Getting Dirty

Composting is a very biblical activity.  Adam, according to the second creation account in Genesis, was formed from the divinely created dirt.  Some scholars try to capture the word-play in that story by suggesting “human” was made from “humus,” but since that sounds like chickpea dip it may not help so much after all.  Besides, we now know that soil has a complex and fascinating history.  Erosion grinds up rocks.  Organic matter dies and decays, forming the loosely packed substrate in which plants can survive, slowly breaking up the more dense pieces through the transformative power of water.  It is, imprecisely speaking, a miracle.  When Adam drops dead, he becomes once more part of the soil from which he was formed.  It’s poetic.  Elegant.  Economical.

Now that we have a house we’ve decided to try our hand at composting.  We’d considered it many times over the years since, what with recycling and hoarding, we’d managed to get our weekly garbage down to one fairly small bag.  Besides, since our government won’t be nice to the planet, somebody has to.  Institutional people that we are, my wife and I had to read up on composting before giving this very natural decomposition a try.  Things have to be just so for the process to work perfectly.  It was in the process of this reading that the biblical aspect became clear to me.  

The trick is to make sure the neighbors don’t complain about the smell.  That, in part, determines what can or can’t go into the compost bin.  Meat and dairy can’t go into the mix.  Since I’m primarily vegan such things aren’t generally here to be disposed of in any case.  Even the drier lint can go there, for the clothes that we wear become part of who we are, right Henry David?  And here’s where there’s a danger of TMI, although it’s good theology—cast-offs from our selves can also be composted.  Hair, for example.  The composting literature we have seems to take Adam himself out of the equation by specifying pet hair, but hey, mammals are mammals.  The longer I thought about this, the more obvious it was that burial, ideally, is a form of composting.  Giving back to the earth from which we’ve sprung.  That simple wire bin out by the garage is in the process of making the substrate for new life.  We may not be farmers, or gardeners like Adam, but composting feels like giving back somehow.  It’s an act of creation.

Chaoskampf

It’s a poignant thing to hold a dying book in your hands.  What was once, straight, flat, and dry, now dissolves into a pulpy mess that, if it ever recovers, will be warped and distorted out of shape forever.  The loss of dozens of books hit me hard.  I think one of the many reasons for this is that books represent, for me, order.  They stand at attention all in a row, many on shelves I built lovingly for them.  I remember where I purchased them, the thoughts and feelings of that time.  In a world that’s far too bumpy and lumpy, books represented the ultimate in orderly array.  Now The Golden Bough is melting in my palm, smearing my fingers royal blue.  The forecast for the week—more rain.

The story of creation in the Bible—more properly, stories, for there are many—is not creation out of nothing.  Creation is the making of order out of chaos.  Ancient people, including the Israelites, believed that water was chaos, if not an actual dragon, that constantly worked against order.  You can’t build on water, it attacks the shoreline, it drowns those who fall in.  Never a seafaring people, Israel equated big water with evil.  God, then, fought constantly this unruly foe.  Whether it was with word or sword, the Almighty vanquished that sloshing, thrashing element that tries to tear apart everything we build.  Read Genesis 1 closely; the water is already there when the creating starts.

Life has a way of getting out of control.  It’s not without irony, however.  A person buys a house to store their books, and before the books can be moved in, they’re destroyed.  It’s rather like a parable, don’t you think?  If that person unfortunately thinks of him or herself as a summation of the books s/he’s read then the loss is like losing a limb or two in that endless battle against the forces of confusion that attempt to overcome our world.  When this happens some of us turn to books for comfort.  The books, however, are disintegrating in our hands.  My Amazon account, it seems, is mocking me at the moment with it’s mover’s discount.  Why buy something that will only hurt me when the water gets in once again?  The people of ancient times knew that the waters of chaos had to be held in check constantly.  They look for any opportunity to get in and destroy.  Ancient writers knew that in order to defeat them, only the most powerful gods will do.  

The Cost of Chaos

BathingTheLionJonathan Carroll’s novels are always thought-provoking. My reading patterns tend to be driven by book sales and secondhand stores since my reading vice is particularly aggressive. The Ghost in Love is now already years in my past, but I found a copy of Bathing the Lion that I could afford and I was soon dropped into a world of chaos and order. I won’t try to summarize the complex plot here, but I would note the story’s participation in one of the oldest themes of literature—the struggle of order against chaos. The characters called “mechanics” in this book are those who attempt to maintain order throughout the cosmos. Many retire to earth. There, or here, they continue to work against the ever-encroaching chaos.

According to Genesis 1—not the earliest literature, but still fairly ancient—creation is God making order out of chaos. The universe, prior to creation, consists of uncreated, chaotic raw material. Order is what makes our world recognizable. Elsewhere in the Bible creation takes the form of a struggle against a conscious monster that represents chaos. This motif is reflected elsewhere in the ancient world in texts such as the Enuma Elish. Actually, the theme is so common as to be classified as a standard trope of ancient religions with its own name—Chaoskampf. Chaos is always waiting in the wings, ready to break back in and make a mess of our nicely settled existence. The flood story, placed as it is just after creation, is an example of what happens when chaos regains the upper hand.

The battle to maintain order represents a kind of ancient awareness of entropy. If energy isn’t expended, that which is accomplished becomes a wet, stinking mess and anyone who survives has to start all over again. This story is deeply embedded in human consciousness. To our way of thinking, we’re integral to the running of this universe. Spending time in nature gives the lie to this thought. There aren’t that many predators left, but those that are here—cougars and grizzly bears especially—remind us that in the eyes of nature we can be just another meal. Our outlook cannot accept such a low position. As Carroll has the mechanics say, they are not gods. Like human beings, however, they take on a role next to that of divinity. Chaos is the enemy, even garbed in the colors of making us great again. There are still those who will bathe the lion.

Pillars of Science

I sometimes wonder if science would have the appeal that it does, if it didn’t have religion to shock and awe. I’m thinking of not only the fact that The Humanist magazine quite often has a focus on religion, but even websites, irreverently named to make the sensitive blush, frequently use it as a foil. My wife likes the site now more commonly known as “IFL Science!” Web acronyms have taught us what the second of those letters denotes, but perhaps because making the name more family friendly leads to more hits, it’s been muted a bit. In any case, the most recent post I’ve seen has to do with that marvelous Hubble image of interstellar gas and dust columns where stars are being born, know as “The Pillars of Creation.” Apart from the stunningly beautiful images, I’ve always been taken by the way that implicitly or even subliminally, concepts of deity lie behind this scene. When the image was first published, I remember staring at it in rapt fascination—here we had stolen a glimpse into the private chambers of the universe. We were seeing what, were we in the midst of, would surely prove fatal. It is like seeing, well, creation.

Eagle_nebula_pillars

Creation is enfolded in the language of myth. Reading the description of this great, gaseous cloud, we are told of the tremendous winds in space (what I had been taught was an utter vacuum) where dust is so hot (I was taught space was frigid) that it ignites into stars, like a silo fire gone wild. It’s like witnessing the moment of conception, although Caroline Reid tells us the dust will be blown away in 3 million years. Perhaps ironically, scientists are scrambling to study it before that happens. Or before that will have happened. At 7000 light-years away, it will have been gone as long ago as Sumerians first put stylus to clay before we know of it. We still have a couple million years for a good gander. And the Sumerians, the first writers of which we know, were writing stories of creation.

It is really a shame that science has, in general, such an antipathy towards myth. As scholars of biblical languages, indeed, nearly any language, know, the language of myth and poetry is especially useful when standard prose breaks down. “Wow!” is not a scientific word. Nor is “eureka!” What other response, however, can there be to seeing the act of creation with our own eyes? Meanwhile there will be those who use science to belittle the worldview of the myth maker and and thinker of religion. Our world, it is widely known, is that of superstition and ignorance. We are those who think only in shallow pools and deny the very reality that is before our eyes. That reality can be full of stunning beauty, but were we to describe it in terms empirical, we might have to keep the interjections and useless adjectives to a minimum.

Creating Diversity

Informed opinion is a chimera. I write that as someone who has time to read only the news stories my wife or my friends pass on to me. Once in a while one of those stories makes me feel less bad about being uninformed. A recent piece by Slate author William Saletan looks at polls regarding Creationism. The piece, picked up in the New Jersey Star-Ledger on a recent Sunday, demonstrates that although the United States is a nation of Creationists, we don’t agree about what that means. What becomes clear to me when I read such stories is that people who believe in the Bible seldom read it. Or at least understand it. Creationism “is not a thing” in the Bible. Many accounts about how the world began are represented, and the main point seems to be that it’s important that it was the God of Israel who did it rather than the competition. The first couple of creation accounts are compelling with their insistence that people are special, and that we are in charge while the owner is away. In fact, however, creation is a minor point in the story. It just has to start somewhere.

Those who set out to read the Bible, I suspect, begin to stumble in parts of Exodus and generally give up once they reach Leviticus. Although the main point of the books of Moses is the rules, the modern Christian finds the story more engaging. And the creation accounts of early Genesis are among the stories people actually read. They do make for a great, if contradictory, tale. They have, however, little impact on what people are supposed to do. Ironically, those accounts have become failsafe political devices. We vote according to how old we think the earth might be. We are special, after all.

Saletan’s point in the article is that the finer we parse the questions, the more divergent opinion becomes. The Bible doesn’t say how old the earth is—it’s really not a point of any significance to the story—but if you’re going to take it literally, you can do the math. Few literalists truly take the Bible literally. Logic very quickly breaks down as Genesis 2 follows Genesis 1. Americans are told that the Bible is literally true, but such a view literally makes no sense. We are committed to it, however, as we somehow equate believing in stories to be more important than understanding what those tales are trying to say. The polls, according to the article, make the point abundantly clear. When it comes to understanding the Bible Americans are very committed, if very confused.

Just one Creationist museum.  Photo credit: Creashin, Wikimedia Commons

Just one Creationist museum. Photo credit: Creashin, Wikimedia Commons

Nothing Unusual

WhyDoestheWorldExist“Is this a world?” Ranger Tom asks seriously, “And if it is, am I in it?” On the lips—or fingertips—of some, this set of questions appears profound. Although I’m not technically a philosopher, I find it impossible to walk by a book with the title Why Does the World Exist? and not pick it up. I am not familiar with Jim Holt’s other work—I engage a little too heavily with books to spend much time with magazines—but the question of the title is one I’ve often pondered. It is right up there with “Why can some people get published and others can’t?” Holt is, however, on a serious quest. Not surprisingly, religion features prominently in the discussion. For the usual existential reasons, including a couple of significant deaths in the family, Holt asks perhaps the most basic of all questions and engages a number of prominent philosophers on the issue. Why is there something rather than nothing? For some in the western world such a question appears a non-starter, because our culture is biblically suffused. Whether we want to admit it or not, our social ocean veritably bobs with the basic belief that God created the world, end of story. We don’t need to ponder it, we just have to accept it. For those who look deeper, however, the answers aren’t that easy.

Holt goes through some serious computation in various forms of logic to try to arrive at a schematic demonstrating that the world is a surprising place. Not trained in such rigorous logic, I was interested to notice how the language occasionally slipped from “world” or “universe” to “reality.” Reality is perhaps the slipperiest concept of them all. Many simply accept their own experience as real, a position known as “naive realism.” Others probe somewhat deeper, seeking to verify reality. How do we know what is really real? It is, however, a different question than the existence of the world. Reality has the distinct ability to haunt with its half-answered questions and surfeit of ambiguity. Every time I wake from a dream I ask myself what is really real.

Once the divine is removed from the equation, why the world is here becomes a much more complex issue. Holt engages the new atheists as well as the neo-orthodox. It turns out that God may not help as much as we generally assume: whence God? Or, in its more childlike version, where did God come from? Once brute fact is ruled out, this becomes a tangled problem indeed. Faced with an endless regression, logic quails. Perhaps, however, we have reached the limits of rationality—even Einsteinian physics breaks down at the Big Bang. No matter what scientists or philosophers may tell us, we will always wonder, “and before that, what?” I put Holt’s book down with a sense that I’d spent a few pleasant hours considering the possibilities, but I still wonder, with Ranger Tom, if this is a world. And if it is, am I in it?

Human Show

TrumanshowAt least a decade had passed since I watched The Truman Show. Jim Carrey has gone on to achieve an over-the-top kind of fame, but Truman is a thoughtful movie that raises several troubling questions. It is also one of the films of the 1990s that shamelessly cast an uncaring god (the not so subtly named Christof) against the goofy, but serious Truman Burbank. The movie is old enough not to worry about spoilers, so a quick run-down might refresh other hazy memories. Truman is the star of a show where a massive set that includes an entire island has been built around him. The vision of Christof, an unwanted baby is recorded from birth in an artificial, “perfect” world that revolves around him. Until he begins to notice events that, in the real world, would be paranormal. Objects falling from a clear sky, dead people reappearing, fake sets under construction. Determined to learn the truth, he faces his fear to escape by literally walking through a door in the sky.

Christof is “the creator.” From his base in the sky, he looks down on Truman as his star “son” grows to a Christ-like 30 years of age. He is protected from all harm, yet terrified of anything that might aid his escape from the ante-world he inhabits. When he slips the cameras and begins to make his way across the water, Christof, still not wanting to relinquish the ruse, throws a storm at Truman’s sailboat, striking it repeatedly with lightning. “Hit him again,” he growls to his crew. “Again!” It is difficult to watch as the loving god is angered to the point of destroying his only son. When Truman literally reaches the end of his world, he walks on the water to reach the stairway to heaven. Metaphors are flying thick and fast. Christof breaks in as a voice from the sky to convince Truman that his life will be perfect if he continues to pretend that reality is only what it seems to be. His devoted fans cheer as Truman ascends and walks through that door into another reality.

Many books on the theology of film have appeared over the past decade as it has become clear that people are very much affected by what they see on the screen. Our brains resonate with what we are seeing to such a degree that movies participate in our perceptions of reality. In an increasingly secular world, we have come to distrust our gods. This truth has echoed through many movies in the past several years. Although not living up to the hype, The Clash of the Titans—the remake—had classical heroes disputing the power of the gods. Truman doesn’t go that far. We are never informed about what life after the delusion is like. The hole in the sky is black. We know that on the other side, our world, there will be terrible disappointments and tremendous sadness. It may be that there will be no gods at all on this side of the studio. Although showing its age a little, The Truman Show still speaks volumes about the religious experience.