History Department

Rather like an embarrassing personal blemish, many universities tend to hide the fact that they were originally servants of the church.  Ouch!  I know that hurts.  When I was working at Routledge I had to educate some of my fellow employees about the strange interaction between religion and higher education.  Most of the earliest universities were founded primarily as theological colleges.  That stands to reason, since as light slowly began to dawn at the fading of the Dark Ages, the practice of literacy had largely been the domain of clerics, and even today, the clergy are among society’s most dependable readers.  Universities sprang up because churches desired leaders who were informed—educated, even.  Men (at that point) who knew how to reason well.  This impetus eventually led to the kind of thinking that allowed science to emerge, although it soon had fights with its parents over who had the better perspective.  Some things never change.

University or church?

University or church?

Even considering the Ivy League here in the United States, we have schools that were generally founded for clerical purposes.  Harvard was founded mainly to train Puritan ministers.  Yale was intended to provide clergy and leaders to the colony of Connecticut.  Brown was founded by Baptist clergy, while Columbia owes its origins to the missionary wing of the Church of England.  Princeton was founded for the training of Presbyterian clergy.  Dartmouth’s Puritan clergy founded wanted a school for preparing missionaries.  Even non-sectarian Penn had clergy among its early leaders.  Cornell was the lone gunman of the truly secular schools.  The pattern even reaches to state universities that now cower at the thought of expanding or sometimes even maintaining their religion departments.  Rutgers, where I had the privilege to teach as an adjunct for a few years, was originally founded as an enterprise of the Reformed Church in America, scion of the old Dutch Reformed Church, thus giving rise to the small New Brunswick Theological Seminary that still sits in the middle of the College Avenue Campus of the State University of New Jersey.

Every now and again, I ponder this state of affairs.  Religion, love it or loath it, is foundational not only for higher education, but for civilization itself.  If the evidence of Göbekli Tepe is to be believed, religion may have been the very glue that brought societies together in the first place.  Despite the decline in mainline denominations, public survey evidence indicates Americans are just as religious as ever, or at least spiritual.  How quickly we forget that it was biblical mandates to go out and spread the news that led to the idea of a literate, educated society.  The lure of money and technology is great, and has managed to reshape the higher education landscape.  If you look, however, at the lists of institutions of higher education in the United States, even today, the largest subset is either currently affiliated with, or had been founded by, Christian groups wanting to offer education to their children. Today there are still hundreds of universities and colleges affiliated with religious groups.  Somehow I get the sense that the affection showed is not completely mutual.

Clearly Religion

GoingClear“There is no point in questioning Scientology’s standing as a religion; in the United States, the only opinion that really counts is that of the IRS;” so Lawrence Wright partially concludes Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. This is an important book, and one which once again demonstrates how seriously religions should be taken. New religious movements offer a ringside seat to how orthodoxies are born. Facts may be distorted or covered up, but there is information to be had on L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith, and Mary Baker Eddy. We can learn from the way their ideas may move from fiction to fact, and how intelligent people still feeling spiritual yearning can turn to a religion invented recently as well as those invented millennia ago. As Wright points out, all religions make improbable claims. Fact-checking, however, is much more difficult for periods long gone that left only meager records. The distance in time may lend ancient assertions the benefit of the doubt, but the real decision-maker is money.

Given universities’ interests in lucre, one might logically conclude that religions would be of great interest. It is telling that, especially in the case of Scientology, that the factor most important to the status of the church is its money. Religions may claim tax-exempt status, setting them apart from purely commercial enterprises. This gives religions an advantage when they are careful with their finances, and the whole question of whether a religion is a religion is not left to scholars but to the lawyers of the Internal Revenue Service. The truth of religion lies in its bank-books, not its holy books. No doubt in the case of Scientology this is because of the high-profile court cases in which the status of the religion was challenged by government agencies. Nevertheless, when it comes to the laying down of the law, only money really matters in defining a religion.

As Wright discusses, one of the problems we face is that religion is poorly defined. Nobody can really assert much beyond that religions involve belief of some kind. Beliefs, in this case, about L. Ron Hubbard and his ideas. Although facts about his life are disputed, there can be no doubt that Hubbard was an intriguing man. He was a prolific writer with great imagination, and he clearly had keen insight into psychology. A religion used to be measured by the good it produced. Now it is measured by the dollars. As Going Clear illustrates, trying to construct an unbiased account of Scientology is a fraught enterprise. Like many modern religions, Scientology is very secretive. Even the early Christians knew that if everybody could join, then the club loses its appeal. Apart from belief, religions also must have outsiders and well as insiders. In a world measured by consumerism, wealth is the surest sign of blessing. No one should be at all surprised, therefore, that it takes the IRS to decide that which used to be taken by faith alone.

Dark Sight

TimeDarkBarbara Brown Taylor is a name about which I wish to learn more. Although Time magazine predictably runs a religious-themed issue around Easter, the year’s cover story, “Finding God in the Dark,” hit some resonant chords immediately. A friend of mine writes a blog called Bleak Theology, and my own posts often linger in those nether regions where, if we’re honest, we don’t know what we might find. Barbara Brown Taylor has been exploring these themes for years on a spiritual journey that has her deciding, as many of us know, that the dark is not evil. Fear is a kind of spiritual elixir. I watch horror movies. I read gothic novels. I awake daily before the sun, and do my best thinking in the dark. The key, as I would humbly suggest, is to be honest about life. When I preached, the students who understood that would say they appreciated my honesty. After all, before the beginning, all was darkness.

The article on Taylor, by Elizabeth Dias, is moody but appreciative. Taylor has the experience of being an Episcopal priest, a professor, a preacher, and a recognized author as her journey has led her to appreciate the dark. Some of us understand that the biblical books that are the darkest—Ecclesiastes, Job, and Psalms—are also the most honest. These are books to read in the dark.

Nature has evolved us to trust our eyes for survival. Fear of the dark is not something instilled in humans by protective parents—it is a consequence of having to survive in a jungle where you too are prey. We can’t see well at night, so that is the time we close our eyes and make ourselves vulnerable to the nocturnal beasts. Those beasts are, of course, spiritual. Somewhere on our journey to shallow religions of the modern era, we’ve come to believe that religion is all about sunshine and light. Evangelicals often believe that feeling good is a sign of blessing and depression is from the devil. Religion, however, from the beginning, has not shied away from the heavier side of human existence. If all were clear and bright, what need would we have of religion? In our experience, however, life has a substantial amount of trials and difficulties. There’s a lot of fumbling in the dark. If we can learn, with Barbara Brown Taylor, that not seeing is true insight, we might indeed learn a lesson about life in a world that is dark, literally, half of the time.

Take a PAAS

Like so much of life, PAAS Easter Egg coloring kits were the result of an accident. To be more specific, a chemical accident in New Jersey, something which is far from rare. This particular accident, however, had a fortuitous side-effect: the brightly colored (but not radioactive) Easter Egg dye that many of us associate with childhood. Around 1880 Newark druggist William Townley spilled colored dye onto his suit, leading him to individually package holiday colors, according to a story in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. That individual packaging allowed for a full set of egg colors to be sold together and the PAAS brand was soon launched.

The idea of coloring Easter Eggs, like so many Christian traditions, likely has pagan roots. Eggs were a sign of new life with the coming of spring in many cultures (although boiling the poor things rather defeats the purpose). Christians adopted the egg as a resurrection symbol—the chick pecking out of its shell was like the resurrected Jesus bursting from the tomb, albeit somewhat less dramatically. Watching a newborn chick hatch is an emotional experience. At the 4-H Fair, standing around the incubator in the chicken tent, you can see wobbly, uncertain, tiny birds tentatively trying to assess this strange new world that is colder and somehow more compelling than life in the shell had ever been. The mighty son of God they’re not, but they are much more like us, looking for answers and taking small steps until they’re more certain of what they face.

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The coloring of eggs has origins lost in antiquity. Nobody’s quite sure why it was done beyond the fact that they look nice. Romans ate eggs as part of their spring celebrations, and Christians came up with a story to explain colored eggs. The legend claims that Mary Magdalene, in trying to convince the emperor of the truth of the resurrection, turned eggs from white (or brown, as they likely were in those days) to red in her open hands. This proof, however, failed to convince the Caesar. What seems certain is that pagans liked coloring eggs so this provided a new source of evangelism to the Christians who assimilated the practice. Like Christmas, the Easter Egg has become a thoroughly cultural symbol—since Easter comes on a Sunday employers aren’t obligated to give the day off, so everyone can celebrate. Children hunt eggs on the White House lawn and we can still expect everyone to be in the office on Monday morning. Resurrection, after all, can only reach so far.

Pair of Docs

I’m not planning any trips anytime soon, but if I were I’d give Pair of Docs Travel a look. The founders of Pair of Docs are friends of mine who’ve also landed in that black hole of academia: hired, established, dismissed, forgotten. In my days at Nashotah House, eager to escape, I talked to Nelia Beth and Joel about an adjunct teaching stint at Carroll College (now Carroll University) in Waukesha, Wisconsin. They arranged for a couple of classes for me, and even wished me luck as they knew they were being forced out. Not for performance or lack of competence, but because of politics. Shortly after their moorings were thwarted, I too was cast off without an anchor. I’ve been adrift ever since. Last week, however, I had a letter from my old colleagues letting me know that they’ve gone into the travel agent business. Give them a chance—I’m sure you’ll be pleased.

An unspoken moral dimension is at work in higher education. Actually, the dimension is immoral. Those who embark on the track of higher education are culled from their teenage years by their teachers and professors. Having taught quite a long time myself, I know that a promising student stands out like a glowing rock in the sand. You know that this person is sharp enough to go far. You encourage, you advise, you try to open doors. The doctorate is awarded and before the silly academic hood touches those untried shoulders, you’ve just created another beggar to line the streets. A tin cup might be a better emblem of higher education than a diploma. At least it’s more useful.

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Universities keep cranking out Ph.D.s because they need the money graduate students bring to the programs. The graduate students, for the last two decades at least, have been the sacrificial victims. I have to wonder about the future of a society that takes those deemed most able by their many teachers and demoralizes them to the point of endless depression and penury. In some cultures teachers are treated like the high-achievers that they actually are. The future rests with them, not entrepreneurs. Not that you would be able to tell the difference from our sluggish economy. Seems to me that maybe we don’t have enough slaves to row this galley. And if you’re wanting to book a place on a ship or plane, maybe it would be considered a form of social justice to give Pair of Docs a try. If I could afford to travel, I know I would.

Ham Awry

Ham, in the movie Noah, is a conflicted figure. I felt a slight chill, I’ll have to admit, when the carnivore Tubal-Cain asked him his name, reminiscent as it is of pork. Of the sons of Noah he alone bears the impossibly stylish short hair his father seems to favor, and yet, he is one of four men alive and the only one without a mate. Japheth is young enough to wait for his twin nieces to grow up, and the ancestor of the Semites, Shem, has already begun his fruitful multiplication, just when humanity seemed at an evolutionary bottle-neck. Ham found a wife but couldn’t keep her. Noah leaves her to be trampled to death as he takes his son to the gentlemen’s club known as The Ark. The rain has already begun to fall.

In the Bible Ham gets short-shrift as well. Having seen Noah naked after he discovers alcoholism, Ham bears the brunt of his father’s wrath. Noah, perhaps still hungover, curses Ham’s son (not appearing in the movie), Canaan. From the biblical point of view, the reason is perfectly clear: when Israel arrived in the promised land, the Canaanites already lived there. Given that the promise was to Shem’s descendants, a genocide was ordered and probably the more liberal among the marauding Israelites felt a bit of guilt about that. No worries—like ethnic minorities in horror movies, the Canaanites were created to be killed. Ham, however, isn’t cursed for his voyeurism. Still, according to later interpretation, he is the ancestor of the Africans as well, and the “curse of Ham” was used for a biblically literate society as a justification of slavery. After all, Ham had had an eyeful, and it was only fitting, they reasoned, that his n-teenth-hundredth generation should suffer cruelly for it. How’s that for air-tight reasoning?

According to the movie, Ham decided to leave in voluntary exile. Perhaps he hoped that like Cain he might find an unlikely spouse in an unpopulated world. He had grown apart from the new Adam, welcoming Tubal-Cain aboard the ark, and keeping him hidden until Noah threatened to kill the future of all humankind. Strangely, it seems that Ham is the proximate cause of the salvation of all humanity, and he become a self-sacrificial scapegoat in the Icelandic scenery. He declares that his deceased chosen mate was good, and Noah had cursed her as well. In the Bible cursing is freely dispensed, and it is considered adequate to its task. Somehow that curse transmuted to a nobility in the film, for Ham is the most like Noah of all his children. And even today that self-same Bible is used to justify a genocide in a world where myth is taken for reality.

Noah doesn't like Ham

Noah doesn’t like Ham

The Lost Forest

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Asherah has, from lack of new material, fallen into a quiet retirement among the gods. For a while there no shortage of new books appeared, including my first, which explored many aspects of this shy goddess. While academia has pushed her to her logical limits, she has thrived in the world of popular imagination. I was reminded of this during a recent visit to Grounds for Sculpture, a whimsical park in Hamilton, New Jersey featuring the work of many artists. The appreciation of art works on many levels. A piece of sculpture can take on new meanings when viewed from different angles, and a piece that seems to make no sense can become imbued with meaning when new perspective is added. Sometimes it is the title of the sculpture. A friend had pointed out to me last year that one of the artworks was entitled, Excerpts of a Lost Forest: Homage to Ashera, by Tova Beck-Friedman. Ironically the sculpture is from the same year as my finished dissertation on Asherah, a continent away. I must have seen this sculpture many times, but without knowing what it was, had paid no attention.

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Asherah is often considered a goddess of trees. My research indicated, however, that such an association was premature. Of course, any discourse that has the Harvard University stamp of approval is decidedly fact, despite contrary evidence. Nevertheless, the dendrite nature of the goddess has persisted into popular culture and even into the world of abstract sculpture. The loss of a forest is, no matter whether goddesses are involved or not, tragic. Asherah has become the protectoress of trees.

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The nature of this particular lost forest isn’t clear. At first it might appear that a fire has gone through, claiming the vitality that once thrived in green leaves and mottled bark. I sense that something more is happening here. Asherah is, above all, the divine female. Here single-most constant role in antiquity was as the spouse to the high god. The loss of the forest still speaks to the on-going repression of women. We like to think that our society is headed toward equality, but progress is painfully slow. As usual with lack of momentum, religious institutions lead the way in conservatism. In the largest Christian body in the world, and in some of the fastest growing religions on an international scale, women are kept from leadership roles on the basis of gender alone. Monotheism declares there’s one god for two sexes. Those who experience life from the other side are like trees falling in the forest. We still don’t know if anybody hears.