Whelmed Over

I have to admit I feel overwhelmed by the task.  You see, I spent twelve years living in a town that went from one small used bookstore to none.  Within a half-hour’s drive I could be at two bookstores—indies, of course, since B&N doesn’t always count.  One of the shops was the Princeton University bookstore, so that was almost unfair.  Now I live in a region with many bookstores.  I wasn’t truly aware of this when deciding on where to settle; the decision was made on practical matters such as being able to get to work, and affordability.  It turns out that central eastern Pennsylvania is unexpectedly bookish.  I’m not complaining, you understand.  I haven’t had much time to explore, and that’s why I’m overwhelmed.  That, and Banned Books Week.

I’ve been to the oldest continuously operated bookstore in the world, The Moravian Book Shop, in Bethlehem.  Twice already.  But there are many more within an easy drive from here.  “Lead us not into temptation,” the prayer goes, but if we’re honest we’ll admit we love the challenge.  Home owning is expensive.  There’s always something that needs to be done—the sort of thing you used to let the landlord handle—they are lords, after all.  And time for reading is scarce.  Add to this that there are bookstores I haven’t even entered yet, not far away, and a kind of anxiety grows.  You have to realize that even in Manhattan reaching a bookstore on lunch hour was difficult.  They are few and far between.  It’s overwhelming being in a region where indie bookstores have held on.

My wife recently showed me an ad for an indie bookstore over the border in New Jersey.  They were looking for new owners.  We’ve often discussed how perhaps a retirement job for us might be just such a thing.  Of course, business sense isn’t my strong suit—just learning how to own a house seems pretty hard.  The idea of making a living surrounded by books, however, is appealing.  (You might think an editor reads all day, and while that sometimes happens the reading is generally embryonic books.  Besides, there’s something serendipitous about discovering fully fledged books that you didn’t know were coming.)  To buy a business requires capital, and we’re more the minuscule type, when it comes to finance.  As we settle into our house we decide which books go where, and it is remarkably satisfying.  After I’m done being overwhelmed by all there is to do in the house, I’m looking forward to being overwhelmed by exploring the bookstores of central eastern Pennsylvania.

Hope for the Future

I’m standing in a haunted place. There was an act of violence here this week. Gun violence. A man died in this restaurant where I sat with my wife and had lunch just a couple of months ago. I’m in Princeton for a rally organized by a teenager. We’re here to tell the government we the people want sensible gun control laws. The website said they were expecting 500. Five thousand turned out instead. Princeton’s not the kind of town where you expect gun violence. Affluent and privileged, it’s the kind of place many of us go to get away from real life for a while—they’ve got the best bookstore around and you can still find DVDs at the Princeton Record Exchange. You don’t expect people to be shot dead here.

America’s perverse affair with firearms goes hand-in-hand with its refusal to ensure adequate treatment for the mentally ill. We give them firearms and wonder what could possibly go wrong. We elect the mentally deficient to highest office in the land and instead of reining him in, the GOP reigns with terror. They have shown time and again that they prefer NRA money to our children. They have sold out. And the word appropriately used to describe such a party good manners prevent me from inscribing on this blog. Republicans, true republicans, need a new party. Instead they refuse to call this aberration in Washington what it truly is. Thousands took to the streets yet again this weekend. This was my fourth rally or march since January of last year, and hey, government—they keep getting bigger.

“Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.” So saith the Good Book. It’s a book the Republican Party has forgotten how to read. Especially the “evangelicals” who’ve betrayed their saintly name. While I’m here in Princeton, a few hours away in the sullied capitol of this once reasonable nation, half a million are on the march. And just as women led the way last January we’re being shown the truth that anyone can lead better then old white men. And the fact that the organizers of these protests are high schoolers, I am inclined to leave the last words to the prophet Isaiah, whom, for any Republicans who might be reading, is in the Bible: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”

Capital Carol

The idea of exchanging presents on a holiday emerges from the impenetrable veil of time. We don’t know when the practice began—the idea of copying the Zoroastrian wise men in Matthew is a bit of a stretch and the date of Christmas wasn’t settled until much later in time. However and whenever it started, giving gifts at this time of year has become one of the defining features of late capitalism—it’s almost as if Jesus of Nazareth was born for this. An economy that measures self-worth in terms of money is just the place to have God-incarnate celebrated by giving lavish gifts. Those of us who make no money off the holidays can’t deny that it feels good to give someone something. People like, in general, to make each other happy.

This year my wife asked for a non-material gift. We made our way to the McCarter Theater in Princeton to see their acclaimed performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A gift of a memorable family time and a truly spectacular play. Seeing this story in 2016 felt especially important. Dickens was a famous advocate for the poor and was well aware of how they suffered at the hands of the wealthy. Indeed, those with too much money lose their humanity almost completely. The story is focused around Christmas, but the message is needed for every day, especially in over-long years such as this. Capitalism is a form of social evil. Anything that lowers humans to mere ciphers on a page is the very definition of sin.

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We all know how the story goes, but to see accomplished actors undergoing conversion is nevertheless a strangely hopeful experience. As the story makes abundantly clear, it requires so very little to make others happy. The point of having money, after all, is to use it for the good of others. Seeing one man facing his own mortality only to realize that he has isolated himself from the care of others is a powerful experience. As we move forward into the long and dark days ahead, there is a reminder here that we need to keep close to our hearts. There may be fewer presents under the tree this year, but we are all the richer for it. This is the kind of gift that we need to share with the entire world.

Virgil’s Vigil

IMG_2798I can never keep Virgil and Beatrice straight. I blame Dante. Allegories can be so tiring. So, sitting under a tree in Princeton, enjoying a root beer float prepared at The Bent Spoon, I ponder the empty bottle before me. Virgil’s root beer. So good, it states, that I’ll swear it was made in Heaven. It is good, I must say, but didn’t Virgil lead Dante through the other place? You see, I’ve just spent a pleasant morning at Grounds for Sculpture, the outdoor museum set up by Seward Johnson, a sculptor that some accuse of kitsch. Others come by the busload to see what it’s all about. Johnson’s cast sculptures of people are so lifelike that it isn’t unusual to find yourself staring at an actual person sitting on a bench, wondering if they’re real or not. I spend a lot of time pondering reality, and this place makes that question explicit.

Descartes said “I think therefore I am,” but what if I am really the thought of another? How would I ever know? As I wonder around among the sculptures, a different face of reality shows itself. Many of Johnson’s pieces are sculptures based on paintings. To get behind the surface you have to imagine what the unshown side must’ve looked like. That which the original artist left out. Any art is a matter of perspective. Unseen realities—isn’t there something Dantesque about all this? Is Virgil the guide through Heaven, or is that Beatrice?

These statues, in quotidian poses, are so real. If they’re cast from actual persons, maybe they are. After all, this camera I carry is capable of capturing souls. And if you don’t make it through the first time around, there’s always Purgatory as a safety net. This bottle in my hand causes me confusion. Is my tipple divine or diabolical? How much difference is there between them, really? Princeton is a place that needs no one, after all, except those who have already made a success out of life. A place with expensive root beer on offer. A vice for which I’m willing to pay. Maybe life is a divine comedy after all.

Thoughts in a Cemetery

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Being distinguished, indeed, getting noticed, is increasingly difficult to accomplish. When you read a lot of history, you realize that anyone who managed to write coherently in the past few centuries seldom had difficulty getting a publisher, for instance. The key to getting noticed was publishing books, or being lucky enough to have landed a highly visible job. I was reminded of this, and was given a slight inferiority complex, by a recent visit to the Nassau Presbyterian Church’s cemetery in Princeton. I’ve gone by this cemetery dozens of times, but only recently took the time to get out and explore.

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History buffs will know that Aaron Burr is buried there. Burr was from a family of privilege; his father Aaron Burr, Senior, was one of the founders of the College of New Jersey, better known by its current name of Princeton University. The vice-presidential Burr was also the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, who also rests in this very graveyard where one hopes God is somewhat more forgiving of sinners than rhetoric might suggest. Although he was the third Vice-President of the United States, Aaron Burr is now remembered for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel not far from where my bus rumbles every workday. One kind of conflict exchanged for another. This odd and tragic duel ended Hamilton’s life and Burr’s career. As the bad boy “founding father” Burr has found a number of supporters posthumously. His grave is perhaps the most celebrated in Princeton. This despite the fact that President Grover Cleveland is only a few yards away.

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There are, however, more enlightened minds buried here as well. Being in the presence of Kurt Gödel and John von Neumann is a humbling experience. The presence of Albert Einstein, perhaps Princeton’s most famous resident, is, however, missed. Einstein was cremated and his ashes scattered at an undisclosed location. Standing in the cemetery in which so many of his compatriots rest on an overcast, damp December day, it felt like some slight compensation. Political power and ambition often lead to obscurity. I look to those who would be president and shudder. Here in this quiet cemetery, thinking of the common fate of us all, self-aggrandizement seems to be in such bad taste. Einstein, as so often, had it right. Those who are truly noteworthy seldom leave any traces in this world.

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Mind Your Manna

Foodies have gained a respectable place among the ranks of social critics. Major newspapers and many, many websites tell us how to eat better. Eat healthier, or with more style, or more adventure. Our intricately interconnected world has made obscure ingredients fairly easily found and since we no longer rely on what can grow around here, the enjoyment of food has become a source of quasi-religious meaning for some. What was once a basic biological necessity has become a valued source of culture. We can tell a lot about a person by what they eat.

Like many average people, we shop in the more reasonably priced supermarket near us. We don’t make much money and why pay more for what you can get for less? Over the holiday weekend we bucked the trend and went to Whole Foods as a kind of holiday treat. We had a gift card and we hadn’t been to a Whole Foods since a friend introduced us to the chain in Madison, Wisconsin. We remembered that it was aligned with our ideals: sustainability, simplicity, and the desire to live well. Also, it is very expensive. Like most healthy options in our culture, they’re not really affordable to those of modest means. Still, the store was crowded. To be fair, this is down by Princeton where quite a few well-heeled New Jerseyans reside. The store was welcoming with less crass capitalistic drives to purchase more, but despite its organic feel, it was very much a grocery store like any other. Most familiar brands are missing since what we normally eat is processed to the point of filler, but the hidden foodie in us all appreciates the nutrients nature has co-evolved along with our taste. It seemed like the place for an epiphany.

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Then I spied Burning Bush hot sauce. “Sets the soul afire,” the bottle proclaimed. Quite apart from demonstrating the relevance the Bible still has, this sauce had religious implications. If a hot sauce can hand down commandments, it is a powerful comestible indeed. I have to admit that I’m not a real fan of hot sauces. My taste in foods is pretty simple, if vegetarian. Nevertheless Moses doesn’t stand alone among biblical figures who spice up our food. On a brief layover in Phoenix I spied a whole rack of hot sauce, some bottles suggesting that the heat came from the very nemesis of the burning bush. Hell seems to be another favorite location to be trumpeted by the painful food connoisseur. When we want to claim the extremes, in terms of food, we turn to either Heaven or Hell. William Blake would’ve appreciated this irony. As for me, taking my commandments with mild salsa is just fine. Anything more than this would seem to be a sin.

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Weathering Academia

Come the end of September, I’m scheduled to give a talk at Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York City. I’m personally very flattered by this because, as it has become clear to me, an academic without a post is mute. I’ve seen colleagues who teach at schools I’ve never heard of consulted by the media—and there is obviously more to it than this—because they have teaching positions. Those of us who used to be professors apparently forgot everything when we take jobs out of necessity. That’s why I’m so flattered. My talk will be on the larger issues behind my book, Weathering the Psalms. I never expected this book to be a bestseller. I knew that it was, in some sense, incomplete. Academic books are the kinds of things you write when you have an academic post. When your day is not programmed with “enter this data, follow up on that book, and when you have time, get other people to write books.” People, of course, with university posts. The rest of us know not whereof we speak.

It’s funny. Back when I was teaching, even if it was only at Nashotah House, I used to be asked to give little talks all the time. It was rare for a year to pass without someone asking me to lead a seminar or share what I’d learned with some august body. That tapered off once I became an adjunct, although a Presbyterian Church in Princeton once invited me to speak because I was teaching at Rutgers (the university). And as I prepare my talk in my free time, I wonder about a society so tied up with name prestige that someone who has something interesting to say is just a crackpot unless a college or university or seminary or think-tank hires them. There are many of us—hundreds, if not thousands—who know as much as our university colleagues about a topic. An individual doesn’t have a name big enough to flash around, so we don’t get asked to share. Keep your hand down and your head down on the desk, please.

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In any case, it has been good for me to come back to the weather and think through some of the larger implications. I’d just had the book declined by a big name academic press when Nashotah House terminated my position. For many years I couldn’t look at the manuscript since it seemed a symbol of my failure. No, the book isn’t everything that it could be, but there is some good information there. The larger implications are actually of some importance here. The weather is studied both by science and by religion. Both understand aspects of it that the other misses. I’m looking forward to exploring this with the good folks of Rutgers Presbyterian who were kind enough to invite a guy with nothing more than a book and an obscure name to come and talk about something that most academic colleagues just don’t notice.

Plainly Ghosts

GhostsSometimes I’ll buy a book and secret it aside to read later as a kind of reward for making it through some heavier material. Research monographs don’t always do the job for which they are required in the commuter’s life—keeping me awake on a long and tiresome bus ride. I look forward to the book that has more appeal, and I don’t want to rush through it right away. I picked up Roger Clarke’s Ghosts, A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for the Truth in Princeton’s wonderful Labyrinth just after Christmas (the traditional time, I learned, for telling ghost stories). Now that spring is more or less firmly in place, and I’ve gotten through some erudite studies that I might use for an academic paper or two, I picked it up to pass the time on my weary ride. As regular readers will know, ghosts have long been a preoccupation of mine, but one on which I’ve always been ambivalent. Clarke doesn’t set out to prove anything here. His book is more experiential than agenda-driven. He begins with the simple observation that people do see ghosts.

Lamenting that he himself has never seen one, Clarke sets out upon a partially autobiographical explanation of where this fascination began. Being from the United Kingdom—often cited as the most haunted country in the world—he goes through some of the more famous accounts with a sharp eye. Crying shenanigans when they’re obviously there, he questions how one can claim that any one country is more haunted than another. More importantly, he notes how seeing ghosts is a marker of class. Historically, the rise of the middle class led to the death of the ghosts. The rich and the poor see ghosts more often. Those in the middle associate such sightings with poor education, while those who are most educated and refined take ghosts for granted. It is only with the rise of reality television, the true opiate of the middle class, that ghost belief has become acceptable in the broad center.

Clarke also frames his work against the religious background that Catholics, with their belief in purgatory, had room for ghosts in their theology. Protestants tended to see anything reported as a ghost as a demon, since the soul either went to heaven or hell after death, meaning that there’s no ghost left to wander around. While doubtlessly skeptics exist, I have always been intrigued that even hard-nosed scientific views of the paranormal world tend to go a bit softer on ghosts than they do on cryptids and aliens. I suspect that’s because ghost reports have been around as long as written records and, presumably, long before. People have always seen ghosts, and in such large numbers that it is difficult to simply call them names and say they’re foolish. Yes, we may be a credulous lot, but we can still find books like Ghosts at a reputable bookstore. And we can tuck them away as guilty pleasures to take the chill off an otherwise very dull ride.

Under Who?

Who is God anyway? The question occurred to me as I read about the current Superior Court decision in New Jersey that “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance remains constitutional. The American Humanist Association had sued to have the offending prepositional phrase removed, based on first amendment rights to religious freedom. I’ve always found the whole indoctrination of swearing to a flag somewhat provincial and perhaps even damaging to the unity of humankind. Nations, after all, are about keeping things for ourselves, something that the God of the Bible seems to find naughty. During the Cold War, waged against the “godless Communists,” the questionable phrase was added in 1954, only after we’d secured nuclear weapons. Does any nation that has the bomb have the right to declare divine sanction? I guess so, on second thought.

IMG_0962In his decision Judge David Bauman said that God, in this context, is not about religion, but about the state’s history. Granted, one of the New Jersey delegates to sign the constitution was a clergyman, and president of Princeton College. The same Princeton that became the home of the man who would open physics enough to let us begin a nuclear reaction. But I’m getting ahead of my story. This concept of God being an arcane aspect of history as opposed to a present and active force motivating people’s lives is a curious one. In order to keep the deity, he (and the historical God is male) must be demoted to an historical relic. If that is true of divinity, what does it say about the concept of nationhood itself? Have we come to admit that it is all a fiction to keep status quo ante?

Humanist and atheist groups have argued for years that public school (which no government takes that seriously) should not be a forum for religious indoctrination. Some religious groups (such as Creationists) clearly see such schools as a mission field ripe for proselytizing young minds. Such was clearly the case in 1954. Today we see the Russian Orthodox Church becoming a supporter of the government in Russia, where godlessness might be more a factor on the ground than on paper. In the United States we have a culture that provides lip-service to the almighty while the true god is secreted away in the shrines of bank vaults and expense accounts. It is really about a way of life, after all. Should we keep or remove “under God” from a pledge to personal gain? It is all a matter of how you define “God.”

Take Twice Daily

Once in a way, when I feel a dusty archaism settling over me, and I realize my eyes don’t focus as well as they once did and that sedentary life in front of a computer screen is slowly killing me, I betake myself to a book sale. In this particular part of the country the big sales are in the spring. I’m told that the book business is dying, but if I can get out of a book sale with no bruises or scary brushes with over-eager buyers, I count myself lucky. I confess, I’m a bookaholic. I spend too many hours a week on public transit, and I consider it a moral obligation to read in public. Even in a city the size of New York, I’ve had people on the bus plop down next to me and say, “You’re that guy who reads.” Public displays of literacy. While some of the books I read are common enough, others are difficult to find in even university libraries. I know that’s an excuse, but my vice is buying books.

I once read a children’s story about a house actually constructed of books. I want that house. Although new books aren’t cheap, there are ways of making them fit into a modest budget. And although you really can’t build with them, they insulate the soul. Reading is more than fundamental—it is the very essence of learning. When I glance at Publisher’s Weekly and read that print sales aren’t what they used to be, I am buoyed by seeing the strong market in young adult literature. We have at least raised a generation that likes a good story. The earliest literature was religious, and many religions developed around written words. It’s a mistake to take religion for gullible belief. If there weren’t power in these words, why would anyone believe?

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Local book sales can be huge events. Each year Bryn Mawr and Wellesley have a combined book sale in Princeton. If you get there after opening, there will be no place to park. The libraries of Hunterdon County in New Jersey hold a sale that, until this year, required off-site parking and a full three days of hiring a shuttle bus service to get hundreds of buyers back to their cars. And these venues are packed. People do buy books. And many of them are half my age. It is a seed of hope. Some people are surely looking for a quick read, maybe to take on vacation, but you can also see the seasoned, selective literati carefully examining the offers, backs bent, brows furrowed. For twenty dollars you can even get in early, before the goods have been picked over. The man checking me out said the sale gets bigger every year. Looking out over the sea of cars, I feel strangely ebullient, as if I’m atop Nebo looking over the promised land. Although it’s quite a drive, I’m already home.

Supergod

ManofSteelThis weekend the most-seen UFO in the skies was the Man of Steel. I didn’t see the new Superman movie, partly because, I suppose, of my own inadequacy issues. Also partly because I’ve always had trouble warming up to Superman. He’s just got too much going for him. Don’t get me wrong—I love heroes. But heroes are vulnerable. In fact, their vulnerability is the key to their strength. Superman, truly threatened only by kryptonite, is maybe just a little too perfect. A little too… messianic? So it would seem, according to CNN’s Belief Blog. According to a post by Eric Marrapodi, Warner Brothers is pushing hard on the Christian imagery of Man of Steel, encouraging church discussion groups, and even providing a study packet of Jesusesque tropes to discuss with the faithful. All this for a hero dreamed up by a couple of Jewish kids in the 1930s.

A telling observation appears somewhere in the middle of the article, where Ted Baehr is quoted as saying “I think it’s a very good thing that Hollywood is paying attention to the Christian marketplace.” Did you catch it? Christian marketplace? No surprises here, really. Christianity has “been good” to many who advocate the prosperity gospel—god wants the good to be rich. And since I haven’t been able to walk through Times Square for two weeks without seeing the Man of Steel, larger than life, flying off of massive billboards into the crowds of tourists and locals, I have no doubt the movie did very well over the weekend. Some may have even had their faith restored. Others will have had their pockets lined.

A few years back I was asked to present a program for adult education for a church in Princeton. They wanted someone to talk about religion and movies, and this is something I’d often addressed in my classes. I selected movies to discuss that were not “religious”—no films premised on religious characters or situations—and had no difficulty filling an hour with example after example. Movie makers have long known the benefits of movies based on Christian concepts. Self-sacrifice, redemption, and resurrection permeate the movie industry. This is a Christian culture. The parallels between Superman and Jesus have long been noted by critics of religious imagery in both films and comic books. And those who make films have also realized that Christianity is more than just a belief system. Indeed, it is a marketplace. And with enough money, even a regular mortal can bend steel.

Scholar Universe

One of the resources that editors use to find scholars of obscure fields of study is a website called Scholar Universe. Now, before you all rush to the site and crash the system, I should warn you that you’ll need to purchase an account and get a password to use it. Frankly, for our society it really isn’t worth the effort or expense for most people. The information on Scholar Universe is often outdated, and not always accurate. Once, when searching for who’s who in classical mythology, I was surprised to find my own name. I did teach classical mythology at Montclair State University for three semesters, but my longer and more complete career of teaching biblical studies was nowhere to be found. How quickly our contributions, meager though they be, disappear. In any case, when a contact breaks down, the website lists the position of a scholar as “Last Known.” More than once I’ve searched for a more updated record to find “Last Known” as a circumlocution for “deceased.” There are a few things I think I’d like to ask some dead religion professors.

I recently came across a couple of academics who had, in separate instances, been murdered. One, rather gruesomely, attacked with a hammer as he walked home from the train. We tend to think that education will somehow protect us from the vicissitudes of a world caught up in its own madness. Some of us came to this profession grasping for some sort of immortality. Higher education, while based on great ideals, is nevertheless just as susceptible to taint as any human enterprise. I have been watching as higher education has followed after the role model of business for the past few decades. There was a time when learning was thought to be worth the investment, no matter what the cost. Now a pleasant deception will do, thank you, as long as there’s cash in it.

The history of higher education has been, from the beginning, tied up with religion. The earliest universities coalesced around theological faculties, while others studied law. The two are never far apart. Even in the “New World” our early universities were formed, initially, in the service of the church. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, William and Mary, and many other colleges and universities were founded with the ideal of theological education firmly in mind. Concerns for the affairs of the world, however, inevitably came to preoccupy higher education. Secular schools have little time to study real world phenomena such as religion and spirituality. Unfortunately, those are the areas, our news sources often inform us, that would benefit the most from a bit of sensible learning. But not as long as there is money to be made elsewhere.

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Tolerance, Princeton Style

Princeton is an idealistic kind of town. A seat of great wealth, the town is dominated by the university and yet it manages to retain a sense of genteel quaintness that so often accompanies the aura of financial security. Even with my distrust of money, I love to wander its streets and imagine what the world could be like. My ideal world has bookstores, and so I always stop at the Labyrinth, the current incarnation of the university bookstore in town. Last time I was there I found an overstock sale copy of Ian Buruma’s Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents. Well, both the price and the topic were right, so I read it this week. Buruma is actually a scholar of democracy, human rights, and journalism, not religion. One of the key identifiers of religion is that there is no central, unifying topic that ties all religions together, and therefore scholars of many disciplines have much to say about it. Buruma offers three chapters illustrating the way that religions interact with society, often violently. He then tenders suggestions for how this violence might be curbed.

Commenting on tensions of Islamic growth in a nominally Christian Europe, Buruma notes that one of the Enlightenment core values is a belief in universals. If truth is truth it is universal. This, he notes, often conflicts with religions since most religions also tend to make universal, often exclusive, claims. Here is precisely where human culture is brought to its knees by religion. Due to their revealed nature, western religions cannot be challenged on any rational grounds. This is as true of Mormonism as it is of Judaism. If God said it, and there is no empirical proof, people have no choice but to obey. Problem is, God can’t make up “his” mind about the final word on the subject. New religions sprout constantly, growing into inevitable conflict with their neighbors. Not to mention those who have reasoned their way out of religion.

What is the limit of religious tolerance? As Buruma notes, tolerance necessarily includes tolerating intolerance. Some religions are constrained to be intolerant of others, and how do we allow them to be part of our little tea party? (The metaphor is intentional. Think about it.) Buruma suggests, as many have, that the rule of law should settle the situation. People must learn to separate civil law from religion. But can it be done? I have serious doubts. I’ve heard this suggested before, by minds far greater than mine. Having grown up as a religious kid, however, I know that rule of law has its limits. It stops once God opens the door to direct revelation, whether to people today or thousands of years ago. Religion is not bound by the rule of law. It is its own highest authority. Many, many people throughout the world believe that. Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, all are noted to have had clashes with civil authorities of one sort or another during their lifetimes. The pattern is set. So even here in Princeton, with an engaging, thoughtful book in my greedy little hands, surrounded by great wealth, I realize just how idealistic all of it can be.

Fecit potentiam

Yesterday at Princeton’s annual seasonal choral concert, the program consisted of Bach. The first piece was a Magnificat, a piece that, in prose form, I quickly memorized at Nashotah House. With our daily double dose of chapel services, liturgical standbys such as the Magnificat quickly became reflex recitations, made with little thought beyond getting on to the next piece. It occurred to me as I listened to it at leisure, the hopes of poor Mary haven’t really materialized after these 2000 plus years. After a couple of millennia, perhaps it is time for a state of the theology assessment.

Despite the veneration of Mary in the liturgical branches of Christianity, the collective handmaids of the Lord have made slow progress in being integrated fully into church leadership. Only with the last century, and fairly late therein, did many Protestant denominations finally recognize that Mary’s gender might have something to teach the men. Paul, for one, would have had none of it. Even today the Roman Catholic Church stalwartly refuses to consider female priesthood. Perhaps Mary’s prayer should be uttered yet again within its walls?

At the section labeled “fecit potentiam,” however, I noticed further lack of fulfillment. “God has shown strength with God’s arm,” the program translates, “God has scattered the proud.” The hopes expressed in the next several verses have been silenced beneath the greed of an economic system with no responsibility. “God has deposed the mighty from their seats.” When did that happen? Those of the Occupy movement who’ve received a face of pepper spray might beg to differ. “God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich God has sent away empty.” Sent away to their summerhouses, their mansions, and their penthouse apartments? Away from the working class who oil the gears of their massive machines. No, it seems that the Magnificat has not fared so well at predicting the new era to be brought in by a special child.

Of course, Luke’s song of Mary is based on Hannah’s song at becoming the mother of Samuel from the Hebrew Bible. Samuel was the great judge and prophet who saw to the law and order in the land. Strangely, however, the Bible manages to confuse Samuel with his erstwhile enemy Saul, conflating their birth accounts. Isn’t it just like the Bible to confuse the oppressed with the oppressor? The strength shown with the divine arm, the wealthy inform us, is the strength they wield. After all, god and gold differ by only one letter.

Stephen Hawking’s Heaven

CNN’s Belief Blog, apparently open to contributions only by “successful” (i.e., university employed) religion scholars, nevertheless occasionally comes up with a thoughtful story. One of yesterday’s posts focuses on the fact that Stephen Hawking says Heaven is a “fairy story.” First of all, I have admit being surprised to see that Hawking is still in Cambridge—I could have sworn he was working in the Princeton public parking garage because it is his voice that comes out of the ticket machine. (Times being what they are for academics, I figured he might have needed a second job.) Ah, but appearances can be deceiving! I have had great respect for Stephen Hawking for many years. My own scientific interests must be relegated to a decidedly lay position among the collegiums of scientists, but Hawking writes books that people like me can (mostly) comprehend. Echoing an idea I stressed earlier—we came to the same conclusion independently—Hawking noted in a recent interview that Heaven is an idea devised to cope with fear.

Cosmologists, such as Hawking, speak with authority on the literal heavens. Ironically, the word “heavens” continues to retain its usefulness, even among scientists, for describing everything that is out there. Humans are assuredly small and our place in the universe is miniscule. In our heads, however, we conceive lofty ideas that seem to place our own consciousness outside the unlimited bounds of this universe. Is it any wonder that we can concoct gods? As deeply as they peer into the cold, dark recesses of outer space, astronomers and cosmologists find no room for Heaven. This cosmic inn, no matter how many aliens there may be, is largely empty.

What I find interesting is that journalists of religion find skepticism among scientists newsworthy. While being a rational thinker, as science demands, does not necessarily forego divine entities, using gods as explanations and having trans-dimensional heavens tucked away behind some far asteroid does somehow devalue the power and majesty of our eternal home. We expect our scientists to be skeptical—we wouldn’t often visit a doctor who sacrificed a goat on every office visit to consult its entrails concerning our health. And yet it is newsworthy when a scientist says in a forthright statement that Heaven does not exist. It would be like an evangelical preacher saying evolution never happened. The biggest miracle of all may be that whether it is Dr. Hawking’s doing or not, I actually manage to find parking in Princeton.

Billions and billions, but no angels with harps...