Friday, September 18

All Dressed Up with Someplace To Go

skepticThis is the time of year when people like me and perhaps more than a few of you, my Constant Readers, both in the “closet” and out – that is to say, skeptics, atheists, rationalists, secular humanists, etc. – are sometimes parodied by the remark that we are “all dressed up with no place to go”. Well, if you define the Holidays such that, in order to validate one’s ticket to celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, etc., etc., one must believe in some kind of (usually monotheistic) Deity with all the usual requisite “omnis,” then that characterization is accurate. One can then go on to deride those, like me, who describe themselves as being “spiritual but not religious”. However, what I object to in such an approach is twofold: (1) the restriction of spirituality to theistic categories, and (2) the idea that being grateful for something means that one must be grateful to someone. Common human experience contradicts both.

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One of the most common human rituals, both religious and secular, is the practice of reliving or reenacting or recreating iconic, even “archetypal”, events and experiences from the past. Christians set up “living nativities,” and Christian Good Friday rituals routinely involve some reenactment of the events of the Passion, even, in Catholic churches, to the point of actors / lectors and audience antiphonally reading some version of the Gospels’ Passion narrative. Jews reenact / recreate the Passover and the Exodus from Egypt with the seder dinner. Muslims commemorate the obedience of Ibraham in being willing to sacrifice his son Ishmael in the festival of Eid al-Adha. Shi’a Muslims relive / recreate the death of Hussein at Karbala.  Civil War enthusiasts recreate, e.g., the Battles of Gettysburg and Antietam by wearing Confederate and Union uniforms and – using blanks, to be sure! – re-fighting those battles. On a much more personal and “micro” level, listen to the reminiscences of families and friends gathered around dinner tables during Thanksgiving and Christmas and hear once more the many-times-rehashed – but somehow even more precious because of that – stories about familial triumphs and disasters from years, generations, occasionally even centuries gone by. Long-married couples gather in church with friends and repeat the same wedding vows they first recited, it may be, 30 or 40 or 50 years ago. Examples could be multiplied endlessly, leading to the same observation: human beings have an evidently insatiable appetite to repeat – and not merely to repeat from rote memory but … and this is critical … to downright relive – events in the lives of their cultures and their families certain experiences and events that they view on a visceral level as being deeply and essentially constitutive of what and who they are, as nations, cultures, families, and individuals.


OK … time to wax left-brain technical for a moment … pause here to give you a second to hang a Starbucks dark-roast IV … In Roman Catholic sacramental theology – important only as the “template” I will use to discuss this issue -- there is a Greek term for just this kind of cyclical recreation and remembering: anamnesis. The Greek word is a compound of a prefix ana-, connoting “over and over and over again” and mimnesko, which refers to memory, to calling-to-mind, and is the root of English words like “mnemonic” denoting having to do with memory. All the above examples are of what might be called “anamnetic” activities: actions and rituals that are repeated over and over again in order to recall the commemorated event(s) to memory. But this begs the question of why, in those instances, the memory and the action are repeated. Anamnetic actions comprise only a small fraction of human life. If I forget someone’s phone number and then find a sticky-note on the fridge that reminds me, I do not enter into a ritual whereby I recall the phone number over and over again, as it were, “liturgically”: I remember the number once, call it, talk to whomever … and that’s all. Problem solved, Elvis has left the building. Rather, the repetition is the key to understanding why certain rituals / liturgies / activities are specifically anamnetic. The gist of the reason is this: certain events, certain experiences, certain actions are so critical, so make-or-break, so constitutive of who we (family, nation, culture) are that, even on a visceral level, we believe they must not ever be lost. Hence  these especially critical actions get repeated and repeated and repeated. So the ana- of anamnesis is absolutely sine qua non to understanding repeated rituals. Repeating the ritual, the liturgy, the custom is a form of do-it-yourself time travel, in a deep sense even beyond time itself, whereby we project ourselves back to “Once upon a time”, to in illo tempore, to the Ur-time, to the Time before all time, to the existential Big Bang of when we (ourselves, family, nation, culture) came to be, and participate in those events that made us who we are. That is why Christians re-create and re-live the Nativity and the Passion, why Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha, why Civil War aficionados re-fight Gettysburg, why Revolutionary War enthusiasts gather at “the rude bridge that arched the flood” to re-fight Concord and on Lexington Common to re-fight the British, why couples repeat long-ago wedding vows, why people celebrate birthdays, why Buddhists celebrate periodic memorials of their dead, etc., etc., etc.: when done well, when done seriously, when done with intentionality, ritual repetition reminds us of and renews who we are. The Stream of Time pauses and we step briefly into the Perennial Present, the dimensionless Moment that contains all time … that is, Eternity.


Of course, from a physical standpoint, this is absurd.  Time does not run backwards.  The second law of thermodynamics establishes an "arrow of time" which cannot point in any direction except toward the future.  (However, on the "micro" level, the laws of thermodynamics are perfectly symmetrical with respect to time, with no way to distinguish past from future.  The "arrow of time" seems to be some kind of "averaging" effect that only shows up at large scales. This is still a deep issue in the philosophy of physics.  But I digress ... ) Rather, we are talking here about "mythical time", which can run forward or backward ... or stop altogether. In his brilliant book Memories of Muhammad:  Why the Prophet Matters -- the best single source for learning about Islam and its history I have ever encountered -- Dr. Omid Safi, professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, reflects profoundly on the nature and significance of "mythical time".  The passage is too long to quote in its entirety here, so the following is only a suggestive and representative excerpt:

All such events -- the crucifixion of Christ, the awakening of the Buddha, the martyrdom of Hossein -- become symbols of something fundamental about the nature of the universe.  Looking at the symbolism of Christ, the Buddha, and Imam Hossein, we are reminded, respectively, that there is sin and it must be redeemed, that there is attachment / suffering and it must be transcended, and that there is injustice and humanity has the cosmic responsibility to rise up against it. ... The cosmic significance of these events illustrates the power of religious imagination, which makes every place a sacred place and every day a sacred time.  An Iranian intellectual of the middle of the twentieth century said it best:  Every day is Ashura [the day Hossein was martyred], every place is Karbala [the place of Hossein's martyrdom].

(It should be explicitly emphasized here that I am using the word "myth" in its technical sense, the sense in which it is usually used by professional anthropologists and scholars of comparative religion.  In its colloquial sense, the word "myth" has a more-than-slightly condescending connotation of "mere fairy tale" or "primitive fiction".  But I am using "myth" in the technical sense to mean a narrative that reveals some aspect of the depths of the human condition, regardless of its historicity.) The "mythical time" celebrated in all anamnetic rituals, observances, and reenactments embraces all people, all cultures, and all faiths -- even including the lack of faith.


That is why even rank apostates like your Faithful Skeptic-in-Residence can pause in awe, as I did just last week, before the serene and luminous transcendence of Westminster Abbey and listen with rapture to the Abbey choir.  That is why secularists can feel rapture while visiting the great telescopes in Hawaii on top of Mauna Kea.  That is why we ponder issues of life and death when we, or a loved one -- or one of our children -- gets an ominous medical diagnosis.  That is why we contemplate with an essentially religious awe the fact that biological evolution started off with mildew and, 4 billion years later, produced Mozart, started off with slime and produced Schubert.  That is why, after dinner at High Table, I could pause one night last week in the Front Quad of my old Oxford College, Exeter, and feel flooding back the healing balm of memories and thoughts from 1988 that the Exeter community  provided as salve on wounds, redeeming the time of the awful years in Boston from 1986 to 1987. That is why we pause -- again, as I did just last week -- and are struck speechless by the quiet serenity of Vermeer's The Milkmaid in the National Gallery of Britain. That is also why, perhaps for the 25085252312th time over Thanksgiving dinner, we reminisce about the time 30 years ago when Aunt Sadie went into labor with my cousin Delbert just as she was passing the cranberry sauce, or how Uncle Marvin got tipsy on hard cider and fell out of the fishing boat into Lake Champlain in the summer of '47; etc., etc. Such narratives inhabit the in illo tempore world of mythical time.  Even skeptics, secularists, and atheists tell and retell such stories. But the point of all this is not that God is "bad" or even that God is irrelevant.  Certainly, for those who believe, God is neither. Peace and blessings be upon them!  But for those of us who do not believe, neither is S/He necessary. The essence of spirituality -- and of religion in its pristine and primeval form -- is not a capacity for discursive belief, which only a few may share, but a capacity for visceral bewilderment, which is universal.  To paraphrase Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (Act III, sc. 1):

I am a [skeptic]. Hath not a [skeptic] eyes? Hath not a [skeptic] hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?

One might add "Have we not moments that define us? Experiences that transform us? Insights that perplex us? Revelations that rescue us? Stories that express who we are?"  If the answer to any one of those questions is "Yes", then we skeptics, too, are dressed up and we skeptics, too, have someplace to go.

James R. Cowles


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