Social Security

Security. If there’s one thing we can never get enough of, this is it. We look at the future with a mix of perspectives: it’s going to get better, or it’s going to get worse. We want to be prepared for any eventuality. The most recent issue of Wired landed at my door and the cover, apart from Leonardo DiCaprio, features the survival guide. Tongue-in-cheek, along with actual statistics, this feature article gives tips on surviving all kinds of potential disasters. From domestic terrorism to zombies. The zombie advice caught my eye. You can make a pretty effective club, it seems, from rolling up newspaper the right way, with a judicious application of duct tape. It may not help much in instance of domestic terrorism, but who can expect to survive everything?

DecWiredSecurity is fine and good, until it becomes an obsession. Here in the United States, we’ve lived with the belief that two oceans separate us from our most hostile enemies. For sure, we have our fair share of natural disasters: tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, even a volcano or two, but these are “acts of God” and we like to think that we can handle those. Our greatest fear, it seems, is our fellow human beings. Isolationism is convenient when we want to direct our own destiny, but when other nations get in the way, we like to extend the borders of democracy a bit. And globalization has opened the doors to all kinds of scenarios where security is at risk. Just try flying as a man with a beard traveling alone. I’m not so sure that facial hair is the greatest threat to the future that it seems to be. (Unless, of course, it is trendy stubble, as the picture of Leonardo DiCaprio shows.)

Security isn’t attainable. The future is always uncertain. There’s a rabbinic saying that a person can’t be satisfied today without knowing that tomorrow’s been taken care of. We don’t know what tomorrow might bring. Or even later today. We fear those who take their faith seriously, and yet the world grows more densely interconnected all the time. Some turn to their holy books to ensure that they are ready for tomorrow. Some even claim that those books tell them in detail what will be coming down the road. Others, I suspect, are gathering newspapers and rolls of duct tape. The future is, after all, what we make it.

Weather for the Birds

As Christmas nears so does a warm front, dashing hopes of a white Christmas in New Jersey. Well, at least there are no tornadoes coming. The weather, as my readers know, has long been perceived as a divine barometer. In a time when patience is wearing thin with religion, and weary headlines ask if it will ever finally disappear, our animal cousins seem, as usual, to pick up on clues more readily than we. An article on the BBC science page describes how a set of tagged golden-winged warblers vacated their nest a day before a tornado struck. Scientists suspect that the birds—and likely other species of birds as well—picked up the infrasound of the tornadoes that is well below human hearing range. Sensing the danger, they flew nearly a thousand miles, stopping just south of the storm’s track.


Of course, tornadoes don’t last an entire day. If the birds fled that long in advance, they couldn’t, I suspect, have heard a tornado that hadn’t formed yet. Since I’m no scientist, I’m not really qualified to offer an explanation, but I do wonder if such behavior isn’t related to consciousness. Several books that I’ve read recently have explored the concept of animal consciousness, and although we are reluctant to admit them to the realm of the self-aware, I wonder how long we can deny it. No doubt, if the birds fled (and returned after the danger had passed) there was an intentionality to their actions. Jealous of our intelligence, we must find a way to explain that animals can predict natural disasters of many kinds long before humans detect their more obvious traits. Our technology gives us seconds, or minutes, of warning. Dogs, cats, and birds know well in advance. But we are the superior beings here.

One of the problems with consciousness is that we can never get outside our own. Other people act in ways similar to us, and describe similar mental states, so we assign them the same kind of consciousness we have. Animals, not using human language, also act in similar ways to us. We call it “instinct” and continue on to the truly important stuff. I have no idea if birds can detect infrasound; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they could. Without the ability to place it in the context of danger, however, I doubt they would take a thousand mile vacation just after their annual migration. We could learn a lot from our fellow creatures, if only we’d admit them to the conscious club and not the food club. And perhaps they might be able to explain to us why, despite all we know, religion never seems to go away.

Anatomy of a Neurosis

I’m sitting in a building less than 10 blocks from where a shooter opened fire in New York City this morning outside the Empire State Building.  I can still hear the helicopters buzzing overhead as they’ve been doing since just after 9 a.m.  One week ago I walked with my daughter down that very block after an office outing.  This is the third public, multiple shooting since July in the United States. Twenty are dead, over sixty have physical scars, and the rest of us have psychological trauma.  Gun control?  Only a distant dream.  I have been reading quite a lot about embodiment lately.  The idea is both simple and complex at the same time: we are born with physical bodies and our minds spend our entire lives trying to make sense of them.  Guns have a way of radically interfering with the process.

Stop, children, what’s that sound?

Often I have heard the adage, “guns don’t kill people, people do.”  This may be true, but it is no more so than the fact that we are all embodied creatures and we have a right not to be shot by homicidal maniacs.  At least I think so. There are enough guns to wipe out the population of this nation, and I’m sitting at my desk in a subtle panic since nobody seems to know what happened yet. The beating of the helicopter rotors is loud, petulant, distracting.

As the morning wears on the reports begin to take some order. The shooter wasn’t acting indiscriminately. The nine of the ten (later revised to ten of the eleven) people shot were caught in the crossfire between police and the gunman. The helicopters leave. Perversely I find myself relieved. Natural disasters happen and the lives of countless thousands are taken. The difference is there no motive is involved. As much as some televangelists want to tell us that “God” is punishing mostly innocent people, the fact is tsunamis, hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, volcanoes, and tornados are completely natural events. Maybe firearmophilia is natural as well. I can hear the sirens as innocent bystanders are rushed to the hospital. My embodied psyche turns back to my computer. Work won’t wait, and no matter where we are, we are all potentially innocent bystanders in a world where trust in guns has eclipsed trust in gods.

Calm Before the Storm

All the build-up for Hurricane Irene masks a deep-seated fear of the uncontrolled. If the storm devastates anyone, there will be Biblicists who say, like Job’s friends, that they must have sinned. Such pronouncements accompany nearly every natural disaster, as if God is huddled over the globe attempting to concoct more horrid and sinister ways to punish sinners. Natural disasters, however, have a way of effecting good and bad alike, just as the benevolent sunrise and the soft kiss of the rain (both according to someone mentioned in the Bible as being the son of someone important). But when danger looks down its barrel at human communities, they don’t neatly divide into sheep and goats. All people are a mix of virtuous and vice-ridden in varying ratios, and only the God of the Marquis de Sade would slam the iron maiden shut on all alike. The East Coast saw this earlier in the week when a benign earthquake shook our world. Barely had the ground stopped trembling before we were informed it was divine punishment. For what, no one could really say.

Interpreting nature according to the Bible is so misguided that it is difficult to know where to begin the critique. Yes, some biblical writers with a flare for the dramatic will claim that Yahweh was behind some disaster. Of course, they had no concept of science, in this case, meteorology, upon which to draw. Nature acts in unexpected ways because God has his fingers in the bowl. Even the early church gave up on that way of interpreting things as soon as natural processes could substitute for God. When religion because politicized, however, we started to see a backlash of backward thinking. It is a simple enough deception to utilize. People fear natural disasters, and the politically savvy know that few have any theological training. You can very easily encourage panicked masses to follow you if you claim to have read the Bible. From years of teaching it, I can certainly affirm that many clergy have not read the whole thing. Yet we use it as the barometer of divine wrath.

I, for one, am not worried about Hurricane Irene. As New Jersey has zigzagged in and out of the predicted track of the storm, it seems as though God may be wavering. If it misses the politically astute will say it is Chris Christies’ righteous policies of helping the wealthy at the expense of the poor. If it hits they will claim it is the sinfulness of the liberal camp that led the winds this way. It is all wind. Having written a book-length manuscript on weather in the Psalms, I know a fair bit about biblical perceptions of weather in the world of ancient Israel. Although over-zealous translators ill-informed about meteorology used to translate a word or two as “hurricane” the fact is that biblical Hebrew has no such word. Due to the rotational direction of the planet (about which they also did not know) hurricanes never hit Israel. Herein lies the basis of my confidence in the face of Irene. If the Bible doesn’t mention hurricanes, they can’t possibly exist. Literalists up and down the coast should heave a sigh of relief. But just in case, I have stockpiled several gallons of water, right next to my Bible.

Good morning, Irene -- if that is your real name.

Eye in the Sky

No one is safe. The calamitous tornadoes that have been devastating the south are indeed tragic. Some years ago while working on my weather in the Psalms book, I experienced a brooding fascination with tornadoes. Since I was living in Wisconsin at the time, this was natural enough, but the facet that always gleamed the darkest was the arbitrariness of it all. Tornadoes are notorious for destroying one building while leaving the one next door unharmed in a rapture-like abandon. And there are those who claim the righteous survive while others soberly state the good die young. The fact is life always ends in death, and if tornadoes don’t get you, earthquakes, comets, or microbes will. Our religions help us cope with the fact that consciousness leads to a sense of victimization—things are always after us. Religions teach us that something (God, spirits, Tao, karma) will balance it out. We so hate to see the bad guys win.

Tornadic devastation does have the divine edge, however. Apart from the randomness are the celestial origin, the sharp distinction between those reaped and those sown, and, of course, the angry brow of the frowning wall cloud. What is purely a natural event feels like punishment from our species-specific view. And who doles out the punishment if not a parent stronger than the cowering children? Does religion reassure in this case? The one who is begged for comfort is the same one who sent the storm. As humans the best we can do is help those who are within reach.

The photos emerging from Joplin, Missouri are heart-rending. The more we build the more we stand to lose. Long before European settlers laid claims to this land, cool, dry air masses tumbling over the Rocky Mountains collided violently with warm, moist air flowing in from the Gulf of Mexico. For as long as prevailing weather patterns have been established, there have been tornadoes. Believing in God’s protection and blessing we build on dangerous fault lines, in drought-stricken plains, and in the shadows of biding volcanoes. Disasters are a matter of perspective, for they are as natural as the air we breathe. Perspective transforms them to divine chastening and us into helpless children.

Coming for you?

Sex and Violence in Ancient Pompeii

The earthquakes and tsunami that have devastated northern Japan have me thinking about natural disasters. Currently in New York City there is a display of artifacts from Pompeii, an exhibit I have not yet had a chance to visit. The parallelism of the two tragedies, however, has not escaped me. Pompeii’s destruction by Mount Vesuvius in 79 of the Common Era and its subsequent rediscovery and excavation are the stuff of legend. An unsuspecting city in the shadow of a sleepy volcano, at the pinnicle of its civilization, suddenly snuffed out. Forgotten for centuries, and eventually rediscovered. But rediscovery led to embarrassing revelations.

How will you be remembered?

Some of the first artifacts recovered from Pompeii were the erotic frescos that adorned many of the buried structures. Further, such images as super-sized phalli and other cultic implements of questionable morality led to reburial of some of the material because of more recent sensibilities. We judge ancient and extinct societies on the basis of modern predispositions on decency and propriety without considering that it is our view that is the innovation. Even a cursory read through the Holy Bible will reveal many stories where sexuality plays a prominent role. This suggests that biblical writers, like most people of antiquity, were less shy of sexuality than their post-Victorian heirs.

Natural disasters have a way of stopping time. Not just in the sense of speeding up the rotation of the earth by another 1.6 microseconds either. Surveying the wreckage of what we believed was a stable status quo, priorities are suddenly shifted. Compassion, rescue, and survival outweigh the petty differences of just the night before. Disasters are snapshots of the human condition. As the hot ash settled on Pompeii, lovers clasped in their final moments, never imagining that some two millennia further on that more modern, civilized tourists would be embarrassed by so human a response. Disasters are harsh teachers, but we may learn in the face of an unfeeling nature that we are all humans after all.

Ring of Fire

It looks so peaceful from above

The great tragedy unfolding in Japan has many Internet pundits wondering if this is a sign of the 2012 apocalypse. In reality it is simply a great human tragedy, a reminder that we are creatures who’ve evolved in a dangerous, often inhospitable universe. Natural disasters may have been one of the stimuli for the development of religion in the first place. Now we can look to seismology and tectonic plates to find out “why” hundreds had to die in Japan, but the human psyche demands a metaphysical reason. Some Christian websites are quick to point out that only a very small percentage of Japanese are Christian. Born with the sin of not being American, well, Shinto happens.

Like last year’s Chilean earthquake, this current disaster has once again shifted the earth on its rotation axis, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. GPS markers on the coast of Japan indicate that the large island has shifted over two meters because of the quake. The world was not made for us, however. We evolved on a planet, peopled it with gods, and decided that they created this place for us. In reality, we survive on the basis of our adaptations to this planet. Any planet dynamic enough to support life will be volatile enough to demand life from its inhabitants.

This is not as fatalistic as it sounds. Religions reflect the impotence humans feel in the presence of raw nature. We’ve shed many physical defenses for the advantages of large brains that require us to piece together a sensible view of an event that has no inherent meaning. The fact is that we are not in control. Once we eliminated the smaller-scale threats of exposure and the dangers of predation, we left ourselves open to macro-scale disasters that no human is large enough to impact. And we know, deep in our psyches, that this is simply part of the price we pay for being human. 2012 will come and go with its own share of natural disasters, but right now we should focus on helping those who’ve experienced their own current apocalypse.

Weather Religion

Byline: Yazoo City, Mississippi. Event: major tornado. Suspects: God. In the face of any tragedy, whether it be killer tornadoes or Christie’s budget, God is always implicated. It is the white god’s burden of monotheism. I am the last person to make light of tornadoes. Many a nightmare and sleepless night in Wisconsin were haunted by the loud, roaring gusts and twisted detritus mangled by apparently willful winds. Erratic fluid dynamics of violently spinning vortices of air are often chalked up to the divine. No less so in Saturday’s tornado outbreak.

An Associate Press article begins, “One prayed to God under a communion table as his church was blown to pieces around him.” The article goes on to note that a ravaged hymnal lay open to the page with “Till the Storm Passes By,” as if there were a divine message inscribed on a chance event of nature. One of the hardest lessons to accept is that nature cares nothing special for our species and that we are offered no guarantees in life. This is one of the reason religion is so powerful: here the faithful find divine-bound guarantees of at least a peaceful afterlife if the present life is torn apart by storms both physical and metaphorical. It is hard to struggle without an assurance of final victory.

I have contended for years that the association of the divine with the weather is intimate and tenacious. The weather has eluded human control well into the space age, nuclear age, and technological revolution. We still can’t stop the rain on Sunday’s picnic or festival. And so we pass the weather on to the CEO in the spiritual chain of command. God controls the weather, while we crouch under rickety communion tables. There is a deeper lesson here, for those willing to sift through the rubble.

Nightmare on Church street

Alaska’s Temblors

There are rumblings under Alaska. Some people are just a bit nervous after last week’s earthquakes in Mexico – could it be our turn next? Mount Redoubt, remote from human population zones, has been sputtering and steaming and making itself look large. It is preparing for something big.

In apocalyptic literature we see a similar image: the small horn that boasts and makes itself out to be the greatest of the ten that speckle the head of the great beast from the sea. The little horn called Antiochus, so enamored of his own abilities that he surnamed himself Epiphanes, “the manifestation.” And uncritical people, taken in by his bravado, followed him until he started torturing and killing those who didn’t agree with his religion. Those who would not bow to his own personal Zeus would be martyred in nasty ways.

Now an active volcano is sputtering in Alaska. Could it be the sign of the end times? I doubt it. The end does not come ushered in by mere movements in the earth’s crust. According to Revelation there has to be a harlot on the back of a hideous beast. And that’s only if you believe Revelation is predicting something that hasn’t already happened. No, I believe Mount Redoubt is just doing what volcanoes always do – threatening, making noise, and occasionally erupting. They may blanket their surroundings with ash and magma, but these are often only temporary postures on the part of nature. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

More than just a redoubtable mountain?

Childhood Never Ends

Yesterday’s 8.8 earthquake in Chile has people asking once again what has angered the almighty. Guilt, unassuaged by human suffering, accompanies natural disasters around the world. This perspective is nothing new, but rather an inherited burden from our cultural forebears who believed gods to be perpetually vindictive or indifferent to people, and who would strike out without warning. One of Poseidon’s favored titles in Homer is “earth-shaker.” When something as stable as the very planet rocks, the gods must be angry.

Psychologists have long delved into the all-too-human reaction of guilt to momentous occasions. Guilt is also generally recognized as a universal human emotion, occasionally supposed to be in evidence among the great apes. Perhaps our primate progenitors were born with an innate sense of having wronged the powers that be, for like children we still cry out for deliverance from blizzards, hurricanes, wild fires, volcanoes and earthquakes. No matter how much we grow up, we never outgrow our sense of having angered that great parent in the sky.

Science has revealed to us a natural world with physical causes. We know that massive plates of the earth’s crust rub past each other as they float on a hellish, viscous ocean of molten rock. We know that incredible stresses and pressures find release in the freeing jolts of earthquakes. This we know, but we find the concept more frightening that we are the victims of nature than the fantasy that we are victims of God. Better to put a human face, albeit an angry one, on natural disasters since we may at least beg for mercy.

There is no divine “why” to such disasters. Even the Bible affirms that things just happen sometimes with no divine intentionality. As this artificial world we constructed shivers from natural forces we are led by natural feelings to irrational conclusions that empower us. We are children looking for an absent parent. And Poseidon, it seems, evaporated long ago.

Never trust a god with a fork!