Naming Rainbows

Living in the area around Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton (ABE, in airport parlance), one can’t help but be aware that Crayola is based in the E sector.  We visited the Crayola Experience while still residents of New Jersey and if there’s any place that smells like childhood this was it.  One of the truly interesting aspect of Crayola is that it defined specific shades of color.  Or at least Crayola’s version of it.  Many of us have pretty clear ideas about the basic six colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple.  Sure, they added “indigo” to make it into a pronounceable name, and changed purple to “violet” to give us the standard seven, but this illustrates the point that I’m making—colors are somewhat relative.  Try to get anyone to describe, famously, puce (which I’ve learned is French for “fleas”).

A friend has recently been sharing stories from a book on the origins of color names (Secret Lives of Colors by Kassia St Clair), from which I learned about puce.  Although I haven’t read the book myself, it has become clear that colors indicate different things to different people.  All of this reminded me of a crisis I faced in my youth.  One of my teachers in middle school, in physics class, mentioned that not all people perceived the same color in the same way.  Or at least there’s no way to know whether they do or not.  Perhaps, he suggested, everyone has the same favorite color, but what they call it is different.  While the latter point seems unlikely, I took to heart that not everyone sees things the same way.  The same dilemma came back to me as my friend showed me various colors and said that her idea of what that color name designated was something quite different.

As in much of what I write, there are metaphors and analogies active here.  A paradox of religions is the great variety among them combined with the certainty that one’s own alone is “the truth.”  And all religious believers tend to be certain that theirs is true.  Like the color names we learn as children, we seldom grow up to question what we were told in our youth.  Some religions appeal to adult converts, but most people stay close to the orthodoxies of their youth.  Religions, like colors names, are a matter of consensus, for there are any number of shades and hues, and what we decide to name them is not revealed from on high.  They do, however, give the world considerable color.

 

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.

Slight Reading

It will soon be time to turn to holiday-oriented posts, but if you’re like me you’ve been seeing the decorations and hearing the music for some time now already.  Given that, at least in name, Christmas is a religious holiday it fits naturally into this blog.  So does the supernatural in itself.  This year I have read most—there’s one book unavailable—of the book-length work of/about Ed and Lorraine Warren.  The latest, some five years after Ed died, was Conversations with Ed and Lorrain Warren by T. Sealyham.  My copy, which came used from a library, has all the marks of self-publication.  It really needed an editor to go over it.  The transcribed radio interviews with Tony Spera, the Warrens’ son-in-law, the accounts told are familiar to those who know the Warrens’ other work, with a few new ones thrown in.

What is immediately striking here, apart from the factual errors (the Isle of Skye is not in the North Sea and Loch Ness is not between Edinburgh and Jedburgh) is the strong desire for credibility.  Personal anecdotes are offered as proof.  Even on the radio claims are made to having photographs (which can’t be seen in that medium) that aren’t shown because of various restrictions.  There’s no doubt that Ed and Lorraine were completely sincere in that they believed in the reality of the phenomena they studied.  They have to be credited with taking seriously what mainstream science simply cannot study.  I often found myself wondering why there can’t be any middle ground here.  The truth only appears when all the hands are face-up on the table.

Volumes like this, that preserve misstatements of a clearly aging Ed, do not help the cause of credibility.  Yes, people get forgetful with age.  Yes, people sometimes misspeak.  Credulity, however, doesn’t lead to credibility.  Many times Tony, after receiving an intriguing answer to a question, would immediately switch the subject instead of following up with a probing request for more detail.  The interview becomes a pastiche of friends remembering old times and claiming this is the truth because they all agree that it is.  Perhaps my negative response comes from the fact that truth itself is under attack by the United States government even as I write.  The world has lost the ability to judge objective evidence and come out with a reasoned assessment.  Are there ghosts?  Perhaps so, but to get to the truth of the matter will require more than the insistence that we believe “because I told you so.”

Shepherding Lies

They’re going to look pretty ridiculous when this is all over.  Like sheep without a shepherd.  Evangelicals, I mean.  The fact is they’ve jettisoned everything they stood for to support a pseudo-president constitutionally incapable of telling the truth and now they must be wondering about what they’ve lost along the way.  Stories in “liberal” sources such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Atlantic have raised the question repeatedly—why don’t Evangelicals hold Trump to the same standard they hold all other people?  His backing and filling have been obvious to anyone capable of thought, and yet the bestselling books in America for the past two weeks have been tomes about how the liberals are lying.  What’s an Evangelical to do when truth has lost its meaning?

While I was still an Evangelical, in college, we debated endlessly how to get at Truth with a capital “T.”  No matter how you sliced it, diced it, or even julienned it, Truth had to come from the Bible somehow.  Two things the Good Book was against unequivocally were lying and adultery.  Who’d have thought Southern Baptists would be standing in line to change divine law, by their own definition?  And for what purpose?  To support a man who clearly doesn’t share their values, and shows it daily.  These former Communist-haters now cozy up to Russia with a familiarity that suggests Trump isn’t the only one sleeping around.  As a former Evangelical, I have to wonder whatever happened to the concept of the double standard.  This was never considered right or fair or biblical.  Now it’s all three.

Just this past week the Washington Post ran a story about an Evangelical pastor preaching a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments.  Somehow they’ve made their way from courthouse lawns into churches, it seems.  The week he reached adultery, he didn’t know what to say to his Trump-supporting flock.  He himself supports a leader whose told an average of hundreds of lies per day since January of last year.  Among them allegations that he didn’t commit adultery.  Or pay to have it covered up.  Or know that his lawyer had paid to cover it up.  But when said lawyer realizes that the shepherd doesn’t care about sheep—can’t even find one in a paddock—he suddenly remembers that there is Truth with a capital “T.”  But Evangelicals don’t have to listen to anyone named Cohen.  After all, they have wool in their ears.  Just don’t read what the Good Book says about hearing what you want to hear.  What’ve they lost?  Not just their shepherd, but their very souls.

Experimental Truth

Only the truly naive suppose that the government doesn’t lie. I just miss the days when they lied for what could be construed as good reasons. Now you can tell if the president’s lying simply by observing if he’s talking. In nostalgia for the days of defensible lies, and also my own youth, I picked up The Philadelphia Experiment by William L. Moore and Charles Berlitz. Before you roll your eyes too much, please bear with me. I was aware of this book when it first came out, but I never read it. My brother did and his interest has stayed with me all these decades until I finally got around to a bit of guilty pleasure reading myself. In case you don’t know the story, it goes like this:

In 1943 the U.S. Navy was experimenting with invisibility. At or near a naval yard around Philadelphia, the U. S. S. Eldridge was subjected to intense electro-magnetic fields that made it vanish. It showed up moments later in Chesapeake Bay, and then reappeared in Philadelphia. The crew aboard the ship went mad, although the experiment had been successful. Now, of course the story was denied, and still is, by the military. Moore and Berlitz track down enough clues in this book to make the event plausible. Nothing can be proven, and according to physics, this kind of thing can’t happen. Reading the account is a spot of fun amid the daily lies spewing from Pennsylvania Avenue.

There is a personal element involved in this story as well. One of the characters (at least one) uses a pseudonym. (Although the event was decades earlier than the book was written, the military has a long memory.) The pseudonym stuck out because it was Reno Franklin. The name was gleaned from a road sign from Oil City, where I went to high school. It gives the mileage to Reno, and then, Franklin (the town where I was born). Seeing my little town in a book that was a bestseller in it’s day was a strange kind of validation. Did the Eldridge really disappear one fine day in 1943? Most of us will never know. In the name of national security the truth, if there is anything actually to hide, has been classified. But that’s where guilty pleasures come in. Books like this, although they can’t be considered unvarnished truth, are enjoyable to read and vanish into a haze of a world where the Nazis ruled on the other side of the Atlantic, not over here.

Trained Witnesses

The problem with lying is that it generally doesn’t hold up. Eventually people will figure out that a falsehood is exactly that and the liar will be scorned. In other words, truth is determined by witnesses. This is tested and confirmed every day in our legal system. The witness is invaluable (except in the hands of lawyers). Since no one person can see everything, we rely on others to help us fill in the blanks. Think of it; when you see something unusual don’t you ask whoever’s with you “did you see that?” We witness the world around us, and unless we’re untruthful that observation becomes part of the collective narrative of what the world is like.

A story from IFL Science! sent by a friend describes “Ancient Legends And Myths That Were Later Proven True By Science.” Apparently this is part of an annual series. What the article lays out are recorded myths later confirmed by science. Scientists are trained witnesses. Taught to silo information, they separate belief (so they say) and eschew non-natural causation. They peer into the mirror each morning with Occam’s razor firmly in hand. Then everybody seems to be surprised when non-scientists have actually observed something correctly. This is the ancient bickering between religion and science—you can’t have it both ways, the reasoning goes. This is a zero-sum game. The winner takes it all. Reality, we observe, is seldom so simple. Articles like this one express surprise that non-scientists can get it right once in a while. The fact is, we’re all witnesses to what happens on this planet. Some of us are just taken more seriously than others.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not equating religion and science. Nor am I suggesting that all people are equally good observers. It’s just that sometimes things happen when there’s no scientist in the room. Or if there is there’s no time to wire everything up appropriately. The events in the IFL Science! piece are all like this. Observed by people before science was invented—some of them before civilization was invented—events were called myths until scientists came round with their notebooks and validated the long-departed witnesses. The problem with occasional phenomena is that they don’t come on cue. The universe isn’t here to please us or satisfy our curiosity. It’s just that sometimes we see things that don’t match up with the textbook. Whether you call an exorcist or a scientist depends entirely on your point of view.

Big Shoes

Belief in the supernatural seems to be alive here in the northwest. At least if the culture at Sea-Tac Airport is anything to go by. I’d noticed, last year, that a sasquatch graces a restaurant in the N terminal, where jets from Newark tend to land. This year we had a bit of a layover, so we strolled through the C concourse. There I found sasquatch approved salmon in the somewhat anomalous Hudson News. Then, as I sat in one of the stylish, Seattle seats, a young woman came up next to us and sat down wearing a Sasquatch Volleyball shirt. I’m past the age when I can get away with innocently asking young ladies if I can take a photo of their shirts, so you’ll just have to use your imagination for the latter. The point is, bigfoot has been mainstreamed.

When I was growing up you got pretty mercilessly teased if you expressed any interest in such things. Now that I’ve got a respectable career others can get away with what captured my imagination as a young man. I’ve never thought of myself as being ahead of the curve. Or really ahead of anything, for that matter. Still, I trust my instincts. Maybe religion will come back into vogue some day. Or maybe it will simply be called something else. A tainted name is difficult to live down. The supernatural—or paranormal—often shares conceptual territory with religion, and although the pews aren’t getting any fuller, the number of those looking for some kind of meaning in the unusual seems to be holding steady. Physics can take us only so far in understanding what it is to be human.

Times change. Yesterday’s jokes are today’s orthodoxies. Those who spend a great deal of time peering back into history won’t be surprised by this. What is true today is true for today. New facts will be discovered and if we lived long enough we’d find that the future world will believe quite differently than we do. Not that the truth is relative. It is, however, temporary. Massive religious wars have been fought over trying to keep truths timeless. The sad irony is that the truths had already changed by the time such wars had been waged. The more rational we become, it seems, the more we open the door for the supernatural. I won’t presume to be one declaring such truth. That would take more weight than I have to offer. And anyone making such a claim would have some awfully big shoes to fill.