Qaulity Education

Perhaps it’s from having a stubbornly blue collar, but snobbery has never appealed to me.  While in seminary at Boston University, I applied for a transfer to Harvard Divinity School.  In spite of being accepted, I stayed at my alma mater and paid the consequences.  There’s a strange loyalty among the working class, you see.  And now I’m finally seeing my former mistress, academia, taking a turn toward the lowly but worthy.  The title of a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education says it all: “As Scholars Are Driven to Less Prestigious Journals, New Measures of Quality Emerge.  Hmm, why might that be?  The industry mantra, “publish or perish” has grown more aggressive over the years and the number of publishers has decreased.  Your academic net worth, it seems, can no longer be based on how elite you are.

People are funny that way.  We’re very impressed by those paraded before us as successes—as if some kind of magic clings to those who are where we wish we were.  In academia where you went to school matters more than what you’ve proven yourself capable of.  If you attended the “best” schools your work will be accepted by the “best” journals and publishers.  What rarified company you’ll keep!  For the rest of us, well, we have the numbers.  And blue collars aren’t afraid of hard work.  Let the academic aristocracy enjoy its laurels.  Laurels are poisonous, however, for those with an eye open for parables.

Primates, according to those who know them best, can see through pretense.  I often wonder if our political chaos isn’t based on this simple fact of biology.  As a priest I knew once told me, “We put our pants on one leg at a time too.”  This didn’t prevent many postulants I knew from anticipating the day when they would be ontologically transformed.  Priesting, I was informed, would make them better than the laity.  Closer to God.  Here it was, even among the clergy—the desire for prestige.  Chimpanzees will take down an alpha who abuses his power.  Nature has a set of balances.  Tampering with them leads to, well, scholars being driven to less prestigious journals and the like.  The net result, as the Chronicle suggests (if read one way), is that the last shall be first and the first last.  Probably it’s the result of reading too much Bible in my formative years, but I’ve always appreciated parables.


Apes’ Asherah?

As a part of my class on Ancient Near Eastern Religions, since we were dealing with the earliest textually recorded religions, I explored origins. Specifically, the origins of religion. For years I told my students that biologists had observed behavior among chimpanzees that was proto-religious. Imagine my delight in seeing an article on New Scientist headlined “What do chimp ‘temples’ tell us about the evolution of religion?” The article, by Rowan Hooper, describes chimpanzees banging rocks before a “sacred tree” and storing the rocks in the tree in a ritualized fashion. That’s a long way from Episcopalians putting on their Sunday finery, but it is a fascinating piece of a larger puzzle. As the article points out, other symbolic action among chimps has been observed—some of it the basis for what I discussed with my students. The impulse to acknowledge the power of the Other runs deeply within animals, particularly mammals and birds.

This may seem an odd thing to suggest. We do know, however, that among the earliest attested behavior or Homo sapiens, along with hunting and seeking shelter, is religious behavior. It is part of who we are. Primatologists, such as Frans de Waal, have noted that the great apes engage in altruistic behavior. It is only when they become billionaires, apparently, that the urge dies. Again, other mammal species and some birds also show altruistic behavior. We are part of the natural world. Our religion, rather than being a collective insanity, is part of a continuity with that natural world. It is much a part of who we are as is seeking food or putting on clothing.

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The more rakish side of my imagination goes to the fact that this article begins with a sacred tree. Tree worship is part of early religions. Some scholars suggest it is part of Asherah’s cult in the ancient world. (I discussed this in technical terms in an article some years back; take a look at my Academia page if you can’t sleep without reading it.) Goddess or not, trees are essential for our survival—call them a godsend. Would it not make sense for religion to include reverence for trees? It seems that some great apes, at least, agree. Are these primates religious? We can’t say. One thing, however, is certain. Our fellow animals show more moderation in their use of the environment than our species does, and that in itself is both logical and religious.


Apes and Atheists

Bonobo&AtheistFrans de Waal is among the sanest of popular science writers. I’ve been following his non-technical work since Our Inner Ape through The Age of Empathy to The Bonobo and the Atheist. As de Waal himself explains, he tended to leave religion out of his earlier works since, for a scientist such topics are generally taboo. His direct address to religion in The Bonobo and the Atheist is refreshing and enlightened. As he notes, de Waal does not believe in God, but he doesn’t believe in the abolition of religion either. This sets him against his fellow biologist Richard Dawkins, who is so bright that the rest of us are burnt out dimmer bulbs by comparison. As de Waal soberly asks: what does science offer in place of religion? What is the point of taking away something that has evolved from our early primate days without offering anything to fill its spot? Even an ape would object.

What makes The Bonobo and the Atheist so engaging, apart from de Waal’s writing, is the openness of his outlook. De Waal suggests that the origins of morality and empathy can be glimpsed in apes and monkeys. He cites the reaction of chimpanzees to rain storms and even waterfalls that hint at early religious development. As I’ve suggested on this forum before, religion may even be allowed to animals. Their experience of religion is certainly not the same as ours, but there is evidence of both thought and feeling. When these are brought together they form religious belief in Homo sapiens. Why not in our ancestors and fellow animals? No, animals don’t develop elaborate doctrines or precious rituals. They do, however, reverence the powerful, ponder death, and feel emotion. Some of our great thinkers are ready to cast all that aside in the name of progress. More humbly, and circumspectly, de Waal considers that evolution is telling us something. And when evolution speaks, its children should pay attention.

Descriptions of reactions and behaviors that we consider unique to humans among the animal world draw me to de Waal’s books. As a scientist de Waal has to draw logical conclusions, and those conclusions point to an inner world that is not so much unique in humans as it is evolved. Religion, I believe, is one of those traits. If animals show some of the early stages of religious development, including a basic form of ethics, how does that devalue our human efforts to explain our universe? Religion is in good company, along with opposable thumbs and basic language comprehension. Looking at how we treat each other, I consider being related to animals a compliment most of the time. Without a doubt some of the ethics Frans de Waal illustrates among the bonobos exceed those I’ve experienced at the hands of many who think of themselves as made in the image of God.


Giving Lilith Her Due

Lilith Fair has announced its 2010 tour dates and excited fans are already purchasing tickets. Lilith Fair is a collection of women artists who share a stage to showcase the female contribution to contemporary music and donate a considerable share to charity. The event name, of course, is taken from the mythological character of Lilith. Popularized as a rare example of “Hebrew myth,” Lilith is a character who likely derives from ancient Mesopotamia, although her origins are obscure. Best known as “Adam’s first wife,” her somewhat sexy story in Judaic tradition evolved into Lilith being the original woman. Unlike Eve she was created simultaneously with Adam. Things were fine until she wanted to be on top during intercourse – males were not made to be dominated, according to patriarchal old Adam, and Lilith ships out to shack up with Satan. She is demonized (literally and figuratively) and becomes the “night hag” that snatches babies and claims the first right of intercourse with every male (an etiology for nocturnal emissions). She becomes the mother of demons.

This story shows all the traits of a late development, but the idea of a strong female figure in Eden is an appealing one. Lilith has come to represent the empowered female, and the modern trend towards accepting her as an icon of feminine independence is apt. Long ago I was intrigued by the female side of the story. Perhaps because I was raised primarily in a single-parent family for my formative years, I have always wondered about the disparity in our “advanced” culture that still considers the male as the “default” model with the female as kind of an adjunct after-thought. This fascination led me to the study of goddesses in the first place, culminating in a doctorate on Asherah. In the Bible men have Adam, Noah, Moses, David, and countless other role-models – even God himself according to standard interpretation. Why not admit the goddess?

It is telling that when Lilith becomes too powerful she is presented as evil. Anthropological explanations have little to offer by way of adequate explanations for such a development. Not to blame biology (or to lay claim to an excuse), but Frans de Waal’s Inner Ape demonstrates that males are hopelessly paranoid about showing weakness. Female primates tend to express their power by group cohesiveness while males try to blunder their way to the top with brute individualism. Adam had nothing to fear from Lilith. To those who perform in Lilith Fair, I only have to say, “Rock on!”