Icelandic Gods

There’s a lot to like about Iceland.  It has geothermal heat.  The people are literate and proud of it.  They don’t have an army.  Viking heritage and northern lights—what an interesting place!  A friend recently sent me a satirical piece on Patheos titled “Iceland Declares All Religions Are Mental Disorders,” by Andrew Hall.  I may not be as naive as I once was, but I have to admit I was nearly taken in on the fly.  Maybe because the idea seems so much better than what we have over here in our warmer, but less educated world.  Clearly, however, religion is extremely important to people, and if it is a mental disorder it’s an essential one.  Hall mades the astute point that Iceland didn’t want to become like the United States.  Who would, at this point?

Although this is a satirical piece, like most satire it works because it has chunks of truth in it.  Countries run by religions do seem to get into quite a lot of trouble.  I often think this is primarily a monotheistic problem.  If a nation accepts many gods, then adding those of other peoples is hardly an issue.  With a single deity, however, there is a single truth.  Anyone different is, by default, wrong.  When entire nations self-identify with a religion, it is only too easy to begin seeing those who believe differently just across the border as a threat.  Faith becomes fight.  As if a deity who always claims to value peace is only satisfied when we’re killing those who don’t share our same peaceful outlook.  Irony and satire have met together, it seems.

I’ve never been to Iceland.  It’s on my bucket list.  As a rockhound, the volcanic nature of the place calls to me.  I do wonder, however, how a vegan might fare on a far northern island.  My times in Orkney are among my mental treasures.  Those northern Scottish isles were places of wonder.  Not the most options regarding comestibles, however.  What they lacked in food they made up for in magic.  Iceland, despite the satire’s bite, has a considerable population that believes in the little people.  Anyone who’s too quick to dismiss such things ought to spend some time in the far north.  Driving to the ancient sites of Orkney certainly shifted my perspective a bit.  There’s great value in listening to the wisdom of those relatively isolated from the rest of the world.  You might, however, have to bring your own beans.

Revisiting Mesopotamia

As a refresher on my own ancient history, I picked up Tammi J. Schneider’s An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion.  This was one of those books that spawned several internal conversations simultaneously as I realized just how much modern lenses color our perceptions of past societies.  Before commenting on that, however, a few necessary points must be made.  Our knowledge of Mesopotamia is in its infancy.  There are only a handful of universities around the world that have the resources to prepare young Assyriologists adequately.  Once prepared, those young folk will be introduced to the job market of those with far lesser education because there are practically no jobs in the field.  Seems a poor way to treat the civilization that invented wheels, arches, and beer.  Or so I’ve read.  In any case, many tablets in ancient languages have never been translated because there simply aren’t enough people to do it.  Any conclusions, therefore, must remain tentative.

Ancient religion in western Asia was extremely political.  From our perspective, this seems odd—although it’s happening again in real time.  Ancient societies relied on the cooperation of religious and political leaders and each institution helped the other.  They didn’t have the added complication of monotheism to deal with.  In trying to keep all the gods happy, they simply reasoned that if things fell apart, another god had grown to a superior position.  Certainly they believed the gods were there—we do too.  We call them cash, the stock exchange, and commodities, but we still worship and adore.  And they keep the government going.  (I kind of liked it better when they were old-fashioned gods; at least they had sympathy for the human condition.)

After getting to know the gods, Mesopotamians recognized that humans were to do the work for them.  Gods, after all, owned the land and priests and kings were powerful individuals.  You didn’t want to cross them.  Rituals were developed to ensure the smooth continuation of seasons and agriculture.  As Schneider points out, we don’t have enough information to understand all of this.  Our information comes from across millennia and from locations sometimes hundreds of miles apart.  If this is a puzzle well over half the pieces are missing.  We glimpse people like us, trying to survive.  Gods are unpredictable, but you can try to read a liver or two to find out what’s on their minds.  And some of the kings thought they were gods.  The more things change, the more, it seems, they stay the same.

Seeing Belief

Although most of us can recognize it on sight, we have a difficult time defining religion. In the early parts of Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals, John C. Lyden discusses this lack of definition and offers some broad categorizations since his thesis depends upon it. How can one assert that film may be understood as religion if religion isn’t identified? Lyden makes clear that this book won’t be about an ideological or theological interpretation of film. It’s more about popular culture and how elements of that culture, such as cinema, may be religion. This leads to the discussion of the topics of his subtitle: myths, rituals, and morals. These all share some conceptual territory with movies, therefore understanding them is important.

To me the most interesting part of the book is the consideration of genres (westerns, gangster movies, melodramas, romantic comedies, children’s movies, science fiction, thrillers and horror) as exemplars of various aspects of this religion. Each genre includes the discussion of a feature film, and some even have two. Of course, Lyden’s book is a few years old now and other studies have shed further light on both how religion and film interact and also on the interpretation of various genres of movie. The hope of the book—that it may be the start of a new kind of discussion about religion—has to some extent been realized, although the analysis has taken off in several directions at once. There can be no doubt that cinema taps deep spiritual needs in a way not unlike a religious ceremony.

It seems that society has come to distrust the usual purveyors of religion. Dishonesty almost as deep as that of the government has been found in it and the responses are remarkably similar—cover-ups and denials and many species of prevarication. Cinema seems downright credible in comparison. What you see is what you see. The big difference between movies and religion, however, is that we’re only too glad to acknowledge the human sources of celluloid. Many religions, especially in the monotheistic tradition, rely on direct divine revelation as their origin. Lyden isn’t suggesting that film substitutes for religion in that way, but on a more practical level it may. It meets our needs. We trust we’ll get what the poster and trailers promise us. We sit reverently in the dark awaiting illumination. And yes, there’s an exchange of money involved for any kind of worship involves an offering. No religion’s free of cost.

Who’s God?

There shall be wars, and rumors of wars. The Bible says nothing about being able to declare what future people might have to say about God. According to a story on the Washington Post website, Larycia Hawkins, a political science professor, was suspended from Wheaton College for claiming that the God of Islam is the same as the Christian God. Administrators felt this was one of those cases where the famous statement of faith required of Wheaton faculty was violated. Seems to me the administration might want to sit in on a class in history of religions. Everyone knows that Wheaton takes great pride in its Evangelical heritage, bordering on a kind of extreme conservatism. Even so, this seems extreme.

There is much we don’t know about the early history of most religions. Probably one of the resons for this is that, apart from the founder, we’re never sure if a new religion will take off. Many religions have started and then quietly (or not so quietly) died away. At the earliest stages nobody really knows which way it might go. We do know that by about the time of the Exile, the early Jewish faith was fast becoming monotheistic. Christianity, although disputed by some, also followed in that mold, accepting the God of Jesus of Nazareth (himself a Jew) as the one God. Here many Evangelical histories grow a little weak when focus is shifted to Arabia. The cultural context that led to Islam involved a world of pantheistic worship, but Mohammad was well aware of, and appreciative of, Judaism and Christianity. Recognizing that his faith shared the same books as the other two, his understanding of Allah was clearly the same God as the one worshipped by the Jews and that Jesus had called “Father.” The three monotheistic religions of that region, historically, have always shared the same God.


Disowning a deity, I suspect, comes with some anxiety. As Islam expanded and Christianity itself became an imperial religion, clashes were bound to happen. Invective included calling the enemies “pagan” or “infidel” (technically two separate things), and as so often happens, rhetoric became mistaken for fact. Since Islam and Christianity were different religions, so the thinking went, they must recognize different gods. Triumphalism is seldom subtle. Fact checking wasn’t so easy back in those days. Suspending a professor for stating the truth is, I fear, nothing new. Some schools require statements of faith so that they may ensure academic freedom is a myth. Ironically, they seldom have trouble with accreditation. The ideology of a war between religions offers a doleful prognosis for a world where religions really need to try to understand each other and where obvious historical facts should count for something.

Who the Devil?

OriginSatanThose who’ve studied the history of ancient West Asian religions know that the concept of a devil, as a character, derives from Zoroastrian origins. In Zarathustra’s dualistic worldview, the forces of evil were concentrated in an “anti-God,” who, upon contact with the emerging monotheism of ancient Israel, became the satan. While scholars still argue about exactly what the role of the satan was, it is clear that it was a role, and not a name. The job of the satan was in some way to bring to accounting wicked deeds. By the time of the New Testament, “the Devil” had developed into an embodiment of evil more along classic Zoroastrian lines. What Elaine Pagels explores in The Origin of Satan is encapsulated in her subtitle: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics.

This is not a book about the historical development of the figure of Satan, but rather a study of how early Christians (and to an extent, Jews) viewed “the other.” Naturally she does discuss Satan, who developed along the lines suggested above, but more specifically she addresses how the accusation of being “of Satan” was used. Interestingly, it was generally utilized by those of ancient times to describe those of their own religion, but who held different viewpoints. Sects of Christianity and Judaism generally accused other sects in their own religious tradition of being “satanic.” Foreigners and pagans, well, what would you expect of them anyway? Those closest, ironically, are those most despised. Even early converts to Christianity from Roman polytheism tended to view their former religion as satanic. Satan, in other words, is “the other.” But not the far other. The near other.

While the book is full of Pagels’ usual erudition, it is also disappointing. Not as a book, but as a fact. Religions that claim God only wants us to love one another and treat each other well rely too readily on the figure of personified evil to castigate their enemies. As Pagels demonstrates, even as early as Augustine of Hippo there were those who realized Satan was not a “physical” being, but a symbol for evil. Yet on through the Middle Ages Satan would continue to be evoked to murder women and men thought to be witches or heretics. Satan, it seems, is simply a word for our darkest urges to harm those different from ourselves. We know that religions often have noble intentions. Perhaps the most noble could be to rid the world of Satan, and I don’t mean the mythological figure we all recognize without a hint.


It was an object of wonder. Handed to me as a child, the Bible inspired a kind of awe reserved for the big events of a young life. Here were the very words of God, in King James English, for me to read, mark, and inwardly digest. Well, at least read. And read I did, as only the fear of Hell is able to motivate an impressionable psyche. When a parish minister saw the trajectory of my life, he suggested exploring the ministry. More Bible reading ensued. With only Halley’s Bible Handbook as a guide, interpretation was largely a matter of what the minister said, and the kind of primitive reason that resides in a teenager’s head. I made it through college as a religion major without ever hearing about Mesopotamia’s influence on the Bible. Once I did hear, in seminary, it was clear to me that to get to the truth, you had to go back beyond the first page. Mesopotamia was only part of the story. The Bible was a book compiled in a region where other religions shared concepts, deities, and stories with the Israelites. While unique in some respects, it turns out the Bible wasn’t as unique as I’d been led to believe.

Mesopotamia, vying with Egypt, was the true cradle of the civilization that gave rise to who we are in the western world. Perhaps in the eastern hemisphere as well. The great cities of Sumer, and later Babylonia and Assyria, yielded cuneiform tablets and other artifacts that insisted we widen our view of antiquity. The heirs of this tradition developed Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three monotheistic religions have bred sects that despise this ancient past with its uncomfortable truths, and thus we hear of IS destroying the evidence with abandon. The years of my life spent studying these cultures disappears so quickly under the bulldozer’s blade. For all this, it is IS that is the passing fancy. You can’t destroy the truth. You can damage it, however, to the detriment of everyone.


Political regimes, and not just in the Middle East, operate with an unbecoming arrogance when they believe in their own self-righteousness. Were it not for those who wondered what these wedges on clay meant, we might still have to reckon (more seriously than we already have to do) with those who insist that it’s the Bible way or the highway. Unfortunately, it often takes disasters such as this wanton destruction of the past to wake the media from its lethargy concerning the cultures that gave our religions birth. There’s so much more to distract. The world can’t make up its mind about the color of a dress, and meanwhile those backed with a justification of true belief destroy that which can never be replaced. Given the rhetoric of political leaders even here, I suspect that our past is no longer safe, no matter where we house the artifacts bearing witness to the truth.

Alas, Babylon!

Religions tend to be backward looking. That’s not intended to be a universal, nor a condemnation. Few would want to admit that their religion is new, especially in this scientific era. We tend to believe the truth is old. But not too old. In the monotheistic traditions, real religion started with Abraham, or more properly, Abram. Beyond that we were all pagans. One of the sad stories brought to my attention this past week involves the IS (you know it’s bad when we have to use acronyms) decided to destroy Nimrud, one of the ancient Mesopotamian cities that has helped us understand whence we’ve come. In an era of political and social correctness, we’ve decided that the right to keep artifacts rests with those who’s heritage it reflects. The future, however, is just as unstable as the past. As someone who has spent many years trying to understand the material remains of our pre-Judeo-Christian heritage, it is a tragedy of the first degree to have unthinking guardians destroy what can’t be replaced because they represent “idols.”

In my Ancient Near Eastern Religions class, I used to begin by asking students what the difference was between an idol and a god. At first it seems that idols are images, and, by definition, offensive to the religion that names them “idols.” Then, as we probed deeper, it would become clear that all religions use images of some description, and that likenesses of deities were considered to be gods in sophisticated ways. Those who built the pyramids and the great walls of Babylon were not simpletons. Their images, many of them powerful still today, were psychological expressions, often backed with theological finesse. Even Protestants accuse Catholics of idolatry, and they worship the same deity.

It would be a mistake, however, to blame religion for such wanton destruction. All religions breed extremists. Extremists, like those who believe science can explain everything, are simply drawing their reasoning out to its ultimate conclusion. That’s not to condone their actions, but to try to comprehend them. All religious groups have those who slip past the bounds of conventionality into the realm where an all-consuming zeal requires excessive action to be noticed. Human beings are complex that way. A pagan philosophy of ancient Greece held that all things in moderation was the ideal. Religions with a concept of Hell, however, breed excessive ideologies. As a child I would have done anything to avoid Hell. In fact, with the little power that children are accorded, I conscientiously did what I could. When I wasn’t distracted by the other attractions life seemed to offer. If, perhaps, we considered that socio-economic justice would go a long way toward engendering a kind of contentment, we might find less extremists in the world. No matter what we do, however, we will not find ourselves in a world without religion.



LopezNorthAmericaAs winter begins to settle in, I recall reading Barry Lopez’s masterful Arctic Dreams many years ago. That book left such an impression that when I saw his The Rediscovery of North America—a very small book—I thought it was worth the asking price. Lopez is one of those nature writers who can transport the reader into the world he observes. This brief volume, however, takes the reader to a very different kind of world—the world of European interaction with North America. As children we (and I speak for myself, or perhaps my generation) were still taught that Columbus was a kind of hero. He ventured into the unknown and discovered an entire new world. That world became the everyday place we inhabit with our comforts and our toys. Things only got better from there. Of course, I learned to distrust this view by the time I was an undergraduate, and my perspective has turned a bit more serious since then. These events, viewed from the perspective of the Native Americans, have a completely opposed outlook. Lopez tries to capture a sense of how to rectify these wrongs in his Thomas D. Clark lectures that make the basis for this book.

Greed, no doubt, drove the early explorers of the new world. And a sense of entitlement that has not diminished with the passing centuries. While it is not as simple as tracing this sense of ownership back to Genesis, clearly the Bible plays some role in it. Religions that teach their adherents that they have the sole truth will inevitably lead to entitlement. Monotheism, as I’ve noted before, possesses the tendency to make absolute claims. One God, one Church, one Truth. And non-believers become expendable. To the Catholic Spaniards setting out for the new world (or actually, old world, but tripping up on the new along the way), as Lopez points out, were driven by lust for gold. And spices. And fornication. Things that, if one took it seriously, would be decried by the church as vices. Still, taking advantage of the gullible and helpless is a time-honored practice among many religious bodies, and we know that genocide ensues.

Somehow history has taught us that some genocides are worse than others. Those inflicted on native populations, perhaps because they weren’t always intentional (in the case of diseases) are sometimes still given a silent assent. Yet, as Lopez makes clear, the intention to murder was there already. The conquistadors had already decided that the natives did not deserve the same rights as the God-blessed new arrivals. What saddens me—and I think Lopez too—is that this same sense of entitlement, instead of tempering with time, has continued to increase. Tea Parties and American Values often include removing those who disagree. Inconvenient indigenous populations that aren’t mentioned in the Bible except as Canaanite stand-ins. And should we care to make right what was perpetrated, perhaps we ought to consider rediscovering North America.

Let It Be

CultOfTheVirginMaryWhy do people pray to Mary? The question is a complex one and answers range from a desire to find some feminine compassion in an angry masculine god to the distinctly Freudian. Michael P. Carroll, in The Cult of the Virgin Mary: Psychological Origins, falls into the latter category. Yes, the book was written in the 1980s, but even then Oedipal complexes and penis envy were deeply suspect. Still, at various points along the way Carroll had me scratching my head and muttering “there may be something to this.” For a few pages, anyway. The problem begins much further back than Mary. To start with, we can’t all agree on what religion is. From there we move to the stage where ancient religions had as many goddesses as gods—even the divine don’t like to be lonely. The heads of most pantheons were male, which likely matched most earthly political systems. Powerful females still existed, at least in mythical realms. Monotheism effectively put an end to that, but before too terribly long, Mary emerged and eventually became almost a goddess.

Indeed, early on in his book Carroll discusses how Mary differs from the goddesses of antiquity, drawing parallels with only Cybele. Mary is the virgin mother completely dissociated from sexuality. Deeper study would reveal some mistakes in Carroll’s reasoning—there were virgin mother goddesses, such as Anat, who might in some ways fill in the gaps. Indeed, arguing for the uniqueness of Mary is kind of a goddesses-of-the-gaps theology. The more we learn the less unique any deity becomes. Still, looking to the psyche to explain Mary is a logical step. Tracing Marian devotion to the ineffective-father family, where a machoism hides a longing for the protective mother, Carroll offers us a Freudian feast of options here. Still, in the light of developments in psychology over the past quarter century, his premise is a bit dated.

We simply don’t know why Mary became such a strong devotional interest in a religion with a masculine Trinity. It would seem that women might be the motive force behind it. Given that half of Christendom was displaced, by default, from the male savior, why would Mary not emerge as the mother all people crave and whom, women know, often soften the harsh decrees of martial law? Delving into the apparitions of Mary from Our Lady of Guadalupe to Fatima and Medjugorje, Carroll finds illusions and hallucinations based on strong females behind each one. Rational inquiry into the deeply spiritual. This, however, remains the proximate cause only. What is really seen can’t be known, except to the seer. And it seems that seers tend to find, amid a religion with an omnipotent man at the top, that it is the mother who appears in times of need. Unless, of course, it is a matter of healthcare where, as government shows, father knows best.

The Fate of Goddesses

The goddesses Asherah and Astarte are sometimes confused, even by experts. Astarte, also known as Ashtart, Ashtarte, Athtart, and Astaroth, among other names, is the lesser attested of the two among the Ugaritic texts. Indeed, to read some accounts of the latter goddess, she becomes dangerously close to being labelled generic, the sort of all-purpose female deity embodying love and war, and sometimes horses. In the Bible Astarte lived on to become the bad-girl of Canaanite goddesses. Her corrupting ways were a conscious danger to the orthodox (as much as that is read back into the texts). She became, over time, literally demonized. It seems that originally she, like most goddesses, had a soft spot for humans. Since she wasn’t the one true (male) God, however, she had to be made evil. It is an unfortunate pattern as old as monotheism. One of my original interests in studying Asherah (not Astarte) was precisely that—the obviously benevolent divine female seems to have been chucked wholesale when the divine masculine walked into the room. Why? Well, many explanations and excuses have been given, but whatever the ultimate cause, Astarte lingered on.


In a local pharmacy the other day, I was looking over the Halloween tchotchkes. Amid the usual assortment of pumpkins, skeletons, and ghosts, I found bottle labels reading “Ashtaroth Demon Essence.” Although I’ve spent a good deal of my life cloistered in academia, I was not surprised by this. I know that in popular culture the goddesses of antiquity live on as supernatural powers, sometimes good, sometimes evil. Astarte, once depicted as the friend to at least some of the humans devoted to her, is now commonly a demonic force. The image on the bottle label, however, was most unflattering. I know, this is just kid’s stuff. Still, as I stood there among last-minute costume seekers and distracted parents, I knew that I was witnessing the influence of ancient religions in an unexpected way. Did any of the goddesses survive as a force for good? How could they when the only god was male?

We know very little about ancient Astarte beyond the fact that she took away some of the luster of the omnipotent (as now conceived) deity of the Bible. A jealous God, as Holy Writ readily admits, visiting iniquity down to the third and fourth generation. (That might explain a lot.) Prior to monotheism benevolence and malevolence could arise from goddesses as well as gods. Compassion, it was believed, was largely a feminine trait. Monotheism decided for the jealous male instead. We won’t find a bottle label for the Almighty, although the accouterment of the arch-enemy are everywhere evident this time of year. And speaking of the diabolical, the Ashtaroth Demon Essence, I noted, was available at a steep discount.

Lions Among Men

Facial follicle emasculation, i.e. shaving, has some interesting religious implications. A recent Associated Press story highlighted this when students at Brigham Young University began a protest against the ban on beards at the school. Shaving has a very long pedigree but, as one who doesn’t shave I feel obligated to point out, not as long a pedigree as not shaving. Nobody knows for certain where or when shaving began, but it has been suggested Egyptian priests began the tradition. Others suggest it was an attempt among some early societies to control lice. Homophobic religions, it used to be, promoted beards as signs of masculinity. Alexander the Great, however, noted that beards are easy to pull during battle, although, for those who don’t fight it isn’t such an issue. Of the major monotheistic religions, Christianity is the only one that generally promotes shaving as the norm, and here it is only the practice in the western branch of the religion. Eastern Orthodox churches still retain bearded clergy. It has been suggested that the Roman preoccupation with shaving led to early Christian preferences for this practice, and there may be something to that.

Having an old-growth beard (I last shaved over a quarter of a century ago) I have often found myself in the minority. While beards—mostly highly styled or glorified stubble—are making a bit of a comeback in New York City, they are still not as common as the alternative. In one of my many preprofessional jobs (that of a bag-boy at a Pittsburgh grocery store) I was told I had to shave. “Customers don’t trust a man with facial hair,” my manager told me. Delving into this a bit, I was told that beards mask the facial nuances that an honest man wants to show. What’s a beard trying to hide? Watching what clean-shaven presidents and Wall Street moguls get away with as “honesty,” I think I’ll stick with my beard, thank you.

I'd trust this man.

I’d trust this man.

Evangelical traditions, such as Mormonism, I long ago noticed, wish to control nature. Lawns must be manicured and trees, with their sloppy abundance of leaves, must be few and carefully spaced. Faces should be rid of the hair that Jesus and the disciples were said to wear, and clothes must be neat and tidy at all times. It’s an image thing. Among the evangelical crowd, those with beards keep them neatly trimmed, tamed, and penitent. For me, scraping my face with a cold bit of metal first thing in the morning is about the least civilized thing I can imagine. Spending too much time shaping and toying with DNA’s dictates seems to go against nature. Much of my beard may have gone white, but I have nothing to hide. Neither orthodox nor evangelical, my beard simply represents what it means to be human. Trust me.

Pagan Paean

ImaginingPaganPastThe old gods still live. In literature. The modern world with its open spirituality has continued the process of rediscovering ancient deities. Marion Gibson’s Imagining the Pagan Past: Gods and goddesses in literature and history since the Dark Ages offers a glimpse into how British writers since the earliest days have wondered about the gods. Of course, many of those early writers were already Christianized, and treated the old gods as curios that might be placed on an intellectual shelf of bygone days. Some, however, came up with an idea that can still be found, on occasion, among dwellers in the British Isles—the idea that the original British religion was monotheistic. Indeed, some believed that the religion of Noah made its way to Britain, establishing a debased, but yet roughly correct worldview that was only contaminated by Roman polytheism. There are books suggesting, a la Latter-Day Saints, that the lost tribes of Israel found their way to Britain. Joseph of Arimathea planted his staff at Glastonbury, after all. Nothing satisfies like being the chosen people.

Gibson explores both the Celtic gods and the Norse gods. British literature has drawn upon both deity pools to populate a literature with colorful, if sometimes dark, deities. Beyond the literary, many of these gods survived in popular culture throughout the ages. Some of my fondest memories of the UK are driving to prehistoric sites with friends and finding the gods alive and well. As the sun, feeble at best in a British December, sank one afternoon we pulled into Wayland’s Smithy, a neolithic long barrow. I’d never heard of Wayland before. Gibson reveals the story of Wayland, as well as Woden and Thor, as the gods jumble in a Gaimanesque celebration of cultural diversity. Even on hikes to obscure sites the locals often knew the stories of the gods that had once passed this way.

There’s a virtual Sutton Hoo’s trove of information in Gibson’s brief study. At many points I found myself pausing to think, “that’s where that idea came from” as I followed the trajectory of her explorations. Even some of the deities she does not explore found their place in my three short years in the enchanted countryside where pagan Celt met pagan Saxon met pagan Roman, leading to a heady brew from the well-known Diana to Julian the obscure (there is some witchery afoot here). Even that Anglicanism that once circled the globe did not rid itself of this great cloud of witnesses. We keep our deities alive by preserving them in scripture, whether sacred or secular, and we have done so for hundreds of years. And the old gods, in this monochromatic world of science and industry, remind us where the rainbow really originates. Imagining the pagan past is sometimes the most human thing to do.

Equal Measure

Far off in the woods of Wisconsin sits a seminary. In these woods, I’m told, wolves eat little girls. That seminary has for decades distinguished itself by its stance against women priests. I knew of, and respectfully disagreed with this policy when I was hired to teach there in 1992. I didn’t make waves, but rollers have a way of finding you nevertheless. It doesn’t take much to capsize an unstable boat. Within my first year a student challenged me, “Did your life change forever on July 29, 1974?” I was unfamiliar with the code and asked what happened on that date, vaguely thinking perhaps it had something to do with the run-up to the Bicentennial. On that date, it turns out, Barbara Harris was ordained among the first female priests (the Philadelphia Eleven) in the Episcopal Church in the United States. I suppose my life should’ve changed—for the better—but I was a Methodist at the time. Perhaps my life changed then, for I was 12, but that change had little to do with what the student intended. Or maybe everything. I wouldn’t have had a problem with a woman priest in any case. In 1989, Harris was elected bishop, the first woman to hold that title in the Anglican communion. Just three years later I found myself in the lion’s den.

When I asked male students what their problem was with women priests the answer invariably pointed to three factors: Jesus had no women disciples (wrong, according to a certain sacred book they claim to have revered), the Roman Catholic church did not ordain women, and the Church of England did not ordain women. The problem with backing and filling is that filling always overtakes backing. By 1994 the Church of England was ordaining women. Yesterday, at long last, the General Synod approved of female bishops. Welcome to the twentieth century. Now only Rome stands in the way. I am confident, despite the certitude in the eyes of my Nashotah interlocutor, that Rome will eventually come around. I may not live to see it, but justice will be served.

Photo credit: ChrisO, Wiki Commons

Photo credit: ChrisO, Wiki Commons

There is good evidence that most religions, prior to the monotheistic triad, had women priests. Something about the singularity of deity seems to have contraindicated a protective mother in the psyche of male clergy. Ironically, the same day that the C of E decided to do what was right, Oxford University Press’s blog ran a post on Mormon women bloggers. Among the newest monotheistic faiths, like the traditions before it, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has not recognized the sacerdotal role of women, leading some to be excommunicated for speaking out. We are told that God is a jealous god. This is, after all, the wilderness. After yesterday’s long-awaited decision the woods seem a little less dense, and the threat of the wolves may have been exaggerated all along. If religions would only see people as people all our lives might just change forever.

Call it Civilization

HinduismWhile brushing up on Hinduism by reading the book of that title by Cybelle Shattuck, it once again occurred to me how the concept of religion distorts itself. Prior to the Roman Period, the concept of religion really had no name. In fact, religions were sets of folk beliefs held in common by people of a single culture. These beliefs had many functions: keeping social order, establishing common practice, undergirding a kind of optimism in the face of inevitable death. Since long-distance communication was rare and unreliable, communities separated by more than a few miles soon developed details that fit their own situation and would hardly apply universally. Until they were written down, anyway. In Hinduism—which is in no sense a unified religion—even the “sacred writings” were not held to be authoritative for all people across all places and times. That concept would emerge with Christianity, a religion that would define the term and try to make it stable.

Hinduism is the oldest continually practiced “religion” in the world, as far as we can tell. The religions of the Mesopotamians and Egyptians eventually died out (although they have been revived by some in recent times) but the folk belief—or better, folk practice, of ancient India has continued relatively uninterrupted while new religions from Israel and Arabia changed the rules of the game. Monotheisms quickly demand heresies. A single God would not tell people different truths. Something upon which Shiite and Sunni, Catholic and Protestant, Pharisee and Sadducee all agree. One Lord, one faith, one baptism. By fire.

Meanwhile, even with Muslim and Christian missionaries afoot, Hinduism continued its accustomed continuity. To be a Hindu doesn’t mean worshipping the same god with the same ritual as everybody else. It is a way of living intended to keep dharma and avoid bad karma. And even as trendy westerners stretch themselves into impossible yoga postures, they are participating, at some level, in ancient practices that we call the religion of Hinduism. Shattuck’s brief introduction is a nice little primer that explains this time-honored folk tradition in a way even a believer in religion can understand. There are, it turns out, more things in this philosophy than our universe has ever dreamt of. Or perhaps the one dreaming is really Vishnu after all.

Shining Meaning

AllThingsShiningWriting with the hopes of eventually being included in the Western Canon, I suspect, is often somewhere in the back of an author’s mind. We want our efforts to be noticed and our voices to be heard. The Western Canon, however, is a very exclusive club, and the members don’t get selected easily or quickly. We value our classics. More amorphous than the biblical canon, the list of books that define western culture is slightly different with every analyst, but the biggies always make the cut. Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly see the great classics as a source of meaning in an increasingly secular world. All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age is a fascinating consideration of how the writing we’ve turned to for inspiration has changed over time. Older members—including the Bible—don’t drop off the list, but newer ones are continually added. According to Dreyfus and Kelly the polytheism of Homer shone with possibilities, and monotheism led to necessary changes where the shining shifted to new characters and new stories. It is an intriguing concept.

Reading about writing generates a fire within. Some of the classics All Things Shining discusses are those you’d expect: The Divine Comedy and Moby Dick. Others are more personally meaningful, such as the work of Elizabeth Gilbert or David Foster Wallace. We all have the authors that shine for us. Moby Dick, of course, has been on my personal canon since seminary and the chapter on Melville helps to bring the thesis of this brief book together. We all know the white whale is more than an albino cetacean, and the world has benefitted from that fact ever since Melville put pen to paper.

As enjoyable as All Things Shining is to read, I was left with the impression that meaning itself has become greatly fragmented in the modern world. Without the social glue of religion, we’ve been left to chart our own course through parts of the universe yet unexplored. We select our crew by the books we read, and we decide whether Jesus or Captain Ahab is better able to guide us through such dangerous waters. They both, in their way, captain ships. Since this is an exercise in fragmentation, we don’t know upon which shore this craft will ultimately land. While Dreyfus and Kelly are philosophers, many of us have followed other paths and have come to our amateur ways of finding meaning. Some of our ships never come ashore at all. “One does not have to believe that the Greek gods actually exist in order to gain something deep and important from Homer’s sense of the sacred.” Well said! If only we could learn the lesson to be literary rather than literal, religions would allow for many ships upon this vast ocean. And still we hale each other with the words, “Have ye seen the great white?”