We live in a time when many religious people feel fiercely threatened by science. O ye of little faith. Let them subscribe to Scientific American for a year and then tell me if their sense of the grandeur of God is not greatly enlarged by what they have learned from it. Of course many of the articles reflect the assumption at the root of many problems, that an account, however tentative, of some structure of the cosmos or some transaction of the nervous system successfully claims that part of reality for secularism. Those who encourage a fear of science are actually saying the same thing. If the old, untenable dualism is put aside, we are instructed in the endless brilliance of creation. Surely to do this is a privilege of modern life for which we should all be grateful.
This is not simply to say that all religious expressions are artistic. But what religious symbols can do, more powerfully than any other, is reveal a horizon of meaning towards which art aspires: the ability to make ontological claims about “the way things really are”. To come back to some philosophical language from Gadamer, religious symbols perfect the “intricate interplay of showing and concealing”. And among other things, it seems to be this tantalising capacity that has kept modern artists, even those with no doctrinal connection to Christianity, returning to fundamental religious images like the crucifixion.
For the non-believer, perhaps focusing on this “poetical teaching” can offer a way of engaging with religious art in a manner beyond merely cultural or aesthetic appreciation; one which begins to dance, albeit gingerly, along the perimeters of the theological. What we experience in religious art, ultimately, doesn’t have to lead us into heaven. In Botticini’s “Assumption”, the disciples gather around Mary’s tomb, only to discover an assortment of lilies has taken the place where her body should rest. Uncomprehending, they look around in bewilderment. If looking at religious art can leave us similarly stunned, perhaps for some that’s more than miracle enough.
Speaking of parting, it is only rarely that dirges are heard in Kawu nowadays. Two factors are contributing to their decline: firstly the fact that many churches discourage their use, preferring edifying hymns instead. The reason behind this, I am told, is that the dirges reflect a pre-Christian worldview and as such are to be eschewed by true Christians. A second factor has been the coming of electricity to the villages halfway the nineties, which has led to loud music taking the place of the dirges during the wakekeepings. Elsewhere I wrote that “culture is a moving target, always renewing and reshaping itself”, yet at the same time I can’t help but lament the imminent loss of such a rich vein of Mawu culture.
However, during my last fieldtrip there were some signs of a renewed interest in the genre. For example, one pastor told me that he had been reconsidering the rash dismissal of the dirges by his church. Realizing how important the dirges had been in containing, orienting, and canalizing the feelings of loss and pathos surrounding death, he felt that the Christian hymns did not always offer an appropriate replacement. Another hopeful event was that I was approached with the request to help record a great number of dirges in Akpafu-Todzi in August 2008. This was not just to record them for posterity (although this was part of the motivation), but also very practically so that they could be played at wakekeepings. I gladly complied with this wish of course. The result is a beautiful collection of 42 dirges, sung by eight ladies between 57 and 87 years of age. The first time the dirges were played at a funeral they sparked a wave of interest.
The presence of Father Christmas [in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe] bothered many of Lewis’s friends, including J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien, whose Middle-earth was free of the legends and religions of our world, objected to Narnia’s hodgepodge of motifs: the fauns and dryads lifted from classic mythology, the Germanic dwarfs and contemporary schoolboy slang lumped in with the obvious Christian symbolism.
But Lewis embraced the Middle Ages’ indiscriminate mixing of stories and motifs from seemingly incompatible sources. The medievals, he once wrote, enthusiastically adopted a habit from late antiquity of “gathering together and harmonizing views of very different origin: building a syncretistic model not only out of Platonic, Aristotelian and Stoical, but out of pagan and Christian elements.” . . .
The unifying principle of Narnia, unlike the vast complex of invented history behind Middle-earth, isn’t an illusion of authenticity or purity. Rather, what binds all the elements of Lewis’s fantasy together is something more like love. Narnia consists of every story, legend, myth or image — pagan or Christian — that moved the author over the course of his life.
Rather than infer that nanotechnology is safe, members of the public who learn about this novel science tend to become sharply polarized along cultural lines, according to a study conducted by the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School in collaboration with the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. The report is published online in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
These findings have important implications for garnering support of the new technology, say the researchers.
The experiment involved a diverse sample of 1,500 Americans, the vast majority of whom were unfamiliar with nanotechnology, a relatively new science that involves the manipulation of particles the size of atoms and that has numerous commercial applications. When shown balanced information about the risks and benefits of nanotechnology, study participants became highly divided on its safety compared to a group not shown such information.
The determining factor in how people responded was their cultural values, according to Dan Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor at Yale Law School and lead author of the study. “People who had more individualistic, pro-commerce values, tended to infer that nanotechnology is safe,” said Kahan, “while people who are more worried about economic inequality read the same information as implying that nanotechnology is likely to be dangerous.”
According to Kahan, this pattern is consistent with studies examining how people’s cultural values influence their perceptions of environmental and technological risks generally. “In sum, when they learned about a new technology, people formed reactions to it that matched their views of risks like climate change and nuclear waste disposal,” he said.
To Schmidt and others, these new findings suggest a novel theory of civilization. Scholars have long believed that only after people learned to farm and live in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to construct temples and support complicated social structures. But Schmidt argues it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.
The immensity of the undertaking at Gobekli Tepe reinforces that view. Schmidt says the monuments could not have been built by ragged bands of hunter-gatherers. To carve, erect and bury rings of seven-ton stone pillars would have required hundreds of workers, all needing to be fed and housed. Hence the eventual emergence of settled communities in the area around 10,000 years ago. “This shows sociocultural changes come first, agriculture comes later,” says Stanford University archaeologist Ian Hodder, who excavated Catalhoyuk, a prehistoric settlement 300 miles from Gobekli Tepe. “You can make a good case this area is the real origin of complex Neolithic societies.”
Finance | Too bad nobody in the West thought of it: Islamic banking is better weathering the meltdown because sharia law curbs excessive risk-taking, with bans on interest and trading in debt. The strictures on usury mean investments only in “productive enterprises.” [Washington Post]
Literature | A reviewer says it’s a good thing the archbishop of Canterbury has written a book about Dostoyevsky. To figure out this Russian fellow, “we need a guide who combines the gifts of a literary critic and a trained theologian.” And like Dostoyevsky, the cleric, through his unruly Church of England, knows what it’s like to juggle “incompatible beliefs.” [TLS]
In the journal of the young James Boswell (later Samuel Johnson’s biographer), . . . a document otherwise notable chiefly for its obsessive focus on social climbing and fornication, we get this: “I went to Mayfair Chapel and heard prayers and an excellent sermon from the Book of Job on the comforts of piety. I was in a fine frame. And I thought that God really designed us to be happy. I shall certainly be a religious old man. I was much so in my youth. I have now and then flashes of devotion, and it will one day burn with a steady flame.”
It is safe to say, I think, that Boswell would not be renowned for his piety at any stage of his life. Kierkegaard’s mouthpiece Anti-Climacus speaks well to this topic [in The Sickness Unto Death]: “In general, it is extremely foolish . . . to suppose it should really be such an easy affair with faith and wisdom that they just arrive over the years as a matter of course, like teeth, a beard and that sort of thing. No, whatever a human being comes to as a matter of course, and whatever things come to him as a matter of course, it is definitely not faith and wisdom.”
Tell Augustine that he should by no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.
Further, since it has been their custom to slaughter oxen in sacrifice, they should receive some solemnity in exchange. Let them therefore, on the day of the dedication of their churches, or on the feast of the martyrs whose relics are preserved in them, build themselves huts around their one-time temples and celebrate the occasion with religious feasting. They will sacrifice and eat the animals not any more as an offering to the devil, but for the glory of God to whom, as the giver of all things, they will give thanks for having been satiated. Thus, if they are not deprived of all exterior joys, they will more easily taste the interior ones. For surely it is impossible to efface all at once everything from their strong minds, just as, when one wishes to reach the top of a mountain, he must climb by stages and step by step, not by leaps and bounds….
Mention this to our brother the bishop, that he may dispose of the matter as he sees fit according to the conditions of time and place.