Not for Prophet

Delicate isn’t a word we’ve been taught to associate with Islam. I remember a priest speaking to me oh-so-earnestly about how Islam by nature wanted to take over the world. I wondered about his education in the history of Christianity. If you turn the clock back far enough, even the early Israelites, according to Judges, attempted genocide. We do religions a grave injustice by reifying them in this way. A recent story on NPR tells about the restoration efforts of a library in Fez, Morocco. As Leila Fadel points out in this story, we tend to suppose Islam is ISIS destroying history, but this library, full of Arabic manuscripts, is one of the oldest in the world. We sometimes forget the great contributions Arabic—yes, Islam—has made to world culture. Including literary culture. Some of the scientific works of Aristotle were preserved only in Arabic. Even the word “algebra” bears the distinct signature of its Arabic roots. What we should be attempting to halt is extremism.

Arabic_herbal_medicine_guidebook

One of my readers commented the other day about absolutism. This was in the context of Christianity, but it applies here equally as well. Absolutism tends to see only sharp divisions in a world where everything, in reality, blends into everything else. Islam emerged from a prophet who was influenced by Christianity and Judaism in the context of Arabian polytheism. Many of the tenets of Islam would settle comfortably in the pew, if we would let them. “Revealed” religions, however, take no prisoners. The concept of “revelation” means that your scriptures come straight from God’s anthropomorphic mouth to your all-too-human ear. When your religion is revealed, you can’t mix it with the best of your competitors. That’s one of revelation’s greatest dangers.

It does my soul good to see the begloved curator of the Qarawiyyin Library touching an Arabic manuscript so gently. It is the very picture of a pair of lovers. Those who love books—truly love books—can wish no harm on their fellow human beings. Reading is, after all, exploring the minds of others. All texts, in this way, are sacred. All are revealed. Too often we listen to those who tell us this is all an apocalyptic struggle to the death. In reality, revelation never ceases. Of its source I’m uncertain. Of its literary progeny I am certain that human minds are only richer for having received the words of the many prophets of the literary endeavor.

As Others Think

As analysts step in where angels fear to tread, we have been given expert opinion on why ISIS’s terror in France was counterproductive to its goals. A few voices have chimed in stating that the result of escalation is just what an apocalyptic group hopes for. Rational people, having no idea how a fundamentalist thinks, are scratching their heads. Long I have wondered why universities and other bastians of higher education haven’t sought the advice of experts. No one can understand fundamentalism who hasn’t experienced it personally. Problem is, most people who have experienced it are experiencing it still. Those of us who thought our way out of fundamentalism are passed over repeatedly for university posts, while those better connected (surely not of fundamentalist stock) are handed influential positions from which to scratch their heads. You want to understand fundamentalists? Ask someone who’s been there.

There is nothing rational, in the common parlance, about fundamentalism. It has, however, its own internal logic. If you believe with every mitochondria in your body that the Bible (or any holy book or doctrine) that you were taught is true, and truly believe it, no amount of reason can convince you otherwise. This is (partially) because the ultimate cause of all events is open to question. Science does not address ultimate causes—it can’t. The endlessly creative human mind, however, can rather simply conjure them. If God is the ultimate ultimate cause, and if God said, x, y, or z, then other interpretations are simply wrong. If God has decided an apocalypse is necessary, what use is reason in the face of the impending certainty? Is there no way out?

There is. Some of us have made it. We, no matter our credentials, are not generally well-connected drones of the middle class. Fundamentalism is prized by the poor. Those who have no future on this earth look for another, better world. This is a perspective I understand very well. Our increase in ease of communication and exploding technology with ease of access have only given new tools to those who think in terms of ultimate causes only. You can’t talk a suicide bomber out of action with reason. You need to know the language of belief. We glory in our lack of belief and rationalism. We, however, close our eyes to the fact that the vast majority of people in the world are believers. And we won’t talk to them because they make us uncomfortable. We have written our own recipe for apocalypse.

From NASA's photo library

From NASA’s photo library

Apocalypse When?

We want to understand what worms through the mind of terrorists, and yet we don’t want to be bothered with religion. For decades universities have been shutting down departments of religion because they don’t make money. Religions aren’t materialistic in that way. In the light of the attacks on Paris over the weekend, many have been turning to the media to learn more about ISIS. A piece in the Atlantic by Graeme Wood, published back in March, pointed out how we have tended to see the movement as political, not religious. Wood, however, demonstrates the apocalyptic intentions of the leaders of ISIS. They are religious. Just because you carry guns and high explosives doesn’t mean you don’t believe.

Apocalyptic thought and politics are a deadly combination. The United States is not immune. Knowing the bent of George W. Bush’s distortion of Christianity, his terms in office were very frightening for many of us. Some Christianities, as well as some Islams, not only anticipate the end of the world but earnestly long for it. Pray for it. In the case of some Fundamentalist Christian sects, world leaders should orchestrate events to force God’s hand in bringing about end times. The fact that we had a president sympathetic to those beliefs should send shudders down anyone’s spine. The idea of an apocalypse is a religious one—there is nothing secular about it. We know the history of the concept, although universities eschew those who look that far back. Zarathustra, also known as Zoroaster, devised a new religion that reflected the basic dualism we all feel: good versus evil. The only way that good could ultimately win in such a worldview was through the complete destruction of evil. And evil wasn’t going down without a fight. This idea influenced Judaism during the Exile, and thus Christianities adopted it. And Islams. No moral relativism here.

The horsemen close in

The horsemen close in

Religion is not evil. Historically it has attempted to be a moral compass to guide believers toward right over wrong. The fact that any religion faces opposition shoves those weak of mind into an apocalyptic state. Gather the horsemen and try to prod God into action. We don’t see divine activity on any kind of scale that we would recognize. The religious events of the past—the Islamic expansion, the Crusades, the Jewish revolt against Rome—these events are merely political. Those who’ve been conditioned to see God behind human activities, however, view such things very differently. Apocalypses are religious events. No amount of reason will convince a convicted believer to look elsewhere for consolation. Yet we press on with guns and bombs and ignorance of what makes religions tick. And tick they will. No matter how secular we might wish the world to be.

City of Lights

As the civilized world struggles to make sense over the senseless attacks of ISIS in Paris, the question of where to turn emerges. An attack has taken place. Innocent people have died. We are in mourning, and we want to analyze what happened to make the world feel a little less insane. As my wife pointed out an article on CNN, I was shocked by the terms in which the attacks were described. Here I read about ISIS extending its global reach. Top leaders, we’re told, planned the attack. And ISIS is “getting into the international terrorism business.” These phrases are common in just about every business meeting I’ve ever attended. This commodification of terror frightens me. The way we’ve chosen to handle terror is by making it into a business. These are human lives that have been lost—futures of the most promising kind. Not only are we the victims of blind terrorist groups, but we are victims of a world that can’t see beyond capitalism.

Terrorism is not a business. It is evil, but in a world where religious value is never invoked outside the few who still find meaning in matters of the soul, the vocabulary has been lost. How do we deal with ISIS? Just like you would any business. A hostile takeover bid? Gather your resources, make some deals, and if retaliation takes innocent lives, well, some bonds and chattels aren’t worth that much anyway. Have we lost the ability to describe the world in anything other than economic terms? Is humanity simply another business?

Paris_SPOT_1017

I do not wish to downplay the horrible events that took place in Paris Friday night. At least 120 are dead for doing only the kinds of things people do on a Friday night. Yet there is a terror that has been creeping through the world that refuses to be named. When it feels threatened it clears out Zuccotti Park. It has taken over our institutions of higher education. It buys political offices and rewards those at the top until the rest of us become commodities. Yes, some goods are lost or damaged during shipping. We need to have a metric to measure that. And when our eyes are streaming with tears we grasp the nearest—the only way we have of describing what has happened. A new business has come to town. When terror becomes a business all hope is already lost.

Uisce Beatha

The idea of a state church, I have to admit, sometimes seems not so bad. Before you click off this page in disgust, please let me explain. Once in a great while, I think about what state churches really are. From the most ancient of times, religious institutions supported governments and governments gave money to state religions. It isn’t a perfect system, but the reason it sometimes appeals is that it might prevent the kind of religious quarreling that we see in the run-up to every election: whose religious vision will govern us? I get theological whiplash. Wouldn’t it be easier to have a state church and be done with it? After all, those who live under state churches really aren’t obligated to believe in the teachings, but just to pay for them.

I’m only being facetious here, of course. We all know that in reality where religions and governments get too intertwined human misery results. The Reformation should have taught us that, if nothing else. The crimes of ISIS continue to show that religious belief makes a poor basis for government. Another case that my wife recently pointed out to me is in the quiet and civil nation of Ireland. Ireland has the stereotype of being Catholic, but according to an article in The Guardian, more than 90 percent of state-run schools there are under the control of the church. For some residents, like the family featured in the article, this becomes a conflict when schools won’t admit the unbaptized. Admissions committees with holy water may be a concept that many people find strange, but the fact is churches can set rules just as strict as secular bodies. No baptism, no confirmation, no matriculation.

I would, I think, be concerned as such a parent. Once my child was admitted and enrolled, would not the teaching go against what was being taught at home? Do governments have the right to decide a child’s religious outlook? Here is the dark underbelly of the apparently benevolent state church. Belief, of all things, is an intensely private matter. Many church goers do not understand the deep beliefs of their religious body, and since we seldom stop to think about religion we just do as we’re told. Education, it seems to me, should be very much aware of religion. Instead we see the opposite happening, at least in this country. If we pretend religion doesn’t exist, it will just go away, right? There is a reason that the church teaches that baptism is symbolic drowning. Only for those, however, who pay attention.

Angel's view of Ireland?

Angel’s view of Ireland?

True Heroes

supergirls As a guy with a healthy sense of the weird,it strikes me as odd that rational people can suppose that we’ve solved all of life’s great mysteries. As a student of biology, chemistry, and physics in high school—and a reader of non-technical aspects of the same throughout my adulthood—it always seemed that there was an undefinable “something more.” Reading Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics led me to an interest in comic books. As a child I did not have many of them since we didn’t have much money to spend on luxuries. The few I had, however, were read and reread and reread, assaulting my imagination with endless possibilities, many of which defied everything I was to learn of biology, chemistry, and physics. My interest in feminism and new-found appreciation of the proto-graphic novel, led me to read Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines. As a boy surrounded with brothers, I clearly knew which comic books were for males. Madrid’s book delves into this super-hero world with the question of why females have always struggled to be taken seriously in this fantasy land.

Many of the characters explored in Supergirls were heroines I’d never encountered before. Madrid’s analysis often appears spot-on as he traces their histories through the decades as they mirror, and occasionally lead, society’s expectations of what women should be. The one that I had no trouble recognizing was Wonder Woman. And the reason for that was she used to have a TV show. Not mentioned by Madrid was the mighty Isis, also a heroine from television. She began as a character opposite Captain Marvel, and did not have her origin in a comic book. Isis was, of course, an ancient goddess, and as I learned from Supergirls, Wonder Woman was not far behind. The way that women could be as strong as men was to be divine. For human females, life was much rougher.

Wonder Woman, Madrid notes, was one of the Trinity of early, lasting comic book heroes. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are cast as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, respectively. Like her theological counterpart, Wonder Woman is the most amorphous, least understood of the three. Her career and persona change over time, almost losing any kind of supernatural ability. Her origin story, however, began as a helper of oppressed women everywhere. Today we see Superman and Batman on the big screen, but Wonder Woman has fallen behind. Despite great strides, our society still isn’t ready to accept rescue of men at the hands of a woman. More’s the pity, because we clearly see the mess that masculine leadership has spawned. Mike Madrid has discovered a secret identity for our old foe, sexism. And it might take the world of comic books to help us see clearly that which mainstream analysis still denies.