October 2, 2011

the golden wow

I begged my most Christian collegiate compadre to buy me condoms. Oh, the things a fledgling proselytizer doesn’t imagine they’ll be called to do. But, after two shocked eyebrows and one sigh of resignation as I bolted out of her post-collegiate apartment door for a date — and an impending affair — that I hadn’t thought I’d be having, I did find a dainty box of Trojans under her guest bathroom sink late that night, exactly where I’d asked her to leave them. Ecumenical, indeed.

In 1989, my one goal in life was to be somewhere else than I presently was and, by obvious implication, someone else than I presently was. But, blessedly, my running was just beginning to be less about running away and more about running, jumping and playing. My seminal trip to the Himalaya two years before had shown me just how big the world really is and had converted me in ways that at that point I had no name for. I see now that I had been converted to Curious.

I was in San Francisco for a weekend visiting said sweet-hearted Aggie, on one of many road trips I pieced together over those next few years. However, it was not she, but a tall cool drink of tan water with long hair and a life very different from my own that had met me at the airport. He was a friend I’d made on my last road trip, one of those cheap package air-and-bad-hotel runs to the cheapest Caribbean island at that time, San Maarten. A less pious girlfriend and I had made the absolute most of it. I swam in her wake as she flirted with every cute everyone, eventually scoring the cutest Brit on the north shore. While she canoodled, I hung out at the bar with our buddy from the first day, a dreadlocked Cajun boy working crew on a catamaran.

I had never actually spoken to anyone with dreadlocks before. I had assumed that people who had dreadlocks and lived on boats in paradise with nothing more than a hammock and two changes of clothes had no interest in anyone who, like me, was spawn of Republicans. So, I was punch drunk on the apparent fact that he found me acceptably cool, though it never crossed my mind that he might find me attractive as well. Even after our last night, singing Patsy Cline songs around a beachy campfire until 2am and ending up together in his hammock talking about some book called The Golden Bough.

He was living in a trailer in Monterrey nine months later (and, I just recalled, driving a taxi! See last post! Wow, indeed) and met me at the bottom of an escalator with twelve hand cut roses and one 800-page tome by Sir James George Frazer. On the front cover, Time Magazine extolled it as “one of the 20th century’s most influential books.” How had I never heard of it?

Probably because it pretty much undercuts the presumed cultural hegemony of Christianity at every turn. And did this in 1890, no less. Wikipedia summarizes thusly:

The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion … offered a modernist approach to discussing religion, treating it dispassionately as a cultural phenomenon rather than from a theological perspective. The book scandalized the British public upon its first publication, because it included the Christian story of Jesus in its [wide-ranging] comparative study, thus inviting the agnostic reading of the Lamb of God as a relic of a pagan religion.”

Wide-ranging, indeed. Over twenty years of anthropological research made for an index of 36 pages like something out of my wildest dreams. Today, I open my old copy again and one of those pages almost falls out, having been bent back and forth so many times.

Tein-eigin, need-fire, in Scotland, 715-716

Temple at Jerusalem, built without iron, 261

Teton Indians, 607

Thebes, the Boeotian, grave of Dionysus at, 451

Theocracies in America, 197

Theogamy, divine marriage, 162

Theology distinguished from religion, 58

And like this, seemingly forever. Absolutely no end to all of the ways that humans have sought to understand the Spirit. I was enthralled, for years. Though I didn’t crack the spine that weekend, of course. First things first… I ran out of condoms. Opening myself up to sweet-hearted experiences with very different sweet hearts was as critical to my heart opening wide as were my beloved books. We need so many words. We also need fire.

So many words from The Golden Bough changed me so much. But, all these years later I only clearly recall one passage, from Buddhism, and Christianity, 419-420:

“Both systems were in their origin essentially ethical reforms born of the generous ardour, the lofty aspirations, the tender compassion of their noble Founders, two of those beautiful spirits who appear at rare intervals on earth like beings come from a better world to support and guide our weak and erring nature. Both preached moral virtue as the means of accomplishing what they regarded as the supreme object of life, the eternal salvation of the individual soul, though by a curious antithesis the one sought salvation in a blissful eternity, the other in a final release from suffering… .”

The first time I read this, I clearly recall being struck with the mental image of a circle and of these two aspirations starting together on one side of the circle before then going forth, apparently in opposite directions but ultimately meeting again. Coming back together.

I am still, and forevermore, coming back together. We all are, as long as we are curious. And as long as we are loving. The Latin word for curiosity, curiosus, derives from cura, meaning “care.” If to love is to care, then to care is to be curious. To seek the wow, howsoever we can.

And, to ask more questions than our present world may yet be comfortable with. With care.

Indeed.

Categories: Buddhism, Christianity, The Golden Bough

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