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Fair Weather

“I just saw God up on your ridge.”  (Kudos to anyone who can name the source of that quote!)  Many years ago I read Stewart Guthrie’s remarkable Faces in the Clouds.  The idea that he presents is that pareidolia—seeing faces or people where they don’t actually exist—may account for the belief in God.  Early people, not knowing any way to interpret such obvious examples of humans writ everywhere thought they were gods or spirits.  Since reading this book, I’ve taken to trying to capture incidents of pareidolia where I can.  The other day as I was working away in my home office, I noticed a literal face in the clouds.  I thought “I just saw God outside my window.”

Now I know this isn’t really what I saw.  I know matrixing (mistaking noise for signal) when I experience it.  I hope.  Nevertheless, the resemblance was detailed—brow ridge, nose, distinct lips, chin.  The lighting in the fair weather cumulus will likely make this difficult for you to make out, and you might see a face other than the one I saw.  Not everyone thinks of the Almighty in the same way.  Looking at the picture I snapped I can see at least two faces stacked on top of one another—the council of the gods?  Who am I to tell deities what they can or can’t do?   Or to prevent imagination from going where it will?  Religion seems to be an evolved characteristic of our biological makeup—our eyes show us what to believe about the world around us.  The rest is hermeneutics.

Gods and the skies naturally go together.  We can’t reach the heavens nor can we control them.  We can increase greenhouse gases in them, though, threatening the very illusion we see in the clouds.  The glimpse of the divine we once saw there can easily dissolve into acid rain.  Heaven and Hell, according to the story of Dives and Lazarus, aren’t very far apart.  Even as we gaze into the cerulean sky seeking serenity, others are bending laws to allow them to destroy it for profit.  There’s a reason Dives is simply called “the rich man.”  Does Scripture defend the practice of environmental destruction?  Dives’ friends claim the planet was given to us to use and use up and Jesus will swoop out of those clouds we’re manipulating at the last minute and rescue us from the mess we’ve made.  Looking into God’s face in the clouds, I interpret this all as a mere excuse.  To destroy the environment is to side with Dives as he makes his flaming bed of nails in Hell. This is why windows in an office are divine.

Starting Something

Starting your own religion, I’m told, just takes patience.  You may have to die before it gets off the ground,  but if it’s a religion you’re starting you get to make the rules.  Well, until somebody else starts interpreting what you wrote.  I grew up thinking a religion had to be ancient to be real.  There’s a certain comfort in untestablity—you can’t verify the facts, so you accept them.  It took many years before it dawned on me that new religions rely on the same premises as old: someone has received the truth (at last!) and is willing to share it with the world.  Followers emerge—true believers.  And then they begin to change things.  “The founder meant this,” they argue, and really they’re starting their own sub-branch of the religion.

Not everyone is convinced by this ancient religion paradigm.  Zarathustra, for example, set out to create his own religion, according to tradition.  Jesus, it seems, was trying to reform Judaism.  The process never stops.  A couple of weeks ago in New York City I saw an adherent of a New Religious Movement.  This one had started in the 1930s.  The man appeared a little older than me, so his life may well have overlapped with that of the founder, or they might’ve missed each other by a decade or two.  Already, however, the religion had grown into its own entity, and it doesn’t seem to worry adherents that the truth was being revealed, for the first time, maybe in their lifetime.  You have to start somewhere.

So, if I were to start a new religion, what would it be?  For a variety of reasons I think I’d call it Moby.  The connection with Melville is palpable, but that wouldn’t be the reason for the name.  (Religions must have a sense of mystery, otherwise they can be analyzed until they look illogical.)  Like Unitarian Universalists, I think the religion would be more about what you value than what you believe.  Belief can be shifting sands.  New information can lead to new results—this is one of the weaknesses of religions developed when the earth was still the center of the universe.  Heaven is now outer space and Hell is earth’s iron core.  Moby would avoid such a doctrinal morass by not having doctrine.  It would need rituals and ceremonies, of course—no matter what Mr. Spock wannabes say, we need emotional engagement and ritual has the goods.  All of this requires patience, because who has the time to develop a new religion when there are only two days in a weekend?

Not Final Words

When death’s not the final word, it’s hard to argue.  This is such a basic level of disagreement between religions and culture that it may be impossible to avoid conflict.  Not that I condone it, but a couple in Oregon, members of the Followers of Christ Church, let their newborn die rather than seek medical attention, according to a Washington Post article.  I have to admit that the Followers of Christ is a sect of which I’d never heard—there are thousands of such groups—but I’m guessing that at the base of their refusal to seek help was a deeply held belief in the afterlife.  Almost impossible to comprehend unless you’ve accepted it profoundly yourself, this single teaching is a game changer.  The child who dies, although tragic from our perspective, has not, in the eyes of a religion transcending death, lost anything.

It’s sometimes difficult for us to to realize just how radical a teaching Christianity was in its early days.  The myth of the martyrs may well have been overblown, but the fact is here was a sect that didn’t fear death like the vast majority of people do.  Resurrection is a powerful concept.  Those who truly believe in it have nothing to fear.  Modern-day sects that take this seriously may respond quite differently to crises than “normal” religions.  In a situation Niebuhr would’ve recognized, this “Christ against culture” outlook is never easily resolved.  True believers will accept punishment on the part of secular authorities as a form of martyrdom.  The fear of death on the part of the vast majority of people outweighs, I suspect, professed belief in the afterlife.

Place the current political climate into the mix and the colors will become even more vivid.  Extremism is the flavor of the day.  Mainstream Christianity, for all of its problems, has sought a balance between accepting the benefits of medical science—the social acknowledgment that taking an infant’s life is inherently unfair and unjust—and an official belief in an afterlife.  It allows for a fairly comfortable existence of accepting belief without becoming the radical threat to a materialistic society that more extreme sects represent.  In a nation where no controls exist because of the power of office favors those who believe in nothing so much as themselves, and even the rhetoric of right to life becomes meaningless.  Sects and violence, to go back to my roots, sleep peacefully side by side.  And when awakened, the right to be conceived can’t be extended to life beyond the womb for those who believe death’s not the final word.

Not Quite Eschatology

Realized eschatology, if you’ll pardon my French, is a term that describes the “already/not yet” aspect of the “end of the world.”  In other words, some theologians suggest that the eschaton—the end—has elements of both the present and the future in it.  The term came back to me yesterday as we returned to our old apartment to take care of things the movers left behind.  (And “left behind,” I realize, isn’t really a biblical eschatological concept at all.)  Joined by our daughter, I felt a bit resentful of her time being taken from our new home to spend in the old.  I felt an almost adulterous desire to leave the old and cleave to the new—hadn’t we already paid, and overpaid, for that apartment many times over?  The house, on the other hand, is new (to us) and still requires much attention.

As we organized the remaining items, broke down boxes we didn’t use this time around, and waited for the Got Junk guys to arrive and haul it away, I noticed our daughter gazing wistfully at the empty space that had once had our imprint all over it.  It dawned on me that she’d spent her teenage years here—after the Nashotah House debacle, this was the place she’d lived the longest.  This empty apartment was, for her, home.  I began to feel insensitive about my earlier anxiety to leave.  We all live between at least two worlds—our pasts make us who we are in the present.  The world of our teenage years is fraught with emotion and memory.  The world looked so different at that time, as I sometimes forget.

Moving is one of the most stressful situations human beings encounter.  We have a love/hate relationship with our past.  To me the apartment represented a place we occupied out of a kind of desperation.  Five states to the west, we had to move to New Jersey with little money and tons of boxes—one of them Pandora’s, with hope nestled inside.  We told ourselves the apartment was temporary—maybe a year—only until we could buy a house.  Twelve months turned into a decade, then more, with each year accreting memories in every crack and corner.  Part of us will always be in that apartment, for every place people have lived before is haunted.  On our way back to our new home at the end of the day, we were each lost in our thoughts.  Perhaps not so much realized eschatology as experienced reality, we’d spent a day in a present that will never fully arrive.

Awakening

Waking up for the first time in our new place, I felt a strange relief.   I hadn’t realized how much you feel owned when you have a landlord.  Slipping out of the bed while it’s still dark, vague shapes that eventually resolve into unpacked boxes lurk in the shadows.  They mean me no harm.  I go downstairs.  Downstairs!  Without revealing too much personal information here, I can say that I’ve always believed in sleeping upstairs.  In our several apartments my wife and I have lived on one floor.  Going to sleep meant walking down the hall into another room.  It lacked proper transition.  When we looked at houses it took some time before I could put my finger on it—we needed a two-story house.  You go “up to bed” for a reason.

The thing about writing is that it’s an activity of habit.  Not aware of the location of light switches yet, I shuffle slowly through my own personal towers of Babel.  Find the coffee maker.  Where do I go to write?  Not wanting to wake my wife, I decide it should be downstairs.  There’s the study, with its desk.  Seems pretty obvious.  Mug in hand, with no lights on, instinct drives me back to my usual chair in the living room.  Habits are seldom planned.  They happen.  I’ve become used to writing electronically, but as I wanted badly to explain to the movers, I grew up writing on paper.  Writers are readers and there are two things you don’t throw away—books and your old writings.  Carpenters don’t ditch saws and hammers just because they’re heavy and numerous.  There’s a kind of religious devotion here.

Don’t worry, I’ll soon be back to my more abstract topics on this blog.  Religion and all that.  Right now I’m in a transition and I’m wondering that if that means I’m now officially grown up.  If so, does that mean abandoning my childhood dream of being a writer and facing the fact that all these boxes were moved in vain?  Not having food in our new place, our first day we went to a Chinese restaurant for lunch.  The locals were talking.  Their concerns?  Lawn care and propane.  Everyday things.  Clean-cut and suntanned, they can tell at a glance that I’m a stranger with my unkempt hair and prophetic beard.  Is my writing fantasy just childhood gone to seed?  No.  Books and writings are my identity.  The movers may have mixed them in with saucepans and power tools, but I know at a glance which boxes contain books.  Soon they will be in every room of this house.  That will make anywhere feel like home, even if I can’t find the lights.  

Bitten by Religion

The Essex Serpent isn’t what it appears to be.  Sarah Perry’s debut American novel (although it’s her second elsewhere, publishing being the strange beast that it is) was much anticipated.  Like the serpent itself, the novel is difficult to describe.  It comes down to a minister, a widow, and the people with whom they associate.  Instead of going through the complex storyline, I would instead note that once again a novel that explores religion has garnered quite a lot of attention.  It’s difficult to believe the official narrative that we’re constantly fed that religion is well beyond its expiration date when it continues to appear in print media as a prime motivator for people in all kinds of situations.  Novels, however, aren’t popular in the way television, movies, and video games are, so this is worth pondering.

While novels are sometimes disparaged in higher education, their clientele tends to be an educated one.  It takes more commitment to sit down and read a 400-page tome than it does to flip on some device and meander from app to app, channel to channel, or website to website.  Novel reading takes some concentrated effort.  Remembering characters and connections across a span of days or weeks as you wend your way through.  And one thing novelists do, at least in my experience, is explore the way religion makes us who we are.  I don’t choose novels for that reason; I thought The Essex Serpent would be a monster story (remember, I don’t read reviews before reading the book).

My guess is that if you read this blog you’re a potential reader of novels like this, so I won’t offer any spoilers.  The book is suffused with biblical language, as befits a story with a clergyman as a major character.  The protagonist, however, is an irreligious widow on a journey of self-discovery.  Having been dominated by a wealthy husband, she now explores paleontology in a Victorian context.  Although the year is never stated, the novel manages to find that Gothic near-ghost-story feel with the close interplay of death by consumption and fear of the dark.  It’s not a scary book by any means, although there’s plenty of mist in Essex, and a little gruesome detail of what people can do to each other.  The novel caught my attention via reviews I never read and has left me pondering what I’ve just experienced.  And it has reinforced my conviction that, despite what the critics may say, religion is what motivates us, whether we admit it or not.  And serpents may not be what they seem.

Paranormal Pilgrimages

Although the Allegheny Mountains are hardly the Rockies—they’re much older and gentler on the eye—they harbor many tourist locations.  Even before my daughter attended Binghamton University, I’d been drawn to the natural beauty of upstate New York.  Prior to when college changed everything, we used to take two family car trips a year, predictably on Memorial and Labor day weekends, when the weather wasn’t extreme and you had a day off work to put on a few miles.  One year we decided to go to Sam’s Point Preserve (actually part of Minnewaska State Park) near Cragsmoor, New York.  It features panoramic views, a few ice caves, and, as we learned, huckleberries.  What my innocent family didn’t suspect is that I’d been inspired to this location suggestion by the proximity of Pine Bush.

A friend just pointed me to an article on Smithsonian.com by my colleague Joseph Laycock.  Titled “A Search for Mysteries and Monsters in Small Town America,” Laycock’s article discusses how monster pilgrimages share features with nascent religion.  People report strange encounters with all kinds of creatures and objects, and science routinely dismisses them.  Odd encounters, however, leave lasting impressions—you probably remember the weird things that have happened to you better than the ordinary—and many towns establish festivals or businesses associated with these paranormal events.  Laycock has a solid record of publishing academic books on such things and this article was a fun and thoughtful piece.  But what has it to do with Pine Bush?

Although it’s now been removed from the town’s Wikipedia page, in the mid 1980s through the ‘90s Pine Bush was one of the UFO hot spots of America.  Almost nightly sightings were recorded, and the paranormal pilgrims grew so intense that local police began enforcing parking violations on rural roads where people had come to see something extraordinary.  By the time we got to Pine Bush, however, the phenomena had faded.  There was still a UFO café, but no sign of the pilgrims.  I can’t stay up too late any more, so if something flew overhead that night, I wasn’t awake to see it.  Like Dr. Laycock, I travel to such places with a sense of wonder.  I may not see anything, but something strange passed this way and I want to be where it happened.  This is the dynamic of pilgrimage.  Nearly all religions recognize the validity of the practice.  It has long been my contention, frequently spelled out on this blog, that monsters are religious creatures.  They bring the supernatural back to a dull, capitalist, materialistic world.  And for that we should be grateful.   Even if it’s a little strange.