In the midst of the holiday season which I hope that everyone is enjoying (while I’m alternately experiencing elation and despair brought on by good and bad writing days), let’s stuff stockings.
We have several nice gifts from Spiegel, beginning with the German Family Minister (a woman) who sparked an uproar with her suggestion that God does not have a gender. She seems not to have noticed that the authors of biblical texts were men living in patriarchal societies. Like all men, they projected — as it is on earth, so it must be in heaven. These ancient writers weren’t progressive liberal theologians with rarefied and numinous ideas about God. They intuitively knew that people prefer humanized spirits and anthropomorphic deities. German Christians today are no exception.
In this apparently innocuous piece, Matthias Schulz discusses the discovery of a largely forgotten Christian empire established on the Arabian peninsula around 530 AD. Why is this arcana important? Because it provides us with insight into the politico-economic situation immediately preceding Muhammad and the birth of Islam. All religions are founded under particularized, local circumstances that are deliberately obscured and forgotten by those who follow. As an astute thinker famously reminds us:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.
In an earlier piece that also has a whiff of historical subversion about it, Schulz ably sketched some exciting new findings on early Judaism.
Finally from Spiegel we have this piece celebrating Grimm’s Fairy Tales, first published in 1812, which have cast magic spells over us for 200 years. The tales are far more grim in the unexpurgated original and have deep roots in pagan European folktales. While we mostly treat such tales as entertainment today, the underlying mythical impulse has surely been around for tens of thousands of years. For those interested in that impulse (and who have a hard time stomaching the standard Jung-Campbell woo), Robert Segal’s Myth: A Very Short Introduction is a fine primer or place to start.
From Germany we cross the (pesky invasion barrier) Channel to Britain where Jonathan Friedland astutely observes that most Americans treat the Constitution as a sacred text that founds the National Religion:
If you really want to know why the US can’t kick its gun habit, take a trip to the National Archives in Washington, DC. You don’t even have to look at the exhibits. Just study the queue. What you’ll see are ordinary Americans lining up, in hushed reverence, to gaze at an original copy of the United States constitution, guarded and under heavily armoured glass. It is no exaggeration to say that for many Americans this is a religious experience.
When outsiders hear that the right to bear arms is enshrined in the second amendment of the US constitution, I suspect many imagine this is like saying it’s “protected by law”, something that can easily be changed, as it would be in their own countries. But this is to underestimate what the constitution means to Americans.
It is indeed a sacred text. Despite, or perhaps because, the US is a country animated by faith, the “founding fathers” are treated as deities, their every word analysed as if it contained gospel truth. Any new idea or policy proposal, no matter how worthy on its own merits, must be proven compatible with what those long-dead politicians of the late 18th century set down – otherwise it’s unconstitutional and can be thrown out by the supreme court, the high priesthood selected to interpret what the great prophets of Philadelphia intended.
Even secular and atheist Americans profess this faith, which is curious indeed. When I was being trained as a professional acolyte in The Law, no one ever questioned this state of affairs. It takes an outsider to spot the contradictions and absurdities.
In the spirit of contradiction, I relish the fact that secular-atheist Danes want to get married in a religion free church. Ritual is a powerful thing, even when embedded in irony and paradox. It may be the case that irony and paradox are the very stuff religion.