Story of God

Synchronicities come at kinds of synchronaddresses. After I had written a recent post on human sacrifice, I watched the first episode of Morgan Freeman’s The Story of God. My wife actually figured out how to get it without the miracle of the triple play, and we watched the initial installment on death. I’ve stated repeatedly on this blog, as I used to in my lectures, that death is a universal concern of religion. I wasn’t really expecting to learn anything new from the show, but it is a good idea to keep up with what hoi polloi are being told about the field in which I’m supposed to be a specialist. In any case, The Story of God is very much like Through the Wormhole, only from the other side. Science and religion. Religion and science. Like chocolate and peanut butter, two great tastes that taste great together. Really, I mean that.

So after telling us that the Egyptians may have invented the afterlife (although it’s clear they didn’t), the show takes us through other religious expressions: Christian, Hindu, Aztec. The Aztec segment brought up human sacrifice again, in its particularly grisly expression, as a means of thinking about what happens after death. In the light of the article I’d read (see last Sunday’s post) I couldn’t help but think how this was an ideal form of social control. There’s no doubt who’s in power when you’re looking up at your still beating heart, strangely cooled. As I’m pondering that heart, I’m thinking it wasn’t the Egyptians who first had this idea at all.

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Neanderthals, it appears, may have buried their dead. Even if they didn’t other ancient, pre-historic people did. And with grave-goods which, if you think about it, are rather superfluous without any afterlife in which to use them. It stands to reason, even before reason, that as soon as people began to recognize death, they had to be wondering what happened next. It is a bit simplistic to suggest that religion began because of the fear of death. It is also equally simplistic to suggest that death had nothing to do with the beginnings of what we call religion. People have died as long as there have been people. And survivors have carried on after the passing of others. Maybe we are all grown up now, but it seems that we aren’t fully human unless we give some sort of thought to what comes next. Even if the answer is “nothing,” it’s some kind of religious statement, whether intentional or not.

Dead of Winter

WinterPeopleOne of the commonalities of all religions, I used to tell my students, is the concern with death. Not that all religions react to it in nearly the same way, but the fact is no religion ignores it. For people, obviously, our awareness of our own mortality marks us as indelibly as our birth does. Once we become aware of death, we will never be able to forget it. This inevitability fuels many horror stories, whether literary or cinematic. When I saw Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People, I knew that I would read it. Like most book consumers, I had to wait for the paperback edition, and once it was on offer I got a copy and waited for winter. Well, this year I’m still waiting for winter, but I began reading the story once the nights were long enough to qualify. It is an appropriate story for the season and it introduces what might be considered a kind of monster as well. Like most monsters, however, sleepers are not evil. The undead, however, have to find a way, ironically, to live.

The Winter People is a sad story, and tangled in the way that makes for successful novels. The main issue at play, however, is that with which all religions are concerned. Death is perhaps the most noble of literary subjects. Since we all have to face it, it is universal and yet somehow frightening. Fear of the unknown. The dead, unlike in the stories, don’t really come back to tell us what it’s like. Even those who do, in fiction, give us a distorted view. Theirs is a world inverted from our experience of it. It lacks finality. It is a place between. There is a macabre logic to it.

The living have never been comfortable with the dead. Memory reminds of who they were. McMahon is clear, in her vision, that memory is not who they are. We put them underground, but theologically we can’t let them go. Heaven, Nirvana, Purgatory, reincarnation, or even Hell—we feel that we need to give our dead a sense of place in a life after life. McMahon builds a sober mystery into her non-final afterlife. There are some, I’m sure, who will be kept up at night by her imagination. For me, I now have something to ponder. Many are the stories, like Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, that warn of resurrection. We can’t keep the departed with us, and winter, when it comes, is a season of harsh reality.

Yes, Virginia, There Are Ghosts

Universities find themselves in a strange position vis-à-vis the supernatural. I suspect that many institutions of higher education are slightly embarrassed at the fact that universities began primarily as training grounds for clergy. We’ve moved away from all that superstition and now believe that only science leads to knowledge. That’s why I find the University of Virginia’s magazine article on ghosts so refreshing. We all know better than to expect a straight answer from academics faced with the awkward question of belief, but the campus magazine invited six department representatives to a discourse on ghosts. The article, which can be accessed online, asked Art History, Anthropology, Religious Studies, Literature, Neurology, and Archaeology faculty about ghosts. At least they were willing to talk about the subject.

Edgar Allan Poe's room at the University of Virginia

Edgar Allan Poe’s room at the University of Virginia

Even in this world where skeptical ridicule is an accepted part of academic practice, we can’t quite let go of the idea of ghosts. They are among the most ancient of beliefs, and even despite the proliferation of apps that let you add specters for any occasion of selfie or digital shot, people still see them often enough to make academics wonder what is going on. Since science only studies that which can be measured, we suppose ghosts lie outside that realm. Those who’ve popularized “scientific” approaches to ghost hunting on television don’t bring their scientific credentials to the discussion. Anyone can be taught to use technology. (Well, not anyone—I sometimes still find my computer at complete odds with me. Technically, however, it is just an inert piece of matter.) From time to time serious scientists have turned their attention to ghosts. Results have been inconclusive.

As the leaves are beginning to fall, and the temperature follows suit, we know that many months of long nights lie ahead. Trees without leaves and air without warmth tempt our minds to believe that perhaps the microscope can’t reveal all that exists in this world. Halloween, after all, has become a major spending holiday and that assures its veracity. Driving through town, it is clear that it is quite an investment for some. Down in Charlottesville they are hunched over their desks, writing lecture notes and grading papers. As the wind blows that empty branch against your window on a overcast evening, however, it won’t matter what department you call home. There will be ghosts about tonight.

Our Gods, Ourselves

The near-death experience, made popular by Raymond Moody in the 1970s, has hit the cultural mainstream with movies like Heaven Is Real. The now-familiar scenario of going through the tunnel toward the light and meeting something like God is so widespread that mention of “staying away from the light” can be a metaphor for remaining alive. Although experts (one of which I’m decidedly not) disagree on interpretations, nobody doubts that the dying often report such things. Some say it is the impression left on an oxygen-starved brain about to implode, while others postulate a soul has made an actual bid for freedom only to be returned to sender. No matter what you believe, it’s hard not to be intrigued. Not all the experiences are identical, however. A friend recently sent me a story from World News Daily Report that headlines “Catholic Priest Who Died for 48 Minutes Claims that God Is a Woman.” The story by Barbara Johnson, which ran earlier this month, is an interesting variation on the standard. Often the “being of light” met at the end of the tunnel is kind of asexual. After all, there are no physical bodies there.

This story has me thinking. Traditional Christian, indeed, Judeo-Christian thought posits that God is neither male nor female. Of course, given human experience, many people find that difficult to conceive. It does occur in intersex persons, and it is actually pretty widespread in nature where some animals change gender over their lifespans. Still, when it comes to the Almighty, people want to know with whom they’re dealing. Think about it. When you walk into a doctor’s office and meet a physician for the first time, your response will differ depending on their gender. The same is true of going into a car dealership, or a daycare facility. We use gender to give us the first hint on how to respond. A genderless God, let’s admit, is somewhat disquieting. What is the message you want to send to a person without knowing their gender? Or maybe like me you’ve read a book and discovered halfway through that you had the gender of the author wrong. Doesn’t it impact how you read the rest? So, what if God is a woman?

Interestingly, the case of Father John O’neal comes from a Catholic context. Along with Evangelical Christians, Catholics are among the most likely to hold a residual maleness to God’s identity. Theology of the Trinity, always beginning with “the Father” makes it hard to escape. Perhaps what Fr. O’neal unexpectedly encountered was a God-concept without judgment. That would certainly be disorienting to a faith that has a multi-layered afterlife including limbo and purgatory as well as heaven and hell. A deity who decides the fate of souls must be a judge, and although Judge Judy rules daytime television, the church still has a traditional mensch on the bench. What if Fr. O’neal really did get to heaven? What if he found God really was female? Could human religions ever recover? I, for one, am intrigued. Still, I’m content to wait another few decades before finding out. And maybe for the time we have down here we should all start practicing by realizing that gender is always far less important than the personhood that we all share.

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Conscientious Ghosts

It’s finally Halloween. In keeping with the spirit of the season, NPR recently ran a story on ghosts. I’ve posted on the topic of ghosts several times since they are inherently a religious phenomenon, whether they actually exist or not. Empirical method only takes us as far as that terminal border, but not beyond. Since we all face death, the question of ghosts is intriguing to many people. In some parts of the world, according to the NPR story, up to about 90 percent of the population believes in ghosts. They have been part of the religious thought of humanity since writing began. Ghosts have haunted us from earliest memory.

What makes the NPR story so interesting is that there is a kind of moral consciousness that runs through the story. An interview with Tok Thompson, an anthropologist at the University of Southern California, makes up part of the story. Thompson notes that ghost stories often concern unresolved justice issues. He cites the overused “Indian burial ground” motif as an example—where there is a collective guilt, ghosts tend to gather. Slavery is another such social injustice, and again, ghosts and slaves are no strangers. Christianity tended to push justice off into the afterlife. The fact is many people do not receive fair treatment in their lives. Some of them are very good folk who just never get a fair chance. That troubled early Christian thinkers into making Heaven into a place where the reward came. It also, unsuccessfully, tried to suppress the idea of ghosts. Ghosts problematize such easy theology. What are they still doing here when Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory should suffice?

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The NPR story even addresses the idea of possessed dolls. Tok Thompson notes that the word “doll” derives from the word “idol.” This sheds a whole new light on Barbie, I suppose. An idol is an image representing a deity. In the Judeo-Christian tradition religious statuary was problematic at first. Again, Christianity bucked the trend by allowing images because people naturally want to see what it is they believe. Stories of haunted dolls and statues and other inanimate devices are difficult to accept. They are, however, deeply religious. That’s because ghosts represent what we really believe. Death is the most parsimonious of thresholds. We can’t look over at the other side, but, if ghosts exist, they may give us a glimpse beyond human sight. And that seems like an awful decent thing to do.

Resurrinception

Inception_ver3Like most profound movies, Inception keeps me coming back repeatedly. I’ve already written a post on how the Theseus and minotaur myth lurk deep within the labyrinths of this film, but upon my most recent viewing a new angle caught my attention. In the first level down into Fischer’s dream, when Saito is unexpectedly shot, Eames asks Cobb, “What happens when we die?” It could be the question of a child faced with a dead pet for the first time. Of course, Eames refers to death in a dream under sedation, and limbo is the closest thing to spiritual death that a person can experience. The timing of that question, however, triggered in my head the number of resurrections that take place in the movie. I have frequently noted here that resurrection is a standard part of the tool kit for western movies, particularly American ones. We expect resurrection. So, finally, three layers down, a dream within a dream within a dream (even Poe would be proud), Saito dies. He is lost in limbo.

Limbo is a fuzzy theological construct thought up by the church for those who don’t deserve Heaven, or Hell, or even Purgatory. Some, it seems, end up in limbo. In Inception limbo is unconstructed sub-conscious, an area even Freud would fear to tread. Saito dies and goes to limbo. Fischer, meanwhile, also ends up in limbo because Mal shoots him dead in the third-level dream. Mal is already in limbo because she killed herself in real life—or was it a dream? Cobb, of course, must die to return to limbo to retrieve Saito so that he won’t be arrested when the plane lands. In limbo, three of the four escape, riding the kick back up to consciousness. Only after baptism in the first level dream, when the van plunges into the river, do the lost souls emerge. What happens after we die? Resurrection.

I’m not suggesting that Christopher Nolan planted a Christian idea in the viewers’ subconscious mind. Resurrection is part and parcel of our culture. Perhaps, however, this helps to explain the durability of some religious concepts. We long for resurrection on such a deep—maybe subconscious—level that we want to see it on the big screen. Even ghosts, we’re told, haunt because of unfinished business. It is Saito, the Japanese business mogul, however, who undergoes the most resurrections. He dies in the van underwater, in the fortified mountain hospital, and in limbo (perhaps in the elevator as well, but this is uncertain). His is a regular reincarnation of resurrections. Inception, I’m sure, will keep me coming back for more. One of the questions that none of us escapes while alive, is that uttered at the level of the dream.

The Good Magazine

IMG_0902I saw this magazine in a store recently. The temptation to buy it was compelling, but with international trips and a child about to start college to pay for, it felt a little superfluous. Presumably what was meant by this jaunty title, “The Bible: 50 Ways it can Change Your Life,“ was that by reading and applying the Bible and its precepts respectively, your life will be transformed. The problem is that there is no expiration date. Not to be too entrepreneurial with scripture, but how long do you have to apply all this before the blessings take hold? One of the criticisms atheists frequently bring to the discussion is that in order to explain the truly difficult aspects of the universe, the faithful often resort to laying claim to the divine mystery. God works in a mysterious way. Rationality squirms with discomfort at the thought of unsolvable mysteries. In our cause-and-effect world you might expect a fairly quick turnaround with the almighty. I know the Bible has changed, indeed, shaped my life. In more than 50 ways.

Lest I be accused of being too cynical, I feel obligated to explain that I grew up utterly convinced that the Bible was literally factual. Even working around the contradictions I studiously denied, it seemed that the goal was more to make your after-life better, rather than the one here and now. Too many nasty things attended living by the word. People were dying in the Good Book, in droves. The trade-off was a better world coming. If something transformative, in the prosperity gospel sense, were going to happen, it had plenty of time to come along in my younger years. Instead, the Bible led me to a foreshortened career in teaching it and a job in which applying its principles is a sure path to getting fired. Can the Bible change your life? It sure can.

The ways listed on the cover—live with eternity in mind, embrace your weakness, and love your enemies—all fit parts of the Bible. They are all part of “the secret” that makes for best-selling self-help books. The Bible, however, isn’t a book about making your life better. Taking Holy Writ at face value, you obey because that is what is demanded of you. Commandments have no suggestion of option about them. It’s not that I take the Bible lightly; quite the opposite. Something tells me, however, that if I need a magazine to help me figure it out, I must be missing something. Instead of reading the Bible, this is reading about the Bible. The iconic book is alive and well, even in this secular society.