Friday, April 22, 2011

Planting Potatoes

Today is Good Friday, and I'm sad. Yes, the agnostic that I have become dearly misses the solemn mystery of Holy Week and Easter. It's quite unlike my experience of Christmas, which this year, for the first time in two decades, I celebrated without Christ--indeed, without any church at all--and scarcely noticed the absence.  That's undoubtedly because the traditions of Christmas are so profoundly UN-religious that I managed, with no fuss, to tuck Jesus away in a veritable manger of oblivion, even as I decked the halls.

Not so Holy Week.  Easter Bunny and colored eggs aside, there's very little for the secular person to delight in at Eastertide.  No diverting pagan traditions to compensate for the sorrowing with Tenebraes or the rejoicing with Easter Vigil Allelulias.

Just lilies and lamb and reruns of The Sound of Music on TV.

Well, it will have to do.  As much as I love the liturgies of the Triduum, I seem to have reached some kind of milestone in my spiritual journey. Alas, I no longer find it possible to believe (as the White Queen recommends) in "six impossible things before breakfast."  And, unlike Alice, I've had a great deal of practice, thank you.

For instance, I've worked very hard, over the years, to believe in the central assertion of Christianity:  that a loving God cares so much about human beings that he, himself, became one of us--and, like us, died in agony in order, somehow, to make it possible for us to NOT DIE.  Cut through all the metaphor, and Christianity's message is quite simple:  God loves us and will not let us perish.

What a wonderful notion!

And yet, it just does not scan.  It just does not compute.  Here's why:

1)  If God loves us so much, why didn't he simply give us eternal life when he created things way back when?

2)  OK, maybe God wasn't really responsible for the creation.  In other words, some other Being--an evil monster, obviously--actually brought the universe (and mankind) into being.  This would explain the manifest imperfections of humanity and the world (and keep God off the hook).

3)  So, in this view (basically some sort of Manicheism, I guess), God is a secondary force, himself subject to the Evil Monster who created the mess we call "reality."

4)  But God, in his pity for the creatures that the Demon created, figured out a way to save us:  he became a man himself and sacrificed himself to the Demon.  This, apparently, mollified the Demon--and allowed God to make a deal of sorts:  human beings could have eternal life, but only after they die--not on earth, as would otherwise be logical.

5)  But what's all the nonsense about saving ONLY those who "believe" in God?  Doesn't that makes God sound almost as petty and nasty as the Demon himself?

6)  And how could a "loving" God be so cruel, punishing the "victim" for his/her innate weaknesses (willed by the Demon, and not really the victim's fault)?  Surely, God's redemption must be for ALL humans, not just right-believers.

7)  Moreover, there's the question of evidence:  why doesn't God make himself known and visible to everyone?  Where IS heaven?  How COULD a God become man?  What is the relationship between God and the Demon?  Why should we put any trust in a God who deals with the Demon?

8)  Worst of all:  orthodox Christianity asserts that the Demon and God are one and the same--that GOD himself created this horribly defective universe, that God himself gave humans the power to defy him and destroy themselves, that God himself demanded a blood sacrifice before he would agree to forgive humans for the imperfections he himself created in them, that God himself is so incredibly petty that he refuses salvation to all humans who either ignore or are merely ignorant of his expectations.

No, it does not compute.  And it is, as the State Department says about human rights abuses in China, "unacceptable."  At least to me.

So, as I listen to Bach's sublime St Matthew Passion, I mourn.  I mourn that I cannot believe in the metaphor that inspired this beautiful music.  I mourn for humanity--which, despite these glorious chorales, has NOT been saved by any Sacred Head Now Wounded.  Oh, yes. Good Friday is, indeed, a very GOOD idea.  But it is also a lie. God (!) how I wish it were otherwise...

But there is nothing to be done except, as Candide finally concluded, "cultiver notre jardin."  Or as my grandpa always reminded us when Holy Week approached, "You have to plant your potatoes on Good Friday."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Off With Her Head

We all believe in equality, of course--especially for ourselves, whenever we're feeling oppressed and exploited by people who think they're better than we are.  Yet once we achieve the desired cookie-cutter parity with others, we very quickly develop a  taste for liberty--i.e., the freedom to think of ourselves not as equal, but as better than our fellows and, furthermore, as possessing a god-given right to exploit them.

In short, our allegiance to equality is, well, lukewarm and intermittent at best. Instead, our fierce animal cravings to dominate almost always trump our occasional pious yearnings for peace and justice.  And though we will cooperate with others in order to advance a personal goal, even then we secretly strive to be the "best" or the "boss." Heck, we just plain LIKE competition, conflict and confrontation.  Doesn't everybody want to be top dog, king of the mountain?  Or, if not "top" dog, at least superior to somebody, at least some of the time.

This is an important point.  At some moment in our evolution as a sentient species, we seem to have realized that EVERYONE cannot actually dominate EVERYONE,  ALL OF THE TIME.  Such "equitable superiority" would be the equivalent of the communistic heaven imagined by certain wimpy religious thinkers but found so totally unpalatable by actual holier-than-thou believers that both the Catholics' Paradiso and the Muslims' Jannah have been tricked out with a number of progressively higher circles of ever more perfect bliss (never mind the illogic of some saved people being more saved than others).

Anyway, in order to avoid the unpleasantness of both inferiority and equality, we humans invented  multitudinous and frequently overlapping hierarchies--ingeniously complicated social orders which, when they function properly, allow almost EVERYBODY to feel superior to at least SOMEBODY at least SOME of the time.

Now these hierarchies vary greatly in nature.  Some are institutionalized and thoroughly systematized, with clear delineations of each rank and status within the overall structure, e.g., military, ecclesiastical, professional, corporate, educational hierarchies.  Others have no "official" character, but are generally acknowledged within a given culture, e.g. status derived from wealth, ancestry, occupation, etc.  Still others are both unofficial and, in the minds of many, untenable--a condemnation that does not, however, prevent many devotees from thinking in these terms--e.g. hierarchies determined by race, gender, marital status, sexual preference, religion.  It should be noted, though, that rank derived from any of these third-category conditions, in Western countries anyway, tends to have weight and consequence only within groups of like-minded people (e.g., Mormons, white-supremacists).  And those who do not belong to the in-group often regard third-category "rankings" as fantasies at best, prejudices at worst.

The essential thing, though, is that we have created hierarchies in almost every domain of human experience and based upon almost every conceivable human condition.  Such variety is desirable, of course, since it affords almost everyone the opportunity to feel superior to others in some category or other of social or genetic reality.

Of course, we must also remember that not all hierarchies are equal, but that certain systems of ranking are seen as superior to others. For instance, there can be little doubt that much greater prestige accrues to a higher-up in the U.S. Army than to a higher-up in the custodial staff at Winona State University.  In other words, we have hierarchies of hierarchies.

And according to what criteria do we rank our hierarchies?  I'm not entirely certain, but I'm going to hazard a guess anyway.  I'm inclined to believe that we value most those hierarchies that are the least "user-friendly," the most demanding to enter, and within which upward mobility (not to mention absolute supremacy) is the most difficult to realize.

Consequently, I think we generally accord more status to hereditary monarchs than to elected heads of state or dictators of any sort, tinpot or terrifying.  Because, obviously, it's just awfully damned difficult to break into or move in any direction at all within, say, the House of Windsor.  Don't misunderstand.  I realize that Queen Elizabeth has considerably less real power than President Obama or even Kim Jong Il.  But the "slot" she occupies--because it is available ONLY to her--is regarded as superior, even if her actual responsibilities are inferior.  Unsurprisingly, then, she is accorded almost universal, objectively verifiable respect--because she is The Queen. Inversely, the status derived from being a born-again Christian--a slot available to anyone at all and superior primarily in the eyes of the born-again individual himself--is easily dismissed as subjective and therefore of very little real world significance.

All of which brings me around to subject which originally prompted me to write this blog:  the upcoming wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

For several weeks now, I have been growing increasingly annoyed that every media outlet, every day, devotes a seemingly inordinate amount of mawkish, mushy prattle to even the most insipid details of The Great Big Windsor-Wales Wedding.  Why? I kept asking myself.  Why do seemingly intelligent human beings allow themselves to be mesmerized by two decidedly unexceptional individuals who will never do much of anything other than cut ribbons, ride in carriages, and read ghost-written speeches to people who aren't listening.

And then, finally, I was obliged to acknowledge what my friend, Carole, has been suggesting:  that what people really care about is the SLOTS these two mediocrities occupy within the most prestigious of Britain's hierarchies--the hereditary monarchy.  Their actual merit as human beings is almost entirely beside the point--they could be Beavis and Butthead and the world would still be enthralled.  Because Beavis (or is it Butthead) will one day be King of England and the other one, whichever that is, will be the Queen consort.

So I guess I'm going to have to put up with "news" about the train on Kate's dress or the nail-polish she has chosen or the groom's cake made of cookies (biscuits?) or the ring that William refuses to wear.

I do wish, however, that these tedious top dogs would provide a bit more entertainment.  Seriously, haven't things grown excessively dull now that Diana The People's Princess is no longer titillating the plebes with revelations about bulimia, boyfriends and break-ups?  Ah, how I yearn for another Henry VIII.  Now there was a real alpha top dog--someone who could be counted on to "pay for" his status with plenty of crowd-pleasing death and dismemberment--such as, for example, impalings, hangings, disembowelments, poisonings, and, of course, almost daily beheadings.

Now I have nothing against Kate Middleton, though she does appear to be something of an airhead fashionista (her similarity to Diana in this regard may be part of her appeal to William, who, for his part, is beginning to acquire the horsy features so characteristic of his line).  Still, I was rather hoping that, once Wills becomes William V, he might see his way to do to her what Henry VIII did to Anne Boleyn:  yes, chop off her head! OK, it's a bit mean, I suppose, and a bit less exciting than mad and lethal car chases in Paris tunnels.  Still a nice little hatchet job on the Tower Green might be a real morale-builder for the British royals--just the thing to keep the lackluster House of Windsor from slipping in hierarchical status to the level of that Other Defender of Still Another Faith--(elected, gasp, and Catholic) Pope Benny the Rat.

Kate actually looks a bit like Anne, don't you think?

Friday, April 1, 2011

April Fool's Day

April.  Much has been written and sung about this month.  Mostly treacly happy-talk about showers and flowers and Paris and springtime, etc.  Since Easter usually occurs in April and since Buddha's birthday ALWAYS does, the fourth month also enjoys considerable religious prestige among those who believe in spiritual as well as agricultural rebirth.

Let us not, however, forget T.S. Eliot's sober and bitter judgment that "April is the cruellest month..."

Yes, April IS cruel--and not just because I always get older on April 13, or because Abraham Lincoln stopped getting older on April 15.

But rather, because in Minnesota at least, this supposedly happy month almost always disappoints--on each and every one of its 30 dishonest days, bringing blizzards instead of bunnies, floods instead of flowers. And just when we are SO ready for Whitman's field-sprouts and lilacs, BAM:  April snows on our Easter parade.

Haha.  April Fool. Poisson d'Avril.  I hate April.