About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

God on Line Three

God's calling

Throughout the course of this election, several of the Republican candidates for president have said that they were/are running because God told them to.  The fact that this has been said by more than one person raises some serious problems. 

Assuming that none of them are lying, there are four distinct possibilities, either: God is very fickle and changes his mind about who He wants to run for president as often as I change shirts; there are multiple deities, each of whom has a preferred candidate that they want to run; God really isn't omniscient, and He's hedging His bet by flooding the field with candidates in the hopes that one of them will win; or, to use Patton Oswalt's term, He is just having a naughty caprice, and is actually setting them up for failure, probably for His own amusement.

Any way you look at this, it is a pretty disturbing concept.

But any of these disturbing possibilities are more comforting than the final possibility; the voices that these candidates are hearing, and ascribing to God, are actually signs of incipient schizophrenia.  It is not a good thing for a person with their finger on the Doomsday Button to be hearing voices.  One of them might just hear, "Do it NOW!"  Of course, that could be what Armageddon actually is, a schizophrenic hearing a voice that says to destroy the world.  No actual Deity involved.

But this leads to a larger question; are our Prophets and Messiahs actually inspired by God or are the voices that they hear just symptoms of a mental illness?  Are the great religions of the world actually just the product of incipient insanity?  Do we write these crazy stories, or do these stories make us crazy?

These are questions that I cannot answer.  Perhaps what we call schizophrenia is merely the ability to hear something greater.  For certainty, people who were mentally ill used to be called touched, as in touched by the Gods.  They were our first priests, oracles, prophets.  In ancient society, mental illness was a sign of connection with the Gods.  Later, it became possession by demons, or the Devil himself.  Today, it is a chemical imbalance in the brain, or possibly a misfiring of the cerebral cortex, or something along those lines.  Perhaps we are medicating away God.

Understand, I am not advocating not treating the mentally ill.  With proper medication, they can lead well adjusted, productive lives.  But at the same time, are we doing the right thing for them?  Perhaps we are removing a connection to the Divine, that if we accepted and welcomed, we might find new spiritual avenues.  Perhaps rather than medicating them so that they can hold down regular jobs, and be good little cogs, we held them up as divine messengers, with an important role to play, much as the ancient shamans. Perhaps, given a role that embraces their "illness," they might find themselves to be happy and productive, in ways that we cannot currently imagine. 

This leads to another even more disturbing thought, if Jesus were to come again, or the Messiah to arrive, or any of the religious icons to return to earth, would we accept them, or would we repeat history and imprison or execute them?  Was David Koresh actually the second coming, and we killed him again?  Have we been killing Jesus over and over for the last two thousand years?

And why, when some people, televangelists and Republican politicians, hear God speaking to them, we accept it and put them on television?  Also, why, when people who are not in the upper crust of society, or not trained ministers, claim to hear the Word of God, do we lock them up and shove clozapine down their throats?

Why is one person to be believed when they hear God speak to them and another discounted?

I think the answer comes from the fact that we want God to say what we want Him to say.  If someone is saying that God is speaking to them, and we like what He has to say, we believe that the person is actually hearing His voice.  If they say that God is saying something they don't want to hear, they are just crazy.  It also helps when the person speaking is part of mainstream society, and not from the fringes.

For a moment, put yourself in the shoes of a Roman Governor of Judea.  You have this crazy guy running around, gathering disciples and followers, preaching the world of "God," and generally sowing civil disobedience and discontent with the Empire.  To keep order in the province, you are going to have to stop him, because he is creating a high probability of uprising.  Since long term imprisonment has not been invented, what do you do?  You execute him. 

Unfortunately, for the Roman Empire, this turns him into a martyr, and his movement becomes much greater.  As Obi Wan Kenobi says, "if you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine."

The same thing happened with David Koresh.  I am not saying that I think he was the Second Coming, as he claimed.  I really think he was a megalomaniac, with a messiah complex.  But, in this context, what I am saying is that his preaching and message was construed to be a threat to civil stability, and he was eliminated.

And yet, we allow Herman Cain, Michelle Bachman, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and all of the other politicians who claim that God told them to run for office, to continue to operate.  We do not denounce them as an existential threat to America, despite the fact that their policies would be far worse for our country than the ravings of a fringe preacher in Waco Texas.

And I think it does go back to the fact that we want our Messiahs to be non-controversial.  We don't want them to change the status quo, and because of this, we have bled religion to blandness.  You sill have fire and brimstone preachers, how rise up thousands, or even millions, of devout followers, but they do not preach disruption of the social order.  They have cast God as the Ultimate Conservative, unchanging and unchangeable. 

We accept a Rick Santorum, precisely because he wants to freeze society in ice, preferably in 60 year old ice.  The same goes for almost all of the Televangelists, preachers and self styled recipients of the Word of God.  They want to keep society stagnant, even rolling back the clock in a fit of nostalgia.

But we must remember, all of the prophets and messiahs in history have actually preached radical change.  Jesus was basically a socialist.  Mohammad was also a reformer.  The same goes for Joseph Smith.  All of the religious icons we hold up now as paragons of conservativism,  were radicals in their day.  Each and every one of them upended social norms, preached radical change, and rejected the strictures of the society in which they were operating.

Even today, the teachings of Jesus are pretty radical.  His words hold far more in common with Occupy than the Tea Party.  Obviously, I can't predict exactly where he would stand on every social issue, but given how much he promoted the poor and the meek over the wealthy and powerful, I can feel pretty sure that he would not be a Republican.  (I blogged about this here)

So what is the end result of this?  I have posed a lot of questions here, many of which I don't have an answer for.

But I can say this, if God is speaking to someone, or through someone to the rest of us, it is probably to bring about some sort of change, to cause some sort of growth or development, to lead us to higher thoughts, to transform the world and guide it in that transformation.  Whoever God speaks to will probably be an agent of change.

I doubt He would speak to someone in order to maintain the status quo.


Saturday, March 3, 2012

Is This Really Part of the Plan?

God's plan

Yesterday, I watched an interview with a couple who's home was destroyed by a tornado for the second time in eleven months.  Yes, twice in less than a year, they had just finished rebuilding the house when it was demolished again.  Anyway, in the course of the interview, the woman said that "She was sure that this is part of God's plan."

While I'm sure she finds the thought comforting, I was appalled by the thought.  If her tragedy is part of God's plan, that means that God saw fit to obliterate her house twice.  That would be a Jobian level of capriciousness.  And for her to continue to profess love for such a deity implies at the very least an extreme version of Stockholm Syndrome.

I am not trying to denigrate the woman's obvious faith; she is clearly and genuinely devout.  What I am getting at is the idea that many profoundly religious people are suffering from a divine traumatic bonding.  From Wikipedia, the definition of Stockholm Syndrome describes "the strong emotional ties that develop between two persons where one person intermittently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses, or intimidates the other."

A while ago, talking with my friend Patrick, we began to question whether pets actually love us, or whether they are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.  Training a pet involves a considerable amount of behavior modification, which a pet is likely to not understand, at least a first.  Their noses get rubbed in poop, they get yelled at, or other things that they find quite frightening.  They come to associate those bad things with certain behaviors in a process that is called aversion therapy.

But despite the behavior modification (or even more disturbingly, perhaps because of it) they still love us.  Most dog trainers will tell you that a dog's love of you is mixed with a healthy dose of fear.  This is not a bad thing in and of itself, because that is how a dog pack maintains it's social order.  All the subordinate members are afraid of the alpha animals.  Therefore, the typical dog both loves and fears its owner, and the owner intermittently intimidates the dog in the process of maintaining their status as alpha.  This is the definition of Stockholm Syndrome.

I would like to point out here, that the average loving pet owner does not realize that they are intimidating their pets, but they are.  At the very least, a pet owner must keep their animal under control at all times, running the preponderance of their waking lives.  Putting yourself in the mind of a pet, you can realize how that control could be intimidating.  Fortunately, the process of domestication breeds acceptance of this into an animal.  They literally depend on us as pack leader.

But to return to my point, are many of the devout suffering from Divine Stockholm Syndrome?

It think that this is quite likely, not necessarily from direct personal experience, but at least through projective identification.  This is where we identify with the experiences of others, and then project our experiences onto them.  We read the story of Job, and then take our own misfortunes in life and project those experiences into him, and consequently identify with his story.  We use our life as a filter to understand his story.

And his story is of a capricious and ineffable God, tormenting a just and righteous man to prove the depth of his fate.

The filter of the Job story (which as my mentor Joe would say, is a Goddamned good book) teaches us that God is unpredictable and erratic, and that no matter how much we love Him, and no matter how blameless of a life we lead, he might still pot off and punish us, for no reason that we could comprehend.  And identifying with this story inspires fear of God, mixed with love of God.  There are many other stories in the Bible like Job: Abraham and Isaac; the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, a classic overreaction to say the least; Jacob and his brothers;  Sampson, the haircut was not consentual; the list goes on and on.

The Old Testament is full of stories of a jealous, vindictive God who acts irrationally, and yet his people still love him.  Before you think that I am just complaining about Christianity, this is a trend in most Western religions.  Look at the ancient myths, and you will see that they are full of unpredictable deities.

I would like to take a minute to look at why deities would be viewed in this manner.  The world was, and still is, a violent and unpredictable place.  Bad things are always happening, and often to good people.  Without science and satellites, the weather is completely unpredictable.  Tornados can appear without warning.  Volcanoes and earthquakes can level cities in the blink of an eye.  Plagues can ravage the countryside.  The entirety of existence is tenuous to say the least.

And the stories we create about the Gods reflect this fragility.  If God rules over the Earth, and unpredictable horrors occur with great frequency, obviously, God is doing it for a reason.  And we work that capriciousness into our definitions of Deity.

And by continuing to love him, despite all of this, we develop Stockholm Syndrome towards God.

I do want to insert here, there are some who ascribe the bad things to the Devil, but if God allows Satan to have this dominion over earth, he is at the least an accomplice in the crime.  Or maybe he also has Stockholm Syndrome towards the Devil.  (I think that may be the most blasphemous thing I have ever written.)

But back to my point, I have talked to many devout people, and their love of God is mixed with a healthy dose of fear; they look at God the way our dogs look at us.  We have been well domesticated.

And through this, when bad things happen in our lives, we defend God, by saying the bad things that happen to us are part of his plan.  Somehow, though it all, our faith is reinforced by all the horror in our lives.  God is capricious, and we still love him.  He inflicts misery on us intentionally, and we react with Stockholm Syndrome.

But I prefer a different way of looking at it.  There is a quote from Babylon 5, which is one of my favorite television shows. In it one of the characters says, "You know, I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, wouldn't it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them? So, now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe."

I think it is a healthier way to view the world.