A proper winter holiday…

Just a bit more than an hour ago, we marked what, for me, is the best of the winter holidays. Yes, this time of year, Christmas gets top billing. That said, the Winter solstice has long been the mark on the wall that my eyes turn to as the sunlight dwindles and the cold seeps into my bones.

Long before Christianity, the darkest days of the year were marked by the solstice – the sure sign that even in the depths of Winter, warmth, growth would return as the days now grow ever so slightly longer. Whether that was celebrated as the solstice, as Saturnalia, as Yule, or feasting for Sol Invictus, Western Civilization has scattered a great many major celebrations here around the point of the year when we face the shortest days and the harshest weather. 

I’m hardly a religious scholar, but it doesn’t feel particularly coincidental. While my devoted Christian friends will wait a few days more for their big day, I’ll burn my candle tonight and wish you all a very happy solstice.

I’m not fool enough to think Winter is over, but it’s at least the end of the beginning. Now if I can avoid freezing to death when the temperatures drop into the single digits over the next couple of days, we’ll be all set. At least, unlike our heathen forbearers, I don’t have to worry about my larder running short before the harvest comes in. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

Permanency with an asterisk…

I’m not particularly religious. It’s been decades since I sat through a church service that didn’t involve a wedding or a funeral. I was raised in the local Methodist church back home as a kid, but drifted away as a teenager. Like the poet said, “Mama tried.” Even as I’ve fallen away from the flock, I’ve maintained what I’d describe as an academic interest in religion. It seems to me that any force that has so powerfully influenced civilizations across thousands of years is probably worth having an interest in.

I may have been raised Methodist, but I don’t have any deep insights into the inner workings of the church, its governing body, or the personalities involved. I honestly hadn’t thought much about it at all until a few weeks ago when someone mentioned attending a meeting to decide if their little church would stand with its parent denomination or brake away. The divide, unsurprisingly, is over the current hot button cultural issues with gender, sexuality, and inclusivity leading the way.

I understand that the issues have already caused people who had been sitting in the same pews for 60 or 70 years to step away on their own before the whole congregation even made a decision. In a community that puts a premium on doing things the way they’ve always been done, that’s quite a statement. Whether that statement is about the church, its congregants, or some people’s determination to be stubbornly intolerant to anything that doesn’t toe the line of their own standards of goodness and right is probably up to debate.

The community where I grew up has always struggled to hang on to its young people. With the double yolk of declining populations and youthful disinterest in organized religion, the local Methodist congregation has already been in steady decline to the point that it’s made up of predominately elderly members. Just having this cultural fight, let alone setting up as a breakaway sect, in my estimation, only has one outcome for this small church nestled hard against Western Maryland’s mountains – its numbers will drop to a point where the congregation is no longer viable regardless of whether they call themselves United Methodists or Global Methodists. It’s already happened to churches in the small towns and villages across the country as younger members shifted to more modern forms of worship. This will be another old-line church that folds as the ground around it shifts in ways that ye olde John Wesley could never have imagined.

As someone who long since gave up practicing religion in any real sense, I’m surprisingly moved by these discussions and their implications. The little white church perched on a hill overlooking town always felt like something solid – a permanent fixture that remained even while the town itself changed. Permanency, as it turns out, should probably come with an asterisk, as terms and conditions apply. 

It’s like a penis…

A few months ago, I kicked around the idea of starting up a weekly limited feature focused on topics that some people might consider controversial, unpopular, or otherwise not appropriate for polite company. Nothing much came of the idea then, but it has stewed in my head ever since. This is the next of what I like to think will be a recurring series of Friday evening contemplations. If you’re easily offended, or for some reason have gotten the impression that your friends or family members have to agree with you on every conceivable topic, this might be a good time to look away. While it’s not my intention to be blatantly offensive, I only control the words I use, not how they’re received or interpreted.

I was raised Methodist, but as an adult the only interest I’ve really had in religion is an academic one. It’s hard, after all, to study any aspect of European (and by extension, American) history since the Romans pulled out without at least tangentially touching on the premise of Christianity and how it has been practiced and applied during the centuries.

My take is pretty consistently that religion, in spite of whatever uplifting and comforting elements it may have, has mostly been used as a cudgel against anyone who refused to live and die by its tenants. The Crusades, the European wars of religion, witch hunts, orthodoxy tests, and more laws based on “church teachings” than you could shake a forest of sticks at are just the most obvious examples. And that’s only including the violence-in-the-name-of-God delivered up under the auspices of Christianity. The rest of the pantheon is hardly less bloodthirsty.

Despite what the Moral Majority or whatever the religious right wants to call themselves these days says, the United States was not founded as a Christian country. I’m sorry. It just wasn’t. Saying that it was is simply presenting facts not in evidence. Actually, it’s flat out lying. The Founding Fathers went out of their way to codify the prohibition against establishing a state religion right there in the Bill of Rights. It follows directly from that prohibition that “because it’s what Jesus would want” is a singularly problematic reason to pass a law – it’s every bit as invalid as justifying your laws in the name of Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, or Ra. 

I know it’s a hard pill for the seriously religious to swallow, but it’s entirely possible to be an upright and honorable man without the threat of eternal punishment hanging over your head. In fact, if the only reason you’re “doing the right thing” is because you fear eternal hellfire, one might say you’re responding only to fear rather than any actual personal commitment to being morally upright. Being a decent person only because you’re under duress means you’re not, by definition, a decent person to begin with. 

I’m sure organized religion has many virtues for its practitioners. That’s fine. I don’t want to take any of those virtues away from them. They can rule their homes by the precepts of whatever God or gods they see fit. If they’re really feeling froggy, they can probably even gaggle up some like-minded folks and live their theocratic dream in a community setting. I am, however, going to insist that they don’t expect me to subscribe to and live quietly under some evangelical theocratic nightmare government they want to inflict on everyone else. I presume only the same liberty of conscience I extend to them. In fact, I insist on it… because otherwise, I’ll raise up and army myself and strike their tract-quoting, puritanical asses down.

As the poet said, “Religion is like a penis. It’s nice to have one and fine to be proud of, but don’t whip it out in public or shove it down someone else’s throat.” When you choose to ignore such wisdom, it makes it awfully difficult to see any significant difference between Christian extremists and the goddamned Taliban. The lesson, probably, is maybe try not to be some kind of asshole extremist and try some of that peace and tolerance that your God was so fond of talking about.

The Scotsman’s Church of the Sacred Sausage Sandwich…

I was checking in at the doctor’s office a couple of days ago and the receptionist asked if I wanted to note my religion in the file. No one had ever asked that before. Maybe they’ve got a new block to fill in or something. In any case, the question caught me off guard. I’ve spent very little time pondering the issue as an adult. Sure, I was raised Methodist, but even back then I was more interested in hanging out at Scotty’s on Sunday morning to watch and listen to the grand old men of my hometown smoking their cigarettes, talking shit, and drinking copious amounts of coffee than I was in whatever was happening in Sunday school or church.

Scotty Orr. An institution unto himself.

Like the poet said, “Mama tried to raise me better,” but the formality of institutional church never really took hold in me. The older I got as a kid, the more my Sunday learning took place right there in the side booth of the best and only greasy spoon restaurant in town. Over the years, Scotty’s and the people in it have become a core memory, likely even foundational to how I think of myself as a person.

None of that answers the question about what religion the nice lady at the doctor’s office should write down, though. It’s not like I could ask her to put me down as a disciple of the Scotsman’s Church of the Sacred Sausage Sandwich or a parishioner of the Midland Temple of the Holy Cheeseburger, French Fries with Brown Gravy, and Strawberry Milkshake. Although, it’s the 21st century, so maybe I could have them plug that into my file without much argument.

The real answer is probably more complex. I tend to believe in the things I can see or taste or touch. I’ve never seen God or Jesus or an angel or any of the thousands of other gods scattered across human history. It’s awfully hard to prove a negative, though. My lack of seeing those things isn’t proof against their existing somewhere in the unknown universe.

If I had to distill my philosophy of religion into a single salient point, I think there’s probably just one universal commandment: Don’t be an asshole. If you can navigate life without doing that, or doing it as little as reasonably possible, I expect you’ll have done well in the eyes of an almighty. If that doesn’t satisfy some all-powerful sky lord, well, honestly that sounds like it’s more his problem than yours anyway.

So yeah, I stumbled on my response this week… but I think I know what I’m going to say the next time anyone asks.

Grieving for Our Lady of Paris…

I had another post written for tonight, but in light of the great fire sweeping Notre Dame cathedral those words fade to less than insignificant.

With its cornerstone laid in 1163, Notre Dame saw nearly the entire rise of Western civilization in its shadow over the last 855 years. It saw Paris grow and expand into one of the world’s handful of indisputably great cities.

As a young 18 year old American in Paris, I was fortunate to pass through the cathedral over 20 years ago. Honestly I don’t remember many details of that trip now, but I remember standing in the nave of Notre Dame and being awestruck – exactly the effect that it’s long ago designers and builders had hoped to achieve.

I’m not religious in any significant way… but Notre Dame wasn’t about just being Catholic, or even being Christian. Yes, the great structure was raised to the glory of God, but it was also about celebrating great art, and architecture, and an undeniable knowledge that there is, and there should be, something larger than ourselves. You couldn’t stand before the great rose windows and feel anything other than humble.

Tonight I grieve for the people of Paris, and France, and the world at the loss of such a treasure trove of our collective history. This world is poorer and darker for its loss.

Heroes and villains…

Last week a friend of mine asked if I thought the Devil was a hero or a villain. Now having been raised by a good Methodist mother, my response should have been automatic, immediate, and emphatic. Nothing with me is quite that simple, though, so the question became something of a thought exercise – and one that I’ve spent more time pondering over the last few days than I expected.

First, if we accept the Bible as the literal word of God, the answer is obvious. The devil is the bad guy. He’s the super villain’s super villain. However,I’m all too aware that edition of the Bible I grew up with was one commissioned by England’s King James I and completed by his team of translators, all members of the Church of England, between 1604 and 1611. The fact that it is a translation based on previously translated works based on events first described not closer than several centuries after they would have originally take place has always felt to me a bit problematic. For purposes of this particular argument, though, that’s not my point.

When I look at the Old Testament story of Lucifer’s fall, I’m often tempted to give it some of the context it’s lacking. Context that perhaps paints an image at an Almighty who is unelected and wholly unaccountable in His actions. If we apply a bit of literary license, we can see God, certainly the God of the Old Testament, as the purest incarnation of absolute monarchy – quite literally king by divine right. Within that broader context, Lucifer raising a reported one third of the angelic population in open rebellion against the throne could be construed as an act of defiance against a totalitarian regime. I’m thinking here now about the images of Romanians rising against Ceaușescu and East Germans overtopping the Berlin Wall in 1989.

From the seat of an all knowing and all powerful deity, Lucifer’s actions can only appear ungrateful, immoral, and a blatant violation of the established order. If one were to be devil’s advocate it certainly seems possible to argue that as a leading light among the heavenly host, he had a duty and an obligation to rise up and cast off the shackles of oppression and lead his people towards a more democratic future. At least that’s how I’d make the case if I were devil’s advocate, but maybe I’m flavoring it with a little too much of my own ideas about how oppressed peoples are supposed to respond.

Perspective is everything. Especially when it comes time to label the winners and losers of the story. So, is the Devil a hero or a villain? Yes, I suppose he is.

What Jeff Likes this Week

This week it’s a no brainer. What I like is the Winter Solstice. More specifically what I like is that from here on through mid-June the days are going to get longer. Even though Winter is just officially starting, the solstice comes with the promise that at some point in the fairly near future I’ll get to feel the sun on my skin on a weekday rather than just being able to looking at it through a tinted glass office window.

This might be a bit presumptive since this evening is technically the longest night of the year, but that’s just a bit of technicality. What’s more important is what comes after – the longer days, the warmer weather (eventually), the growing grass, and abundant critters. There’s still a long slog through the coldest months of the year, but the solstice reminds us that even in its depths, winter won’t last forever. The sun will rise, push back the darkness, and bathe the world in its glory again.

Hummm… I wonder if there isn’t a metaphor in there somewhere. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that so many of the religions founded in the northern hemisphere have some sort of traditional celebration this time of year.

Note: This is the 5th entry in a six-part series appearing on jeffreytharp.com by request.

Disregarded…

I’m fairly sure that somewhere we are enjoined to maintain Sunday as a day of rest. And while I’m sure that’s a fine theory, it adds up to 1/7 of the week where I’m not getting a damned thing done and that plan just isn’t going to hold water. So yes, as we speak I’m blatantly disregarding the command of having a “day of rest.” There’s laundry to do, floors to scrub, a bathroom in desperate need of cleaning, shrubbery that needs cutting back, a dog in need of a bath, and at least two more meals that are going to have to be cooked. That’s just the top few items on the list.

As great as a day of rest every week sounds, it’s just not going to happen. If I’m lucky, I’ll carve out a few days for that a couple of times a year, but getting there once a week is a pipe dream if I’ve ever heard one. There’s no way around my Sundays being filled with ticking things off the long list of shit I didn’t get to in the previous six days. For some reason, I don’t think that breaking a sweat on the sabbath is going to be the sin that pushes me over the edge. Just between you and me, it’s probably not even in the list of top ten sins I’ve committed this week so I’ve got that going for me.

So if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to quit pecking at the keyboard and get a few more things done this morning.

The traditional Sunday…

Sunday morning blogging was a lot easier when I could just trot a few old posts out of the archive, gin up a few snarky comments about them, and then go on about the day. Now that I have to dream up something new and theoretically interesting to say, I find myself really reaching for ideas. This morning felt like it could really go one of two ways. I could write the standard “Happy Easter” post and go along to get along or I could pen a more natural feeling skeptics post. Both of them felt like enough of a lie to be not worth writing down.

Sure, Easter is the high holiday of Christianity and being raised in the faith, I know enough about it to articulate the salient points. Since I haven’t been inside a church for anything other than weddings or funerals in the better part of 20 years, that post felt like something of a farce. If I’m a bad Christian, I’m an even worse atheist because at heart, I want to believe that there is some greater power in the universe. Now whether that power is the God of the Israelites or Vishnu or Zeus or the flying spaghetti monster, I don’t feel particularly well equipped to decide. I’ll leave that discussion to the theologians. I’ll find the answer to those question far sooner than I want them anyway.

For the faithful, I’ll wish you a happy Easter this morning. For the rest, I’ll wish you a good Sunday. As for me, I’ll mark this Sunday in the traditional way – writing, doing laundry, and whipping up some barbecue chicken.

Mooning…

Time was I’d drag myself out of bed at all sorts of wild hours just for the possibility of seeing something cool in the night sky. Tonight’s blood moon would definitely qualify as one of those things. Until I started checking out the times of best viewing and doing the math on how much cloud cover there was probably going to be here on the east coast at 3:07 AM EDT. Getting up in the middle of the night to watch something live streaming on my iPad just doesn’t have the same effect. Some things are meant to be done live, preferably with a steaming cup of coffee and a touch of Irish to help pass the time. Since tonight’s show looks like it will be clouded out, I’m going to have to take a pass and satisfy my curiosity with seeing the stream after the fact. It’s a little disappointing that I’ll be missing nature’s big show, but since there will be three more chances in the next year and a half, I’ll roll the dice on seeing the next eclipse, or the one after that, or the one after that. Surely the weather can’t conspire to block out all four of the harbingers of the end of days, right?