Northern Ghosts

It is the time of year when respectable publications can, in a half-serious way, address the unconventional. The New York Times, for example, recently ran a story on ghost hunting in Norway. Andrew Higgins points out that Norway, among the most secular nations in the world, has come under the spell of ghosts. In a country where church attendance and religious belief seem to be endangered, there is a growing belief that people might somehow survive this mortal coil. Since such a story has to come off as bemused, we don’t get any indication that people have good reason for believing in ghosts—as one of the officials in the story says, they represent something that isn’t “generally accepted as existing at all.” But I wonder if that’s true. Scientifically, in our heads, there just doesn’t seem to be any room in this godless world for ghosts. Skeptics ask questions like “why do they wear clothes?” or “how can a soul remain behind if we have no souls?” Who told you that you have no souls?

Even with the constant materialist discourse of only physical reality, some ghosts cases have been very well documented. So have some hoaxes. People have the spirit of being tricksters, and that doesn’t always help when it comes to understanding the unseen. The point that the article is making, however, is that ghosts seem to be filling a need that the church hasn’t. Church has long been understood as being trapped in the past—concerned with issues deemed irrelevant by people who are just trying to get by in the world. I’ve heard hundreds of sermons in my life and remember less than ten. What is it that we’re trying to do?

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I don’t know if ghosts exist. Many days I’m not sure what reality is, because if it is simply crawling out of a warm bed into a cold apartment before 4 a.m. so that I can go to work, I’m not sure this isn’t some kind of afterlife already. And maybe not the best kind. I know that as soon as people began to record their thoughts in writing, ghosts have been assumed to exist. Despite Ghost Hunters and other popularizers, vague traces are caught by enough people that we can legitimately wonder about the narrative we’ve been fed that says if it can’t be measured it can’t exist. There isn’t a nation in the world where people don’t see ghosts of some kind. Why should Norway be any different? And we wouldn’t even be asking this question if Halloween didn’t provide us with a buffer that makes forbidden topics chic.

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.

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Receive History

Sacred texts, without readers, are mere artifacts. While so evident as to be trite, this truth lies behind the area of biblical studies called reception history. Perhaps from the earliest days that some books were considered holy, those who studied them wondered primarily what the original author meant. That was, after all, why the texts were preserved as special—they possessed a quality that other writings lacked. Over the centuries this perspective gained nuance and sophistication. (Despite what some secularists say, the study of the Bible can be quite scientific. Some of it is so technical that even specialists have a difficult time following it.) Until last century, however, one aspect remained unchallenged. The goal was to reach what the original author meant. The enterprise of exegesis is geared toward that end. Strip away the reader to get to the writer.

thumb_IMG_2069_1024Meanwhile sacred texts, such as the Bible, continue to develop their own lives in culture. While today’s facile use of the Bible in politics may seem to be something new, the use of Scripture in government is as old as this nation. It easily goes back to European explorations of text, and perhaps even to Asian exegesis before then. Even though the founders of the United States were unquestionably Deists, for the most part, they also were biblically literate. Even the Enlightenment recognized that the Bible held a privileged place in western civilization. Perhaps it was not the only sacred text, but it was a sacred text to many thousands, or millions, or people. Such a pedigree is wasted only with great loss to all. Enter reception history.

In the days of ecclesiastical hegemony, the church, however defined, had the right to interpret Scripture. With the growth of literacy and education the possibility of understanding the Bible spread to any who could read, or had ears to hear. We have only to glance around to see the ramifications of that today. While students may not know who Moses was in the Bible, they can tell you Christian Bale played him in a recent blockbuster. They may not know that Noah was 600 years old when the flood came, but they can tell you he was a troubled, if not somewhat psychotic, devotee of God. At least in popular culture. And that is merely the thinnest veneer of the surface. The idea of sacred texts remains embedded in our worldview. It would seem that if we want to understand ourselves, reception history will unearth vital clues.

Centuries and Millennia

This past week I had a look at Christian Century. It has been about a century since I’ve read it, so I noticed quite a few changes in that time. Magazines in general, I’ve noticed, have been on a weight-reduction program. They are thinner and more direct than they used to be. Also, the last time I looked at Christian Century, perhaps in my college days, it was still assumed that Christianity was the dominant paradigm for American society. Church attendance wasn’t stellar, but it seemed pretty solid. In my town, in any case, pretty much everything was closed on Sundays. There was a sense of status quo ante, perhaps it was just that social changes of the sixties and seventies were taking a while to settle into the cracks. My college town was pretty far from the forefront of theological, or even social developments, and enough other places must have still been as well. There was no denying that you had great odds of finding Christians, self-professing, in places outside the halls of government.

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It was almost sad that Christian Century felt so diminished. Inside I was surprised to see so many ads and reviews concerning themselves with secularism and/or atheism. Attempts to understand, or convert, were the foci of seminars and books. Get things back to the way they used to be. A century ago. One gets the sense that subscriptions might have slipped a bit. The consensus is breaking up. Too much information—too many choices. People aren’t sure what they will choose after all. The Christian Century seems to have been the nineteenth or twentieth. We are sadder but wiser.

It could be that I’m misreading this whole thing. After all, a couple of the articles were written by big name scholars teaching at big name institutions. One of them, however, is admittedly not a Christian. Those who are are, it seems, trying to learn about this sea change that happened around them while they perhaps supposed everything was progressing as normal. Growing up where I did, I know that I was unaware that people could not, in great masses, not go to church. That other religions were not but minor blips in an otherwise uniformly Christian country. Considering the posturing of many televangelists, I’m not the only one who thought so. It may be that another Christian century is to come. Or even a millennium. Until that happens, however, the institutions that look backward instead of toward a future approaching very fast will feel, I suspect, that a century quickly slipped by and left them wondering in its wake.

Daydream Believer

ReligionForAtheistsI have finally found a book that will sit next to my copy of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. In this disjointed age of angry Fundamentalists and even angrier atheists, where people bowl alone and don’t sleep well, Alain de Botton has shined a ray of hope. Well, pessimistic hope, but still, I felt more invigorated by Religion for Atheists than I have by a book for a long time (search my category “books” and you’ll see what I mean). Raised as an atheist, de Botton doesn’t share the rabid fury that converted atheists often exhibit. More importantly, he recognizes that, despite its supernatural teachings, religion got a lot of things right. Basic issues such as kindness and compassion have little place in a society that is built around acquiring as much for yourself as you can. Even his chapter on pessimism rang true.

Subtitled A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, some might consider the book opportunistic, but de Botton approaches religion from a purely practical and openminded angle: it often works. Religion supports (or supported) education. Numerically most of our colleges and universities in the United States have (or had) religious beginnings or affiliations. Religions also supported beauty in art, architecture, and liturgy. The religious culture provided places to meet others who thought like you, and where you felt safe. It was not afraid to be blunt about values. Many would dispute these positives, tending instead to focus on suicide bombers and child abusers. No doubt these evils also exist, and probably draw their inspiration from skewed religious views. Still, as a sincere outsider can see, religion offers much that society has no backups in mind to replace in this secular age.

In a pointed discussion of influence, de Botton mentions the power of institutions. Secular society has demonstrated repeatedly that it lacks the will to finance higher education. Secularists are terrible at organizing themselves. Reading de Botton’s suggestions for secular institutions, I almost rose from my bus seat and applauded. If Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos would put up the money for an institution on de Botton’s model, I’d be first in line to apply for a place in the Non-Religion Department. (A disclaimer here—although I met Jeff Bazos once, I can’t pretend to know his or Bill Gates’s religious outlooks; I only recognize success when I see it.) In any case, until we learn that one voice alone—no matter how many books s/he sells—cannot change anything substantial, we will be mired in impotence. To influence social change you need the combined resources of an institution. And, choose to like it or not, history tells us that in the long run the most successful institutions have been formed by religions. Alain de Botton has, I believe, given us something to believe.

Disconnect the Dots

In the on-going loss of touch between academia and the world outside, we forever hear of the triumphal march of secularism. Academics are often loath to see the habits of the laity as being of much significance. In the book industry, however, publishers have to pay attention to what the public reads. This is one reason, I’m discovering, that some academics find it difficult to publish. Some research topics just don’t reach the wider readership’s interest. It’s an editor’s job to try to match readers with books. Among the tools we use are magazines such as Publisher’s Weekly and the Library Journal. Although it is impossible to say what people are actually reading, these periodicals trace buying and checking-out habits. And it doesn’t take a genius to see that books somehow tied to religion are frequently at the top of the list. One of the great industry trackers, Bowker, even has three distinct databases for book sales: children’s, academic, and Christian. Religion, in other words, is of tremendous interest.

IMG_1279In the January issue of the Library Journal, for instance, there is the list of top books checked out of libraries since the last reporting period. Topping the non-fiction lists? The top four spots are occupied by books tied in some way to religion: David and Goliath, Killing Jesus, I Am Malala, and Zealot. People want to know about religion. Academics just don’t want to hear it. As a perpetual bride’s maid, metaphorically speaking, of the higher education that jilted me almost a decade ago, I hopefully watch hiring trends as the rejection letters pile up in my inbox. It is a diminishing pool. Look at the industry reporting tools: religion is irrelevant at best, puerile or worse when it comes to measuring maturity. People are dying over it, but we’d rather just not know. No wonder they call it the ivory tower—spotless as, well, a bride.

It is often a surprise to many academics how few people buy their books. As someone who had written a couple of academic tomes, I know how I daydream that my work on some obscure topic will take off and suddenly appear in the Library Journal, or Publisher’s Weekly. In actuality, the reading public will decide on the basis of what publishers make available. A writer such as myself, an independent scholar, lacks credibility and is not asked to write books. And universities aren’t hiring scholars of religion much any more. Some seminaries have even moved more toward the secular in their hiring practices, since, universities tell them, that’s the direction things are going. Those who buy books, or check them out from libraries, however, are telling a much different story. But we are much too sophisticated to look for signs among the laity. The more we progress in knowledge, the less we really know.

Who Loves You?

DarwinLovesYouWonder is too easily lost in a reductionistic world. Even when we get to the level of quantum mechanics we’re told, “it’s just physics.” How depressing. Such ideas seem to have been in the mind of George Levine as he wrote Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-Enchantment of the World. Don’t get me wrong, Levine does not back away from the secular starkness of biology. What he does, however, is ask whether or not evolution by natural selection shouldn’t create a kind of secular enchantment. Almost from page one Levine has to address religion, the tyrannosaurus in the room. Religion, for all its shortcomings, has provided people with a sense of purpose, even enchantment, from days long before any temples or priests existed. The materialist response of “buck up, there’s nothing more than biology going on here,” has proved to be of little consolation to the vast majority of people on the planet. One of the reasons, and I speak only for myself here, is that it just doesn’t feel true.

Truth is a slippery concept. In origin the word seems to derive from something like “to have good faith.” In terms of factuality it also has the meaning of conforming to reality. Reality, however, is equally perilous when it comes to authoritative definitions. Reality means nothing if it is not perceived. Perception may actually bring something to the table, if particle physics are to be believed. Empirical method is pragmatic—I believe that every time I grudgingly climb aboard an airplane, or turn on a computer. At the same time I sense that there may be more to it than that. No matter how much science I read, that perception simply won’t go away. The professors of materialism have learned to quash that still, small voice. The hollow feeling with which it leaves me, however, may be significant.

Evolution and religion are inextricably interwoven. Religion, although poorly defined, has to do with finding meaning in a world that is often harsh and cruel. No doubt such feelings evolved, and some of our animal kin may share them with us. When molecules break down into atoms, they generally lose the characteristics of the molecule. We now know that we can keep breaking even the invisible apart until we’re left with only theory as to what might be below. This may be true. At the same time, the wonder with which we might stand before a cyclotron or a little robot rolling around the surface of Mars, the question of truth emerges like a rock that wasn’t there just a few days before. A gnawing sense that we don’t have the full picture. A sense that no matter how far we tear apart, the total will always be far more than the sum of parts. Levine is right; evolution can induce wonder. And truth, at its very heart, is a matter of faith.