Sunday, October 23, 2016

Autumn light

Tiffany glass moment in Prospect Park at end of day.

Little saints

At church today I was in the company of saints. A few rows before me, freshly sainted Teresa of Calcutta, St. Thérèse de Lisieux, St. Michael, St. Kateri Tekakwitha, St. Francis, St. Damien Tours. In other pews, St. Juan Diego, St. Brigid, St. Faustina, St. John Vianney and lots of nuns.
At the consecration they were invited to the altar, making for quite the communion feast! As an Episcopalian I don't get to see very many children in church, so it's a pleasure to be able to witness the goings on at the little church around my Brooklyn corner, the Catholic Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph. It was unexpectedly moving to see them in these costumes. I'm not sure how widespread the practice of dressing up as your favorite saint, nun or priest is (today is World Mission Sunday); I think it'd be a powerful experience for a little person. (I noted that my Thérèse was Afro-Caribbean, my Katheri a mestiza, and my Michael a girl.) I didn't have time to follow them as they processed to another church, but it must have been quite a spectacle: little saints marching!

Saturday, October 22, 2016


Brrr... just days ago it was warm like a leftover pocket of summer, but
now it's definitely Fall. With cold rain 10˚C (50˚F) feels like 2˚C (36˚F).
This was shoe-soaking Washington Square Park yesterday morning.

Friday, October 21, 2016

People who love people

I'm in love! I'm reading a book, recommended by Melissa Nelson at the religion and ecology conference last weekend, called Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013). It's by Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist, poet and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and enchanting me like nothing I've read in a long while. I'll probably give it to you, next time I have occasion to give you a book. But here's a teensy taste.

I have heard our elders give advice like "You should go among the standing people" or "Go spend your time with those Beaver people." They remind us of the capacity of others as our teachers, as holders of knowledge, as guides. Imagine walking through a richly inhabited world of Birch People, Bear People, Rock People, beings we think of and therefore speak of as persons worthy of our respect, of inclusion in a peopled world. We Americans are reluctant to learn a foreign language of our own species, let alone another species. But imagine the possibilities. Imagine the access we would have to different perspectives, the things we might see through other eyes, the wisdom that surrounds us. We don't have to figure everything out by ourselves: there are intelligences other than our own, teachers all around us. Imagine how much less lonely the world would be. (58)

Thursday, October 20, 2016


This (as they say in the world of social media) just happened. 
My New School history co-teacher J celebrated the release of her amazing new book on "West Side Story" in Orozco - with dancers!

Inspired by gravity

My partner's on his way back to shining Shanghai for a few weeks. It's a trip delayed months (!) by a backlog of our immigration system, which I blame on the nihilistic charlatan we heard from - I pray - for the last time at last night's debate. A safe flight and smooth landing for all.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Your parents (sic), they are well?

I've started to think more about next semester's iteration of Exploring Religious Ethics focusing on Confucianism. Confucianism should serve many of the meta- points rather nicely, notably the ostensible secularity (or at least detachability-from-religion) of "ethics" - claims made for Confucianism, too. Wider moral communities come into play - ancestors, the earth, Tian - and also the question I've been calling the relation of ethics and ritual: is one best seen as an instance of the other?

I'm a long way from deciding what to do in the class, and in what order, but (or perhaps therefore) I've been thinking also about how to to do it. I had coffee this afternoon with L, a colleague who teaches about "non-western approaches to international relations" and has written about Daoist and Confucian alternatives to "Westphalianism" in political thinking. L has had students do various dramatizations in her classes and I'd just had a fabulous interactive class on William James, focused on how Varieties of Religious Experience is about channeling the voices of others. (What will it have been like to hear James performing the many very long excerpts from the religious experiences of others in the lectures which became Varieties?? What will it have been like to be James channeling them? We practiced hearing, and then performing ourselves...) We compared notes. What might one do in a course centered on Confucianism? It needs to be interactive. I told L about how Michael Puett's Harvard course on Chinese philosoophy has apparently changed lives by getting students to hold doors open for strangers.

Here's what I'm thinking now. These days many courses (especially social justice courses) start with a class discussion and decision on "ground rules." ("One mike," "Use I-statements," "Oops/Ouch," etc.) We'll have "Confucian" ground rules, and let them gently structure the nature of our interactions. With L's help I've thought of two possibilities so far. One involves deferring to others: when you and another student want to speak, and I (the teacher) call on you, you give the word to the other student. We can give that move a name and/or mark its performance whenever it happens in some way (a nod, perhaps, or a fingersnap), making explicit the way in which we are creating a world of courtesy and respect together. We could do the same with other civilities.

The other thing I'm considering involves a version of the tradition in Confucian societies (so L tells me) of asking about an interlocutors' parents well-being first, before asking theirs. "Your parents, they are well? And you?" Family is too fraught, and our students' families too fractured, for that to work in unmodified form. But what if, taking a page from Jeff Stout's take on Ciceronian piety towards the "sources of our being," we asked students early on to identify some of the sources of their being, and then asked about those? If a student tells us her grandmother is important to her, we'll ask her each week how her grandmother is doing. If a student says it's a teacher, or older friend or relation, we'll ask about them. If students decide it's someone else we should be asking about, they could tell us and we'll adjust.

It'd be weird and then, I would hope, it wouldn't be. It might be wonderful. We'd get a sense of what it is to interact with people not as abstracted individuals but as members of lineages of nurturance and memory - and to be seen by others similarly. How might our discussions change with that altered sense of where each of us is "coming from"?

I came up with this idea, I think, because of the way in which inviting last Fall's "Theorizing Religion" students to consider the styles of religion-making they inherit made our final class one in which I felt the presence of more than the students. (I guess I didn't write about it here; perhaps it seemed too intimate, not for sharing beyond that group.) With the students were sources of their being, lost loved ones whose memories guided them, the worlds to which they returned each night or holiday. I'm thinking also of the Buddhist practices which start with thinking of one's "benefactors," those who have made it possible for us to be what we are. Not "Confucian"? Not a problem, I think...

Anyone have a strong sense that this would be excellent, or awful?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Religion & Ecology

The dominant note for the final day of "Religion, Ecology and our Planetary Future" was gratitude. At its heart there was gratitude to the conveners, who over the last two decades have made the field of religion and ecology through conferences, publications, and, it's clear, remarkably dedicated dialogue with established and mentoring of emerging scholars. But there was a broader sense of the gratitude participants in this urgent, nascent field feel toward each other, a joy at shared purpose, effort, and achievement.

We were still in the rhythm of hope and despair which characterized the mood yesterday, gathering ourselves in a huddle before setting out again. It is too late for a lot of things. We are too few to do much. But today was about the real achievements possible if efforts are concerted. It was undergirded by a sense of solidarity with those around us, for whom and with whom we might make a difference - all the members of the vast "community of subjects" (a term from Thomas Berry, the guiding spirit of this venture), of which we humans are but a small part.

As the exhaustion of hearing forty-one talks subsides (I'm in the MegaBus on my way home, firy autumn foliage fading into darkness along the sides of the highway as the sky ahead holds out in final pinks and pastels), I feel not just that I've gotten to know this community of scholars but that I want to join it. All sorts of issues and questions I've felt drawn toward over recent years are taken seriously here, from the Australian-led field of environmental humanities to what I've been calling "wider moral communities" to the Anthropocene. Happy discovery!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Hope and mourning

Today's five panels were exhausting if not exhaustive, but I'm getting a better sense of the discussions which this community of dedicated thinkers and activists in the nascent field of Religion and Ecology have been having. Most striking is the recurrence of the question of hope, often accompanied by reflections on the need for mourning. If I spent more time with environmentalists I might be more familiar with this ebb and flow of urgency and despair. I'm familiar with the issues, with the reasons for despondency, rage, guilt and even terror, but I encounter them episodically. They can't really be said to ebb from my awareness because they never really flow in my life. What I sense here is a community in movement, or attempted movement. And so the question of hope is not an abstract one but situated in particular engaged struggles to make a difference, raise awareness, mitigate or even turn things around. It's not really about whether or not we've reached a point of no return, but how we do the best we can, wherever we are... which is why the question of mourning the lost, including those not yet lost but which we know will be squandered, is part of it.

no book in it

Harvard Divinity School is 200 this year, and its walls are covered with exhibits celebrating their achievements in various fields. The section on history and anthropology includes this exquisite excerpt from New Zealand ethnographer and poet Michael Jackson. A lovely admission of humility before the practices of another culture, a worry about "describing them with words / they would not use," and a chastened but charmed self-understanding as working with, alongside, his research subjects.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Insistent problems

Greetings from Harvard Divinity School - my first visit. I'm up for a weekend-long conference fêting 20 years since a series of symposia here launched the field of Religion and Ecology. The first day's panels looked back and forward from the perspective of 8 religious traditions - Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Jain, Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian - constructs the various speakers were varyingly comfortable or uneasy with in this, our post-"World Religions" moment.

The most exciting talk came from a scholar of Daoism who thinks the "religion and environment" language, along with the disciplines it appeals to, perpetuates the very division of human from nature which led to the environmental crisis in the first place. What's needed is something like the "liquid ecology" of Daoist traditions:

To be an individual is not to be distinguished from “the world” by virtue of some unique nature of character that “nature” does not possess. Instead the subjectivity of nature “insists in” or informs the subjectivity of the individual; the uniqueness of each individual life, and the uniqueness of the human species is constituted by the particular way in which the Dao is configured or constellated within each life.

Tomorrow explores indigenous traditions from several continents and some specific environmental issues, before, on Sunday, the conference engages new voices and interlocutors in fields like Environmental Humanities. Should be an education!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Elaborations on emptiness

Had a rather rude awakening today. In "Theorizing Religion" this year, there's nobody who would admit to knowing about Buddhism! (It emerged at least two students had encountered it in classes but was not volunteered.) How can this be? Isn't Buddhism the go-to place of the SBNR, the kinder gentler world of mindfulness, compassion and practice, the warm glow of eastmeetswest? I guess not!

So I'm afraid that Donald Lopez' debunking of this so amenable Buddhism will have made less than no impression.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

In the bag

They were giving these bags out free at my local supermarket today, because what I've come to know and love as wonky but neighborly and
reliable MetFoods is now into its second week as a somewhat swankier FoodTown. I'm relieved to know that the management hasn't changed.