Monsters and Gods

Nothing makes you feel quite as old as seeing a documentary where the names of the experts are unfamiliar to you because they’re too young.  So it was when I watched PBS’s Ancient Skies episode “Gods and Monsters.”  They had me at “Monsters” although I know that when paired with gods the term generally refers to Greek mythology.  This documentary had a pretty cool rendition of Marduk battling Tiamat that would’ve left many a Babylonian quaking in his or her sandals.  Ranging across the world, it showed the earliest efforts to understand astronomy, and then went on to contrast it with how the ancients nevertheless still believed in gods.  It was a striking kind of condescension, I thought.  Many scientists today still believe in a deity, although it’s no longer the fashion.

That sharp dichotomy, that either/or, bothers me a bit.  It’s not that I have a problem with science—I’ve always supported the scientific method.  No, it’s the idea that everything is explained that bothers me.  We understand so little about the universe.  Yes, we’ve made great strides over the past millennia, but we’ve not even been out of the cosmic neighborhood yet.  And I wish we could acknowledge that even on earth life is still a mystery that can only be solved with poetry as well as reason.  “Gods and Monsters” made the point that the ancients realized the explanatory value of stories.  Myths weren’t just idle constructs to pass the time.  They were ways of understanding how this universe works.  Some people take their mythology too seriously, of course, but that doesn’t mean that no stories are required to make sense of it all.

It was the inherent conflict implied between science and religion, I think, that bothered me the most.  Not everything in life comes down to an equation.  That doesn’t mean that equations are wrong, just that they’re not everything.  One of the points Ancient Skies makes is that people of bygone eras had a very sophisticated understanding of the sky.  It featured the builders of the great pyramid of Khufu, those who constructed Stonehenge, the Maya, and the Babylonians.  They all knew much of the math that would only be formulated in Europe much later.  And they all assuredly believed in gods.  It didn’t prevent them from complex thought in either architecture or astronomy.  Our modern dilemma is the razor burn left by standing before the mirror too long with Occam.  You don’t have to shave to support science.

Divine Monsters

Monstrosity and religiosity are sacred siblings. Both are focused on that which is outside—the Other. Now, I have to confess being a bit rusty in my philosophy reading, and I sometimes wonder how I made it through three degrees without ever really encountering post-modernism in all its complexity. Reading Richard Kearney’s Strangers, Gods and Monsters (Routledge, 2003) was therefore a challenge. Like many of those raised in an uncompromising religion, I am innately attracted to monsters. Maybe it was the vivid images of Hell and its denizens; one of the earliest nightmares that I remember was of being dragged to Hell. Some authors suggest Revelation gave Christianity its monsters, but, as Kearney suggests, the connection goes back much, much further.

We fear what we embrace. It is the old division of sacred and profane—a line that has blurred considerably over time—that gives us our monsters on a separate plate from our deities. Otherness contains within itself both bane and blessing. People fear that which differs from them, a fact demonstrated every day by racism, sexism, and homophobia. At the same time, many look to the ultimate alterity for salvation from the mundane. God is just as “other,” more so even, than any human or monster is. Any creature/creator beyond the reach of our feeble grasp should be considered dangerous in our view of the world. And yet the further we get from the middle, the more the ends seem to come together in an ouroboros of divine monstrosity. Those who read Kearney need to be prepared.

While not taking on monsters as I expected he would, Kearney does address them with a sensitivity appropriate to the recognition of the closeness to deity. Nowhere is this clearer than in his superb chapter on melancholy. Being caught between the monstrous and the sublime, the melancholic learns to cope with a disinterested sadness that at times borders on insanity, yet produces flashes of light often more brilliant than those who think their way through problems. This is the affliction of Hamlet who stands on the cusp of being or non-being. For all who believe in a divine power, a strong divide must separate that realm from ours. That same realm, however, also contains our beloved monsters and strangers of every description.