Religion and the Movies

One question I get a lot is how I atheists like myself can light incense, cast circles, wake up to “Ganesha Sharanam” on their iPhone, attend a seder, hold an Easter vigil, or go around saying “blessed be” all the time.

It’s easy, really. And by “easy” I don’t mean “trivial.” Here’s what I mean.

I love movies. Maybe you do too.

If you’re like me, you love going to theaters. Ever since Star Wars came out, in fact, they’ve been my cathedrals (independent bookstores serving as churches). When kids came along, making trips out less frequent, one of the first things we did was get the biggest TV we could afford and a nice cable package.

When I do go to a theater — home or outside — I go to enjoy myself. But not just in the sense of entertainment; I go to literally en-joy — to fill myself up with something that moves and changes me; something that leaves me a more or less different person when I leave than when I came in.

Here’s what I don’t do. I don’t go just to hold up a picket sign outside, saying “don’t be deceived,” “only fools watch movies,” or “the images on the screen are not real.”

Here’s what else I don’t do, at least not since I was about five or so. I don’t pretend that what’s happening on the movie screen is either a videotape of real events or a window onto something actually happening in the here and now. I might if I’d never seen a movie before, but even then I suspect something might clue me in as to the images’ nature as images.

In order to enjoy the movie properly, I have to let myself into the world it presents me. Folded arms or beliefs in the literal physical existence of the images just get in the way.

For me, religion’s a little bit like a movie. It invites you to inhabit a world where you’re the object of an infinite divine love, someone bonded to a single omnipotent deity and others through a sacred covenant, or someone who hears the call to surrender completely to the will of the divine.

What I do with religions, then, is take any major claim they make and start asking myself a series of questions:

What kind of a world would it be if such things were possible?

What’s at stake for me as a believer of such claims? How would my life have to change to accommodate them?

Sometimes I the answer is rather pleasant. Sometimes it’s rather terrifying. Sometimes I have to just shake my head and admit I don’t have a good enough imagination to appreciate what a particular movie is trying to offer me. That’s when I place my trust in age, experience, or further reading to do the trick.

This is the existential side of religion, which Rilke put best in one of his most famous poems. This is the side that has the capacity to change, order, or restore a life, given the chance.

Fundamentalists might protest that I shouldn’t be making my own sensibility the judge of religious claims to truth. They might be right, but then again, I’m not sure we have any choice in the matter. That is to say, I suspect that not even the most devout believer submits to something they’re not already prepared to accept at some level.

Secularists might argue that I don’t fully appreciate how dangerous religious claims can be. I might have to agree here. Then again, all beliefs – including all the varieties of atheism – incur some sort of existential and political risk. For me, it’s just a matter of being as clear as possible with regard to which risks we’re prepared to take and for what reasons.

Most importantly, however, in a free country nobody bans the movies, forces you to attend them, or tell you which ones to go to. I like this approach. I think it allows me to be a better lover of the cinema.

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My Adopted Grandma

In 1980, I was a surly, awkward, pimply-faced teen who was about to embark on the journey of a lifetime: high school.

That was the year I met the lady who quite probably had the biggest impact on my life of anyone I’ve known outside of relatives. She was my Latin teacher, by that time already in her sixth decade of life. I remember her classroom, decorated with dioramas of Ancient Greece and Rome, full of books, and crawling with posters and pictures of her travels all over the world.

I’d taken Latin the year before, but this year was new, in that I actually had the choice whether or not to continue. I remember the conversation at the dinner table as if it were yesterday:

“Why Latin? Isn’t that a dead language? Who speaks it anymore? What’s its use? Couldn’t you better use the time studying French, or at least typing?” (truth in advertising: I’m still a two-finger typist to this very day.)

I don’t remember what I said in response other than to give voice to a vague feeling that this made sense; that Latin was a gateway onto other languages, that a lot of our words came from Latin, and that it was the language of the Church both my parents were increasingly struggling to get me to attend.

They weren’t buying. Then it hit me. This part I remember. “Mom, Dad, all the smart people take Latin – especially the ones that get into good colleges.” “Really?” “Uh-huh. I’ve even heard it said that colleges really like to see two or more years of Latin on your transcript.”

That, apparently, sealed the deal, and I never had to justify Latin to my parents ever again. To a ton of other people both within and outside my school, yes, and that conversation continues to this day.

We began by learning basic vocabulary, which I found boring yet oddly amusing. Who knew that “exit” was a Latin word? Quickly my teenage brain found its way to ways to say “girlfriend,” “kiss,” and “furtively” in Latin.

By then my teacher and I had become good pals. She told me all about The War (World War II), voting for Adlai Stevenson, and how you just kept your mouth shut during McCarthy. She described Ancient Greece and Rome as these paradises for learning and the arts which she and I knew couldn’t be totally true, but enjoyed describing nevertheless.

In short, I was hooked. But not on classics or even history, per se. On something else far more sinister, subversive, addictive, and powerful: learning itself.

In my old Latin teacher, I found my first and possibly best example of someone who regarded education as an end in itself rather than simply a means to some other end. Here’s how it happened:

“Why are you taking Latin?”

“To get into a good college.”

“Very funny. You could have taken French.”

Do you know how incredibly awkward it is to box an adolescent male into wanting to say “because you’re the smartest, coolest person I’ve ever met and I just love you” to his elderly teacher? I opted for a more measured response.

“Well French doesn’t have the same admissions cachet that Latin does.”

“True. But why do you want to go to college?” Nobody had ever asked me that before. It was like asking why you love your father and mother.

“I, well, because, I…” I had no answer. None.

“Probably never thought much about that, huh?”

“No.”

She smiled. “Listen, think about it some more, and let me know what you find out, OK? Promise?”

“Promise.”

It only took me about a day to figure out the answer.

“I know why I’m here.”

“Why?”

“You have to promise me you won’t say a word of this to anyone else.” Believe it or not, I had two responses prepared, and I was scanning her for clues as to which one would be more appropriate. I went with the safer one. “I’m here because you’re the only person I know who’s doing something she loves to do for a living.”

She beamed. I ditched the “I love you, please adopt me as your grandson and teach me everything you know” speech, and saved it for later. Twenty-five years later, as a matter of fact.

From that conversation, I went on to discover Catullus (wow!), take both Latin AP courses, graduate high school, college, and graduate school, keeping in touch with her through lunches at her house, letters, and phone calls. I dedicated my dissertation to her. She came to my wedding, and rang in the new millenium with me and my family.

When I moved away to embark on a career, she and I were both heartbroken but resolved to keep in touch. Shortly thereafter, she took ill and had to be hospitalized. Alzheimer’s quickly set in, robbing her of her most precious gift to me.

I’ll never forget the last conversation we had, about five years ago. She had just confessed to me that she’d forgotten all her Latin. I held her hand and told her that’s OK, that’s what dictionaries are for. She smiled back and brushed away a tear.

That’s when I told her about the two speeches I had prepared that day, and she smiled again. “Likewise,” she said, and then both of us got pretty weepy. We chatted some more, and then we said our good-byes as usual.

Soon thereafter, I became a Dad for the first time and called to share the news with her, only to find she’d taken physically ill and had been transferred to another facility. I called there and found she couldn’t speak. Some months later, I visited and she didn’t recognize me at all.

She passed away a few weeks ago, and her funeral was yesterday. Mothers’ Day will always be a time for me to remember a lady who had no biological children of her own, but plenty of intellectual ones.

Ave atque vale, dulcissima maestra. Rest in peace, grandma. Tell Athena I said hey 🙂

Truth in Advertising

It’s occurred to me from some recent correspondence that folks who don’t know me (or my snark) might be taken aback by some of my more rascally posts.

Truth is, I engage in the sciences for a living, and used to do so in the humanities as well. I am not anti-science, but anti-scientism. Scientism, for me, is the unquestioned belief in the supremacy of the natural sciences when it comes to adjudicating questions of taste, truth, and value.

For example, I trust medical science to give me the best information with regard to what constitutes a healthy life or lifestyle. Anecdotal evidence, alternative medicines (such as acupuncture and homeopathic remedies), a distant but firm second.

However, I don’t think for a minute that living healthily is the always and everywhere the same as living happily. In a similar manner, I think we often tend to assume if something’s legal it must also be moral.

In the process, I see us foreclosing a line of thinking I’ve always regarded as properly philosophical in nature: what is the good or best life? Not to compete with science, but to enrich a human life.

It goes without saying, I think, that healthy cultures need both the humanities and the natural sciences in order to grow. As a fan of the humanities – especially philosophy – I just feel the need to speak out on occasion when it’s threatened.

Philosophy at Middlesex

As some of you might know, the philosophy department is being cut at Middlesex University in the UK. While I was initially taken aback by the decision, and then fiercely opposed to it, I have since come to embrace it. In fact, I think I have even come to see its profound wisdom and good fortune.

My first set of concerns is with regard to the age-old and tiresome battles between the sciences and the humanities. Yes, the sciences have won, and to that I say: hooray! Why? Well, for a number of reasons.

First, I think it’s been clearly demonstrated that the sciences alone have access to a truth to which the humanities can only aspire.

Let’s say you or a loved one struggles with guilt, and you want to find out more about it. Where are you, as an enlightened citizen, going to place your trust: in empirical observation, laboratory method, and quantitative analysis, or the writings of a complete madman?

I think the answer is abundantly clear.

Secondly, it’s also been established that the humanities are little more than a diversion, a plaything for the wealthy, and a drain on monies and human efforts better spent on things like eradicating disease and building bridges. Think of the countless hours undergraduates spend discussing Shakespeare or Schopenhauer when they could be in the laboratory inventing or discovering.

Thirdly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the natural sciences boosting their credibility at the expense of the humanities. Plenty of people, on a daily basis, make themselves feel better by putting others down, and I don’t see them coming to any harm because of it.

My second set of concerns has to do with the nature of philosophy. If philosophy must be taught, it seems to me it should at least be of the right sort. And by this, of course, I mean the kind that is a branch of mathematics, looks to logic the way the sciences look to the scientific method, and circumscribes itself to speaking authoritatively only on matters of linguistic usage.

I’m not sure whose idea it was to promulgate philosophy as the “love of wisdom” – a definition nobody could ever make with any precision. What good, I ask, is a discipline if each and every one of its constituent terms can’t be precisely defined and operationalized?

Philosophy, it seems to be, ought to be about the serious business of figuring out the meanings of words rather than the vague, childish, and ultimately meaningless “meaning of life.” “Continental” philosophy, you see, tries to steer the ship in that very direction, confusing undergraduates tremendously not just with regard to the nature of philosophy but life itself.

This brings me to my last point. When philosophy is allowed to wander off the reservation, as it were, it begins to ask certain kinds of questions no self-respecting society should tolerate. For example, students in continental philosophy are not only encouraged but trained to ask about things like very important social customs and practices.

Continental philosophy students like to ask things like “what is the purpose of our colleges and universities” when the answer has already been settled: to prepare and train students to become the most efficient components of the machine of culture they can be. These students not only believe but encourage others to join them in believing education is different from training, information from formation, and that education is an end in itself rather than a means to an end.

Lastly, when it comes to means and ends, I can’t tell you how important it is for societies to follow predetermined ends rather than question the value or even legitimacy of those ends. (That’s why science and quantitative analysis is so important, you see – it can’t speak to the value of ends but only to the best means to those ends!)

One of a society’s most solemn undertakings is the decision to pursue war against other societies in order to deprive them of geopolitical advantage or natural resources. This has been done throughout history, and is essential for the healthy growth and development of empires such as our own.

When the decision is made to go to war, it is absolutely imperative that each and every member of the society follow along and does what s/he’s told. Students exposed to continental philosophy not only ruin the game for themselves but everyone else as well.

They don’t allow wars to be sold as exercises in virtue, morality, or revenge. They question a fundamentally adversarial relationship to nature that has not yet begun to pay its biggest dividends. They problematize reduction of the moral to the legal. Perhaps worst of all, they don’t permit people to wallow in their anger and indignation towards specially designated groups – as if they had any expertise in social engineering!

These “philosophy types” question each and every order, replacing a population’s fear, indignation, and impulse with thought, nuance, and equivocation. I can’t begin to tell you what kind of sand this throws into the wheels of a cognitive, productivist culture.

Left to their own devices, then, these people not only make incredibly poor conscripts, but make it incredibly hard to conscript others (through social pressure as well as perfectly legal means) into war as well as the production and consumption of more and better stuff.

Far wiser minds than mine have asked what is for me the essential question: how can we remain a free people if we don’t blindly follow the orders of our leaders? Continental philosophy just gets in the way, and for that, I say simply: good riddance.