Books and Gods

Now that my daily gripe and a truly crappy day is out of the way….

First of all, for those who love historical fiction, the e-book of I, Claudius is on sale for $2.99.

It is one of the best pieces of historical fiction, as fun to read as it was to watch.

I am *this close* to being done with the last book in the Dire Earth Cycle, The Plague Forge. Then I have to re-read this:


Otto, The Idea of the Holy.

I have taken my current professor for another religions class six years ago. He relies heavily on Otto’s concepts and will do so for the class I am in now. Now, I will not recommend reading the book to any layman. While Otto’s basic concept is very compelling, the book itself is filled with dry, overly intricate examinations of philosophical and theological minutia that works as an excellent cure for insomnia. And the book is not even that long.

BUT…his core concept is fascinating and makes a lot of sense. At least as I understand it.

And if I’m preaching to the choir here, please let me know. I just find this sort of thing fascinating.

First of all, we start with the idea that there is a divine force of some kind in the universe, an “ultimate reality” beyond the scope of any human ability to conceptualize in and of itself. We can only grasp towards it with associations and metaphor, we can’t understand it on its own. It is something that exists just utterly, without being tied into the conditional universe as we understand that. (Or at least if you are an atheist studying religion you can look at it as the people in the religions you are studying believe there is this ultimate reality, or the ultimate reality is some sort of profound semi-Jungian species-unconsciousness thing.) It is undefinable except that the experience (not the being, but the experience of the being) is one of “creature feeling,” that one is in the presence of something infinitely greater than themselves that gives them an idea of their own insignificance. And that you are in the presence of something wholly “other,” something completely alien to one’s existence. Not intellectually, but at the most core level of human awareness.

Now in order discuss the divine without specific cultural connotations or definitions, he created the word “Numen.” (The only reason I can find for not using the word “Divine” is that he was German and Germans like creating silly words.) The Chinese sort of did this as well when Taoists steered clear of existing words for “God” or “Gods” and instead used “Tao:” “The Way.”

Otto posits that religion is not begun so much through speculation as by “personal religious experience.”

So in his theory it was not so much, “Why does the sky boom, crash and rumble during a storm? What are these bolts of light? …. It must be the work of a god.” But that someone had an intense personal religious experience related to thunder and lightning and thought they had encountered the “Numen.” (Or they encountered the Divine as related to thunder and lightning, however you want to look at it.)

Now, that “numinous” experience is processed through that person (who is now a “Mystic,” at least in the context of this hypothetical) by their physical senses, their conceptual thought and symbolic language, their culture and their personality. For instance, you would associate the Divine with the lightning and thunder you just heard, saw and felt. If you lived in a culture that had the worship of many gods and goddess, say in ancient Europe, you would think you had encountered one of them. One of many. (If you are in a monotheistic culture, like modern the Europe, then you would assume that you had encountered God “himself.” One of one.) If you are an an ancient Scandinavian culture that relies heavily on raiding to support their community, then you associate thunder and lightning with the crash of battle. If you had a powerful male figure in your life, a warrior, someone loud and raucous who loved to fight, who loved storms and used to get drunk and bellow at the thunder, or if you were such a person, then you will associate thunder and lightning with a man with those attributes.

You just created Thor.



And of course other cultures and individuals have completely different attitudes and histories in which they would approach the exact same experience, resulting in something entirely different.
(Though there do seem to be some species-wide tendencies. In poking around a bit, I found most deities associated with Thunder and Lightening across the world are masculine. And think about how many cultures across the world associate the Moon with the feminine.)

So already there is spin on the experience. It does not mean that experience is not valid. They did encounter the Divine, but what everyone around them is getting “straight from the horse’s mouth”  is that one person’s perception of a very personal experience. And there is no other way they can communicate it.

So the Mystic then goes out with the Message. Society hears the Message and reacts. They can reject it outright or accept it. In accepting it, no matter how faithfully to the original Mystic’s vision they try to be, the message is invariably poured through the additional filters of the group’s culture and history, etc..

Sometimes it’s consciously made more palatable to the masses to encourage conversion.

I know not of this "Yule" of which you speak.

I know not this “Yule” of which you speak.

Congratulations. You have a religion. What began as a deeply personal experience of something beyond description is soon a culturally shaped pack of ideals, morals, rituals and dogma which has little to do with the Mystic’s intent (See: Buddhism)  and even less to do with the Ultimate Reality of the universe. Or at least, it only contains a tiny facet of it.

That’s how Rudolph Otto saw it anyway. Makes a lot of sense to me.



I Give Credit Where Credit Is Due…

I recently slammed Richard Armitage for not using his Twitter feed as said he would to help spread the word about the charities he in involved with. This afternoon Richard Armitage plugged some of his chosen charities on his Twitter feed.

Good on ya Richard. 🙂 I retract that statement and apologize. You’re putting Twitter to the best possible use here. I should have been more patient.

These are all great charities helping people for worthy causes. I encourage people to follow his lead, read up and donate.

I would also like to say that something he has said a couple times in the past I was dismissive of, and he was right. I put this in a previous post and then took it out because it did not quite fit the topic.

RA is (or at least was) a self-proclaimed pacifist. He has regularly expressed concern about the level of violence in entertainment. (Always while acknowledging the hypocrisy of his taking so many action roles, so he’s was being honest. Though…*ahem* He may have asked, but he did not get.) And, a couple times, he has included concern with it’s effects on kids. In the past I disregarded that. I am American from a military family with a love of military history and action movies and I though he was being, well, kind of overly sensitive. I really did not think it was that big of a deal. I grew up with toy guns and my brothers and I beating the snot out of each other. And I’m fine.

You know…in my way. My very rude, crude and socially unacceptable way.


…O.k., maybe that should have been a clue.

But recent historical readings and personal events have changed my mind and made me concerned about the glorification of violence in our culture and its impact on society and kids. All cultures are capable of violence, but the West/Europe and the U.S. seems to revel in the gory details of it like no other, and has for well over a millennia. That has to have an impact. I don’t think a video game is going to turn someone into a criminal, but there is so much of it in our entertainment and even our news (“If it bleeds, it leads”), I would be very surprised if we weren’t picking up some if it by osmosis and that it is colouring our reactions by making us more aggressive.

I am sure someone must have studied this from a purely anthropological perspective, they should have anyway. It’s hard to get an unbiased reading on the effects of a facet of culture on individuals from within that culture. And while all societies have wars, that does not bring into the accounting other forms of aggression and violence within a culture.

So while I still do not agree with him on everything, for instance I don’t think we need to eliminate private gun ownership to greatly diminish gun violence, in this instance I agree he has a valid argument.

Though I too am a hypocrite in that I love both reading and writing action stories.

In a Sea of Hate, Understanding

One of the most remarkable and, I believe, important documentary series of the last thirty years is Michael Wood’s Legacy: The Search for Civilization series. Certainly it was the most important to me. It’s sounds cheesy, but in 1992 it changed my entire worldview, literally how I viewed the world. In six shows the different peoples of the world went from vaguely mysterious places to vibrant cultures with ancient pasts which still colored the people’s lives and outlook. It was the final inspiration for my study of History and Anthropology.

In the U.S., we live in a xenophobic era where terror over the other has taken hold over the minds of so many, too many, like I have never seen in my lifetime. This series brought me, if not a full understanding, at least some understanding and an appreciation for “the other.” These people’s cultural uniqueness giving sight into human existence one simply can not get for their own cultural point of view. It reminds us that, despite the violence and hatred, we are all human beings and that our differences are wonderous and vital to our world and understanding it.

I think everyone should watch it.

This is a copy on YouTube, so you can watch it for me. The picture quality is awful (it came out in 1992), but it is still worth watching. Thisis the first in the playlist:

Vists to Varanasi (Benares) for  Hanuman Jayanti and climbing Mount Tai (Tai Shang) to watch the sunrise are on my bucket list.

“It’s Our Traditional Way of Life”

I was reading about how the Japanese just countered the U.N. Ban on their hunting whales off Antarctica by killing 30 Minke whales off their own coast and their PM swearing to restart commercial whaling.

Despite the fact that whale meat has grown so unpopular in Japan, they have to give it away.

My first response was anger of course. Japan has long been giving the world the one-finger salute over international whaling ban by taking whales for the “scientific purpose” of selling whale meat. In the end, the only defense they have for this and things like the dolphin slaughter in Taiji Cove is “It’s our traditional way of life.”

What a bunch of B.S..

The same argument is being made by communities that mine coal in order to protect the coal industry, despite the number of ecological disasters it causes. Putting Global Climate Change aside, let’s talk slurry spills and the other effects of mountain top removal coal mining.

Yes, it is an industry that exports millions of tons of coal…to China, but the principal defense of coal mining seems to be “It’s our traditional way of life.”

Oh, give me a break…

But then I thought of the post I have in my “Drafts” cue about the Open Carry Twats. It begins, in good conscience, by addressing the unusual passion for firearms in the U.S., trying to find the rational line been responsible gun owners and those hysterics that require guns as an ego prop so much they go into public places to implicitly threaten others with assault rifles. Now, I do believe in the Second Amendment. I was raised in a hunting culture in rural America and I know there are still people who reply on wild game to feed their families. But when I came to the  “armed citizens keep the government from becoming a tyranny” argument, which is the only valid reason why anyone would own an assault rifle, I ran up against the examples of other developed nations with unarmed populaces who seem to keep their countries from becoming tyrannies just fine. Including Japan.

Well, damn.

The only argument for our cultural attachment to firearms I found to fall back on was “It’s part of American culture.”

“It’s our traditional way of life.”


“We need to do it because we always did it” is a circular argument, an argumentative fallacy.

The adherence to cultural tradition is one of the most powerful forces in history, America had a Civil War over the “tradition” of slavery after all. The bloodbath of the Protestant Reformation was a war between a new concept of religion vs. the tradition of the Catholic Church.

(And as a side, note, I think it is because the United States has no cultural memory of such a bloody upheaval as the Reformation that we are so tolerant of religious zealotry in our midst.)

And not all traditions are bad. I was discussing with someone that of all the things our culture is not good at, one of the things we got right was our concept of childhood as a protected time, an extended protected time. That seems to be slowly taking hold across the world in cultures where infanticide, child workers/slaves, child soldiers and child brides are slowly being stomped out. Thank the Gods. And Japan has a tradition of public service that would be good for Americans to learn from.

As an Anthropology major (I double majored) I know how vital it is for a people to hang on to a cultural identity. In the U.S. Anthropology and Archaeology have their roots in trying to document the swiftly fading AmerIndian cultures of the Americas. It was incredibly vital to the aboriginal peoples to hang onto their lifeways and cultural identities in the face of genocidal devastation.

But there has to be a certain point where clinging to an aspect of a cultural identity is simply wrong in the harm that it does. Child brides and female genital mutilation, for instance. Antisemitism was a major part of European culture for a thousand years culminating in one of the worst acts of genocide seen in all of human history. America is facing numerous mass murders and yet we can’t move on any form of gun control, even just a background check system that actually works, because of a large part of our society screaming “Guns are our traditional way of life!”

And I know part of the hysteria over gun control is part of the fear many conservative Americans are facing in a changing world.

But life is change.

In fact, I believe the instant a culture tries to freeze itself in time, it is on the decline.

We no longer live on a frontier that requires everyone to own a firearm. So is the ability to walk into a store and walk out with an AR15 an hour later *really* necessary to one’s cultural identity as an American? I am immensely proud of my family’s 379 year history on these shores. I culturally identify myself as an “American” full stop. And I do not own a gun. My cultural identity is not reliant on owning a firearms. It’s bigger than anything I can hold in my hand.

Most things we think of as “traditional” are harmless; holidays, rituals, music, dances and so on. And what is important in all cultural traditions is that they are outward reflection of the inner, innate ideals, beliefs, morals and attitudes of their culture. Things that do slowly change over time, but I think that process does not eliminate them. It refines them. Accepting homosexual marriage does not mean that we no longer believe in the monogamous marriage. It just means we have opened that cultural tradition to everyone. If we enacted stricter gun control laws, that does not mean Americans are no longer a valiant people. It just means that we don’t need to wave guns around to prove it. It means we realized that guns undercut the idea of true courage because any bully can threaten someone with superior force. The brave person is the one that stands up to superior force and says, “No, you are wrong.”

Haven’t we, as a species, advanced enough to be self-aware enough to look at aspects of our culture and see them objectively, to be able to weigh the harm they do vs. the true cultural impact of letting them go? Is our identity as Americans going to vanish because we enact stricter gun laws or stop mining coal? Will the 1500 year old Japanese culture collapse if they stop whaling?

Of course not. A culture is stronger, or at least it should be stronger, than a single outward aspect of its traditions.