Prejudices of the Time

When my daughter was in middle and high school, I made an effort to read every book she was assigned for her English classes.  This gave us something to talk about during the years when many teens grow laconic and uncommunicative.  Some of the books I’d read before, but one frightened me off.  Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest pressed the wrong buttons.  You have to understand that I saw the movie for a class in college.  It disturbed me.  Even before encountering H. P. Lovecraft, one of my deepest phobias was insanity.  Children of alcoholics sometimes fear those who are out of control, and mental patients had become, in my head, associated with the non-rational behavior of my father that frightened me so.  During a clown ministry event we visited the local state hospital for mental patients.  I trembled for about a week after we left.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is in many ways a sixties novel.  One reflection of that is the fact that the religious imagery in the novel is presented in the form of punishment.  Everyone knows the narrative of R. P. McMurphy’s battle of the wills against Nurse Ratched.  The latter uses electroshock therapy as punishment and she tries to wear McMurphy down by using it repeatedly after the fight in the shower.  The electroshock table is described as a cross.  The metal headset is a crown of thorns.  Indeed, one of the patients is described as being crucified to the wall of the ward where he hangs throughout the novel.  The sixties frequently saw religion—especially the staid, conservative evangelicalism of the 1950s—as a form of punishment.  That’s pretty clear here.

Although the novel celebrates the freedom of the sixties, it also reflects the prejudices of the times.  The African-American attendees on the ward aren’t portrayed sympathetically.  The women—nurses and prostitutes alike—are there for the pleasure of the male patients’ gaze, exemplified in the leering laugh of McMurphy.  Still, there’s a kind of catharsis to this tale.  The Chief, from whose point-of-view the story’s told, is arguably cured by the antics and special attention McMurphy shows him.  Beneath the callous, self-serving conman there is a human decency that “the system” fails to find.  Indeed, McMurphy is a kind of Christ figure.  A fallen savior, no doubt, but a liberator nonetheless.  This was a difficult novel to read.  I couldn’t make myself pick it up half-a-decade ago, but I suspect somewhere beneath the surface I’m glad I’ve finally read it.  It didn’t cure any of my phobias but it made me think.

Ellis Island

A few years back we made a trip to Ellis Island. This is a common field trip here in New Jersey, although none of my immediate family passed through this portal. The most recent immigrants in my own heritage seem to have arrived by the early 1800s. In any case, Ellis Island is an impressive location. Now a museum, you can wander through the rooms and get an idea of what newcomers faced after a long and trying ocean voyage. What struck me the most was that large numbers of people were turned away for mental problems. I suspect mental illness of one sort or another is unnervingly common among human beings, and our current frenetic pace of life probably only exacerbates the situation. Still, I wonder if we really have a clear grasp on what is “normal.”

As humans become more adept at understanding their own brains, a need for more precise definitions asserts itself. A friend recently sent me an article suggesting “Neurologists Have Identified Brain Lesions That Could Be Linked to Religious Fundamentalism” on Science Alert. The article my Mike McRae ultimately doesn’t suggest that brain damage is the answer to Fundamentalism, but the story reminded me of an unscientific observation by one of my seminary professors decades ago. Harrell Beck once said something along the lines of Fundamentalism isn’t a theological position, it’s a psychological problem. Indeed, those who fall into the literalist camp have a preternatural urge to see things in black and white. Rules that can’t be violated, even if it means your deity’s an angry old God. With literally Hell to pay if you’re wrong, the right course of action is strikingly clear. Only life’s seldom so simple.

We study our brains but we don’t have a baseline for normal. I can’t believe that waking before dawn to catch a bus to work a job that pays less than a successful high school degree in other states is a good bet by anybody’s standard measure of normalcy. Those who read probing biographies find that even our brightest and best have quirks they didn’t wear in public. Surely the physicians on Ellis Island had some guidelines in mind when they were turning away those who didn’t measure up to the standard of what an ideal American mentality should be. Although Ellis Island shut its doors over half a century ago, it’s clear that even if we kept some unstable candidates out, we’ve done a stellar job of growing our own. And that can be taken as truth by faith alone.

Minding Souls

The mind, despite nay-sayers, is real. It isn’t an illusion. Emergent phenomena are often larger than the sum of their parts. One of the problems with the non-physical is that we can’t parse it precisely. “Mind” may be called “soul” may be called “personality” may be called “spirit.” You get the picture. Many scientists would answer “none of the above” to the question of which of these exist. Other scientists, not on the fringe, are beginning to see that the answers aren’t quite so simple. A recent piece in the mainstream Washington Post, dares to say what we all feel. Or at least many of us feel. There are realities that religions have recognized for millennia, that demonstrate the existence of the non-corporeal. “As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession,” an article by Richard Gallagher, is worth reading. Gallagher, with a hat-trick of Ivy League-awarded degrees, believes in demons. They’re rare, of course, he says, but real.

The standard story—in large part correct—is that ancients misdiagnosed epilepsy and some forms of mental illness as demons. Undoubtedly their standard threshold was too low. Occasionally, however, they may have been right. Unlike what we’re sometimes told, the ancients recognized at least some mental illness when they saw it. There were non-functional people then, and while some may have blamed demons, others saw them as people who don’t think like the rest of society. Then there were the possessed. As Gallagher notes, humans with superhuman strength, speaking languages they never learned, and yes, even levitating, have been witnessed by credible viewers. Very rare, yes. But also very real.

Despite the need that many feel for freedom, we are, as a species, fond of laws. We want to know the rules and we’re quick to call out those we catch cheating. We’re so fond of laws that we apply them to nature and claim that natural laws can never be broken. Well, at least not above the quantum level. A friend shared that this concept of applying legal language to nature is a fairly recent development in human thought. The idea of a law, however, requires someone to oversee and enforce it. One of the subtleties here is that any enforcement that takes place requires a measure of value, and value, as much as we all treasure it, simply can’t be quantified. Is gold more valuable than silver? It depends. The value comes in assessing its usefulness. Laws separate good behavior from bad behavior. And, if many credible people are to be believed, the behavior of mind sometimes defies the laws of nature.

Buer

Things Being Equal

Gun violence is out of control. While experts dither and bicker about whether this or that act was done by “terrorists” they choose to ignore that gun violence is terror, no matter who’s pulling the trigger. The world in which bearing arms was declared an amended constitutional right was a world of muzzle-loaders. Like in those movies where someone took their shot, missed, and has to reload, feverishly pouring gunpowder down the barrel while the enemy closes in. Firearms were obviously deadly, but limited in their capabilities. All things being equal, it is easy to understand why such a right would be granted. Almost nothing is equal any more, however.

Consider this: weapons are now sold that can rapidly and repeatedly fire rounds that, in the wrong hands, can kill many people before anyone even has the time to react. These guns are useless for hunting, and their only purpose is to kill other human beings. We have been manufacturing them and selling them for many years and laws are such that most people could, if they choose to participate in the insanity, stockpile such weapons against a day when they will actually be used for their intended purposes. Consider also that the government, strapped for money to funnel to military causes, has shifted and narrowed the definition of mental illness so as to “normalize” people who would have, under other circumstances, been in institutional care. Add to this the increasing globalization that has effects that psychologists and sociologists are only now coming to see build stresses and strains in brains that evolved to be among their own “kind” and to distrust the “stranger.” And these stressed minds have easy access to powerful firearms. Who has the right?

I grew up in a different world. Yes, the Vietnam War was going on, but those who returned were exhausted by and despised the violence to which they’d been subjected. The pointless killing of others was culturally and personally just that: pointless. Fast forward half a century. Now we live in a world where seeing violent death represented is a daily occurrence. Even in simulation it is realistic. Mass murderers make videos presenting themselves as so heroic as to inspire followers. We no longer trust religion. We no longer trust the government. We no longer trust the American Dream. Wealth is bottled up where it can’t be reached and guns are distributed like candy. Are all things equal? Hardly. And yet those running for the highest office in the land worm for ways to keep the gun lobbies pleased. If we could only go back to muzzle-loaders and the time it took to reload—time in which even an unbalanced person had to think about what he, or now she, was about to do. Equality has, unfortunately, become as much a fairy tale as the right to bear arms.

400px-Manual_of_the_Musketeer,_17th_Century

Demonic Beginnings

A friend recently asked me what seemed like an innocuous question: what is the origin of demons. I typed out an answer on the basis of my outdated reading on the subject only to realize that this is a very complex question indeed. While teaching my Ancient Near Eastern religions class over the past three years I regularly told students that there is no regular word for “demon” in Akkadian, the language of ancient Mesopotamia. Mesopotamian religion was the dominant system of belief in sheer size of area and antiquity in the Ancient Near East. There are characters recognized as demons: Pazuzu of The Exorcist fame among them. Their origin, however, is murky. In Mesopotamia demons are generally a mix of human and animal components supposed in some way to be responsible for misfortune. They are not evil, but they carry out the punishments decreed by the gods. In the first millennium BCE demons were understood to inhabit the Underworld, paving the way for Hell, once Zoroastrianism contributed the necessary duality for the region.

The Hebrew Bible contains no uncontested word for “demon” either. The words generally translated that way do not indicate evil spirits in the sense that the Christian Scriptures seem to depict them. In the Hebrew Bible they appear to be associated with the worship of “false gods” and the inhabitants of deserts and wastelands. In neither the Mesopotamian nor Israelite concepts do demons appear to “possess” people. By the time of Christianity, with its Zoroastrian-fueled dualism, we have an anti-God (the devil) and his anti-angelic minions (demons). One purpose here seems to have been to clear the monotheistic God of charges of originating evil. If there is only one God where does evil come from? Better to posit a devil than take that one where logic leads.

Back in the days when I was still in school, demons were regularly cast as the explanation for various mental illnesses and epilepsy. In a society that had trouble understanding the sudden onset of an epileptic fit or a sane individual growing insane, such misfortunes could appear supernatural. In a supernatural realm where evil is mediated by the devil, demons naturally volunteer for their old role as purveyors of divine punishment. Eventually the mythology of a revolt in the world of the gods emerged, probably based on the dualistic outlook of Zoroastrianism, and we soon have verses referring to the king of “Babylon” being reinterpreted as literal episodes on a spiritual plane. Once Jesus utilized this language to describe the suffering souls of his day, it became heresy to think of demons in any other way than as physically, or at least spiritually, real. In the modern day they are still with us as “spiritual entities that have never been human” according to Ghost Hunters. They do, however, resemble people in significant ways more than they resemble their mythic forebears. Where do they come from? The dark recesses of the human psyche. Their mythic origins, however, remain obscure.