Monday, April 26, 2010

The Cost of Religious Metaphor

The Seventh Century Buddhist Sikshasamuccaya said, “Thought does not arise without an object. Can thought look at thought? No. Just as the blade of a sword cannot cut itself, or a fingertip touch itself, so thought cannot see thought.”

The flat earth, the pancake world, can be experienced: the gods are up there; the dead are down there; and our existence depends upon balancing cosmic forces here on the pancake. But the expanding universe? Well, in the expanding universe, the galaxies are like raisins in raisin bread as it bakes. . .

That metaphor is not nearly as compelling as one in which the wraiths of the dead rise like black smoke from the earth at midnight!

Infinity? I know that mathematicians look to set theory. But I am not included in the set "understands sets." For me, the “Net of Indira” makes much more sense:

Once the great god Indra, as gods will, wished to possess the most beautiful of all things. And so she ordered Vishwakarma, the cunning artificer of the gods, to make her a marvelous net. And just as Vishwakarma had built all the worlds that are, he built a net that stretched, in all directions, to infinity. And at each juncture in the net Vishwakarma set a precious stone, so that, just as the net was infinity, so was the number of precious stones. And so it was that each stone reflected every other stone, an endless reflection of stones, each reflecting each and all, an infinite regress in reflection. And the net of Indra was so fine that a touch to any part sent the whole shivering.

Perhaps this story does not help me see what infinity “really” is, but by thinking about it, I EXPERIENCE infinity. (At least in my own small way.)

Ten dimensions? Falling into Black Holes?

Humanity has been through a lot of cosmologies. What the successful ones have in common is their compelling connection to the human scale, to things we can understand.

We can understand a woman and a man in a garden. It feels good to have a god that creates us in his image.

We know more about the universe now, yet we do not have to live in a universe of “unyielding despair.” We can live in a universe in which we know that our metaphors are metaphors, but that they are keys to ultimate reality.

The universe is not a snake swallowing its tail. But perhaps it helps to imagine it that way. The arc that bends toward justice may or may not be bent by the “hand of God.” But perhaps it helps to imagine it that way.

As long as we control our metaphors; as long as we do not bow down to our metaphors, making them our idols, the metaphors themselves keep us warm in a universe that fits to a human scale.

And we—as we must—find our way to live in the cosmos.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Jonah and the Whale

The Luck of Jonah

Once upon a time there was a man named Jonah.
God spoke to Jonah and said this:
“Get up! Go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach there.
Tell the people that I have seen how wicked they are.”

Doing such a thing scared Jonah.
Rather than doing what God said,
Jonah decided to sail for Tarshish.

So, he went to Joppa,
Found a ship headed for Tarshish,
And paid the fare.

Jonah thought he had gotten away from God.

A Very Big Storm

But as the ship sailed along
God sent a great wind,
And there was a bad storm.
It appeared that the ship would sink.

This scared the sailors on the ship.
So, they all prayed as hard as they could,
And they tried to lighten the ship
By throwing everything they could
Off into the sea.

While this was going on,
Jonah was in the hold of the ship,
Sleeping away.

When the ship’s captain saw Jonah, he said,
“What do you think you’re doing?
Wake up and do some praying!”

Meanwhile, the sailors were all saying,
“Someone on this boat must be evil.
Let’s draw straws to see who it is.”

Jonah got the short straw.

So, the sailors asked Jonah,
“Whatever have you done
To bring so much bad on all of us?
What do you do for a living?
Where did you come from?
What nationality are you?
What’s your tribe?”

Jonah said, “I am a Hebrew. I worship
The God who made both the sea and the dry land.”

Then Jonah told them about how he was fleeing God. . .

This frightened the sailors
And everyone started asking,
“Why did you do this!
Look at this storm!”

Jonah said, “Go ahead.
Throw me overboard.
All this is my fault.
When I’m gone, the sea will be calm.”

The sailors did not want to do this, however,
So they tried and tried to get the ship to land.

Finally, however, they saw they could not do it.
The storm was just too strong.

Then the sailors started praying:
“God, we know you will do as you please,
But we are begging you:
Don’t kill us! We aren’t to blame!”

Then, they picked up Jonah and pitched him into the sea.

At that, the storm stopped.

These events caused the sailors to feel very pious,
So they made a sacrifice and offered vows to God.

Jonah Gets Swallowed Whole

Now, God had made a large fish that could swallow Jonah,
Which it did.

And Jonah was in the belly of the fish
Three days and three nights.

In the fish’s bellow, Jonah did some praying.

“The waters surrounded me,”
Jonah said,
“And I thought I had been
Driven from your sight
As the depths closed around me.
Weeds wrapped around my head.
I sank to the bottoms of the mountains;
The bars of the earth closed on me,
But you brought me back from the depths.”

God spoke to the fish and
Up it vomited Jonah
Out upon the dry land.

Jonah Goes to Nineveh

Then God spoke to Jonah a second time, saying,
“Get up! Go to Nineveh, that great city,
And preach there what I tell you.”

So, finally, Jonah got up and went to Nineveh,
As God had told him to do.

Now, Nineveh was huge, a three day walk across.
So, Jonah walked for an entire day, then began to preach:

“In just forty days,”
Jonah preached,
“Nineveh will be destroyed.”

The people of Nineveh believed Jonah was speaking the truth.

So they proclaimed a fast and put on mourning clothes,
From the most powerful all the way to the lowliest.

Yes, even the king himself
Got down off his throne,
Put his fancy clothes aside,
Put on the clothes of mourning
And sat in the ashes.

The king and his officers sent out a decree saying:

Hear ye!
Let neither man nor beast,
Herd nor flock, taste anything!

Do not let them eat!
Do not let them drink!

Let every person
And every beast
Be clothed in
Mourning clothes!

Let everyone and everything
Cry mightily to God!

Yes! May everyone turn
Away from bad,
Away from violence!

Who knows?
Maybe God will repent
And stop being angry.
Who knows?
Perhaps we won’t all be destroyed!”

Jonah Gets Angry

It happened that God saw what the people of Nineveh were doing,
How they turned from their bad ways;
And God repented of the bad that he had said that he would do to them;
God didn’t do a thing to them.

Now, that did not please Jonah at all!
He was very angry and prayed to God,
Saying, “God! I’m praying here!
Didn’t I say I did not want to come to Nineveh!
Isn’t that why I headed for Tarshish?
I knew you are a gracious God, and merciful,
And slow to anger, and very kind,
And that you repent of doing bad.
Now, I’m asking: Take my life!
I am so embarrassed that
It is better I be dead!

God said to Jonah,
“Why are you complaining?”

Jonah and the Gourd

So Jonah went out of the city
To the east side of the city,
And there he built a hut,
Sitting in its rather poor shade.

He waited there to see
What would happen to Nineveh.

God caused a gourd to grow there,
So that Jonah could have more shade,
Which helped some with Jonah’s grief.

Jonah liked the gourd very much.

The next morning, however, God made a worm
That attacked the gourd and killed it.

Then, when the sun got hot,
God made a strong, hot wind;
And the sun beat down on Jonah’s head
So that he got faint and wanted to die.

Jonah said, “It’s better for me
To die than to live!”

God said to Jonah,
“Is it good that you are angry about the gourd?”

Jonah said, “Yes! It’s good for me
To be angry, even if it kills me!”

God said, “You have pity for the gourd,
Even though you never worked for it.
Never made it grow.
It grew in a night
And died in a night.
Think about it:
Shouldn’t I spare Nineveh,
A huge city,
A hundred twenty thousand people
Who don’t know their right hand from their left hand;
And many animals as well?”

God had a point!

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice

With thanks to Apollonius of Rhodes, Virgil, Ovid, and Edith Hamilton


Orpheus. His music could make the rocks dance.
He was the son of a Muse and a mortal from Thrace,
Place famous for musical people,
The most musical people in all of Greece,
And Orpheus was the best of them.

Orpheus and his lyre and his voice
And his words—when he played
High in the mountains, the trees danced,
The wild beasts danced. Animals,
Rocks. Even the rivers would dance
On their way down to the sea.

Orpheus roamed from place to place,
Cheering all he met with his song.


It was among the mountain villages
That Orpheus met Euridice,
A shepherdess charmed by his song.
And she charmed Orpheus in turn,
Such beauty, a beauty born
Of the mountains and farms,
A beauty bound in dark earth.

Orpheus sang of his love.
And the people of the hills;
The animals and trees;
Yes, even the rivers and stones
Danced and sang to his music.

They married, and so it was that,
Even as they joyed at the wedding,
Even as she danced in her wedding gown,
That Euridice trod upon a snake,
A poisonous snake that bit her.
And so, Euridice died,
Just so, in her wedding gown.


The music stopped.
Orpheus could sing no more.
And the people of the hills;
The animals and trees;
Yes, even the rivers and stones
Wept at the silence.

“I will go down to Hades,”
Orpheus said to himself.
“I will go even the Hell,
Where I will sing for
Queen of the Dead.
I will sing for her.
And she will understand.”


And so it was,
Down he went,
Orpheus and his lyre,
Down and down far below
Into the place the living
Dare not go. He went,
For love, confident in his song.

In the darkness and the depths,
Amid the silence of a stunned place,
Orpheus tuned his lyre
And began to sing,
Began words from his heart:

“Oh, dark world,
Place where all
Born of woman come,

Place that swallows
All beauty, all love.

Place of the debt
All the living must pay;
Place eternal

Where passing flesh
Waits forever,
Place of all lovely things,

I come to you;
I come seeking one
Who came here too soon.

I come seeking a bud
Cut before the flower
In its loveliness could bloom.

I come, for this was
A loss too great to bear.

I come, King of the Dead,
Knowing well the old poetry
Of a girl raped among spring flowers,

Beautiful young Persephone,
Daughter of the corn,
Daughter of Demeter,

Your wife now when
Winter comes to earth.

I come singing the old poetry,
Knowing that you know beauty,
Oh, King of the Dead.

Knowing you too know loss
When spring is on the earth
And your dear wife flies away.
I come singing of a loss too great.
I come, asking for oh, so little.

Asking not to keep my dear love
Forever. No. only to keep her
For a little, little while.

Give her back to me, I implore,
For this little, little while.
Only so long as a human life
Passes in its natural course.”

And the shades of the dead
Spread across the airless plain,
Yes, the shadows of the passed,
People, animals, trees,
Even the cold gray stones,
Even the River of Death
Danced a little, weeping
At time and life gone away.

No thing and no one
Could resist his song.
No, not even Hades,
King of the Dead.
Hades himself wept
At the beauty of the song,
Hugging to himself
His dear Persephone
Who left him each spring,
Weeping at time passing
And the beauty of life.

“You may have her back,”
The King of the Dead declared,
“On only one condition—
She will follow you back
To your world of light,
But on that dark journey,
You may never, never once,
Look back at your love.”


And so it was that Orpheus
Turned his back on his love
And began the long, dark trip
Back into the living world.

And Orpheus knew she was there,
There behind him, and he longed,
Longed so to see her. But no.

They climbed the darkness.
They climbed and climbed
Until the black had turned gray.

They climbed until at last
Orpheus stepped into the green world,
Turning to greet his love.

But it was too soon.

Too soon. Euridice still
Lingered in the darkness.
He had turned too soon,

And so her form shrank back,
Faded back into shadow.
Gone. To be gone forever.

Yes, the decree
Of the Lord of the Dead
Is final. And so Orpheus
Left the hills of Thrace.

Left the joys of human company
Going far into the desolate
Crags of the lonely mountains.


There Orpheus played his lyre,
Singing songs of his eternal love
For his dear, lost Euridice.

And the animals danced;
And the trees and the stones
Danced a slow, delicate
Dance for the dead Euridice.

On he played and played,
Weeping all the while,
Until his poems drew
A band of Maenads,
A band of crazed ones
Worshiping Dionysus,
Mad ones who danced
Their frenzied dance
In rising and rising rhythm
Around Orpheus
Until in their madness

They tore him
Limb from limb
And threw his shreds
Into the river.


And the shreds of Orpheus
Floated down to the sea,

Down to the edge of Olympus
Where his mother buried him

And where the nightingales
Still can be heard singing his tunes.