Religious Studies

Prominent public intellectuals, as opposed to us obscure private ones, often brashly castigate religious thinking.  They may be aware that the vast majority of the world’s population is religious, but there’s  a kind of arrogance that comes with public adulation, I suppose.  I was just reading about the European Middle Ages and I was reminded once again just how seriously religion was taken and how the very foundation of civilization is based on it.  During said Medieval Period everyone knew—note I don’t say “believed”—knew that human beings had eternal souls.  They also knew there were eternal consequences to our actions and therefore correct religion was absolutely essential.  The Enlightenment began to change some aspects of received wisdom, but not all.  Many intellectuals who led the charge still believed in God and Heaven and Hell.

Whenever I consider the sorry state of academic religious studies today, and look at how politics are unfolding, my thoughts turn to history.  Just because we no longer think in a certain way is no reason to forget just how formative religion is to human life.  The Republican Party has cynically accepted this as a means to power.  While leaving left-leaning intellectuals to debate their choices, they roll toward electoral victory.  They acknowledge that people are religious, and that’s what it takes to win their trust.  Where was Dawkins when Brexit was decided?  It may not have been religiously motivated, but nationalism is closely tied to religious thinking.  While religious thought may be gullible it’s not necessarily so, and without those who think religiously there’s no way to a true majority.

I’ve always had more questions than answers, and one of my largest unanswered ones is why prominent public intellectuals don’t think studying religion is important.  Religious thinking isn’t going away just because they say it is.  In fact, the data show exactly the opposite.  The Middle Ages are quite instructive for understanding the way people behave.  Although belief in the religious structures may be eroded, people still want to find a way to continue their impact beyond their earthly lives.  Modern Nimrods are just as concerned with image as religiously motivated Nimrods were.  To understand where we are it’s necessary to look back.  Looking back entails a certain comfort level with ways of thinking that many moderns find embarrassing.  Religion is part of who we are.  Looking around we can see the consequences of denying it. 

Ash Monday

I was traveling abroad with a friend. We’d just arrived back in the United States and were making our way through customs. Since he was from another country we were separated. The border agent told me I couldn’t come back into the country unless I demonstrated that I was a racist. Only racists were permitted. He began to pressure me, even offering to help. Should I comply? I awoke in a panic. As someone who suffered frequent childhood nightmares, this was something new. In the past it was merely a monster chasing me, or my alcoholic father. Now I’m having nightmares about the government of my own country. And here it is, Presidents’ Day. Like U2’s early “New Year’s Day” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Independence Day,” there’s a decidedly poignant tone to this holiday. Looking towards DC I see nothing to celebrate. I see a government putting the mock in democracy.

This Presidents’ Day, I have a modest suggestion. It could fix democracy. When an election (I’m thinking Brexit as well as 11/9) squeaks out a victory because people don’t vote or don’t understand the issues, a true democracy would then hold a follow-up, “what I really want” vote. If we insist on keeping such arcane tools as the Electoral College in place, this is the only way for democracy to actually work. It wouldn’t be necessary in the case of a candidate winning both the electoral and popular vote. When that happens it’s pretty clear someone won. When the two are divided, however, that’s also a clear signal. Only unthinking automatons would declare that a landslide defeat is actually a win, based purely on political casuistry. Is there an ethicist in the house?

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This Presidents’ Day feels more like Ash Wednesday to me. Ash Wednesday is for public mourning. It is a realization and confession that we have sinned. We wear ashes to make it conspicuous. This year no ashes are required. Perhaps we should wear black bands on our arms. I would, only arm bands seem to have a way of becoming bright red and appropriating ancient religious symbols. We have sinned, and we have sinned boldly. The miasma of Foggy Bottom is as clear a condemnation as is devoutly to be wished. When I start waking up in a panic, in a body-sock of sweat, my childhood monsters have become real. It’s Presidents’ Day 2017.

Making Believe

Sanity is always temporary. I can say that because we all know that no one acts rationally all the time. Our brains evolved (or were created, if you roll that way) for the simple purpose of survival, not reason. Reasoning, no doubt, helps with survival, but so does feeling. Emotions may be harder to control, and they often take charge despite what we know to be true. When we do something in passion that we can’t justify, our logical brains have developed rationalization to explain it. I’ve been hearing a lot about rationalization lately. Many people who disagreed with just about everything that Trump said still voted for him. Their reasons are various shades of rationalization, but they generally come down to emotion. That’s not to say Hillary supporters didn’t also vote with their feelings. Her historical win of the popular vote demonstrates that very clearly. We didn’t want a demagogue, but we can rationalize our stupidity after the fact.

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I wonder if we haven’t entered an era of international madness. Brexit was an example of what happens when emotion trumps reason. As much as I like the idea of a Pirate Party, when it wins actual Icelandic elections one has to wonder what’s in those volcanic fumes. Talks are underway elsewhere about departing the European Union. Instead of working together it’s each man (literally) for himself. We used to think about politics and leave emotions for our personal lives. Mr. Spock, I’m sure, is somewhere shaking his head. “Illogical,” I can hear him saying.

As a creative person I value the emotional response. Who can say that falling in love is ever rational? There may have been a time when procreating enough to keep the species going may have applied, but we’ve far surpassed that goal and yet we keep on going. In fact, in much of life emotion is far more important that reason. The question, however, as to whether it makes for good government is one with a clear and salient answer. We must elect with our heads, not our hearts. Some will accuse me of playing favorites—after all I’m a bleeding heart liberal. But I’m writing this with reason on my side. Did I think that Ronald Reagan with his trickle-down oppression was a better, more rational leader than Walter Mondale? Have you ever listened to any of Reagan’s speeches? There’s a time—perhaps much time—for emotions to take control. Elections, however, are not one of those times. Anything beyond that is pure rationalization.

Remember the Alamo

I’ve never started a fight. I’m actually a very conciliatory type, willing to be wronged in order to avoid an unnecessary confrontation. This election has made me feel a little pugilistic, however. The sheer size of Trump’s loss based on the popular vote makes me hope I’m not alone in this. I find myself in San Antonio at the moment. The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, which rolls around the weekend before Thanksgiving, has been a regular aspect of my career since 1991. My hotel room overlooks the Alamo, and the implications—indeed, the irony—are not lost on me. I don’t know a great deal of Texas history, but what kid grows up without hearing about Davy Crockett, who died a few yards from where I lay down my head?

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I’ve known many Texans in my life. Many of them have been, and continue to be, perfectly reasonable people. Good and loyal friends. Lots of people like to live here. Indeed, the population of the state has swelled over the past quarter century. I’ve also encountered Texans (particularly at Nashotah House) who acted like the enemy at the Alamo wasn’t Mexico, but the other states. In the light of last week’s election I’m reminded of the words of one of the Mexican officers, after Santa Anna declare the battle a light one. Reportedly another officer quipped, “with another such victory as this, we’ll go to the devil.” Voices from the other side of the wall. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep from getting in so late, but I’m looking at the Alamo and Pink Floyd’s The Wall is going through my head. The lesson of the Alamo is that although you may lose the battle you can still win the war.

This is my second visit to San Antonio. Last time I was here, for the same conference, one of my doctoral advisors was over from Edinburgh, and we walked through the Alamo together. Today we are lamenting Brexit and Trump together. By slim margins the alt-right has learned to game the system. The problem seems to be apathy. It’s clear that we’re going to have to fight from now on just to get a little social justice around here. Strange words coming from the fingers of a lifelong pacifist, but you’d think that the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Susan B. Anthony might have had more lasting effects. Perhaps it truly is time to remember the Alamo.

Identity Crisis

womaninwhiteSince at least my middle school days I have been in search of the great Gothic novel. I can’t claim to have found it just yet, but I’ve read many notable samples along the way. Somehow Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White remained completely unknown to me until earlier this year. The title was evocative enough to make me pick it up, daunting though its 600 pages might be. Like many novels of its period it was serialized, which likely accounts for its length. Honestly, it took a while to get into it fully. Once ensconced, however, it kept me reading for over a month. (I took some breaks for work and sleep.) I wouldn’t say it was my ideal of the great Gothic novel, but the character of Count Fosco is amazingly drawn and seriously compelling. As the huge man lets mice run over his massive body and treats birds with conscientious gentleness, he is plotting ruin to his fellow human beings to benefit himself. He is an accomplished egotist.

What makes the novel so profound to me is the question of identity. One of the characters in the novel, the eponymous woman in white, has a double in the love interest of the protagonist. Doubles are common in Gothic tales, but in this instance when the woman dies and others believe her double to be her the question of identity is raised. Who am I, really? In the day before DNA evidence, it was impressively difficult to prove you were who you said you were, if your appearance was altered. Emaciated, abused, and drugged, Laura doesn’t look like herself and even her own uncle doesn’t recognize her. In the end her identity is established by legal testimony alone, without benefit of any biological proof.

Identity has been on my mind lately. Especially on a national scale. Brexit and Trump were both movements fueled by distrust and distorted notions of national identity. In short, Britain and the United States, so the reasoning goes, should belong to white men. As Monty Burns famously said, “Well, for once the rich white man is in control!” I personally like a little color in my field of view. I value deeply those I’ve met whose experiences and skin tones don’t match my own pallor. I want our national identity to include more than just fifty shades of white where women are objects and men are some kind of noble studs. Back when I started to read this novel I had a grip on that view of reality. Now that I’ve finally finished it, I wonder who we really are.