Wild God

Living with a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich, is one of those books I wanted to put down gently after reading it, for fear that it might explode.  Or maybe it was my head I feared might combust.  Describing it is difficult because it is so wide-ranging.  On the one hand it is an atheist’s view of religion.  On the other hand it is a spiritual biography.  On a third hand it is coming to terms with having had a profound mystical experience.  It is one of those books where, knowing my life has been so very different, yet I feel that Ehrenreich and I have had so much in common that we’d be friends if we ever met.  It is also the work of a woman who is scary smart and whose teenage thoughts were so intense that my own seem puerile by comparison.

But that mystical experience!  I’ve had many of them in my life, but I don’t know you well enough to share them here.  They’ve been recorded in an unfinished book that I may or may not try to publish some day.  (Ehrenreich was smart and took a job as a journalist, which means others assume you know how to write.  Even those of us in publishing have trouble convincing agents and others who hold the keys to non-academic pricing that we understand the craft.)  Mysticism quickly becomes a staid discipline, not at all like the life-directing experiences such encounters themselves actually are.  It’s difficult to explain without sitting down and talking to you.  It’s something academics tend to avoid like Covid-19.

The books that mean most to me are like conversations with an absent author.  Drawn in by an openness, or perhaps by the fact that we’ve lived in a few of the same places over the years, perhaps passed one another unknowingly on the street, you feel that they’ve invited you into their very head.  What you find there has a strange similarity to what is in your own head, while being completely different at the same time.  We should all strive for such honesty in our writing.  In the end Ehrenreich, with a doctorate in science, suggests we need to be open.  That kind of validation is important for those of us who’ve poured our lives into the study of religion.  She was drawn in from atheism, and I have been trying to escape from literalism all my adult life.  We have ended up in places not dissimilar from each other and I’m glad to have met her through this profound book.

Watery

Having watched What the Bleep Do We Know? a few weeks ago, I became curious about Masaru Emoto’s The Hidden Messages in Water.  The book is highlighted in the film, and in a world where money decides truth, the fact that it was a New York Times bestseller must count for something, right?  I am of a skeptical bent, but I like to keep an open mind.  This itself is a delicate waltz at times since just about anybody can make truth claims and find a following.  Curiosity, as they say…  So instead of critiquing Emoto’s obviously slipshod methodology, I want to reflect on whether he really might have been onto something.  Many people around the world thought so, after all.

What it comes down to is water.  If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, I owe you a brief explanation.  Emoto suggests that water crystals reflect the influences to which they’re subjected.  For example, water frozen as classical music plays forms beautiful crystals.  If heavy metal is played, it doesn’t.  Water frozen in beautiful surroundings forms beautiful crystals.  If that’s not controversial enough, Emoto suggested that emotionally freighted words typed on paper wrapped around the water bottle as it was frozen would reflect the emotions on the paper.  There are lots of problems here, but what I wonder is if water might not somehow be related to consciousness.  Emoto makes that claim, but since science can’t yet explain consciousness there’s no way to test it.  Could it be that water is a recording medium in some way?  Without raising the woo factor too far, some ghost hunters (it is October, after all) suggest moving water has something to do with “recording” spirits.

Like most critical readers, I left Emoto’s book not at all convinced.  I also left thinking that we shouldn’t throw the bath water out with the baby.  There are crazy ideas in the book, for sure.  But there may also be just a hint of insight as well.  That insight comes in the recognition of spirituality as an important aspect of human life.  The book was a bestseller.  Not all people are credulous.  We are, however, spiritual.  Many deny it.  Some violently rail against it but still have feelings along with their rationality.  Water can lift spirits.  The negative ions of breaking water tend to make people feel at ease.  We visit the coast where waves break against beach or rocks.  We visit waterfalls where cascades scatter water particles.  Even a fast-flowing stream will do.  Emoto clearly went too far with his ideas, but I think, deep down, he might’ve been onto something.

Secretly

There are not too many books that I would call epiphanies.  I always lay down Jeffrey Kripal’s books with a sense of wonder and awe.  His Secret Body: Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions is one book I initially skipped over due (as usual) to not being able to afford even modest academic pricing.  (Hey, my books are even worse in that regard, so that’s not a criticism!)  I’ve met Kripal a few times and have had some conversations with him that always leave me feeling strangely empowered.  That’s the place this book left me.  I’m a slow reader and it isn’t a small tome, so it took me some time.  Also, I didn’t want to rush it.  Doing so would’ve been like trying to jog across a boulder field.  I hardly know where to begin.

Kripal is an historian of religions.  His own experiences in the academy are narrated in this book, so I urge the curious to look.  Many people who know me think that I’m a biblical scholar.  My training, however, is in history of religions.  It’s a fool’s errand to try to classify a doctorate, but my focus was on how ideas appeared in several ancient cultures, with no real expectation of evolution beyond what appeared later in time than something else.  As many who study ancient texts know, this translates to “biblical studies” in the academy and so for many years I taught Hebrew Bible.  Friends in the academy suggested I should shift my research to Bible (as I did in Weathering the Psalms) in order to get a solid placement in academe.  It backfired in my case.  This isn’t a pointless digression.

Secret Body is a trippy book.  It deserves to be read widely and engaged with by academics (among which I no longer count).  It is a ground plan for the study of our field.  Kripal understands, better than just about anyone, why religious studies is foundering.  He’s also brave enough to delve into the unspoken areas that we all know are terribly, terribly significant.  And he isn’t a materialist.  There’s much in this book to give the reader pause.  Indeed, it’s more than a stop sign on the superhighway of the academic business.  It’s the kind of book you need to keep at hand in case “the real world” gets you ensnared in its ropes and chains.  It makes me believe that I need to go back to school all over again.

Being Equal

With all that’s been happening lately—as 2020 shudders along—we find ourselves at the equinox.  For some of us the weather has already been unseasonably cool, feeling like mid-October rather than September.  It stands as a reminder that the wheel of nature continues to turn, despite human foibles and plans.  Some trees have begun to sense the change and have started their winter fast while others keep their green to suck the last possible sugar from the sun.  Days have been getting shorter since late June, of course, but now the drama will increase until the winter solstice has us in the dark for much of the time.  It all depends on where you live, but for me the temperate zones have always been home.

I suspect our various predilections toward the oughtness of the world depend in large measure on what we experienced in childhood.  I knew winter before I ever experienced summer and the transitional seasons have always been my favorites.  The idea that we can take more time and reflect, it seems to me, mirrors what happens in autumn.  It’s cooler, so we spend time indoors a bit more.  Some years that doesn’t kick in until later, when the heat is on and there’s a coziness to a house that’s been left to nature’s fever all summer.  Windows are shut and locked.  Artificial warmth reminds us that we can find some solace inside.  Meanwhile the trees show us the proper way to face harsh conditions, and yet half a year from now we’ll be eagerly watching for buds.  The Celts, temperate zone dwellers, thought of this change as the wheel of the year, slowly turning.

From where I sit in my study, with south and west-facing windows, I watch the path of the sun.  Having worked in a cubicle with no outside windows for years, I was always disoriented at the end of the day.  Now I can watch and begin to understand.  The difference is really striking if you have a single place from which to watch it unfold.  The sun is so much higher in the sky in July that it’s evident we’ve entered a new phase now.  Instead of being overhead at noon, the shining orb rolls more to the south, sending blinding rays directly through my window.  When it reaches the west (where it will, before long, sink before touching that window) I know the work day is over.  It’s no wonder our ancient ancestors kept this transition with holidays we’ve long sacrificed to capitalism.  I can still, however, see the changes and appreciate them for what they are.

Believing and Seeing

Our eyes locked for a moment.  He wasn’t ten feet away.  Of course, like all famous people he knew that his fans thought they knew him and hoped that he would know her or him.  This isn’t a particularly rare thing to happen in New York City, but the instance in my mind happened in Atlantic City after an Alice Cooper concert that I attended with my brother.  As kids we’d listened to Cooper with some avidity,  and even the concert itself was a somewhat intimate affair (we were both adults at the time).  An audience of hundreds instead of thousands, and many of the attendees about our age—that is to say, not young.  That meeting of the eyes, however, reinforced something I already knew.  Looking is more that your eyes receiving light particle-waves.  It is a connection.

Try this with your bestie—it can be your spouse, lover, or friend.  It especially works if you’ve known her or him for many years.  See how long you can go staring into each other’s eyes.  It’s not easy.  You start to feel that they can see your secrets: your fears and vulnerabilities.  You glance away.  Materialists claim that seeing is a simple matter of light entering our eyes and our brains interpreting it.  We all know, however, what it’s like to be stared at.  How uncomfortable it makes us feel.  We can often tell when someone’s staring at our backs.  I wonder if there’s more to seeing than appears?  Performers often crave the energy of being before thousands of eyes.  They know how it’s just not the same when you have to pretend.  I knew that well as a teacher.

Could seeing really go both ways?  Even animals don’t like to be stared at.  It’s an informal experiment I’ve tried while jogging.  If you break eye contact with a deer, cat, or rabbit, you can get fairly close.  If you stare, however, they dash away.  It doesn’t matter if you turn your head—it’s the eye contact.  I ponder how this relates to narcissists in power.  They crave the eyes on them.  The way to de-power them is to stop looking.  Alice Cooper, I’m certain, has no idea who I am.  He wouldn’t remember me if we ever met.  That night he was standing outside the door of the afterparty where those who’d paid extra could get to meet him.  We didn’t exchange a word, but we made a connection.  There’s more to seeing than meets the eye.

Learning To Fly

It’s perhaps the most deeply rooted human dream.  Flying.  Women Who Fly, by Serinity Young, is a fascinating book.  Subtitled Goddesses, Witches, Mystics, and Other Airborne Females, the book covers all of these and more.  The dream of flying is played out in many ways here, but often the narrative comes back to how patriarchy imprisons women.  Is it any wonder they want to fly?  Very wide in historical scope, the book can’t cover all cases in equal depth.  It nevertheless demonstrates how pervasive the idea is.  Beginning with ancient female figurines bearing bird-like features, Young moves through the related concepts of captivity, transcendence, sexuality, and immortality, showing how female characters are related to these idea in universal and unrelenting ways in the form of flying females.

There are many lenses through which to view patriarchy.  It can be explained as a consequence of settled agricultural existence with its subsequent division of labor.  Such a scenario raises questions of whether women dreamed of flight before that, and I believe the answer must be yes.  For as long as we’ve observed birds and associated the sky with gods we have longed for flight.  Although birds make it look easy, it is an incredibly difficult and costly adaptation.  Still, women dream of travel without obstacles (let the reader understand) to the realms where deities dwell.  It is difficult to summarize a book that covers so much historical territory.  Young doesn’t limit herself to western religions but also spends a fair bit of time among Buddhist, Hindu, and Daoist ideas of flying women.  She covers mythical, folkloristic, human, and historical flying females all the way up to modern astronauts.

As I was coming to the close of the book the real message hit me—I can be thick at times, although much of my own writing is metaphorical—men have actively tried to clip women’s wings for a long time.  Often under the auspices of religion.  Think of it: for centuries of existence the major monotheistic traditions have refused female leadership.  The one (inevitably male) god has set up a boys’ club of sacerdotal leadership.  As Young points out, even the named angels in the Bible are male.  I used to comfort myself with the explanation that male leaders were simply too self-centered to consider others, but it is becoming clearer, the more I read, that men have always had a tendency to try to keep women down.  And thus they fly.  There’s much in this book for both women and men to ponder.

Occam’s Disposable Razor

Since new books are kind of rare right now, I’m reading through some of those I’ve collected but haven’t actually read.  One is Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife, by John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin.  I bought the book because the topic, as addressed by a university press book, is interesting.  Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin approach the subject as philosophers.  Their main focus is on the widely accessible and successful books by Eben Alexander and Todd Burpo.  Also the somewhat less well known efforts of Jeffrey Long and Pim van Lommel.  (Instead of taking up blog space with all these titles, just email me if you’re curious, or read my Goodreads post.)  Applying standard scientific methods to spiritual experiences isn’t easy, and Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin are clear that they aren’t trying to take the value out of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), but rather they are challenging how these authors try to make them authentic.

Philosophers parse words finely.  The authors show that “real” is not the same thing as “authentic” and demonstrate how some of the more spectacular NDEs can possibly be explained by science.  Those who’d temporarily died might’ve caught onto things that happened just before or just after brain activity ceased or restarted, for example, and then misremembered them.  As a still-living guy who can’t remember where he left his wallet half the time, misremembering is an authentic reality.  Still, I couldn’t help but wonder.  Science and religion ask different questions.  One of the mainstays of scientific method is Occam’s Razor—the solution that requires the least mental gymnastics to explain something is the most likely to be true.  Many times this razor is flashed in the face of those trying to make a religious case for something.

Ironically, the authors here dismiss Occam’s Razor.  They state that sometimes the more complicated solution is the right one.  I happen to agree with them on this, but it proved a real distraction in reading the book.  Many scientists use the exact opposite argument against spiritual things.  It also struck me that a book so brief (less than 200 pages) would necessarily struggle to explain a complex phenomenon convincingly.  Trade books, such as those by Alexander and Burpo, aren’t meant to be held up to the stiff standards of peer review.  They are meant for selling lots of copies.  Their authors aren’t philosophers.  It’s almost a mismatch in categories.  Some academic presses are now publishing on NDEs and asking plenty of questions about them.  It’s no surprise that philosophers favoring physicalism would do the same.  It seems a little hairy, however, to do so with Occam left firmly in the shaving kit.

The New Light

Sometimes you meet kindred spirits in books.  Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark has been waiting patiently.  It’s one of those books that I suspected would meet me where I live, and regarding this I was correct.  Brown Taylor, a former Episcopal priest and professor of religion (both of which I attempted but failed to achieve), has the courage and insight to suggest that darkness might just be a friend.  The darker half of the year settled hard on me this year.  As its black wings gathered about me I reached for this book.  I’ve been struggling with a question I’m sometimes asked: why do I let my thoughts linger in what must be considered darker corners?  I watch horror and write books and stories about monsters.  What’s wrong with me anyway?

One accusation may be fairly leveled at much of American religion is that it is shallow.  Light is uncritically accepted as good and dark becomes somehow evil.  There are biblical prooftexts that can be used to “prove” this, but they change color when you wrestle with them.  Learning to Walk in the Dark contains many ways of reflecting on realities which are inevitable.  Brown Taylor visits museums that give the sighted the experience of being blind in a safe environment.  She spends time in caves.  She stretches out beneath the stars and contemplates the dark night of the soul as well as the cloud of unknowing.  These latter two are, of course, spiritual classics.  There’s quite a bit that can be learned from experiencing darkness and listening intently.

My own predilections toward subjects called “dark” are forms of therapy.  My religion simply can’t be shallow.  I need enough water to swim.  And yes, I’m afraid of deep water.  Darkness perhaps comes more naturally to those of us who are awake for every sunrise.  If I move far enough north that may cease to be the case, but for the last decade or so my internal alarm goes off a couple hours before the first sliver of light creeps over the eastern hills.  And I seem to have assimilated to it.  As I read Learning I could imagine the accusations flying from my former Nashotah House context.  Looking at that patriarchal theology of sin and misery, however, I think there’s no question whence true darkness comes.  Without the dark we could never tell that it was light.  Since we need both, it seems wise to follow the sage advice here offered and get to know the dusky side a bit more intimately.

Flipping

The mind-blowing book I mentioned last week is here unveiled.  I discovered Jeffrey Kripal’s work years ago, and have subsequently had a few conversations with him.  The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge is a challenging and necessary book.  In a way that only full-time academics can, Kripal examines the large picture.  When I say “large” I mean cosmic in scale.  He does so through the lens of the humanities and, especially, religious studies.  If anybody’s going to make religious studies cool, it is he.  The world is full of weird things.  If we’re honest most of us will admit to having had strange things happen to us.  Often we’ll filter them out or explain them away, but at other times we will stop, scratch our heads, and wonder what just went on.

The Flip is not a book of such anecdotes (and I, along with the author, am willing to take anecdotes seriously).  There is some strange stuff in here, but there is also a lot of science.  Historically the humanities, as understood by ancient Romans, included what we would call sciences.  Humanities, in other words, were attempts at understanding the world.  Today religious studies is among the humanities while science is separated out into STEM.  Kripal takes science seriously.  In fact, much of what he discusses here is the application of quantum physics to the macroscopic.  (I’m probably not explaining this well, but then, I guess you’ll have to read the book!)  In other words, science and the humanities need to come together again.  It’s not either/or, but both/and.

Holding out a hand across the aisle is uncomfortable.  Religion has done a great deal to disgrace itself of late, and it’s no wonder respectable folk want to keep their distance.  To understand what we are, however, requires a willingness to admit that humans are both deeply intellectually curious and deeply religiously inclined.  We can be both.  In fact, it is unlikely we can be any other way.  Anomalous occurrences aren’t generally welcome in religious studies any more than they are in the sciences.  That doesn’t stop strange stuff from happening.  This little book of big ideas uses that disjunction to lead the reader into spaces where the future might faintly be discerned.  Wide-ranging and provocative, this book needs to be read.  It is a strange world where two different approaches to knowledge so often decline to speak to one another.  Here they do, and their conversation is mind-blowing.

Book Magic

Something happens to you on a long bus ride, reading a mind-blowing book.  Part of the transport—literally—is that you’re captive for an hour or two and your book is your boon companion among snoring strangers.  Another aspect is the earliness of the hour.  Days like yesterday, when I have to commute to New York, involve awaking at 2:30 a.m.  The day is cast very differently when your timing shifts back by a few hours.  It’s almost mystical.  The largest portion of the transformative experience, however, is the book itself.  I’ve begun commutes with a book that I quickly realize is a mistake, but since I’m not a quitter, I soldier through it to the end anyway.  On yesterday’s commute the book was one of those that caught my imagination and flew it like a kite from the rear of the bus.  Arriving in Manhattan before six a.m. added to the feeling.  The city’s a very different place that time of day.

Not everyone enjoys reading, I realize.  My late stepfather once had a job as an elevator man.  Not the kind dressed in livery at a big-city hotel, but as an operator in an antiquated building in Oil City, Pennsylvania, where you had to pull the metal gateway  physically across the door and wait until the floor leveled before opening it again.  I didn’t get along with my stepfather, but one day I went to visit him in the elevator.  It wasn’t a busy building.  He sat on a stool, staring straight ahead.  For hours at a time.  Not a man prone to meditation, I knew he had to be bored.  I asked if I could bring him something to read, at least.  He declined for fear of missing someone’s call signal.  It was one of the most frightening scenarios I could imagine.

The clock in the Port Authority read 5:49 when we pulled in.  The day seemed full of possibilities.  I caught the 4:30 home, but the magic was gone.  The book had moved on to more technical things.  Traffic was bad, and there’s a world of difference between reading while the bus moves and trying to do so when it’s caught in traffic.  The commute out of New York City is normally a nightmare, and yesterday traffic didn’t flow freely until we were nearly through New Jersey.  My book was still my companion, but rather more like when a conversation ebbs after an intense discussion.  There was the worry of getting home, taking out the garbage, and trying to stay awake until a reasonable hour.  The book would still be there tomorrow, but I wouldn’t be the same.

The Holy

It’s perfectly natural.  Trying to make sense of things, I mean.  It’s been a little difficult in America for the past three years or so, given that nothing seems to add up beyond greed and narcissism supported by a senate majority.  Still, as I retreat into my horror films I realize that there’s a logic to it.  Over the past several months I’ve been attempting to articulate it.  You see, I have a couple of presentations to give on Holy Horror in October and one of the questions likely to arise is why.  Why bring together the sacred and the scary?  Those who’ve studied religion formally—and many who’ve not—are aware of Rudolf Otto’s classic The Idea of the Holy.  It’s outdated and I’ve been waiting for someone to write its replacement, but we’re past the era when one scholar corners the market.  Has nothing new emerged this past century?  Nevertheless, Otto’s main ideas still make sense, before he lapses into a Christocentric view.

Mysterium tremendum et fascinans isn’t an incantation, but with a little imagination the Latin makes sense.  The holy, according to Otto is a mystery that is both terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating.  To the laity in the pews this may be strange, but chances are pretty good that your minister has read this book.  In the monotheistic west, the divine is terrifying.  It’s not splitting hairs to suggest terror and horror differ, nor is it unreasonable to suggest they have much in common.  Horror seems more embodied—a working-class variety of terror.  Still, both have that element of fascinans.  We fear but we can’t look away.  I don’t have the time to sit and ponder that a Gilded Age academic had.  Otto didn’t have to keep up with Facebook and Twitter.

Although academia required far more than eight hour days, the time during those days wasn’t spent “on the clock.”  As one intellectual I admire once quipped, staring out the window is work.  Not as far as HR is concerned, however.  Productivity in an industry under stress is its own kind of mysterium tremendum, I guess.  It doesn’t really allow for unstructured hours to read, take notes, close your eyes, and read some more.  Work measures inspiration in terms of currency, which is one of the problems that stretches past beyond these last three years.  Struggling hard with an idea is like wrestling an angel until dawn.  You can’t win, and you can’t lose.  But when the sun clears the horizon it will be time to be at your desk and ideas will have to wait another day.

Digging Well

Having spent a good bit of the past week in waiting rooms in Ithaca, I fell to reading Tompkins Weekly, the free local community paper.  If you’ve spent any time on this blog you’re no doubt aware that I have an interest in the weird and unusual.  Although I got teased rather mercilessly for this as a kid, thanks to The X-Files such interest has become somewhat mainstream.  In any case, after fumbling with the crossword and finishing the sudoku, I read an article about dowsing.  Now Tompkins County is the home of both Cornell University and Ithaca College, so I was a little surprised in finding such a topic addressed at all.  What’s more, the usual ridicule expected with anything even approaching the paranormal was lacking.

Dowsing is the practice of finding water, or other underground resources, by using a crotched stick or dowsing rods.  A larger version of the quantum “spooky action at a distance,” dowsing is said to produce an effect on the twig or rods that will point to the hidden source.  Like ESP it is decried by mainstream science yet used by some governments when other methods fail.  As an example of “folk wisdom” dowsing occupies a similar, if less conventional, space to religion.  Scientism has taught us not to trust the invisible.  Scientists, however, are well aware that we can’t see everything.  We slide a finger around our collar, however, when something “unscientific” seems to work.  As the dowsers explain, however, there is a kind of science to what they do.  Problem is it doesn’t work for everyone.  Only some people can do it.

Now I’m not a credulous person.  I spent many years and even more dollars learning how to be a critical thinker.  Skepticism, however, leads me to ask how we know that dowsing can’t possibly work.  Have we discovered all there is to know in this infinite but expanding universe?  With finite minds it seems highly unlikely.  Duke and Princeton Universities once studied parapsychology in an academic setting, and the University of Virginia has left some related areas open to investigation.  The real problem is that we’ve been taught to laugh at anything we’re told to.  The US Navy, for instance, has recently revealed that it takes UFO reports seriously (unlike Project Bluebook).  We’ve been laughing so long it’s difficult to take even the military at face value.   Does dowsing work?  It’s difficult to say without all the facts.  Of course, I’ve been sitting in a waiting room, pondering what we don’t understand.

Mother of Stone

One thing we all have in common is mothers.  Whether it’s the mysteries of biology or something more spiritual than that, the connection lasts forever.  The thought occurred to me yesterday as we visited Columcille, one of those places that reflects a vision for a piece of land that transforms the ordinary into sacred.  Columcille Megalith Park is inspired by the standing stones of Celtic lands.  Open to the public for a suggested donation, the park consists of a stone circle and several menhirs (megaliths) arranged along paths through the woods.  Recognized by the Nature Conservancy as a sacred space and outdoor sanctuary, it draws thousands of visitors of all faiths with both recreational and religious rationales.  Throughout the park we found evidence of spiritual interaction with nature left on or near the stones.  But what has this to do with mothers?

One of the areas in the park is the Sacred Women’s Site.  As we lingered there yesterday, I reflected on the sacred nature of all women, and mothers.  That’s not to suggest that motherhood is for all women, but rather that our society has been slow to catch up with the idea that women show us the way.  Men have “had charge” for millennia now and look at where we are; cooperative ventures and peacekeeping efforts crumble as world leaders encourage the resurgence of exceptionalism.  We’d rather have an inveterate liar lead the nation than a politically able woman.  Britain wants to pick up its marbles and let the European Union disintegrate.  We seem to have forgotten that just a century ago a world war ended.  We need sacred spaces like Columcille.  We need to remember the sacred women.

One takeaway from our brief visit was that although there was also a grove for sacred men, that of the women was more peaceful.  The idea of standing stones making a site sacred goes back at least to the Bible.  Stone circles are found from ancient Israel to the far-flung Orkney Islands of Scotland.  Standing among them, whether modern like Columcille or ancient like the Ring of Brodgar, or yes, the more famous Stonehenge, there is a sense of sacred purpose.  Miles from Stonehenge stands Avebury, a town built around another stone circle.  There the megaliths were divided between female and male stones, with both required to make the ring complete.  Such places require a tremendous amount of work.  When they’re constructed, however, they give us places to think of mothers and the mystery of life.

Mystic Connections

Those of us who find rationalism a bit too constricting sometimes find solace in mysticism.  My reading of late, which is mostly research for Nightmares with the Bible, frequently touches on mystics of the past.  This isn’t a new fascination.  All the way back in college, as a religion major, I mentioned to one of my professors that I found it appealing.  A frown settled across his academic face.  “Mysticism is dangerous,” he said.  He went on to explain that churches (he was Presbyterian, and I Methodist) had belief systems into which mystics—those who experience the divine directly—didn’t fit.  A direct experience of the divine could cast doubt on church doctrine and nothing, as you might guess, is more important to true believers than dogma.

That discussion at such an impressionable age set me aback.  Here as we enter (for the non-orthodox) the Triduum, or “Great Three Days” the faithful are hoping for some kind of divine experience, I expect.  Many of us will spend two-thirds of it working.  In any case, if nothing mystical happens why do we bother?  Mysticism is equally deplored by science since it suggests something that doesn’t fit into rationalism’s toy box.  A universe where the unexplained—and oh so subjective!—direct experience with naked reality threatens to undo all the neat columns and tidy formulas that describe the entirety of existence.  Conventional churches tend to agree because you never know what God might do if you open that box.

There are religions that welcome mysticism.  They recognize that human-built systems are only approximations—Platonic shadows, if you will, cast upon the cave wall.  Mystics are those who, temporarily unchained, dare to turn around and face the fire directly.  Who knows?  They might even catch a glimpse of the sun itself.  More conventional religions are run like businesses.  You come to a certain building at a certain time.  You perform prescribed actions on cue.  You place your money in this specific receptacle at this specific time.  Leave and forget it all until next week.  Our younger generations don’t find this engaging, just as they see through the lie of the inherent fairness of capitalism.  I can still see the frown of my theology professor.  The old systems are falling apart even as those not too weary after work will head to Maundy Thursday services for a slip of bread and a sip of wine.  The mystic, however, doesn’t know what might happen next.

Not-Quite-Normal Religion

I’ve been thinking about categories quite a lot lately.  In a world connected by the internet, it seems that traditional categories don’t stretch far enough.  For example, I recently read The Paranormal and Popular Culture: A Postmodern Religious Landscape, edited by Darryl Caterine and John W. Morehead.  Published by Routledge, this is an academic study.  It contains some things, however, that many academics would find challenging.  I can’t summarize the entire book here since there are twenty very different essays included, but I can say this is a book that makes you think about categories.  Even the word “paranormal” means different things to different people.  To my way of thinking it has to tip the hat to Rod Serling and that place where fiction and fact begin to overlap.

That’s appropriate for this book: there are articles about what people perceive as factual encounters with all kinds of creatures and events, as well as studies of the decidedly fictional beings like Batman and zombies.  Our categories, in the modern world, tend to be inviolable.  Even scientists who handle Heisenberg know, however, that we are now in the postmodern world (as the subtitle indicates) and true objectivity is beyond the reach of all.  None of us stands outside the box looking in.  We’re all in the middle of it, and we look around ourselves trying to figure out what is real.  Another problematic category that, reality.  We don’t even understand what consciousness is yet, and how can we hope to know what is really real?  We all have dreams and some take them more seriously than others.

Reading books like this with an open mind is a truly po-mo experience.  After finishing more than one piece I found myself having to put the book down for a while at least so I’d have a hand free to scratch my head.  You see, we’ve been taught to laugh at those who believe in the paranormal.  It has been the only acceptable way that rationalists can deal with that which flies in the face of the system.  The internet, however, has put those isolated, ridiculed individuals into a community and the advent of reality TV (and what can be more real than what we see on the tube?) erodes the laughter factor little by little.  Plumbers can find ghosts but scientists can’t.  The average person relates more to the plumber, I think.  It all comes down to categories.  Making sense of them can, and will, impact our views of reality.