This blog was born at the very lake I’m about to leave.Although it’s relaxing, there’s an element of chaos to a family vacation that stirs up creativity.Tomorrow’s long day of travel back east, however, will mean another day without a post.Flights leave so early that you barely have time to slither out of bed to the shuttle, and the airport hotspots want your money to connect.I’d rather maintain radio silence for a day.That doesn’t mean I won’t keep my eyes open for religion hidden in the interstices of American life.Since religion and mythology share sleeping quarters, I’m reminded of something I saw up here in the northwest the other day.While in a local grocery and souvenir shop (for all groceries in this area carry souvenirs) I saw sasquatch dolls.
Such cryptids are unknown to science, of course.Even if they really exist, their liminal status now places them firmly in the realms of mythology.Being in the wilderness can be an uncanny experience.Long accustomed to dwelling in cities and towns, we feel vulnerable out in the open.Taking walks in the woods might just put you in the path of black bears, grizzlies, or mountain lions.Who knows what else might be hiding in these woods?It’s easy to believe in our myths here.Vacation, in addition to being the ultimate reality, counts as time borrowed against work and its punishing rationality.Religion thrives in the quiet moments when you’re not sure what might be hiding just out of view.
Did ancient people devise belief in such circumstances as this?(Well, without the wifi and indoor plumbing, of course.)It’s not hard to feel the spirit of the lake.Standing chest-deep in the water, being rolled by the waves, there’s a kind of secular baptism taking place.In the quiet unearthly voices can be heard.No television or newspaper tells you that it can’t be happening.Listening is much easier with no distractions.These woods are vast.Human access to them is limited to marked and maintained trails.Beyond these borders, who knows?Science comforts us with the assurance that there are no monsters out there.Standing isolated from any other human beings, surrounded by ancient trees, you might begin to wonder if such assurance is as certain as it sounds.The sasquatches are children’s toys, and the sense of the numinous you feel can, like all extraordinary things, be explained away.
Belief in the supernatural seems to be alive here in the northwest. At least if the culture at Sea-Tac Airport is anything to go by. I’d noticed, last year, that a sasquatch graces a restaurant in the N terminal, where jets from Newark tend to land. This year we had a bit of a layover, so we strolled through the C concourse. There I found sasquatch approved salmon in the somewhat anomalous Hudson News. Then, as I sat in one of the stylish, Seattle seats, a young woman came up next to us and sat down wearing a Sasquatch Volleyball shirt. I’m past the age when I can get away with innocently asking young ladies if I can take a photo of their shirts, so you’ll just have to use your imagination for the latter. The point is, bigfoot has been mainstreamed.
When I was growing up you got pretty mercilessly teased if you expressed any interest in such things. Now that I’ve got a respectable career others can get away with what captured my imagination as a young man. I’ve never thought of myself as being ahead of the curve. Or really ahead of anything, for that matter. Still, I trust my instincts. Maybe religion will come back into vogue some day. Or maybe it will simply be called something else. A tainted name is difficult to live down. The supernatural—or paranormal—often shares conceptual territory with religion, and although the pews aren’t getting any fuller, the number of those looking for some kind of meaning in the unusual seems to be holding steady. Physics can take us only so far in understanding what it is to be human.
Times change. Yesterday’s jokes are today’s orthodoxies. Those who spend a great deal of time peering back into history won’t be surprised by this. What is true today is true for today. New facts will be discovered and if we lived long enough we’d find that the future world will believe quite differently than we do. Not that the truth is relative. It is, however, temporary. Massive religious wars have been fought over trying to keep truths timeless. The sad irony is that the truths had already changed by the time such wars had been waged. The more rational we become, it seems, the more we open the door for the supernatural. I won’t presume to be one declaring such truth. That would take more weight than I have to offer. And anyone making such a claim would have some awfully big shoes to fill.
It is a slow news day when Bigfoot makes the front page of the New Jersey Star-Ledger (without a body being found, of course). Not even halfway through the article the word “supernatural” shows up. This illustrates once again my contention that paranormal and religion often share mental space. A few months back I posted on the recent book Paranormal America by Christopher D. Bader, F. Carson Mencken and Joseph O. Baker. The authors, sociologists by trade, expressed a revealing connection between religious belief and willingness to accept the paranormal. One exception stood out, however; professionals who engage the hunt for sasquatch often toe the line of science and disparage the popularizing notion that their quarry is supernatural. There’s no doubt that Bigfoot has a growing clientele. Whether mythic or biological, there can be little doubt that the big guy’s here to stay.
Appearing in the newspaper as a bit of New Jerseyana, the local tradition about Big Red Eye—the north Jersey version of Bigfoot—suggests instant comparison with the Jersey Devil, a tactic the paper takes. Similar to responses presented when religious behavior turns criminal, adding a light touch helps to ease the tensions. Both religion and the paranormal thrive in the realm of belief. As I waited all morning in the garage for car repairs yesterday, the incessantly chatty morning talk-show hosts were going on about some quote that the Tea Party had been compared to terrorists. One of the gambolers stated, in rather self-righteous tones, “they are entitled to their beliefs-the constitution protects our right to believe what we want,” or something to that affect. Belief is a very powerful motivator. Even those who thrive on science alone secretly imbibe.
The physical reality of a phenomenon is not the sole indication of its significance. People are meaning-seeking creatures. Our concepts of what life means range from nihilistic, to simple, to complex. Even those who claim life has no meaning arrived at that place after the search. The significance of the unseen, the unknown, is that it provides an Ebenezer for meaning. Does Bigfoot exist in New Jersey? I can’t say. If so, it would still not rank as the strangest thing I’ve seen here. Nevertheless, among the fervent critics and uncritical adherents a common bond exists. Belief can’t be measured in any laboratory (yet) but only the most naïve would assert that it doesn’t exist.