Idol Thoughts

The Enlightenment led, in some respects, to a condescending view of the past.  Historians know, for example, that the basics of science and engineering predate the Middle Ages.  Just consider the pyramids.  The people of antiquity were anything but naive.  We tend to think in Whiggish ways, despite our awareness of past achievement.  Perhaps it’s because we misunderstand past religious thought.  After all, the Enlightenment is generally understood as freeing the human race from “superstition” and leading to empiricism.  Empirical thinking had been there all along, of course, only it hadn’t been the sole way of making sense of the world.  Consider, for example, the “idol.”  In the biblical world food was left for statues of the gods, but it seems to me that people were smart enough to figure out that images didn’t actually eat it.

Elaborate rituals, of course, attended the making of gods.  These symbolic actions were said to make this object more than just a piece of wood, stone, or metal.  Assuming it required food, however, strains credulity.  The symbolic nature of the offering, however, was accepted.  The same is likely true of the offering of food to the deceased.  Even in ancient Israel the time-honored practice of leaving sustenance for the dead was carried out.  Was this symbolic rather than naive?  I tend to think so.  Reason told the ancients that the dead ceased to move, and therefore to eat and drink.  It was nevertheless a sign of respect to leave food, which, in a world of frequent malnutrition, could have been put to better use.  It was a symbolic sacrifice.

Surely they didn’t understand the fine interactions of nature that require microscopes and telescopes to see, but their knowledge relied on the divine world to address what remained mysterious.  We still, for example, have difficulty predicting weather.  We understand that the atmosphere is subject to fluid dynamics and countless minuscule factors that contribute to it.  We’re also aware that global warming is a reality.  Like the ancients we can choose to ignore, or pretend that the obvious doesn’t exist.  Like them, we do so for a reason.  Our political leaders are unwilling to stand in the way of the wealthy.  Reelection and all its perquisites—including personal enrichment—are simply too enticing.  Empirical evidence is worth ignoring for such emoluments.  When we feel tempted to assert our superiority over those of past ages, we might pause to consider that we still offer food to idols.  And get just as much in return.

Thunderers

“Storms are the embodiment of Mother Nature’s flair for the dramatic, and the words that we use to write about them are infused with that drama,”—the words aren’t mine, but they express something I often acknowledge.  The quote comes from a Verbomania post about the word “brontide”—a noun for things that sound like distant thunder.  Weather-related words are indeed part of the religious vocabulary as well.  I wasn’t quite daring enough to suggest it in Weathering the Psalms, but it seems that thunder may be behind most basic religious beliefs.  Well, that and bad luck.  Think about it—most cultures have a very powerful storm-deity.  That power is expressed in thunder.  Even in the twenty-first century a sudden clap can made the sophisticated duck and cover.  

We don’t know as much about ancient Mesopotamian culture as we’d like to, but it’s pretty clear that storm deities commanded major of respect.  Eventually in the city-state of Ugarit, in what is now northern Syria, a god named Hadad (aka “thunderer”) became the patron of the city and was known mainly by his title “lord” (Baal).  There may have been more than one lord, but the one in charge of day-to-day affairs was the one who controlled storms.  We’ve entered another rainy season around here (something you tend to notice when the roof leaks), and my thoughts often turn to how very much the weather controls us.  Interestingly, thunder hasn’t been much in the picture.  We’ve lived in our house coming up on a year and I have been awoken by thunder (something that still scares me as much as when I was a kid) only once.  Thunder is the approach of gods.

There’s drama about the weather.  In fact, fiction writers have long known that one of the most effective ways to suggest the mood of a story is the meteorological method.  Weather sets the scene.  The sound of distant thunder has a naturally ominous, almost predatory quality.  The growling, low and loud bursts from the sky sound so like human expressions of rage that it is only natural that they should be interpreted this way.  Since the sky is (or used to be) out of the reach of humans, the sounds from above were from the realm of the divine.  When gods approach the mood is threatening.  We dare not meet them.  That mythology has long informed our perceptions of meteorological phenomenon, acknowledged or not.  Brontide is an underused word that brings the drama of both nature and the divine together.  It could be a psalm word.

Servants and Such

At Nashotah House I met my first real-life servant.  This was a student—a candidate for the priesthood—who’d formally been a “domestic.”  Now, being Episcopalian one doesn’t bat an eyelash at that sort of thing but I was secretly in shock that servants still existed.  I’m woefully uninformed about aristocracy.  Having grown up poor I resent the idea of a person being placed in the role of fulfilling the whims of someone just because they have money.  My wife has more of a fascination about this than I do, and she was recently reading a book about servants.  This post isn’t about domestics, however.  It’s about foreign gods.  In the book she was reading my wife noticed one of the servants writing that old-fashioned stoves were like Moloch.  Were it not for Sleepy Hollow, I suspect, many modern people wouldn’t know the name at all.  Who was Moloch?

Moloch, according to the Bible, was a “Canaanite” deity.  Specifically, he was a god that demanded child sacrifice.  The phrase the Good Book uses is that his worshippers made their children “pass through the fire” for Moloch.  Very little is known about this deity, and the question of human sacrifice is endlessly debated.  Theologically it makes sense, but practically it doesn’t.  Deities want servants and living bodies do that better than dead ones.  Although it’s been suggested that “passing through” could be a symbolic offering, by far the majority of scholars have taken this act as an actual sacrifice.  The ultimate servant is a dead servant.  Moloch, you see, comes from the same root as the word “king.”  And kings are fond of having many servants.

Image credit: Johann Lund, Wikimedia Commons

So how is a stove like Moloch?  The classic image of the god, which looks like a scene from The Wicker Man, holds the answer.  Well circulated since the early eighteenth century, this engraving has captured the imagination of modern people.  A massive, multi-chambered statue intended to consume by the raging fire in its belly.  This is the way in which a stove might resemble a Canaanite deity.  The servant who described cookware thus knew whereof she spoke.  Archaeological evidence for the “cult of Moloch” is slim.  It is almost certain that nothing like this fanciful image ever existed.  Moloch, in other words, lives in the imagination.  One aspect, however, rings true.  Like most tyrannical rulers the deity wants unquestioning obedience on the part of servants.  And this is a viewpoint not limited to deities.

Goddess Lore

From where I sit to write this blog in this particular season (when it’s too cold to sit in an unheated attic) I watch Venus rise in the eastern sky.  While it is still dark, I notice a bright yellow glow appearing over the top of a business located on the eastern side of the block.  It hovers there a moment before disappearing briefly behind various rooftop accoutrements of the building across the street, appearing again minutes later on the other side.  The planet rises rapidly before sunrise, and with the unnatural markers of human structures, it’s fairly simple to keep track of her progress with occasional glances out the window.  Venus is, as I’ve mentioned before, both the morning and evening “star” of antiquity.  We now know her identity as a planet rather than a goddess, but we’re becoming more attuned to planets’ roles as mothers, or at least we should be.

Some ancient peoples considered our own earth as a mother.  It is the womb in which we gestate as living beings.  Without the warmth she gives we could not survive, and even our forays into nearby space are possible only with the replication of her body heat through artificial means.  It may be metaphor, yes, but metaphors may be truer than bald statements of chemical compositions and mathematical formulas.  Scientist, politician, or theologian, none of us survive without our planetary nurture.  This thought is sobering in the light of government policies over the past two years, which have denied that human pillaging of nature is problematic.  The Republican Party, which collectively lacks respect for our earthly home, has followed thoughtlessly in the tracks of a man proud of his refusal to read.  And so I look to Venus.

Venus is beautiful.  We know, however, that her surface is hot enough to melt lead.  Soviet-era probes landed there and melted.  Planets, it seems, can unleash fury that mere humans can’t hope to withstand.  One of the forgotten graces of nature, it seems, is the warning sign.  Even as the rattlesnake warns before striking, our mother has been sending messages that we’ve been going too far.  Hurricanes are growing stronger and threaten to scour us off the very face of the land we disrespect and exploit.  Venus, it turns out, is too hot to handle.  Mars, whom the ancients feared for his propensity to irrational war, is too cold.  It’s difficult to imagine where politicians think we might go when our own mother turns us out.  I would invite them over to watch Venus perform her morning dance outside my window, but to see it you must first believe in goddesses.

Residual Thoughts

I feel compelled to say that this book was not among the overwritten tomes I mentioned in yesterday’s post.  Indeed, although the title reflects the outlook of the author, you need to get to the subtitle to find out what the book’s about.  Although I work at an academic press, I disagree with academic book pricing models.  Graham Twelftree’s previous book, Jesus the Exorcist, had to be picked up in a paperback reprint edition before it could be affordable to the likes of mere mortals.  After reading it I learned that Twelftree had written a more popular book on the topic—Christ Triumphant: Exorcism Then and Now.  Putting much of the material from the previous book in less technical terms, this version goes on to ask questions that can’t be put into a standard dissertation, such as “should exorcisms still be done?”

The academic is necessarily a skeptic.  One of the biggest problems our society faces is the open credulity of those who haven’t been taught to think critically.  Twelftree is a rare academic who keeps an open mind while approaching the material with a healthy skepticism.  Often it’s too easy to suggest that disregarding that which doesn’t fit a theory is the only way forward for an academic.  Sweeping off the table that which we don’t like.  The word Twelftree uses is “residue”—that which remains after the majority of possession cases have been explained medically.  The usual response is to disregard this small fraction of anomalous material and claim “case closed.”  In this book Twelftree dares to go further.

The supernatural has become an embarrassment for many, even in believing communities.  An interventionist god, or demons, would set off chain reactions that would distort the known laws of physics, so such things simply can’t exist.  Things which we can’t explain only exist because we haven’t got all the variables yet.  I recall how cold that made me feel when I first encountered the idea in physics class.  “Scientific determinism” it is sometimes called.  This little book rehearses the New Testament material covered in Twelftree’s dissertation, but goes on to raise the implications from that study and apply them to modern times.  It’s a brave thing to do in an academic world where brushes and brooms are very common.  Where residue is wiped up and tossed away without a second thought.  Those who stop to think through the implications are rare, which makes them so much the more interesting reading.  And not being from an academic press, such books are often  affordable.

Goblins out There

From Wikimedia Commons

You step away from the telescope for a few months and see what happens.  That may sound like a recipe for some kind of cosmic soup, but as we find ourselves so busy with earthly matters it’s hard to keep up with the heavenly.  I’ve just been reading about the discovery of “The Goblin”—appropriate as we tiptoe into October.  The Goblin is officially a dwarf planet named 2015TG387, which falls trippingly off the tongue.  For those of us who never even saw Pluto before it was demoted as a planet, the distance of this planetoid boggles the mind.  It also makes space feel somehow less empty.  In fact, our solar system’s much more crowded than it was when I took astronomy class in college.

The universe—space—is close kin to our ideas of religion.  “God,” however defined, is “up there.”  As Galileo encouraged telescopes turned outward we began to discover mundane, if complicated, ways of explaining the universe.  Nobody looked through the eyepiece and saw the deity waving back.  Space was cold, dark, and largely empty.  Then the idea eventually grew that it was full of dark matter which, like spiritual entities, can’t be seen.  Unlike spiritual entities, however, it can be hypothesized.  Calculated, even if not measured.  And since it isn’t supernatural, it’s just fine to keep in our cosmic soup.  The problem with any recipe, however, is that it seems that each time you make it the results are slightly different.

It’s somehow appropriate that our new space neighbor is called the Goblin.  The idea of a cosmos devoid of any intelligent life—supernatural or no—is somewhat scary.  Looking at the headlines of what we’re doing to one another down here, and nobody willing to take the reins of reason, we increasingly hope for something beyond mere nature in the cold, dark reaches above.  And that we’ve found such a thing as a goblin—a supernatural entity if there ever was one—is telling.  In fact, all our planets are named after gods.  We can blame the Greeks and Romans (and even the Mesopotamians) for that.  Still, the tradition continued onto the worlds they couldn’t see: Neptune and Uranus and, for a while, Pluto.  We can’t escape the idea that what’s up there is more powerful than our minuscule human troubles.  Our slowly eroding atmosphere is all that keeps us alive down here.  And now there’s a goblin circling all around us, so far away that few will ever even catch a glimpse.

Virgin-Haunted World

One of the most frequent accusations of “idolatry” I heard as a child was leveled at Roman Catholic devotion to the virgin Mary.  Lessons learned during childhood are difficult to displace, especially when they concern your eternal destination.  I overcame this particular objection, a bit, during my sojourn among the Episcopalians, but I have to confess I never felt right praying to Mary.  In my Protestant-steeped mind, there were two classes of entities involved: gods (of which, properly, there was only one) and human beings.  Only the former received prayers.  The rest of us simply had to contend with non-supernatural powers and do the best we could.  Still, I met many believers devoted to Mary, and honestly, some accounts of Marian apparitions are pretty impressive.

A local source for inexpensive advertising in our area is essentially a weekly set of want ads.  For a small fee you can advertise just about anything you want to buy or have to sell.  Spiritual or physical.  A few weeks ago, someone ran a magnanimous piece on a prayer to the virgin never known to fail.  The words of the prayer were printed, along with the instructions, for nothing is quite as simple as “ask and you shall receive.”  The prayer must be recited thrice, and thanksgiving publicly proclaimed.  A number of questions occurred to me, regarding not only this, but all prayers for divine action.  One is the rather simple query of how you can know if a prayer has never failed.  I suspect this is known by faith alone.

There are any number of things most of us would like to change about our lives, and the larger issue of prayer is the daisy-chaining of causality.  One change causes another, causes another, and often that for which we pray will impact another person in a negative way.  This is the classic “contradictory prayer” conundrum—one person prays for sunny skies while another prays for rain.  Neither is evil, both have their reasons, perhaps equally important.  (The weekday is a workday for many, and that’s non-negotiable in a capitalist society, so I suspect prayers for sunny skies tend to be weekend prayers, but still…)  The prayer never known to fail is either a rock or a hard place.  It’s that certitude that does it.  I don’t begrudge anyone a prayer that works.  Faith alone can test the results.  And although we could use a little less rain around here, we could all benefit from a little more faith, I suspect.  And for that there’s no fee.