The Essentials

The current crisis, in my mind, dates to Thursday, March 12.  That particular day, at least in my socially distant location, the pandemic became a panic.  Decisions were made to have employees work remotely.  Zoom or Skype meetings were substituted for the face-to-face variety.  Church services were cancelled.  There was a run on toilet paper.  This final aspect has me really vexed.  Why toilet paper?  Experts say if we kept to our usual buying habits there would be plenty for everyone, but the survivalist mentality kicked in and people began hoarding.  If the apocalypse was coming, they wanted to go down fighting with clean underwear on.  We were in Ithaca the next day to see my daughter.  We ordered out from a local restaurant.  When we got home we found a role of new toilet paper in the top of the bag.

According to my amateur dating technique, we’ve been in this state for 13 days now.  Toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels are nowhere to be found.  I looked on Amazon.  They can get you toilet paper, but you’ll need to wait until May.  Why?  Ironically, because it’s being shipped from China.  Yes, the nation where the pandemic erupted has toilet paper aplenty.  Here in the greatest [sic] nation in the world, there’s none to be found.  What does this tell us about a country that self-identifies as “Christian”?  Whatever happened to “if someone demands your coat, give them your shirt also”?  Or perhaps more to the point, “turn the other cheek”?  How has a nation of Bible believers responded to a crisis?  By becoming selfish.  By stockpiling toilet paper.

I’ve spent a lot of time camping.  I’m fairly comfortable with the ways of nature.  Like most other people I prefer a nice, private restroom with all the accoutrements, but if bears can do it in the woods, why can’t we?  I have my Boy Scout guide right here.  But it suggests using toilet paper.  If books could be ordered, I suspect How To Poop [this is the family friendly version] in the Woods would be a current bestseller.  Trump says he wants everyone back to work by Easter, but the toilet paper ordered from Asia won’t even be here by then.  And will offices have access to some secret stash that only those who buy in bulk can find?  Hoarding makes any crisis worse, but this particular one seems especially mean spirited.  It makes me realize just how great America has been made.

My Stranger’s Keeper

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He was a bearded young man, maybe in his twenties. He kind of reminded me of my own youth, only cooler. I was at a stop sign on a snow-covered hill with tires honestly a little more worn than they should’ve been. Three times I tried to get some traction only to have to reverse and give it just a touch more gas. He walked by and called out “On the count of three, okay?” I shouted my thanks. It took him a couple of minutes to get me moving and as much as I wanted to stop and give him something for his efforts I knew that if I did I’d be right back where we’d started. Once I got moving, I had to keep going. I’ve driven in snow since I earned my Pennsylvania license in the snow belt of Lake Erie and I’ve helped drivers stuck in snow a time or two, but I was touched by this young man helping an older guy in a neighborhood he didn’t know get out of a jamb. That’s what I think of Americans as being like.

Seeing the utter selfishness of those “elected” officials posturing over the last few days I say to myself they didn’t grow up in the snow and cold. Nothing compels a young man with better things to do to help a frazzled older guy except for common human decency. Those who grow up with hardship know the value of their fellow human beings. We help each other because that’s what people do. Those born to wealth and power help themselves and only themselves. They need to learn the message of snow. Nature is our most natural teacher.

I don’t know his name. He didn’t have any idea that I had four hours to drive through snow, sleet, and freezing rain, but he helped me despite that. He didn’t ask for any money and I’m sure he expected nothing so coarse. I’m old enough to miss such kindheartedness and to cherish it deeply when I encounter it. Snow and hills and bald tires aren’t a winning combination, but the human capacity for goodness mixes well with any conditions. On a cold winter’s day I encountered the warmth of human concern for a guy in trouble. I need to listen to what the weather is saying more closely. More than that, I need to step out of my car more often and throw my shoulder against a stranger’s hatchback. It’s what makes us human.

Apes’ Asherah?

As a part of my class on Ancient Near Eastern Religions, since we were dealing with the earliest textually recorded religions, I explored origins. Specifically, the origins of religion. For years I told my students that biologists had observed behavior among chimpanzees that was proto-religious. Imagine my delight in seeing an article on New Scientist headlined “What do chimp ‘temples’ tell us about the evolution of religion?” The article, by Rowan Hooper, describes chimpanzees banging rocks before a “sacred tree” and storing the rocks in the tree in a ritualized fashion. That’s a long way from Episcopalians putting on their Sunday finery, but it is a fascinating piece of a larger puzzle. As the article points out, other symbolic action among chimps has been observed—some of it the basis for what I discussed with my students. The impulse to acknowledge the power of the Other runs deeply within animals, particularly mammals and birds.

This may seem an odd thing to suggest. We do know, however, that among the earliest attested behavior or Homo sapiens, along with hunting and seeking shelter, is religious behavior. It is part of who we are. Primatologists, such as Frans de Waal, have noted that the great apes engage in altruistic behavior. It is only when they become billionaires, apparently, that the urge dies. Again, other mammal species and some birds also show altruistic behavior. We are part of the natural world. Our religion, rather than being a collective insanity, is part of a continuity with that natural world. It is much a part of who we are as is seeking food or putting on clothing.

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The more rakish side of my imagination goes to the fact that this article begins with a sacred tree. Tree worship is part of early religions. Some scholars suggest it is part of Asherah’s cult in the ancient world. (I discussed this in technical terms in an article some years back; take a look at my Academia page if you can’t sleep without reading it.) Goddess or not, trees are essential for our survival—call them a godsend. Would it not make sense for religion to include reverence for trees? It seems that some great apes, at least, agree. Are these primates religious? We can’t say. One thing, however, is certain. Our fellow animals show more moderation in their use of the environment than our species does, and that in itself is both logical and religious.

Riding a Cycle

Spare-ribs and sauerkraut. My step-father always insisted on these for the turning of a new year. The old year was to end on something sour while the new was to begin with something sweet. So his reasoning went. It is this Janus-faced aspect of the new year optimism that we anticipate with such high hopes every twelve months, only to come back to another gray December. Time, since antiquity, was considered something cyclical. Today we think of time as linear—a line stretching from there to here, nobody really knowing where it might end. New Year’s Day reminds us of that obscure hope that things might indeed get better.

Since I’ve been cast into the role of someone dependent on business for a living, I’ve become keenly aware that, although the fiscal year doesn’t end for another three months, and the school year doesn’t begin for about six more after that, we open each year on the hope for better profit than the previous one. In a way that I’ve always felt earned economics its sobriquet of the dismal science, constant increase in a world of limited resources is sure to disappoint. What is really sought, it appears, is more for me, which means less for you. Born an idealist, I find the whole concept baffling. If I have too much to use, shouldn’t I share it with those who don’t have enough? Those who read about the behavior of apes would recognize this basic altruism as deeply embedded in the primate genome. Unless, of course, that primate is a human being.

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I wish that a New Year celebration could be more universal than just fiscal success. It is always my hope as a new year begins that by the end of it we will all be in a place we would prefer to be. Those of us who live under the law of greed and personal gain have long felt the frowning aspect of Janus’s face. As the year turns over in the month named for this deity of thresholds, we hope that a smile might beam down upon us, and that a new year might truly be new. Knowing this is an election year, however, has come to cause increasing anxiety. Those who can command public attention are those with the deepest coffers. Those most unworthy to lead. We do, however, love our entertainment. The Force has awakened, and what might we anticipate for 2016? For me, no animal has ribs to spare, but the symbol has become increasingly apt. Let’s hope the Force is good and will awaken peace.

Evolving Morals

CNN recently interviewed Frans de Waal about his new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates. Of course the book immediately went on my “to read” list. I’ve followed de Waal’s non-technical work for years and I have come to trust his judgment. As director of part of Yerkes Primate Research Center, de Waal knows apes better than most of us know our neighbors. He has been exploring the origins of altruism and empathy in the great apes and has come to some amazing conclusions. His past work has shown that much of what we have attributed to special revelation has actually arisen in people through regular evolution. The apes, particularly the bonobos, but also chimpanzees, show startlingly human reactions to moral situations. In the interview, de Waal notes the implications for religion. In his opinion, morality predates religion since the former is seen in other primates while the latter is not.

As much as I trust de Waal’s judgment, the unanswered question remains: what exactly is religion? Animals display rudimentary religious behaviors, but in human-speak religion is often intertwined with belief. In watching a recent episode of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole—“Is There Life After Death?”—it was clear that while scientists tend to stand on the “no” side of this divide, in the end it comes down to a matter of belief. Not all religions, however, are tied to belief. Some religions assert that what you believe is not important, but rather, what you do. In such religions morality is much more like our primate kin’s version of religion. As Freeman points out, you really can’t know what another person believes. You can ask, but if you believe their response is always an open question. Here is the dilemma of religion as a matter of belief. Even Jesus putatively said, “by their fruits you will know them.” Morality here sounds like religion.

Frans de Waal suggests in his interview that morality differs from religion by being earlier in the evolutionary scale. If, however, religion evolved—which it surely did, as we can continue to observe its evolution today—it may be of a piece with morality. We object to suggesting animals have religion; this suggestion would knock humanity off its pedestal as the only species to which an incredibly human-like god revealed (as it is said) himself. What de Waal has gone beyond proving in his previous books is that much of what qualifies as religion is found among the great apes. De Waal doesn’t put it in those words, but as a lifelong student of religion I have observed the connections first-hand. A scientist may not feel qualified to define religion, just as a religionist is not qualified to correct a scientist. I eagerly await the chance to read The Bonobo and the Atheist, but I already know that I will find much of what de Waal writes to be beyond question, and we may all be much closer to the origins of religion than we realize. Even our great ape kin.

Michelangelo's muse? (Photo by Greg Hume)

Michelangelo’s muse? (Photo by Greg Hume)