Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Looking for God in all the Wrong Places

I was raised in the Midwest, Minnesota to be precise, in a Lutheran household.  Going to church every Sunday, attending Sunday school, and singing in whatever Choir was appropriate for my age at a given time was simply part of life. I will not go so far to say that faith or religion in general was of foremost importance to me in my youth, but it was a significant part of my life and did play a role in the person I grew to become.

As often is the case, once I left home my life grew too busy and my overwhelming schedule of working and going to college simultaneously led to my rarely attending services of any kind.  For more than a decade, I was pretty much un-churched other than the occasional ritualistic holiday service attendance.  I married and started a career, neither my job nor my husband at the time found religion to be important so it was actually quite easy to forget its former importance to me.

By the time my daughters were two and three, I began to feel that it was my responsibility to “expose” them to religion because I felt that by not doing so I was choosing for them.  So while living on a military compound in Mannheim Germany in the 80’s, I began to attend generic Protestant services each Sunday, and joined both the choir and a group called Protestant Women of the Chapel.

During that time, our entire family was a regular fixture at Sunday services as well as numerous other church sponsored activities.  This period was a fairly lonely time for me since my husband seemed to always be at work or at a work related activity and I found solace in my new church friends.  Beyond that, for the first time in my life, I saw something in these people, a light, a joy, a positive sense of direction and hope for the future that I had been missing. Many of these people had suffered great loss in their lives and yet they remained at peace and I wanted that peace, that joy, that sense of knowing what the future would bring.

As it turned out, my sense of well-being would be short lived.  My marriage ended abruptly while I was still in Germany and I ultimately collected up a few suitcases of belongings and my two daughters and headed home to Minnesota with no idea what I would be doing or what the future would bring. As they say, timing is everything and since my father had recently passed away, my Mother was overjoyed to have her daughter and grand-daughters close by.  There was never any question but that we would all attend church each and every Sunday together, and so we did.

For awhile, I considered staying in that small town of my childhood dreaming that my girls would benefit from growing up there, but career opportunities were limited and I actually missed city life.  So after six months, we rented a moving van, collected the furniture items we had acquired during our brief stay and moved back to the DC area.

This was during the administration of George H. W. Bush and employment opportunities were not good even in the DC area, but I was able to get a job which led to a better job and so on.  We tried attending a local Lutheran church nearby, but the pastor seemed really creepy and we never returned. By year three I was working at a state university near my home and enjoying life.  My daily commute took me by a small but attractive Lutheran church and eventually one Sunday I got the girls and I all dressed up and off we went to church.  Perhaps if things had gone differently, I might never have gone back, but these people seemed genuinely interested in us and even came by to visit us in our home. 

Once again I became a regular Sunday church goer and my girls really liked Sunday school.  Over time we all embraced our church family, all singing in the choirs, attending youth events, and vacation bible school and bible camp. Eventually I was asked to become an elder and proudly accepted thinking that perhaps I was finally one of those people that others saw joy and hope within.

There were probably always little red flags that suggested something other than a desire to feel closer to God and serve him in some of the church members.  There seemed to be a profound emphasis on material things and affluence amongst some prominent members that made me uncomfortable but I chose to ignore. I think that by the time I retired in 2008, I was seriously considering looking for a new church home.  In 2009 we moved all the way to Texas and during the first few months I attended services at a few Lutheran churches and at one nondenominational church and none of them felt quite right.  After learning that one of the most prominent members of the one I favored the most was actually a convicted white collar criminal who had destroyed the lives of thousands of people, I stopped looking.

Probably the most profound disappointment of my life as a Christian came in the spring of 2012 when I spent a month back in the DC area with my daughters.  Because I was going to be in the area over Easter, I thought it would be fun to sing with my old church choir.  Sadly, I got a terrible cold and was unable to sing, but did attend several services. 

I was deeply disappointed in what my old church had become.  I had been a part of a huge fundraising effort to build a proper sanctuary for what had once been a quaint little church and had myself contributed more than $12,000 toward that end. I noted with great disappointment the nearly empty sanctuary on both Palm Sunday and Easter, days that the church used to be filled to overflowing. At first I wasn’t quite sure what was behind this poor attendance, but it soon became abundantly clear to me that the overall atmosphere was not one of peace, love, understanding or even mutual respect among the congregation.  In particular, during the children’s talk the lay minister asked the children about who they would invite to their birthday party.  When he specifically asked them if they would invite the President, and got a loud no from at least one very young child, which resulted in laughter by some of the adults and a comment from the woman seated next to me that it was great, I began to understand.

Over the next several days, I spent a lot of time wondering what had happened within that church and numerous others that condoned overt disrespect towards an elected official. I wondered if these same people who found this amusing because they held differing political views from the current President would think it equally funny when children showed disrespect to a teacher, a principal, or to a police officer.  After all, a message was being clearly conveyed to very young children that they need not show respect and it that it was even OK to say mean things and hate. I often hear Christian friends claim that allowing prayer in school will solve many of today's problems, but how can that be true when they are being exposed to hate and intolerance in their churches?

As I see it, religion has lost its way, lost sight of the love for fellow mankind that Jesus preached.  People now judge others, try to control the lives of others, discriminate against others, commit acts of violence against others and say mean hateful things to others, all in the name of religion.  I can only think that Jesus is heartbrokenly disappointed on what many religious institutions do in his name and the name of his Father.  I am a spiritual person, I believe in doing good when I can and certainly in doing no harm to others.  I also believe that people are free to do what they choose when it does not harm others, even if I don’t agree with their actions.

I now accept that I will never again be a member of any religious institution and I am comfortable with that decision.  Perhaps if there is a day of Rapture as many believe, I will be left behind, but so will many of the most prominent members and leaders of religious institutions, because they have long ago lost sight of the teachings of Jesus.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Can Blood Be Too Thick

All the time we see on TV friends and family members of criminals, politicians, and other public figures who are guilty of misconduct standing by their loved ones.  Most recently I recall the wife of General Jeffery Sinclair asking that he not be reduced in rank because it would be a hardship for his family to live on the retirement pay of a Lieutenant Colonel.  Really, I bet a lot of Lieutenant Colonels find that pretty hard to stomach.  Even more important is the given fact that during his career, Sinclair most certainly ended the careers of subordinates for far less egregious misconduct than he himself received a mere slap on the wrist for without giving a moment’s consideration to their families.
The family members of George Zimmerman come to mind as well. Not only were they strong supporters of his right to shoot and kill an unarmed teenager, they showed total indifference to the feelings of Treyvon Martin’s family, displaying a “he got what he deserved” attitude.
Looking at these two examples, I have to wonder if perhaps friends and families can and often do go too far in their support.  Personally I suspect that in the case of General Sinclair, the good ole’ boy network of Army General Officers chose to look the other way until they no longer could, as they always do when it comes to one of their own. 

 I once supervised a young soldier who had served in a clerical position in the Office of the Vice Chief of Staff, Army.  He candidly told me that misconduct by the Army’s most senior leaders was fairly common place and included numerous instances of adultery, misappropriation, and even shoplifting.  He was responsible for typing up the letters of reprimand, i.e. wrist slaps that never kept these officers from being further promoted because they were maintained in an area of their personnel file that no one would ever see. Mind you, he never told me the names of these personnel, but having been a Military Police Officer and seen some cases myself, I found no reason to doubt what he said. So the question I pose is how long do friends and family members have to ignore the bad behavior of a person before it causes real harm and/or escalates to more serious criminal behavior?
I was inspired to write this piece as a follow-up to an earlier blog Bad People Do Bad Things, Count on It. I had known the subject of that blog (let’s call him “Sam”) for nearly five years and had personally witnessed him behave inappropriately on a number of occasions.  Beyond that, I had heard of other things from mutual acquaintances that Sam had done before I ever knew him.  Even I was guilty of looking the other way and making excuses for him on some level.  When you have an adult man (pushing 70) who doesn’t make any attempt to control his use of profanity in public no matter how many young children are present, chases waitresses into the kitchens of restaurants, and actually salutes the breasts of the well endowed daughter of a friend, and the only response he gets from his wife is to giggle and say “Oh Sam,” you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that he probably doesn’t actually see his behavior as at all inappropriate.
I wrote the initial blog as an outlet for frustration due to his actually getting away with unethical and illegal conduct, but I admit that I secretly hoped that either he or a member of his family would see the piece and know who I was talking about.  I don’t know what kind of response I expected from any of them if any of them read it, but fantasized about Sam stomping around the room blustering about slander and law suits and even contacting a lawyer only to learn that not only had he not been named in the blog, but neither was the school or the community so he had no case. Of course beyond that, I hadn’t written anything that was not 100% true, he really did those things.  In any case, as recently as this week it became obvious that someone in his family had read the blog and knew who it was about.  I know this because his adult children had “unfriended” me, my husband, and both my daughters on Facebook.  Really, like I want anything to do with people of this caliber.  I am laughing picturing the family meeting with the wife blubbering about their reputations and Sam trying to figure out how to get revenge. Sadly, what I cannot imagine happening is either of those children asking him “did you do those things?”  Obviously the “rotten” apples didn’t fall far from that tree.
Life has many lessons and one of many things that I take away from this experience is that some families stick together no matter what; beyond that, they justify the bad behavior of each other.  We did not raise our daughters to never question the behavior of their parents or to accept everything we do as the best and only way.  You can bet that had my husband done what Sam did and someone wrote about it identifying him only by his conduct, I would never, ever have told my daughters about it and asked them to support him.  Their first question would have been, “did Dad actually do those things?”
No one is perfect and good all of the time, but I firmly believe that especially as parents, we lead by example.  What we teach our children when they are young and the examples we set for them are what makes them who they are as adults.  Here, and in everything, the adult children of Sam are behaving the only way they can, circling the wagons and justifying his bad behavior…and their own children are watching.  That alone in all of this makes me sad.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The New Atheist Activism In America

My good friend Darin Anthony sent me the following survey that he developed as part of a project for a social psychology class he is taking. I think it asks some interesting questions and made me articulate my own views on the subject of "atheist activism," to the extent that such a thing exists, and the attempts of Creationists to impose their sectarian viewpoints on society. As the graphic at the bottom of this page indicates, in any event, atheists comprise a very small percentage of Americans. Comments are welcome! 

1. How would you describe your faith life?
I am a person of faith with an active religious life, which includes daily prayer and monthly worship.

2. What is your personal opinion of atheists?
My view of American atheists in general is that they have renounced religion because they have been exposed to too much rather than too little of it. I furthermore believe that many have confused the concepts of "religion" and "God" and that if they understood they could renounce the one while still embracing the other that many might be persons of faith.

3. What is your personal opinion of the atheists you have known?
On par, most atheists I know are more intelligent and better educated than religious people I know. Most appear to have made an intellectual decision to choose atheism and many of them have become atheists after being driven away from religion by extremist family members or negative experiences in fundamentalist congregations. They run the gamut in terms of morality, many being genuinely good people and others being completely amoral.

4. Have you done anything to support your faith or belief system?
Yes. I make myself available talk to people about faith, God, and religion when they want to discuss them or have questions. I do not proselytize in any way because I think it is counterproductive and that other people can make legitimate religious decisions that are completely different than my own.

5. Why do you think atheists become activists against things like creationism being taught in schools?
Under the best of conditions, I believe they are doing so to keep America from becoming a dumbed-down, medievalized, fundamentalist state (i.e., in the way that Iran is often criticized for being). Often, however, I get the impression that they are also being driven by a personal contempt for religion.

6. What impact do you see if any has atheist activism had on our country?
Overall, I believe anything that could be explicitly identified as "atheist activism" has had a negative effect on America, in large part because it has led fundamentalists to believe they are being attacked and to respond accordingly. "Secular humanist activism" or somesuch would come off as much less antagonistic, and not necessarily be incompatible with peoples' religious views. The promise of America is, in any event, that people should be able to have any sorts of beliefs they want and still be able to peacefully and productively coexist with people who have differing or even opposed points of view.

7. What effect do you think creationism is having as it is taught in schools?
Mythology, taught as such, has great value in understanding the universe and our place in it. I believe that teaching myths as if they represent a literal truth diminishes the value of those stories, does not give them the respect they deserve, and has the effect of making people narrow minded and intellectually backward.

8. If atheist activists win their cause how do you think it will affect you personally?
Not sure if anyone will "win" if compromise, mutual respect, and coexistence are not the results. In a sense, atheists and religious people alike both already "won" more than 230 years ago, when America was founded as a secular state that guaranteed freedom of religion. Understanding the collective value of this is what will allow everyone to "win."

9. If atheist activists win their cause how do you think it will affect the nation?
If their goal to is to keep America a nation where religion does not dictate policy but where people can worship as they see fit while respecting the rights of others then it will affect the nation positively. If their goal is to curtail peoples' rights to worship privately or to antagonize religious people then I believe it will have a negative, fragmenting effect on the nation.

10. What do you think will happen if atheist activists lose their battle against creationism being taught in schools?
If creationism is taught in schools then it will severely damage efforts to effectively educate American students. Football and overemphasis on athletic activities that benefit only a few, standardized testing, cutting of arts and humanities programs, etc., have already harmed the true mission of education — to provide students with facts and to teach them how, not what, to think. 

Percentage of atheists and agnostics by region.

Monday, March 24, 2014

My Page, or Yours

I have to admit to being somewhat addicted to Facebook.  For me it has become a way to reconnect with friends and classmates from my youth so that we can reminisce about the good ole days. I also spent 32 years in the Army so have friends located pretty much all over the world and Facebook makes it possible to easily keep in touch with them. My preference is to post only feel good or amusing things and cute cat pictures. Occasionally, I will about write something more serious or use Facebook to promote a blog that I have written so that friends who are interested can read what I have written.
I take writing very seriously, as I feel everyone should.  I carefully collect my thoughts and read what I have written aloud to my husband Michael, who is a professional writer and journalist, to make sure my intent is clear and concise.  I have always been open to comments from others on my page so long as they more or less stick to the topic being discussed and remain respectful of the fact that they are writing on my page and not their own.

Yesterday I felt a need to do something on Facebook that I have never in the past done, I deleted several posts from an individual on my page.  The post was in reference to the last blog I wrote on this site, Bad People Do Bad Things, Expect It.  As I clearly indicated in the posts introduction, I sometimes write when I need to figure out situations that I have trouble understanding. I did not write the piece to convince anyone of anything, not did I ask them to pass judgment on anyone person or institution, and I most certainly did not want anyone to incorporate their own baggage, make numerous assumptions, and make a case for why the conduct I had concluded was bad, was in fact somehow justified.
Initially, I simply ignored the comments, actually feeling a little embarrassed for the author that not only were they off topic, but poorly written with numerous spelling and grammatical errors.  Ignoring them didn’t seem to get the point across; they just kept coming, finally reaching a point where they were stating a need for more information so they could “pass judgment” and implying that I had written only one side of the incident, and ultimately that the school had something to hide.  How he came to these conclusions is beyond me given that he does not live within a thousand miles of the community where the incident occurred and does not know anyone who was involved.

It certainly appears that this man has his own history (baggage) with Christian schools and that he was, without any facts or information, assigning any and all shortcomings he had experienced or witnessed to the school about which I was writing.  I, on the other hand, live in this community and know the players involved in this incident. The vast majority of the information I wrote about came from the person I ultimately concluded had acted badly, not from the school.
What is also clear to me is that some people just need to argue.  If you see what looks like a duck, see it walking like a duck and quacking, you don’t need to interview the duck to know it is a duck.  By the same logic, when a person agrees to do something for a certain amount and receives what is obviously an overpayment and says nothing and then complains when they receive the agreed upon amount the next pay period, they are just plain wrong.  Quitting any job without notice for such a preposterous reason furthers that wrong as does stealing school property and making threats against school staff members.

How someone can in one post talk about how the solution to this and every other problem is for more people to go to church and then justify the actions of a thief and an extortionist is lost on me.  If a person carelessly leaves their front door unlocked and someone enters their home and steals their TV, the person is still a thief and has still broken the law.
Were I to give advice, I would say to anyone that writing is a serious business. How you write is just as important as what you write. Spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar are important if you want to be taken seriously and get your point across. The more errors in your correspondence, the less credibility you will have. Lastly, your own unsubstantiated opinions do not belong on someone else’s page, that is what your own page is for.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Bad People Do Bad Things, Expect It

When did people stop doing the right thing? When did they stop caring whether their actions harmed others?  I guess the answer to that is that there have always been some people who did not think about anyone but themselves. Thankfully, and perhaps naively, I still believe that the vast majority of people do care about others. However, I recently witnessed what I consider to be a pretty deplorable situation and have been so bothered by what transpired that it led me to write this piece. 

There is a recently organized small Christian charter school in our community that caters to those children who simply cannot learn in a traditional classroom environment.  The school’s founder did not establish it to make money but rather to provide a service, it was her calling.  There are only about 40 students enrolled in the school and the tuition is what I would call ridiculously cheap, but then the parents of these students are not affluent.  What this means is that before this school was established there was not an alternative available to them.
This is a bare bones environment; those who teach at the school do it as a service to the community for very little pay.  Witnessing the teachers reach out to their students gradually adapting to their individual learning disabilities and challenging situations is truly heartwarming.  This is the kind of individual attentiveness that can only be accomplished in a class room with no more than eight students. Any person with an ounce of common sense could look at the school and see the tuition charged and completely understand that this school is not about profit, it is about the kids, giving them a chance they otherwise probably would not have.
Back in January, my husband and I heard that the school needed a math teacher to teach one class. I mentioned this need to a few people, none of whom expressed an interest. We finally thought about an acquaintance that had always made great play of all the volunteer work he did and who also frequently professed that he did not need compensation.  We provided his name to the school administrator and he was subsequently hired to teach one class each day beginning the last week of January.
By all accounts, although a bit forgetful, he did a good job and the kids liked him.  All appeared well until the February pay checks were given out to the staff just prior to Spring break.  He was extremely dissatisfied with what he was being paid and quit immediately without notice. Further investigation determined that he had in fact been accidently over paid in January by a factor of five since he only taught one week that month and thus extrapolated that that he should receive five times that amount for February.  It should be noted that he demanded to be paid more than the full time staff members and indicated that if he was not paid the amount demanded that he would “bad mouth” the school.  He also stole books from the school and said he would not return them unless they paid him. Needless to say, my husband and I were mortified that we had ever suggested him as a candidate, but then who knows the evil that lurks in the hearts of men.
This whole situation devastated the school, particularly the administrator who was responsible for the accidental overpayment.  Hoping to minimize any potential damage to the school and erroneously believing that paying him off would put an end to an ugly situation, the school paid him.  Actually, the administrator forfeited her own salary for the period of his employment to cover his unearned and extorted pay. To say that they should not have done this would be an understatement given that he was not only a thief, but an extortionist as well, and he had already begun to make malicious and false statements about the school and many of its staff members. He acted like a classic bully, and the school gave him their lunch money.
Perhaps they should have known better, perhaps they should have known that a person who did the kind of things this man did could not be trusted, in any and all things. But they are, after all, a Christian school and were ill equipped to deal with actions so vile.
Looking at this situation, I ask myself, why did he accept a position for pay that he ultimately considered inadequate? Did he simply hate teaching there and use this as a way of leaving? Why did he not ask why his initial paycheck was five times the amount he was told he would be paid? Did he not care about the significant impact his departure would have on already-challenged kids? Did he not care how the other far more qualified teachers would feel about his being paid at a rate five times what they were receiving? Had he known that an individual would be giving up their own pay to compensate him would he have done the same thing?
I think the only conclusion most people would come to is that he is incapable of thinking about anyone other than himself, that the charitable nature he has presented to so many is nothing but a façade, that he didn’t give a hoot about the kids, or that he is a truly bad person.  Or, maybe he just needed the money and was willing to forfeit any pretense of decency to get it.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Polynesian Theogony of Paul Gauguin

Following is one of the chapters from Noa Noa, artist Paul Gauguin's account of his first, two-year visit to the island of Tahiti, which is couched in the context of a discussion with his concubine and provides an overview of the traditional Polynesian pantheon. It is, in fact, very reminiscent to me of Hesiod's famous Theogony of the classical Greek deities, and should be of some interest to anyone interested in the artist, comparative religion, or any number of related things. 

In the evening we have long and often very grave conversations in bed. 

Now that I can understand Tehura, in whom her ancestors sleep and sometimes dream, I strive to see and think through this child, and to find again in her the traces of the far-away past which socially is dead indeed, but still persists in vague memories. 

I question, and not all of my questions remain unanswered. 

Perhaps the men, more directly affected by our conquest or beguiled by our civilization, have forgotten the old gods, but in the memory of the women they have kept a place of refuge for themselves. It is a touching spectacle which Tehura presents, when under my influence the old national divinities gradually reawaken in her memory and cast off the artificial veils in which the Protestant missionaries thought it necessary to shroud them. As a whole the work of the catechists is very superficial. Their labors, particularly among the women, have fallen far short of their expectations. Their teaching is like a feeble coat of varnish which scales off, and quickly disappears at the slightest skillful touch. 

Tehura goes regularly to the temple, and offers lip-service to the official religion. But she knows by heart, and that is no small task, the names of all the gods of the Maori Olympus. She knows their history, she teaches me how they have created the world, how they rule it, how they wish to be honored. She is a stranger to the rigors of Christian morals, or else she does not care. For example, she does not think of repenting of the fact that she is the concubine, as they call it, of a tané

I do not exactly know how she associates Taaroa and Jesus in her beliefs. I think that she venerates both.

As chance has come she has given me a complete course in Tahitian theology. In return I have tried to explain to her some of the phenomena of nature in accordance with European knowledge.

The stars interest her much. She asks me for the French name of the morning-star, the evening-star, and the other stars. It is difficult for her to understand that the earth turns around the sun. . . .
She tells me the names of the stars in her language, and, as she is speaking, I distinguish by the very light of the stars who are themselves divinities the sacred forms of the Maori masters of the air and the fire, of the islands and of the waters. 

The inhabitants of Tahiti, as far as it is possible to go back in their history, have always possessed a rather extended knowledge of astronomy. The periodical feasts of the Areois, members of a secret religious and military society which ruled over the islands and of which I shall have more to say, were based on the revolutions of the stars. Even the nature of moonlight, it seems, was not unknown to the Maori. They assume that the moon is a globe very much like the earth, inhabited like it and rich in products like our own. 

They estimate the distance from the earth to the moon in their manner thus: The seed of the tree Ora was borne from the moon to the earth by a white dove. It took her two moons to reach the satellite, and when after two more moons she fell upon the earth again, she was without feathers. Of all the birds known to the Maoris, this one is regarded as having the swiftest flight.
But here is the Tahitian nomenclature of the stars. I complete Tehura's lesson with the aid of a very ancient manuscript found in Polynesia. 

Is it too presumptuous to see in this the beginnings of a rational system of astronomy, rather than a simple play of the imagination? 

Roüa — great is his beginning — slept with his wife, the Gloomy Earth.

She gave birth to her king, the sun, then to the dusk, and then to the night.

Then Roüa cast off this woman.

Roüa — great is his beginning — slept with the woman called "Grande Réunion."

She gave birth to the queens of the heaven, the stars, and then to the star Tahiti, the evening-star.

The king of the golden skies, the only king, slept with his wife Fanoüi.

Of her is born the star Taüroüa (Venus), the morning-star, the king Taüroüa, who gives laws to the night and the day, to the other stars, to the moon, to the sun, and serves as a guide to mariners.

Taüroüa sailed at the left toward the north, where he slept with his wife, and begat the Red Star, the star which shines in the evening under two faces.

The Red Star, flying in the East, made ready his pirogue, the pirogue of the full day, and steered toward the skies. At the rise of the sun he sailed away.

Rehoüa now arises in the wideness of space. He sleeps with his wife, Oüra Taneïpa.

Of them are born the Twin-kings, the Pleiades.

These Twin-kings are surely identical with our Castor and Pollux.

This first version of the Polynesian genesis is complicated with variations which are perhaps only developments.

Taaroa slept with the woman who calls herself Goddess of the Without (or of the sea).

Of them are born the white clouds, the black clouds, and the rain.

Taaroa slept with woman who calls herself Goddess of the Within (or of the earth).

Of them is born the first germ.

Is born in turn all that grows upon the surface of the earth.

Is born in turn the mist of the mountains. Is born in turn he who calls himself the Strong.

Is born in turn she who calls herself the Beautiful, or the one Adorned-in-order-to-Please.
Mahoüi launches his pirogue. 

He sits down in the bottom. At his right hangs the hook, fastened to the line by strands of hair.

And this line, which he holds in his hand, and this hook, he lets fall down into the depths of the universe in order to fish for the great fish (the earth) .

The hook has caught.

Already the axes show, already the God feels the enormous weight of the world.

Tefatou (the God of the earth and the earth itself) caught by the hook, emerges out of the night, still suspended in the immensity of space.

Mahoüi has caught the great fish which swims in space, and he can now direct it according to his will.

He holds it in his hand.

Mahoüi rules also the course of the sun, in such a way that day and night are of equal duration.

I asked Tehura to name the Gods for me.

Taaroa slept with the woman Ohina, the Goddess of the air.

Of them is born the rainbow, the moonlight, then, the red clouds and the red rain.

Taaroa slept with the woman Ohina, Goddess of the bosom of the earth.

Of them is born Tefatou, the spirit who animates the earth, and who manifests himself in subterranean noises.

Taaroa slept with the woman called Beyond-the-Earth.

Of them are born the Gods Teirü and Roüanoüa.

Then in turn Roo who sprang from the flank of his mother's body.

And of the same woman were also born Wrath and the Tempest, the Furious Winds, and also the Peace which follows these.

And the source of these spirits is in the place whence the Messengers are sent.

But Tehura admits that these relations are contested.

The most orthodox classification is this. The Gods are divided into Atuas and Oromatuas.

The superior Atuas are all sons and grandsons of Taaroa.

They dwell in the heavens. — There are seven heavens.

Taaroa and his wife Feii Feii Maïteraï had as sons: Oro (the first of the gods after his father, and who himself had two sons (Tetaï Mati and Oüroü Tetefa), Raa (father of Tetoüa Oüroü Oüroü, Feoïto, Teheme, Roa Roa, Tehu Raï Tia Hotoü, Temoüria), Tane (father of Peüroürai, Piata Hoüa, Piatia Roroa, Parara Iti Matai, Patia Taüra, Tane Haeriraï), Roo, Tieri, Tefatou, Roüa Noüa, Toma Hora, Roüa Otia, Moë, Toüpa, Panoüa, Tefatou Tire, Tefatou Toutaü, Peuraï, Mahoüi, Harana, Paümoüri, Hiro, Roüi, Fanoüra, Fatoühoüi, Rii.

Each of these gods has his particular attributes.

We already know the works of Mahoüi and Tefatou. ...

Tané has the seventh heaven for his mouth, and this signifies that the mouth of this god, who has given his name to man, is the farthest end of the heavens whence the light begins to illume the earth.

Rii separated the heavens and the earth.

Roüi stirred up the waters of the ocean; he broke the solid mass of the terrestrial continent, and divided it into innumerable parts which are the present islands.

Fanoüra, whose head touches the clouds and whose feet touch the bottom of the sea, and Fatoühoüi, another giant, descended together upon Eïva — an unknown land — in order to combat and destroy the monstrous hog which devoured human beings.

Hiro, the god of thieves, dug holes in the rocks with his fingers. He liberated a virgin whom the giants held captive in an enchanted place. With one hand he snatched up the trees which during the day concealed the prison of the virgin, and the charm was broken. ...

The inferior Atuas are particularly occupied with the life and work of men, but they do not abide in their dwelling-places.

They are: the Atuas Maho (god-sharks), guardian spirits of mariners; the Peho, gods and goddesses of the valleys, guardian spirits of husbandry; the No Te Oüpas Oüpas, guardian spirits of singers, of comedians, and of dancers; the Raaoü Pava Maïs, guardian spirits of physicians; the No Apas, gods to whom offerings are made after they have protected one from witchcraft and enchantment; the O Tanoü, guardian spirits of laborers; the Tane Ite Haas, guardian spirits of carpenters and builders; the Minias and the Papeas, guardian spirits of the roofers; the Matatinis, guardian spirits of makers of nets.

The Oromatuas are household gods, the Lares.

There are Oromatuas properly so called, and Genii.

The Oromatuas punish the fomenters of strife, and preserve peace in the families. They are: the Varna Taatas, the souls of the men and women of each family who have died; the Eriorios, the souls of the children, who have died at an early age of a natural death; the Poüaras, the souls of the children, who have been killed at birth, and who have returned into the body of grasshoppers.

The Genii are conjectural divinities, or rather consciously created by man. Without apparent motive, except that of his own choice, he attributes divine qualities to some animal or to some object, as, for example, a tree, and then he consults it in all important circumstances. There is in this, perhaps, a trace of Indian metempsychosis with which the Maoris very probably were acquainted. Their historical songs and legends abound in fables in which the great gods assume the form of animals and plants.

In the last rank of the celestial hierarchy, after the Atuas and the Oromatuas, come the Tiis.
These sons of Taaroa and Hina are very numerous.

In the Maori cosmogomy, they are spirits, inferior to the gods and strangers to men. They are intermediate between organic beings and inorganic beings and defend the rights and prerogatives of the latter against the usurpations of the former.

Their origin is this:

Taaroa slept with Hina, and of them was born Tii.

Tii slept with the woman Ani (Desire), and of them were born: Desire-of-the-night, the messenger of shadows and of death; Desire-of-the-day, the messenger of light and of life; Desire-of-the-gods, the messenger of the things of heaven; Desire-of-men, the messenger of the things of the earth.

Of them in turn were born: Tii of the within who watches over animals and plants; Tii of the without who guards the beings and things of the sea; Tii of the sands, and Tii of the sea-shores, and Tii of the loose earth; Tii of the rocks and Tii of the solid earth.

Still later were born: the happenings of the night, the happenings of the day, going and coming, flux and reflux, the giving and receiving of pleasure.

The images of the Tiis were placed at the farthest ends of the maraës (temples), and formed the limit which circumscribed the sacred places. They are seen on the rocks and on the sea-shores. These idols have the mission of marking the boundaries between the earth and the sea, of maintaining the balance between the two elements, and of restraining their reciprocal encroachments. Even modern travelers have seen a few statues of Tiis on the Ile-de-Pâques. They are colossal outlines partaking of human and animal forms, and bear witness to a special conception of beauty and a genuine skill in the art of working in stones, for they are architecturally constructed of superimposed blocks with original and ingenious combinations of color.

The European invasion and monotheism have destroyed these vestiges of a civilization which had its own grandeur. When the Tahitians to-day raise monuments, they achieve miracles of bad taste — as, for example, the tomb of Pomare. They had been richly endowed with an instinctive feeling for the harmony necessary between human creations and the animal and plant life which formed the setting and decoration of their existence, but this has now been lost. In contact with us, with our school, they have truly become "savages," in the sense which the Latin occident has given this word. They themselves have remained beautiful as masterpieces, but morally and physically (owing to us) they have become unfruitful.

Some traces of maraës still exist. They were parallelograms broken by openings. Three sides were formed of stone walls, four to six feet in height; a pyramid not as high as it was wide formed the fourth. The whole had a width of about one hundred meters, and a length of forty. Images of Tiis decorated this simple architectural structure.

The moon had an important place in the metaphysical speculations of the Maoris. It has already been stated that great feasts were celebrated in her honor. Hina is often invoked in the traditional recitals of the Areois. 

But her share or rôle in the harmony of the world is negative rather than positive.

This appears clearly in the dialogue between Hina and Tefatou.

Such texts would offer beautiful material for exegists, if the Oceanian Bible could be found as a subject for commentary. They would see there first of all the principles of a religion based on the worship of the forces of nature — a characteristic common to all primitive religions. The greater number of Maori gods are in effect personifications of different elements. But an attentive glance, if not misled or depraved by a desire to demonstrate the superiority of our philosophy over that of these "tribes," would soon discover interesting and singular characteristics in these legends.

I should like to point out two, but I shall do no more than indicate them. The problem of verifying these hypotheses is a matter for savants.

It is above all the clearness with which the two only and universal principles of life are designated and distinguished and ultimately resolved into a supreme unity. The one, soul and intelligence, Taaroa, is the male; the other in a certain way matter and body of the same god, is the female, that is Hina. To her belongs all the love of men, to him their respect. Hina is not the name of the moon alone. There is also a Hina-of-the-air, a Hina-of-the-sea, a Hina-of-the-Within, but these two syllables characterize only the subordinate parts of matter. The sun and the sky, light and its empire, all the noble parts of matter, so to speak, or rather all the spiritual elements of matter are Taaroa. This is definitely formulated in more than one text, in which the definition of spirit and matter can be recognized. Or what, if we acquiesce in this definition, is the significance of the fundamental doctrine of the Maori genesis:


Does not this doctrine constitute a primitive belief in the unity of matter? Is there not in this definition and separation of spirit and matter an analysis of the twofold manifestations of a single and unique substance? However rare such a philosophical intention may be among primitives, it does not follow that one should decline to receive testimony. It is evident that the Oceanian theology had two ends in view in the actions of the god who created the world and conserves it: the generative cause and matter which has become fecund, the motive force and the object acted upon, spirit and matter. It also appears clearly that in the constant interaction between the luminous spirit and the perceptive matter which it vivifies — that is to say in the successive unions of Taaroa with the diverse manifestations of Hina — one should recognize the continual and ever-varying influence of the sun upon things. And in the fruits of these unions are to be seen the changes continually effected in these very elements by light and warmth. When once we have a clear view of this phenomenon out of which the two universal currents proceed, we see that in the fruit are united and mingled the generative cause and the matter which has become fecund, in movement, the motive force and the object acted upon, and in life, spirit and matter, and that the universe just created is only the shell of Taaroa.

In the second place it appears from the dialogue between Tefatou and Hina, that man and the earth shall perish, but that the moon and the race inhabiting it shall continue. If we recall that Hina represents matter, and that according to the scientific precept, "all things transform but nothing perishes," we must agree that the old Maori sage who invented the legend knew as much about the subject as we do. Matter does not perish, that is to say it does not lose the qualities which can be perceived by the senses. Spirit, on the contrary, and light, this "spiritual matter," are subject to transformation. There is night and there is death, when the eyes close, from which light seemed to radiate and to reflect. Spirit, or rather the highest actual manifestation of spirit, is man. "Man must die . . . he dies never to rise again. . . . And man should die." But even when man and the earth, these fruits of the union of Taaroa and Hina, have perished, Taaroa himself will remain eternal, and we are told that Hina, matter, will also continue to be. There will then necessarily be present throughout all eternity spirit and matter, light and the object which it strives to illumine. They will be urged on with a mutual desire for a new union from which will arise a new "state" in the infinite evolution of life.

Evolution! . . . The unity of matter! . . . Who would have thought to find such testimony of a high civilization in the conceptions of former cannibals? I can with good conscience say that I have added nothing to the truth.

It is true that Tehura had no doubts concerning these abstractions, but she persisted in regarding shooting stars as wandering tupapaüs and genii in distress. In the same spirit as her ancestors, who thought that the sky was Taaroa himself and that the Atuas descended from Taaroa were simultaneously gods and heavenly bodies, she ascribed human feelings to the stars. I do not know in how far these poetic imaginings impede the progress of the most positive science, neither do I know to what point the highest science would condemn them.

From other points of view it would be possible to give other interpretations to the dialogue between Tefatou and Hina: The counsel of the moon who is feminine might be the dangerous advice of blind pity and sentimental weakness. The moon and women, expressions in the Maori conception for matter, need not know that death alone guards the secrets of life. Tefatou's reply might be regarded as the stern, but far-sighted and disinterested, decree of supremest wisdom, which knows that the individual manifestations of actual life must give way before a higher being in order that it may come and must sacrifice themselves to it in order that it may triumph.

In earlier days this response would have had a much more far-reaching implication and the import of a national prophecy. A great spirit of ancient days would have studied and measured the vitality of his race; he would have foreseen the germs of death in its blood without the possibility of recovery or rebirth, and he would have said:

Tahiti will die, it will die never to rise again

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Guide to World Holidays

A number of people have responded to some of my posts, notably my essay on "Choosing to Have a Happy Holiday," by saying they had not heard of some of the holidays I mentioned! Certainly people can get by in the modern world without knowing too much about Saturnalia, but it probably behooves most educated people to know about the holidays being observed by their neighbors, and so I have decided to start this guide to world holidays. I also hope to reveal some interesting things people might not have known about more familiar holidays.

Saint Patrick’s Day (March 17): This religious holiday devoted to the patron saint of Ireland is observed by the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Lutheran Church. It has been an official church feast day for about 400 years but, in more recent times, has also evolved into a more secular celebration of Irish culture in general that is observed with parades, wearing green clothing, eating, and, naturally, drinking. And, for those who care about such things, participation in it does grant a one-day dispensation on the strictures of Lent for those observing it! Saint Patrick, a 5th century Romano-British Christian missionary and bishop, has a number of claims to fame that warrant such revelry in his memory, the main one being the prominent role he played in spreading Christianity throughout the Emerald Isles. He is also credited with banishing all serpents from Ireland, driving them into the sea and to their deaths after they had the impertinence to attack him during his own Lenten rigors. The fact that there are no snakes in Ireland today suggests that he did, in fact, do a pretty good job in this regard.

Songkran (April 13-15): This holiday coincides with the New Year of many calendars of South and Southeast Asia and is celebrated as the traditional start of the New Year in Thailand. This was originally a moveable feast with a date set by astrological calculation but is now fixed; if its days fall on a weekend, the missed days off are taken on the weekdays immediately following. Songkran falls in the hottest time of the year in Thailand, at the end of the dry season. Songkran has traditionally been celebrated as the New Year for many centuries, is believed to have been adapted from an Indian festival, and is observed nationwide. The most famous Songkran celebrations, however, are still in the northern city of Chiang Mai, where it continues for at least six days. It has also become a party for foreigners and an additional reason for many to visit Thailand.

New Year's Day (January 1). Celebrated on the first day of January throughought much of the world, this day marks the beginnning of the new calendar year. Strange as it may be to conceive of, however, this was not always the case, and only started to be observed on January 1 in the English-speaking world between the years A.D. 1600 and 1761! Up until that point, the start of the New Year was generally observed on March 25, and going back into the Middle Ages a number of other dates were used, including March 1, September 1, Christmas Day, and Easter. Many Catholics may also recognize January 1 as the day Jesus was circumcised.

Epiphany (Mostly January 6 in 2013). This Christian feast day celebrates the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ. In the Western Christian tradition, Ephiphany mainly commemorates the visitation the baby Jesus by the Magi, symbolizing Jesus' physical manifestation to the Gentiles, and is generally celebrated either on January 6 as a Holy Day of Obligation or on the first Sunday after January 1. In the Eastern Christians tradition, the holiday celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, recognized as his revelation to the world as the Son of God, and is generally celebrated on January 19. In certain countries, however, Epiphany is celebrated on different days (e.g., January 9 in Columbia).

Seijin no Hi/Coming of Age Day (Japan; January 14 in 2013): Events of this sort date to at least A.D. 714 in Japan and were officially established as an annual holiday in 1948; since 2000, Coming of Age Day has been observed on the second Monday in January. Its purpose is to congratulate and encourage all those who have reached the age of majority which, in Japan, is 20 years old, and when new adults are legally allowed to vote, drive, and smoke. Festivities include ceremonies at local government offices and after-parties among family and friends.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day (January 21 in 2013). This U.S. federal holiday marks the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., chief spokesman for nonviolent activism in the U.S. civil rights movement during the 1960s. It is observed on the third Monday of January each year, around the time of King's Jan. 15 birthday. President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983 and it was first observed on January 20, 1986. Some states initially resisted observing the holiday as such, combining it with other holidays or giving it alternative names, and it was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time in 2000.

Republic Day (India; January 26): Republic Day is a national holiday that marks the adoption of the Constitution of India and the transition of the nation from a British Dominion to a republic on January 26, 1950. It is one of the three national holidays celebrated in India. On this day, the country finally realized the dream of Mahatma Gandhi and the numerous freedom fighters who, fought for and sacrificed their lives for the Independence of their country. It is marked by speeches, parades, and ceremonies, especially in the national capital of New Delhi. It is worth noting, for those who might not have been aware of this, that India -- and not the United States -- is today the largest republic in the world!

Chinese New Year (February 10 in 2013): Also called the Lunar New Year and the Spring Festival, Chinese New Year is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays. While it is particularly celebrated in mainland China and Taiwan, it is also observed by expatriate communities worldwide in countries that include the United States, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The festival traditionally begins on the first day of the first month, Pinyin, in the Chinese calendar and ends on the 15th, a day known as Lantern Festival. Because its observance is based on a lunar calendar, it falls each year on a different day of the Western calendar. Vietnamese New Year, or Tết, is based on the same calendar and falls on the same day as Chinese New Year. Each year of the Chinese calendar is said to be influenced by a particular sign of the zodiac, and 2013 is the Year of the Snake. People born under the sign of the Snake are said to be especially acute, attractive, aware, contemplative, cunning, graceful, introspective, intuitive, private, proud, refined, unflappable, vain, simultaneously dark and exciting, but not particularly good at communication, somewhat scheming, and often vicious.

Shrove Tuesday (February 12 in 2013): Better known to many in the United States as Mardi Gras (French for "Fat Tuesday"), this is the tradition in Roman Catholic and Anglican societies of celebrating the day before the start of the austere season of Lent with eating, drinking, and costumed revelry. It is celebrated througout the Western world and also known variously as Carnival in many places (e.g., Italy, Brazil) and Fasching in Germany. The period of celebration leading up to this day, which ends abruptly at midnight, varies from place to place and can be a day, a week, or even a few months. As a point of commentary, it bears mentioning that holidays like this are at least implicitly intended to let normal people periodically blow off steam. So, while Mardis Gras is often presented as an event created for party animals this is not really the case, as the most hedonistic can carouse whenever they want and it is the people who do not do so regularly who need observances like this one. Holidays like this have, in any case, been observed since time immemorial in most societies and subcultures that eschew such celebrations simply contribute to the misery of their members and drive them to partake of their pleasures more covertly.

Saint Valentine's Day (February 14): Generally known simply as Valentine's Day, this secular holiday is observed in more than 100 countries worldwide and is named in honor of two or three early Christian saints. This holiday was established by Pope Gelasius I in A.D. 496 and acquired its romantic connotations during the Middle Ages and, by the 1400s, was observed by the exchange of flowers, candy, and cards between lovers. Its name and history notwithstanding, however, Valentine's Day is no longer observed as a religious holiday, and the Catholic Church removed it from its list of official holidays in 1969. It also bears mentioning that the figure of Cupid, the winged child associated with Valentine's Day, is in fact the ancient Roman god of desire, pointing once again to the pagan roots of a seemingly modern holiday.