Category Archives: Religious Origins

Posts that consider the origins of religious phenomena

Creative Religion

If you ignore common sense and read this blog, you know that I try to be creative in my approach to the world. It’s bold, in my way of thinking, to claim the mantle of creativity since there are so many people out there that the world has already decided are creative enough, thank you. Who has time to visit all the world’s museums, read all the world’s novels, or watch all the world’s films? Why contribute to the clutter? The answer—in as far as there is an answer—is that creativity is a way of being. My wife sent me a piece by Maria Popova from Brain Pickings. It is about the creative life. I’m reluctant to claim the title for myself, but the essay does match the description of what I’d like life to be.

Writing about religion daily requires a certain amount of creativity. If you think about it, it does make sense. Religion deals with intangibles. “Things not seen.” It also delves into that deep place called meaning and wrestles with issues we all have to face in our lives. It’s really a shame when religion becomes ossified into a system with no creativity or humor. One might make the case that it ceases to be religion then. The other day I was recalling just how powerful a high mass can be. Even now, if the mood is right, the memory of my first experience of it can bring tears to my eyes. It is a pageant of mystery and power. And creativity. The colors, the sounds, the scent of incense, the pressure of the kneeler on your knees, the sharp bite of flame tokay. It may not be the worship the way the disciples did it, but it sure has a creative genius.

When, however, worship became a daily requirement—when the majesty became mandatory—something was lost. Creativity means being willing to try something different. As much as we creative types cherish our friends, we need time alone with our Muses. And when we come back together with those friends, it is all the more pleasant for having been away. Creative people do not control their creativity. It clearly works the other way around. We can’t stop being creative, even if—and I can’t imagine why—we’d ever want not to be. Religion, on the other hand, tends to get stuck in some awkward places. If only it could be brought together with an open creativity without becoming trite it might find a place in a world too busy to take time simply to be.

New Religious—Bang!

Religion, no matter what the skeptics say, gives us something to believe in. Even those who claim no religion believe in their non-religion. We can’t escape belief. It’s no surprise, then, that new religions constantly emerge. As people find new things—or events—meaningful, and they come together around the phenomenon or episode, a religion eventually emerges. Take the example of the Chelyabinsk meteorite. On February 15, 2013 a resounding explosion rocked Chelyabinsk. What was likely a former asteroid had headed for Russia (which they seem to prefer almost as much as Donald Trump) and became a meteoroid (the name for meteors while they’re still in outer space). Once it entered the earth’s atmosphere and became a meteor proper, it superheated and exploded in the sky—a phenomenon known as a bolide. For those of us who’ve experience them, bolides are unforgettable. Once the pieces of the exploded meteor hit the earth they became meteorites.

Image credit: NASA/ESA, public domain

Meteors are an everyday occurrence. Any time you see a shooting star—which you can do any clear night—you’ve seen one. Large, exploding meteors are rare. Shortly after the Chelyabinsk meteorite fell, according to Astro Bob, the Church of the Chelyabinsk Meteorite formed. This group did not wish for the main body of the surviving meteorite to be raised from Lake Chebarkul, where it fell. Their protests became religious as they chanted, prayed, and sang. A new, if temporary, religion was born. Astro Bob goes on to say that religions and meteorites are no strangers. Indeed, up until the Middle Ages and even a little beyond, it was believed that rocks could not fall from the sky. A meteorite, then, was a sign from either God or, well, you know who. When the impossible happens religions are quick to follow. Astro Bob’s story was written in 2013, so he doesn’t declare the fate of the Church. The meteorite was raised from the bottom of the lake in October of that year.

New Year’s Day in 1987, while I was home from seminary on break, putting a puzzle together with my brother, our house shook. A loud boom accompanied the shock wave. We ran outside to find the neighbors staring at the sky, and a few casting a wary glance toward the petroleum refinery in town. The news later that day told us a bolide had exploded nowhere very near us. We were within the shock wave, and those fortunate enough to be outside that January saw a flaming meteor in the daytime sky. I remember it well thirty years later. I already had a religion at the time (Methodism, starting to tend toward Episcopalianism) so my plate was already full. It was nevertheless a dramatic event, and when your world is literally shaken, you will naturally look for something to believe.

On Jordan’s Stormy Bank

All you have to do is spit in the cup. Well, you have to do it quite a few times, but that’s the basic idea. Then you send the contents to a religiously motivated lab and your genetic ancestry will be emailed back to you. (There will be a fee involved, of course.) Genetics, a science of which Darwin didn’t have the benefit, is capable of mapping out where various “races” originated and ended up. Enter the Bible. One of the most disputed groups among scholars of the ancient Near East is the Canaanites. There was, as far as we can tell, no “nation” called “Canaan.” No people called themselves “Canaanites” but the term was used by others to designate them. Yahweh had a vendetta against them and ordered them wiped out. And, according to parts of the Bible, the Israelites acquiesced. So where are the Canaanites?

Image credit: http://maps.bpl.org, via Wikipedia Commons

According to a Washington Post article by Ben Guarino, DNA sequencing has revealed that they’re still there. This should come as no surprise to most anthropologists. Racial purity is always partially a myth, since “race” is no barrier to love. Or at least lust. And genetic traits don’t lie. Tracing ancient DNA from “Canaanite” (I’m getting myself scared using all these scare quotes) burials, scientists have discovered the biblical nemesis still survives in abundance, especially in Lebanon. Interestingly, on a cultural level, there is no distinction between Israelite and Canaanite. They are virtually identical. This creates one of the many embarrassments for biblical scholars, since the differences should be more than just skin deep. As with so many cases of racial distinction, the reality is mostly imagination.

Literalists, of course, have been in a rear-guard position for well over a century now, so the news should cause minimal shock. The problem will be keeping them from finding new excuses to carry out an extinct mandate. Biblical scholars, that heathenish race, long ago capitulated with the enemy. You’d expect no less from those who would dare use reason when approaching Holy Writ. It’s the real-world application that’s a problem. What do you do when the biblical enemy is found, hiding in plain sight like a purloined Lebanon? The solution might be as old as the story itself. Darwin didn’t have genetics, but he did have the Bible. The issue in the nineteenth century was what to reject when worldviews clashed. The answer was to jettison the godless science. We can only hope that this time-honored technique will prevent future crusades fomented by scientific discovery.

Big Shoes

Belief in the supernatural seems to be alive here in the northwest. At least if the culture at Sea-Tac Airport is anything to go by. I’d noticed, last year, that a sasquatch graces a restaurant in the N terminal, where jets from Newark tend to land. This year we had a bit of a layover, so we strolled through the C concourse. There I found sasquatch approved salmon in the somewhat anomalous Hudson News. Then, as I sat in one of the stylish, Seattle seats, a young woman came up next to us and sat down wearing a Sasquatch Volleyball shirt. I’m past the age when I can get away with innocently asking young ladies if I can take a photo of their shirts, so you’ll just have to use your imagination for the latter. The point is, bigfoot has been mainstreamed.

When I was growing up you got pretty mercilessly teased if you expressed any interest in such things. Now that I’ve got a respectable career others can get away with what captured my imagination as a young man. I’ve never thought of myself as being ahead of the curve. Or really ahead of anything, for that matter. Still, I trust my instincts. Maybe religion will come back into vogue some day. Or maybe it will simply be called something else. A tainted name is difficult to live down. The supernatural—or paranormal—often shares conceptual territory with religion, and although the pews aren’t getting any fuller, the number of those looking for some kind of meaning in the unusual seems to be holding steady. Physics can take us only so far in understanding what it is to be human.

Times change. Yesterday’s jokes are today’s orthodoxies. Those who spend a great deal of time peering back into history won’t be surprised by this. What is true today is true for today. New facts will be discovered and if we lived long enough we’d find that the future world will believe quite differently than we do. Not that the truth is relative. It is, however, temporary. Massive religious wars have been fought over trying to keep truths timeless. The sad irony is that the truths had already changed by the time such wars had been waged. The more rational we become, it seems, the more we open the door for the supernatural. I won’t presume to be one declaring such truth. That would take more weight than I have to offer. And anyone making such a claim would have some awfully big shoes to fill.

Sky Blue

How do you capture a true and abiding fascination in words? That’s a thought that comes to me once in a while when I think about the sky. It’s so hard to define, yet it’s always there. To quote myself: “To understand the weather is somehow to glimpse the divine” (used with permission). I waited for The Imagined Sky: Cultural Perspectives, edited by Darrelyn Gunzburg, for years. I think I first saw an ad for the book two years in advance of publication (yes, scholarly presses can do stuff like that). I kept stopping by the Equinox booth at AAR/SBL to see if it was available. It was the same kind of drive that led me to write Weathering the Psalms. That hope of grasping the intangible. To hold the sky itself. One of my early creative writing club stories was about a boy who wanted the sky. I wanted this book.

Like all books of essays from different authors, it’s a mix of fruits and nuts. There’s some very interesting pieces in here while others seem to have been made to fit only with some difficulty. Still, the sky. I admit to being somewhat disappointed as I read along. This wasn’t for research—my book on the topic is already done—it was for pure intellectual curiosity, what passes for pleasure among academics. Many of the pieces were mired down in detail. Written bout the sky, they refused to soar. Then I came to Tim Ingold’s essay. Here’s what I’d been looking for. Someone who knew the sky could only be approached in terms that contradict themselves at every turn. There is something to say about the daytime sky. It has to do with the nature of light. And of the sky seeing us.

The sky, by definition, is larger than this rocky substrate we call home. It encompasses everything above us. I work in a cubicle with no access to outside windows. I wilt daily like a plant deprived of sun. (Although the wonderful article on light pollution by Tyler Nordgren gave me pause over even that.) I need to see the sky. When clouds block my view, my outlook begins to suffer. It’s that ethereal cerulean I crave. Without it I am but a troglodyte eking out a minimal survival on toadstools and lichen. The sky is our orientation. It is our timepiece. It is eternal. Of the things we do that are evil, polluting the sky is one of the most unforgivable. The key may be in the word “imagined,” but if we could only understand the sky we will have found true religion. They’re called “the heavens” for a reason.

No Explanation

How do you explain that? Everything, I mean. The need to understand “life, the universe, and everything” is as old as our species, and perhaps even older than that. Up until modernity when the limits of physical explanations were reached, gods filled the gaps. Can Science Explain Religion: The Cognitive Science Debate, by James W. Jones, is not an easy book. It demands mental rigor on the part of the reader. It is also a very important book. Mainly addressing the religion debunkers—those who famously declare religion to be pointless and perhaps even evil—the book asks logically, step by step, whether their assertions are rational. Since Jones is, as I once was, a professor of religion, the reader will be forgiven for second-guessing him. Jones makes a very strong case not for the truth of religion, but for its rationality, not its believability.

Beginning with the basics, Jones considers explaining explaining. In other words, can religion be explained scientifically, and if it can what does that logically prove? You need to follow him pretty closely here, but it is worth the journey. Science, as a human enterprise, has its limits. Jones doesn’t disparage science—far from it—just its misuse. The mad passion for a single explanation for everything has led to reductionist thinking. It’s not uncommon for the debunkers to claim everything is physical. Nothing exists that science can’t explain. Jones demonstrates the logical flaws in this approach. Not apologetically, but rationally. Physicalism, like its ancestor logical positivism, runs into serious problems when it comes to explaining much of life. Especially consciousness.

Consciousness remains one of the great mysteries of existence. Nobody knows what it is or where it comes from. Jones isn’t appealing to the “God of the gaps” here, but he is simply taking his own experience as a clinical psychophysiologist and bringing it into the conversation. Mind is not easily explained as a byproduct of matter. The term that has been used in recent years is that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. Something that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Jones doesn’t declare science can’t explain this, but rather that when science addresses the question clearly and logically a plurality emerges. One single answer may not be enough to cover it all. I’ve posted many times on this blog about the misuse of Occam’s Razor. Jones here provides a sustained, and rational discussion of questions that have never been answered adequately. Religion doesn’t challenge science, but together they may have more explanatory power than either has separately. Any book that can establish that qualifies as very important.

Light and Dark

Prophets, mothers, messiahs. A new religion for a new world. While these may not be main themes of Robert Repino’s new novel D’Arc, they’re clearly there in the background offering verisimilitude to a world turned upside down. Continuing the diegesis created in his previous two novels Mort(e) and Culdesac, Repino again shows an uncommon awareness that when survival becomes difficult people (and animals) turn to religion. Many fiction writers create worlds under stress and pretend that characters simply forget the religious option. That may be realistic on an individual level, but as history shows, not on a societal one. People—and mutated animals—are meaning-seeking beings. D’Arc doesn’t shy away from this fact. In a wildly integrated world of different species coping with consciousness and opposable thumbs in various ways, religion naturally arises.

If you haven’t been initiated into Repino’s universe, it begins with a virus and/or a plot—themselves religious—which allow animals to become bipedal and to grow human hands. They can talk and reason and they show us a true reflection of who we are. D’Arc, the female companion of Mort(e), finds her way in a world under threat. Planning to speed up global warming in a dramatic way, the aquatic antagonists conspire to melt the ice caps to flood the entire world. Repino knows the value of the flood story and uses it to full advantage. Along the way we meet beavers who’ve developed a religion that functions between water and dry land. Indeed, as a species their religion defines them as much as their engineering skills. This is a world that’s just been through war and instead of reconciling all species, there remain those (most notably humans) who can only live with their own superiority. This is a complex universe.

The hero of this tale, D’Arc, is sympathetic to the religious sensibilities that have sprung up around her. She herself is a character prophesied in this world where Mort(e) is messianic. There’s a scripture in the background somewhere and theirs is a world without embarrassment about it. There’s also plenty of action and adventure—the war with no name is really not over—but there’s a subtlety to the narrative as well. When things go awry many people do assume they’re alone in the universe and try to find their own way. It’s equally true that many look for meaning in a structured form of belief where all of this has been foretold. Such worlds, to me, seem to be more honest to the human condition, even when the characters are cast as talking animals.