Category Archives: Religion

The mystical, the magical, the credible, the possible

Have several friends who believe in things unseen, and no doubt there’s something to that — things unseen, after all, must easily outnumber things seen in anyone’s lifetime.

I’m talking here not about Christians or other believers in the world’s great religions, though they certainly could be counted among those who trade in things unseen and unproven. I’m talking rather about those who might flee from such religions, having put away the things of their childhood, as they put away old toys and baubles, and run straight into the arms of very crooked beliefs indeed.

Yesterday my wife Jennifer and I had three lovely, lucky guests over for dinner. Jen outdoes herself, on just about every such occasion, in turning the common objects of the produce and bakery aisles into something uncommonly savory and delightful. She is a masterful cook and never fails to transform, even transubstantiate, the common into the uncommon.

Yesterday she transformed the raw ingredients we’d bought shortly before, at Whole Foods, into this menu:

  1. Prosecco and pistachios
  2. Butternut squash soup with crispy pancetta
  3. Pasta al sugo de pomodoro e funghi secchi, plus artisan bread (pasta with tomatoes and dried mushrooms)
  4. Bibb lettuce wedges with gorgonzola and walnuts
  5. Georgia O’Keefe’s apple pecan cake with rum sauce

And after the first course, we washed everything down with flagons of good pinot noir.

Bread and wine, then, at this gathering of friends. The raw and seen was transformed, by my wife’s lovely, capable hands, into the cooked and seen. An aura, if you want to call it that, of the sacramental (ditto) hung about the table. But then I had to  prick the bubble.

2015 Meiomi Pinot Noir, California, USA (750ml)
One of the bottles of Pinot Noir that we drained at the dinner table. The wine was visible and credible, as in went the fermented grapes and out came happiness.

Two of our guests were a psychologist couple who believe in bioenergetics. I knew they’ve been on this kick for some time, and the husband, let’s call him Thomas, had shown me this “proof” once before of the truth and efficacy of this field of human caring and curing: He held up his hand flat, fingers outstretched and palm open, and invited me to put my hand next to his in the same gesture. “Do you feel that?” he said. “Do you feel the energy?” No, I couldn’t feel anything, including the inclination to assent to such nonsense. But Thomas got the three ladies at the table to assent, his wife, my wife, and a poet friend.

They felt something, I guess, which proved something —  that energy can be transferred evidently from one corpus to another and perhaps, in the bargain, effect healing. Thomas (but not his wife) held forth for some time on this subject, and when I interjected my doubts he got pissed, “A little respect, please!”

Yes, I was a rude host, though I can’t say things unseen and unproven are worth a lot of respect. If I were Ambrose Bierce, I might define respect, in fact (R-E-S-P-C-T, thank you, Aretha), as the demand for attention and assent that the facts do not support.

I don’t doubt that bioenergetics is a legitimate field of study in biochemistry and cell biology. (See the Wikipedia article for a brief technical discussion.) And that discoveries in this field might have implications for healing human disease, whether physical or mental. But pseudoscientific extrapolations from the field are all too readily available, in psychology and medicine (pseudopsychology and pseudomedicine), at the hands of those eager for new faiths and/or fast profits. (Again, for a quick overview of this kind of alternative healing, see the Wikipedia article on “energy medicine.”)

Call me a doubting Thomas, if you wish. A skeptic, for sure. Too many flimsy claims are being made on behalf of too many things unseen, unproven, and even impossible.

 

Syria and freedom of expression

Adonis, Syrian poet
The Syrian poet Adonis, in a French cafe.

In a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, Jonathan Guyer interviews the exiled Syrian poet Adonis (see “‘Now the Writing Starts’: An Interview with Adonis”). Though I had never heard of him before reading this interview, even though he is a perennial candidate for a Nobel Prize,  I was intrigued and fascinated by the wise man’s words. He is in Paris because of the civil war going on in Syria since 2011, when the people began to rise up against the dictator Bashar al-Assad, who inherited the presidency, we might say, from his dictator father a few years ago. In other words, Assad is the usual bloody tinhorn dictator in the Middle East, the kind that the people began rising up against throughout the Arab world in the “Arab Spring” of 2011, starting in Tunisia.

In a country with no democracy, no freedom of expression, repression is bound to occur. And the people of Syria were sick and tired of putting up and shutting up. They demonstrated, in the spring of 2011, for basic freedoms, and Assad shot them down, literally, with soldiers and crushed them with tanks. Then all hell broke loose, and a variety of revolutionary groups sprang up, some organized around religion and ideology, others not.

Adonis says among other things that poets and novelists belong to no religion and no institution. They are beyond politics and the identities we forge with specific religions and national states. They are wise men, and how many of them do we have? (He is not talking about writers who are out merely to entertain, but those who are thinkers and worth their weight in gold, in sincerity. Most writers are just trash-mongers, he suggests, and he’s not wasting his time with them.)

Adonis recognizes that religion is the problem in the Middle East. Here’s what the sage says:

Nothing has changed. On the contrary, the problems are bigger. How can forty countries ally against ISIS for two years and not be able to do a thing? Nothing will change unless there is a separation between religion and the state. If we do not distinguish between what is religious and what is political, cultural, and social, nothing will change and the decline of the Arabs will worsen. Religion is not the answer to problems anymore. Religion is the cause of problems. [Emphasis mine.] That is why it needs to be separated. Every free human believes in what he wants, and we should respect that. But for religion to be the foundation of society? No.

Imagine that we lived, in the US, in a theocracy, where religion, a state-established religion, was the rule. How free would we be to express our views — that we were atheists? Or agnostics? Or, for that matter, believers of another stripe (say, Catholics or Hindus or Jews)? When we think of our own history of religious utopias, they are just about all transient failures — the Puritans, who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620 and barged into Indian territory; the Transcendentalists’ Brook Farm in Massachusetts (1841-1846); the Oneida Community in New York (1848-1880), which practiced “Communalism, Complex Marriage, Male Continence, Mutual Criticism and Ascending Fellowship”; and such flash-and-fizzle religions as Jim Jones’ Jonestown cult, which ended in the murders and suicides of its followers in 1978.

Even the few utopian movements that survive, like Joseph Smith’s Mormons, can’t be said to be other than aberrations. In the 1830s and 1840s, at founding, Smith and his followers encouraged dissension wherever they resided, and were routed to the deserts of Utah in 1847. Since that time, they’ve had to renounce some of the founding practices, including polygamy, in order to make peace with the United States government and be accepted into the Union. But they are hardly a model of tolerance and plurality. Rather the opposite.

We see the threat of religion today in American life especially in the influence of conservative Christians. They seek to impose their own version of sharia (a strict, literal religious law) on the US, and would outlaw abortion, homosexuality, alcohol, you name it. These righteous prigs would have everyone believe and be like them. No thanks. If push came to shove — let’s hope it never does — would we stand up against this tyranny? Would we rise in arms, even as Syrians and Arabs have risen again Bashar al-Assad?

American freedom is founded not on the belief of the Founding Fathers in Christianity but, rather, on the fundamental separate of church and state. The state will not sponsor any religion, nor will it oppose any. Many of the Founders were doubters and skeptics, or theists, who believed in an Enlightenment version of the Universe, run by a benevolent but withdrawn God, who ordered Earth and the planets to move like clockwork.

Adonis despairs of those revolutionaries in Syria who would oust al-Assad but establish, in his place, another institution, religious or bureaucratic.

Look, the revolutionary must protect his country. He fights the regime, but defends institutions. I heard that Aleppo’s markets were totally destroyed. This wealth was like no other, how do they destroy it? The revolutionary does not loot museums. The revolutionary does not kill a human because he is Christian, Alawite, or Druze. The revolutionary does not deport a whole population, like the Yazidis. Is this a revolution? Why does the West support it?

We need our markets, our museums, our way of life. If you’re not interested in the market, don’t shop there. If you have no respect for museums, don’t go. But you have no right to blow these things up because of a religious belief or any other insane ideology.

The Mastery of James Joyce

James Joyce
James Joyce, about the time of the publication of Dubliners in 1914.

Have started re-reading Joyce’s book of short stories, Dubliners. Never studied these in a class or taught them, as far as I remember, with the possible exception of the great last story in the book, “The Dead.”

But even the first two stories, “The Sisters” and “An Encounter,” are great in their own way. With a few deft strokes, they nail the relation of a young boy growing up in a country, Ireland, paralyzed by the church (Catholic) and the state (England).

The first is about an old priest, Father Flynn, who has had several strokes and then dies. Told from the point of view of a young boy, his protege, the story offers one of Joyce’s typically sly and elliptical looks into the church. A powerfully Catholic country, early 20th century Ireland was rich in catechismal instruction, in other words, rote learning and unquestioning belief. The priest, retired from his duties after a stroke or two, catechizes the young boy, on the distinctions among mortal and venial sins and “only imperfections.” The boy sees him as a dying old man, in offputting physical terms:

  • heavy grey face of the paralytic
  • lips … moist with spittle
  • pushing huge pinches of snuff up each nostril alternately
  • big discoloured teeth
  • tongue lie upon his lower lip

And yet the boy’s aunt remarks, talking to the priests’s sisters, “No one would think he’d make such a beautiful corpse.”

Of course, Joyce is putting his finger up his nose and thumbing it, too, at the Catholic Church, which already by his day was as good as a corpse.

In the second story, “An Encounter,” the boy encounters another creepy old man. This one is not a priest but some kind of pederast or pervert whom the boy and his pal meet while playing hooky one day. The boys are sitting in a field, when an old man with “ashen-grey” mustache,” bids them good day. He talks about the weather, then the writers Moore, Scott, and Lytton. He suggests that Lytton is not suitable fare for young boys, and then, from “the great gaps in his mouth between his yellow teeth,” interrogates them on how many “sweethearts” they have.

There was nothing he liked better, he said, so much as looking at a nice young girl, at her nice white hands and her beautiful soft hair [though] all girls were not so good as they seemed to be if one only knew.

After which, “the queer old josser,” as the boy’s friend calls him, moves to the other side of the field and evidently masturbates (no description provided). Then comes back and regales the boy if not his friend (who’s run off after a stray cat) with talk about how bad boys should be whipped.

He said that if he ever found a boy talking to girls or having a girl for a sweetheart he would whip him and whip him; and that would teach him not to be talking to girls.

The boy has played truant in order to have an “adventure.” Though he thought, naively, at first — like most of us, of whatever age, today — that having an adventure meant going to foreign lands, like the sailors on their ships at the quay, he finds out that the “queer old josser” was an adventure in his own right. The kind of adventure that we may not be seeking but that, however darkly or perversely, opens new vistas to us.

Stanky Legg

Stanky Legg
Thanks (I guess) to the GS Boyz for their rousing performance of “Stanky Legg.”

No, they didn’t perform that one when I was in Catholic school. They didn’t twerk to that one back in the day. This morning, at the start of the day, I attended a school convocation at Happy Hollow Elementary School, where my granddaughter Ruby is enrolled in second grade. We thought she’d be dancing for this gig; she might have thought so and so communicated to Gabe and Heidi, her parents. But, no, she sat in the middle of a sea of kids on the floor of the cafeteria, gyring a bit, while up on stage a select group of maybe six or eight skinny kids twitched and jerked to Stanky Legg.

By god, I feel cheated by the good priests and nuns back in Catholic school (St Peter’s, then St Dick’s: no comment). They taught us the Latin hymns, by god. We could do a mean rendition of Tantum Ergo Sacramentum, but we didn’t shake our asses to that one. And how about the Kyrie and Gloria of the mass? The mass was all Latin, in those faraway days, and attendance was all decorum.

I guess they think these days that shaking your stanky leg will loosen you up, blast away your inhibitions, and ready you for the school day.

Maybe it did make the kids more attentive to the propaganda that followed: the Pledge of Allegiance, the class pledge, the pep talk about recycling. And for the work of the classroom. I can’t vouch, directly, for the effect. Just know that shaking one’s leg (legg), stanky (skanky) or otherwise, makes some sense.

A friend who teaches at the University of Arkansas told me yesterday he’s doing some tag-team teaching this year in a class where the kids get to click a remote device to answer or maybe ask questions. This makes sense. They have something in their hands, palpable, pushable, with which to participate, instead of merely sitting on their asses and thinking idle thoughts (hmmm, what’s for lunch, yo where can I get me some pussy).

In the same way, I once had tremendous luck, teaching, when I threw around a small rubber ball to anyone with his or her hand up. Boy, did I get participation that day.

Whatever the dubious merits of “Stanky Legg” in itself (it’s way passé by now, boyz, don’t you know, trashed soon after it appeared in 2009, I see online, by many connoisseurs of the sewers of pop music), shaking your leg, or your bottom, or your finger, before class, or work, may have tremendous salubrious effects. You gotta remember, brothers, sisters, you are creatures of flesh and blood and spirit and intellect, and how to separate and appropriate them? You can’t do it, any more than you can separate Humpty Dumpty’s parts, post-fall. You certainly can’t do it by setting people down and nailing ’em to their desks.