoration and tax breaks and far too much power. “Hamilton” may, if people actually pay attention, turn out to be revolutionary. Politics and religion share that feature in common.

Illusions

While out driving one winter evening, the sun was setting below a distant horizon that I couldn’t see. Trees lined the sides of the road and, while creating not exactly a tunnel, they blocked the actual view of the orb itself. The day had been partly sunny with cloud forms shifting between layers of the atmosphere. Even though I had studied weather pretty intensely for a number of years, I couldn’t readily identify the cloud types. Thin, smooth lengths of cloud seemed to be suddenly rising up into cumulus banks, heavy with snow. Not far away, the sky was clear. As the sun was going down, these dramatic clouds were lit with the colors of fire: yellows, oranges, and reds. Further to the west, a high, broken bank of clouds glowed a rosy red against a twilight sky. Since the highway we were on was straight, I had a fairly consistent view of the warm tones of the sun highlighting the impressive clouds. My camera couldn’t hope to catch the intensity of the palette revealed to my eyes. When the sun finally fell beyond the range of the clouds, they appeared gray and prosaic against a darkening sky. They had been alight only moments ago, and now they were dull, and not even white.

IMG_2657

What I’d learned of physics reminded me that even these colors were not inherent to the clouds—colors are simply reflections of light rays and the range that we see depends on our eyes. An object’s color, in other words, is a kind of illusion. It’s an illusion we share, and although some people are color-blind, we make the conventions of color part of everyday life. Red means stop, and green mean go, for example. Objective reality is simply the fact that objects reflect different wavelengths of color. Depending on the light source, they appear a specific color to us. While we take colors for granted, they are actually a way of conveying meaning that isn’t entirely real.

Ancient people looking at the colors in the sky could only understand them as caused by the activity of the gods. Bright hues in the clouds suddenly diminished to gray could be the basis for a myth of heavenly conflict. A rainbow, according to Genesis, is a sign that such a conflict is finally over. I don’t know what the gods might have been doing overhead that night, but as the sun disappeared and a full moon rose, throwing soft, but pervasive light from the broken clouds that have only moments before had appeared red, another reality seemed to be taking over. I suspect that we have lost much by no longer watching the sky. My daily work generally involves sitting in a windowless room, and in Midtown the sky is occluded with human attempts to climb to heaven. When I can see the sky for an extended period of time, it seems that the gods are putting on a show, if only we’d watch.