Whack-A-Prof

My Ph.D. was conferred in 1992. Not by design, I’ve held several jobs since then. One thing I’ve noticed over and over is that supervisors enjoy knocking down the egghead. If you don’t know me you’ll have to take my word for the fact that I’m quiet, not self-promoting, and actually uncertain about many things most people seem to take for granted. Even in the classroom I never used my education to appear superior to students—education is about all of us learning together. At least ideally. I do know some people flaunt their doctorates. A friend told me of customers pulling into the gas station and insisting on being addressed as doctor. (It might help to know that in New Jersey you are not allowed to pump your own gas.) My friend wryly noted, then they don’t even fill the tank. I had my own similar experience working in a camera shop in a Boston suburb. A patron had “Ph.D.” printed on her checks after her name. Company policy was that the signature had to match the printed name exactly, including title. This particular customer, proud to have Ph.D. flashed before your eyes refused to sign it after her name. When the police had to be called, as per company policy, many of us stared sheepishly at our feet as she signed the cursed three initials and declared she would from then on take her custom elsewhere.

Some of us pursue advanced degrees because we have no talent for anything else. I’m a born teacher, and I have always found the classroom the most congenial environment in which to be. I have had several bosses, however, who seem to think that knocking the Ph.D. down shows just how clever they are. I don’t claim to be smart. I never have. I am a hard worker, I read a lot, and I try to make sense of what I read. Some of the smartest people I know have the least formal education. It’s rare that I don’t assume the janitor knows more than I do about any given topic. (Well, maybe Asherah is a place where I can claim some specialist knowledge.) Otherwise, I take your word for it.

Our culture, however, enjoys putting those in higher education in their place. I hear the conversations behind closed doors. While I don’t claim to know very much—in fact, the longer I’m alive the less I claim to know—I do know that America doesn’t value its educators. It’s not just the professorate. Teachers, those to whom we entrust the very future, have been perennial scapegoats for society’s ills. We don’t pay them well, and many of them have to take second jobs in the summer to make ends meet. I guess we showed them! Who’s the smart one now? I can’t claim to know much, but it seems to me that education is one of the pure goods in society. We can’t make progress without learning. Gifted teachers should be esteemed—not pampered, but appreciated. Of course, I can feel better about myself if I show that I know more than you do. The only cure for that, I suggest, is more education.

Photo credit: Anna Frodesiak

Photo credit: Anna Frodesiak

Live Long and Prosper

He lived long and prospered. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but the icons of my youth have been dying. I have to confess to having sat far too many hours in front of the television as a young person, but fantasy of all sorts helped me cope with reality. Leonard Nimoy was a kind of father figure, in a way. Similar to Jonathan Frid, Russell Johnson, and Fred Rogers, all of whom stood in for an absentee parent and showed me different aspects of what it meant to be a man. Watching them die is like having someone tear pages from the book of my life—they made strong impressions, even though it was all make-believe. It’s difficult to say why Leonard Nimoy’s passing hit me so hard. I guess that the conceit of Spock living far longer than humans took hold at some level, and the rational, unflappable Vulcan seemed like a stable, if somewhat emotionally cold father to a child who was, in his own mind, conceived by the television itself.

I don’t really consider myself a nerd. I don’t have the tech to back me up. I’m more like a hermit who spends weekdays in Manhattan. Still, when anyone says Kirk or Picard, there is only one right answer. I watched Star Trek when it was new, still in original reruns. My mother decried it as “silly nonsense,” but along with other monster generation kids, I had my face pressed to the screen waiting to see what new and weird form of life might appear. It was the late sixties and all of this was fresh and untried. Star Trek became a vital part of my childhood. I think it might have been because this was a place with no limits. No limits beyond a shoestring budget, in any case. Space, as I was learning, was vast. There were endless possibilities out there.

Leonard_Nimoy_William_Shatner_Star_Trek_1968

As an adult, the possibilities seem somewhat severely effaced. I’ve tried to be rational and moral and conscientious, but I haven’t really held down a regular career. I don’t watch television any more, and instead read books and ask probing questions. Why does Spock resonate so much with me? Was it because he was apparently immune to emotion? Or maybe he was simply able to rise above it, since everyone knows he is half-human and even Vulcans have emotions, albeit deeply buried. Those of us who followed the original crew through the movies suffered through his death before. And his resurrection. This time, though, it’s not Spock who’s gone. Leonard Nimoy is one of those few people who, in their own lifetime, become a symbol. And symbols, if they are of any use, live long and prosper well after their creators pass on.

Scientific Belief

AtlanticThe human brain is a marvelous thing. Neuroscientists find all kinds of surprises as they probe the gray matter in our heads. One of those findings is that we don’t always believe what we say we do. Some time ago I read Matthew Hutson’s Seven Laws of Magical Thinking. Scientists didn’t like the book too much since it caught them with their empirical pants down. Really, there’s no shame in that. We are at the mercy of our own minds. In this month’s Atlantic magazine, Hutson has a brief piece entitled “The Science of Superstition.” In the space of just over two columns he runs down the evidence that even those who claim materialism is the answer to all life’s mysteries, even those scientists can’t escape superstition. Friday the thirteenth, a couple of weeks back, I walked under a ladder on my way to work. What happened? I had to go to work. Is that bad luck? I suspect it’s a matter of opinion. I’m the first to admit, however, that I did have fleeting reservations.

Study after study, as cited by Hutson, shows that physiological measures indicate anxiety when those who don’t believe in God say bad things about him/her. We all attribute cause to natural events, even those steeped in the hard sciences. Thinking about death reveals subconscious beliefs about God. It’s the way we’re hardwired. Hutson himself, if I recall correctly, doesn’t really attribute much credence to the supernatural. This is all a matter of what our material brains believe. Interestingly, we are evolved to be open to religious ideas. Many choose to believe, despite our brains, that we are evolutionarily deceived. Screwed by natural selection, as it were.

Far more interesting, in my deluded opinion, is that we don’t really choose what to believe. At least not at first blush. Our brains tell us to believe in the invisible causation that just doesn’t fit in a material world. To get beyond that takes some effort. It does give one pause, however, to consider that blind evolution has puckishly kept all this in the mix. Does evolution have a sense of humor? Perhaps we are all taking all of this far too seriously. Or maybe, just maybe, our brains are smarter than we think.

A Night at Culture

AmericanMuseumOne of the undisputed benefits of living in the greater New York City metropolitan area is the potential for culture. I know that culture exists everywhere, and that is precisely one of the points behind Douglas J. Preston’s Dinosaurs in the Attic. I picked this up at a used book sale because of my love of dinosaurs, but the subtitle provides more of a description: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History. Just when the first Night at the Museum movie came out, the American Museum of Natural History offered a program of nights to sleep in the museum, geared toward children. A generous family member bought us tickets and we got to sleep in the oceanarium under the giant whale dangling from the ceiling. We were allowed to explore galleries by flashlight, including the most famous collection of dinosaurs in the world. Who wouldn’t want to read about the backstory of such a museum after such an event?

As might be expected, with roots in the late nineteenth century, it was a different world in which this museum was conceived and built. Rare animals were shot to be part of exhibits, artifacts were acquired and shipped across national borders, and even world-class bird collections were bought to help an indiscrete baron avoid the humiliation of having an affair revealed by a blackmailer. Still, the religious element was clear. One of the founders for the museum, Albert Bickmore, went off in search of artifacts with his Bible tucked under his arm. Exotic places and peoples were still allowed to be called exotic, and the museum eventually became famous enough to star in a movie.

What struck me the most about this fascinating story, however, is when Preston points out that the most fragile, and valuable possession of the museum are the myths. Early ethnographers visited peoples that, even then it was already too clear would become extinct (culturally), and recorded their religious stories. This, and not the thundering Tyrannosaurus Rex, was the true purpose of the museum. Museums are about people. What we discover, what we make, and how we impact our planet. Myths, religious stories, are some of the most unique and delicate pieces of information that we can leave behind. Even materialists have beliefs. We all believe in something. Although nobody goes to a Night at the Museum to read dusty old stories, it is a source of comfort that they are there. Many of the cultures have indeed died out. Were it not for the foresight of those who could see where globalization would eventually lead, they would have been forever lost. And a world without myth is not a world worth living in.

Our Gods, Ourselves

The near-death experience, made popular by Raymond Moody in the 1970s, has hit the cultural mainstream with movies like Heaven Is Real. The now-familiar scenario of going through the tunnel toward the light and meeting something like God is so widespread that mention of “staying away from the light” can be a metaphor for remaining alive. Although experts (one of which I’m decidedly not) disagree on interpretations, nobody doubts that the dying often report such things. Some say it is the impression left on an oxygen-starved brain about to implode, while others postulate a soul has made an actual bid for freedom only to be returned to sender. No matter what you believe, it’s hard not to be intrigued. Not all the experiences are identical, however. A friend recently sent me a story from World News Daily Report that headlines “Catholic Priest Who Died for 48 Minutes Claims that God Is a Woman.” The story by Barbara Johnson, which ran earlier this month, is an interesting variation on the standard. Often the “being of light” met at the end of the tunnel is kind of asexual. After all, there are no physical bodies there.

This story has me thinking. Traditional Christian, indeed, Judeo-Christian thought posits that God is neither male nor female. Of course, given human experience, many people find that difficult to conceive. It does occur in intersex persons, and it is actually pretty widespread in nature where some animals change gender over their lifespans. Still, when it comes to the Almighty, people want to know with whom they’re dealing. Think about it. When you walk into a doctor’s office and meet a physician for the first time, your response will differ depending on their gender. The same is true of going into a car dealership, or a daycare facility. We use gender to give us the first hint on how to respond. A genderless God, let’s admit, is somewhat disquieting. What is the message you want to send to a person without knowing their gender? Or maybe like me you’ve read a book and discovered halfway through that you had the gender of the author wrong. Doesn’t it impact how you read the rest? So, what if God is a woman?

Interestingly, the case of Father John O’neal comes from a Catholic context. Along with Evangelical Christians, Catholics are among the most likely to hold a residual maleness to God’s identity. Theology of the Trinity, always beginning with “the Father” makes it hard to escape. Perhaps what Fr. O’neal unexpectedly encountered was a God-concept without judgment. That would certainly be disorienting to a faith that has a multi-layered afterlife including limbo and purgatory as well as heaven and hell. A deity who decides the fate of souls must be a judge, and although Judge Judy rules daytime television, the church still has a traditional mensch on the bench. What if Fr. O’neal really did get to heaven? What if he found God really was female? Could human religions ever recover? I, for one, am intrigued. Still, I’m content to wait another few decades before finding out. And maybe for the time we have down here we should all start practicing by realizing that gender is always far less important than the personhood that we all share.

IMG_1858

Lazarus, Come Forth

The red-cast face staring down from the giant LCD billboard this side of the Lincoln Tunnel has my attention. Having become an unwitting fan of horror movies, the genre was clear from the creepy, black-eyed gaze that found me even in mass transit. The Lazarus Effect, it said. I stored the information away knowing that it would be a movie I’d have to rent and watch alone—I don’t know many other true fans, and I don’t like going to a theater by myself. Then I started thinking about Lazarus. The man raised from the dead, according to the Gospels. When I was a child I always confused this Lazarus with the one from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. I’d never known anybody with that name, and to find it twice in the same book must imply, at some level, that they were the same guy, right? I mean, they’re both dead. So my juvenile thinking went. In the parable Lazarus, whose wounds are licked by dogs, is taken into the comfort of heaven when he dies. The rich man, it turns out, isn’t so lucky.

769px-Bonnat01

This was a bitter cold day. Dressed like I was headed to McMurdo Station rather than central Midtown, I tried to keep my head down as the wind howled through the channels constructed by excess wealth. I am always distressed to see the homeless out and about on such days. I’ve got on more layers than an onion on steroids, and I’m still chilled through. What must it be like to face such weather threadbare? There, on Madison Avenue I saw a dog being taken for a walk. He had on a warm sweater and fancy purple slippers to keep his canine feet from touching the cold ground. That dog was better dressed against the cold than some of the people I’d passed. I thought of the dog licking the sores of Lazarus. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me,” the rich man cried.

“Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.” The words are almost as harsh as this wind. We’ve become a society that will spend more readily on our pets than on our compatriots. Dogs, at least the breed I saw on the street, have evolved to grow thick coats. I’ve seen pictures of huskies running across the snow like their wolfen ancestors. Indeed, the wolves, where we’ve not hunted them to extinction, still manage in the winter. But then, there’s the Lazarus Effect. I’m feeling guilty thinking about putting out the money to rent it, several months down the road. There’s a real life Lazarus who could use any spare change right now. And the well-heeled dogs, I’m sure, would be made to turn up their noses from even getting near enough to lick his wounds.

Four Gods’ Sake

AmericasFourGodsStatistically speaking, most people don’t like statistics. I’m one of those. Numbers can do funny things to a person’s perception of things, nevertheless, I appreciate those who can work with them and make sense of them. When I saw the title America’s Four Gods, my disappointment engine kicked in. Is this book going to be about numbers? It was written by a couple of sociologists after all (and even a couple is a number). I’ve read enough of Christopher Bader’s work, however, to trust him. Paul Froese should be the same. Subtitled What We Say about God & What That Says about Us is an appropriate introduction to the book. Based on the Baylor Religion Survey, this study looks at what one of the most religions nations on earth believes about God. Since God is a key political player these days, that’s not a bad idea. Their conclusions are well worth noting.

Froese and Bader find that belief in God is highly idiosyncratic. It is likely the case that, similar to sacerdotal snowflakes, no two ideas about God are precisely the same. Categories, however, help to analyze things, and America’s Four Gods does just that, suggesting four main images of God that have very different characteristics. The Authoritative God we all know well. This is Jonathan Edwards’s deity that dangles spiders above the fire—active and angry in the world. The Benevolent God is also active, but more avuncular and kind. The Critical God is not very active, but is still annoyed with us. The Distant God tends to be kindly, but is rather remote. Using these four kinds of God, Froese and Bader examine what people believe about all kinds of issues, from war to social reform to adultery. When Americans say “God bless America” they mean very different things.

When it comes time to troop to the poles, we listen to what our candidates say about the Almighty. It is a virtual certainty that an atheist is unelectable in these religious states, so we want to hear what the candidates have to say about God. What they say and what their listeners hear, however, are clearly different things. Still, religious conviction is one of the most important variables when it comes to selection a President, Governor (at least in some states), or congress-person. Some candidates, with God off the plate, have nothing left to commend them at all. So it is in one of the wealthiest, most powerful nations in the world. A basic truth that we choose to ignore decides our fate for us. Mired in a Gulf War? Who you gonna call? Chances are we all know the answer to that. Chances are equally as high that we all mean something different by it.