31 August 2007

Philosophy Class (Week 1)

I really am enjoying the class so far. Right now we're discussing the sky as it appeared and may have appeared in the myths of the past. Dr. Levenson seems to be very into Eliade, who was apparently one of his instructors. He handed out a reading from one of Eliade's books discussing some common characteristics of the sky in religion.

Here's my distillation of it. The sky is something that we can see but not touch. It brings life-giving rain and destructive storms. It's omnipresent. Wherever you go, it's right above you. Even more, there's an optical illusion that the zenith, the high point, is always right above you. Climb a mountain, and it seems as far off as ever. Eliade notes that many, many ancient traditions have the sky-god as the Creator. After the Creation, the sky-god tends to withdraw from the world and leave it to lesser deities. For most day-to-day activities, the lesser deities suffice, but in times of extreme need, the people will call upon the sky-god, the Creator.

The particular example that Dr. Levenson gave was the Hebrews. When they settled in a land that worshiped Baal, a more immediate, present, fertility god, they adopted that local god for a time...until it seemed that their entire people might be destroyed. Then they turned back to their sky-god, their last resort. I can think of another example in Catholicism: the saints. For most day-to-day matters, the saints are treated as minor deities, but for "big" things, the "big" god is invoked.

It occurs to me that in modern times, science might have largely displaced the need for the minor, local deities. Medicine, especially, will take care of many problems that our ancestors would have faced. But then when medicine fails or is powerless, there's still the sky-god to fall back on.

But because this god is the last resort, he becomes a distant figure: a "beard in the sky," as so many atheists like to put it. Where is the sense of immanence? The sacred in everyday life? The sense of purpose? Purpose is also distant in Christianity. It's put off until the afterlife. So...the ultimate purpose, arguably, is to die. That's it. Live so that you'll be okay in the next life, but to hell with this life. Maybe the reason they're so fanatical about suicide is that they subconsciously see it as "cutting in line" to get to the next life.

But living just for the hope of something better in the next life isn't living. You may as well be dead already. Aye, but there's the rub. The goal has to be distant, just as the sky-god is distant. It has to be hopeless, ironically, or there's no hope. Once you get to heaven, what then? An eternity of...what? No one knows. No one wants to know. Distance, that's the key. Keep your distance and hope you never find out.


IAMB said...

Levenson is a great guy to have a class from (he also officiated at my younger brother's wedding... he wanted something less traditional - for this area - and a Jewish ceremony sounded like great fun). For a couple years now I've actually wanted to sit down with him and have a discussion focused on the Old Testament, just for fun... which reminds me: I haven't yet stopped in to visit him this semester.

Qalmlea said...

Yeah, he's definitely good at keeping his own views out of his "lectures." While he's discussing a certain viewpoint, he acts as though that is his own viewpoint. Down the road, he may point out criticisms that others have to the viewpoint.

Like last week we were discussing the sky and Eliade. This week it's the earth, with an excerpt from "The Great Cosmic Mother" by Sjoo. Nearly opposite, but both presented as worthwhile. Though he did acknowledge that Cosmic Mother was a bit, uh, rabidly feminist.

Qalmlea said...

Well, actually his exact words, as best I remember, were "This is a difficult book for a male to read."