Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Fire wisdom

Now that the California fires are contained, it's time to ask why such big fires happen. Mexico, just to the south, hotter and drier than Southern California, doesn't suffer such big fires because they conduct controlled burns. In Australia, controlled burns are an acknowledged part of living on that dry continent - the Aborigines have been doing it for tens of thousands of years! Native peoples of the Americas did, too. How could we have lost this knowledge?

My old friend Watsuji Tetsuro (left) might have had something to say about this. His somewhat polemical essay on the American national character (written during WW2) sees our nation as one premised on the denial of climatic constraints. Climate is something to be overcome rather than accepted - let alone celebrated. We feel it's only a matter of time before technologies (like heating, air conditioning and artificial light) make every corner of the land indistinguishably habitable (easier to believe in the "paradise" of SoCal!).

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Sometimes the prettiest leaves are the most collage-like, life-like.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Good for the heart

The retreat was really good. It was nice to get out of the city, nice to be with people I didn't know very well from church, nice not to be with people who do what I do all day. It was also my first trip on the Long Island Railroad, and a first whiff of Fall - and it's always nice to be at a monastery. (This was my first Franciscan house, let alone Anglican Franciscan.) I won't bore you with a full account of all we did, but I'll tell you about a few things that worked well.

Friday night after dinner we went around the room (we were fifteen plus Mother Liz) to introduce ourselves, say why we we had come to the retreat if we wanted, and recount something that had happened in the last week which "opened our hearts." I was moved by the eloquence and the honesty of people's accounts, and by the variety of little miracles which move people. (My reason for coming, I said, was that "I suck at small talk" and indeed this proved the perfect setting for making new friends; in Australia I had missed Holy Apostles, and continued to think of myself as a member, but how odd that I actually know so few fellow parishioners. The experience which opened my heart was an e-mail from my friend Beth - with whom, mea culpa, I haven't spoken in months - writing to me to thank me for updates on this blog about the fires in California and how my parents were doing, and the words "I'm very concerned." Thanks, Beth. You opened my heart, and fifteen others.)
Then we had to find someone to have an intensive 6-minute conversation on a theme, three minutes each, before finding another partner for another conversation on another theme. The artificiality and the time-constraint made for remarkably frank discussions. Themes ranged from "someone who exemplifies bravery for you" and "vulnerability" to "awe" and "commitment" and even "fear as a teacher" (my partner and I concurred in not thinking it a very good teacher at all). I'm not sure you could do this with people who aren't Americans, and/or in the comfort zone of a church retreat, but it was intense and inspiring.

On Saturday we discussed the story of Jesus walking on water and Peter's asking to be commanded to join him, which was good up to a point... until we decided to do "something physical." So a bunch of us formed a boat, some people got in, one of them Peter, others were the waves and winds, and the last was Jesus. Silly, but fun and active and - transformative. As we unpacked the experience later, it was clear (to me at least) that we'd broken through to a deeper understanding of things. The man who played Peter said he felt genuine fear stepping out of the boat, and sank into the water more quickly than he had expected. The other disciples, unnamed in scripture, wrestled with feelings of fear, bafflement and resentment at Peter's initiative. (It gave me new insight into the travails of the Anglican Communion.) And us boat and elements people enjoyed connecting with nature, protecting (but also knocking around) the disciples, etc. The power of improv is truly amazing. We became a group through this activity.

The afternoon was open, but not without suggested activities. We started by going out, again in pairs, to walk in the woods, one with eyes closed and the other as guide, for 10 minutes each. I was one of many for whom there was no fear in this at all - I even asked my guide to take me somewhere where I could run with my eyes shut, which I did (trippy!), and still don't know where I was as I ran. For some others it was an experience of terror, eventually softening into a sense of cautious safety. Then a few of us walked down the hill to nearby Long Island Sound, some journaled, and everyone made a collage - most using some of the beautiful leaves, though a big pile of magazines went through many hands, too. (I could put in a picture of my collage if you're interested. It's rather, um, intellectual. I used several things from a science magazine.)

After dinner, and before discussing the collages and other things (a somewhat frustrating discussion, as the collages were almost too personal, and the seriousness of our discussions kept getting upset by nervous jokes and tangents), I walked the labyrinth behind the Friary. I'm no great fan of labyrinths, but this is a nice one. It was cold and dark and misty and I was alone, so I didn't linger. But I had a chance to go again Sunday before heading home (I had to leave early to participate in an Open House at school) in bright sunshine and with a few fellow travelers. To my surprise, it was more solitary doing it with others; the moments where you walked past people seemed fleeting and doomed to be merely episodic... until I got to the center, and had the sense of a giant mill, of people on their own individual spiritual journeys but orbiting the same center: our lives are concentric. Augustine's assertion that God is closer to me than I am to myself made a new kind of sense, and a sense of oneness with "concentric" others. But it still troubles me how individualistic it is. It offers the community of monks who go about their own business except for the shared offices, but nothing like the collective effervescence (or calm) of a church community who are continually present to each other.

The theme of the retreat was "courage," which, we soon learned, means many things to many people, from the daily courage to go on to the courage to take a prophetic stance, or to make a change in one's life. But in many different ways there's one thing almost everyone said: that what strikes one person as courageous probably doesn't seem to the person doing it as courageous - a phenomenon I know from my study of the good. For my part, I started with a picture of courage as a heroic, "manly" thing which I think a dangerous ideal but I moved to a richer understanding through the very different meaning of courage in French, and all the heart/coeur words related to it, from taking (or losing) heart to be being heartened (or disheartened), encouraged (or discouraged). The story of Peter saying "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water" (Mt 14:28) turned out to be the perfect one for thinking and feeling our way through the mystery of how our own hearts are charged by others - and how we may even need others to do this for us. In many profound and not-so-profound ways we are "given heart" by others.

A nice thing, a retreat, and with a group.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Courageous collage?

The fires in California somewhat under control, and eight weeks of the semester over already (where has the time gone?), I'm off this weekend for retreat with folks from church. We're going to a place 60 miles east of the City on the north shore of Long Island - new territory for me, whose trips out of New York tend to be thousands rather than scores of miles away. The retreat seemed like a good thing to do when I signed up - a chance to get out of the City, get to know some people better, talk about things that matter, and on an interesting theme, "courage"... But now I learn that we're going to be doing collages. What have I got myself into?!

For something almost as good as a retreat, and no collage - one of my friends says "it captures something profound about life" - try this (found on the humor page, a new addition to the New York Times website). Use your mouse.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Still burning

The Southern California brushfires are still largely uncontained and a real danger (this picture, from a fire on Palomar Mountain, is from the Los Angeles Times), but life seems to be returning to normal for many - if their houses have not been destroyed. My parents are well, the threat to the coastal cities seems over (for now at least). Streets and supermarket shelves are empty, but their guests - cousins from Germany who've been planning this week-long trip to California for years and years! - had the Torrey Pines Golf Course all to themselves yesterday, a sort of compensation...

President Bush is flying in today, and the recriminations are sure to flare up as the fires subside. Not just because the more Bush does for Southern California (and there's no reason not to expect a lot: the area is full of Republicans and wealth), the greater the contrast with the abandonment of the victims of Hurricane Katrina becomes, but also because San Diego is among America's most poorly-run cities. Already there are rumblings about insufficient investment in firefighting equipment (unfathomable considering the firestorm the city suffered through just four years ago) and poor coordination of fire fighting units - San Diego County amazingly doesn't have its own fire department! In the background is the sad fact that half of the area's National Guard are in Iraq.

Following this from three thousand miles away has been a frustrating experience, though I was glad to be the one to tell my parents that the evacuation order for their part of Del Mar (which they had not quite got around to following) had been lifted - viva the internet! I'm enormously relieved that the fires' charge toward the coast has stopped, but feel a kind of vicarious survivor's guilt toward those whose lives have been destroyed as the fires turned north and east. (Above a view of Rancho Bernardo, courtesy of the New York Times.)

After living through a harrowing bush fire season in Victoria, when Melbourne seemed for a time under assault from all sides, there's also a sense of déjà vu. (The California brush fire season has only just begun, of course.) In the last year I've become aware of the rising frequency of natural disasters, probably affected by global warming - but also of the place of fire in natural ecosystems like Southern California, many of whose native plants have seeds whose shells break open only in the heat of fire, and others which start fires and spread them.

Living on this planet's no picnic. Why did we - Californians at least - ever think otherwise? Or maybe we never really thought about it at all before. (Someone interviewed by the San Diego Union said of the conflagrations: "They say there are just two kinds of weather in San Diego: nice and nicer. This is just weird.")

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The fires as of 9pm last night, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times. The north San Diego County ones would seem to be moving east and north rather than west... everything depends on the winds.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Update, 6pm EST

The news is very bad - 1250 houses now destroyed, 241,000 acres burned, nearly half a million people evacuated and no end in sight. The evacuation order for the part of Del Mar where my parents live was lifted a few hours ago: the fire's been spreading north and south, the westward push slowed by weaker winds. But the danger's certainly not over, the firefront is bigger than ever.

Fire danger

You'll have heard that Southern California is engulfed in brush fires. The greatest danger seems to be in San Diego County, 750 homes destroyed, 250,000 people evacuated... Many more have been told to prepare to evacuate. Pushed on by hot Santa Ana winds, the Witch Fire (it started at a place called Witch Creek) has raced westward from northeast San Diego County toward the ocean. The map below is from 14 hours ago! Residents of my hometown Del Mar - bottom left in the map - have been advised: "For your safety, we are strongly advising that all Del Mar residents evacuate." They are to relocate to a high school in Lake Forest, an hour north in Orange County (where my grandparents used to live). Everything nearer is, presumably, already full. My parents' bags are packed.

The fires are huge, the land dry as kindling, and the Santa Ana winds predicted to continue. The situation is very grave. You can keep track of the fires at this blog, maintained by the San Diego Union (from whom I borrowed the images above). And pray.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Souvenir of a bright autumn afternoon in Central Park with friends.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


This weekend I'm reading Octavio Paz's marvelous book on Sor Juana, full of wonderful digressions - truly baroque!. Here's a taste. (The criollo was the Mexican-born Spaniard who, as a second class citizen, was neither fully Spanish nor Mexican. Sor Juana was one.)

Although the baroque and romanticism are mannerist, the similarities between them cloak very profound differences. Each, reacting against classicism, proclaimed an aesthetic of the abnormal and the unique; each presented itself as a transgression of norms. But while the romantic transgression centers on the subject, the baroque transgression focuses on the object. Romanticism liberates the subject; the baroque is the art of the metamorphosis of the object. Romanticism is passionate and passive; the baroque is intellectual and active. Romantic transgression culminates in the apotheosis of the subject or in its fall; baroque transgressions lead to the appearance of an unheard-of object. Romantic poetics is the negation of the object through passion or irony; the subject disappears in the baroque object. Romanticism is explosion; the baroque is implosion. The romantic poem is spilled time; the baroque is congealed time. (53-54)

The goal of the baroque was to astonish and astound; that is why it sought out and collected all extremes, especially hybrids and monsters. Conceit and cleverness are the sirens and hippogriffs of language, the verbal equivalents of nature’s fantasies. In such love for the strange we find both the secret of baroque art’s affinity with the criollo sensibility and the source of its fruitfulness. … In the seventeenth century the aesthetic of the strange expressed with rapture the strangeness of the criollo. In such enthusiasm it is not difficult to find an act of compensation; psychic insecurity lies at the root of this attitude. Ambiguous fascination: the exact opposite of the Frenchman of the same century, the criollo saw himself not as a confirmation of the universality represented in every human being but as the exception each of us is. (58)

Friday, October 19, 2007

One thing after another

I've been neglecting this blog, mea culpa. It's partly because I don't have internet access at home, but mainly because I've been very busy. When I do have a few minutes at my office computer, I'm not sure what to report on, there being so many things. So here, by way of apology, are some of the things I considered posting this week.

• The most affecting photo I've seen in a very long time, by a Joao Silva. It appeared on the front page of the New York Times on October 10th, the caption "An Iraqi boy peered Tuesday inside a car that was towed to a Baghdad police station after two women inside were killed." Can we ever atone for the crime of this war?

• A talk by Alan and Susan Raymond (Monday night), among the most influential documentary makers in the US, discussing, among other things, the making of "An American Family" in 1973, the first "reality television" show (the Raymonds spent most of a year with the Loud family in Santa Barbara, and turned out to be there for a divorce and one son's coming out), and the "craft and ethics" of documentary film-making

• The presentation to the Faculty Senate (Tuesday morning) of the latest plans for the "signature building" to be erected on Fifth Avenue, visionary but still substantially unfunded

• A profile of a homeless man who was set on fire by hoodlums last week and died a few days later from the burns

• Assorted thoughts on the different aims of the liberal arts and writers/performers, both as students and as faculty, crystallized by a chat with my colleague M over beer in the garden at 265 (Tuesday evening)

• The well-made new documentary "The Bible Tells Me So," about the Bible and homosexuality in America (Wednesday afternoon), which I attended with a first-year class on Queer Culture - a film I wouldn't have gone to see otherwise, expecting it to be old news and old slanders, but I'm glad I went, it's beautifully made (except for a silly cartoon in the middle, for which I blame Michael Moore), sensitive and even-handed (though obviously on the side of the angels)

• An obscure but fascinating talk on "The anthropology of the future" by Arjun Appadurai (Wednesday night), which seemed brilliant while I was there taking notes, but collapsed into obscurity in retrospect.
I did learn from the talk of a brilliant essay by Naomi Klein in this month's issue of Harper's Magazine on "disaster capitalism."

• Class discussion of Calderon's magnificent
Life is a Dream (La vida es sueño), a play of such complexity and intelligence that one could easily spend weeks on it (yesterday afternoon).

• The dutiful but unBrechtian production of Brecht's
Life of Galileo at NYU (last night), three hours and twenty minutes without catharsis or the Brechtian anti-catharsis. The production predictably suggested parallels between the Catholic Church in Galileo's day and the religious right and Bush administration in our own, but timidly and in a way which missed the complexity and challenge of the play. Brecht said that when the house-arrested Galileo slips a copy of his latest work to an estranged disciple in the last scene, it should seem to the audience as if he's passing on the blueprint for the Hydrogen Bomb, but in this production it was just the innocent joys of science unjustly persecuted by the church... Discussing it later with students we concluded that the way to make this play current would be to focus on global warming, not just as a "scientific fact" denied by Republicans, but as a phenomenon caused in large or small part by the fruits of science.

All of this, needless to say, on top of preparing for classes, reading endless student response papers, strategizing with C about our "Religion and Theater" classes, attending committee meetings (two Tuesday, Thursday, and another in a few minutes today), taking first year instructors to lunch to discuss their classes (Monday and Wednesday), and a long interview on the problem of student attrition with the school newspaper... After a year's leave I'd forgotten that things just keep on coming, accumulating, piling up. So far I'm keeping my head up but it's exhausting! Not that I'm complaining. Every one of the things I didn't get around to describing was rewarding!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Beyond belief

Had fun in Religion & Theater today! Our subject was belief, and we had assigned an essay by the prominent Buddhologist Donald Lopez. Lopez starts his essay with the question: what does belief look like. (He discusses the painting of St. Peter Martyr by Giovanni Battista Moroni (1529-1578), below right: before being killed by assassins hired by Cathars he had been hounding, Peter writes in the sand with his own blood (the first blow, to his head - wasn't fatal) CREDO.)

I picked the essay because it shows just what a paradoxical concept belief really is. Everyone knows that someone's saying that she believes something means nothing, at least not on its own. People recite creeds without knowing what they're saying all the time. They may even believe they believe something - but we can see from their actions that they don't. Belief is revealed or confirmed (or disconfirmed) by action, but it's not the same as action. The deliberate performance of a belief rightly makes us suspicious: he's just saying that.

Lopez shows that the concept of belief leads to paradoxes whenever you try to spell out what exactly you're talking about. Belief has a different relationship to action and feeling and desire than knowledge, but I defy you to clarify that relationship without confusion. Lopez quotes Michel de Certeau who said (as Kant did) that belief is a kind of wager. Buddhists would say belief is an illusion, along with the self. Many Christians say that belief is a gift, or relationship, or a pledge - none of them the ordinary meaning of belief. Belief used to mean be-love (believing in God meant trusting in God, pledging allegiance to God), but in modern times it seems to have a more or less benign element of self-delusion in it: think of "I'd really like to believe she's telling the truth" or "I can't believe I ate the whole thing," or even the baffling phrase "cherished belief." As a religious studies person I think we misunderstand religious traditions and religious people if we focus on belief. At the very least we need a more supple or dynamic conception (so we can understand "I believe, help me in my unbelief," for instance.) Lopez suggests we'd be better off without it entirely.

In the context of a course on religion and theater the weirdness of belief (and its nevertheless seeming the most unproblematic thing) seems to me a central question. Actors in some sense need to internalize or embody the characters of their characters - beliefs and all, but of course they don't really believe what the characters believe, not in the same way... Further, performances are often praised as "believable." (The very existence of the word "believable" shows what a slippery character the concept of belief is!) I thought these students would be more receptive than my students in other classes to the problematic character of something that can't be performed without paradox, but the faith in belief is widespread and strong (especially among those who hate and fear religion)!

Monday, October 15, 2007


Here's a view of one of the famous apartment towers along the west side of Central Park in Manhattan. Can you feel the crisp autumnal air?

Sunday, October 14, 2007


We had a very serious discussion after church today, one in which many people spoke very eloquently and movingly, most confused and angry and hurt. The issue was what to do about our upcoming patronal festival (All Souls Day), to which Cathy Roskam (below), Suffragan Bishop of New York, has been invited to celebrate. Bishop Roskam was invited because she spent many years at Holy Apostles, and was there at the birth of the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, whose 25th anniversary will be marked (not celebrated!) at this service. I have great respect for Bishop Roskam, having heard her preach, provide the most useful analysis of what's behind the escalating tensions within the Anglican Communion - and having myself been received into the Anglican Communion by her in 2002.

To many in the congregation, however, she has become persona non grata, along with all the other bishops of the Episcopal Church (except one, from California) for having "caved in" to the demands of the African bishops at their recent meeting in New Orleans. The Episcopal bishops did not in fact do much of anything (although they reaffirmed the infamous B033 from the last General Convention) - their point being that in the Episcopal Church, alone among provinces of the Communion, bishops cannot make policy without consulting with the laity, so no judgments one way or the other on the ordination of gay bishops and the blessing of gay unions can be made until the next General Convention in 2009. Even theological questions are not the special province of the bishops, so they did not make a theological argument for the Episcopal Church's understanding of the mandate for an inclusive community of the baptized, merely reiterating a human rights argument against discrimination. It's a stalling tactic, of course, but also entirely right. And who knows: the homophobic alliance may fall apart by summer 2009, united as it is by little more than their common enemy.

What's that got to do with our patronal festival? Well, many at Holy Apostles (not just gay and lesbian parishioners) feel that they have been betrayed by Bishop Roskam and her peers, who should have denounced the southern Primates rather than accede to their demands. Some would like to see her uninvited, and others are threatening to boycott the service if she comes.

I went into the discussion thinking it was a tempest in a teacup - to uninvite would be inhospitable, and to pick a public fight with someone who is on the right side of most issues (including the sexuality issues) would be foolish. I'm persuaded by things I've heard her say about other related issues within the Anglican Communion (like the status of women), as well as by the experience of a year in another part of the Anglican Communion, that the bishops' position, while disappointing, is disappointing in all the right ways. The Episcopal Church's prophetic witness (if I may be so bold) is not just its full acceptance of Christians of all sexual orientations, but in other things too, including its "polity" - a church designed to allow lay people a significant voice, and so the only body in the whole Anglican Communion in which women are properly represented.

But after this discussion I wonder if I'm not too quick to accept compromise. In the discussion, people (wonderful, kind, committed, truly Christian people) spoke who have suffered betrayal many times by people they thought they could trust - Kathy Roskam's betrayal (as they experience it) is only the latest. "I'm starting to wonder if we have any real allies at all," said one woman with great sadness. Another counseled us not to do anything, invoking a rule from Twelve Step programs called HALT - don't make a decision when you're hungry, angry, lonely or tired; "I'm all of those things right now, and I'm sure I'm not the only one," he said. A man who is one of the most intelligent, accomplished and - I thought - cheerful people I've ever known said that his earliest memory (from when he was four or so) was of not fitting in, and feeling that it made his parents sad, and that he had to do something to dull or hide the pain; this was something he said has shaped his personality, his career (he works for a major philanthropic organization), his relationships - and it rings true for what I know of him. He doesn't know what to do, but is grateful for a place where he can know he is loved (meaning Holy Apostles).

Does Bishop Roskam appreciate the extent of the pain out there, the grief? One of her fellow bishops, Mark Sisk, wrote a letter expressing his sorrow over the pain caused by B033 (though not over this reaffirmation); Bishop Roskam has never acknowledged the pain, stranger still for her experience as a woman who suffered (and suffers) much prejudice in her career.

The discussion made this pain plain. This wasn't just the familiar pain of homophobia, it was the pain of a church in crisis, of a community of loving believers torn apart. The Episcopal Church has seemed to many of us a prophetic corrective, an anticipation of a better world. I suppose I'm still more inclined to accept the political arguments of the bishops, but this discussion has made me wonder if it isn't also that I've become so accustomed to being sent to the back of the line that I haven't ever fully believed the church's promise to right this wrong. O ye of little faith.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Everyman in Dallas

In Religion & Theater we have arrived at the reemergence of theater in the west in miracle, morality and mystery plays. It's very hard for our students to take seriously religious drama - that is, theater that is not just about religion but seeks to convey an important religious message in a manner that is very nearly itself a religious ritual. So I showed the pilot for a recent documentary on Hell Houses, didactic and spectacular and very gory haunted houses which a number of Evangelical churches have started putting on around Hallowe'en. The film shows the most well known Hell House, sponsored by a church in Dallas and staffed by a few score passionate teenagers from the Christian high school. The purpose is to show that sin is real and that you'll go to hell if you don't repent. They act out scenes of real life sins they think teenagers are at risk of, from drunk driving to AIDS, abortion to the occult, domestic violence to school shooting. After groups of visitors pass through these deliberately gritty and violent scenes, they pass through a heaven room (where some actors are angels and others are dragged away by devils), a hell room (where the actors they've seen i nthe earlier scenes are being tormented by demons in lurid red light), and finally - as the screams from the hell room ring from next door - a chance to go to a room where "people are willing to pray with you, in fact they've been praying for you since you've been here." You may not think you're a sinner, says the preacher, but sin is sin, whether it's murder or lying occasionally to your parents. If you were to die right now, are you sure you wouldn't go to hell?

The whole thing is shocking and manipulative in the extreme, and the film elicited very strong reactions from our students. "This is not theater!" insisted some, while others - including one who had seen a hell house - argued that it was unquestionably theatrical, and that it's hypocritical to deplore in our own culture what we consider interesting and worth understanding in the religious rituals of other cultures (like a violent Balinese trance dance we watched on film earlier).

But what about "Everyman," I asked. If "Hell House" isn't theater, is "Everyman"? Doesn't it seek to achieve the same thing - no mere entertainment it's supposed to jolt the viewer awake to the precarious state of her soul.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Howard's in trouble

Omigod: John Howard must be in even direr (is that a word?) political straits than I realized. Nixon in China II: Johnnie in the Outback?

Neocons at New School!

Quite unexpectedly I found myself surrounded by neoconservatives yesterday, not something that happens every day at our supposedly left-leaning university. (I say supposedly because some of the people we're proudest spent time here - like Hannah Arendt - and others we don't mention so often - like Leo Strauss - were hardly left-wing.) Everyone knows about neoconservatives but these were the original issue, the generation (and friends, I suppose) of Daniel Bell and the like: reformed socialists or even communists who are now cultural and political conservatives.

I'd attended a talk on "The Challenge to Secularism" by the eminent sociologist Peter Berger, long at Boston University but earlier in his career here at the New School. His argument was familiar Berger material: secularization theory of which he had been a prominent advocate in the 1960s) has proved untrue. Modernity pluralizes but does not secularize, and pluralization is not a bad thing. Religion, except in a few curious cases worth looking at, is going strong. Indeed our world is being reshaped by a Muslim revival (not the jihadis we read about in the paper) and an evangelical Protestant revival also largely unnoticed by a secularized intelligentsia; Pentecostalism, now numbering about 400 million adherents, is the fastest growing religious movement in history.

This was all well and good, but then we were warned against fundamentalism, especially "secular fundamentalism." And in the dinner I found a way to get myself invited to afterwards, I was privy to a world I've never seen before. The talk was in memory of one of the founders of Partisan Review, an American magazine which started Communist and quickly became anti-Soviet, and the central forum for the "New York Intellectuals" of the 1950s. Their anti-totalitarianism actually makes them fellow travelers with much of the tradition of the New School's graduate programs, but you'll hear nothing but dutiful leftism here now. So I was floored to hear a defense of Intelligent Design, and be assured by a woman at my table that atheistic scientists all "revert" on their deathbeds. I suppose I should have known I wasn't in Kansas anymore already when people seemed pleased to hear that there was someone (even if only one person) teaching religious studies at the New School, something whose unlikeliness they well appreciated. And when people started reminiscing fondly about the compulsory Bible courses they took as freshmen in the 1940s and 1950s - although (or especially) because they were quick to point out they'd never had anything to do with religion since, but bore it no ill-will.

The ancient philanthropist next to me denounced Richard Dawkins and got all gooey over the way Robert George managed to set up a center at Princeton which the university faculty and administration could not deflect from a conservative agenda. She seemed to like what I was telling her about religious studies at Lang (she passed over my description of Princeton as better for having both Robbie George and Peter Singer) and said it sounded "like something which should grow," but I doubt she'd like what we actually do! Did I miss my one chance to take someone's money and run with it?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Vitraux de New York

Here are two quite different stained glass effects from houses of worship I saw Sunday (still part of Open House New York). Above are the central three of seven huge Louis Comfort Tiffany windows at St. Michael's Church (Episcopal) on the Upper West Side. Tiffany's not really my thing, but the effect is unquestionably very impressive. What's most inspiring about Temple Emmanu-el, the world's largest synagogue (below), is that the whole building is lined with strips of reflective gold which reflect light gently but intensely (notice the middle of the photo). This gives the huge edifice a feeling at once of massiveness (the window bays are several meters deep - size of the spotlights at right should give you a sense of how big all this is; the restorer giving the tour likened it to Grand Central Terminal) and of something ethereal and mystical... I wish I'd been better able to capture the mysterious glow, more powerful by far than the windows you actually saw, "a still small voice" of light... (but remember to click on it, and the one above, for a sharper image)

Monday, October 08, 2007


Say, did you notice the way the three pictures below sort of flow into each other: the waves in the Japanese woodblock print are recapitulated in the lines on the plate beneath the decorative gourds, and the three gourds seem to morph into the three saints of New York! I didn't plan it, but who's to say the saints didn't - or the gourds?!

Saints of New York

Much I could report on - like the eleven dance companies I saw last week (ten in two evenings of the wonderful Fall for Dance festival at City Center, which brings together five ensembles each evening, in styles ranging from ballet and Bharatanatyam to contemporary tap - I went 9/29 and 10/5) - but instead here's an icon from the Russian Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection, located in what used to be a German-speaking Dutch Reformed church in the East Village. (I saw it as part of Open House New York.) These are the three saints of New York: St Alexander Hotovitsky, St Tikhon Patriarch of Moscow, and St Raphael of Brooklyn. (The icon was painted by a 19-year-old student at their resident icon school.) Who knew Brooklyn had its very own orthodox saint?!

Friday, October 05, 2007

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Karmic bond

In Religion and Theater today we looked at the Noh Play "Atsumori (敦盛)." It tells the story of Kumagai, a military man who had to kill a young enemy - he only discovered how young when he pulled off Atsumori's helmet to behead him and found he was a youth of fifteen or sixteen ... an astonishingly fine warrior. He says: I would like to spare you, but as you can see, my allies are coming along with a large force. You will die by my hand, but I will earnestly pray for your soul. After the battle Kumagai renounces the world, becoming a priest.

The play opens with the priest Rensei meeting a grass- cutter on the shore where Atsumori is buried, and we only slowly find out that the priest was once Kumagai - and the grasscutter is really the ghost of Atsumori. At one point, before the identity of either has been revealed, the two together speak the bodhisattva vow:

If I should attain Buddhahood,
in all the worlds in the ten directions
if sentient beings will call my name,
I will accept them all, rejecting none.

Since I was primarily focusing on the religious content of the play, I noted that this moment shows that their concern has broadened beyond the reconciliation of enemies in war to a general compassion for all suffering beings. But when some students read the play in class today, I saw something more in it. After Atsumori appears in his full splendor and accepts the prayers of Kumagai and the play nears its end, he says:

In the end, reborn,
on the same lotus flower.
The priest, Rensei, lotus-born,
no longer is
the enemy.

(the lotus flower is in the Buddha Amida's western paradise), and I understood for the first time: this is not just a play about the reconciliation of enemies and the particularly strong bond between adversaries in military combat. It's not just a play about Amida's power to overcome all human divisions. It's a love story.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


In Theorizing Religion today I decided to take on one of the students who had complained in her response that Marx uses italics too much. Maybe he does. So I had the class - all 20 of us - read aloud, indeed declaim together, the following three paragraphs from his "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right: Introduction" (1843), written when he was a callow youth of 25. For every italicized word I instructed them to poke or pound on the table or point decisively in the air. It was a hoot! (You should try it too; you might also want to lower your voice to a dramatic hush at the sentence beginning "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature..." before the dramatic crescendo of the next sentence.)

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. [Whole text]

I think it got to them - it certainly got to me. Strangely, there's nobody I get as evangelical about in my teaching as Marx. (Well, maybe some Buddhist thinkers. And Barth.) Perhaps that's because I find in Marx - especially the young Marx - a pure desire to overcome the structures and institutions which divide people, lead us to lose sight of our "species being." Of course, he thinks that if we could overcome these structures and institutions, we'd have no need for religion, among other things. Were it not for the track record of Marxist movements I'd say: let's try it and see.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

No(h) way

In Religion and Theater, we're looking at Japanese Noh drama this week. C is interested particularly in Zeami, the son of the father-and-son team who founded this art form who was not only an actor and playwright (and banished: she especially likes embattled writers) but wrote very eloquently about the practice and meaning of being an actor. It fell to me to provide a crash course in the religious background to Noh, something I've never really had to work out before. It's not simple. In particular, I found, it's misleading to describe Noh as a Zen art form. Not only does the Noh have antecedents in quasi-ritual performances at Shinto shrines - indeed the archetypal case of someone possessed by someone else's curse is a pre-, indeed non-Buddhist idea - but the Noh plays are full of every kind of medieval Japanese Buddhism. Some invoke Amida, some feature the miracles of the Lotus Sutra, and one play that we were reading works primarily with the esoteric Shingon tradition.

So I gave a little lecturette called "Buddhism ≠ Zen ≠ Noh," which ended with a reading of the Shingonoid play, "Sotoba Komachi," written originally by Kan'ami (the father) but shortened and tightened by Zeami (the son). Two priests - one a Shingon priest - cross a river and see an old beggar woman; she sees them, and sits down on what she takes to be a tree stump. It is in fact a stupa (Japanese: sotoba) of Kongosatta Buddha, one of the bodhisattvas venerated by Shingon. The priests alert her to this infraction, but in the ensuing conversation she turns out to be much more than just an old beggar. The first priest says:

He that has once looked upon a stupa shall for all eternity
avoid the three worst catastrophes.

She responds:

One sudden thought can strike illumination.

His words are consonant with the more magical world of esoteric Buddhism, hers more Zen-like - but it's clear that "illumination" has not yet come for her; she sounds enlightened - why is she still here, and suffering so? By the time the play ends, the moment of her release has come, made possibly by this fortuitous encounter with a (Shingon) priest at a (Shingon) stupa.

The priests discover that the woman is in fact a famous old poetess, Komachi, who has been haunted by the curse of an old admirer, Shii no Shosho. While still young and beautiful, she told Shii no Shosho she would receive him if he came 100 times with his chariot, but he dies on the 99th night. His unrequited passion possesses her, and in the middle of the conversation with the priests Komachi becomes Shii no Shosho. (The actor changes costume.) And then - somehow - as the actor is both Komachi and Shii no Shosho at once, release is effected. It's as if the presence of the priests allows him (Shii) to make his 100th visit, for her (Komachi) to receive him, to break the spell. And so she returns to herself:

It was his unsatisfied love possessed me so
His anger that turned my wits.
In the face of this I will pray
For life in the worlds to come
The sands of goodness I will pile
Into a towering hill.
Before the golden, gentle Buddha I will lay
Poems as my flowers.
Entering in the Way
Entering in the Way.

What has happened here? It's not that the priest said something which led to her awakening, her satori. He's also not performed a ritual. So it's not really Zen or Shingon. It seems that the vow of the Kongosatta Buddha to save suffering beings - embodied in the stupa - has brought them together here (or you could call it karma), where their very encounter effects the transformation. Noh isn't Zen as opposed to Shingon or whatever; but it's decisively about the indispensability of the right kind of encounter - best and perhaps only grasped through theater - to releasing us suffering beings from the world of delusion and ignorance.

Funny, huh: this fictive world - and there is no theatrical tradition more intensely contrived, formalized, stylized, more self-consciously unrealistic - proves more religiously true than ours.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Sans soleil

In "Theorizing Religion" this morning, we got all tied in knots by this passage in Ludwig Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity (1841):

Each planet has its own sun. The Sun which lights and warms Uranus has no physical (only an astronomical, scientific) existence for the Earth; and not only does the Sun appear different, but it really is another sun on Uranus than on the Earth. The relation of the Sun to the Earth is therefore at the same time a relation of the Earth to itself, or to its own nature, for the measure of the size and of the intensity of light which the Sun possesses as the object of the Earth is the measure of the distance which determines the peculiar nature of the Earth. Hence each plane has in its sun the mirror of its own nature.

Feuerbach uses this illustration to make a point about theism: that everything human beings have said or thought about God is really about human nature.

Some of the students claimed to love the analogy, and the point. Somewhat more critical students noted that the analogy doesn't work, since Feuerbach is arguing there is no God, while there'd not be even the distance of Earth to Sun without the Sun (not to mention all the other things we'd be without, without the Sun): "he's a crappy atheist," said one student.

("Sans Soleil," by the way, is the name of a brilliant and iconoclastic film by Chris Marker, substantially but not perhaps primarily about Japan, which has no relation whatever with Feuerbach - but which has recently come out on DVD.)