Apocalypse Then

Krakatoa Sometimes everything blows up in your face. Literally. Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa has been on my reading list for years. Boys seem to have a fascination with volcanoes that they never outgrow, and given the world-wide implications of Krakatoa’s 1883 eruption, it is a tragedy that keeps me ever curious. We live on an angry planet. I know that’s projecting agency on nature, but like thunderstorms, to a human sensibility, volcanoes are raging phenomena. As Winchester points out, many indigenous cultures in the “ring of fire” consider volcanoes either gods or messages from the divine world. Honestly, I didn’t read Krakatoa to find out about religion, but it was there nevertheless. For human beings, it has an unparalleled explanatory power.

Krakatoa caused a stint of global cooling after its nineteenth-century eruption, leading to failed crops throughout much of the world, and perhaps played into larger political issues that would stress a world already attempting to cope with fast changes in technology. The story of the volcano is fascinating enough, but the religious dimension, it seems, played itself out more than just in a Gilligan’s Island sort of way. Despite what analysts say, people take their religious beliefs very seriously. So when I reached the end of the eruption, I wondered how Winchester was going to spin this book out for another fifty pages. It turns out that among the effects of the volcano was a religious rebellion. The East Indies, as they were called, were under Dutch colonial rule. This led to a bit of tension with the native Muslims (Islam has long been a major religion in Indonesia). As Winchester points out, the Islam in the region before the eruption was a syncretistic, almost laissez faire, faith. It blended with Hinduism and local beliefs, and even tolerated the Christian Dutch.

Symbolically, or literally, after the explosion that killed thousands, a religious movement that had been waiting for a sign came to life. A more strict Muslim sect saw the events as a predicted display of divine anger. A short-lived rebellion broke out, cut off by Christian repeating rifles, that led to a more strict version of Islam in the region. Although Winchester doesn’t linger on this too long—he is writing about a natural disaster after all—it does raise many very human responses. In the event of a cataclysm, science is cold comfort. We may rationalize, but human beings also feel. And it is religion that will attempt to answer for that pit in your stomach or that worry in your head. That’s what it does best. Science tells us that we can’t really stop volcanoes—we are too small and the planet too overwhelming. Religion, on the other hand, offers a grip on the very forces behind cataclysm—imagined or not. Although seeing natural disasters as divine punishment is never reasonable it is, in the words of a famous philosopher, human, all too human.

The Edge

GirlattheEndoftheWorldElizabeth Esther’s Girl at the End of the World is finally out. I can’t remember the last time I read a book within two weeks of its release date. Of course, I have a soft spot for the religious memoirs of women, particularly when they manage to make their escape (I guess otherwise they wouldn’t be writing their experiences) from an unforgiving faith. Reading of the trials they have to go through to get there is far from enjoyable. But necessary. Often Bible-wielding males make the rules with a macho God behind them, and girls are abused in various ways so that the wrathful guy upstairs will be, well, a little less wrathful. I’ve read many of these accounts, and I worry deeply about the state of religion’s soul. Elizabeth Esther was raised in what she calls a cult, begun by her grandfather. This brand of fundamentalist Christianity taught the virtues of daily spankings of children, often beginning at about six months of age. The descriptions of how they used candy to tempt their children so that they could spank them to break their wills made me cringe. Evil wears many disguises, but none so effective as piety.

Religions are able to get away with quite a lot in a land of religious liberty. Elizabeth Esther proves that she’s made of some pretty stern stuff to have come through all of this, although she admits to still having panic attacks all these years later. She calls it Religious PTSD. She is right to do so. Although I grew up in a fundamentalism that scarred me for life, it wasn’t with the physical beatings that members of her grandfather’s religion doled out. When Elizabeth Esther describes the tendencies she has, the hyper-awareness of threat, I know that I am nevertheless still reacting the same way in my own life. After my fundie upbringing, I had the misfortune to be employed by a different kind of literalist religious institution. Faculty whispered about the new malady coming out of the Gulf when we started to develop nervous ticks and odd quirks after being kept under constant threat. When I contact many of my former colleagues I can still tell we were badly damaged there. Some religions, as Nietzsche long ago recognized, are life-denying to the point where a soul death would be more merciful. And yet we carry on.

Elizabeth Esther ends her book with a reluctant escape to Catholicism. She notes that even it doesn’t exist without its problems. We are, however, religiously evolved beings. It is in our constitution to seek the solace of communal worship, or at least a kind of spiritual solidarity. And there are those who will take advantage of people who simply seek their sense of self-worth from authority figures who claim to have it all worked out. Disproportionately those who are made to suffer are women. The Bible, although it cannot be blamed on the abuses heaped upon it in the name of the Judeo-Christian tradition, conveniently emerged from a patriarchal society. In the hands of some men it becomes an implement of torture. And many are left far poorer in life for having encountered this particular form of demon disguised as an angel.

Bing Spring

Binghamton University is, like most institutions of higher education, home to many rituals. Back around a century ago, anthropologists were convinced that religions began as a set of inchoate rituals that coalesced into primitive belief systems. Although most anthropologists today see this as an overly simplistic analysis, I found a recent story on Binghamton’s website an example of a nascent religion. It has to do with placating, or perhaps defying, the weather gods.

Like most good rituals, Stepping on the Coat has a practical pedigree. According to Bing’s own archives, the ritual began the year that I was born. An undergrad that year, overwhelmed by an April snowstorm, removed his coat and stomped on it. The snow stopped. As befits a scientifically inclined institution, this was initially chalked up as coincidence, but the same result occurred again the next year. Stepping on the Coat seemed to be a cure for late season snowstorms. In this year of lazy, lingering winter, many people—some of them not even students—must be seeking a cure for unseasonable weather. Perhaps Binghamton University students a half-century ago stumbled (stamped?) upon the solution. In the whimsical tributes given on the BU magazine webpage, the sacred and the profane are never very far apart.

Binghamton in spring

Binghamton in spring

I have done considerable research on the weather and its sacral implications. Most of my research has never been published, but the overarching idea, I believe, is sound. Our human perceptions of the divine are focused on the sky. Nietzsche declared that God is dead, but that death only really occurred when we penetrated our atmosphere and landed on the moon. Even then, looking up, we saw only blackness beyond. Infinity hangs, like Damocles’ sword, above our heads. We may pollute our skies, we may shut them out with artificial walls and ceilings. We may even punch through them with rockets. But our gods are up there, somewhere. And they are the ones who dictate our weather. The human response is up to us. Do we sit inside and complain, or do we stomp the coat in defiance of an uncaring deity? Binghamton is a green university, so that even amid the burgeoning religion of coat-stepping, there is a real awareness that when the weather goes awry in this industrial era, we know where the blame truly lies. As humans, however, our religious inclinations will insist that we continue to step upon the coat and claim the whole earth as our prize.

Ancient of Days

I’ve never been one to deny my age. I think of myself as a rather young 50 since my brain still reacts like an 18-year old’s much of the time. I try to keep as fit as my job allows, and the only thing I really overindulge in is books. But I am 50, and that means the AARP has had me in their cross-hairs for the last couple of years. The phone rang the other day and I was foolish enough to answer it. The young man on the other end of the line asked me if I could hear him okay. I almost hung up; if someone doesn’t identify him or herself in the first sentence, I know they’re wanting me to contribute to something. Instead, I tried a new tactic: “you’re not coming in very clear,” I fibbed, hoping that he would offer to call back and I wouldn’t answer. Instead, he adjusted the volume. It was the AARP calling with a survey. My hearing is still pretty keen—without it, walking across Manhattan in rush hour everyday would be downright dangerous. Nevertheless, my encounter with AARP made me think of a recent conversation I had about death.

I am not afraid of death. As long as I can remember, I have never really feared it. Not that I want to go anytime soon, but perhaps because of my childhood fears of Hell, I believe I might have contributed enough to the treasury of merit (like the AARP, or Social Security) to get me out of a few scrapes. I attended mass nearly every day for twelve years at Nashotah House—that has to count for something! My conversation partner the other day was incredulous; “how can you not be afraid of death?” I’m not sure what comes after, if anything, but I’ve always tried to keep on the good side of the divine. Those questionable things I’ve intentionally done were all executed with good reason, or so it seemed at the time. If they were truly naughty, I’ve asked for forgiveness. And if there’s nothing after life, well, I feel like I could use the good long sleep of annihilation for a while.

Several books I’ve read recently have been advocating reincarnation. I’m not sure that it makes sense, but sometimes I wonder. The idea is a bit more frightening than death itself, in many ways. So many things I don’t want to go through again—sorry Friedrich, but I guess I’m one of those who says no to exact repetition—so much physical pain and mental anguish. I can see why Buddhists want to break the cycle. Although, if I’m reincarnated as a human being, and a literate one, I might be able to get a few more books read next time around. Perhaps that’s the silver lining. Or perhaps that’s why I should just hang up the phone if the caller doesn’t tell me who it is in the first sentence.

"I'm not quite dead yet..."

“I’m not quite dead yet…”

Country Roads

It may be a little too early for winter, but scary movie season has begun in my personal calendar. This weekend I watched Wind Chill. Although critics weren’t always kind to the movie, and the ending is somewhat predictable, it is one of the more decidedly creepy films I’ve seen recently. Since it is set in Pennsylvania there was a bit of a homey touch to the terror. I have driven on similar roads to that in the movie, during snowstorms, and that is one of life’s true terrors. What makes the movie so frightening is its ambiguity. Put a teenage girl alone with a guy in a car on an isolated road and you’ve already got enough elements to make your spine tingle. It becomes clear that the guy hasn’t been honest with the girl all along (the characters are never given names in the movie) and as they spend the night in the broken-down car reality and nightmare become increasingly difficult to parse. Of course, religion plays a role in the show.

The guy is giving the girl a ride home for the holiday break. He’s been watching her, a little too closely, for some time although she doesn’t know that until it’s too late to turn back. As they fumble for conversation it turns out that he is an “Eastern Religions” major and they met in a philosophy class. This just keeps getting scarier and scarier! After they break down (spoiler alert!) and the ghosts start showing up, we learn that some of them are priests. They had come to this haunted road to give the last rites to some accident victims before freezing to death in the poorly insulated cells in a strange little monastery on the hill (this is Pennsylvania, remember). As the night wears on we find the priests condemning the bad cop to a fiery death before light dawns and the girl finally finds salvation.

Of course, this is a variation of the old urban legend of the teenage couple out parking when something scary happens. Having everything in half-light and through smeary, foggy windows makes it more difficult to perceive what is actually going on. A lying religion major, priests complicit in a deserved fatality accident, and Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence give the film a little intellectual heft among the muted special effects and bleary-eyed confusion as the night goes on. Morality is on trial here. Although not the most profound of films, Wind Chill deserves some credit for bringing religion and horror to the same remote location and having them trade cards in the dark of night.

Longer Nights

Those who write put part of themselves into every piece. Sometimes that tiny fragment of the author is nearly invisible, while at other times fiction becomes difficult to separate from biography. One of my daughter’s assigned summer readings is Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. Since I use the opportunity of her assigned readings to catch up on what I should’ve read long ago, I recently sat down to see what the play was about. A dysfunctional family. Alcoholism, tuberculosis, and self-loathing are the unholy trinity of much writing from the nineteenth and turn of the twentieth centuries. But God also comes into the mix. Perhaps the divine was nearer to the surface back in the days when you might assume every other American had been raised in a Christian household. O’Neill’s dark and disturbing Tyrone family might be considered good candidates for irreligion were it not for the fact that being Catholic was so much a part of Irish identity in those days. Perhaps in some quarters it still is.

In Act Two, Scene Two James Tyrone is discussing his wife’s as yet unrevealed addiction with his two sons. Edmund, the scholar (and in reality bearing the family position of O’Neill himself), has rejected belief in God. He asks his father if he prayed for Mary in the days when her difficulties began. “I did. I’ve prayed to God these many years for her,” James Tyrone declares. Edmund responds, “Then Nietzsche must be right.” The debate is the classic issue of theodicy—where is God when things go wrong? Mary, the wife/mother believes she was bound for a convent, having been raised in Catholic school. When her life spirals in unexpected directions, she chooses morphine over faith in God, and the men, soused in whiskey, wonder who’s to blame. James, the father, declares atheism to be the culprit.

I found this an interesting study. Characters either unthinkingly accept the religion with which they were raised, or reject religion altogether. Edmund follows up his declaration by quoting Thus Spake Zarathustra: “God is dead: of His pity for man hath God died.” Nietzsche is never simple to comprehend, but even in the declaration of the divine death is an implicit indication of the existence of deity. The subtle nuances here are often lost in family debates where God’s abstract existence is far less important than the human suffering that raises the question in the first place. O’Neill was writing not only in the shadow of Nietzsche, but also of Karl Marx and other theorists whose nails had been pounded into the heavenly coffin over the past two centuries. So Mary, in her morphine vision, returns at the end of the play to state, “I went to the shrine and prayed to the Blessed Virgin and found peace again because I knew she heard my prayer and would always love me and see no harm ever came to me so long as I never lost my faith in her.” The reader, however, along with Karl Marx, knows that this is really the opiate of the people finding voice through one of the faithful.

The Evil Living

Returning home from my campus visits, I needed some brainless relaxation. Since we don’t have any television service at home, this means watching movies. I’d heard quite a bit about The Evil Dead over the years—a movie that was scary back in the 80’s when it appeared. Improvements in special effects and the intensity of engineered sound are capable of drawing a person into an alternate reality for a couple of hours these days, and the endless reiteration of earlier movie effects somehow robs the early thrillers of their impact. The Evil Dead, however, capitalizes on confusion about the menace and teeters on the brink of morality for the entire 85 minutes. Naturally, when looking for a source of fear, it seeks a religious agent. The source of the evil in the woods is narrated in a voice-over of the presumably dead scientist who has discovered Sumerian texts that release demons in the forest (mostly in the form of falling trees).

Sumerian is always a safe bet if you want a language that your viewers will not be able to identify. The earliest known recorded language, Sumerian is still difficult even for experts, and it conveys all the strangeness of long ago. We do know that the Sumerians recorded myths that involve what we might call “demons” today, but the possession of humans was a much later development—probably a pre-scientific way of explaining epilepsy. As our five students seek a weekend getaway in the woods, they become possessed and face the moral question of just when a person ceases to be human. At what stage does someone have the right to kill someone else? Perhaps unintentionally, the movie gives us the answer, “Never.” This kind of morality has a place in America, one of the very few “first world” nations in which the death penalty is still legal. Often promoted by those dead-set against abortion. Where do we draw the line saying a person has crossed over into the unforgivable other?

The Evil Dead has become a cult classic over the years. Its relatively low budget of less than half-a-million dollars brought an astonishing box office return on the investment. The gore, tame by more modern standards, does not mask that what is really at issue here: the question of right versus wrong. What is truly evil? Sumerians aside, what possesses people and drives them to destroy one another? The Evil Dead, like many horror films, reaches for a religious answer. As the supernatural fog begins to clear, however, we might not like what we see in the clear light of day. Religion may be an excuse, but the assaults upon one another are what Nietzsche famously called “human, all too human.” The sooner we clear our vision and pay attention to what is actually happening, the sooner we can combat the horror.

God of the Gaps = Poof!

In Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, according to MSNBC, he declares that God is not necessary, physically speaking, to get the universe going. The only people who should be surprised here are those who took Hawking’s final lines from A Brief History of Time too literally: “However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God.” I remember being a bit surprised when I read that the first time.

Whose eyes are watching you?

At some level, it seems, many people took comfort in knowing that one of the greatest scientific minds alive had left a door open for God. The great cosmologist looking through a theoretical telescope and seeing God on the other end looking back. There was a symmetry here, a sense of rightness. Some, to gauge by the reactions reported, feel that Dr. Hawking has betrayed us in stating the obvious. God was never to be found in the petri dish or under the electron microscope. According to the theorists of a theological stripe, God has no quantifiable qualities that might be measured. As the article states, the only God to disappear here was the God-of-the-gaps.

As a young, undergraduate religion major, when I first heard that God-of-the-gaps was bad philosophy/theology, I was a bit surprised. (I spend a lot of time being surprised.) If God has no explanatory value in the real world, whence deity at all? If religious folks behaved better, there might well be cause to suggest that the evidence for God comes in human kindness and charity. Unfortunately, religious folk quite often instigate the hatred and suffering that scars much of human society. No, Stephen Hawking has not killed God, just as Friedrich Nietzsche did not commit deicide in the nineteenth century. If the God-of-the-gaps is gone, nothing of value has been lost. The minds of theological thinkers will only have to be stretched just a bit farther.