The medieval preternatural + Monuments to unbelief

Betwixt nature and God dwelt the medieval 'preternatural'

EXCERPT: [...] These accidents of nature were known as ‘prodigies’. A non-exhaustive list might include floods; rains of blood or body parts; miscarriages, human and animal; volcanic eruptions and earthquakes; comets, eclipses, and conjunctions of the planets; apparitions of armies in the sky; and beached whales. What united this Borgesian collection was its strangeness. Each of these phenomena departed from the ‘norm’, but not enough to be considered a true miracle. They occupied a middle ground between natural and supernatural: the preternatural.

In theory, prodigies could be explained by natural causes. But in creating them, nature wasn’t tending to business as usual. This strange, quirky, slippery realm, the realm of the monstrous, fulfilled a human need to see the moral order reflected in the non-human domain. Prodigies allowed humans to see their own desires, fears and political judgments woven into the fabric of nature itself. In a secularised form, this impulse is still with us today....


Monuments to unbelief

EXCERPT: [...] Roman’s heart did not fail him this time (it would a few years later, in 1951). Still, he wanted to make good on his hospital pledge, and saw no need now to wait for a posthumous testimonial. Why not proactively erect his ‘Agnostic Monument’ in Graceland Cemetery for all to see ‘regardless of public censure’? Investing much of his savings in the project, he wanted it to be the largest monument in the Sidney graveyard, and he pulled off the installation in August 1948. The result was imposing: a giant granite block heralding the freethinking triumvirate of the deistic revolutionary Thomas Paine, the infidel orator Robert Ingersoll, and the Cornell president Andrew Dickson White. ‘READ THEIR WORKS,’ the megalith advised. An anti-sermon in stone, Roman’s monument declared science the ‘SOLE REVELATION’, and repeated Ingersoll’s freethinking thoughts on death and immortality. Also, as his beloved Ingersoll was wont to do, Roman slipped in some bourgeois moralising with his irreligious polemic: ‘EVILS OF MY DAY; USE OF TOBACCO, ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES AND RELIGIOUS SUPERSTITION.’ He wanted his neighbours to know that he could be good – and just as abstemious as a Methodist teetotaller – without God.

The monument certainly got the community talking, attracting ‘a constant stream’ of curious visitors to ponder its bold message. The pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, John W Meister, devoted a whole sermon to the subject of ‘Christian Roman’s Tombstone’, which conjured to him a spectre of infidelity weirdly out of place amid the United States’ postwar religious upswing. ‘I never seriously thought that in my generation there would be cause for argument with a real, live agnostic,’ Meister preached to a crowded congregation. After two world wars and the Great Depression, humanistic self-regard paled before the sterner stuff of neo-orthodox faith and, with the dawning of the Cold War, there was little room for doubting God, Jesus and the Bible without seeming to underwrite Soviet communism and atheism.

Meister framed the offence, ‘if not insult’, of Roman’s monument in sophisticated theological and historical terms. ‘Let the church never substitute dogma for intellect; let us never laugh off a questioning mind,’ the pastor advised those Christians who were ‘up in arms’ over Roman’s gravestone....


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