Soggy Symbols

House-buying is perhaps best left for the young.  Flexibility is, unfortunately, something that effaces with age, and house-buying is a rough transition at best.  For anyone following this blog over the past month, the theme of moving is familiar.  How we hired a moving company that didn’t get us in our new place until after 2:30 in the morning.  How torrential rains came later and flooded our worldly goods temporarily stored in the garage.  How mowing the lawn caused me to question my faith—wait—I haven’t told that one yet!  Well, you get the picture.  Suffice it to say that although I didn’t think moving would be easy, it’s been a lot more difficult than I could’ve possibly imagined.  In the midst of it came a dove.

At times, I must confess, I’m tempted toward superstition.  A strange significance between events that are, in actual fact, random.  We’ve all read of people who buy a house and discover some secret treasure left stashed away in the attic.  The former owners of our house only left undisclosed defects that become clear in periods of prolonged rain.  Even so, as I was feeling as miserable as one of Ray Bradbury’s astronauts on Venus—yes, the precipitation does begin to drive you insane after a while!—I decided to try an impose some order on the chaos that is our garage (we haven’t had a dry weekend since moving in to transfer the soggy stuff to our house) I looked down.  There, amid the screws and other little detritus left behind in the way of treasure, I found a dove charm.  A dove sent after a flood.

The symbolism of the dove with hope is ancient indeed.  It predates the Bible when it comes to a symbol that the flood is nearly over.  The Mesopotamians also had a dove sent out from the ark, and I’m given to believe this is something ancient mariners, whether they rhymed or not, regularly did to assess if land was near.  Unlike our heavy, wingless species, birds can soar over chaos.  At least for a while.  They are a symbol of hope.  Was that dove sent to me on purpose at a time when I needed it, or was it just a random find, one of those too much stuff in a small world moments?  There’s no way to assess that, I suppose.  For me, on yet another rainy day, it’s a symbol of hope.  The only other choice, it seems, would be to build an ark.

With My Luck

I wish I didn’t believe in luck. I guess I’m just not lucky that way. And I’m not alone. Of all the “superstitions” that haunt the human psyche, luck is among the most pervasive. We either have windfalls that make our lives easy, or, like many of us, a series of unfortunate events against which we constantly have to struggle. We call it luck. But is it real? William Ian Miller wrote an intriguing piece called “May You Have My Luck” for a recent Chronicle of Higher Education Review. There’s nothing as mysterious to me as the hapless professor. I mean, they have it all, right? Educated at fine schools, cushy jobs that pay reasonably well, interviews on documentaries, jobs that among the rarest on earth? Who wouldn’t want that kind of luck? (I am also a believer in myth, so that also must be taken into account.) The reason I raise luck here, however, is that Miller’s article again and again returns to religion. I don’t think it’s intentional. It’s just unavoidable. Luck, no matter how we define it, goes back in some way to the favor of the gods.

We all know people that we think of as lucky. Success seems to follow on success for them. They are at the right place just at the right moment, and their lives seem to be easy and not so full of stress as those of the rest of us. Most people, as Miller observes, have middling luck. Things go our way sometimes, and then they don’t go our way at others. My fascination, however, lies with those on the other end of the spectrum. There are those who seem to get very few breaks. They may do all the right things, follow all the wisest advice, work harder than anyone else, and still end up on the bad end of luck’s roulette. Ironically, they may be religious people to boot. Their deity, according to their sacred traditions, is the most powerful entity in the universe. And yet things don’t go their way. We call it luck. Is it more powerful than the divine?

This question, or more properly, conundrum, lies behind any concept of luck. Shifting to the paradigm with which I’m most familiar, does God direct luck or does luck exist independently of God? Does luck even exist at all? Is it just the name we give to a series of random happenings in retrospect and which have no inherent meaning? Ah, that seems to be the very point! Meaning. What do these things that happen to us mean? Whether or not we believe that life has any meaning, our minds are biologically programmed to seek it out. Very few of us are content to find only food, shelter, and air to breathe. We want something more out of life. We may not be able to name it, but whatever it is, we could conceivably call it meaning. We are looking for a purpose to our mere existence, even if we don’t believe in it. Gods or no gods, we are left trying to discern what they require of us. And whether we find it or not, it seems, is purely a matter of luck.

Photo credit: Joe Papp, Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Joe Papp, Wikipedia Commons

Deep Religion

Bosnia-Herzegovina is a nation well acquainted with disruption. The tangled history of the Balkans and the misplaced zealotry of political machinery has left this part of the world to rely on faith more than many others. So when a sinkhole suddenly opened up in Sanica, locals began to look for explanations beyond the scientific. Sinkholes are reminiscent of biblical-type punishment. They are relatively unpredictable even in our high-tech era, and they are just a bit eerie. Fear of falling is, psychologists tell us, one of the deepest phobias embedded from our youngest days. It can translate to acrophobia in some adults, but even those who don’t fear high places still shy away from an abrupt edge that appears below our feet. A story by Amel Emric on NBC narrates the responses of some villagers to the growing pit that is already fifty meters wide by thirty meters deep. The hole appeared under a pond shortly after the death of the owner who claimed that he would take everything when he went. The locals wonder whether he absconded with his pond and took it to the afterlife where, I hear, the fishing is choice.

The beliefs of the average citizen flummox the religious specialists. Perhaps it’s because religions have to struggle so hard for any kind of respectability that folk beliefs are simply labeled “superstitions,” but it is what hoi polloi believe that constitutes the main body of religion. One might counter, “but that’s not what really happened”—surely a ghost did not drain a lake and replace it with a perfectly natural sinkhole. Then again, quantum mechanics also tells us that what looks like reality isn’t really what it appears to be either. It may be that a ghost stealing a lake is a lot more plausible than a scientific explanation sometimes.

In a completely unrelated story, my relatives recently gave me an opinion piece from the Des Moines Register. A reader signed as N. W. Iowa Mystic wrote: “Budgets go astray, schedules get out of kilter, plans fail. Why? They are all graven images and the Second Commandment says, ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images.’ Laugh if you will, but that explanation is as good as any.” I had to stop to ponder in what way a budget was a graven image (I likely would not recognize an actual budget if I saw one). Or a schedule, or a plan. Who am I to say that they are not, however? My definition of “graven” may not match yours. I might consider the name of Job’s friends common knowledge, but for others they have fallen into that sinkhole of multiple bits of useless information. I’m not laughing at our mystic friend. I’m pretty certain that the earth has some very deep holes lurking just beneath the surface.

Sink hole or graven image?

Sink hole or graven image?

Super Stition

SuperstitionElijah is a folkloric character. Despite the common misperception, most of us who study religion know the difference between myth and reality. There are, nevertheless, lots of engaging traditions about Elijah. Even in our secular culture we joke about leaving a door open or an empty chair available for the disappearing prophet.

It is difficult not to like Robert L. Park. Reading his Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science was often a pleasure. I read Park’s Voodoo Science a few months back, and I enjoyed his supreme rationality very much. Many of the weird beliefs he decries clearly deserve his denunciatory treatment. Like many among the New Atheist movement, he believes that rationality, scientific thinking, will eventually displace religion completely. The final line of his book, “Science is the only way of knowing—everything else is just superstition,” however, maybe overlooking some vital information. In the first instance, scientists are humans too.

There’s no question that much of what Park writes makes perfectly good sense. The God of the gaps is gasping, indeed, dying. Double-blind prayer experiments just can’t work. Evolution does work. Quantum mechanics are abused by many New Agers. This all makes sense. There are, however, some gaps that rationality misses as well.

It has always bothered me that reality is much more than human senses reveal. Rationality is based on the premise that we have, or can discover, all the facts. There is an unseemly arrogance to it. We know, rationally, that “lower” animals experience sensory input unavailable to us. In many ways, Spot is more intelligent than his human “owner.” We use bloodhounds to find people for precisely that reason. We know that “bird brains” navigate in ways impossible for humans to emulate. Even a bee drunk with nectar can buzz its way home. And these are only the life forms that evolved on earth. Our rational knowledge is only a tiny fraction of all possible knowledge. And I’m not convinced that science is really the only way of knowing it. I just feel it in my gut. It’s a big universe out there, full of possibilities we haven’t yet encountered. Is the evolved human brain, limited as it is, the sole arbiter of reality? Is there some form of thought we have not yet reached? I will continue to enjoy reading books like Superstition. I will also, however, continue to leave the door open just a crack, in case Elijah does show up after all.

Explanatory Value

The dividing line between superstition and religion is thin and growing more effaced all the time. Nowhere does this become clearer than in studies of the history of religion. One of the critiques early made between “true religion” and superstition is that the latter involved magic, but today anthropologists find that line difficult to discern as well. Many religions are defined by their insistence on supernatural occurrences. The world as is, is by definition, secular. That’s one of the reasons Euan Cameron’s Enchanted Europe: Superstition, Reason, and Religion, 1250—1750 is so interesting. Cameron, an historian with a precise grasp on theological nuance, traces Christian responses to the world of the supernatural through the Middle Ages. Various theological responses are then explored as the author searches for that elusive distinction that makes one belief religious and another superstitious. It is really a matter of perspective.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the late Middle Ages. As Cameron notes, physics, to the mind attuned to God’s direct intervention in the cosmos, looks like the occult. How could a person seriously believe that two physical bodies, such as the sun and earth, or earth and moon, could attract each other? If you put God back into the equation just to take him out for an instant, this sounds extremely occult. Does not attraction imply volition? How can physical objects attract one another? Thus scientists such as Galileo and Newton often found opposition for their ideas based on the fact that science and superstition can also bear a passing resemblance.

As science’s superior empirical evidence became clearer, the God who’d stepped out of the room temporarily was eventually locked out. This vast universe could be explained without the supernatural at all. What was needed was better glasses. Microscopes and telescopes, and now cyclotrons and space telescopes, provide a consistent and ever sharper image of a universe that gets along just fine without the divine. But what of superstition? Has it gone away? We still routinely construct buildings without thirteenth floors. The sigh of relief from the worker or guest on floor fourteen seems never to be obviated by the fact that they are really on a renamed, empirically thirteenth floor. Your daily newspaper (although quickly growing extinct) will still offer you your horoscope before you hurry off to the lab. Call it what you will—superstition, religion, occult, magic—as long as we’re human no scientist or theologian will ever convince us that there’s not at least some whisper of a ghost in the machine.

Triskaidekaphobia

Friday the thirteenth. The very concept awakens images of horror movies and inauspicious happenings. An interview with a Psychology professor at Rutgers recently discussed this unusual phobia. Mike Petronko of the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology had this to say: “Exactly how this got started is difficult to say, but the belief appears to date back to ancient times. Often, superstitions are rooted in religion. Some folklorists believe the fear may stem from the Last Supper, when, according to Christian belief, Jesus and his 12 disciples gathered for the final meal, which set the stage for his crucifixion, on Good Friday.” There is no doubt that the origin of the superstition is religious and that Fridays earned their notorious reputation because of Good Friday. Even today, as any Roman Catholic can tell you, Friday dietary requirements differ from those of other days.

But wasn't this a Thursday?

Thirteen is a little harder to pin down. It is a prime number after ten, but then, so are eleven and seventeen. It may have its unlucky associations back in the old Mesopotamian base-six numerical system. Once you reach past the first doubling of six you meet thirteen. Even today hotels are designed with no thirteenth floor, although pasting a fourteen over the actual thirteen is merely for psychological relief. Mathematics insists thirteen follows twelve. As Petronko notes, the fear is real. Airliners do not have row 13 and hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue are lost because so many people refuse to engage in regular practices (such as flying) on Friday the thirteenth.

Religion and fear are not strange bedfellows. In fact, religion, in its earliest origins, seems to have been a coping mechanism for fear. People are afraid of many things – that is the curse of consciousness. We can anticipate eventualities that will never materialize. We imagine them happening to us. Religion seeks to placate those forces that are beyond our control. We may lay claim to a highly advanced and technologically sophisticated society, but millions of people are anxiously awaiting the end of this day. Rutgers, like most universities, hardly sees the need to fund the study of religions. Nevertheless, our very culture belies that indifference. Many people are afraid today and we still don’t even know why.

Theory of Everything

Over the weekend my wife pointed out an interesting story on MSNBC pointing out that superstitious beliefs are becoming more common. While reason may dictate that as it becomes more obvious that reason explains everything the supernatural will fade from the human explanatory repertoire. Instead, scientists are using reason to explain why this does not appear to be happening. Many neuroscientists suggest that something in the brain predisposes us to believe, while other scientists suggest it may be in the DNA. For whatever reason, we are inclined to believe in outside agency.

The article is an introduction to the book Paranormal America by Christopher Bader and Carson Mencken. I’ve read some of Bader’s work before and it is admirable for its balance. He tends not to judge the phenomena but raises the question why people believe what is, frankly, often unbelievable. What stands out in such discussions is that religion is often classed separately from the “paranormal.” Paranormal is generally anything outside the accepted bounds of science. Supernatural, apparently, is anything that makes blatant claims to be outside the reach of science. With recriminations frequently flying both directions, I suggest maybe a reworking of definitions might be in order. Science, by definition, can explain all phenomena that exist. Supernatural, by definition, cannot be quantified. Too many mutually exclusive truths.

For many decades many scientists have been seeking a grand unified theory, something that explains everything. This they hope to do without recourse to the supernatural. When they arrive at this theory or formula, predictably, those who believe God is bigger than all this will claim that God is simply outside the system. Perhaps the net needs to be widened. We know that we humans do not possess the keenness of senses that our animal friends have. Various creatures see, heard, smell, taste and touch with such exquisite sensitivity that we can only be jealous. Some can sense magnetic fields, while some flowers follow the sun without the benefit of any eyes. We, in our presumption, think we see and measure all that is to be seen and measured. Hamlet would disagree. I can’t wait to read Bader and Mencken’s book, but I’m inclined to think that even when a grand unified theory arises there will still be room for philosophers, and maybe even theologians.