While on a trip to New England recently, my family had taken an exit to look for a bite of lunch. We followed one of those innocuous dinner-plate symbols that often grace roadside signs next to a stylized hotel bed and a gas pump that looks like a suicidal robot. This particular exit, however, seemed unwilling to deliver on the food part. As we wound down an unfamiliar road, we came across the golden cupolas of a Sikh temple. This was the first Sikh temple I’d ever seen, and my daughter asked why she’s never heard of Sikhs before. “Because they never cause problems,” was my reply. Of the major world religions, Sikhism is notable for its lack of overt violence even though a sword is one of the religion’s symbols. Unfortunately, over the weekend, violence found some innocent Sikhs.
As of the moment, no one is able to identify the motives of the man who gunned down four Sikhs preparing to worship in Wisconsin. For many Americans the religion is a mystery. We hear of Hinduism and Buddhism in the course of many historical and literary ventures. Sikhism is somewhat newer on the world religious scene, but it still predates regular European trade with India during the “age of exploration.” Although the classification of religions is always disputed, Sikhism is generally considered around the sixth largest world religion in terms of numbers, and they have avoided the limelight in the western world, showing that a religion can rest on its principles. One of the truly praiseworthy principles of Sikhism is toleration, an idea that his held in very high regard.
Toleration often clashes with gun ownership in the United States. Just weeks after twelve people were murdered for going to the movies, we have more headlines of private citizens (some mentally disturbed) with ready access to firearms. And more innocent people are dead. Even the shooter is dead, so we will never likely know whether this was simply a case of mistaken identity or hideous intolerance at work. In my time in Wisconsin I came across many Christians who were extremely intolerant of any viewpoint other than their own. Fortunately, they were the vast minority among the people that I knew. Still, the paradigm that I see emerging disturbs me to the core: we claim it is our right to own guns while identifying with a deity who let himself be tortured to death rather than harm anyone. I wonder if a culture can spell schizophrenia?
While on a drive through New England, we were discussing Islam with our daughter. Now I’m no expert on Islam, but I have covered it in a few classes. It has had a presence in America for a couple of centuries at least, probably first arriving with slaves from Africa. As we drove into Springfield, Massachusetts, I saw four slender towers rising into the sky off the highway and said, “Look, it’s a mosque,” supposing the towers to be minarets. When we drew closer, it was clear that these were really just the decorated finials of a quite secular bridge. Embarrassed at my mistake, my family was kind enough to console me with the suggestion that the four towers from that angle did look like the accoutrements of a mosque. (Earlier in the day I had seen my first Sikh temple in Connecticut, so the mistake might be at least slightly justified.) My wife mentioned how misidentified symbolism could be confusing. This spurred me to consider how symbolism frequently becomes a stand-in for reality.
I’ve been reading about witches lately. Like many legendary fears, witches can be interpreted in many ways. They have their origins in the belief that nature may be manipulated by will over a distance and had been feared for the effectiveness of their powerful spells. After the tragic witch-hunts of the Middle Ages ran their horrible course, witches came to be seen as the result of overactive imaginations and rampant superstition. The modern Pagan movement has revitalized the witch in a somewhat safer environment, and has applied various symbols to it. Thor’s hammer, the ankh, and the pentacle are considered the symbols of modern witches by various covens and practitioners. While passing by a department store on East 43rd Street, I noticed apparel decorated with pentacles—the symbolism adopted by some witches.
This reminded me of a fracas that erupted some years back when a fashion designer incorporated the ornate letters of the Arabic script into the design of a sleek dress that left less to the imagination than a traditional burka. The designer expressed surprise when Muslims objected to words from the Quran being used to decorate immodestly covered women’s bodies. In both these scenarios symbolism has demonstrated its power for being what philosophers call the Ding an sich, the thing itself. Symbols are often that way, bridging as they do the worlds of religious thought and secular existence. I wonder how much we as a society would gain from letting bridges be symbols that participate in the reality they represent.
I’m not overly nostalgic for a guy interested in ancient history. I tend to look at the more recent past as a via negativa for the young who might make a difference today. Very occasionally, however, aspects of society were handled better back in the 1960s and early 70s. One of the most obvious instances of a more sane society was the segregation of politics and religion. Prior to the rise of the “Religious Right” as a political machine the religious convictions, or lack thereof, of politicians played little role in their campaigns and American culture itself was much more open. A story from today’s MCT News Service illustrates this all too well.
In an article entitled “In S.C., religion colors gubernatorial race,” Gina Smith reports on the various religious slurs that now pass for political campaigning in that state. “Raghead” (for a former Sikh), Buddhist, Catholic, and “anti-Christian Jewish Democrats” are among the aspersions freely cast by those without the sin of a non-evangelical upbringing. As if only Fundamentalists are capable of making the right political decisions. As if Fundamentalists ever make the right political decisions. Fundamentalism is a blinding force on the human psyche, and those who are misled by religious leaders who claim unique access to the truth are to be seriously pitied. Conviction that those most like you are to be trusted most may be natural, but dogged belief that pristine morals accompany any religion is glaringly naïve.
The American capacity for belief in fantasy worlds is in the ascendant. No matter how many times Fundamentalists or Evangelical politicians are arrested or forced from office for the very sins they rant against, their overly forgiving constituencies come flocking back to them. Commit the sin of being born Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, or Catholic and no quarter will ever be offered. No, I have no desire to go back to the 1960s, but I sure wish politics would.