Thursday, December 25, 2008

X-Mess 2008, c.e.

As I write, I am listening to the John Elliot Gardner version of St. John's Passion by Bach. Now, as it is X-Mess today (12/25/08), it might be asked, what is an atheist listening to Christian music on Christmas Day? And, why am I, an atheist, playing an Easter liturgical work, performed by Bach at Leipzig on Good Fridays? It's not enough I'm listening to a work befitting another occasion, placing Jebus's death before his birth as it were, it might be seen the height of hypocrisy for a non-believer to sit enjoying a work of spiritual inspiration.

Aha! It is a mistake to think that just because a person is irreligious, he or she cannot be spiritual nevertheless. Other atheists, including Harris and Hitchens, Dawkins and others, have ably explained why it is possible for me to experience a union with humanity during a religious festival in October in Cuetzalan, Mexico, but come home just as convinced as ever that Jebus, too, evolved from forms much lower than apes and that the evidence against the possibility of a supreme being are overwhelmingly countered by more logical, sane arguments against his or her factual authenticity.

Whether one plays Easter choral works at Easter or at X-Mess (as I've called it for ages, now) makes absolutely no difference; not speaking German, I have no idea what the Monteverdi Choir is singing about, I only know that I regard choral music as sublime. And, you know, they don't get any more sublimer than Gardner's Bach. Even my old dog, Yemaya, knew the difference between Metallica and classical music; both she and I believe that the former is Dionysian and repetative, while the latter hath charms to sooth the savage breast. When I listen to loud popular music I think of poor Caliban, hearing thousands of jangly sounds in the night.

And when you think about it, if Jebus is Alpha and Omega, when you reach the latter, you are by very reason alone planted firmly in the former. Here was a dude born for one thing and one thing only: death. In the Martin Scorsese movie (from ex-Calvinist screewriter Paul Schrader and novelist Nikos Kazantsakis), The Last Temptation of Christ, Saul-Paul tells Jebus "You're worth nothing to us alive. You're dead." That Kazantsakis was a heretic is beyond question, but his canonical satire is pure Gnostic. The more outre sects actually believed Jebus survived the Crucifixion and wandered the earth for many years. Some say he is buried in Srinagar.

Now, that would be exciting if true. But the religious boobs came along and poisoned things: today, Srinigar is the center of one of the world's most war-torn regions, as hot a bed of murderous sectarian violence as the Gaza. And it's the same old conflict. The conflict between Hindus and Muslims (or, in Palestine, Jews and Muslims). The grave of the Messiah in Srinagar is a place of pilgrimage for all three faiths. This makes it as much a symbol of religious strife as the Temple Mount of the Dome of the Rock.

Praise God and pass the ammunition. Any thug can cherry pick scripture and find passages justifying the most grotesque and macabre treatment of others whose god you personally dislike. Peace on earth is a phantom so long as we are perpetually accompanied by the two children huddled under the robes of Christmas Present in Dickens' Carol: Ignorance and Want. Ignorance of what religion is and such social forces as unemployment and famine. If the Vatican is so adamant about feeding the hungry, why doesn't it sell off its treasury of great art and its gold reserves?

In a few hours I will eat turkey with friends who will say a prayer. I must go along, of course, falling short of saying Amen, because although I agree with the well-wishings of the pious person intoning the inauguration of the table dome, I do not agree my message will be heard by "God." I can be as spiritual as I wish without going to a church, cathedral, synagogue or mosque.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Altar at Jamay & Other Madnesses of Crowds

Tony Burton, in his excellent Western Mexico: A Traveller's Treasury, recounts the tale of a priest, Jose Maria Zarate, who became so enamored of Pope Pious IX that he erected a "wedding cake" stele in the plaza of Jamay, Michoacan, Mexico. Burton says that "few towns outside Italy and the Vatican can boast papal monuments on this scale": the pope pillar is over 111 feet in height, about thirty yards of a football field. Built during three years of the 1870's, the tower depicts Pious's birth, early years, appointment as archbishop, imprisonment by King Victor Emmanuel in 1870, and writings, including his explanation of the Immaculate Conception and his explanation of the concept of the infallibility of papal authority.

Then, Burton laments the "cost" of the monument: "...The priest responsible for this monument paid for it by selling the superb baroque high altar of his eighteenth century parish church; its whereabouts today are unknown."

It would be interesting to speculate on the whereabouts and circumstances of the "superb baroque high altar," but what is certain is that the story illustrates the arbitrariness and capriciousness of the clergy and the gullibility and naivety of the faithful. Any student of religion knows that the decor and aesthetic appeal of a place of worship and its accoutrements -- especially an altarpiece -- is as essential to inspiration as the theatrical enunciations of the celebrant, the wafting of frankensense and other burnt offerings, and the organ and choral music; in short, everything necessary to production in the congregation a discrete altered states (d-ASC).

Sell the alter, you're selling millions of prayers. You're selling a venerated object. You're selling a collector of hopes, wishes, desires. Forget the parishoners, promulgate a pope. One is left with the one question: Why?

Henry Ford said "history is bunk." (Of course, he did all he could to alter history, even supporting the rise of Adolph Hitler -- but that is another blog.) Santayana said we must learn from history if we don't wish to repeat it. I'll take Santayana any day. Now, what about the history of Pope Pious IX?

What history tells us about Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti is that he was the last pope to hold "temporal" powers. To put it country simple, he symbolized pro-theocratic wealth-grabbing. Victor Emmanuel was simply acting out of democratic principles. He never "imprisoned" Pious IX; Pious IX simply decided to play martyr and stay home, avoiding visits to his former papal states -- a propaganda ploy. Vindictively, Pious IX paid the king back by having him excommunicated. (Whatever happened to turning the other cheek?) Victor Emmanuel went on to unify Italy, torn apart by foreign intervention and occupation. Apparently, Victor Emmanuel thought the Vatican as culpable as Austria.

The selling of the baroque altar in Jamay doesn't hold a candle to what the Spanish clergy did in places like Cholula, where one of Mexico's largest pyramids, the Mixtec temple of Tlalchihualtepetl was sacked. To think what we could have learned about an ancient civilization had the zealot missionaries not ordered the destruction of their codices and demolition of their architectural wonders. What a sneaky way to sucker the faithful into following a new monotheistic supersitition by simply replacing their polytheist pantheon, even going so far as to cover the templo mayor with a Catholic church.

Give me a beautifully executed altarpiece to a statute of a pope any old day. Jose Maria Zarate, wherever you are: You should be ashamed of yourself. Apparently, the area of Mexico southeast of Lake Chapala is full of wonders. Nearby, Burton writes, at the town of Ocotlan, on October 2, 1848, an earthquake caused massive fatalities. At a mass for the dead the following day, Burton says, "a resplendant cloud suddenly appeared in an otherwise blue sky, producing a vision, seen by thousands, of Christ on the Cross. The site is now marked by an obelisk."

Here we go again: putting up a monument; only, this time, not to a pope but an apparition. One thinks of the hundreds of sightings of Jebus of late, not only in clouds but Cheetos, slices of bread, torn circulars pasted to brick walls -- in short, anywhere and everywhere someone could see anything they were hoping to see and were actively looking for. Mass hysteria and the behavior of crowds. Delusion, pure and simple. I am reminded of the delightfully wicked Campo del Miraculo sequence in Fellini's La Dolce Vita.

In that film, Marcello, the newspaper reporter, is sent on assignment to the sticks, where a couple of mischievous children have claimed visitations by the Virgin. (Fellini gives every indication they've made it all up to get attention.) When a violent thunderstorm breaks out, drenching the field where the Virgin was last seen near a particular tree, the children suddenly run out to greet her, causing a riot to break out, everyone wanting to see the Virgin for themselves. In the melee, several crippled persons there for healing are trampled by the crowd. (Right out of a Wal-Mart Black Friday.) Nobody sees the Virgin, least of all Marcello or the movie audience.

The point of the Ocotlan and Campo del Miraculo illustrations of post hoc reasoning is simply that faith makes people delusional. I can find any figure in any carpet I want to see in it. But what you see is not what you get. It's even more absurd to claim that such things "prove" the existence of "God." Sometimes a face in a Cheeto is just a baked-on rough spot. Sometimes a cloud is only a cloud: people swore they saw the face of Satan in the smoke over Baghdad when the U.S. invaded post-9/11. Some Iraqis to this day see the face of Satan every time they look at George W. Bush. Anything means anything to anyone who wants to believe it so.