Thursday, October 19, 2017

HASK not

During our monthly vestry meetings, there's often an event or a music rehearsal going on in main . church building next door. Today nothing was planned, so everything was prepped for tomorrow's Soup Kitchen.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Hearing voices

Have I told you that, as part of a new curriculum of "one text" courses, I'll be spending half of next semester reading William James' Varieties of Religious Experience - just the Varieties - with a small group of students? The model comes (unsurprisingly) from the Philosophy Department, but I'm looking forward to giving some undivided attention to Varieties, which, truth be told, I haven't given a thorough reread since graduate school.

Varieties was on the bill in "Theorizing Religion" today - first of two days, where we're reading two clumps of lectures. As I've been doing for rather longer than I realized (时间都去哪儿了?), today's class was centered on reading aloud some of the many testimonies James includes. He read them aloud when delivering the lectures (although all of them were written texts before he vocalized them...), and hearing these strange words, in his voice, must have been a significant part of the experience of the Varieties. So students chose a half dozen of the long quotations and read them aloud. I had them consider the generosity of James' lending his voice this way  - surely, his reading wasn't mocking or distancing but a demonstration of a will to hear if not to understand others' experiences, he was a sort of spirit medium for others.

Later in the class I performed one of his acts of possession, quite emotionally rendering the famous account of the person overwhelmed by a sense that the gauziest film kept him from the catatonic paralysis of an "Epileptic patient" he'd seen in an asylum, unable to function or even move. It's shattering, heart-breaking. (No small number of students at our school know comparable experiences of anxiety and depression.) We lingered in it for a while, then I let them know that this was in fact James' own experience, though he never says so. Varieties isn't a view from the mountaintop of religious consolation and empowerment, but from farther down, by someone who's never been to the summit and is, indeed, "constitutionally incapable" of getting there. (He doesn't claim legitimacy from a personal experience of the depths, either.) What a feat of generosity the Varieties now seems, acknowledging the value of experiences he himself had not had! The class was awed...

And I was not a little pleased to have done for James, lending my voice to him, what he did for so many others. What a pleasure it will be to give Varieties of Religious Experience even more time!

(And yes, that edition was blurbed by James' student Horace Kallen.)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Inside the block between 12th and 13th Streets, Fifth and Sixth Aves.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Museum mile

Inspired by reports about the soon-to-open Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, and some of its conceptual challenges, I decided to ask the students in "Theorizing Religion" how they might lay out a museum devoted the scriptures they'd just learned about in the MOOCs. For fun (and because I'm part of a committee rethinking the college's uses of spaced) I gave them a cutaway of the original uses of our buildings as a model. So here are Israel: The People's Museum, The Museum of Dharma, The (...) Museum, and the Shakti-Bhakti Museum. It's a fun way to get at people's sense of what's important, how things should be introduced - and what the MOOCs included and weren't able to.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Step by step

Going through some old boxes of files from my Princeton days, I found this quite detailed account of how "Schleiermacher's romantic theology" emerged... not sure if this is a plan for a blackboard graffiti sprawl or a reconstruction of an inspired sprawl that happened. More likely the latter! Fun! Fun in a different way was discovering that these notes were written on the back of an old cover letter applying for a job I didn't get! (I've turned it right-side up for ease of bemused reading.)

Saturday, October 14, 2017


Shambling toward an essay on 'Anthropocene' and religious studies - which seems barely to have noticed the discussion - I was delighted today to happen on the interdisciplinary "Anthropocene Curriculum" which has been assembled through the Haus der Kulturen der Welt since 2013. Germans know more about theology than Americans, if less about religious studies, so I was hopeful. But what their cool visual search (the array is different each time) offered on the term "Religion" was just this.
It looks like religion is a player but it's not. Most links are circumstantial and there's no line of "relation" with "Anthropocene" at all! Is religion so obviously off the map? Are the religions dismissed without further ado as creatures of the now destabilized holocene (causes of anthropogenic effects but no use in understanding or combatting them), scholarship on religion as the study of sterile where not toxic fantasy? Are they human-all-too-human at a time where we need to rethink everything about what it does and doesn't mean to be human? Give us a chance!

Friday, October 13, 2017


A particularly destructive week, as the dotard of the adult day car center on Pennsylvanias Avenue destroys where we cannot build. The slimy half-measures on the Iran agreement and the Affordable Care Act are part of it, his reneging on a pledge to protect the DACA kids, his winks and nods on Puerto Rico, the gutting of clean power regulations, the ever shriller whining about the power of the free press, the idolatry of the flag. But particularly disturbing is his going all-in with the culture war of the increasingly marginal Evangelical right, with so broad a defense of the "paramount" right of religious freedom as to render all other civil rights conditional. (Indeed, you're able now to discriminate on sincerely held "moral" grounds, too, a shabby and unprecedented legal invention.) Beyond mortification that the worst pseudo-Christians should again have seized the public flag of religion, I sorrow at this further undermining of the moral imperative of our shared life, with its commitment to the work of tolerance and civility, its acceptance if not indeed celebration of a pluralistic society. Pray for us.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Season change

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Commodity fetishist in chief

Somewhat unexpected resonance between Marx, our first shared reading after the MOOC adventure in "Theorizing Religion," and something in Forbes magazine. On his way to decrying the "fetishism of commodities," Marx laments the eclipsing of meaningful "use value" by abstract and inhuman "exchange value." This economic shift alienates people from themselves by making their labor, which would otherwise be central to fully human lives interacting creatively and caringly with other humans and nature, an abstraction worth only as much or as little as some stranger is willing to pay for it. It's the economic base for the wan religiosity of modern Protestantism, with its disembodied souls in some sort of relation with an abstractly sublime deity, their religious lives so private they may be unknown even to themselves (I added that part).

Anyway, it reminds me of some interesting observations made by Forbes writer Randall Lane in framing an interview with the president, which help make clear just how his professional deformation as the kind of wheeler-dealer he is makes him incapable of serving the common good, or even imagining it.

Donald Trump didn't get rich building businesses, despite years of brand-burnishing via The Apprentice and millions of votes from people who craved exactly that experience. Instead, his forte lies in transactions—buying and selling and cutting deals that assure him a win regardless of the outcome for others. The nuance is essential. Entrepreneurs and businesspeople create and run entities that have any number of interested parties—shareholders and customers and employees and partners and hometowns—that in theory all share in success. ... Dealmakers rarely seek that kind of win-win-win-win-win. Whether it's a stock trade, a swap of middle relievers or optioning a real estate parcel, a deal tends to involve just two parties and generally results in one coming out ahead of the other (so much so that a "win-win" is considered a noteworthy aberration).

I'm less inclined to suppose business as usual is hunky dory than Forbes, but this helps explain the tormenter-in-chief's cavalier, when not aggressive, destruction of everything multilateral - he'd rather throw out everything collectively crafted and maintained and replace it with opportunistic short-term bilateral strong-armings called "deals." Nothing else is real for him. (I wonder if this sheds light on the spirituality of his Evangelical base in some way, somehow, too - topic for another day.) Our president is the inhumanity of exchange value personified. We are in deep, deep trouble. Lose-lose-lose-lose-lose.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


We had a visitor in "Buddhist Modernism" today, a writer and poet who's visiting Lang this semester. She saw me copying Ambedkar's The Buddha and his Dhamma in the faculty resource room a few weeks ago and we got to talking. Turns out she's been a practitioner for decades, in a Tibetan tantric lineage. And she's a meditation teacher. Come visit my class? I asked, a little concerned she'd find our syllabus too academic, but she obliged. My course is academic, but I was inviting her as a practitioner.

And as a practitioner she came, gently suggesting that Buddhism is about practice - all the texts are pointing to practices - and about embodiment, not the mind. You can't think your way to enlightenment, and "mindfulness" is a McDonald's rip-off of Buddhism. Dukkha is mental anxiety, but it's found in the body - as the Buddha did, on his cushion under the bodhi tree - as is its cause.

She had the last 40 minutes of class and we'd informally planned for a briefish meditation and discussion of the Buddhist challenges of dealing with the particular suffering of inequality and oppression, but we never got there. Or maybe we did. She led us in a "somatic meditation," gauging the mood in the class, for what wound up being 25 minutes - she was more surprised than we were at how long it took! Sitting in our uncomfortable chairs, in our school clothes with shoes on, wasn't ideal but it mattered not. Feel the earth, she said, through the weight of your feet. And amazingly, with some more direction we did. Then we were directed to breathe in energy from the earth through our feet, breathe out relation of tension, and gradually moved our breath's object through ankle and calves. The it was the turn of our sic bones, whatever was in contact with our chair, and from there outward to hips and upward through the collarbone. Then our hands, which had been resting on our thighs - weight also - and from there up to our upper arms, which we were invited to feel were hollow tubes, filled with the breath of the earth. And then our heads - imagining you have no brain, filling your skull cavity with breath turns out to be remarkable satisfying. We moved to the backs of the eyes, and eventually down the neck, and then into the area inside the spine, where we sent breaths up and down, finally letting our torso breathe itself, all while noticing places of tension which miraculously let the tension drain away as she reminded us that meditation doesn't change anything, it just notices, with curiosity.

It was a very interesting experience for a lot of reasons. We were still together for a long time, and/but, as the students who spoke in the few remaining minutes recounted, had some quite powerful experiences. One spoke of a feeling of transcendence, one said she felt she'd fallen asleep and realized she hadn't, one said he'd been unable to concentrate until he leaned his back against the wall and then suddenly was in it, another said her head felt light - couldn't say more even when pressed. Our visitor responded to each skilfully - she'd been watching us and had noticed, for instance, the student who'd changed his posture, but also seemed able to discern just the right thing to say to that particular student. Good Buddhist teachers seem to have this gift.

I could have said that, though time ran out, that as the exercise ended I'd found a little ball of tension in the very spot, beneath my right shoulder blade, which a physical therapist a few months ago identified (to my great surprise) as the reason why I was suffering from neck aches. On being noticed, it obligingly subsided.

I haven't mentioned, nor did she mention it in class yesterday (though it's a subject she writes and talks about extensively), that our visitor is a transwoman, and that a Buddhist practice focused on embodiment like this one accompanied her through her transition. Who better to guide one to the body's truth?
It's feeling like the plagues of Egypt. Prayers for those in terror of fire.