Goddess Lore

From where I sit to write this blog in this particular season (when it’s too cold to sit in an unheated attic) I watch Venus rise in the eastern sky.  While it is still dark, I notice a bright yellow glow appearing over the top of a business located on the eastern side of the block.  It hovers there a moment before disappearing briefly behind various rooftop accoutrements of the building across the street, appearing again minutes later on the other side.  The planet rises rapidly before sunrise, and with the unnatural markers of human structures, it’s fairly simple to keep track of her progress with occasional glances out the window.  Venus is, as I’ve mentioned before, both the morning and evening “star” of antiquity.  We now know her identity as a planet rather than a goddess, but we’re becoming more attuned to planets’ roles as mothers, or at least we should be.

Some ancient peoples considered our own earth as a mother.  It is the womb in which we gestate as living beings.  Without the warmth she gives we could not survive, and even our forays into nearby space are possible only with the replication of her body heat through artificial means.  It may be metaphor, yes, but metaphors may be truer than bald statements of chemical compositions and mathematical formulas.  Scientist, politician, or theologian, none of us survive without our planetary nurture.  This thought is sobering in the light of government policies over the past two years, which have denied that human pillaging of nature is problematic.  The Republican Party, which collectively lacks respect for our earthly home, has followed thoughtlessly in the tracks of a man proud of his refusal to read.  And so I look to Venus.

Venus is beautiful.  We know, however, that her surface is hot enough to melt lead.  Soviet-era probes landed there and melted.  Planets, it seems, can unleash fury that mere humans can’t hope to withstand.  One of the forgotten graces of nature, it seems, is the warning sign.  Even as the rattlesnake warns before striking, our mother has been sending messages that we’ve been going too far.  Hurricanes are growing stronger and threaten to scour us off the very face of the land we disrespect and exploit.  Venus, it turns out, is too hot to handle.  Mars, whom the ancients feared for his propensity to irrational war, is too cold.  It’s difficult to imagine where politicians think we might go when our own mother turns us out.  I would invite them over to watch Venus perform her morning dance outside my window, but to see it you must first believe in goddesses.

Honor Thy Mother

Earth Day should be an international holiday. Perhaps the most disturbing attribute of some varieties of Evangelicalism is their tendency to read the “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it” of Genesis 1 to be a mandate not tempered by a literal reading of Genesis 4. As I noticed when tweeting the text yesterday, Genesis 4.11 has God say to Cain, literally, “And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand.” Her mouth? What is this if not a biblical affirmation of Gaia? The earth, according to Genesis 2, is literally the mother of Adam. Yahweh is the male element, the fingers molding the dirt (those who have ears, let them hear), while the womb of this bizarre conception is the earth itself. She has a mouth to receive the blood of Abel. The planet beneath our feet, according to the Bible, has not only a mouth, but also hands (Psalm 89, for those who doubt). It is our duty to grasp these hands and save our mother from ourselves.

In the spirit of the day, I decided to fix that pesky leak in the bathroom sink yesterday. We rent, of course, and our landlord—the nicest I’ve ever known—can be a bit slow when it comes to non-emergencies. I fixed the kitchen sink a year or two back, so I stuck my head under the cast-iron monster, baptized by the drips that continued to appear above my head from pipes far older than Methuselah, to see what I could do. After trips to every hardware store in the area, watching bemused DIY experts scratch their heads at photos on my phone of the Byzantine arrangement under my sink, I finally had to admit defeat and reassemble the old faucets again. The drips that fall are Gaia’s tears.

When I was in college I learned of Pascal’s wager. A philosopher who liked to hedge his bets, Pascal deduced that if God exists then our eternal fate relies on our obeying him (always him). If God does not exist, we have lost nothing by behaving ourselves, Pascal concluded. While many Evangelicals find that reasoning attractive, they do not apply it to their mother planet. If God is not coming back any day now, we’d better take care of the planet that sustains us. If God does show up, against all odds, what have we lost? Watching the plants burst back into life after a gray and dank winter, who can help but wonder at it all? Literal or not, the earth is so maternal that we should all pay her the reverence she is owed. Even if it means being a literalist for a day.

NASA's picture of our mother.

Good Earth Friday

In a rare superimposition of holidays, today marks both Earth Day and Good Friday. These two special days are a study in contrasts, yet both are holidays that look forward and hope for salvation. Good Friday, the culminating drama of Holy Week, is often paradoxically treated as a day of mourning. If Christian theology be correct, humanity would be Hell-bound without it. Yet many of the faithful weep as if for Tammuz, knowing that resurrection is just two days away. Earth Day, much more recent in origin, is much more ancient in importance. Biology as we know it, whether human or divine, would have no place to call home without Earth. Earth Day began in 1970, but every day is an Earth day for most of us.

Still buzzing with 1960’s activism, on the first Earth Day 20 million demonstrators got involved and helped lead the way to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency. People cared. This was before fashionable complacency set in. Whatever. Today citizens of the United States get stirred up about very little. Good Friday may represent a school holiday for some, others may even go to church although it is not Sunday. But get worked up? Hardly. Legislators in our country drag their feet like spoiled children when it comes to reducing emissions (many politicians positively treasure their emissions) or paying for cleanup of what we’ve done to our planet. Let our children inherit the dearth.

While bully governors seek to slash and burn, it is the responsibility of more reasonable individuals to try to repair the damage their leaders do. This is the spirit of Earth Day. Our leaders make the mess, those of us who care try to do something about it. Good Friday shows what happens when an idealist challenges the imperial status quo. Long-haired liberals get nailed, and guys in expensive suits cut themselves bigger and bigger checks while orphaning those who get in their way. Gaia was never crucified, but that doesn’t stop Neo-Cons from trying to rape her. Just a year on from Deepwater Horizon and oil companies argue they are legally within their bounds not to permanently seal off caps that “meet regulations.” Their friends the politicians politely look the other way. If things are going to get better I suggest that we leave official policy hanging on a cross and do our own best effort to save our mother’s life.

Careful, it's the only one we've got.

Third Mile Island

Sitting in the shadow of the cooling towers of Three Mile Island along the banks of the Susquehanna River the night before a friend’s wedding is one of the college memories that remains vividly in my mind. The accident had occurred some six years earlier, but seeing those ominous blinking red lights, no doubt to warn low-flying aircraft of the massive towers, left me with an irrational sense of danger. It will be a sad day when we have nothing left to fear. The next year, the Chernobyl disaster took place. This tragedy has results that are still playing out among the millions exposed to the radiation. Perhaps these events explain why Alan Parson Project’s Ammonia Avenue remains among my favorite albums.

While having my oil changed yesterday, the waiting room television was fixated on the story of the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, settling it comfortably between Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. With anxiety about the year 2012 running amok, many people are looking for signs. Perhaps the most unfortunate meme the Bible has introduced to the world is the Apocalypse. In origin apocalyptic concepts emerged from the Zoroastrian idea that a dualistic change in ages was coming. Believing this world to be under the baleful influence of Angra Mainyu, a day was eventually going to arrive where all this would be turned around and Ahura Mazda would set things right. Christianity borrowed the idea, shrouded it in secrecy, and began an unhealthy interest in the end of all things.

Fukushima Daiichi may feel like the end of the world, but it is not. In fact, all that we know of our planet shows its great resilience. The late Stephen Jay Gould, in his popular book Bully for Brontosaurus, opined that the earth is not as fragile as is often supposed. He notes in the prologue, “Our planet is not fragile at its own time scale, and we, pitiful latecomers in the last microsecond of our planetary year, are stewards of nothing in the long run.” Not that we should not attempt to protect our environment – we do that to preserve ourselves and other species – but if we should fail, earth will carry on. Our globe is expected to support life for another 500 million years. Instead of following false positives, we might be better off reminding ourselves that Gaia still has a few tricks up her metaphorical sleeves.

One way or another

Mother’s Day and Earthquakes

It is Earth Day, a holiday that all the world should join hands to celebrate since it is secular and concerns all people. Except the religious. Theologies are inured to common celebration; any admission that others might be right is a chink in the implacable armor of conviction. So it was not such a great surprise when an Iranian cleric this week blamed Iran’s earthquakes on women. Fuming like Eyjafjallajokull, the imam cited immodesty on the part of women as leading men to temptation and the very earth whose day we celebrate shakes in rage. Why it is that the burden to prevent sexual temptation should fall on women alone is unfathomable. If men have such trouble controlling their urges perhaps they ought to explore real estate on Mars, although it is doubtful they would be happy there.

The earth, our common home, was conceived to be female by many ancient societies. The Greeks of the Classical era called her Gaia and gave her the honor of being the earliest deity to emerge from Chaos. In the Bible, desexed and depersonalized, the earth was constructed on the first three days before any living inhabitants cluttered its pristine surface. With the drive of Christian conviction that this unruly mother should be subdued under human dominion the industrial revolution began a process of disrobing and dismembering Gaia, an impersonal “it” to be exploited. The Bible could be cited as demanding such action; we were commanded to take control. And our religions provided the ethics to underscore our mandate.

If not for the second great awakening in the 1960s, Earth Day would never have found its fundamental expression. We would continue subduing and dominating, as per Genesis 1, until the great white man above would be forced to send his son on a great white horse to end it all. But the earth is our mother. The missing woman from the all-too masculine Trinity. Instead of blaming her daughters for the unstoppable lusts of her sons, and instead of repeatedly defiling her to keep up with the Republicans, we should take a moment today to honor her. She is the only such mother we have.

Son, behold thy mother.