Category Archives: Religious Origins

Posts that consider the origins of religious phenomena

Addicted to Heaven

I once wrote a scene—please don’t look for it; it’s never been published—in which a character awakes after attending a concert the night before. In my own life this kind of thing is very, very rare. Even when I had a full-time job in the relatively inexpensive Midwest, shows in Milwaukee were a bit out of our range for regular consumption. Here on the East Coast you have to scrimp and save to pull it off once in an every great while. In the scene I wrote, the character awoke wondering why the world looked so different the morning after. I’ve been pondering that because of my own recent Broadway experience, and a realization came to me. Such events involve an altered state of consciousness.

For all of science’s dowdy physicalism, there are very few practitioners who’d deny that altered states of consciousness exist. Nearly everyone experiences them. Perhaps the most common form is the dream. We know it’s not real, but most of us have had one or two that we just can’t shake. Upon awaking, going to work, dealing with the drudgery of everyday, we come home still feeling as if the preceding daylight hours were somehow less than real. Shows, some movies, and meaningful music can all induce alternate states of consciousness. Perhaps rare these days, but so can religious services. Such states continue after the event ends, and cushion our harsh reentry to “reality” with pleasant reminders that there’s something better somewhere else. Historically these moments have been highly valued. More so than even money. They’re addictive.

Attempts to induce such alternate brain chemistry through drugs are now a national crisis. One draw of opioids is their ability to bring on such altered states of consciousness. Our experience informs us that such things must exist, and they are likely behind the very idea of Heaven itself. The cost for altered states of consciousness is, of course, daily life. As physical beings we could not and cannot survive in a perpetual state of bliss. What is truly sad is that physicalism has convinced many that such alternative states are “not real.” Materialism leads, so often, to misery. The tendrils of altered states, however, interweave themselves among the synapses of our gray matter, sparking just often enough to make us realize that yes, those transcendent moments were just as real—if not more real—than this illusory world we daily inhabit. My character, awaking the morning after, was learning something she already knew to be true. Even if it was only fiction.

Jedi Bible

A long time ago in a galaxy far away there was no paper. This is something I didn’t realize until I read a book of essays by Ryan Britt a couple years back. George Lucas, although a limited visionary, saw a Star Wars universe without paper. When I thought back over the original trilogy, and the harsh prequel trilogy, that seemed to be true. Nobody picks up a piece of paper to read anything. Like many people I went to the theater to see The Force Awakens and left stunned. After being battered by episodes I through III, it was good to see the old form return. It was as if the force really had awakened. Then I went to see The Last Jedi.

Overly long and often plodding, I wondered, after it was over, what was so different this time. Not only was Luke Skywalker annoyingly noncommittal to the force, but backstory and counter-backstory made the truth hard to discern. There was a lot more talk of the Jedi religion as a religion. From my perspective, of course, this isn’t a bad thing. I would like to know more about this. There’s a secret tree on Luke’s island wherein are the sacred Jedi scriptures. Yoda shows up and calls down lightning like a little green Elijah and burns the Jedi library and its Keebler home. Then it hit me: not only is there paper in this universe, there are actual books. Scriptures.

We’re never shown the inside of any of the books, but if the fact that fans tend to fill in the blanks holds true we may well see future publications of the Jedi Bible. H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, a fictitious tome, now exists because his devotees couldn’t live in a world without it. And paper scriptures add an entirely new dynamic to any religion. Most world religions (at least on this planet) have some form of text. Books tell us what to believe and how to live our lives. Given enough time people will realize that they were written by other people and need to be interpreted by people. After all, if God could write the Bible, what would prevent him from writing the Qur’an, or the Book of Mormon? So stuck here in the middle of a trilogy the rules have changed. First paper has appeared in Star Wars. And although it’s a little too early to be sure, it looks like Jediism will never be the same.

Ancient Perspectives

Around the holiday season, on social media, stories relating to the Bible tend to pop up. When my wife mentioned a New York Times story about “Gabriel’s Revelation” on the second day of Christmas, I was suspicious. The story, which was nearly a decade old—the internet keeps things in circulation far longer than those old library tomes consisting of physical newspapers bound together—describes the unprovenanced inscription as predicting a messiah will rise after being dead for three days. I assumed this meant evangelicals would be overjoyed, but it turns out that the artifact, if authentic, predates the New Testament. That means that it can’t be traditionally ascribed as a prophecy, since it’s not in the Bible, and therefore it becomes a threat because it suggests Jesus’ story isn’t unique.

Image credit: The Telegraph, from Wikimedia Commons

This is an interesting dynamic. A potentially important ancient artifact can only have value if it’s in the Bible or proves the Bible “true.” When that happens the faithful crow about how the evangelical position was right all along. If such a document implies that the gospels were borrowing from widespread cultural assumptions, however, it becomes just another unimportant bit of junk from days gone by. Confirmation bias, of course, is something in which we all indulge. Nobody likes being wrong. The difference is that the scholar is obliged to admit when the evidence overthrows his or her position. New options have to be considered.

Since I was between jobs in 2008 when the inscription was announced, it escaped my notice. Now that nine years have settled the dust a bit, there seems to be no sustained case for declaring Gabriel’s Revelation a forgery. Neither does it appear to have changed Christianity at all. The period known as that of Second Temple Judaism has shown itself to have been rich in messianic expectations. We know little, historically speaking, of Jesus of Nazareth. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that some were expecting a messiah along the lines of what Jesus was said to have been. But those documents aren’t part of the magical book that contains the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In as far as they back the Bible up, they are celebrated. When they call the Good Book into question, they are rejected. I have no idea whether Gabriel’s Revelation is authentic or not. It seems pretty clear, however, that a faith that’s based on one unquestioned source might be more fragile than even other artifacts that have managed to survive, somehow, from ancient times.

All Is Calm

For those who prefer their solstice celebrations in Christian flavor, today’s Christmas Eve. As various denominations warn us to keep Christ in Christmas, secular NORAD provides a radar tracker to follow Santa through the skies. One hopes he’ll be cautious over North Korea this year. He may skip the White House altogether. And yet some will insist that there was no Christmas before Christ. But there was. Celebrations of the lengthening of the days began when humans reached temperate zones, at the very least. Prehistoric monuments throughout the British Isles were aligned with the sun’s position at solstices even before the Bible was scribbled on its first bit of parchment in warmer climes far away. We eagerly await the light.

Many religious traditions tell of that light within. Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, and some Asian religions focus on the divine spark, or secular light, within humankind. We are light-bearers, no matter what our religion. Back in my Nashotah House days, when Evening Prayer was a communal, daily expectation, the hymn Phos Hilaron, “gladsome light,” or, in the more liturgical mode, “O gracious light,” was the part that moved me most. We observe the coming of darkness with the hope that light might somehow continue. When days grow brief our hope grows fervent that the light will miraculously return. That it does so by the working of nature makes it no less of a wonder. We have been living in nighttime, and that light within us seems to flag at the persistent gloom. Then solstice. Christmas Eve captures that light in angelic voices.

Those who insist it’s all fake—the Tiny Tim crutch of feeble minds—need only look at NORAD today. The defense system built to keep the northern hemisphere safe from the endless winter of the nuclear species today shows a mythical object streaming across the stars with good will and cheer. Not just for Americans. Not just for Christians. Not just for true believers. No, Christmas Eve, the solstice, is for all people. Not just men. All people. Perhaps I’ve let my guard down just a little, and I’m letting my naiveté show just a bit much, but I do believe in that light. It may be that the tilt of the planet’s axis makes it inevitable, but a night when shepherds are startled and a woman brings hope to the entire world, we bask in what we deem a silent and holy night, knowing dawn will bring a longer day. And hopefully a world at peace.

Basic Catholic

One thing upon which we all might agree is that we don’t have enough time. Publishers, eager to find an angle that will help them survive an age when we believe knowledge should be free, have shown a preference for short books. (An exception to this seems to be novels—consumers appear to like getting lost in a long story.) One result of this is the brief introduction format of book. That’s what Michael Walsh’s contribution to The Basics series is. Roman Catholicism is somewhat of a challenge to explain in less than 200 pages. You have to stick to, well, the basics. Having sojourned among the Episcopalians many a year, I felt that I had a fairly good grasp on Catholicism, but as I was reading it struck me that to really understand it, you have to be it.

One thing the Roman church has going for it is direct continuity. Making claims of having been there since the beginning, as an organization they have a leg up over other groups that boast more recent origins. We respect, or at least we tend to, organizations with such longevity. Tracing itself back to Saint Peter, the Catholics have continuity with spades. Or crosses. Of course, one of the things Walsh addresses is how change happens in such a long-lived group. Councils and synods, new scientific information and new Popes. Catholicism today isn’t the same as it was in Pete’s day. Walsh does a good job of guiding us through all that up to the time of Pope John Paul II, who, it turns out, raised global awareness of the papacy in the world as it existed then.

One thing we might agree upon is that Pope Francis has changed perceptions of what it means to be Catholic. The church remains mired in medieval thinking about matters such as gender and sexuality, but since this little book was published there have been steps forward. Even this popular pontiff, however, can’t change the decrees that went against the majority opinion regarding birth control, as Walsh somewhat guardedly notes. Or the ordination of women. He observes at the very beginning of his little book that Catholics know all about and deeply respect authority. This brief introduction helps to get a sense of how things ended up the way they are. We know that Pope Francis has started to speak out on such things, but men like to keep authority, as we all know. And even Popes have just so much time.

Not So Gnostic

A certain, amorphous indignation comes over those of us trained in history when we encounter abuses of the same. In my case, some thought me conservative when I argued in my first book that Asherah as Yahweh’s wife wasn’t nearly the slam dunk some scholars were making it out to be. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to see Yahweh as happily married as the next deity, but it was a matter of the evidence being weak and not thoughtfully examined. That is to say, I sympathize—maybe even empathize—with Philip Jenkins. His book, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way, is an historical dressing down of many in the New Testament scholarly community who’ve perhaps let a bit of historical rigor slip in order to understand the world of early Christianity.

You see, once upon a time, scholars took the Gospels as, well, the gospel truth. Contradictions were simply harmonized or glossed over. When newer ancient material began to be discovered, however, adjustments had to be made. Perhaps the “orthodox” story of Christian origins wasn’t the only option available. In the twentieth century some spectacular manuscript finds were made, including the “library” of Nag Hammadi—largely Gnostic—and the Dead Sea Scrolls. New understandings of early Christianity were possible when these texts were considered. Some scholars engineered sweeping theories about revolutionary ideas concerning Jesus and his buds. Jenkins laments the lack of historical precision that many of these reconstructions demonstrate, and he comes across as somewhat annoyed.

Sensationalism, as we all know, sells publications and gets presidents elected. We all like a good story. In the case of Jesus, this means that the reconstructions of scholars often challenge traditional views, and popular publications love it. Jenkins finds it distasteful. Although this book is well written, as all of Jenkins’ material tends to be, it probably doesn’t do his arguments any favor to have retained the tired trope of heresy. Heresy means nothing without a supernatural bias, something that historians must avoid. Heresy, after all, assumes that one and only one version is correct (orthodox) and the four Gospels demonstrate that such a simple dichotomy is more difficult to sustain than it might appear to be. Yes, the Gnostic texts may not be as early as the traditional Gospels, but the ideas may have been circulating from near the beginning. We know surprisingly little about Jesus, so it’s not unexpected that rumors would’ve flown, even in antiquity. A solid source of information on some of the early “other gospels,” Jenkins’ book serves as a useful reminder that history is almost never as simple as it seems it should be.

More than Baptism

Few things distinguish American Christianity as much as its divisions. These aren’t precise, however, and often the borders are fuzzy and held more by cultural history than by theological outlook. One of the denominations—indeed, the umbrella for the single largest Protestant denomination in America—often faces the question of its identity. Who are the Baptists? Many Protestant groups can trace their histories to defining moments; consider Martin Luther and his hammer, according to the Lutheran origin myth. Baptists are a little tricker to pin down. Dissenters, yes, convinced that adult baptism should accompany conversation, yes, but beyond that widely divergent. Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins have provided a service by writing Baptists in America: A History. Going back before America, they trace the origins of the sect and quickly bring it into the context in which it would thrive.

Persecuted early in American life, Baptists grew in numbers and recognition during the period commonly known as the Great Awakenings. Suited to frontier individualism, non-doctrinal, and advocating for freedom of conscience, the Baptists gained large sums of converts in this era. With their congregational polity, Baptist cultural influence really only took off when mass media gave its more aggressive preachers a venue not limited by church walls. As Kidd and Hankins point out, however, the denomination proved friable. Splitting apart over various issues, the number of Baptist denominations grew. Their political influence would also grow so that they would become a force with which to be reckoned even today. Few, however, really understand who the Baptists are.

The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest single Protestant denomination in the United States. It defines itself by a radical conservatism that masquerades as “orthodoxy.” Heavily biblical, many in the tradition have a strong preference for inerrancy. Social causes that appear outdated to most modern people are do-or-die issues for this sect within a sect. Baptists in America does a good job showing how contradictory Baptists can be. They were, after all, dissenters from the beginning. Their championing of religious freedom often doesn’t apply outside their own borders. The more political of the denomination know very well how to game a democratic system. Perhaps the lesson they’ve learned most acutely is that being unseen carries with it great advantages. They play the sport of legislative chess very well. In a culture that loudly and repeatedly claims that religion no longer matters, those with conviction have a natural hiding place. From there pieces are easily moved to positions of power.