Mere Humanities

Categories, while necessary, can be troubling things.  One place to see this clearly is in academia, which is itself a category.  In the long history of deciding what counts as a legitimate job (you can make a living now being a YouTuber!) somewhere in the Middle Ages, based on the idea of the monastery, the university arose.  This required some justification—people are to be paid for researching topics and teaching others to do the same?  Not quite back-breaking labor, but it can lead to lumbago nevertheless.  Topics had to be worthy to permit this excused absence.  Law and theology were the earliest majors available.  Hobbes’ two swords.  Church and state.  This makes sense since monasteries were all about obeying rules and obeying God.  Theology was the queen of the sciences.

Perhaps unbelievable in today’s world, it was thought that other topics than theology—called humanities so as to distinguish them from divine discussions—should be added to the curriculum.  These were topics that the educated were expected to have mastered, and they included things like history and, yes, mathematics.  In the early days the building blocks of science (such as math) were considered humanities.  Theology wasn’t.  The Reformation complicated things because now there were lots of theologies.  And this thing called the Enlightenment was suggesting that they were all just a bit naive.  Still, universities grew up around theological training grounds, including places like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.  Slowly, however, theology began losing relevance and became more and more a humanities subject.  Call it a strange form of incarnation.

By the time I became aware of theological study, it was firmly, and deeply a humanities subject.  Often called “religious studies,” other academics often considered it a throw-away major, but if you dug deep enough you found yourself learning dead languages that even a scientist couldn’t comprehend.  When I began attending a Christian liberal arts college, it was clear the engineers and others of what would come to be called STEM topics were given preferences.  Science, Technology, Engineering, and yes, Math.  Some of the subjects that had started out as mere humanities, now received the praise (and cash) while theology—religious studies—had become a purely dispensable humanities topic.  These days humanities majors are dropping like theologians, and going to university means preparing for either business or science-based careers.  Subjects in which you make more mere money.  And one of the founding subjects of this entire enterprise will earn you a starting salary position at Walmart.  And that’s a category worth avoiding at any cost.

Photo credit: Ben Schumin, Wikimedia Commons

Revisiting Mesopotamia

As a refresher on my own ancient history, I picked up Tammi J. Schneider’s An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion.  This was one of those books that spawned several internal conversations simultaneously as I realized just how much modern lenses color our perceptions of past societies.  Before commenting on that, however, a few necessary points must be made.  Our knowledge of Mesopotamia is in its infancy.  There are only a handful of universities around the world that have the resources to prepare young Assyriologists adequately.  Once prepared, those young folk will be introduced to the job market of those with far lesser education because there are practically no jobs in the field.  Seems a poor way to treat the civilization that invented wheels, arches, and beer.  Or so I’ve read.  In any case, many tablets in ancient languages have never been translated because there simply aren’t enough people to do it.  Any conclusions, therefore, must remain tentative.

Ancient religion in western Asia was extremely political.  From our perspective, this seems odd—although it’s happening again in real time.  Ancient societies relied on the cooperation of religious and political leaders and each institution helped the other.  They didn’t have the added complication of monotheism to deal with.  In trying to keep all the gods happy, they simply reasoned that if things fell apart, another god had grown to a superior position.  Certainly they believed the gods were there—we do too.  We call them cash, the stock exchange, and commodities, but we still worship and adore.  And they keep the government going.  (I kind of liked it better when they were old-fashioned gods; at least they had sympathy for the human condition.)

After getting to know the gods, Mesopotamians recognized that humans were to do the work for them.  Gods, after all, owned the land and priests and kings were powerful individuals.  You didn’t want to cross them.  Rituals were developed to ensure the smooth continuation of seasons and agriculture.  As Schneider points out, we don’t have enough information to understand all of this.  Our information comes from across millennia and from locations sometimes hundreds of miles apart.  If this is a puzzle well over half the pieces are missing.  We glimpse people like us, trying to survive.  Gods are unpredictable, but you can try to read a liver or two to find out what’s on their minds.  And some of the kings thought they were gods.  The more things change, the more, it seems, they stay the same.

Drowning in Words

One of the features of this blog, which as inclined more lately toward books of all sorts rather than simply religion, is that I only write one post per book read.  There’s no law that says this should (or must) be the case, but I’ve held myself to that standard for about a decade now, and if I have trouble recalling a book this blog is generally a kickstarter for my memory before hauling myself off to the attic to find the physical copy—long live print!—to do a bit more detailed work.  This method sometimes leads to crises of my own making.  Long books take some time to get through.  And despite the action-packed picture you get of my life from this web log, many long weeks are spent doing work and I can’t really share the details here.  And so it goes.

Like many people I read multiple books at a time.  Although I have a kind of general plan, the actual books being read at any one time often depend on my ability to lay my hands on a copy.  And since I’m in the final stages of Nightmares with the Bible, I tend to prioritize books I really should read in whole for that tome.  I also read (and write) fiction.  Normally I reserve my fiction for bedtime reading; it’s more pleasant to prepare for sleep with an engaging story that I know isn’t factual enough to haunt me.  Sometimes the fiction is a long book too.  Two lengthy books going simultaneously feels like trying to pass a truck going uphill.  Or swimming underwater.  The insistence of the necessity of taking a breath (writing a blog post on a book) strains against me as I look up and see the surface still some distance away.  Drowning in words, however, isn’t that bad.

As I confessed to a friend the other day, I am a graphomaniac.  I write incessantly.  To do that it helps to read incessantly.  At any one time I’ve got several books going, and I’ll let you know when I reach the end of any of them.  This is, I suppose, the bookish life.  Ironically I read more now than when I was a professor.  Those days were filled with lesson prep, teaching, and reading student papers.  Grading tests.  Fulfilling administrative duties.  On the days when I feel like lamenting my lack of time (and those are most days) I need to remind myself that a great deal more of my effort is now spent with books than it used to be.  You’ll have to trust me on that since I don’t always get to write about reading until the long books are done.  And that’s okay by me.

Self-Convinced

Like many people, I suppose that my own views are right.  All people think this, I suspect, otherwise they’d change their point of view.  Unless they’ve been brainwashed, of course.  Religion has a way of convincing people that they alone are right.  (And perhaps also those who believe just like them.)  I have plenty of experience with this.  Seemingly normal, friendly people suddenly turn on you when you’re not there to defend yourself.  All in the name of religion.  The place, unfortunately, that it’s most found is in “conservative” religions.  With preachers braying about righteousness and being washed in the blood of the lamb the human element is often sacrificed.  Anyone who dares to think differently is going to Hell, and, in most of these traditions, you wish them godspeed.  Then there are those who wish for true dialogue.

Dialogue means, however, that you have to admit you may be wrong.  That’s one of the features the self-convinced fear most.  Ironically, even those who think they’re right can admit that they could be wrong.  Otherwise what’s the point of discussing anything at all?  As Tom Nichols points out in The Death of Expertise, many are offended that someone has greater knowledge of any area than they.  Like it or not, some of us have studied religion, the Bible, and spirituality for our entire lives.  You might not agree with everything such a person says—we often disagree among ourselves—but at least one might admit that a mere Ph.D. counts for something.  Even if on the stock market it simply won’t trade.

Ironically, as a young man I too was self-convinced.  For some reason that I can’t fathom, I decided that if my beliefs were solid they would stand up to the challenge of higher education.  As an undergrad I majored in religion at a conservative college and graduated summa cum laude.  I chose a liberal seminary to challenge further what I believed and came away magna cum laude.  Then the doctorate.  (Edinburgh didn’t offer such trifles as honors; if you made it through the program you should be so thankful.)  Tolerance became a massive part of my outlook, even as I ended up on the faculty of a very conservative seminary.  I was willing to listen, but the same could not be said for those who saw things differently.  Many of whom were far less educated, I say with all due self-abasement, than yours truly, in such things.  As time goes on I can’t help but reflect on this.  Even as I do I know others are completely convinced I’m wrong.

Seeing the Future

Nine.  That’s the number of people before me in line.  It’s not yet 4:30 a.m., and our day began at least an hour ago, but work won’t start for another two.  As the bus pulls up to the stop, I think about work.  Well, like most people I think about work a lot.  You see, I’m often asked about how to get into the publishing business.  There’s a cosmic irony to this because I had never planned to be an editor and never undertook any of the usual training.  The anticipated trajectory of a doctorate in the humanities used to be teaching, which is what I did for many years, but when an educational career slips off the rails in a capitalistic society you have to be willing to learn real fast.  (Fortunately the long years of schooling do help with that.)

I’m sure that I’m not the only person whose career plans didn’t pan out as anticipated.  Back in seminary one night long ago, three friends and I had a “future dinner.”  We prepared a supper and each came as who we would be twenty years down the road.  I recall that I was a world-traveling professor and the author of several books.  “Come on,” my friends complained, “be realistic!”  It’s a bit beyond those two decades now, and I was a professor for many of them.  I have written several books, although so far only three have been published.  World-travel?  Well, that’s been a bit modest in recent years, I have to admit.  One of the other friends I’ve lost track of.  Another committed suicide after graduating.  We really can’t see far into the future.

Publishing is a challenging gig.  My rapid career contortions perhaps prepared me better than I think.  I have a kinship with those who ask about how to get started in it.  Generally we’re educated people who like books and wonder what kind of career you can find with that combination these days.  (There are more of us than you’d think!)  Compared to higher education academic publishing is a small world.  I’ve come to know many more academic colleagues since being an editor than I ever did as a professor.  I have something they want—a reputable venue for publishing their latest book.  Often I have to do a lot of educating since publishing doesn’t work the way that most people think it does.  It’s like being a professor without the status.  No, I didn’t see this in my future.  As I look for a seat on the already crowded bus I wonder how many of these other early risers planned their careers just like me.

Difficult to see where this is going.

Science of Compassion

It has been several years now since I’ve been directly (or indirectly) involved in robotics.  During my daughter’s high school years I was active in the FIRST Robotics program, spending some week nights and many weekends supporting the kids—far more clever than me—building and competing with the robot.  It was during this time that I came to know some of the mentors involved.  They knew I was looking for a job in a field not their own.  Instead of wringing their hands like my professorial colleagues did, they made concrete suggestions as to how to go about finding a reasonable position.  Unlike many religion professors, they were willing to go out of their way to help.  It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.  A somewhat well-known religious leader is known for having said “by their fruits you will know them.”  So it is.

One of these friends recently sent me a New York Times story about a disabled toddler.  Because of our government’s very compassion health care system, this boy was denied access to a wheelchair.  When the local high school robotics team learned about it they designed and built a motorized chair for the boy.  Again, my point couldn’t be more obvious.  This team did what was the right thing.  They didn’t stand around saying the family would be in their thoughts and prayers.  No, they did something about it.  While the story made me feel good, it also saddened me.  I’ve been part of the religious studies community for at least three decades now.  When I lift up mine eyes to the hills, however, whence cometh my help?

Please don’t get me wrong—I know probably better than most how difficult life and funding can be as a humanities academic.  I also know, however, that humanities are nothing without humanity.  How easy it is to forget that when a tenure-track position opens up!  There are creative solutions possible.  I have suggested them to those empowered to enact them from time to time.  Their response has generally been to explain why it can’t be done rather than giving it the old college try.  In robotics you try to see if it works before deciding it can’t.  Perhaps there’s a message here for those who hear.  Engineers find solutions while many academics find excuses.  There’s any number of reasons not to help the boy get a wheelchair: somebody’s going to have to pay for this, there are other things that demand the students’ time, there are government agencies who already do the work.  Or.  You can try because it’s the right thing to do.  Whose fruit tastes better, I wonder?

Qaulity Education

Perhaps it’s from having a stubbornly blue collar, but snobbery has never appealed to me.  While in seminary at Boston University, I applied for a transfer to Harvard Divinity School.  In spite of being accepted, I stayed at my alma mater and paid the consequences.  There’s a strange loyalty among the working class, you see.  And now I’m finally seeing my former mistress, academia, taking a turn toward the lowly but worthy.  The title of a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education says it all: “As Scholars Are Driven to Less Prestigious Journals, New Measures of Quality Emerge.  Hmm, why might that be?  The industry mantra, “publish or perish” has grown more aggressive over the years and the number of publishers has decreased.  Your academic net worth, it seems, can no longer be based on how elite you are.

People are funny that way.  We’re very impressed by those paraded before us as successes—as if some kind of magic clings to those who are where we wish we were.  In academia where you went to school matters more than what you’ve proven yourself capable of.  If you attended the “best” schools your work will be accepted by the “best” journals and publishers.  What rarified company you’ll keep!  For the rest of us, well, we have the numbers.  And blue collars aren’t afraid of hard work.  Let the academic aristocracy enjoy its laurels.  Laurels are poisonous, however, for those with an eye open for parables.

Primates, according to those who know them best, can see through pretense.  I often wonder if our political chaos isn’t based on this simple fact of biology.  As a priest I knew once told me, “We put our pants on one leg at a time too.”  This didn’t prevent many postulants I knew from anticipating the day when they would be ontologically transformed.  Priesting, I was informed, would make them better than the laity.  Closer to God.  Here it was, even among the clergy—the desire for prestige.  Chimpanzees will take down an alpha who abuses his power.  Nature has a set of balances.  Tampering with them leads to, well, scholars being driven to less prestigious journals and the like.  The net result, as the Chronicle suggests (if read one way), is that the last shall be first and the first last.  Probably it’s the result of reading too much Bible in my formative years, but I’ve always appreciated parables.