Agade

The word “listserv” feels abrupt to me, as if someone couldn’t be bothered to type one more “e” to give the reader a sense of satisfied completion.  Technology terms are often like that—not really descriptive of what they are and leaving us older folks wondering about the words and not quite comprehending what they’re supposed to signify.  Back in the early 1990s I joined a listserv that eventually came to be known as “Agade,” since it carried news of the Ancient Near Eastern variety.  Since I seldom have the opportunity to work in that field any longer, I long ago ceased to be on the Agade listserv and consequently have lost track of what’s happening in real time.  Or at least close to it.  An author with whom I was working recently asked me to post about his book on Agade so I had to resubscribe.  It’s nice to see the listserv, whatever that is, still alive and kicking.

One of the articles posted recently had the intriguing title “Burnt remains from 586 BCE Jerusalem may hold key to protecting planet.”  I’m not sure, beyond evangelicals chomping for Armageddon, who doesn’t want to protect the planet, so I read on.  Archaeologists, I know, sometimes feel put upon to defend their work.  Yes, it’s sexy and cool, but it’s also expensive and not as well funded as it needs to be.  It does occasionally lead to real scientific breakthroughs.  This particular story is about Earth’s magnetic field.  It is vital for life as we know it, and we know that it is constantly shifting.  In fact, some pundits are fearing a flip in magnetic poles which, for a guy who can’t even understand listserv, sounds really catastrophic.  The article, however, is about the fact that the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by fire that led to a trapped picture of the magnetic field at the time, and we know the date.  Magnetic materials under high heat preserve indicators of the Earth’s magnetic field, whether it had been discovered or not.

Image credit: NASA/ISS Expedition 28, public domain from Wikimedia Commons

The book of Genesis says nothing about the creation of the magnetic field that makes life on our planet possible.  Knowing that we understand so little about something that makes our existence possible, I suspect, indicates that there are many factors of life we haven’t even begun to comprehend.  There are further discoveries to be made.  We’re not even sure if our definition of “life” is entirely accurate.  One thing our history has taught us, however, is that if we build great structures there will be those eager to burn them.  As we sift through the rubble we might discover something about the direction in which we’re going.  And a listserv will be there to share the news.

The Place of Temples

Gobeklitepe, or more properly, Göbekli Tepe, stunned the archaeological world a few years back.  This site in what is now Turkey contained what is apparently a sanctuary—purposefully buried—and advanced architecture for its age.  It was that age that was so shocking.  Gobeklitepe dated from around 11,000 years ago.  Now, in case ancient history’s not your thing—this will be painless—agriculture began, according to the standard chronology, about 10,000 years ago.  This led to surplus production that in turn led to the first cities, indeed, what we recognize as civilization itself.  While Gobeklitepe wasn’t permanently occupied, it was an example of a temple before agriculture, and according to the standard thinking, this should not be.  Consequently not too much has been published on the site because nobody likes a smart aleck, even if said aleck is an archaeological site.

Just within the last weeks, Anadolu Agency announced that an even older site was found in Turkey, near the city of Mardin.  Reports coming out of Boncuklu Tarla suggest that it is a millennium yet again older, dating from 12,000 years ago.  The article doesn’t include many photos, but suggests the site is similar to Gobeklitepe.  If this holds up, a new paradigm for human history will need to unfold.  What drew people together at first was not tilling the soil and reaping a surplus, but religion.  Even in the still standard paradigm, kings could only emerge with the backing of gods, so early cities had impressive temples.  What the evidence now suggests is that the temples came first and ancient people came together at sacred sites before they had a surplus to bring.  You can’t pick a sacrificial animal without having a heard or flock from which to take said victim.

We live in a technological era in which intelligent people are scratching their heads with their smart devices because religion just won’t go away.  I have suggested before that the reason it won’t is that it is deeply engrained in our biology.  We can try to reason the gods away, or abstract them to the point that we can call them laws or principles, but we can’t escape the fact that we’re held down by forces beyond our control.  Ancient people in Turkey, hunter-gatherers in our current paradigm, were gathering together and putting massive energy into building what look like temples before they had a secure and steady source of food.  Before, indeed, they had smart phones or even dial-up.  Millennia later we would rediscover them and wonder about things even as religion would be the deciding factor in elections in the most technically advanced cultures on the planet.

Photo credit Zhengan, via Wikimedia Commons.

Galilean Blues

Call me nostalgic, but growing up Fundie, “Capernaum” tripped easily off my lips.  In fact, it was a word I heard very frequently at church, always pronounced “kap-er-NEE-um” (please pardon my amateur phonetics).  Even though no one I knew had ever been to Israel, we all knew it was in Galilee and that it figured large in the early life of Jesus of Nazareth (although we assumed he was surnamed “Christ”).  When I attended seminary I was surprised to hear the geonym pronounced “ka-per-NUM.”  It sounded so sophisticated—aristocratic, even.  Still, everyone at Boston University School of Theology knew what, and roughly where, it was.  It was a household name, no matter how you pronounced it.

Spellcheck disagrees.  It doesn’t recognize one of the most famous places in the New Testament.  Now, I’m aware that my view of things is idiosyncratic.  This blog should be proof of that.  Those who grow up from Fundamentalism often know this experience—something that everyone knew when you were young and informed is arcane knowledge to the rest of the world where Kardashians and Sedarises are household names.  The Bible, irrelevant at best, is a foreign country.  Then the religious right comes to power and everyone’s confused.  They don’t speak the same language as the rest of the world.  They say kap-er-NEE-um.  Others scratch their heads and glance at their knee caps.

When I visited ancient Capernaum it required some imagination to reconstruct what it had been, back in the day.  Since the ruins were relatively recent—only a millennium or two—some of the buildings were still above ground, including the famous synagogue.  Even among the unchurched archaeologists, everyone knew the connection of the city to Jesus of Nazareth.  That doesn’t mean, however, that the programmers responsible for spellcheck recognize the name.  Kardashian doesn’t get a red underline on my word processor.  Even in the first century, however, Galilee was a backwater (with real water!).  Important people came from big cities and had family connections.

Some things don’t change much over the millennia.  The famous often find their spotlight because of connections.  If the deity decided to incarnate today, s/he’d know to get a website put together first.  And it would help to have some product endorsements.  Even salvation at a click isn’t enough to draw most people in.  Of course, the matter of name—excuse me, “brand”—is important.  More than anything, you want something people can pronounce.  And just to be safe, anchor it to either New York or the city named The Angels.

Not Enceladus

I’m moving.  It turns out that transport companies don’t offer service to Enceladus, and inter-planetary moves are expensive, so we’re moving just one state over.  If, by chance, you know me from work you need not worry—my job will remain the same but the commute will become tele.  Over the past several weeks my wife and I have been sorting through the accumulated effects of thirty years of married life.  Our current apartment has an attic.  Uninsulated, there are few days when it’s not too hot or too cold to stand to be up there for very long—kind of like other planets, come to think of it.  Also neighbors don’t appreciate creaking floorboards over their heads the hours I’m awake.  Going through things that were hurriedly packed to get out of Nashotah House was quite poignant.  That’s the way fragments of past lives are, I guess.  You see, that was an unexpected move.  Life has a way of being complicated.

One of the more remarkable discoveries was how much we used to put on paper.  As a scholar of ancient documents, I have an inherent distrust of electronic media.  To be written means to appear on a permanent—as much as material things can be permanent—medium.  Back in my teaching days assignments were handed in on paper.  Grading was done on paper.  Teaching evaluations were distributed on paper.  Academic publications were done on paper.  In order to be a professor you needed a house.  I taught at five different schools over a span of nearly two decades.  There was a lot of paper to go through.

The academic mindset is seasonal.  I kept waiting for summer to come to have time to sort through everything.  Outside academia, I’m still learning, summer is just another series of work days.  Yes, you can cash in vacation time, but you’ll not have that entirely sensible canicule hiatus that allows you to examine what you’ve accumulated and determine if you’ll ever need it again.  It was like archaeology in the attic.  When volunteering at Tel Dor in the summer of 1987—summers were like that, as I said—I learned that by far the majority of pottery found at digs is discarded.  There are literally tons of it thrown away.  You can’t keep it all.  So the attic was a kind of triage of memories.  Not all of this was going to fit in the new house.  Decisions had to be made.  I guess I was thinking that if a company could take us to Enceladus they’d have figured out how to transport everything.  It turns out that to escape earth’s gravity, you have to get your ship as light as possible.  With over half a century of memories, however, there’s bound to be some weight to be left behind.

Losing Ahab’s Head

Call me Ishmael. There was a time when I heard about archaeological discoveries impacting the Bible soon after they were made. Now I have to wait until they appear in the paper, just like everybody else. When I saw a story asking if a recently found statue head might be that of Jezebel’s husband a number of things occurred to me. First of all, how cool is it that a king is referred to as the husband of a more famous wife? Well, I suppose Jezebel is infamous, but as the Washington Post article I read indicated, some biblical scholars are inclined to view her more sympathetically as a strong woman in a patriarchal morass. Seems like something we should be able to understand these days.

Another issue is that underlying bugbear of wanting to prove the Bible true. There is little doubt that Jezebel’s husband, a king by the name of Ahab, existed. Quite apart from the Bible he is historically attested—one of the earliest biblical characters to have received outside verification. If he actually struggled with a prophet named Elijah or not, we can’t know. In any case, the non-talking head of the statue looks like just any other pre-Roman guy with a crown. The article wistfully wishes the rest of the statue could be found, but one thing that we know from ancient iconography is that ancient figures, be they gods or heroes, are seldom inscribed. As I long ago argued about Asherah, without definitive iconic symbols to identify them, ancient images must remain ambiguous.

What would iconically identify good old Ahab? Certainly not a white whale—it’s far too early for that. He was represented in the book of Kings as the worst monarch Israel ever had. Politically, however, he seems to have been somewhat successful. Would he have been represented with the grapes of Naboth’s vineyard? Or, like a saint, holding the arrow that eventually slew him in his chariot? Ahab is a mystery to us. Unlike Melville’s version, he’s a man eclipsed by those in his life, notably the prophet Elijah and his wife Jezebel. Although the latter’s been baptized into the acceptable form Isabel, her name is synonymous with being a woman who knows what she wants. In the biblical world her main crime was being born into a family who worshipped Baal. The difference between her day and ours is that if a Republican president declared himself a Baal worshipper, evangelicals would cheer and joyfully follow along. Rachel, after all, cannot stop mourning her lost children.

The Republican National Convention?

One Isaiah

Everyone wants to be remembered. While many don’t wish to be famous, we all hope that someone notices the noteworthy things we’ve done. By any measure Isaiah of Jerusalem seems to have succeeded. Every year around Christmastime his words, set to music, are sung in churches around the world. He gets regular readings among those who attend synagogue and even those who take secular Bible classes have to reckon with him. Isaiah even attracted imitators before his book was finally compiled. According to the Good Book he was a trusted advisor to King Hezekiah. But what do we know of him as a person? Biographical episodes in his book are rare, unlike those of his fellow major-leaguers Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Who was Isaiah?

It’s not Christmastime, so why am I writing about him now anyway? Well, a friend pointed me to a recent archaeological discovery from Jerusalem that is a broken seal impression (technically called a bulla) that may have originally read “Isaiah the prophet.” The news was broken in Biblical Archaeology Review, but it can be read about for free here. Eilat Mazar, the archaeologist publishing the inscription, notes that it reads “Yesha‘yah[u] nvy…” As often happens in archaeology, the end of the inscription is missing. In case your Hebrew’s even rustier than mine Yeshayah sounds a lot like Isaiah—go ahead, sound it out. The word prophet is nvy’. Don’t let that apostrophe fool you; it’s a full-fledged consonant in Hebrew. If that final letter has been reconstructed correctly the seal would read “Isaiah the prophet.”

My friend asked me what I though of this. My initial impression is that it would be odd for anyone to sign themselves with the title “the prophet.” If they did it would require a bit more hubris than I mentally attribute to Isaiah. You see, a prophet was selected, so they believed, by God. Chosen even among the chosen people. It wasn’t a pleasant job—once again, Jeremiah’s jeremiads come to mind. Would someone have signed himself “the prophet”? We don’t have a terrible lot of information from the ancient world about individuals. What we do know is subject to exaggeration and other forms of hyperbole. Did Isaiah, mouthpiece of Yahweh, carry an official seal declaring that the contents were bona fide possessions of a man who saw God sitting on his throne and survived to tell the tale? Or is it a hopeful reading of those who want to demonstrate the Bible is true? It’s a question the reader must decide, for, as always seems to happen, the evidence is broken just at the crucial point.

Digging Even Deeper

What does it mean to exist for someone else? Isn’t this the very definition of slavery? Yes, we may voluntarily give ourselves to someone for the sake of love, but woe to the person who thinks he owns his spouse. Human beings may be an acquisitive lot, but that doesn’t excuse it. To be civilized, after all, means to be more advanced than we are by nature. These thoughts follow on hearing one of my colleagues interviewed on Game Plan on Bloomberg. In the light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Francesca Levy and Rebecca Greenfield are interviewing people in different professions to see what inappropriate treatment women receive at the behest of men. Their job is, unfortunately, not one where it’s difficult to find examples. In this particular case, they interview Beth Alpert Nakhai of the University of Arizona. Dr. Nakhai is an archaeologist and she describes the perils faced by women in the field.

In 1987 I volunteered on the dig at Tel Dor in Israel. I had just graduated from seminary, didn’t have a job, and was pretty sure I’d be going on to graduate school. Tel Dor, like many digs, had different loci excavated by different university teams. I was on the Boston University area, B1, next to the section being worked by one of the universities in California. At one point one of the seasoned men—I can’t remember who—remarked to me that digs in Israel were great because of the three A’s: “alcohol, adultery, and archaeology; in that order.” It was intended as a joke, but it had that time-worn feel of a sentiment that’s been around for a while. At the time I thought little of it. I was there only for the last A, and, had circumstances been different, I might’ve made that my career choice.

Listening to Beth’s interview, however, showed me the darker side of careless remarks like this. Archaeologists often work in remote locations where local laws treat women differently than men. University professors have great power over graduate students and are able to make or break careers. Often married men leave their families in safe locations while they spend their summers directing teams that include female students and other volunteers. I’d never thought of the experience from that angle before. As a man I didn’t have to worry about anyone coercing me into an unwanted physical relationship far from prying eyes or legal systems which, at least in theory, protect women. The truly sad thing about all this is that forces are, especially now, at work to make women victims again even in this country. The point of archaeology is to try to understand civilization writ large. And yet, civilization in the advanced world is now moving backward. How long before we too are buried under a pile of shiftless dust waiting to be discovered by some future excavators whom we can only hope are more advanced than we are?

Diverse Colors

After a warm snap, we’re not at peak color here in New Jersey. Some trees have changed, yes, and leaves have begun to fall, but green prevails. While on a walk with my wife—a luxury only available on weekends with my commuting schedule—I spotted a bit of red amid the leaves on a local stream. Litter, and not just the leaf kind, is a bit of a problem in Jersey, but this splotch of red seemed intentional. It was taller than it was wide. It was standing in the middle of a shallow brook. Its placement looked intentional. What couldn’t be discerned from the bank is just what this was. It might be a Buddha. It might be Ganesh. It does seem, no matter how it’s reasoned out, to be religious.

Archaeologists often find objects with no known utility. If an artifact has no practical function such an object is generally deemed religious. For much of human history, before the madness of capitalism, people owned only the necessities. Life was hard and lifespans were short. Accumulating stuff as an end in itself was a luxury only for kings and priests and the relatively few merchants in urban settings. An object found from that time, then, with no known function, must somehow be religious. An object of cultic devotion. Those of us trained in the history of religions would sometimes laugh at this predisposition. Religion is the basket for anything that can’t be otherwise explained. So it seemed with this red statue—it was clearly human-made—standing in the stream. We were walking by a ritual site, perhaps. Maybe it was just a joke.

Then I recalled Ganesh Chaturthi, the ritual submersion of Lord Ganesh that transpired in late August this year. It is a numinously charged season, this descent into autumn. My Jewish friends have just celebrated a new year. Pagans made proper observation of the equinox. Preparations, at least of the commercial kind, are well underway for Halloween. They are all colors. Although spring’s first buds are welcome after a monochromatic winter, soon we transition into the green of summer. We miss the benefits of many colors. At moments like this on the banks of a brook with yellow and brown highlighting the green that remains on the trees, I’m again reminded how wonderful diversity truly is. I am in the presence of a god. It may not be my deity, but I’m not threatened by the difference. Nature is a patient master for those willing to attend to the lessons.

Devonian Dreams

Toothbrush and dental pick in hand, I go at it. Not that I’m a professional, mind you, but curiosity drives me to this. You see, this crinoid before me is at least 358 million years old and anything that can make me feel young deserves all the attention I can give it. Crinoids are also know as “sea lilies,” but they aren’t plants. They’re actually echinoderms, and the fossils I’ve found in the past have only been cross-sections of their “stems,” a stone circle, as it were. This one has tendrils visible, and I can’t believe that it was a chance find on one of my recent walks through Ithaca’s gorges. I’m dreaming Devonian dreams, and I want to brush away the plaque of the eons and see what I’ve actually found.

Fossils are a kind of eternal life. The creature that died to leave this impression lives on as a monument in stone. It reminds me of my unfortunately brief stint as an archaeological volunteer. Scraping away dirt to reveal a piece of pottery that hadn’t been touched by human hands for 3,000 years. Of course, that’s merely a second ago when you’re talking about something pre-Carboniferous. The dinosaurs won’t even show up for another 100-million years. And I think I have to wait too long for the bus. Time, as they say, is relative. Did this medusaized creature before me realize just how terribly long it would take for enlightenment to arrive? And how so very swiftly it could fall one foolish November night? Careful, this fossil’s fragile.

I grew up among the Devonian substrate in western Pennsylvania. The Bible on my shelf told me to disregard the evidence before my eyes. Some clever true believer had declared Noah’s flood the culprit, never bothering to explain how freshwater fish showed up after the deluge. Those we tried to keep in our aquarium never seemed to handle the slightest disturbance of their salinity. The ages of the literalist are by definition short-sighted. 6,000 years seems hardly enough time to account for any sedimentary stone, let alone that riddled with fossils. I’m hunched over my bit of slate, dental pick hovering nervously over what will never come again. The Bible behind me says it’s an illusion. You may be right, Mr. Scofield. You may never have evolved. But as my fingers glance a creature dead before even the crocodile’s grin I have to declare that I have.

Epics of Humanity

The Epic of Gilgamesh survived only by being buried. Its survival is perhaps less surprising than its discovery after having been lost for many centuries. Reading Andrew George’s translation of the tale reminded me of reading Beowulf. Not only are the two of them hero tales, they are both “sole survivors” in the sense that they define the literature of their respective eras in a way no other text does. Yes, there are other Mesopotamian epics, but Gilgamesh, it was immediately recognized, deals with existential issues in a way that’s thoroughly modern. It is set apart from other ancient literature for that singular achievement. Fear of death leads Gilgamesh to amazing feats even if it only ends in a yad wa-shem. We can feel for Gilgamesh. Although he’s a king, he has to face the demise common to all people, and the language used to express his emotions is touching even today.

Beowulf, while singular in a way Gilgamesh isn’t, also leaves the reader wondering what is left of life if not some kind of fame. Beowulf may defeat Grendel, but the dragon mortally wounds him. If his tale had not survived in the back of an old book we wouldn’t be discussing him still today. How narrow that gap between fame and obscurity turns out to be. For the vast majority of us obscurity awaits since few can be recognized by the many. Like Gilgamesh or Beowulf, we know the consciousness inside this head and we feel that somehow we have a purpose. It takes daily life to drive that out of a normal person. The hero, however, refuses to let the odds win. There’s a profound hope here, in these narratives of denying the final fear the final say. In George’s edition the inclusion of other Gilgamesh tales outside the epic texts reinforces that point repeatedly.

Humans are meaning seekers by nature. Some simply accept the illusion of apparent reality and ask for little besides. Others cannot rest knowing that there is more to be understood, or, in the parlance of outmoded means of expression, to be conquered. When life says “Enough,” Gilgamesh refuses to acquiesce until his options run out. For many centuries his story was set to be lost forever. Latter-day restless minds, however, dug in the dirt until something truly extraordinary was discovered there, free for the interpreting. So it is that heroes come from nothingness. Many return to obscurity. Those that are found and venerated experience a resurrection the envy of many a god. Speaking to strangers across millennia is indeed immortality, even for those whose lives must end like all others.

Interior Theodicy

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Speaking of theodicy, I have a dentist appointment today. Now, if you were raised with the Protestant guilt that used to be so pervasive in this nation, you’ll understand. I do brush my teeth twice a day. I even use floss and that mouthwash that burns away a layer of mouth lining every night. But there’s always more you could do. I’m not particularly good about visiting the dentist, though. Partially it’s a memory thing, partially it’s a pain thing, but mostly it’s a time thing. No matter how far back I jam the toothbrush, well beyond my gaging threshold, cavities seem to appear. And I don’t even have a sweet-tooth. What kind of deity allows cavities in a person who eats very little sugar and brushes so assiduously that last time the dentist told him to ease up a bit since he was scraping away the enamel? (People tell me I’m too intense.)

One of the real ironies of all this is that for all the trouble teeth give us during our lifetimes, they are our most durable parts after we die. Archaeologists find mostly teeth. In fact, it seems that Neanderthals might have practiced some primitive dentistry. I wonder what they thought of their neanderthal deity? So teeth are pretty useful, no matter whether the gray matter above them is dead or alive. I can explain this to my dentist, but he only seems interested in me as a specimen of carnassial curiosity. Maybe it all goes back to my belief that fillings were meant to last forever. Or all those root canals that seem to come in pairs that cost as much as a semester at a public university. Mostly it’s the memories.

In Edinburgh I had a tooth go bad. The Scottish dentist was surprised. “You’ve got a twelve-year molar erupting,” he said (you’ll have to imagine the accent). I asked if that was unusual. He owned that it was as I was a post-graduate student in his late twenties and the twelve-year molar was so precise in its timing that child labor laws used to be built around its presence. Years later in Wisconsin a different dentist asked about one of my fillings. I told him it was from Edinburgh. He called all the other dentists in announcing, “You wanna see a real Scottish filling?” Or maybe the fears go back to my earliest dental nightmares where the cheap doctor seemed unaware that teeth actually had nerves in them. I always left with a guilt trip. “You should brush —“ (more, better, longer, with a more gentle touch) you fill in the blank. I’m afraid of another kind of filling. And I know as it is with Protestant guilt, so it is with teeth. There’s always more you could be doing.

Historic Crossing

If Washington crossed the Delaware, I figured, so could I. Of course, I have a car and I was going from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, but history doesn’t always repeat itself precisely. In New Jersey, the landing side of the crossing, a modest park marks the spot, along with plenty of space for outdoor activities. Pennsylvania, meanwhile, has a tripartite park which includes sculptures, an historical village, and a tower. The tower was built from 1929 through 1931 in commemoration of the momentous crossing. My mother visited the site as a teenager, some few years after it opened. On a mission to recapture part of her childhood, I made a visit to see a bit of history, and also to experience the great views. As far as towers go, this one isn’t the tallest, but in Bucks County, it is among the highest points and you can see for many miles on a clear day. On the top of the tower I overheard a man explaining to his family that Washington built the tower in the 1700s and that it was used in the Revolutionary War. He lamented that it would be easy to be trapped on top of the tower, and urged his kids to imagine what it would have been like.

DSCN4865

My thoughts went to the Bible. We’ve come to know through archaeology and comparative sources that many of the events portrayed as history are about as accurate as having Bowman’s Tower built by a long-deceased George Washington. And yet we continue to teach children that stories for which no evidence exists are history. We don’t always have a good grasp on how to tell the difference. In the United States George Washington is nearly divine in reputation. His travels are attested on an almost omnipresent scale; even my childhood home of Franklin, a tiny burg near the Ohio border in Pennsylvania, saw visits from the general. I grew up knowing little of the history of the man who would become the first president. I did know, however, that he’d crossed the Delaware.

History is not so easy as it seems. What “actually happened” on the ground may not offer much meaning to those who seek it. Only when the events become story—sometimes sacred story—do we start to get a sense of why the Bible has such a grip on a large swath of the human race. It is story with no apology. Its historicity is far beyond recoverability: who saw the creation of the world? Even the events in the human timescale were written, for the most part, centuries after the occurrence, with all the liabilities that entails. Built by members of the Washington Crossing Park Commission, the park I’m visiting intends to demonstrate the importance of a singular event that led to the freedom of an entire nation. Indeed, the crossing of the water to free a nation has a distinctly biblical feel to it. And even if that first exodus never happened, we tell our children it did, and we have no less a figure than George Washington building a tower to prove it.

Explained Away

The premise seems sound. Although science tends to indicate that God is not necessary to explain anything, religion itself may still be useful. In a nutshell, that’s the basis of Alain de Button’s TED talk, “Atheism 2.0.” We don’t need to believe in God to find religion a useful paradigm. There’s so much more to being human than being simply analytical. De Button begins from the premise that there is no god, but that religion teaches us many useful lessons. It is a fascinating concept. I’ve had de Button’s book on the topic on my reading list for some months now, but like so many pressed for time, I find it simpler to watch a 20-minute TED talk than to read an entire book. It is refreshing to see someone on TED not simply dismissing religion. My friends in the STEM community often recommend TED talks, and they usually leave me feeling small and insignificant. Now I can at least show my face.

A deep irony pervades this condescension to religion. Scientific study of the past (known by the collective term archaeology) has recently given strong indication that the religious impulse is what led to civilization itself. The mysterious site of Gobekli Tepe, as I’ve mentioned before, seems to reveal that even before high antiquity what drew people together was the emergence of religious belief. Religion leads to culture, and culture leads to science. Science rejects religion and what happens to culture? Just take a look around. I’m still a naive man with working class values. In the course of my business travels I’ve often ended up in what might be considered the sketchiest kinds of neighborhoods. The suburbs keep moving further out. What happens when we run out of space? God only kn— wait, that’s a forbidden premise. Materialism only knows.

De Button’s talk is fascinating in that he doesn’t simply dismiss religion. Like most non-specialists, he focuses on the accidentals that reveal something savvy religionists have always known—there’s a healthy dose of psychology in any religion. Call it neuroscience, or call it truth. Religions have something to teach us. Civilization, it seems, began because of religion. De Button is clearly correct that we need not believe the minutia of religious doctrine to get something out of it. Atheism is not always evil nor is piety always above moral suspicion. Being human, we can’t help but wonder what is really real, however. Religions claim to know, as do some sciences. Little can be said beyond the fact that none of us know. Of course, TED will ask some of us to speak to the issue and the rest of us should just sit still and pay attention. To be noticed is to be an expert.

The eternal struggle (photo credit JuanMa, Wikipedia)

The eternal struggle (photo credit JuanMa, Wikipedia)

Stone Age Henge

At a hotel during a recent excursion, I saw a National Geographic (I think) special on Gobekli Tepe (this is the fate of those of us kept from a daily sustenance of academic listservs bearing the most exciting news). Gobekli Tepe is an archaeological site in Turkey, discovered several years ago by Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute. It is an odd site, dating back to some 11,000 years ago, that consists of megalithic (big stone) constructions earlier than Stonehenge or the great pyramids of Egypt, both dating from the Bronze Age, roughly. The complex of odd buildings seems to be religious in function because they bear no practical purpose, and the implications of the site are that our earliest steps towards civilization have been misinterpreted from the beginning. We have been taught that domestication of plants and farm animals led to fixed centers of living. Gobekli Tepe suggests that religion led to settled life and farming came later.

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The implications of this are rather startling for those of us who’d been working on the assumption that religion developed as a way of keeping the gods happy after people had the luxury of surplus food brought on by agriculture. It turns out that hunter-gatherers learned to live in settled locations because of religion. That is, religion, instead of being just another component of culture, is what led to culture in the first place. In a climate where the most vocal intellectuals insist that religion must be shut down, chopped off at the roots, and burned in the oven of rationality, we see that none of us would be enjoying our urban lifestyles if religion hadn’t brought us together in the first place.

There is no doubt that religion may be taken to extremes, and that when it is, it becomes dangerous. Religion, however, is no foe to rational thinking. Gobekli Tepe is a site of astounding engineering for Stone-Age hunter-gatherers. Engineering is applied science, and so these people were using their understanding of the world to establish a ritual site for the practice of their religion. They needed to live nearby, although they still had to spend their days chasing animals and gathering foodstuffs along the way. Religion made them realize that life together was a necessity for humanity to thrive. We should take a more balanced view before declaring religion a source of evil only. We may never be able to coax the gods into the laboratory, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a very important function for human civilization. If they are taken in reasonable doses, they might even lead to astounding transformations.

In Touch with History

A friend recently sent me a package with a Roman jar handle from Caesarea Maritima. It’s not everyday that I receive 2000 year-old artifacts in the mail. Holding that ancient jar handle reminded me of my short stint as a wannabe archaeologist, not far from Caesarea at the site of Tel Dor. There’s no thrill like unearthing an artifact that has been buried for millennia, knowing that you are touching something a fellow human being dropped for the last time back in the days of the early Roman Empire. It is a humbling experience. In all probability the final touch was a heave into the dump, since clay jars are easily broken. But as I finger this ancient piece of useless junk, I can plainly make out how fingers like mine twisted the clay and pressed it on the jar body, much as I once did in art class, decades ago. I am connected with a stranger over the millennia by this simple bit of clay. We are united in an ancient family.

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Archaeology began as a biblical venture. Anyone who watches Raiders of the Lost Ark with archaeological sensibilities, after rolling their eyes (yes, it’s deserved) can’t help but realize a kernel of truth is buried here. Archaeologists don’t search for the ark, but it was religion that gave them the idea in the first place. Travel to the Middle East and begin digging up the places mentioned in the Bible. Those early archaeologists wanted to prove that the Bible story happened just as it was laid out. Only it didn’t. Archaeology soon began to reveal a more complicated picture. Jericho was uninhabited in Joshua’s day. And was there even a historical Joshua? What began as a charge to demonstrate that the Book of Books never gets it wrong transformed into a science with its immutable commitment to objectivity. And objects.

The desire for historical proof meets a deep need in people. We want to know what really happened. This simple jar handle before me tells a mute story of a person like most of us—never famous, never noticed in the noise of first century Palestine. Just some Jane or Joe throwing out the trash. That is the story of archaeology. That is the story of human life.

Every once in a while I ponder how insignificant we are. The vast majority of us will be remembered only a few years or decades beyond our demise. What will our artifacts say about us? One of the relics that will be found in the rubble of my life will be a Roman jar handle from an even earlier age. Long ago deemed junk by a person so different, but not so very different, from me. It was discarded two millennia ago. When it was found in the twentieth century it was a treasure. Thanks, Susan, for putting me in touch with history.