Self-Convinced

Like many people, I suppose that my own views are right.  All people think this, I suspect, otherwise they’d change their point of view.  Unless they’ve been brainwashed, of course.  Religion has a way of convincing people that they alone are right.  (And perhaps also those who believe just like them.)  I have plenty of experience with this.  Seemingly normal, friendly people suddenly turn on you when you’re not there to defend yourself.  All in the name of religion.  The place, unfortunately, that it’s most found is in “conservative” religions.  With preachers braying about righteousness and being washed in the blood of the lamb the human element is often sacrificed.  Anyone who dares to think differently is going to Hell, and, in most of these traditions, you wish them godspeed.  Then there are those who wish for true dialogue.

Dialogue means, however, that you have to admit you may be wrong.  That’s one of the features the self-convinced fear most.  Ironically, even those who think they’re right can admit that they could be wrong.  Otherwise what’s the point of discussing anything at all?  As Tom Nichols points out in The Death of Expertise, many are offended that someone has greater knowledge of any area than they.  Like it or not, some of us have studied religion, the Bible, and spirituality for our entire lives.  You might not agree with everything such a person says—we often disagree among ourselves—but at least one might admit that a mere Ph.D. counts for something.  Even if on the stock market it simply won’t trade.

Ironically, as a young man I too was self-convinced.  For some reason that I can’t fathom, I decided that if my beliefs were solid they would stand up to the challenge of higher education.  As an undergrad I majored in religion at a conservative college and graduated summa cum laude.  I chose a liberal seminary to challenge further what I believed and came away magna cum laude.  Then the doctorate.  (Edinburgh didn’t offer such trifles as honors; if you made it through the program you should be so thankful.)  Tolerance became a massive part of my outlook, even as I ended up on the faculty of a very conservative seminary.  I was willing to listen, but the same could not be said for those who saw things differently.  Many of whom were far less educated, I say with all due self-abasement, than yours truly, in such things.  As time goes on I can’t help but reflect on this.  Even as I do I know others are completely convinced I’m wrong.

Mostly Clear

“Chiasm” is a literary technique based on the name of the Greek letter chi, shaped like a latinate X.  The idea is fairly simple and generally resembles a sideways V more often than an actual X.  It goes like this: a poem, or story, begin at a large, or wide premise, narrows down in steps to a center, and then, by corresponding steps, again out toward a larger, or wider resolution.  Another way to think of it is a set of Matryoshka dolls; first you take them apart, and then you put them back together.  David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a chiastic story.  Starting on a cross-ocean voyage at an indeterminate time in the recent past centuries, it moves on to a Briton on the continent in about the turn of the last century, then a mid-twentieth-century American investigative journalist, a late twentieth-century or present-day rogue publisher in Britain, a clone in future Korea, and finally, to a planet of the apes-like Hawaii of the distant future.  Not really finally, though, since after the center of the X, it moves back outward through the nesting stories to bring us back to the beginning.

I’m not going to attempt to retell the story here, so don’t worry—it doesn’t get any more complicated.  There are, however, a couple of remarkable things about the tale.  In the brutish, nasty, post-collapse future that marks the center of the narrative, religion is central.  Some of the Hawaiians have come to believe the protagonist of the nesting story, the clone mentioned above, was a god.  To find her story, however, you’ll need to read the book.  Suffice it to say, that origin myth is part of the overall complex structure.  The second of the remarkable features, and one that makes this book very salient, is that in all the ages the issue of accepting those who are different is central.

In the outside framing story, the initial and terminal points of the chi, one of the characters is a missionary.  He’s trying to “improve” he life of Polynesians by making them into slaves, whereby they benefit from the largess of Christianity.  Quite a bit of the narrative draws its energy from the eventually faltering sense of superiority of the AngloSaxon “race.”  In that sense it’s definitely a parable for our time.  A story that deserves to be read.  Defying easy genre identification, Cloud Atlas is a thought-provoking novel that doesn’t fear religion and its larger implications.  A couple of the nesting stories have exquisite twist endings worthy of the Twilight Zone.  This book will make some demands on your time, but its message makes it a sound investment in a world rapidly heading toward a future that reveals just how troubled our species is.

Light and Dark

Prophets, mothers, messiahs. A new religion for a new world. While these may not be main themes of Robert Repino’s new novel D’Arc, they’re clearly there in the background offering verisimilitude to a world turned upside down. Continuing the diegesis created in his previous two novels Mort(e) and Culdesac, Repino again shows an uncommon awareness that when survival becomes difficult people (and animals) turn to religion. Many fiction writers create worlds under stress and pretend that characters simply forget the religious option. That may be realistic on an individual level, but as history shows, not on a societal one. People—and mutated animals—are meaning-seeking beings. D’Arc doesn’t shy away from this fact. In a wildly integrated world of different species coping with consciousness and opposable thumbs in various ways, religion naturally arises.

If you haven’t been initiated into Repino’s universe, it begins with a virus and/or a plot—themselves religious—which allow animals to become bipedal and to grow human hands. They can talk and reason and they show us a true reflection of who we are. D’Arc, the female companion of Mort(e), finds her way in a world under threat. Planning to speed up global warming in a dramatic way, the aquatic antagonists conspire to melt the ice caps to flood the entire world. Repino knows the value of the flood story and uses it to full advantage. Along the way we meet beavers who’ve developed a religion that functions between water and dry land. Indeed, as a species their religion defines them as much as their engineering skills. This is a world that’s just been through war and instead of reconciling all species, there remain those (most notably humans) who can only live with their own superiority. This is a complex universe.

The hero of this tale, D’Arc, is sympathetic to the religious sensibilities that have sprung up around her. She herself is a character prophesied in this world where Mort(e) is messianic. There’s a scripture in the background somewhere and theirs is a world without embarrassment about it. There’s also plenty of action and adventure—the war with no name is really not over—but there’s a subtlety to the narrative as well. When things go awry many people do assume they’re alone in the universe and try to find their own way. It’s equally true that many look for meaning in a structured form of belief where all of this has been foretold. Such worlds, to me, seem to be more honest to the human condition, even when the characters are cast as talking animals.

Dark Lite

Maybe you’ve noticed it too. While certainly not universal, many forms of Gothic cultural expression (novels, movies, television, etc.) have a playfulness to them. As if taking the genre too seriously might be a misrepresentation. Even Edgar Allan Poe can be caught smirking from time to time. I’ve often wondered about this unusual combination of darkness and light. Catherine Spooner obviously has too. In Post-Millennial Gothic: Comedy, Romance, and the Rise of the Happy Goth she takes on a number of these cultural expressions—both Goth and Gothic—and tries to understand the lighter side that they often present. Sometimes it’s comedy and sometimes it’s irony, but those fascinated by darkness aren’t always as gloomy as they seem.

This book is a real hodgepodge of both British and American explorations of the smiling dismal. It’s a cultural contradiction, maybe, but it certainly feels authentic if you look closely enough. Although Spooner doesn’t discuss it directly, I couldn’t help but think of that great progenitor of the Gothic—the medieval church. Perhaps it was the very real fear of the plague and the nearly constant warfare of the time in Europe, but liturgy, when done right, has a palpable darkness to it. References to ourselves as “miserable sinners” begging God to “have mercy upon us” clearly call to mind some of the deeper elements of the Gothic sensibility. Having attended Anglo-Catholic services for years I came to know many who were compelled by this intensity. A Gothic chasuble is a thing of beauty forever.

Spooner, however, focuses on popular culture. Beginning with the Goth movement of the 1980s, a subculture formed that brought much of this darkness to light. She’s careful to point out that being Goth isn’t the same as being gloomy all the time. It is an expression of creativity, and, as Spooner notes, closely associated with Steampunk. Such things, however, require a recognition on the part of participants that in order to taken seriously, such expressions must become part of daily life. There are risks, however. Even in enlightened cultures we are not yet fully tolerant of those who are different. And really, much of the book is about this—accepting those who are not like ourselves. There is quite a bit going on here that’s beneath the surface. And depth is something the world could use a bit more of. There’s nothing wrong with having some fun while acquiring it, either.

Simply Complex

What does it mean to be a man? Or a woman? Or intersex? As a society we seem to spend quite a lot of political time thinking about this. We want to regulate something we don’t even understand. An opinion piece by Rabbi Mark Sameth in the New York Times raises this question to a new level. “Is God Transgender?” the title asks. The Bible, which most of the belligerents in this battle claim to follow, doesn’t present as hard and fast a rule on sex as it might seem. As Sameth points out, the language of a number of passages seems “gender confused” and even the gods of olden times could slip from female to male and back. The Ugaritic deity of Athtar could be called Athtart, depending on her or his gender at the time. We human beings prefer our genders to be fixed, but nature doesn’t always agree.

IMG_2578

Not only gender identity, but gender itself occurs on a spectrum. In cases of “ambiguous” gender doctors often make the decision at birth. Gender is assigned, and sometimes made surgically. And lawmakers will use an outdated binary system to assign bathrooms. We make industrial, multi-occupant bathrooms because they’re cheaper. At the same time we raise our children telling them that bathroom use is a private function. Of course, when money’s involved the story changes. We thought we understood what gender was. Like most aspects of life, however, our understanding is only partial. Some species have such complex reproductive techniques that the term “gender” just doesn’t apply. Some species naturally change gender in the course of their lives. Which bathroom should they use? Nature doesn’t support our laws here.

For human beings the experience of gender is no doubt important. More important, it might seem, would be the acceptance of difference. A rainbow doesn’t have sharp divisions of color. Light blurs from one hue to another and we say it’s beautiful. When it comes to sexes we only want two. Black and white. As the rabbi points out, however, nature prefers the rainbow. The acceptance of difference in the face of the evidence would appear to be prudent. But many people read the Bible only on the surface (although even here it’s not as straightforward as it might appear at first). The biblical writers probably thought of gender in binary terms. In those days congenital “defects”—at least those visible to the naked eye—were cruelly set aside as a divine curse. We’re at last learning to see this “curse” as a blessing of diversity. As long as we don’t have to share bathrooms.

Noah Way

As a fleet of Noah’s Arks near completion, some critics would like to stop these Titanics from their mythical crossing. The Ark Encounter, despite announcements of its demise, is set to open soon in Kentucky. This Noah’s Ark replica, unlike its seaworthy compatriots, is land-locked in bluegrass country. According to a story originating in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Tri-State Freethinkers tried to take out billboard ads suggesting the ark advocates genocide and incest. Well, marrying first cousins has been done before (think about it). And if you go back ten generations things get even a bit dicier with Cain’s wife and that of Seth. All in the Family wouldn’t even air for 6000 years. As for genocide, well, this was more like genomicide. Not a race, but an entire species, apart from kissing cousins, was about to learn the hard lesson of being born not of chosen stock.

According to the article billboard companies have rejected the Freethinkers’ proposal. It might cause accidents, they suggest, which, although not technically genocide, do take the lives of the innocent, even in dry weather. The flood divides people. Thus it always has.

Dore_arch_noah

The culture wars, curiously, pick strange targets. I’m not in favor of teaching children to read myths literally, but then, I’m not in favor of bringing them up as materialists either. There used to be a concept called the “via media”—the middle of the road. Now such a stance appears decidedly wishy-washy. Milquetoast anyone? It is much better to be combative. “Oh George, you’re always so forceful,” sighs Winifred. So we teach our children. Boys, push your way to the front.

Implications can be tricky things. Allowing opponents, no matter how naive, their say has always been a mucking out of the Augean stables. Nobody likes to accommodate other points of view. Watching the parade of politicians we must be assured that we alone are right. Still, the stillborn billboard has a point. Building arks is the sign of the ultimate intolerance. Not only do you condemn those who differ to the outside, you are giving them a self-righteous death sentence. Maybe the billboard should stand. Or maybe it should not. What would Charlie Brown do?

Rainbow Nation

By now I suppose it’s old news that North Carolina has joined the wall of ignominy as the latest state to try to discriminate against gays. It seems our aging leadership just doesn’t get it that a large majority of people in the younger generation just don’t have a problem with accepting homosexuals for who they are. Laws are generally still made by old white men, though. One might be tempted to say “good ole boys.” They may make the claim that this is political, but as one astute editorial in the New Jersey Star-Ledger pointed out, this is about religion. The editorial, which ran on Saturday, notes that studies have shown that when people learn a law sequestered under “religious freedom” is actually discriminatory, the law loses support. The government by the people thing seems to be working backwards. What will it take for elected officials to realize that we are a rainbow nation? And rainbows, according to the Bible, are good.

MyFavoriteNoah

I’m always amazed at these attempts to turn the clock back. It is the season of “spring forward” is it not? Religions that have a problem with homosexuality also have an unscientific understanding of human sexuality as well. Not one person in the Bible had a clear idea of how conception worked. If they didn’t understand the facts of life, how can we expect to learn the life of facts from them? What amazes me most is that such views don’t take the whole picture into account. Intersex individuals—of whom there are many—demonstrate that easy definitions of gender are sure to be wrong. Even tying the concept of gender to sex seems to be misguided. And yet we pass laws the favor a first-century understanding of what it means to be human.

In the end what will change the minds of the corporations will not be their heads or their hearts. The decision will be made by their backsides where their wallets will be growing a bit lighter as corporations decide to take their facilities elsewhere. It’s a sad commentary on our society when justice isn’t enough to strike down a prejudicial law. It takes money to do that. It is a strange world indeed where it take lucre to lead to light.

Dirty Words

I don’t have any bumper-stickers on my car. As clever as I may think any particular one to be, driving down the highway is not the place that I want other drivers to get ticked off at me. A more judicious use of turn-signals would be my preference over mass-produced witticisms. I suspect that most readers know of my liberal leanings. Some have even bothered to inform me that they no longer read my musings precisely because of this. On the information superhighway, unlike the real highway, you can just click off and not be annoyed anymore. My bumper, therefore, will stay clean. While in a parking lot recently I saw a bumper-sticker reading “Not A Liberal.” I had to ponder this a bit.

IMG_1589

I grew up conservative, although, as working-class folk, we didn’t label ourselves with that word at home. I wouldn’t have even known what it meant. Liberal, in its basic form, has to do with generosity and being respectful of others. The media has built it up into a kind of evil juggernaut that intends to take over the safe, unchanging world of religion and politics. I wonder how liberal became a dirty word. Who, among your friends, would want to remain so if you disrespect their views and refuse to show generosity? I get the sense that even conservatives are liberal with their friends. When I walk past the homeless sleeping on a subway vent to keep warm, I wonder if conservatives ever read the parable of the good Samaritan. What bumper-stickers would the homeless wear?

A polarized society had better prepare for the big chill. In my admittedly limited experience, people come in a continuum of positions, not just one extreme or the other. It makes better news, however, when we divide into camps, the more clearly to spar with one another. What separates us is more important than what brings us together. Yes, I grew up conservative. I continued, however, to grow up. I suspect in some things I am still conservative, while in many I am liberal. I’m not sure what I’d put on my bumper-sticker. What do I want people to know about me while I’m driving? I think it might be better to suggest “I Respect You,” than an implied “I don’t like your views.” Then again, since it happens so often, I now look for a Jesus fish automatically when I’m cut off in traffic. Be careful of what you put on your bumper, because dirty words are in the eyes of the reader.

Retro Progress

LittleOrleyIn these days of high technology, remembering childhood might be seen as cowardly nostalgia. When driving my daughter back to college, however, sometimes I need a little nostalgia. So it was that we passed a pleasant couple of hours listening to Little Orley stories told by Uncle Lumpy. Having read ancient history for years, I don’t mind saying that I was a devoted fan of Captain Kangaroo as a child, and Mr. Green Jeans was one of the reasons. Before the Captain, Green Jeans (Hugh Brannum) had recorded a set of radio stories about Little Orley, beginning in 1946. (Lest readers get too driven by nostalgia, I wasn’t around for the original broadcasts.) In the small town of Franklin, Pennsylvania, across the state from where Brannum died, our library had a record of some of the episodes from his radio show. As a child I listened to these tales so much that I still have parts of them memorized to the word. The web brought Little Orley back to me, and now anyone can purchase the tales that I had gone for decades without hearing. Driving through eastern Pennsylvania on an emotionally laden journey, Uncle Lumpy seemed the perfect fare.

A few facets of the program struck me anew. Little Orley stories, for those unfortunate enough never to have heard them, are tall tales about a farm boy that involve all manner of hypostatized natural phenomena. Animals, plants, the moon, clouds, and even pancakes talk and act like humans. Or gods. Orley encounters these all with no hint of surprise, and yet goes to church on Sunday and Wednesday night for prayer meeting. The God in these stories is anything but a jealous deity, sharing the stage with a king of the oceans, lakes and seas that can transform a person to a fish, or with mysterious voices that can make a boy a worm and a worm a boy. Leprechauns gambol through the woods, and snowmen amble about trying to help with farm chores. Stories like these in the Bible are now considered factual, right Balaam? In the 1940s they were standard fantasy for children.

Now we’ve come to an era of biblical literalism that fears and despises challenges to the single God of sacred writ. In Little Orley, however, a message of tolerance (with some notably politically incorrect caricatures) predominates. Orley is time and again in situations where those who are different should be, and inevitably are, treated as equals. Even God gets some help from talking bats who ring the bell to bring the faithful to church when the sexton breaks the bell-rope. Change, I know, is inevitable. As these miles disappear behind me, I can feel it keeping pace, eventually to eclipse me. Progress is good, but sometimes the way ahead is best found by looking back in wonder.

Vive la différence

Scientists, those to whom society has passed the responsibility for knowing, have an increasingly difficult time defining humans as opposed to other animals. Still, we know a person when we see one. That’s when the crucial ethical issues arise: how should we treat others? Two unrelated articles about human rights recently came across my virtual desk: one about Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and another about how religious rights sometimes/often hamper human rights. There’s so much to sort out here, and I’m not even one of those that society deems fit to do such sorting. Well, I am human, so perhaps I can give it a shot anyway. In an article in Friday’s The Guardian, Deborah Orr points out that for progress in human rights to move forward, rights for the freedom of religion have to take second place. Clearly she’s onto something because, historically, one of the greatest enemies of human rights has been religion. Labeling suffering as virtue, it’s relatively simple for religions to suggest that the lot of the oppressed is to bear suffering so that the faith can continue untainted. After all, those religions with an afterlife, in any case, declare that it all gets sorted in the hereafter.

Orr makes a very good point: we are all human, but we may not all share religion. Isn’t the need of the whole greater than even the need of the many? Utilitarianism would declare it so. So would common sense. (Science warns us not to trust common sense, however.) Some of the harshest violators of human rights continue to be religious traditions. Others are heathens, pagans, infidels, heretics, beasts—take your choice—and therefore displeasing to some divine being, generally male and either hetero- or asexual. Oh, and he’s from the Middle East, ethnically. Over on PhotoBlip.com, a piece about Beauty and the Beast makes the point that Gaston, the strapping, über-masculine antagonist of Belle’s provincial town, is frightening because the people so easily follow him. He whips the crowd into a frenzy because, as a thoughtless but handsome (and ripped) figure, people naturally do what he tells them to. He is a dangerous, selfish bully, and many politicians have learned their tactics from him. Belle, a bookish girl, is considered odd and in need of domesticating. The beast is deformed and in need of killing.

We could learn a lot.  (Photo credit: Brian Forbes, WikiCommons)

We could learn a lot. (Photo credit: Brian Forbes, WikiCommons)

These two stories, from very different sources, point in the same direction: tolerance is the only humane response to a complex world where lots of different types of people live. Still, the problem isn’t wholly a religious one. Human rights insist that all people have access to the basic necessities of life, and, ideally, the possibility of flourishing into what they desire to be. Some, however, desire to dominate. With or without religious backing, this Gaston-esque drive to bully is all too real since might does seem to make right, and even some political darlings get their way by being bullies. One of the most poignant points that religion has ever made is that you can identify the divine by its willingness to lay down power and identify with the weak. We are seldom presented with that side of the gospel truth, for there is a paradox at the heart of it, and people want clear answers, not puzzles. Even science, however, when pushed far enough must answer with a paradox. Is light a wave or a particle? Some religions would say that light is a gift of the divine.

The Subtle Elephant

“Beer,” the list reads, then “Sex, Tacos, Weed.” At the top of the list, “Jesus.” “Which one of these is best?” the magazine page virtually shouts. Not Playboy, but Wired. At times I have difficulty figuring out what is an advertisement and what is an article in Wired. It is the future, I suppose. Anything’s for sale as long as there’s lucre to be generated. The page is topped with “Wired Insider,” so I suppose it’s a whimsical pop culture section, but I’m not really sure. The page seems to be promoting an app called Proust. I’m still pondering this list: “Jesus, Beer, Sex, Tacos, Weed.” One of these things is not like the others…

Vices

While there may be nothing inherently wrong with beer, sex and tacos (the jury’s still out on weed), such indulgences are often labeled “vices.” Jesus, until recently, never really populated such lists. Even those who do not claim divinity for Jesus of Nazareth do tend to see his teachings as embodying virtue rather than vice. In the media, however, we often see Jesus turned into a kind of addiction, a vice, if you will. What I mean is that Jesus has become a kind of iconic symbol, emptied of tolerant teachings and benevolence toward all. He has become a “white man,” who does not put up with anyone who deviates from the McCarthy-era lifestyle. He is Ozzie (Nelson, not Osborne). We know so little of the historical Jesus that it is difficult to say anything definitively, but I might suggest that he may have felt more at home at a Black Sabbath concert than watching Leave it to Beaver. There is, after all, value in shock value.

Some scholars now confer about the Iconic Book (i.e., the Bible). The Iconic Book is where the Bible is used not for what it says, but what it represents. Swearing on a Bible means nothing to an atheist, and yet we persist. These hollow symbols become powerful indicators of social norms, while losing their radical content. Many might think the Bible utterly conventional, but there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth on Wall Street if people actually read it and took it seriously. Jesus, it seems, has also become iconic. I don’t mean that icons are painted (although they are), but that he has become a hollow symbol for some. In a world where gaining as much money as possible is called “Prosperity Gospel,” despite what the iconic man in the iconic book supposedly said, I guess it isn’t unusual to find the erstwhile savior among the vices of the world.

“Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless”

Yes, Mr. Eliot, this is the way the world ends.

Duck, Dynasty

The Fundamentalist mouth has no filter. I’m a bit surprised by the furor raised by Phil Robertson’s comments about race and sexuality. Did A&E not realize that it was dealing with a Fundamentalist family on Duck Dynasty? I’m frequently amazed at how Fundamentalism is exoticised by the media as some quaint, back-woodsy phenomenon. Do they not realize that similar views are held by several members of congress and the pre-Obama presidential incumbent? By the numbers, Fundamentalism is a powerful force, but, like our universities, the media can’t be bothered to try to understand religion until a large demographic is suddenly threatened. A&E supports equality across sexual orientations, and, as it should go without saying in the twenty-first century, races. Prejudices, however, run very deep. Perhaps it’s just not so surprising to me, having been raised in a Fundamentalist environment. There was nothing exotic about it. It was, as we understood it, simple survival.

Phil Robertson has been suspended from his own show for comments made off-air. Wealth does not necessarily make one a better person. In fact, the figures trend in the other direction all too often. If instead of just promoting books written by the stars of the anatine series, the studio executives read those books they might have foreseen something like this coming. The Fundamentalist mind, I know from experience, tends to see things as black or white. Despite the camo, gray is a loathed color. Rainbow is even worse. The Fundamentalist psyche is not encouraged to try to see things from the other’s point of view. There is only one perspective: the right one. And when asked a straightforward question, a straightforward, if misguided answer will be given. It’s the price of fame.

The Robertson family, according to CNN, has closed ranks with their founder, claiming he is a godly man. There’s no irony here, folks. Fundamentalism isn’t into irony or subtle possibilities. Religious rights and freedoms are being press-ganged to the aid of those who long to speak free. Not about ducks, or guns, or calls. But about the naturalness of white skin and heterosexual love. And the Bible as the only possible source of the truth. The media often treats Fundamentalism as if it were a game, turned on or off at a whim. In reality it is a comprehensive worldview in which the inmates are commanded to speak the truth. The filters are not on their mouths, but are in their minds. Until we can learn to take them seriously, no duck anywhere will be safe.

Even the Roman Empire didn't last forever...

Even the Roman Empire didn’t last forever…

Cultural Religion

IMG_0825

The National Museum of Scotland, like many museums in the British Isles, is free to visitors. Such museums are repositories of national pride and provide a sense of the scope of a nation’s history. While penurious grad students (as opposed to plain penurious, as best describes those long unemployed), my wife and I would wander over to Chalmers Street and pop in for an hour or two of inexpensive culture. During the last minutes of my recent trip to Scotland, I ducked into the newly—well, it has been nearly two decades, I have to admit—expanded museum for a gander. I was naturally drawn to the history of Scotland section—you can see dinosaurs and robots in the US, after all—and was struck at how very religious it was.

IMG_0857

It’s not that the Scots are any more pious than other peoples, but it is the nature of religious artifacts to receive special treatment, and therefore, to survive time’s greedy decay. No one dares to anger the gods. Beginning with the Stone Age Picts, and flowing through contact with the Romans and eventually to the Celtic culture now associated with Scotland, religion is obviously preserved. Prehistoric Picts, by definition, didn’t leave written accounts of their religion, but the treatment of special artifacts in a gritty, harsh world shows where social values were to be found. Christianization, with its apocalyptic earnestness, only accelerated the process. Celtic crosses, case after case of precious metal sacramental artifacts, and a large display of the Reformation denominated the more secular displays, or so it seemed. (The working steam engines and large looms, however, gainsay a bit of my enthusiasm. And swords seemed to be everywhere.)

IMG_0837

While there is a genetic base for some sense of nationhood, it is not unusual to hear a person of African or Indian heritage speaking with the familiar Scottish brogue. Surely they are Scottish too. Culture clearly ties disparate peoples together into a “nationality.” In this museum that reaches back to the dinosaurs and beyond, a great deal of the history involves people of similar ancestry who come into contact repeatedly with those of other heritages. What gets left behind after those encounters, when it’s not swords, is religious. The religions themselves then clash, fracturing into a new stage of cultural development. Even in today’s secular Europe, some of the most notable buildings are the cathedrals. And in its own way, the National Museum of Scotland is a cathedral to all who wish to understand what makes us human.

IMG_0838

Monument to Madness

Reflections on the implications of my recent trip to the United Kingdom will likely continue to filter into conscious expression over the next few days. Jet lag will inevitably fade, and some concepts will shake down and settle into place as the reality known as work once again demands its pound of flesh per day. One of the realities that struck me during my time in St Andrews was how violent the Reformation was when it came to Scotland. Truth holds the world hostage, since everyone wants to believe they own it. And it’s my word against yours unless one of us can pull in a larger authority—and who is larger than God? There was a lot of credibility riding on the Reformers’ certitudes. And resistance was strong. Fatal even.

Reform is nearly never gentle, especially religious reform. After the Society of Biblical Literature’s meeting disbanded last week, I wandered around the old, medieval section of St Andrews, trying to get a sense of what such conviction must have been. One of the participants narrated to me more of the stories of those who’d died in the course of conversion. Patrick Hamilton, it turns out, may have been the first victim of the Reformation, but he was not the last. Walking along on a sunny afternoon in a country where several religions consciously coexist (I was, as an American, surprised to see so many large mosques in the UK), it seemed difficult to believe that humane individuals would torture someone to a horrendous death by burning just because of religious differences. The killing times seemed so long ago. Or perhaps our killing has just become more subtle.

IMG_0814

Following the directions I’d been given, I came upon the Monument to the Martyrs. Not wishing to belittle the atrocity of undeserved deaths, I could not help thinking of the pillar as a Monument to Madness. Is the need to feel right so great that others must be made to die for it? After all, among those generally considered to be sane, we all believe that we are right. Who consciously accepts untruth as reality? In such circumstances the best, the only reasonable response is to agree to disagree. I can let you accept your truth, if you’ll let me accept mine. And perhaps such tolerance would serve our planet well. Even the number of trees spared had autos-da-fé been forbidden provides a silence to the wisdom of allowing difference to thrive.

Burning Faith

1528. February 29. St Andrews, Scotland. 24 year old Patrick Hamilton was burned to death for espousing the teachings of Martin Luther. St Andrews University is the oldest of Scotland’s four ancient centers of higher education. Heterodox religious teaching was considered a very dangerous thing in those days, especially in the halls of academe. Once infected with Lutheranism, like a zombie, you had to be burned so that the rest of the world could be safe, the virus contained. Only the problem in this case was an all too human one—difference of opinion regarding religion. The Thundering Scot, John Knox, would’ve been all of about 14 at the time, and reformation for the Catholic Scotland was still years in the future. Now, one of the largest European cathedrals, in St Andrews, lies in ruins because of that very reformation.

Religious bickering has a tendency to move beyond the ridiculous to the insane. Burning young men, after decades of burning hundreds of young and old women alike throughout Europe, was one of the most heinous symptoms of a horrid madness that had grown from religious fervor and fear. Religion itself is not to blame as much as the human tendency to use it as a weapon against those who are perceived as different. Some five centuries later and the physical stakes are gone but the fervor and fear are as strong as ever. As we hear politicians and televangelists lash out against those of whom God disapproves, the smoke still rises from the spot where Patrick Hamilton, late of the University of St Andrews, was sacrificed for his faith.

IMG_0729

Ironically, as I sat on the quiet morning train from Edinburgh to Leuchars, from the headphones on the young man behind me wafted AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” Was Patrick Hamilton aware that he was on a literal highway to hell as he returned home to Scotland? Did he have an inkling that his own people would torture him to death because he taught such dangerous ideas as salvation by faith alone and Scripture as the instruction for that salvation? Could anyone have guessed that the then teenaged John Knox would introduce what was to become an even less forgiving form of Christianity to Scotland by the time young Hamilton should’ve reached his dotage? Religion is funny that way. Even those who give their all to defend it easily become its victims. And a few yards down the road the Society of Biblical Literature meets in a university building dedicated to the sciences. History’s ironies never end.