Spiritual Spelunking

Looking at the headlines it’s sometimes difficult to believe we’ve evolved. I still trust evidence-based science, despite official government policy, however. So when a friend sent me a story about a new human cousin I knew it was worth a look. Homo naledi bones date from much more recent times than they should. At less than 400,000 years old (which means they might fit GOP ideology pretty well) they are almost contemporary with Homo sapiens. And, apparently, they buried their dead. Now much of this is still speculation. The bones were found in caves with openings so small that onlyfemale spelunkers could fit in, and the question of whether dropping bodies in a hole counts as burial has raised its head. Still, the human family tree is being redrawn, and in a way conservatives won’t like.

I became interested in evolution because of Genesis. My mother gave us a few science books as children even though we were Fundamentalists. One of them talked about evolution and I was intrigued. Clearly it didn’t fit with the creation story—I was young enough not to notice the contradictions between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2—and yet scientist believed it. They likely weren’t Christians, I reasoned. College gave the lie to that deductive thinking when I ran into Christians teaching the required “Science Key” who believed in, and yes, taught, evolution. I’d missed something, obviously. Once I discovered evolution could coexist with Scripture I was eager to learn as much as a non-biologist could. In my teaching days I focused on the early part of Genesis and even began to write a book on it.

Image credit: Margaret A. McIntyre, from Wikimedia Commons

It’s much more honest to admit that we’re related to the rest of life on this planet than to set ourselves aside as something special. Evolution has done something that the Bible never could—brought all living things together. There are too many towers of Babel and chosen people themes in Holy Writ to allow for real parity with our fellow humans, let alone other creatures. Yet the human family tree is wondrous in its diversity and complexity. We now know that Neanderthals were likely interbreeding with Homo sapiens and I wonder how that impacts myths of divine chosen species. Did Jesus die for the Neanderthals too, or just our own sapiens sapiens subspecies? You can see the problem. For a literalist it’s just easier to crawl into a cave. But only if the opening is large enough to admit males, since the Bible says they were created first, right?


To those raised in the Christian tradition incarnation is a familiar concept. The idea, more complex than it sounds, is that God becomes human. In a world of DNA and general disbelief in anything non-physical, it boggles the mind how disincarnate “matter” (for lack of a better word) might bond with the double-helix in order to create something new. Since science can’t explain such things spiritual, believers have long hung the cloak of mystery here and passed on to more practical matters. But what about excarnation? It’s actually not the opposite of theological incarnation, but it does involve spiritual practice. A friend sent me an article on Vintage News (much better than fake news, in my humble opinion) titled “The Towers of Silence: Ancient reminders of an eerie Zoroastrian burial ritual.” This was a nice find because I’ve been reading about the Zoroastrians again recently, and if ever there’s been a case of an important religion going underground, their’s is it.

I don’t mean to sound patronizing about it, but Zoroastrianism has been one influential religion. Having roots in the world between Vedic and Semitic religions, it had an impact on both. In my teaching days when I covered Zoroastrianism my Hindu students remarked on how similar the concepts were to their tradition. More reluctant were those of the Judeo-Christo-Islamic side to see that key concepts such as Heaven, Hell, the Devil, and Armageddon have their ultimate roots in the dualism that Zoroastrianism put on offer. Thus spake Zarathustra. We know very little about this founder of the religion. We do know that he set out to create a “systematic theology” that explained the world he saw. The result has changed the world many times over.

Those of you drawn in by catchy titles may be wondering what excarnation has to do with it. Believing dead bodies to be inherently corrupt, burial wasn’t the best Zoroastrian option since it only polluted the ground. The response was the ultimate in up-cycling—expose dead bodies until the vultures eat all the polluting flesh and then handle the dry bones afterward. This practice is arguably the most natural way of disposing of human remains, but it’s distasteful to many people. Who wants to be eaten? Unless, of course, you’re a believer in incarnation. For in that tradition God incarnate told his followers to eat his body and drink his blood. The more squeamish have done what religions have always excelled at—they turned earthy reality into a metaphor. Even vultures have to eat.

Image credit: John Gould, HC Richter, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: John Gould, HC Richter, Wikimedia Commons

No Play-Thing

Childs_PlayPossession. It’s one of the scariest concepts in the religious arsenal. The idea that a person could be taken over by a different entity and surrender his or her selfhood to a malevolent saboteur is frightening indeed. Horror films have been deft at exploiting this. As a college student I was slow to watch the latest horror flicks. Some I’m only now beginning to find. Over the weekend I watched Child’s Play for the first time. Like most people who have some sense of popular culture I knew that Chucky was an evil doll, but I never really knew the backstory. Despite the utterly untenable hypothesis of the movie, it still manages to be scary in our CGI world, despite the bogus lightning. The frightening part comes from what is an admittedly creepy doll in the first place becoming possessed by a religious serial killer. Charles Lee Ray, named after three infamous assassins, displays facility with a religion that some identify as voodou, although that association comes primarily from the voodoo doll that Chucky uses to dispatch his mentor.

At least Child’s Play makes the effort to explain what forces exist that might bring plastic and stuffing to life. In true horror fashion, it is not the Christian god, but forces that are somehow more powerful, more malevolent. It would hardly behoove the maker of all the universe to inhabit a Cabbage Patch knockoff. The Lakeshore Strangler has been in training to cheat death and remain alive forever. He takes lessons from a mystical character whose religion is referred to only obliquely, yet whose efficacy is obvious in the malevolent toy. Willful suspension of belief is necessary to make this resurrection story plausible, but that disbelief must include belief in religious powers. The horns of this self-same dilemma hoist all religious believers in a scientific world.

Chucky is participating in one of the oldest of all religious traditions—death avoidance. Some of the earliest evidence that we have showing that hominids were developing religious sensibilities is the burial of the dead. There is really no reason to bury if we are only carrion like every other meat-based product. Whether it is out of fear or reverence, we turn to religion to assure us that there’s something more. It may not be scientific, but that’s largely the point. For many even today, a concluding scientific postscript leaves a body cold. Time for a leap of faith. Horror films are often decried as lowbrow and unsophisticated. Chucky, however, like many mythic monsters, is rapping his inhuman fingers on the door of religion. Specifically resurrection. Although in this case, it might be best to keep that door firmly closed.

Natufia to Say

The Natufian culture predated the Israelites by millennia. They were gone by at least 7000 years by the time Israel appeared. The Natufians seem to have been the first permanent residents of a hotly disputed piece of real estate: Israel/Palestine. On Monday MSNBC reported on the archaeological find of a feasting hall among the Natufians. The story reminded my wife of similar stone-age sites that we visited in the Orkney Islands several years ago. What the story reminded me of, however, was the marzeah. The Natufian site features two activities: feasting and burial. The article notes the coincidence of 28 human burials, including one shaman, and the unmistakable signs of feasting. Bring them together and its sounds like marzeah time to me!

Natufian burial, from Wikipedia Commons

The marzeah is an imperfectly understood social institution from the ancient Levant. It is mentioned in the Bible as well as in the Ugaritic texts. Although plausibly reconstructed by modern theorists, we simply do not have a complete record of what the marzeah entailed. Two of the key elements seem to have been feasting and a funerary nature. Monotheistic religions tend to downplay the role of the dead as influential entities since they interfere with a monistic view of the divine. The two Hebrew Bible references (Amos 6.7 and Jeremiah 16.5) do not speak highly of the practice. The Ugaritic material suggests drinking may have been involved as well, further problematizing the ritual.

Now here is where the ambiguity of archaeology is thrown into sharp relief. The fact is we do not know what the Natufians were doing when they buried or feasted at this site. The Hilazon Tachtit Cave does not seem to have been a regular occupation site, and we do not have any reason to connect the burials with the feasting. Beyond a hunch. The hunch is the incredible urge to bring like things together. People excel at pattern-recognition. When I read of funerals and feasting my mind leapt to the marzeah. There seems to be no organic connection between the Natufians and Israelites (or Ugaritians), but the continuity of cultural concepts seems to strong to dismiss. Were ancient people toasting their dead with feasts that were remembered down into the Late Bronze and Iron Ages?

Memento Mori

This is the end, my friend, my only friend, the end

This is the end, my friend, my only friend, the end

Those of you who’ve listened to my podcasts have no doubt noticed my reference to George Pendle’s, Death: A Life (Three Rivers Press, 2008). This fictitious account of Death’s memoir, all things considered, is a fun read and a wild romp through various ancient religions. Postulating a loveable, if somewhat obtuse, God (no more obtuse, however, than the supreme being in Harold Bloom’s Book of J) Pendle populates his mythological world with a vast array of embodiments, personifications and supernatural beings, all slightly neurotic, and more or less on an equal playing field. Although the book is intended as fun, it does offer some serious consideration to the phenomenon of death.

One of the earliest intimations that Homo sapiens had begun to consider religious sensibilities is burial, the concomitant state to death. Burial serves an important biological function of preventing the diseases borne of putrefaction from infecting others, but it also serves as a condensed statement of a fledgling belief in an afterlife in some form. Even Neanderthal burials have been discovered with rudimentary grave goods. Concern for the wellbeing of the departed is surely a religious sentiment. Death and religion are never far from each other. Even the early Mesopotamians trembled at the etemmu, their version of a ghost, and marked it with the divine determinative on their clay tablets. Religion has been a fine-turned handle that humans have used to get a grip on death.

That is not to say, of course, that death is religion’s only concern, but there is some wisdom in that old saying that people seek out their religious leaders when they are “hatched, matched, and dispatched.” Mesopotamian (and Hebrew Bible, for that matter) afterlife was a gloomy prospect, yet it was certainly brighter than the alternative of the simple cessation of biological functions. Death as a concept inserts meaning into the all-too-natural act of dying. Not a religion exists that does not address itself to this great leveler of all human aspirations. If at times it seems that my posts tend toward the macabre, peopled with vampires, werewolves, zombies and Republicans, bear in mind that such creatures of the night are expressions of the essentially human and indisputably religious preoccupation with death. Its unbeating heart transfuses life to religion.