Surfeit of Ego


In a world with finite resources, many commodities are in short supply. One clear overabundance is that of ego. We’ve seen that clearly in the long, long months of this year’s political campaign and the single month since then. Running a nation is no longer to be a servant to the people but to the self. So it was while out on an errand I noticed a tract stuck in my car door handle. I’ve mentioned Tony Alamo before. This incarcerated evangelist has a disturbing number of supporters in New York City, at least to go by how prevalent his flyers are in Midtown. I’d never, in my suburban Jersey neighborhood, had my car violated by one before, so this was something new. What caught my eye was the grammatically inept headline: “Bill Clinton, The Pope, and I.” As a title it should have said “and Me.” Letting that foible pass, we’re still left with a religious zealot classifying himself with duly elected world leaders.

I know that the Roman Catholic Church is not a democracy, by the way. Popes, however, are elected from among their peers, and so it’s not purely a matter of one man putting himself forward as the people’s choice. Alamo’s headline screams of a wounded ego. Donald Trump’s famously thin skin does the same. Not that that makes me for one second sympathetic. I grew up with a religion that taught self-denial, self-abnegation, and putting others before oneself. Self, self, self. Selfishness used to be a sign of poor manners or bad breeding. Now it’s the way to the highest political office in the land. We clearly have a surfeit of ego. The same is true for the terrible plague of racism and sexism that have become the flavor of the day. Too much concern with self.

Not only is this a political aberration, it also goes against human nature. In the literal sense. Our species has thrived because of its sympathy for others. We see this is primate societies. When one individual, even—or especially—an alpha male, asserts himself beyond the good of the group, he is taken down. In addition to our opposable thumbs, we’re also endowed with a sense of fairness, of sharing. Call it the ethics of nature. Not only that, but most religions agree—the sign of a just society is one where everyone is cared for. So it may be that we don’t have enough coltan to make all the smart phones we need but we do have enough ego at the top to go around, and then some. Might I suggest it might be time for a fire sale?

The Religion Industry

The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting can be a heady place. Religionists tend to be “big picture” people, looking at things from the perspective that this is what life is all about. How much bigger can you get? Religion is, after all, a matter of perspective. As quickly becomes clear from glancing across the crowds—there is a literal myriad here—a great diversity exists. Ironically and irenically violence, beyond an occasional rudeness, is absent. There are believers and non-believers and they actually talk to each other civilly. They want to understand, and in an increasingly polarized world understanding religion seems like a very sensible thing to do.

It feels, however, like an industry to me. Religion evolved out of primal fears. Nobody knows for sure where it started, but someplace (or someplaces) along the course of human development, the idea took hold that humans weren’t the final word in terms of power or direction of their own destiny. There is something beyond us. It may be a tao, or it may be a god, or it may be something we haven’t even conceived yet, but there is something larger than us. The scientific paradigm, on the other hand, starts by assuming human superiority, at least in terms of rationality, over the entire universe. Teasing things apart, looking at the smallest units and building up a big picture from there, it all comes down to equations and concepts understandable in empirical terms. If there is a tao, or gods, and if they don’t leave some physical footprint, they must be left outside the frame. Until the religion industry arrives.

Every field of study has its crackpots, but those thousands milling about me as I stand in a booth with knowledge for sale are mostly sincere. The official study of religion takes place in higher education. Its practice is left elsewhere. The Dalai Lama is not here. The Pope is not passing through adoring crowds. Even Mike Huckabee hasn’t put in a guest appearance. We are not always the friends of those who do religion, for this is a complex industry. Our role is to ask how religion works. Beyond that, we try to fit it into a larger picture—one that expands beyond the universe itself. Out to where a mysterious force may lurk. A force that reminds us that human effort, as strenuous as it may be, must acquiesce in the presence of the unknown.


Au Fait in the Manger?

On Friday CNN ran a story about the Pope’s new book “debunking” myths surrounding Christmas. The headline certainly looked intriguing, but it turns out that the “myths” debunked are those of a very dim magnitude. Is anyone surprised—gasp!—that Jesus wasn’t actually born on December 25? And, guess what—those cows you’ve always seen in the manger? The Bible doesn’t actually mention them! Angels aren’t at the manger either! What kind of Christmas will this be? A biblical one, it sounds like. I haven’t read Jesus of Nazareth—The Infancy Narratives, but it really doesn’t sound like I need to. The Bible is very spare on stories about Jesus’ birth; nobody knew he would be a Lloyd Webberian superstar at that point, so we have a few loose traditions that tell of humble origins in an obscure setting. Not very good for commercial interests, however, and besides, the average person doesn’t read the Gospels to find out about Christmas. There are far too many television specials to be bothered with “Lo, there were in the same country…”

Christmas was not a big deal until relatively recent times. Now, don’t get me wrong—I’m not a grinch who believes the holiday shouldn’t be celebrated. I see nothing wrong with people giving things away, even if it is to pretend that they are celebrating an ancient Roman-occupied Judean birthday. This is the essence of what being religious should be all about; holidays should be occasions for thinking about others before one’s self. In my lowly opinion anyway. We’ve built an entire economic cycle on it, however, otherwise Black Friday might just be a free day to spend with family and friends instead of being trampled to death at Wal-Mart. Perhaps if society could find a way to distribute wealth more equitably every Friday would be in the black.

The Pope’s new book is an attempt to make the Catholic tradition appear up-to-date with scholarship. Plans are for the book to be published in an entire Septuagint of languages with a print-run the envy of nearly every academic editor in New York. The problem is there is no real news here. News should be, by definition, new. A book by the Pope declaring the true equality of all people, throwing open full sacerdotal participation to women as well as men, and the distributing of papal wealth to the poor—that would be a Christmas present worth the waiting! Instead, when you pull the shiny paper off this book on December 25, you’ll only discover that you’ve received it on the wrong date and there will be no angels singing. The cattle will be lowing, however, if you can use your imagination.

What’s wrong with this picture?

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!

Shake Your Booty?

The Roman Catholic Church has been making headlines again. Yesterday’s newspaper afforded two headlines to the great mother church – or maybe I should say “pleasant parent church.” The first story regards the Pope’s new book, Jesus of Nazareth-Part II, due for release next week. In it the Teutonic Vater exonerates the Jewish people for the death of Jesus. The embarrassing mastodon in the room, however, is why the church ever blamed the Jews in the first place. From the beginning Christian theology declared Jesus’ death part of God’s master plan. It also provided a convenient excuse for centuries of hate crimes that continue to this day. Believers, however, are quick to justify God’s actions, even when the Bible tentatively raises its own objections. In my prophet’s course, many students had trouble accepting the fact that the story of Micaiah ben-Imlah in 1 Kings 22 indicates that God sanctions lies in the mouths of prophets for a larger divine purpose. Perhaps we should also look for Micaiah ben-Imlah-Part I on the bookstore shelves soon.

The second article, already making its rounds on the Internet, concerns a new translation of the Bible. Shaking the traditional word “booty” from its vaunted position, the Ash Wednesday Bible calls it “spoils of war.” I was pleased to see my personal friend Bishop Sklba interviewed as part of the release publicity. As he rightly notes, “English is a living language,” to which some have subtly added, “and a dying art.” The article rehearses the sophomoric tittering at funny-sounding verses that has plagued the church ever since the laity have been educated. Gelding the Bible is a small price to pay for sanctity.

Regardless of efforts on the part of the religious, the Bible remains an often bawdy text set in the context of a sexist and supersessionist world. It is the world in which the Roman Catholic Church came of age. As we start to see the first, faint blooms of a distant equality beginning to push through a vast leaf-litter of decomposing, brown tradition, the theology and foundational document of the church require some window-dressing. In this world of aggressive, bully governors and oh-so-self-righteous politicians, it is encouraging to see a massive religious organization bashfully blushing and suggesting that shoving others may not be the best method of getting your own way. Could it be that the church still has some valuable lessons to teach the world?

Oh, uh, sorry about that...

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.