Religious Studies

Prominent public intellectuals, as opposed to us obscure private ones, often brashly castigate religious thinking.  They may be aware that the vast majority of the world’s population is religious, but there’s  a kind of arrogance that comes with public adulation, I suppose.  I was just reading about the European Middle Ages and I was reminded once again just how seriously religion was taken and how the very foundation of civilization is based on it.  During said Medieval Period everyone knew—note I don’t say “believed”—knew that human beings had eternal souls.  They also knew there were eternal consequences to our actions and therefore correct religion was absolutely essential.  The Enlightenment began to change some aspects of received wisdom, but not all.  Many intellectuals who led the charge still believed in God and Heaven and Hell.

Whenever I consider the sorry state of academic religious studies today, and look at how politics are unfolding, my thoughts turn to history.  Just because we no longer think in a certain way is no reason to forget just how formative religion is to human life.  The Republican Party has cynically accepted this as a means to power.  While leaving left-leaning intellectuals to debate their choices, they roll toward electoral victory.  They acknowledge that people are religious, and that’s what it takes to win their trust.  Where was Dawkins when Brexit was decided?  It may not have been religiously motivated, but nationalism is closely tied to religious thinking.  While religious thought may be gullible it’s not necessarily so, and without those who think religiously there’s no way to a true majority.

I’ve always had more questions than answers, and one of my largest unanswered ones is why prominent public intellectuals don’t think studying religion is important.  Religious thinking isn’t going away just because they say it is.  In fact, the data show exactly the opposite.  The Middle Ages are quite instructive for understanding the way people behave.  Although belief in the religious structures may be eroded, people still want to find a way to continue their impact beyond their earthly lives.  Modern Nimrods are just as concerned with image as religiously motivated Nimrods were.  To understand where we are it’s necessary to look back.  Looking back entails a certain comfort level with ways of thinking that many moderns find embarrassing.  Religion is part of who we are.  Looking around we can see the consequences of denying it. 

A Nightmare or Two

Some books are complex enough to require a slow reading.  Alan E. Bernstein’s The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds is such a book.  For those of us raised in a faith primarily geared toward avoiding Hell, the concept becomes a lifelong nightmare.  It doesn’t help that, depending on your clergy you’re taught different, sure-fire ways of achieving that avoidance.  Often it hinges on “believing” the “right” thing.  Fundamentalists tend not to call it “doctrine” since that sounds rather Catholic, but the idea’s the same; it’s a tenet of faith.  As Bernstein shows, however, Hell is an idea that developed over a very long time with several different views of what happens after death.  There’s no single, linear progression, but rather a conglomeration of ideas from a variety of sources.

No single volume can cover all the background to Hell.  Bernstein focuses on Egypt for the early material, as well as Babylonia.  These early civilizations demonstrate that people have always wondered what comes next, and what happens to those who oppress others—the bullies of this life who don’t deserve the same eternal rest as the rest.  Usually some form of punishment awaits, but not always.  In the Hebrew Bible one of the great issues was the fact that everyone goes to Sheol, good and bad alike.  As in classical Greece and Rome (on which Bernstein spends a great number of pages) the concept of the netherworld is gloomy, but not torture.  Except in exceptional cases, of course.  The Greeks had Tartarus as a place for those who dissed the divine.

Even early Christianity didn’t have a uniform view of it.  The New Testament is decidedly divided on the topic.  Revelation seems to be the last word, but it’s not.  Later thinkers such as Origen and Augustine (who came to different conclusions) weighed in.  Catholic Christianity lavished great love on the latter and Augustinian views became disproportionately influential.  Reading his lack of compassion can cause nightmares, although he justifies it theologically.  The one thing I missed in Bernstein’s lengthy treatment was the Zoroastrians.  This religion of ancient Persia introduced a distinct dualism into the biblical world; it perhaps represents the first relatively developed concepts of Hell and Heaven.  Zoroastrianism suffers from lack of documentation, however, and it is difficult to parse it as meticulously as Bernstein does the other cultures covered.  This book requires much pondering as it’s read, and if you were raised believing this kind of thing it’s sure to bring back a nightmare or two.

Southern Turn

In America’s ever roving commercial eye, Día de Muertos has become an extension of Halloween.  Retailers have realized that people will spend a lot on their fear, and the autumnal holidays delve into that primal territory.  Since the Day of the Dead, being a mix of indigenous Mexican religions and the Catholic celebration of All Souls’ Day, comes two days after Halloween why not blur them together with greenbacks?  So capitalist thinking goes.  While certainly not free of monied interests, the Disney/Pixar movie Coco has the virtue of addressing Día de Muertos as the separate holiday that it is.  A form of ancestor worship—a religion extremely common around the world—the thought-world of the film shares in common with Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride this idea that the afterlife is colorful, if not joyous.

I realize I’m jumping the gun here, but I just saw Coco for the first time over the weekend.  Not just a culturally sensitive treatment of an indigenous holiday, it is also a celebration of music.  In a very real sense, music is life in the film, and even the dead continue to thrive in its presence.  Again, the connection with Corpse Bride suggests itself.  The key difference, from a religionist’s point of view, is that Coco is based on, to an extent, actual religious traditions.  An irony of this is that, together with the worship of Santa Muerte, the focus on death sometimes makes the Catholic Church nervous.  Focus should be on resurrection, not death.  But what if death isn’t seen as evil?  Where is thy sting?  This can be a real challenge when your organization is offering escape from death.

The fear of death is natural enough.  It’s the ultimate unknown.  It fuels both religion and horror.  In that sense films like Coco that show a joyful aspect of the hereafter do an end-run around traditions that base their wares on ways to avoid the consequences of death.  Hell becomes a threat to be avoided—the forgotten dead in Coco face annihilation, a fate that Héctor notes comes to everyone eventually.  Eternal torment isn’t in the picture.  I have to wonder if this view doesn’t present a form of salvation that is unwelcome among rival religions.  Although Catholics don’t have the hostility toward Halloween that many Evangelicals display, there is a challenge of rival faiths here.  Stores have already begun offering this year’s Halloween wares, and increasingly among them are Day of the Dead decorations.  The holidays are quite distinct, although related, and movies like Coco suggest what we fear may be more a matter of perspective than of the decree of an angry deity.

Evangelical Angst

Unless you know what it’s like to face life with no real prospects beyond making it to Heaven when you die, you can’t understand evangelical angst. That last phrase might seem odd to you. Aren’t evangelicals uber-smiley, happy people angry over the way society’s going? Yes and no. Many of them were raised (or converted into) a faith that holds out no hope for this world and that constantly reinforces the idea that what we like is bad. Having grown up in that world, I knew what it was like to be hoodwinked by an evangelist. I can’t remember the guy’s name, but he was famous. He came to my small town and packed a local Methodist Church. During his rambling, long sermon, he had us afraid for Hell burning under our feet. Grateful that we’d just managed to avoid it, he announced there would be three collections that night: the first was your normal tithe. The second time the plates came around you were to empty your pockets and purses of all change. The third time, you were to contribute to his private jet. If you gave over a thousand dollars your name would be inscribed on a plaque inside.

Almost as if nothing has changed in the decades since then, a Washington Post story expresses amazement that evangelist Jesse Duplantis is asking his followers for a fourth private jet. Uncomprehending, the world doesn’t show much curiosity as to why otherwise intelligent people would give to what is so obviously a scam. Or why such people would vote for Trump. The academic world doesn’t understand evangelical angst. As I sat in that audience that night, a poor kid from a poverty-level family, I fervently wished I had more money to give. Until he asked for his plane. My young doubts crept in, for I had more angst than most other evangelicals I knew. Was this really the Gospel?

Later I saw him on television. His personal mansion had literal streets of gold. Jesus, he said, wanted us to get ready for Heaven right here on earth. Did this turn his followers against him? Decidedly not. In fact, he may have believed it himself. You see, neuroscientists have learned that our brains have the evolved capacity to hold and dismiss reason simultaneously, for strong emotional stimuli. Sex, for example, or music. Or religion. These can motivate people beyond the realm of logic, and they often do. Evangelical angst says you’re not buying a scam artist a jet to spread the Gospel, it says your trying to avoid Hell. Rational or not. And that, it seems to me, is more than adequate ground for evangelical angst.

Just As I Was

It was kind of a game. A game to teach us about important people, living or dead. The fact that we were playing it in high school history class, taught by one of my favorite teachers, made it even better. Everyone wrote a name on an index card—a person in the news or somebody from American history in the past. A student sat facing the class while the teacher selected a card and held it over the student’s head, so we could all read who it was, all except the chosen one. Then s/he would ask questions to guess whose name was written. I remember very well when the teacher picked up my card and read it. He said “that’s really a good choice!” The name led to a bit of joshing. “Is he alive or dead?” the student asked. “How can you tell?” joked our teacher. It was the one name the selected student couldn’t pin down, no matter how many questions she asked.

It’s fair to say that Billy Graham had a profound influence in my life. As a curious—and very frightened—child, whenever his crusades were on television I would watch, transfixed. I responded to his altar calls at home. Multiple times. My emotions were overwrought and I’d awake the next day feeling redeemed, for a while. I had no real mentors in my Fundamentalism. Ministers preached, but they didn’t explain things. Not to children (what was Sunday School for, after all?). All I knew was that when the rhetoric reached Hell, and the possibility I would die that very night, repentance seemed like the only logical option. The reality of the choice—a black and white one, no less—could not be denied. Either you were or you weren’t.

Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University via Wikimedia Commons

As my point of view eventually shifted around to that of my high school teacher—I was in college at the time—I began to realize that Graham’s version of Christianity wasn’t as monolithic as it claimed to be. Once you experience other people’s experience of religion, if you’re willing to listen to them, it’s pretty hard to hold up the blackness and whiteness of any one perspective. Over the years Graham tainted his pristine image in my eyes by his political choices. His son now stands as one of Trump’s biggest supporters. Now that Billy Graham has gone to his reward, I do hope that the Almighty doesn’t hold his mistakes against him. He had no way of knowing that his sermons were terrorizing a little boy in western Pennsylvania into a career track that would never pan out. Largely because other followers of Graham’s so decided. It’s kind of like a game.

Infinite but Expanding

What could be more humbling than living in an infinite but expanding universe? Since the days of Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton we’ve known that the apparent reality of both our own lives and that portrayed in Holy Writ is inaccurate. The earth doesn’t hold still, and the sun doesn’t rise or set. The universe isn’t a layer-cake with Heaven above and Hell beneath. Instead it’s mind-numbingly massive. The only appropriate response, it would seem, would be silent awe. Marcelo Gleiser, whose work I’ve mentioned before, is a rare scientist. Rather than continually slapping the rationalist card on the table and declaring science the trump suit, he brings an element of humility to his writing. So much so that he’s willing, almost eager, to engage religion. Not in debate, but in conversation.

The Prophet and the Astronomer is a wide-ranging book that is tied together around the theme of the end of the world. A few weeks back we had yet another brush with a biblical literalist declaring the end of all things. Gleiser, although his book was published over a decade ago, was called in to comment in various places. This book opens by discussing ancient ideas of the end of the world. These are necessarily religious ideas. We don’t fully understand ancient concepts, but enough remains for us to see that apocalypses have their origins in Zoroastrian thought. Judaism encountered such thinking and the book of Daniel ran with it. Early Christians also had the world’s end on their minds, and the book of Revelation developed into a full-blown apocalypse. The world, or at least the western hemisphere, has never been the same since. Centuries of living under the threat of a cataclysm that could come at any second surely takes its toll.

Gleiser then shifts to the real harbingers of potential apocalypses. Comets and asteroids still exist and could theoretically deliver what the Bible implies might happen—a fiery end to the planet. This is sobering stuff. But the book doesn’t stop there. Bidding adieu to the dinosaurs, The Prophet and the Astronomer sweeps us into this great, expanding universe and how it may end, scientifically. Black holes and the heat death of the universe can be truly terrify. What is remarkable about the book, however, is that Gleiser openly acknowledges that science can’t give the comfort and meaning that religion can. Instead of saying, “be tough, face facts” he suggests that scientists might consider a narrative that adds value to a cold, dark universe. That’s not to say some of the story isn’t technical and some of the concepts aren’t difficult to grasp, but it is to suggest that science and religion should sit down and talk sometime. Hopefully before the end of the world.

Strange Worlds

The Bible can lead you astray sometimes. Don’t worry, it’s unintentional, I’m sure. It has less to do with the Bible itself than with the way it was compiled. Any book written over centuries by different people is bound to show some inconsistencies. Unfortunately some of those inconsistencies are about things people really want to know. What happens when you die, for instance. Pretty important to get that one straight. The Bible has shifting views about that, and those views led to ideas such as Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and reincarnation. Wait, what? Reincarnation? Isn’t that an eastern religion thing? That’s what I always thought. Then I read the provocative Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism by J. H. Chajes. This started for me, as things often do, with a scary movie.

Some time back I watched The Possession. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it regards a Jewish exorcism—based on a true story, it says, but aren’t they all? Now demons exist in the Hebrew Bible, but the monster in this movie wasn’t exactly a demon. It was a dybbuk. Sharing the Gentile liability, I wasn’t aware of what a dybbuk was. A religion professor in the movie tried to explain it, but I had to read a book. Between Worlds seemed the best place to start. What a fascinating book this is! Anyone who’s interested in the history of exorcism, whether Christian or Jewish (and perhaps even Muslim) will find abundant information here. Jewish exorcism? Much of it depends on how one understands the concept of “soul.” It also depends on who’s doing the possessing. A dybbuk is a displaced human soul from someone deceased. If it can’t get into Gehinnom (which Jesus mentions a time or two) it reincarnates into an available body, often sharing it with the resident soul.

From there things only get more unusual. For those of us who know about exorcism from the movie (you know the one I mean) or even from Chick tracts, the idea that a human soul (which can be good or bad, depending) can possess someone is unexpected. The fact that reincarnation developed from the same Bible that gave us Heaven and Hell is equally surprising. I suspect it’s because the Good Book doesn’t give a clear picture of what comes hereafter. The Hebrew Bible has Sheol, and the New Testament adds Heaven, Gehenna, Hell, and the underpinnings of Purgatory—a buyer’s market for the afterlife. With that being the case I suppose it’s to be expected that some spirits prefer to move from house to house. To learn what’s available Chajes is an excellent choice.