It is the time of year when respectable publications can, in a half-serious way, address the unconventional. The New York Times, for example, recently ran a story on ghost hunting in Norway. Andrew Higgins points out that Norway, among the most secular nations in the world, has come under the spell of ghosts. In a country where church attendance and religious belief seem to be endangered, there is a growing belief that people might somehow survive this mortal coil. Since such a story has to come off as bemused, we don’t get any indication that people have good reason for believing in ghosts—as one of the officials in the story says, they represent something that isn’t “generally accepted as existing at all.” But I wonder if that’s true. Scientifically, in our heads, there just doesn’t seem to be any room in this godless world for ghosts. Skeptics ask questions like “why do they wear clothes?” or “how can a soul remain behind if we have no souls?” Who told you that you have no souls?
Even with the constant materialist discourse of only physical reality, some ghosts cases have been very well documented. So have some hoaxes. People have the spirit of being tricksters, and that doesn’t always help when it comes to understanding the unseen. The point that the article is making, however, is that ghosts seem to be filling a need that the church hasn’t. Church has long been understood as being trapped in the past—concerned with issues deemed irrelevant by people who are just trying to get by in the world. I’ve heard hundreds of sermons in my life and remember less than ten. What is it that we’re trying to do?
I don’t know if ghosts exist. Many days I’m not sure what reality is, because if it is simply crawling out of a warm bed into a cold apartment before 4 a.m. so that I can go to work, I’m not sure this isn’t some kind of afterlife already. And maybe not the best kind. I know that as soon as people began to record their thoughts in writing, ghosts have been assumed to exist. Despite Ghost Hunters and other popularizers, vague traces are caught by enough people that we can legitimately wonder about the narrative we’ve been fed that says if it can’t be measured it can’t exist. There isn’t a nation in the world where people don’t see ghosts of some kind. Why should Norway be any different? And we wouldn’t even be asking this question if Halloween didn’t provide us with a buffer that makes forbidden topics chic.
When my wife showed me the first news article about “Carmageddon” I shrugged my shoulders with a noncommittal “meh.” Now that the nation has somehow managed to survive the two-day closure of a highway in Los Angeles, commentators are wondering what this reveals about our cardolatry. As a nation, the United States worships cars. Last week predictions were made that traffic jams of biblical proportions would disrupt the second largest city in the country and that not even God would be able to sort out the mess. In Norway, in the meantime, a right-wing conservative Christian decided to tip the scales of justice by becoming a mass murderer. Why do we glory in our own destruction?
Human beings only developed what we recognize as religion after the advent of the city. Cities require temples and temples require religious infrastructure. Priests had much to gain in antiquity by proclaiming the wrath of God—the angrier the deity the more offerings that roll in and the wealthier priests become. Religion has evolved over the five-and-a-half-thousand years of civilization, but it has never had a true conversion. It is one among many ways of coping with the stresses of becoming an urban population. We live in cities and we have traffic jams. We live in cities and learn from those far different from us. We live in cities and bomb our enemies in the belief that God finds those far different from us evil. Apparently God approves of the killing of teenagers. Just ask old Ramesses about that one.
Norway is among the most non-violent and secular cultures in the world. Los Angeles is a liberal city among one of the most religious cultures on earth. They experience the wrath of God in different ways, according to the media. Cities gave us religion. When we had had religion long enough, cities began to withdraw from that particular approach to life. When we can’t get our cars where we want, it is the wrath of God. When we can’t get the government to follow our personal religious quibbles, we take the prerogative to introduce the wrath of God. We long for the end of what we have created. No matter how we achieve such destruction, we’ll find religion planted squarely in the middle.