Just a year before I had been unceremoniously dismissed from a fourteen-year teaching job at Nashotah House, devastating everything I thought I knew. I’d found a temporary job at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh and the head of the department encouraged us to go see the mandala that some Buddhist monks were constructing in Oshkosh one weekend. My family came up and we breathlessly watched as the orange-draped, shaven monks meticulously tapped brightly colored sand into an intricate pattern of incredible beauty. My daughter, quite young at the time, wondered what they would do with it when they were done. We’d been told, in the department, that the sand would be safely flushed into a local waterway, as Buddhism teaches about the transitory nature of life. My daughter was upset at the thought of such a nice piece of art being destroyed. But that’s part of the point of a mandala. As the Buddhists say, too many people concentrate on the hand pointing at the moon rather than on the moon itself.
Photo credit: Kamal Ratna Tuladhar, WikiCommons
I’m no expert in Buddhism. It is a complex way of thinking, and, like many religious systems, it is not unified into one particular thought-structure. Nevertheless, one of the main teachings of Buddhism is that life is, pardon the crass translation, suffering. We experience desire and we will continue to experience desire until we die. Then we’re reborn to experience desire all over again. Those who are enlightened may break out of this system into Nirvana, or a kind of non-existence where desire can no longer afflict us. There is an appeal to this way of thinking in a universe that science tell us will eventually burn out so that we’re all just a bunch of cinders in infinite, but expanding space. Almost Buddhist in its conceptualization, actually.
So when this morning’s New Jersey Star-Ledger had a front-page, below-the-fold, story of a mandala incident in Jersey City, I had to read. This entire past week, three monks have worked on a mandala at City Hall in Jersey City, for up to ten hours a day. Having watched this work, I know it can be backbreaking, and it is incredibly meticulous. Yesterday, after four days of work, a three-year old, while his mother was distracted, jumped on and ruined the mandala. A mayor’s aide, horrified, had to show the monks what had happened. A mandala is all about the transitory nature of life. Its fleeting moments are, after all, suddenly swept away. Despite the drama, the monks repaired the mandala and one of them quipped that perhaps the child’s action had underscored the lesson the mandala was intended to teach. Indeed. Many religions recognize that children know something about life that most adults simply forget. It’s the moon that’s important, not the hand.
Posted in Art, Current Events, Higher Education, Memoirs, Posts, Sects
Tagged Buddhism, Jersey City, mandala, Nashotah House, New Jersey Star-Ledger, Nirvana, Oshkosh, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Cthulhu has taken over the world, thanks to the internet. I wonder what H. P. Lovecraft thinks as he lies dead, but dreaming under the loam of Providence. A lifetime of struggle to gain recognition as a writer left him without much of a following, relegated to pulp magazines for low brow and Innsmouth-dwelling mentalities. Now everywhere from Davy Jones’ face in Pirates of the Caribbean to car bumpers in any parking lot, Cthulhu has awakened. My wife sent me a photo of a couple of such bumper-stickers recently: “Arkham’s Razor,” reads one, “The Simplest Explanation Tends to Be Cthulhu.” “Nyarlathotep is my co-pilot” reads another. I first discovered H. P. Lovecraft through bumper-stickers.
Back in my post-graduate days in Edinburgh, I had decided to write my dissertation on Dagon. This seemed a reasonable topic as no serious, book-length treatments of this elusive, Mesopotamian deity existed. My advisors talked me out of it, however, noting that material on Dagon was so scarce that it would be extremely difficult to scrape enough together to call it a dissertation. A few years later, it turns out, an academic book on Dagon finally appeared, but the fact remains that he was, and is, a major deity who somehow mostly disappeared from the ancient records—the victim of chance finds and perhaps more aggressive gods. For my birthday one year my wife bought me a bumper-sticker with a “Jesus fish” that had the word “Dagon” inside. I posted it on my office door in Oshkosh and the department chair asked me what the tentacles were meant to represent. An web search indicated that the Dagon was not the biblical “fish god” but the Lovecraft reincarnation. I had experienced an epiphany.
Lovecraft, although an atheist, knew his Bible. I once wrote a scholarly article on the Dagon story in 1 Samuel 5 where the Philistine statue of Dagon falls down, decapitated, before the captured ark of Yahweh. This is the sole narrative involving Dagon in the Bible, and it concludes by saying only Dagon’s “fishy part” was left intact. Lovecraft took this obscure Bible story and built an entire mythos from one of its characters. Cthulhu, Dagon, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, and their companions have risen from the deep, and encircled the world in an electronic web. The fact that kids who’ve never read Lovecraft can identify Cthulhu at a glance, attests to his power. Even Batman fans who cite Arkham without knowing that it was originally Lovecraft’s creation keep the master alive beyond the grave. Isn’t that what resurrection is really all about? Even if a writer has to be discovered through bumper-stickers.
Posted in Bible, Deities, Literature, Memoirs, Mesopotamia, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged 1 Samuel, Arkham, Cthulhu, Dagon, H P Lovecraft, Nyarlathotep, Pirates of the Caribbean, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
When teaching religion at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I realized that an effective way to engage students was through popular culture. I could assign them just about any choice of movie and have them look for the religious themes of whatever class in it for a short paper. Of course, most went for the low-hanging fruit, over my teaching years, and I eventually had to ban movies with obvious religious themes or premises. One of those movies was Bruce Almighty. In a fit of nostalgia, I recently rewatched it. Never a big Jim Carrie fan, I nevertheless always enjoyed Bruce Almighty—it was such an improvement over those truly dreadful Oh, God! movies that were so popular in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I never found George Burns funny, and he made for an awfully feeble God. Everyone was buzzing in the new millennium when God was portrayed by a black man, Morgan Freeman. Still, we await a director who dares cast a female God. Patriarchy runs deep.
One of the features that movies portraying God run up against is showing a believable omnipotence. The powers granted to mortals always seem so petty. Theodicy is always raised in these kinds of movies—why people suffer if God is good and all powerful—and since movies rely on directors and writers rather than theologians, they often leave the answer at the doorstep of free will. Human suffering is our own fault. In our society we can’t have a movie that actually pins the blame back on the divine, because that wouldn’t be funny. And movies where people meet God are almost always comedies. But Bruce Almighty is actually a bit more sophisticated than it seems at first. That is best seen in the outtakes perhaps, where Morgan Freeman seems to care more about people than George Burns did. Of course, my memory on the older movies is hazy. They were considered slightly blasphemous three-and-a-half decades ago. Today they seem tame.
Why do movies with God in the cast rake it in at the box office? A couple of reasons suggest themselves. As humans, we like to place ourselves in the role of the divine to consider what we would do with unlimited power. Who wouldn’t, like Bruce Nolan, at least include their own satisfaction in the package? I think, however, there is a deeper, more serious reason. We do genuinely wonder about God’s motivation. Most of us don’t have the training to know how to grapple with the often incomprehensible arguments that theologians make. Even when we do, they still make no sense. Our movie gods appeal to us because they are so terribly Freudian—made in the human image. We can’t conceive of a god who’s not like us, so we at least make the situation funny. If we can’t achieve omnipotence, at least we can hope for a few laughs.
Posted in Deities, Just for Fun, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Bruce Almighty, George Burns, Jim Carrie, Morgan Freeman, Oh God!, theodicy, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
While surveying books purchased as texts in religion courses (something that an editor sometimes does), I came across a book called Interdimensional Universe by Philip Imbrogno. As I’ve often suggested on this blog, the study of the paranormal is related in people’s minds with the study of religion. I suspect a large part of it is because both deal with matters that go beyond mundane, daily experience. Indeed, the tiresome caricature of those interested in the paranormal is that they are individuals dissatisfied with their lives who project their disappointments into bizarre beings or situations to make up for the emptiness. Sometimes the same thing is said of those who are religious. What is really lacking in both fields, it seems to me, is people with strong critical thinking skills who remain open minded. There are serious scholars who study the paranormal—not many of them—and it is clear from the market-informed choices that Hollywood makes, people are intensely interested. So I decided to read Interdimensional Universe.
On the bus, however, I fidgeted to find ways to hide the cover and contents of the book. I don’t want some urban, Manhattan sophisticate seeing the letters U-F-O in my reading material. Still, like most honest, open-minded people, I have to admit curiosity. After a couple of chapters Imbrogno’s work appeared to be a standard UFO book. Then it started to get weird when he suggested that angels and jinn are, like aliens, interdimensional beings. He went from citing declassified Air Force and FBI documents to quoting the Bible. And not just quoting. He assumed the historicity of biblical accounts that scholars have extensively exegeted (oh, that word!) and demonstrated to have more plausible explanations. For the jinn he draws extensively on Islamic lore, believing that they are responsible for much of the trouble in the world, tricksters like the Marvel Universe’s Loki.
I put the book down disappointed. I still consider myself open minded. I admit to not knowing what is really going on with paranormal phenomena. If the number of reports alone are anything to go on much of the human race is either insane or is seeing some unusual things. The subject requires some real academic consideration. When self-proclaimed experts, however, veer into mythology to start explaining the unknown, we are getting no closer to finding the truth that, as Fox Mulder assures us, is out there. At the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh I taught a course entitled Myth and Mystery. It was some of the most fun I had in the classroom. It was also one of the most difficult classes for which I’d ever had to prepare. Is there intelligent life in outer space? I don’t see why not—the universe is awfully big to rule it out categorically. Are there jinn literally lurking in the closet? For that I’m afraid for that there is a much more prosaic answer.
Posted in Bible, Books, Classical Mythology, Higher Education, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged angels, Interdimensional Universe, jinn, Loki, paranormal, Philip Imbrogno, UFOs, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Confession time: I have little patience for scholars who have already made up their minds before examining the evidence. Anyone who has put themselves through the ordeal of reading my academic publications will know that I do not advocate sloppy research or slipshod thinking. Nevertheless, if we are to be honest about our world, we must follow the evidence. It is for this reason that I sometimes read unconventional material. I am well aware that untrained amateurs sometimes misinterpret what they see (so do trained professionals), but when evidence exists, why deny it? I just finished reading Archie Eschborn’s The Dragon in the Lake. Chalk this up to my having lived for many years in southern Wisconsin, and maybe a touch of nostalgia. I first learned of Eschborn’s book while teaching for a year in the Anthropology and Religion Department at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. The chair of the Anthropology Department had me in his office one day and showed me this book by a “crackpot” amateur underwater explorer who really believed the claims that Rock Lake – between Madison and Milwaukee – actually housed underwater Native American structures.
I visited Rock Lake during my years in Wisconsin, along with the nearby prehistoric site of Aztalan State Park. There is no doubt that Aztalan was a major settlement of Native American mound builders. The structures there, while not quite rivaling Cahokia in southern Illinois, are quite impressive. Aztalan is three miles east of Rock Lake. Rumors of “pyramids” in Rock Lake have circulated for many, many years. The lake, however, is clouded with marine growth and sediment, and although there are undoubtedly underwater features the official line is that they are glacial artifacts rather than human constructions. Eschborn’s book is an attempt to demonstrate the artificial nature of these features. At his own expense and effort, the author built up a small research society, purchased a boat, and spent several early springs and late falls (when the water is clearest) sending divers and sonar scanners into the water to document what is there. While the book was self-published (and could have used some professional editorial attention) it nevertheless lays out solid evidence that Rock Lake does house a mystery worthy of exploration.
While I can’t accept all of Eschborn’s conclusions, I would insist that his evidence demands the attention of those who deny it is even worth investigation. This is less a struggle of evidence versus absence of evidence than it is a struggle against academic arrogance: professionals know better and need not be bothered with evidence. I have personally witnessed this in my own field many, many times. It is what Eschborn calls “ipsi dicit” [sic]; ipse dixit, “he himself said it,” is the assumption that a well-respected authority may be accepted as uttering the truth in principle, based on reputation. Many professionals in this country make their living based on this faulty premise. Eschborn died prematurely shortly after his book was published, before he could launch the next phase of his investigations. While his interpretation of the data may reach too far, the world suffers for the loss of a truly open mind, and the establishment ruling, as usual, still stands.
Posted in Archaeology, Books, Higher Education, Posts
Tagged Archie Eschborn, Aztalan, Cahokia, Dragon in the Lake, Native American religion, Rock Lake, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, Wisconsin
Friday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger ran an op-ed piece by Phyllis Zagano entitled “Teaching how, not what, to think.” The essay concerns a tale of two professors, one at the University of Illinois and one at Seton Hall. Both have come under fire for teaching on the issue of gay marriage, one from, one against, a Catholic viewpoint. Zagano’s point of view, evident from her title, is that professors should teach students how to think, but not what to think.
This is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching religious studies. I am in my eighteenth year of teaching in the field. In that time I have taught at both religious and secular schools and, in both settings, presented the material objectively. There are those in both settings who complain. Students at Nashotah House frequently wanted me to bend the Bible to fit conservative Anglo-Catholic teaching. Under immense logical pressure to accept what reason told them of the world, they wanted an authoritative book to back them up in a pre-decided outlook. A theological ace of spades to trump the uncomfortable conclusions of rationality. At the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and at Rutgers University students frequently want to know my religious outlook so that they might know how to categorize what they are learning: is it sanctioned or is it anathematized? We need to know who you are so we can evaluate your authority in such delicate matters as faith.
I frequently ponder the issues raised by Zagano. I know of no other field of study where the stakes are so high, with the possible exception of political science. Religion is an all-encompassing phenomenon. All of life must conform to religious teaching, often with eternal consequences. It therefore makes an enormous difference what you are being taught. Like Zagano, I try to teach students to think for themselves. Both at the seminary and university I refused to reveal my personal outlook on the issues; I try to kick-start the thinking process. I have paid the price for this in the past, but it is a non-negotiable component of education. If the truth is uncomfortable, it is always possible to let someone else do the thinking for you.
Posted in Current Events, Higher Education, Posts, Religious Violence, Sects
Tagged gay marriage, Nashotah House, New Jersey Star-Ledger, Rutgers University, Seton Hall University, University of Illinois, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
While poking around the internet last night to take my mind off the heat and humidity surrounding me, I stumbled across an article entitled “The Religious Struggle over Cryptozoology” on a site called Science and Religion Today. The piece was written by Joe Laycock, a doctoral candidate at one of my alma maters, Boston University. Having just finished Bruce Hood’s Supersense, there was a pleasing euphony in the coincidence. Cryptozoology is the study of unknown animals, and is not necessarily based on the supernatural (although it may fall within Hood’s definition of it). Laycock notes that two religious elements in society have latched onto this study: New Agers and Creationists. Creationists, it seems, see in certain cryptids, such as the Loch Ness Monster, hold-overs from the Mesolithic Era that prove the Mesolithic Era never existed. God can still make dinosaurs today, therefore the Bible (which doesn’t mention dinosaurs at all) must be true.
The draw of the unknown
One of the most welcome parts of Hood’s thesis was its consonance with Stephen Asma’s On Monsters, a book I’ve posted on before. Both authors explore how the human psyche reacts against what it perceives to be “strange mixes,” beings that cross-over between readily defined categories. Hood addresses this by tackling the concept of “essence” while Asma notes a dread accompanied by a sense of wonder. Hood demonstrates that from a scientific point of view, there is no such thing as the “essence” of a person, object, or living thing. Such ideas are the cling-ons from the era of souls and radically distinct species and genders. Closer observation has taught us that many such things are more of a continuum than a series of sharply defined types. Religions prefer to have fixed categories. Religious ethics often depend on them.
Laycock suggests that both New Ageism and Creationism “can be read as a religious response to the cultural authority of science.” Religions fear that which can be empirically demonstrated since it throws the god-of-the-gaps into the dryer and he comes out smaller each time. This is so, despite the fact that Creationists crave scientific respectability. While teaching my course on Myth and Mystery at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I dwelt on cryptids for a few sessions. They are indeed often surrounded with a religious mystique. I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss the possibility of undiscovered species, many new ones are described by science every year. Nor would I say that they are supernatural. Nature has ways of surprising us still, and as Asma clearly demonstrates, we still have a need for monsters.
Posted in Animals, Bible, Books, Creationism, Monsters, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Boston University, Bruce Hood, Creationism, cryptids, cryptozoology, essence, ethics, Loch Ness Monster, New Age, Stephen Asma, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
A few years back I had the privilege of working at the same university as Dr. Michael Zimmerman, currently a biology professor at Butler University in Indianapolis. In my temporary stint as a Lecturer in the Religious Studies department at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I discovered that Dr. Zimmerman, then the Dean of the College of Letters and Science, was the very man responsible for the Clergy Letter Project. I had read about the project before; in an attempt to demonstrate that Creationism is not mainstream Christianity (nor science, for that matter), the Clergy Letter Project was attempting to acquire a few thousand signatures from the ordained of various denominations who were willing to admit that evolution posed no threat to their religion.
As an occupational hazard of someone with my background, I know many, many clergy. I offered to solicit some help in reaching the goal on the list and spent the rest of the semester contacting various sacerdotal practitioners who rightfully saw the Creationist ploy for what it was and continues to be. Creationism is nothing short of an attempt to break through the church and state separation clause and attain federal support for a particular religious viewpoint. That particular viewpoint is not shared by the majority of informed Christians, but the population is easily swayed by Creationist rhetoric. Creationists do not deserve sympathy, for they are much more aggressive than they pretend to be. Subterfuge in the cause of truth is a contradiction in ethics.
Religion may be hardwired into human brains, but it need not seek to pick fights with factual truth as it is learned. At each stage along the progression of human achievement, various religious believers have felt that the new knowledge discovered confronted their faith with unsurpassable barriers. Faith, however, is a belief system, not a factual construct. If faith requires proof, as even the Bible itself says, it is not really faith at all. If you know any clergy who are willing to sign on for common sense and belief in the rational world in which we find ourselves, please send them this link and ask them to weigh in on the question. Nearly 12,000 clergy have signed to date. There are even separate lists for Rabbinical and Unitarian-Universalist clergy. Don’t worry about the Creationists. They will always be back for more.
An early Creationist attempt at intelligent design
Posted in Creationism, Current Events, Evolution, Genesis, Higher Education, Posts, Sects
Tagged Biology, Butler University, Clergy Letter Project, Creationists, Evolution, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh