Nothing makes you feel quite as old as seeing a documentary where the names of the experts are unfamiliar to you because they’re too young.So it was when I watched PBS’s Ancient Skies episode “Gods and Monsters.”They had me at “Monsters” although I know that when paired with gods the term generally refers to Greek mythology.This documentary had a pretty cool rendition of Marduk battling Tiamat that would’ve left many a Babylonian quaking in his or her sandals.Ranging across the world, it showed the earliest efforts to understand astronomy, and then went on to contrast it with how the ancients nevertheless still believed in gods.It was a striking kind of condescension, I thought.Many scientists today still believe in a deity, although it’s no longer the fashion.
That sharp dichotomy, that either/or, bothers me a bit.It’s not that I have a problem with science—I’ve always supported the scientific method.No, it’s the idea that everything is explained that bothers me.We understand so little about the universe.Yes, we’ve made great strides over the past millennia, but we’ve not even been out of the cosmic neighborhood yet.And I wish we could acknowledge that even on earth life is still a mystery that can only be solved with poetry as well as reason.“Gods and Monsters” made the point that the ancients realized the explanatory value of stories.Myths weren’t just idle constructs to pass the time.They were ways of understanding how this universe works.Some people take their mythology too seriously, of course, but that doesn’t mean that no stories are required to make sense of it all.
It was the inherent conflict implied between science and religion, I think, that bothered me the most.Not everything in life comes down to an equation.That doesn’t mean that equations are wrong, just that they’re not everything.One of the points Ancient Skies makes is that people of bygone eras had a very sophisticated understanding of the sky.It featured the builders of the great pyramid of Khufu, those who constructed Stonehenge, the Maya, and the Babylonians.They all knew much of the math that would only be formulated in Europe much later.And they all assuredly believed in gods.It didn’t prevent them from complex thought in either architecture or astronomy.Our modern dilemma is the razor burn left by standing before the mirror too long with Occam.You don’t have to shave to support science.
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?
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.
As the Passover-Easter complex of holidays approaches, our stern, scientific face turns toward the more human sensibilities of religion and its impact on our lives. PBS recently aired the Nova special The Bible’s Buried Secrets (originally aired in 2008) and when a colleague began asking me about it I figured I’d better watch it. As an erstwhile biblical scholar there wasn’t much here that was new to me, but one aspect of the program bothered me. Well, to be honest several things bothered me, but I’ll focus on one. When referring to the gods of the Canaanites, among whom the program readily admitted the Israelites should be counted, they were invariably referred to as “idols.” The problem with this terminology goes back to an issue I frequently addressed with my students—the term “idol” is a way of demeaning the gods of a different religion. Implicit in the word is the assumption of the monotheistic worldview and its attendant problems.
The Bible’s Buried Secrets seemed to adopt an overly optimistic view of the monotheistic religions sharing the same god while everyone else worshipped idols. The view is as fraught as it is simplistic. Historically Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are certainly connected. Each recognizes in the others a glimmer of its own theology and outlook, but the concept of deity has shifted somewhat at each development. Judaism and Islam are rather aniconic, especially compared to many varieties of Christianity where images are allowed, or even encouraged. It is difficult to grab the attention of the magazine-reading public with an image of invisibility on the cover. It should come as no surprise that some Jews and Muslims believe Christian images to be, well, idols.
An idol moment?
The word “idol” is by nature pejorative. Ancient people were sophisticated polytheists. That statue that represented a deity was not thought to be that deity in any absolute sense. Rituals assured the ancients that they were instilling some aspect of divinity into the statues they used, making them sacred in the same way a Christian consecrates a church building. What’s more, it is natural for people to seek a visual focus for its devotion. It is difficult to conceptualize the Almighty as a person without giving it (often him) a body. Islam, especially, has been adamant that this can’t be done, and looking back at Christian practice it is sure to see idols abounding. As the holy days begin for our vernal celebrations, we should perhaps use the opportunity to rethink such religious vocabulary since every orthodoxy is someone else’s paganism.
Some weather we’ve been having! New Jersey has just completed its mildest January on record. Weather has always been a favorite mode of resort to the divine since it is one of those things we people just haven’t been able to control yet. And it makes perfect sense. The atmosphere is, by definition, bigger than the planet’s surface itself, and we people are pretty tiny, all things considered. I’ve stood next to some trees in the northwest that give me a flea’s eye view of the world.
I remember one of my teachers telling us that Niagara Falls doesn’t freeze over. When I told my mother this, her response was to pull out these photos and send them to school with me. Someone in the family back in my grandfather’s younger days owned a photography business. The photos are unfortunately not dated, but they have been iconic images for me ever since that day in grade school. Yes, even Niagara Falls can freeze over. My best guess for the dates here must be sometime around 1920.
Back when we still had television, I was an avid fan of the PBS Naked Planet series. One of the episodes was on Niagara Falls. In the late 1950s and early 60’s the hydro-electric potential of the falls had been tapped to such an extent that now between 50 and 75 percent of the water flow of the thundering falls is diverted upriver. I first visited Niagara Falls as a child, but I have never experienced the falls with the full force that nature intended. Likely no one ever will again, at least as long as we are in charge of planet.
These pictures remind me of the awe of nature. They were taken when the falls were pretty much at full flow, and yet they are frozen solid and people are walking around on a river that boasts class 6 rapids, the highest the whitewater scale goes. Sometimes when people assert too much control on their planet, it is nice to be reminded that our tired orthodoxies aren’t always what they seem to be. It may be an unseasonably mild winter this year, but nature may still have a few tricks up her sleeves.