Mayan long-count and 13 crystal skulls.

The soon-to-be-released Indiana Jones movie has got quite a few people up in a huff about crystal skulls. You know, because real-life Mayans worshiped faceted, stylized skulls today. While there has never been any evidence that ancient Mayans worshiped the skulls at the height of their civilization from about 200 to about 900 AD, a few of the existing skulls can be dated to very close to the time of Spanish contact. It remains unclear whether or not the current Mayan skull-worship is a result of that contact or predated it.

So, what are the facts we do have? The Mayans had a complex calendar system involving days, months, and two types of years. They made funerary and ritual masks in a variety of shapes and substances, quite a few in jade and other stones that looked something like skulls.  Astonishing, no?

So what’s with the hocus-pocus and theories?  The Mayan calendar is winding down.  The longer cycle of years, or ‘Long Count’, which lasts about 5,000 years, is almost over.  According to what we know of Mayan legend (i.e., what we can glean both from current tradition and the incomplete Mayan glyph translation of monuments and codices that we have), at the end of the Long Count, something happens to change everything.  Some people interpret this as a cataclysmic event, or the end of the world.  Others say that at this time, something needs to happen to save the world – perhaps the reunification of thirteen ‘original’ crystal skulls, most of which have been lost.  For the Maya, no doubt it had extreme significnace beyond the turning of the year, even beyond what the turn of the century would have for us.  My personal belief is that we’re all looking for answers, and any idea that still has meaning with modern dates (since Nostradamus was wrong) is going to have a variety of followers.

Me, I’m content to wait.  After all, a day like today is bound to cycle around again.  Eventually.

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Easter Sunday Blues

Easter Sunday is one of my favorite Sundays.  Not only does it bring people out of the woodwork (and I have no problem with C and E Christians), but it is almost always a valuable experience.  Maybe it’s the increased pageantry of the day, or the music which almost always includes the Hallelujah Chorus, or the visible throng of people in colorful and festive garb, but it’s always refreshing and good.  And this Easter, as usual, I enjoyed the service and felt renewed and refreshed in my faith.  Though I am continuing in a time of questioning in my daily life as well as in what I believe about the resurrection, I am confident that God accepts and anticipates my doubts, and forgives them.  I am confident that He remains a doting parent, watchful but willing to let me grow in my faith, in my own way.

Since this Sunday is obviously meant to be both a time for forgiveness and renewal of commitment, I took some time to focus personally on its most troubling aspects: the divinity of Christ, and the resurrection itself.  The first was highly contentious even in later churches, but the second was one that was picked up quite quickly by the early church.  Without it, what is Christianity, really?  What I have trouble with is the fantastical nature of resurrection, especially in its typical connotations with grisly reanimated bodies.  New life from something dead goes against the order of nature – and yet I believe in life after death.  Perhaps this is because of my own longing for continuity, my zest for life, or the observation in the world around me that beauty does not die, but rather changes from one form to another.  And how can I believe in some sort of continuation of existence after life if I question Christ’s resurrection?  On the first issue, am I confident that someone who was the Son of God, who knew he was God on earth, would have the ability to be killed?  And would God be so restricted by the rules of his own creation (i.e., death) that he had to live and die himself to change the rules of the game?  I’m not sure if I buy that.

Still, I think Jesus Christ served as an example of something new.  He was a voice of peace – highly resistant and vocal non-violence, mind you – at a time when the Hebrew people were looking for any excuse to react violently to their oppressors.   And He still serves as an example to me in that aspect of life, in the responsibility to affect change in the world peacefully.  He serves as a life model in many areas, and I am grateful to have that.  But I’m not convinced that he thought he as the Messiah.  I’m not convinced he was trying to start a new religion.  I think he was a very faithful and probably charismatic man himself.  The later church combined the historic view of Jesus as simply a man (albeit one with new ideas on life and teaching and resistance) with that of Jesus the Christ and Messiah.  As both a human man developing through childhood to adulthood and thus supremely involved in local circumstances, and also as a being enlightened in the supreme wisdom and world plan/view of God, he could both be a figure of local change and far-reaching religious significance.  Despite my respect for those attempting to understand the nature of God or Jesus in years past, I myself remain unconvinced.  But I am also not convinced that such beliefs are wrong.

At a certain point in history, as new scientific discoveries were made, science has been seen as at odds with religion.  Every day there are new proofs that some bit of dogma is wrong, or that our own evolutionary existence probably called for the development of religion, or that further space exploration has yet to reach a concrete Heaven.   And an atheistic comment that all I gain from religion could be gotten in other ways is no doubt true.  I could, in fact, get up early every Sunday morning to meet with my other fellow atheists, talk about the week, listen to some semi-professional classical music, and meditate or reflect on my week so that I have some time to process it.  I am sure that if I were to do such a thing, my life would be no less full.  But perhaps through my own insecurities, there comes a time at which explanations have little value in comparison with the security of knowing I am not talking to an empty, ultimately meaningless world.

Finally, I was really mad at the people shoved in close next to me in the pew on this most crowded of mornings.  Yes, they were dumb.  Comments like “Wow – they have, like, a whole symphony up there.” and “Look at that drummer.  He’s so into it – I bet in his free time, he just drums any old drum” for some reason deflated some of my experience.  What type of selfish, ornery person gets angry at others’ offhand remarks on Easter Sunday?

Fat Tuesday.

I had forgotten today is the day before the beginning of Lent, the day before one of the holiest seasons for Christians.  Then I was looking at people’s blogs and realized everyone was posting about ashes and pancakes and stuff.  I felt ashamed for a moment for forgetting one of the holiest seasons of the year.  But then, that’s what Lent is all about – helping us to remember.  Helping us to live a little more faithfully, and perhaps a little more prayerfully, every day.  Lent is a season of preparation yes, and of remembrance, yes.  But most of all for me it has significance in helping me to slow down the hectic pace of my life and just breathe a little bit.

A part of what Lent is all about for me is taking some time to re-evaluate.  This is not necessarily tearing down the various pieces of my life and examining them.  I do that enough on my own, worrying over what I could or should be doing.  It’s more about being generally more aware of my surroundings, possibly enjoying them a bit, and giving my mind the space to think differently for awhile.  I think this is why prayer and meditation and ritual are so important in a variety of religions.  It is in that sacred space, that time set aside for worship or other religious purposes, that allows the mind to function.  Note I said mind, not brain – this is about ontological levels of thought, rather than physiology.  I feel like the mind needs that different level of functioning, that freedom to wander, to ponder, to consider slowly or vibrate to a different pitch which religious practice gives.  I’m not sure what this different level of functioning is, or what it looks like under scientific conditions, but it’s there.  It’s there in studies that show a meditation practice promotes general health, or that prayer can induce healing for the prayer or prayee.  It’s the same kind of mind stretching that makes people say it’s good exercise for the mind to do crossword puzzles or suduko.

I’m also not saying that such a benefit is dependent on religious practice only.  The same sort of stretching is no doubt a result of a variety of activities – art, or dance, or music can probably create it.  Maybe even a good book can cause it, or a solitary walk in the woods.  As Maude says, “Ahh, life!”

Ultimately though, that still leaves me with a question about Lent.  Specifically about the day before the official start of Lent, which seems to no longer be on calendars.  The day goes by a variety of names:  Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, Pancake Day.  In some places it grows out to a longer-than-a-day gala event:  Festival, Mardi Gras.  Though I’m no historian, I’m pretty sure it all started with the Catholic church and the fasting that must be done for Lent – people had to get all of that old milk, eggs, and flour out of their houses before the start of the Lenten Season.  What else were they going to do?  They had a big party with lots of pancakes.  The question is, how do I fit this gluttonous, celebratory holiday in with the rest of Lent, which values reflection, solemnity, and fasting?

It all goes back to that different level of mind.  Those who practice meditation know just how distracting it can be to attempt to empty your mind.  There are always distractions crowding in, many of them unavoidable.  One common habit to overcome this distraction is to focus on a single object, idea, or word.  That focus can be intense enough to drown out other voices – gradually the focus is allowed to fade away.  The same thing can be said of Fat Tuesday – its bustle, its complications, its joyful an boisterous nature are all meant to be enjoyed and loved for what they are – a spontaneous and needed release.  And then, gradually, the focus on that joy can fade away, leaving us silent, calm, and aware, ready for a different state of mind.

What’s a Champ Car?

I come from Indiana, specifically Indianapolis.  That comes with certain connotations.  Boring is one.  Depending on who you’re talking to and what year it is is, that may bring to mind certain sports teams:  the Pacers, the Colts.  If you’re of a more literary bent, people like James Whitcomb Riley or Gene Stratton Porter might come to mind (why do they all have three names?).  But internationally Indianapolis is perceived as a big racetrack in the middle of the fields.

Despite the fact that I lived within hearing range of the track growing up, I have spent most of my life completely innocent of racing.  I know there are days you don’t want to be anywhere near the Speedway, but other than that, I don’t pay much attention.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a blog post that started out with some of the open faith discussion that I genuinely enjoy.  Of course, it then went on to talk about racing in general, and I lost most of my interest, but there was still a core of truth there that intrigued me – speaking out of affectionate difference, rather than isolationist bunkerism.  I’d like a little bit more of that affection and tolerance in my life.

All Music Is Sacred

I came across this idea in the Vonnegut book I’m reading today, and it struck me as rather nice.  Wow, music is sacred.  But then I started to wonder if it’s really true.

Of course, there’s the traditional thoughts behind this idea.   There’s ‘sacred music’, including everything from hymns and carols, to most Classical music, which is often written to interpret a Christian theme.  I think of the Hallelujah Chorus, which my home church sings together every Easter, a cacophony of sounds that ring mostly in tune.  That’s a big, powerful, faithful sound, and to me it sounds sacred.

But when I think about other music that I personally consider sacred, there are many things I don’t include.  Rap is not really sacred in my mind.  Neither is most popular music.  More mellow, reflective stuff is more sacred, or maybe songs that make you think, but often these don’t have a really pumping beat.  I can’t think of a pumpy song that I consider sacred.  Not that I don’t like popular music – I do, sometimes, find a very guilty pleasure in the dumbest forms of music.  It’s just with all that bustling about inside the song, I don’t feel the same uplift that I would from a different, more relaxed and introspective song that I would consider sacred.

Where, then, is the line drawn between sacred and secular or even profane types of music?  Is there anyone out there who feels that country music is sacred?  What about all the crossovers, like popular tunes that become hymns, or songs that really move and touch and shape us and are so popular because they are sacred?

It reminds me of the similar corollary that all children are special.  Some children are very difficult to love and cope with.  Does that mean they aren’t special?  Are some children more special than others?  Who, or what, makes that definition?

Please share your thoughts.  What could make music sacred, or not?  Is there any type of music that can never be sacred?  Why?  What about music (like free jazz) that may be very artistic, but still difficult on your hearing?  Do meaning, sound, emotiveness, and art form each carry a part of music’s sacredness, and if so, to what extent?

A horse of a different color

Throughout my life, the question of faith has somehow been tied up with factual evidence, historical accounts, and the power of both science and religion to facilitate wonder. Those who do not believe are always looking for proof. Those who do have faith are also looking to reinforce or explore that faith. Both sides are really looking for the same thing, though – meaning. Whether in science, religion, or philosophy the search always has been, and always will be, for meaning. For myself, I think that as long as that search is being actively pursued – as long as the faithful aren’t just sitting on their laurels watching everyone else, as long as the scientist is still striving to make that next discovery and the poet to distill that shadowy intangible – no one search will be invalid or wrong. It’s the questioning that counts, that makes life full.

Personally, that’s why I am typically delighted with the scientific discoveries made in relation to my faith. The Sea of Gallilee may have been full of ice floes and that’s what Jesus walked on? Delightful! New gospels and letters bringing into question the ideas that the early church’s Gospel left to us? Well then, let’s all get a little closer to the historical Christ, and in turn, to the one we feel in our hearts. If history unearths a new revelation or challenge for us, let’s meet the challenge.

Now it’s the turn of the Muslims to question the foundations of their faith a bit. And for a religion that holds the very image of its prophets (including Jesus) still sacred, it’s going to come as a blow. Still, there will be adaptations, modifications, and in time a lessening of the impact these foundations have. It is the nature of religions – at least the nature we have seen thus far. That’s why the Buddha is reincarnated – with each passing generation, the truth of his teaching, his path, dilutes further. You need a new shot of truth in the arm to keep progress going forward. I mean, look at how short-living some of the founding principles of current religions were – having to be Jewish to become Christian, or freeing all your slaves who were also Muslim. The things that were less politically desirable were discarded.

Now, the question comes when an individual must determine if these changes negatively or positively impacts the belief itself. Does my acceptance and tolerance of others make me more faithful, or damn me? Will the questioning of the Koran shatter the Islamic religion, or change it into something different, for better or worse?