414px-Benedykt_XVI_(2010-10-17)_4 Pope Benedict XVI managed to catch many of us off-guard with his early retirement option. Not within living memory, or even very dusty, antiquated memory has a pope resigned. Such is the draw of power. Of course the founder and putative CEO of the organization stepped down at 33, or so the story goes, but after that the urge to stay on only grew. The papacy, some traditions claim, is as old as Christianity. Others suggest that the stresses and strains that eventually led to the primacy of Rome in the western church were much more intricate than that. Modern research has also indicated that one-size-fits-all Christianity really didn’t even exist from the beginning. Different groups claimed to be Christian but were labeled heretical by other groups. The Roman Catholic Church is still the single largest Christian denomination in the world, however, and that translates to quite a lot of weight.

According to the book of Acts, the first Christians were a communal lot, holding everything in common. Although we can’t call them communists, in a sense they were. It didn’t take long for that structure to break down, however. Before long it was obvious that leaders would emerge in the movement. At first they wouldn’t have been priests, but eventually that age-old designation came to describe what the clergy did. Worship became ceremony, and ritual requires expert leadership. Various religions have tried to break down the hierarchical structure of having one person over the others, but in this masculine world of CEOs and prestige, well, there’s only so much you can share.

What’s really striking is that no pope in 600 years has stepped down. There could’ve been many occasions. Presiding over about a sixth of the world’s population must be a heady experience, especially for a religious person. Already the speculation is thick on who the next pontiff might be. The fact that the faithful are already chomping at the bit shows something of the nature of the creature (one can’t very well say “beast” in such a context). The papacy has become a symbol in its own right, and even megachurches can’t hope to top their numbers. The Pentecostals, however, are racing to catch up. The two types of Christianity are about as far apart as possible while remaining under the same Lord. I suspect by the time the next pope vacates the office the religious landscape will be very different. Perhaps Benedict XVI is wise to call the game on his own terms.

Chronicle Illness

In a completely innocent blog post on the Chronicle of Higher Education, Geoffrey Pullum wrote about the use of singular “they.” I won’t try to summarize his work here—it is quite fine the way he writes it. What I would like to note, however, is what was likely an unintentional grammatical association that is quite profound. In two consecutive paragraphs, Pullum requires a synonym for someone who is unwilling to listen because they’ve already made up their mind. His choices are those who believe in “unquestioned dogma” and those who hold a “resolutely and hermetically theological view.” Both phrases indicate those who unswervingly accept religious belief. The article is lightheartedly written, and quite witty, but there is something serious here. Religion has built itself into the great bastion of intolerance.

The more I contemplated this correlation, the more it became clear—when we need to express someone’s complete devotion to unquestioned propositions, even when reason dictates conclusively that they are wrong, we are in the realm of religion. Religions may accept one another, but as long as truth is at stake, and as long as truth is one, there will always abide that smug satisfaction of knowing that my religion is at least a smidgeon closer to that truth than yours. Such thoughts, when matured and fully-grown, are bound to cast the seeds of intolerance abroad. Religions don’t take prisoners. Having spent a lifetime studying religions I’m not so crass as to put them all in the same cage together (that would be cruel), but history has demonstrated that when properly provoked any religion will turn intolerant. The provocation is mostly just daily life.

Literary folks have thousands of tomes full of words and ideas from which to draw. One of the joys of reading is finding so many ways of expressing that which we experience in fresh and insightful ways. With all these words and concepts from which to choose, the most immediately recognized to express unwillingness to listen belong to religion. Listening to Pat Robertson or Pope Benedict XVI, it is not hard to see why. Religions give the world much more than reasons to fear, distrust, and hate others. But they do include these components as well. The only way to change this image is replacing the arrogance of dogma with the willingness to listen with humility. If religions would do this, there would be room for everyone in this conversation; they’d like that, wouldn’t they?

Condom Not?

Newspapers and the Internet have been abuzz with Pope Benedict XVI’s leaked proclamation that condoms may be useful for male prostitutes in preventing the spread of AIDS. Many are astonished, and not a few heads have been scratched at the declaration from the stalwart bastion of “sex is only for procreation” Christianity. The announcement, while humanitarian, is deeply troubling. From ancient times it was recognized that human sexual behavior had more than procreational importance. The matter has been investigated by psychologists since the nineteenth century and the same conclusion was drawn: people engage in sexual practices for a variety of reasons. Meanwhile, the church has been holding out with a Hebrew Bible viewpoint enhanced by the personal outlook of Paul.

In the ancient world, the microscopic world of reproduction was unknown. What was actually happening in conception was misunderstood. Judeo-Christian sexual mores were based on faulty information, from a biological point of view. In such a view, the all-potent male gamete (inappropriately called “seed,” as if a womb were just a place for pre-formed humans to grow) was capable of producing life on its own. Reading a handful of Greek myths will demonstrate this principle nicely (since the Bible has a more demure and blushing way of discussing the idea). The concomitant concept that seed should not be wasted led to the faulty idea that, in the unforgettable words of Monty Python, “every sperm is sacred.” That mental construct has been used by the church to make women subservient to their biology in a way that never applied to males. The Pope’s declaration underscores this double standard.

If male prostitutes may use condoms with the church’s blessing to prevent the spread of AIDS, the only motivation left for heterosexual birth control is female control. The “lost cause” of male reproductive potential in male prostitutes does not apply in heterosexual unions? God holds married couples to a different standard than male prostitutes – why? Is the sperm in these two cases unequal? The Pope is undoubtedly on the right track by endorsing the use of condoms, but the church still has a profound distance to go before it can look women in the eye and say, “we believe you are truly equal with men.” Oh yes, and not blink while saying it.

Remember, these guys lost to the Greeks...

Expect a Miracle

The Pope has been in Portugal. No visit to Portugal would be complete without a stop at the shrine of Fatima. Named for one of the most fascinating characters in Muslim history, Mohammed’s strong daughter Fatima, this small, centrally located town had no claims to fame until 1917. Suddenly three children declared that the Virgin Mary had appeared to them while tending their sheep. The story is about as eerie as the canonical photograph of the unsmiling youngsters. Their sincere proclamations were met with acceptance by many war-weary Europeans and predictions began to emerge from these visions. On October 13 that year some 70,000 pilgrims alleged that the sun itself danced, twirled, and took on new colors. Astronomers reported no solar anomalies at the time.

The events at Fatima have fascinated both religious and secular explorers of the supernatural. The religiously devout claim nothing shy of a miracle while those seeking more dramatic non-theistic explanations claim that aliens were behind the show. Whether or not a physical event transpired, something out of the ordinary occurred in Fatima that day. Now a permanent shrine graces the location. If the apparition appears again, she will be comfortably housed in doors, out of the elements. She might even see one of the bullets fired at Pope John Paul II during the famous assassination attempt. Many believe the Pope’s survival was itself a miracle.

Gnu version of Virgin under Glass

Now Pope Benedict XVI has visited the shrine where heaven once touched earth. Afterwards he climbed into the Popemobile, the motorized bullet-proof reliquary that allows papal viewing by the faithful while protecting Rome’s most valued asset. The message is clear: it is wonderful to believe in miracles, but it is prudent never to trust in them. Two of the three children (Jacinta and Francisco) died before they reached twelve, felled by the famed Spanish Influenza. The miracle that could have preserved their young lives never occurred. Lucia alone survived to 97. Expect a miracle? The odds are hard to predict on that one.

Popes and Props

Something to believe in?

Like the pain from an old sports injury (or Sarah Palin), the Shroud of Turin just won’t go away. Decades after radio-carbon dating demonstrated what many had suspected all along – the shroud is a medieval devotional replica – true believers are still trying to find ways to prove that the cloth is physical evidence of the resurrection. Never one to shy from controversy, Pope Benedict XVI has endorsed the authenticity of the forged artifact. No matter how far science goes, it seems, it just can’t pry the hands of a needy faith off that piece of fabric.

The Shroud of Turin first appears in the historical record only in the sixteenth century. Prior to that a back-story has been composed that takes it all the way to the first century in Jerusalem. Hungry for proof of the truth of their conviction, thousands of Christians fervently believe this sheet is the tangible evidence of resurrection. What seems to have been forgotten in this whole debate is the Bible itself. Not one of the four divergent Gospel accounts of the resurrection (some of the most wildly disparate material in the whole of Sacred Writ) mentions the miraculous capture of a resurrection photograph. The Gospel writers, never shy about flashing miracles across their narratives, do not tout an artifact as proving the resurrection. The force of apostolic conviction was enough for the first century crowd.

Believers in the modern world lack such conviction. Too many forces in the natural world conspire against the supernatural. A faith shaken by science and the competition of hundreds of other religions desperately needs a sky-hook on which to hang certitude. Yet the Bible itself speaks to this very issue. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” the writer of Hebrews declares. It seems, however, that true believers throughout history feel a little more comfortable with something palpable, just in case faith is not enough.

Smiling Goddess

One of the enduring myths of the Victorian Age is that of the benevolent “mother goddess.” Amorphous, unnamed, this protective goddess of archaeological imagination was used to explain unlabeled figurines and frescos of the peaceful feminine archetype. As real goddesses were discovered and catalogued, they were frequently discovered to have a violent and fierce aspect, one feared and revered by ancient worshipers. Even today, however, some persist in this blissful pre-conflict image of the mother goddess.

This morning I was sorry I even glanced at the paper. The reality of the violence in the name of religion was everywhere. In Kabul a mob of angry protesters, fueled on by rumors that American troops had desecrated the Quran, burned an effigy of the President Obama. In Jerusalem Israeli police stormed the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount to subdue angry mobs in tensions over one of the world’s great holy cities. Even in England, metaphorically, Pope Benedict XVI “has parked his tanks on the Church of England’s lawn” in the words of A. N. Wilson in the New York Times. Three clashes: Muslim on Christian, Jewish on Muslim, and Christian on Christian. Where is Mother Mary speaking her famed words of wisdom?

As even the ancients knew, religion was prone to violent outbreaks. In a polytheistic world the accounting was perhaps simpler: one god or goddess was upset. Here in the monotheistic world, we have either an angry God or a bevy of intolerant interpreters of that single God. There is no mother goddess whispering words of calm to the world’s religions. When opening the papers brings such a jolt to weary, Monday-morning eyes, the appeal of a smiling mother goddess is all too apparent.

The myth of the smiling mother

The myth of the smiling mother