Pondering Origins

I’m not a numbers guy.  I never had any interest in statistics, and I tremble when I see my accountant’s number pop up on my phone at tax time.  But exponential sequences have an inherent fascination.  Think about your ancestry (I recently wrote about genealogy and that got me pondering).  You have two parents.  And they each had two parents.  By the time you get back to ten generations (eight greats before grandparents) you have 1,024 ancestors of roughly the same generation.  That’s a lot of people just to make one individual.  Think of all the circumstances that might’ve led to any two of them having been kept apart—then where would you be?  Of course the numbers double each generation which is where my reasoning capacity shuts down.

At some point, doesn’t it seem, that there wouldn’t be enough people available to make you?  I know that’s not true—you’re reading this and that proves this false—but it does make each individual life a thing of wonder.  Or even at the level of your own parents.  If you have siblings you know how different even biologically similar people can be.  And there are many others who could’ve been conceived instead of you or me.  The chances are astronomical that we’re here at all.  I often wonder if such circumstances are why our minds seek religious answers.  People are meaning-seeking creatures.  And against such long odds, it seems that maybe we’re a miracle after all.  Naturally, a driving force behind it all suggests itself.

Photo credit: NASA

Science has been a real boon for the billions of us alive today.  There’s no doubt that dispassionate, rational thought can lead to amazing outcomes.  At the same time, the doubt creeps in that this is the only explanation.  It occurs to me when watching the birds in the spring.  How do they know their own species and with whom to mate?  Is all of this driven by that notorious fudge factor we call “instinct”?  I have no answer to what the source of that will to keep life going is.  Biology tends to be among the slipperiest of sciences.  Life is difficult to define when we don’t even know everything that’s out there in our infinite but expanding universe.  The numbers are just too massive.  All I know is that by the time you get back to twenty generations (eighteen greats) it took over a million people to make just one of us.  And that’s by the numbers.

James and John

One of the first questions expectant parents are asked is if they have yet come up with a name for their child.  Quite often, and probably without realizing it, some of the most popular names are biblical.  Jacob is one of the most common boys’ names in English.  It derives from the story of Isaac’s younger son in Genesis.  Its popularity increases exponentially when its variant James is added to the total.  The name James comes into English from Old French where it was derived from the Latin Iacomus.  B and m are, phonetically speaking, bilabials (the former voiced, the latter not).  This Latin form also led to the Spanish name Iago, which many know from the apostolic name Santiago (“Saint James”).  Or Saint Jacob, only nobody calls him by that name anymore.  Biblical names are exceptionally common in the western world.  Even so, it often seems implausible that names like Jimmi could be alternatives to Jacob, but small steps make evolution possible.

It has been popular among evangelicals for years to know that Jesus is the Greek form of the name Joshua.  Having a savior named Josh just doesn’t have the gravitas we’re looking for, however.  Greek is an Indo-European language while Hebrew is a Semitic one.  While these two family trees have points of contact, their vocabulary and syntax developed quite independently.  Names change when they’re translated.  Many of our familiar New Testament names are translations from their Hebrew (or Aramaic) counterparts.  The New Testament was written in Greek and we receive Greek versions of such names.  John, for example, is another name that comes to us in many forms.

The apostle we call John was called Ioannes in Greek.  This was derived from the Hebrew name Yochanan.  John comes into English via the Germanic form Johannes, where the connection to the Greek becomes obvious.  From there it shortens to John.  It comes in many varieties too: Juan, Jan, Ivan, Han, Evan, Sean, Jonas, Giovanni, and even Jack.  The latter sounds more like Jacob, but in their original forms the names are quite different.  Apart from names, Indo-European borrowing from Semitic languages isn’t terribly common.  Throughout the Christianized world, names based on these two apostles, however, have become extremely popular.  In recent times parents have been branching out into more creative names for their children, but many of them still derive from their biblical antecedents.  This is just one more way that the Bible continues its influence in an increasingly secular world.  

Not Over

It’s not over, you know.  Halloween, I mean.  We may have made it through the actual night of trick-or-treating with all of its build-up, but like many holidays from olden times, Halloween was, and still should be, part of a complex of holy days.  People have long believed that something was transitioning at this time of year.  Halloween spun off of its more sacred sibling, All Saints Day.  Before Christianization, Samhain perhaps spanned more than one day.  As a result of relentless capitalism with its parsimonious counting of days off, like pre-conversion Scrooge, has made all holidays one-day events.  Sometimes you need some time to sort out what’s happening and this three-day complex is one of those times.  Día de los Muertos begins today—this holiday’s just getting started.

I’ve frequently suggested to the few who’ll listen that we need to take holidays seriously.  Culturally we tolerate them as days of less productivity.  Who actually gets Halloween off work?  And how many of us work in places where “Happy Halloween” is a regular greeting on the 31st?  I don’t know about you, but in all my Zoom meetings yesterday nobody was wearing a costume.  And yet, at Nashotah House I learned that today is a “day of obligation.”  Attending services isn’t optional (of course, it never was optional at Nashotah).  But this one was really serious.  The Catholic Church moved All Saints Day to November 1 to counter Samhain celebrations encountered in Celtic lands.  People are reluctant to give up their religion, however, and the day before All Hallows allowed for Samhain to retain its identity.  And even today’s not the end of the season.  Tomorrow has traditionally been All Souls Day.  But what company’s going to give you three days off at this time of year? We’re gearing up for Black Friday.

Holidays serve to give structure to the passing of time.  Winter with its privations is on its way.  This autumnal complex of holidays, whether celebrated as Samhain, Día de los Muertos, or Halloween-All Saints-All Souls, reminds us to take a pause and ponder what all of this really means.  And not only ponder, but also celebrate.  Halloween is fun with its costumes and candy and spooky decorations, but it’s more than just that.  It’s a season of existential questions and of preparing for the inevitable cold days ahead.  We ignore such things at our own peril.  There are reasons for holidays, but those who find meaning only in mammon see no reason to offer even one day off, amid a season we most deeply, intensely need.

Forbidden Things

I owe Douglas Cowan a debt of gratitude.  Spending evenings at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting curled up with his then new book, Sacred Terror, I was amazed.  Vaguely in the back of my mind I knew that film scholars were writing about horror, but I didn’t know that religion scholars even could.  Of course, later I discovered that Cowan had predecessors, as do we all, but that still didn’t change the fact that he opened my eyes to possibilities.  Being a slow reader with an unrelenting 925, I can’t keep up with any one author’s total output but I knew I’d need to read The Forbidden Body as soon as it was announced.  Subtitled Sex, Horror, and the Religious Imagination, it covers many aspects of what’s being called embodiment studies.  And there are, of course, monsters.

Where he finds the time to read so much and watch so much I can only guess.  This book covers a lot of territory that I can’t even begin to summarize here, but it goes without saying that Cowan’s many observations are worth paying attention to.  If I were to try to find a main theme I think it would be bodies out of place.  At least that what it seems to me.  Bodies out of place can mean many, many things.  Horror isn’t shy, of course, about showing you many of these.  As always, the unexpected part is religion.  Better, religious imagination.  I’ve been trying for years to articulate how religion and horror are related, and this is obviously something I haven’t been the only one pondering.  Cowan offers trenchant thoughts on this and even gives you some glimpses of unexpected monsters along the way.

Horror is often considered puerile, I know.  You get an image of a bunch of guys in business suits or military uniforms shaking your shoulders and saying “grow up!”  But what is it we’re growing up for?  To feed the monster.  So that those who are the monster can pamper their bodies with the luxuries everyone else works to provide.  Religion often serves to motivate those who are on the production end of this scale, but there is a truly Ottoian fear that compels us, lying not so very far beneath the surface.  Religion reaches out to those who encounter the monster.  And those people have bodies.  Cowan touches on many aspects of horror here from Corman to Lovecraft to Sade.  My response, perhaps appropriately, is that my head feels like it’s exploding.  I have so much yet to learn.

Not a Scholar

It’s insensitive.  And behind the times.  Google Scholar, I mean.  They send me emails telling me that people can’t read my research because I don’t have a verified email.  When I sign on and enter my email, it tells me to enter an institutional email instead.  I don’t have one.  So it sends an error message implying I’m not really a scholar after all.  Like hundreds, perhaps thousands, of academics, I had to settle for a job in the corporate sector.  Unlike some of my colleagues, I still research and write and try to maintain a web presence so I can be found.  Compared to non-academics those of us who’ve been through the system are few.  Even so, this can be an exclusive lot.

There are quite a few academic websites these days.  I’m not sure which is the biggest or best regarded—I’m not verified, after all.  I have an active account on Academia.edu, and recently, to gain access to an article I needed, I joined Research Gate (dot net).  Academia is after me every day to upgrade—they follow the “free cookie” model.  It’s free but if you really want to be discovered you can pay a modest fee for an upgrade.  I suspect Research Gate is the same.  And Google Scholar.  These websites aren’t out simply to promote you for your own benefit.  Of course, real scholars can be naive.  I’ve been in the business world long enough to be suspicious.  There’s no such thing as a free account.

What such websites don’t take into account is that academia is a harsh and punishing place.  Institutions are almost always run by businessmen these days and professors are deemed too expensive to maintain.  (Nobody’s talking about how university president salaries are too high, I notice, but they’re verified.)  To push knowledge forward we get rid of those who’ve dedicated their lives to study.  Those departments that bring in money—greed is not an academic field—thrive.  The academy was founded to further religious knowledge.  Soon study of the law was added, but law was considered something handed down from on high.  Some of us, and not a few, were naive and unverified enough to believe that fields that had been around for a millennia or so would be around for at least long enough to get us through to retirement.  Instead, learning has shifted online.  And to be part of that club, you must be verified.  At least according to Google Scholar.

Beyond Natural

I’ve read quite a few books about the supernatural.  Often these books, which are mostly written by scientists, tend to show the problems with supernatural thinking.  Clay Routledge, it seems to me, has a healthier approach.  Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World isn’t an apology for the supernatural.  In fact, Routledge is a psychological scientist.  An open-minded one.  The book isn’t an apology, but it does show how natural supernatural thinking is.  This engagingly written study isn’t always easy to read—you have to be prepared to think about death a lot.  But also meaning.  Routledge makes a good case that the human search for meaning is related to our awareness of our own mortality.  We know we’ll die, and we don’t want to believe our existence has been for naught.  That doesn’t make all of us religious, but it does, perhaps, open us to the supernatural.

One of the main takeaways for me is that people misunderstand the power of religious motivation.  Especially in the context of our current political climate.  Many people can’t believe that supreme court justices would decide against laws that slow global warming.  Survey after survey, however, indicates that strong belief in religion means having little or no concern about the world ending.  In fact, for many it is a culmination devoutly to be attained.  You don’t need surveys to learn this.  You just need to talk to Fundamentalists.  I grew up believing this world was a sinful, corrupt place soon to be destroyed.  Further reflection on religion convinced me that this view was wrong, but I certainly understand it.  Too often those trying to find solutions to such problems simply dismiss religion as a motivating factor.  That’s a fatal error.

This is an insightful book.  Although based on science it is neutral toward religion.  Or I should say, the supernatural.  Routledge demonstrates that even scientists, when tested in controlled circumstances, subscribe to some supernatural beliefs.  They may be more abstract, such as the idea that things happen for a reason, or that we’ve been put here for a purpose (the teleological argument), but they are nevertheless present.  To be human is to be a meaning-seeking creature.  We may not be the only ones.  Whether or not that’s the case, our drive for making sense of all this tends to move us toward the supernatural.  Routledge ends with a plea for us to listen to one another.  Pay attention, and care for, those who believe differently.  We have a lot more in common than we have views that separate us.

Twisted in Knots

Our staycation at the Red Caboose in Ronks brought to mind the Weird Al Yankovic parody of “Amish Paradise.”  Bored-looking tourists in Lancaster County can’t find anything to do.  While it may be true that many big city entertainments are lacking, we had no trouble filling up a day.  We discovered the little town of Lititz.  Just north of the city of Lancaster, it retains several buildings from the eighteenth century along its main street, and the same quaint, boutique feel of Lancaster itself continues.  I have to admire the creativity of shop owners who have to appeal to the varied tastes of the tourist crowd.  Of course there was a bookstore—there are several in this area—and we long ago discovered the dual value of books as souvenirs.

The reason we were in Lititz, however, was the pretzels.  The Julius Sturgis Pretzel House makes the claim of being the oldest commercial pretzel bakery in North America.  Built in 1784, this is one of the early buildings still standing, and they offer brief tours where you’re taught to roll  and knot a pretzel.  Pretzels are, of course, a European invention.  Since they were an avocation of monks, their shapes became imbued with religious symbolism.  The initial U shape was, like a gothic spire, intended to point thoughts upward, toward God.  As I learned, the twist (which was an indication of a handmade pretzel) was symbolic of marriage and “tying the knot.”  This leaves a fish-like shape, and the Icthys moniker for Jesus would’ve been known to monks.  The folding the knot onto the outer loop symbolizes the arms across the chest used in Catholic prayer as a way of embracing the cross.  The resulting twisted breadstick has three holes for the Trinity.

The real innovation in Lititz, however, was the hard pretzel.  If I heard correctly, Julius Sturgis was working at a pretzel bakery in town where he had the duty of cleaning out the ovens.  The hard bits could be used for animal food, but they gave Sturgis the idea of intentionally baking hard pretzels.  This is the most common commercial form sold today, but southeastern Pennsylvania, which produces eighty percent of the pretzels sold in the United States, is still a soft pretzel paradise.  Radiating out from Philadelphia to locations like Lancaster, Reading, and Allentown, pretzels are eaten more frequently in Pennsylvania than elsewhere.  The religious aspect of pilgrimage still exists for those who venture to Lititz to find the birthplace of the hard pretzel, and the opportunity to stick your fingers in the dough.

Ephrata Cloister

Conrad Beissel isn’t exactly a household name.  I never heard of him until a visit to Ephrata Cloister during a Lancaster staycation.  My wife knew about the Ephrata Cloister due to a music course she took at the University of Michigan; he was influential in developing a distinctive musical style.  Since we were in the area we stopped in for the tour.  Beissel was banished from what would become Germany in the early eighteenth century.  He made his way to America where he established a kind of monastery in south central Pennsylvania in the early 1700s.  Not Catholic, he was inspired by German Pietists, the Anabaptists, and Christian Mysticism.  Not ordained, he established what became a Seventh-Day Baptist association because whenever he tried to settle as a hermit others came to him.

Celibacy has always been a hard sell for religions.  Once his Camp for the Solitary was established, it grew to about 300 members, with only some 80 celibates, or solitaries.  This 80 was half men and half women.  They built around 40 buildings in what was then the frontier and they couldn’t have survived without the 120 or so married people who joined the church but continued to live at home with their families.  Like many separatist groups, the Seventh-Day Baptists were expecting Jesus’ return at any day and lived their lives accordingly.  Not strict about others joining him in this, Beissel was an early vegetarian, eventually becoming primarily a vegan (although that name wouldn’t develop for a couple centuries).  They had midnight worship services since they believed Jesus would return in the middle of the night.  They were, with the supportive families, self-sufficient.  The group established a printing press, and at one time it was possibly the largest printing operation in the colonies.

After Beissel died, the community continued.  They realized that, like all celibate communities, it would be difficult to survive and the celibacy rule was dropped.  The last celibate member died in 1813.  The community by then had taken on the form of an independent church and it survived until the 1930s.  The remaining land—some of it had been sold off over the years as the community shrank—was bought in the early forties to be preserved by the state.  Theirs was never a very large group, but it was significant enough that their memory was felt to be important enough to preserve.  Beissel wasn’t alone in establishing such sects here in Pennsylvania.  The tradition is, interestingly, part of the American heritage and demonstrates how the religious, ordained or not, live in their own worlds.

Foreign Christianity

I’ve been reading about missionaries in Southeast Asia.  One of the things that has become clear to me is that as Christians moved into different cultures they perhaps didn’t realize just how their religion was being blended with a completely foreign worldview.  Catholic missionaries were particularly savvy about accommodating local outlooks.  Add the mass on top of them and you’ve got your converts.  What they were, perhaps unknowingly, doing was changing Christianity.  Yet again.  Monotheism has a myth of the pure religion.  The fact is that as soon as Paul disagreed with Peter Christianity had begun to splinter with each faction believing it had the pure form.  When this protean religion moves into other cultures with other ways of thinking, interesting new forms emerge.

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

Today there’s a lot of interest in Celtic Catholicism.  This is another example of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”  Christianity, particularly in Ireland, took on a pronounced Celtic flavor.  It doesn’t always play by the rules, but as long as Rome’s okay with that, well, who’s to complain?  What is Catholicism?  What is Methodism?  What is Anglicanism?  It depends on where you join it.  Doesn’t that problematize those absolute truth claims?  Churches are savvy political players.  The rank and file believer has little idea what goes on behind closed doors.  They might be distressed to find out just how much bishops talk about budgets.  Theology is left to the public view.  No organization can survive without money and church leaders understand this.  Missionaries go to under-developed countries and make them capitalists.

People living in different parts of the world view life from varying perspectives.  Many see change as the nature of life where western religions see fixity.  Many religions know we’re reincarnated.  Western religions see one ride per ticket with souls ending up in a final holding place.  When it comes to eternity, people obviously want some security.  Even with reincarnation a badly lived human life can lead to a worse next life.  The question of what happens when such ideas come into contact with Christianity, or Islam, is a fascinating one.  Judaism, the root of monotheistic traditions, never really embraced missionary activity.  When missionaries encounter those whose very ways of thinking about life approach the question from a different direction, creative mixes are bound to occur.  It’s safe to say that when early Christians were sent out to “the whole world” they had no idea how big that world actually was, under the dome in which lived the sun, moon, and stars.  Nor had they any idea what interesting hybrid religions would emerge after their fertile preaching.

Teaching Tradition

There’s a dilemma.  Many thinking religious conservatives end up arguing against “secular” education and yet wish to make themselves out as rational, and reasonable.  The truth is that underlying their position is the belief that the truth was revealed long ago and nothing has changed since then.  They want educated individuals to agree with this so quite often they establish their own institutions to turn out “experts” who haven’t been challenged in their positions.  This became clear to me yet again when reading Faith of Our Fathers by Stuart Chessman.  Subtitled A Brief History of Catholic Traditionalism in the United States from Triumph to Traditionis Custodes, I was expecting a history.  Instead it is more of a screed, or jeremiad, arguing that the Catholic Church is trying to destroy traditionalism.  What I was looking for, I guess, was a “secular” history.

I’m interested in traditionalism.  I taught, after all, for well over a decade at Nashotah House.  What I learned there I also sensed in this book.  There’s a certain naiveté associated with such theological thinking.  (Political conservatism is much more insidious.)  Small groups tend to think the larger organization has it in for them.  In reality, the larger church (in both these cases) has much more pragmatic things on its collective mind.  The narrow focus of traditionalists, however, interprets everything in the light of—in this case—rejecting the liturgical reforms of Vatican II.  Having the mass in Latin is more important (as is clear here) than coming up with an effective way of dealing with Covid-19.  Traditionalists are proud that they met more frequently during the height of the epidemic.

This kind of thinking is important to understand.  For Roman Catholicism, as a hierarchical organization, the projection of unity is very important.  Anyone involved in the upper levels of any administration knows that money—even for churches, especially for churches—is a major concern.  Reputation influences cash flow, so reputation has to be guarded at all costs.  No organization can appear to be caught up in medievalism in a capitalistic twenty-first century.  I had hoped this little book would contain an actual history of the movement, looking at socio-economic, political, and religious causes and their ramifications.  In other words, why people do things.  Believe me, I understand the draw of traditionalism.  Although it was in English my first Episcopal high mass threw me into a multi-year odyssey to a place (Nashotah House) where I learned what was really going on.  It’s not all about smells and bells.  Not by a long shot. 

Ecclesiastical Splinters

Religion is a massive, sprawling thing without a fixed definition.  Historians of religion have specializations.  Mine has been ancient religions of the Levant, but we’ve all seen how far that got me.  After taking a few years to recover, my research has shifted toward religions of the modern period.  There are plenty of them and many of them are under-studied.  That latter point makes things a bit easier.  Believe it or not, ancient religions is a pretty crowded field.  After I’d begun to write on Asherah, for example, I learned at least two other scholars were doing the same.  Not that there aren’t challenges with modern religions, particularly if they’re still practiced.  Take Roman Catholicism, for example.  I’ve never been a member of the Catholic Church.  There are Anglicans who would claim part of that title, but it has its own distinctions.

Catholicism is the largest Christian denomination by a long stretch.  It makes claims at being the oldest as well, but that’s a little more difficult to verify from an historian’s point of view.  In any case, Catholicism also likes to show a unified front to the world.  This is a little tricky because any time you get more than a billion people together you’re going to have differences.  Being a hierarchical organization, there is someone at the top to make official pronouncements, but in fact, those below will believe what they believe.  Many Catholics, for instance, use birth control.  I’ve been researching a sect within Catholicism and am finding it difficult to find resources.  It seems the Catholic Church (a billion is power) prefers not to have books out there on how divided it is.

Most Christian denominations are quite divided.  That’s why there are so many sects in the world.  If one is powerful enough to prevent those who dissent from making a big deal of it, good luck in finding useful resources about it!  The sect I’ve been exploring has, as far as I can determine, one footnote hidden away in a university press book devoted to it.  Other sources are, apparently, carefully kept quiet.  Yes, there are power struggles within the Vatican.  There’s a lot at stake here.  On Easter everyone in Christianity (except the Orthodox) will appear united for a day.  Well, not those sects that don’t celebrate holidays.  I don’t know how anyone can not find all of this fascinating.  There’s power involved in religion.  It may not vie with mammon, but it deals in it as well.  And we’ve all got so much to learn.

Photo by Callum Parker on Unsplash

1 April

Image credit: Trocche100, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The funny thing is nobody knows how it got started.  In living memory, and indeed back a century or two—even more—people have considered April 1 a day for jokes and fooling.  Perhaps it was a kind of relief after winter was finally beginning to show its tail, or perhaps it was some distortion of Hilaria, the Roman festival of the goddess Cybele.  Some have speculated that it had to do with switching from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar when many were confused as to what the actual date was.  No matter what its origins are, April Fools has stuck.  It has such resonance that even legislation passed on this date is sometimes questioned as to whether it is serious.  Some locations have grand pranks planned and budgeted.

Nobody, as noted, knows how this got started.  One of my personal favorites posits a biblical origin.  Things tend to go back to the Bible in western culture, don’t they?  This idea takes it all the way back to the tenth generation of the human race: Noah’s flood.  Back in the eighteenth century it was suggested that Noah sent out his first dove before the waters abated on April 1 (this, of course, is based on knowing the exact days of creation—something that was of considerable interest in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries).  Since the dove was sent on a “fool’s errand”—there was no dry land visible—well, April fools!

With rare exceptions this isn’t a day off work.  It’s not a holiday with any religious implications, despite speculations about Noah and his dove.  It’s really a day highlighting uncertainty.  Practical jokes can, of course, be harmful.  There can be those, such as yours truly, who might be slow to catch on.  Indeed, almost always the victim of a “practical joke” doesn’t find him or herself in an appreciative mood.  I’ve always personally thought the reference was to the weather.  Snow isn’t unusual into mid-April in parts of the northern tier.  In fact received wisdom suggests not planting annuals until May arrives.  April’s weather, in other words, fools.  Around here we’ve whiplashed through March with days in the seventies and others the coldest of the winter (or so it seemed).  Now we’re into the first full month of spring.  The early flowers are out (some of which succumbed to the cold of this week’s weather) making fools of us all.  My hope is that none of us take this day’s unknown-origin holiday too seriously.

When Bible Met Horror

My colleague (if I may be so bold) Brandon Grafius has recently published a piece titled “What Can Horror Teach Us about the Bible?” in Sojourners.  Brandon and I have never met in person, but we’ve worked together a number of times.  We share an interest in horror and we both teach/taught Hebrew Bible.  We’re not the only ones who’ve got this fascination.  When I was able to attend the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meetings in person, I would often meet up with others who, apart from their respectable jobs, have a real interest in horror.  There are quite a few of us.  Some journals, like Sojourners, are starting to ask the obvious question: what do these things have in common?

I can’t claim to have watched all the horror movies ever made.  It’s actually pretty difficult to access some of those I’d like to see and, believe it or not, I’m actually a selective viewer.  Often my choices are dictated by research.  Back when I was young, in college and seminary, I’d go to see horror movies with friends.  Since I was living alone in seminary that sometimes led to sleepless nights.  I recall vividly being unable to sleep after watching David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly.  (To this day I still haven’t seen the original with Vincent Price.  I see that it’s available to stream on Amazon Prime, and since we’ve got the internet back perhaps it’s time I do that.)  What I can claim is that I’ve always watched movies for religious elements and that I often find horror isn’t lacking in that department.

The point of Brandon’s article is that there are horror stories in the Bible.  Indeed, the more I ponder the Good Book the more I see that makes it a frightening text indeed.  Once you get past the sugar coating, there’s fear of substance inside.  Funnily enough, it seems Jesus didn’t often play the fear card, although even he did so from time to time, according to the Gospels.  Religion, which gives us such hope, also makes us so very afraid.  I’m really glad to know that I’m not the only one who’s started to come to that conclusion.  So maybe it’s natural for those raised religious to be fond of monsters.  Getting others to admit it can be tricky, and I’m sure some genuinely don’t like them.  Still, when you’re in a scary place, it’s best not to be alone.

Thinking about Thinking

I’ve been thinking about thinking quite a bit.  My lifelong fascination with religion is part of this, of course.  So when someone pointed out Bridget Alex’s article “The Human Brain Evolved to Believe in Gods” in Discover, I had to ponder it.  The idea, here supported by science, is that people evolved survival traits that lent themselves to religious belief.  That religious thinking was a byproduct that eventually took on a life of its own.  Evolution works by giving a reproductive advantage to one trait over another—which is how we get so many types of dogs (and maybe gods)—and those that disposed people to be religious did just that.  Elaborate religions evolved from these basic traits.  Alex suggest there are three: seeing patterns, inferring intention, and learning by imitation.

While there’s a lot of sense here, the reductionism doesn’t ring true.  The need to explain away religion also seems uniquely human.  Ironically, the idea that we are somehow special compared to other animals derives from a biblical worldview from which science has difficulty divorcing itself.  One of the greatest ironies of the science versus religion debate is that scientific thinking (in the west) developed within a worldview formed by Christianity.  Many of the implications of that development linger, such as the supposition that animals can’t have consciousness, or “souls.”  We watch a chimpanzee in an experiment and deduct points when they don’t do things the way a human would.  We thus confirm the biblical view in the name of science and go home happy.

Photo credit: Afrika Expeditionary Force, via Wikimedia Commons

I have no doubt that people evolved to be religious.  There are certainly survival benefits to it, not least group building and shared purpose.  I do wonder that science doesn’t address the elephant in the room—that we have limited receptors for perceiving specific stimuli, such as light and sound, but that there are other phenomena we don’t perceive.  We build instruments to measure things like x-rays and neutrinos and magnetism, but we don’t sense them directly.  How can we possibly know what we might be missing?  I suspect the real problem is we don’t want to admit willfulness into any other part of the universe.  Humans alone possess it.  Some scientists even argue that our own sense of will is an illusion.  It’s not difficult to believe that we evolved to be religious.  It’s also not difficult to believe that we pick up hints of forces that have yet to be named.  An open mind, it seems, might lead to great rewards.

Reconstructing Celts

There are myriads of them.  They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.  They are believed seriously by the faithful.  Of course I’m talking about religions.  Scholars have been inclined to focus on the “big five” or “six” or “seven,” depending on how you count them, but each of those has sects—some with unbelievable numbers of them.  Christianity alone has somewhere in the region of 40,000 denominations.  I tend to think of them as different religions.  A snake handler has very little in common with the Pope, for instance.  Celtic Reconstuctionism is a smaller religion, but it has a very clear idea of what it is.  The group-written CR FAQ, originally a web document, is a question-and-answer format explanation of this particular set of believers.  It’s fascinating to read.

One thing that immediately stands out is that these are very intelligent and deliberate folks.  They are scholarly, sincere, and clear about what they’re trying to do.  Believing that ancient Celtic religions (for again, there are many) can be reconstructed and refitted for modern use, they learn the languages, read the books, look at the archaeological evidence, and critically engage with other modern religions that borrow from Celtic culture.  Indeed, the inauthenticity of some recent religions’ use of Celtic elements led to Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism.  The CR community is well aware that there are other Celtic revival religions.  This particular sect strikes me as among the better informed regarding the origins of their religion.  Most modern Christians have some vague idea how their empire got started, but they tend to be weak on the details.

Religions have sometimes been deliberately crafted, going back to antiquity.  Zoroastrianism, as far as we can tell, was an attempt by Zarathustra to avoid the pitfalls of indigenous Persian religions.  He wanted an ordered, systematic belief system.  As measured in years it was certainly successful.  It is the world’s oldest continually practiced formal religion.  Both eastern and western religious traditions were influenced by it.  CR is an attempt to live a Celtic religion as if its development hadn’t been interrupted.  Obviously, Christianization of the Celts was a major disruption, but it wasn’t an obliteration.  Most religions manage to survive in the colonizing faith.    Groups worshipping ancient Greek, Norse, Canaanite, and Celtic gods are thriving.  Aware that things have changed, they find value in the pre-Christian religions of their heritage.  If CR is anything to go by, they do so inclusively and thoughtfully.  And for those who wish to learn more, they leave written records.