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.