Three Thoughts

If it weren’t for friends sending me little nuggets they find on the internet, I might be uninformed about much of the weird and wonderful world unfolding around me. With hours not spent at work being laid out on spartan public transit, I don’t have much time for surfing. So it was that I watched this video of St. Patrick trying to explain the Trinity to a couple of normal Irish blokes. Of course it’s funny, but as I watched it, a thought occurred to me. I used to think what a waste it was for learned minds to sit around arguing the fine points of theology. The Trinity is a prime example—three is one but not really one. Form, substance, essence, accidents or effects? What is it that makes them distinct yet not? It is, of course, a logical impossibility. Yet hearing words like modalism and arianism made me realize that these were highly sophisticated concepts. They were developed in Late Antiquity in a world with quite a different frame than our own. Atheism probably existed then, but it was very rare. What we might call naturalism did not exist. Some kind of deity or force was obvious behind the natural world.

To be sure, some thinkers had already suggested that the earth was round and that laws of mathematical precision governed aspects of nature. The frame of the human mind, at the point when engineers can construct pyramids and ziggurats, had already reached the point of science. What do you do with science when gods can’t be dismissed from the picture? Naturally, you turn your science on the gods. Although many today would argue that if God exists, the deity is a being (or concept) outside the realm of science. Science deals with the material world, not with supernatural possibilities. Dividing a single deity into three persons without making yourself a polytheist is a real mental puzzle. The concept of the Trinity isn’t biblical, although the basic ideas are derived from the Bible. It is a purely theological construction to explain how Jesus could be God and yet die. Well, it’s more complicated than that.

One of the great joys of the angry atheists is to point out the obvious frippery of theological discourse. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Why would anyone waste their time on such nonsense? Yet, the thinking behind early theology was exquisitely rational and highly developed. One might almost say “scientific.” The people of antiquity were not stupid. Our mental picture of the Middle Ages is often of unwashed louts chasing witches and hiding from dragons. Their society, however, was advanced by the standards of hunter-gatherers. The technology of the day may not have reached down to the level of the everyday worker, but human thought, ever restless, was working its way toward a scientific revolution. And God tagged along. Even Sir Isaac Newton gave a nod in that direction. While theological arguments may have outlived their usefulness in a society such as ours, they did represent, in their day, the best of rational thought. And in their own way, likely contributed to the birth of what we know as science.

The fate of heretics

The fate of heretics

True Heroes

supergirls As a guy with a healthy sense of the weird,it strikes me as odd that rational people can suppose that we’ve solved all of life’s great mysteries. As a student of biology, chemistry, and physics in high school—and a reader of non-technical aspects of the same throughout my adulthood—it always seemed that there was an undefinable “something more.” Reading Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics led me to an interest in comic books. As a child I did not have many of them since we didn’t have much money to spend on luxuries. The few I had, however, were read and reread and reread, assaulting my imagination with endless possibilities, many of which defied everything I was to learn of biology, chemistry, and physics. My interest in feminism and new-found appreciation of the proto-graphic novel, led me to read Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines. As a boy surrounded with brothers, I clearly knew which comic books were for males. Madrid’s book delves into this super-hero world with the question of why females have always struggled to be taken seriously in this fantasy land.

Many of the characters explored in Supergirls were heroines I’d never encountered before. Madrid’s analysis often appears spot-on as he traces their histories through the decades as they mirror, and occasionally lead, society’s expectations of what women should be. The one that I had no trouble recognizing was Wonder Woman. And the reason for that was she used to have a TV show. Not mentioned by Madrid was the mighty Isis, also a heroine from television. She began as a character opposite Captain Marvel, and did not have her origin in a comic book. Isis was, of course, an ancient goddess, and as I learned from Supergirls, Wonder Woman was not far behind. The way that women could be as strong as men was to be divine. For human females, life was much rougher.

Wonder Woman, Madrid notes, was one of the Trinity of early, lasting comic book heroes. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are cast as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, respectively. Like her theological counterpart, Wonder Woman is the most amorphous, least understood of the three. Her career and persona change over time, almost losing any kind of supernatural ability. Her origin story, however, began as a helper of oppressed women everywhere. Today we see Superman and Batman on the big screen, but Wonder Woman has fallen behind. Despite great strides, our society still isn’t ready to accept rescue of men at the hands of a woman. More’s the pity, because we clearly see the mess that masculine leadership has spawned. Mike Madrid has discovered a secret identity for our old foe, sexism. And it might take the world of comic books to help us see clearly that which mainstream analysis still denies.

Inspired Lunacy

The moon is too easily ignored. Perhaps we fill our nights with too many other diversions that we easily overlook the millions of tons of rock high over our heads. When I introduce students to the importance of the moon in ancient religions they often seem surprised by the fact. The moon? It gives no heat, it is constantly changing, and sometimes it disappears altogether. Rather wimpy god to worship, don’t you think? Tonight the moon is back in the public eye because it is in perigee, its closest approach to earth in 18 years. In the facile language of the media, it is an “extreme super moon” (sounds like something you could buy at Wal-Mart). As with most ancient Near Eastern religions, modern perceptions, often vaguely scientific, do not encompass the enormity of phenomena before we became masters of the night.

The moon races Venus to perigee

In some ancient Near Eastern religions the moon was superior to the sun. We know that the moon’s light is reflected from the sun – something that did not fit their cosmology. Instead, in those regions often brutalized by a hot sun, the moon appeared kinder, gentler. It’s light helps to make many nights less intense and it never burns you. Since it is easier to stare directly at the moon, it makes an effective timepiece as well. Its changes are periodic and predictable. For a world without electricity, where nights were only infrequently shortened with oil lamps, and where daylight savings time would have made no sense, the moon ruled.

Actually, the moon played a role in developing the concept of the Trinity. Three great luminaries regularly appear in our skies: the sun, moon, and Venus. These days when most people have difficulty locating Venus, and generally no interest to do so, it goes without recognition that it is the third brightest natural object in the sky. In fact, Venus is bright enough regularly to stimulate UFO reports. A celestial triad thus ruled the skies of antiquity, and in many of those cultures the moon was the greatest of the three. So give the moon a few minutes of your time tonight as it gets closer to the earth than it will be again for many, many years. Perhaps it may give us a bit of understanding on the origins of some of our religious ideas that persist to this day.

Mother’s Day and Earthquakes

It is Earth Day, a holiday that all the world should join hands to celebrate since it is secular and concerns all people. Except the religious. Theologies are inured to common celebration; any admission that others might be right is a chink in the implacable armor of conviction. So it was not such a great surprise when an Iranian cleric this week blamed Iran’s earthquakes on women. Fuming like Eyjafjallajokull, the imam cited immodesty on the part of women as leading men to temptation and the very earth whose day we celebrate shakes in rage. Why it is that the burden to prevent sexual temptation should fall on women alone is unfathomable. If men have such trouble controlling their urges perhaps they ought to explore real estate on Mars, although it is doubtful they would be happy there.

The earth, our common home, was conceived to be female by many ancient societies. The Greeks of the Classical era called her Gaia and gave her the honor of being the earliest deity to emerge from Chaos. In the Bible, desexed and depersonalized, the earth was constructed on the first three days before any living inhabitants cluttered its pristine surface. With the drive of Christian conviction that this unruly mother should be subdued under human dominion the industrial revolution began a process of disrobing and dismembering Gaia, an impersonal “it” to be exploited. The Bible could be cited as demanding such action; we were commanded to take control. And our religions provided the ethics to underscore our mandate.

If not for the second great awakening in the 1960s, Earth Day would never have found its fundamental expression. We would continue subduing and dominating, as per Genesis 1, until the great white man above would be forced to send his son on a great white horse to end it all. But the earth is our mother. The missing woman from the all-too masculine Trinity. Instead of blaming her daughters for the unstoppable lusts of her sons, and instead of repeatedly defiling her to keep up with the Republicans, we should take a moment today to honor her. She is the only such mother we have.

Son, behold thy mother.

Here Comes the Sun, and Is She Ever Hot!

As I enjoy my Kellogg’s Raisin Bran at breakfast, a benevolent sun smiles down on me from the box. I know from social conditioning as a child (courtesy of television), that the smiling solar disc converted the healthful grapes into equally healthful raisins so that I could grow up to be big and strong. While there is no doubt some truth to this solar myth, it does demonstrate how pervasive solar personification is.

A persistent myth to minds conditioned by trinitarian concepts of early Christianity is that the ancients recognized three major goddesses. Although their names are distinct in the original languages, in English three of them begin with A and form a delightful Trinitiess: Asherah, Anat, and Astarte. So this feminine triune godhead is considered to represent the female power triangle of the ancient Ugaritic world. (Ugaritic, I know, is a far too limited term for what was a widespread idea. On the other hand, “Aramean” and “Canaanite” are inherently problematic!) It has been my contention for years that this construct is A) modern, and B) false.

Throughout the ancient world the sun was considered a major deity. And although deities frequently overlapped in their spheres of interest, the principle Ugaritic deity in charge of the sun is Shapash. (With apologies to Nicolas Wyatt, I simply can not find Asherah in her.) In the surviving Ugaritic mythology, which we know for sure is only a portion of a larger corpus, Shapash appears frequently to enlighten both gods and humans. She guides the dead to their repose in the underworld and provides them with some kind of light while the world sleeps unknowingly above. She even seems to have the ability to cure snake bites. Now in the heat of summer, there is no question of Shapash’s ability to turn our grapes into raisins. She even kept many indoors in India last week as the longest solar eclipse of the 21st century crossed that country (chalk one up for Yarikh). Let’s give the sun her due!