Greece Lightning Rod

Eds and op-eds are popping over the Supreme Court decision to allow sectarian prayer at Greece, New York town council meetings. Some citizens complained that the prayers made them feel disrespected and excluded. Who hasn’t from time to time? I’m no advocate of government-sponsored religion, but I do wonder how we can live in a society in which the mere mention of God offends some as much as the “f word” offends others. Are we, perchance, getting a little thin-skinned? After several long years of neo-con rule, we have learned that opposition is a form of treason, and that conflicting opinions cannot coexist. As an erstwhile teacher of religion, the implications make me shiver. Isn’t the point of learning about religion to train people in toleration? If I sued every time I was offended, I’d be the richest man in the country.

Ironically, the United States is one of the rare cases of a developed, “first world” nation where skirmishes over religion often and vocally take center stage. We have, as a society, dismantled the apparatus of dispassionate, scholarly discussion of religion (“no need for it,” “budget can’t afford it,” “superstition and nonsense”) and wonder why it always brings us to verbal blows. Religion is that which we can’t define, but we can surely fight about. We’re offended by public prayers, the wearing of hijab, and idols to the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn. Religion, like sex, is relegated to private places only, but for diametrically opposed reasons. What are we so afraid of?

Lost in the clutter.

Lost in the clutter.

We have no trouble when someone with private money spends it to introduce religion into the public sphere. You can walk down the street in Manhattan and see crosses outside churches and “Jesus saves” scrawled in the cement of well-trod sidewalks. Nobody seems to be offended. Finding practitioners of the “exotic” religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Vodou, Theosophy, and Scientology is hardly a challenge in a city of millions. Over what is there anything to be offended? I’m offended by those with too much money keeping everyone else below them because the law says that they can. I’m offended by those who pollute our common environment because they can afford lawyers to find loopholes. I’m offended by those who use their religion to oppress women and non-believers. Those who want to pray to a god, any god, before a civil meeting, as long as that god demands nothing from non-believers, aren’t hurting anyone but those who never learned to agree to disagree.

A Theistic Nation

That’s a dill-pickillial of a peccadillo, if you’ll pardon my Ned Flanderism. I’m referring to the issue of the Supreme Court dealing with public prayer. Again. In a recent Chicago Tribune story, prayer before town board meetings in Greece, New York have led to accusations of violation of citizens’ rights. In a similar, but unrelated, situation, a friend asked me what I thought about religious symbols on public property. He asked the basic question that if atheism relies on no symbols, isn’t the absence of symbolism tacit approval of atheism. These issues are very difficult to resolve for a number of reasons. The first non-partisan elephant in the room is the fact that we do not have an acceptable definition of religion. Universities shy away from hiring specialists in religion and we, as a society, and, more restrictively, as an academy, can’t agree on what religion is. Is atheism a religious belief system? Some would argue that it is, and that it shouldn’t be the default stance—that would favor one religion. From what neuroscience seems to tell us, atheists aren’t born, they’re made. Religion, of some description, is normal human thinking.

A further issue involves both symbols and prayers. A symbol means nothing without interpretation. As I told my friend, unintentional crosses are ubiquitous. You might have to look a bit harder to find unintentional stars of David or yin-yangs, but I’m certain they exist. Without the Christian eye, however, those unintentional crosses are just architectural features or natural spaces between corners. The same applies to prayer. If I decide to speak, it is a matter of interpretation whether my words are prayers, a guy talking to himself, or, increasingly, somebody chatting on their blue tooth phone as they walk past a church. Intention, a specific aspect of interpretation, certainly plays into the sometimes coercive power of a symbol or a prayer. Do those Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn just represent a nice piece of art, or do they bear an intended message? Do intended messages not attempt to persuade others that they are true?

Smart folk like Supreme Court justices have difficulty with this issue every time. I’m not surprised. We don’t know how to quantify religion, even though most of us are pretty sure of it when we see it. Some would argue that many eastern religions are in fact philosophies. Some would claim that atheism is the opposite of religion. Atheism is not so very far from some strains of Buddhism, however. And like it or not, people are all subject to belief. We seem to like forging ahead in the darkness on this issue. State universities hide their religious studies programs like embarrassing warts. What rational person would want to waste time studying such superstition? The Supreme Court of the United States, I might point out, just for one.

Religion or not?

Religion or not?

Charon’s Obol

One of the concomitants of spending time with religion is a non-morbid fixation on death. As a college student I was surprised to learn that other people my age did not think about death nearly every day. Perhaps with a typical college student’s obsession with the other end of the life cycle this is only natural. Ever since I was a child, however, I felt frustrated by the lack of permanence that characterized all of the striving involved with life. We work very hard and then we die. I suppose that is one of the reasons religion appealed so strongly to me—it had an answer to this dilemma. Science, as I began to experience it about the same time, suggested a radically different conclusion: we have no souls, and so it is best to accept the fact that death is the end and get on with life. No wonder Ecclesiastes has always been my favorite book of the Bible.

While reading about–shhh!–death recently, I came across an interesting tidbit. Pope Pius IX was buried with a coin. I’ve read that even John Paul II was buried with coinage, but I’ve not been able to find credible sources on that. What is fascinating about this practice is that no matter how it is vested, burial with money is a form of Charon’s obol. With movies like Clash of the Titans, many modern people are aware of the need to pay Charon to cross the River Styx. (Back in the radical days of traditional education just about everyone would’ve learned this in the course of studying the classics. In any case…) The gifting of the dead with money represents the survival of a pagan custom that likely stretches back well before ancient Greece. Even before money was invented people buried the dead with goods that the living would never be able to use again. They may not have considered this payment to a ferryman, but the principle is the same.

This idea has a strong grip on our psyches. Not one of my favorite movies, I have watched Ghostship a time or two. What initially brought me to the movie was the fact that it is a horror-movie built around the character of Charon. The mysterious stranger who lures the crew of the Arctic Warrior onto the Antonia Graza laden with gold is named Ferriman. The salvage crew quickly forget the tons and tons of metal that they came for in exchange for the a few dozen bars of gold. Of course, a sole survivor lives to tell the tale. The thing about Charon’s obol is that once he is paid, death is inevitable. Thus death and money are inextricably twined like earbuds carelessly tossed into a backpack. It seems that no matter how you measure it, the only winner is Charon. Maybe the Greeks have something to teach us yet.

Charon’s got ahold of our Psyches

Ice Father in Heaven

The Internet can be a window into the collective consciousness of a nation. In a world where even the Weather Channel invites comments on its forecast page, the outlook of many Americans is laid bare. This latest shot of winter weather on the northeastern quarter of the country is an excellent example. It is still March, the tempestuous month of the war god, so a little snow in the northern latitudes should come as no surprise. An unnamed dean at a state school here in New Jersey had just sent out an email blast the week before stating, with decanal authority, that there would be no more weather delays this year. Yesterday there was still snow on the ground after the storm. Frustrated citizens cursed – actually cursed – the winter on weather.com.

For years I have maintained that the weather is key to understanding the human perception of the divine. From ancient Sumer’s An and Enlil through classical Greece’s Uranus and Zeus, the gods unquestionably in charge are the sky gods. The guys who control the weather. In Israel Yahweh took that job description from a reluctant Hadad – aka Baal – and many people considered this a serious mistake. Don’t mess with the weather god! As the snow begins to melt once more, even those of us in the enlightened twenty-first century should be reminded that our sense of what the world should be is an illusion. Nature evolved our brains, and now our brains think they have the right to take over.

Once, back in Wisconsin, I stepped outside on a chilly June morning and saw flecks of snow in the air. It wasn’t “snowing” – it doesn’t snow in June – but there was definitely a frozen sort of precipitation hanging tentatively in the air. I was teaching at the most self-righteous of seminaries at the time, and it became clear to me, once again, that we are not in control. Among the scariest books I read in Wisconsin was Brian Fagan’s The Little Ice Age. I was at work on my book on weather language in the Psalms (still unpublished) and the unsettling truth drifted around me like this winter’s snows: if a new ice age settles in, there is nothing we can do to stop it. Geologists still can’t state what triggers these periodic events, or even what their timetable might be. If earth’s ice caps again begin to grow, however, I am certain that we will also see a dramatic increase in religiosity. For the gods, we all know deep down, are in the skies.

Bleached Angels

A friend recently asked why, in the canons of western art, angels suddenly made the shift from colorful to predominately white. What was behind this loss of color? The history of angel imagery is complex and a great deal of the complication derives from a generally iconoclastic sensibility in late Israelite religion. Images were frowned upon, so we do not get “Hebrew angels” recorded for us. The current-day perception of angels seems to go back to Mesopotamian Apkallu figures and Egyptian deities. In both ancient cultures various deities and demi-gods were portrayed as winged humans. The Egyptian figures, at least, were colorful. In the world of the Hebrew Bible angels are nowhere cited as having wings and they were likely imagined as being pretty much the same as humans in form. Many biblical characters mistake angels for people.

In Greek portrayals, Nike, goddess of victory, is a winged character. Eros, the god of love, also bears wings (and unlike Nike, he is generally bare all over.) In some vase paintings the Harpies are winged women. Since Greek pottery painting was generally monochromatic, we don’t have much color to go on. The earliest Christian angel portrayal comes from the Priscilla Catacomb in Rome. This angel is monochrome and wingless. The more familiar, and lavishly colored angels are Byzantine creations. Since my opinions on art history are not to be trusted, it is advisable not to make too much of this, but Byzantine art made flamboyant use of saturated hues to bring glory to God. This is part of the tradition behind Orthodox icon writing, and angels were simply following suit.

In the Middle Ages in Europe, angels were widely used to represent good and evil. It would stand to reason (if not to art-historical standards) that “good angels” would show their goodness by donning white apparel while “evil angels” would take on darker garb. This also fits with the growing tendency to represent Satan as dark red or black in color during this time period. As angels symbolized goodness, they became bleached of their former, Byzantine color. Symbolic value outweighed aesthetic sensibilities. Today angels retain their ancient legacy of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece. Wings fit the view of angels as messengers, although ancient ideas of their colors depended more on the artistic conventions of the culture than any attempt to be true-to-life.

The earliest Christian angel (left)