The Future of Consciousness

Consciousness is unexplained.  We’re born and we become aware.  Raised by parents or guardians, we learn where we belong.  The decisions of one generation affect the futures of the next, often without conscious consideration.  I’ve been thinking about how, with our limited resources, we’ve pressed on, reproducing beyond what our environment can sustain and each of us is born conscious.  Some of us—many, in fact—in difficult circumstances.  Instead of working together to figure this out, we keep on, not quite sure of what we’re doing or where we’re going.  Heath Ledger’s Joker may’ve been speaking for all of humanity when he asked, “Do I look like a guy with a plan?”  Do any of us?

During a discussion the other day the topic of the severe western drought came up.  There have been general drought conditions in the western half of the country (the northwestern coast has been spared) for well over half-a-century.  I wonder why the cities in such regions continue to expand and then I realize that each generation is a kind of reboot.  We tend to think we belong where we’re born.  My thoughts turn toward the ancestors of the first nations and how they knew that moving was necessary for life.  When the ice sheets start descending you really don’t have many options.  Perhaps our sense of place is an evolved trait, brought on by the changed circumstances of invaders’ senses of ownership.  Capitalism certainly doesn’t help.  Those born in drought-ravaged areas soon come to think of it as normal.  We can adjust to just about anything.

Settled existence is necessary for a life that defines meaning by ownership.  For me, I have a difficult time imagining my life without my books.  What we read tends to define us.  What would I do if the ice sheets began descending again?  Such change takes time, of course, but our complex society doesn’t seem to be very good at advanced planning.  My consciousness tells me where I belong geographically, psychologically, and even religiously.  I was taught such things as a child and even if I unlearn lessons that were wrong, I will always still feel that they were right.  If I flee the coming ice sheet I simply have to accept that my reality has changed.  Until that ice sheet’s at my back door, however, I can continue to deny it’s a problem.  Consciousness is a funny thing.


Ithaca Musings

Ithaca may be the ultimate hippie town. Open and accepting of diversity, it’s a place where anyone can speak out against what’s going on in the government and not worry about finding any objectors. Yesterday when I was in Buffalo Street Books, customers openly vented their frustrations with the way Washington’s handling things, and others joined in. There’s a sense of righteous anger here that hasn’t been fashionable since the days of the biblical prophets. You have heard it was said Watergate was a bad thing, but verily I say unto thee something much worse than Watergate is here. And although winter is still holding on in upstate New York, nobody doubts global warming is real.

From my first visit here, I knew that I wanted to live in Ithaca, but it is one of those places you can’t afford to live. Amazing how the liberal cities are the places people want to reside. Places where you can’t just turn off the realities of a diverse world just because some things make you uncomfortable. Places where if you notice that other people are different you are reminded that you, in their eyes, are the different one. There is no static, monochrome, cookie-cutter American. Why is this an idea so hard to sell? Capitalism leads to and fuels the desire to own. And owning leads to the desire to own more. I’ve often noticed this since being out of higher education—even within your own company others want what you have. The basic civility of the socialist is missing. That’s where the “me first” attitude leads.

In upstate New York, as in many parts of the nation, the very names remind us that others “owned” the land before Europeans arrived. Native American concepts of ownership were so different from the capitalist ones that forcefully landed on these shores that those views were forced, under firearms and steel, to assimilate to the foreigners’ ways. Capitalism takes no prisoners. Turnabout, they used to say, is fair play. We no longer feel that way as a nation. The interlopers have taken over. We’ve made the country in our own image. And it certainly isn’t any more noble for it. Being in a place like Ithaca always makes my spirits ebullient. The very concept of ownership is an odd one, I realize. Mere mortals can never really own anything. We can pretend to, or perhaps we can take a more enlightened view. We are all borrowing things here. And I would love to borrow a piece of real estate here in Ithaca.


Amityville Revisited

Remakes, standard wisdom holds, are seldom as good as the originals. When the original wasn’t great to begin with, the bar should be lower. Should be. I’ve been curious about the Lutz haunting in Amityville, having just read the book that started the phenomenon back in the late 1970s. I saw the movie first. That was several years ago now, but I do recall that even as horror movies go it had its failings. Some of that goes back to the book (presuming that anything happened)—nobody had a solid grip on whether this was a ghostly haunting or a demonic infestation. What the movie did do well is show how fragile family relationships can be, especially when under the pressures of supernatural supervision, not of the positive kind. Although, as is to be expected, the book was scarier.

Overcome by curiosity I finally watched the remake from 2005. Clearly I’m not the only one still curious about this alleged haunting, alleged hoax. I also have the alleged burden of looking for religion in horror. Only on this final count was it not disappointing. Well, that and in featuring burgeoning scream queen Chloë Grace Moretz. Although Father Callaway’s role is late in the film and brief, early on religious ideas are implicated. If the movie hadn’t tried so hard to be The Shining these themes might’ve been developed to good advantage. Instead it introduces Rev. Jeremiah Ketcham (also late in the film) as the first owner of the house in 1692 (did the real-estate agent’s mention of that date make you shiver?). Ketcham was a sadist to the Indians under his care, torturing them to death in the house. No time is left to explore the sinister minister’s motivation as the family implodes in its attempt to escape the house by boat.

As is frequently the case with the supernatural, we’ll likely never know what happened at the Amityville house. The story Jay Anson told is now generally classified as a novel. The preternatural can be judged neither in the courtroom nor the laboratory. The best that we can do is make celluloid adaptations to make some money on the deal. The DeFeo murders happened in living memory. The Lutzes left the house in a hurry shortly after purchasing it. Anson’s Indian “asylum” was never really there—and there were no such Native American practices in any case. What the remake left out was demons. Although the movie attempted other religious scares, the house just isn’t the same without them.


Ocean Blue

I suspect with Trump in office Columbus Day will get a boost. After all, it’s the narrative of the white man coming to America and improving on what anybody else had done. Making America great, one might say. That wobbly narrative has been justifiably under fire for some time. Not least for historical reasons. We know beyond reasonable doubt that the Vikings were here before Columbus. Ironically, the savage Vikings appear the more benign of the two. A friend recently sent me a story from Realm of History that asks “Did The Irish Reach The New World Before The Vikings And Columbus?” The story by Alok Bannerjee tells of St. Brendan, a sixth-century Irish monk who may have made the voyage even before the Vikings. And don’t get me started on the Bat Creek inscription or the Kensington Runestone.

The problem with early history is that it’s early. Evidence, when it exists, is rare and often perishable. We know that the technology to cross the Atlantic existed at least as early as the Phoenicians. And we know that no matter how crazy others tell us we are, people are insanely curious. And those who go down to the sea in ships might even make it into the Bible. Objections to anyone making it to the “New World” prior to the Vikings tells us something of the nature of orthodoxy. Yes, historians and scientists have it too. Orthodoxy is where evidence crosses the line into belief. And belief, as I’ve often said, is difficult to dislodge.

So, am I throwing open the doors for any who wish to claim they were here first? Hardly. Well maybe. My own opinions aside, when unorthodox evidence arises, what should we do? The traditional response of “when in doubt, throw it out” may not serve us well. Perhaps we should have a shelf, or locker somewhere. A receptacle in which we might store the stories. When I was a kid learning about Columbus, teachers doubted Vikings had made it this far. Orthodoxy has had to back off on the Norsemen, of course, since archaeology now backs them up. Vineland was a reality, it seems. Even before the purported Irish or Phoenicians, the first nations were here. Where is their federal holiday? We don’t like to think about that. Far too much investing in “superiority” has gone into it. It’s Columbus Day and most of us are at work anyway. Some of us dreaming of new worlds all the same.


Majority Report

In your mind’s eye, picture American 500 years ago. What do you see? Even those of us who’ve studied history have trouble envisioning the past with so different a set of parameters. At least if we’re honest with ourselves. 1516. The Salem Witch trials are almost two centuries in the future. The landscape is occupied by Native Americans. There are some European settlements. Protestantism is something new. In fact we’ll need to wait another year for Martin Luther to drag out his hammer and nails, theses in hand. The America we see then, not called “America,” let alone “United States,” is a diverse—some might say “wild”—world of decidedly non-European sensibilities. Global warming wasn’t an issue, and King James hadn’t even been born yet, let alone been commissioning the most famous Bible in English ever. So why am I asking you to look back?

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This presidential campaign has largely been a waspish one. During the turmoil, books have been published proclaiming the end of “white, Christian America.” In an interview on PBS one of the authors of such a book, Robert Jones, talks about how America has changed. He notes that what he really means is that white Protestants are, statistically speaking, no longer the majority. Just a few centuries ago that was also the case. Think about Protestants a minute. They’re the ones who invented the Bible as we know it. Oh, the book had been around, in some form or other, for a couple of millennia (well, a millennium and a half, back then). Other than scholars in need of more fresh air, few spent much time with it. The church told Europeans what God demanded and the majority of people just got on with their daily lives not worrying about what some book they couldn’t even read might say. How things have changed!

We worry about the end of our majority. I like to look back and see that this world we’ve built is one based largely on a book that was mainly the invention of those who had some discussion points with the church. Not quite a hundred of them, even. They were largely Anglo-Saxons. If they knew about “the New World” their knowledge was hazy and imprecise. From that perspective it doesn’t seem like much is being lost in the changing religious demographics of this country. Back in the old world, if one wished to feel nostalgic for such things, they would’ve taken their complaints and found the nearest church door. Now we nominate candidates who think this country was ours in the first place, without ever even reading the Bible used to support that myth. What a difference a few centuries can make.


Two Thoughts

I recently read that efforts are underway, by some parties, to teach Arabic to Israelis. My limited experience of Israel led me to believe that most people were already bilingual, judging by the roadsigns. Like our progressive neighbor to the north, I supposed people were expected to know both languages passably well. Having forgotten more languages than I care to remember, I am a believer in language education. There’s no better way to get to know how people think than learning their language. In my hometown, which was small and not especially prosperous, there was only one language taught in schools. I suppose that was “practical” since we had no hispanic population and not even one ethnic restaurant.

Israel, in the modern sense, is a state formed where other people (Palestinians) had been living. I wonder if the conflict might’ve been somewhat ameliorated had the new neighbors spoken the same language as the residents. Thinking over the long and sad history of colonialism, I suspect that many of the world’s woes would have been less deleterious if those invading stopped to learn to speak to the locals. What would it have been like if, instead of taking their land and forcing them to assimilate, early American colonists learned to speak Indian languages? What if local schools were required to have been bilingual with the local nations? I can’t help but believe that things would’ve turned out much better for everyone involved. I can’t listen to the rhetoric of the right supremacists without seeking a safe place to throw up. Nobody is better than anybody else by virtue of their race. As they might say in Canada, “vive la différence!”

I’m not naive enough to believe that simply learning languages would solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nor do I think it would’ve stopped European imperialists with too much gold on their minds from taking the land that belonged to Native Americans. I do think that if people took the time to learn what their neighbors were saying, in their own words, we be less inclined to suggest that our program is the only way. Or to build walls. Or shoot unarmed citizens. We’ve lost the interest in learning to talk to one another. Language is more than just a bunch of words. Let the linguists argue about syntax. The rest of us might benefit simply from learning to listen, and to understand.

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Swamped

The word “venerable” is often applied with the connotation of age. Although the word in its own right really means to “adore,” or “worship,” objects of extreme age evoke that response. Perhaps the fact that “time-honored” is used as a synonym helps create that impression. As human beings, many of us experience an awe at being in the presence of something much older than ourselves. When I read about the Great Swamp Oak, then, I knew I would eventually need to see it. Reliable indications of a living tree’s age are difficult to assess for a non-botanist. Websites don’t give much thought to checking out the oldest tree in the state (although I did discover The NJ Big Tree Registry), but there are those who give that honor to the white oak of Basking Ridge, not far from the Great Swamp Oak. Others seem to indicate that the swamp denizen is older—somewhere in the range of 700 years. In the state of New Jersey, where things are constantly being reinvented and reconstructed, it is a source of comfort to find something so old leaving peacefully in a swamp.

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Now that I’ve used the words “tree” and “worship” together, I am inevitably brought back to the conceit of Asherah. As my academic writings have adequately demonstrated, I have doubts about the goddess’s association with trees. Nevertheless, there is something venerable about an ancient tree. If the Great Swamp Oak is 700 years old, it was already alive well before the “Age of Exploration” began. The only people to know of it, when there was as yet nothing to know, were First Nations inhabitants of the region. It was a time when, to American Indians, Europe did not even exist. Meanwhile across the ocean the plague could have been raging. A century or two later, Europeans would bring their plagues to these shores, forever changing the landscape. And not in a good way.

Trees, without human interference, can have tremendous life spans. In our short-sighted way, however, we have often understood them as nuisances in the way of some great shopping mall or industrial site. The “lungs of the planet,” trees have been wantonly destroyed in the name of progress. It is amazing that, especially on the East Coast, a few of them managed to avoid the axe and saw. Looking up into the branches of this great oak, I marvel at the changes that have taken place that, in its own way, this tree has “seen.” The world outside this swamp would be completely unrecognizable. Whether an asherah or not, I find myself reacting to the venerable nature of this sentinel of the ages. If only we could learn to keep our hands off young trees that nature plants, who knows what wonders future generations might experience in places even more unlikely than a swamp.


True Natives

StarPeopleI have long been fascinated by American Indian folklore. In fact, the first book I read this year was a set of Indian tales. Just this week I finished a most unusual book by Ardy Sixkiller Clarke entitled Encounters with Star People: Untold Stories of American Indians. Clarke, who is herself Indian, taught at Montana State University and collected stories from various tribes concerning Star People. Mainstream western science has already made up its mind that Homo sapiens are the most advanced species ever to grace this universe, and so any discussion of visiting non-terrestrials is off the table. What Clarke shows us, however, is that just because there’s no such thing doesn’t mean that all worldviews agree on that point. In many interviews with indigenous peoples of the Americas, belief in Star People emerges as perfectly normal. As does not talking about it because white people will ridicule and belittle anything that doesn’t fit into their limited cosmos of technology and money.

Reading these stories felt like absorbing wisdom from those who observe nature more carefully than those of us of European stock are inclined to do. With eyes pressed to microscopes and telescopes, it is sometimes possible to miss the big picture. We crowd into cities and have no idea how to live under the stars. We can’t even see the stars most of the time. Have we lost our ability to wonder?

Purely from an academic point of view, I wonder why aliens can’t be taken seriously. I try to think of other topics that are simply laughed out of discussion before examining the evidence. To me it seems that human pride is at stake in this case. We are a very proud species, enamored of our own accomplishments. If we can’t reach the stars, nobody else can. This to me is troubling. Aliens, after all, don’t fall into the category of “supernatural” unless we mythologize them into yesteryear’s angels. If they are real, they are as natural as we are. They would have a technology that we haven’t replicated yet, and anyone who doubts interstellar flight should consider the impossibility of carrying a computer around in your pocket or on your wrist only thirty years ago. No, if there are Star People, they are natural. Whether or not they might exist is simply a matter of belief.


Entitlement

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.


Thank You

Comments being rare on this blog, I do read them when they come along. Recently I had a reader comment, in the form of a question (as sometimes happens): “Do Native American Indians do ‘Thanksgiving’?” Although I’m fairly certain this was intended as a rhetorical question, I was raised a literalist and couldn’t help trying to formulate an answer. Although I can make no claims to know Native American culture well (I wish I did) it led me to ponder the concept of Thanksgiving. No doubt the idea had at least informal religious beginnings. Even with the early European settlers, a religious diversity was already appearing. Still, although the Native Americans lost pretty much everything, they were still involved, at least according to the early accounts. The great spirit they thanked was not likely conceived of in the way that the god of the pilgrims was, and yet, thankfulness is a natural human response. Writers, often fully aware that their work deserves publication, frequently thank an editor for accepting it. It’s a deeply rooted biological response.

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For some of us, Thanksgiving is more about having time to recuperate after non-stop work for about ten months. The standard business calendar gives the occasional long weekend, but after New Year’s the only built-in four-day weekend is Thanksgiving. It is that oasis we see in the distance as we crawl through the desert sand. Time to be together with those we love rather than those we’re paid to spend time with. To rest and be thankful.

Among the highlands of Argyll, in western Scotland, is the picturesque Glen Croe. Years ago, driving with friends through the rugged scenery of boulders and heather, the little car struggled with its burden of four passengers. We stopped at a viewpoint known as “Rest and Be Thankful.” The name derives from an inscription left by soldiers building the Drover’s road in 1753, at the highest point in the climb. The Jacobite movement and the Killing Time had instilled considerable religious angst to the Scotland of the previous century and led to the calamity of Culloden less than a decade before the road was laid. These religious differences led to excessive bloodshed throughout a realm supposedly unified by the monarchy. Even though no natives protested displacement, religion led to hatred and mistrust, as it often does. Is not Rest and Be Thankful, however, for everyone, no matter their faith or ethnicity? And in case anyone is wondering, yes, this rhetorical question contains a metaphor to contemplate. Rest and be thankful.


Dry Nation

The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting is a big thing. It draws a myriad (literally) of scholars together every year and invades a fair sized city that may or may not be a religious haven. San Diego feels like a pretty Catholic city to me. My cab driver from the airport was a Muslim, but many of the churches and place names around here reveal a natural comfort with Catholicism. My first night in town, on my own and somewhat weary from awaking at 3:30 on the other coast to get ready to catch my flight, I wandered through the Gaslamp District looking for some authentic Mexican food. It is surprisingly tricky to find, although I’m only twenty miles from Tijuana. Along the way I passed a bar that had a welcome AAR/SBL poster in its window. Now here was a vender that recognized their client!

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Many of those outside the profession assume such conferences as this are like higher education Sunday schools. Undoubtedly, there are those who wish they were. For some, perhaps, the annual meeting allows for the indulgence of personal peccadillos far from watching administrative eyes. Others are more sanguine about it all. Religion scholars are just as human as the next guy. As I looked at this bar window, I reflected on how Christianity (in particular) came to regard alcohol as an evil. Wine and beer were known from ancient times, and even the New Testament has Jesus presented as an imbiber. Temperance, however, grew out of American Fundamentalism that seemed to have forgotten its scriptural roots. I remember learning, as a child, that the wine Jesus drank was really only grape juice with a little kick. Who wants an inebriated God running around the Middle East?

Still, I realize that drinking has its consequences. As the child of an alcoholic, I know the damage that this can do. On the other hand, I know many religions view “controlled substances” as gateways to alternate realities. Other planes of existence. There are even cases where Native Americans have been arrested for using their traditional ceremonial substances in a nation not quite Christian, not quite not Christian. Even on my way to the Gaslamp District, I was saddened to see so many homeless about the city. I knew that as evening fell and the scholars arrived, the bar would come alive. And I knew that when the rain came, some would get wet while others stayed nice and dry.


True Literalism

Biblical literalists make strong claims for selectively obeying the Bible. It isn’t so hard to do in the short term, as numerous books on people “living biblically” have shown. You can get by for a year without trimming your beard or going out on a Saturday. You can even survive without eating pigs. Still, the moral codes that political literalists cite tend to have their own empowerment in mind: prevent women, gays, or those of other races from getting ahead. Stone adulterers and sassy kids. The Bible will set us straight! The finer points of the law, however, have likely never been observed. Even biblical scholars will confess that Leviticus can be a tough go. It sometimes helps to make diagrams as you read along to try to follow the intricate rules. Still, since Leviticus is the only place to find anti-homosexual rhetoric in the Hebrew Bible, we’d better go on reading it, right? It is worth it to feel better about ourselves. Superiority rules!

I was thinking about Leviticus 25 recently, the chapter about the sabbaths of the land. The concept may have sound environmental principles encoded in it: after working the land for six years, you leave it fallow on the seventh and live off of what you’ve stored up during the presumably bumper-crop years. The same principle lies behind rotating crops—the land needs a rest. There’s no evidence, however, that this was ever really put into practice. It is notoriously difficult to feed everyone in a subsistence economy, and deliberately not growing food for a year will almost certainly lead to disaster. Read a little further though. Every fiftieth year, Leviticus 25 mandates, that which you have bought from your neighbor should be returned. “Ye shall not therefore oppress one another” is one of the more easily overlooked rules in the Good Book. Any land sold is only on loan for, at most, forty-nine years. I’m still waiting for the book entitled My Fifty Years of Living Biblically.

The biblical term for this collective lack of selfishness is called Jubilee Year. Ancient Israel was, at least on vellum, an egalitarian society. Each person had promised land allotted to them. Economic hardship (such as sending a child to college) might necessitate selling all you have. Fear not—hopefully before you die—what you sold will be retuned to you and the system will even itself out again. It is a profoundly beautiful idea. It has, of course, never been taken seriously. So as we see the literalists massing as candidates begin gearing up for another cycle of elections, I think it is only fair to ask to see their mortgage papers. A visit to the county records bureau might be in order. I think maybe somebody has been holding out on land I’m biblically owed in upstate New York. Just don’t tell any Native Americans about this, for it seems maybe they have the most of all to benefit from taking the Bible literally.

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Going In, Coming Out

Being primates, perhaps it is no surprise that we are fascinated by who is doing whom. We, literally, by nature, find sexual alliances fascinating. Despite the fact that close observation of nature has indicated that homosexuality is indeed natural—it has been observed in many species, and isn’t even limited to mammals—we can’t help but make it a deciding factor in what an individual is. Two unrelated news stories over the past week have focused on homosexuality as the overwhelmingly defining trait of a person. In the first story, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) has elected its first openly gay bishop. (Gay bishops, even in the pre-Reformation church, have not been exactly an endangered species.) The Rev. Dr. Guy Erwin, however, is so much more than a partnered gay man. He is a highly educated person who had held that most rare of positions—a bona fide academic position in higher education. He is also a member of the Osage Nation. His election as a Native American or as an academic would not be newsworthy. His orientation, well, that’s a whole different story.

Meanwhile, across the planet, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is cutting its ties with the Boys Scouts of America because the BSA has decided to make honest men of its boys. BSA has recently voted to allow gay boys to remain in the Scouts, something that the Mormons had no problem accepting. Quite apart from the misguided SBC move, I was saddened to see CNN’s inaccurate headline, “Baptists plan exodus from Boy Scouts.” The story does not indicate that the Baptist brand of Christianity has withdrawn, so to speak, from BSA, but the Southern Baptist Convention. Baptists are much more broad-minded than the SBC brotherhood (I use the phallocentric collective intentionally) would indicate. All Baptists, it seems, are guilty by association.

SBC in the White House

SBC in the White House

People are complex. Putting them into neat categories is unfair to who a person really is. The category “gay” is notorious for subverting all other qualifiers for decent human beings. As the National Socialist Party recognized, the easiest way to build a case against a people is to put them together in a class that “deserves” our fear, mistrust, and hatred. Don’t look at the individual beneath the label. You might be forced to change your mind. Did that individual overcome the difficulties of being a “minority” in his or her own native land? Did that individual work hard to climb through the educational system to attain an advanced degree? Did that individual commit his or her life to another person, no matter what the social stigma? None of that matters, as long as we can talk about his or her “orientation.” It is society itself that requires reorientation.


Beyond Measure

Thinking back to my first course in World Religions, I recollect learning about Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Confucianism for the first time. It is likely that Taoism was also mentioned, but I had to do a ton of research before I taught the course for the first time at Oshkosh. I remembered learning nothing about Sikhism or Shinto, not to mention Jainism or any host of religions boasting smaller numbers, by gosh. Now that I’m in the business of commissioning books on world religions, I have come into a quandary. As I know from experience, those who teach world religions are faced with a classic case of TMI: too much information. These religions I’ve mentioned only begin to scratch the vast surface of human religious expression, while your typical semester is only 14 weeks in duration. How do we cover all the smaller religions, some of which may have even a million or more adherents, and may be, at times, geared toward violent behavior? There’s simply no way.

This is where the quagmire grows thickest—are “major religions” quantified by numbers alone? From comments of readers of this blog it is quite clear that Christianity is no uniform religion. The differences go deeper than Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox. Most of us follow rather idiosyncratic blends of various religions we’ve experienced. It is not unusual for a Christian to practice yoga or to engage in meditation. And there are thousands of smaller religions as well, and the beliefs are deeply embedded in the lives of those who hold them. A good example would be Native American religions. There isn’t just one. Various tribes held their own beliefs and yet try to find a textbook that covers the differences between them. (Ah, but publishers are bound by the need to sell many copies to make such books profitable, and what professor is going to have the time to parse out different belief systems of these small, sometimes powerless groups?)

It is the curse of categorization. In our free market economy bigger is always better. Religions, on the other hand, do not always concern themselves with winning the most tricks. The Zoroastrians, who gave us the concepts of Heaven and Hell and much else that became standard theology in the monotheistic religions, continue to exist. In small numbers. So small that, as a religion major, I didn’t really learn about them until I began teaching classes exploring the origins of our modern religious concepts. When the modern eye assesses the importance of something, it does so by crunching the numbers. Religions have been our human means of seeking the truth since civilization began, perhaps even before. Often numbers and truth just don’t align.


California State of Mind

California, it is sometimes said, is a state of mind. I leave today after a few days in Santa Barbara with a bag of mixed impressions of one of our nations great schools. My first impression on the University of California Santa Barbara campus was almost a physical one. Literally. I had no idea of the bicycle culture and nearly stepped into a bike lane with the flow of a New Jersey storm drain during a Nor’easter. California is a culture of wheels. I’d never been to a campus before that has four traffic lanes for non-motorized travel: two bike lanes going opposite directions, a skateboard lane, and the humble pedestrian walkway. There are so many skateboards here that the counter-culture has become conformist. Sorry, Bart, it’s true. And concern for the environment is palpable. Reclaimed rainwater feeds the lush plant life, every possible recycled item is sorted and sent to the correct facility, students bicycle instead of drive, smart cars are very evident for the two-wheel impaired, and almost nobody smokes. And as I ate my supper alone in the student union two separate groups of Christian students were having very vocal conversations about their faith. Free spirits not realizing that they’re trapped.

One conversation with a Native American specialist stayed with me. She spoke of how missionary work has damaged indigenous cultures irreparably. I listened in fascination as she told me about the local history. How an historic Spanish mission was publicly adorned with the skull of a murdered Native American and how it took years of persuading to get them to take it down, even in the late twentieth century. Across campus students are praying to Jesus for the courage to continue witnessing. In Newark, I suspect, a couple of guys are still laughing.

On a brief respite from my busy day of meetings, I walked the Lagoon (sorry, I can never see or say that word without thinking of Gilligan’s Island) Trail. Emphasizing the environmental features of this wetland habitat, the trail leads down to the ocean where flocks of pelicans and egrets fly overhead, unperturbed on the shores of the vast Pacific. In 1969 what had been to date the worst US waters oil spill took place from Platform A, still visible in the distance from the beach. My thoughts turn from Gilligan’s Island to Deepwater Horizon. My laughter to tears. The Lagoon Trail winds through the headland to a labyrinth. In today’s resurgence of interest in the labyrinth, it is viewed as a spiritual journey. Labyrinths appear in churches as early as the Roman Empire, but nobody knows what they mean. I silently stand beside the maze. What does it mean? Platform A leers from the ocean. Christian undergrads look to convert the world. And under the cross is not the skull of Adam, but that of an anonymous Native American. What does it mean?