Undiscovered Countries

My friend Marvin always amuses me with what he’s got in his refrigerator. He likes to buy products that he considers appropriate to the season. On a recent visit he pulled out a bottle of Arrogant Bastard Ale. He said it was prophetic, in the sense that later this month we’d all be faced with someone fitting of such a moniker. I appreciate his sense of humor—I think we’re going to find that laughter, incredulous and otherwise, is going to help get us through to 2020. Once we reach that mythical date when there will be cities under the sea (unless my childhood cartoon watching has steered me wrong yet again) crewing aquagum all the way, we will have to begin undoing the damage that our government is planning even now. Of course, we were supposed to have a moonbase in 1999, and that show wasn’t even animated. Television produces the biggest liars of all, I guess.

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January always makes me think of Janus, the two-faced god. Looking forward and looking back. Even Janus seems to have taken on new meaning this year. That’s the thing about symbols—you can’t pin them down to one thing. One of the benefits to studying religion is that you get to feel comfortable around symbols. There may be no real symbology department at Harvard or anywhere else, but scholars of religion inhabit that territory. We skulk around the dark places that human beliefs may go, even allowing people to believe things that are factually false. Instead of getting too dark, maybe we can think of a joke. Two Corinthians walk into a bar…

The future is the famously undiscovered country. Maybe by the time we get there we will have realized just how silly the very idea of countries are. Seems now that citizens of foreign nations can legally take over the US election process, so why bother with borders at all? Put in another way, who wouldn’t welcome the spy who came in from the cold? It’s January out there and all people need shelter from the chill. I keep telling myself there’s no mess that’s so bad that it can’t be cleaned up. Or maybe I’m just thinking of Bruce Almighty again. My friend Marvin refuses to let reality get him down. When the days are short, it is especially important to be the light. Maybe he’s right.

Riding a Cycle

Spare-ribs and sauerkraut. My step-father always insisted on these for the turning of a new year. The old year was to end on something sour while the new was to begin with something sweet. So his reasoning went. It is this Janus-faced aspect of the new year optimism that we anticipate with such high hopes every twelve months, only to come back to another gray December. Time, since antiquity, was considered something cyclical. Today we think of time as linear—a line stretching from there to here, nobody really knowing where it might end. New Year’s Day reminds us of that obscure hope that things might indeed get better.

Since I’ve been cast into the role of someone dependent on business for a living, I’ve become keenly aware that, although the fiscal year doesn’t end for another three months, and the school year doesn’t begin for about six more after that, we open each year on the hope for better profit than the previous one. In a way that I’ve always felt earned economics its sobriquet of the dismal science, constant increase in a world of limited resources is sure to disappoint. What is really sought, it appears, is more for me, which means less for you. Born an idealist, I find the whole concept baffling. If I have too much to use, shouldn’t I share it with those who don’t have enough? Those who read about the behavior of apes would recognize this basic altruism as deeply embedded in the primate genome. Unless, of course, that primate is a human being.

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I wish that a New Year celebration could be more universal than just fiscal success. It is always my hope as a new year begins that by the end of it we will all be in a place we would prefer to be. Those of us who live under the law of greed and personal gain have long felt the frowning aspect of Janus’s face. As the year turns over in the month named for this deity of thresholds, we hope that a smile might beam down upon us, and that a new year might truly be new. Knowing this is an election year, however, has come to cause increasing anxiety. Those who can command public attention are those with the deepest coffers. Those most unworthy to lead. We do, however, love our entertainment. The Force has awakened, and what might we anticipate for 2016? For me, no animal has ribs to spare, but the symbol has become increasingly apt. Let’s hope the Force is good and will awaken peace.

The Blessing/Curse of Janus

Janus wonders about January

As the world stumbles into another new year, my thoughts turn to Janus. The namesake deity of January (since the Romans gave us a winter New Year’s day), Janus is a poorly understood ancient deity. Since he is overseer of beginnings and endings of all sorts, he is often portrayed with two faces or heads — one facing forward and the other facing back. There are no attendant mythological stories to this god, although he appears to have been very important in early Roman religion. He comes to mind as I prepare to teach a course on mythology that I haven’t prepped for since Oshkosh; my brief holiday break has been spent reading classical mythology.

Not only to we face a new year, but the beginning (or ending, it matters not which to Janus) of a new decade. Looking back over the muck-up made of the first decade of the twenty-first century, often because of religious extremists, I wonder what Janus sees down the road. There are many who feel optimistic about our firm bridle on technology and its ability to make our lives easier. Some of us believe that society has lost its appreciation for the classical study of the humanities and that we have lost our way because simplistic religion has seized the reigns from sensible mythology. In an age of information clutter, there is no one able to synthesize reason out of any of it. Perhaps it is the human condition.

Janus likely originated in the Ancient Near East. Once he reached Rome he continued to evolve into a major deity until eclipsed by the Olympians (many of whom first appear in the Ancient Near East as well). Not ironically, religious tolerance and religious intolerance both seem to have derived from the Near East also: Cyrus the Great’s declaration of religious freedom emerged in the midst of theocidal demands on the part of jealous gods. Now as we stand on the brink of a new decade, Janus only knows which way the unfeeling pendulum will swing.

God is Great (not)?

As a teacher/editor with an “advanced” degree in religious studies, I was intrigued by the sudden popularity of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great (Twelve Books, 2007) a couple years back. I bought it as soon it was available and read it cover-to-cover after a morning out picking strawberries.

Reading Hitchens’ analysis I found myself nodding my head quite a bit; he scores a substantial number of points on which various religions should plead “guilty.” And while I found many of his arguments persuasive, part of me still wonders if perhaps religion, that most ancient of cultural forms, has not had at least some positive impact on humankind. In the most basic sense, our civilization would not be here to critique religion if religion had not been an impetus to get our civilization to begin its motion towards today’s civilization. Black and white are not in the palette of serious religious studies.

For the scholar of religion, however, Hitchens should be required reading. Sometimes we have to stare hard into the face of the facts of what our object of study has become and wonder, with Samuel F. B. Morse, “what hath god wrought?” Religion bears the mark of Janus, and scholars of religion have to pay attention to what people are saying about it.