Cthulhu’s Tea Party

It was in the eldritch-sounding Oshkosh that I first came across H. P. Lovecraft. The web was still somewhat of a novelty then, and I’d run across a Dagon symbol that I couldn’t identify. My researches led me to the old gods of Lovecraft’s atheistic imagination. Even non-believers are haunted, it seems, by deities. Dagon, about whom I’d published an academic paper, always seemed to be a divinity to whom very few paid attention. Little did I know that in popular culture this god, along with others made up by Lovecraft, were slowly gathering an immense following. Now, about a decade later, Cthulhu is everywhere. I was reminded of this when I came across a website advertising Cthulhu tea cups. As you drink your tea, Cthulhu emerges. These novelty items, along with many, many others, are easily found. Cthulhu is running for president. The creature that Lovecraft described with such terror is now available in a cute, stuffed plush. Board and card games come in Cthulhu varieties.

IMG_1551

What I find so interesting about this is that the following of Cthulhu has taken on religious dimensions. Not that writers haven’t invented religions before—L. Ron Hubbard came up with Scientology after a career of science fiction writing, and Jediism is considered a religion by some—but Cthulhu represents the darker aspects of religious thought. As Lovecraft described him, he is a horror. Not the kind of thing you’d want to discover peering out of your teacup. I wonder if this is precisely why the fictional god has become so incredibly popular. In a time when some real presidential candidates are really scary, suggesting that an evil deity take on the job may only be natural. Cthulhu is, after all, really more an alien than a god, but to puny humans the point is moot.

Mainstream religion is not about to disappear any time soon. There is, believe it or not, a strong resistance to the materialistic reductionism that presses in on us from all sides. People are not becoming less religious—they’re becoming differently religious. The old sacred texts are being replaced by the fictional Necronomicon. Ethereal beings that have always been there are bowing before ancient aliens who aren’t really eternal or omnipotent, but who feel more real in our culture of might makes right. Whether a religion is factual or fictional has come to matter less than the feeling that there is something, anything, larger than humanity that demonstrates the vanity of our striving after material gain. That actually sounds quite biblical. Anything believed with adequate passion stands a chance, it seems, of becoming a religion.

Unlearning Prejudice

With the terrorist attacks in Belgium on our minds, people are asking once again, “What’s up with Fundamentalists?” My jeremiad that the only solution to religious violence is to study religion reaches few eyes, I realize, but the internet has the capability of spreading memes far and fast. It is merely the hope of a closet optimist. One thing that Fundamentalists believe—I know from personal experience—is that the stakes are based in eternity. In Christian fundamentalism, for example, Hell or Heaven will be forever and any parent would be depraved indeed not to teach their children this belief from their earliest days. That parent-child bond is strong to the point of being unbreakable. That’s why what children learn about religion tends to stay with them all of their life.

IMG_0922A story on the Freedom from Religion Foundation website describes how it is fighting the distribution of Gideon Bibles in public schools in Delta County, Colorado. I was under the impression that Gideons contented themselves with hotel rooms and county fairs. I had no idea that they were active in public schools. In response, the Freedom from Religion Foundation has provided counterbalances to be available to students, including materials calling the Bible into question, and, somewhat more surprising, atheist and Satanist literature. It is clearly a political move to prevent the district from allowing Gideons to distribute Bibles, but it feels an awful lot like a battleground to me. We want the best for our children, but is it best to put our adult biases out where they can be so plainly seen? In a pluralistic society, religion will always raise extreme responses where children are concerned.

The question here is not whether children should receive religious teaching or not, but where such teaching should occur. We are a nation founded on the principles of religious freedom, and although the concepts have changed since the founding days, the ideal is still valid. No matter how one wants to argue the point, people will be religious beings. They may express it in enormously different ways, but express it they will. Children trust us to act like adults. We want what’s best for them but the risk is very high. What should be done? Educate adults. But then, that’s a screed you’ve heard from me before.

Strange Chemistry

AlchemicalBeliefOne of the many antiquated beliefs that have been left behind over the centuries is alchemy. Today we tend to think that anyone who supposed natural substances could have been transmuted into others must have been naïve at best, or credulous at least. Bruce Janacek’s Alchemical Belief: Occultism in the Religious Culture of Early Modern England sheds light on the wider worldview of the alchemists. Some of them, anyway. Firstly, it is quite clear that many adepts of alchemy were very intelligent people. We easily forget that in addition to rewriting the laws of physics, Sir Isaac Newton practiced alchemy throughout his adult life. There’s something incredibly beguiling about the idea of an underlying unity of materials. Today atomic theory has answered that unity, perhaps a little too well. And that bring up the second important insight in Jancek’s book: alchemists often had an ulterior motive.

Early modern alchemists (think of those emerging from the wake of the Reformation, and you won’t be far wrong) often had a religious motivation for their work. Alchemy isn’t just turning base metals into gold—that’s just its most spectacular claim. Janacek points out that several alchemists were also attempting to prove the legitimacy of Christian theology through their explorations. Concepts as strange as the Trinity, or even the divisions of Christianity itself that were happening in the shadow of Luther, indicated to ordered minds that theological truth must be a unity. That unity, once found in alchemy, would naturally apply to the world of the church. The church, after all, can’t defy the very laws of the universe, can it? These early scientists accepted that there might also be a mystical element involved. Some rejected that aspect, but felt that the basic ideas of alchemy itself were sound.

Like dinosaurs, alchemy pretty much went extinct with the onset of the empirical method. Also like dinosaurs, it survived into the new age, transmuted in form. Alchemy was one of the ancestors of that bane of college students everywhere: chemistry. We tend to forget that astrology laid the groundwork for astronomy and creation (not quite an “ism” in those days) led to the study of biology. Religious ideas underlie much of what led to modern science. Religion, after all, indulges the curiosity of humankind. We are allowed (in the best instances) to let our minds range where they will. Later on theology, or some such device, will rein them in, but until such a time the psyche is free to explore. And build systems. And offer explanations. The alchemy comes when all of this is taken from the hands of natural philosophers and put into the laboratory only. And the rest of us await pronouncements from above of what might be real, or not.

Monster Epistemologies

A friend ensures that I see internet stories of hidden monsters. Not hidden in that you can’t find them, but hidden in that my freedom to explore the web entails only weekends and even some of those are very busy. In any case, a bestiary from Mental Floss landed on my virtual desk recently and I couldn’t wait until the weekend to check it out. A bestiary is a list of strange creatures, what we might today call monsters, some of which reflect a world not well explored and others which reflect religious, or—admit it—superstitious ideas. In the days when travel was limited and news was slow and unreliable, garbled accounts of strange beasts were compiled in bestiaries. The tradition continues today, as is evidenced by this article by Paul Anthony Jones.

Whenever I see monster stories like this I ask the question: did they really believe such things “back then”? Some of these monsters clearly have analogues in the natural world, but part of my brain reminds me that we are destroying species faster than we can count them in the rainforest, and who knows what we have yet to uncover? Is it really a matter of belief or is it actually a matter of knowing how we know? The fancy word for the latter is “epistemology.” As I used to ask students: how do you know that you know? Has that changed since the days of the bestiary? Knowing about medieval monsters seems to have been the acceptance of the reports of those who, if they hadn’t actually seen the beast, had at least talked to someone who knew someone who had. It is the authority of the senses. Or of reliable reporting. Seeing is believing.

Martigora_engraving

Fast forward to a day of popular cryptozoology. We have monster hunters of many sorts on television. Some claim evidence for what they have seen. Lighthearted laughter is the common response. Monsters just don’t fit into our worldview anymore. Our epistemology has become more circumspect. If it doesn’t come from a lab, like a genetically modified organism, we have no reason to believe it exists. We’d like to create our own monsters, thank you. It’s at times like these that I like to reflect that a bestiary doesn’t sound so different from a breviary. Both are medieval sources of knowledge. Our modern epistemology seems to have grown a little too narrow to see a world that is full of wonder. Unless, of course, it’s on the television. Seeing is believing.

Underground Easter

SleepyHollow

Recently I had the opportunity to write a post for the OUP Blog on the topic of Sleepy Hollow. I’m not exactly obsessed with the program, but it fascinates me that a television show that is so religiously based was such a hit for a couple of seasons. Religiously based, that is, in a thoroughly secular way. That may sound like a contradiction, but that is precisely part of the charm. We are constantly being informed that religion is on its way out, but we keep coming back to it in other guises. Sometimes disguises. Since today is recognized as Easter among many western Christian groups, I thought it’d be appropriate to consider resurrection. We know that resurrection is an idea that pre-dates Christianity and that it is one of the most basic religious hopes people share, in some form or other. It is also one of the central themes of Sleepy Hollow.

The premise of the series is that Ichabod Crane has been resurrected two centuries after his death. Alive in Sleepy Hollow, he and Abbie Mills fight off a variety of weekly frightening monsters, the primary one being the Headless Horseman. But the Headless Horseman is also a resurrected character. Ironically, he is Death, and even Death comes back from beyond. As particularly the first season goes on, we find other characters dead and risen. George Washington comes back from the dead to give instructions for coming out of Purgatory. The second horseman of the apocalypse, War, is a character brought back from the dead. In the second season, Thomas Jefferson, in a kind of futuristic sense, is brought back from the dead as a kind of living hologram. Where, o Death, is thy sting?

Sleepy Hollow is a secular program. There is no overt religious message. To tell a compelling story, however, the writers keep coming back to the Bible and other sacred texts, and supernatural themes. In researching the program I learned that other networks (who has time to keep track of them all?) also have supernatural features and that competition is fierce. Meanwhile we’re being told that religion is all but stomped out under the weight of rationalism. My observation is that it may be dressed up as something different. It may even be in disguise. Religion, however, is experiencing its own resurrection in popular culture and the idea of Easter has yet to be considered obsolete.

Not Camelot

In the English imagination the Arthurian legend is deeply connected with the Christian myth of Britain’s founding. This may not be on the surface, of course, but the places associated with King Arthur (as well as the tales themselves, such as the Holy Grail) overlap with sacred locations. I was reminded of this by a recent Guardian article about Tintagel Castle. Back in the day when my wife and I visited Tintagel with friends, I was still shooting film. Slides, no less. Some wonderful images came out, the way that only Ektachrome delivers, but I haven’t been able to convert them to digital. I guess you’ll have to take my word for it. Tintagel is in the news because English Heritage, the owner of the property, is developing it to make it a larger tourist draw. According to Geoffrey of Monmouth King Arthur was conceived at Tintagel. Not in the castle—now in ruins—that was built centuries later, but on the island that is accessed by footbridge over a dramatic cove on the Atlantic Ocean. It’s enough to make you drop your pastie.

Our own little Merlin

Our own little Merlin

Locals, according to The Guardian, protest the dressing up of the historic site. A bas relief of Merlin has been carved into the living rock, and this is hoped to draw the Glastonbury crowd to the southeast. Glastonbury, upon our visit, was already the home of New Age vendors. It too has connections with Arthur. The staff of Joseph of Arimathea can be seen, still growing after all these centuries. The Holy Grail—likely from Celtic mythology of the cauldron—is also associated with Glastonbury. Oh yes, and also King Arthur’s grave. Even apart from Monty Python, the legendary king has captured the imagination of thousands across the centuries. There’s something about Arthur.

The historicity of the king, however, is vigorously debated. The same is true of many religious founders. Those around whom legends grow become more and more inaccessible with the passing of the years. England was Christianized in the seventh century as part of a political expansion. If Arthur ever lived, it was after that period, perhaps in the days before Beowulf. We just don’t know. It is clear, however, that his legend is intertwined with that of those early Christian days. There never was a Holy Grail—of that we can be fairly certain. In the service of myth-making, it is nevertheless indispensable. Staring out over the Ektachrome sea at the ruins of the island castle of Tintagel, it is only too easy to believe. If only I had the pictures to prove it.

GF or TGIF?

For some today is Good Friday. Others are saying “TGIF!” There’s a basic disconnect that has grown between days of remembrance (okay, let’s just call them “holidays”) and the days required of capitalism. Easter is not generally considered a work holiday. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, coming on a Sunday, it is safely out of the reach of much commercialism. Although, vis-à-vis Christianity, it’s a stronger holiday than Christmas, it isn’t a federal holiday. In a world of religious pluralism, that’s no doubt correct. Still, for those who ponder deeply the tradition that wrought them, shouldn’t we be allowed to contemplate our loss without spending a vacation day?

It will come as no surprise to my regular readers that I often think about the ministry as a vocation. After all, I paid my good money and attended seminary. When I was teaching at a seminary and there was some pressure to move that direction, however, I felt that I was adequately served by daily masses and the opportunity to minister in the classroom. Before those days, however, I trudged into work in Ritz Camera in Brookline, Massachusetts, on Good Friday wearing black and feeling depressed. From long habit I wished to be in church. From financial necessity I stood behind the counter and smiled. Good Friday is that way. It’s hardly a holiday when loss lies all around. It’s a bleak day, one might say. Few bosses who don’t feel the depth of symbolism can quite understand. Work week interruptus.

No doubt it’s vain of me to try to encapsulate this into words. As a culture we prefer the bright, sunny colors of Easter—a holiday with considerable spending but without loss of work efficiency. We should be smiles all around. “Smiles, everyone! Welcome to Fantasy Island!” But we can’t get there without going through Good Friday. Meanwhile, those who don’t observe the day are glad that it’s Friday. Not exactly a holiday weekend, but a weekend nonetheless. Have we outgrown Good Friday? I should think not. For although we bring our cheery flowers and bonnets out for all to see, we all know that Monday is just another day at work.

Elihu_Vedder_-_Soul_in_Bondage_-_Google_Art_Project

Durable Goods

CharingCrossThose who love books share a soul. A weekend never feels complete to me without at least an hour spent in a bookstore. On one such weekend a clerk in our local indie recommended Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road. The recommendation was actually for my wife, but knowing me, she said I’d like it. What’s not to like about a set of revealing letters between a struggling, New York-based writer and a London used bookstore clerk? Books tell the story of a person’s life. If I’m invited to someone’s house, I look at their books. I would expect the same if they ever came to see me. Kind of like dogs sniffing each other out. Books reveal the inner person. They also give me ideas of more things to read.

I can’t help but think we’ve lost something intangible in the world of ordering books online. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate Amazon maybe more than is proper, but how many treasures have I found simply by browsing? The days are well past when a single person could claim to have read every book (and really, who would want to?) so there’s always something undiscovered lurking at the bookstore. And these days used bookstores have the most character. In Milwaukee I used to frequent a used bookstore that could have passed the building inspectors’ visit only by bribery. I spent happy hours there. You see, books are durable goods that can outlast their owners. Can anyone really ever own a book?

84, Charing Cross Road was an unexpected delight. A quick web search reveals that Marks & Co. Is no longer with us. It is now a McDonald’s. Helene Hanff is gone too. And she thought she was born a century too late! Yet here we are in the twenty-first century and books are still with us, despite our losses. They have something of eternity to teach us. The ebook has not yet managed to kill off print. Our local used bookstore closed some years back. I confess to visiting a Barnes and Noble in a state of desperation. There a guy, older than me, was talking to a clerk. I couldn’t help but overhear when they mentioned the used bookstore, now long gone. Even the clerk sighed that they were the only show left in town. Although they were strangers I knew that we somehow share a soul. So it is with those who love books.

Modern Vampires

VampiresTodaySometimes I feel guilty. A grown man reading about vampires? Then I think of such puerile things as television and the stock market over which other adults waste their time and my pituitary gland releases endorphins and I carry on. I must say, however, after reading Joseph Laycock’s Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism, that I’m not a vampire. Nor have I ever wanted to be. I am fascinated by the idea, however. The more I read—as is the case with most good academic books—the more I questioned definitions. Laycock does a good deal of that questioning himself in this book, and I came away wondering what indeed defines a vampire? As a child it seemed pretty clear. The vampire was a blood-sucker who came out at night. Fangs, a thirst for blood, and a faded aristocracy seemed to be the essential characteristics. But I was only a child.

Before you get the wrong idea about Laycock’s book, I need to say that his is a serious study of modern day vampires. Yes, they exist. No, they’re not easy to define. As an academically trained scholar of religion, Laycock is keenly aware that self-definition is crucial to categorization. Religious believers self-identify. We have no way of categorizing an adult (and some would say no way at all of children) without their own affirmation of what they believe. Vampires Today, however, raises the pointy question of whether those who self-identify as vampires constitute a religion. Or if vampire communities may be considered religious groups. In case you’re confused: many people identify themselves as vampires—sanguinarian and/or psychic. They believe they require the life energy of others to live and prevent illness. They sometimes drink blood—with permission—or siphon the life force of other people. Like all adults, they should be treated as self-identified. Probably not, as Laycock carefully spells out, a religion.

As in his other books, Laycock takes seriously groups that would, based on numbers alone, be considered fringe. Nevertheless, these groups are a part—sometimes an influential part—of larger society. We live in a world where we’re authoritatively told there is nothing but matter and energy, and as biological beings our purpose is reproductive success and then death. Is it any wonder that vampires and others are seeking something more? I’m no vampire. I read the occasional, thoroughly pulp, Dark Shadows novel to recapture a little of that after-school wonder I felt watching the waves pounding on the Maine cliffs while Barnabas Collins lurked inside. And he bore a strange truth that was perhaps instilled in those young years. Age is only partially a biological matter. Defining it any other way is, I have to believe, immature. So I read about vampires and wonder.

But Loses (His) Soul

Although a couple steps from the real thing, a book review can be an art form of its own.  A short piece in a recent Wired magazine focused on an ironic bestseller that I keep seeing on the standard lists: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo.  Apart from something we’ve probably all heard from our moms, I wonder why so many people buy a book telling them to get rid of things.  Clive Thompson notes in his review (“Clutter Clash: How Tidying up Can Hamper Creativity”) that one of Kondo’s pieces of advice is that books should be on the list of things to discard.  Disagreeing in principle with this assessment, it is an even larger argument that I would like to challenge: “studies” apparently show (I’m not sure which studies) that clutter can be “soul crushing.”  Given that we have no empirical way to assess souls, I’m uncertain how to measure the number of angels crushed under my stacks of books.  Who has the right to assign clutter to the ranks of venial sins—or mortal, for that matter?
 
The book’s subtitle, The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, may provide some vague spirituality to the topic, and I agree that entropy can get the upper hand from time to time, but soul-crushing?  Some of us keep books and papers precisely because of their value in lifting the non-verifiable soul.  In fact, I was just reading (ahem) about how religions (the traditional home of wisdom about souls) revolve around their books.  Perhaps we should leave at least a showy Bible for the coffee table to display along with our copy of Feng Shui for Dummies.  My soul feels lighter already!

IMG_2727
 
When did advice for improving our souls shift from those who spend their ruminative lives asking the weighty questions to those who suggest picking up after yourself might just work as well as a life of self-denial and putting others first?  And why would you buy a book that recommends you don’t keep books?  My existential crisis deepens, and I haven’t even read it.  I can’t shake the feeling that  I spent thousands of dollars over multiple years getting an education in what turned out to be merely housekeeping.  I marvel at the clutter-free environment as much as the next person.  That’s one of the reasons I love art museums so much.  Yes, my soul does get a boost there.  If I go to the gift shop on the way out, however, I’ll likely want a book to help recapture those sublime moments.  Then I will go home, where my clutter awaits, and will truly feel peace in a place where books abide in profusion.

Spring Forward

I have to admit that spring snuck up on me this year. Weather is, of course, no reliable predictor of the Vernal Equinox, and since I depend on the lightness of the sky while waiting for the bus as an indicator of seasons, turning our clocks ahead last weekend blindsided me to the nearness of the light. Holy Week in Christianity is just one of a cluster of holy days long associated with the point of equilibrium: the day when light and darkness balance perfectly, only to tip from then on in the favor of light. The crocuses have been up for weeks and the robins are ubiquitous, so I really have no excuse. Spending too much of one’s days indoors, I suspect, will inure any soul to the wonder of changing seasons. Climate control, no windows, and constant business separate a person from what nature has evolved us to be.

Easter, understandably, can’t be a national holiday in a land of religious freedom. Not everyone recognizes Easter and even those who do don’t agree on the date. Having a moveable feast is a great inconvenience to employers who want to know everyone’s going to be at their desks. Besides, even though the date changes, it’s always on a Sunday. Many people already have that sop and so, we glide past the vernal equinox with nary a thought. Business as usual. Looking at the great monuments of the past, when ancients put great effort into marking the seasonal change days, I can’t help but think that we’ve lost touch with a basic element of our humanity when we let the equinoxes pass without notice. I hadn’t even realized it was spring until it had begun.

Stopping to recognize the significant days in the passing of the year may be inherently religious. We can be as secular as we like about the equality of light and darkness, but somewhere deep inside we’ll still be thankful that the days will be growing longer until there is more light than dark. We just don’t have to say so at the office. Holidays, it seems to me, offer us hope. We don’t have to buy stuff or give presents. Just having a day to stop and reflect makes us more human. The vernal equinox came silently on a Sunday this year. I awoke early to try to catch sunrise on a cloudy morning. I look to the east, and I dare to hope.

IMG_2725

Palms and Psalms

At Nashotah House, where I spent many years of my career, it was often felt that the weather during Holy Week was, in the best of circumstances, appropriate. With spring just around the corner, however—the date of Easter is based on the Vernal Equinox, after all—a number of surprises came. Particularly in Wisconsin. The ideal scenario would look something like this: sunny then partly cloudy on Palm Sunday; it was a a joyful day for a parade, but clouds make for nice foreshadowing. Nobody really commented on the weather for Monday through Wednesday, and Thursday—Maundy Thursday—was largely spent inside the chapel. Good Friday, however, should be rainy. Saturday gloomy. And, of course, Easter Sunday should be a perfect, sunny spring day. It seldom, if ever, worked out that way. The weather is not beholden to liturgical celebrations. The same holds true for New Jersey. At least the snow has been removed from the forecast today, only to come in the night.

It was at Nashotah House that I wrote Weathering the Psalms. Being a lexically driven book, it was never intended to be a commentary on global warming. It should have been, in retrospect. Already by then we were nearing the point at which, even if greenhouse gas emissions were stopped, runaway melting of the polar ice would continue apace and the weather would grow more and more unpredictable because of human action. Human action of everyone except the industrialists, of course, since they don’t believe in global warming. We cling to our palms and shout “Hallelujah” while the sea level’s rising and our weather grows increasingly erratic. We have a theology with which the weather disagrees.

IMG_2721

The liturgical year is, like its Jewish predecessor, cyclical. Some have suggested that holidays were invented to remind the laity of when it was safe to plant again. Of course, the climate in the “Middle East” is quite different than that of northern Europe and the United States where the Bible seems to have its proper setting. As I was walking yesterday, I enjoyed the daffodils that I always associate with Easter. When I returned home I saw snow in the forecast. Leap year, Daylight Saving Time, and my general level of sleepiness conspired to cause me to overlook that today is the Vernal Equinox. I look for the snow, grasp my palm, and think of spring.

Bible Use

In the current presidential race, it seems, the Bible hasn’t been as large an issue as it has been in the past. Bluff, bravado, and bullying seem more the order of the day. Goliath rather than David. This makes me think of the varied uses that the Bible has had in American life. It has been used as a spiritual guide, a textbook, a set of moral principals, a grimoire, and a science primer, as well as a political playbook. It is versatile, the Good Book. It has been prominent in American society from the very beginning, but clearly its prominence is starting to fade. Not likely to disappear any time soon, the interesting question is how people use the Bible, often without reading it. This is what scholars call the “iconic book” aspect of the Bible. It is performative—it acts in a way that has an outcome, no matter what the intent of the user. As I’ve argued in academic venues, it has become a magical book.

An iconic book (photo by David Ball)

An iconic book (photo by David Ball)

Wondering whether this is a new situation or not (I deeply suspect it’s not) I’ve been reading about the Bible in early America. Almost all the reference material points to the “official” uses of the Bible—that by statesmen and clergymen (both classes of “men” in the early days) with almost nothing of how it was used in private. This question involves some exercise of the imagination since there are few data. Would not a family, struggling to survive, see in the Bible a powerful book? And would not a powerful book be capable of subverting the laws of nature? Reading about the witch trials in Salem, we see that thunderstorms and other “prodigies” were considered magical. Surely one could use the Bible for unorthodox purposes? There’s little to be said in the absence of evidence. The use of magic in the colonial period, apart from the trails of witches, was not unusual.

How do we measure the ways the Bible was used when nobody beyond interested parties, such as clergy, wrote about it? Mr. Trump even tries to quote it from time to time, but since his citation that sounds like a joke opener, “Two Corinthians [go into a bar],” he seems to have let that hot potatoe drop. The Bible, seldom read, remains a powerful book. The source of its power, I suspect, is in its use by the common people. Many people are familiar with it, and believe in it. Some have even read it. It remains, however, one of the great mysteries among the early European settlers. We know they had their Bibles with them. How exactly they read them, when not under the eye of the preacher, we apparently have no way of knowing.

Ethology Theology

MindingAnimalsProminent public intellectuals, we’re used to hearing, often lament the survival of religion into a rationalist age. As an obscure private intellectual—if I may be so bold—I am always pleased to see when a credentialed scientist asks if we are being too hasty. No, but actually says we’re misguided to dismiss the evidence of our own observations. Marc Bekoff’s Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions, and Heart is an encouraging study by a balanced individual. Bekoff, unlike many scientists, realizes that emotion does play into observation and reasoning. More than that, materialistic reductionism does not account for human or other animals’ experience of life. Historically motivated by religions to separate ourselves from animals, we have only come to know slowly—painfully slowly—that the distinctive markers of humanity are shared in degree by other animals. Bekoff is bold enough to give the lie to the belief that animals have no emotional life. Traditionally science has said that we cannot know what goes on in animal brains so it is best to take animal emotions off the table. Then scientists go home and love their dogs, who love them in return. When’s the last time I read a scientist writing about love?

Minding Animals is a manifesto. We have, in our arrogance, made unwarranted assumptions about both animals and our unique status on the earth. We drive other species of animals to extinction at a rate that required an asteroid collision or some other catastrophic event in the past. And we use animals as if they had no interests of their own, even such basic interests as avoiding pain and suffering. “They’re just animals,” we’re told. Bekoff is an ethologist—someone who studies non-human animal behavior. As common sense, both the sine qua non and bête noire of science, reveals, animals experience and express happiness, anger, and love. They can be depressed. They can be overjoyed. And we treat them as if they were objects to do with as we please.

Bekoff admits some of his fellow scientists treat him as if he’s gone soft. Like Diogenes, however, I search for an honest man and I think I have found him. Instead of castigating religion, Bekoff ends his book with a chapter on theology. Not to make fun of it, but to show that even scientists must integrate different kinds of knowledge. Not only is the science that Bekoff describes appealing to the emotions, it also makes sense. No scientist is completely objective. Even Mr. Spock breaks down once in a while. We all have perspectives. And that includes our fellow earthling animals. We evolved from the same ancestors and yet treat them as if we own them. Minding Animals will—or at least should—make us feel guilty about that. Being human and being humane, after all, are only a silent e apart.

St. Pat Tricks

What does it say about a saint when the celebration of his day is excessive drinking? Virtue and vice, while not nearly as Manichean as sometimes made out to be, nevertheless conflict in such a setting. Like many American mutts, I have some Irish heritage. I wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, as it’s the done thing. I avoid any celebrations, however. When my job calls for travel to college campuses, I know to avoid the time around St. Patrick’s. Indeed, I’ve taught on campuses where Spring Break was always scheduled around St. Pat’s so as to minimize property damage on campus. Send them off to Florida, where they can be some other electorate’s problem.

IMG_2681

This is an interesting dichotomy. We live in a fairly permissive culture, at least when it comes to things like sex and violence. We nevertheless have built a Prohibition-Era-like mystique around alcohol consumption that makes our college-aged kids a little too curious. Binge drinking and its predictable aftermath have become far too common. Put them together with an Irish saint and all bets are off.

Historically, the Irish have been maligned in what is an acceptable way. Few complain when a nationality is non-ethnic on the surface but non-welcome nevertheless. The Irish have been historically oppressed, but today we forget all that. We hold parades with bagpipes to bolster solidarity, but only if the taps are freely flowing. Drinking with holidays is nothing new. Even Judaism has its Purim and other religions may, from time to time, relax strict rules on the evils of alcohol. But what does it say about a saint that there is apparently no other way to celebrate his day? Wearing green, yes, but that may be entirely accidental. It is, after all, a Dionysian rite of spring, our apparel matching the verdure we soon anticipate as winter wends its weary way out. Even so, I’m glad not to have to be on the streets of a major city when the parade marches by. Even with my Irish ancestry, I prefer to celebrate in my own quiet way, just by wearing green.