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.

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