Speedy Delivery (SD)

Ritual, no matter what scientists say, is deeply woven into the fabric of human psyches.  It may be either the warp or the weft, but it’s downright basic.  I was reminded of this on my hurried and slow trip to San Diego yesterday.  I always wear the same shirt when I fly to this conference.  This isn’t superstition, but rather it’s a case of sticking with something that works.  I don’t often wear turtlenecks, and one reason is that they seldom fit well.  More years ago than I care to admit (I’m wearing the shirt in the photo below, which was taken at Nashotah House nearly two decades in the past) I found a navy blue turtleneck from Land’s End (this is not a sponsored post, although it probably should be) that works perfectly.  Even today it fits snugly around the neck after hours of wear.  Maybe ten years back I bought a black turtleneck from the same company and after pulling it over my head, it gaps something awful.  I tend only to wear it around the house.  The original still does the job.

I was ready to drive myself to the airport yesterday and I grabbed a quick lunch at home.  Part of said lunch involved opening a ketchup bottle probably nearly as old as the shirt I was wearing.  (I’m sure you can see where this is going.)  I ended up looking like a murderer, which is not something you want to try to explain to a TSA agent.  I quick threw said ritual shirt into the washer and the drier buzzed at the same time as my phone did for when I had to leave for my two-hour-ahead check-in.  This remarkable shirt was dry and ready to serve.  Maybe you can see now why I’m so ritualistic about clothes.  I also opt-out of those Star Trek scanners at the airport.  This means I get lots of governmental pat-downs.  It feels more authentic when you have actual hands running down your body—at least it’s honest.

The TSA agent commented that you don’t see many turtlenecks these days.  I explained that it’s good for flying because I’m always cold on planes.  As this stranger’s hands were rubbing down my chest, I was wondering how many times this shirt has been felt up by the US government.  It has no pockets to pick, and besides, at airport screenings everything is stowed in my carry-on, including wallet.  At midnight San Diego time, I checked into my hotel.  East coast time said I’d been awake 24 hours because who can really sleep on a plane?  Once my patted-down body reaches 3 a.m., Eastern Time, it wakes up.  In these circumstances it’s good to know I can rely on that shirt in my drawer.  That’s what rituals are all about.

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.

IMG_2891

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.

Avoiding Ritual

IMG_0100

While on my current British kick—not really intentional, but sometimes life gives you limes—I thought I’d mention another piece sent to me by a friend. This one falls under BBC Earth, and it’s about “Why Ancient Brits threw out their most valuable possessions.” You can find the story by Amanda Ruggeri at the link. The basics are pretty simple: some people with a metal detector discovered what turned out to be a Bronze Age “hoard” in Lincolnshire. You have to understand that, in a way that makes me totally jealous, the United Kingdom has tonnes of ancient artefacts still undiscovered. While my wife and I lived there it wasn’t unusual to read about such finds in the newspaper. (Newspapers still existed then.) People had been smelting in the British Isles for a long time. The Phoenicians actually popped round the pub to get their tin—which can be one of the main ingredients for Bronze. What the article somewhat embarrassingly addresses is the nature of the hoard.

Hoards are where a large number of (usually metal) objects are discovered, after having been deliberately buried. These are not uncommon, what with Phoenicians, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Franks, Vikings, and others invading all the time. The issue that embarrasses is the “r word.” Ritual. While we don’t know the reason, the fact that people deliberately deep-sixed their valuables, routinely, suggests a ritual. As the article makes clear, professionals try to avoid the r word. Ironically, such deliberate burials, often with items purposefully broken, is also known from the ancient Levant, often predating the hoards of the prehistoric UK. Intentionally broken items—often of clay, and not infrequently depicting perhaps deities—were buried in biblical times. We don’t know why, but scholars suggest they could’ve been offerings. After all, breaking something potentially useful is an act of faith.

I’m not suggesting a direct connection here. I took a sound scholarly thrashing some years ago for suggesting a tale I heard on the streets of late twentieth-century Scotland had its origins in ancient Sumer (grad students are prone to such thinking). Still, it might not hurt anthropologists to cast a wider eye now and again. People had similar rit— well, let’s just say strange habits, in a land far away. Just cross the Channel and make a left. When it starts getting arid head south. The ancient world may have had more of an “internet” than we think. While that pathway may not always be marked by material remains, we now know ideas travel fast. Even something such as putting a daily post on a blog might become a ri—, strange habit.

Happy Disruption

IMG_1567

Last night’s full moon shone brightly, announcing the grounding of the date of Easter, obviously associated with Passover. Unless one has a natural sense of the progressions of the lunar calendar, Easter can always seem a matter of guesswork. It fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. It is one the many transitional season holidays. All holidays are intended to be disruptions from the normal flow of time. Of course, business is the natural enemy of holidays, except for Christmas, and, increasingly, Halloween. The usual business calendar eschews disruption, and there are no days off associated with the Passover-Easter complex. A little thing like death and resurrection shouldn’t stand in the way of turning a solid profit. Still, the point of holidays is their disruption of normal time.

My own time faces disruption this week with a business trip to England. Funny how often these seem to be demanded about this time of year. My usual blog posting patterns will surely be disrupted as time zones zip up across the Atlantic. Disruption will become endemic. Disruption without the celebration. Ritual experts tell us that Passover, the basis for Easter, was a development from an even earlier pre-biblical rite. People have always found a way of marking the more obvious transition of seasons, the planned disruption of daily life.

Routine becomes comfortable, no matter how inherently uncomfortable it may be. I awake before 4 a.m. each day with many others whose lives are dictated by bus schedules and economic necessity. No matter how many years I’ve been doing this my body objects to the early hour that draws me from the comfort of sleep. It is a disruption. Now my disruption is about to be disrupted and I’m wondering what is holy about any of this. Time, which always comes in limited quantities, seems best spent with those we wish to celebrate. Our own private holidays. But business and resurrection don’t sit comfortably together. True religion and money are, it seems, inherently at odds. As I pack my bag and turn to the east, I look at my calendar and wonder when the next true holiday will arrive.

Rites and Wrongs

One thing about Amazon Prime is that you can watch a movie multiple times with no real fiscal consequences. Alone on a Saturday, I started my ritual of looking for a movie to match my mood. I’ve posted before on Cabin in the Woods, a kind of Lovecraftian parody of the five-people-in-an-isolated-cabin motif, but the movie is so deeply based on religious motifs that I noticed many things I’d missed the first time around. When the college kids descend to the basement to choose, unwittingly, their fate, they happen upon a diary written by Patience Buckner—one of the zombie family that will eventually emerge to murder three of the five. So far so good. The backstory to the Buckner family is sketchy (Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon are said to have written the script in three days, not much time to develop backstory), but they are religious zealots who believe in pain as a spiritual purgative. In other words, they hurt each other in an attempt to be religious. This idea is not without historical foundation, and although it plays only a small role in the movie, it is part of the larger plot as well.

The entire control center that is intended to keep the old gods satisfied, is a highly technical ritual center where the horror movie tropes take place to appease the ancient ones. As Sitterson and Hadley explain, the suffering of the kids as they face the ritual sacrifice is an essential element in pleasing the gods. It is, nevertheless, a ritual. As each victim is killed, a lever is pulled channelling blood down across icons of the roles played by the scapegoats. Marty, the stoner who ultimately figures out what is going on, makes the point that for a ritual all you need are robes and sticks. Of course, ritual is one of the main constituents of religion, and ritual has to meet the specs provided by the gods.

Cthulhu takes Manhattan

Cthulhu takes Manhattan

Modern day fascination with H. P. Lovecraft has led to a resurgence of interest in “the old gods.” Lovecraft, while personally an atheist, knew the powerful draw of the idea. Gods are controlled by ritual. Many religions trace the architecture of rituals to the deity placated by them, but this tacit domestication is a kind of archaic rule of law. Humans do this, gods will do that. The hastily written story of Cabin in the Woods abides by this pattern. As long as somewhere in the world a human sacrifice is made according to specifications, things will continue as they are. In other words, our random world is a throw of the dice by the gods. Unlike his contemporary, Albert Einstein, Lovecraft’s gods did apparently play dice. Cabin in the Woods is a modern farce of that ritual and is, in an unexpected way, a deeply religious movie.

Grace, Virtually

Although Yom Kippur is now over, I have a confession to make. My wife just showed me eScapegoat, the website where you can confess your sins over the virtual priest laying electronic hands on a disturbingly cute animated goat. Even before I owned a computer (or one owned me), and even before I knew of the internet, I used to joke with friends what the technological revolution would mean for religions. Would we eventually go to an ATM for virtual communion? Would the screen glow with the words of the eucharistic liturgy, Rite 1, or would it be more contemporary (Jesus raised the glass and said, “This blood’s for you!”)? Would a physical wafer come through the slot? If so, would it have to have been pre-consecrated? So our bemused musings ran. But our idle thoughts held a touch of prophetic insight, it seems. Can the force of religion come through the keys upon which your fingers rest? The monitor that glows like heaven itself? Whence electronic salvation?

There can be no doubt that religion is a huge topic on the internet. I generally don’t go looking for it, because it will come to me. Religions, by their very nature, spread. They are aggressive memes, wanting desperately to replicate themselves. Our frail human minds want so much to believe that we have found the truth, and once we have, we want to share it with others. Bibles were among the first books off the first printing press. Television soon evolved televangelists. The internet became the home of virtual religion. For some it is reality, nothing virtual about it. Concepts such as grace, however, defy any kind of clear exposé, there’s always shadows in this room. Can it make its way, preveniently, through the wires and waves of the internet?

eScapegoat is lighthearted, but I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a more serious side to it. Confession on the internet can be cheap. Anonymity (excepting, of course, the NSA) is easily maintained. Your confession, visible to the faith community, is really between you and the Almighty, right? The book of James tells us confession is good for the soul, or something similar. We all know that admitting a mistake has its own cathartic release, but I found confession, in my Anglo-Catholic days, terribly invasive. Surely I knew that I’d made errors, and I knew that I felt badly about them. Did I really have to tell someone else so that I would feel bad about them all over again, reopening wounds that had already begun to heal? Isn’t this the beauty of eScapegoat? You can make a serious confession that others will see anonymously as a joke. Our poor, blinking goat will pay the ultimate price.

800px-William_Holman_Hunt_-_The_Scapegoat

Supernaturally Selected

Things are seldom as simple as they seem. Religion, for example, is frequently cast as the villain or the hero of human society, when, in truth, like most human institutions, it is a little of each. I’ve read many theories on the origin of religion, and none has been completely convincing but most contain persuasive aspects while I’m reading them. After having read several books proclaiming the end of religion in the last several months, I just finished Matt J. Rossano’s Supernatural Selection: How Religion Evolved. Many books with a similar goal begin with the suggestion that religion may have had some biological utility for people at one time, but that we’ve outgrown our need for it and we should classify it with other obsolete, arcane concepts that have no further purpose. Rossano suggest that religion grew out of the need for social bonding and that we could not have become human without it.

Basing his ideas on genetics and anthropology, Rossano notes that even with our genetic similarity to chimpanzees there remain striking differences. Mostly they are social in nature. Many of the differences are reflected dimly in our primate cousins, but the human penchant for gathering in groups with ritual behavior to offset overwrought emotions applies only to us. That ritual behavior includes healing rites, something that Rossano suggests might be the earliest, shamanistic, religion. Back in my teaching days I’d been telling students that the earliest evidence for religious behavior dated to the paleolithic period. This is something I’d reasoned from the artifacts found in pre-historic communities. I was happy to find confirmation in a more competent scholar than myself.

While I’ll no doubt revisit some of the fascinating hypotheses of Supernatural Selection over the coming days, one point especially stood out on my initial reading. Religion is a communal phenomenon in what is a largely individualistic society. In other words, religion itself continues to evolve. Even the hermit in his or her cave is only considered religious in comparison with his or her less dedicated, secular compatriots living la vida de fe. Since religion is communal, Rossano suggests, it is impossible to argue someone out of their religion—based on perceived relationships as they are. Indeed, it seems that his hypothesis predicts a behavior we find only too evident when we prepare to line up at the polling booths, but which will immediately fall into the background again once the level is pulled.

WaterFire

Providence is not always as assured as the divine aid its name suggests. Rhode Island’s capital, like most cities, hosts significant dualities—people who have more than an abundance and those who struggle to get by. There are also those who don’t. In an effort to revitalize the downtown, artists have created WaterFire—an organic sculpture bringing together the pre-Socratic four elements, but focusing on the two encompassed in its name. Great braziers are dot the middle of Providence’s rivers and WaterFire is a new performance art that suggests a religious underpinning. On Saturday, during Brown University’s commencement exercises, WaterFire was performed. Watching fire erupting in the iron braziers as the fire dancer twirled flaming sphere in intricate and dangerous patterns, I felt a primal sense of awe. Indeed, the fire dancer’s motions would be classified as religious by anthropologists in an unfamiliar context.

Religion is generally a response to that which we cannot control. Conscious beings like to think they have some measure of control over their destinies—indeed, people behave that way constantly. It doesn’t take much, however, to demonstrate that our sphere of control is actually miniscule and tenuous. Religions assure us that some cosmic older sibling (whether deity or force or principle) is on our side, watching our backs. Ceremonies propitiate any angry being and bring us back into the graces of elements beyond our control. Is this not the very meaning of the name Providence?

Watching the blazing bonfires tracing the contours of the river, lit by a dancer in time to moving music, WaterFire felt like more than simple performance. Fire is a powerful element, necessary and dangerous to our existence. Water too is crucial, but threatens to overwhelm us as our planet is mostly covered in it. Earth and air often seem the more comfortable elements, often inert and unconsidered. We never confront fire or water in the natural world without giving pause to consider their significance. Whether it is crossing a river or opening an umbrella, water forces itself onto our consciousness. Fire even more so. WaterFire taps into something vital and may just be the real divine guidance that Providence requires at this time.

Crossing Over

The periodic reforms that have swept through the church like so many Massachusetts tornadoes have often whirled around the matter of ceremony. Certainly there have been disputes over obtuse points of esoteric doctrine for which there is no final arbiter, but frequently the rancor involves what the faithful do when they meet together. In keeping with ancient templates, religion is generally a matter of what people do more than of what they believe. I personally had my love of ceremony beaten out of me by its plangent and perpetual repetition at an institution so enamored of it that humans and their needs were viewed as mere obstacles to sacerdotal perfection. Nevertheless, as the school year winds down, ceremony is all around us: graduations, awards dinners, rites of social passage. Last night I attended a Girl Scout bridging ceremony. Bridging is the symbolic crossing of a bridge to indicate a new level of commitment and integration into the larger Girl Scout community.

It's just a bridge.

As I sat staring at the bridge, waiting for the celebration to begin, it occurred to me that this was very much like a religious service. A group of spectators had gathered to watch a ritual unfold—a ritual that involved everyday objects invested with a new significance by the context. The bridge is just a small arch bridge over artificial water; before the ceremony kids run and jump over it with no fear of divine reprisal. Once the correct words are spoken, however, crossing the bridge becomes a solemn act. The ceremony opened with a kind of invocation, a creed (the Girl Scout law), a kind of Scripture reading—complete with exegesis of what that “Scripture” means and a reference to God as creator of all—a sacramental act of transformation, and even a hymn or two. The main difference I felt between this ceremony and most religious events was that the Girl Scouts are far more accepting and affirming than most religious conglomerations. Of course, there is the matter of gender distinction, but what is a church without any exclusivity?

I have great admiration for the Girl Scouts. In the face of a community that continues to act out male supremacy as a matter of God-given right, the Girl Scouts (and other similar organizations) offer a place for young women to assert their sense of belonging. Religion has just as often been used to suppress aspirations as it has been to uplift them. Life is difficult enough without God breathing down our necks. Human institutions that encourage thoughtful regard for those who are different, or underprivileged, or simply overlooked, often fill the gaps that religions callously leave behind. Yes, some religious institutions still display a social conscience, but if we wait for the religious to solve the suffering of the world, it is good to have groups like the Girl Scouts around who actually put their beliefs behind their ceremonies into action.