Gothic Celts?

Two separate projects lately set me on the trail of preliterate Europe.  While this isn’t the best time to celebrate white cultures (timing has never been an especial strength of mine), I have been researching the Celts as part of a longterm project.  Not only are these people part of my ancestral mix, they are also mysterious.  Having arisen in central Europe, they were pushed to the margins of the continent by invading Huns from the east.  It’s from those fringes that I came to identify my heritage.  Not only do I have Irish ancestors, but Wiggins, it seems, is a Breton name.  The Bretons were a Celtic people on the northwest coast of France.  Since the ancient Celts didn’t leave a huge written archive, we rely on what others (such as the Romans) wrote, or what archaeology reveals.  Mysterious.  At the same time another project had me reading about the Goths.

The Goths are tricky to define, and again, didn’t leave literary archives.  Also politically incorrect, they were a Germanic people—another significant piece of my ancestry—and they must’ve lived quite close by the early Celts.  Although my parents wouldn’t be born for many centuries yet, their ancestral “tribes” may have known one another.  It’s fun to think about.  There’s quite a lot of interest in the movements of peoples in ancient times.  One thing that influenced both the Celts and the Goths were large, organized forces.  The Roman Empire, with what would come to be understood as Classical style, was one source of pressure.  Another was the aforementioned Huns.  The Romans considered all of them barbarians.  One of the results of these large pressures was the eventual establishment of nations in Europe, often with contested borders.

All of this splitting eventually led to nationalism, a dangerous force.  We’ve seen some of the end results in recent years.  A single nation thinking it is the best.  I’ve always felt that travel—difficult during a pandemic—is a great form of education.  Encountering the “other” on their own territory makes it hard to stereotype and boast.  Nationalism tends to lead to excessive pride, especially when a country is as isolated as the United States is.  And then it even tries to build a wall between one of only two neighboring nations because they speak a different language.  How different this is from the situation when Celts and Goths were moving somewhat freely across the European continent where, at the time, borders were fluid.  I realize I’m idealizing what was certainly not a perfect situation, but I also think Rome may not have been the best model to emulate either.

 


To the Flag

In the great witch hunt that began (or perhaps simply continued) with the Neo-con upsurge in which big business climbed into bed with theological conservatives, the pledge of allegiance became the acid test of true Americans. The Communists were now fading as a threat, and to be patriotic requires a clear and present enemy, so the un-Americans could be found among those who refused to pledge allegiance to a flag. In a recent CNN story, a case is going to court in Massachusetts to remove the words “under God” from the pledge. The dilemma is as simple as it is complex—children who do not believe in God may either recite what they don’t believe, or be ostracized for opting out. (Those of us who make a habit of opting out of things know the feeling well.) The argument goes that children are pledging loyalty to their country, not to a religion. Why should they be forced to say what they don’t believe?

The pledge has an interesting history. The original oath, a celebration of the now much-suspect Columbus Day, was intended as a quick credo of loyalty. No deity of any sort was invoked. Over time, additions started to creep into the pledge (the original version read “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”). It was not until after the tremendous horrors of World War II, when society was over-reacting to all kinds of threats, real and imaginary, that the words “under God” were added, in 1954. Godless Communists beware! Like the original pledge, this emended pledge celebrated a civil holiday—Flag Day.

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Nationalism could well be considered a form of religion. Customs differ in various parts of the world, and highlighting the differences allows for the conferring of unique advantages among the members. True capitalism cannot work in a culture of complete fair play or equality. Nations must be able to declare ownership and control of resources, including those known to every “human resources” officer in the universe as the most troublesome kind. To be useful to a nation, loyalty must be pledged. And children, who don’t have the experience or psychological development to make an informed choice about the Almighty, must say that they believe in “one nation, under God,” where “one nation indivisible” has itself been divided by God. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad to be an American—I can’t imagine being anything else. But I especially like the part about “liberty and justice for all.”


Playing Civil

In a piece written for the Los Angeles Times, Joseph Margulies warns of the potential dangers of civil religion. I first learned about civil religion in college in the early 1980s, when the concept was still relatively young. The idea is as deceptively simple as it is accurate: when nationalism reaches its natural limits, the divine is invoked. Civic ceremonies become religious ceremonies—presidents lay hands on Bibles, whether or not they believe. Civil religion dictates that all presidents be portrayed as believers, but that is something we have to take on faith. Civil religion leads to sculptures of the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns and the flying of United States flags in churches. The danger with this innocent-looking triumphalism is that some people take it too seriously. It is not limited to Christianity, either. Civil religion is a disguised, albeit thinly, form of nationalism.

The vast majority of people in the world hold religious beliefs without deep reflection. That is not to suggest that they don’t believe deeply, but simply that they don’t lift the edges to peer under the surface much. We are taught what to believe by religious specialists. To question them is to question the deity they represent. Since fear is easily ingrained in the human psyche, the angry god is among the most effective of weapons ever devised. We fear for our eternal peril, and it is easier to believe the clergy have the answers than to divine the truth for ourselves. Those who think profoundly about religion, outside the confines of the professional clergy, are always a suspect lot. What business do we have, poking around the beliefs of others?

Civil religion shocked me when I first learned of it. Like the majority of my peers, I had assumed that public displays of piety were to be taken literally. As I began to hang out with clergy and to see how they often transformed outside the church with a fellow “insider” beside them, I started to understand. The cynical asides whispered outside the hearing of the faithful, the double lifestyles, the on-stage personae. This may not have been civil religion, but it was not always what it seemed. Teaching in an Anglo-Catholic seminary, I saw high mass as carefully choreographed as an off-Broadway production of A Chorus Line. Civil religion relies on its partnership with the unquestioned belief of the Saturday-night and Sunday-morning crowd. It all fits easily together and runs as smoothly as a pink Cadillac. Just don’t look under the hood.

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Under the Rainbow

Great irony attends the bearing down of Hurricane Isaac on Florida, disrupting the start of the Republican National Convention. Ironic not because of the damage or destruction that normally accompanies hurricanes, but because of the silence concerning divine intent. When natural disasters—does anyone remember Katrina?—have struck against “sinful” collections of people in the past, the religious right has always been swift to designate them examples of God’s wrath. Now that God’s Own Party is being inconvenienced by a hurricane this time, well, it’s just nature. I wonder what it is that so easily distinguishes divine punishment hurricanes from benign, natural ones? In a perfect world we would perhaps have a God that saw no need to create hurricanes at all. In the world we inhabit, however, we face disasters of all sorts and have the added burden of deciding which God has sent and which s/he has not.

One of the main strands of this skein of tangled thinking is the blithe unawareness that politicians often use religion insincerely. People, just like our other primate cousins, learn to respect the alpha male and acquiesce when we might get hurt. Politicians, at least for centuries, have known that few people will chase down the logic of their muddled theological declarations. We all know and experience gut-level, emotional responses to issues that matter to us. We all desire to claim the sanction of higher power—who wants to come out and admit that their opponent has some aspects of the truth and that this is purely a human matter to be decided by reason? Reason tells us that certain behaviors are not tolerated by group leaders—just ask a chimpanzee—and those in power have trouble facing up to the facts.

In one of the saddest legacies of championing nationalism is the unshakeable belief, for any nation or leader that has not embraced an atheistic approach, that God is on their side. Both Allies and Axis powers claimed divine support in both wars to end all wars. During Vietnam Bob Dylan wrote “With God on Our Side.” Politicians still hum along but they have forgotten the words. No, it does not please me that once again a hurricane threatens life and property. I’ve been told that every cloud has a silver lining, however, and I wonder if that applies even to hurricanes. If Isaac, like his biblical namesake, can change perceptions of what God requires, maybe we can see politicians without their masks and ask what it is they really want. That, I believe, would be more stunning than any divine punishment delivered via giant bags of wind.


High Aspirations

I’m not a fan of the Olympic Games. It’s not that I have a problem with the passion and dedication of these (mostly) young people who’ve trained themselves to perfection in various physical skills, but the Games have tended toward jingoism a little too often. They may be intended to bring the world together, but often they become the focus of international tension. And, of course, television shows us only where our own nation makes a good showing. In my more somber moments I wonder if there isn’t someone even better at this or that sport/event whose circumstances make it impossible for her or him to make an international showing. Olympic Games are for those who can afford personal trainers and who can manage to make it to tryouts on schedule. Again, I don’t demean the ability of the competitors; when I find myself in front of a television I often stare in awe at what they accomplish.

A certain disconnect always attends the opening ceremonies. I have to confess to having glanced at the screen in our hotel room once or twice during the London extravaganza, but what became clear is that culture is what’s celebrated here. Athletics are the same internationally, if we take the Olympics at their word, but culture in region specific. Figures from Harry Potter and Mary Poppins, and other British contributions to the world of art and literature, filled the arena with a sense of national pride. Even the queen deigned to parachute down to the level of the commoner, in the company of James Bond of course (Sean Connery, why did you have to age?). This is what the commentators called the “rebranding of the royals.” What is it that we really value about ourselves? Can we not truly overcome xenophobia?

Xenophobia has a reach far beyond nationalities. It is rampant between social classes, political parties, and language groups. We distrust the other, for those like us are the best. The best swimmers, the best gymnasts, and the best shooters.

To look down on the world.

Just days ago I stood atop one of the peaks of Mount Mansfield, the highest mountain in Vermont, with my daughter. As we looked out over the panorama that included New Hampshire and New York, and maybe even Quebec, it seemed as if the world could be one. Maybe the things we value could lead us to share instead of selfishly claim everything for ourselves. I think of Mount Nebo and I shudder. And I think if I knew how to ski and if it was winter, maybe I could be the best.


Patriot Games

Earlier this week I had the occasion to find myself in Newark’s Liberty Airport. I had mentally prepared myself for a government-sponsored groping (I find full-body scanners immoral and, no matter what the Patriot Act says, illegal) but I managed to make it through with just emptying my pockets and walking around in my stocking feet. Once I arrived at the gate area, I was once again struck by the duplicitous use of religion in America. Posted above each gate was a small banner reading “God Bless America” surrounding a stylized flag. I thought of the Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists flying out of that terminal (and in Newark I am certain there were all three species, in spades). Since 9/11 the staffs of the large New York City airports are justifiably cautious, but the blending of nationalism with divine will always makes me nervous. Especially since the weightier implications are so readily ignored.

In the biblical world the ideal was that travelers would be treated fairly. Someone away from home is already at a disadvantage. In ancient times the traveler deserved special consideration, not to be swindled or met with unfairness. Looking around at the prices merchants charge for those who’ve gone beyond the gate and have no choice, it struck me how when religion and economy collide, economy always continues on unscathed. The weary traveler, according to the Bible, especially deserves fair treatment. Charging extra to someone already at a disadvantage violates just about every biblical standard that echoes through those unread pages. God bless America? Only if it fills the coffers.

The sentiment expressed in “God bless America” is vastly at odds with the way we behave. Taking advantage of others is the bane of prophets and messiahs alike. Taking care of the poor, the disadvantaged, the traveler—this is the biblical ideal. Instead it is easier to band-aid over our sins with posters asking God’s blessing on our insincerity. Many people fear Islamic fundamentalists without taking into account the more subtle damage done by our own homegrown variety, giddily holding hands with an unfettered free market. Cheating the traveler may not be as wicked as blowing up an airplane, but both these tangled vines, in the biblical view, spring from the same root.


Round Tables and Belligerent Gods

One of those bits of mail in my part-time lecturer mailbox at Rutgers informs me that the Oxford Round Table is hosting a discussion entitled “Civilization at Risk: Nationalism, Religion and Nuclear Weapons.” Given that the cost for attending is about what I make for teaching one of my adjunct classes, and the fact that they spelled “civilisation” the American way, my guess is that the target audience resides on this side of the Atlantic. Still, the topic is indeed vital. Nationalism is a relatively new plague to arise in the human menome. Cultural differences matter little in the face of nationalism; the real issue in this ideology is dominance. Nuclear weapons add a unique poignancy to the issue, but the heart of the matter is clearly behind door number two: religion.

Religion usually makes the list of the hallmarks of early civilization. Along with complex governance and the arts, it is considered one of the aspects that marked the break from merely subsistence living. Religion, however, in its monotheistic form has more divisive power than nearly any other aspect of civilization. Polytheistic religions hardly worried if people worshipped the “wrong god.” Monotheism bears a larger burden, and that burden is not dissimilar from that of nationalism: dominance. Let’s face it – what kind of respect can you expect for a god who can’t throw the brimstone behind all those threats? And if your god doesn’t readily ante up (no visible actions, depending on who you read, since the first or the seventh centuries) then the devout must take up the spear, cudgel, or atomic weapon to prove the honor of their all-powerful god.

Uranium in the hands of an angry God

Is there a solution to the “Middle East” crisis? I’m no politician, but I would make the following humble observations. The crisis as it exists today is as much about nationalism as it is about religion. Religion serves as a convenient excuse when one’s way of life feels threatened. (Push any Neo-Con into a corner and when all the cards are on the table it will amount to precisely this.) We all want things our way. If we can’t get it, we can take it by dropping the G-bomb. It may be apt that the region of the world that instituted civilization is destined to destroy it. A cosmic symmetry pervades the idea. It might be a lot less messy if we’d all admit what the arguing is really all about.