Beyond Science

The nature of reality is not easily parsed. As a society we are still under the spell of rationalism, that wonderful left-brain system that seems to explain everything. Until we break down in tears and don’t know why. Like the proverbial chicken-and-egg, reductionists say it all comes down to electro-chemical reactions in the brain, to which non-reductionists reply “believe that if you want to.” Knowledge and belief, belief and knowledge. The truth is nobody knows. So when I see Heaven on the cover of Newsweek, I can’t resist wondering what’s inside. Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard-educated neurosurgeon, has just written a book called Proof of Heaven. In the Newsweek article he explains how during a week-long coma he had the most vivid experience of his life. While his brain was shut down. It might be more accurate to say he had the most vivid experience of his afterlife.

The classic debate for Near Death Experiences—so common they have their own acronym, NDEs—revolves around timing. Reductionists say the thought could have happened very, very quickly, just as the brain was shutting down. We all know how dreams can feel like they last far longer than we’re asleep, and how vivid they are. Those who accept the reality of an afterlife argue that many of the classic symptoms such as seeing your own body from above, or being able to describe in detail what was happening in another room at the time, count as evidence. It is the problem of the occasional phenomenon again. This is something no lab can measure, but it happens just often enough to make you wonder. The shaman might say, along with Inception, that the dream is the reality. That might explain why so much of “real life” is unpleasant.

As comfortable as the belief that reality is solid, material, quantifiable, may be, it does not count for the totality of human experience. Alexander’s heaven may not be the same as mine. Reality may not be one. Maybe Occam was wrong. Reading about shamans over the past couple of weeks, it became clear that some believe humans have more than one soul. (I can hear the reductionists rumbling—one soul is already too many!) Some cultures recognize as many as seven souls in a single individual. These, they suggest, account for the uncanny experiences of human life. Why do some people see ghosts and why are dreams so vivid and how does faith healing work? Reductionism calls them all illusions, tricks of the brain. Until his coma Dr. Alexander would have agreed. Now the newsstands suggest a different paradigm may be emerging. Dare we believe that the truth is out there?

Kings and Lions

Most parents come to know the Disney Empire intimately. Apart from cheap knock-offs, it is the main entertainment industry for children in a world of leisure. When weighed in the scales of intellectual achievement, Disney productions often end up in the lighter pan. Even some of the more serious stories, such as The Lion King, strive for a gravitas that eludes them. That doesn’t mean they can’t be fun to watch, however. Yesterday, in a celebration of two closely spaced birthdays, we went to see The Lion King on Broadway. Being in Times Square reminded me that New York City is where many adults go to play, the Disneyland for grown-ups. Even with the rain for which this April has been an overachiever, hundreds of tourists were about, flocking to the famous chapels of the temple to American consumerism.

Having sat through many decent productions of high school, college, and touring company musicals and plays, I never really appreciated how a long-term professional show could raise the standards to a nearly unattainable level. The Lion King story-line has many mythological – Christian, even – themes, but the immediate sense of awe in being in a Broadway theater was underscored mostly by the professionalism of the actors and singers. The play does try to raise the level of awareness of African culture, a heritage nearly wiped out in many locations by overzealous missionaries, albeit in Disney-approved fashion. It is very easy to comprehend why those who frequent Broadway find other productions lacking. In short, the show was spectacular.

As today is the official start of Holy Week, and as Easter is about self-sacrifice and rebirth, The Lion King was an appropriate choice to experience (it was selected by my daughter). The death of Mufasa in the salvation of Simba is played out in a resurrection of sorts when Simba realizes that his father still lives in him. The character of Rafiki also makes for an excellent example of a shaman. Glancing through the playbill, it was evident that many Broadway shows are keyed to religious culture: Jerusalem, Sister Act, Rock of Ages, The Book of Mormon, and even Mary Poppins has a magical being descending from the skies to set a minor injustice to right. Now as millions lift their palms on this Sunday the drama will carry on and art will continue to draw its inspiration from religion.

Broadway 1986

Natufia to Say

The Natufian culture predated the Israelites by millennia. They were gone by at least 7000 years by the time Israel appeared. The Natufians seem to have been the first permanent residents of a hotly disputed piece of real estate: Israel/Palestine. On Monday MSNBC reported on the archaeological find of a feasting hall among the Natufians. The story reminded my wife of similar stone-age sites that we visited in the Orkney Islands several years ago. What the story reminded me of, however, was the marzeah. The Natufian site features two activities: feasting and burial. The article notes the coincidence of 28 human burials, including one shaman, and the unmistakable signs of feasting. Bring them together and its sounds like marzeah time to me!

Natufian burial, from Wikipedia Commons

The marzeah is an imperfectly understood social institution from the ancient Levant. It is mentioned in the Bible as well as in the Ugaritic texts. Although plausibly reconstructed by modern theorists, we simply do not have a complete record of what the marzeah entailed. Two of the key elements seem to have been feasting and a funerary nature. Monotheistic religions tend to downplay the role of the dead as influential entities since they interfere with a monistic view of the divine. The two Hebrew Bible references (Amos 6.7 and Jeremiah 16.5) do not speak highly of the practice. The Ugaritic material suggests drinking may have been involved as well, further problematizing the ritual.

Now here is where the ambiguity of archaeology is thrown into sharp relief. The fact is we do not know what the Natufians were doing when they buried or feasted at this site. The Hilazon Tachtit Cave does not seem to have been a regular occupation site, and we do not have any reason to connect the burials with the feasting. Beyond a hunch. The hunch is the incredible urge to bring like things together. People excel at pattern-recognition. When I read of funerals and feasting my mind leapt to the marzeah. There seems to be no organic connection between the Natufians and Israelites (or Ugaritians), but the continuity of cultural concepts seems to strong to dismiss. Were ancient people toasting their dead with feasts that were remembered down into the Late Bronze and Iron Ages?

The Dark Light

Like many Americans, last year I was fascinated by Christopher Nolan’s gripping and gritty Batman film, The Dark Knight. Admittedly, the untimely death of Heath Ledger added to the poignancy of the film, but his unfaltering performance as the Joker was no laughing matter. I was transfixed. Not only was this vision of the character previously immortalized by Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson a sea-change, it was also an epiphany.

In attempting to understand ancient religion, you can’t get far without having to address priests and prophets. Priests appear at the dawn of civilization, the establishment’s religious functionaries. They had (have) a vested interest in the continuation of the reigning power structures. Priests make their living from a population settled enough to tax. Prophets, however, have a far older pedigree. Israel recognized prophets as we all know from the Hebrew Bible, but other ancient religions also had their prophets too. Prophets were religious functionaries from outside the established power structures — they challenged conventions, demanded radical changes, and caused migraines for more than one priest. The prophet seems to have evolved from the shaman.

Not a Joker! An Amazonian shaman

Not a Joker! An Amazonian shaman

The shaman was what anthropologist call a “liminal character,” an outsider. They simply do not play by society’s rules, but they are feared and respected by society. The shaman may see or hear things that are beyond the perception of your average citizen. The shaman may be dangerous. This is what I saw in Heath Ledger’s Joker. A disturbing character who challenges and yet at the same time brings focus and resolution to a fractured society. A wounded healer. He represents a fossil, a shaman in twenty-first century Gotham. The other Jokers, Romero and Nicholson, didn’t quite attain this level of spiritual catharsis. Although I knew Batman was the good-guy, the Joker, laughing when he should have been crying, the agent of chaos, was the most religious character in the movie. He was the Dark Light to Batman’s Dark Knight.