… here again

Incredulous.  

One of my favourite words, and certainly something I appreciate in others.  Mainly because its opposite- credulous– just isn’t something I get.

At all.

I’ve talked about it before.  Most recently in recounting my reread of Dr. Sagan‘s The Demon Haunted World.

And one of my all time go-to books of profound influence is all about credulity.

In Umberto Eco’s incredible Foucault’s Pendulum, its narrator, Casaubon, after years of education and experience, opted to become credulous for a time.  As we meet the various nefarious characters- those involved in the conspiracy theories and elaborate tales of the survival of the Templars, the Rosicrucians and immortal characters like the Comte de Saint-Germain, we grow, along with Casaubon, in the realization that credulity is among the most dangerous of human vices.

Casaubon was named after the classical scholar Isaac Casaubon- the ‘most learned man of his time’ (1159-1614), who challenged the ‘common wisdom’ of the day with his research into texts and historical writings- but also referenced his son, Méric Casaubon, the author of (among other things) On Credulity and Incredulity in Things natural, civil and divine (1668).  In that work, as a man of his times, he argued (again, among other things) that witches must exist- since everyone believed in them.

Eco’s Casaubon is a melding of the father and the son- learned, yet willfully credulous.  Why not?  Everyone else seems to be.  He remains one of my favourite literary characters.

I first read this book when I was at something of a crossroads (those crossroads again…).  I had taken a year off from my undergrad while I attempted to figure out just what direction I wanted to be taking with my studies.  I had decided that journalism wasn’t for me, Medieval Studies was too limited in time-frame, English wasn’t interdisciplinary enough… What to do?

I remember sitting in a favourite tiny hole-in-the-wall in Ottawa (the Ozon Cafe on Charlotte at Rideau- LOVED that place- the chef would eventually become one of my dearest friends) and reading about the damage credulity can wreak if allowed to run unchecked, and thinking to myself that I’d reallyreally love to DO something about making sure that we become less credulous and more discriminating- in what we believe and why we believe it.

The ‘Diabolicals’- so named by the three literary co-conspirators Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon, with patronizing disdain- created flimsy connections between historical events to support their theories about the occult secrets of the world.  In creating their own conspiracy theory and contriving to have it fall into the hands of the Diabolicals, the creators let credulity overtake their lives and, ultimately, ended up either dead or deluded as a result of their imaginary/constructed Plan.

I can honestly and legitimately say that Umberto Eco- and Foucault’s Pendulum, specifically- was one of the driving forces that landed me in Religious Studies (there were others- Dad was reading all kinds of interesting things about de-institutionalizing religions that gave me some food for thought, and I’ve always been intrigued by our collective stories).  But the terrifying prospect, illustrated in Foucault’s Pendulum, of credulity run amok was too much for me to face.  I had to start learning about how and why people would choose to willingly and blindly follow the prescriptions/proscriptions of cultures that disappeared millennia ago.

Generally speaking, I am predisposed to trust people and the fact that sofreakinmany remain willing to be trapped and stunted by credulity is still- even after so very many years of studying and, at times, participating in experiential communities- inexplicable to me.  Generally speaking.

Of course, credulity isn’t something that it restricted to religion(s) and religious/spiritual belief(s).  The gullible/unwilling to do the research can be found in other spheres.  Ones just as influential and potentially dangerous.

Government conspiracy theorists are high up there on my list of people I really don’t want to engage in ‘conversation’ at the mo’.  I’m not suggesting that we should ever sit by, complacently, and let our leaders run roughshod over our democracy.  Never that.  We have responsibilities as citizens of democratic nations.

The primary duty is to actually get out there and participate in the process- by voting- after examining the issues and the response and proposed solutions in order to choose our best possible leaders.  So you voted and still don’t like the way things are going?  Get more involved- volunteer, start a grass-roots movement, write a blog post…

But believing that our elected governing bodies are ALL working- ceaselessly and with contemptuous greed- to deceive the voting public about everything?  C’mon now.

Communicating and articulating informed perceptions of our realities is the only way out of the quagmire of superstition and credulity in which we seem to be trapped.  Buying the line of chatter offered by a talking head that is likely on the payroll of an institution with a self-serving mandate ain’t gonna cut it, folks.

As humans we see connections between things- that’s one of the many ways in which we attempt to make sense of the inexplicable.  I do that.  A lot.  The back catalogue (such as it is) hereabouts demonstrates that little fact quite clearly.  We create meaning from the bits and pieces of things that surround us.

I get it.  I do.  But I don’t structure my life according to these perceived connections.

Just because a bunch of people (or Fox News) tell me that the POTUS wasn’t born in Hawaii doesn’t mean it’s true.   A few radical racist anti-semites tell us that the Holocaust never happened?  Not according to the historical and human experiential records we have available to us.

Millions of people are willing to accept that a book of stories and social strictures is the divinely dictated word of a deity?  I’m not one of them.  I did that homework, and drew different conclusions- based in evidential research that says something else.

Last weekend (last weekend?  Really?  It’s Friday again already?  Where is the summer going?) I took a road trip to our Nation’s Capital to help celebrate the wedding of one of my dearest friends in the world.  On the long drive, I let the Shuffle Daemon have its head and set the playlist.

This one came up as we drove:

I seem to be living my life in placeholders these days.  There just aren’t enough hours…

Matt Johnson.  I don’t throw the word genius around lightly, but this guy… Brilliance.  Embodied.  He will be revisited at some point.

For now…

Recorded between 1988 and 1989, Mind Bomb is an album heavy on the politics and religion- and the politics of religion.  That ^^^ little ditty is profound and prophetic in so very many ways- and the introduction (Are you ready Jesus?  Buddha?  Mohammad?), with its allusion to The Sweet’s Ballroom Blitz (a song about another sort of chaos) is just sososo clever.

 ‘The world is on its elbows and knees, it’s forgotten the message and worships the creeds…’

Yep.  Why?  Because ‘they’ tell us to do so.

Did you catch the news this week?  Have you seen what is blowing up, again, in the ‘Holy Land’?  And the political maneuvering that is happening as a result?

It’s past time to stop listening to ‘them’ in our credulous intellectual laziness.

 Informed rationality.  That’s what it has to be about.

Heavy thoughts for a beautiful Friday evening in my City on the Lake.    Going to shake off the week, and I’m thinking that, perhaps, I’ll let Matt’s reference lead me into my weekend- which will involve the usual chores and catch-up and some reading (and maybe even some writing) that I’ve been meaning to get at…

But for now…

‘My dreams are getting so strange, I’d like to tell you everything I see…’

Happy Friday!

Pots and Kettles

‘Kay- I’m more than a little swamped at the mo’- between the thank you cards and starting the new job and all. But I’ve been looking back over some of my earlier (earliest) posts (dating from before I realized that all posts should have a musical interlude or two) that had to do with this whole conceptualization/personification of evil as an external force.

This one was one of the things that had me hitting the books anew- searching for origins of this propensity we have to blame all the bad stuff on ‘something’ outside of ourselves. So, since time is at something of a premium for me right now, here’s a bit of a revisit of the subject of the tension between the idea of a ‘god of goodness’ and the way in which the character(s) is/are actually described in the stories.

People are as good- or as bad- as we grow them to be.  We need to be addressing that rather than looking for outside sources to blame.

colemining

“Evil, they said, was brought into the world by the rebel angels.  Oh really?  God sees and foresees all, and he didn’t know the rebel angels were going to rebel?  Why did he create them if he knew they were going to rebel?  That’s like somebody making car tires that he knows will blow out after two kilometers.  He’d be a prick.  But no, he went ahead and created them, and afterward he was happy as a clam, look how clever I am, I can even make angels… Then he waited for them to rebel (no doubt drooling in anticipation of their first false step) and then hurled them down into hell.  If that’s the case he’s a monster.”

Umberto Eco- The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (pg. 349)

No one writes like Umberto Eco.  His language- even as translated from Italian- is beautiful beyond belief.  He seems to see…

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Pots and Kettles

“Evil, they said, was brought into the world by the rebel angels.  Oh really?  God sees and foresees all, and he didn’t know the rebel angels were going to rebel?  Why did he create them if he knew they were going to rebel?  That’s like somebody making car tires that he knows will blow out after two kilometers.  He’d be a prick.  But no, he went ahead and created them, and afterward he was happy as a clam, look how clever I am, I can even make angels… Then he waited for them to rebel (no doubt drooling in anticipation of their first false step) and then hurled them down into hell.  If that’s the case he’s a monster.”

Umberto Eco- The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (pg. 349)

No one writes like Umberto Eco.  His language- even as translated from Italian- is beautiful beyond belief.  He seems to see words as symbols- and as a semiotician (not a ‘symbologist’- hear that Dan Brown?  No such thing) he maintains that all cultural phenomenon can be viewed as communication.

He is one of my heroes.

I will likely wax philosophic and play the super-fan about him at some point, but the focus here is meant to be what he has to say about god and the fall of the angels in Queen Loana.

(after one more quick aside… It’s a beautiful book- about memory, and the loss of memory, and how it is tied to our definitions of self and the construction of personality.  You should read it).

So… God is a prick.  And a monster.

What else can you say about a deity who sets its creation up to fail?  And to Fall?  That particular point of theology/theodicy has always been a big sticking point for me.

‘Look at all these super-cool trees.  You can eat from any of them.  Oh.  Except that one.  The best looking one of all.”  There seems to be a whole bunch of unreasonable and unjustified ‘testing’ going on throughout the biblical mythology.  It’s like Yahweh was playing The Game with an entire Nation of unsuspecting suitors.

Of course it’s not a new thing- questioning the theodicy of the god of Israel.  Reconciling a supposedly benevolent and omniscient singular deity (the ‘mono’ in monotheism) with the evil that is an apparently dominant presence in the world was something that the Ancients also wrestled with.  Some of the greatest Wisdom literature examines this tension in great detail- and to differing degrees of success.

For polytheists, this was less of an issue.  There were all kinds of gods- and not all of them had the good of humanity as one of their major points of concern.

Evil (or chaos- going back to that foundational Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian dichotomy) was easily explained as the influence of malignant beings- gods or demons- as they messed with humanity- either for their own ascendency or just for something to do.  Apparently, being a god could get boring.  This godly need to ‘interfere’ with humans is a functional component of most world mythologies and religion.

Interference can take the positive form of divine inspiration or communication (through such interesting media as burning bushes, voices in the thunder, taking human form on earth, and etc.) or the less-than-holy ‘temptation’- persuasion and inducement to join the dark side of the force.

And sometimes they just showed up to get their rocks off.  Zeus, for example, had a thing for animal disguises and tendency toward rape.  Even the god of the New Testament wasn’t above impregnating unsuspecting Palestinian maidens.

All this is pretty ‘hands on’ involvement in the lives of us human creatures as we crawled about on the face of the earth back in the day (it doesn’t seem to happen as much lately).  Many of the oldest stories feature humans as little more than playthings of the gods- pawns in some incomprehensible game of Twister.

(And as I wrote that line this popped into my head :

The gods may throw the dice, their hearts as cold as ice

And someone way down here loses someone dear

Ah, Abba.  Benny and Bjorn can be connected to anything!)

The biblical stories- canonical and non-canonical- demonstrate this propensity and the idiosyncratic changeability of the character of the god.  This can be explained by the fact that stories were written and re-written and redacted by generations of Israelites, Judeans, Jews and Christians (not to mention the ‘heretics’ like the followers of the various gnostic groups) over hundreds of years.

But many of those who see the bible- old and new testaments- as a single continuity and narrative have a harder time reconciling the vast differences in personality and approach of the singular deity (that was then divided- yet not divided– into three parts).  Still, they manage.  Somehow they are okay with this clearly bi-polar god being seen as unchanging and unchangeable.

The lengths to which we are willing go in the continuation of self-delusion when we try really hard is pretty spectacular at times.

Still, can we really look at the actions of Yahweh as being all about the betterment and support of humanity?  The authors of books like Job and Ecclesiastes didn’t really think so.  They asked questions and received less-than-strongly-supported ‘arguments’ about the god’s omniscience and justice.

If the fallen angels can be vilified for giving humanity the gifts of civilization (temptations that lead us from the path ordained by the deity) can we go any easier on the deity who allowed the Fall(s) (Adam’s and the angels’) to happen.  Who orchestrated the actions?  Is it not all part of the ‘divine plan’ that is laid out in linear history and leading us to the ultimate End of Days at which time those pesky fallen angels will finally get their comeuppance?

Free will is a tricky proposition.  Arguably, there would be far fewer (or non-existent) issues if we all were programmed to follow a set path at all times and under all examples of adversity.  The truth is, people often suck.  We do have this propensity to want to look out for ourselves, take what isn’t ours, reach beyond that which we’re capable of.

In order to explain that- in a worldview that posits a benevolent deity- evil, and those who suborn evil, had to be created in explanation.  And if we were to be able to be influenced by this evil and its incarnations, we had to have some sort of ability built in to us that permits that choice.  So, free will.

It would be lovely if I could believe in just the benevolence and the love and wisdom that can be seen in some of the myths of the biblical deity/deities.  As I have said before, faith can provide hope when faced with nothing more than hopelessness.

I had an email conversation with a friend, and former student, today.  In discussing current job searches, I offhandedly told him to ‘keep the faith’.

His response to that?  “Faith is the active suspension of critical thinking…. no thanks.”

And my comeback?  “It doesn’t have to be about a lack of critical thinking.  I was using it figuratively- or rather, in a humanistic manner.  In that I have faith in (some of) my fellow humans and experiential evidence that some people warrant that level of faith.”  Or something along those lines.

I can continue to believe in people.  We are continually subject to change and so very very adaptable that it astonishes me when I see the things that some manage to cope with, weather and emerge the stronger for.  I honestly think that we are constantly trying to do better, to be better, to achieve the level of goodness with which we imbue the best of our gods.

Even assuming that I could somehow change the entirety of the way in which I view the world and discover some form of faith in a supernatural entity that is overseeing my life and the lives of those I love, if that deity adheres to/embodies an approach to justice that I can’t begin to comprehend in what way does it deserve love and worship?

And if said deity is not as adaptable and open to evolution (as opposed to inconsistent and scatter-brained changeability) and betterment as its creation, how can he it considered in any way superior to the best of humanity?

Blaming rebel angels for the negative stuff that happens in the world is a supreme cop-out.  Especially when the creator deity, if we follow the theology and myriad attempts to explain an incomprehensible theodicy (‘humans cannot know the mind of god’?  Another cop-out), is supposed to be all-knowing, -creating, -seeing and -loving.

Making this group of rebels the source and continuation of all that is bad and wrong in the world not only doesn’t make the least bit of logical sense, it really is a case of one kitchen implement referring to its comparable counterpart as dark and evil.

Or, just a childish, petulant deity that has no place in the 21st century.

I know you are, but what am I?

Cottage Reading

Off to the cottage this weekend.  CanNOT wait.

I always take a special read with me when I have the opportunity to spend a few days beside one of the beautiful lakes up near Haliburton.  It’s a place of calm and quiet- and comfortable familiarity- totally deserving of a great book.

Last year I decided to reread Foucault’s Pendulum, for the nth time- but the first in ages.  The previous read through was for a course I taught many moons ago.  I had assigned it as one of the possibilities for review in an introductory class on religious studies methodologies.

Since it was a first-year course I wasn’t terribly confident that anyone would choose to tackle the weighty tome- the beauty of Umberto Eco’s writing notwithstanding.  I was wrong.  One intrepid and engaged student (out of 130) accepted the challenge- and wrote an excellent reflection on the way we construct beliefs and belief systems.

One of the other choices for that particular assignment was American Gods by Neil Gaiman.  I was first exposed to Neil’s work in the form of Good Omens– an entertaining look at angels, demons and the apocalypse, co-authored by Terry Pratchett (he of the Discworld novels).  It was a lighthearted introduction to the wonderful imagination of Neil Gaiman (an entrée that I followed up by fairly rapidly devouring everything else he had written).

American Gods effectively plays with mythological themes and characters- explaining what happens to the supernatural beings that are brought to the U.S. by its immigrant population.

Once the gods lose the constant worship, adoration, sacrifices and other trappings that deities tend to consider their lot, as newer gods- of things like technology and television- take their place, they are forced resort to other means of getting by and existing in the world.

The underlying premise is that we create our gods, and are therefore responsible for their inevitable fade into dereliction, insanity, day-jobs or complete non-existence when they are no longer sustained by our belief.

It is an eye-opening book, with a unique premise and engaging characters- most of whom are immediately familiar- just trying to keep their existence together.  Love the Egyptian deities running a funeral home in the South.  And the cab-driving djinn.

Pure awesomesauce.

The novel puts the gods in their appropriate place in the cultural scheme of things, and demonstrates not only that they need us more than we need them, but that their continued interference long past the point of relevance causes sometimes-irreparable damage to those of us in the line of their fire.

American Gods is a great example of Gaiman’s imaginative invention of often-overlapping worlds.

So how excited was I to find out that

this

was released yesterday? (Answer: VERY)

PERFECT cottage reading.

Since I have avoided reading reviews or synopses in case they might contain terrible spoilers, I didn’t pay attention to the fact that it is a pretty short book.  Like, a read-in-one-sitting book.

Not a problem in itself- shorter novels are not necessarily sub-par or anything- but the thought of running out of reading material while there is still warmth, sunlight and a dock with softly lapping lake water providing the backdrop des jours is worrisome in the extreme.

So I began to browse the bookstore.  Always a slippery slope for me.  I love good stories (in case you haven’t been keeping up) and discovering new writers- or rediscovering old favourites- is one of the joys of life.

A couple of hours later, and after a cool chat with the cashier about Kobo/Kindle/Tablet/iPad vs. actual, tangible books and the cottage aesthetic, I finally hit the exit with my copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane and

this

I have heard positive murmurings on various literary grapevines about it, and the subject matter is pretty damn irresistible.
A golem and a djinn(i) in 19th century New York?
More awesomesauce.
Now the only hurdle will be managing to avoid cracking one or the other before I hit that dock.
Temptation is hard.
Bring on the weekend!
(Did I mention I canNOT wait?)