Post-Pandemic

Something I’ve noticed: throughout this crisis business people have been fretting how hard it will be to reestablish everything “like it was” when this is all over.  I wonder if they’re not thinking big enough.  It seems to me that a system as fragile as capitalism is bound to tumble when something suddenly becomes more important than money.  Humans and mortality.  Most people fear death.  Religion, historically, has come to fill in that space, but as we grew more and more confident in our ability to prevent large-scale death capitalism, the real opiate of the people, stepped in.  Make money!  Buy things so that those of us with lots of money will get even more!  We’ll live extravagant lifestyles and laugh at those of you who’ll keep spending to keep us where we are!  Then people stop spending.  Nobody’s laughing now.

Is there not a better way to construct society?  Sure, some means of exchange is necessary, but do we have to give such power to an abstract concept such as money?  Granted, gods are abstract concepts too, but at least they’re spiritual rather than material.  That which is made of mere physical stuff is bound to disappoint eventually.  When our sun balloons out into a red giant, everything we know here on earth will be gone.  The physical stuff anyway.  I know this opens me to accusations of wishful, wistful, escapist thinking—maybe something spiritual will come rescue us—but I assure you it’s not that.  What I’m referring to is meaning.  There’s value in it, and you can’t buy it.

The coronavirus crisis has us all, on some level, asking about the meaning of it all.  God hasn’t intervened, and the numbers are still climbing.  Nature dictates that they will eventually stabilize, and decline.  Our capitalist society, however, is scrambling to figure how to make sure everyone pays their taxes, their bills, and somehow manages to find toilet paper (which is a great investment at the moment).  Are these the bases for meaning in life?  Can’t we do better than that?  Can’t we find a system that values what is truly unique and rare?  Each and every person on this planet.  And some of us would go a step further and include our animal people too.  Life.  Life is value.  Money can be thrown away, as we all know.  Sometimes quite easily.  As long as it lands in the coffers of those with too much, everybody’s happy.  Well, not everybody.  Maybe not even most.  Perhaps it’s a good time to reassess our priorities.

Building on Water

I try to keep up.  Really, I do.  Although my specialization is in ancient religions, at heart I’m an historian of ideas and I try to keep up with the origins of the many Christian denominations.  You see, with so many competing versions of the one correct way to please God it pays to hedge your bets.  Thing is, there’s so many options and some seem to spring out of nowhere, like toadstools after the rain.  The other day I attended a local community event.  One of those kinds of affairs where local organizations set up tents and sometimes sell food.  Many of the tents were for churches.  As supporters of community values (mostly) this isn’t unusual, even with the declining numbers in the mainstream.  Then I heard a voice.

“Do you read?” the man asked.  I confess to having a bookish look, so I admitted I do.  “We want you to have a free book,” he said, handing me a plastic bag (warning sign one) containing a small paperback and several fliers.  Now, I was here to look around and maybe get a bite to eat, so I thanked him, tucked the bag under my arm and walked on.  Only on the way home did my wife look at the contents.  The church—for it had to be a church giving such things away—was one of which I’d never heard.  This would’ve been disorienting if it weren’t for the fact that ever since college—where I learned quite a lot about denominations—I’ve been noticing new varieties of Christianities, cropping up somewhat frequently.  Each seems to believe it has found the answers, despite the threadbare denominations that have been around for centuries.

I make fun on nobody’s search for meaning, or the truth.  It is, after all, a lifelong quest.  I am suspicious of those who claim to have already gotten there, however.  For those traditions that declare they’ve found the answer centuries ago, the passing years with their constant changes have worn on them.  Especially if they’re awaiting a divine cataclysmic ending to it all that’s been delayed for a couple of millennia now.  Others are, apparently, wanting to pump some fresh air into these tired lungs.  This group featured a website “the famous one [all one word].com.”  I was surprised and a touch saddened to see Jesus relegated to the role of a media celebrity.  But then again, I can’t keep up like I used to.

Creative Religion

If you ignore common sense and read this blog, you know that I try to be creative in my approach to the world. It’s bold, in my way of thinking, to claim the mantle of creativity since there are so many people out there that the world has already decided are creative enough, thank you. Who has time to visit all the world’s museums, read all the world’s novels, or watch all the world’s films? Why contribute to the clutter? The answer—in as far as there is an answer—is that creativity is a way of being. My wife sent me a piece by Maria Popova from Brain Pickings. It is about the creative life. I’m reluctant to claim the title for myself, but the essay does match the description of what I’d like life to be.

Writing about religion daily requires a certain amount of creativity. If you think about it, it does make sense. Religion deals with intangibles. “Things not seen.” It also delves into that deep place called meaning and wrestles with issues we all have to face in our lives. It’s really a shame when religion becomes ossified into a system with no creativity or humor. One might make the case that it ceases to be religion then. The other day I was recalling just how powerful a high mass can be. Even now, if the mood is right, the memory of my first experience of it can bring tears to my eyes. It is a pageant of mystery and power. And creativity. The colors, the sounds, the scent of incense, the pressure of the kneeler on your knees, the sharp bite of flame tokay. It may not be the worship the way the disciples did it, but it sure has a creative genius.

When, however, worship became a daily requirement—when the majesty became mandatory—something was lost. Creativity means being willing to try something different. As much as we creative types cherish our friends, we need time alone with our Muses. And when we come back together with those friends, it is all the more pleasant for having been away. Creative people do not control their creativity. It clearly works the other way around. We can’t stop being creative, even if—and I can’t imagine why—we’d ever want not to be. Religion, on the other hand, tends to get stuck in some awkward places. If only it could be brought together with an open creativity without becoming trite it might find a place in a world too busy to take time simply to be.

Meaning What?

An occasional reader will contact me to say that something I’ve been writing about for years has appeared in a major media source. Not the story I wrote, mind you, but in an episode of convergent explication somebody better connected has drawn the same conclusions I’ve been muddling over since the 1980s. So it goes. One such story appeared recently in the New York Times. Despite the title “Don’t Believe in God? Maybe You’ll Try U.F.O.s,” the piece is really about finding meaning. According to the Times, and I’ve been saying this for years, meaning is something that the facts don’t always give. Religion gives purpose to life. Most academics, naturally, ignore it.

The use of UFOs in this story is clearly an attempt at demonstrating the irrational. Those who see such things are the laughingstocks of the “sophisticated” crowd. Anyone who’s attended an editorial board meeting where a book mentioning UFOs is raised will know immediately what I mean. Laughter all around, no matter how serious the treatment may be. After all, only crazy people see them, right? That having been said, the Times article is quite correct that UFO religions are on the rise. Increasing numbers of earthlings are looking offsite for meaning. And who can blame them? Traditional religions often suggest that the beyond, however defined, is much more interesting than the mundane we find laying around all over here. Ironically, this can be a one way street.

What is that?

“Believers” in UFOs often resist the association with religion. After all, isn’t it the religious who are really crazy? As long as people see things in the sky they can’t explain (and this has happened for millennia) there have been Unidentified Flying Objects. Despite Project Blue Book they’ve never been studied in a serious way by science. The few bona fide scientists who’ve dared admit an interest have put their academic or industry jobs at risk. If you wonder why all you have to do is attend an editorial board meeting. We like to laugh at those more gullible than ourselves. As someone once said, indignation feels good. Nothing raises indignation like feeling superior to others. And we feel superior when their intellects are obviously so feeble as to believe in things like religion. Oh, I’m sorry! Were you expecting me to write “UFOs”? Well, go ahead and make the substitution. I won’t be offended. After all, I’ve been saying this stuff for years.

Light and Dark

Prophets, mothers, messiahs. A new religion for a new world. While these may not be main themes of Robert Repino’s new novel D’Arc, they’re clearly there in the background offering verisimilitude to a world turned upside down. Continuing the diegesis created in his previous two novels Mort(e) and Culdesac, Repino again shows an uncommon awareness that when survival becomes difficult people (and animals) turn to religion. Many fiction writers create worlds under stress and pretend that characters simply forget the religious option. That may be realistic on an individual level, but as history shows, not on a societal one. People—and mutated animals—are meaning-seeking beings. D’Arc doesn’t shy away from this fact. In a wildly integrated world of different species coping with consciousness and opposable thumbs in various ways, religion naturally arises.

If you haven’t been initiated into Repino’s universe, it begins with a virus and/or a plot—themselves religious—which allow animals to become bipedal and to grow human hands. They can talk and reason and they show us a true reflection of who we are. D’Arc, the female companion of Mort(e), finds her way in a world under threat. Planning to speed up global warming in a dramatic way, the aquatic antagonists conspire to melt the ice caps to flood the entire world. Repino knows the value of the flood story and uses it to full advantage. Along the way we meet beavers who’ve developed a religion that functions between water and dry land. Indeed, as a species their religion defines them as much as their engineering skills. This is a world that’s just been through war and instead of reconciling all species, there remain those (most notably humans) who can only live with their own superiority. This is a complex universe.

The hero of this tale, D’Arc, is sympathetic to the religious sensibilities that have sprung up around her. She herself is a character prophesied in this world where Mort(e) is messianic. There’s a scripture in the background somewhere and theirs is a world without embarrassment about it. There’s also plenty of action and adventure—the war with no name is really not over—but there’s a subtlety to the narrative as well. When things go awry many people do assume they’re alone in the universe and try to find their own way. It’s equally true that many look for meaning in a structured form of belief where all of this has been foretold. Such worlds, to me, seem to be more honest to the human condition, even when the characters are cast as talking animals.

Grasping for Meaning

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How often we’re told—and writers on biblical topics are especially guilty of this—the meaning of a story. Despite what materialists say, we are meaning-seeking creatures. We want to know why. When we read a story we want to know what it means. I occasionally dabble in the pool of fiction. Many times I read the emerging story and wonder what it means. Sometimes the meaning changes over time. Sometimes it means many things at once. Recently I read someone explicating the meaning of the story of Noah. The meaning? No, a meaning. That little article makes all the difference. Definite or indefinite, we need constantly to remind ourselves that stories bear meanings. Plural. They mean nothing otherwise.

Those of us who spend a lot of time with sacred texts see that it suggests something specific to us. Those who manage to gain followers start their own religions. The problem comes when one meaning is fixed to a text. I often saw this growing up as a Fundamentalist. I also saw it frequently at Nashotah House. This verse means this. Nothing other. Any interpretation outside this particular one is heresy. Heresy is, of course, punishable by death. Lest you think this is just the idle musing of an underemployed biblical scholar I must remind you that wars have been fought over such things. People have died. All for someone’s mistaking an indefinite article for a definite. There are those who say certain canons of the Mass must not exclude the definite article or otherwise all you’re getting is a very cheap and meager lunch out of the deal. For this you put on your best clothes?

We read stories for entertainment, but if they mean nothing they are quickly forgotten. Dreamtime stories, as David Abram reminds us, may lack plot but they have place. They take us to a place where we aren’t physically present. Or if we are physically present, we need to be taken there in mind as well as body. They give life meaning. Ironically, as a culture, fewer and fewer people find meaning in their work. Living for the weekend, they find their sense of fulfillment by what they do when not on the clock. And some of that time has traditionally been demanded by those who offer worship experiences. After all, weekends were their idea in the first place. There may be some meaning in that. If there is it is only one meaning among many. And even while attending, it is best to keep an eye or ear open for something other than the meaning which the ordained may insist is the only true one.

Seekers

We live not far from an upscale mall. This mall, although over 30 miles from Manhattan, has its own bus line dedicated to it by New Jersey Transit. There is a route that runs throughout the day from the City to this mall and back. My readers know I’m hardly an uptown type. Nevertheless, an occasional trip to the mall can be a learning experience. On a cold weekend where outdoor activities felt unnecessarily ascetic we went to stroll around to see what was new. In the midst of the usual stores I never visit, there was one that had the temporary feel of an exploratory venture in high rent retail. It was, for lack of an appropriate adjective, a “New Age” store, featuring figurines from eastern religions, incense, dragons, and the aesthetic of the hippie mystique. Wandering about, I couldn’t help but notice how much of the merchandise, in one way or another, was religious in orientation.

Those of us from the western hemisphere find the quotidian aspects of Hinduism and Buddhism exotic. Otherworldly, even. In our sterile offices, we dare not burn incense. Fabrics this colorful are not worn to work. It was as if the only place true color exists is in that mystical world that religions acknowledge, but businesses deny. Yes, it was a Saturday, but nevertheless the number of patrons surprised me. The town in which the mall sits is quite affluent. We live far enough from the City that some very serious money resides at no great distance. Patrons tend to have enough, and considerable surplus. And here they are, in a store selling that is undifferentiated spirituality. A stand of silver jewelry was explicitly marked Wicca. There were even Christian figurines among the crystals.

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People, even (or perhaps especially) the wealthy, desire more than the dollar can bring. We’re authoritatively told that we are meat computers. Mere automatons to the forces of physics. Our human experience tells us otherwise. We are meaning-seeking creatures. There are people who will willingly sit for three hours on a bus just to reach this mall. Whether it is a hippie-friendly shop, or the latest fashion trends that draw them here, they have this in common: they’re seeking something. I glance around and spy a mirror. I came here looking for a place out of the cold, but I have discovered an unexpected insight. If we make our own, or purchase it prefabricated, we venture to our secular cathedrals to find a kind of salvation.

Who’s Driving?

Technology has been kind to civilization. At least in some aspects. I often think how easy communication has become. When I was just starting out in the professional world, email was new and not trusted by some academics, and now if you can’t be reached by email you’re not a real professor. Professors are the ones, at least in some sectors, who write books. They share ideas—sometimes quite intricate and entangled—using the delimiters of language that has developed to serve communication. Technology, however, has reached a point where it limits what can be said. I have heard experts say that authors must learn to write in XML, a mark-up language that doesn’t recognize things like pages, or even such simple prepositions as “above” or “below.” We must get away, they say, from outmoded ways of thinking. Or think about this blog. When I list tags, they are “comma separated values” (CSV, but not the pharmaceutical kind). If a book title has commas, it is broken up into separate units, some of them nonsensical as tags. They are, however, what the brave new language demands.

Language is how we express what we mean. Since meaning is often of our own making, it seems that language should allow us to formulate our thoughts, commas and all. We take this incredible tool of language and degrade it in our constant drive to find bigger and better superlatives. Lately I’ve noticed the trend toward calling recognized experts in a field “gods.” I wonder what we will do when that gets old and threadbare. What trumps a god? A Titan, perhaps? Do those who call other human beings “gods” ever stop to think through the implications? The comma represents a pause. I recommend a comma or two before using up the highest superlative the language can support.

Idle worship

Idle worship

As someone who spends a great deal of time writing, as well as reading what others write, I think it is time to push back at those who would limit language. H. P. Lovecraft often utilized intentionally unpronounceable names for his “gods.” Cthulhu has become the best recognized among them in popular culture, but here is a case of a writer having the last laugh from beyond the grave. While those who declare “there is no such thing as a page number” insist that writers hyperlink themselves, those who make their very cosmos what it is do so by breaking the rules. And they did so without having had to become gods.

With My Luck

I wish I didn’t believe in luck. I guess I’m just not lucky that way. And I’m not alone. Of all the “superstitions” that haunt the human psyche, luck is among the most pervasive. We either have windfalls that make our lives easy, or, like many of us, a series of unfortunate events against which we constantly have to struggle. We call it luck. But is it real? William Ian Miller wrote an intriguing piece called “May You Have My Luck” for a recent Chronicle of Higher Education Review. There’s nothing as mysterious to me as the hapless professor. I mean, they have it all, right? Educated at fine schools, cushy jobs that pay reasonably well, interviews on documentaries, jobs that among the rarest on earth? Who wouldn’t want that kind of luck? (I am also a believer in myth, so that also must be taken into account.) The reason I raise luck here, however, is that Miller’s article again and again returns to religion. I don’t think it’s intentional. It’s just unavoidable. Luck, no matter how we define it, goes back in some way to the favor of the gods.

We all know people that we think of as lucky. Success seems to follow on success for them. They are at the right place just at the right moment, and their lives seem to be easy and not so full of stress as those of the rest of us. Most people, as Miller observes, have middling luck. Things go our way sometimes, and then they don’t go our way at others. My fascination, however, lies with those on the other end of the spectrum. There are those who seem to get very few breaks. They may do all the right things, follow all the wisest advice, work harder than anyone else, and still end up on the bad end of luck’s roulette. Ironically, they may be religious people to boot. Their deity, according to their sacred traditions, is the most powerful entity in the universe. And yet things don’t go their way. We call it luck. Is it more powerful than the divine?

This question, or more properly, conundrum, lies behind any concept of luck. Shifting to the paradigm with which I’m most familiar, does God direct luck or does luck exist independently of God? Does luck even exist at all? Is it just the name we give to a series of random happenings in retrospect and which have no inherent meaning? Ah, that seems to be the very point! Meaning. What do these things that happen to us mean? Whether or not we believe that life has any meaning, our minds are biologically programmed to seek it out. Very few of us are content to find only food, shelter, and air to breathe. We want something more out of life. We may not be able to name it, but whatever it is, we could conceivably call it meaning. We are looking for a purpose to our mere existence, even if we don’t believe in it. Gods or no gods, we are left trying to discern what they require of us. And whether we find it or not, it seems, is purely a matter of luck.

Photo credit: Joe Papp, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Joe Papp, Wikipedia Commons

Truth Fully

An article on science reporting on the BBC has me thinking about truth. Again. Truth is, of course, a philosophical concept. What it means is a matter of debate, and always has been. The way that it’s used, however, is reflected in the debate-oriented situation in the story. According to IFL Science’s Lisa Winter, the BBC has been tasked with tightening up its science programs to avoid the dilemma posed by the “two sides to every story approach.” While not denying that debate is the lifeblood of science, assessing the strength of the debate is essential. For example, there is a true scientific consensus about global warming. Those who deny it are generally backed by either corporate or religious causes that motivate them to claim the truth lies elsewhere. Truth is a very slippery term. And anybody can use it and claim it. In philosophy there’s no answer key in the back of the book.

Photo credit: Marretao22, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Marretao22, Wikimedia Commons

Science, which I’ve admired from my earliest years, has a really, really strong track record of describing the physical universe accurately. Truly enormous paradigm shifts are rare in science and must be accompanied by stringent evidence. Sometimes critics grow frustrated at the slowness of science to accept something that seems obvious, but scientific thinking is nothing if not careful. Enter religion. The claims of most religions lay far beyond the reach of science. And yet, religion too has a really, really good track record—not of describing the physical universe (at which it often does abysmally poorly), but of providing meaning to human lives. Scientists have actually studied this. Religion, like it or not, does help. When it makes a claim on truth, however, a religion often comes into conflict with science. And the problem is that policies based on faulty scientific outlooks can have catastrophic consequences.

So what is truth? If we define it as what really, physically describes the material universe, science is onto it. In fact, science has the best chance of giving us an intellectually honest answer. If we define truth as what a certain deity declared law about a particular aspect of human life, science can’t help. Science doesn’t concern itself with gods or their putative decrees. Religion, however, does. And a vast part of the population votes for leadership based on religious beliefs rather than on scientific principles. And most have not taken too many classes in philosophy. In a democracy we both benefit and suffer under the weight of public opinion. And right now, it seems, public opinion considers philosophy as waste of time and would prefer the truth shrink-wrapped and ready for easy consumption.