[ by Charles Cameron — magical religion, the amnesia of the rationalists, a brief mention of poetry and a touch of Tillich ]
As you know, I’m interested in the clashing of worldviews. Yesterday, Teju Cole posted a tweet with a quick mention of apocalypse that caught my eye:
There’s a whole lot going on here, and it takes a neat combo of crabwise and linear thinking to get at it all.
But first, a brief and hopefully unnecessary note to our gentle readers:
Take a look at the tweet above, and if you don’t want to peer more deeply into the murky tabloid worlds of strange births, miracles and abominations that it touches on, don’t read the rest. This post may be gross enough in parts, or so absurd-sounding that you want to drop the whole thing and read something else.
As I see it, it’s also interesting and informative — fascinating even — besides being potentially quease-making. But seriously, if you’d rather skip that kind of thing, please don’t leave right away, just go to the very last section and read the two quotes from Paul Tillich. Thanks.
Still with me? Good…
For starters, we can compare these two stories, located about two weeks apart, and described as happening in two Nigerian states: Edo and Jigawa:
It would be easy to dismiss them both as Weekly World News style fabrications, like WWN’s Werewolf Sues Airline Over Flight Delay — but that would miss the point: they’re believed.
Restricting ourselves from the moment to half-goat, half-human combos, we can then compare a human birth narrative with a narrative of a goat birth:
The same story? A completely different event? Or human memory, playing its strange tricks?
Note that the two tales are now three years apart, and while one is reportedly from Nigeria, the other is from Zimbabwe.
In that last telling, we saw one local explanation for strange — dare I call them paranormal — events of this kind: a curse.
Let’s explore that idea a bit further. The same report quoted above went on to say:
A belief in ghosts is still alive and well in the region and the creature was taken as a sign of evil – perhaps even witchcraft. But local Governor Jason Machaya (56) is sure, that it was a half-man, half-goat hybrid which was the result of bestiality: “A grown man was responsible for this.”
So there’s another possibility. The next paragraph offers yet another:
Doctors, however say that it would be a biological impossibility.
Score one for the scientific worldview.
It may be a gossip and conspiracy mag invention, or an old wives’ tale, or the result of a curse, or witchcraft — which could include the local medical tradition — or, as with the horse birth, a miracle — what else?
It could be archetypal…
It could be Pan, the erotic satyr-god of Greek myth and James Stephens‘ delightful tale, The Crock of Gold, or the hideous demon of the occultist Eliphas Levi — the god of the old cult becoming a demon in the new, as they so often do –
– in this case also giving us the portmanteau word pandemonium…
But there’s one final possibility, and it’s the one that Teju Cole presented us with the first nine of his 140 characters:
I want to give that one time to settle in, because almost all end times predictions involve “signs of the times” that show the world going to hell in a hand-basket, with (eg) family values upended, the sacred profaned, lies usurping truth, and so forth.
I don’t believe this is by any means limited to Islam, but I’ll give an Islamic example as it comes to hand. One of the major signs of the coming of the Qiyama (Last Day, Day of Judgment, Day of Resurrection) is as follows:
After the night of three nights, the following morning the sun will rise in the west. People’s repentance will not be accepted after this incident.
Compare this, from the Christian New Testament, Matthew 24.29:
Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.
Women in church giving birth to horses, goats or women giving birth to half-human, half-goats… The story crops up again in Turkey as reported on January 14th, 2010:
A sheep gave birth to a dead lamb with a human-like face. The lamb was born in a village not far from the city of Izmir, Turkey. Erhan Elibol, a vet, performed a caesarean on the animal to take the lamb out, but was horrified to see that the features of the lamb’s snout bore a striking resemblance to a human face. “I’ve seen mutations with cows and sheep before. I’ve seen a one-eyed calf, a two-headed calf, a five-legged calf. But when I saw this youngster I could not believe my eyes. His mother could not deliver him so I had to help the animal,” the 29-year-old veterinary said.
And again with the religious language — the picture accompanying the article carries the caption:
An Abomination of Nature or a Mutation Caused by Blind Industrialization?
Abomination, a word for the utterly unnatural, is another term found in connection with end times thinking. And industrialization? Perhaps that’s one version of the modernist end times…
A few things to note here in closing:
Indigenous religious beliefs and practices in many parts of the world include magical aspects that may seem shocking, absurd or distasteful to rational modern western sensibilities. Some of these beliefs and practices are deeply ingrained, and missionary churches have not infrequently carried some of them into their own structures, there being no clear dividing line between “culture” and “religion”. Churches which place an emphasis on miraculous healings as proofs of renewal in the Spirit are particularly prone to this kind of seepage.
The “rational modern western” sensibility I mentioned above, however, is so utterly out of touch with such matters that it treats them as jokes, lampoons them in the tabloids, and otherwise tends to ignore them.
Strongly held beliefs – what I referred to in Waco in Pakistan using Tillich’s term as “ultimate concerns” – are “facts on the ground” that we ignore at our peril.
Poetry — not flabby cherubic verses in greetings cards but the dedicated study of poetic tradition — contains an antidote.
Man, like every living being, is concerned about many things, above all about those which condition his very existence, such as food and shelter. But man, in contrast to other living beings, has spiritual concerns – cognitive, aesthetic, social, political. Some of them are urgent, often extremely urgent, and each of them as well as the vital concerns can claim ultimacy for a human life or the life of a group. If it claims ultimacy it demands the total surrender of him who accepts this claim, and it promises total fulfillment even if all other claims have to be subjected to it or rejected in its name.
It transcends both the drives of the nonrational unconsciousness and the structures of the rational conscious
Both quotes are from chapter 1, What Faith Is, of Paul Tillich‘s Dynamics of Faith.