Idol Thoughts

The Enlightenment led, in some respects, to a condescending view of the past.  Historians know, for example, that the basics of science and engineering predate the Middle Ages.  Just consider the pyramids.  The people of antiquity were anything but naive.  We tend to think in Whiggish ways, despite our awareness of past achievement.  Perhaps it’s because we misunderstand past religious thought.  After all, the Enlightenment is generally understood as freeing the human race from “superstition” and leading to empiricism.  Empirical thinking had been there all along, of course, only it hadn’t been the sole way of making sense of the world.  Consider, for example, the “idol.”  In the biblical world food was left for statues of the gods, but it seems to me that people were smart enough to figure out that images didn’t actually eat it.

Elaborate rituals, of course, attended the making of gods.  These symbolic actions were said to make this object more than just a piece of wood, stone, or metal.  Assuming it required food, however, strains credulity.  The symbolic nature of the offering, however, was accepted.  The same is likely true of the offering of food to the deceased.  Even in ancient Israel the time-honored practice of leaving sustenance for the dead was carried out.  Was this symbolic rather than naive?  I tend to think so.  Reason told the ancients that the dead ceased to move, and therefore to eat and drink.  It was nevertheless a sign of respect to leave food, which, in a world of frequent malnutrition, could have been put to better use.  It was a symbolic sacrifice.

Surely they didn’t understand the fine interactions of nature that require microscopes and telescopes to see, but their knowledge relied on the divine world to address what remained mysterious.  We still, for example, have difficulty predicting weather.  We understand that the atmosphere is subject to fluid dynamics and countless minuscule factors that contribute to it.  We’re also aware that global warming is a reality.  Like the ancients we can choose to ignore, or pretend that the obvious doesn’t exist.  Like them, we do so for a reason.  Our political leaders are unwilling to stand in the way of the wealthy.  Reelection and all its perquisites—including personal enrichment—are simply too enticing.  Empirical evidence is worth ignoring for such emoluments.  When we feel tempted to assert our superiority over those of past ages, we might pause to consider that we still offer food to idols.  And get just as much in return.

Time Saving

As we suffer through another pointless Daylight Saving Time, I’m thinking of rituals that have lost their meaning.  Life is full of them.  We do things because we’ve always done them this way and even when they become harmful because of the way lifestyles change (auto accidents, for example, increase after shorting people of an hour’s sleep) we can’t seem to let go.  DST alone should’ve been enough to convince those who claimed religion would simply go away when science kicked in that they are wrong.  This is one reason that I’ve always found the origins of ideas fascinating.  Why did people believe this?  Why did they do this?  What started this whole process?  (Just to be clear, I’m not asking this about DST; I’ve written about that before.)

We can’t know the ultimate origins of religion.  I’ve suggested in the past that what we would term religious behavior has clear origins in the behavior of animals.  A somewhat fully developed consciousness provides incentive to rationalize such behavior.  The earliest organized religion of which we know involved state functionaries (priests) supporting, probably for sincerely believed reasons, the “secular” government.  Kings and priests needed each other and people quickly conformed.  Even when those on the inside came to realize that they were merely pretending, they kept on doing so.  It was too late (or if DST, too early) to change anything, so the mascarade continued.  Tracing the history of religious ideas reveals perhaps more than we want to know.  And human beings are natural actors.

Once, while in a restaurant, I sat near the kitchen.  The smiling servers, as they neared that portal lost their smiles and harried looks came to their faces as they told frantic cooks what the couple at table eight wanted.  Yet they continued to pretend they were happy when at table-side.  Or think of work with its “public facing” information that is inevitably different from what is known by those on the inside of the company.  Actors.  We’re all actors.  Perhaps it’s the price to pay for living in a civilization.  If we stopped to think about why we’re doing something as inane as pretending five o’clock is now six o’clock, or even that all people are the same and should be at work between nine and five, society could not stand the scrutiny.  Anarchy would erupt in the streets.  We should be thankful that people don’t think about these things too deeply.  Or, then again, maybe I didn’t get enough sleep last night.

Rising of the Sun

“When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound,” the old hymn goes, “and time shall be no more…” Before Trump’s election I always supposed this might have something to do with the useless ritual of setting our clocks ahead. Apart from the fact that we’re all a bit cranky because, well, we lost an hour of sleep last night, this day is a fine illustration of how rituals form. Daylight Saving Time was a wartime initiative to help keep things going during the darker months of the year. Since things seem pretty dark all the time now I’m not sure that changing the clocks will do any good, but it does call to mind many religious rituals that started out for practical purposes and accreted symbolic meaning over time. One of my favorites is the use of candles.

Photo credit: 4028mdk09, Wikimedia Commons

In the days before electricity, sanctuaries (which were sometimes devoid of windows) required a source of light. The menorah in Jerusalem is perhaps the most famous example, but by no means the only one, of a necessary piece of furniture that grew religious significance. Oil lamps were widely used before candles were invented and they work on the same principle. It didn’t require any special illumination to realize that light is symbolic for creatures that rely heavily upon sight. If you see something, say something. And before you know it candles themselves acquire religious meaning. Just last month some Christians celebrated Candlemas where the title of the day appears to suggest the candles themselves are somehow sacred. Ritual begets ritual. We are meaning-making beings.

Now that we’ve somewhat ironically set the clocks ahead under Trump it might be a good time to reassess. “Rage,” Dylan Thomas wrote in a more modern hymn, “rage against the dying of the light.” Even though Thomas’ light itself extinguished prematurely his message lives on. We’ve lost a month’s worth of morning light. When I step outside this morning it will be darker than it was this time yesterday. But humans habitually look ahead. If I allow myself that luxury as the roll’s being called up yonder, I can perhaps make my way home in the light now that time’s changed. Nature took the light and is now giving it back. Maybe this isn’t the final trump after all. In my more optimistic moments I do believe that candles can be magical in their own right. That’s the power of ritual.

Ritual Rent

Rituals frequently outlive their purposes. Some skeptics may claim that rituals—particularly of the religious sort—really don’t mean anything at all, but in fact they do. Rituals have logical origins, or at least that seemed logical at the time. Atlas Obscura ran a piece by Sarah Laskow on “London Is Still Paying Rent to the Queen on a Property Leased in 1211.” Such a story invites commentary on many levels. One is that the items payed in rent—6 horseshoes, an axe, a knife, and 61 nails—don’t seem to be commodities her royal highness actually needs, or could even make use of. Still, it’s easy to see how this ritual rent has a logical origin. Axes, knives, nails, and shoes for six-legged horses were all quite practical in the Middle Ages, one assumes. They won’t help you get onto the internet any faster, though, so one wonders how they might be of use now.

Another question a story like this raises is that of government itself. Rulers both in monarchies and democracies have a habit of skimming off the top. It’s been some time since we’ve had a president who purchased his own loaf of bread or could even guess how much it costs the rest of us to do so. In Britain the question may be even more salient—the royal family is among the richest in the world and yet they still take an axe, a knife, horseshoes, and nails for a property that, as the article states, nobody even knows where is? I guess it’s the price we pay for feeling safe under the watchful eye of those who already have too much. The property itself may be a legal fiction, but the payment is real enough.

Wonder what the rent on this place is?

Wonder what the rent on this place is?

There are those who declare rituals empty, and therefore meaningless. To me that seems a hasty judgment. Our rituals reflect what we’ve historically believed. Those beliefs may have changed over the years, while the rituals continued in their own way. But they are reminders. Reminders of something once held to be significant enough to take time and resources in order to ensure the smooth running of—in the case of religious rituals—the universe itself. On the smaller scale, however, our secular rituals contribute to a system that always has favored the rich. It likely always will. You see, rituals are not easily broken. And even if all they can extract are items of little practical use, those who already have will be glad to accept even more. This is the reality behind rituals and rites.

Food for Thought

You probably know the ritual. On a given day of the week (often the weekend—your “time off” for good behavior) you troop to the grocery store. You toss the items you’ll need for the week into a cart and trundle home to fit them into the interstices of a crowded kitchen or pantry. Then you start to notice that funky smell when you open the fridge. Or you eat a snack chip and find it gives no resistance to your teeth. Something’s gone off and needs to be tossed again, but this time into the landfill (or hopefully, compost). We’re all so busy that we don’t really have time to ponder this much. After all, the work’s the thing, and we only have a few hours at home anyway, and we can go shopping again soon. Now here’s where it starts to get ironic: we subscribe to Consumer Reports. I’m about the least consuming person you’ll be likely to meet (or not meet), unless, of course, the topic is books. I don’t buy stuff unless I have to. My jobs have been financially disappointing since earning a doctorate and I’ve got tuition bills of my own to pay. Every penny counts. But I digress.

Consumer Reports, in its September issue, discusses the problem of food wastage. Since I’m a simple man statistics impress me. 52 percent, for example, of the produce Americans purchase is thrown away. Math class was some time in the past, but even I can see that’s over half. This is something we’ve paid for and we simply jettison because it’s gone bad before we use it. This particular figure hit me because I like to have fresh produce with my boringly consistent lunch. When they’re in season I buy snow peas. Problem is, our grocery store only sells snow peas in massive packages, hermetically sealed. I can’t get through them before they go bad, and I can’t buy just what I need. For my convenience, I’m told, these tasty greens are prepackaged and pre-priced (at the cost of a small automobile) so I don’t have to dip my grubby hand in the basket and weigh out just what I need. And it’s not just peas. I can’t remember how to make a salad any more because, well, they come in bags, right? The natural habitat of greens.

Free-range peppers

Free-range peppers

The problem goes further than that. Here’s where the stats get scary. According to the article 28 percent of the agricultural land of the world generates food that isn’t consumed. Over a quarter, if memory serves, is ultimately wasted space. A full quarter of our freshwater usage is for stuff we throw away. In the land of overabundance we’ve learned to squander our resources and think nothing of it. It’s just food, after all. It’s not like there are starving people in the world. Perhaps the greatest ethical crimes are those that are so ordinary as to become forgettable, like that trip to the grocery store. Let someone else do the packaging. Anything I don’t eat I can always throw away. We can grow more. It’s a ritual, after all.

Paradise Lost

Reentry is never easy. I’ve just been on a vacation in the woods of the northwest and yesterday marked, via eight hours of air travel and airport waiting, my trip home. Tomorrow work begins again and I hope for the ability to adjust quickly into some kind of routine. Humans are creatures of ritual. We may call it religious or secular, but we draw comfort from knowing what to expect. Vacation disrupts with its mandate to relax and be among loved ones, and with its low level of demands. It can be time to think clearly instead of being harried and harassed and hurried all the time. Today I have to remember how this is done. How east coast time works. What the bus schedule is and how to enslave myself to it once more. I think of how being in a cabin in the woods felt like a restoration of my soul. In fact, it can feel quite a bit like a religious experience.

Silence, for one thing. In a world of constantly competing noises it’s easily forgotten what a commodity quiet can be. The silence of the woods is restorative. Although it was occasionally abused in my days at Nashotah House, quiet was often enforced as spiritual discipline. Nature, in a way that’s hard to appreciate so near to New York City, can be supremely tranquil during the night. Darkness as deep as the silence reminds us what night was meant to be. No priest needs to direct meditations since the soul is already attuned to the divine in such situations. Awaking to the chatter of a red squirrel rather than the rumble of a bus can remind one of what is truly important. When we value our vacation over our vocation there is a message hidden in plain sight.

Today I glance ahead to an unbroken string of work days and the premature end of summer. The hot days can be uncomfortable and that rush of everyone toward the water can lead to endless crowds and congestion. Still, I empathize with those seeking a break from the routine. We are all souls seeking respite from days programmed by others so that the Trumps of the world can reap the rewards of other’s labors. Bleary-eyed from the time change of three zones’ difference, I’ll go to work tomorrow with twigs in my hair, sand in my shoes, and a kind of private paradise in my head. I’ll soon be cured of that as the secular routine takes hold once again.

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Eve’s Apple

Rituals rely on unchanging circumstances. When we attended a grocery store that was not our usual one my ritual was challenged. First I have to confess (as is appropriate for a ritual): I am no foodie. Having grown up in humble circumstances where eating out was an unknown, eating in meant the basic food of the unsophisticated. Although college and subsequent years opened my appreciation for new, and sometimes exotic foods (before my vegetarian days I ate ostrich when taken for dinner on a job interview. I didn’t get the job and shortly became a vegetarian—some things just aren’t worth it) I’m still a pretty boring grazer. I take the same thing for lunch each day at work. I eat the same thing for breakfast every day—inspired by the Seventh Day Adventist predilection for cereal—and I imagine my wife finds grocery planning with a guy like me to be its own trial. I see the grocery bill and scream. I eat to live, and not vice-versa.

Eve

So we were in a different grocery store. I take the same fruit for lunch every day, but here my apple of choice was more expensive. I looked for something in the price-range that I feel is affordable for fruit. My eye fell on a variety of apple I’d never seen. It was called Eve. Apples are one of those staples that I’ve always appreciated. We still sometimes go apple picking in the autumn, but it’s difficult to eat them all up before they go bad. In the orchards they list the different apple varieties available for picking on any given weekend, and I had never seen an Eve apple. For my boring lunch (since I eat breakfast about 3:30 most days, by noon anything tastes good for breaking the second fast) I wondered if Eve would do. Would this be too exciting for work? I pondered the dilemma.

Although our culture is increasingly biblically illiterate, here was a breed of apple based on Genesis 3. The Bible, of course, does not name the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and the apple was likely chosen much later because of the similarity of its name in Latin to the word for evil. The image has, however, become iconic. Eve reaching for the apple is so well known that advertisers use it with abandon and nobody fails to get the reference. This story is deeply embedded within our culture. The Bible on the grocery store shelf. Still, I’m wondering—should I try something new? Thinking of the work week ahead, I’m tempted.