Palms and Thorns

“Holy Week” affects only some. That thought may be disturbing to those who still think of religions as a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. So, although today is Palm Sunday for many, for others it’s just Sunday. Not even all Christians recognize the same Palm Sunday. The question that interests me, though, is the one regarding which religion is the right one. I personally suspect this is the behind the rise of the Nones, but I’m getting ahead of my story. How did we come to this impasse? How did we come to believe that only one winner takes it all, spiritually speaking? The answer may lie in evolution.

I don’t mean biological evolution. Borrowing a principal for how this factual occurrence works, however, may help to understand the diversity of religions. For species to differentiate, they must be isolated from each other somehow. Groups that are available for interbreeding will do precisely that. When populations are separated, subtle changes add up over the passage of time so that when they come together down the road mating’s simply an impossibility. Religions behave the same way. The difference, apart from biology, is that many religions allow multiple gods. They aren’t so different from each other. In fact, we’re not even sure if gods are sufficient to define “religion.” People from diverse cultures in ancient times, the evidence seems to indicate, tried to match up their gods. Your Zeus is our Odin kind of thing. Monotheism—the main form of religion that has a problem with evolution—is the ultimate exceptionalist belief system. Our one deity is the only deity and everybody else is wrong. When populations come together we can’t even agree that the God who’s historically the same is in reality the same. Ours is slightly better.

Amid all the chaos created by religions, academics have decided they’re a phenomenon not worth studying. Academics often lose sight of the larger picture. What happens outside the classroom or laboratory is real life too. And outside the walls of the ivory tower the faithful are gathering. Some today are doing it with palm branches in hand. Others are looking on, bemused. The important thing is we don’t talk about it because talking might lead to understanding. And understanding might make us concede that others have some good points to make with their religion as well. How can you feel special in the eyes of your own god when other people suggest other truths might also apply? No wonder someone will end up crucified by the end of the week.

Palms and Psalms

At Nashotah House, where I spent many years of my career, it was often felt that the weather during Holy Week was, in the best of circumstances, appropriate. With spring just around the corner, however—the date of Easter is based on the Vernal Equinox, after all—a number of surprises came. Particularly in Wisconsin. The ideal scenario would look something like this: sunny then partly cloudy on Palm Sunday; it was a a joyful day for a parade, but clouds make for nice foreshadowing. Nobody really commented on the weather for Monday through Wednesday, and Thursday—Maundy Thursday—was largely spent inside the chapel. Good Friday, however, should be rainy. Saturday gloomy. And, of course, Easter Sunday should be a perfect, sunny spring day. It seldom, if ever, worked out that way. The weather is not beholden to liturgical celebrations. The same holds true for New Jersey. At least the snow has been removed from the forecast today, only to come in the night.

It was at Nashotah House that I wrote Weathering the Psalms. Being a lexically driven book, it was never intended to be a commentary on global warming. It should have been, in retrospect. Already by then we were nearing the point at which, even if greenhouse gas emissions were stopped, runaway melting of the polar ice would continue apace and the weather would grow more and more unpredictable because of human action. Human action of everyone except the industrialists, of course, since they don’t believe in global warming. We cling to our palms and shout “Hallelujah” while the sea level’s rising and our weather grows increasingly erratic. We have a theology with which the weather disagrees.

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The liturgical year is, like its Jewish predecessor, cyclical. Some have suggested that holidays were invented to remind the laity of when it was safe to plant again. Of course, the climate in the “Middle East” is quite different than that of northern Europe and the United States where the Bible seems to have its proper setting. As I was walking yesterday, I enjoyed the daffodils that I always associate with Easter. When I returned home I saw snow in the forecast. Leap year, Daylight Saving Time, and my general level of sleepiness conspired to cause me to overlook that today is the Vernal Equinox. I look for the snow, grasp my palm, and think of spring.

Palming the Truth

For some today is Palm Sunday. For others it is not. And I’m not referring to those outside the Christian camp. For many Eastern Orthodox Christians, Lent is just beginning as others prepare to celebrate Easter. Such divisions in the priesthood of all believers. The message was brought home to me when a friend emailed me an article from Archon News headlined “For the first time since the Great Schism, Ecumenical Patriarch to attend Pope’s inaugural mass.” For those of you outside the thrill-a-millennium Catholic-Orthodox drama, it might help to know that about the middle of the eleventh century, Christianity experienced its first major schism. The issues were insignificant to all but those who had far too much time on their hands, but the list of grievances grew and festered for centuries until a clean-shaven Pope and heavily bearded Patriarch stopped inviting each other to one another’s parties. It seems that Pope Francis may be seeing the beginning of the end of that particular tiff.

Christianity is one of the most fragmented faiths in the world. Tens of thousands, yea, myriads of denominations exist. And if some of them got together and compared notes, I suspect they’d be shocked to learn that they are just the same as some of the others. Religious belief is deeply personal and highly individualistic. Belonging to a religious body is more a matter of commitment than it is a full agreement on every point—rather like a marriage, I suppose. The funny thing is people join religions that they like, suspecting that these copacetic beliefs will somehow save them from Hell. You can literally write your own ticket to Heaven, based on this system. No religion is right because all religions are right. And we wonder why people are eager to kill one another over matters of belief.

So, is it Palm Sunday or not? It depends entirely on your point of view. Roman Catholicism, followed by many Protestant groups, considers the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox to be Easter. Never mind that all this equinox stuff smacks of its Pagan forebears—even Easter is named after the Germanic goddess Ostara. I can’t pretend to know how various Orthodox groups calculate their Easter, but the fact is that both dates can’t be right. Unless, of course, one of them is really a celebration of Ostara. Or maybe both are. And if it comes to a matter of debate, it will mean the birth of even more denominations.

Ostara laughs to see such sport

Ostara laughs to see such sport

Palm Versus Palm

“Mankind [sic] has managed to accomplish so many things: We can fly!” The words are not mine, but, depending on whether he was standing or sitting when declared, the Pope’s or God’s. In his Palm Sunday sermon yesterday the Pope addressed the issue of technology. Acknowledging flight a mere century after it began is breakneck speed for the Roman Catholic Church, but the concern behind the sentiment is real enough. Can religious systems survive the full onslaught of the technological revolution? As one small sample of the larger picture, ethics must react to increasing advanced technological scenarios. Raymond Kurzweil’s proposed Singularity where human and machine are fully integrated is perhaps an extreme example, but by no means the most extreme. Without fully understanding the context, our technical ability has soared way beyond our capacity to foresee implications. Believe it or not, many people alive today cannot use personal computers, have no palms, no cells. Sounds like they might be living free.

Palm Sunday is a day of tradition, heavily freighted as the start of Holy Week (in the Western tradition; of course, many Christians think it is a little too early some years, but that’s for a different post). Fronds from actual trees are waved as the Pope speaks. In the crowd palms are also being utilized to send the news home that one is waving a palm in the presence of the Pope. Traditional Christianity can survive with only the most rudimentary of tools. Religion, from the available evidence, began in the Paleolithic Era – earlier, I am pretty sure, than even the first integrated circuit. With its iron grip on the human psyche, religion is not about to disappear. Instead, technology is either ignored or embraced by it. As long as religions rely on human participation, however, technology will need to be reckoned with.

It's still a date (or palm)

The fact is technology has changed the perception of the world for many, especially in the western world. Even the revolution in Egypt earlier this year was conceived on the Internet. All the indications point to increased usage of technology rather than its imminent demise. Yet religious leaders still enjoin us to wave palm branches. Virtual Church websites abound where the faithful can wave electronic fronds and nary a tree will be harmed. Sermons, discussion groups, Bible readings, prayers – they can all be dispensed through wireless networks and modems. While many traditionalists turn from such ideas in disgust, it would behoove us all to pay attention. With the Vatican now onto the fact that we are flying, within mere decades we might receive a divine message on – oh, wait a minute – I’ve got mail!

Kings and Lions

Most parents come to know the Disney Empire intimately. Apart from cheap knock-offs, it is the main entertainment industry for children in a world of leisure. When weighed in the scales of intellectual achievement, Disney productions often end up in the lighter pan. Even some of the more serious stories, such as The Lion King, strive for a gravitas that eludes them. That doesn’t mean they can’t be fun to watch, however. Yesterday, in a celebration of two closely spaced birthdays, we went to see The Lion King on Broadway. Being in Times Square reminded me that New York City is where many adults go to play, the Disneyland for grown-ups. Even with the rain for which this April has been an overachiever, hundreds of tourists were about, flocking to the famous chapels of the temple to American consumerism.

Having sat through many decent productions of high school, college, and touring company musicals and plays, I never really appreciated how a long-term professional show could raise the standards to a nearly unattainable level. The Lion King story-line has many mythological – Christian, even – themes, but the immediate sense of awe in being in a Broadway theater was underscored mostly by the professionalism of the actors and singers. The play does try to raise the level of awareness of African culture, a heritage nearly wiped out in many locations by overzealous missionaries, albeit in Disney-approved fashion. It is very easy to comprehend why those who frequent Broadway find other productions lacking. In short, the show was spectacular.

As today is the official start of Holy Week, and as Easter is about self-sacrifice and rebirth, The Lion King was an appropriate choice to experience (it was selected by my daughter). The death of Mufasa in the salvation of Simba is played out in a resurrection of sorts when Simba realizes that his father still lives in him. The character of Rafiki also makes for an excellent example of a shaman. Glancing through the playbill, it was evident that many Broadway shows are keyed to religious culture: Jerusalem, Sister Act, Rock of Ages, The Book of Mormon, and even Mary Poppins has a magical being descending from the skies to set a minor injustice to right. Now as millions lift their palms on this Sunday the drama will carry on and art will continue to draw its inspiration from religion.

Broadway 1986