Monday, December 11, 2017

Courting trouble

For the penultimate session of "Theorizing Religion" today, we read a recent blogpost by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan on the legal incoherence of notions of religious freedom:

The notion that religion exists and can be regulated without being defined is a fiction at the heart of religious freedom protection.

We read this is as a reminder that, free as our discussions in the academy (and even in our private lives) might seem to be about what counts as religion, etc., in real life what's sanctioned is constrained by legal definitions woefully uninformed by research and reflection about religion in general and about the diverse hybrid realities of contemporary US religion in particular. Sullivan is calculatedly frustrating - she doesn't suggest a way out of our jurisprudential fix; there can't be a neutral definition of religion, fair to all comers. But we got mired in details about drug laws in Oregon, cemetery practice in Florida, contraception for employees of closely held craft supply megastores in Oklahoma... and that evangelical "wedding cake artist" in Colorado whose case was heard before the Supreme Court last week.
It all left a bitter taste. Why? Because religion is not nice? Because reality is messy, and law can't fix it? Because we can't all just get along? Because life isn't just one long liberal arts seminar?

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Saturday, December 09, 2017

'Tis the season

First snow of the season!

Thursday, December 07, 2017


Just about exactly one hundred years ago Don Martin, a correspondent for the New York Herald, left New York for France to provide first hand reports of the American efforts in the Great War. His adventures, written in stirring prose in articles, a diary and letters, notably to his young daughter Dorothy, are fascinating to read. We've been enjoying them in the family for a while now, but now you can, too! Dorothy was my grandmother, and her son, my father, has demonstrated the most remarkable filial piety in tracking down Martin's publications, and in transcribing them, too. He will be sharing them through the blog Don Martin: WWI Soldier of the Pen, each on the precise centenary of its writing or publication. The filiality doesn't end there: Don Martin's great great grandson (one f my nephews in that Great War-obsessed land down under) helped design the website. Official launch today! Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 06, 2017


Daoism came to "Theorizing Religion" today, in the form of two chapters of James Miller's China's Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future. It was a way to introduce the "religion and ecology" discussion (still some seats in the class I'm teaching next semester on that topic), and to get at the "Daoism as a religion" question. The Harvard Divinity School MOOC series will run again next year, with a sixth course - on Sikhism. Why not consecrate Daoism the sixth world religion, as the Norton Anthology of World Religions did? But first we needed a sense of what Daoism is, no easy matter...

Following Miller's lead I emphasized that Daoist practice is about experiencing the body in the world, the world in the body - and "the world" is not some amorphous blur but full of local landscapes and powers, just as time is not a gauzy mist but calendars with specific cycles where particular named forces are close or far. (It all waxes and wanes: yin yang.) For this reason, Miller argues, western categories of nature - human - supernatural don't know what to make of Daoism. By the same token Daoism offers a powerful alternative to understandings of "religion and nature" premised on the western categories, which are all about distinctions and boundaries (protecting nature!), not the flows of vital energy (qi) which are what it's all about. It makes for a different way of approaching ecology if the environment is in me, as Miller puts it, and a different form of education if this is something to be understood not intellectually but "aesthetically," in the way we feel our living.

Still, world religion #6? One student astutely observed that you couldn't possibly provide the aesthetic education in the significance of particular places and times through a MOOC. (I'd summarized an article by Yang Der-Ruey about how the conventional 9-5 M-F schools of the state-sponsored Daoist organization in China have killed Daoism by divorcing it from specificities of geography and calendar, leaving only the empty husk of abstract philosophy and arbitrary ritual.) But, we'll have to ask next week, can you really MOOC any religion without turning it into abstract philosophy and arbitrary ritual?

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Befriending the silent observer

I got goosebumps in "Buddhist Modernism" today, not something I was expecting. As a final example of our topic before they give final research presentations, I'd given the students two chapters from Haemin Sunim's The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down: How to Be Calm in a Busy World, a book currently climbing Amazon charts in various western language translations, but originally a compilation of tweets. Sunim's observations became the most retweeted tweets in South Korea, and the books that have brought them together have been major bestsellers there.

There are few zingers among the tweets we read, though - that's not what they're about - and our discussion was a little flat. It got a little better when I asked students to read aloud one which spoke to them, so we had a taste of retweeting. Now each appeared as something someone else had cared enough to send on. But the advice and observations still seemed pretty common-sensical: slow down, relax, be yourself, enjoy the little things. There were a few clearly Buddhisty ones, like the one I was surprised it was left to me to read aloud:

I wish you could see my true nature.
Beyond my body and labels,
there is a river of tenderness and vulnerability.
Beyond stereotypes and assumptions,
there is a valley of openness and authenticity.
Beyond memory and ego,
there is an ocean of awareness and compassion.

but in general it seems a pretty ordinary, slightly New Agey, self-help book. If you read to the end, though, you find that all rivers lead to the sea. The goosebumps came when I read the class the book's epilogue:

Your Original Face

When you are so busy that you feel perpetually chased, when worrying thoughts circle your head, when the future seems dark and uncertain, when you are hurt by what someone has said, slow down if only for a moment. Bring all of your awareness into the present and take a deep breath.

What do you hear? What does your body feel? What does the sky look like?

Only when we slow down can we finally see clearly our relationships, our thoughts our pain. As we slow down, we are no longer tangled in them. We can step out and appreciate them for what they are.

The faces of our family and colleagues who always help, the scenery that we pass by every day but fail to notice, our friends' stories that we fail to pay attention to - in the stillness of the pause, the entirety of our being is quietly revealed.

Wisdom is not something we have to strive to acquire. Rather, it arises naturally as we slow down and notice what is already there.

As we notice more and more in the present moment, we come to a deeper realization that a silent observer is within us. In the primordial stillness, the silent observer witnesses everything inside and outside.

Befriend the silent observer. Find out where it is, and what shape it has assumed. Do not try to imagine it as something you already know. Let all your thoughts and images merge back into silence and just sense the observer already there in silence.

If you see the face of the silent observer, then you have found your original face, from before you were born.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Acting plural

Had a wonderful moment in Theorizing Religion today - not just a moment, a class which afforded wonderful moments. In last Wednesday's class we'd poked and prodded the charming and deceptively clear arguments about religious exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism, and I thought we might have a little more discussion in us. Did we ever! "I've never met a real pluralist," one student had written in a response. "How can anyone not be a pluralist?" another had asked. "Can anyone say they think their views are true but incomplete, and that others have truths they'll never be able fully to assimilate, and really mean it?" I added. So off we went.

One moment which I particularly relished came from R, a student in the Theater BFA program, responding to the Lang cliché that "everyone has their own truth." I rail against that every year, but usually nobody agrees with me. R, however, took it and ran with it. If it can't conflict with what others believe it's not truth, just opinion, he said. R told us this was a point stressed by his acting teachers. Characters don't have "their own truth," not if they're well acted. The actor's job is to let the character live the truth.

Now doesn't that throw things for a lovely loop! I told R after class this recalled a discussion we had in "Theater & Religion" years ago about whether belief is an inner thing or observable. I remember getting excited about how the idea of "believable" performance complicated the idea that one's beliefs were entirely private and could be known by noone outside. But none of the actors in the class took me up on that. I have a sense R, and his teachers, might. Is the practice of acting a pluralism, then?

Toled you so

Always spot-on Tom Toles. (Bottom right always offers a 2nd punchline!)

Friday, December 01, 2017

Hard times for higher ed

We'll be reeling from the consequences of the perfidious tax 'reform' of the plutocrat party for a long time (and paying for it for even longer) but one consequence seems clear, and devastating for folks in our biz. This is a message I got from an alum, who's recently arrived at a calling to pursue an MDiv/MSW after many years of discernment, and found what seemed to be the perfect program for pursuing it, out in Denver:
Taxing graduate students isn't a significant revenue boost, and will have the effect only of thinning the ranks of those who can afford to pursue further study. Why do it? It only makes sense as part of the broader attack on the institutions of civil society which is what, alas, you'd expect from a party beholden entirely to Mammon and its jealous God.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Religion includes what it says about itself

Theorizing Religion encountered Diana Eck's powerful arguments for pluralism today. To let students appreciate that it's not as simple as it sems, I revived an activity from a few years ago and asked them to diagram the difference between pluralism, exclusivism and inclusivism. We came up with some cool things, but, curiously, as we explored them one by one, what had been proposed as a depiction of inclusivism, say, started to sound more like exclusivism or pluralism, etc. Why so tricky?

One problem is that Eck's protagonists are people comfortably identified with one world religion or another, something true of only one member of this year's class. The rest would be banished into the outer darkness of tolerance, relativism, nihilism and syncretism - the false pluralisms Eck deplores. A further problem is that pluralism, as Eck celebrates it, isn't something you can do by yourself. It's not a view, a stance, but an ongoing open-ended practice of listening to - and hearing - others.

A final issue: we could see the political necessity of genuine "participation in plurality" but is there a religious reason? Of course not! The whole point is that "there is no such thing as a generic pluralist": each tradition must find its own reason, in itself, for such engagement, its own understanding of the fact - gift, challenge, temptation, test - of plurality. If such reasons are to be found... we can't supply them for others, let alone posit where or how or even if they'll find them!

(The quote above is not from Eck but S. N. Balagangadhara, whom we read last week.)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Five new Buddhas

From Buddhist Modernism, a work by contemporary Tibetan artist Gade.

The way of all flesh

After a brief stint carpeting the ground in reds, oranges and purples...

Monday, November 27, 2017

Full circle?

As a piece of Thanksgiving turkey - or is it stuffing? - I gave the Theorizing Religion students How We Gather over the break. This is a report prepared by two students at Harvard Divinity School about new communities, formal and informal and even commercial, which seem to offer religiously non-affiliated millennials ways of building community, pursing personal and social transformation, finding purpose, etc. I left the discussion to the students, since they're millennials and I'm not - though I learned that, by the standard definition, many of my students are born too late to count as millennials. They were happy to own the millennial moniker, though, and all had much to say about the search for religious or spiritual bearings beyond institutionalized "religion."
What's interesting about the folks described in How We Gather - and recognized by several students - is that many would swear off the term "spiritual." That, apparently, comes with too much "baggage" now too! So even the SBNR (spiritual but not religious) have been outflanked! What's left, after "I'm into religion, not the church," and "I'm not into institutionalized religion" and finally "I'm spiritual but not religious"? Judging from our discussion it might be that thing which church and religion originally defined themselves against: cults! Several of the gatherings described have "cult"-like characteristics, owned and even half-ironically celebrated by their members. (It seems connected somehow to brands and their supposedly empirically demonstrated ways of transforming your life.)

CBNS. I didn't see that coming.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Hydroponic tapestry

Some branches of pufferfish plant (Asclepias Physocarpa, also known as balloon plant) we picked up at the Farmer's Market many weeks ago have sprung roots. How exquisite, what a wondrous weave!

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Anthropocene gods

There are a lot of very heady theory discussions about the Anthropocene (usually starting with a principled distancing from the term). The new age's alleged upsetting of the distinctions between natural history and human history, between nature and culture, opens the floodgates to neologisms and equivocations. Any religion in there? It seemed not - religion was presumably part of "culture," and not the most valuable part; it certainly had nothing in particular to say or contribute.

But then I happened on an ingenious article called "Gods of the Anthropocene" and it's rocking my world. It's not exactly an acknowledgment that religion matters, that religions matter, so much as an insistence that thinking "beyond the nature/culture divide" must also be post-secular, that is, reject the assumptions of secularity. And so the author, British sociologist Bronislaw Szerszynski, argues that this new epoch has new "gods" - defined not in any sort of theological way but as "any embodied or disembodied non-human agency that is experienced, interacted with or is otherwise socially consequential but is not (or not always) mapped onto a single body of the kind that is recognized by Western ‘naturalism’ as capable of consciousness or agency” (255). Brilliantly he proposes there are at least six, neatly folding into them popular theories of the Anthropocene.

Anthropos is the imaginary human agent capable of making and remaking the world, and indeed of surviving beyond and without it.

Capital is the trans-human agency to which Marxists and others point in critiquing the humanism of “Anthropocene” imagining.

The sun, in a nod to Georges Bataille, is the actual source of all energy including the human, its surpluses generating culture and politics.

The Earth, whether celebrated as Pachamama, Chthulus (Haraway), or as the thousand-named Gaia (Stengers, Latour), functions in a "god"-like way, too.

Into this august company comes a familiar figure, Yahweh or Allah, pacific in his "Laudato si’" form but threatening in the form of apocalyptic movements spurred on by the upsetting of local orders by carbon capitalism.

The cosmos, finally, is the larger whole of which our whole solar system — not to mention the fleeting farce of human consciousness — is an entirely insignificant part.

Nobody worships all of these gods, but Szerszynski compellingly suggests something non-secular is at work in accounts of each of them. The devotees of each of these "gods" posit the existence of some agency beyond the human which we must reckon with if not reverence, the arbiter of our survival and of the meaning or meaninglessness of human striving. Szerszynski has other tricks up his sleeves (starting with pairing these "high gods" with "low spirits" generated by the turbulence produced by the high gods, "cannibals, vampires and devils" described in recent anthropological studies of religion), which I'll save for another time.

Bronislaw Szerszynski, “Gods of the Anthropocene: Geo-Spiritual Formations in
the Earth’s New Epoch,” Theory, Culture & Society 34/2-3 (2017): 253-275, 258-62

Friday, November 24, 2017

Cross country

Aboriginal art, so hard to see in New York (Brooklyn of course has one shining example), has entered the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, a gift of a collection. Six works are on view for a few more weeks. Doreen Reid Nakamarra's 2008 "Marrapinti" was my favorite.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Late Fall

Prospect Park late in the year finally gets some color

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Desire for connection in the Anthropocene

As this semester winds ineluctibly down and next semester's courses are becoming visible on the horizon, it's curriculum planning season for next academic year, too. I'm thinking I might try to teach a course on Religion and the Anthropocene in Spring 2019. It's certainly something I'm thinking about, and should have something interesting to say about.

Not just in Spring 2019! I should have something to say now, since my article on philosophy of religion and the Anthropocene is due soon. No doubt "religion and' will be easier than "philosophy of religion" (though by the time I get through talking about religion I suppose it's always philosophy of religion!). What does the philosophy of religion have to contribute to discussions about the Anthropocene?

As you know, I've structured my essay around four works of Anthropocene theory, chosen not quite at random. (I've replaced the third one, though.) None of them engages, or solicits engagement from, religious studies; my task is to suggest that there's room for engagement, if not what such engagement would look like. 

So I start with Roy Scranton's Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, a grim account of a civilization already dead - a good illustration of the "paleolithic" perspective of the Anthropocene, where life is just a stage in production of fossils. Scranton's original essay, in the New York Times, was the first many had heard of the Anthropocene concept, and it also makes an interesting case for the humanities (and philosophy especially) as playing an indispensable "interruptive" role as we try to wean ourselves from the toxic patterns and expectations of the holocene world we have pushed over the edge - confronting ourselves with other ways of thinking, especially from the past, we can better resist the hive mind of humanity gone feral. This is part of what he means by "learning to die," and although he references Zen Buddhism a little, he doesn't think of religion as worth including in this canon of interruption. His lists of great books include classics of the world religions, but he's not interested in religious interpreters of those texts; religion is for him about the denial of death. Is it really? 

Next I turn to novelist and critic Amitav Ghosh's The Great Derangement, a reflection on what cultural resources there are for responding to, or even truly acknowledging, anthropogenic climate change. His main concern is literature, by which he means the modern novel, and he finds that the very structure of the modern novel makes it incapable of engaging discontinuities on the requisite scale. In order to tell a story, the novel needs to establish a stable setting in time and place, within which the protagonists can work out their story. He links this to the emergence of "gradualist" understandings of natural change and the reassuring stability of phenomena depicted by statistics. Religion doesn't enter the picture as an alternative to the novel; Ghosh names pre-modern genres like epic and miracle stories but doesn't call for their revival. (He also doesn't consider other genres, like poetry.) Religion crops up at the end, when he's found literature bankrupt and politics supine: we need a global movement already on the ground, and one concerned with limits - as religion is. He doesn't explain this enigmatic claim; I don't think religion is a live option for him. But it can be for us. If we can participate in interruptive humanities, we can also probe limits. But we also need to acknowledge how much of modern religious thought is part of the same matrix which nourished the modern novel.

After this comes sociologist of religion Bronislaw Szerszynski, who's published two brilliant essays this year, one mapping the "gods of the Anthropocene," the other imagining what might come after the "first Axial Age" views which empower the world-upsetting Anthropos of the Anthropocene. The former slyly synthesizes the often heady theorizing of continental thinkers wrestling with the Anthropocene, who confront human agency with other somehow agent-like forces working through or against us: Anthropos, Capital, the Earth, the Sun, Yahweh/Allah (in new ecological or apocalyptic guises), and the Cosmos. The latter imagines, among other things, how a new form of Tibetan Buddhism might arise to make sense of the relationship between the earth and a colonized Mars. Szerszynski's speculations seem to me just the kind of things we need, but his (many) interlocutors don't include philosophers of religion. Can we add anything, or even keep up? We don't engage much with the Anthropocene-specific articulations of monotheism, preferring the staid monotheisms of the modern period, but that might be a place to start. Engaging the era's other "gods" might be more difficult, though studying Marxism as a religion was once a thing. As for a second Axial Age, how exciting! Not that being intellectually excited by a possibility makes it real, let alone brings it to pass.

The final section features multi-species anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose, whose work with Australian Aboriginal peoples (and animals) yields at once penetrating accounts of life on the edge of extinction and a way of full-throatedly "saying yes" to life nonetheless, life understood as a complicated dance between species through times of "shimmer" and of "dullness." Rose is one of the founders of the ecological humanities in Australia (renamed environmental humanities here in the northern hemisphere), and one of the writers of that Manifesto I enthused about last week. She has characterized our time as one of "double death," one where death has lost its value as part of the cycle of life and death - as a part of life. She also contributes to the stirring northern hemispheric Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet a paean to the love between flying foxes and the coadapted trees whose flowers they "kiss" - and the hope that our death-dealing species might move away from being like those settler Australians who attack flying foxes as pests and more like the "flying fox carers" who are helping this embattled species survive by taking young and wounded members into their homes before returning them, healthy and strong, to the wild. Rose's work actually references philosophers of religion but is there more for us to add? Is there an analog to the work of the "fox carers" waiting for us to do?

Each of these sections, which essentially introduce discrete areas of the Anthropocene discussion, gestures toward things philosophers of religion might do some day. What about now? What about me? Welllll... I'm offering brief reflections on two things I've worked on. The first is on the problem of evil, which I argue will get short-circuited in the Anthropocene - the old distinction between anthropogenic "moral evil" and presumably non-anthropogenic "natural evil" is muddled now. But the growing sense that the relative stability of the Holocene was exceptional - along with a deepening sense of the wonders of symbiosis - might bring back the old complement, the problem of good. (This could refer to Ghosh's point about modern literature's taking the order of the world for granted.)

Second, and related, is the Book of Job, which will be seen differently in this, as it has in every, age. The equivocations of Job's friends will sound like the blandishments of those who close their eyes to climate change, surely. But Job's assertions of relative innocence may sound a little hollow, too, even as people less fortunate than he face Joban calamities with greater and greater frequencies. the Job-like 1% are implicated in the Anthropos of Anthropocene. God's response will sound different, too.

"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" (38:4) 

has a different ring when addressed to a "planetary agent," even if a very late and unwitting one. Or this:

“Or who shut in the sea with doors 
     when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment, 
     and thick darkness its swaddling band, 
and prescribed bounds for it, 
     and set bars and doors, 
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, 
     and here shall your proud waves be stopped’? (38:8-11)

But God's speeches are mainly about animals, and may well come to sound like reminders that ecosystems are delicately calibrated, or were:

“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? 
     Do you observe the calving of the deer?
Can you number the months that they fulfill, 
     and do you know the time when they give birth,
when they crouch to give birth to their offspring, 
     and are delivered of their young?
Their young ones become strong, they grow up in the open; 
    they go forth, and do not return to them. (39:1-4)

The heedless ostrich, who

... leaves its eggs to the earth, 
     and lets them be warmed on the ground,
forgetting that a foot may crush them, 
     and that a wild animal may trample them. 
It deals cruelly with its young, as if they were not its own;
    though its labor should be in vain, yet it has no fear;
because God has made it forget wisdom, 
    and given it no share in understanding" (39:17) 

might take on new significance, too.

I don't imagine many will take the restoration of Job's fortunes at the end at face value. While the hope for a magical return to order will surely grow stronger - the worldwide growth of Pentecostalism and prosperity religion suggests this is happening already - the reality of instability might lead to other interpretations. Perhaps the replacement of one set of children with another, so shocking to moderns, will again have a plausibility it once had when the loss of children was a more common experience.

But I want to end with Deborah Bird Rose, who finds in the Book of Job a human turning away from a God whose blustery claims to mastery have become anathema (if that's what God's doing). In Wild Dog Dreaming (2006) she amends the story in one, crucial way.

Job claims a kinship of suffering with the wider Earth, but perhaps there was also a more intimate connection. I imagine that when all Job’s animals were killed, his house dogs as well as his herd dogs died. But then, as now, there were stray dogs roaming the streets and back alleys, some of them abandoned, some simply adventurous. What if one of them found Job and settled in beside him, sharing his food and the warmth of his campfire? Being a dog, she would not be fussy about open sores and flaking skin, bad breath or loathsome odors. More than that, she would see him not as a sickly shell but as a full human. Looking into his eyes would she see that in spite of all the rejection by God and by man, there was still the desire for connection that he had kept alive within the loneliness of his grief?

Will our sense of connection to the rest of splendid entangled vulnerable life - and the ways it enfolds and sustains us - be what anchors new religious consciousness? Will philosophers of religion pay attention?

Monday, November 20, 2017

Thank you New York

Sometimes our Marketing & Communications people get it right...

(Does it have to be black, though? Not that I'd prefer Parsons Red.)

Sunday, November 19, 2017

It takes a megacity

I excitedly told a friend of mine tonight about something I'd just read but she was not excited by it. Why, I wonder? In Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Monsters of the Anthropocene I learned that each of us is not the individual we think we are - genetically, evolutionarily or otherwise. Rather, we have symbionts by the bucketload - 160 kinds of bacteria! It turns out that these are what make our functioning in the environment possible, and thus must also be a big part of the story of our development and survival from the species level down to the apparent individual. Chances are my twenty-two thousand genes are not the only decisive ones, as my microbiome packs another eight million.

In this we're hardly exceptional, floating in a sea of bacteria vaster and more ancient than we can fathom, though creatures whose genes are determined by lineages of naturally selected variations resulting from sexual reproduction in fact are unrepresentative. Bacterial genes move sideways without a thought. It makes everything entangled in the most promiscuous, but also astonishingly symbiotic ways. The wonder and terror of the Anthropocene, the editors say, lies in discovering this entanglement in a moment of cascading extinctions; a moment when, in Deborah Bird Rose's words from Arts of Living ... : Ghosts of the Anthropocene, "dependence becomes a peril rather than a blessing."

Scott F. Gilbert, “Holobiont by Birth: Multilineage Individuals as the Concretion of Cooperative Processes" and Deborah Bird Rose, "Shimmer: When All You Love is Being Trashed" in Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan and Nils Bubandt, eds., Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (Minnesota, 2017), Monsters 73-90 and Ghosts 51-63.

[And a thought about why I'm not as freaked out at the thought of untold numbers of unnoticed symbionts chugging away at making me me, well, letting me feel like I'm me. Privilege! Male privilege, white privilege. I take it for granted that there are numberless beings working in the background of my world, the world in which I get to strut and fret my hour on the stage, beings out of sight and, yes, out of mind. - 22/11]

Leaf confetti

A strong wind is scattering many of the remaining leaves of Fall...

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Inverted world

I'm reading a fascinating pair of books - that share a single binding!
Under shared title Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, one explores
Ghosts of the Anthropocene, the other Monsters of the Anthropocene.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Proves the rule

The poster for our event featured a detail of the Tomb of Hafez in Shiraz, a wonder in many ways. I was struck that, in its details, it's full of variations (at first I though inconsistencies) you don't at first notice. The trapezoids surrounding the central area, for instance, have mosaic tiles of all different colors, in many different constellations - though, again, it's not something the eye at first notices; nor is the larger harmony diminished by it once you have noticed it. I immediately remembered John Ruskin's celebration of the Gothic for just such diversity in unity - surely irrelevant here. (Though this mosaic was made only in the 1930s under french supervision.) A helpful friend reminded me of the deliberate "errors" included in Navajo sand paintings, and hand-knit sweaters - errors that betoken truth. But as I was looking through the powerpoints from Tuesday's roundtable again today, I noticed another variation which can only have been deliberate, this in the image with which my Islamist colleague Z began her talk. Can you find it? (Hint: there's just one, and it's the most perfect of colors.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

LREL Fall Roundtable

Great turnout for our Fall Roundtable last night - forty people in all! And all were nourished: by fascinating presentations on Islamic aesthetics, the mathematics of symmetry and tiling, and the Sufi spirituality of geometric design; by ample snacks; and by the chance to make one's own patterns, using colored pencils and grids and templates from masterpieces of Islamic geometric design. Doing and being!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Birth of a new religion

I think we turned a corner in "Buddhist Modernism" today. I've been trying, not entirely successfully, to get the students excited about the questions raised in David McMahan's Ris of Buddhist Modernism: how are the Buddhisms we encounter in places like the US related to the traditions of Asian Buddhism of the past (and present)? McMahan argues that much of "Buddhist modernism" is specifically of this time and place, continuing concerns western folks had before ever they encountered Buddhist texts or teachers - though it's being "of this time and place" doesn't automatically delegitimate it: more than most traditions, Buddhism has a history of hybridizing itself with different cultures. The question "Is it Buddhist?" isn't quite the right one, but it's an important one too. Much of what Buddhism has been in other times and places is absent from Buddhist modernism.

The class discussion has been about a version of that question a student put two weeks ago: 'is it OK to ignore the guidelines?" - to adapt Buddhist practices and ideas to your own purposes? The discussions have oscillated between reflections on respect and appropriation of a foreign tradition on the one hand, and questions about personal commitment to Buddhism on the other. The rather safe consensus seemed to be that if you respect that others (=Asians) have traditions and don't claim to speak for them, and your own engagement is serious and not just trendy, everything is OK.

In vain did I proffer a third question; whether our self-medication with Buddhist medicines is likely to be effective, given that we are unenlightened. (I posted that line from McMahan about how most Asian Buddhists would see the self to which the self-medicator defers as deluded on this blog in partt because the class didn't want to go there.) But today we'd read McMahan's fascinating account of how trends in modern western literature take you to a place very close to mindfulness - to the point where writers in the 1950s described stream of consciousness writers James Joyce and Virginia Woolf as Buddhist!

(McMahan starts his chapter with this epigraph from Mrs. Dalloway:) 

So we had a new question: can one be Buddhist and not know it? The class was excited at the idea. It turned out to be the way into the discussion I've been trying to have - pedigree and intention may be secondary questions compared to the question if something is actually working. I didn't spell out the further implication - that one could think oneself Buddhist and be mistaken - but it's within reach.

Monday, November 13, 2017


That record-breaking cold snap snap more than a few leaves...

Sunday, November 12, 2017


I find myself very moved by these words from "Manifesto for Living in the Anthropocene"

We want to engage in life and the living world in an unconstrained and expansive way. Our thinking needs to be in the service of life—and so does our language. This means giving up preconceptions, and instead listening to the world. This means giving up delusions of mastery and control, and instead seeing the world as uncertain and yet unfolding. So our thinking needs to be— 
     • Curious; 
     • Experimental; 
     • Open; 
     • Adaptive; 
     • Imaginative; 
     • Responsive; and 
     • Responsible.
We are committed to thinking with the community of life and contributing to healing. 

Stories are important for understanding and communicating the significance of our times. We aim to tell stories that—
     • Enact connectivity, entangling us in the lives of others;
     • Have the capacity to reach beyond abstractions and move us to concern and action;
     • Are rich sources of reflection; and 
     • Enliven moral imagination, drawing us into deeper understandings of responsibilities, reparative possibilities, and alternative futures. 

While we continue our traditions of critical analysis, we are forging new research practices to excavate, encounter and extend reparative possibilities for alternative futures. We look and listen for life-giving potentialities (past and present) by charting connections, re-mapping the familiar and open- ing ourselves to what can be learned from what already is happening in the world. As participants in a changing world, we advocate—
     • Developing new languages for our changing world; 
     • Stepping into the unknown; 
     • Making risky attachments; and 
     • Joining and supporting concerned others. 


This is the greater part of a manifesto signed by "key thinkers from the fields of Anthropology, Education, Human Geography, Philosophy, Science and Technology Studies, Sociology, Political Theory, Communications and Film" on a riverbank near the University of Western Sydney in 2010 (including Deborah Bird Rose).

I don't think it's a coincidence that Australians (and people who've made Australia their home, like Rose) are particularly perceptive on the reality and challenges of the Anthropocene. (The New Schools great Anthropocene theorist is from Australia, too.) I'm not sure quite how to explain why I feel this, but it's something like this. These folks - all (so far as I can judge from their names) settler-descendants - have grown up in a society which feels like a mismatch with the land it occupies. Remember that the formative settler Australian myth isn't pioneers who take civilization further and further across an accommodating continent, but explorers who try to cross the continent and vanish, consumed by it. Further, settler Australians (some of them at least) are aware that the continent in question was already settled and well tended by its traditional owners before - an order disrupted to the point of extinction by the depredations of settler society, and for many traditional inhabitants, human and other, damaged beyond the point of no return.

It's Anthropocene in miniature. You feel in your bones that the civilization you have grown up with is unsustainable, out of place, illegitimate. An American might then cry that our civilization is already dead, but this kind of settler descendant Australian has no time for such drama: our civilization also nearly destroyed others, and to their memory and their descendants we have responsibilities.

This motivates efforts to learn to appreciate 'country' the way Aboriginal peoples have, listening to the wisdom of those who knew how to flourish in and with this land (and who manage, if they can, to keep going on in the face of the decimation of their world), and to recognize and where possible revitalize fragile networks through which species have helped each other thrive. From this, along with a deep sense of grief and responsibility, can come - I sense it in this Manifesto - a remarkable commitment to life, celebrating it, learning from it, letting it be, joining it. Deborah Bird Rose describes this paradoxical commitment in terms of "love on the edge of extinction." It's not optimism, certainly not the technofuturism which sees Anthropocene as an initial stumble in what will be the glorious history of humanity remaking the world in its image. It's hope born of near-despair, joy at the marvel of being part of the community of living things born of responsibility to the dead, and to the not yet dead.


Fall colors out our window, framed by the flowers in our window box!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Gink go

The first freeze of the season caught some more prepared than others...

Friday, November 10, 2017


I'm still dithering over this essay I'm writing on philosophy of religion and the Anthropocene. The premise for the essay is clear. The growing literature on the Anthropocene shows little to no awareness of or interest in religion, its study or its philosophy, and religious studies, by and large, has returned the favor. It's early days, of course. Anthropocene is a contested category (even among stratigraphers) and much work of religious studies scholars that now seems relevant to the Anthropocene uses instead the language of climate change.

(So what makes Anthropocene discussion different from climate change? Anthropocene theorists take as established what is merely a grim possibility in earlier discussions - that human beings are "planetary agents," whose actions over time (especially recent time) have decisively and irreparably altered the conditions of life on earth. As Dipesh Chakrabarty put it (before the ascent of the Anthropocene language), the distinction between natural history and human history has been destabilized for good. Meanwhile the natural historical pretensions of the category of Anthropocene - that future geologists would find traces of our species in the geological record - invite a different perspective on human doing and being. Such future geologists, if any there are, will likely not be human; even if they are, assuming their perspective means seeing ourselves as fossils.)

My challenge is that I can't just point to conversations that aren't happening. I need to suggest conversations that could or should happen. And since the volume for which I'm writing is about the future of the philosophy of religion, I have to speculate a little about what the fruits of such conversations might be.

The way I'm structuring the essay (for now) is like this. After an introductory reflection on the retrospective character of philosophy of religion - we work on religious ideas that have already arisen, even where we are being constructive - I suggest the risks of futurology are unavoidable. The future is here already, at the same time an uncanny expression of a past which has taken on a new aspect, too, as we see it as a cause of our present dissonance. As for the futures earlier thinkers assumed would be "conformable to the present" (as Hume said), they're over. That was the Holocene, this is now. All bets are off.

The main part of the essay is an engagement with four theorists of the Anthropocene, selected somewhat capriciously if not of course randomly. (None is a straw man, all make compelling arguments.) One is a philosopher, one a novelist, one a Marxist cultural theorist, one an anthropologist. What I do in each case is note that although religion is largely absent from their arguments, there are openings. The philosopher thinks of great religious texts as among the heritage of humanity, useful for interrupting the ideologies of the age, even as he disdains religion (except perhaps Zen Buddhism) as an irresponsible flight from death. The novelist thinks religion better positioned than literature or politics to address the challenges of human limits in a world no longer continuous, though he himself doesn't go there (he's appreciative in ways he can't quite fathom of Laudato Si'). The cultural theorist praises the world-imagining work of science fiction, and of religious thinking about "totality," as necessary tools even as we have to recognize much of our theory as obsolete "carbon humanities." And the anthropologist, finally, turns to indigenous Australian ways of living with and beyond "cascades of extinction," and not just human ways (as we if we could be human on our own). Openings for religious studies, perhaps, though caveats also for the holocenic imagination of most of our work.

So far so good, I guess. But to get some meat on the bones of this argument, I need to do some actual speculation myself, so I finish the essay with some reflections on the future of the problem of evil - and of the Book of Job. What will become of evil as the natural/moral evil distinction ceases to ring true? Will the "free will defense" experience a revival, even as our agency confronts us more as a ghostly spectre than a potentiality? Will a "weak" God who suffers with us as we despoil ourselves and our worlds become a companion in the trenches? Will folks rather become millennarian, or - as is happening already - denialist about the situation, and will philosophers of religion dignify these views with analysis? Will God appear one of, and kin with, other companion species?

Come Job, will anyone take the restoration of Job's family and goods at the end seriously? (Anthropocene means, at the very least, that it's no longer plausible that "everything works out in the end.") Will the equivocations of Job's friends be read as images of climate change denial? Will Behemoth and Leviathan rear their heads once more? Will God ask Job "where were you when people upset the natural balance?" even as Job wonders why God allows such thoughtlessness? Will the satan become important in a new way?

I'm thinking of ending with the anthropologist - it's Deborah Bird Rose, author of Dingo makes us human - who amends the Book of Job to observe that, even as Job is abandoned by all his human relations, it doesn't ring true that he should be abandoned by dogs. Dog aren't like that. Her image of Job comforted by his dogs might make a memorable ending...

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Conditioned arising

In "Buddhist Modernism" today, I asked the students to diagram the argument of the central chapter of David L. McMahan's The Making of Buddhist Modernism, "A Brief History of Interdependence." A sort of microcosm of the book, the chapter argues that contemporary Buddhist conceptions of interdependence have as much to do with western romantic ideas and scientific ideas of ecology and systems as with the ancient idea of pratitya samutpada, though they do tap into later Mahayana and especially Chinese ideas about emptiness and nature. I didn't quite get what I was looking for (something like the below) but some enjoyable depictions of a nuanced argument which traces resonances and affinities in the entangled history of modern Buddhism...

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Someone put up one of our Roundtable flyers in the 4th floor skybridge!

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Eastern wisdom

Some awkward truths from classes this week...

The meaning of ritual is deep indeed. He who tries to enter it with the kind of perception that distinguishes hard and white, same and different, will drown there. The meaning of ritual is great indeed. He who tries to enter it with the uncouth and inane theories of the system-makers will perish there. The meaning of ritual is lofty indeed. He who tries to enter with the violent and arrogant ways of those who despise common customs and consider themselves to be above other men will meet his downfall there. ...
He who dwells in ritual and can ponder it well may be said to know how to think; he who dwells in ritual and does not change his ways may be said to be steadfast. He who knows how to think and be steadfast, and in a addition has a true love for ritual - he is a sage. Heaven is the acme of loftiness, earth the acme of depth, the boundless the acme of breadth, and the sage the acme of the Way. Therefore the scholar studies how to become a sage; he does not study merely to become one of the people without direction. 
trans. Burton Watson (Columbia 2003), 98-99

The many recommendations in contemporary popular western Buddhist literature to trust your deepest experiences, your inner nature, your internal vision have more to do with this legacy of Romanticism than with traditional Buddhism. One seldom hears such counsel from traditional Buddhist texts and teachers; for them, until one is an advanced practitioner, one's inner experiences are likely to be considered just another form of delusion.
David L. McMahan,
The Making of Buddhist Modernism (Oxford 2008), 85

Monday, November 06, 2017

Harlequin colors out my office window...

Sunday, November 05, 2017


And a little taste of the Brandywine Valley, too, radiant in its particular way despite thick cloud... Particularly pleasing at the Brandywine River
Museum of Art were local heroes Andrew Wyeth's "Pennsylvania Landscape" (1941) and John McCoy's "Door Yard, White Cosmos" (1967).

Saturday, November 04, 2017


Little weekend escape, this time to the south. Chesapeake Bay!

Friday, November 03, 2017