Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Laughing uncontrollably

The latest wacko psychological study of religion finds that religious practice builds self-control. Brain-scan studies have shown that when people pray or meditate, there’s a lot of activity in two parts of the brain that are important for self-regulation and control of attention and emotion, Michael McCullough of Miami University told the New York Times' John Tierney. (The cute pic's from the same article.) The rituals that religions have been encouraging for thousands of years seem to be a kind of anaerobic workout for self-control. Fair enough; that sounds plausible, even (especially) when compared with "spirituality":

In one personality study, strongly religious people were compared with people who subscribed to more general spiritual notions, like the idea that their lives were “directed by a spiritual force greater than any human being” or that they felt “a spiritual connection to other people.” The religious people scored relatively high in conscientiousness and self-control, whereas the spiritual people tended to score relatively low.

“Thinking about the oneness of humanity and the unity of nature doesn’t seem to be related to self-control,” Dr. McCullough said. “The self-control effect seems to come from being engaged in religious institutions and behaviors.”

But it's convincing only until you read about the kinds of experiments supposed to have confirmed the results, experiments like this one:

In a study published by the University of Maryland in 2003, students who were subliminally exposed to religious words (like God, prayer or bible) were slower to recognize words associated with temptations (like drugs or premarital sex). Conversely, when they were primed with the temptation words, they were quicker to recognize the religious words.

I probably lack the discipline to think hard about what self-control is, but I'm pretty sure it's what happens after you're tempted, not the speed with which you are tempted. And doesn't this result also claim to show that people more quickly tempted by bad stuff are also quicker then to register "religious" prompts - what's that about? (If not a typo, it's a much more interesting pseudo-result!) Besides, what could subliminal priming with words show about the neurological consequences of involvement in religious practices in the first place?

I'm sorry: I can't help laughing at this nonsense. Tierney wonders glibly if atheists should take up some sort of religious practice to get more self-control. I'd suggest refraining from reading psychology journals.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Horsing around

Went today with my Brooklyn friends V, R and their son E to the Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, where we oohed and aahed at jellyfish and lost ourselves in a kelp forest habitat full of garibaldi and flounder, moray eels and sea bass, sharks and rays. But the show was stolen again by the leafy seadragon, a relation to seahorses and pipefish which lives off the coasts of Australia - it features in a special exhibition on camouflage. (Photo source). Nearly two year ago we saw another member of the family - a weedy seadragon - in Richard Flanagan's bravura Gould's Book of Fish, where, as I recall, it's part of the most important chapter, describing the astounding mystery of life. And truly, this is an astounding creature. If evolution permits the seadragons in all their improbable finery, what can't it do?

Sunday, December 28, 2008


One of the pleasures of Christmas is reading the books other people got. My mother got Michael Pollan's new book, In Defense of Food, and I'm devouring it. Pollan's book - the argument conveniently summed up already on the cover as EAT FOOD. NOT TOO MUCH. MOSTLY PLANTS. - is against the "Nutrition Industrial Complex" and what he derides as "Orthorexia," the gastronomic equivalent of political correctness: Orthorexia - from the Greek "orth-" (right and correct) + "orexia" (appetite), a term coined in 1996 by American physician Steven Bratman (20). Orthorexia - sounds like orthodoxy: be very afraid!

The bogeyman in Pollan's argument is "nutritionism" (a word traced to Australian Gyorgy Scrinis in 2002), the ideology that foods should be understood in terms of nutrients, and that the point of eating is health. This has several baneful consequences. Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to scientists (and to the journalists through whom scientists reach the public) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. In form this is a quasireligious idea, suggesting the visible world is not the one that really matters, which implies the need for a priesthood. For to enter a world where your dietary salvation depends on unseen nutrients, you need plenty of expert help. (28) Don't you love how everything evil is religious? And of course, priestcraft ruins everything: When the emphasis is on quantifying the nutrients contained in foods (or, to be precise, the recognized nutrients contained in foods), any qualitative distinction between whole foods and processed foods is apt to disappear. (32) We know better than to believe in transubstantiation!!

It might seem this is a Protestant sort of argument - no more mystified authority, all power to the laity! - but Protestantism is a problem too: Our Puritan roots ... impeded a sensual or aesthetic enjoyment of food. Like sex, the need to eat links us to the animals, and historically a great deal of Protestant energy has gone into helping us keep all such animal appetite s under strict control. (54-55). In fact, the thrill to Pollan's argument is neo-pagan: back to food, back to the many very different diets which preceded nutritionism, all of which turn out to be better for us. I'm not complaining - my inner polytheist is salivating.

Incidentally, Pollan's starting claim is that none of us eats as our mothers did as children, or even what our mothers fed us when we were growing up - bad news, as "food" (as opposed to the "edible foodlike substances" which cram our supermarkets) is something defined and perfected by culture, and passed down in families rather than through nutrition charts, processed foods, packaging or food journalism. In my case, that's not quite true. To the horror of various orthorexic friends and housemates in thrall to the evil alliance of nutritionists and food industry types, including the health food industry, I enjoy butter, cheese and cream every bit as much as my mother does. And guess what: without a thought to maintaining a "healthy diet," I'm healthy as can be. Enjoy food, too, not too much, and mostly plants.

Saturday, December 27, 2008


I would save this photo for a retrospective of the year, but it won't wait!

Not the one

On PBS's Bill Moyers Journal last night, we watched an update for adults of "It's A Small World" - a prize-winning documentary by a Peter Bisanz about how all religions say the same nice humanist things called "Beyond Our Differences." Many are the famous talking heads, from Desmond Tutu to Karen Armstrong to Deepak Chopra, and ending inevitably with the Dalai Lama. All the usual topics are covered, Gandhi and MLK, South Africa and Israel/Palestine, with women's rights in Afghanistan thrown in for somewhat fanciful good measure. To a vaguely uplifting world music soundtrack, stock scenes of colorful religious folk at their prayers cycle by in a profusion and at a pace worthy of an ad for a really big, really diversified multinational corporation. Occasionally words appear on the screen: one-liners from world religions (too many from Islam, protesting too much) assuring us that every religion recommends peace, love, care for the poor and - the grand predictable finale - the golden rule. I gather the original name for the documentary was "ONE," and that it was developed with the assistance of the World Economic Forum. (This photo is from its Facebook page.)

I was appalled. Is there anything new in this? Is there anything unmisleadingly true? It would be a great inspirational film for the UN and for human rights groups around the world, but what's religion got to do with it? Interfaith groups have heard and seen all of this a thousand times. Perhaps Peter Bisanz grew up in a fundamentalist household and didn't know that many religious folks are just, well, folks - many of them generous and some of them heroes of goodness. But are they good because of religion, or because they're folks? I was ready to pull a Christopher Hitchens, and say that the basically humanistic values being culled here were independent of religion and might even be better freed from religion.

My mother asked: what harm can such a film do? Well, this infomercial might provide cover for less humanistically-inclined forms of religion - but I'll leave that argument to Hitchens. Is it because I'm jaded by my study of religion that I suspect the golden rule interpretation of religion of being a potential fundamentalism of its own (Enlightenment advocate Armstrong: "Inherent in religion 'at its best' is a commitment to doing good in the world") that won't just give a sense of martyred righteousness to "religion 'at its worst'," but misses the point (the points) of the religious traditions in question? Global kindness, compassion, tolerance and charity are lovely things (also for multinationals and their friends), but might we be confusing means with ends here?

I'm no opponent of tolerance and love, of course. I've often thought that what's of value in religions is obscured by the merely human desire to be right and superior: I don't need to be able to imagine hell (for you), to be able to imagine heaven (for me). So I'm cheered by the Pew study results, represented in today's Times by Charles Blow (left: click on it to see it larger), according to which most Americans think most of their fellow Americans are going to heaven, regardless of their religion. Condemning others to damnation has never seemed to me as important to religion as my secular students suppose, but it is a persistent and baleful feature of it - and it won't just go away if you pretend it isn't there. If democratic pluralism, José Casanova's "global denominationalism" or even a World Economic Forum-blessed ecumenism can weaken this tendency, I'll say amen. But you'll need to provide a more balanced account of religion before I buy it - a cost/benefit analysis! And cost/benefit not just in worldly terms...?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Torrey Pines State Reserve

Went to church on Christmas day with my mother, to the Catholic church where I went as a child. St. James is a relatively low-energy experience, getting its generally well-heeled parishioners in and out within an hour so hockey matches need not be missed; if necessary (as when the Mission Circle describes it activities for homeless girls in Tijuana), the liturgy is pruned. (For a feeling of the Spirit you need to go to its poor cousin, the affiliated Spanish-language Mission St. Leo.) But it was different this time - different because this was my first church service in California after the passage of Proposition 8. What if the church you grew up in was one in which you saw gay couples, indeed, gay marriages and families? Or: if the society in which you grew up was one in which you saw gay couples, gay marriages and families but these were absent in church?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas secularized

Have had two very different pre-Christmas experiences. One was a Christmas episode of a Nickelodeon cartoon series called The Fairly OddParents, which I saw on JetBlue. The other is a German anthology of Christmas-related prose which my sister got when in college, and she and I just rediscovered Skype-sifting through a box of her things I've shlepped around for more than a decade.

The former, called "Christmas Everyday," tells of a boy whose wish for perpetual Christmas comes true. Everyone is showered with presents continually, but not everyone is happy. In particular, the other holidays - a thuggish New Year, a dorky April Fool, and a mafioso Easter Bunny - are furious, and head off for the North Pole to kill Santa, an aging Baby Boomer with sunglasses who only goes chubby and ho-ho-ho when all the magic of the world is directed his way. The boy learns of their nefarious plan, and saves the day, with the help of children from around the world he's contacted by internet (I kid you not), and everyone learns that it's not all about getting presents all the time, but being nice to people, bla bla bla: everyone should be Santa. If there's any shred of a trace of a residue of a memory of a religious origin to Christmas, I missed it.

Very different the experience of Weihnachten: Prosa aus der Weltliteratur, which seems to be a mix of stories of sadder wiser grown-ups remembering the presumably irretrievable magic of childhood (Heinrich Böll tells of someone waiting alone for a train on Christmas Eve, the station vacant but for a nativity scene in a shop window), and retellings of the Christmas story among paupers and poor families excluded from smug Christmas cheer; One, by Dostoyevsky, tells of a destitute orphan greeted by Jesus as he freezes to death and joins a flock of other abandoned dead children. In this company, Hans Christian Anderson's subaltern Christmas tree fits right in. This literature is Christ-haunted.

Soooo... which culture is more secularized? Which is more Christian?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Back on the Pacific Rim again...

Clash of values

The latest in the now rather long series of articles in the Times on the New School tries to describe the clash of values between the academic and the administrative within the university. I'm not sure it does a very good job. That may be because academic values are hard to describe in relation with anything else: they're qualitative rather than quantitative, and make our institutions fundamentally different from businesses. We don't just meet consumer demand, we reshape demand (or let consumers reshape their demands, or however you'd translate the development of character, maturity and becoming an informed citizen into businessese) - and to do this we need to be trusted not to be run by market concerns.

From our perspective as faculty, administrative consideration are and should only be secondary - the school has its vision, recruits faculty to design and teach programs in accordance with it, and students to learn from them; the administrative end makes sure that this is done effectively within our means (something we could admittedly use help with). From their perspective, well, I can't even really imagine what it is. I guess it's that we're an enterprise and it's their job to make sure it thrives and grows, building the brand; the brand has something to do with academics (we're in the ed biz), but not with any particular academic vision. In times like these especially, the customer is king, and the key is to offer what students will pay for (and not necessarily the students now enrolled).

Perhaps an analogy - no, an analog - can make the contrast clear. At the new JetBlue terminal at JFK this morning, I bumped into a friend who works at the vaunted New York Public Library. She told me the NYPL is struggling with business models too. Specifically, they're being told to focus on circulation - how many things get checked out - as opposed to what circulates. DVD and pulp fiction novels circulate, so get more of them. Non-fiction is read by few, so get less. Of course, if you have less non-fiction, even fewer readers will have the chance to discover its value.The idea that each branch library should offer its patrons a calibrated spread of offerings, classic and current, becomes unintelligible from a circulation perspective (which has renamed the position of director of collections to director of Collection Strategy), and with it the idea that one of the purposes of a library is to teach people what to be interested in, to expose them to what is worth reading and knowing about, to the information that makes them informed agents and citizens.

The parallel seems clear enough. If it doesn't matter what people do there so long as they make use of your institution, then the business model is fine. That's how a hotel, restaurant or supermarket can thrive and grow, offering more and better versions of the products the consumer wants. But if your institution is concerned with education - if you think certain things are worth studying and teaching, whether people know it or not - the business model has to be secondary, and everyone, especially the consumer, needs to know this. People pay for their educations in time and treasure because they trust the institutions to confront them what's worth knowing - including (by definition!) things whose value they do not yet know. They won't (and shouldn't) trust us if we see them only as customers.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Mysterious ways

What a privilege it is to teach, and to teach religious studies!

One of the pleasures is the final syntheses from Theorizing Religion. I invite students to put together a synthesis of what they want to take away from the class. It's ungraded (unless they don't do it), and they're welcome to submit something in a genre which matters to them.

In past years I've received paintings, short films, a play, and a pop-up book. This time, I got a powerpoint summary, a poem, a dialogue in heaven, several collages, the drawing at right, an activity book, and several essays of a more and less personal nature; although my classes always assiduously avoid discussions of personal experience and conviction, several students take the synthesis as an occasion for articulating a personal creed. (And there I was thinking this class hated religion! Only in its "organized" forms...) It's humbling to realize that what students learn may be only tangentially related to what you teach (if that) - and yet very important. I hope it violates no confidences to give you a sampling.

Exclusivist- my grandmother is one
Inclusivist- my boyfriend is one
Pluralist- I would like to think that i'm one

I agree with Hume. It is difficult to look to God as an example for ourselves. He is so much more perfect than we are, that we dismiss him as being impossible to emulate. That's why the bible is so important. The characters in it are human. You are meant to relate to them. For example, Moses had great fears about leading the Israelites out of Egypt. He even tried to refuse the task at first. But he persisted in spite of his fears. This story shows the reader that it's ok to have doubts about God; it shows that they should follow Moses' example and persist anyway. Moses is a more relatable idol than God is.

Overall I have learned that religion can be true and most definitely can be good. Religion should be categorized by effects, not its means.

Freud and Schleiermacher, no, characters representing Freud and Schleiermacher are summoned to a manger. There they find the daughter of the local grain salesman - and mistress to both! - dying of influenza. She is in and out of consciousness, mumbling forth fragments of fantastic visions. It isn't clear whom she's addressing. Each man is convinced she speaks to him,
and interprets her words accordingly. Later they find out that she is pregnant. Father unknown. Etc. Etc. Near the end the woman chokes herself on a handful of hay because the two men are so prolix.

In studying religion at Lang, I was amazed by how the majority of my Religious Studies professors seemed to hold a personal faith. How could people know so much about the fallacies of a religion - their own religion! - and still believe in their system? I had a difficult time understanding the critical distance they had to maintain in order to keep their Religious Studies classes from becoming a series of sermons, and the fact that they still believed in their faith, regardless of the very incongruities that they were pointing out to me. ... Their examples give me hope of maturing properly, becoming my own person who can digest new information without being completely torn apart by relativism.

I have learned that so much of religious history has been shaped not just by prophets and followers but thinkers who questioned it and attacked it.

do we take the red pill or the blue pill? Why is the choice between what you believe you know and an unknown 'real' truth so fascinating? How could a choice possibly be made? On the one hand you have your life, everything that you know and love. On the other only a promise. The red pill symbolizes risk, doubt and questioning. In this case the red pill is religion, it is the faith in a higher power, [John Caputo's] "love of God". By choosing the red pill you can gamble your whole life, world, and what you know to be true on a reality you don't even know exists and will probably never experience. The blue pill represents reality. However reality may be harsh and limiting. Two aspects that are an inevitable consequence of consciousness. I have always found it bizarre that so many people, since the beginning of time, have chosen the red pill. How can they love God when he is not here?

To put this as metaphorically as possible, this class has given me the sort of diving board that I needed in which to swan dive into the vast and bottomless pool that is religion... I've been googling and exploring so different aspects of life that every night I feel like a significantly different person than when I woke up the morning before. It's such a hard feeling to describe, other
than a daily euphoria, in which I know that it will only get better. So this is a sincere thank you, for pulling the shades up on my eyes, and showing me a world which I thought I already knew, but in reality it was just a virtual matrix, probably one of many, in which I was and am in dire need to escape.

I quickly realized that religion does not have to fit into pretty little categories, that it can be messy, unconfined, chaotic, and violent. ... I feel confident so far in my religious studies knowledge to bear the responsibility and pursue the search for understanding of all traditions and all religions, mean and nice, good and bad.

Of all that I have learned, I have kept close to me what resonates in my
heart, what allows me to get nearer an explanation of

who lives there when you say, "religion."

Those who delve into the nature itself often forgo the existence

of feeling. And while our heads are wrapping these complexities, a conclusion continues to evade us, hinting that

the beauty of Truth is that it need not be believed.

Durkheim stretched his legs and tightened his tie again. He didn't want them to see the tattoo he got in Australia. "Alright, I'll ask what I always do. Why are we here?"

Friday, December 19, 2008

Snow at last

The season's first snowstorm (even Las Vegas had snow before we did!).

Student power!

Poignant post yesterday morning from the blog of the students occupying the building at 65 Fifth Avenue, the long-time home of the graduate faculty slated for demolition to make room for a "signature building" we can't afford. High drama - but they seem since to have won concessions! 1500+ Facebook supporters and coverage in the Times, too. (The occupation ended this morning.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

'Tis the season

Christmas tree at Washington Square Arch.

Science & Religion

Two of my colleagues, an astrophysicist interested in the history and philosophy of science and a medievalist interested in Catholicism, just finished team-teaching a course on Religion & Science. After months of discussion they decided to make their focus "the explanation of anomalous events." Since I'm interested in team-teaching experiences, and in the science/religion area, I asked them how the experience was. The physicist was the first to respond, and wrote, in part:

For me the most interesting thing about this course, and teaching it with M in particular, is that we never ONCE found a reason to actually DISAGREE about anything during class. (I don't think - at least I can't come up with an occasion where we had any sort of substantive difference of opinion on an issue.)

This is indeed interesting, a downright remarkable achievement for a course on religion and science! They apparently didn't endorse Stephen Jay Gould's convenient "non-overlapping magisteria" view, so I am intrigued. I have no idea what they could have been saying for a whole semester...!

I've never taught science and religion, though another colleague (also a physicist) and I used to talk about trying to do something together. We never got around to it, in part because it's not a subject I thought you could go very many places with. History/philosophy of science and history/philosophy of religion, yes, but that's not what most people take "science and religion" to be about. But now that I've taken my first chemistry class, I'm interested again, and not just in the history/philosophy angle...

America's pastor

So Barack Obama's chosen Rick Warren (a regular guest star on this blog) to deliver the invocation at the inauguration. Too mavericky a choice.

Revolutionary fervor

Shared an ultimately rather enjoyable bout of paranoia with some Marxist friends Wednesday evening. We were talking, of course, about "recent events at the New School." I told them that I suspected some revolutionaries might be asking themselves if I was to be trusted, since I had missed several important meetings (because of classes), had not spoken up at our college faculty meeting last week, and had now been seen shaking hands with the toxic president! There is definitely a spirit of suspicion setting in, and it's been getting to me.

Talking about it to uninvolved friends - who also happen to be Marxists who think academic politics is about as serious as a tea party, and see an insurrection of tenured faculty as like a landowners' rebellion - was a cool tonic. But first they let me squirm. We imagined the impossibility of convincing someone who thought you disloyal of your loyalty: making a public pledge of loyalty is just the sort of thing a disloyal person would do, especially someone not usually given to public pronouncements! But if you do nothing out of the ordinary, relying on your reputation for good judgment (such as it is), it seems like you're refusing to recognize the extraordinary circumstance, and so clearly counterrevolutionary... Suddenly we were back in the USSR!

"In circumstances such as these," said one friend, "no-one can be innocent." He seemed to enjoy my bourgeois unhappiness at this, and added, laconically: "Revolutionary times call for revolutionary fervor!" Thank goodness for his wife who interjected: "But non-revolutionary times don't call for revolutionary fervor." What we need to do is effect change in the way our school is run, not turn on each other.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


My godfather in Germany just celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary. Big, happy family: four kids, and more grandkids than you can count!

Meanwhile, my friend P turned 70, and says he's happier than we could ever have imagined he'd be. And L celebrated her 25th ordination anniversary as a priest in the Episcopal Church. Congratulations all!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bridge over troubled waters?

Things have come to a rolling boil. Following last week's senior faculty vote of no confidence in the president, the faculty of all university divisions (including mine) met and resoundingly confirmed the no confidence vote. The president called a meeting for faculty this morning (during my Secularism class), where he was met with an organized litany of grievances from representatives of the divisions, which I'm told added up to a conclusive picture of flawed leadership and faculty frustration. He's acceded to some faculty demands - he won't be interim provost but let faculty and deans help select an interim and search for a new provost, and has organized a meeting of deans and trustees. He says he has no intention of stepping down, but to the faculty who've organized all these meetings he's a dead man walking.

So what was I doing talking to him this evening at the university holiday party? I was minding my own business talking to some faculty colleagues when suddenly there he was, hand out: "Hello, Mark." What could I do? He knows me from the time back in 2005 when I invited him to my class on the religious right (but didn't ask him to speak!). I suppose I could have not taken his hand (or thrown my shoe at him), but manners took over. "Exciting week," I observed as noncommittally as I could, shaking his hand. He agreed. He seemed smaller than the last time I saw him. I said I'd missed most of the meetings because of classes. He said he thought progress had been made. I said many faculty were likely to check out as the winter holiday comes. That might not be such a bad thing, he said... My colleague S walked over and reported she's recently been in Omaha. (Kerrey's from Nebraska.) He didn't ask why, but instead asked if she'd seen the recently opened Bob Kerrey pedestrian bridge over the Missouri... A pedestrian bridge for Omaha folk who want to go to Iowa?

After he moved on to another hapless victim, my colleague A said with a smile, "oh boy, you're in trouble now!" I trust not, though to some of my more militant colleagues it might seem I already crossed a virtual picket line by going to the party in the first place.

Monday, December 15, 2008


The specific question I'm asking myself: is it my patriotic duty finally to buy myself an i-Phone?

Sunday, December 14, 2008


At a symposium on the "Age of Obama" at CUNY a few weeks ago, one participant apparently said she'd had a teeshirt printed up with the caption I'M ALREADY DISAPPOINTED. My friend J, who was at the symposium (possibly part of it), was so taken by this she's told me about it no fewer than three times. (It's one of those things you can't figure out if you like or don't, so you pass it on - get the meme out of your system.) Tonight I had a reply ready: "How nice for her. This way even if he does all she hoped he would do she'll be disappointed."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Easier than pie

That simple recipe for apple or pear tart is a winner - it's been a resounding success four times out of four!
1. preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Beat 2 eggs and 1/4 cup milk together in a bowl. Add 1 cup sugar and pinch of salt, beat. Add 1.5 cup all-purpose flour, mix into a compact cake batter.
3. peel 2lbs apples or pears and cut into slices/chunks, 1 inch or so. Add them to the batter, distribute evenly.
4. Butter a non-stick 9" cake pan generously, sprinkle unflavored bread crumbs generously.
5. Put the batter in the pan, level it a little, dot with butter.
6. Bake at 375 for 50 minutes, or until the top is lightly colored.
7. Cool the cake on a rack. While it is still lukewarm, loosen it, slip it on to a serving plate.
It's nice on its own, even nicer with whipped cream.


I don't know why I think this is so funny, but anyway... Conan O'Brien:

According to an article about President Bush’s fitness routine that just came out, during his Presidency, Bush has spent 2,500 hours walking on a treadmill. Yeah. Bush said he only wanted to be on the treadmill for 45 minutes but he couldn’t figure out how to turn it off.

Friday, December 12, 2008


Received a postcard today from my friend B, whom I've known since I taught him as an undergraduate at Princeton. After ten years' teaching high school, he's now doing graduate work in medieval studies at Oxford. His tutor had recommended an essay on Aquinas by one Victor Preller, B wrote, and in the book where it appeared, Grammar and Grace: Reformulations of Aquinas and Wittgenstein, he found a memoir of Preller by yours truly. He'd heard about Victor from me, but this memoir brought it all together into a moving and coherent picture. There's something very lovely about this, because Victor was a medievalist (well, into Aquinas). And studied at Oxford himself - as, for that matter, did I, when I was an undergraduate!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Blessed shifting

"I'm shifting, I have to admit. In other words, I would willingly say I believe in civil unions. I don't officially support redefining marriage from its traditional definition, I don't think." Thus Richard Cizik (below), Vice President of Governmental Affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, in an interview on an NPR interview show December 2nd. Fellow members of the NAE were outraged, and demanded his resignation, which he tendered today. He apologized, but the damage is done - glory halleluia! Thank you Rich. Your heart is true.

You might remember Cizik as the Evangelical who broke with the Religious Right pack on environmentalism (he calls it "Creation Care"), leading the way for many - especially younger - Evangelicals to reconcile conservative religious with more progressive political impulses. His "shifting" on gay marriage seems to me a very encouraging sign and portent. Like the Republican mayor of San Diego's very moving change of view on the question (watch the video if you haven't seen it). Feel the tide turn!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

No confidence

So you might have heard that we're having some excitement at the ever-New School. Our president, Bob Kerrey, fired the provost, Joseph Westphal, over the weekend, and appointed himself provost in the interim. Westphal had served only three months, appointed (without a search or consultation with faculty) when Kerrey fired the last provost, Ben Lee. In his eight years as president, Kerrey has in fact seen five provosts, at least three of whom he fired. Impossible job or impossible working conditions? With this trail of corpses one wonders if anyone could survive as provost. Westphal seemed like he might last, since he's an old friend of Kerrey's, but it was evidently not to be.

The faculty is stunned, the deans are in uproar, the faculty senate is distraught, and a group of "senior faculty" gathered this afternoon and passed a no confidence vote. (I wasn't there - not senior enough to have been sent an invite, I guess!) A president's appointing himself provost is highly unusual, and, when the president's never been an academic, makes no sense at all. Kerrey's move confirms many faculty's sense that he doesn't understand higher education, its values or even its structures. Some of the "senior faculty" took their motions to a meeting of the Board of Trustees - who turned around and passed a unanimous motion in support of Kerrey. In non-academic circles, getting tenured faculty riled up can be seen as a sign you're doing something right!

What comes next is anyone's guess, but it won't be pretty. It's unlikely to help a dysfunctional institution get its act together. (I'm not sure I'd trust any one in administration or "senior faculty" to get it right.) I just hope it doesn't affect our curricula, doesn't scare students away. How to reassure them that having no provost may be no worse, or even conceivably better, than thinking you've got one when really the lights are on but nobody's home?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The future is plastics

I've been reading a fascinating book by Alan Weisman, The World Without Us. I picked it up at the First Year conference in San Francisco - it's used by some universities as a common reading for incoming students. The premise is simple but powerful - were all human beings suddenly to disappear, how long would it take for all we've made to be broken down, eroded, decomposed, reabsorbed by nature? Some things would go much faster than you might think - an early chapter chronicles the disappearance of a typical suburban house; the next chapter takes on old fave New York City. Fascinating to know how bird guano, rot, ground water, the freeze-thaw cycle, rust and the like do their work; rather more disconcerting to be reminded that New York is built atop a number of natural springs - if pumps stopped, the entire subway system would be filled with water within 36 hours. Other things, like plastics, vulcanized rubber tires and stainless steel, might never disappear; for things like aluminum, we don't really know: they haven't been around long enough for us to know what a few hundred years would do to them!
Weisman's really teaching environmental science, but the sci-fi premise makes it as exciting as a novel. The point, of course, isn't that the world would be better off without us (though some might well conclude this; reading about Houston's petro landscape made me recall Nietzsche's observation that humanity is a Hautentzündung der Erde). It is, rather, that it is in our power to limit the damage we do - if once we own up to the nature and extent of it. And oh what damage it is, especially since the discoveries of organic chemistry.

Weisman's a very gifted writer, and takes the reader all manner of fascinating places, historical as well as contemporary. Did you know that some of the oldest human cities are multi-storyed subterranean cities in Cappodocia? And even if so (I didn't), did you know that they're likely to outlast anything we've built on the surface of the planet? I'm of course getting a kick out of it also as an amateur futurologist - and as someone who's only just learned to understand the rudiments of chemistry, too! (At some point, remind me to tell you how much of an advocate of a science requirement I've become at our free-form requirement-free college, if not for students then at least for the faculty!!)

[UPDATE, 13 Dec: Do not be misled by the crass ripoff, History Channel's movie "Life After People." It's a sensationalistic fantasy of the destruction of humanity, with a sound track from horror and disaster films and CGI renderings of the collapse of monuments from the Golden Gate to the Eiffel Tower to the Sears Tower (usually repeated so you can feel the thrill again), and the inevitable complement of scenes of a devastated New York (this one reverting to verdant hills and marshy valleys). The contrast with Weisman's book - not credited in any way - is illuminating. This television film is full of lines like "the signs of our vulnerability have always been there," "man’s mastery of nature has always been just an illusion" - it's all about a struggle for "mastery" between "man" and "nature," and nature wins. Weisman, by contrast, shows a world of ongoing natural processes, which we've affected in various ways, and will continue without us. The film's experts are engineers and pop scientists who like telling scary stories; Weisman's are scientists and others who have worked to understand and appreciate nature's cycles and limits. It's not just that in The World Without Us nature is shown to be vulnerable, too, but that in Weisman's book we learn that there is no cataclysmic battle between man and nature. We're part of it in all its wonder - and should behave accordingly!]

Monday, December 08, 2008

Who let the dogs out

Discussion in Theorizing Religion spiraled out of control today. We'd read Saba Mahmood's splendid "Secularism, Hermeneutics and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation" (Public Culture 18/2, 2006), or were supposed to. Not very many students read it, or understood it, though.

[S]ecularism has sought not so much to banish religion from the public domain but to reshape the form it takes, the subjectivities it endorses, and the epistemological claims it can make. (326)

For this group of writers ["Islamic Reformation" theologians but also theorists of religious freedom as a prerogative for US foreign policy], a religion’s phenomenal forms – its liturgies, rituals, and scriptures — are understood to be inessential to it and are not to be confused with the universal truth for which they are made to stand in. It is precisely because the philosophically unsophisticated and ordinary adherent is so easily drawn to the phenomenal forms of religion that these forms constitute a certain danger: they can easily be turned into tools of manipulation by elites who want to exploit the religious passions of the masses toward their own ends. (341)

The notion of the transcendent, no longer locatable within the religious text, finds a place in the ineffable and privatized world of individual readers who turn not to traditional authority but to their own cultured sensibilities to experience the true meaning of the word. (340)

Great stuff, and of great moment. But the wished for discussion did not happen, so we talked (I talked) about the "domestication" of religion in liberal societies to make sure they understood it. And then I made a fateful mistake: Essentially, I said, the American liberal approach to religion is like our approach to pets. People can choose whether to have a pet or not, and - within limits - what pet to have. In the privacy of your home you can have any pet you want. But when you take the pet out into public spaces, you are responsible for making sure it harms noone, and if it does, the state may impound or destroy it. That way the most people can have the most kinds of pets.

Oddly, or perhaps predictably, the discussion veered off course as students started thinking about animals. Asked one student, What if your cheetah wants to eat my chihuahua? (Well, she can't; that's why I keep her locked up. Next question.) Even if my doberman can't attack people because I keep him locked up at home, asked another, won't I take on the character of the doberman, so it will spill into the public realm? (If you bite someone, you're in trouble.) The kicker, from cheetah-chihuahua girl (who's from California): What if my male panther wants to marry your male cheetah? (...) (...) (...!)

Hybrid hope

From the top of today's Times: picture of a service at Greater Grace Temple (Pentecostal) in Detroit yesterday, praying for the embattled car industry. Sharing the stage with the choir are three hybrid SUVs, one each from Ford, GM and Chrysler. Bishop Charles H. Ellis III's sermon was called "A Hybrid Hope."

Sunday, December 07, 2008


Had a mini-reunion last night with some alumnae (classes of 2005 and 2006). D, M and F were part of an independent study course which met at my flat in Chelsea in 2004 - what fun to be sitting at the same table again! Students were a wilder lot in those days, but I don't recall D and M's hollering at the top of their voices then, and at the same time...!I baked an apple cake - amazingly simple recipe, available on demand.

House built on sand

Have a random peek in my Spam Filter. The MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) has started sending out alerts when there are problems;
I signed up a year ago for weekend service change alerts on the 2, 3 and Q, but what used to be a weekly update has now become a daily blizzard of notifications. I suppose it's helpful in real time for people with i-Phones and Blackberries. But when I see it, at the end of a day, it paints a picture of variously and continuously disrupted service.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the new notification system came in about the same time that service became more unpredictable - about two weeks ago, perhaps three. Since that time, trains on every line I've been on have been more infrequent, more crowded, and more likely to stop between stations. What's happening? The money's running out that's what. To keep the MTA running smoothly, with its 500+ stations and goodness knows how many trains, station attendants, subway cops, signal and trackwork people, etc., takes more money than the MTA has. It wants to raise fares again, and the governor's proposing East River bridge tolls and commuter taxes, too - and that would just keep service at current levels.

When "we all fall down," we do all fall down, huh. The American economy feels like a poorly built structure collapsing; the rotting hulk of our infrastructure only makes it worse.

Friday, December 05, 2008


Went up to The Cloisters today with some of the students in the Secularism class - their idea, to extend and complement the fun we had going to the Rubin Museum of Art. The location of Fort Tryon Park never fails to take people's breath away, and yesterday's bright Fall light showed it to best advantage. The edifice of The Cloisters never fails to perplex and bemuse - a bricolage of cast-off cloisters and other architectural features from all over Europe and spanning many centuries, improbably reunited in something that's not quite just a museum, and not quite on this side of the Atlantic rather than the other. (I say "cast-off" but everything was - also - paid for, another source of confused feelings.) But the collection itself never fails to astonish. Like this ivory diptych, what worlds of feeling it contains!

In the subway (we of course had to Take the A-Train) we discussed a rather shocking full-page ad in today's Times, a call to battle by conservative religious groups against "anti-religious bigotry." You can see the ad, entitled unsubtly Nø Møb Vetø, here. It's ostensibly a response to illegal threats and intimidation of Mormons by protesters angry at the LDS's involvement in the campaign for California's backward-looking Prop 8. Its closing words are far broader, however:

Therefore, despite our fundamental disagreements with one
another, we announce today that we will stand shoulder to shoulder to defend any house of worship - Jewish, Hindu, whatever - from violence, regardless of the cause that violence seeks to serve. Furthermore, beginning today, we commit ourselves to exposing and publicly shaming anyone who resorts to the rhetoric of anti- religious bigotry - against any faith, on any side of any cause, for any reason.

It's tempting to take this apart - "Jewish, Hindu, whatever"? "publicly shaming"? "rhetoric of anti-religious bigotry"? "any ... any ... any ... for any reason"? Intemperate words, these, though they're not the first to use the word "bigotry" in this case. Confirmation also, if it was needed, that the US remains divided; while most Americans are purple, most still think some other side (whatever it is) has the upper hand. Even when one wins a battle one fears for the war.

Brother, can you spare a dime?

533,000 people lost their jobs in the U.S. last month - the biggest monthly loss in thirty-four years. 1,350,000 houses were in foreclosure in the third quarter, seventy-six percent higher than last year. Tough times. World War 1 used to be called the Great War. Seems we really are on the way to analogously renaming the Great Depression...

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Blue ribbon

This extraordinary thing is a representation of chlorophyl A protein. It's even trippier when you rotate it, which you can do here, by clicking and moving your cursor across the image. For instance you might see and still not know that the molecule is actually made up of two non-touching ribbons. On the website, make sure to press the links for the alpha-helix and beta-sheet, which show what these ribbons represent. And keep scrolling down...

We arrived at proteins today in Chemistry of Life - all it took was a refresher on amino acids, and a polite introduction to peptide bonds! These very complicated things make so much more sense when you can see three-dimensional representations that I can't imagine how anyone could have taught or understood - let alone discovered - all this without them.

There is a brazen beauty about these complicated chains, which turns to liquid wonder when you realize that they exist in billions of iterations... and make up everything which has life.

Here's another example, among whose wonders are these three representations of the enzyme amylase.

Proud midwife

Is it inappropriate to boast about my students? If what I were really doing was trying to take credit for them, certainly. But what makes this teaching thing so rewarding is the things you can't take credit for or, at most, take credit for having provided the occasion for. That's why Socratic midwifery is a model to which many of us aspire.

So let me boast! As you know, I've been teaching a first year seminar called "Secularism at the Crossroads." A dozen students from around the country and I have been reading texts from the "new atheists," classic texts by Freud and Weber, sociological critiques of secularization theory by Casanova and Berger, a speech by Jeffrey Stout, American Gods, etc., as well as visiting the Rubin Museum of Art. Well, today's was the last class before the students give presentations on their final research projects, so it was time to bring things together. We read a post the anthropologist Saba Mahmood wrote for The Immanent Frame, an SSRC blog dedicated to very high-level discussion of topics relating to secularism, to which distinguished scholars from many fields have made many insightful contributions. Well, as of today, one of my students is part of the discussion - he wrote a response to Mahmood's essay, and it was posted by the moderator. How very exciting! Old fogey that I am, I'm less surprised that it was posted by the moderator than that a first year college student would have thought to submit it in the first place. Good on ya, Ben!

Other things happened in today's class discussion that were also great - what a good group we've become, articulate, respectful of diverse opinions, etc.! I was grateful particularly to the student who asked if there is "class privilege attached" to reading secularist texts and discussing them. Her hard-working family aren't church-going but believe in God; there's never time at home to discuss questions like religion vs. secularism. What does what we learn or conclude or decide in our discussions here mean for them? Have we any right to tell them what they do and believe is right or wrong? And even if we thought it wrong, shouldn't we be doing something about economic injustice in America rather than telling people to give up on what few resources are available to them? Good on ya, Rhiannon!

This connected back to a set of valuable questions to which we keep returning (which students keep on the table, not me: good on ya, Kendall!): whatever we conclude in our discussions, whatever we learn from our readings - what should we now do? Midwifery's doubtless important, but "education" can't be the answer to all questions, can it?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Studebaker Cathedral

Regard, the bright light of a New York City morning in 1910! This is a detail of a picture of the Flatiron Building one of my colleagues found on a great website of random old photographs. Fifth Avenue's one big zebra stripe - you can see all the way down to Washington Square!

I learned about this website (called at a meeting with other faculty teaching "Reading NYC" courses next semester. It'll be a great resource for my course, Religious Geography of New York, too. For instance, look what comes up if you search for "Cathedral New York": a 1908 (a century ago) picture of what still bears the lettering of the First Church of Christ Scientist at 143 W. 48th Street - but has been converted into the "Studebaker Cathedral"- a garage! The central door has been turned into a driveway! But look close up. It's for sale or let...

Beyond our means

Gulp. Here's the bad news we've all known was coming, from an article in today's Times called "College May Become Unaffordable for Most in U. S." It's no consolation that this isn't about the consequences of the current recession, but a longer-term analysis based on data collected before the market downturn!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

In movies

Some students from the Education Video Center came to interview me today for a documentary they're making on teenagers and religion. I'd left my office door open so they could set up (I had to be at a meeting) so had no idea how serious they are about their craft until I opened the door and found there was hardly room to squeeze in. My office was crowded with no fewer than four students, two supervisors, and the interviewer!Several lights from different angles, one of those big round reflectors, camera on tripod, and a microphone I had to string under my shirt and clip (which reminded me of that scene in "Singin' in the rain"). They'd even moved some of the books around behind my chair for effect.

The interviewer, whose name was (I think) Vadim, asked one good tough question after another, and I had a ball fielding them. What did I think about religious terrorism, like that just now in Mumbai? Did I think religion was the cause of more good or more bad? Did I think religion was a cause of war? Did I think religion could contribute to peace? What did I think about religion and teenagers? Did I think people were biologically disposed to religion, or could we live without it? Whew! We'll see if any of my answers - expansive but not digressive - can be edited down to something useful for them. (I also fear I didn't keep my gaze focused in his direction as I was told to.) But it certainly was fun playing the professor on TV for half an hour!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Religion, in theory

For their final, the students in Theorizing Religion have to write brief essays about three of the following quotations, taken from our readings over the course of the semester - but I'm sort of hoping they'll look at the whole list and realize how much they've learned (or should have, or could have)! Each quotation is selected not so much (or not only) as a thumbnail for the argument of its author as for the way it opens one of the broader issues we've been exploring.

1. For a society based upon the production of commodities, … Christianity ... is the most fitting form of religion.

2. The academic study of religion is a child of the Enlightenment.

3. The first religious principles must be secondary.

4. In religion ... the idea of God does not rank as high as you think.

5. Where there is dirt there is system.

6. By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots.

7. Haitian Voudou is not a religion of the empowered and the privileged.

8. There are no religions that are false.

9. Religion helps to link realities that modernity dichotomized and that globalization has now destabilized.

10. Religion would thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity.

11. Homo religiosus represents the “total man.”

12. There is no such thing as a generic pluralist.

13. The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so.

(Sources: 1. Karl Marx; 2. Jonathan Z. Smith; 3. David Hume; 4. Friedrich Schleiermacher; 5. Mary Douglas; 6. William James; 7. Karen McCarthy Brown; 8. Emile Durkheim; 9. Miguel Vasquez; 10. Sigmund Freud; 11. Mircea Eliade; 12. Diana Eck; 13. Max Weber)

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Spin is forever

My friend J drew my attention to this rather remarkable full-page ad in today's New York Times, a snapshot of our unsettled historical moment.

Our lives are filled with things. We're overwhelmed by possessions we own but do not treasure. Stuff we buy but never love. To be thrown away in weeks rather than passed down for generations.

Perhaps it will be different now. Perhaps now is an opportunity to reassess what really matters. After all, if everything you ever bought her disappeared overnight, what would she truly miss?

Smart chappies, the DeBeers diamond people. They can tell which way the wind is blowing, and can pay smart advertising people to update their message that a diamond is not a luxury but the only necessity.

One thing

Behold the biggest Gothic cathedral in the world, newly rededicated this morning! The cathedral church (Episcopal) of St. John the Divine, begun 116 years ago and growing at the slow rate of its medieval forebears - the Transepts and Crossing remain unfinished, a vast cavern of unfinished black stone - was ravaged by a fire seven years ago, and the repairs and renovations have finally finished. For the first time in years, the whole long (and I mean loooong) nave was open, and filled with people (3000 perhaps). And the organ, whose every pipe had to be shipped off to its maker somewhere in the Midwest to have soot removed, was playing again too. Had it not been a nasty cold rainy day, the light of the cleaned stained glass windows would have sparkled throughout.

Sitting midway down the nave, I decided that the place is just too big - nearly as long as a long New York city block. The figures in the sanctuary looking like performers in a flea circus! It is certainly an accoustic disaster. The festivities began with music performed by a brass band, somewhere way up front. From where I was sitting, the melody was indiscernible; it sounded more like the tooting and jeering of horns in a distant traffic jam. Later some drummers let loose in the back; it sounded like being in the subway as an express train thunders past.

And yet one thing does work in that space - not the choir, not the organ, certainly not hymn singing, which is like trying to synchronize people in two different time zones. The one thing that works is, literally, one thing: a single instrument or voice. (I'm tempted to say a still small voice.) I've heard it before at an interfaith service after the Asian tsunami, when a shakuhachi's breathy melody seemed to fill the whole space, hovering and lingering. Today it was a solitary saxophone (Paul Winter), and its sound flowed through the space without collision or blurring. It's more like the way a single voice echoes in a vast canyon.

The ceremony was full of pomp with a huge cast, but what captured the weird sublimity of the space best for me was something I initially thought appalling - a windsock-like Chinese silk fish on a pole, which flashed back and forth above the end of the opening procession like the flag corps of a marching band. And yet, as the procession made its way deeper and deeper in, the fish - yellow and gold - was revealed to be darting and swimming in loops, exploring this newly rediscovered space and finding it could move around freely in it. A loosed spirit, cavorting in this space like an eel in the silent depths of a deep lake.

St. John the Divine is all about reimagining what a cathedral can be in the modern age. (In his giddy sermon the goofball Dean mentioned two cathedrals we'd recently lost, Yankee Stadium and Studs Terkel.) Maybe one thing a cathedral can be in this busy city is this - a site for the the rediscovery of the single voice, in a place where architecture fades into sublime natural landscape, where (to borrow words from Schleiermacher channeling Spinoza) "freedom has become nature again."

Friday, November 28, 2008

Artless religion?

Spent the day reading a brand new book (so new, in fact, it's publication date is 2009) called Re-Enchantment, edited by James Elkin and David Morgan. I ordered it while at AAR; it is, so far as I can tell, the first book trying to address the (non)relation of religion and contemporary art. I thought it might help me working through the religion and theater thing, but it's also helping me understand my artist friend D's perplexity that I, someone in religious studies, should be so uninterested in what he understands to be the object of religion.

Re-Enchantment isn't a book in the usual sense. It's part of a series Elkin edits, called The Art Seminar, and models a generous and quite involved kind of community and conversation. The first part of the book offers five essays as "Starting Points." Next comes the transcript of the Seminar, a day-long conversation between nine art historians, theorists, artists, and scholars of religion - all of whom read the "Starting Points" essays before beginning. The discussion ranges widely, but that's part of Elkin's purpose - to show that one can, however disjointedly, talk about issues he thinks the art community refuses or fears to engage. The discussion is indeed disjointed, although the participants go through the motions of engaging and agreeing with each other. But the real point is not to show that an impossible conversa- tion is indeed possible, but that the impossible conversa- tion, even or because it's impossible, is interesting, generate provocative insights, and is alive to issues of importance. The last part of the book (which I haven't got to yet) is over thirty short essays, responses to the transcript by people who weren't at the Seminar.

Interesting format. I'll know better what I think about it all once I've read some other readers' responses. But for now I'm struck by the different levels of discussion - some speak only philosophical aesthetics, some the language of psychoanalysis or ethics, some are caught in the folds of ideologies of modernism, one traces everything back to the iconoclasm controversy, and one is all electric prophecy. The arty participants seem more comfortable talking about grand ahistorical things like faith, transcendence, incarnation, disenchantment. The three representatives of religious studies (David Morgan, Wendy Doniger and Tomoko Masuzawa) are the least dogmatic, but for that very reason probably seem flat-footed to their interlocutors.

And yet I couldn't but cheer when Morgan said: Jim [Elkins], sometimes when you talk it sounds like you're saying religion and contemporary art cannot be linked, axiomatically, whereas [T. J.] Clark seems to be saying even if they could, they shouldn't. It's a kind of prescriptive distinction. From my point of view, doing ethnography, the study of lived religion, and visual piety, all that seems silly. I'm not working on fine art, mostly. If I want to know what people do with their images, I just go ask them, and I watch them. I see what they do, in their homes, churches, or synagogues, or in the streets, and then I compile descriptions of their practices. (141)

And elsewhere, where Morgan describe his field of visual studies as concerned not only with the object but with: the visual field in which the object participates, but is not the only actor. The object, in this sense, is engaged by viewers, by values, by histories, and that makes it possible to produce a taxonomy of different ways of seeing ... This may not be of interest to scholars of contemporary art, but the value of an approach that is less object-centered than practice-centered is that it lets us understand the worlds, the life-worlds, in [/] which images function: the ways they gather meaning and participate in different social occasions. For the subject of religion, and perhaps also the production of art, that can be very important: the sacred is created as a social process, an effect of engagement. ... It's not that I want to promote religion in art: I want to understand it. It marks life-worlds that are not mine, and they can be fascinating. (144-45)

Interesting. The artists seek or refuse enchantment, transcendence, while the religionists are actually interested in other people, too.