Of all the gifts that Ben Carson has given comedy writers and Twitter wags in the past weeks, it’s his stubborn belief that the Biblical prophet Joseph built the pyramids that’s captured the public’s imagination the most. Self-serious pundits, meanwhile, bemoan this spasm of ridicule on a subject properly relegated to strange-smelling occult bookstores and dusty UseNet forums. To be sure, there are other questions about Carson that have a more obvious bearing on his fitness to be president: his non-trivial attachment to the multi-level marketing firm and “glyconutrient” purveyor Mannatech sounds alarms not just about Carson’s medical judgment outside his field, but his willingness to benefit from a predatory business model (the profit of a different sort of pyramid scheme).
Since it hews to the general Judeo-Christian storyline, and it serves their electoral purposes, conservatives have been incredibly deferential to Carson’s theory. “All religious beliefs have some element of fantastical or absurd,” goes the defense. “Besides: ReverendWrightBillAyersBenghazi.”
Here’s the problem: Carson’s pyramid theory isn’t really religious, not in the sense that it is a part of official Seventh Day Adventist church doctrine. Carson appears to have extrapolated from official church doctrine regarding Biblical infallibility and Scripture as an “authentic and historical account” that the grain Joseph collected during the “seven years of plenty” must have been stored somewhere—and at some point he alighted on the same theory that briefly swept the world’s intelligentsia in the sixth century. (As one does.) Indeed, for a certain subsection of voters, Carson’s pyramid theory isn’t proof Adventists’ beliefs are a little strange, but rather have come around to polite society consensus in at least one respect—they’re not as virulently anti-Catholic they used to be. Hence, my personal favorite headline of the cycle: “Ben Carson Agrees With Gregory of Tours.”
Carson’s belief is “religious” in that it borrows some characters from the Bible in order tell a story about a historical event. By that measure, the belief that there are no unicorns because they refused to board Noah’s ark is also “religious.” (Obviously, that’s a myth—unicorns appear in the Bible post-flood, so they must have been on board. Their disappearance is, thus, still a mystery that science has yet to provide answers for.)
The grain-storage theory is also “religious” in that it seeks to justify a conviction related to but outside the faith by borrowing the authority of the church. You may recognize this rhetorical strategy from such popular Judeo-Christian hits as “the Bible justifies slavery” and “the Lord commands us to appropriate Native American lands.” It’s only because it’s about the pyramids that it sounds weird.
But the real reason we should go ahead and mock Ben Carson about his pyramid theory is that the belief that anyone but the Egyptians (who told us they built them) built them is not a morally neutral assessment. Those who warn against passing judgment on Carson just because he has a non-traditional belief need to remember that this particular belief contains its own judgments on people —and they’re not particularly favorable.
First of all, let’s remember what Carson’s alternate theory is: aliens. To him, that’s the somewhat-plausible suckers’ bet he feels the need to dismiss. You might be tempted to believe it, he implied, because the pyramids were complex motherfuckers—“many chambers hermetically sealed” built with “special knowledge”—but, he assured the audience: “It doesn’t require an alien being when God is with you.”
The pyramids’ existence solved a riddle that Carson made up for himself: “Joseph’s grain silos were so big, how can they have disappeared?” But Carson clearly sees the pyramids’ greatness as a riddle as well: “The pyramids are so complex, who helped humans build them?”
The thread of racism that runs through pseudo-archeology is well documented. Whether you explain the pyramids as the product of an alien civilization or a miracle from God, the underlying assumption is that it couldn’t have been accomplished by the (usually brown) people who claim to have done it. I don’t think Carson is racist. Carson doesn’t just think that the Egyptians couldn’t build the pyramids without help, I suspect that Carson doesn’t think humans could build the pyramids without help.
The notion that “with God, all things are possible” is supposed to invite ambition to reach beyond oneself; Carson’s apparent frame is, “without God, nothing is possible.”
When I look at humankind’s great achievements, I also see the hand of God, and what astonishes me isn’t that He had to literally and specifically intervene—it’s that He didn’t. The miracle of the pyramids and Machu Picchu and the Mona Lisa isn’t God’s literal presence, but the capacity for genius He instilled in every human being whether or not they asked for it, whether or not they think He exists.
There is an assumption of individualized divine intervention in Carson’s telling of his own life story, in the myths he’s created about himself. The fight with his mother, the knife hitting the belt-buckle: Carson has imposed a radical conversion story onto his trajectory, complete with miracles, because—I can only guess—the more mundane explanation (he was a smart kid who became a brilliant brain surgeon) is not satisfying to him.
You can see the “thug” tale as self-aggrandizing, but to me it is strangely self-denying—on some level, a kind of blasphemy. In making up a story filled with drama, he has failed to credit God for the original and true, if subtle, miracle within Carson: that a soft-spoken, nerdy young man born in inner Detroit did not have to become a thug at some point, that he was wise and respectful of his own potential without needing God to perform a parlor trick.
I believe that God will do for me what I cannot do for myself, but I also know He won’t do for me what I can do for myself—and my daily miracle is the extent to which His original gifts to me allow me to not call upon Him for specific, material intervention in my life.
I think it cheapens the idea of miracles to think that humans needed one to create the pyramids, or that Carson needed one to put his life on the right track. It speaks to a lack of faith in humans—and, in some sense, God. His creation is so much more awe inspiring than Carson seems to realize.