Is Notre Dame a religious site or a cultural site?
When Notre Dame Cathedral was burning 6 days before Easter the attention of the whole world was focused on it. The fire was spectacular and the results were unclear for more than a day. It now seems that the building itself can be saved, and even the stained glass rose windows and the pipe organ have been rescued. The fire was contained in the roof and rafters as well as the tall wooden spire above the crossing. The walls are apparently sound.
Within hours, wealthy French magnates and the French government pledged hundreds of millions of Euros for the restoration of Notre Dame. The total pledged is now more than a billion, which may be enough to do the job. This raised considerable discussion in social media. Why could Notre Dame attract such huge response while no other causes do that? In fact, France is experiencing a number of strikes and protests from workers who are underpaid, and those workers cried loudly as pledges for the church came rolling in while they were ignored. Others wondered why the Roman Catholic Church, with its untold wealth could not just pay for the work on its second-most important edifice (after St. Peter’s in Vatican City). The explanation from France is that after 1905 Notre Dame has been owned by France, not the church. It is rented to the Roman Catholics for a fee, and the church has the exclusive right to conduct religious services but must keep the building open for tourists and national events. That explains why the French government (and that means the French people) will be paying 10 million Euros for the reconstruction, but it does not explain why Notre Dame is so important that a billion people watched it burn and most of them were saddened by it, without having any religious concern at all.
The fate of the Church was not the issue. It was the fate of that building that mattered.
The Eiffel Tower is the icon of France, as the Taj Mahal is of India, Big Ben and Parliament is for England, and the Statue of Liberty is for the USA. But more tourists visited Notre Dame than the Eiffel Tower. It is more awe-inspiring and impressive. It has more historic significance, and is more expressive of human aspiration. That is the key as to why Notre Dame is probably the most important building in France even though it is not France’s symbol.
For most people, the alarm, shock and pain they felt while watching the cathedral burn did not have to do with religion, although without religion Notre Dame would never have been built and maintained for these past 800 years. It was a place of pilgrimage. Pilgrims flocked to pay homage to the cathedral’s most important artifacts, “the crown of thorns” planted on Christ’s head the morning he was crucified as well as a piece of the “true cross”, which were purchased (for a huge sum from the Latin Emperor of Constantinople, Baldwin II) and brought back to France by St. Louis. That attraction has diminished. Tourists are usually not pilgrims. The difference is important, and it is at the heart of the on-going debate about the relationship of culture to religion.
Clearly, we can have regard for a religious site in a way that is divorced from the way we regard the religion itself. Angkor Wat in Siam Reap, Cambodia is a cultural treasure so central to Khmer and Cambodian identity that it is on the flag of Cambodia. More than a million people a year visit Angkor Wat to marvel at the ruins (compared to 12 million who visit Notre Dame), even though all the Khmer temples are religiously ambiguous owing to the fact that they were alternately Hindu and Buddhist, and now are just archeological marvels. It takes a dedicated observer to eke out the religious content of Angkor Wat, while the cultural content threatens to be overwhelming.
Culture is the context for religion, and religion is the heart of a culture
The question, then, seems to become, “Culture may be able to do without religion, but can religion do without culture?”
The question is a false dichotomy. I am convinced that no culture does without religion. However, religion may not be contained in the manifestation of it that once was central. In fact, I submit that religion is never fully contained in any single form of it for any community that has grown large and older than three generations. Any living religion is constantly shifting. There are political entities that have denied religious affiliation, as both the USA and China have tried to do. That has not actually succeeded in either case, although one has to look harder at China to find religion operating nationally than at the USA where religion seems to dominate just about every political issue. The Maoist cult was, for a decade, the most fervent religion of the half century. No culture does without religion.
Religion is a transcendental affect, arising from a subconscious level and emerging as emotion. The first appearance is likely to be a blinding eruption. After that, an agreeable consensus develops in a community of people about how to express this affect, shared widely, and how to sustain it over time in ways suitable for such an ineffable transcendent. Then, before long, disagreements emerge over details involving moral controls and social hierarchies. Religion is a fluid and organic function, defiant of all attempts to contain it, no matter how persistent and confident religious functionaries may be, and they tend to be very persistent and confident, often dangerously so.
Obviously, then, no religion does without culture. Culture is to religion as the sea is to whales. The sea may do without whales, but it would not be exactly the same sea without them. Nor can whales do without the sea. They are distinct but inseparable. Religion becomes (inevitably, I think) the cultural heart of a people. Notre Dame is the cultural heart of France. It is a metaphor for France, symbolizing what the nation was when it was presumably at its best. And it is a cultural gem in the crown of Western Civilization.
Old nations have such a memory and memorials which stand for them, whether the religion that built the monuments is current or not. Every religion today is beholden to the past even when the past is elapsed. Pharonic religion has gone the way of the Delphic Oracle, but the shadow of the pyramids lays over Egypt and all its people, be they Muslim or Coptic Christian or something else. Greek Orthodoxy has acquired almost all its forms and rituals from Byzantium, but the Parthenon is the cultural metaphor for Greece, from which Greek religion and atheism alike have inherited attitudes, language, and a whole lot more, and without which one is not Greek.
Speaking of Byzantium, one of the best examples of the “cultural heart of a people”, as distinct from its current religious affiliation, is Santa Sophia in Turkey. Hagia Sophia is no longer the citadel of Byzantine religion and the chapel of the Emperor, nor is it any longer an Ottoman mosque. Still, if anything were to happen to that building every Turk would be sorely afflicted. Turkish identity would be assaulted. What it means to be Turkish is symbolized in Hagia Sophia.
Young nations and amalgamated nations do not yet have that. It is hard, in ethnically diverse nations like the Philippines and Indonesia to identify a single cultural heart. For the relatively new nation of Australia what is the cultural heart, Ayres Rock or the Sidney Opera House? Neither, I think; not yet. Nor does the USA, being both recent and culturally diverse, have such a cultural heart. Instead, for nearly 200 years, the nation has been trying to develop an entire city as its spiritual fulcrum. Washington is both the house of national government and a celebration of slippery national identity. In the process, a new religion has developed, a civil religion continually endangered by immigrating ethnic diversity. The long-term effect of this is too soon to tell. One thing is clear: conflict over American culture is distinct from how Americans deal with religious diversity in their communities, where dozens of religious institutions and centers of worship reside side by side in every city. It is at the intersection of religion and culture, when people think in cultural rather than religious terms, that dispute arises and sometimes erupts into violence.
Why is it important?
The fire in Notre Dame on Tuesday of Holy Week helped clarify for me that religion and culture may be overlapping and interdependent, but they are distinct. Then on Easter in Sri Lanka a squad of fanatical ISIS bombers attacked Christian churches and high-visibility hotels loaded with Easter tourists. In the first case the accidental destruction of the world’s number-one tourist attraction and French cultural demarcator evoked anguish and determination to restore the landmark, at whatever cost. In the second case the intentional slaughter of more than 350 people evoked outrage and plans for revenge, but no ideas about what to do to eliminate the plague of violence, or how we have gotten to the point we have no idea about what to do.
Reaction to these two events underscored how important and how difficult it is to remember it is a cultural war going on but religions have not opposed it. It does no good to drag out the trope that all religions preach peace and religion is not to blame for crimes against humanity. It is true that most religious people are nice. But religions, as we have them in the real world, are all guilty of failure to work effectively and relentlessly for the transformation of culture. Even when there have been counter-cultural efforts by religious groups, they have been merely tolerated by cautious religious authorities, and avoided by the majority. As a whole, it is impossible to deny that religions have failed to provide critical distance between their visions of fulfilled life in a peaceful world, and the aspirations of empire which postponed such visions in order to get a better hold on power first. Power is addictive. Empires never have enough of it to decide, “Now we can get on to the more important things of enabling everybody to have well-lived lives in a peaceful world.”
Cultural entities lack the outward perspective to reform. They are focused inwardly. They are dedicated to conserving and commemorating symbols of that which was awe-inspiring and impressive, historically significant, and presumably eminently expressive of human aspiration. They are abetted by a massive passive majority who hasten to deny involvement in violence or hatred. People with a new fervor for humanity are desperately needed, religious people. Only people with fire in their guts, fanned to religious intensity, can veer humanity back on course toward that which religions all say should be the destination.
You, your time has come.
Easter is about guessing where Jesus is.
Rin Rong could have been one of the most beautiful villages in the northernmost region of Thailand, but it was in most ways desolate. The lanes were rutted after a season of rains. A funeral wagon pulled by nearly every able-bodied person in the village lumbered through Rin Rong. Death is no respecter of convenience.
Young Chang stood on the wagon to steady the casket. He stood straight and tall, sweating in the blazing sun as it passed his house make of sheets of beaten bamboo laced with wire. Two little children crawled to the door at the sound of the procession, and seeing their older brother on the funeral wagon, leapt to the ground and sped off to join the parade.
The only other man not pulling on the wagon was the opposite of Chang, whose interest in Jesus was marginal. Elder Ensin loved the Lord Jesus with a fierce and urgent devotion. He was an upright man who memorized scripture to lighten his way as readily as he tried to enlighten the way for others. It was Elder Ensin who had sold half a sack of rice to pay for the coffin they were soon to inter in the ground. If ever any man was selfless and God-fearing and deserved to be called upright it was Elder Ensin. But it was a wild irony, for he was so terribly afflicted with curvature of the spine that when he sat on the floor with his legs folded, his chin hovered only a foot above his ankles, and when he rode his bicycle, since he could not walk any distance, he had to steer by peering under the handle bars.
Elder Ensin loved and was loved by the Christians of Rin Rong. When his house had burned they contributed the poles to build a new one and donated sacks to glue to sticks for walls. When his spine collapsed they carried him to a bus stop and brought him to a hospital to save his life. Elder Ensin had been taught by an itinerant preacher how to peel thin strips of bamboo and to dye them into brilliant colors to weave into elaborate hair pins. Elder Ensin was forever grateful for whatever the church bestowed upon him. Even when the fad passed for this one thing he could produce he remained iridescent with love of Jesus and gratitude to the Church.
The funeral procession turned off the main path and began to ascend into a jungle patch of wild thorns and bamboo thicket. Elder Ensin struggled to keep his bicycle upright in the rutted path. Chang struggled to keep the casket upright as the wagon lurched from side to side.
Chang had relinquished a day of labor to help with this funeral. His sacrifice meant that no one at home would eat that night, a not infrequent occurrence. Chang and his family would have perished if his were the only source of funds for his sickly mother and her 5 children still at home. But there was another source.
As Chang climbed down from the wagon at the edge of the clearing that served as the jungle cemetery, a diminutive young woman with long hair stepped out of the shadows and pressed a roll of small brown bank notes into his hand and shrank back again. Chang pretended not to notice that he has just received $3 or $4. He casually deposited the cash in his pocket. Privately, however, Chang was not so casual. He ached to run after her, he longed to speak to her and tell her about the troubles at home. He wanted to tell her he loved her and respected her because she was his older sister. He wanted to say how much it mattered she was doing all she could to help her desperate family survive and that it didn’t matter that she had become a prostitute to do it. But she was gone.
No one had seen her but Elder Ensin. No one except him had seen her act of brave compassion for her family. And no one else could have understood if they had seen it. Elder Ensin viewed things, even peering under the handle bars as he had to view them, from the perspective of Jesus.
This reminiscence from 1982 is from my collection, EMERALD VALLEY CHRONICLES: Stories of a team of Christian seminary students at work in village churches in Thailand. Names have been changed. The picture above is the last and perhaps the only one ever taken of “Elder Ensin” a few weeks before he died, with Samarn Chaisathan, leader of our seminary team.
What do you do if your parent doesn’t get to heaven? How do you even know?
The Wanna clan (Pramote’s father’s family and ancestors) have been living in the area of the Jom Jaeng temple for generations. Half the people in the village are relatives to some extent. One branch has just about all moved away, but their family homestead is still there at # 123 with one remaining daughter and her family. Their connection to Pramote is that they have the same great-grandfather.
A while back, a daughter who now lives in the North East section of the country had a dream in which she learned that her parents were part of a cluster of deceased ancestors who were hanging around the family home. They had not departed into heaven within 7 days after cremation as folklore said they should have done. That was ominous. Vagrant spirits can become vindictive. Anything to help them gain the spiritual power to move on would be good.
But a dream might be just a dream.
Quite independently Pramote’s younger brother, Yut, had a dream, too. In his dream his father, who died last September, appeared and told him that he was still in the area. He directed Yut to notice the house number where he said he was staying. The house was # 123. Paw instructed Yut to place a lottery bet on that number. Yut, naturally, did as he had been ordered, even though a dream might be just a dream. This dream turned out to be a winner, bringing Yut nearly a thousand dollars (30,000 baht, a record for the family).
When word got around about Yut’s good fortune, the story got back to the distant cousin. She was astounded. The fact that both cousins had had a dream about the family spirits could not be ignored. The family decided they should organize a merit-making event in behalf of their ancestors.
Songkran is the traditional New Year, a three day event. The first day, according to Northern Thai tradition is the last day of the old year. The second day, is a day to start over and move into the new year. It is a day of religious ceremonies, beginning at dawn with merit-making in behalf of the ancestors by name. Tissue paper banners are brought to be inserted in a symbolic mountain made of sand; these will wave in the breeze caused by spirits passing by, we are told. Bags of food are brought to the temple in behalf of departed parents and grandparents. There is then a tak bahtr ritual presentation of rice to priests. And in mid-morning, sacred water is used to wash Buddha images (and usually to bathe the monks). That is the day also to honor surviving elders of one’s parent’s generation. The third day is for traveling to visit distant religious sites where holy events took place involving primal parents and to honor patrons.
In other words, Songkran is very much focused on elders and ancestors.
The Wanna clan decided to hold a merit-making ceremony on the last day of the year, the first day of Songkran. The place, of course, was house #123. A chapter of 10 priests was recruited to chant stanzas for half an hour. The purpose of those stanzas was two-fold: to accrue merit as all chanting of Dharma does, and to transfer the merit magically to the credit of the ancestors. Chanting is very meritorious, and sponsoring such chanting is equally good. Then the family made offerings of rice to the monks, which is also meritorious. A lay leader recited a long, involved chant to relinquish the merit in behalf of ancestors whom he named, and also to those who might benefit from such added merit whose names had been overlooked. The clan then provided a real meal for the monks to eat and also for everyone in the village who had attended. Finally, a model house was removed to the temple grounds. This small house was fully loaded with things the ancestors might be attracted to. It symbolically reiterated a funeral arrangement in which such a model would be moved to the temple grounds while the deceased were being urged to seek their spiritual destiny away from the body they had inhabited. This was a scaled-down version of a funeral service, inasmuch as the previous ones had not fully succeeded.
No one can yet say whether this has been effective in getting the Wanna ancestors on to their next reincarnation. There is no set of principles about what to do if one’s parents haven’t departed for heaven as they were expected to, so they could then be reincarnated to accumulate merit toward enlightenment. Doctrinal Buddhism has little to say about that. Northern Thai folk faith fills in the gaps. The principle in supernaturalism is, if in doubt follow your hunch.
Easter is the hardest season to retain the concept that scripture is not history. No part of the Bible was composed with the idea that historical events were being accurately recorded. Even if the episode being mentioned had actually happened in the way it was described that was irrelevant to the theological lesson that was being proclaimed. Palm Sunday was not about Jesus bravely riding on a donkey into Jerusalem while children welcomed him with palm branches strewn on the pavement.
Nor were the stories of the other events of Holy Week meant to be taken literally. They were not to be taken metaphorically, either. They were to be discerned theologically. They describe how people grasped what God was doing in Christ. The story was not to describe what Jesus was up to as he rode into Jerusalem that day in 33 A.D., but was an example of how one discerns what God is up to all the time.
For the first auditors of those stories, and those included people who had been present along the roadside, in the garden, and at the tomb, it would have been blasphemous and unthinkable to presume to pontificate on what God was doing. God is not available for our inspection and analysis. God’s holiness is not all about size, either. It is not that God is vast, but that God is godlike, other, imponderable, awesome, and stupendous in power and purpose. God is beyond description or speculation.
Whatever you want to say about God the answer is NO.
You can see what God does, however. The affects of God’s actions are discernable, if one chooses to consider them long enough to come to a profound Ah, Ha! That insight then unites all else, and tends to grow as one’s perspective expands about what else there is.
The Gospel’s “good news” is that a group of people who had encountered Jesus of Nazareth ruminated on their experiences and arrived at a collective Ah, Ha! They shared some of their stories and discerned a core of meaning. The meaning was profound, they testified. The meaning was earthshaking. The meaning was consistent with older stories being told, especially older stories being told by Jews, which included overlapping stories from Phoenicians, Persians and others. The meaning was profound and pertinent. It was timely and important.
Two ways developed to transfer that insight.
One was through sacred narrative. The stories were told in juxtaposition so that a narrative that already had made a profound impact on the listeners was heard alongside another story which the narrator testified contained the same profound meaning. If that worked, sooner or later, a listener would have an Ah, Ha!
The other way to transfer the insight was through re-enactment of a sacred encounter in which the profound meaning was manifested. Times of life-passage (birth, marriage, death, for example) were prime times for re-enactment, but so were annual cycles that mimic birth, fecundity, and death. Those re-enactments of divine-human encounters were meant to provide opportunities for participants to have an Ah, Ha! … and to then regularly revisit the breakthrough so it could expand to include everything that is current.
But the ascertaining of insight into the meaning of life was not the same thing as grasping God, the Awesome and Magnificent, the Eternal and Transcendent. When one has broken through into understanding, the first thing one understands is how little one knows. But the yeast of understanding is planted and one’s perspective is no longer static.
[Woodcut by Sadao Watanabe, 1913-1996, “Entry to Jerusalem”]
VANISHING VILLAGE CULTURE
Agriculture in North Thailand has entered a transitional era. What was once accomplished by serfs is not yet completely mechanized. A farm couple in Chiang Mai in 2019 has about as much as they can handle to produce two crops a year from maybe 5 rai of fields (2 acres). One crop is most likely rice grown in the June to October rainy season, and the second would be a cash crop grown from November to March. Cash crops in our part of the Chiang Mai valley are either soybeans, corn (maize), or onions. Those are labor intensive crops, which is probably why they are usually profitable as long as labor is cheap. These days, on the other hand, farmers with extra land or lacking muscle power will convert some of their fields into orchards. Lameye orchards produce the biggest cash crops here, but oranges grow farther north, and coffee on the hillsides along with cabbage and other vegetables on land converted from forests.
This photo essay is about the labor needed to make money from growing onions.
Onion growing has three labor-intensive phases.
PHASE ONE Seedlings (See pictures 1and 2)
Onion seeds are among nature’s miniatures. They are not much bigger than the dots at the end of this sentence …. So, the rock-hard soil must be plowed, chopped, and turned into the consistency of sand. This was accomplished in about a week. It takes about 1 rai (4/10 acre) of land to produce enough onion seedlings for 6 rai of onions. Once the seeds are spread on the seedbeds they are sprinkled with what I learned was a “secret ingredient” – bat guano. That was covered with a thin layer of more mundane manure and a protective layer of straw. Then every day a thin mist of water was sprinkled on the fields at dawn and sometimes at dusk. Insects, weeds, and snails were evicted by hand. And the rows were covered with a protective sun shield laid on bamboo staves. The seeds were planted in the second week of October. Phase one involved several hours of labor each day.
PHASE TWO Transplanting (See pictures 3 to 7)
After about 2 months the young onions were ready for transplanting. Before that could take place, of course, the main onion fields had to be converted from rice paddies into long rows with deep troughs in between for irrigation. The hardest work was done by tractors. The whole valley was to be onion fields, many hundreds of acres owned by scores of different farmers, each knowing precisely where their unmarked fields were. When the tractors were finished, the soil was chopped by hand until it was as course as rocky gravel. The annual rains were slacking off by this time, the first week of December. Actual transplanting consisted of carefully pulling up the seedlings, which had grown to the size of spring onions served with dinner. These were bundled and the gangly tops were trimmed off. The bundles were transported to the fields and re-planted. The first week or two were critical. There had to be enough water, and careful watch for fungus. Dead plants were removed by hand. The rows were covered with straw. For the rest of the growing season, labor consisted in monitoring the irrigation two or three times a week, praying and worrying. Toward the end, worry was focused on securing a buyer.
PHASE THREE Harvest (pictures 8-12 in the field, 13-15 in the warehouse)
When the onions were the size of one’s fist and the tops began to wilt, it was time to harvest (mid-March). It was important that the field be fairly dry to deter mildew as well as to make it easier to get the onions. They were almost lying on top of the ground. A team of laborers was hired to get “our” onions, which were actually grown by Pramote’s brother and sister-in-law. We wonder what will happen when they are no longer able to do this. It might be feasible to hire all the work done, but barely so. This harvest was done by women who are migrant workers with homes in ethnic minority villages several miles away. For most farmers, the project ended when the onions were removed from the field.
Counting all out- of- pocket expenses, it cost about 50,000 baht (approximately $1700) to get this year’s crop from seeds to sacks of onions. Brother Lon sold the onions for 120,000 baht, which was about the same as last year. The year before the whole crop had to be sold for 50,000 baht, which would have been zero profit if labor costs had been the same as this year. Three years ago, however, the harvest had sold for 240,000 baht, because of crop failure in China. The farmers would love for the government to provide a greater measure of market stability, but the present government has shifted its help from agriculture to industrial development, which is a change with immense impact on more than half the population, and with serious political effect.
The onions were removed by pick-up trucks to centralized warehouses. One of the largest in our part of the district is in our village. At the warehouse the onions were inspected for rot and deformities, and bagged for shipment to Bangkok or Pitsanuloke where they were gotten ready for big city markets or for shipment overseas. China is the biggest market.
The onion project took five full months, of which about half the time was labor intensive, involving several hours a day, and the other half less so.
Every village family needs cash. There are three ways of getting it. Producing farm products is the most obvious and traditional way. Lon’s land around the house is limited, but he farms a one-rai plot owned by his father who died last September, as well as 4 rai in the middle of the onion fields, owned jointly with his daughter. The two crops per year produce enough rice for the extended family to eat, and cash for Lon and his household. They have 2 daughters, the older of whom has an invalid daughter; she is a teacher earning enough to help the family and to secure a future house and land for herself and her husband. The younger daughter also has a child, whom she currently stays at home to care for (although she is moving back to a job in the mall where there is a nursery). Her husband is a mechanic, also providing cash for the extended family’s needs. A third source of funds, in addition to sale of produce and salaries, is part-time labor. Lon’s wife, Sri, not only takes care of her invalid granddaughter, she cooks confections.
Every northern Thai village family gets along more or less this way. But farming becomes a less and less important source of support as time goes by. There will be no farmer in the family after Lon and Sri. The onion fields will be sold in a few years or sooner, if someone makes an attractive offer. Lon is getting older than most farmers, but even younger men and women without heart conditions (which Lon has) would give up the labor intensive type of farming if they had a source of greater income. Construction or handicrafts workers can make more than Lon can make in an average year like this one, although 3 years ago was a great enough year that Lon and Sri could remodel the house to make it accommodate both daughters and their families. Young people of the daughters’ generation all try to graduate from college in order to get jobs that do not include long back-breaking days in the sun or mired in mud, and which have salaries that not only insure a steady income but qualify them for loans for cars or a plot of land for a house of their own. This very week, Lon’s oldest daughter and spouse bought a piece of land and are making plans for their own house and orchard.
Previous blog essays on related topics include:
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.