Spirit of Equality

A few weekends back I watched the new Ghostbusters in the theater. Since tuition bills loom larger than life, it takes a powerful draw to get me to spend the money to see a movie in its natural setting. As my regular readers know, I loved it. Critics have tended to, well, criticize the movie, largely for its main drawing feature—the female leads. A thoughtful piece in by Colin Dickey in New Republic points out some of the unusual dynamics at play here. Looking at the history of Spiritualism as the basis for the modern interest in ghosts, Dickey suggests that women have been involved in the long-term fascination with the dead from the beginning. Their motive, however, was generally communication. Women wanted to relate with ghosts to make a connection. The original Ghostbusters movie represented a male, rationalistic approach to ghosts. As Dickey points out, instead of communicating, the men hunt and trap rather than trance and rap.

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Ghostbusters, in all three cinematic presentations, is for laughs. Sometimes classified as supernatural comedy, the film is meant as humor while, admittedly, leaving the door creaking open for some serious thought about the implications. In a reductionistic world there’s no room for ghosts. It’s not possible to say, scientifically, what they might be. From the perspective of traditional belief, however, ghosts are the lost spirits of the departed. Traditional Christian theology places the dead squarely in Heaven or Hell, and they shouldn’t be wandering around down here. That hasn’t stopped people from reporting ghosts. They’ve been recorded almost as long as there has been writing. Today “Ghosthunters,” arms defiantly crossed, use “science” to try to prove the entities exist. This is lightyears from the traditional seance. A ghost under a microscope isn’t very scary.

One of the reasons I found the new Ghostbusters so compelling is that it managed to tiptoe that line between science and spirit that is so rare in the real world. The women, downgraded though they are in the story, are academics. They know, and experience, the dangers of taking haunting seriously. The movie is seriously funny. Like most truly funny efforts, there is a great deal of truth hidden in the humor. Dan Aykroyd’s cameo is one of the scenes that plays on its own loop in my head. “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts,” he says before he drives off toward Downtown. Women, in the film, have a healthy respect for the departed. Not exactly afraid, but not exactly unafraid, they handle ghosts as persons. This may be one of the points Dickey is making in his article. To understand a human one must be human. Spiritualist or Ghostbuster, women have always been superior guides to what is truly important. If only men could learn to listen.

Meaningful Fear

BeVeryAfraidReading about the things that wrong, like terrorist attacks, may not be the best way to occupy your time on a bus heading to New York City. Robert Wuthnow’s Be Very Afraid is appropriately titled, in any case. I had been warned. Discussing sociological reactions to nuclear war, terrorism, pandemics, and global warming, Wuthnow suggests, sensibly, that action is the best response. He also points out that, statistically, people tend not to panic. What I’d like to focus on is his repeated assertion that humans need to find meaning. Disasters only bring this into clearer view.

We live in an age when religion and philosophy have been relegated to the children’s table of academic pursuits. They are, however, the traditional intellectual ways of finding meaning . Economists may be paid much more, and scientists receive more respect, but when the bombs fall or avian flu really strikes, even they sometimes turn to their beleaguered colleagues for answers. Money is notoriously poverty-ridden when it comes to purchasing meaning. Reductionistic materialism may allow a final shrug as the curtain falls, but plenty of scientists hope for a little something more. Not everyone, of course, finds meaning in religion or deep reflection, but we are all human and we want to know what it’s all about. We need to have somewhere to look.

Even as a child I was preoccupied with meaning. I wanted to be the usual things when I grew up—scientist, firefighter, G.I. Joe—but when it came time to make actual choices I moved in the direction of careers that would allow me to find meaning. I swiftly learned they didn’t pay well. Money is not meaning, however. I was teaching in a seminary when 9/11—a major topic of Wuthnow’s study—occurred. I saw people desperately seeking meaning, but not knowing where to look. This was just my fear, growing up; what does it profit someone to gain the whole world if s/he is groping about in the dark for meaning? We’ve created a world where even greater causes of fear are likely to arise. In our emergency kits, it seems, we should leave a little room for meaning.

As (Not) Seen on TV

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Last night, I fear, I did not see “The Story of God with Morgan Freeman.” Our “double play” service already rivals the cost effectiveness of a ballpark lunch, and a triple play is out of reach for as little time as we have for television. This may be one case, however, where I’d be inclined to sacrifice some Sunday evening sleep to watch. I’ve seen numerous episodes of Through the Wormhole. I’ve noticed that over time the topics have grown more and more metaphysical. Yes, there is an uneasy after-shave burn to Occam’s razor. We’ve been told for so long that reductionistic materialism can account for everything, even these unorthodox thoughts in my head of an early Monday morning, and that religion is what’s left over after cleansing a dirty pig. Yet still, yet still…

A few years back, when I was still active in FIRST Robotics, I noticed a few things. Many of the mentors to the teams were not opposed to religion. Far from it. Not only that, but the national (now international) finals of the competition were met with religious fervor. Then, my last year as a mentor it was announced that “God himself” (aka Morgan Freeman, a reference, of course, to Bruce Almighty) would be present for the event. Science and religion are met together; technology and spirit have kissed each other. Perhaps this one size fits all universe is a bit premature?

“The Story of God” will spend six weeks on the National Geographic Channel exploring the origins of religious belief. People who haven’t learned that this is all nonsense will watch and wonder. Universities will, however, continue to close departments where such things are explored. Just because something is interesting doesn’t mean it’s profitable. One must think of such things when one has a business to run. I’m no prophet, but I do have to wonder if this might not be a sign. Maybe Occam’s razor-burn is chaffing a bit more than we thought underneath this white collar. Maybe it’s time to let the beard grow a little and see what the face really looks like. Maybe it’s time to watch TV.

Cthulhu’s Tea Party

It was in the eldritch-sounding Oshkosh that I first came across H. P. Lovecraft. The web was still somewhat of a novelty then, and I’d run across a Dagon symbol that I couldn’t identify. My researches led me to the old gods of Lovecraft’s atheistic imagination. Even non-believers are haunted, it seems, by deities. Dagon, about whom I’d published an academic paper, always seemed to be a divinity to whom very few paid attention. Little did I know that in popular culture this god, along with others made up by Lovecraft, were slowly gathering an immense following. Now, about a decade later, Cthulhu is everywhere. I was reminded of this when I came across a website advertising Cthulhu tea cups. As you drink your tea, Cthulhu emerges. These novelty items, along with many, many others, are easily found. Cthulhu is running for president. The creature that Lovecraft described with such terror is now available in a cute, stuffed plush. Board and card games come in Cthulhu varieties.

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What I find so interesting about this is that the following of Cthulhu has taken on religious dimensions. Not that writers haven’t invented religions before—L. Ron Hubbard came up with Scientology after a career of science fiction writing, and Jediism is considered a religion by some—but Cthulhu represents the darker aspects of religious thought. As Lovecraft described him, he is a horror. Not the kind of thing you’d want to discover peering out of your teacup. I wonder if this is precisely why the fictional god has become so incredibly popular. In a time when some real presidential candidates are really scary, suggesting that an evil deity take on the job may only be natural. Cthulhu is, after all, really more an alien than a god, but to puny humans the point is moot.

Mainstream religion is not about to disappear any time soon. There is, believe it or not, a strong resistance to the materialistic reductionism that presses in on us from all sides. People are not becoming less religious—they’re becoming differently religious. The old sacred texts are being replaced by the fictional Necronomicon. Ethereal beings that have always been there are bowing before ancient aliens who aren’t really eternal or omnipotent, but who feel more real in our culture of might makes right. Whether a religion is factual or fictional has come to matter less than the feeling that there is something, anything, larger than humanity that demonstrates the vanity of our striving after material gain. That actually sounds quite biblical. Anything believed with adequate passion stands a chance, it seems, of becoming a religion.

Ethology Theology

MindingAnimalsProminent public intellectuals, we’re used to hearing, often lament the survival of religion into a rationalist age. As an obscure private intellectual—if I may be so bold—I am always pleased to see when a credentialed scientist asks if we are being too hasty. No, but actually says we’re misguided to dismiss the evidence of our own observations. Marc Bekoff’s Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions, and Heart is an encouraging study by a balanced individual. Bekoff, unlike many scientists, realizes that emotion does play into observation and reasoning. More than that, materialistic reductionism does not account for human or other animals’ experience of life. Historically motivated by religions to separate ourselves from animals, we have only come to know slowly—painfully slowly—that the distinctive markers of humanity are shared in degree by other animals. Bekoff is bold enough to give the lie to the belief that animals have no emotional life. Traditionally science has said that we cannot know what goes on in animal brains so it is best to take animal emotions off the table. Then scientists go home and love their dogs, who love them in return. When’s the last time I read a scientist writing about love?

Minding Animals is a manifesto. We have, in our arrogance, made unwarranted assumptions about both animals and our unique status on the earth. We drive other species of animals to extinction at a rate that required an asteroid collision or some other catastrophic event in the past. And we use animals as if they had no interests of their own, even such basic interests as avoiding pain and suffering. “They’re just animals,” we’re told. Bekoff is an ethologist—someone who studies non-human animal behavior. As common sense, both the sine qua non and bête noire of science, reveals, animals experience and express happiness, anger, and love. They can be depressed. They can be overjoyed. And we treat them as if they were objects to do with as we please.

Bekoff admits some of his fellow scientists treat him as if he’s gone soft. Like Diogenes, however, I search for an honest man and I think I have found him. Instead of castigating religion, Bekoff ends his book with a chapter on theology. Not to make fun of it, but to show that even scientists must integrate different kinds of knowledge. Not only is the science that Bekoff describes appealing to the emotions, it also makes sense. No scientist is completely objective. Even Mr. Spock breaks down once in a while. We all have perspectives. And that includes our fellow earthling animals. We evolved from the same ancestors and yet treat them as if we own them. Minding Animals will—or at least should—make us feel guilty about that. Being human and being humane, after all, are only a silent e apart.

Soulful Phantoms

PhantasmagoriaPhantasmagoria is a most appropriate title for the book by Marina Warner that bears that single-word name. The back cover bears none of those helpful tags that give the reader a handle by which to categorize the book. The subtitle helps somewhat: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century. The book is about ensoulment. The popular rage among many academics is the exploration of embodiment—the times and trials and wisdom of having a physical body. (We all know it, but it is the scholar’s job to think about it.) Warner asks what soul stuff is and pursues this through many media: wax, air, clouds, light, shadow, mirror, ghost, ether, ectoplasm, and film. She’s not suggesting that souls are made of these things, but rather that people have used these media to explore what a soul might be. Apart from being a fine historical resource on these different avenues of exploration, individual chapters in the book focus on various artists, psychologists, parapsychologists, writers, and Scriptures. This makes for a fascinating, if challenging, exploration to undergo.

One of the topics that emerges in the discussion is how soul distinguishes itself from other unquantifiable aspects of being human: what is mind, for example. We can’t really define soul, but it is frequently differentiated from mind or personality, neither of which is particularly well understood. In an era when we’ve not so much ceased to ask these questions as sublimated them into various fictional realms, a book like Phantasmagoria is especially important. The reaction against materialistic reductionism is strong, if not empirically provable. We still flock to theaters to watch zombies on the screen, precisely because we too have become soulless. Romanticism had a place for Gothic sensibilities as well.

Along the way Warner makes a particularly apt observation that politics and entertainment have become difficult to distinguish. Thinking over the number of entertainers who’ve become policy makers, this is a particularly disturbing thought. We trust the media and it gives us entertainment. Most college professors make so little money as to be jokes when it comes to running a political campaign. Where your treasure is, as the saying goes. Media, in all the forms explored, has failed to capture the soul. The chapter on Revelation (the book) is truly spectacular, coming, as it does, in the section on film. It is the embracing of the chimera of the end of the world pieced together from various myths and nightmares that our political leaders find, in many cases, far too compelling. Someone like Warner might be a much better leader to trust, even if she is a scholar.