Tag Archives: science and religion

The Truth about Elves

We are nothing if not certain. We know that there are no such things as intelligent non-human entities anywhere in the natural realm. We may reluctantly nod toward some animal intelligence, but that’s as far as the head inclines. Humans are the acknowledged and absolute top of the chain of command. Until you try to build a road in Iceland.

The story of how the road crews were called to a halt because of fear of infringing on elf territory hit the internet months ago. An article in the BBC News recently revised the scene. Emma Jane Kirby traveled to Iceland to see just how seriously this was being taken. I, for one, am glad that mythology survives on the surface in at least a few small places in the world. According to Kirby, surveys suggest about half of all rational adults in Iceland at least hold open the possibility that Huldufolk exist. The Huldufolk, or “hidden folk” are not diminutive, but human-sized and invisible. Who’s to say that invisible people don’t exist? Show me.

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Rationalists are quick to jump out with the accusation that witch trials and other superstition will soon follow should we allow that perhaps the angelic, demonic, or folkloristic beings exist. Of course, it was the rational authorities of the day—often the church—that made those trials possible. Without religion, though, we never would have had science. I don’t think the invisible beings had anything to do with it. Human, all too human, hatred was the real culprit. Fear can lead even the most well-adjusted to the precipice on a dark and stormy night (with apologies to Edward Bulwer-Lytton). People are inclined to mythology to give meaning to a world that, no matter whether scientifically described or not, must make sense to us. Sometimes the elves seem to be the most likely explanation.

The only thing really lost by catering to the belief in elves is money. It might take a little more time and a bit more effort, and empty the coffers just a bit more, but in the end both elves and humans are happier. This worldview has a sense of wonder that a money-padded saunter through Manhattan simply lacks. When faced with the choice between mean money or disgruntled elves, I know the path I would rather take.

Science Fiction Double Feature

Two news stories last week—one from the Associated Press and one from the Chronicle of Higher Education—hit upon a common theme: scientific illiteracy. Both articles presented scientists who felt that if they could just reach the (mostly) American public with easily digested facts, then belief in the Big Bang, evolution, and global warming would suddenly make sense to everyone. It may not be my place to say, as I’m not a scientist, but I believe they’re wrong. Don’t misunderstand. I do believe in the Big Bang, evolution, and global warming. In fact, I spent part of last week flagellating myself (metaphorically) for not posting something appropriate on Earth Day. I worry a lot about global warming and what we do to our only planet. What I mean is, these scientists don’t understand religion. People don’t willfully reject the facts. That takes religion.

One of the reasons that I continue my daily efforts on this blog is that our educated elite constantly refuse to acknowledge the blue whale in the room. People are naturally religious. Some grow out of it, some are educated out of it. For most, however, the price to do so is far too high. Science offers little to take the place of faith. For all of its innuendo, the Big Bang tends to leave most of us cold. I don’t support religions spreading ignorance, but even the Bible recognized that it is useless to say to a poor person, “stay warm and well fed” if you don’t offer a blanket and some food as well. It’s chilly in an infinite, yet expanding universe. Why don’t scientist understand that if you give a jacket, maybe people might actually warm up and listen?

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Religion, however we define it, is a coping mechanism. Even many atheist biologists admit that it has an evolutionary utility, embarrassing as that may be. Evolutionary scientists also tell us that we don’t evolve according to plan. Nature (de-personified, of course) opportunistically uses what’s at hand to help creatures survive. Instead of trying to understand religion, many in the hard sciences think that speaking loudly in single-syllable words will convince those who’ve found meaning in evolution’s solution of religion that somehow evolution was wrong. The worst thing we can do is to waste more money trying to understand religion! I hear it’s very cold in outer space. Still, things seem to be warming up down here. For those who can’t evolve gills, it’s time to learn to swim.

Making Sense

Science is more than meets the eye. Even since I was a child I’ve tried to follow what I can of science without a real microscope or telescope and a doctorate in some incomprehensible subject like chemistry. I guess that’s why I’m a fan of popular science—the kind that is written so a layperson might understand, or at least pretend to. Indeed, one of the complaints from scientists and others alike is that science has become so complex that only a specialist can really understand. I suspect that’s one reason religion continues to thrive; anybody can be an expert in religion, even a scientist. Nevertheless, science is based on empirical observation, now with instruments fine tuned to receive data better than human senses. So I sometimes watch Through the Wormhole to find out what is happening in the realm of pure knowledge. Although simplified to the digestibility level of the laity, Through the Wormhole tries to stay on base with interviews with mainstream scientists who are working at the cutting edge of what’s out there. I recently watched the episode entitled “Is There a Sixth Sense?”

I have no way of knowing what scientists think of such things, but I was glad to see the everyday experience of normal people addressed in this particular episode. Who hasn’t felt that weird pre-cognition from time-to-time, or felt like they were being stared at only to learn that they were? These might be the spooky effects at a distance that so unnerved Einstein, but they are part of human experience. We all go through it, but mainstream science comes up with a convoluted scheme whereby our brains project what actually happened back in memory before it happened so that it just seems like we knew something was about to transpire. Of they point to false positives—how many times did we think something was about to happen and it didn’t? We just don’t remember those. Still, this particular show brings together mainstream physicists and theorists usually considered outsiders, such as Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake (strangely omitted from the IMDB cast list). Several smart people, it seems, wonder if we are really all connected.

Mainstream science has grown terrified of metaphysics. The suggestion that anything might be remotely like the world of religion is frightening to those who believe we just need more precise calipers and higher resolution imagery to explain an entirely physical universe. This little universe we carry around in our skulls, however, is attuned to what we might just have to call the “spiritual” or some such moniker, just to differentiate it from the particles that we are told make up everything. Or is it strings? Don’t ask me; I couldn’t tell an up quark from a down quark. Interestingly, one is even called a “charm.” And then there’s the God particle, the Higgs’ boson that briefly reminded the world that Edinburgh is a top-rate university, although, as we all know, there’s no place like Harvard. For the rest of us, however, there’s the everyday business of work to face. And if I try to read a blog while on the clock, I definitely have a sense of being stared at, even when I’m alone in here.

One of the last fearless scientists

One of the last fearless scientists

Strange Orthodoxies

SeriouslyStrangeI had already read three of his books before I called on Jeffrey Kripal. Reading his work created a strange longing in me, as if I had been missing something I once might’ve had, but had lost on my way to academia. Kripal is a fearless writer and a profoundly kind man. He gave me a copy of his edited collection, Seriously Strange: Thinking Anew about Psychical Experiences, (co-edited by Sudhir Kakar, part of the Boundaries of Consciousness series). Like myself, Dr. Kripal had come to the conclusion that a number of apparently disparate human experiences actually belong to the same overarching class. Religion shares not a little ground with monstrosity, heroes, and the paranormal. With the exception of religion (generally) the other phenomena are classed as puerile and not worthy of consideration beyond their juvenile appeal. No real scholar would bother with them.

The orthodoxy of knowledge is a funny thing. I have been fascinated by what science teaches us about the universe since I was I child. Some of it is seriously strange as well. I always thought that science was observing the world closely and drawing logical inferences. Somewhere along the line, science became theory driven—I suspect it was some time after Darwin; and even Freud recognized the draw of the uncanny and how it related to numinous regions of human experience. In any case, by the time I was able to comprehend (partially) the fantastically complex system that science had built up I found a universe teeming with black holes that nobody had ever seen, and sub-atomic particles that behaved very naughtily, not being consistent with what we’d expect. Indeed, uncertainty abounded. Uncertainty is crucial to the humility which is the only true adjunct to human knowledge. We can only know enough to say we wish we knew more.

In the last few decades, however, science has adopted a magisterium like that of the medieval Catholic Church. That realm of unchallenged knowledge ignores the anomalous and declares that everything is reducible to material. Ironically, it seems, material is reducible to energy, and energy is less well tamed. Our understanding of our universe is still in its infancy. We haven’t even learned to walk yet. From the beginning, however, we have been religious and even science suggests that it may be biologically beneficial. So Seriously Strange takes some of the borderlands of mainstream science and looks closely at them. Some of the assertions are modest, and nobody claims to prove anything here. The essays will, however, instill a sense of much needed wonder into a Weltanschauung that increasingly has no space for simply being human.

Ham on Nye

Bill Nye, the Science Guy, comprised a good part of my thirties. My daughter was young and we were living in a religious environment sometimes openly hostile to science. Nye is funny and fastidious, and completely devoted to the empirical worldview. His videos (yes, it was that long ago) were fairly inexpensive in VHS format, and even as parents we learned a thing or two. When Bill Nye came to the New Jersey Green initiative conference (I don’t recall what it was called) we were in the audience to see him live. It was rather like an epiphany. Despite his wit and charm, many of his colleagues are now advising him that he’s made a wrong turn. According to NBC, he is set to debate Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis in a no-win debate, that of creation versus evolution. Some of the top lights of science have been bloodied by lower profile conflicts because—and this is the crucial point—religion and science do not agree on basic ground rules. It’s a schoolyard scrap, and those who try to adhere to laws of reason are often ill equipped.

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The debate isn’t really over the question of how we got here. The real prize is power. Creationists cannot win on purely scientific grounds; anyone who’s tried to read Henry Morris’s books knows that you can’t get very far without a curious hand raking your head. The science is flawed but the conviction is solid. Truth, the creationists know, is not open for debate. His scientific colleagues fear for the intrepid science guy, noting that this is just another instance to give creationism faux credibility in what is really a public relations scam. Ham’s creationist museum has dinosaurs on the ark, which, in an unrelated story on NBC, is drawing righteous ire from the self-same Ham. (I’ve posted on the round ark before, and likely will again.)

If I understand the first article correctly, the debate will be taking place tonight. If I understand science at all, the world will continue to evolve tomorrow. Creationism has a curious relationship to the world, viewing it through a Bible-shaped lens. A close look at the Bible reveals that it does not support the creationist viewpoint in any literal way. Too many dragons and contradictions make implausible any but a heavily harmonized version of Genesis 1. Biblical scholars, however, are among the worst of sinners, according to the creationist camp. We might be the very ones exposing their children to Bill Nye and other questionable truths such as television and electricity that don’t even exist in the Bible. I’ve got my fingers crossed for Bill Nye, but then, superstition has nothing to do with it.

Who Loves You?

DarwinLovesYouWonder is too easily lost in a reductionistic world. Even when we get to the level of quantum mechanics we’re told, “it’s just physics.” How depressing. Such ideas seem to have been in the mind of George Levine as he wrote Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-Enchantment of the World. Don’t get me wrong, Levine does not back away from the secular starkness of biology. What he does, however, is ask whether or not evolution by natural selection shouldn’t create a kind of secular enchantment. Almost from page one Levine has to address religion, the tyrannosaurus in the room. Religion, for all its shortcomings, has provided people with a sense of purpose, even enchantment, from days long before any temples or priests existed. The materialist response of “buck up, there’s nothing more than biology going on here,” has proved to be of little consolation to the vast majority of people on the planet. One of the reasons, and I speak only for myself here, is that it just doesn’t feel true.

Truth is a slippery concept. In origin the word seems to derive from something like “to have good faith.” In terms of factuality it also has the meaning of conforming to reality. Reality, however, is equally perilous when it comes to authoritative definitions. Reality means nothing if it is not perceived. Perception may actually bring something to the table, if particle physics are to be believed. Empirical method is pragmatic—I believe that every time I grudgingly climb aboard an airplane, or turn on a computer. At the same time I sense that there may be more to it than that. No matter how much science I read, that perception simply won’t go away. The professors of materialism have learned to quash that still, small voice. The hollow feeling with which it leaves me, however, may be significant.

Evolution and religion are inextricably interwoven. Religion, although poorly defined, has to do with finding meaning in a world that is often harsh and cruel. No doubt such feelings evolved, and some of our animal kin may share them with us. When molecules break down into atoms, they generally lose the characteristics of the molecule. We now know that we can keep breaking even the invisible apart until we’re left with only theory as to what might be below. This may be true. At the same time, the wonder with which we might stand before a cyclotron or a little robot rolling around the surface of Mars, the question of truth emerges like a rock that wasn’t there just a few days before. A gnawing sense that we don’t have the full picture. A sense that no matter how far we tear apart, the total will always be far more than the sum of parts. Levine is right; evolution can induce wonder. And truth, at its very heart, is a matter of faith.

Material Goods

Few ideas are as insidious as the reductionistic materialism touted by some of the New Atheists. Atheism and materialism need not walk down the same garden path, but the idea that we are determined by the thoughtless playing out of particle physics can only be achieved by sweeping the vast majority of human experience off the table to attempt a sterile analysis that applies, it seems, only in a vacuum. I often ponder this dilemma since those who think through the implications seriously soon find themselves locked out of the room. Materialists want nothing to do with those who challenge a system that is a little too neat, while ardent believers in religion have trouble letting go of what are obviously the mythological underpinnings of belief structures. The rest of us, trying to be intellectually honest, know that strange things happen and that materialism’s strong arm is powerless to uphold a system that is simplistic.

Indeed, scientists have moved away from utility as the sole criterion for explaining the universe. Beauty, or elegance, is frequently considered to be key to a Grand Unified Theory. It may be a gut-level reaction, but it speaks to something deeply human; we need to make sense of our world. We can do that, however, only if we’re willing to be honest. I’m not sure we can be honest without acknowledging that our minds range far beyond the sum of all the electro-chemical activity within an individual brain. If they didn’t, religion, for one, just couldn’t survive. Beauty, as a qualifier, is said to be in the eye of the beholder. Philosophers, however, maintain that aesthetics, the study of beauty, constitutes a branch of philosophy that requires hard thinking and specialized training. Beauty is a driving force for many aspects of life. Otherwise we wouldn’t hire architects to design since buildings on university campuses. A pile of bricks sufficiently mortared will do.

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The issue is trenchant because a generation is growing up with this idea firmly in place. Scientific studies, if scientists are to be believed, demonstrate that a strict materialism erodes empathy, the sense that what others experience matters. The logical conclusion to a reductionistic world is a kind of cold solipsism where the only spark of consciousness that matters is the one that takes place inside this head. All the rest are just formulas and equations. And yet, don’t even materialists enjoy a good novel, movie, or fine meal? The world is a complex place, and we haven’t even taken the first adult steps to begin exploring the rest of the universe with the five basic senses we acknowledge. Even down here, however, there is much that reductionistic materialism can’t explain. I wouldn’t stick a god in that gap, but a dose of humble wonder, I suggest, wouldn’t hurt.

Shipwrecked

Childhood dies in pieces. There is nothing a young boy desires more than a father to show him how to negotiate life. As Mick Jagger eloquently declared, however, many of us know “you can’t always get what you want.” I did not get to know my father growing up, and so I did what any American did in the 1960s—I looked to television for solutions. Children can be terribly naive, but I had a shortlist of ideal candidates in my head. The one who unwittingly set the direction for my life was shipwrecked on a not-so-grim deserted island. Everyone loved Gilligan because he made them laugh, but the Professor, he seemed the ideal father: rational, mostly kind, and generally unflappable. My earliest career ambition, before I decided that janitor was my true calling, was to be a scientist. This was largely because of the Professor. Religion eventually interfered in my plans, but even as I attended seminary, and then graduate school, the Professor never left me. He had been a kind of father figure to me. I’m sure going to miss Russell Johnson.

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I still feel a stab of delight when, watching old Twilight Zone episodes, “the Professor” appears. When I see Johnson in It Came From Outer Space and This Island Earth, it’s a particular island I’m thinking about. An island where, if religion came up, it was treated lightheartedly but even science, for all its clear thinking, never managed to help get the castaways rescued. This island represented my childhood. Innocent, sincere, and strangely funny. Little did I realize at the time that the science Roy Hinkley advocated would become such a fierce enemy to the religious milieu from whose baptismal waters I’d never fully emerge. It sure would’ve helped to have had a father to sort all this out.

Back before Borders (a kind of ersatz father) closed,Tina Louise came to our local to promote her new children’s book. I couldn’t believe I was standing twenty feet from a childhood icon—a movie star, nonetheless. How shocked I was to see her in The Stepford Wives where she talked about sex—that was always in the deep, deep background on the island. Pagan gods exerted real power on Gilligan’s island. As I grew up, religion held me in its powerful grip. With the Professor and the Bible in my head, I went off to become logical, intellectual, cynical. I taught Bible, students called me professor. Then my career was shipwrecked. Is it any wonder that I had that nightmare about being lost at Nashotah House again last night? Sometimes a boy just needs a father to show him the way. Thank you, Professor, for stepping in. You influenced one life in a way that I’m sure you never expected.

Deep Religion

Bosnia-Herzegovina is a nation well acquainted with disruption. The tangled history of the Balkans and the misplaced zealotry of political machinery has left this part of the world to rely on faith more than many others. So when a sinkhole suddenly opened up in Sanica, locals began to look for explanations beyond the scientific. Sinkholes are reminiscent of biblical-type punishment. They are relatively unpredictable even in our high-tech era, and they are just a bit eerie. Fear of falling is, psychologists tell us, one of the deepest phobias embedded from our youngest days. It can translate to acrophobia in some adults, but even those who don’t fear high places still shy away from an abrupt edge that appears below our feet. A story by Amel Emric on NBC narrates the responses of some villagers to the growing pit that is already fifty meters wide by thirty meters deep. The hole appeared under a pond shortly after the death of the owner who claimed that he would take everything when he went. The locals wonder whether he absconded with his pond and took it to the afterlife where, I hear, the fishing is choice.

The beliefs of the average citizen flummox the religious specialists. Perhaps it’s because religions have to struggle so hard for any kind of respectability that folk beliefs are simply labeled “superstitions,” but it is what hoi polloi believe that constitutes the main body of religion. One might counter, “but that’s not what really happened”—surely a ghost did not drain a lake and replace it with a perfectly natural sinkhole. Then again, quantum mechanics also tells us that what looks like reality isn’t really what it appears to be either. It may be that a ghost stealing a lake is a lot more plausible than a scientific explanation sometimes.

In a completely unrelated story, my relatives recently gave me an opinion piece from the Des Moines Register. A reader signed as N. W. Iowa Mystic wrote: “Budgets go astray, schedules get out of kilter, plans fail. Why? They are all graven images and the Second Commandment says, ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images.’ Laugh if you will, but that explanation is as good as any.” I had to stop to ponder in what way a budget was a graven image (I likely would not recognize an actual budget if I saw one). Or a schedule, or a plan. Who am I to say that they are not, however? My definition of “graven” may not match yours. I might consider the name of Job’s friends common knowledge, but for others they have fallen into that sinkhole of multiple bits of useless information. I’m not laughing at our mystic friend. I’m pretty certain that the earth has some very deep holes lurking just beneath the surface.

Sink hole or graven image?

Sink hole or graven image?

Explained Away

The premise seems sound. Although science tends to indicate that God is not necessary to explain anything, religion itself may still be useful. In a nutshell, that’s the basis of Alain de Button’s TED talk, “Atheism 2.0.” We don’t need to believe in God to find religion a useful paradigm. There’s so much more to being human than being simply analytical. De Button begins from the premise that there is no god, but that religion teaches us many useful lessons. It is a fascinating concept. I’ve had de Button’s book on the topic on my reading list for some months now, but like so many pressed for time, I find it simpler to watch a 20-minute TED talk than to read an entire book. It is refreshing to see someone on TED not simply dismissing religion. My friends in the STEM community often recommend TED talks, and they usually leave me feeling small and insignificant. Now I can at least show my face.

A deep irony pervades this condescension to religion. Scientific study of the past (known by the collective term archaeology) has recently given strong indication that the religious impulse is what led to civilization itself. The mysterious site of Gobekli Tepe, as I’ve mentioned before, seems to reveal that even before high antiquity what drew people together was the emergence of religious belief. Religion leads to culture, and culture leads to science. Science rejects religion and what happens to culture? Just take a look around. I’m still a naive man with working class values. In the course of my business travels I’ve often ended up in what might be considered the sketchiest kinds of neighborhoods. The suburbs keep moving further out. What happens when we run out of space? God only kn— wait, that’s a forbidden premise. Materialism only knows.

De Button’s talk is fascinating in that he doesn’t simply dismiss religion. Like most non-specialists, he focuses on the accidentals that reveal something savvy religionists have always known—there’s a healthy dose of psychology in any religion. Call it neuroscience, or call it truth. Religions have something to teach us. Civilization, it seems, began because of religion. De Button is clearly correct that we need not believe the minutia of religious doctrine to get something out of it. Atheism is not always evil nor is piety always above moral suspicion. Being human, we can’t help but wonder what is really real, however. Religions claim to know, as do some sciences. Little can be said beyond the fact that none of us know. Of course, TED will ask some of us to speak to the issue and the rest of us should just sit still and pay attention. To be noticed is to be an expert.

The eternal struggle (photo credit JuanMa, Wikipedia)

The eternal struggle (photo credit JuanMa, Wikipedia)

Vampires Versus Science

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In keeping with my current explorations of vampire religiosity, I watched Blade for the first time. I’m aware that the figure of Blade is based on a comic book hero, but it is a series with which I’m unfamiliar. The movie is the basis of my knowledge here. The first interesting connection, or more properly, disconnect, between religion and vampires is the fact that in Blade’s universe crosses and holy water do not work. Vampires do respond to garlic and silver, and even to chemicals developed in medical labs. The faith-based origins, however, have disappeared. At one point Karen tells the vampire Frost that he’s just infected, like with a virus. Vampirism was, historically, based on diabolic influence and the signs of the “one true faith” had the ability to destroy them. In the modern worldview, however, organic chemistry holds greater promise. These seem to be secular vampires.

Still, not so fast—religion is not completely absent from this world. Frost conspicuously bears the cognomen Deacon, and he plans a revolution that will bring about the incarnation of “the blood god.” This is because of a prophecy in the book of Erebus, “the vampire Bible,” shown hanging in strips like so many Undead Sea Scrolls. Erebus, of course, is borrowed from one of the many Greek terms for sections of the Underworld. Hades is a general term, but an entire geography of the realm of the dead was speculated. Erebus may be translated as “deep darkness,” and thus is appropriate for vampiric faith. Religion is not absent, it is just that Christianity is irrelevant for vampires. They do, however, borrow the concepts of sacred scripture, sacrifice, incarnation, and even twelve disciples.

When Blade has his final showdown with Frost—now the blood god incarnate—it is the EDTA, the scientifically developed anticoagulant, that destroys him. A fascinating subtext lurks here. Although clearly intended as an action movie, the plot undermines the vampire religion with science. Frost believes that the ancient ritual, decoded from a forgotten language, will turn him into a god. When you need to bring down a god, science seems to be the best weapon. Vampires—Frost anyway—are believers. Karen is confronted with the existence of vampires by accident, yet she discovers the most effective means of killing them scientifically. In the bloody battle between science and religion, it is clear which side is most powerful in the vampire universe of Blade.

Gnostic Agnostic

ACU-Stuckrad-WesternEsotericism-COVER.indd Hidden knowledge is sweet. Belief in it is very old. Kocku von Stuckrad’s Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge offers its own kind of hidden knowledge—well, it’s not so much hidden as it is simply ignored—that even science owes a debt of gratitude to the draw of the esoteric. We are trained to treat such “New Age” ideas with contempt from our tender years, and we are assured that the light of reason has dispelled the gloom of occluded wisdom. Von Stuckrad, however, clearly demonstrates that the desire to explain our world streams from the same font as the belief that a larger, if hidden, reality lies behind what our senses perceive. Such ideas originate in antiquity and continue in various forms up to the present. The impetus to explain it all shows in Galileo’s belief in astrology as well as astronomy and Newton’s fascination with alchemy as well as calculus. Great minds have always been willing to be stretched.

In more recent, and self-assured, days vocal spokes-folk have declared a single way of knowing, and it is empirical and imperial all at the same time. That which cannot be explained rationally cannot be explained at all. Still, our experience of life often suggests otherwise. Sometimes it feels as if science overuses the coincidence excuse, and maybe there is something more going on. The esoteric, without fail, has been assigned to the category of religious thought because, in the current paradigm, the only real opponent to science is religion. If it’s irrational, it must be religious.

Ironically, von Stuckrad’s research demonstrates that the culture that led us to science, in many ways, has its basis in esoteric beliefs. That gnawing suspicion that not everything is explained by numbers and experiments has been with us since the days of Gobekli Tepe, the pyramids, and Stonehenge. Each of these monuments (and many others besides) were astounding feats of engineering—and engineering is applied science—while all being profoundly religious. Science in the service of the unknown. Such complexity need not be considered naive; even scientists can be subject to religious ways of thinking. Von Stuckrad does not advocate esotericism in his book; he merely documents it and treats it non-judgmentally. There is perhaps a hidden lesson here for all of us as well. Instead of declaring a single heavyweight champion of all the world, perhaps true wisdom lies in being fully human with all its complexity and contradictions.

Check Mace

In the medical sciences building of the University of St Andrews stands a glass display case cradling a mace. The mace, a symbol of smiting authority that goes all the way back to Old Kingdom pharaohs, has a long tradition in academia as well. In all the pomp and glitter of an academic processional, a dean, provost, or chancellor carries a symbolic mace, as if to keep an unruly faculty in order. (I am sure that most of them have wanted to use that mace a time or two in reality, but have been constrained by both convention and the rule of law.) Medical science is among the fields of research quickly moving away from the spiritual mumbo-jumbo of medieval superstition. We are, after all, simply soft machines, doing as nature has programmed us. What more could there be to it?

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Looking more closely at the mace, I see on its ornate base, a flanking ring of winged oxen. Perhaps obscure to medical students, the winged ox is the symbol of the putative Gospel writer, Luke. Each of the Gospels emphasizes different aspects of Jesus, and the symbol assigned to Luke has been the ox. If the wings didn’t give it away, the explanatory placard on the wall nearby confirms my analysis. Eyes traveling up the silver shaft, the crown of the mace houses yet another saint, this one an apostle. St Andrew (of course) tops the mace, holding his X-winged cross. Underneath is an amorphous structure for which I need to turn to the placard to have explained. The fountain of healing waters, it tells me.

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From tip to tale, then, the mace of medical science is inherently religious. My reading of late has been from scientists claiming that, in the words of the old commercial, “parts is parts.” There is no underlying life-force or animating principle. Life is biological robotics, so I’m told. So as I stood in St Andrews last week, considering this metallic mace, I was poised on the edge of science and symbol. There is no biological need for such symbols—indeed, the mace was originally a weapon to inflict grievous bodily harm. Now, chased with silver, intricately ornate, it begins and ends with religious implications. I can’t help wonder what the robots make of that.

Whose Reality?

It was a groggy, foggy morning when I stepped off the bus in St Andrews. I’d been here before, but it had been over two decades ago, and with my wife, who is my navigator. I knew the International Society of Biblical Literature meeting was here, but I didn’t know where. Instinctively, I headed toward the medieval part of town. A religion conference, I reasoned, would best fit there. Seeing no signs of the inimitable professorate that I associate with the Society, I finally stopped into a university office where a dubious-looking receptionist peered at the conference letter and shook her head. The she spied a familiar address on the letterhead. “Ach, that’ll be doon this way, past the second roond-aboot.” Having lived in Scotland for over three years, I understood. I suppose if I’d just read the materials sent ahead more closely, I would’ve known that we were meeting in the newest part of Scotland’s oldest university.

A religion and science reunion came in the form of the physics and maths building where the meetings were being held. Science grad students, somewhat bewildered by so many biblical scholars, pushed open their lab doors with a sense of wonder—and perhaps disbelief. Could so many educated people seriously spend their time on the Bible? Science, after all, now has cornered the market on truth, hasn’t it? What hath Jerusalem to do with St Andrews? Ancient universities were generally founded to study theology. In 1413, when St Andrews opened its academic doors, God was the undisputed arbiter of truth. Now high-tech fighter jets scream overhead in nearby Leuchars, and we are secure in the ability of science to save us. And still biblical scholars, like the horseshoe crabs, come together in huge numbers on the beachhead of the human psyche every year.

To the student trained in the sciences, I have no doubt that we appear superfluous. Nevertheless, without religious belief, or the Bible, our society would not be where it is today. Although now it seems that science and religion bear deep hostility to one another, they actually grew from the same root and have a similar goal—to discover the truth. Science finds no evidence beyond the material, but religion declares the material as the perennial under-achiever. Scholars of the Bible from around the world, many of them not religious believers, expend their limited resources to come to one of the more inaccessible tourist destinations of Scotland and meet in a clean, modern, comfortable sciences building. Across town, in the heart of the old, medieval district, stand the remains of a once grand cathedral. Still majestic in its glorious decay, the church towers over a town once ruled by religion where now science and golf define the new reality.

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Something to Believe

Xfilesiwanttobelieve After a rough week at work, nothing helps so much as simple escapism. Thinking back to my glory days in the classroom, I remembered the movies I used to get students thinking about how the Bible is represented in popular culture. One of those movies was The X-Files, I Want to Believe. Not that the movie was my favorite, but escapism isn’t picky—there’s one reality I want to escape, and just about any other will do. As I watched the film again last night I was struck how very much the whole movie is premised on religion. I suppose the title should’ve given that away, but since it is the slogan of Mulder’s famous poster, I’d not really given it serious thought. Scully is now a practicing doctor in a Catholic hospital, and the number of lingering scenes with stained-glass icons in the background simply can’t be ignored. She has given up chasing monsters in the dark, and come to live in a very Gnostic kind of light. Through a pedophile priest (Father Joe), the darkness finds her again. How could I have missed the centrality of a priest to the plot?

The scene I always pointed out to my students was where Father Joe goes into a seizure while quoting Proverbs 25.2, again citing Gnostic hidden ways. The Bible slips from his trembling hands and falls, closed, to the floor. Later, as Mulder is literally about to be axed to death, Scully finds him by noticing the mailbox number 25-2. A proverb was a prophecy and the Bible retains its ability to guide the believer toward salvation. Through paranormal means, of course. After all, this is the X-Files.

Faith versus science, religion versus reason; these are the underlying motifs of the entire film. Scully the skeptic is the one who believes. Mulder, the high priest of the preternatural is just waiting for her to come home. It isn’t the greatest of movies, but it is based on some classic themes. Wanting to believe, but not being able to believe—isn’t this one of the most religious tensions possible? For years now the internet has been buzzing with rumors of a third, and probably final, X-Files movie. And yes, many people are wanting to believe. And if work continues with weeks like this past one, I’ll be needing a lot more escapism as well. Yes, I want to believe.