Posts Tagged ‘mythology’

SERMON: “A Christmas Message” from the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

Living in the Chihuahuan desert of the American Southwest (where the arrival of Winter is not always obvious) one must look for the local signs of the holiday season’s approach.  We do have some trees with actual leaves that transition into Fall colors as the weather gets colder (though this year we were still in the 70’s past Thanksgiving).  Sometimes we get a dash of snow or rain.  Sometimes.  Christmas lights go up, of course, along with a selection of nativity scenes in yards and windows.  Around here the most unique feature may be the modernized electric version of the traditional “luminarias” (or farolitos) that are strung across the rooftops of adobe houses and shopping centers (the more traditional and temporary — and therefore more “authentic” — squat paper bags of sand and a single votive candle are mostly reserved for Christmas Eve itself).  Folks might stock up on the fresh crop of locally-harvested pecans for their holiday baking, and perhaps choose to attend one of the seasonal vocal concerts or theatrical performances that pack the local performance spaces.

This year a buddy of mine worked with a downtown business group, the city, and our local electric utility, to string up lights along the three newly-rennovated blocks of downtown.  The lights are “choreographed” to music played on a special FM station set up by the utility.  So as you drive down Main Street, you can get the full effect of the show.  It’s actually rather charming.  I’ve driven this lighted route several times now.  It has brought me pleasure.  I’ve noticed that a couple of the songs in the (rather limited) rotation have a distinctly evangelical Christian message.  One song in particular — by what sounds like a Christian “boy band” — proclaims (in a rather chastising manner) that it’s not a “Holiday”, but a celebration about Jesus!.

As I’ve listened to the lyrics in a lot of the Christmas music (in concerts and on the radio) I have thought to myself: what a shame.  What a shame that all of this accumulated output of human creativity that marks the music, the theater, the decorations and the tone of this mid-winter holiday had to be built upon this one religious story of a desert-living couple and a miraculous baby in a holy land.

I’ve had thoughts similar to this before.  Once, after reading a good book about the history of Norse mythology (including its eventual replacement by Middle-Eastern monotheism), it occurred to me that the Norse gods were much more interesting (and relatable) personalities than the distant monotheistic Yahweh of the Bible.  But the fact is that our Christmas is Christian because of the vagaries of history.  For whatever reasons, the Bible story was the one that “stuck”, and then it stuck around long enough to become a cultural artifact around which human artistic production naturally attached itself, until we had the accretion that is our modern Christmas.

Of course, there are counter-celebrations: The Winter Solstice and Kwanza, for example (Hanukah I don’t think would qualify in this instance, for obvious reasons).  But that’s about it.  Unless you count the commercial and secular sects of “Christmasianity” (what I’m calling the entirety of this central cultural event).  These more secular facets always stir up a certain segment of Christianity that is annually miffed about these perceived free-riders on THEIR celebration of the God-made-man-in-a-manger celebration.  But, then, the pagans (the few, the hardy that remain) are miffed that THEIR mid-winter celebration was co-opted by the Roman church all those years ago!

A lobe-finned fish -- an example of the type we evolved our upright bodies from.

A lobe-finned fish — an example of the type we evolved our upright bodies from.

For years I have taken a certain piquant pleasure in the handful of surviving pre-Christian symbols that are embedded in the Jesus birthday party.  I find it a rather bracing testament to the persistence of our most basic human impulses toward celebration and community that even a religion as aggressive as monotheism has had to accommodate the practices of the pagan peoples it absorbed.  In this way, culture is like natural selection in that it (at least under ideal circumstances) retains the best products of evolution even as it continues to select new (and beneficial) innovations.

(I say “under ideal circumstances” because natural selection can only build upon what already exists, which in practical terms means that not all traits that are reserved are optimal.  In short, in evolution “good enough” is the functional equivalent of “perfect”.  And so we upright humans retain the marks of our bacterial past, or the body-plan that helped our ancient lobe-finned great-great-grandfishes locomote, or a hairy primate cling to her branch-y bed).

And so Christianity — having not so much displaced the earlier belief systems as subsumed them — becomes the newly grown tree around which the vines of art then grow.

This does not mean — by any stretch — that this one religion was the best possible one, or even the most inspiring, but by a certain point Christianity (and Islam, it’s paternal twin, as well as Buddhism and Hinduism) had become widespread enough to provide a common narrative vocabulary upon which artists could build.  In this way it’s not unlike the way in which Facebook has become the dominant social media platform.  This doesn’t mean that Facebook is necessarily — again — the best possible solution to this need for human sociability to find expression in a digital domain (it certainly has its dark and bothersome aspects), but it has become so dominant — in a field that requires dominance to exist — that Facebook has become THE platform around which we gather.  For now.

Art, being a form of communication, relies for its effectiveness on a shared set of reference points (to which the creative human can add novelty and surprise).  And so the familiar story of the baby Jesus is told and retold, abstracted, refracted, secularized, commercialized and even defiled, but the nativity narrative itself — through such use — becomes even more firmly entrenched in the culture.  It becomes “locked” in the same way that the first technological innovation to dominate becomes “locked”, and all subsequent developments must be built upon what came before, warts and all (technology, like nature, is constrained from spontaneously creating completely novel enterprises).  So when it comes to the many overtly religious threads that have been woven into our Christmas tapestry, one question becomes: how would we replace all of the songs and traditions with new (less religious) ones, without have to “un-weave the rug” as it were, and start from scratch?

And so the Christian part of Christmas is, for all practical purposes, a permanent fixture of my society.  But to be clear — this is not because it necessarily deserves to be so.  On that score, Christians could afford a touch of humility, and keep their complaints that “Jesus is the reason for the season” a bit more to themselves.  For what they fail to see is that even the Christian themes of Christmas are built upon earlier myths and celebrations so that we all are part owners of these celebrations in the deep, dark, mid-Winter, be we Pagan or Jew, Evangelical or Humanist.  And I, for one, think it is a good thing that Christmas (as we tend to celebrate it) has so many angles from which it can be viewed and enjoyed!

So there is actually no “missing” Christ to be “put back into Christmas” (he is there to stay).  The “battle for Christmas” is just a silly idea rooted in a hubristic ignorance of the realities of a history that moves on with what it’s got to work with (just like the path of evolution that re-worked the body plan of an ancient fish to give us these upright bodies that we can drape with ugly Christmas sweaters)!

I might just as well start a campaign to put the “Fisch” back in Fischmas.  Hey.  That’s not a bad idea!

One final thought: as I listened to a rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus” on the radio today, I realized that our faculties of inspiration seems to require a belief in something greater — much greater — than our “selves”.  We humans appear to need some things to be sacred, or magical, or hopeful, so much so that we are capable of leaving our old gods behind to embrace the newest ones (or ONE).  If we look at it that way, it turns out to be the gods that change, not the festivals.  So perhaps we can take comfort from the realization that though the sign (or symbol) over the door might change, the “human church” never will.

So I wish you a lovely Solstice. I hope you have wonderful memories of a warm Hanukah, or that you enjoyed a festive Kwanza.  And of course I wish you a Merry Christmas (whether you love the story of the baby Jesus or just enjoy all of the lights and the friends and the food).  This is a festival that belongs to all of us, because, well, evolution has made us all members of the church of the human being.  And whichever denomination of that church you happen to identify with, we are all still bound together in this  great adventure of existence.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Space Between My Ears” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

Detail of the asteroid in the Tombaugh Elementary School murals. By Bob Diven.

It’s been an unusually busy Summer of work over at my “day job” (that of an independent artist).  I just completed about 1400 square feet of mural for a local elementary school (the school is named after the well-known astronomer Clyde W. Tombaugh — “the discoverer of Pluto”).  Now I know just enough about astronomy to know that any attempt to show planets, stars, spacecraft and such in any realistic distance relationship would be madness to an artist attempting to create a visually arresting work of art (even the “near” objects in our own solar system are so damned far away it is mind-boggling).  So I just put things where I wanted them: some extremely (and dramatically) “close up”, and others not-so-close up.

I’m expecting criticism from actual astronomers, but that’s okay.  I understand there is a difference between the “art” I created and what I might actually see if I were able to travel across the incredible distances of space.

But — like everything else about our existence — we don’t actually picture the universe as it is (vast distances filled mostly with, well, “dark stuff”).  When asked to think of the universe, pictures of planets, asteroids, nebulae and star clusters immediately pop into my head.  My mind goes to the details of familiar objects (assisted in no small measure by the fabulous images our national space program has supplied for us to feast on over the last forty years).

The truth I’m after here is that we are surrounded at every turn by realities on a scale that can freeze up our mammalian brains (like shaking an old pinball machine into “tilt” mode).  The latest to challenge my brain is the fact that our planet does not (according to a renowned planetary geologist I know) have the resources to fuel a spacecraft that could possibly reach any other planet that is (potentially or actually) home to life like ours.  And conversely (since we must assume that other planets would be similarly limited, made as they are of the same cosmically-available building materials that our own Earth is) there is not another planet in the entire universe that can reach us.

In short — we may not actually be alone in the universe, but for all practical purposes, we are all alone in the universe.

And I could ask which is more mind-blowing: the fact that there is a statistical probability that there are other planets similarly placed and gifted like ours out there that could have evolved life?  Or that we will never, ever know about it?

I think about these sorts of things on a regular basis.  (Not all the time, of course, as my brain is as limited as any other human’s, and can only go so far afield before it encounters severe discomfort).  But each time I pick up an interesting rock, I realize that just about any random pebble I might kick off the sidewalk has enough history in it to disprove any young-earth creation theory, and just about every religious creation myth.

Our problem is not a lack of evidence for evolution and the scientific theories regarding biology, the big bang, and everything else: our problem is that we are surrounded by, immersed in, and incapable of escape from the evidence of our ancient and natural origins.  (As a rather glaring and profound example of “evolution in action”, consider the recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control that the Gonorrhea bacterium has been developing resistance to the antibiotics we have be using to treat it!)

Perhaps it is because the evidence has always been with us that we can somehow choose to continue to be blind to it.  We have had our entire history to make up stories about the occasional randomly shaped rock formation or cloud (and have had just the right kind of brains to believe our own stories).  Religion and mystical thought have been with us for as long as we can remember.  Science — true experimental, methodical science — however, has been with us for only a short time, and though we should be praising it for what it has finally revealed to us about the things that concern us most (where did we come from, where are we going, why are we here), instead science is too often treated as a blasphemous crusade led by greedy, godless villains in lab coats.

We humans are brilliant idiots.  We are clearly the most clever and innovative animals to ever populate the earth, yet in some ways we “deserve” whatever eventual extinction awaits us.  But then, we also “deserve” whatever life we have while we have it.  After all, each of us that is here today is a survivor of the eons-long struggle for existence that began with the very first living organism on the planet.  Within your DNA is that unbroken thread that has stretched through millions — hundreds of millions — of years, and is living and reproducing and mutating and adapting still.

And that knowledge alone is enough to blow another circuit in the brain.

A wide view of the North wall of the Tombaugh Elementary School Murals. By Bob Diven.

In reality, the vastness of space is no more difficult to fully comprehend than is the biology of our own bodies.  Both are impossible.  But we can achieve a certain understanding if we’ll try.  If we can open our brain up a little bit to ponder things (that we know from the start we will not completely grasp) we can, eventually, come to terms with our place in the cosmos.

There are vast swaths of our own galaxy that we will never penetrate with telescope or spacecraft.  There are questions about our own animal evolution that will never be answered (we are never going to amass and confirm, for instance, a collection of all of the fossilized animals in our direct line — and anyone who insists on these kinds of results from science is a fool).  The fact is that we know enough —  no: we know way more than enough — to see what we truly are: evolved animals on a small planet that is off in one corner of a single galaxy swimming in a sea of other galaxies in a universe that is still expanding from an explosion that began billions of years ago.

That is enough wonder for me.  Next to that reality, the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful God is just, well, not worth considering.  The creation stories of religion lose all of their explanatory appeal when compared with the reality of our actual “creation”, and have therefore long ago lost any scientific credibility (though they retain a certain narrative and historical richness).

As for me, I choose to live a life enriched by the knowledge that so many scientists have worked so hard to bring to me.  I don’t care that every experiment has not produced perfect results, or that scientists don’t always get it right, because the process of science is valid and is, it turns out, the best thing we humans have come up with to determine reality.  And even that very human-scale achievement blows my mind.  Again and again.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The God Next Thor” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

I think that most people who don’t believe in God self-identify as agnostic (or non-believer), even though they may well be “practical” atheists.  (By “practical atheist” I mean one who negotiates his or her life as if there is no God).

I suspect that there are also a number who self-identify as Christian who could be counted as practical atheists.  Otherwise, the preacher and evangelist would not be so troubled by the many church members who seem to be more “social” than true “believing” Christians.

(Consider this recent article in Der Spiegel about the growing number of Americans that self-identify as “non-religious”, even as our politics seem to be rushing in the opposite direction).

Of course agnosticism is the only scientifically defensible stance in the face of the evidence we have.   Scientific in the sense that since the existence of God is a theory that cannot be proven or disproven beyond a reasonable doubt, it cannot, therefore, be considered a valid scientific theory at all.  By this standard, then, true atheism remains an untenable factual stance.

But let me ask: do you think that there is any chance at all that the Norse god Thor could turn out to actually exist?

Most people would laugh at the question.  But they would not, then, label themselves “Thor-less atheists”.  Nor would they call themselves “Thorian agnostics”.  Why?  Because the terms atheism and agnosticism are reserved (in everyday use) to the question of the existence of the “one true God”.  In our everyday life, then, it seems that we don’t think it worthy to waste the terms on the thousands of extinct god ideas that have existed (and continue to exist) in our myriad human cultures and times.

And yet the vast majority of humans don’t have to think twice when asked if they believe in God.  They will answer with an emphatic “yes”.

But based on the evidence of the sheer size and age of our universe — and our incomprehensibly tiny role in that universe — isn’t the notion of a local, modestly-endowed god much more likely to be a reasonable conclusion for a human believer to adopt?  Isn’t the existence of an earth-based spirit or a demon more likely than an omnipotent God who orchestrated the birth of an entire universe 13.5 billion years ago just so that a recently evolved hominid holy man could reveal God’s plan to his fellow hairless primates two thousand years ago?

But of course these are not the actual terms under which we humans contemplate an eternal maker.  We don’t really think in terms of distances between galaxies, or billions (or even millions) of years.  In our everyday reality, the world we carry with us is almost entirely local.

That’s why I think that the only reason we can actually seriously entertain the notion of an infinite, eternal, omnipotent God is because of the fact that everything about our evolved brain and the reality of our everyday life continues to tell us that we are actually a very large presence in a fairly small world.

It is only with great effort (and pain-inducing difficulty) that we will our brains to open up to the vastness of geologic time, or the true distances between earth and the edge of our still-expanding universe, or the intricacies of our Rosetta Stone of DNA.  And even after we stretch our synapses to the breaking point, they inevitably snap back to the local, immediate level of awareness that we actually need to navigate our complex tribal lives.

This means that the God that we actually believe in, in reality, only has to be able to fill our idea of heaven with his grandeur.  We do not picture the size of the space he should actually fill (which, practically speaking, is pretty much an incomprehensibly vast reach of empty, cold, dead space).  By comparison, we live on a fly speck of a fly speck of geology spinning in a sea of flyspecks so distant from each other as to be like particles of dust in a sandstorm across and endless desert.

If we actually held a true idea of the size of space (and our size in comparison) we would A) never conceive of a God so large, or B) imagine him having the slightest interest in conducting an experiment in soulful life on our speck of a planet.

Have you blessed Thor today?

But then, our idea of God did not develop in such a mental landscape.  God evolved with us when we were even more tribal and local than we are today.  We grew up together: us and our imaginary friends, so familiar to us that even now some scientists do the mental gymnastics to stretch their idea of God to fit the reality of our existence that science (not religion) continues to reveal to us.

And that is the other rub:  Which predictions, what descriptions of life, or of the universe, or of the earth, contained in ancient religious works have proven to be true in anything other than the most poetic sense?

The reality is that religion resists the enlightening probing of science until it can resist no longer, at which point religion does its best to adapt.  On the grounds of this behavior alone, religion is suspect as a source of any testable truth.  Religion may have something to teach us about our own natures, to be sure, but only in the same as any work of literature or art (for it is closely related to those human endeavors).

For these reasons, I see no reason not to take that extra small step and call myself an atheist.  It seems no different than declaring gravity a reality (even though that, also, is still a “theory”).  In reality, the only reason I can see not to embrace the moniker of “atheist” is the discomfort it causes other human beings (for a good overview of the level of mistrust most Americans feel toward Atheists, check out the surveys cited in this article).  And I am, after all, a social animal, which means the embracing of any minority view carries with it a certain social risk.   I don’t want people I am talking with to feel uncomfortable or challenged (at least not unnecessarily).  And, as I’ve said before, there is no real cosmic harm to believing in something that isn’t true.  Sure, it may hasten the decline of our species by keeping us from confronting approaching climate-based dangers, but that’s a problem for us, not the universe.

But be that as it may, declaring oneself an atheist is not worthy of the gasps that it can generate.  It is to me a small step to take once the idea of belief itself has become (rightfully) suspect.

In emotional terms, however, the final (and most difficult) barrier to unbelief is the catch in the throat that comes when we ask ourselves “But what if God exists?”  I can tell you from experience that this is a tenacious reaction which, to me, speaks of both the long history of belief and our natural inclination toward it.  What it does not speak of, however, is the existence of God (no matter what the clever preacher may make of such a natural human anxiety).  Don’t believe me?  Ask yourself this question: “But what if Thor actually exists?”  Or “What if Athena is real?”.  You will likely not have anywhere near the same catch in the throat when Thor or Athena are involved.  Why is that?  We don’t take them seriously as contenders for actual divinity.  Why not?  Because we weren’t born in the times or cultures in which such beliefs would have been as much our birthright as monotheism is today.  That should tell us something about belief in God.

The rest of belief is made up of little more than confirmation bias and belief-dependent realism.  I’d bet you a nickel that if you started praying “in faith” today to any of the extinct gods, your reality would soon confirm their existence as it sought out the evidence of answered prayer in the hundreds of random events that fill your days, with your confirmation bias working just as well as it does for all believers, be they Christian, New Age or pagan.

As Richard Dawkins rightly points out, we are all atheists.  It’s just that some of us make an exception for the god of our choice — the God of whom we demand so little proof and so little power that it’s actually quite a wonder we need to imagine him as big as he is when a local god serve us just as well.  But that need to be the center of an infinite God’s attention is — as they say — a subject for another sermon.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder: in Myth and Memory” by Edward G. Lengel

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

Edward Lengel is editor in chief of the Papers of George Washington and a professor at the University of Virginia and is, therefore, one particularly qualified to speak on the subject of the “real” versus the “imagined” George Washington.  And in “Inventing George Washington” he does just that, beginning with the mythology that sprang up around the still-living General and President, and following the various epochs of myth-making (and debunking) that followed, right up until the present day.

As the title suggests, this is not a book about the life of George Washington, per se: it is about the various lives he has lived in American popular imagination, and the motivations of the individuals behind the many imagined events and traits of character that have attached themselves (with varying degrees of stickiness) to the man.

It’s a fascinating journey, and Lengel is an enthusiastic guide.  His attitude is one you would expect of an editor of historical documents (he will not attach his stamp of approval to any tale that is not supported by hard evidence), but he has a sense of self-awareness and humanity that keep this book from being purely pedantic.  (The fact that he does not answer every myth with a diatribe on what HE knows to be FACTUAL is, I think, a mark of real restraint).

The result is a book that says as much about American popular culture, politics and religious marketing as it does about our first President.

As an example of the mythology around Washington, consider the well-known image of the General kneeling in prayer in the snow at Valley Forge (a tale, it should be noted, that first entered circulation shortly after his death), and how it was put to use:

The famous prayer that probably never happened.

“In life, Washington’s beliefs had been ambiguous — he avoided referring to Jesus Christ in his letters, did not kneel during prayer, and often dodged out of church before communion.  But the eulogists would not admit any doubt: “Let deists, atheists, and infidels of every description reflect on this,” thundered the Reverend Samuel G. Bishop of Pittsfield, New Hampshire: “the brave, the great, good Washington, under God the savior of his country, was not ashamed to acknowledge and adore a greater Savior, whom they despise and reject.”  (P-13)

Ambiguity, it would seem, turns out to be a sort of watchword when it comes to understanding Washington.  Here was a man who was keenly aware of his role not just to his country, but to history.  And though he took great pains to be sure that every scrap of his official papers were preserved (pains that were insufficient to keep his ancestors from scattering them to the winds, however!), he seems to have been a man who was circumspect in what he revealed of his inner feelings and beliefs while he lived.  It’s almost as if he sought to be the kind of figure a nation could look back upon in crisis by being just non-specific enough of an individual that the many could adapt his image to their own immediate needs.  That he held secrets and specific beliefs, there can be little doubt.  That he wanted to share them with the rest of us, well, that’s a different story!

Once again, we are offered a great little read from the one person we would wish to write on such a subject.

t.n.s.r. bob