Tintinnabulation

On a summer’s day when I can work with the windows open, I hear the bells of a local church.  We haven’t been in our current location long enough to know for sure, but they seem to come from the direction of the United Methodists.  Around noon each day they ring out hymn tunes to which I often find myself filling in the words.  These are traditional hymns that I’ve known from childhood, and there’s an easy familiarity about hearing them, although my own spiritual journey may have taken me in different directions.  The sound of bells is so pleasant, I think, that nobody really objects.  Then I wonder about what I thought.

Music in public places does impact other people.  Consider the heavy metal or rap booming out of a passing car with the stereo turned up too high for human consumption.  Or jazz in the park.  Music impacts other people.  What, I wonder, is the message those of other religions hear along with these old hymns?  Do they suggest more than the praise of the locals for their version of the Almighty?  Is there some subtle proselytizing going on?  Is the music for members of the parish only, or can outsiders hear it and be free of obligation?  In many ways this encapsulates, I believe, the conflicts rife throughout our nation.  Traditionalists who see nothing wrong with “white” Christianity spreading its message but who object to a mosque being built in their community would likely find church bells comforting, even if they personally don’t attend.  Those from the outside, meanwhile, hear a message of cultural superiority.

Some sects feel compelled to praise God vocally, often and enthusiastically.  Their religion insists they do so.  Hymns ringing from the steeple, even if they’re not exactly your brand, participate in that mandate.  The deity likes to be adored.    (Think Psalms.)  This specific divinity, however, isn’t alone.  Perhaps beyond the bounds of where these sound waves flatten out to inaudibility, there are others with religious beliefs often older.  They too have rules about how to behave.  They may not be friendly to those who come bearing a new message of a new truth.  Globalization follows in the wake of technology and no god beyond the laws of physics oversees tech.  Our smartphones have made the world a much smaller place.  In such tight quarters, sounds carry.  Church bells, innocent as they seem, may be heard as a war cry.  But I wouldn’t suggest such things on a day so pleasant that I can work with my windows open and listen to the bells.

Religion in the City

It’s 5 a.m., so what are all these people doing here?  On the highway.  It’s still dark and I’m on my way to the choice of public transit that will take me to New York City.  You see, telecommuting is never 100% city-free.  Somehow I’d been thinking that once we’d gotten away from New York things would be quieter.  Then I remembered that in two decades, if current trends and models continue, nearly half of the US population will live in just eight states.  New York and Pennsylvania are two of them.  Those of us who’ve moved here to get out of the rat race have made our own little mouse race, I guess.

Being in the city after an absence of almost three weeks was a shock to the system.  The first things I noticed were how loud and crowded it was.  In the summer Manhattan has, I was forcefully reminded, lots more tourists than the winter months when it feels like, as one comrade says, Leningrad.  As always when I’m in the masses on the streets, I think about how religious New York City is.  And how secular.  It is, I suspect, a cross-section of American (and international) beliefs.  People come here looking for something transcendent.  Otherwise, why leave home?  Tourism can be a sacred industry.  It brings people from different places together and, in the best of circumstances, forces them to get along with one another.

There are plenty who seek to convert those who are different.  On my way to Penn Station last night, as the light was beginning to fade in Herald Square, I woman had set up a portable mic and speakers.  She was preaching, ignored, to the evening crowds.  Among the strangers are those who believe differently.  Those who are ripe for conversion.  It’s all part of New York’s background hymn.  Then on the sidewalk I spied, scrawled in chalk, “Repent and obey Jesus — Heb 5:9;” the writing on the walk.  “And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” the selected verse reads.  We can overlook that it says nothing about repenting.  This is, after all, the melting pot where religions encounter, mingle, and blend.  Even the Fundamentalists must feel it from time to time.  The traffic home at 10:30 p.m. is quieter.  The day, I will learn, is not over yet.  Such is religion in the city.

Pagan Values

“Pagan” used to be a pejorative term. If we’re honest we’ll have to admit that it is still used that way by many people. All the term really denotes, however, is a believer in “non-Christian” traditions. The classical pagan was someone who’d “never heard of Jesus,” and therefore hadn’t bowed to the obvious truth. In the current religious landscape a pagan is someone who makes a conscious choice to follow different gods. Looking over history, there are plenty to choose from. If you don’t limit yourself to monotheism, there’s no compunction to stop at just one. Paganism is a flourishing religious choice today. Getting over the stigma will require effort for a long time to come, as a video a friend sent me from Heat Street shows.

This video show pagans in the US Army at Fort Jackson. It’s worth the three minutes of your life that it’ll take you to watch it. Pay special attention to what the chaplain says. We’ve been acculturated, through monotheistic lenses, to ridicule those who believe in many gods. We’ve also evolved beyond the stage where E. B. Tylor could inform us that the most natural form of religion is animism and we have to be taught to unlearn it. We’ve also had the natural human tendency to believe in magic laughed out of us. We can’t accept that anything could exist that doesn’t conform to the laws of physics as we currently understand them. One size fits all. And many think even one god is one too many. As the chaplain says, religion takes on a whole new meaning when your job is asking you perhaps to sacrifice your life for others. You need to allow belief to thrive. The military is coming to grips with paganism.

Belief systems aren’t necessarily rational. I’m reminded of this whenever someone comments that, Mormons, say, believe strange things. I think of what Christianity asks of us and realize it’s only a matter of distancing. All religions ask their adherents to accept the unbelievable. To the great frustration of materialistic reductionists, it is human nature to accept a spiritual world. We are conscious beings and we see intention in the world. Apart from the Whitehouse, the universe seems to be filled with intelligence. We may call it different things. The labels may come in foreign languages. Deep down, however, we all know the feeling. We can teach ourselves to ignore or deny it, but believing is as natural as breathing. If the Army allows pagans—and there’s more than just a few—we should open up both our eyes and our minds. Entire worlds await those willing to do so.

It’s Okay

It once seemed improbable that an entire book could be written on one word. The first time I noticed this I was a doctoral student who’d run across the late William Holladay’s published dissertation on the Hebrew word shuv. Wow, I thought, an entire book on a single vocable. One syllable, nonetheless. Thus I was predisposed to read Allan Metcalf’s OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word. The justification Metcalf gives for his “greatest word” award is the fact that OK is the most-used word of American origin world-wide. Even in languages with other scripts, there are ways of fabricating the “okay” pronunciation and everybody knows what it means. It’s really quite interesting. All the more so since OK first appeared as a joke. It’s now used by everybody in all seriousness. Just think of what one says to someone who’s been hurt or is ill. Isn’t the first question inevitably, “Are you okay?”

OK, you may be saying, but you say your blog’s about religion. Yes, and I’m getting to that, okay? Along about halfway through the book, Metcalf discusses how OK tends not to be used for products because it suggests mediocrity. An exception was James Pyle’s O.K. Soap back in the 1860’s. One of the ads included this affidavit: “The most intelligent classes in New-York use it. Editors of most of the religious papers patronize it.” I had to smile at that. Religious folk had, and sometimes still have (when they’re not too oily) the reputation of clean living. If you’re selling soap, you’re selling sanctity. It’s a very ancient connection. Anthropologists have shown time and again that purity is a concept that the religious own. Something about being worldly makes you feel like you should take a shower.

And it’s not only soap that makes okay religious. In the concluding chapter that describes OK as an American philosophy based on the “I’m Okay—You’re Okay” transactional psychological school, Metcalf notes we treat religions in just that way. Religious tolerance is saying “your religion’s OK.” That’s a lot to think about, considering that we’re talking just two letters here. And this book was written before the 2016 election, when tolerance was a word Americans were just beginning to understand. Maybe our hope is in getting OK back into circulation. After all, giving national security secrets away to Russia is okay. If you’ve got a Republican majority who’s going to quibble? Even Russians know what OK means, at least when it works to their advantage.

Palms and Thorns

“Holy Week” affects only some. That thought may be disturbing to those who still think of religions as a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. So, although today is Palm Sunday for many, for others it’s just Sunday. Not even all Christians recognize the same Palm Sunday. The question that interests me, though, is the one regarding which religion is the right one. I personally suspect this is the behind the rise of the Nones, but I’m getting ahead of my story. How did we come to this impasse? How did we come to believe that only one winner takes it all, spiritually speaking? The answer may lie in evolution.

I don’t mean biological evolution. Borrowing a principal for how this factual occurrence works, however, may help to understand the diversity of religions. For species to differentiate, they must be isolated from each other somehow. Groups that are available for interbreeding will do precisely that. When populations are separated, subtle changes add up over the passage of time so that when they come together down the road mating’s simply an impossibility. Religions behave the same way. The difference, apart from biology, is that many religions allow multiple gods. They aren’t so different from each other. In fact, we’re not even sure if gods are sufficient to define “religion.” People from diverse cultures in ancient times, the evidence seems to indicate, tried to match up their gods. Your Zeus is our Odin kind of thing. Monotheism—the main form of religion that has a problem with evolution—is the ultimate exceptionalist belief system. Our one deity is the only deity and everybody else is wrong. When populations come together we can’t even agree that the God who’s historically the same is in reality the same. Ours is slightly better.

Amid all the chaos created by religions, academics have decided they’re a phenomenon not worth studying. Academics often lose sight of the larger picture. What happens outside the classroom or laboratory is real life too. And outside the walls of the ivory tower the faithful are gathering. Some today are doing it with palm branches in hand. Others are looking on, bemused. The important thing is we don’t talk about it because talking might lead to understanding. And understanding might make us concede that others have some good points to make with their religion as well. How can you feel special in the eyes of your own god when other people suggest other truths might also apply? No wonder someone will end up crucified by the end of the week.

Prejudicial Monsters

snowinaugustWitnessing injustice is traumatic. Especially when you’ve been conditioned to believe there is nothing you can do about it. That helpless feeling crushes you as you see the guilty, the powerful, the cruel getting away with whatever they want to do. This is the perspective of young Michael Devlin in Snow in August. Pete Hamill’s novel is full of observations about prejudice and ignorant blustering about those who are different in 1940’s New York City. Michael accidentally observes a robbery that may also be a murder. The perpetrator, an older boy who leads a gang in Brooklyn, hates Jews. Michael, however, has become the shabbos goy for a synagogue that has seen better days. Although a Catholic, he is curious about this strange rabbi he comes to know and what this other religion teaches. At the same time, Jackie Robinson is being called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers and prejudice about an African American playing in the major leagues sets up a parallel to the story of understanding the Jews.

It is an engrossing novel. I have to confess, however, that I read it because of the golem. A traditional Jewish monster, the golem is an animated being of mud that protects oppressed Jews. In the novel this begins as a legend Rabbi Hirsch tells the boy as they teach each other their native languages. Michael learns Yiddish as the rabbi learns English, and the story of the golem is part of the rabbi’s own sad history as a Jew during Nazi days. Then as Michael, his mother, and the rabbi are all beaten or molested by the gang, it is time for the golem to make his appearance.

Not exactly a monster story—as often in such cases the monster is someone recognized as fully human but without sympathy for those who are different—Snow in August is a thoughtful, almost nostalgic tale of “a simpler time.” What we learn, however, is that it wasn’t really simpler at all. Prejudice could be worn openly and proudly. What many of us may have forgotten, until recent elections forced us to remember, is that such hateful intolerance is still very common. We live in a world where hatred can be currency and bigotry has more power than we’d like to admit. Reading stories, such as Snow in August, will become increasingly important in days ahead. We will need to remind each other that even if only as metaphors golems do indeed exist. All we have to do is believe.

The Devil Made Me

TheWitchesWitch-hunts, I suspect, will become all the rage again if a certain presidential candidate is elected. The fear of witches is not easily explained in a world driven by materialism, but certainly misogyny plays an unholy role in much of it. Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Salem, 1692 has been selling well. Since my wife is one of the many descendants of the Towne family that suffered three witch accusations resulting in two executions (Rebecca Nurse, Mary Esty, and Sarah Cloyce) we read this book together. It is a detailed account of the year we went mad. A year when being different, especially not being Puritan, and not being male, was dangerous. Religious tolerance was not a gleam in the colonists’ eyes since religious freedom translated into not being forced into the government church, not allowing others the same privilege. Indeed, as Schiff points out, religious tolerance was considered by many to be a satanic idea. If ministers starved due to such freedom, it would be easy for Satan to take over. As it was, the Dark Prince seems to have done a pretty good job among the Puritans without such tolerance.

The idea of the Devil has been (and still is) the ultimate scapegoat. People in a capitalist society are naturally frustrated—surprisingly few see this—and frustration always seeks a reason for its own existence. That is patently clear at Salem: blame the Indians, blame the French, blame the Quakers, blame the women. Any and all may be agents of the Devil. Even the descriptions of the Lord of Darkness varied so much that, were he a human, no one could be quite sure who it was they saw. The Devil always takes the form of your enemy. All it takes is an influential clergy willing to push tense believers over the edge. Soon we begin building walls. Then we build gallows.

Religious tolerance has always been a frightening thought. Protestantism challenged a somewhat uniform Catholicism and the mite of a doubt burrowed deeply into peoples minds: is my religion the wrong one? Tolerating other religions means admitting that yours might be wrong. The logic that plays itself out is a terrifying one to some. Belief is never easily changed. States can’t stand dissenters. The only capital crime for which the federal government still executes citizens is treason. Treason sits uncomfortably on the other side of the coin whose obverse reads “tolerance.” You’d think that three centuries would be long enough to learn something. Unfortunately some lessons—often tragic ones for the powerless—have to be played out over and over before we start to comprehend that Satan can be anyone we want him to be.

The Survey Said…

Survey

There may come a time, perhaps “when the trumpet of the Lord shall sound,” that junk mail will be no more, a mere historical curiosity. For now, in these days of declining postage prices, we’ll continue to put up with it. I suspect much of it targets my generation and those older—people who are modest about the time they spend on the internet, and who long to look out the windows when they’re at work. (The non-virtual windows, I mean.) Although I lament the waste of paper, and the cost to our literal dendritic friends, sometimes free amusement comes in my mailbox along with the occasional profundity. I received a survey the other day that had decorative check-boxes on the envelope for agreeing or disagreeing. “My beliefs about religion are nobody’s business but my own” the question read. My knee-jerk reaction, itself a religious term, was to think “Of course! Nobody can tell me what to believe.” An occupational hazard of being a religionist, however, is that the ready application of exegesis always stands to hand.

Are my religious beliefs nobody’s business? I suspect since the sender was looking for money that some manner of business was indeed involved, but beyond that are my beliefs nobody’s concern? Freedom of religion allows us to believe what we will, and since beliefs are very, very difficult to change, this is a central tenet of any form of democracy. You can’t have a free people without letting them believe what they can’t help but think to be true. It may, however, sometimes be somebody else’s business what I believe. If my religion is dangerous—and what religion isn’t, to some degree?—don’t hoi polloi have a right to know? Ah, but then aren’t we in danger of registering, profiling the believer? This is a violation of rights as well.

My pen hovers uncertainly over the paper. My views are something that I keep to myself. Few people know what I actually believe. On the other hand, day after day I post thoughts that in some way can be tied to religion. Is this a trick question? A junk mail survey shouldn’t be so hard. When did studying before checking the mailbox become a requirement? In my teaching days I had students who claimed they had a right to know what I believed. I had a right to keep my views private. Who’s right? Whose right indeed? Belief doesn’t come easy. It’s not as cheap as the media makes it out to be. Unless, of course, it arrives unbidden among the junk mail that makes up so much of our lives. And even then it might be something to take seriously, at least for a little while.

Perceiving Religion

ViperHearth“Sticks and stones,” they used to tell me, “may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” We teach our children lies like that. I have been hit by sticks and stones—fortunately wielded by other children—but the things that hurt worst were the words. Some of those scars are still with me. I recently read Terryl L. Givens’ The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy. It is my policy on this blog not to poke fun at religions of which I’m not a member. (Those that have been willing to take me on, well, they should’ve known what they were getting into.) I can’t say that I know many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but the few that I do know have been just like anybody else. Well, to be honest, they’re scholars so they are probably just as strange as the rest of us who spend too much time hitting the books. I don’t hold to their religious beliefs and they don’t hold to mine, so what’s the problem? Givens’ book shows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of those “harmless” words. Mormons, almost uniquely among religious groups, have been verbally castigated with impunity. This book is an attempt to answer the reasonable question “why?”.

As I read this account I found myself trying to put on Mormon shoes and walk in them for a while. Things sure looked different from that perspective. Things have changed in the nearly two decades since the book was published: Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series brought Mormon fiction into the mainstream (Orson Scott Card, although he continues to charm the sci-fi crowd, hasn’t quite caught the crucial young lady demographic, it seems). We’ve had an LDS candidate for President of the United States. Even though Book of Mormon, the show, pokes fun, it is fair to say that you only get this level of attention when you’ve been mainstreamed. Protestant, Catholic, and Jew have all taken their knocks on the comedic front. Still, there is a poignancy to The Viper on the Hearth. Mormons, like other religious believers, are simply wanting to make the world a better place. This is perhaps the surest way to draw fire.

Givens provides some likely answers as to why the Mormons have been shunned by their fellow Americans. One reason that I didn’t notice (sometimes things escape me) but which might have put them in good company is a statement from the New Testament; prophets don’t seem very good at gleaning honor among their compatriots. It may be hard to trust a religion that comes from your own neighborhood. We know too well the corruption, the pettiness, the foibles of those who live next door. If we’re honest, we know that we have them too. No need to go outside. The glimmer of hope here in this nation of religious freedom is that things seem to have improved over the last few years. As Mormonism grows, ages, and becomes passé in the looming age of Nones, perhaps we’ll apologize for not only the sticks and stones, but for those weapons that hurt most sharply with no physical existence at all.

Only Hummus

I remember the moment well. I was in Jerusalem on my own. Although in my early twenties, I really didn’t know much. The man at the vending cart didn’t speak English, but I was hungry. My first experience of falafel would certainly not be my last. After I married a few years later, I introduced my wife to the various Middle Eastern foods I’d tried. Hummus became a personal favorite, especially after I became a vegetarian. There are plenty of things for vegetarians to enjoy, and many cuisines of the world have less meat-heavy options than many restaurants I’ve experienced in the States. Hummus, to get to my point, can be rather bland. It is generally inoffensive, and people of many dietary and religious restrictions can eat it. The Christian Century ran a blurb recently about a hummus restaurant in Netanya, Israel. This eatery offers a fifty percent discount to Jewish and Arabic customers who sit together. Here is a workable idea for peace.

We all have to eat. Half the trick to world peace is getting people who dislike each other to sit down and do it together. Those of imperialist bent may not realize, or even be able to see, that we have more in common than most agitators think. Human needs are the same, and often, very easily provided. You like hummus? I like hummus! We must not be so different, after all. If instead of weaponizing themselves, radical believers armed themselves with food to share, not nearly so many warplanes would have to take to the air. I admit I’m an idealist. I don’t think peace is impossible. We can choose to focus on what divides us, or on what we have in common.

IMG_2641

Perhaps if I’d never traveled to Jerusalem I would never have tried hummus. I didn’t travel for the food, but travel led me to a kind of serenity. Both falafel and hummus are made primarily of chickpeas, a versatile vegetable that has a verisimilitude of peace. If we could learn to eat together we would find it harder to hate each other after that. Sharing our mutual needs sometimes, as the restaurant owner in Netanya understands, requires a financial incentive. Although it may be lucre that lures those who are different to the same table, it is the peace itself that, I believe, will keep them coming back.

Secular Family Values

Fear of social disruption runs deep. Things may not be perfect, but people would rather keep things the way they’re used to them being rather than to face radical change. This is natural enough. During the dark days of the Cold War, when nuclear annihilation constantly hung over our heads, atheism was a mark of the Soviet threat. “Godless communism.” Intellectually, however, a kind of atheism was already part of American society as well, although few people talked of it. With our national history of encouraging Bible reading and prayer in public schools, our self-presentation was of the faithful. Those who hold to “old time religion.” In fact, many had moved on, but those of us growing up in small towns or rural settings had no way of knowing that. Life before the internet was primitive in that way.

A recent Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times asks “How secular family values stack up.” In this age of Nones many are worried that the social fabric has already begun to unweave and that our ethical clothes have become threadbare and see-through. The statistics, however, don’t really bear that up. Written by Phil Zuckerman, it is no surprise that the piece takes a positive view of a faith-free value system. The fact is, the social disruption that has been widely hyped, especially by Neo-Con pundits, has simply not occurred because of secularism. As Zuckerman points out, the largely secular European society has handled ethical situations admirably well. Even in the United States, non-believers in jail populations are an astonishingly small demographic, and divorce rates run lower than those who report being more religious. Those who don’t believe tend to be more empathetic and to have closer family ties than many religious families do.

Tolerance of those with different outlooks is important. In a nation that was at one time considered a melting pot, such difference of opinion is only to be expected. In practical terms, people in the United States knew nothing of Buddhism or Hinduism until late in the nineteenth century. Other religions were simply outside of the experience of most. And those who lived in different religious traditions were also moral. Biologists who study the development of moral sentiments find that apes, certainly not religious by any standard, are often inclined toward positive social values (although clearly not always so—there are dangers in extremism). It is time that we overcame our distrust of those who, for whatever reason, cannot believe. Being human is sufficiently religious to make us concerned about our fellow person. It is only the drive and insatiable hunger, ironically, of godly capitalism that leads to unfeeling disregard of human need.

FullSizeRender-2

Life as we Know it

Dying2BMeA friend asked me for a book. Since my life has mostly been about books, I’m generally happy to supply what I can. This friend is a cancer survivor and wanted to read Anita Moorjani’s Dying To Be Me. The last time I saw this friend, she handed me the book, saying she didn’t care for it. Although the author tells of her dramatic Near Death Experience, and is very optimistic about all that we can improve by loving ourselves and others, she isn’t a Christian. Raised as an Indian living in Hong Kong and sometimes attending a Catholic school, Moorjani is conversant with several religions but doesn’t favor one above the others. Her experience of being in a coma with very advanced cancer and having a prognosis of days, at most, to live, yet coming out of the coma and being completely healed of disease within weeks could be overlooked on the basis of a belief system. I decided to read her account myself.

Ironically, Moorjani directly describes why she can’t accept any single religion in her book. Her reason is because religions tend to block being open to possibilities that fall outside of doctrine. Her Near Death Experience, described in great detail, doesn’t fit any particular religion very well, including her native Hinduism. It led her to believe in a kind of universalism with everyone ending up realizing their own divinity and loving all others unconditionally. Even though many of her interpretations of her experience are a bit too New Agey for me, I have a deep appreciation for her advocacy of trying to understand others and loving everyone. I saw nothing incompatible with Christianity there. Or any other ethical religion.

Religion can divide as much as, if not more than, plain common sense. Those who think deeply about it realize that religion should make life better for all. That seems to be its evolutionary purpose, apart from personal survival. Of course, some religions also reject evolution as well. When missionaries reached far shores and found good people living ethical lives, they feared for their souls, thinking only one religion could fit all. Many of us are heirs of such missionaries, being taught from our youngest days that living in fear and self-abasement is the loving, Christian way. It may be that a Hindu who learned to trust herself by nearly crossing the brink of death has something to teach the missionaries as well. If only they could listen.

Driving the Point

“I drive my car, it is a witness. My license plate, it states my business.” The words are from a song by one of the most creative Christian Rock groups ever, Daniel Amos. While I don’t listen to Christian Rock much anymore, I’ve always appreciated the fresh outlook of this particular band, which was, at least in the ‘80s, ahead of the curve. The lyrics came back to me when reading about a legal suit in New Jersey concerning vanity plates. Like many states, New Jersey has rules against offensive words being spelled out on license plates. When a woman applied for a license reading “8THEIST” it was rejected as “offensive to good taste and decency,” according to a story in NJ.com by Thomas Zambito. Trying the application with “BAPTIST” led to no objections. Others have tried other variations on the word “atheist” and have come up with rejections as well. In a country that prides itself on religious freedom, this is ironic, to say the least.

I’m a bit too pragmatic for vanity plates, or even bumper stickers. Having had to commute long distances after being dismissed from my post at Nashotah House, I often thought that I didn’t want people to know too much about me by the decoration of my car. The culture wars, played out a few years ago by Jesus fish, Darwin fish, Jesus sharks eating Darwin fish, and so on, seemed an opportunity for aggression to me. Already when I’m driving and someone cuts me off or does some dangerous maneuver in traffic, they frequently bear some paraphernalia advertising Jesus on their bumper. Maybe it’s a prayer for protection that allows for stupid driving. It certainly isn’t a witness to the “others first” theology that characterized Jesus’ teaching.

IMG_1216

Is it an affront to decency to be an atheist, or only to advertise being one? The culture wars that plague the United States are based on instant prejudices that make decisions about a person without bothering to witness their behavior. Behavior, after all, is the true measure of goodness. Even higher education is not immune to this system, especially in religion departments. We only want to be surrounded by those who believe like us. Somewhere in this unholy mix is the neglected idea of doing the right thing. Ours is a culture in love with appearances. We object when Muslims want to build a mosque. We object when Roman Catholics run for President. Weren’t not even sure that we really trust the Presbyterian next door. Our differences, one of the historic strengths of this country, have become a liability. Especially when behind the wheel. How different driving would be if we’d just assume that no what the vehicle says, it is piloted by a human being just like us, no matter who they believe the co-pilot might be.

Accept Cookies

You have probably noticed it. As expected as the warmer days of spring are also the Girl Scout cookies. A symbol of wholesome fundraising, Girl Scout cookies have some dedicated buyers, and many imitators. Like any human organization, the Girl Scouts have their troubles, but I can’t help but compare them with the Boy Scouts in which I grew up. Well, at least for a few years. We’ve watched as the media have declared on the excluding of various demographics from the Boy Scouts. To rise to the top you must not deviate from the mythic model of the perfect man. Meanwhile, as an article in Tablet notes, Girl Scouts have been tolerant of difference from the beginning. In a day when being Jewish was still suspect in the wider community, Girl Scouts were founded with early troop leaders who were Jewish, and this was in the days before the First World War and the ensuing tragedy of the Holocaust during the Second. From those early days, Girl Scouts have continued to have a policy of acceptance of those who differ in religious outlook. It erects no barrier.

The success of social progress depends on how we train our young. Prejudice has to be learned. Children are accepting of those with differences until they learn not to be. Radical groups have to recruit constantly. Fear of strangers is natural, but when it becomes a paradigm it is a pathology. One of my professors once claimed that early Christianity thrived because it was exclusive. Only true members could join, like a country club, making it desirable among hoi polloi. Further research has demonstrated the falsity of this view. There were many varieties of Christianities in antiquity. Only by declaring itself uniquely correct, and convincing Constantine of the same, did one sect become dominant. And dominance was what it was about.

Society is all about getting along. We have come together around money to build the tallest structures on the planet. The tallest buildings used to be in the United States. Then China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates. A tower serves no purpose without a collective to take pride in it. Religions, unfortunately, often measure themselves by those who stand outside. Taking the view that it only feels good to be right if others are wrong, it is easy for such thinking to slip into a prejudice that promotes and rewards exclusivity. One percent, anyone? Many aspire to such menial goals as getting more money. For me, a life that has a box of Girl Scout cookies available is enough. And I’ll take a tall glass of tolerance with that, and hope that others will feel free to share.

DSCN5045

Middle Eastern Idol

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?

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.