Won’t Someone Think of the Gods?

The annual holiday tradition of fighting over peace on earth has begun. It’s difficult to attribute blame since the “Keep Christ in Christmas” crowd do have a certain historical parsimony about them. Still, it was with tongue frozen in cheek that the Freedom From Religion Foundation put up a billboard in Pitman, New Jersey, with the message “Keep Saturn in Saturnalia.” Won’t someone think of the gods? In just the short span of my lifetime (well, half-a-century is really not that long) many assumptions about American religiosity have come to be questioned. There are those who seriously believe the Greco-Roman gods exist and they do have a right not to have their religion belittled. Those who find all religions laughable, I suppose, have the right to belittle. Some are devoted to Saturn. Others take seriously the Norse gods. Belief is like that—rationality is not a huge part of it.

Megyn Kelly, an anchor on Fox News, boldly declared this past week that Santa is, by dint of historical fact, white. I suspect she wasn’t thinking of Nicholas of Myra, but rather the jolly (white) man with glandular problems and the magical ability to visit every house in the world in a single night. The historical Saint Nicholas was born in Turkey. Kelly also made an unequivocal claim for Jesus’ whiteness, although he was clearly Semitic and historical records about him are extremely dicey. Conservatism, it seems, can only be pushed so far. I tend to think the problem is with making people into gods. Once a person becomes divine, in a monotheistic system—apart from all the theological casuistry than ensues—the nature of godhood is irrevocably associated with one race only. Of course Kelly, and many Fox News fans, have co-opted Christ from Judaism and suppose he was rather Nordic, as an article on CNN’s Belief Blog notes. Kind of like Thor, for what carpenter doesn’t know how to use a hammer?

To keep (white) Christ in (white) Christmas does betray a lack of familiarity with the Christmas story. Apart from angels appearing to some shepherds, the event was obscure—in the part of town across the tracks. Even the wisest men in the world had to stop and ask directions because they couldn’t find the place. The first Christmas, in as far as we can reconstruct it, was a silent affair with only the sounds of birth and the quiet desperation of a working class family far from home. No malls stayed open late that night.

The solstice is literally the darkest day of the year, the time when the slow return to light begins its weary trek over the next six months. We think of the cold, the dark, and hope for peace. No matter the holiday tradition, you’d think that peace would be one thing we could all agree upon. But gods are jealous beings, and, technically, they belong to no human race at all.

O holy night?

O holy night?

Unusual Thanksgiving

Believe it or not, preaching was once part of my job description. At Nashotah House all faculty were called to the pulpit, ordained or not. Falling into the latter camp, my obligations were generally held down to once a semester. My first homily, focused on the lectionary readings for the day, was about the problems of social inequality. Afterward the senior faculty member came to me in the vestry and said, “It has been a long time since I’ve heard the social gospel preached from that pulpit.” This little incident came to mind as I was reading a CNN Belief Blog story my wife pointed out to me. The article highlights some of the provocative comments by Pope Francis in his recent document Evangelii Gaudium. Francis, in a startlingly refreshing vein, suggests that the church must get back to basics. Human basics. I agree with those who say the church has not gone far enough on gender equality, but the idea that the cut of your surplice demands more divine attention than the homeless and starving has got to go.

At Nashotah House many students who wanted to be Catholic priests but also wanted to be married (the flesh is willing, but the spirit is weak) had Pope cards, rather like baseball cards, in their chapel stalls. This was in the era of the great conservative John Paul II, affectionally known as J2P2 in the theological ‘hood, when men ruled and a congregation might split over the use of a maniple. The gnat-strainers were clogged in those years. Camels fled for their lives. I wonder what these priests now make of the very head of their favorite chauvinistic church stating that even the papacy itself must change. I keep wondering when Pope Francis will have his accident, or unexpected heart attack or stroke. As the Belief Blog makes clear, not all appreciate the challenge to the status quo. There is too much power at stake.

This Thanksgiving, this old Protestant finds himself unaccountably thankful for a Pope that is willing to start turning things in the right direction. It will take decades, if not centuries, before the church can possibly catch up with the realities faced by the vast majority of the powerless, disenfranchised, and the needy. These are uncomfortable realities. When I saw a picture of Pope Francis laying his hands on a badly deformed man during a service in Rome a few weeks back, I could almost believe that someone was taking the message of Jesus to heart. That message was, and is, a radical one. We only have all-male disciples because we can only count to twelve. And we tend to forget that just about all of those guys were working-class slobs. Maybe if we could really be thankful for the gift of people all of this might just come to mean something significant after all.

Photo credit: Tomaz Silva/ABr

Photo credit: Tomaz Silva/ABr

Supergod

ManofSteelThis weekend the most-seen UFO in the skies was the Man of Steel. I didn’t see the new Superman movie, partly because, I suppose, of my own inadequacy issues. Also partly because I’ve always had trouble warming up to Superman. He’s just got too much going for him. Don’t get me wrong—I love heroes. But heroes are vulnerable. In fact, their vulnerability is the key to their strength. Superman, truly threatened only by kryptonite, is maybe just a little too perfect. A little too… messianic? So it would seem, according to CNN’s Belief Blog. According to a post by Eric Marrapodi, Warner Brothers is pushing hard on the Christian imagery of Man of Steel, encouraging church discussion groups, and even providing a study packet of Jesusesque tropes to discuss with the faithful. All this for a hero dreamed up by a couple of Jewish kids in the 1930s.

A telling observation appears somewhere in the middle of the article, where Ted Baehr is quoted as saying “I think it’s a very good thing that Hollywood is paying attention to the Christian marketplace.” Did you catch it? Christian marketplace? No surprises here, really. Christianity has “been good” to many who advocate the prosperity gospel—god wants the good to be rich. And since I haven’t been able to walk through Times Square for two weeks without seeing the Man of Steel, larger than life, flying off of massive billboards into the crowds of tourists and locals, I have no doubt the movie did very well over the weekend. Some may have even had their faith restored. Others will have had their pockets lined.

A few years back I was asked to present a program for adult education for a church in Princeton. They wanted someone to talk about religion and movies, and this is something I’d often addressed in my classes. I selected movies to discuss that were not “religious”—no films premised on religious characters or situations—and had no difficulty filling an hour with example after example. Movie makers have long known the benefits of movies based on Christian concepts. Self-sacrifice, redemption, and resurrection permeate the movie industry. This is a Christian culture. The parallels between Superman and Jesus have long been noted by critics of religious imagery in both films and comic books. And those who make films have also realized that Christianity is more than just a belief system. Indeed, it is a marketplace. And with enough money, even a regular mortal can bend steel.

None Too Human

Apropos of nones, CNN’s Belief Blog ran an opinion piece about the nones earlier this week. It seems that Rep. Kyrsten Sinema came out of the closet as a none at her swearing in. Nones are among the fastest growing non-religions in the world. I suspect a lot of it has to do with the internet; those who subscribe to no particular faith have discovered that it is okay to do so. Or not do so. It is so easy to see, online, that lots of others think that way. Many of these people are not atheists, and many describe themselves as spiritual, but the problem seems to be with organized religions. Religions are, of course, human inventions. Our experience of the world doesn’t ever seem to key completely to science or expectations of fairness or justice. Some of it may be due to illusion, or delusion, but we get the sense that something serious may be going on here. Many formal religions have tried to systematize something that can’t be tamed or taught to perform on cue. And since religious leaders are only human, there should be no surprise that they come fully loaded with the cadre of human weaknesses.

Despite claims of epic voyages to Hell in a small, wicker conveyance, things in human terms aren’t as bad as they used to be. Sure, the economy continues to mope, and far too few people are far too rich, but generally we’re living longer, we’re healthier (or at least bearing up better under conditions that would’ve rendered us unhealthy decades ago), and we’ve got lots and lots of toys to play with. Maybe we’ve reached a level of contentment that blocks out that quiet voice begging for attention. It is a still, small, voice. One of the things I notice is that quiet is hard to find anymore. Our gadgets beep and chirp and mutter and belt out rap or soul or rock in just about any venue where people are found. Religions have generally been nurtured in places of silence. We’ve become the nones.

The anti-atheists have done a good job equating non-belief with moral turpitude, but the ethical atheist is not hard to find. Religions have always been concerned with morals. At least since the Enlightenment, however, philosophers have weighed in on ethics, often without a theistic underpinning. The idea, according to humanists, is that we agree to certain moral expectations by our very humanity. Some don’t play by the rules, to be sure, but most of us do. Some with, some without a deity or deities telling them to do so. Once you sidle away from the angry New Atheists, you can see that atheists can be good people. Looking to blame evil on lack of belief is too easy and consequently misguided. Conservative Christians, progressive Muslims, atheists, polytheists, and nones all have their humanity in common. We are, or should be, no matter what our faith commitments or lack thereof, humanists.

Already empty, or about to be full?

Already empty, or about to be full?

God’s Country Club

Last week CNN’s religion Belief Blog reported on the five most and least religious colleges in the United States, according to Princeton Review (not affiliated with Princeton University). Having attended one of the five most religious colleges on the list (Grove City College, but whether it is number one or five is difficult to determine), I took an interest in the overarching question: how do you determine if a college is religious? The author of the survey indicated that it was through student interviews concerning whether they perceived other students as religious or not. And that’s where the bone of contention pokes through—who determines what is religious behavior? Are students able to determine who is religious or who acts religious? Does religious mean Christian in this context, or religious in any tradition?

Grove City College, God's Country Club

My years at Grove City left little doubt that the school itself was proudly religious. An evangelical bastion against many forms of critical thought, plenty of indoctrination took place in those hallowed halls. A few religion professors (I was even then over-zealous to learn as much as I could about this field), while personally faithful, asked serious questions that many self-righteous classmates blithely ignored. From glancing through alumni magazines, they seem to be the successful ones. Those who asked the hard questions seriously were ostracized; now they are lost in obscurity. Is this true religion? The Princeton Review is concerned with providing potential students with accurate data about their collegiate choices, but I wonder if the religiosity proffered is anything more than denominational branding.

Three of the four other most religious schools might bear this out: Brigham Young, Thomas Aquinas College, and Wheaton College. Hillsdale College, the final member of the most religious fraternity, is the exception. A liberal arts school, formerly Baptist but currently independent, it fits somewhat uneasily next to the Mormon, Catholic, and Reformed natures of the other four schools. While I can’t speak for the other colleges, at Grove City there was definitely a coercive peer pressure to behave like everybody else—to be religious, i.e., evangelical Christian. With required attendance at chapel and required courses in religion, the ethos was heavily impressed. Were other students truly religious? That depends on the measure that is used. Many have gone on to be entrepreneurs declaring free market economics in the name of the kingdom of heaven. If that is a measure of true religiosity, all hope is lost indeed.

Demo-God

Not having access to the news wires, I am generally scooped by CNN’s Belief Blog. Of course, blogs dealing with religion are a pretty cheap commodity these days, especially since, as I’ve mentioned before, everyone’s a self-proclaimed expert on the subject. So it appears appropriate that God’s approval rating was put to the polls. According to Public Policy Polling, God only enjoys a 52 percent approval rating. Only 9 percent of those surveyed dared give God a negative “disapprove,” but that still leaves a large middle ground where— to borrow a phrase—God is in the dock. The scenario where a democratic society expresses its opinion on leadership, both human and divine, makes me recall the movie The Mission. Fr. Gabriel has to remind Fielding at one point, “We [the church] are not a democracy.” Religion is handed down from on high and those who inherit it have no right to question.

Or do they? When I was growing up in the sixties one of the common social references in the media was the teenager (oh, what rebellion!) yelling at his parents, “I didn’t ask to be born!” In the current universe, however, that is where all religious believers find themselves. With the exception of the few who suppose themselves somehow self-generated, we all realize that we are subject to the whims of the creator. That, of course, does not prevent us from sharing our opinion on the issue. Fr. Gabriel is right: this is not a democracy. The stereotypical 1960s teenager is also right: we did not ask for this. No wonder the approval ratings for the divine have plummeted. It seems that the tenets so readily accepted in more submissive times have eroded. Is God about to retire? Step quietly from center stage?

What’s next for the Big Guy? Will he write his memoirs—wait, he’s already done that; what do you think the Bible is? Perhaps an unemployed creator would be interested in making another universe. The problem is that wherever consciousness exists, ideas will soon follow. Some ideas fit comfortably in the system: do as you’re told because I’m stronger than you, for example. When the expression of power as an inappropriate means of governance evolves, however, the voices of democracy will emerge. Maybe it is safer to schedule an apocalypse after all. Let’s just hope that God doesn’t take a page from the politicians’ handbook, otherwise nothing will ever really change.

Stephen Hawking’s Heaven

CNN’s Belief Blog, apparently open to contributions only by “successful” (i.e., university employed) religion scholars, nevertheless occasionally comes up with a thoughtful story. One of yesterday’s posts focuses on the fact that Stephen Hawking says Heaven is a “fairy story.” First of all, I have admit being surprised to see that Hawking is still in Cambridge—I could have sworn he was working in the Princeton public parking garage because it is his voice that comes out of the ticket machine. (Times being what they are for academics, I figured he might have needed a second job.) Ah, but appearances can be deceiving! I have had great respect for Stephen Hawking for many years. My own scientific interests must be relegated to a decidedly lay position among the collegiums of scientists, but Hawking writes books that people like me can (mostly) comprehend. Echoing an idea I stressed earlier—we came to the same conclusion independently—Hawking noted in a recent interview that Heaven is an idea devised to cope with fear.

Cosmologists, such as Hawking, speak with authority on the literal heavens. Ironically, the word “heavens” continues to retain its usefulness, even among scientists, for describing everything that is out there. Humans are assuredly small and our place in the universe is miniscule. In our heads, however, we conceive lofty ideas that seem to place our own consciousness outside the unlimited bounds of this universe. Is it any wonder that we can concoct gods? As deeply as they peer into the cold, dark recesses of outer space, astronomers and cosmologists find no room for Heaven. This cosmic inn, no matter how many aliens there may be, is largely empty.

What I find interesting is that journalists of religion find skepticism among scientists newsworthy. While being a rational thinker, as science demands, does not necessarily forego divine entities, using gods as explanations and having trans-dimensional heavens tucked away behind some far asteroid does somehow devalue the power and majesty of our eternal home. We expect our scientists to be skeptical—we wouldn’t often visit a doctor who sacrificed a goat on every office visit to consult its entrails concerning our health. And yet it is newsworthy when a scientist says in a forthright statement that Heaven does not exist. It would be like an evangelical preacher saying evolution never happened. The biggest miracle of all may be that whether it is Dr. Hawking’s doing or not, I actually manage to find parking in Princeton.

Billions and billions, but no angels with harps...