Ironic Icons

The Annals of Improbable Research every year offer up the Ignobel Prize for research that is bound to raise a condescending smile from the perspicacious. Ever practical Americans are given a bemused nod by the European for taking on the stranger side of science. This year’s Ignobel went to a group studying why banana peels are slippery, but a BBC Science and Environment report also mentioned a study of the phenomenon of pareidolia. For many years I have found the tendency to see faces where they don’t exist—signal amid the noise—to be closely tied with religious evolution. (The book that started me down this path was Stewart Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds.) Indeed, the BBC reports the group was investigating the brains of those who see Jesus and other specific figures on toast and other venues of visual “white noise.” Not surprisingly, they found that the figure seen often relates to the religion of the viewer. Buddha gets around as much as Jesus does.

Ironically, many religions, particularly in the monotheistic mold, tend to find images problematic. According to the Bible, the true believer would not make or seek images at all. The great iconoclasm clash in late antique Christianity was, at least in part, a dispute over the role of images. Anyone who keeps an eye on the religious news knows that images of Mohammad are a particularly touchy subject. The Ignobel awards may not be the best place to look for explanations, but the University of Toronto team found that the function of finding faces is pre-human and is hardwired into our brains. Seeing Jesus or Buddha before Jesus or Buddha were born? Creatures with faces evolved the knack to identify faces.

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But why religious faces? The report on the BBC doesn’t go into that level of detail, but it is the salient point. Finding faces makes sense. Why we find religious faces is far more interesting. Guthrie suggests this might be the origin of religion itself—first we see the faces and then we give them names. We see what we expect to see. And maybe the religious tend to expect an epiphany more readily than the non-religious. The non-religious less seldom report seeing such faces. Indeed, the word pareidolia is still generally eschewed since it admits of one of those things we find somewhat embarrassing about being human. And yet it happens to us all. The face staring back at you from your morning toast may not be Jesus, but chances are that face will be religious.

Help from Above

Frisbee, like Kleenex and Band-Aid, is a brand name that has become generic. Since at least the time of ancient Greece people have been fascinated with flying discs, and like many kids of my generation I grew up with a Frisbee or two around the house. We didn’t have much money, and in my younger days I remember playing “frisbee” with the lids to large margarine tubs—it’s more difficult to get these to do tricks, but they fly passably well with the right flick of the wrist. When I got to college I started to hear about a new game called “Frisbee golf.” It usually involved a group of friends and their flying discs picking out a target and seeing who could get their Frisbee there in the fewest tosses. Well, college was a couple decades ago (ahem), and who has time for Frisbee in the serious adult world of trying to stay employed? When some friends asked me to join in a game of disc golf over a recent weekend I knew a couple of things had happened. First, Frisbee had been either usurped or commodified to the point that it was either illegal or gouache to use their discs to try to hit “that tree over there,” like the redneck with his shotgun on a Friday night. Second, to play the game you needed to have the right equipment. Out on the course we came across a couple of guys with “golf bags” full of discs that they had to flip through like so many CDs before each toss. I felt woefully amateur. Like golfing in jeans.

IMG_1140Fortunately my friends had discs. Scientifically engineered discs, no less. Different “Frisbees” (not a technical “Frisbee” among them, not even a Wham-o) with different weights and characteristics made for specific tasks. I thought of the famous sculpture of the discus thrower and wondered what Plato would’ve made of all this. Since we were a large group with limited discs, we each chose one to be “our” disc so that we could follow it. It was either a rare show of masculine aggression or perhaps religious curiosity that drew me to the distance disc called Archangel. Bright orange, the Archangel was emblazoned with an actual heavenly being with his (a masculine angel, this) sword. He wore a vaguely Egyptianizing headdress that brought to mind the plagues of Egypt. The disc was heavy compared to a Frisbee, and had an edge like a, well, a sword. A dull sword of course, maybe wooden as opposed to steel. That disc could fly (although it didn’t improve my score much).

Angels have had a long fascination for us mere mortals. Originally a class of messenger gods in antiquity, monotheism forced them into a subservient role where swiftness was essential. For some, such as the Angel of Death (more likely the source of the imagery behind my Archangel), weaponry was essential. Unlike the Angel of Death my aim wasn’t very accurate. Or maybe that is just like the Angel of Death. No firstborn were slain by an hour’s diversion of tossing some Frisbees around, but my thoughts had been driven back to the biblical origins of my implement. I wondered why there was no archangel of peace. A few days later it was announced that Nelson Mandela had died. My thoughts went to Gandhi. To Siddhartha Gautama. Even to Jesus. Yes, there have been those who’ve insisted on the way of peace. And many differences might be settled by a friendly game of Frisbee golf, minus, of course, the copyright infringement.

Om, Are You Through with That?

High school curricula constantly change, and one of the tasks I have set myself is to read what my daughter is assigned in English class so that we can discuss it. Sometimes by happy coincidence I’ve already read the book, and teaching four classes of my own this semester, I appreciate the break. This practice has led me to several books I would otherwise have never found on my own. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse is one such novel. Based, as it is, in the imaginary world of the Buddha’s India as seen by a Swiss writer, Siddhartha is an odd blend of Eastern and Western religious ideas. Having spent four years studying German in high school, I am embarrassed to admit that this is the first Hesse I’ve read.

Naturally, given the strong Buddhist orientation of the work, Siddhartha deals with religion. More than just religion, however, it is the story of self-realization, of becoming. At times it is difficult to sympathize with the protagonist since his religious arrogance and self-assurance make him unapproachable. Nevertheless, as the brief story unfolds he discovers that he is merely human, and a needy human at that. As he reveals his final thoughts to his lifelong friend Govinda, Siddhartha states, “in every truth the opposite is equally true.” Here is a gem worth keeping. When statements of faith are uttered, are not those speaking their creeds also affirming the antitheses? The world is just so, and therefore it is also entirely opposite.

Many students approaching the Hebrew Bible fail to realize just how Eastern the outlook often is. Since the Bible is foundational for Western culture, we easily assume it shares the viewpoint of our culture. Those who read it seriously find out that the ideas and concepts often fit much better into an “Eastern” outlook. The Bible is comfortable with opposites and contradictions. The Bible values the journey as much as the goal. There are parts of the Bible that read very much like Siddhartha. While I doubt that Siddhartha will ever be my favorite novel, it has become for me a commentary on the religious life. The protagonist can, after having rejected the teachings of the Buddha, only seek. And the search is the point of the entire journey.