Saturday, December 29, 2012

Stasis and Change, Myth and Reality, Belief and Faith

Let me begin by confessing that I am a stargazer.

I love the fact that the stars appear every night. Okay, not here in Cleveland, the land of Seasonal Affective Disorder, but nevertheless they are there above the clouds, marching up over the horizon in the same order, in the same relation to each other, the same brightness, the same colors, burning brightly. They are there during the day as well, constantly shining; we cannot see them because we are blinded by the sun - okay, not here in Cleveland - but they are there, apparently forever.

I love the Arabic names of the stars - thank you, Islamic scholars, for preserving the knowledge of the ancients during the Dark Ages, when the West suffered a collective stroke after the fall of Rome and forgot how to read and write.

I love the travelers - the planets who exercise their power to move among the stars, called by the names of the Roman Gods and borrowing their attributes.

I love finding the constellations and remembering the stories they tell; the groupings of stars where Greek and Roman myths play out; heroes and monsters, warriors and maidens, hunters and prey; stories of courage and loyalty, beauty and strength, wickedness and fear. We tell the same stories when we dream of trekking to the stars.

Astrology is fun! How entertaining it is to believe that our character and destiny are influenced by - perhaps determined by - the placement of the sun, the moon, and planets against the background of the stars at the moment of our birth and at any particular moment in time. The astrological charts tell me that I am a Capricorn, because the sun was supposedly "in" that constellation when Mary Huhn, who was alone at the time, gave birth to me. (My father had run out of the room to look for a doctor.) My mother scoffed at astrology and she and I together would read our horoscopes in the paper every day to see what nonsense was predicted for us. I think that the astrologers who write for the newspapers are, for the most part, very good people. Their advice is usually of a cautious nature: "Be careful today - you may be upset, and you don't want to overreact." I have yet to see one that says, "Today is the day to tell your boss precisely what you think of him." I wonder if astrologers have to purchase professional malpractice insurance and attend risk management seminars?

The good folks at Gallup and Pew Research Center tell us that 25% of the United States population believes in astrology! How disappointing for those true believers to learn from a Minnesota professor (Yea, professors!) that the modern astrology charts are all off by at least one and perhaps two astrological signs!
For there is a phenomenon known as the Precession of the Equinoxes. Things are not what they seem. Science tells us that the earth is not static in relation to the stars but rather "wobbles" on its axis, making one complete circuit every 26,000 years. Polaris, the star at the tip of the Little Dipper, is the north star now, constantly overhead at the North Pole, but 13,000 years from now it will be far from overhead and mariners will point to other stars to find "true north." In addition, by then the stars themselves will have moved, and many of the present constellations will be unrecognizable.

But what this means is that at the moment of the Spring Equinox - on the day when when day and night are precisely equal - on the day when the sun rises directly in the east and sets directly in the west - at the precise instant when the plane of the Earth's axis is exactly perpendicular to the plane of our rotation around the sun - the sun will not be entering the constellation Aries. At that moment - which this year will be on March 20 at 7:02 am Eastern Standard Time - the sun will be in the Constellation Pisces.

The astrological charts are based upon calculations that were made by the Babylonians about 2000 B.C., during the Age of Aries, when the sun was entering Aries on the first day of spring. But over 2,150 years or so (1/12th of 26,000 years) the sun gradually moves backwards into another constellation at the moment of the Equinox.

The sun has been in Pisces (the fish) at the moment of the Vernal Equinox since about 200 B.C., which probably played a role in the identification of Jesus with the sign of the fish. The fish was the dominant symbol for Christ for several centuries after his birth, and still retains significance today. Prior to the Age of Aries was the Age of Taurus, perhaps explaining the existence of the bull-worshiping religions that preceded Judaism and Christianity. (Check out Exodus 32, where Moses convinced the Jews to accept the Ten Commandments in place of a golden calf.)

Within a few hundred years the sun will be in the constellation Aquarius at the time of the equinox, and we will enter the Age of Aquarius. Thanks to the great song of the same name in the musical Hair, people have an optimistic view of what the future holds. Such a hopeful belief is good.

But faith is better. Myths and stories can be put to many uses, good and evil, because they are so manipulable. But faith is enduring. That is the central point of the work of theologians such as Theodore Parker (The Transient and Permanent in Christianity) and James Fowler (Stages of Faith, a theory summarized here by Joann Wolski).

Religious belief varies over time and from place to place. People may be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or any religion or no religion. Even two people of the same sect worshiping next to each other may have very different religious beliefs. Furthermore, people's beliefs are mutable; Americans in particular are prone to change their religion.

But faith is enduring. Faith is what we devote our lives to, regardless of our specific religious belief. Our faith may be shallow and insignificant; we may have placed our faith in the accumulation of wealth or in getting high; or our faith may be sublime like a dedication to peace and justice. Belief is but a means to an end, and it is our ends that define us.

The beliefs and stories of astrology are fun, but science - uncovering the truth of the universe - is a serious endeavor. We can make a positive difference in this world only if we are grounded in reality and we have faith.

Reprinted from Akron Law Cafe, January 17, 2011.

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