“So you’re a divinity student, huh…?”

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I haven’t even started classes yet, but I had my first, “so you’re a divinity student, huh…?” conversation last night.

You know the one: where someone says “so you’re a divinity student, huh…?” and you say, “uhhh…” and they launch into a forty-minute monologue about life, the universe and everything that inevitably ends with the Ancient Aliens guy.

Because I work in a Church setting (I head the Church Street Ministry of First Parish Unitarian Universalist, which works with home- and food-security in Cambridge, Mass.) this isn’t a totally unexpected  scenario, and because it’s UU, the Ancient Aliens thing is also, um, not totally unexpected. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love talking to people about Ancient Aliens. See, I’m particularly interested in the individual and vernacular “deviations” from creeds and practices, their origins in oral traditions, nascent religions and religions like Christianity in their oral, incipient stages. I am always fascinated by how people are interpreting and utilizing the received wisdom of religious traditions, de- and re-contextualizing them, mixing, matching, recycling, re-purposing, and tweaking them for their own ends.

And while I am, in fact, delighted to hear from people about their beliefs, let’s call them, although we don’t really live in an age of belief so much as credulity, I emphatically reject the idea that divinity students have any more “insight on divinity,” as one friend recently put it. You can talk to literally anyone about literally anything and get insight into divinity. That may, in fact, be the main takeaway of divinity school for divinity students (I’ll let you know in three years when I finish my MDiv).

So, yeah: the conversation started with that ominous “so you’re in divinity school, huh?” And I knew immediately where it was headed. But it’s the journey, you know?  And this one started with a visit to a Catholic shrine where my fellow pilgrim observed a worshiper in deep thrall to a statue of the Blessed Virgin.

“Isn’t that idolatry?” He huffed.

I treated this as a sincere inquiry, not a rhetorical question, which I’m guessing is, like, Day 1 of Divinity Student 101, right? (Again, I’ll let you know).

The Cult of the Blessed Virgin is right up my alley, a great example of one of the developments of early Christology so central to the establishing of orthodoxy on the nature of Christ that borrows from ancient archetypes. It took 400 years to sort that out — it was not until the Council of Ephesus in 431 that the cult of the Virgin as Mother of God was finally sanctioned. It was in committee for half a millennium.

My traveling companion was more interested in the general issue of idolatry and pagan influence, as he saw it, as evidence of an inherent and irreconcilable internal contradiction (not to say conspiracy) in the Orthodoxy of the Church. (We’re about 1/5 of the way to Ancient Aliens, for those of you keeping track of our mileage.)

“Worshiping the likeness of the Virgin Mary,” he said, raising an eyebrow, “when, hey, didn’t God say something about ‘graven images’?”

I was like: “I mean, technically it came from the Finger of God rather than His Mouth, but, yeah, something like that.”

And then: “But here’s the thing…”

I’d just been reading about the Hellenization of Christianity in those first crucial years, and suggested nascent Christianity’s break from Judaism, particularly after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and its incorporation into the imperialist project of the Roman Empire might have something to do with the more pagan elements of worship that have come down to us today. Early Christians distanced themselves from their Jewish roots, partly because their roots were ripped out of the ground. 

He pricked up his ears at the mention of Jerusalem, and, wresting the wheel, he took a sharp turn to the right, pulled into a dark alley, and picked up Louis Farrakhan, whom I had not even seen on the side of the road there! I mean, bowtie and all!

“Why,” he asked, a note of heightened indignation creeping into his voice, “do the Jews think that’s their land?” He didn’t wait for an answer, instead repeating Minister Farrakhan’s inflammatory contention that “the State of Israel has ‘no home’ in the Middle East and that the Holy Land does not belong to the ‘white Jew.’”

Now, I suppose I could have said WHOOAA. HEYYY. HEY NOW NO. PULL OVER. LET ME OUT OF THIS CAR.

But this is, as they say, The Work.

And anyway, we were now halfway to Ancient Aliens. I mean, let’s ditch Farrakhan at the next Gas Food Lodging. But I might as well stick it out, right? I could almost make out the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlán peeping up over the horizon up ahead, as we raced past a thousand years of Secret History via The History Channel.

“There are written records they don’t want us to see hidden in a room somewhere!” my comrade cried, his eyes bright as a fire worshiper on the twelfth day of Izcalli. “They’ve kept the truth from us!”

Not to be gendered about this, but I feel like the belief that there’s always a windowless room somewhere with the truth hidden away in a desk drawer is a very mansplainy way to look at truth. Because if it’s all stuffed in a file cabinet on Skull Island or whatever, you can always Mission: Impossible that shit, right? Just, like, bust in guns blazing and catch the Illuminati by surprise, steal back the truth and save the day!

I get it. The idea — you might even call it faith — that there is hidden proof is one of our species’ most persistent idées fixes. It may come from our early days digging for tubers and cracking the shells of nuts with stones.

The certainty that a staggering Truth is being hidden and withheld is part of our popular understanding of the forces of oppression at work in our world. It’s also a way we’ve been conditioned, or maybe condition ourselves to deny the power of our own truths. But what if what’s really being hidden on Skull Island is not the Truth that No One Must Know but the Truth That Everyone Knows?

My fellow seeker nodded sagely.

“Yeah,” he said, appreciatively. “You know, how is it that they’ve never found human remains in any of those pyramids in Mexico.”

I was like: “uhhh, I’m not sure that’s… ”

He gave me a significant look that cut me to the quick. We had arrived.

“I’m not saying it’s aliens, but…”

 

 

 

The Final Brick

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The bad news has been unrelenting this week, and reading about Hitler’s rise in Bonhoeffer is chilling. Yesterday I stumbled upon a New Yorker piece from early last year about Stefan Zweig (whose memoir is next on my reading list), where the author concludes:

The excruciating power of Zweig’s memoir lies in the pain of looking back and seeing that there was a small window in which it was possible to act, and then discovering how suddenly and irrevocably that window can be slammed shut.

And I couldn’t help thinking: that’s where we are now. We’re thinking the window is still open, but it’s already closed. And not just closed. As Justice Kennedy’s devastatingly timed retirement shows, they’re bricking it up. And while there are isolated moments of hope, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Democratic primary win in the Bronx Tuesday, there is virtually no chance we will flip the Senate. 

The best we can hope for — and it’s not nothing — is to grab a slim majority in Congress, but that’s in no way guaranteed either. We may actually lose seats in the Senate. Whatever happens, I believe what’s in motion now (and I’m not talking about the “Blue Wave” here, friends) is all but unstoppable. They’re about to place that final brick.

Yesterday I was reading in Bonhoeffer about the Reichstag Fire. Of course, history nerds, and those junior high school debate, too clever by half, smartest guy in the room types are looking for an analogous event that the current administration will use to “declare Martial Law.” Guys: history repeats but not like that. This regime’s Reichstag Fire already took place. 17 years ago. This is a long game. It’s like a cancer that’s been moving through the body and we’re just seeing it now that all our organs are shutting down.

Now, don’t get it twisted. I’m not saying “9/11 was an inside job.” This is not a conspiracy blog. All I’m getting at is that within two years of 9/11 Congress had created the laws and the culture that left the door wide open to Fascism. It gave us the Patriot Act, our Reichstag Fire Edict:

Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153 of the Constitution of the German Reich are suspended until further notice. It is therefore permissible to restrict the rights of personal freedom [habeas corpus], freedom of (opinion) expression, including the freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications. Warrants for House searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.

The Patriot Act of October 2001 allows for all his and more. Those repeating this piece of history learned it well. Guantanamo opened in January 2002. By November 2002, the eerily named Department of Homeland Security was up and running, with ICE to follow in March of 2003. The laws, enforcement and penal apparatus have been in place for over fifteen years.

Not to go full Godwin’s Law on you, but since we’re already here, I might as well say it: they had to wait for their Hitler.

Bush just wasn’t a very good demagogue. He was more a feeble heir to a patrician ideal that was already teetering. The last of the Respectability Republicans, his appropriately condescending “compassionate conservatism” was entirely too conciliatory. Compare his merely tone-deaf reaction to Katrina to Trump’s flat-out GFYS to Puerto Rico after Maria. There was not even the clumsy pretense of compassion in the latter. 

Obama provided what was missing: the kindling. His election triggered the White Supremacists. What followed was eight years of resistance to his legitimacy, led with open scorn by Mitch McConnell and the Republican establishment, nurturing the movement, stoking the flames of white resentment until they were white hot.

McConnell was their John the Baptist. Trump is their Jesus.

Yeah. I went there.

But, come on. They went there first.

I saw this photo in a story on the Red Hen, which has now been shut down until further notice from a deluge of threats and protests after the Manager tried to speak Truth to Power:

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It’s the “Trump is Love” couple that gives me chills. I’ve noticed a change in the nature of this cult in the last few weeks. As the self-reinforcing madness has been building, the “religious” fervor has more grotesquely focused on the person of Trump himself. It is a kind of madness we have seen before.

Should we abandon hope? I think it’s important to prepare for the worst. This didn’t come out of nowhere. We need to stop waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is a movement that was waiting for its moment to seize total power. This is its moment.

What happens with that last brick in the window is the only question now.

Echoes and Shadows

Reading about Luther in the Bonhoeffer book. Omg.

The author calls him “the Don Rickles of Wittenberg,” and says “for much of his adult life Luther suffered from constipation, hemorrhoids, a cataract in one eye, and a condition of the inner ear called Meniere’s disease, which results in dizziness, fainting spells, and tinnitus. He also suffered mood swings and depression.”

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As for his late-in-life anti-Semitism, which the Nazis were more than happy to exploit: “the trouble started in 1528 when, after a large meal of kosher food, he suffered a shattering attack of diarrhea. He concluded that the Jews had tried to poison him.”

It’s so interesting to me how much we are at the mercy of our stomachs.

There’s also a prescient passage related to Bonhoeffer’s eulogy for one of the teachers with whom he disagreed but for whom he had great enduring respect, Adolf von Harnack, who was, theologically, very much in the “opposing camp”:

Bonhoeffer’s words reveal that he was never what one might today term a culture warrior, nor could he easily be labeled conservative or liberal. He disagreed with Harnack’s liberal theological conclusions but agreed profoundly with the underlying assumptions that guided Harnack, and he rightly saw that those were more important than the conclusions to which they Led. Anyone on the side of Truth, wherever it lead, was a compatriot to be lauded. This virtue had come to Bonhoeffer, in part, from Harnack and the liberal Grunewald tradition in which he had flourished, and Bonhoeffer was generous enough to see it and state it publicly. Bonhoeffer’s father was his primary mentor in this way of thinking. Karl Bonhoeffer’s conclusions may have been different from his son’s, but his respect for truth and for other human beings of different opinions formed the foundation of a civil society in which one might disagree graciously and might reason together civilly and productively. In the years ahead this would be seriously attacked, and the Nazis would stoke the fires of the culture wars to play their enemies against each other. They would brilliantly co-opt the conservatives and the Christian churches, and when they had the power to do so, they would turn on them too.

Just sayin.