Friday, February 20, 2009

What if?

Belatedly reading two popular "what if?" books: The World Without Us (2007) by Alan Weisman, & Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003) by Elaine Pagels.

Weisman's book imagines the world if humans suddenly disappeared - not in some global nuclear or environmental conflagration, but if we just ceased to exist. What would happen to everything humans built, changed, & screwed up? What would happen to New York City? How would flora & fauna recover? What about all our garbage, the plastics, the radioactive materials? He examines habitats humans have abandoned, old & modern, & the extinctions of mega fauna that were likely caused by humans - the extraordinary giant mammals populating North America when we arrived here at least 13,000 years ago. How long would it take for Earth's thermostat to reset itself? So far, aside from plastics, Weisman thinks Earth would do pretty well without humans. One intriguing suggestion is that orangutans or chimps could take some fairly fast evolutionary leaps in Africa, since we all evolved together, & without humans around they might have opportunities for advancement that haven't existed for several million years.

Beyond Belief examines something that did occur: the early emergence of competing communities of Jesus followers in the decades immediately after his crucifixion, & the subsequent channeling of belief into an orthodoxy. Of course, we've always known those communities existed, & a few, developing in isolation, survived. We know what happened: The Roman Christians prevailed, an official canon & basic creed established, competing "Gospels" & doctrines suppressed & deemed heretical, women removed from leadership roles, the development of complex concepts of The Trinity & The Word (Logos), & complex theologies to explain them. But central authority, always tenuous, cracked in 1054 & has been splitting into smaller pieces ever since, largely without serious challenges to the original, basic Roman-instituted orthodoxy. Pagels tries to reconstruct an early Christianity that included the Jesus found in The Gospel of Thomas & other collections of Jesus sayings & accounts of his life. I find The Secret Gospel of Thomas only slightly more strange than the Gospel of John, & John stands far enough apart from Mark, Matthew, & Luke - the synoptic gospels, to sound as different from them as Thomas does.

Pagels has suffered vile attacks for her studies & conclusions, but it's just shooting the messenger. Without theocratic political institutions & religion police, there is no way of imposing & enforcing orthodoxy on thousands of denominations & sects, or on individuals. The heart of Christianity has never been legalistic. Anyone can read & study non-canonical gospels. Strict fundamentalists & Mormons aren't orthodox believers to begin with. Mainstream American Christians ain't exactly of one mind, holding all sorts of peculiar beliefs incompatible with the Nicene Creed. Christianity is dying in Europe, forms of the faith are emerging in Africa & South America that make Roman Catholics & mainline protestants squirm. Christianity is diversifying & evolving, & it matters not who says it isn't supposed to change & demands it stop.

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I picked up Weisman's book at the Rahway Library last summer. It was one of the most original and imaginatively interesting pieces of nonfiction I've read in a long time.
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"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." Thomas Jefferson

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