Thursday, July 31, 2008


The highlight of a very full and enjoyable day at the preconference of the Religion & Theater Focus Group was a presentation and workshop conducted by members of a project called "DeSoLAte/deLigHT" from Naropa, a Buddhist university in nearby Boulder. It's directed by Barbara Dilley, once a dancer for Merce Cunningham and interested in surrealism and early postmodern dance and performance, but at Naropa since 1974 studying and teaching "dharma arts."

A square was marked out on the floor with red rope, and then people were invited to position themselves within it - but you had to meditate briefly with eyes closed, open them, and see yourself in position before you actually stepped into the square to assume that position (which might require some adjustment), so you were audience (and ultimately director) as well as performer; then you held the position for a while, "giving it away" to other viewers, and returned to your seat. After a few of these solos, we had duos - the first person proceeds as in the solo, but stays and we wait for a second person to be inspired to assume a position responding to it. Eventually the first person melts away (allowed to peek at what the other did along the way - often it's behind your back so you have no idea what's been done and people are seeing), then the second. Then a solo inspiring someone to place one of five "props" (a black hat, a 3-legged stool, a blue silk cloth, a bundle of sticks, a bowl of water) near the solo. Then person to prop to person, person to person to prop, and finally an open-ended process of placing yourself or a prop in response to something already in the square (or removing a prop), in which forms arise, combine and fall away like waves on the short. That's my analogy: at no point does anyone propose or revise an interpretation of what's going on. Words are not part of this picture.

The slow unfolding of scenes was thrilling and poignant and sometimes almost overpoweringly profound - each transformation a revelation shimmering with rightness and surprise. But nothing lasted, and ultimately the flow, and the occasional repetition of a configuration or gesture, became as impressive a part of the experience. That, and the fact that the props could fill the stage when left alone - they became cocreaters somehow.

DeSoLAte/deLiGHt (don't ask me about the capitalizations; I gather the phrase is from a book contrasting Zen and Tantra and arguing for a middle path avoiding the "nihilism" which would come from getting too attached to or affected by desolate meditation experiences as well as the "eternalism" which would come from fixing on the experiences of delight) described itself in its first iteration this way:

deSoLAte/deLigHT project
initiates a year-long investigation into the creation of performance art based in the establishment of a culture. The culture will commit to creative processes that are enhanced by contemplative art practices, such as sitting meditation practice, instructions from the Dharma Art teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and images from general systems theory. From this culture will arise an expression that represents the combined myths and stories of this moment-in-time. We will re-member, re-create and un-fold surprise.

I was intrigued by our brief experience of it (I was one of the seven hardy souls who volunteered to participate). It teaches what the director described as "infant's eye" - seeing things without or before naming them - and an awareness of the enormous wealth of possible meanings anything has, meanings words would merely constrict; it enacts the wonder of transience, the miracle of shared creation and the delight in letting things go. Not radically different from improv I've done in the past, in some ways but in the Naropa context its power as a form of meditation and community- and culture-building are more explicit. I imagine it could be a very powerful thing indeed to do this every week with the same group of people. And maybe the same props, too! Best of all, a whole new (to me) angle on religion and theater!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Secular cross

In a case which seems destined never to end, the cross atop Mount Soledad in La Jolla has just won another lease on life. Part of a city memorial for veterans (not part of the original design, I recall), the cross has been the object of lawsuits objecting to a Christian symbol on public land for two decades. Since then judgments have gone this way and that. Its fate helped swing an emergency mayoral election a few years ago when the whole city government had resigned or been indicted for graft and the city was near bankruptcy. (Don't say we don't have our priorities straight in Republican Southern California!) And the cross itself has even changed hands - when a California court ruled it was a violation of the California state constitution in 2006 and said the city would be fined for each day it remained up, it was proposed to give the small piece of land with the cross on it to a private non-profit, but then no less an entity than the US Congress claimed it by eminent domain and gave it to the Department of Defense! Now a U. S. District Court (appealing to two recent 5-4 Supreme Court decisions) has judged that it's essentially a secular monument, aimed at and serving the community of veterans rather than any religious community, and can stay. “The Court finds the memorial at Mt. Soledad, including its Latin cross, communicates the primarily non-religious messages of military service, death, and sacrifice,” Judge Larry Burns ruled. So it can stay! But don't think it ends here; critics who think a cross is preeminently a religious symbol (and/or think religion is what's behind most supporters' support of it) will probably try to take it to the Supreme Court. Whew! (Read all about it in the San Diego Union-Tribune.)

Coming and going

Here's an odd couple of readings, which ended up in my backpack as I flew to Denver: Dipesh Chakrabarty's essay "The time of history and the times of gods" and Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods (both candidates for the secularism class).

The former at least claims to explore "the problems a secular subject like history faces in handling imaginations in which gods, spirits, or the supernatural have agency in the world" (35). I say claims, because the "problems" are just the political and intellectual ones of "subaltern" historians who are committed to a Marxist or other form of "disenchanting prose" (and the concomitant historical consciousness) "required, let us say, in the interest of social justice," but still want to to "retain the subaltern (in whose activity gods or spirits present themselves) as the subjects of their histories" (40). Most Indian workers, Chakrabarty notes, wouldn't know what to do with a concept of "labor" which excluded the ways in which work can be a form a worship, and in which tools and other powers contribute to your work. Serious problems courageously addressed here - Chakrabarty takes his own earlier work to task for ignoring this problem. And he doesn't just recite the critique of modern "godless, continuous, empty, and homogeneous time" (39), but notes that physics has seen beyond it, and quotes a Paul Davis saying "I believe that the reality exposed by modern physics is fundamentally alien to the human mind, and defies all power of direct visualization" (38). But as a secular historian Chakrabarty doesn't trouble himself to consider that "the gods," here metonymically connected to particular cultures and languages inevitably traduced by any translation into a supposedly universal language, might really be at work in some way - might be ways of articulating, channeling, participating in the unvisualizable "reality exposed by modern physics" (perhaps because Davis' warning that we not try to take a "God's eye view" allows the conflation of modernity and theism).

Gaiman, meanwhile, narrates the waning of the Old World gods and spirits brought over to America by waves of immigrants (I thought this a fabulous idea when I first read this at the recommendation of a student three years ago, and still do) - as descendents of Africans, Europeans, etc. cease to worship, fear, believe in or even remember the powers so important to their ancestors - in gritty pulp fiction style. The protagonists of this story are "the gods" whom people no longer need or fear - though their Götterdämmerung doesn't necessarily mean that America is now disenchanted... but you'll have to read this book yourself to find out more about that. Interesting that Gaiman (a Brit, now residing in the US), one of the great graphic novelists, should have extended the aging and forgotten superhero narrative in this way... it works, re-enchanting the American landscape if in twilight hues. What's he really talking about - are these "gods" also just metonymic markers for the particular cultures and languages of a rapidly receding past?

Interestingly, Chakrabarty grants that "fiction, particularly of the nonrealist or magic-realist variety" (48) is one place in which the untranslatable singularity of "the gods" can be articulated - untranslatable at least into a generalized language or via "implicit universals," as opposed to the kind of "barter" we find in narratives of religious syncretism or pluralism (which he somewhat misleadingly calls "conversion" - the conversion here being not of devotees but of the objects of their devotion, Islamic figures revealed to be Hindu deities taking a new form).

Monday, July 28, 2008

Summer daze

Have I mentioned that I've been in California for the last week, chillin' with my parents? Every day hasn't been as summery as today, but the ocean is wonderful in every light. Tomorrow it's back to work of a sort - I'm off for five days at the annual meeting of the Association for Theater in Higher Education (ATHE) in Denver with C, my friend and coconspirator in last Fall's "Religion & Theater" class. Turns out there's a Religion and Theater working group within ATHE, so we're attending their preconference, and presenting a panel on the last day of the conference itself... shucks, that means I'll have to be there the whole time, doing one of my favorite things: slumming at other people's professional society conferences (in years past I've enjoyed AAS, AIS, AJS, APA, APSA). When I return to California, my sister and her family will have arrived from Australia, and it'll be time for heavy duty uncling!!

Make a fist

The McCain campaign's latest ads sicken and worry me. It was no mere ill-tempered outburst when the old sourpuss alleged that his rival would be willing to lose a war to win an election, but the opening salvo of a carefully orchestrated campaign to portray Obama as worse than a flip-flopper, worse even than an opportunist who will say anything (even to those in his own party) to get elected - though they're alleging that, too. I sense the genius of the Republican machine at work. What they're pushing at is that he lacks seriousness, doesn't, y'know, know his place.
So maybe it's time to get some Obama gear. But that is more easily said than done. On I found all sorts of different styles, and opportunities to get myself in the picture too, well at least my name: this really can be our moment, his and mine! Gosh. Which to pick? Maybe the swell guy with a whole lot of hope could spare some hope for me.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Short shrift?

Looks like a secret message in a Tintin book, but this 33-character script, Sütterlin, was taught in Germany until 1941. My mother learned it her first years in school, and then had to learn the new Latinate cursive. I thought it was ancient but it turns not to be that old at all. While loosely based on a bureaucratic cursive Fraktur, it was commissioned by the Prussian Ministry of Culture from graphic artist Ludwig Sütterlin in 1911 and was taught only from 1935 until 1941. Can you read the title above?


Don't you hate it when people who know nothing about religion think they know all there is to know? Here's an example, a lecturer in experimental psychology at Oxford who's just presented research which purports to show striking similarities across cultures in children's understanding of causality - they are, she concludes, open to both scientific and "metaphysical" accounts. An openness to "spirituality," she concludes, appears to be "universal"! Her research compared British and Japanese toddlers. Bear in mind (as she did not) that kids have imbibed an entire culture by the time they're three, that Japanese culture is religiously multiform and full of anime versions of Western ideas, and that "神様 kamisama" does not refer to God (singular, capitalized) as opposed to the Shinto deities/powers (plural, amorphous).

I tested both the Japanese and British children on the same tasks, showing them very accurate, detailed photographs of selected natural and man-made objects and then asking them questions about the causal origins of the various natural objects at both the scientific level (e.g. how did this particular dog become a dog?) and at the metaphysical level (e.g. how did the first ever dog come into being?). With the Japanese children, it was important to establish whether they even distinguished the two levels of explanation because, as a culture, Japan discourages speculation into the metaphysical, simply because it’s something we can never know, so we shouldn’t attempt it. But the Japanese children did speculate, quite willingly, and in the same way as British children. On forced choice questions, consisting of three possible explanations of primary origin, they would predominantly go for the word "God," instead of either an agnostic response (e.g., "nobody knows") or an incorrect response (e.g., "by people"). This is absolutely extraordinary when you think that Japanese religion — Shinto — doesn’t include creation as an aspect of God’s activity at all. So where do these children get the idea that creation is in God’s hands? It’s an example of a natural inference that they form on the basis of their own experience. My Japanese research assistants kept telling me, "We Japanese don’t think about God as creator — it’s just not part of Japanese philosophy." So it was wonderful when these children said, "Kamisama! God! God made it!" That was probably the most significant finding.

I’ve also established that children’s natural concepts of God aren’t purely anthropomorphic. They certainly acquire a conception of God-as-man through their religious education, but no child actually links the representation of, for example, God-as-Jesus with the creator of the world. Rather, their images of God the creator correspond to abstract notions like gas, air, and person without a body. When you press them, they of course fall back on what they’ve been told, saying things like, "I know he’s a man because I saw him on the telly," or "He’s just like my daddy." These are very rational responses, but they’re not natural conceptions formed by children. Rather they’re imposed by the culture in which the children live.

I suppose some gesture toward evolution was out of the question. Had a Japanese co-researcher got 大自然 (nature) listed as a possible answer, I wonder if the results would have been different. On the other hand, what if the British kids had had to choose between "by people," "by the gods and buddhas" (or "by 仏様 buddha(s)") and "nobody knows"? We might have discovered that European kids are by birth skeptics. Sheesh - who pays for this crap research? (Source; source of source.)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Century plant (blue agave) sentry

Eternal feminine explained!

Elizabeth Minnich on a witty feminist tear, starting with a standard (if still indispensable) point about the way we think about the Greeks...

"Know thyself," said the few ancient Greek men who enjoyed the leisure to explore "the life of the mind" and the privilege of living the "free life of the citizen" - and who are still mistakenly (those basic errors again) called "the Greeks" as if they were all the Greeks. Thus, they also created ... a haunting not-self that was essential to the admitted, recognized, claimed self. Their not-self - women, slaves, men who worked with their hands, "barbarians" ... - surrounded the self they sought to know, setting its boundaries by constituting some activities, some feelings, some human functions, some deep desires as forbidden while projecting them onto others. ... (Transforming Knowledge, 88)

But then comes this:

We hit absurdity fairly quickly here. Consider the famous syllogism, "Man is mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal." Try it with a woman: "Man is mortal. Alice is ___ ...." what? A man? No one says that, not even philosophers. "Man," the supposedly generic term, does not allow us to say, "Alice is a man." So we say, "Alice is a woman." Then what are we supposed to deduce? "Therefore, Alice is ___ ..." what? It is man, a supposedly universal category that is simultaneously neutral and masculine but not feminine ..., who "is mortal." Is Alice, who is female and thus not in a category that is either neutral or masculine, then immortal? Is she mortal insofar as, for the purposes of such reasoning, she can be subsumed under the category man but not insofar as she is, specifically, female? Are we women, then, immortal insofar as we are female? Alice ends up in the peculiar position of being a somewhat mortal, somewhat immortal, creature. Or, we must admit, we cannot thus reason about Alice while thinking of her as female at all. We can think of Socrates as a man without derailing the syllogism; we cannot think of Alice as a women. Reason flounders; the center holds, with Man in it, but it is an exclusive center, not a universal one. Alice disappears through the looking glass. (89)

Brava! All that remains is to call it the "immortal" syllogism, and mortal and immortal, universal and particular, whole and part, male and female, all come tumbling down, available for new thinking.

One of Minnich's aims is to kindle in her readers a love of thinking rather than a mere quest for knowing, and in passages such as these it's hard not to swoon with love. Just think what a fabulous discussion you could start with this dazzling chain of apperçus... And one can feel New School pride, too: Minnich wrote her dissertation on John Dewey in the Philosophy Department, her advisers Hannah Arendt and Richard Bernstein!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Charisma plus

Actually I thought it was a good speech, earnest but unpretentious in tone, intelligent in its evocations of place (Berlin Wall as model for all divisions a bit facile, but Berlin Airlift as model for rich countries assisting poor ones a nice touch), capacious in reference and restrained in length (though that did make it a bit of an It's-A-Small-World-After-All whirl). And yet, what's not to like about partnership, about mutual aid, about facing challenges together and listening to each other? The kaleidoscope of references, bouncing across the globe in almost every sentence, remind of or promise all the things we could and should come together to work out... (A nuclear-free world was a surprise, but not an unpleasing one...)

And yet questions nag: what was any candidate for office in another country doing speaking in public in Berlin? And can one really address the world from Germany with only one reference (the word "tyranny") to what preceded the quest for freedom "we" supposedly all share?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Thinking as philosophical fieldwork

I'm reading Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich's Transforming Knowledge (2nd ed., 2005), an important study of the way new fields of knowledge have opened up in the last three decades in American universities, and changed not just what we know but how we understand knowledge - and how we understand (and deepen and extend) who "we" are. I find her description of her project as "philosophical fieldwork" very congenial - it describes much of what I do in reading and teaching, and why. I especially like that she explicitly links and likens it to non-academic practices:

[P]hilosophical fieldwork - thinking with others out and about in the agora and then reflecting in solitude with them in mind - is not about learning philosophical systems and applying them, nor is it about trying to derive a theory from experience. It is neither deductive nor inductive, nor is it held within any other single logic. ... In Simone Weil's sense, it is about being attentive. Such attentiveness is philosophical also because it entails listening for meanings and, as philosophers do, for moves - for what is being done conceptually, as well as for what someone is wanting to mean.

As in reading philosophy, one is then trying to comprehend a (re)framing of available meanings, a task that requires attention to each word, each line, each section within the context of the entire work, itself read within its multiple contexts. In this process of reading, listening, opening to take in what is going on here, philosophical readers, like effective political actors, attentive parents, good teachers, artful psychological and pastoral counselors, listen for how what is said coheres, and does not; how it is familiar, and strange; how it invokes and suggests, and suppresses things not directly said. They listen for recurring images and for what sorts of relations those images privilege (mechanical? organic? rigid? fluid? oppositional? transactional?). They pick up on language use and what it suggests: why the colloquialism here, the technical term there? Why that rhythm in those sentences, another in these? ...

There is nothing trivial or 'only' theoretical about how people in their daily lives make sense together, and this ongoing process is particularly significant when we are trying to make sense of who and what "we" are, of who and what "they" are. ... (5)

Gives me goosebumps, not just as an educator but even more as an ongoing student of life! I heard Minnich speak at a conference of the Association for Integrative Studies a few years ago and came out energized. Glad I'm finally reading her book!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Better fed

Let me recommend a science fiction book. It's by M. T. Anderson and is called Feed. A young adult novel, it was recommended to me in 2004 by a friend who starts her course on "Buddhism and the Environment" with it - even though it's not about Buddhism or environment. It's that good, an amazing feat of futuristic imagination and social criticism which also resonates with the experiences of young people. It shows why the sorts of analyses Buddhist and environmentalist thinkers offer may be necessary, if we are to avoid ending up like the human manatees in "WALL-E." It's also beautifully written, and heartbreaking. Read it at your peril - it'll get under your skin. I dare say it's literature, and prophecy.

I mention it today not because I reread it, but because I just read another science fiction novel (a Hugo Award-winning novel likened in blurbs to Snow Crash, no less!) which seems like a pale imitation of Feed. Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End (2006) takes on some things Anderson doesn't, like multiple player computer games, and most of the story takes place in and around my old haunt, Geisel Library at UCSD (he writes from the world of programmers). But there are considerable overlaps, and in all of these Anderson goes deeper. Feed is more perceptive and more inventive - what the best science fiction requires, since the inventions teach us how to see the present more perceptively. Vinge imagines software called ForgetIt and web vandals for hire known as the Friends of Privacy, but Anderson invents a whole youth-language and sees privatized clouds and the way constant access to the internet would open our personalities to being commodified by advertisers. And since I've mentioned "WALL-E," Buy & Large could be in Feed, but is smarter than anything in Rainbows End.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The decider

Well, whaddaya know. One man in America is powerful enough to bring Barack Obama and John McCain together next month. (It's for a discussion on making wise decisions.) Maybe you can recognize his voice:

“I just got to thinking, you know what? These guys have never been together on the same stage, it would be a neat way to cap the primary season before they both go to the conventions and things go dark for a couple of weeks,” he said. “I’ve known both the guys for a long time, they’re both friends of mine, and I knew them before they ran for office, so I just called them up.”

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Green tomatoes

How many tomatoes can you see here?

(I count thirty-one!)

Now how many do you think will be ripe before I head to California tomorrow?

Kuyashii! Getting there will have to have been all the fun!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

We have met the iceberg and it is us

This is how you become your own iceberg: average household savings (orange) and debt (grey and blue) in the US from the 1920 to the present. For 2008, savings is $392, debt is $117,951. (Source.) I guess we've long known that Americans save a lot less than people in other countries. I heard on several occasions that the American savings rate had hit zero. Of course, this didn't mean that household equity was zero, as people put money into mortgages rather than savings. But now that the housing market is falling, many do find themselves with zero, or even negative, equity. Not a pretty picture... And yet, how could we not have seen this coming? Not to invoke Jared Diamond or anything, but what were we thinking? Calls to mind the immortal exchange in "Inherit the Wind":

: That first day, what do you think, it was 24 hours long?

: [The] Bible says it was a day.
: Well, there was no sun out. How do you know how long it was?

: The Bible says it was a day!
: Well, was it a normal day, a literal day, 24 hour day?

: I don't know.
: What do you think?

: I do not think about things that I do not think about.
: Do you ever think about things that you do think about?!


Quick: where does this picture make you think of, "one of those rare places where heaven and earth meet" according to the enclosed booklet? I'll bet it wasn't Austria - my first thought was India, or womewhere associated with the rising sun, the Levant, the Orient. And yet it is Austria: Stift Heiligenkreuz to be precise, one of the oldest Cistertian monasteries (founded in 1133) and a pleasant day trip from Vienna. (They've posted a video on youtube, including of course the visit of Pope Benedict!) It's suddenly come to world attention because of this album (subtitled "Music for Paradise" on their website), which it is hoped will be the kind of "crossover hit" which the monks of San Domingo de Silos had with their "Chant," recorded in 1973 but rereleased as "Chant" in 1994; it sold 3 million copies in the US alone. Do they know what those 3 million people did with their recording of Gregorian chants? Candlelit it may well have been, but meditation or prayer it probably was not.

Stranger still is the music they've chosen to include - all recorded in such a way that you feel you are among the monks, not sitting in a Romanesque church with the monks in choirstalls some distance away. It includes familiars dear to all of us who enjoy the Offices (like the office of Compline). But they start with the funeral service for a monk, In Paradisum and Requiem. Weird. Lots of differing crossings-over going on here, perhaps too many.

Amer beton

Watched another terrific Japanese animated film last night with some friends, albeit one directed by an American named Michael Arias. Based on a manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, it's called "Tekkon Kinkreet," a Romanization of the Japanese title "鉄コン筋クリート" which itself wittily syncopates the Japanese word for the iron rods inside concrete (鉄筋) with the katakana transliteration of "concrete" (コンクリート); in France it was released with the less obscure and poetically apt title "Amer Beton." It's visually ravishing fully realized world - with crazy camera angles (sic!) and a funkily downbeat soundtrack by Plaid (the protagonists are children but it's not a film for kid). It's nostalgic, as are many Japanese films live-action and animated, for what you might call pre-Tokyo Olympics Japan - you've seen it if you've been in Tokyo's shitamachi, in the arcades under railroad tracks or half vacant shopping streets in provincial cities - although it mixes in features of other old world cities. The story? Is kind of grim, though not without moments of sweetness. Amer catches it well.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


Went to see the Royal Ballet of Flanders at the Lincoln Center Festival tonight, performing postmodern choreographer William Forsythe's 1988 masterpiece "Impressing the Czar." It was insanely entertaining. (These pics are taken from all sorts of online reviews, and give (a) little idea of its frenetic energy and prodigious virtuosity. The third shows different scenes from the same amazing pas de deux.) Is it profound? I was too delighted to wonder. Even when the whole company came out dressed as English schoolgirls (a schoolgirl was on the throne of the Czar in Act 1, too) and did wild stomping circle dances... What's it all about? Who cares!

Mixed blessing

Here's the newest book on the Evangelical Christian subcultures of America. Yet another genial, bemused New Yorker exploring the weird and wonderful world of Christian tackiness, creepiness and sell-out.

I was expecting something a bit less snarky, perhaps because Radosh writes for The New Yorker, and was intrigued (and a bit baffled) by the cover's promise that it was written with the perfect blend of amusement and respect. Can those be combined? At first I though this was real-people-language for what academic students of religion aim for, a balance (if not perhaps a blend) of sympathy and critique, but it's really not that, and not just because academic voices tend to be humorless. My journalist friend K said that book jackets should be ignored, and that what was really meant was probably a blend of flattery and condescension.

Condescension sounds about right. While Radosh goes places I'd never dare go, and has the occasional winning description (Christians ... tend to see the Old Testament as an elaborate game of connect the dots. Do it right and it spells out J-E-S-U-S. [27]), I'm not feeling the respect. He doesn't even condescend to critique, which, I see now, is a form of respect he's not offering. And even the amusement seems a bit forced, as he describes the very unamusing antisemitism of the Great Passion Play in Eureka, AK he infiltrates.

But I've only read the first few chapters. Maybe he'll move beyond the dismissive tone once he hits his stride. After all, no less a personage than Brian McLaren ("emerging" Christian estraordinaire, and special guest at the Lambeth Conference as we speak) blurbed his book, saying, among other things: What happens when a secular liberal enters a conservative Christian subculture? Yes, he's grossed out at time, appalled at least once, amused sometimes, and cussin' mad [at other times] - and maybe even a little scared on occasion. But in the end he offers evaluations and insights that might be considered downright prophetic, and compassionate too. No evangelical insider could have done as good a job... (Now there's an example of flattery blended with condescension!)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


Here's what may be the last of this iteration of the raspberries - I'm told there'll be another round at the end of the summer, though.

I thought there'd be none left after the kids of some friends came over for brunch on Saturday, but as you can see, they decided it was more fun to try to harvest me. (Thanks, V, for the picture; pity the overexposure makes it seem I have a bald spot!)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Cosí fan tutti

The Cosí at 13th St. and Sixth Ave. just closed, just a few weeks after Six & Twelve (at 12th and Sixth) closed its doors. Is it just the restless cycle of New York's retail bust and boom, or connected to the larger global economic downturn that people on the news are starting to use the R-word for, often with frightening adjectives like "deep" and "prolonged," though usually still preceded by hopeful "what's looking like" or "what's turning into." It's been a long time since we had a serious recession; do they always feel like a wooden building turning out to be moldy and termite-addled through and through - is anything secure? Or is it the special rot of seven years of Bushian sleeping at the wheel?

Morning devotions

What a lovely morning ritual I've got! Shower, set up the coffee maker, then water the garden in the sweet light of morning. I'll miss this... (Remember to click on the pics for full effect, especially the rainbow.)

Monday, July 14, 2008


Useful admonitions from the introduction to a challenging recent book of essays (well, published in 2008 but apparently begun ten years ago):

acknowledge that secularism is inflected by religions (and vice versa), thus fundamentally undoing the binary opposition between (secular) universalism and (religious) particularism. Such a move entails a shift from a singular, universal idea of the secular to the idea of multiple and varied secularisms. In making this shift, we must incorporate the fact that the recognition of cross-cultural variation is not enough because the recognition of variation alone does not in itself dislodge the idea of a single unifying discourse within which this variation occurs. Acknowledging the lack of such a singular discourse also implies that there is no single moral framework for conflict resolution and ethical judgment. Dispensing with such a framework involves a turn to the question of relations among differences, a question that cannot be resolved simpl or through a single method. (16)

This is a tough call, but it's the challenging terrain in which I find myself, trying to make at least first-year-seminar sense of secularisms... My title, "Secularism at the crossroads," which was supposed to suggest an uncertain present and future, now seems insufficiently radical in its use of the singular "Secularism."

Sunday, July 13, 2008

No protest

Here's a book I'm really enjoying. Suzanne Strempek Shea is a Catholic writer, raised in a strong Polish community in New England, and yet somewhat estranged from the Church. So she decides to do what the priests and nuns warned her not (on pain of damnation!) to do: every Sunday for a year she will attend a different non-Catholic church.

My goal is to experience the services as a worshipper who's just wandered inside, rather than as a special guest on a mission. I won't phone ahead and ask for a press kit, nor will I mention my project while there. I want to get the first-timer's first impression, and will rely on a single visit to harvest that.

In each case, she describes how the place looks, how people are dressed, who (if anyone) greets her and how, and the service. Her descriptions start journalist and end subjective - what surprised her, what moved her, what didn't - a nice balance, though I can imagine not all readers will find her as interesting a witness. Her curiosity is genuine, and she is open to receiving spiritual nourishment everywhere she goes. (It's probably because I enjoy this kind of church visiting that my usual scholar's scruples don't kick in. She's not teaching a course after all!)

I'm seven Sundays in, and it's been a fascinating journey so far: she's already been to a wider range of churches than I ever have!

New Mount Zion Baptist Church, New York, NY
Colorado Springs Cowboy Church, CO
First Baptist Church, Spartanburg, SC
Arch Street Friends Meeting House, Philadelphia, PA
First Church of Christ Scientist, Boston, MA
St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church, Newport, RI
Cadet Chapel, United States Military Academy, West Point, NY

Don't mind that she said she was going to explore the varieties of Protestantism; it's really all "the 'banned' Christian faiths of [her] childhood" (xi) she's given herself permission to visit, which is everything non-Catholic. To a traditionally raised Catholic I suppose all the other varieties of American Christianity were no more than varieties of the well-meaning but mistaken promise of "Protestantism." (I used to think that, I confess...) And I suppose if you take the long Catholic view, the Great Schism was a mistaken reformation too, Protestantism avant la lettre! (Mark Noll made the same point, though appreciatively, in his Evangelical Protestant history of the church, Turning Points.)

But Shea's unsophisticated religious curiosity is part of what makes this book so engaging. It's not just a pilgrimage to all those churches one sees when traveling but never has occasion or nerve to enter, American Christianity in all its plainspoken mystery. In its openness, Sundays in America is itself a fruit of America's pluralistic - dare I say "Protestant" - religious culture.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Reinventing the wheel

Finished Stuart Kauffman's Reinventing the Sacred. It's a dud. Full of interesting ideas, yes, even very exciting ones. But anticlimax doesn't begin to describe the whimper with which it ends. Hard-hitting technical argument here gives way to warmed-over enlightenment banalities. Here's a representative passage from his concluding chapter:

If we call the creativity of the universe, biosphere, and humanity God, we are claiming some aspects of these for ourselves as sacred. And we are doing so knowing that the abiotic universe is uncaring, that terrible things happen to good people, and that we do evil. If it may be wise to call the creativity in the universe, biosphere, and humanity God, we cannot know how this symbol and we will evolve as we live with it. This God may become precious to us in ways we cannot foresee. If we must live our lives forward, only partially knowing, with faith and courage as an injunction, this God may call to us as we step into mystery. The long history of life [/] has given us tools to live in the face of mystery, tools that we only partially know we have, gifts of the creativity that we can now call God.
We can find common ground across our di- verse traditions, religious and cultural, and come together toward a global civilization, rejoice in the creativity in our universe, our shared biosphere, and the civilizations we have created and will continue to co-create. We can find common ground as we seek a new understanding of humanity. Such a quest can serve to bring meaning, community, solace, reverence, spirituality, tolerance, and generosity to all of us. This is the task of generations, for it can be the next stage in the cultural, moral, and spiritual evolution of humanity. For the first time we have the means to communicate and choose. Can we know what we will create together if we embark on such a discussion and quest? Of course not. How wonderful though - we have to invent it together. ...
Can we reinvent the sacred? Think of all the gods and the God that humanity has cleaved to. ... Against all of those who do believe in a Creator God, I hold that we have always created and needed this symbol. It is we who have told our gods and God what is sacred, and our gods or God have then told us what is sacred. Is has always been us, down the millennia, talking to ourselves. Then let us talk to ourselves consciously...
Stuart A. Kauffman, Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science,
Reason, and Religion
(NY: Basic Books, 2008), 285-6

What's disappointing here, besides the purple prose and the banality of its politician-like promises, is how little thought he's put into this part of his argument: he's entitled to be saying much more interesting things here. The book starts with physics, moves to biology, evolution, economy and eventually consciousness and mind. The point at every point is that reductionism doesn't work - physics cannot predict the emergent phenomena in biology, which are thus partially lawless. The universe is one of "ceaseless creativity" (though by creativity Kauffman often means no more than unprecedented novelty, not the same thing), and our challenge is to "live forward into mystery." Of course we are part of that "creativity" too. The biosphere (life in all its forms) as well as all of human consciousness and cultural experience - are "emergent," which means more than that they cannot be explained reductively, but that they are real: his argument is not just epistemological but ontological (a transition I confess I don't follow).

Kauffman thinks this is good news indeed. It should heal the rift between the "two cultures" - science is no threat to the humanities, since cultural phenomena are emergent. And as humans it is in fact imperative that we realize that reason alone is not enough for us. Kauffman mentions Jung in passing here, Frans de Waal on instinctive fairness in chimpanzees, and the instinctive care of a young mother for her son, but there's no real argument, just grand gestures. I sense that Kauffman hit a deadline, or decided he isn't the one to work out this part of his argument.

The conclusion is, in fact, not just unresearched and unthought-through, it is a cop-out. Specifically, Kauffman's own argument would suggest that claiming that humans "invented gods" is a misleading formulation, if it is to imply that gods are not real. Are not gods emergent - in the sense that one couldn't have predicted that and how human beings have imagined them? And aren't these human imaginings responses to (indeed contributions to) something real, the endlessly repeated "ceaseless creativity" which "should be God enough for us"? Shouldn't Kauffman be saying something like William James, who - while not a believer - concluded that "God is real because he has real effects"? (In fact, I'm going to write to him - why not? - and ask if he's read any American pragmatists on religion; the Dewey of A common faith should be a hero for Kauffman.)

By letting religion just be something made up (in the pre-emergent sense he has supposedly refuted), he robs the concepts of "God" and "sacred" of the force he wants from them. And by not spelling out any way in which human "meanings" (including the True, the Beautiful and the Good ) are more than contingencies of culture - restricted to the human world - he leaves them as weak as before to the attacks of scientific "facts." Again, he not only could have done better but should have: beyond the cop-out on religion, the de Waal reference should have been not a paragraph (without even a reference) but a whole chapter on what an ethics that doesn't presuppose human natures and social arrangements would look like, an ethics which can be understood (and indeed understands itself) as part of the wondrous complexity, order, contingency, and open-endedness of our world. (Not just ethics; the above pic is bonobo art.) The first half of the book seemed headed straight for such an argument, and I'd still like to see what it would look like.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The waterfall under the Brooklyn Bridge, from north and south. Comment below suggests I should make clear that the waterfall is in fact far less grand or interesting (even) than these pics suggest. These seem ponderous and pointless, and have lost the wit of an earlier waterfall at the University of Dundee.


In the garden this morning, suddenly this! It's in the area where I planted kabocha pumpkin seeds (brought from Japan by a friend), but had thought nothing was happening. Never say never, I guess! (The bee is local.)

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Flowing together

Took the free water taxi from Wall Street to the new IKEA in Red Hook today with my friend J, and got a new perspective on the bridges across the East River - and two of the four artificial waterfalls which Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson has put up this summer. These two are actually far apart, one under the Brooklyn-side pylon of the Brooklyn Bridge, the other on a wharf north of the Manhattan side of the Manhattan Bridge (which is why you see both the brown Brooklyn and blue Manhattan bridges above the falls, as if they were parts of the same bridge!). Click on the picture above to see both waterfalls, and both bridges - and the Williamsburg Bridge, too, for good measure - in one broad panorama.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A cathedral for New York

New York City is home to the largest gothic cathedral in the world, at least if your definition of "gothic" is capacious enough to include late 19th and 20th century constructions. (Before you say anything, recall that many of the most famous gothic spires in Europe - notably those in Köln, Ulm, Prague and Vienna - are works of 19th century nationalism, not medieval piety.) The granite and limestone Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine is a massive edifice, and feels like a medieval cathedral in several (unintended) ways. Its originally Romanesque design was revised by a gothicist part way through, for one thing. For another, it's far from being completed, and it's anybody's guess what spires (if any) someday rise from it; the vast structure depicted on the overeager postcard above ain't happening. Even the spires of the west facade are unfinished. If the Episcopal Diocese of New York had been willing, to use modern materials like cast iron, as the Catholics were with St. Pat's, we might have that peculiar cone as one of our city landmarks. Instead, we have a semi- fossilized work in progress which feels genuinely ancient.

I went to the cathedral today because T, a Lang student I know well, has a summer internship there, and it seemed a good way to learn something about the place. It'd been a while since I last went, and much has been renovated since then. New also were the shifty Chartrian carvings on the central west portal (top picture in this post - note the postures, and the medieval polychrome figures above). Most striking were the scenes beneath the feet of the prophets; T explained that the horror of the destruction of Jerusalem was supposed to be made more palpable through these scenes of cataclysm destroying the Brooklyn Bridge, and nuclear attack leveling Manhattan - pre 9/11, incidentally) were new. I also learned about the cathedral's odd status as a place intended for all New Yorkers, not just Episcopalians or even just Christians. By the high altar are big menorahs as well as two vases donated by the Japanese Emperor in the 1920s - a plucky combination even without the unassertive cross, since the God of Israel might be expected to be jealous of the gifts of another god (in the 20s the Tenno was still a god)! As a guide, T can speak of the cathedral as a work of architecture, of history, of art, even of geometry, and he can speak ecumenically of religion - but why go out of your way to emphasize that the cathedral is a house of Christian worship?