Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for the ‘Nostalgia for God’ Category

Ghost in the Machine

In Nostalgia for God, Religion and Society on April 14, 2013 at 12:24 pm

There are ghosts in my dish washing machine.

I was reading earlier this evening an essay about the evolution of religious thought. An evolutionary approach to religion posits that our systems of belief have changed over time as our brains and societies have developed. It is closely tied to the psychological approach, which holds that religious beliefs stem from psychological needs – such as the need to understand how our world works or what happens to us after death. Both theories see religion as a construct of the human mind.

A somewhat simplified version of the theory goes like this – the least developed religious ideas are basically different versions of belief in magic, fetishism, dream interpretation, and the like. Next comes animism, where the belief in souls or spirits prevail – appeasement of the spirits of departed ancestors or those who have some influence over nature. Spirits that are venerated for more than a few generations may become so powerful in the minds of believers that they morph into deities and demigods, and the next phase – polytheism – is  achieved. After this comes monism – the belief that there are several gods but you choose to worship only the one you think is best – and finally the short step from there is taken to monotheism. Some would insist that this evolution is still continuing today, and would ‘complete’ the process by appending deism, agnosticism, and atheism to this list.

Religious evolution doesn’t take place neatly even within a single culture, as some accept new ideas and others prefer to stick to the old ways. Even when a religion is considered to have evolved to a certain level, it often retains elements of the ‘lower’ form of belief – monotheists may venerate a relic in much the same way a primitive person believes in a fetish, polytheists might still pay soothsayers to perform magical incantations.

And agnostics may cling to ghosts, even when they know better.

My most prized possessions are a set of coffee mugs my mother gave me on our last Christmas together. In general, I have a lot of rules about drinking. There are certain drinks for certain times of the day or year, and they must be served in the proper glass or cup to be fully enjoyed – heavy cut crystal for scotch, chilled Imperial pints for ales, small snifters for cognac, etc. For coffee, the right mug is critical. Too big and not only does the coffee cool before you can finish, you look like you’re at clown school while drinking it. Too small and you can’t stir in your cream without sloshing some over the edge. The mug must have sufficient heft, thick enough to keep from scalding your hands.


In years of visits to my parents’ house, my mother had observed me drinking my coffee out of exactly the same set of mugs every time, going so far as to pull one out of the dishwasher and wash it by hand if none were clean. She commented more than once that the coffee would be just as good out of one of her other cups; I let her know that she was mistaken. Her last Christmas, I think knowing deep down inside that the cancer would not let her see another, she gave as gifts to friends and family many of her personal possessions – jewelry, photographs, figurines. She gave me the coffee mugs.

Every morning since her passing, I wake up, start the coffee, pull one of those mugs from the cupboard, and sit for a moment or two with my mom.  I don’t actually talk with her – or talk at all really. I’m just aware of her presence, somehow the cup in my hand bringing her closer for a moment or two. I think about what she might have to say about what’s happening in my life, or if the weather outside would suit her.

I know this is absurd. I know that we are material only, and that what we call the soul is a manifestation of the physical brain, nothing more. There is no spirit that continues to live – not on any alternative plane of existence, heaven, Elysium, nirvana – nor in our own. We know that when part of the brain is damaged, that part of the person we once knew can disappear; why do we think that when the entire brain shuts down, that person would continue to exist elsewhere? Dishes can last forever – the people who fill them by their labor and love do not.

But there are ghosts in the machine, old patterns of thinking wired into the hardware of our brain in more ancient times, ideas we know to be false but are still attractive. And so we preach against prejudice but are careful to move to neighborhoods with ‘good’ schools. We eschew organized religion but fall prey to gurus. We knock on wood, cross our fingers, pray.

Sometimes, the more ‘primitive’ religion has better ideas than the modern one. For example, most animistic cultures do not venerate an ancestor spirit for more than a predetermined number of generations; once everyone with any direct memory of the ancestor has died, the spirit of that ancestor is considered to be permanently gone. This means you can’t make up untrue accounts of what your object of worship supposedly said or did – because someone else would remember and call you out. You might recite words of wisdom that had been handed down from generation to generation – but you don’t worship the person who said them. Imagine what a better place the world would be, how much nonsense we could avoid if we didn’t have such misplaced veneration for people who supposedly said and did certain things hundreds of years ago.

But ghosts are strong, and the struggle to rid ourselves of their influence continues. We hear the forgotten hymn and are moved by it. We miss the form, the ritual.

We whisper to a coffee cup in those dark and quiet moments before the dawn.


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And We Hid Our Faces From Him

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the Old Testament, Nostalgia for God on September 11, 2012 at 1:00 am

In my last post, I discussed the documentary The God Who Wasn’t There, a fairly pedestrian movie promoting an idea which is much more prevalent than I knew – the idea that Jesus never existed. I suppose, coming from a fundamentalist background, that I always thought that almost everyone believed that Jesus was a historical character, but that unbelievers thought he was just a good guy, an unorthodox teacher, and Christians worshiped him as the Son of God. I wasn’t really aware of the fact that some intellectuals considered the life of Jesus to be entirely mythical.

That documentary showed a few scenes from another, much more powerful movie, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Brian Flemming, the narrator and director of the documentary, said that Gibson’s movie is far and away the most popular Christian movie of all time, and he criticizes Christians for their love of blood – if you’ve never seen The Passion, it is definitely not for the faint of heart. Seeing these scenes again stirred up a lot of old feelings in me, and I just wanted to think aloud about some of them. I once read a quote, something to the extent that agnostics are atheists with a nostalgia for God – if you know who said it, please drop me a line.

I saw The Passion of the Christ at a movie theater in Bangkok, Thailand, where I was living at the time, and I’m sure it was a very different experience from what viewers in the US might have enjoyed.  99% of the population of Thailand is Buddhist, and many have no understanding whatsoever of our Christian beliefs. I once had a Thai student ask me, at Christmas time, if Christmas was a distinctly American holiday. I replied that Christmas was a holiday that celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, and that most countries with a Christian heritage enjoyed celebrating Christmas. The Thai student smiled and nodded her head, which is the Thai way of saying that I don’t understand what the hell you’re talking about, but I don’t want to look like an idiot by asking another question. So, I asked whether the student had ever heard of Jesus before. She replied that she had not, but she had read of other famous Americans, such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Needless to say, when I arrived at the movie theater to see The Passion, I was surprised to see a full auditorium. I didn’t think all those Buddhists would give one whit about the life of Christ. But Thais love all things American, especially Hollywood movies, so they had come out in droves. They had no idea what the movie was about. I’m sure you think I’m kidding, but the same Thai student who can tell you every single aspect of the story of the Ramayana (Ramakien in Thai) couldn’t place WWII in the proper century, and couldn’t tell you if Washington, Lincoln, Plato, and Hitler all lived at the same time or in different centuries. Western Civilization is not taught in high school nor is it a mandatory course in college – why would it be? I could never be too critical as a teacher there – most American students couldn’t tell you how many years there are between Plato, Washington, and Hitler either – and wouldn’t know what the hell you were talking about if you said ‘Ramakien”.

Many Buddhists are vegetarian, as they can’t stomach the idea of taking the life of any sentient being, not even a fish or a bird. Imagine watching such a brutal movie with this group of people. They were totally unprepared for what transpired on the screen. I knew that Jesus would be beaten and spit upon, that by the time he reached Golgotha that he’d be nearly unrecognizable as a human being. But the gentle Thais had never heard of such a gory hero as Jesus. They flinched when the Roman soldiers slapped him, moaned when the cat-o-nine-tails dug into his back, shrieked when the crown of thorns was thrust upon his head, and wept as Mary kissed his feet as he hung on the cross.

This was powerful stuff, this passion story. I remember my sister, one year older than me, watching horror films, covering her eyes at the scary parts. The Thais did the same thing – they were so appalled at the gristly nature of the film, that they covered their eyes with their hands, hiding behind one another and the high-rise seats. I couldn’t help but think of Isaiah 53 –

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

Isaiah describes the natural response to such human misery; yet, we are so accustomed to the story of Jesus’ crucifixion that we can tell it to our children, perhaps with a smile on our faces. Yet, agnostic that I am, I still can’t watch such a graphic portrayal without choking up.

Isaiah 53 was always a favorite scripture of mine.  I thought of it as tragic poetry – real history, but expressed in beautifully painful language. That the Son of God could appear on Earth, and receive such vile treatment – it was finer tragedy than Oedipus Rex. Today, scholars attribute the writing to someone other than the Isaiah who wrote the first 50 chapters of the book named after him, some anonymous prophet who had been carried off by the Assyrian captivity. And Orthodox Jews contend that this scripture in no way, shape or form refers to an individual person, let alone the Christian Messiah. Nevertheless, for Christians, it resonates deep within the heart.

Amy Grant once recorded a rendition of O Sacred Head, Now Wounded  that I would listen to over and over again for hours. It seemed at the time to epitomize Christ’s sacrifice for us. Perhaps looming even larger in my childhood was a collection of songs recorded by Jimmy Swaggart; two albums named Worship and Healing. Each track of the albums featured a traditional composition of an old hymn, and Swaggart read a portion of scripture as the music played. With his Bill Clinton-esque ability to convey emotion in his voice, the combination of music and scripture was quite powerful.

My favorite was a song called ‘The Healer’. It was an old hymn that I had grown up hearing in church, one that I can remember my Dad trying to sing, and his mother as well – neither of them had any talent at singing, but they loved the old songs.

On the cross, crucified, in great sorrow he died; the giver of life, was he.

While this beautiful hymn was sung, Swaggart read from Isaiah, with emphasis:

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

I stopped believing in this sort of thing a long time ago, but it still has the ability to tug at my heartstrings. When my mother was so sick with cancer, she posted pieces of paper with scriptures on them all around her bedroom – scriptures that promised healing. I searched everywhere for a copy of the old Swaggart album she had once loved so much. I thought that listening to it would comfort her. I finally found a CD version online and ordered it – it arrived a couple of days after her doctor told us that she had only a few weeks to live. I tossed it in the trash.

The story of Jesus’ crucifixion is sad, but there’s no way to know if it’s true or not. A Tale of Two Cities is a sad story too, and O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi will make you well up every time you read it. But the difference is that these stories don’t promise something that they can’t deliver, they don’t give dying people false hope, nor do they try to persuade people that a man died for them a couple thousand years ago. My mother spent her whole life believing in the gospels, but she fought death off until the end – there was no “looking forward to being with Jesus” for her – something inside her knew.

I don’t really have any conclusion. I love the old gospel songs, and they can still move me. I appreciate the poetry and tragedy of some of the scriptures. I wish I could believe in some kind of afterlife where I might be able to meet up with loved ones again. But just because I choke up watching Toy Story 3 doesn’t mean I think it’s a true story; just because a scripture like Isaiah 53 is beautifully tragic doesn’t make it any more real than the movie Somewhere in Time.

I once cried to think that humankind would hide its face from God’s son; if there is a God, it’s obvious he turned his face from us long ago.