Childhood’s End

Childhood.  It’s a time of many lessons that we soon learn to apply to all of life.  One of those earliest lessons is “Don’t be a sore loser.”  When someone else wins you congratulate them with a smile, even if you’re inwardly aching.  Fair play, it’s called.  Or morality.  All of these characteristics are sadly lacking in the Grand Old Party, it seems.  There has been no evidence of voter fraud, Biden currently leads by over 5 million votes, and yet Trump refuses to concede.  Not only that, the dissembler in chief, Mitch McConnell encourages such behavior.  In my fundamentalist church you’d have failed Sunday School for less than that.  And where are the biblical literalists?  Right there with them, thumping their Bibles but not reading them.  What happened to turn the other cheek?  Or even, for God’s sake, an eye for an eye?

Instead the world is watching as a putatively grown man throws a temper tantrum about losing.  Hilary Clinton conceded on the night of the election.  I’m sure it didn’t feel good to do so.  Nor did it feel pleasant for the 44 other losing candidates (in fact, more) who had to go home with their hats in their hands.  Not content to act like a king, Trump is behaving like a monarch for life.  His followers, perhaps aware that Americans will never again put up with such a travesty of a presidency, insist that someone must’ve miscounted by about five million.  They won’t be content until they can count themselves, throwing away any ballots they disagree with.  And they’ll continue to call themselves Christians.  Because, like the Donald, they can.

I’ve reached the stage in life where childhood has become a lingering preoccupation.  I sure got some things wrong.  Not being a sore loser isn’t one of them, however.  Like all people I’ve lost my fair share of contests.  Sometimes the stakes have been very high.  If you want to retain any dignity or moral standing at all, you know you simply have to admit, “I lost.”  We knew as soon as Trump was nominated in 2016 that he wouldn’t admit he lost then, even if he had.  We knew four years ago he’d never admit he lost when he would.  The Republican enablers stoked those fires in which to burn the Constitution.  Some of us, at least 77 million at latest count, are tired of all this political theater.  Big boy pants, it seems, are difficult to locate this season.

Dangers of Experience

I’m so used to being behind everyone else that when I turn out to be ahead of the curve it occasions genuine surprise.  That’s the way it appears when I think about the dominance of the far right in American politics.  As an editor I get to read proposals for other editors on the board.  Political scientists are trying to analyze how we’ve come to be a nation of religious far-righters when we seemed so progressive that we put a smart phone in everyone’s pocket and Alexa in everyone’s voice range.  I grew up as a far-righter when it certainly felt alienating.  Apart from people we met at church I didn’t know any others outside my family.  People we knew were, well, just different.  Back in those days we didn’t judge them.  We accepted them for who they were.

One of the aspects of my life to which I’ve grown accustomed is being ignored.  I’m not a big person, nor am I a loud one.  It isn’t unusual for me to be overlooked at work and even at religious gatherings (a field in which I’m a bona fide expert).  Nevertheless, I have a wealth of experience among the far-righters and I think it might help to understand our political climate.  I think I have a pretty good grip on what motivates this crowd.  Since I grew up (serious study will do that to you) and am no longer arrested at that stage, I’ve blended into the crowd as someone just as perplexed as everyone else.  I do, however, have an idea of what they’re after.  Our particular sect didn’t push this—we seemed more worried about our own souls staying out of Hell—but many fundamentalists wanted to take over the nation.  In fact, they have.

The fact that 45 isn’t one of them is immaterial.  Power is the thing.  Power to make others conform or suffer.  This particular faith is built on fear, not love.  It’s as if their New Testament lacks the gospel of John.  You see, I was ahead of the curve.  I was part of it before it took over congress, the White House and the supreme court.  Things move so far these days that thinkers just don’t have time to think about everything.  Work days are long and covid still complicates everything.  Who has the time to seek out those who grew out of the very source that now endangers our democracy?  I think I prefer running a little behind, don’t you, Cassie?

Laughing Maher

I recently rewatched Bill Maher’s Religulous.  I posted on it some years ago, but time changes perspectives.  Thinking back over the fun he makes against the religious, it is really only the Fundamentalist stripe that he scorns.  Whether Christian, Islamic, or even Jewish, he has little tolerance for those who take their sacred texts literally.  The Vatican scientist he interviews makes it through unscathed, but mainly because he’s arguing Maher’s point that the Fundamentalists aren’t at all stable.  Having noted that, Maher barely scratches the patina of the whole wide spectrum of religious outlooks.  Many of them are quite sensible, and some don’t even rely on the supernatural.  What he seems to have overlooked is that there is a vast complexity to religious thinking and people who believe aren’t always benighted.

Long, hard reflection on religion may be rare, but traditionally the seminary was the vehicle for those with the capacity for such thinking.  (Today seminaries are likely to accept just about any applicant and churches are facing shortages of clergy, making the rigorous thinking an elective course.)  It’s easy to make fun of the monks in their scriptoria, but those who learned to think logically—scientifically even—about matters of belief informed the best philosophers and other ”thought leaders” of the time.  If religion was the inspiration of scientific thinking (which then developed into humanism), it can’t be all bad.  Certainly there are and always have been abuses of the system.  Like science itself, thinking through this is a complex exercise.

Religulous is a fun movie.  Bill Maher is a likable narrator and he admits, at several points, to not knowing whether there is a God or not.  It is pretty easy to spot those whose religious beliefs are really more scarecrows than solid granite.  Literalism is pretty indefensible in the age of smartphones and the internet.  We’ve been far enough into space to know there’s no literal Heaven “up there.”  But this doesn’t mean religion has no value.  Many, many sensible religious people exist.  Most of them don’t cause trouble for society or embarrassment for their co-religionists.  Extremists, however, do both.  Unswayed by the damage they do, convinced with no evidence beyond personal feeling, they are willing to risk very high stakes indeed.  Those are the ones Maher is trying to take to task in his documentary.  On the ground religions are complex and psychologically helpful.  Complex subjects, as any thinker knows, bear deep reflection.

Still Evolving

Evolution, the 2001 movie, I mean, is good escapism.  Thinking back on 2001, instead of a space oddessy, another piece of news—another national crisis, in fact, dominated.  The film kind of slumbered in the background until we could sort out what it meant to live in, ironically, an unsafe world.  That’s precisely what the movie was about.  I wasn’t thinking that when I recently pulled it off the shelf.  I was simply wanting some fantasy to relieve the daily pressure of living in stress mode.  Besides, it has some of the best alien monsters you could hope for in a comedic setting.  Soon, however, the parallels began to appear.  A source of contamination from outside.  A growing threat.  A government that doesn’t know what to do and that can’t admit its mistakes.  It all seemed eerily familiar.  Dr. Allison Reed is even from the CDC.

Life isn’t constant crisis.  Funnily enough, when Democrats are in office there seem to be far fewer of these large-scale troubles.  “There will be signs,” I guess, “in the sun, moon, and stars.”  The thing about signs is that we’ve left the reading of them up to Fundamentalists.  And Fundamentalists don’t believe in evolution.  Or science.  Or modernity.  Idealizing medieval thinking does come with a price tag.  So I reach for the remote.  While the government has lots of money that it spends on its own volition, the crisis grows.  The alien menace is set to spread across the country.  Although beginning in a different geographical location, all that red on the map sure looked familiar to me.  How little has changed in the last two decades.  Evolution came out before smartphones even evolved.

Meanwhile, practically unnoticed, the U.S. Navy has been saying UFOs are real.  The story, muted and subdued—we’ve got more immediate concerns, such as getting reelected—has been on major reputable media.  When they land on the White House lawn we’ll ask the aliens if they have respirators and masks aboard.  Preferably the kind with face-shields.  In the movie the monsters are aliens.  They’re like an infection, and even hazmat suits can’t keep you safe.  The solution, of course, isn’t fire-power, but a good shampooing.  Now I know you still can’t go to the salon in lots of places, but washing up at home seems to be pretty good advice.  We put the movie on for simple escapism, but there’s no escaping the fact that we now live in an alien environment.

Old Inspiration

Moving is a process that really has no end.  I suppose if working folks took a few weeks of staycation and really concentrated, getting everything unpacked might be a possibility.  Although our move was nearly two years ago it didn’t happen that way, and the self-isolation of the pandemic has led to only more time drains, not fewer.  We still have boxes waiting to be unpacked, and, of course, like many people we store memories in boxes.  Life is an accumulation of things that aren’t valuable but somehow aren’t disposable either.  While putting some things away in my study after work recently I spied something that has been in storage probably since I graduated from college.  I stopped and stared at it because even glimpsing it took me back instantly to my childhood.  What was it?  A devotional card.

The memory it prompted was sad, in a way.  We didn’t have much money when I was growing up (some things never change), so what we could afford was inexpensive stuff.  My faith, rather than being the optimistic, happy kind of fundamentalism, was rather the fearful, wrath of God kind.  I was a scared little boy.  Phobias ran deep and wide.  I bought cards like this to assure me that things weren’t so bad.  This particular card has three reassuring verses from the Bible, all taken out of context, on the back.  Seeing the card reminded me of the several others I once had.  Our homelife wasn’t peaceful, and I often had to retreat to where I could look at my devotional cards for reassurance.  At college I started to grow optimistic only to have my career prove that I was right at the beginning—life is scary and insecure.

I picked up the card.  I put it on my desk.  My mother had returned it to me, I recalled, when she moved into the trailer park.  A box of my stuff had been left at home (unfortunately not the box with all the 1970s baseball cards I had as a kid).  And two or three of the devotional cards had been tucked into it.  When she gave me the box I didn’t have time to sort through it.  The vacation time was all used up by driving all the way there and back, and so it got loaded on the truck with everything else, the flotsam and jetsam of a childhood spent being afraid.  This card was only one of several, and if I’m honest I’ll admit that it has reopened a box that may have been left by Pandora.

Fearful Faithful

It’s sitting on the table next to my chair and I’m afraid of it.  It all started during the Easton Book Festival.  I feel sorry for those people who have to stand on the street corner and pass things out for a job.  In Manhattan I used to see them being completely ignored by swarms of people passing by.  They’re only doing their job.  I made a habit of accepting their chits, and even if they didn’t mean anything to me, I felt that the person handing them out might have experienced a small measure of satisfaction that someone accepted what they were offering, and had said “thank you.”  In Easton back in October, my wife and I were heading to one of the venues to hear an author talk and a guy was passing out paper, and I accepted one as a matter of habit.

It was a Chick tract.  If you’ve been reading this blog a while you’ll have run across the concept before.  Jack T. Chick was a cartooning evangelist.  He drew hundreds of tracts and comic books that formed a steady diet for me, growing up.  Although they looked like cartoons, these intolerant, Fundamentalist tracts were quite often very scary.  Especially to the young.  More than once I’d spiral into a childhood depression after reading one.  Although it seemed simple—say the prayer at the end and you’d be saved—how could you be so sure?  The disturbing contents stayed with me long after the sixteen pages were done.  Now, as an adult, I was being offered a road back to a childhood I fervently wished to avoid.

I stuck the tract in my pocket and forgot about it.  When I got home I emptied my pockets and found it again.  Curious, I was tempted to read it.  I know, however, that doing so will only drag me back to a memory of younger days when a kind of terror permeated my days.  And nights.  My theology, which was formed of a mosaic of these tracts (what child really listens to sermons?), was a scary one indeed.  It was populated by demons, Catholics, and servants of the Antichrist.  Anyone who wasn’t straight and pretty waspish was a threat to my eternal salvation.  Is that somewhere I want to go again?  The tract sits, unread, on my table.  It reminds me of the abuses to which religion might be put.  And I’m thinking I might start refusing free handouts on the street once again.

Seasonal Music

Music is deeply, deeply personal.  That’s why I don’t write much about it.  There are pieces, I swear, if someone walked in to shoot me when I was listening to them I wouldn’t even notice.  This effect is amplified in autumn.  I don’t listen to music all the time.  In fact, I rarely do.  The reason is, counterintuitively, I fear that music may cease being meaningful to me.  Good things have a way of running out.  The music I like is only very slowly supplemented.  So as the clouds encroached this month, I put on some tunes and I began thinking of appropriate songs of the season.  I’ve heard attempts of more recent artists to sound spooky, but their lyrics don’t match the mood I’m seeking—remember, it’s deeply personal.  So what is autumnal music?

Despite being a fundamentalist, I was raised on rock-n-roll.  My favorite artist growing up was Alice Cooper; in fact, to this day Alice is the only secular rock artist I’ve seen in concert.  Two tracks on Welcome to My Nightmare are among those eerie autumn songs: “Years Ago,” and “Steven.”  This album was profoundly sunk in my psyche before I discovered others.  While not scary in the same way, “Brilliant Disguise” from Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love hits a similar chord.  The melancholy of autumn must be appeased and this song begs to bring it on.  Many of Leonard Cohen’s songs are like the angst of this season bottled up for a restorative tincture, but I was quite a bit older when I discovered Nick Cave.

The Boatman’s Call with its willowy sound and occasionally explicit lyrics, walks that line between a deep-seated spirituality and fear.  There are others, of course, some even fairly recent.  Imagine Dragons’ “Demons” from Night Vision certainly qualifies, as do the first two tracks on Muse’s The Resistance.  But this is my list, and I fear to reveal too much.  Someone who knows your music knows very much about you.  I hear some people discuss music as if it’s a throw-away commodity.  For others of us it has become part of our souls and we’re reluctant to reveal too much.  New members of this autumn music club are added only very slowly, and I reacquaint myself with the long-term members not frequently enough to rob me of their impact.  So it was as the clouds thickened and the cold wind began to blow as the leaves were beginning to turn that I put on my personal songs of the season.  And there was transcendence, but it was, as transcendence tends to be, deeply personal.

Glossophobia

For a guy so full of phobias that there’s no elbow room at Hotel Fear in my head, people are sometimes curious as to why I don’t suffer one of the most common sources of terror: speaking in front of crowds.  Glossophobia is extremely normal.  I suspect it’s one of evolutions tricks for keeping metaphorical cooks out of the allegorical kitchen.  If we’re all talking at once, who can be heard?  The internet will prove to be some kind of experiment in that regard, I expect.  Thing is, I’m not what most public speakers appear to be: confident.  I’m not.  Beneath the surface all kinds of phobias are vying for the next private room to become available.  Over the weekend I had a public speaking engagement, and that made me consider this again—why doesn’t it bother me?

Although the answer to “why” questions will always remain provisional, I have an idea.  It’s kind of creepy, but true.  In my fundamentalist upbringing, I was taught that my life was being taped.  You see, it goes like this: since the book of Hebrews says “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment,” some Fundies like Jack Chick illustrated this as an outdoor cinema in Heaven.  Or rather, in the clouds just outside Heaven.  Here you’d be summoned, buck naked, as soon as you died.  Other nude souls would gather round the big screen and your entire life would be projected for all to see.  Since everyone’s dead there are apparently no time constraints.  As a kid I realized that I was being watched.  All the time.  Now, I’m not conscious of this constantly, but I did translate it to public appearances.  We’re all, it seems, actors.

With a lifetime of performing experience, by the time I was a teen I wasn’t afraid of public speaking.  Introspection was a big part of my psyche, and when I had a speaking engagement, I knew that I had to be conscious of what I did and said, because people would be watching me.  I learned to play the part.  I did take a college course in public speaking, and even a preaching course offered by the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, but both of these were long after I’d begun taking public speaking roles.  I make mistakes, of course, and early on I learned to laugh at them before the audience did.  We were all being taped, after all, and there’s no outtake reel before the pearly gates.  Strange, but true.  If you’re afraid to speak in public just remember—you’re being watched, all the time.

Identified or Not

Okay, so this will require some explanation.  It came about like this: I was in a used bookstore.  (This in itself requires no explanation, of course.)  I noticed a slim book, cover out, called A Pocket Guide to UFO’s and ETs: A biblical and cultural exploration of aliens.  Biblical?  I picked it up only to discover it was from Answers in Genesis.  Please note: I do not buy books or paraphernalia of Fundamentalist groups unless I can get it used.  I don’t want to support this particular weirdness in any way.  Well, the money for this used book was going to support a used bookstore and not a religious aberration, so I figured it would be good to see what the Fundies have to say about a topic that seems to have started to engage public interest again.

The book begins by helpfully pointing out that if there’s life on other planets the Bible doesn’t mention it.  And since the only way it could’ve got there is by evolution—for surely the Almighty would’ve said something about it in his book, if he’d invented it—the whole idea is a non-starter.  Evolution, as everyone knows, is a satanic idea meant primarily to challenge the Bible and secondarily explain the diversity of life forms on earth.  And since earth is the only planet the Bible recognizes, it is the only one with life.  So, UFOs, it stands to reason don’t exist.  Well, that’s not quite fair.  They do exist but most can be explained away and those that can’t may well be demonic.  Since there can be no aliens, and since some sightings can’t be otherwise explained, then demons—which the Bible does mention—must be responsible.  They (demons) can also explain why other world religions exist.

There’s plenty in here to offend just about everyone apart from the Answers in Genesis crowd.  The screed spends quite a bit of time knocking down ancient astronaut ideas, and taking Erich von Däniken to task.  Science is useful in explaining how pyramids were built, but not in how the rock used to build them was formed (it takes far too long to make limestone the old fashioned way; God simply used a variety of different rock types to make the one inhabited planet more interesting geologically).  And those UFO religions?  Inspired by demons, no doubt.  In fact, even reading a little book like this could lead you to become interested in the subject, so be careful!  In fact, the safest thing of all (and I’ve only got your well-being in mind) is to leave it on the shelf.

Fear of Religions

There’s a narrative of fear in Christianity that seems to have been absent at the beginning.  This is evident when driving the highways of America where you’ll see billboards (which are meant for selling things) advertising the truth of a kind of biblical Fundamentalism.  On my recent trip across Pennsylvania this fear stood out in some rather obvious ways.  And it doesn’t reflect the Christianity reflected in the Good Book.  Stop and think about it: although the persecution of early believers was probably never as widespread as the usual narrative says it was, the writings we have describe facing persecution with joy.  Believing that they would be delivered, the oppressed welcomed the opportunity to prove their faith.  The Chick tracts I read as a child, however, focused intently on how scary the future persecution would be.  Fear, not joy, was the motivation for belief.

As we stopped in a turnpike rest area, we noticed a kiosk of Christian books amid snacks both salty and sweet.  The only other reading material available had to do with tourist attractions and finding directions.  It was, upon retrospect, odd.  Pondering this I recalled the narrative I heard repeatedly in my youth—a time was coming when it would be illegal to be Christian.  There would be persecution and the only proper response was a faith borne of fear.  This was not a religion of love thy neighbor.  No, this was a religion of armed survival based not on turning the other cheek, but on asserting itself with a show of firepower.  This kind of weaponized evangelicalism has taken over the narrative of Christianity.  Paul of Tarsus, knowing he would likely be executed, wrote of his joy from prison.  In the land of plenty we tremble.

The more cynical side of my experience suggests that politicians—who have learned that fear gets them elected—found in this form of Christianity a convenient set of sheep without a shepherd.  There’s fear in these billboards.  Fear that another religion may take over.  Or that secularism may make cherished beliefs illegal.  This isn’t cause for celebration, as the sermon on the mount proclaims it should be, but rather a call to arms.  In this country we have more than enough.  Among those left out, however, this fear grows just as rapidly as among those who fear they may lose the abundance they have.  They try to convert the weary traveler whose eye is drawn to the billboard.  And even those who stop for a drink of cold water which, the Bible suggests, should be freely given.

Different Kind of Salvation

It’s encouraging and disheartening all at the same time.  And seldom has the evil of money been so obvious.  Last night I attended an environmental panel discussion at a local church.  It was encouraging to see so many people out on a rainy, chilly night in Bethlehem, a city famous for its might steel mill.  Everyone there knew the problem and agreed that something had to be done.  As the speakers gave their presentations it became clear just how corrupt politicians are.  Corruption is bipartisan, of course.  In the name of “economic growth” we allow the fracking rape of our state despite the known and proven environmental hazards.  Despite the fact that Pennsylvania has a green amendment in its state constitution.  Money, as Cyndi reminds us, changes everything.

Shortly after even Mitch McConnell admitted climate change is real, at the state level climate deniers are running things.  It brought to mind the frightening and omnipresent teachings of my Fundamentalist youth: the sooner we can destroy this planet the sooner we’ll make Jesus come again.  Convinced of the absolute certainty of that second coming, there is almost a mandate to ruin, pillage, and plunder natural resources because the Good Book ensures us that, upon a white horse the savior will come in the nick of time.  Politicians, elected officials believe this.  They also believe in mammon.  If you’re gonna go down, you might as well do it in style.  Like John Jacob Astor on the Titanic.  It’s the way of the aristocrat.  Rising seas drown rich and poor alike.

It was a miserable night to be out.  The weather has been freakishly off for some time now, and all the science—real science, that is—predicts it’s only going to get worse.  How the government became the enemy of the planet that gave it birth would be a fascinating story if only it were fiction.  The truth is we’ve elected people that can be bought.  And bought easily.  Laws are passed that violate the constitution of this commonwealth and meetings are held behind closed doors.  Local activists are very active while most of us struggle to keep ourselves employed, heads, as it were, above water.  We need to pause now and again to consider what a wonder this planet is.  We must learn that the only power money has is that which we freely give it.  Rain was pouring down.  Brontide was actual thunder as the state legislature drew up chairs for the last supper.

Evolving Intelligence

In the process of unpacking books, it became clear that evolution has been a large part of my life.  More sophisticated colleagues might wonder why anyone would be concerned about an issue that biblical scholars long ago dismissed as passé.  Genesis 1–11 is a set of myths, many of which have clear parallels in the world of ancient West Asia.  Why even bother asking whether creationism has any merit?  I pondered this as I unpacked the many books on Genesis I’d bought and read while teaching.  Why this intense interest in this particular story?  It goes back, no doubt, to the same roots that stop me in my tracks whenever I see a fossil.  The reason I pause to think whenever I see a dinosaur represented in a museum or movie.  When a “caveman” suggests a rather lowbrow version of Adam and Eve.  When I read about the Big Bang.

The fact is evolution was the first solid evidence that the Bible isn’t literally true.  That time comes in every intelligent life (at least among those raised reading the Good Book).  You realize, with a horrific shock, that what you’d been told all along was a back-filled fabrication that was meant to save the reputation of book written before the advent of science.  The Bible, as the study of said book clearly reveals, is not what the Fundamentalists say it is.  Although all of modern scientific medicine is based on the fact of evolution, many who benefit from said medicine deny the very truth behind it.  Evolution, since 1859, has been the ditch in which Fundies are willing to die.  For this reason, perhaps, I took a very early interest in Genesis.

Back in my teaching days it was my intention to write a book on this.  I’d read quite a lot on both Genesis and evolution.  I read science voraciously.  I taught courses on it.  I’d carefully preserved childhood books declaring the evils of evolution.  To this day Genesis can stop me cold and I will begin to think over the implications.  When we teach children that the Bible is a scientific record, we’re doing a disservice to both religion and society.  This false thinking can take a lifetime to overcome, and even then doubts will remain.  Such is the power of magical thinking.  I keep my books on Genesis, although the classroom is rare to me these days.  I do it because it is part of my life.  And I wonder if it is something I’ll ever be able to outgrow.

Fossilized Ideas

In our current political climate, perspective helps quite a bit.  Indeed, one of the shortcomings of our conscious species is our inability to think much beyond the present.  In either direction.  Because of the biblical basis of western civilization, a significant portion of otherwise intelligent people believe that the world was created 6000 years ago.  I grew up believing that myself, before I learned more about the Bible and its context.  I also grew up collecting fossils.  Somehow I had no problem knowing that the fossils were from times far before human beings walked the earth, but also that the earth wasn’t nearly as old as it had to be for that to have happened.  Faith often involves contradictions and remains self-convinced nevertheless.

While out walking yesterday I came across a fossil leaf.  Unbeknownst to our movers last summer, I have boxes of fossils that I’ve picked up in various places that I’ve lived.  I find it hard to leave them in situ because of the fascinating sense of contradictions that still grabs me when I see one.  There was an impression of a leaf from millions of years ago right at my feet.  It was in a rock deeply embedded in the ground and that had to be left in place.  Never having found a floral fossil before this was somewhat of a disappointment.  Still it left an impression on me.  Perhaps when dinosaurs roamed Pennsylvania—or perhaps before—this leaf had fallen and been buried to last for eons.  How the world has changed since then!

After that encounter, I considered the brown leaves scattered from the recently departed fall.  Some lay on the muddy path, but few or none of them would meet the precise conditions required to form a fossil.  If one did, however, it would be here after humanity has either grown up and evolved into something nobler or has destroyed itself in a fit of pique or hatred.  We know we’re better than the political games played by those who use the system for their own gain.  The impressions we leave are far less benign than this ossified leaf at my feet.  The Fundamentalist of the dispensationalist species sees world history divided into very brief ages.  God, they opine, created the entire earth to last less than 10,000 years.  All this effort, suffering, and hope exists to be wiped out before an actual fossil has time to form.  It’s a perspective as fascinating as it is dangerous.

You’re History

A story from Inside Higher Ed discusses a study of history majors and their rapid decline.  This occurs during a sudden onset of “job related” majors and the graph accompanying the article shows how STEM has taken over higher education.  These are the fields with actual occupations awaiting them at the end of the degree, while disciplines such as history and religion (also very near the bottom) have less clear career paths.  Indeed, when I’ve been in the job market I find that a religion degree is less than useless, no matter what the department recruiters tell you.  If you’re not bound for the clergy you undertake the study at your own peril.  History, I expect, suffers from a similar dynamic, but the peril in this case is to all of civilization.

We’ve seen over the past two years how a stunning lack of knowledge of history sets a nation on the path to chaos.  Businessmen with no classical education don’t make good national leaders.  Knowing where we’ve been, as Santayana so eloquently stated, is the only thing that keeps us from repeating past failures.  History is our only safeguard in this respect.  Over the Thanksgiving break I spent a little time delving into family history.  Since I don’t come from illustrious lineage, I felt the frustration of finding out what happened to obscure people from the last couple of centuries.  Lack of history on a personal level.  On a professional level, my doctorate is really in the history of religions (ancient religions) and I’ve become keenly aware of just how little history there is to the very popular modern Fundamentalist movement.

Maybe I said that wrong.  They do have a history, but the belief system that is touted as ancient is really quite modern.  Anti-modern, in fact.  When historical knowledge is lacking, however, people can make all kinds of claims based on nothing more than wishful thinking.  History keeps us honest.  Or it used to.  When we’ve outlived the need for history we’ve started down a path unlit by any embers of past human foibles.  We’ve been living in a culture in love with technology but not so much with critical reflection of where such innovations might take us.  Doctors are beginning to complain that they spend more time on their computers than with their patients.  The time freed up by the internet has been taken up by the internet.  And when all of this comes to its natural culmination, we would be well served by historians to make a record of what went wrong.  If we could find any.

 

Mythic Truth

“Myth embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words.”  I recently came across this quote from Ananda K. Coomaraswamy.  Coomaraswamy was a philosopher and metapmhysist from Ceylon, and like many eastern thinkers had a more holistic view of the world than western rationalism.  We’re taught from a young age that myth is something false, not true.  This colloquial use of the word is so common that those of us who’ve specialized in myth slip into it during everyday conversation.  Words, however, have uses rather than meanings.  Coomaraswamy was engaging this reality in the quote above.  Words can take us only so far in exploring reality when we have to break into either formulas or poetry.  Although they are under-appreciated poets are the purveyors of truth.

Having studied ancient mythology in some detail, it became clear to me as a student that these tales weren’t meant to be taken literally.  Instead, they were known to be true.  It takes a supple mind to parse being true from “really happened,” as we are taught in the western world that on what “really happened” is true.  In other words, historicism is our myth.  Meaning may not inhere in words, but when we use words to explore it we run up against lexical limits.  Is it any wonder that lovers resort to poetry?  On those occasions when I’ve been brave enough to venture to write some, I walk away feeling as if I’ve been the receiver of some cosmic radio signal.  We have been taught to trust the reality of what our senses perceive.  Myth, and poetry, remind us that there’s much more.

The Fundamentalist myth is that the Bible is literally true.  If they’d stop and think about it, they’d realize the mockery such thinking makes of Holy Writ.  The Good Book doesn’t look at itself that way.  In fact, it doesn’t even look at itself as a book—an idea that developed in later times.  The time and the cultures that produced the Bible were cool with myth.  They may not have called it that but the signs are unmistakable.  Ananda Coomaraswamy knew whereof he wrote.  The closest to absolute truth we can come takes us to the end of declarative, factual writing.  Scientists writing about the Big Bang devolve into complex mathematical formulas to explain what mere words can.  Myth is much more eloquent, even if we as a society, dismiss it along with other non-factual truth.