Spring 2004 - Volume 7 Number 2
Etymologists tell us that the linguistic root of the word "human" is a term that means "to bury." Whereas, biologically, our species is homo sapiens and we can claim a lineage as a recognizably distinct hominid that dates back as much as a quarter of a million years, our humanity can be said to have begun at a more recent stage in our cultural evolution when we started to bury our dead, thereby acknowledging grief through ritual and demonstrating that we were capable of reflection on the one trait no one can deny that we share: mortality. Whether it is anthropomorphism or evidence I cannot say, but some other creatures (dogs, dolphins, elephants) also seem to display grief at the death of another; we, however, appear uniquely to build this emotion into our culture. Richard Dawkins would probably call this addition to our catalogue of adaptations a particularly significant "meme."
One expression of our awareness and fear of death is religion. Anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists have made careers of explaining our beliefs about origins and endings and our self-regarding admonitions about what to do during the brief periods when our particular candles flicker in a cold and uncaring universe. Living with the consequences of their explanations and speculations is not always easy. Living with the primordial understanding that led to the evolution of religion is less so.
Iconically, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden was the price they paid for gaining knowledge, acquiring guilt, obtaining awareness of a distinction between good and evil and, presumably, learning that they were mortal. The baleful consequence of consciousness was the loss of blissful ignorance. Thanks to our big brains we won the dubious reward of eternal existential angst. Cognizance of our own impending deaths is a secret that humans alone may have discovered and, as someone said of the efforts to teach chimpanzees to communicate using American Sign Language, there is a special place in Hell reserved for the person who tells our cousins, the chimps, that they too are mortal.
The consequence of our knowledge of impending death is the profound depth of our various faiths and the intensity with which we cling to them. The need to believe wholly and exclusively in the truth of our particular myths is strong. Sometimes as a measure of our intolerance for others, we find that even among the most ecumenical among us, confidence in the existence of God (any god) can turn us especially contumacious when we encounter cheerful atheists who appear to belittle not just our particular cherished doctrines but the value of doctrines at all. Former wrestler and Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura won few friends when he declared that belief in a deity and an afterlife was just a psychological crutch for the emotionally weak. Nietzsche won few new friends when he announced that "God is dead," even though he added the caveat, "but considering the state of the species Man is in, there will perhaps be caves, for ages yet, in which his shadow will appear."
The potential for bigotry and the desire for revenge against those who partake of Nietzsche's "joyful wisdom" is even stronger among evangelicals and fundamentalists of several sorts, from willfully ignorant Christian creationists to the followers of holy terrors like Osama bin Laden. These modern day zealots want to sign us all up in their respective armies. Recoiling from what we have come to label fanaticism, however, many of those who still possess them prefer to relegate religious beliefs to the domain of the purely personal, to the domestic realm of the private, to the space inside our heads. Sensitive to people's feelings on such matters and to the ease with which disagreements over dogma can erupt into acrimony, we like to park our theologies and other ideologies at the door with our hats and galoshes. Aware of diversity and afraid of a measure of exclusivity that runs quite quickly to political incorrectness, we opt for the kind of cultural repression that privileges good manners over genuine civility. We retreat into acceptance of the admonition not to speak of religion or politics in polite company. We wish to avoid "bad scenes."
We continually find, however, that religion and politics cannot always be avoided. Perhaps we can no longer stand small talk in an environment of compellingly large public issues. Perhaps infantile chatter about professional sport and unreal reality shows no longer sustains us. Perhaps it was the turning of the millennium, with or without the false predictions of a millennial Y2K technological meltdown. Perhaps it is the enduring images and hype about 9/11. Perhaps it is the fulfillment of Max Weber's prediction, exactly one hundred years ago, that the apex of industrial development would find us in an "iron cage" from which escape might be promised either by a renewal of old traditions or the rise of entirely new prophets. Whatever the cause, it is plain that religion has insinuated itself back into politics and that both have captured our public attention, whether in polite company or not. Even that stately establishment rag, the New York Times, has advised all candidates in this year's US elections to "play the God card," to embrace religion as an essential part of political life and thus give credibility to their otherwise unconvincing moralistic assertions. The New York Times, we must understand, wants the Democratic Party to defeat the Republican Party and is worried that a George W. Bush, wrapped in the flag and spattered with the blood of Christ is too frightful a challenge to John Kerry, who is mainly spattered with the products of the Heinz tomato fortune.
Closer to the home base of this journal, which means closer to concerns about college education, it is apparent that any teacher interested in stimulating class participation in discussion-no matter what the official subject matter of the course-need only raise the issue of God or derivative matters of personal morality to awaken the most apparently comatose class and bring forward a host of varied opinions. The supernatural, whether in the form of the carnival antics of "psychics" or in the flourishing debates about the life of the historical Jesus, increasingly engage young people who might otherwise be expected to disdain discarnate perspectives and sacred values. The inchoate metaphysical and mythical views of students may be poorly considered and badly stated. Indeed, they may devolve to utter incoherence. Nonetheless, they will surely be firmly held and expressed with enthusiasm, energy and emotion.
Such discourses, once initiated, can sometimes be scary. Christian fundamentalists have long been at odds with secular humanists over such old chestnuts as abortion, evolution and cultural relativism. Now, however, cultural diversity has brought many more doctrines (and dilemmas) into the mix. Added to the generous variety of Christian denominations and sects are adherents to the Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and a host of other faiths. As they lose their reticence to speak openly of their particular creeds and convictions, they sometimes manifest a self-righteousness that can easily slip into hostility toward others whom they believe to be their enemies. Even self-conscious examples of political theatre can bring forth consternation. In March, for instance, York University felt compelled to send a letter of reprimand to the Jewish and Muslim Students' Associations deploring an incident in which Jews and Muslims, dressed in combat fatigues, carried inflammatory signage, pointed "finger guns" at each other and shouted in Hebrew and Arabic via megaphones. About 750 people were present, including over a dozen armed Toronto police officers. As Buffalo Springfield once sang:
"Something's happening here,
What it is ain't exactly clear."
On the one hand, anti-Semitic incidents are increasing in Canadian urban centres such as Montréal and the Greater Toronto Area. We seem genuinely shocked and authentically appalled that such mindless barbarity persists. On the other hand, the charming and ever giddy Dalai Lama attracted double the number of fans to Toronto's Skydome that could be won by the Blue Jays on a Saturday afternoon during a winning streak. A few kilometres north of the site, Pope John Paul II and the Rolling Stones appeared on the same vacant land (though at different times) and were enthusiastically welcomed by the same "demographic" in numbers ranging towards a half million. Strange mores. Strange times. Adding to the cacophony are increasingly available elements of popular culture, that have become focal points for occasional furies. Striving to make sense of such social surrealism seems to be a sensible study to essay.
Under review here are five items perhaps randomly plucked, perhaps cherry-picked, from different genres that have, in their own ways, become items of interest to the attentive public. They are, in turn, a blockbuster film, a best-selling novel, a book of marginal theology, a made-for-TV movie, and a book review that appeared this spring in the estimable New York Review of Books. They are discussed less for their own merits and intrinsic interest that for the lessons their appearance can teach us about the shape of the controversies they represent.The Passion of Theology
First the film. Much ink has been spilled over Mel Gibson's account of the last twelve hours of Christ's life, as portrayed in the gospels. Two issues have dominated the discussion. One concerns the extent to the The Passion of the Christ an exercise in cinematic anti-Semitism? The other concerns the unmerciful violence let loose on the embodiment of mercy. Words such as "sacrament" and "pornography" have both been used to describe the horrific images that Mr. Gibson has put on the screen. I have no interest in adding to the commentary about the film; instead, I would like to invite teachers to consider two reactions to the film.
Typical of the movie's detractors is John Domenic Crossen, a founding member of the Jesus Seminar that has been trying to track down the real life of Jesus for decades. He has written almost two dozen books on the Christ, among my favourites being The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. In it and others Crossen advanced the argument that much in Jesus' teaching could be ascribed to post-Socratic philosophers, especially the Cynics and the Epicureans, who taught the virtues of simplicity ("Consider the lilies of the field …" Matthew 6:28-29) and honesty in daily life ("The truth shall make you free!" John 8:32). Gibson, says Crossen, has trivialized the life of Christ by turning it into a sadistic snuff film; "it becomes sadism," he believes, "because all [it] shows you is people enjoying beating Jesus to a bloody pulp." As well it would be, he adds, to tell "the story of Martin Luther King by focussing on him getting hit by the bullet."
A less sombre, but no less critical view is that of American author and historian Garry Wills. A gentleman of wide interests and accomplishments, including expertise on St. Augustine, he said this: "My wife and I had to stop glancing at each other for fear we would burst out laughing. It had gone beyond sadism into the comic surreal, like an apocalyptic version of Swinburne's The Whipping Papers." Wills' unusual reaction was prompted in part by his recognition that Gibson's script owed much to the early nineteenth century mystical visions of an egregiously anti-Semitic nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, and by his familiarity with the extent of Gibson's hyperconservative Catholicism. Mel Gibson has not forgiven Pope John XXIII for leading the Church into ecumenicalism and even regards Pope John Paul II as a traitor to the faith. He has told The New Yorker that he is not only convinced that non-Christians are doomed to eternal damnation but those Christians (including his wife) who do not subscribe to his particular version of the truth will share the same fate. Conversations over breakfast at the Gibson household must be a trifle eerie.
If Wills' "take" on The Passion of the Christ threatens to descend into mirthful mockery, John Domenic Crossen's does not. He is singularly unamused. Gibson's theology depicts a God that is a "monstrous" and "a savage God and we are in really serious trouble if that's what God is really like."
From these two erudite authors come the first lesson for teachers confronted with controversy or seeking to confront students with thoughtful discussion about controversial issues. It is neither more nor less than the recognition that our reactions to depictions of religious experience represent our own history and intellectual preoccupations. Very different responses, both in style and substance, can be seen by people of great learning and experience. Both Crossen and Wills despise Gibson's endeavour. One recoils; the other is reduced to tears of laughter. Both are aware of the theological agenda. As Crossen says (and, at this point, even permits himself a quiet chuckle): "The movie is five percent from the Gospels, eighty percent from Ann Catherine Emmerlich and the rest from Gibson. If she was copyrighted, he'd be sued or she would get a major screenwriting credit."
Gibson's production (and Crossen's and Wills' reactions to it) should make us aware that, when our students, our colleagues and we ourselves offer commentary on this or any other subject of controversy, only an iceberg's tip of the true meaning held within us is being revealed. Not because we wish to be pluralistic to a fault, but because "teachable moments" are too precious to be tossed aside for the immediate gratification of a sly joke at someone else's expense, it is important to recognize that too speedy a reaction to the visible surface will obscure the greater substance below, prematurely imposing closure and denying all parties to the debate the possibility of eventual enlightenment. Sometimes it takes an act or an artifact that profoundly moves or distresses us to bring, through our encounter with others, sincere self-awareness.Playing with History
Almost as lucrative a venture as Gibson's imaging of the scourging of Jesus as redemptive gore is Dan Brown's best selling fiction, The Da Vinci Code. Astonishingly (to me at least), it has unleashed almost as much breathless debate as Gibson vicarious bloodlust. Many people will already be familiar with the bizarre and complicated plot, so I will say little of it other than to acquiesce in the label that others have applied to it: it is an exercise in "conspiratorial paranoia". As such, it is a rollicking good tale. Reminiscent of and in some ways a seeming blend of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, this transmillennial thriller brings antiquarian knowledge, mediaeval semiotics, early Church history and curious speculations about the life of Christ and his wife, Mary Magdalene, to the fore. It is a romp, a hoot or, as Salon.com reviewer Charles Taylor put it, "the most fun you can have between the sort of covers that aren't 300-count Egyptian cotton." Brown, he continues, "appears to be the kind of writer who hits on a snazzy gimmick and then mines it for all it's worth. And it's one hell of a gimmick." It is, among other things, a contemporary murder mystery that traces a tortuous path back to through the secretive Catholic society, Opus Dei, and past the personages of Botticelli, Isaac Newton and Victor Hugo, all the way to the Council of Nicaea which cobbled together The New Testament from a welter of diverse texts (with only four Gospels-and by no means the most interesting ones-making the final editorial cut) and finally to the sex life of Jesus Christ. Says Taylor: "The Da Vinci Code plays with the gleefully heretical notion that the entirety of Judeo-Christian culture is founded on a misogynist lie, evincing disgust for sex in general and the female body in particular." What fun!
Over seven million hard cover copies are in print including about 200,000 in Canada. The Toronto Public Library is said to possess over 300 copies and library patrons are digitally lined up a dozen deep for each one. The story is, of course, just made up, but it is presented in such a way that it is meant to appear as fact. Chock-a-block with religious symbols and allusions, it has managed to offend theologians and art historians because of its unorthodox approach both to the nature of Jesus in the flesh and the world of polymath Leonardo da Vinci, whose painting of The Last Supper becomes a critical clue in the unfolding of the plot. At issue is the figure to the right of Jesus. Is it Mary Magdalene or the young apostle St. John, "beloved of Christ". Either way you take it, this can be a gender-bender and the source of much consternation.
The previously mentioned Opus Dei, which once delighted in the company of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, has already marched forth in high dudgeon and unleashed a withering blast at Brown's alleged theological distortions, historical errors and anti-Catholic motives. Does it contain theological distortions and historical errors? Of course it does! It is a novel, for heaven's sake! Is it an anti-Catholic screed? Certainly no more than Mel Gibson's film is anti-Semitic and, besides, Brown pulls most of his punches at the end. No sense alienating as large a market as Roman Catholics just to make a sort of point. It does, of course, raise questions of modern spirituality, gender and institutional reform that are at least worthy of discussion, but it is mainly a clever story. Mostly that, and nothing more. So, if, as Dorothy McDougall of the Toronto School of Theology says, The Da Vinci Code is not entirely "fair to history," it begs the question: "What is? And why should it matter?" Brown's book may not rise to the literary level of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, nor even to the romances of Sir Walter Scott or, for that matter, Foucault's Pendulum; nonetheless, myths and legends, dramas and novels have regularly been used for heuristic purposes. To select out only those that offend our sensibilities, our faiths and our politics is ever so slightly unfair (as Oliver Stone and Salman Rushdie would hasten to agree).
This, then, is the second lesson. Both the privileging of a particular text or set of texts over equally serious but contrary documents and the tendency toward incensed outrage when even a popular entertainment casts doubts upon one's own predilections are causes for worry. Entertainments, whether forged from the pit of Mel Gibson's plainly fiery soul or offered up as alternative interpretations of a mythical tradition by a serious though plainly less passionate reformer, remain entertainments to be interpreted and critiqued for what they are … and nothing more. The claims of literalists within religious traditions would have a harder time meeting the tests of historical accuracy that seem to be applied to whimsical story-tellers, past and present.Scholarly Squabbles
Much more serious though less discussed is a third contributor to the ongoing debate about the central issues in the Christian religion: Barbara Thiering. For over 20 years a scholar in the University of Sydney's School of Divinity and for the past decade a full-time researcher and author, Dr. Thiering is a world-renowned expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Her main thesis is this: "The virgin birth, the miracles, and the resurrection ... never were literal events ... nor were they myths, traditional legends as scholars have often held. Something really did happen, and what happened opens up a whole new understanding of historical Christianity."
The tools Dr. Thiering uses to unlock the mysteries and thus to demystify Christian dogma are not those of the logician, rhetorician or metaphysician. She is not a cranky atheist eager to dump the Christian project on her own historical trash heap. She does not debunk Biblical tales by bringing forward incontrovertible scientific evidence of their empirical absurdity.
Instead, she employs the methods of the intellectual detective in the effort to interpret accurately the New Testament text. Her achievement has been to discern two levels of meaning in the sacred writings. One is "designed to inspire awe and fear in the ‘babes in Christ' "; the other is an encrypted historical subtext which reveals a generally plausible account of the social, political and religious context in which Jesus and his comrades operated as well as the tactics they used to build their movement. Her application of the "pesher technique" permits not only the cogent retelling of events but also a presentation of what she believes to be their accurate chronology.
"The word pesher is used in the Old Testament," she explains, "to mean ‘interpretation of dreams.' It is, however, more like a codified key to a puzzle." She writes: "A rough analogy might be the solution to a cryptic crossword. The clues do not look as if they make sense, but anyone who knows the technique and has the necessary knowledge can solve the puzzle." For those who wish to explore further, her detailed explanation and application of the key (in some 304 pages) is provided in Jesus of the Apocalypse.
The results are formidable, as they reveal both an actual and a metaphorical story embedded in the same text. The entire New Testament is refashioned to display the political intrigue, doctrinal disputes and startling reconstructions of actual events. So, says Thiering, the "star" that guided the wise men to the birthplace of Jesus (at Qumran, not Bethlehem) "was Joseph, his father, who was the Star of David, leading the Magians, his political associates, to witness the fact that an heir to his dynasty had been born." The miracle of the "raising of Lazarus was a lifting of the excommunication of an expelled monk, who had ‘died', because excommunication was treated as a spiritual death." The story of the feeding of the five thousand, she puckishly demonstrates, was not "intended ... to show Jesus as an extravagant wonderworker who would rather perform miracles than go and buy bread." It was, instead, a record "of the first ordinations to the Christian ministry ... [and] the beginning of an apostolic succession that goes on to the present day." Like the previous exercise of turning water into wine (i.e., allowing uncircumcised Gentiles to receive communion), the miracle of the bread was a conscious act of rebellion. Previously, within the Essene sanctuaries, holy men-priests and celibate laymen-were ceremoniously served bread by levites. So close was the association between levites and the loaves that levites came to be called ‘loaves'. True priests and attendants had to be born of the tribe of Levi, and so Jewish birth was a prerequisite for a minister of the Jewish religion. "But in March AD 32, at Ain Feshka," argues Thiering, "Jesus ‘miraculously' transformed Gentile laymen of the lowest kind into ‘loaves', ministers who could serve bread at communion. By ‘eating the loaves,' they became ‘loaves' themselves. That is to say, they could officiate at Gentile services, where the congregation were ordinary Gentiles who thought of themselves as Christians, not Jews."
As for Jesus himself, Barbara Thiering goes Dan Brown one better by showing him to have been twice married. His first wife was Mary Magdalene, who bore him a daughter and two sons but who left him-and Christianity-in 44 AD to join the Zealots, the radical Jewish nationalists who disdained the admonition to "render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's (Matthew 22:21)", and sought instead to win independence for a Jewish state. Then, in 50 AD, after his divorce, he married Lydia of Thyatira-"the seller of purple … whose heart the Lord opened (Acts 16:14)". He did not die on the cross (also at Qumran, not Jerusalem) for the crucifixion was aborted on the pre-arranged signal, "I thirst", by the administration of a slow-acting snake poison which was subsequently expelled by purgatives within the burial cave. His actual death, most likely of natural causes, took place in seclusion. Thiering explains that Jesus probably died in Rome but possibly in southern France, sometime after 73 AD when he was eighty or more (his real birth being fixed as sometime in March, 7 BC). His first son, Jesus Justus (born 37 AD), grandson Jesus III (born 77 AD) and great-grandson Jesus IV (born 114 AD) were left to carry on his political and religious mission.
What was that mission? I leave it to potential readers of Thiering's engaging volumes (others include Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls and The Book that Jesus Wrote: John's Gospel) to peruse her account. Is she right? The jury is out and likely will remain so for a long time. (John Domenic Crossen certainly does not think so, and the two have had excellent and highly civil debates over the merits of her research, one of which is available on the website of the retired Episcopalian Bishop of Newark and Christian reformer, John Shelby Spong).
Dr. Thiering is certainly not the first to base a radical reinterpretation of the life of Christ on a reading of the Dead Sea scrolls. Numerous volumes of varying credibility have sought to rescue Jesus from supernaturalism by linking him in one case to desert fertility cults (John Allegro's The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross). All have had their detractors and their converts and Thiering is no exception. Some critics have been content to call her names and to insist that her "oddball" theories are just short of madness. Others complain that her meticulous attention to detail makes her work oppressively dull. So, whether from boredom or from being a latter day incarnation of "the Beast", Barbara Thiering has endeared herself neither to the established church nor to much of the mainstream mass media. Her innovative work is, nonetheless, a notable example of textual inquiry that leads in directions many fear to go.
Here, then, is the third lesson. Not all challenges to received opinion arise from the popular media. Legitimate alternatives can also be found in dusty volumes on the theology shelves of college libraries (if volumes and such shelves will be long permitted to exist), and such volumes often go far beyond the speculations of film makers and mystery novelists who, nonetheless, attract the most scrutiny and the greatest condemnation.Looking In
Instead of fretting about the nature of God, in or out of human skin, millennial anxiety can take other forms. Tony Kushner got wind of this and wrote a play, consisting, in fact, of two plays in one. Angels in America hit Broadway in 1993 and earned Mr. Kushner a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony. Perhaps he did not have Mel Gibson's rabidity or, more likely, the sixty million dollars needed to self-produce a Hollywood epic out of petty cash. In any case, he had to wait for HBO to turn his play into a two-part made-for-TV movie. He also got to write his own screen-play. The scene is the present or, at least, the very recent past. In the first part, Millennium Approaches, we witness an angel dropping in (literally falling through the roof) on a gay man who is succumbing to AIDS. In the second part, Perestroika, the angel unburdens himself and explains what's going on.
God, it seems, has had enough. He has abandoned His project sometime early in the twentieth century. Perhaps, it was when He witnessed the assassination of Arch-Duke Ferdinand in Sarajevo (being God, we might wonder why He couldn't quite guess what was going to happen next). Maybe it was after the outbreak of the flu pandemic in 1918 that probably killed as many people as died of unfriendly fire during the war. Being God, and perhaps still subject to emotional atavism, He might have reverted to being a "jealous God," and was not about to be outdone by mere human achievement. The flu, therefore, may have been His last shot at bringing plagues, a sort of final single-digit salute to those He had made the mistake of making in His image). If Kushner knows, he isn't telling.
In the hands of the ever clever Mike Nichols, the play comes alive on the small screen. From the opening sequences-part elegy, part requiem, part kaddish-a kaleidoscope of characters from drag queens to Ethel Rosenberg confront the cultural consequences of homelessness and McCarthy hearings. Angels in America centres on AIDS, but it is not about the physical, much less the moral, decay of gay men (as Daniel Mendelsohn hints: there are "good gays" and "bad gays"). It is about the moral flop of America itself.
Critics have spent a good deal of time talking about how the play's presentation in two different media alters its message (theatre and film cannot do the same things, at least not with a serious work of art). I cannot comment on that. What is clear, however, is that Kushner is out to capture the guilty pangs of ideological collapse. He wants to expose the failure of human thought and belief systems to capture, and hence make manageable, the circumstances of human life. He wants enliven the careers of hominids who bury their dead.
A bit like Dan Brown, Kushner pulls back at the end of his play. Its critical edge seems to dull a little as the implications of its own ideas become clear. Reluctant to follow Nietzsche all the way to insanity, Kushner (who reportedly takes his Judaism very seriously), does not leap from the precipice to dive headlong into an atheistic universe, but that is not a major failing. He certainly does lead us to the brink using the persona of the demonic Roy Cohn as his unlikely Virgil (for me a device made more unlikely by using Al Pacino in a role seemingly made for, and splendidly played by, James Woods). Still, it is enough. He gives us the notion that God is sick of us. He gave us His son and we gave Him the finger.
We may still have something going for us, however, for there are marginally endearing characters throughout who live, of course, on the margins. The authorities, assuredly, can tell us nothing. But if, as the play makes clear, Heaven looks a lot like San Francisco, somewhere between memories of the City Lights Bookstore and Candlestick Park, there is the possibility of atonement. In the play, even Roy Cohn is forgiven. If we build it, He may return, if not for a second coming in full battle regalia, then at least for a second look.
Here then is the fourth lesson: Jesus is credited with telling his friends that his purpose on earth was to permit humans to live, and to live abundantly. We must learn how to see what a spectacularly good idea that would be. We must resolve to try it sometime.Looking Out
Jared Diamond is one of my favourite writers. A professor of physiology at the University of California at Los Angeles, he is an expert on birds and a prize-winning author of such exemplary popular science books as The Third Chimpanzee (his description of human beings), Why Is Sex Fun? (his account of the unusual capacity of human beings to be "in heat" all the time), and Guns, Germs and Steel (his consideration of human cultural development). He, along with scientists such as Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker and Stephen Jay Gould, has continued a tradition that arguably began with T. H. Huxley (Darwin's bulldog). He combines a rare scientific mind with the gift of the gab. He generously and effectively shares his thoughts with the lay public.
Twilight at Easter, the alternative title of his review of two books about the strange statues to be found on Easter Island, the remotest piece of land on earth, is an especially cautionary tale. The elements of the story are simple enough. About 900 AD, Polynesians happened upon this habitable island. They occupied it and grew to a maximum population of about 15,000. They built serviceable ocean-going craft which allowed them to hunt dolphins for food. Lacking any large indigenous mammals, they depended mainly upon fish and chickens (which they had brought with them) for animal protein. They also built, over a several centuries, almost 800 stone statues. The largest is over twenty metres tall. The heaviest weighs over 250 tonnes. They are located as far as nine kilometres from the rock quarry when they were hewn and carved and from which they were dragged. Yet, as Diamond points out, they "possessed no cranes, wheels, machines, metal tools, draft animals or means other than human muscle power to move the statues."
Technologically, these people were not as advanced at the Europeans who hauled the rocks that comprised Stonehenge from their point of origin to the Salisbury Plain. Their method? To roll the enormous figures along well-worn paths using the tree trunks of indigenous palm trees. And the trees? They do not exist anymore. Easter Island is home to only a few species of shrubs. The tallest plant that warrants the name of "tree" stands only as tall as I am, and I am no NBA mutant.
There are some grisly details in the story of the Easter Islanders. Their population declined. They fell to quarreling. The cannibalized each other, for want of animal protein (the palm trunks were also important for building ocean-worthy rafts and their demise left only inshore fish to catch with nets, and no dolphins).
Why, Diamond asks, "were Easter Islanders so foolish as to cut down all their trees, when the consequences would have been so obvious to them?" What, he poignantly, if only rhetorically, inquires "did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?" Did he mumble the same mantra that we use as we clear-cut our forests, pour toxins in our water, belch poisons into our air? Did he think, "Jobs not trees"? Did he say reassuringly, "Don't worry, technology will find a substitute for wood!"
Among the mysteries of Easter Island are the motives for building the statues in the first place. Considering the time and energy involved, these people's lives must not have been so harsh that they could not afford to devote ample resources to the task. They must have had quite a bit of time on their hands, but not for long.
What is truly appalling is the fact that every single statue on the island has been vandalized, tipped over or smashed by rival communities within the human population itself. Easter Island society failed. It failed politically as the old chiefs were overthrown and a kind of Hobbesian universe descended. It failed ideologically as the old religion was discarded. The last statue was erected in about 1620; the last erect statue was observed in 1838. Writes Jared Diamond: "When I drove around Easter Island, I saw … a rubble pile with its broken statues. I reflected on the enormous effort that had been devoted for centuries to constructing them, and then remembered that it was the islanders themselves who had destroyed their own ancestors' work. I was filled with an overwhelming sense of tragedy."
Whether bathed in blood or abandoned amidst the ruins, the God or gods that we have evoked to justify our existence and explain ourselves to ourselves remain humanity's most singular cultural project. The modern era seems ready to be transcended or to be lost as the aspirations for unlimited material consumption come into conflict with the realities ecological degradation. As we experience the future, driven by technology out of control, these peculiar struggles over faith will appear almost quaint. The battle over the historicity of a "Mediterranean Jewish peasant" will fade. The question of whether God died a natural death or just got tired of His puny, paranoid and pathological creation will merely bemuse. Did God, like Huckleberry Finn, just "light out for the territories", leaving humanity to fend for itself? The answers will be written into the fate of our species and may be sealed by our civilization, now with maybe one last chance to grow up.
Thus, the final lesson: we must consider how to overcome our petulance and our penchant for brutal adolescent vandalism. We must learn to display for the first time the beginnings of maturity.Coda
"According to one theory of the early church, the debt Christ pays for humanity is to the Devil and is achieved by a kind of divine bait and switch. The church father Gregory of Nyssa used the metaphor of Christ's mortality as the bait gobbled up by the Devil-as-fish, who is vanquished when the hook, Christ's all-conquering divine nature, is revealed. … the devil thought he had claimed a particularly virtuous human victim only to discover he had allowed into his sanctum the power that would eventually wrest humanity back from his grasp. St. Augustine likened the devil to a mouse, the Cross to a mousetrap, and Christ to the bait." (David Van Biema, "Why Did Jesus Die?" Time Magazine, 12 April, 2004, pp. 46, 48).
Good going, God! Now, it's our turn.
Howard A. Doughty teaches Philosophy at Seneca College in King City, Ontario, Canada, and is book review editor of The College Quarterly.
• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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