(Let’s continue the trend, No More thinking about Viruses or Trump, for the moment! Let’s think about the “reading” of sheep intestine instead, and how weird is that?Well, maybe not quite as weird as you may think! More on “Folk Religion” and its role in the origins of Human Mind!)
To try to foretell the future through the examination of the entrails of a sacrificed animal — called “haruspicy” — That is the Height of Foolishness! Or, how about “nephomancy”; the ‘reading’ of the shapes and colors of clouds in an effort to make an important decision? “Ceroscopy” is the reading of the meaning of wax dripped into water through the significance of the shapes it takes. Surely these are the epitome of Superstition and a royal waste of time and energy.
Divination is “the practice of determining the hidden significance or cause of events” or “the effort to gain information of a mundane sort by means conceived of as transcending the mundane”, says Britannica. It does not necessarily involve any reference to a god or gods, or even a ‘divine will’, as evident in the still somewhat common use of a Ouija board.
Yet, in the history of the human speciesall human groups have displayed evidence of The Practice of Divination in their religious and ritualistic behaviors. Astrology (the use of the stars and planets), tasseography (the reading of tea leaves), sortilege (the tossing of bones or the dealing of cards) are all used as means to decipher the meaning inherent in our worldand lives, or at least so it is believed.
In Numerology, numbers are held to have significance beyond their immediate usefulness in counting or record keeping; they have what we, moderns, would call symbolic value pertinent to matters of cosmic meaning. A Mind as acute as Pythagoras’ set out a numerical system far flung but pertinent to human decision, he believed. Each letter (or group of letters) of the alphabet were assigned a numerical value that was then added up and “reduced” to “knowledge” of a person’s disposition and fortunes according to the spelling of their name and the date of their birth.
Let us use (roughly) this system to gain clues into the character of Pythagoras, himself.
P Y T H A G O R A S
7+7+2+8+1+7+6+9+1+1 = 49 "reduces to" 4+9= 13 "reduces to" 1+3 = 4
This number, "4", is called the "life path number" or his "expression number"
It indicates Positive Personality Traits: Constructive, Systematic, Industrious and
Negative Personality Traits: Lacks Imagination, Argumentative, Extremely Serious
So, this looks all well and good, and very silly. I did say this is only a rough application of what we are assured is a “complicated process” that should involve only “trained and experienced Numerologists”, we are told on several sites. But you gotta take issue with the idea that Pythagoras “lacked Imagination”, maybe that is my “lack of training”. After all, Pythagoras was no slouch with numbers, discoveringhis famous Geometric Theorem. If Pythagoras would have come out a “5″, he would have been Curious, Adaptable and Social, but then, negatively, Unreliable, Directionless and Unable to Commit.
But Mockery is Not Enough!
Was Divination just foolishness? A cultural practice –“a Meme” — with this kind of prevalence and expenditure of effort probably served some useful function to have evolved and lasted. We have been learning that “Folk Religion”, itself, had a positive role in the development of human culture in its early stages. What could the positive function be for Divination?
A positive function, surely this is a stretch! Maybe divination was a Harmfully Parasitic or Toxic Memefrom the start. A “cultural recipe”, “an attractive notion”, “an infectious symbol” used by con men (“Shaman”) to gain power and profit by bamboozling the ignorant populace. In religion, itself, there is a strong strain of flimflam. From Jim and Tammy Bakker to the power grabbing and multiple Popes of the Catholic Church during the The Western Schism (1380 to 1420 CE), personal profit and power through religious affectation has occurred regularly.
But, a Toxic Meme can also be a Cultural Formula that exploits some of “our least desirable tendencies and weaknesses” without consciously duplicitous perpetrators and exploiters. The diviner can be as taken in as his or her audience, contends Dan Dennett who has championed the idea — “meme” — after its introduction by biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976. Some good examples of toxic memes today, may be an unquestioned interpretation and affirmation of the infallibility of various texts and then the perpetration of acts that are widely considered antisocial such as blowing up abortion clinics, the use of suicide vests and beheadings.
The Proposed Value of Divination
Divination, in its earlier uses, did have a positive social and individual value, argues Dennett and some other researchers. With the further development of language and agriculture, larger cities and empires began to develop. This was very different from life in a hunting and gathering group, or even a small agricultural settlement; Different in terms of Individual and Social Self-Control. How were Decisions and Judgements to be made in these larger contexts well beyond the intimate customs and associations of family and kin? Daily life among far flung strangers was new and greatly challenging. The old customs of behavior and decision-making of one’s clan and region were now challenged by competition and, possibly, confusion.
Divination stepped up to assume an even larger role in guiding and justifying. Julian Jaynes is an early and influential contributor to these theories of human cultural development. He argues the following, that there was “A Change of Mind in Mesopotamia”.
First, and very hard for us to imagine, Ancient Peoples Did Not Think of Anything as Accidental! The idea of random events and coincidences is a fairly modern idea. To the ancients, all occurrences were purposeful and the bearer of meaning to them or the world at large. There were no accidents or just simple “luck”. All “foretold” of deeper significances and wider ramifications, potentially. Divination is the direct outgrowth of this.
Second, Divination was (and still is) a decision-making devise, and in fact, a helpful one in some ways. In our lives even today, we recognize many instances where the information to decide a matter is insufficient to make a clear choice. We say, “It’s a toss-up” or even, “It’s beyond me what to do!” Help is needed in making many decisions.
Both of those phrases are often accurate. We still use a coin toss, literally, to decide some matters, and just figuratively, at other times, to provide perspective on decision-making. These decision devises — divination and coin-tossing — sharpen our thinking about a “strategic situation” and bring it to a climax, a decision-point. “This is my situation, and now a decision will be made”, we seem to be saying. They further acknowledge that some outcomes are beyond our control and beyond our foresight. The decision must simply be made and in a manner that is accepted by all.
These last points are important developments in the history of human thinking about “decision”. “Good” decisions are often hard to make, and often “beyond us”, but still must be made. Our information is only partial, and the outcome of the event is not in our control. We do the best we can, and in ancient times Divination is what they stumbled upon. Surely, it ‘worked’ as often as it did not. Socially accepted decisions are important to us, for both the decision-maker and any of those who suffered its consequences. They could say, ‘Hey, The Oracle was consulted, what more could be done?’ That is somewhat familiar phrase, widely ranging variations of it are often heard today in the aftermath of DECISION!
Today, we have shrunken the range of “meaning.”Meanings and Motives no longer have a place as a Cause for many kinds of events. “Accidents” and “Chance” are now recognized; some things occur With No Motivation behind themand No Significance further than The Obvious to those directly involved. The coloration and shape of a dead animal’s intestine are now no more significant than to determining what it ate the day before or the reason it died today.
Yet, Divination did have an historic benefit; it was an evolutionary stage in the practice of Human Decision-Making and an element in an early attempt at Understanding The Cosmos. That we now think of divination as hooey, does not mean that it always or simply was.
Does Religion suffer the same fate as divination? Is it a practice that once made sense and functioned in some positive ways, but now is worthless and expendable? This theme will continue to be explored in the next post on The Very Human Habit of ‘Seeing’ Motives and Meanings as Supernatural Actors: GODSARE IN OUR WORLD!
(This is a speculative post. NO MORE THINKING ABOUT VIRUSES AND TRUMP! This Post considers the potential connection between the Hindu Mantras and the formation of the basic sounds [the phonemes] of the Indo-European Languages. These are controversial topics and I am just discovering some of the issues involved. Language, and linguistically-based society, are at the core of theories of The Mind as something profoundly different than the scientific hardware of the Brain. A new level of complexity emerges here, and needs its own vocabulary for adequate description and explanation. Roughly, the brain is like the hardware of a computer; the Mind is the software downloaded to it. This post speculates on the transition to language-based, and culture- based, living. The Hindu mantras are a celebration of linguistic sounds, as much as any ideas of gods.)
(Figurines from the Ancient Indus Valley Civilization from about 2500 BCE, Bronze Age. Scholars of religion believe that it was in this valley and at about this time that the earliest Vedas of Hindu religion became evident, though there is no single composer of them or founderof Hinduism as have many other religions.
The Hindu Religion is generally considered to be the oldest of all religions. Islam is one of the youngest of the major religions, with its origin in the life of Mohammed. At about the age of 40 and in the year 610 CE, it is believed by Muslims that Mohammed was fasting and praying in a cave near Mecca, in today’s Saudi Arabia, when he was visited by the Angel Gabriel and came to have the first words of the Qur’an tumble from his mouth.
Yet, major religious change has occurred far more recently. In the early 1500s, various protests against orthodox Catholicism led to a new “wing” of Christianity called Protestantism. Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. Today, new forms of Protestantism emerge every day, and the number of its adherents may be as high as 1 billion.
There are an estimated 1.25 billion Hindus, but elements of Hindu practice such as Yoga and Meditation are more widespread. In fact, Hindu is Not primarily a religious doctrine, not an “ortho-doxy” (right doctrine), but an “ortho-praxi” (right practice); it is in that sense that I have been inspired to discuss it now at The Nature Religion Connection. HINDUISM IS BASICALLY RITUALISTIC: Right sounds/words, right movements, designated ceremonies and celebrations, but a variety of loosely associated and variously emphasized “beliefs” and “interpretations”.
In previous posts, Folk Religion, The Strange Idea of..., and Folk Religion: Ritual as Memory Device and as Communal R & D, the role of Ritual in religions was discussed especially in ancient religion. Contemporary scholars of religion emphasize the essential role of religious-like rituals in the origination of language, social structure, personal identity, art and human group cooperation in general. These early humans had ideas, but more so these ideas were very vague and incipient; it was the actions, chants, movements, symbolic objects and ceremonies that were concrete and specific to them. Out of this generalized stew, we have today sorted out its more specific departments, ideas and focuses: religion, science, art, morality, politics…
Symbolic Objects from various Ancient Civilizations:
The focus of this post will be on Language. Philosopher Dan Dennett has contended that the origins of language go as far back as the origin of early forms of Religion and Ritual(some 35 to 40 thousand years ago)that he, and other investigators, have called “Folk Religion.” Folk religion lacks official doctrines and priestly hierarchies, but is large on ritual. After all, language is still rudimentary and in development, so there are no “doctrines.” It has been suggested in the posts mentioned previously that what was “taken” by these early humans as “religion” was also language development and many other activities too: art, social role development, and the beginnings of abstract thought.
(Depictions of Civilization in the late Paleolithic Period with the dawn of Agriculture and then in the Neolithic period, with the discovery of metallurgy.)
Proto-Indo-European (PIE) Language
The ancient common ancestor of Greek, Sanskrit, Iranian (Persian), Germanic (includes English), Anatolian (Turkish and Mesopotamian) and Romance languages is the Proto-Indo-European language. Our understanding of PIE is a reconstruction derived from the common elements of the 140 languages (includes the above) that form the Indo-European Family of Languages. This reconstruction is also based on recognized shifts in pronunciation, as in the shift within the Germanic languages from the German “d” as in “ding” and “danke” to the English “th” as in “thing” and “thanks”.
PIE is believed to have been spoken as far back as 5,000 BCE(7,000 years ago) in the Late Neolithic Era and may have continued to about 2,500 BCE, the Early Bronze Age. Ancient Greek and Sanskrit are considered to be two of its most ancient daughter languages. Below are some of the tell-tale similarities in vocabulary.
PIE is hypothesized to have had a complex structure with “regular vowel variations” as in sing, sang, sung and their noun, song, and pronoun declensions such as “I”, “me”, “mine”. It did lack the definite and indefinite articles (“the” and “a”) and did place the verb at the end of the sentence or clause. It is hypothesized to have invented/discovered all the basic Phonemes of our language group. It seems that the Consonant sounds may have been the ‘easiest’ and earliest to have been agreed upon, with the Vowel sounds only developing — becoming more systematic — more slowly.
The Hindu Mantras as a Discovery and Appreciation of the Phonemes of this Human Language Cooperation
The basic Sounds of human-language cooperation in the Indo-European language tradition may not have originated in the Indus River Valley of Pakistan/India. Maybe the basic Mantras of Hinduism are an early appreciation and affirmation of the place these sounds play in our lives. Chanted sound vibrations, recognized as a huge progressive development, are at the core of Hinduism, the world’s oldest religion. Today, we might recognize this birth of language as the shift from simply biological life to cultural-biological life.
Dennett argues forcefully that Language-Based Communication is based in layers of Mutually Recognized and Agreed Upon Intentions. Like when telling a joke, the teller must be understood by the recipient as “joking”, the recipient must “get” the situation as a “joke” to “get” the joke. Often when a joke does not succeed, the recipient pauses and then realizes the intent of the joker, “Oh, you’re joking”, they realize and say, “now I get it!”
Theorists of communication often contend that “the order of intentionality” must go three and four layers deep: the speaker must understand and agree on the context for the speech act with the hearer: to greet, to inform, to request, to convince… Both must recognize that each is aware of the agreed upon expectations and that the speech act must comply with, and — then– be interpreted in that light. As a Teacher, one becomes keenly aware of the mutual expectations of the setting in terms of trust in the method and goal of the interaction shared by teacher and student. The relationship between Salesperson and Customer, also, has mutual expectations, but is far different than Teaching in terms of trust, goal, and appropriate methods of interaction.
Before more complex speech interactions can occur, the most basic one of working out the sounds to be used and the standards of acceptability for the range of vocalization that will “count”, must be established and agreed upon. This is Language as a Digital System, says Dennett, and this is a huge clue to the mechanism of its operation! Maybe the most basic chant of all, “Om”, is most illustrative of this point.
“Om”: The Primal Chant
It is like a phonics lesson. The first thing you read about the “Om”chant is that it is pronounced A-U-M; three separate but related sounds and mouth/throat/tongue placements. The “A” is “ahhh”, mouth round and open wider (please try it), as if ‘accepting the whole of reality,’ we are told. The “ahhh” rolls out from the back of your throat. The “U” is “oooh”, with your mouth closing more, lips pursing but still round. The sound still from the back of your throat, but now more focused and specifically directed. The “M” is the “mmm” sound, with the same “ahhh” and “oooh” sound coming from the back of your throat, but now with your mouth closing and your tongue moving to the top of your palate. With your tongue in this position the vibrations are now palpable and strong. Please try this.
Hindus believe the universe is basically vibration and the “Om” is its first sound. In the “Om”, we have three phonemes, basic Indo-European language sounds; but this is an over simplification because vowel sounds are much more complicated and controversial among linguists than consonant sounds. Some scholars speculate that the initial Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) operated with only two, or even one, of our vowel sounds! Actually, a fourth sound is insisted upon by the Hindu gurus, the modern embodiment ofthis Oral Tradition; they teach that the eventual Silence after the “mmm” is to be appreciated as important as any other element! Sound ends, and reality goes on beyond our perception of it.
“Om” is used as the introduction to many other Mantras and to the initiation and conclusion of many Yoga and meditational exercises.
Other Simple Mantra Chants
“Om Namo Narayanaya” is considered one of the most sacred of all Mantras; some consider it the most “powerful”. It is contended to penetrate to the basic unity of consciousness underlying all reality. Literally, it means “I bow to and honor Lord Narayana”. Lord Narayana is also known as Vishnu, the protection and preservation of all that exists. This chant is also specifically known for its sounds in the original Sanskrit and is, thus, in keeping with the theme of this post: The Basic Connection of Ritual/Religion to The Origins of Language. This mantra is called “the eight-lettered invocation”.
“Om Neti Neti”: A very short chant.
The Controversy of The Source of PIE
Hindu Doctrine regards their religion as having No Origin. To them it is eternal and the sounds of its mantras, that they so cherish, are The natural sounds of the universe, and in no way particular to them or their Language Family. But they are. Hindu Nationalists are today the only ‘scholars’ proposing that The Original Source of the Proto-Indo-European Language (PIE) arose in the Indus Valley and its early Aryan civilization. This position gains some credibility from the antiquity of Sanskrit; it is one of PIE’s earliest “daughters”.
The accepted theory of scholars around the world is The Out of The Russian Steppes Theory or The Kurgan hypothesis. The hugely influential geographer, Jared Diamond, explains that one of the leading clues to a language’s origins are words that it now contains that are obviously from a different source (see his The Third Chimpanzee, chapter 15). In American English, we now have words such as “Mississippi”, “Ohio” (which means “good river [or waters]” in the local indigenous language) and “Dakota”. These words indicate that English overtook a pre-established language.
How could a language originating from a culture north of the Black and Caspian Seas in the eastern and middle parts of Europe have such wide-ranging historical impact? We see no great pyramids there; we see no monumental aqueducts or coliseums in that region! We do find what we have called “Kurgans’, burial mounds traditional to this region stretching our in various directions.
The Horse and the Wheeled Cart
The language of these, the First Indo-Europeans, overran indigenous languages. How? The Horse and Wheeled Charts! These pastoral peoples were the first to domesticate the horse and use them for “Horse Power”! They prospered, and rolled out of Eastern Europe into the east toward India and then to the west. This advantage of the Domesticated Horse and the Wheeled Cart used in both battle and mundane transportation caused an expansion of these Mongolian peoples — Huns, Vandals, Visigoths — that lasted 5,000 years. They overran indigenous languages and replaced them to a telling degree.
(The Mongolian Horse Backed warrior and herder, top right. Burial “Kurgan Mounds“, left and left middle. The envisioned pastoral and herding camp of these Mongolian People, the first Indo-Europeans!)
So, what where these indigenous languages that were overrun? Diamond proposes that it was a situation analogous to recent New Guinea, that isolated Pacific island. This is one of Diamond’s original bases of study, and for which there have been recorded “nearly one thousand mutually unintelligible languages — including dozens with no known relation to each other or to any other language in the world”! It seems that people around the world evolved many different languages but few survived! In our case, a language group that consists of 140 languages, out out of the 5,000 languages that currently survive, is now spoken by half of the world’s population! This is a testament to Horse Power, at least initially.
One More Celebration of Sound and Dance
Krishna Das Music! You gotta give it 5 to 10 minutes; they really start to heat it up! A Celebration of Sound, Dance and Unity.
About two decades ago, when my eldest daughter was in High School, she wanted me to go with her to the local Krishna House, after her encounter with them at a festival in the campus area. I was eager to go; I had never been. We went some Saturday in the summer, late in the morning, as I recall. About 20 of us had gathered that day at the house, along with its eight or so residents. After some cordial greetings, the celebration slowly started in the living and dining rooms of the old brick house. We had been offered simple instruments; I chose a tambourine. Several of the residents were more elaborately equipped, one a hand-organ as shown in this video.
It started slowly and quietly, but soon picked up intensity. The temperature in the house was soon in the mid-eighties, no air con, and I started to pound the tambourine and sway to the chant as did my daughter. I do not remember the particulars of the chant that day but after about an hour, it slowed and then solemnly stopped. We were exhausted and I was wet with sweat. We clapped and smiled and all adjourned to the back patio where we were served a tasty and simple vegetarian meal. It was a lasting memory and a worthy experience, to which this post is testimony.
Some philosophers and scientists are often mistaken. There are Truths available to us through our Social Interactions that are as Real as the universe presented to us by physics and chemistry. Human Cooperation through Sound and Language and Music and Dance is as real as anything, and in need of our explicit affirmation. That is our insistence on an Ethical Society. Persons work together. Positive human cooperation is the basis of all human interaction at its unique level. For example, Trump and his lies are harmfully parasitic upon our foundation of honest human interactions, which are the overwhelming majority. Science and philosophy—and ethics—are built upon honest linguistic interaction. Hey! Music and Art are the “egg” added to the batter that allowed Culture to Rise!
”Our state is on fire,” said the Governor on Wednesday (11/18). He is touring the state delivering this message. He has already initiated a state-wide Curfew from 10pm to 5am. He is seeking to be more surgical in his approach this time, instead of the massive and across-the-board Shut Downs he initiated in March. DeWine is a courageous and honest man! He is a Republican and is defying great push-back from his own party on both Virus Policy andMr. Trump. DeWine is one of the few Republicans to nationally acknowledge Trump’s evident defeat and the need to start the transition to Biden! Not all politicians are dishonestand shameless opportunists!
Last Tuesday, The Ohio Hospital Assoc. reported some 3,600 Ohioans in the hospital with Covid. Of those 900 were in Intensive Care Units and 440 of these on Ventilators! We are now recording 8 to 9,000 new cases a day, and these are jumping dramatically by the day. My county, Franklin — the state capital, home of The Ohio State University (with its 50 thousand on-campus students, in normal times), and the world HQ of Nation Wide Insurance and Wendy’s — has now gone “Purple” in the state Covid warning system. This is the most severe category and we are the first Ohio county to attain it (“We’re No.1; We’re No.1!”) In response, some stores are closing early, some school systems are going online or staying there longer. Some schools are going online for Middle and High School but staying in a blended mode for elementary students, who do not learn well online and cannot be at home alone. We are recording about 50 to 60 deaths a day.
The madhousecharacter of the situation hit home this morning when my wife went grocery shopping. The store was packed! No carts were available. The store had people waiting at the door at the 6am opening she was told, and by the time my wife got there at 9:30, most paper products were gone and also boxed spaghetti, macaroni, a lot of bottled water and a few other items. When she left, an hour later, the store was more crowded than initially. This crowding situation at the store was probably exacerbated by a Noon Kick Off here in town for our OSU Buckeye football team. But no 100,000 fans at the stadium (by order of the Health Dept.) only lots trying to get errands done by noon to watch on TV.
To put some perspective on the Ohio situation, we have 64 Covid cases per 100,000 people but North and South Dakota have 177 and 137 respectively. That is outrageous considering the open spaces and lack of urban crowding in those states. Their Republican Governors have been flamboyant in their denial of Covid’s Reality, and now they are the world’s Hottest Spot for spread and their hospitals are Full and staff’s Exhausted! Nationwide the average is about 40 per 100,000.
We need to get TRUMP OUT and Biden’s Team in as fast as possible to start leading this National Health Crisis!
(Ritual has made an essential contribution to human solidarity. In Dan Dennett’s Breaking The Spell: Religionas a NaturalPhenomena, the early workings of Ritual are described as the origin of Culture, itself. There is a big difference between biological change and evolution and cultural change. These early rituals, were they “religious”? They were many things at once —language creation, creation of group identities, myth-making, creation and clarification of social roles, and the beginning of abstract thought — all included in what Dennett broadly calls, “folk” religion.But does religion still have a useful role to play? Page references are occasionally add to enable further inquiry.)
In the wild, Vervet monkeys have been observed to have as many as a dozen very specific calls, each with its referent, and each consistently responded to. But how did we get from a handful of conditioned communicative calls to the use of thousands of words built up into phrases, sentences, and scientific theories. It is like the old joke about “How to get to Symphony Hall?”, the answer, “Practice, son, practice!”
Ritual as Research and Development
Ritual was the bridge from biology to culture. That is a bold statement, partly because of its inaccuracy; nothing living ever completely escapes biology, and why would we want it to? To seek nourishment, to avoid harm, to feel, to want, to enjoy, to nurture surely is what life is about. But, a limitation is imposed upon us by “the biological point of view”; it is a limitation of goal and purpose. For biology, the goal is to successfully reproduce. Through the use of ritual, early humans — and maybe even proto-humans — began to imagine more possibilities for life.
The classic depiction of H. Sapiens Cro-Mgnon. Evidence clearly suggests these early humans were the first to have more complex language, a variety of tools and art, some 40,000 years ago. Painting from Lascaux Cave in France.
Early language-formation and ritual are probably closely tied. The basic phonemes of language were discovered in ritualistic events, I believe, but this a little beyond Dennett’s direct contention. And, with language in development, benefits started to accrue. “Language gave us the power to remind ourselves of things not currently present to our senses, to dwell on topics that would otherwise be elusive, and this brought into focus a virtual world of imagination”, writes Dennett. And, for our ancestors, Ritual was a “persistent —even obsessive— rehearsal and elaboration of some of their habits of thought.”(114). I contend that many of the basic skills of language where worked out out in ritualistic events.
Oral language must be relatively easy to remember. Some few ‘words’ may have started as separate ‘calls’ but in the end, words cannot be unrelated and totally dissimilar to all the rest. There must be a system to words, it seems, in which a small group of standardized sounds (phonemes) are used repeatedly and built into various combinations. Standardized parts, these sounds, eventually form root words and even suffixes and prefixes. It took much time and practice to pound out language as aDigital System, contends Dan Dennett, almost 40,000 years of practice. Much of that work took place in communal ritual.
These early efforts in the development of language continue today with its ongoing growth, decay, and even extinction. Some speculate that one day every person on our planet will speak the same language. Yet now, Ritual has expanded far beyond any tie to Religion. Ritual exists in music, politics, science, education and various social ceremonies from birth to death to baseball.
What is one of the most shocking aspects of Digitization is its tolerance. For example, no one makes the “buh” sound of “B” exactly the same as other English speakers, nor even exactly the same from one time to the next, yet almost all attempts ‘count as’ and are heard as, “B”. Dennett points out that bows, genuflections, and kowtows are never exactly ‘the same’ either, yet there is a general and expected range ‘that counts’ and there are even flourishes or new modifications that catch on and become fads and sometimes the new model of acceptability.
Words, genuflections, and various other forms of ritual are what Dennett calls “Memes.” Memes are the stuff Mind is made of: Shared Behavioral Habits — our words, our clothing styles, our music, our cuisine and our industry. Mind is, like digitization above, a tolerant range of acceptability, a way ‘to take’ the physical world, but also a setting of limits. And The Minds we know of, and participate in — even going back into their origin in animals and plants — are all limited to a Particular Point of View, we can say. That which is outside that point of view, that range of sensitivity and awareness, we can now call “noise” or vagueness or even “cognitive dissonance” when it is most severe.
Social Custom, as “language”, “religion”, “art” and “industry”, is all a limited perspective for “us”, our group, or some particular group. We are lucky to have them — these particular perspectives — but surely our Cro-Mag ancestors never made the specific distinctions we are used to. “Religion”, “language”, “art”, “mate selection”, “social order”, and “industry” were common to them, but each activity was involved with the other and all were probably one, to them. It is in that sense that “Folk Religion” was a single and vague activity, but one fraught with varied and highly emotive implications.
Ritual as Memory Device
How did ‘we’ remember these new found social habits? After all, no one was taking notes! Communication, itself, was being discovered. Incredibly, Dennett explains the functioning of ritual as similar to the “copying fidelity” of computers (146). It is the “majority rules strategy” that mathematician John von Neumann applied to engineering, but which had long been known and utilized previously. It is called “multiplexing”, he says. For example, before the days of radios, navigators at sea on long voyages would always use three chronometers (time pieces that are highly accurate in spite of motion, temperature and other variables). If only one was used, how would you know it was accurate. If two, how to know which was accurate if they started to diverge. Three allows the majority to rule if divergence occurs. It is highly unlikely that two devises would both go wrong and wrong in the same way at the same time.
In ritual, people acting in unison works in the same way. No one needs to know the entire chant or dance or prayer, but the majority of participants at anyone point will know, and any minority divergence will quickly correct back to the norm. “It is no accident that religions all have occasions on which adherents come together to act in public unison in rituals…Any religion without such occasions would already be extinct” (Dennett, 147).
Language, itself, was probably discovered in rudimentary form and then expanded, refined, memorized and passed on in this manner. Customs and what we would call “practical activities” were also re-enacted and rehearsed in ritual. The hunt, mate-selection, social organization, healing, birth and burial were all taken up symbolically in ritual. Oral Traditions were developed and “tales” of origins and ancestors were established. Dennett quotes researcher Scott Atran, “Humans, it appears, are the only animals that spontaneously engage in creative, rhythmic bodily coordination to enhance possibilities for cooperation” (141).
Today we know that songs, prayers, speeches and many kinds of writing utilize rhythm and often rhyme, and this, too, was a discovery or invention long in the making and likely originating in forms of Ritual Events. Rhythm and rhyme are also memory aides and attention devises and like language had no individual inventor.
Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep: printed In The New England Primer. This primer was first published in about 1690 and was designed for use in the colonies. It replaced The Bible as the foundation of American education before 1800. Who has not heard it; who has not remembered it. The ritual of prayer, combined with rhythm and rhyme.
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
If I should die before I ‘wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Ritual from around the world and through time. Ritual is the Communal search for, and establishment of, Shared Behavioral Habits. These Shared Habits of attention, concern and coordinated behavior, built upon our biological needs and abilities to establish what we commonly consider today as Human Mind.
WHAT A STRANGE LAST COUPLE OF DAYS! Late Thursday night/Friday morning, I reported that Friday at High School was going to be a busy day and then Saturday, turned out to be the same. I found myself chatting away, connecting with other people, even if in the most trivial way. I found it very satisfying. It seemed that many people just wanted to share their feels with an “other”. TIME TO RECONNECT!
Too much drama, too much uncertainty, was one of my standard “talking points”. All ya needed to say was “Wow, what strange times these are” and many people would start to open right up. Of course, I would Not then start to tell them what a jerk Trump is! Because, this was a time for sharing and reconciliation, I strongly felt; and, that seemed to work.
It was a wonderful coincidence that Saturday was Beautiful Weather in the entire state. People were out, walking, riding bikes, working outside their home. Sheri, my wife, ‘chose’ to clean and organize the garage (to get both cars in for the winter), and I ‘chose’ to patch and re-coat the asphalt driveway. Curious how we ‘choose’ to do such mundane and tedious work! You would think we would avoid such distasteful activity at all cost. I guess that shows how we can “Choose To Do What is Necessary”, a favorite theme here at The Connection: How well Adapted we are to be Free and Caused To Act at The Same Time! Choosing To Do what is Necessary To Do….. But I digress.
Chatting it up: My wife and I spoke to seven different neighbors! As we were outside for the entire mid-day, some of the conversations were rather prolonged, some fairly short. Add on to that, the one guy that drove by and slowed down to shout “F#<k you and F—- Biden Too!” and the lady that started to pump her fist, shout “hurray” and blow her horn as she came to our house and saw us. Our house has a bit of a reputation in the neighborhood as a hub of Democratic political activity. And it felt pretty good.
A young guy from four doors down came by with his three year old son riding a tricycle. I hardly know him, named Derrick, and he explained to me that he is a Republican, but that he wanted to congratulate us on the victory. Rather shyly and not all that articulately, he explained that Americans need to work together, especially in Congress. I agreed and most of the conversation was about his son.
Our neighbor across the street, Kason, has been flying the “Don’t Tread On Me” Tea Party ‘snake flag’ again, since the Governor shutdown much of the state due to The Virus. He really is a nice guy, a middle-aged family man, very personable and Fundamentalist Christian. He explained to me that he has a new pastor who has been big into the “give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to the Lord what is His” idea, and therefore Kason has backed off on some of his political activism and even concerns. When asked if he was buying into Trump’s stolen election contention, he said he was now trying to believe only what he had personal experience of or close and trusted testimony to. In this case, he had neither of those, so he couldn’t say for sure whether the election was stolen or not. Strange as that was, I pretty much left it there, but did comment that it as too bad America no longer had a trusted news source like we did in the old days, Mr. Walter Cronkite, CBS National News!
On our street I had provided Biden signs for five different houses including our own. And several got their own. It was nice to be so well represented. We had some great conversations with some of these people. People were relieved that Joe and Kamala finally did it! Now, I should point out that My Neighborhood is Not representative of all of Ohio, or Biden would have won the state. Here in Franklin county, home to Columbus, we went almost 70% Biden, but in 80 of Ohio’s 88 counties (all rural) they went Trump, some as high as almost 90%!
But the chatting was initiated in School on Friday! As I wrote early Friday morning, I woke up upset and astonished by President Trump’s allegations at nightly news time Thursday evening. (See Discussing Politics in the Classroom, the following post.) He told the nation that the election was being stolen from him! What an outrageously untrue and destructive contention!
So on Friday, I did “checked in with” each and every class. How were they feeling, I asked. “We do not need any more drama or uncertainty this year,” I said, “but that is what our President has served up, a heaping, new portion.” I tried to carefully maintain a certain amount of neutrality, but I could not, in all good conscience, not question the basis of his contention. His contentions are in variance with the principles and realities of our country! It led to several good and civil discussions, and quite a few students voiced their distrust and dislike for Mr. Trump. “Why was it taking so long?” “What could Trump do?”, many student’s asked. At least, more of these young people were talking, instead of sitting in an unnatural silence in these often largely deserted and disrupted school days and in these uncertain times.
Time to move on, Pull together, and BEAT THAT VIRUS!!!
I could not stay asleep. I woke at midnight thinking I needed to hear again what our President said tonight. It is now 2 am and I have listened to his statement again and again, and sampled the media reaction to it. In six hours I will be standing in front of a small group of high schoolers and I need to be able to help them through this mind-boggling moment! All day long, tomorrow, I think I will need to “sound out” and respond to, the needs of young people in this hour of need.
It reminds me of that day in September in 2001 when when I stood “there” and did the same: tried to explain the meaning and significance of it. Well, really, I was just trying to get us all through an unbelievable event in as sane a manner as possible. Here I am again, and I’m ready, more ready than before.
I am honored to be in this position, but scared by its gravity. Many high schoolers are fragile creatures, and all need to practice adulthood. High school is adult practice; how to be one, and “what will it hold for me?”, they are wondering. I want to be —tomorrow— the teacher that I would have wanted to have when I was in H.S. You don’t get teachers that rise to that occasion all the time.
What it comes to is, Our President Has Betrayed America. Not all students are going to believe that, or even care. Tomorrow I will “check in with” the feelings and thoughts of each class. 2020 has been a butt kicker. Students already don’t know what to think and don’t know what to say. They just sit quietly; they do not talk! Tomorrow is time to talk and share and pull together.
Wish me luck. It will go fine, I’m good at this. I have had a lot of practice. It is an honor to be a teacher. High schoolers are and can be remarkable creatures, especially when give some decent guidance.
Time to get some sleep. A big day ahead for all of us!
I wasn’t going to be writing this; I was going to be back out at a polling site handing out Democratic Party candidate slates. But I’m too exhausted! I went out this morning at 6:30, and given a traditionally conservative and working class assignment at The Faith Community Church polling site in Grove City, Ohio. Grove City is a close-in and old ‘suburbs’ of Columbus. It is jokingly and derisively known, in some quarters, as ‘Grovetucky’ for its Appalachian flavor, but these days has a growing black and especially Somalian community. I was Not optimistic about this placement considering its traditional tendencies.
I soon changed my mind. First, turnout was heavy and that generated a lot of energy. This especially on top of the massive early voting turnout here in Ohio. 3.4 million have already voted by Monday, that is 60% of the number of Ohioans that voted in 2016! Election officials are predicting a record percentage of Ohioans voting, maybe as high as 80% of registered voters. LARGE TURNOUTS ARE ALWAYS GOOD FOR OHIO DEMS!
Back at my Grove City assignment I was soon very pleased by the reception I got; AMERICANS OF COLOR WERE TURNING OUT! I just identified the information I offered them and said, “Let’s throw the bums out!” They laughed and said “Absolutely!” YOUNG VOTERS WERE ALSO VERY RECEPTIVE! Don’t forget, Ohio is suffering from a massive scandal in the state legislature. $60 Million taken by Republican legislators to pass a giant electric company bailout. 5 high ranking Republicans indicted, two have now accepted guilty plea bargains.
Ohio is barely considered a swing state anymore, after Trump won by 8% in 2016. But Ohio has polled just last week as in a dead heat. I’m predicting OHIO GOES BLUE, but I’m concerned about the huge split we have between urban and rural voters. If we go blue, Trump will turn from orange to blue because he will be done!
So it finally slowed down in Grove City at about 8:30 and so I left for home and breakfast. I decided to stop at my regular polling place in my neighborhood, only to find it still hopping. I parked in the grass, lot full, and I passed out my lit there for 40 minutes until things slowed.
I was determined to go back out at lunch, 11 am. I did so only to find a new Dem volunteer at the Grove City spot and one also at my old polling place in my neighborhood. Things were well under control and decent turnout again at both. Optimistic because of AN ABUNDANCE OF DEMOCRATIC VOLUNTEERS. I drove down the street to a different but nearby site and passed out lit there for an hour.
Determined to go out once more to catch the after-work voters, I just couldn’t do it. My legs were exhausted, even after a nap. I’m writing this blog instead, stretched out on the couch in the sun. Optimistic because it is A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN OHIO, SUNNY AND 60 DEGREES!
Optimistic also because I have picked up a little hint in conversations of some Republicans or Independents who voted Trump in ‘16, but WHO CANNOT STOMACH THE SAME VOTE AGAIN, then I watched “60 Minutes” on Sunday and they did a story on it; I hope a real trend. Also, NO BIG LATE-BREAKING UNDECIDED SWING FOR TRUMP THIS TIME! People made up there minds on this Long Ago.
DUMPING TRUMP in THE O-H-I-O !!!
( Wednesday at noon, up-dating the Up Date——Well, SORRY TO SAY, my prediction on Ohio was way off! Trump won again by about 8% of vote. Huge difference again between the metro areas —-where I was— and the rural areas! Ohio map is all Red except for the big city counties of Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo and Akron. All other counties Red except for one county dominated by Ohio University—-Go Bobcats!
(But Biden May yet pull this off; STILL COUNTING MAILED IN VOTES in several crucial states!!)
(In the previous Religion post, “Believing in Believing in God“, the modern dilemma of religious belief was presented. “Gods” don’t easily fit in our modern world. In response “god” has become some very vague idea believed in, but on which little depends; or “god” becomes highly specific —the Jesus of the Bible, or the teachings of the Koran— and a highly charged belief because now in tension and conflict with science, sexual equality and so many other modern social trends. In the following post, the origins of religion will be considered as “naturally” arising and closely connected to the the origin of Culture, itself!)
(A “Venus” figurine, dating back 40,000 to 35,000 years ago, from Germany. Cro-Magnon humans were fascinated by pregnant women and childbirth! Shucks, I wonder why? Even with all our science and medicine, it is still Utterly Amazing and Attractive!)
Is There A Kind Of Religion That Is “Natural” To Humans, or at least natural in the history of humans? That is a strange idea, but one championed by theorist Dan Dennett. Dennett is One Of Our Most Outspoken Atheists, yet in his scientific theory of religion, he gives “Good Reasons” for the occurrence of religion, and maybe even its continued existence—-in at least some form!
“Good Reasons” are akin to a theoretical term of his; more precisely they are “free-floating rationale”, by which he means The Purpose that a functioning object serves. The object’s purpose is real and yet not so real at the same time! The purpose of a thing is expressed by the organization of its parts and it is Not one of those parts itself. It is “free-floating” in that sense; it is like ‘the focal point’ of the parts, as if they were ‘gazing upward at the larger system they are a part of, seeking to understand their role and the meaning of it all.’ Gee, sounds kind of Religious already!
Dennett contends that religion served a purpose, or at least evolved for good reasons. In Breaking The Spell, Religion as a Natural Phenomena, it is refreshing to find the typical dismissive ‘explanations’ of religion, dismissed as too simplistic. One contends religion is just a bad explanation for things that some people can’t explain in better ways (103). “So get to work and find some real answers,” we might say. Two, religion is just an attempt to make us feel better. “Too bad, life is tough and it ends; so suck it up and stop making up silly stories,” the realists say. Three, religion helped, and still helps, people work and live together; it promotes cooperation. The famous French sociologist, Emile Durkheim with his functionalist theories, contended this was religion’s social purpose. In response, it is easy to point out all the times that differing religions have fought, hated each other, and expressed their differences in conflict and not cooperation.
So, religion is based not in our ignorance and is not primarily inaccurate explanation, and religion is not just a salve for our disappointment and fears. These are not good scientific explanations of religion according to Dennett. These are not good Evolutionary Explanations of a phenomena so prevalent, so complexly organized and so “expensive.” Anything that lasts that long and becomes so prominent in the population and consumes so much time and effort must have some benefit for survival for someone or something. There maybe some truth to these dismissive explanations but they don’t cut deep enough. Religion as promoting human cooperation does a little better, we shall see.
Dennett’s theory is that the religious impulse is based in a powerful and helpful human instinct (112). In that sense, this instinct is accurate and efficient, even though it has been misapplied often. It is the instinct to regard the complex events around us as instigated by human-like agents; agents or actors somewhat like ourselves and motivated by reasons — in their heads — somewhat like ours. We “see” other persons in this way, of course; and also animals, but even plants to some extent. When we get to the cosmos at large, and ‘the storms at sea’ for example, then “we”, various humans now and in the past, were and are mistaken to regard them personally. But Religion, in this earliest form, is “Folk Religion,” says Dennett, and it is this projection of agency, of the acts of agents, out into the world.
Folk Religion is not the highly organized and institutionalized religion of today. It lacked “stewards” or at least the same degree of “professionalization” and hierarchy that we see often. Though it had its priests, “shaman”, it had no Bishops or Popes or leaders of rabbinical schools, or Imams. It had no highly standardized creed.
Dennett makes an initial characterization of it as “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents (God or gods) whose approval is to be sought” (9). Curiously, this is connected by Dennett to the evolution of a very real, but equally mysterious ‘thing’, The Human Mind. This primitive form of religion, folk religion, was part of the development of our uniquely human way of being with other humans as highly social, communicating, technology-driven, cultural animals. The Mind is our way of being together and “religion” played a role in that development. These early humans saw “persons” everywhere; agents with motives that you could possibly negotiate with!
The Value of Ritual
Much of what we do, that is unique to us as humans, is based in Language. Folk Religion is as old as language and even some of the proto-languages that undoubtedly preceded it until language itself was well enough structured and established to stand alone. Folk religion and its Ritual may have been like a scaffolding that supported these early developments.
Time Line of Cultural Milestones
Proto-Language and Language itself: 40,000+ years ago
Folk Religion: origin 40,000 to 25,000 years ago
Agriculture: 10,000 years ago
Metalworking: 8,000 years ago
Written Language: 5,000 years ago
Evolutionary Biological Advances are based in our genetic code. Evolutionary Cultural Advances are based in our linguistic codes. Biological advance starts in mutations of the DNA code and if accompanied by successful bodily or behavioral expressions, they are selected. They then are not easily lost, that is the very definition of success; they are passed down to further generations genetically.
But what of early Cultural Advances? They were not recorded in our DNA nor in any written language, because written language was itself a rather late developing cultural advance. How did Cultural Advances persist? How were they passed on to future generations when even oral language was still in formation? Ritualis the answer: group based, oral, rhythmic, bodily movement-based, repetitive, highly emotive, expressive events.
(Rituals, from top left to right. Hindus of India speaking to the ancestors in an effort to attain health and healing through the management of intergenerational karmas. Shia Muslim mourning the death of their prophet at the annual Ashura commemoration in Iraq. Courtship ritual of the Wodaabe people of Niger. Occur once a year, men dress and make themselves up and are judged by available females. Bottom, speaking in tongues in the U.S.A.)
(In the following post in this series on Dan Dennett’s scientific theory of religion as a natural object, the contribution of Religious Ritual to the formation of Culture will be presented.)
Stay Safe! The Virus is On The Roll here in Ohio! ALSO, “NO” TO DONALD TRUMP!!! Throw the Bum Out!!!!!!
Do you “Believe in God?” Well, of course you do. It is almost impolite to say otherwise. But I mean, Do you “believe that God really exists?”, or better, answer yes/no to “Does God exist?” Does this second form of the question change anything?
Recently I decided to reread Dan Dennett’s, Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett is a philosopher and “Theorist extordinaire.” In many different topic areas, he does not simple review the literature and speculate, he puts forth research proposals. That is what he is doing here for religion and he uses the phrase quoted in this title. He is laying out a wide-ranging theory of religion that he hopes will be empirically investigated. It involves aspects of cognitive psychology, sociology, linguistic behavior, archeology, anthropology and even economic history. On my first reading (2007 or so), I did not adequately appreciate that this book is Applied Philosophy!
Dennett contends there is an important distinction in the above two questions. The first mostly speaks to Your Beliefs, Your State of Mind. Yes, many of us do have a Belief in a god or even gods. But when you are asked, “Does God exist?”, this sharpens the issue a bit. It suggests “Where does God exist?” or “How does God exist?” or “What is God,” and “Can you point him out?” It suggests that maybe we are wrong to think in terms of “Him” and not Her or It.
Orthodox Jews do not even speak a name for ‘god’, or write one; that would be too concrete, too much making “GD” like an ordinary thing. Muslims do not picture Allah, or even Mohammed; best to leave visual imagery of God to the beautiful arabesques that adorn their mosques. In fact, Dennett points out that today in many religions it is standard doctrine not to ask for, or expect, a lot of good specific answers on the character, nature, location and qualities of god or gods. Whenever very specific and invasive queries come up, the doctrine of mystery is invoked. God is infinite and incomprehensible, and therefore, by definition, ‘hard to pin down.’
The earlier human gods were much more specific and concrete in their looks and actions, than our current ones. They lived in specific places like atop Mt. Olympus or like the Norse god, Odin, in an enormous and majestic ceremonial hall called Valhalla. They looked like real things or combinations of things, a human body with a falcon head, for example. Even the god of the Old Testament became angry, jealous, and intervened in human affairs often and obviously, turning people into pillars of salt or strolling in the Garden of Eden. Consider the seven plagues cast upon Egypt forcing Pharaoh to “let my people go!”, all very concrete and accredited behaviors and events.
But with the triumph of Monotheism and more modern times, gods have become more abstract, more withdrawn from the world, and with this has come the problem of How, Where and even Whymust God actually exist?
Belief in Belief
For some ‘believers’, any specific affiliation with a designated religion has been dropped, and a stripped-down sense of “Spirituality” is all that remains. For them, god need not even be “God” but now just a satisfying sense of “a higher power”with virtually no clarification or specificity.
For other ‘believers,’ it is now most important that they, and you and I, just Believe In Believing In God irrespective of whether he, she or it actually exists. It is more a social thing, than a real out-there-in-reality-somewhere kind of thing. It’s part of being good in company. You say, “Yes, I’m Catholic or Episcopalian…” and you wake up every Sunday morning and go to church. You see some acquaintances there and chat. When in distress you say a quiet prayer or two. You try to insure that your children believe the same as you. And that’s about the whole religion thing, for you.
In Dennett’s book, the above is described by some theorists as “a low investment”, “less intense” religious experience. The question of God’s actual existence tends to not come up. This mild form of belief is itself enough, and great doubt is generally not an issue. Other religions may exist and other people may believe differently but that is not an affront to you and your low intensity belief.
Going “High Investment”
But there is another way to deal with the modern problem of the actual existence of your god and you belief in him, her or it. That is to go “high intensity” and “high investment.” If you invest all your savings in one particular stock, that stock — whether it eventually succeeds or fails — is very valuable to you. Participation in a cult or sect is much the same. High investment in time, energy, commitment and even money makes your belief in that group very valuable to you. Any wavering in that belief is a crisis,; it puts in jeopardy all the previous effort.
So in groups like these, belief maintenance is a huge endeavor. A favorite device is “us against them.” “Circle the wagons’, we are under siege; they are all out to get us” is the mentality. Christian Fundamentalists and Evangelicals use this tactic. In an upcoming post I will discuss a sermon delivered by the pastor of a fast rising Columbus area “mega-church.” “As people who follow Jesus…who follow the biblical view of life…(Mathew tells us) ‘You will be hated not just by someone, but by everyone’,” Pastor Chad Fisher tells his congregation.
Fundamentalist Muslims have made great use of the claim that “western powers” seek to destroy Islam. Considering the history of imperialism there is some truth to it, though Islam’s very conservative doctrinal and sociological structure has also led to much tension with a modernized world.
Finally, one of the other strategies to overcome the modern loss of specificity and intensity in religious experience is the return to (or maintenance of) a very specific religious symbol. To conservative Christians The Bible and its Jesus are literally, and in all its detail, taken as true and existent. Other forms of Christianity with varied beliefs are then simply wrong, mistaken, as are non-Christian religions to an even greater extent. Islam, too, uses the teachings of Mohammed and the Koran in this manor.
This is “a higher intensity” and “higher investment” religion. Not only have these believers placed themselves in opposition to other religions but also to other cultural forces and institutions that they see as a threat. Conservative Muslims contend much in Western Culture is evil and a threat to their way of life. Conservative Christians have objected to the aspects of science they see in conflict with the Bible: geology, evolutionary biology and even cosmological astronomy. Liberal Government has been one of their foes because of its support for tolerance of diversity in sexual orientation, support for some aspects of women’s rights, and the insistence on a stricter division between church and state on various issues.
Much the same can be said for more radical forms of Islam. In each case, the “value” of these religious experiences is high. Much time, energy, social status and even money is, and can be, invested in the maintenance of these tension-filled beliefs for you and your fellow congregants. These are some of the ways that vivid and strong belief is created. When other cultural forces are then also challenged, the ground is cleared for not only strong belief but the assertion of the existence of that god.
It is Intense, but Is it ‘True’?
What is curious about this analysis of religion is the question of its “Truth” is forestalled. When Religion is treated as a Natural Phenomenon, the mechanisms for its appearance and maintenance will be sought and it becomes less clear how an evaluation of its truth will occur and what it will be. It is natural. Religion starts to serve more of a function for people and for their society. The question may start to shift from its “truth” to how well religion does at its job. Is its job to “find” a “God” that exists independently of us? Is its job to create and maintain some different relationship between people that includes the universe beyond them?
My Wonderful and Long Gone Grandmother
Somewhere around the year of 1975, I came from college and dropped in on my family who were visiting my mother’s mother and her side of the family in Pittsburg Pennsylvania. I was decked out with my long hair pulled into a pony tale, wearing worn jeans with a fringe added at the bottom, and maybe even a tie-dyed tee shirt (if not I might as well have been, for that was the whole point, l guess). In those days I was determined to speak honestly and clearly to all people about my opinions, sometimes whether I was asked or not.
My mom’s mom, Grandma Surenda, was the matriarch of the family. Her husband had died many years earlier when I was only 5 or so. He was an administrator with The U.S. Steel Corp., the largest steel company in the largest steel producing city in the world. He left them fairly well off.
She owned a large brown brick, perfectly rectangular, three story home, on a corner lot where two hills met. One formed a long flat stretch that was Middletown Rd while the other hill pushed on higher just beyond the intersection that ended with Grandma’s house. Four roads came together there, three of them were inclined—two down, one up. Pittsburg is a city of hills. I remember laying in bed in that house as a child, listening to the city busses and large dump trucks roaring their engines, working to climb those hills. Trucks were always hauling something around Pittsburg, in those days.
In that house lived five adults for much of my childhood. Uncle Richard was a short round man who never married and worked at a large factory making industrial equipment. Aunt Thelma was my mother’s sister and lived in the large attic bedroom with her husband Bill. They owned three small dry cleaning shops that Uncle Bill operated, while Aunt Thelma did the books by day for a textile wholesaler and by night for the cleaning shops. They often had piles and piles of coins laying about that we would help them count. They never had children of their own, but when we visited they would adopt the whole crew of their nieces and nephews and take us nightly for ice cream, snow cones and to the amusement park with all the kids riding in the back of the dry cleaning delivery truck.
Of course, Grandma Surenda lived there but so did her mother, Great Grandmother Spirko! In her late 80’s and then early 90’s, she was actually the first on the matrilineal side to come to the US from Slovakia. I later learned that she told a story of how the Hungarian army arrived in Slovakia (in the mid 1800’s, I believe) and forced many changes including speaking and writing in Magyar only, not Slovak. Eventually she left as a teenager for America, as did many other Slovaks. When I was seven or eight, I remember her always sitting in her arm chair by the the large expanse of windows in the dining room taking in the sun. She was always dressed in a long almost ankle-length black dress, black stockings, white blouse, and black sweater mostly buttoned. It was the manner of dress for women in the old country. As I search my memory, I don’t remember her ever talking to me, simply sitting.
My Grandmother Surenda, eventually—later in her life after Grandma Spirko died, went to Catholic Church every morning for mass. In fact, she was the first there and was in charge of opening the doors even before the priest walked over from the rectory. To do this, she walked. She was in her seventies and walked about a quarter of a mile straight down the first level of the two hills that met at her house and straight back up when mass was over. The church sat at the bottom of that hill.
Grandma was a short lady but tough and very determined. She was generous, always helping her extended family financially in any time of need. I always remember her either cooking or doing laundry, though she did have her soap operas she followed and she loved local Big Time Wrestling. She would yell at the television as Handsome Johnny Barron (“a bad guy”) would pull an object from his trunks and poke it into Bo Bo Brazil’s eye (“a good guy”). Handsome Johnny would never get caught by the referee, and he always wore a net over his slicked-back silver hair when not in the rink. Grandma, by contrast, always wore a house dress with stockings and those prototypical old lady shoes that tied and yet had a short thick two inch (?) heal. That road down to the church and back had no sidewalk. It was two lanes with a narrow gravel berm on each side. She walked it five days a week in those shoes, on Sunday Uncle Richard drove her and often slept in the car while she attended.
Thelma and Bill, and most of the family, were very religious, also. When Christmas time approached out came a large Manger Setting that was placed in the yard at its most prominent corner. As a child we would frequently visit, making the five hour drive from Ohio, and I will always remember arriving in Grandma’s neighborhood from the very top of the second hill. Night had fallen as we drove, so as we drove down the hill suddenly Grandma’s house and its glistening manger scene would come into view. It sent a shiver through us all.
That setting was large. The stable itself was six feet tall (2m) and over ten feet (3-4m) long and made of wood. Some of the paper mache figures stood as tall as four feet (150 cm). There were several sheep and a shepherd boy, and an angel or two. There were The Three Magi, one kneeling, who supposedly “followed the star of Bethlehem” to join the birth, along with a camel a meter tall. Joseph, the ‘father’ of Jesus (scare quoted for several reasons), stood in the middle, and Mary, the virgin mother knelt. In the very middle, of course, was The Manger, the feeding trough that served supposedly as His bed; it was actually filled with straw and in it The Baby Jesus — The Son of God, God Become Man — depicted very much as the figurine at the head of this story. Straw was strewn across the ground and the scene was lit by three or four ground-mounted spot lights and a “star” lit at the apex of the stable. It was quite a crowd and quite a scene.
I believe that when my Grandmother thought of God and Jesus, it was in that form, as a baby, an infant. In her dinning room corner, year round, was also a plaster statue of the infant Jesus, standing and looking very knowing and mature for a two-year old. They dressed it in finely made garments and changed them several times a year. The child had a real diamond ring on a finger extended skyward. To my Grandmother, that was a very real God and one she believed in with all her might.
That was the house, the family and the situation I walked into those many years ago as a young man. One of our great family traditions was to gather many, many, family members around a very large dining room table for huge dinners. The centerpiece was often homemade chicken soup loaded with chicken, carrots, celery and onions. Served on the side, and indispensable, were homemade chicken liver dumplings. All the kids followed Uncle Bill’s lead and added ketchup to sweeten the soup. Almost twenty relatives could be in attendance on a Saturday night dinner such as that.
But it was Not on one of those huge evenings back in 1975, but a smaller lunch, that the topic came up and I broke the news. “I no longer believe in god,” I said. Maybe it was my mother that quickly tried to intervene and soften the blow and qualify my statement. I do not remember many of the specifics, but somehow I was led to say it. There was a pause, then Grandma burst into tears and rushed from the room. She hurried down the stairs, crying, into the basement from which arose a wail that was heard by all. “My heart is breaking,” she cried out. I looked at everyone, everyone looked at me. I slowly walked down into that basement intent on trying to console that dear old lady.
I do not remember what I actually said, nor much of the outcome. I believe I told her things would be OK, that I was a good person and that was what was most important. I may have tried to diminish the certainty of my disbelief; I just wanted that beautiful old lady to stop crying. She eventually did, and I hugged her. The topic was not brought up again. The family visit went on, though somewhat awkwardly.
“High Intensity Belief”
As I thought about this story and began writing it, I discovered a surprising fact. I had always thought that this adamant belief in Jesus as an infant was personal and idiosyncratic to my Grandmother. It was not. The Slovaks and the Czechs have a Catholic tradition going back to the 17th century based upon what they call The Infant Jesus of Prague. It is a 19-inch (48cm) wooden statue with wax coating and a silver-coated base. It is currently housed at The Church of Our Lady Victorious in Prague.
The statue has received various Papal sanctions establishing its sacred status and is particularly venerated at Christmas and on the first Sunday of May when it is carried through the streets. Numerous miraculous events are attributed to it, including the rescue of Prague from the invading Swedish army in 1639.
Little did I know what I was getting into in 1975! I was attempting to diminish a high intensity, highly invested, very specific, long held religious experience and tradition. It was far different than the mild “belief in belief” or the vague but comforting affiliation to “a higher power.”
And now, moments before the publication of this post, I have learned Trump has got The Virus. Well, he didn’t want us to wear that mask, now look! Here is my post, with no alterations made in light of the big news. “Trainwreck” Trump, he is.
Been talking to some people, watching and reading a variety of news sources, seeking their take on the debate. Seems a pretty common reaction that Both Did Bad: Biden and Trump. Some of the headlines and leads suggest something of the same: “Debate Chaos” and such. But this is misleading, I believe!
Granted, your frame of mind and reference point does have a lot to do with your final interpretation, and I’m glad I waited till Wednesday morning to view it because I wasn’t tired and had more patience than late Tuesday evening. But really, what else should you have expected from President Trump?
Here is a headline I like better, from The Columbus Dispatch as part of the USA Today Network: “Analysts: Trump hurt worse by chaotic debate.” And then soon in the article it gets to the heart of the matter, our President destroyed that debate!
“Doubling down on the steamroller tactics that helped him…in 2016, Trump repeatedly talked over Biden during (Biden’s) allotted time,” said the paper. “When moderator Chris Wallace repeatedly admonished him, Trump loudly talked right over (him) as well.” The paper then reported that Biden, in his own defense turned to the President and said, “Will you shut up, man?” Wallace then finally reminded Trump that “the country would better be served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions” and later reminded Mr. Trump that his campaign “agreed to the rules” that he was so poorly following.
That is the debate that I saw. Biden won that debate, in so much as it was one. He showed reasonable poise in the face of Trump’s attempts to bully, and actually had several fine moments when he turned away from his opponent and spoke directly to the camera and the American people. Granted, he did refer to Trump as a “clown”, but a clown, and worse, he was and is, in my opinion.
Mr. Trump continued to disparage and undermine our electoral process on Tuesday evening, and this is grounds enough to vote him from office, in my view. He does our entire nation and it’s history a grave disservice when he pretends our elections are not fair and accurate. This claim was aptly rebutted by Mr. Biden. Also, when the President of the United States cannot call out and unambiguously disavow an armed and violent group based in racial and other forms of hatred our country is in dire straights. Former Vice President Biden skillfully assisted in putting Mr. Trump in that spot in this debate, the spot from which he miserably stumbled.
I say, Joe Biden succeeded in that first encounter with this unscrupulous man. Let us not soil that accomplishment due to the dirt in which Trump placed that event! Apparently various Biden aides have labeled Donald’s performance, “a trainwreck.” I think that is an apt description but also a worthy monicker: “TrainWreck” Trump.