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Can You Prove It Didn’t Happen?

ISSUE:  Autumn 2000

Whatever happened to matter in motion? Who ran off with the Newtonian World Machine? I know that rationalism has had its day, the Age of Reason is no more. Perhaps it never was. And if God did let Newton discover the mystery of “Nature and Nature’s Laws,” they are now, again, “hid in night.” The confident illusion that the universe and history are explicable, that the mind is capable of understanding the world around us, has become as nostalgic a proposition as a college reunion. Indeed, it is college that has pushed me to the brink of the abyss and made me behold the darkness. These days, the best and the brightest seem to have an unfailing propensity for the irrational, the supernatural, and the mysterious.

To be sure, the University of Memphis, where I have taught for more than three decades, has not always been your cutting edge academy. A cultural lag obtains, so that on the eve of feminism’s Second Wave, for example, the college newspaper—the Tiger Rag it was then called—still featured cheesecake photos displayed under the weekly banner, “The Campus Cutie.” In the mid 1960’s under-graduate men sported brush cuts and women attended class in upscale wardrobes crowned with frosted, streaked, well-tended coiffures. Only late in the day did jeans appear as the uniform of choice among some modish faculty as well as students, long after starched fashions had hit the skids in other parts of the country. But I like to think we are now caught up. Our campus cafeterias provide mesculun greens and baked potatoes as well as burgers and fries and, in keeping with the latest academic vogue, the University boasts among its many administrators a woman who bears the title, Director of Diversity. Perhaps the most impressive testimony to our trendiness , however, is the attenuation of a spirit of rational criticism that, even in the old days, seemed occasionally to prevail.

Granted, seniors and graduate students provide less ammunition to sustain this lamentable conclusion about reason’s decline. Rather my observations are based principally on my experiences with freshmen, sophomores and a sprinkling of juniors who, more often than not, constitute a captive audience in our World Civilizations courses. These fulfill a requirement under the rubric Historical/Philosophical Heritage, a principal component of the University’s General Education Curriculum. “Gen Ed” replaced the cafeteria style accumulation of credits that colleges impetuously adopted in the ‘70’s as a concession to student discontent. Now that an approximation of the older core requirements has been revived, my colleagues and I are free at last from the obligation to grapple with the vocationally oriented student’s query, “Why do I have to take history? It doesn’t count for anything.”

A one-year sequence divided at 1500, “World Civ” as it is affectionately called, keeps many of us in business. Nonetheless, while its value as a sequence that fulfills a core requirement has now been restored, its worth as a course of study remains unfathomable to many students. But I have discovered that a homily about how the study of history can make one a better person is an exercise best reserved for the end of a semester. My first chore, accordingly, is to explain the significance of 1500 as the traditional marker for the beginning of “modern” civilization.

Its principal allure is that it is a round number. Indeed, nothing much seems to have happened to distinguish Jan. 1, 1500 as the beginning of modern civilization. Perhaps Gutenberg’s printing press or the fall of Constantinople in 1453 or Columbus’s “discovery” of a New World in 1492, or even Luther’s rat-a-tat-tat on the church door of Wittenberg in 1517 might serve better than 1500, whose roundness seems commensurate with its relative uneventfulness. And for those who prefer to identify the World with civilizations of the East, the Mogul capture of Delhi in 1524 or the beginning of the Ching dynasty in 1644 afford the modern scholar equal opportunity events. For the meticulous, perhaps the commencement of the Safavid dynasty in Persia, conveniently inaugurated in 1500, epitomizes the beginning of the modern. Then again, “mere events” are no longer central to some schools of historical thought, so the roundness of 1500 may indeed be more notable than any incident in high politics, East or West.

I sometimes regret my ruminations about the uneventfulness of 1500, since they seem to activate a predisposition among some college students toward a magical numerology, a tendency that became all the more conspicuous as we approached the end of a millennium. There is, after all, an abundance of contemporary events to reinforce such inclinations. Michael Drosnin’s The Bible Code assumes that juggling the numbers may better our odds. And who can forget the 1995 Million Man March on Washington, culminating in Minister Farrakhan’s opaque mumbo-jumbo about 19: “In the background is the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials. Each one of these monuments is 19 feet high. Abraham Lincoln the sixteenth president, Thomas Jefferson the third president and 16 and 3 make 19 again.” What, Farrakhan then asked, “is so deep” about 19? Nine, we are informed, signifies the pregnant womb—so axiomatic as to require no elaboration. The digit one before the nine “means that there’s something secret that has to be unfolded.” As to what that may be, your guess is as good as mine.

To be sure, philo as well as anti-Semites may be drawn to numbers. The Cabalistic tradition in Judaism provides an abundance of examples. And even among the less mystically inclined, the number 18, which in Hebrew is “Chai,” the word for life, is frequently the unit in multiples of which solicitations are invited and gifts bestowed. Indeed, had Minister Farrakhan fixed his sights one digit lower, he may well have been swinging with the 18th-century Chassidic sage, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, not to mention my uncle Julius, who presented my wife and me with a wedding gift valued at two and half times Chai as measured in 1965 dollars. Why not spring for three? Or is the trinitarian disposition singularly Christian? But one man’s mystery is another’s crystal clear logic, as my friend Patrick sought to persuade me when he compared the Holy Trinity to the do-it-all lubricating fluid of the ‘50’s, Three in One Oil. Perhaps God greased the skids for Constantine when he plopped for the Athanasian solution at the Council of Nicaea.

On the other hand, triads of gods proliferated in a variety of civilizations generally isolated from one another. Isis, Osiris and Horus along with Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva long preceded God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Not to say that these are identical. Were I to dare suggest anything more than a curious “parallel,” my students would vigorously object. For most of them the willing suspension of disbelief ends somewhere east of the Holy Land. To quote my cousin Rose when I informed her some four decades ago that I had recently run into her granddaughter, Arlene, “Where do you come to her?” There’s no comparison.

Indeed, the great wisdom of the East, when subjected to the withering criticism of college sophomores, crumbles before the onslaught of sweet reason. Take, for example, my all-too-brief introduction to Indian civilization and the Hindu worldview. In a strained effort to be “relevant”—a very with it ‘60’s word—I use a phrase familiar to evangelical Christians—born again. While the Christian yearns to be born again, the Hindu wishes to avoid that fate, the endless cycle of rebirths signifying one’s failure in the quest to lose the Self in mystical union with Brahman. Moreover, the man/nature duality is hardly as prominent, so that one may be reborn, not merely into a higher or lower caste, but as nonhuman, even inanimate, a possibility that leaves my students aghast.

“You could come back as rice,” I suggest.

To which one upper classman dubiously responded, “What kind of rice?”

I mused about the possibilities—long-grain, wild, white? Puffed, perhaps.

“How about red beans and rice?” I suggested—a favorite in this part of the country.

“Are you telling me I’m gonna be a bowl of rice?” The question carried with it a defiant incredulity.

“Did I say anything about a bowl?” I replied.


My students’ skepticism about myth, superstition, and the mysteries of faith is less consistently applied the farther West we wander and the later we move in time. When I discuss The Epic of Gilgamesh there isn’t a murmur of dissension to my classification of the tale as myth. Indeed, a knowing smirk is visible among some on the back row, who had a hunch all along that the hero’s quest for the plant of immortality would not pay off. And who can blame them? The dummy crosses the waters of death, rescues the plant, and then, wouldn’t you know it, leaves it on the bank of a stream while he goes in for a quick dip. Well, who told him to do that? And why should anyone be surprised if the serpent snatched it away? It just goes to show, one eager reader suggested, if you don’t take care of your property, you are going to get it in the end.

Such, at least, was “the moral of the story” as one of my students interpreted it. Adumbrations of the Biblical tale hardly signify. Origins in the Mesopotamian murk can’t count for much. It was after all, B.C., and according to one student’s confident disavowal, “Anything goes in B.C.”

Well, almost anything. A touch of suspicion is aroused, sometime in late September, when, after my foray into primitive cultures and Near Eastern civilizations, I inquire whether man invents his gods.

“You mean makes them up?” I was asked.

I mean, I explain, that our conceptions of the gods may change over time. Is it plausible to suggest that they are, perhaps, in part—one can’t be too careful—responses to human needs?

“Like when they made the sun a sun god, you mean?”

“Do you think the sun itself was considered divine,” I prod, “Or was the sun thought of as an expression of the Sun God revealed in this specific object? Could these guys make such a distinction?”

“Hey, that’s heavy,” someone noted.

“Whom can say?” another said.

My students’ promising blend of scrutiny with wonderment appears to separate, however, as we hone in on the emergence of Christianity, for which Judaism is regarded as a necessary, esteemed, if somewhat disappointing precursor. Nonetheless, when the syllabus indicates that we are about to consider the Judaeo-Christian tradition, it becomes clear even to the most irreverent that we are at last getting serious. While fluttered folk and wild may have cultivated “the belief systems of their persuasion”—a felicitous dumbing-down of social science gibberish—there comes a time, usually in mid October, to put away childish things and give Truth a shot. Besides, haven’t we always qualified before, as we shall continue to do later, time without end? Consequently, when the text states that “according to tradition” Siddhartha Gautama went into the forest, or Mohammed into the desert, to meditate, doesn’t the phrase imply that this isn’t the Real Thing? The construction conveys a learned skepticism, as if to say, take this with many grains of salt. But from the burning bush to the loaves and fishes we are, to mix divine images, in another ballpark, and we bow to the categorical imperative of rooting for the home team.

I glimpse a hint of forthcoming solemnity when the slightest suggestion of humor begins to meet with grim disapproval. While Andromache and Ares may have rolled in the sack to the amusement of voyeuristic gods and men alike, try comedy with Yahweh who doesn’t tolerate yucking it up at His expense. Suggest that constant reminders about having led these ingrates out of Egypt and fed them with manna, not allowing their feet “to swell these forty years,” are tantamount to nagging, and be prepared to receive a firm if deferential rebuke in the form of an unsigned note slipped under the office door: “Dr. Kriegel: You called God a nag. By that logic, if you have children and tell them how to behave, you would be a nag.”

Okay, maybe I went overboard. But my colleagues—several of whom have won distinguished teaching awards—tell me that we must engage our students, and engagement by the traditionally disengaged may sometimes lead to exaggeration. I assure you, I meant well. No offense. Indeed, our personal connection with Yahweh—let alone your anticipation of bigger things to come— makes us all the more sensitive to presumed slights. As for my own guys—the faith of our persuasion, that is—our collective memory of this transaction in the wilderness resounds like the thwack of a broomstick colliding with a pink rubber ball. From Sinai to the West Bronx, we have sinned before Thee.

When I say the Covenant made history, my students think I mean that it got into the record books—something even bigger than Bobby Thomson’s homerun—though I associate one with divine providence and the other with divine retribution for an unwitting transgression. (Any 13-year-old kid with a passion for social justice and his team ahead by 13l/2 games in mid-August might well have been forgiven some smartass cockiness—but there’s your jealous, angry God for you.) When the ball swishes through the net at the buzzer, the announcer tells us, “It’s history now.” Meaning it’s over, done with, past. Along with the Second Temple and Appomattox and the Spanish-American War and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

That the Covenant, with its evocation of a collective past and promise of a redeemed future, is wrapped up with a new idea of history seems for my students to give it all the more credibility as a historical event in time. And they are not alone. While repudiating “the photographic accuracy of Exodus,” Milton Himmelfarb accepts “that a law was revealed—a numinous word—to our ancestors and transmitted to us.” So when I recite Exodus 14 and raise nagging questions about the nature of historical evidence, I am transformed from a profound source of wisdom into a scold. How is the historian—qua historian, I cleverly add—to respond to this passage? Who wrote it? When was it written? Is there any corroborating evidence? Anything in the passage itself—for I have the Revised Standard Version down pat—that might raise an eyebrow? This is, after all, big stuff, this parting of the seas. Homer isn’t nodding here.

“Hey, I thought we did the Greeks already.”


A dispatch from Reuters printed in Memphis’s Commercial Appeal reports that a young Islamic girl in London saw a “miracle message” written in Arabic in the veins of a newly sliced tomato. One half contained the news “There is only one God,” the other, sure enough, “Mohammed is the messenger.” Such signs appear in profusion these days, regardless, as we used to say decades ago, of race, creed or color. Indeed, the noble integrationist ideal of my secular youth seems now to have been approximated among the believers, and the effusions of the faithful belie the skeptic’s lack of faith. Promise Keepers has among its participants “men of color.” And the androgynous star-trek groupies who left their “vehicle” to scout around with the spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp comet were (are?) race as well as gender neutral.

Such spiritual metamorphoses become all the more astonishing to jaded veterans of a traditionally critical academic world. Forty years ago, in a graduate research seminar at Duke University, a student submitted a paper on seventeenth-century witchcraft. “Do you believe in witches?” the professor asked. When the student replied that he did, the seminar erupted with laughter and adjourned. The anticipated criticism had been contingent on rationalist assumptions to which students and faculty presumably subscribed. But as we approached the millennium, the rules of evidence were increasingly supplanted by personal testimonies, now confused with what we once naively celebrated as fact. Nor is such self indulgence restricted to the religious. I recently attended an historical convention where a presenter’s recollections about growing up gay in postwar Britain provided evidence for the emotional repressiveness of postwar society. If the Truth shall make you free, by all means let us testify to it.

Accordingly, my questions about the historicity of the Exodus, muchless the revelation at Sinai, become a challenge to the faithful, who are not about to be suckered by a world weary cynic. Mock On, Mock On, Voltaire, Rousseau. Or, as Hannah, my daughter’s friend, was prone to announce many years ago, “Hassie Dooley!”—a child’s marvelous onomatopoeia for “So, there” or “It just goes to show.” Still, while I have been down this road many times before, the collision of believing student and skeptical teacher is hardly as one sided an encounter as the intelligentsia may assume. And if I avail myself of the reverence that hallows bald heads and grey beards, I need any advantage I can get in this contest.


“Has anyone seen The Messiah?” I once asked.

Wrong verb, and italics aren’t audible. Moreover I have always found the presenter’s four raised fingers to designate a quotation a comical intrusion into supposedly serious deliberations. I meant Handel’s Messiah, the popular oratorio so often performed in Memphis churches and concert halls before Christmas and Easter. We had been discussing the Jewish prophets and their transformation of Yahweh from an angry, jealous deity into a merciful, compassionate and universal God who comforts his people. “Every valley shall be exalted. . . .”

A hand shot up.

“Where did you see The Messiah?” I asked.

“On Highland Street,” the student said. There are several churches on Highland Street, the seedy southern end of which lies just west of the University and provides the customary services required by a diverse student clientele. “Outside the Studio Theater,” he added.

Better than inside, I suppose, all the more so since the Studio, now long gone and succeeded by Newby’s Bar and Grill, was “an art house”—the ‘60’s euphemism for a cinema that specialized in soft-porn and the occasional avant garde nouveau article. It was there that I saw Bye, Bye Braverman, based on Wallace Markfield’s, To an Early Grave, the movie like the book as out of joint with Memphis, Tennessee in 1966 as seeing The Messiah would have been in the Loew’s Paradise back in the Bronx of the ‘50’s. But revelations are hard to come by, even in this neck of the woods, and if a student had one outside the Studio Theatre, who was I to dispute it? Indeed, testimony of his epiphany sounded far more persuasive than another student’s reasoned effort to verify the parting of the seas based on her viewing of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Not that Charlton Heston was proof for the historical Moses, you understand. Rather, the screen version provided an ontological demonstration of God’s existence and of the revelation at Sinai. To conceive of such a spectacle, albeit in the movies, was sufficient evidence for its historicity.

All of which is small potatoes compared to what follows. Indeed, the centerpiece of World Civ I, as given by Herr Doktor Professor A.D. Kriegel, unfolds in the felicitously designated intertestamentary period—namely, the Resurrection. I try to be evenhanded here, as the Arabists in the State Department used to put it. Having given a reading of Exodus 14,1 deliver myself of Matthew 28, whose author appears to counter my predictable skepticism with an effortless aside—”And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.” I have to admit, it’s a clever move, this bribery gambit, maybe even more convincing than my grandmother’s hoary tale about how the story got its unfortunate start. Jesus, according to this bit of samizdat shtetl lore, attended Hebrew School like all the other kids. But when they teased him—boys will be boys—his mom sought to soothe his feelings by telling him that God was his dad. Which is how the whole business got started. A big misunderstanding. But the damage has been done. And I needn’t tell you at whose expense. Try now to apply a watered-down version of the Higher Criticism and one is confronted with the conversation stopper: “Can you prove it didn’t happen?” That I can’t is sufficient demonstration that it must have. So Hassie Dooley.

Not that I require my students to undergo a religious crisis. Indeed, in a gesture of characteristic generosity, I reach out to those momentarily shaken. Matters of faith, after all, do not require historical verification, lest they become matters of fact. Perhaps I am myself but an unwitting instrument of divine providence, like the Assyrians and Babylonians, a foil to test the steadfastness of believing students. A bit grandiose, no doubt.


I should have guessed long ago that beneath our rationalist facade there lurked the latent faith of an incurable believer. Even Sesame Street, which parents in the ‘70’s watched with vicarious delight, had the rationalist, Bert, playing second fiddle to the cuddly naif, Ernie. Still, I assumed that any mystery would give way to science, and for a time it seemed to. Returning from the circus one spring afternoon, I was heartened by my daughter’s chuckling reservations about her friend’s anticipation of the Easter Bunny’s imminent arrival. Still, the blend of pagan lore with Christian faith provides some solace even for the skeptic.

What remains so utterly removed from my willingness to accommodate is the discipline of devotions that even the rabbis in my Reform temple now promote. After all, didn’t Amos have God rail against it? “What to me is the meaning of your rituals? Your prayers and sacrifices I cannot abide. To the melody of your harps I will not listen.” On the other hand, rooting for reason isn’t exactly a joyful exercise. Even so smart a guy as Alan Dershowitz leavens his intellectual rigor with an occasional measure of passion in his indignation at the outrage of the day. And who knows more about pursuing justice and righteousness than Dershowitz?

While the transformation of the righteous into the self-righteous is hardly peculiar to politics, religion, or the academy, it thrives in those professions. For example, Malcolm Muggeridge seemed to me as opinionated in his Socialist as in his Christian phase. Perhaps I was discomfited by the cherubic smile that advertised his faith, all the more so since he evinced the passion of a convert. By contrast his admirer, William Buckley, has been ever constant, sandwiching a half-century of political and cultural commentary between God and Man at Yale and Nearer, My God. Some guys never change. Buckley joins George Marsden in the lament that the American academy has forsaken its Christian foundations, a phenomenon the former associates with “upscale” universities. He would have less reason for alarm were he a colleague at my institution of higher learning in the midst of the Bible Belt—a circumstance lending immediacy to a remark allegedly by G.K. Chesterton, “How odd of God to choose the Jews.”

“Eloheynu vey-lohey avo-teynu,” the prayerful Jew intones—”Our God and God of our fathers.” My father’s abiding faith in a God whose mercy and compassion he invoked as his brothers and sisters were being slaughtered is not yet mine. Besides, his respect for learning, of which he had little, was always tempered by a recognition that the learned among our upward striving congregation—the few doctors, lawyers, and podiatrists—so often revealed their ignorance of Hebrew prayers and worship. As he would invariably comment in his everyday, immigrant Yiddish when noticing a learned man who was uninformed about the service, “Er vaisst gor nisht“—He knows nothing. On the other hand, the learned who knew the ritual, even if they did not observe it, were endowed with titles they had not formally acquired. Thus, my father-in-law, a lexicographer whose advanced degree was withheld by the University of St. Petersburg because of the inopportune Russian Revolution, became Dr. Mark, a belated honor that piety bestowed on learning.

My father’s faith if not his fervor may yet supplant this lingering resistance to religion. Perhaps there is a Middle Path between the mystic and the sage. The signs as well as the numbers are there. Portents of things to come, no doubt—multicolored skullcaps in Reform temples, a surge to unity among mainline Christians, and a persistent fascination in the West with the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism. All Hallow’s Eve, once a curious example of religious syncretism, subsequently a minor event in the social calendar, now acquires spiritual trappings. And the stars appear to shine in ways I never knew, as exhibited by a bright student’s response to a question about the Pyramids. “Have you taken a look at Orion lately?” Not really, but I know I should.

Above all, the lives of those one knew have taken turns that must presage something big around the corner. Hannah’s mother, Ann, embarked in middle passage to Yale Divinity School, not an altogether surprising decision given her spiritual bent. The surprise was that her husband Dan, ever the rationalist and scholastic, decided to come along, if not to matriculate. Never mind his friends’ predictable teasing about God and Dan at Yale. Ann is now my favorite Episcopal priest. She could never be a Bible thumper, thinks critically about religion, and valiantly believes. All of which was evident in an already celebrated sermon she recently delivered to a congregation in Las Vegas. What, she asked, did Jesus say on Easter Monday? “Hassie Dooley, Hassie Dooley everyone!”


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