Archive for April, 2012

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Let the Dead be Baptized

April 20, 2012

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Recently there was a minor uproar when people learned that it is a practice of the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) to “baptize the dead.” Although this practice is supposed to be limited to the direct bloodline ancestors of Mormon people (thus assuring that those of their ancestral line will be assured of salvation in the afterlife) the practice apparently has expanded (without official sanction from the church hierarchy) to include others as well. This was seen to be particularly offensive to Jewish people and others who felt that this posthumous “claim” of people for Mormonism is a breach of the American “truce” between religions on which our particular brand of tolerance is based.

I have some strong feelings about this situation myself, but have purposely waited until the hubbub has died down a bit before expressing them publically. I think we can well assume that if Mitt Romney indeed becomes the Republican presidential candidate, we will hear about all of this again in the course of the campaign. Therefore, now seems like a good time to express what I have to say about it.

All religions have their way of remembering and honoring the dead. There is nothing about this that should be discouraged. Most of the time, the rituals of remembering and honoring are expressed in prayers. I am not an expert on all Jewish practices, but in the services of my own (Reform) congregation, the Mourners’ Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, is the culmination of the service itself. Most of the time, those mentioned specifically by name in this part of the service are Jewish people. However, that is not always the case. We are a congregation in which a very high percentage of the marriages are “mixed,” meaning one of the partners does not come from a Jewish background (this is very typical for Reform, Reconstruction and Conservative congregations, less so for Orthodox congregations but rising even there.) If a person requests the name of a non-Jewish relative to be mentioned during this part of the service, there is no objection at all, at least in my congregation. That a non-Jewish person’s name is included in this part of the service is a sign of deep respect and a signal that we are all connected as one human family, regardless of religion or ethnic origins.

Clearly, in every religious service in the country you will find similar ritual inclusions of people who are not members of that religion themselves. I can hardly imagine anyone with any sense objecting to having others mentioned in prayer or other rituals who are not members of that particular faith.

So, apparently, in demonstrating their remembrance and honor for people no longer with us in body, Mormons include not only prayer but baptism in their rituals of respect. Thought experiment. Most of us, I think, would be positively touched to learn that local Mormon congregants had mentioned our recently deceased parent or close relative in prayer. I think this would be true even if we did not particularly believe in the efficacy of prayer itself–we would recognize in any case that such prayer was a signal of respect. Why would we feel any different then, if we do, to learn that in addition to prayer for our deceased parent or close relative, there had also been a ritual baptism?

I think this would be because in our own Christian churches, baptism is associated with inauguration of membership, and so it may feel like Mormons are “claiming” as members those who did not, in life, wish to be members. However, we should keep in mind that the “offense” occurs only because we are reading our own understanding of the meaning of baptism into the Mormon practice. But this is not legitimate. If as part of a service emphasizing Christian love, a minister claimed Gandhi as an “honorary Presbyterian,” of Lutheran, or Baptist, or what have you, would that be so offensive? I think not, and I suggest that the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead is no more than that–a sign of remembrance, honor and respect.

Now, baptism of deceased Jewish people has some different undertones. There is a long history in Jewish and Christian history of “forced” baptisms, of living Jewish people being baptized against their will, and we honor in memory those many Jews who chose fines, exile, and even death, rather than to submit to Christian baptism. To learn that Anne Frank and other Holocaust victims have been ritually “baptized” in Mormon memorial services cannot be easily separated from the feelings associated with centuries of forced Christian baptism. Because of this, such baptisms should never be done in the public arena (which Mormons would never do in any case) and it would be good if Mormons did not publicize the specifics of this ritual. But Mormons have never forced baptism on living Jewish people, and so again it is not right to impute the same motives of those who forced baptism on living Jewish people onto Mormons. Baptism of the dead is an inner-church Mormon ritual signaling remembrance, honor and respect for those being symbolically included in the ritual.

If and when discussion of this practice hits the public airwaves again, as it surely will during a Romney run for President, I would hope we can all just chill out a bit, and put this practice in the same context as prayer for the deceased. Building tolerance for each other is anything but easy, so let us not suspicion each other about the rituals we employ for rituals intending remembrance, honor and respect.

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The Arts

April 17, 2012

"The Single Hound" Bruce Floyd

The arts won’t make you virtuous and they won’t make you smart, but they are nevertheless my faith, firmly installed in the part of me where some people put religion.
What, then, does it guarantee? Those who give it their time and love are offered the chance to live more expansive, more enjoyable and deeper lives. They can learn to care intimately about music, painting and books that have lasted for centuries or millennia. They can reach around the globe for the music, the images and the stories they want to make their own. At its best, art dissolves time; only through art can we catch a glimpse of what life was like in ancient Greece or medieval Spain or pre-modern Japan.

Some months ago I copied down the above, failing to note who wrote it. I came across it today. I agree with what the writer says, but how would I convince the fellow down the street that he’d be better off with the arts than with his golf game with his pals? It seems to me that those who talk about the wonder of the arts are those who involve themselves in the arts. If someone comes to my door–and he or she has–and seeks to proselytize me for some religion, I politely send the person on his or her way. I am not interested in the offer of information this person says will transform my life. “Jesus,” this person at my door will tell me, “is superior to any book.” Although I’d sent this person from my door, I’d never add as the person leaves that art is my religion. Keats put this argument to bed long ago. If, as Kierkegaard or Rank or somebody said, psychology must ultimately be laid at the door of theology, so must art. In short, art cannot provide what the illusion of religion can. Art at its best is a friend, and it will have to do, perhaps, if one cannot sustain the illusion of theology. I don’t know whether God exists or not, but I do know that art is not God. We’ve read our Becker. We know aesthetics cannot answer the fundamental questions of humankind.  I’m not saying religion gives the right answers, but it gives answers.

When I was a young professor of English, I tended to be a little dogmatic about the salutary and restorative and redemptive power of literature. I used, in one form or another, the arguments used above. I don’t think my dogmatism, my insistence, drew many of my students into my camp. It did not take me long to realize the futility of preaching the power of art. It my case the art was, of course, literature. Hectoring students, braying about the beauty of literature, implying books and poems could usher one into regal realms reflected no more than my passion–and, if the truth be told, an attempt to stifle my own doubts about the worth of literature. I sometimes wondered, “To whom are you really talking?”

I had no real facts to support my position. I decided that I could do no more really than let literature speak for itself. It didn’t need me as zealous advocate, a position that, no matter how tactful one wants to be, always smacks of snobbism, a looking-down on. Though I had no idea how to do it, I figured out that all I could do was, somehow, embody literature, not in any grand or exaggerated way. I just quietly stood up for literature. My students, because for the most part they liked me, listened to me, many of them pleased that I thought them worthy of literature–but they never understood what the fuss was about. They understood–and maybe I did too–that even though literature meant much to me, it would never mean much to them. As I grew older I accepted this realization with sanguine resignation.

Saturday afternoon, in the huge ball and dining room of the Hilton Hotel, I sat with approximately two-hundred others at a wedding reception. An orchestra played charming music, a chanteuse, a lovely young woman, sang the old standards (Gershwin, Porter, and others), and people drank wine and champagne. For the most part the people in that room were successful people by any standard. This was a collection of professional people, many of them wealthy, most of them educated.

I’d venture to say, though, that practically all of these people care no more for the joys and splendors of literature than did my students when I taught. For sure, they don’t think they have somehow missed out on one of the lovely things about life. I don’t know for sure but I’d wager than nobody in the room, save yours truly, ever reads poetry for simple enjoyment. Am I supposed to feel superior because I do? I told Dr. Elgee once that in all my years of trying to encourage others to read Becker’s Denial of Death, I cannot count one convert. I decided it was time to quit trying.

I am grateful I have a love for poetry and literature (and for Ernest Becker), but I have it simply because I have it. I have no idea why I have it. When one man who has recently retired, complained to me and a small group of others that he, now that he was retired, was pretty much forgotten, his opinion no longer sought, that he had become a “nobody,” I found myself talking about King Lear, but it took only a moment for me to understand that nobody in the group of men with whom I found myself knew anything about Lear and its relevance to the conversation. For me to persevere in dragging poor old King Lear into the discussion would have been pretentious on my part, a pompous display. It was neither the time nor the place to talk about Shakespeare. I shut up, hoping I done so before I made a complete ass of myself.

I’d be lying, though, did I not confess to the members of the EBF that I felt “luckier” than this small group of men with whom I talked, most of them about my age, most of them retired, most of them possessing more money and financial savvy than I.  Yes, it’s true I feel “luckier” than they because I do have literature, but I doubt whether I could convince them that I am more fortunate than they are. It’s true, too, that I am hardly objective, a disinterested judge in this evaluation of who is lucky. In fact, push these men and they might admit that they think I have wasted my life fooling around with books. They probably say just this to each other when I am not present. These men, some with whom I grew up, might say that my choice of how to live my adult life created a gulf between them and me, subtle, but nonetheless a rift. It’s how it is, but, still, it’s a little sad for both sides in this case. I do understand that neither they nor I think about rifts and gulfs to any large degree, but we all know our choices in life lead to an incongruence of sensibilities.

I have come to believe that those who prate of the joy of art to the general public are tedious. I find it tiresome that the man above can say that art is his religion. It’s annoying for a man to keep telling others how cultured he is, how sensitive. Life is messy for all of us. We see through a glass darkly, whether we spend our time counting our money or counting our books. When Emily Dickinson says that ” There is no frigate like a book / To take us lands away,” I believe her. Most people, however, wouldn’t. Perhaps it’s best that we sail away in our books quietly, without shouting out to the world that we are embarking.

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Ego-Consciousness – New and Improved. Still Packed Special Ingredients Guilt and Shame

April 4, 2012

"Blak Lantern" Henry Richards

What we cant think about: Language and consciousness are essentially outgrowths from self-reflective anxiety.

Humans have such capacity in action. We have gone from huddling around fires to protect themselves from the big predator cats and canine pack hunters to eradicating, in many areas, creatures that will not yield to domestication. Not even the birds–which come and go like random thoughts–can escape the silver-meshed net of our minds or the dark blanket of our mindlessness. Only the prolific and polymorphic insects and the cunning arachnids have a strong chance of surviving our era.

Equally amazing is our ability to not act externally, to introspect and reflect on ourselves and our condition. We gained this moment of pause through the evolution of empathy: feeling into and imagining what our peers were experiencing in the hunt or in competition for a lover.  In that moment of pause (many really, but easily represented by a single moment) so much happens, or at least the seeds of so much are engendered: helplessness, worship, guilt, desperation and fear. To extend this analogy, it’s as though we carry forward from that moment between actions such variegated seeds in a bag made of tightly woven anxieties. We plant these seeds latter, but at each planting we either choose a seed at random, or if we are more mature, we pick with foresight the seed that will grow into the most useful thing in our future, a winter harvest for winter’s need. Each time we want to plant a seed, we have to pry open the cord that seals the anxiety sack we carry around our necks like the ancient mariners talisman. That cord is the ego and ego-consciousness, the opening is our capacity for conscious awareness of our anxieties and fears and aspirations, and of the broader world. [The Sanskrit root underlying Indo-European words like ‘anxiety’ meant ‘to choke’ or ‘to strangle,’ the feeling that something closing in on us and our possibilities, causing us doubt the next breath.] The catch 22 is that if we abandon the bag to escape anxiety, the seminal possibilities it holds are also unavailable to us. We have no life without ego-consciousness. It is both cornucopia and Pandora’s Box. The ego is the vocal cord of anxiety, and finds its voice in the bubbling fountain of possibility itself–language. The headwaters of chosen words and others left behind. The paragraphs, pages deleted and lost. The wrong word, the gesture that mangles the meaning.

So much of human experience and being is ineffable; so much so that to speak at all is to have guilt. This is why the biblical gift of tongues was so much a miracle, not that each man heard the proclamations and praises in their own language, but that those who were themselves sub-merged with the power of the Holy Ghost knew not what they spoke and expressed the full fervent desires of their hearts with assurance that their words were in God’s ear. Their ecstatic expression was a fluent overflowing, a guiltless circumvention of ego consciousness. Recent neuroimagery studies suggest that worship in glossolalia is neither language in the normal sense, nor is it neurologically the same as singing. The frontal lobes are less involved than in communicative language and the parietal lobes that construct our sense of self within the flow of perception are in high gear. Glossolalia is perhaps the opposite of meditation, in which frontal activity predominates and the parietal self becomes a mere whisper in the background. Meditation is facilitated by the repetition of  a single word or phrase, and connects one to the One. It is for those who would die to the ego. Glossolalia dismantles the ego-self and reforms it in the context of the cosmic. In the Christian context it is an experience and expression of the self-in-God/God-in-self. Glossolalia is an abundance of semantics, deep-structures, clangs, rhythms and rimes–all heavenly clothes of sensory perception– the resurrected body, the New Self–. Glossolalia, and experiences like it such as ecstatic prophesy, are for those born again to the ego-in-God.

Is this part of the mystery of  גַּן עֵדֶן,  Gan ʿEdhen and of the reason for our expulsion from the Garden? Was the fruit that  Satan bid Eve to eat the idea that the Lord’s words could be taken in a different way?  That the Lord and his words were not one?  That the Lord is himself divided against himself, meaning, against meaning, because he allowed the existence of a snake that walks on legs–the cunning human intellect? Or was the forbidden fruit the idea that the Lord’s words had only one meaning, the one that Satan (easily parodied by William Blake as Newton’s cold, constricted view of reason) could articulate perfectly? Was our sin giving away the gift of tongues and divine meditation to affirm the body’s guilty reality?

Shame and guilt are implicit in the punishment God gives the newlyweds. They are banished under conditions that will require that they are looking down all the time: Adam, the agriculturist (red clay, the root meaning of his name) must till the field that will either sustain or starve them, and which they will eventually become (human: creature that is buried in the earth, humus ). Eve (still a Paleolithic gatherer of fruit, nuts, roots, and small rodents) must forage in the high grass in trepidation of the Snake writhing to bruise her heel—her ever-present awareness of a painful and malevolent death. So guilt and shame anticipate a punishment. For post-Theists, and those with a loving God, where is the punishment to come from but from within?