Today is Rose Monday. In parts of Germany, the pre-Lenten carnival is in full swing. "Rose" is said to derive from a word meaning romp, and that is what thousands of revelers do, taking to the streets of cities, especially, along the Rhine. Noise, kissing of strangers, public drunkenness, mocking of gender roles, wearing of masks, breaking of rules -- anything goes.
In Latin countries, the carnival is centered on Tuesday (Mardi Gras, Martedi Grasso), but all of these traditions involve a raucous up-ending (and sending up) of normal decorum.
Carnival can be understood as letting off steam ahead of the austerities of Lent. If gluttony marks the Monday-Tuesday festivities, the over consumption comes originally from the practical need to clear the household of the food and drink forbidden in the penitential season, which begins with ashes on Wednesday. But more is at stake in the wildness than a mere prelude to penance.
The traditions of carnival go back to overt acts of political resistance, when common people seized an occasion to defy those in power. The outrageous parades of bimbos, cross-dressers, clowns, and jokers -- what New Orleans will feature tomorrow -- began as a way to make fun of the military parades that showcased the oppressive power of rulers. Parades were by definition military exercises, and their purpose was to intimidate. At carnival, the parade is a celebration of the refusal to be intimidated. Soldiers are ridiculed, police are defied, the rules of the clergy are flouted. Social reversal is the point.
The irony of carnival is that, while religion is one of its targets, religion is also its source. This is true even when priests and bishops object to being insulted. The extremely ordered liturgical calendar is what licenses the disorder of Romping Monday and Fat Tuesday. On those days, foolishness is as holy as piety is on Ash Wednesday. In such holy foolishness can be seen the supremely valuable function of religion as a sponsor of skepticism about everything conventional, including itself. This flies in the face of contemporary complaints about religion as aiming only at the subservience of its adherents. Richard Dawkins, in "The God Delusion," cites this aphorism of Victor Hugo: "There is in every village a torch -- the teacher: and an extinguisher -- the clergyman." But the teacher may be religious.
Both by many religious people and by its many secular opponents, religion is taken to be the enemy of the critical mind, yet religion is by definition a mode of critical thinking. This is obviously the case in the biblical tradition, which, in its steady stream of prophetic voices, enshrines principles of its own self-criticism. The prophet, after all, reproaches the king as an adulterous murderer. God rebukes Israel for faithlessness. The Gospels show the inner circle of Jesus as his worst betrayers.
Nor do other religions exempt themselves from such judgment. This is so because religion exists to point to the existence of God, to worship God, and to insist that nothing else be worshipped -- including itself. But that pointing is complex. Religion uses language about God (creeds, prayers, etc.), images of God (trinity, monotheism, incarnation, etc.), and stories of God's activity (the Bible, Koran, Vedas, etc.), but religion also insists that none of these are God. God is greater than any idea applied to God, or any word used to describe God.
Religion warns that humans constantly attempt to substitute for God what is not God (the nation-state, the quest for wealth, oneself, etc.). And religion, equally, acknowledges that it, too, does just that. Religion all too often worships itself. When that happens, religion does aim at the subservience of its adherents, and at coerced conversion of others. Religion becomes violence. That kind of religion is what atheists like Richard Dawkins reject, and why not? But religious people reject it, too, although without the smug sense of being above the human condition which is so wounded by such mistakes.
At carnival, the revelers, with their masks, costumes, and wild behavior, are holding up the powers-that-be for ridicule. That is especially true in New Orleans, where defiant joviality mocks this nation's coarse -- and ongoing -- betrayal of that city. But the street-dancers are also making fun of themselves, which makes the festival noble. This week's glad interruption in time is a gift from the deep past. Carnival foolishness is self-surpassing, whether deemed holy or not. Either way, it is a reminder that we humans on the earth were made for more than appears before the eyes.
Copyright 2007 Boston Globe