Abundance

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A few weeks before Leonard Cohen died I saw a story on how his song “Hallelujah” had been done to death. Covered and recovered, it seemed to be on every cover artist’s playlist. It is a haunting song, however, and the notion of a cold and broken hallelujah feels somehow appropriate this Thanksgiving. Don’t get me wrong—I am thankful for more things than I can name or would care to share with complete strangers on the internet. In fact, when I literally tried to find a job in Canada in anticipation of a horrible November surprise, one of my immediate regrets was that I’d no longer have American Thanksgiving to celebrate. Thanksgiving, to me, has been images of a cozy indoors with special food while the chill takes over outside. Two days in a row off of work. Sleeping until I’m not tired any more rather than waking according to schedule, no matter how troubling the night might have been. In short, feeling safe and secure in a world growing colder.

Since the first week of November the iciness has been growing more intense. I know it’s the circles I go around in—and perhaps they are small enough to call them semi-circles—but I have seen more sad and depressed and scared faces in the past weeks than I have seen in my previous half-century on this planet. It’s Thanksgiving Day, and even vegetarians look forward to something special by way of fancy nourishment. But it feels like a cold and broken hallelujah to me. Entrepreneurs have already been reminding us that tomorrow is Black Friday. We should get our game-faces on and our credit cards out and head to our favorite retail establishments. Pack up our troubles in the old plastic bag and spend, spend, spend.

Thanksgiving, of course, was an originally generic religious holiday. It’s hard to give thanks without someone to, well, thank. You could be Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or even one of those who thanks dharma, karma, or chance. Just be glad that we’re here right now and even though the wind is gusting and there’s perhaps a bit of snow in the air, we have an indoors where nobody hostile is looking for means to exploit us any further than we wish to be exploited. That our planet, for the time being, still supports human life. And that by any measure other than the Electoral College we all really want progress and fair treatment for all. I am thankful and mindful of those who had to sacrifice to allow us the privilege of being here today. It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m thankful.

Simply Complex

What does it mean to be a man? Or a woman? Or intersex? As a society we seem to spend quite a lot of political time thinking about this. We want to regulate something we don’t even understand. An opinion piece by Rabbi Mark Sameth in the New York Times raises this question to a new level. “Is God Transgender?” the title asks. The Bible, which most of the belligerents in this battle claim to follow, doesn’t present as hard and fast a rule on sex as it might seem. As Sameth points out, the language of a number of passages seems “gender confused” and even the gods of olden times could slip from female to male and back. The Ugaritic deity of Athtar could be called Athtart, depending on her or his gender at the time. We human beings prefer our genders to be fixed, but nature doesn’t always agree.

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Not only gender identity, but gender itself occurs on a spectrum. In cases of “ambiguous” gender doctors often make the decision at birth. Gender is assigned, and sometimes made surgically. And lawmakers will use an outdated binary system to assign bathrooms. We make industrial, multi-occupant bathrooms because they’re cheaper. At the same time we raise our children telling them that bathroom use is a private function. Of course, when money’s involved the story changes. We thought we understood what gender was. Like most aspects of life, however, our understanding is only partial. Some species have such complex reproductive techniques that the term “gender” just doesn’t apply. Some species naturally change gender in the course of their lives. Which bathroom should they use? Nature doesn’t support our laws here.

For human beings the experience of gender is no doubt important. More important, it might seem, would be the acceptance of difference. A rainbow doesn’t have sharp divisions of color. Light blurs from one hue to another and we say it’s beautiful. When it comes to sexes we only want two. Black and white. As the rabbi points out, however, nature prefers the rainbow. The acceptance of difference in the face of the evidence would appear to be prudent. But many people read the Bible only on the surface (although even here it’s not as straightforward as it might appear at first). The biblical writers probably thought of gender in binary terms. In those days congenital “defects”—at least those visible to the naked eye—were cruelly set aside as a divine curse. We’re at last learning to see this “curse” as a blessing of diversity. As long as we don’t have to share bathrooms.

Treasure Hunting

It is raining in Midtown. On my lunch hour I’m in a deserted public square down on my knees with an umbrella over my head. My free hand is reaching under a piece of outdoor furniture feeling for something. At least this one is not located in the private regions of a metallic stag. What in the world am I doing here?

One of my sometime passions is Geocaching. Many years ago we started this as a family activity but with schedules changing and families being forced apart by work and school, I’ve taken to caching alone. For those not familiar with Geocaching, you many not be aware that in millions of places around the world tiny containers are hidden from view. There is likely one not too far from you. They are listed on different websites, but Geocaching.com is the main source. You set up a free account, get ahold of a GPS device and go looking. Some of the containers have goodies for the kids, while others are very, very small and your only reward is signing your name and logging the find online. As a family we found nearly 400 caches over the years. Since I spend my days in Manhattan I’ve been urban caching. Urban caches are very small and stealth must be used because those who don’t know about Geocaching who find the containers often take them, not realizing that they have a purpose. So that’s why I’m on my knees in the rain in the middle of New York City.

I raise Geocaching as a topic because of a recent article on NBC about Scouting. Girl and Boy Scouts often know about Geocaching. This is similar to what used to be called (probably still is) orienteering—learning how to find your way around. The NBC story, however, focuses on a different kind of finding your way around. Over the past several years, non-faith-based alternatives to the Scouts have been enjoying some measure of success. Not that Girl or Boy Scouts are explicitly Christian, but they did emerge from that social context. The article specifically cites the Spiral Scouts, a Wiccan-based group, as well as several secular, and even some overtly faith-based alternatives. Yes, it looks like many groups, regardless of religion, want to get kids used to the great outdoors.

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Some might fear that alternative movements signal a rend in the social fabric. I think the social fabric ought to be more like a quilt. If sewn properly, a quilt is just as functional as whole cloth, but much more interesting to look at. Girls, boys, gays, straights, Christians, Pagans, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus—what is wrong with that? I think that after being out in the rain, I might just curl up under a quilt when I get home, and I’ll be thankful for all the diversity I see comforting me under the gray skies.

Guiding Girls

Girl Guides are the British equivalent to the Girl Scouts. I first learned about them during the three years that I lived in the UK, although, as far as I know, they don’t sell cookies. An article in the Huffington Post last week announced that the Girl Guides have decided to drop God from their pledge, as a move toward inclusiveness. I’ve often pondered the place god holds in various social societies. At my daughter’s Girl Scout bridging ceremony a couple weeks back, I noticed God in the pledge. In New Jersey, where diversity is synonymous with breathing, I wondered how this antiquated oath felt to those who maybe grew up without the concept. Stretching my mind back a few years, when my daughter was in Middle School, she was awarded a good student prize by the Elks. As I sat in the tastefully decorated meeting room, with only a very faint tinge of beer in the air, I wondered if I might ever join a fraternal order. One of the officers stood to welcome us, inviting applications for membership. Democratically, she was a woman in a “fraternal” organization. She reeled off the requirements. As an afterthought she said, “and you have to believe in god.”

How does one measure belief in divinity? It has been my experience that many beliefs fluctuate with time. I can decide to believe, but in many ways, belief decides me. As a mantra to modern society, on the old X-Files series Fox Mulder’s famous poster read, “I Want to Believe.” To join the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts, or the Elks, you have to say you believe. Nobody’s going to hook you up to a polygraph machine, but you need to make your public declaration. At least in the last case, beer come later.

Religious diversity is a reality of our lives. From the invention of the steam engine, it became inevitable. Our world was going to grow smaller as we met people who had previously been isolated from us by distance. In 1893 the World Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago. As part of it, the Parliament of the World’s Religions introduced many Americans to the religions of the world for the first time. Hinduism, once an exotic strain quaintly captured in the archaic spelling “Hindoo,” became a sudden fascination. Buddhism was a curiosity. How had it been that the United States seemed only to know about Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (in that order) when other belief systems existed? How could we have missed them? More importantly, what were we going to do now that we knew about them? We couldn’t unknow them, like you can unfriend someone on Facebook. We were going to have to learn to live together. After all, we all have just one planet to share. Social organizations are great places for introducing tolerance. You can be moral without being Judeo-Christian. And if our social organizations want to promote equality of membership, maybe the Girl Guides are truly living up to their name.

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Babel’s Gate

Up north past Edinburgh, beyond the Cairngorms, on the shores of the chill North Sea lies the village of Cromarty, Scotland. A death occurred in Cromarty, according to CNN earlier this week. And why would CNN be concerned with a single death in a small village in a remote corner of Scotland? Because with Bobby Hogg’s death, his language also died. Hogg was the last speaker of Cromarty. Having lived in Scotland for over three years, I heard many an impenetrable accent, but even as I strained to understand, I loved it. The loss of Cromarty is part of an on-going, world-wide extinction of languages. Sure, the big ones survive, thrive even. The small ones pass away, often forgotten. Those who unabashedly champion “progress” take no time to mourn the passing of the idiosyncratic, the individualistic, the non-conformist languages. Dominoes are easier to stand, after all, if they are all a uniform size and shape.

I taught Hebrew to my students for many years. Those who wish to be clergy should be able to read God in his original tongue, it stands to reason. As complaints began to simmer, as they always did, at the difficulty of learning a semitic language, I liked to remind students that a language is far more than a collection of vocabulary and a smattering of grammar and syntax. Languages are worldviews. We don’t know who invented language, but we do know that it evolves more rapidly than biology, once human populations are separated. As in the case of Cromarty, languages often reflect lifestyles—they preserve the words and phrases necessary for distinct ways of life. Automation, however, prefers one-size-fits-all. Those who can’t understand are less efficient players in the colonialization of the world by capitalism. Languages allow for diversity and specialization. Cromarty was the language of fishermen.

Yes, multiple languages reduce efficiency. You don’t have to read too far into your Bible to discover that. Yet even efficiency comes with a price. Year by year, the cacophony of human expression becomes more uniform. Yesterday there were a thousand languages, today only nine-hundred-ninety-nine. Yarns were spun in Cromarty, just as surely as they were in Hebrew. Young ears will never hear that ancient language, and with it a way of looking at the world also died. Yawn if you will, but if all the minor languages disappear the one remaining worldview will be all the poorer for it. Yiddish to Aari, languages reflect who we are—and Mr. Hogg’s passing is a loss to all humanity.

Do you hear what I hear?

Bible, Bible, Who’s Got the Bible?

Rutgers University boasts a truly diverse population. In my fourth year as an adjunct in the Religion Department at the New Brunswick campus, I am continually reminded of the religious and cultural mix of the human race. As I began my twelfth section of Introduction to the Hebrew Bible last night, it occurred to me just how tight a grip Christian-based publishers have on the Bible. I generally spend my first class session on defining the Bible since many students enter such a course (and it is always full) with notions of what the Bible is. In fact, “the Bible” is a difficult document to define.

Binding a book together indicates that what is between the covers belongs together. This is almost a subconscious fact that we pretty much take for granted. If a publisher put all of this in the same place, it must belong together. For the general consumer market, that translates into Bibles that contain the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures. This mix of 66 books satisfies most customers in the United States and Canada, but the Catholic reader expects some 13 additional or expanded books in her or his Bible. Jewish customers expect somewhat less, with 27 books normally in “the Bible” being specifically placed there by a later, revisionist sect. Orthodox Christian Bibles may add or leave out a book or two, depending on the tradition.

The irony of this situation strikes me as we have Bible-thumpers constantly appearing in the news. Their well worn, black leather King James Versions are “the Bible.” For them. Their message to the American public: we must get our lives back in line according to (my interpretation of) this book. What of those in this country who have fewer or more books in their Bibles, or, Yahweh forbid, completely different scriptures? Is there no room in a nation of religious liberty for them? I have a modest proposal. For the politicians who want their Bible to drive our society, stop by my class at Rutgers sometime. I am always glad to see the diversity. And it shouldn’t be too hard to find a section to fit in your schedule – I teach four sections of the class throughout the year, including summer and winter terms.