Monthly Archives: September 2017

Doomsday, Again?

It’s hard to keep a good apocalypse down. Ever since Jesus of Nazareth did his best Arnold Schwarzenegger impression of “I’ll be back” some of his followers have obsessed when just when that will be. Sorry for the late notice, but the current prediction is for tomorrow. If you’ve got any weekend plans, you might want to rethink them. I know traffic in Jersey is already bad enough without white horses breaking through the clouds. An article my wife promptly sent me from NPR, “Is The Apocalypse Coming? No, It Isn’t!” by Marcelo Gleiser, addresses the documentary The Sign. No doubt about it, there’s some impressive astronomical gyrations here, but planets moving through constellations do not an apocalypse make. As Gleiser points out, the real question is why people believe such predictions so passionately.

Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” captures the mood nicely. Growing up in a tradition that believed, as only literalists can, that this world is the center of the cosmos, Norman’s song haunted my teenage years. These were the heady days of Hal Lindsey and a very hot Cold War. I had to register for the draft. There was unrest in the Middle East. Sonny and Cher had split up. The signs were aligned, it seemed. As they had been nearly every year since about 30 CE. Paul of Tarsus was waiting. And John of Patmos. And Timothy LaHaye. True believers all. Conviction begets conviction. Seeing another fully convinced is a powerful incentive.

Even now, if I’m honest, I shudder a little when I hear such predictions. What if, by some odd chance, they are right? Raised in that tradition, it’s nearly impossible to jettison that private fear. Rationally I know that clever people can make all kinds of connections that have nothing to do with the Bible. I know that John’s Revelation isn’t about the end of the world. I know that the views of Paul were bound by the developments of his age. I know the Rapture was invented in the nineteenth century (CE). Still, the chill slithers through me when I consider how it felt as an uncertain teen on the brink of Armageddon. I could envision it clearly. Some who were utterly sure swayed me. Specific dates and times weren’t biblical, but the wait for any moment now was even more terrifying. Tomorrow will begin and end just as any other day on planet earth. And another apocalypse will enter the planning stages, coming soon to a universe near you.

Domesticity

One of the truly disturbing aspects of religion is its tendency to become domesticated. What I mean is that it becomes so much a part of the everyday scenery that you forget it’s there. I recently read a story about priests in the Church of England who don’t want parishes in poor neighborhoods. The reason given? They don’t want their children educated among the poor. That took me back a step. As someone with more than a passing familiarity with the Episcopalians, I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t want poor parishes. Of establishment Christianity, Anglicans are on the economical high end of the scale. I knew a few future priests like that at Nashotah House. Stylish worship and excess cash go together. But not to want your children educated with the poor? Is there fear of contagion?

I grew up poor. When I visit my hometown I’m reminded that although it featured in an X-Files episode, it will never be an affluent place. The people there, as a whole, struggle financially. I didn’t know any rich people growing up (I had to become an Episcopalian for that to happen) and I don’t think anyone rich lived in our town. Education, however, was a different thing. We went to school together and we learned. Some of us, despite not attending the finer establishments, managed to move through the educational system and on to college, seminary, and graduate school. Ironically, some of us even came to teach Episcopalians in seminary. A poor boy instructing the rich. But quite apart from that, it’s impossible to read the Gospels and not notice the concern for the poor in the founder of Christianity.

Image source: Julius Ejdestam: De fattigas Sverige, Wikimedia Commons

Early Christians weren’t Episcopalians. They were actually Jewish. Although a few of them had means, this new religion appealed primarily to the poor. As one of the earlier believers in the movement is said to have said, the rich receive their reward here. More and more Christians are coming to believe that this world is the locus of receiving rewards. Heaven isn’t so much on the radar anymore. We’ve been to outer space and it’s not there. Rather than put ourselves at risk among the poor, it’s better to blend in with the establishment. We can still rail aloud that the church is important and shouldn’t be ignored. But paying customers only, please. The poor? They’re a dime a dozen. And when we come to think of people that way, religion has become domesticated.

Voting Belief

No one knows the origins of religion. Before the advent of writing we can only guess, based on artifacts. Even in the era of scriveners, nobody jotted down the origin of belief until modern times, long, long after it began. Once writings about religious practice become reasonably clear, we find temples in the service of palaces, and vice-versa. Monarchs needed the validation of deities and priests required the support of the crown. Together they brought the two swords together and managed to keep the unruly masses in check. This isn’t cynical, not necessarily, since it reflects, the best we can reconstruct, how western organized religions began. Power was always part of the picture.

A recent Washington Post story, “The stark racial and religious divide between Democrats and Republicans, in one chart,” by Christopher Ingraham, shows the diametrically opposed pie-charts of self-identified white Christians (Republicans) versus non-white or non-Christian (Democrats) Americans. Such survey results tell us much about ourselves. We vote with our faith (or lack thereof) and not with our rationality. This has long been the piece of the political puzzle that Democrats have failed to comprehend. Not to take away from Barack Obama’s charisma, but people were afraid of Mormon Mitt Romney in 2012. Although conservative, white, and evangelical, Mormons have long been questioned as to their Christian identity by other evangelicals. It would seem, in the light of present circumstances, that understanding the “white Christian” mindset might be the only way out of the morass.

Typically self-defeating, academic institutions have shown little interest in understanding religion among hoi polloi. Long ago they bought into what Peter Berger admitted was his biggest blunder, the idea that religion was dying out. By the time he made that admission, academics had ceased to pay much attention to religion. It has, of course, come back as the ghost that haunts us. Or is it a zombie, once dead and now back to life? The fact is religion was never dying. It is as much of being a human as is driving a car or owning a cell phone. When times are uncertain, we turn to what is perceived as unchanging—religion. In truth, religion is constantly evolving to fit outlooks influenced by science, technology, and social progress. Worldviews change. Our culture is becoming more diverse. Republicans have a natural voting bloc that identifies itself by race and religion. Information about the former is readily available. You’ll need to look a bit harder to find quality information about the latter, no matter how important it may be.

Warnings Ahead

As a noun, “freak” is akin to a swear word. To refer to another person in such terms is often considered derogatory and degrading. Still, we all know what it means—an individual who doesn’t conform to expected models. I was a little worried about Mark S. Blumberg’s Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution, then. It had the word “evolution” in the subtitle, and that sounded scientific enough. Besides, those of us interested in monsters know, deep down, that they are essentially freaky things. Indeed, Blumberg starts his book with teratology, the study of monsters. And monsters come from religious backgrounds. Their name is related to the root “to warn.” I’m a squeamish sort, though, and reading about freaks of nature requires a constitution I sometimes lack. Especially when it comes to science.

Yet I couldn’t put the book down. To begin with, the concept of developmental evolution (devo evo, for those in the know) is utterly fascinating. If you grew up, like I did, being taught that genes govern evolution solely, this book will surprise you. Evolution can happen at the level of the phenotype, based on environmental pressures. This is well documented and hardly a matter of dispute. Bodies can change according to what they need. Blumberg offers case after case where this dynamic may be seen. The idea that we are “programmed” falls, ironically, at the feet of biology itself. We, and all animals, are adaptive creatures. Humans may not be able to regenerate lost limbs, but many amphibians can. Sometimes it’s a matter of age, and sometimes it’s a matter of matter. I found such a quantity of astonishing stuff here that I overcame my queasiness to see what the next page might reveal. When I hit the chapter on reproduction I realized once again that nature does not agree that “man plus woman equals marriage.”

This must be one of the most threatening areas of science to Fundamentalists. The sheer variety of ways that “genders” interact in nature, and appear in human bodies, will have purists calling out for heavenly clarification. Reproduction, in other words, isn’t in the service of conservatism. Fish, for example, that change “genders” instantaneously after mating, taking turns being female and male with a mating partner, must surely call for theological justification of some sort. And female lizards that don’t require males to reproduce, but are helped along by being mounted by another female so as to jog some ancient reptilian memory, require us to rethink our rather simplistic terms of endearment. Not for the the faint-hearted, but amazing for those who dare, this book takes our appreciation for “life finding a way” to a whole new level. Even if it’s a little freaky.

Eating Earth

Some things are hidden in plain sight. That doesn’t make them any the less insidious. One such hidden truth is that the earth is of a finite size. Another is that, consequently, its resources are limited. Our species is easily led, as are most herd animals. Standing out can be embarrassing. Painful even. This is the recipe, along with a generous dash of greed, that has put us on the brink of worldwide catastrophe. We live in an unsustainable system, and some of the largest culprits are our appetites. As a fan of horror movies, I can honestly say Cowspiracy is the scariest movie I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a documentary, not genre fiction. Scientists had generally already thrown up their hands because we’ve passed the tipping point for global warming, and then we elected ourselves the stunning leadership of Donald Trump.

No one can predict exactly what form the collapse will take, but we’ve set the key factors in place. We’ve been warned for years. Cowspiracy demonstrates something we don’t want to admit—the agricultural lobby is extremely powerful and the least sustainable aspect of life on this planet is animal husbandry. In early civilization, where technology did not exist to support large-scale farming, meat was not a staple of the human diet. Families that could afford animals gained more value from their beasts alive than on the plate. And they had only a few. As mechanization increased in the last century, we made livestock valuable commodities. When I was a kid word on the street was you were even poorer than we were if you couldn’t eat meat every day. Humans were the absolute, if blind, masters of their own domain. Now agriculture is the single largest force of degradation of the environment on the planet. And nobody wants to listen.

Cowspiracy is not an easy movie to watch, even for a vegetarian of many years’ standing. So why watch it? Because our reliance on animal-based food is destroying our planet. Not slowly either. If this is true, why haven’t we heard of it? Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn spend an hour-and-a-half exploring that in this important film. While it can’t be fully summarized here, in a word it can be said: money. There’s huge money to be made in a business rightly called animal husbandry. Wedded to profits at the expense of the very soil that gives us life, we eat our way to the grave. And we do it even when technology has already offered viable alternatives. They are also hidden in plain sight.

The Name of the Game

I have a confession to make. I’m not a gamer. Just like everyone old enough to be aware in the 1970s, I was amazed at Pong. Television, which had always only been a passive producer of entertainment, could now be interactive. Slower than real table tennis, the game nevertheless easily consumed hours of life otherwise productively spent. I went off to college and left the burgeoning video game market behind. Then in the late 1990s Myst appeared. The new Macs of those days came loaded with action games about dinosaurs stealing eggs. My daughter was fascinated and so I played. Then I lost interest again. That had been family bonding time, so it wasn’t completely wasted. Now we live in a world where, writers tell me, the real money lies not in movie rights to your novel, but game rights.

Kids, developmental psychologists assure us, need to play. It’s how they explore their world. As the human world becomes more and more electronic, games become more a part of virtual life. Some even have plots and genuine character development. A friend sent me a link to a story on Mashable, “Jesus battles the Buddha in fighting game hellbent on offending.” Victoria Ho describes Fight of Gods where deities of all denominations duke it out for dominion. After posting about god novels recently, it seems to me that we’ve begun to enter a time when the divine world hasn’t disappeared, but has transmuted. In this new world while all gods are not exactly created equal, they all have a shot at supremacy. It’s a matter of who can hit hardest.

No matter whether one finds this offensive or not, there is an element of profundity here. Historically religions have made gods of the things we fear. Storms, diseases, wars, and death—all of these have been, and continue to be, represented as deities. Human insecurity is deeply rooted in our psychology. We’re afraid of things we can’t control. In periods of governmental chaos, phobias naturally rise to the level of personal panic. What can we do in the face of such forces? Especially when prominent figures tell us all religious belief is for the weak-minded and feeble? Don’t we have to strap on our virtual armor and hope some powerful divinities are on our side? In such times as this we need our gods, no matter their tradition of origin. For me, I fear I won’t be able to spin this dial fast enough and that strangely square ping-pong ball is going to get past my virtual paddle.

Self-Conscious

Cassini is no more. The Saturn-bound satellite was launched in 1997 when the earth was a very different place. As it’s four-year sell-by date passed, the little robot who could kept on snapping photos around the ringed giant and its moons. Remote controlled from three planets and an asteroid belt away, it was decided that the explorer had to be destroyed in Saturn’s thick atmosphere rather than contaminate one of the moons where life might someday be found. Yesterday the probe burned up on its way through Saturn’s perpetual cloud bank. This has led to many emotional tributes, even among scientists who believe Cassini was just a machine. It also shows us how little we really know about consciousness.

During the two decades that Cassini was in space, we’ve learned quite a bit about animal consciousness here on our own planet. Many are now finally becoming convinced that we share this strange quality we can’t even define with other biological entities. Well, at least the “higher” kind. And we can’t help but think that maybe our more intelligent machines possess it too. We treat them as if they’re alive and willful. That could be a case of our own consciousness projecting itself onto inanimate matter—that’s something consciousness is pretty good at too—but since we lack the ability to measure consciousness, we can’t know if it’s there or not. To hear the astronomers talk, we’re going to miss Cassini, a machine that outperformed expectations. Ironically, once we get machines off the earth they tend to do that, even without oil changes every 5000 miles.

Down here on earth we complicate consciousness with cash. Devising an elaborate economic system to demonstrate who can buy power in the White House and who can’t, we want to know who is more important than whom. It’s a simple metric. Bank accounts tell the truth, no matter what the level of consciousness—or even of sentience—that the account holder may have. And then we wonder why a nation that can send a satellite three planets away can’t even figure out that all races should be treated equally and fairly. Cassini was a collaborative effort. Different races, genders, and economic classes contributed to its remarkable voyage. Eyes around the country were moistened when its last image was projected to earth. We wisely decided to immolate our satellite before we could contaminate another world. Meanwhile on our own planet we’re barely conscious of what we continue to do.