Monday, October 31, 2011

Storm damage

Did I say we got off easy? Well, only 50,000 households lost electricity. But a thousand trees in Central Park are down, and untold others throughout the city... including this one from the berm along Plaza Street West. You might recognize the site - the tree this one used to face across the fence was taken out by that tornado last year.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Fall back

Once again New York City got off easy. Yesterday was dark, miserable, wet and cold, but today was bright and almost warm, a lovely mid-Autumn day. Most, if not all, the leaves survived on the trees.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


Fall's only barely begun, and here comes a big snowy Nor'easter - more snow than has been seen in October in recorded memory! But frankly one is coming to expect that sort of thing. No more climate as usual!

Friday, October 28, 2011


I wore a tie today - perhaps the first time all year! But it was a special occasion. It was for a 3rd grade class in the South Slope, and I was their visiting philosopher. (Inspired by a café philosophique book for children, the teacher Mrs. B has been leading exciting discussion of questions like "What came first, the chicken or the egg?" "Is the glass half full or half empty?" "Can you be happy and sad at the same time?" and - my favorite - "Am I here?" My friend J, who has a daughter in the class, told the teacher she could bring a real philosopher to the class, so there I was, just in time for Mrs. B to introduce Socrates.) I didn't wear just any tie:
I had them inspect the tie - several recognized "The Thinker" - and had us all try to sit in that position and see if it made us think deeper thoughts. "This is what many people think of when they think of a philosopher," I said, then asked them to show me what their study had suggested a philosopher looked like. Several offered variations on "The Thinker," with head tilted or hands folded beneath the chin or hands covering the eyes. One pointed diagonally upward like John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever" - the gesture of "I've got it!" Another put a finger to his temple and smiled brightly: "Lightbulb," he explained. We'd almost choreographed a philosophy dance, so I tried to remember all their gestures in order, then asked "Want to see how I picture Socrates?" I posed with my friend J as if in the midst of an engaged dialogue. "Forget The Thinker: Socrates thinks you can't do philosophy all by yourself."

Mrs. B had offered a brief description of Socrates (taken from here), and then asked if anyone wanted to try to have a Socratic dialogue with me. Many volunteered (mostly girls). What did I think would be a good question to get us started? I chose "What is learning?" and over the next twenty minutes we really truly had Socratic exchange! Several students took their turns, all with perceptive and interesting answers which I bounced back to them with Socratic spin, each giving up at a certain point (Mrs. B: "How do you feel? Frustrated?" Student: "Yes!" Me: "That's great!"), until by the end we'd reached one of those points Socrates most enjoyed. We'd agreed that learning isn't just someone teaching you something, and that you don't learn everything someone tells you or you read in a book but only some things, and that you learn those things rather than others because you're ready to, and that that means that in some sense you already know them ... so, in fact, it seems you don't need to learn them at all! I didn't set out to get to this deliciously Socratic paradox (had they just learned from me that you can't learn from another person?), but there we were! I dare say Socrates, who described himself not as a teacher but as a midwife, would have been proud.

From this height we attained to even higher peaks. One student asked: if I need someone to help me to learn something, surely that person needed someone, and that person needed someone, and that person needed someone ... so who was the first to know something? After praising the question and bouncing it around (Mrs. B: "How do you feel when you ask a question and someone just says it's a good question and doesn't answer it?" Student responses mixed!) I suggested that perhaps the first person was a Thinker type - assuming the Rodin posture - and perhaps what they came up with was not new knowledge but a new question.

After interruption by a long series of announcements over the PA system and snacks, it was time to wind down. Any last questions for me, asked Mrs. B? I punted on "What caused the sun?" and parried on the rather wonderful "How do you know your name?" Then a boy asked, "What is a question?" very pleased with himself but not expecting me, too, to be pleased by his query. (I was of course delighted.) I passed it around. "Something that has an answer," said someone confidently. "Maybe," I said, "maybe not." As our time ran out I thanked Mrs. B for her hospitality and the class for their excellent philosophizing and, making the Socrates-Travolta gesture, took my leave.

What fun! I recalled a visit to a class of 5th graders at Trinity School several years ago; the instructor told me that at about age 10 children's minds open to the pleasures and paradoxes of abstraction, and that this is a great time to do philosophy. His was a religion class and they were discussing Zen Buddhist koans - brilliantly, just like today's kids. And this in turn reminded me of Nel Noddings' book Educating for Intelligent Belief or Unbelief, which argues that big questions arise naturally in elementary school curricula if you let them - and if you let them, amazing things will happen. Amazing things happened today!

PS Someone took a picture - notice the Rodin and Eureka-moves!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Extended family

Today could have been the day we exploded the category of "lived religion," but I'm not sure anything like that happened. We've been discussing the adoption and adaptation of mizuko kuyô 水子供養 rituals in America as chronicled in Jeff Wilson's brilliant book, Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America (which I've discussed before). This gave us an opportunity to think about the work of ritual - what it does and how - and whether the mysterious continuum from fertilized egg to successfully delivered baby isn't perhaps better understood through ritual than definitions and artificially drawn lines. (I put on the board the awful proposed amendment to the Mississippi State Constitution which is likely to be voted in at the next election: the term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.)

I also got to talk about what in other classes I call the question of the limits of the moral community. A discussion of rituals for "children who unfortunately were not able to be born" (to use the language used at Hasedera in Kamakura) let me suggest that our discussions of "lived religion" have focused only on "human beings who managed to be born and haven't yet died." But no religion thinks that's all there is, and certainly no lived religion, which where ties with ancestors, the departed, and whatever other forces and agents there are perhaps most intimately felt and maintained.

To make the point I recalled the painting above, Charles Willson Peale's portrait of his family - painted over thirty-five years (1773-1809), during which time his first wife died and he married again: both wives are in the portrait, and the two little girls at the table died as children. I recalled other family portraits from the exhibition at the New-York Historical Society where I saw this one which included gauzy figures of babies who had been stillborn. Not so easy to answer the census-takers question "how many people are there in this family or house?"

What happens to "lived religion" when we expand the sense of the community in this way, and take into account the fluid boundaries which lead William LaFleur to entitle his book on mizuko rituals in Japan Liquid Life? We don't - well, I don't - want to endorse an approach which accepts the "buffered self" Charles Taylor thinks replaced the "porous self" in our "secular age."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Return of the prodigal

Disappeared last Thursday. Reappeared today! I thought I had lost it in a museum but the person who found it - a student at our college and even more miraculously one who knew one of my students - found it on a subway platform! In the meantime I've learned my lesson: everything important goes on Google docs from now on!

Spring 2012 LREL

We put on a very good show, if I say so myself. I'd like to take them all!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

LREL happening

Our little religious studies program is really starting to get a groove on!

The "Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalayas" research project has got a lot of us exploring the concept and methodology of the study of lived religion. We're having a roundtable on the topic in February which should include at least discussions of Jewish humor, Buddhist forestry, Hindu water use and whatever I come up with. Maybe I'll get some ideas during the trip I'm taking as part of the project this coming January, which will take me back to Nepal and Delhi, and perhaps also to Sikkim and Darjeeling! Or maybe I'll take a swipe at queer Christianity as a site for understanding lived religion...

Why queer Christianity? Well... the Provost's Office just announced the academic symposia and conferences it will be supporting next semester. Among the seven selections (out of 46 applications) was our proposal for a conference called "Queer Christianities." We proposed it because a number of our courses this academic year touch on the topic (including my course this semester), but since then we have seen other schools and institutions try to do it justice and fail badly. Now we get to put our money where our mouth was. Wish us luck!

Monday, October 24, 2011

How amazing is this picture from Cassini? There are 4 moons of Saturn on view:

The big moon is Titan, and by big, I mean bigger than the planet Mercury. Big enough to have a thick nitrogen atmosphere, clearly visible in this picture. The bright moon superposed right on top of Titan is Dione, its icy surface shiny and white.

On the right, just outside the rings, is tiny, flying saucer-shaped Pandora. And the fourth moon? That’s Pan, the tiny white spot in the gap in the rings on the left, barely visible in this shot. But that’s understandable, since Pan is less than 30 km (18 miles) across, and this was taken from a distance of nearly 2 million kilometers (1.2 million miles) away! (Source)

Luck running out?

There's an article by behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, excerpt from a new book, in the Times Magazine this week that should upset Wall Street even more than the Occupiers. Kahneman describes research which finds that the stock market cannot be played. Two thirds of mutual funds underperform in any given year, and no fund outperforms the rest of the mutual funds over time. When the performances of various stock advisers in an investment firm was compared with each other and their own performance in other years, the correlation between yearly rankings and overall performance was... zero! In highly efficient markets ... educated guesses are not more accurate than blind guesses. ... the firm was rewarding luck as if it were skill. (33, 62) Our whole society has been rewarding luck as if it were skill, and bet our futures on the sort of "illusion of validity" Kahneman has exposed.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Lived religion at OWS

I'm not sure if this "sacred space" has been at Occupy Wall Street all along - I noticed it for the first time today. It's at the other end of the park from Broadway, where the interfaith services happen at 3:30 on Sundays. Next time I'm down there I'll take time to investigate what has found its way to the altar, and ask what activities have constituted themselves around it.

Saturday, October 22, 2011


This monster hitched a ride home from the Farmers Market at Grand Army Plaza. A "Portuguese cabbage" (couve tronchuda) of unusual sweetness - and girth. Food for days!

Friday, October 21, 2011

New vistas

One of my friends moved today, from a cosy fifth-floor walk-up in Chelsea where she's lived for over two decades to a very grand old house (a rectory) on West 99th St. I helped with the move for a few hours, tiring but also wonderful work. Nice to be there as a home folded up in one place, and emerged again in a new one. Sort of a sacred moment.

This is not the view from her window. It's from West 90th St., and appears in a book of window views of Central Park by Betsy Pinover described in today's Times. Deliciously confusing: keep your eye on the green brick wall and you'll get it.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

One of those days

Chockablock with good things, but chockablock nonetheless. A class visit to the Rubin, Hinduism and Buddhism. A class observation for the first year program, all about poetry slams. A meeting of a university-wide committee charged with thinking about general education, which I've somehow ended up chairing. A discussion of issues of rape in mishrashim of Dinah and Augustine's response to the sack of Rome by two of my colleagues. A vestry meeting at Holy Apostles. I need a digestivo!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I'm melting...

I don't usually peruse the Business Section, but this was impossible to overlook. A northeast passage! (The blue line shows the median extent in September of 1979-2000.)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Blast from the past

You know how sometimes a car drives by with the windows down and the music blasting? Often all you get is the beat, and sometimes there’s a doppler effect, but on occasion it’s a piece of music you know and it’s like someone giving you a quick kiss as they run past. Well, the other
day someone drove past me on 13th St. in Manhattan with the windows down and Bach’s concerto for two violins playing. It was just a moment, but I was utterly transported… I think I may have been dancing.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Facing the world


There's a wonderful exhibition of photographs of New York children, one from each of the countries in the UN, currently up at Park 51, the Muslim cultural center-to-be near the World Trade Center. Photos of photos are unsatisfying, I know, but the way Danny Goldfield's photos are arranged, each cluster a little fireworks display of nationalities but also of moods and actions, is a big part of the pleasure.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


Went down to Zucotti Park for an interfaith rally on this gorgeous Fall afternoon, lustily lending my voice to "mic checks," but got distracted by the People's Library. Check out the religion & spirituality section!

Fall foliage on Prospect Place

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Scenes from brunch and a walk in the park with my mystical friend L.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Old friends

Amazing discovery in South Africa - a cave where human beings were mixing ocher in abalone shells one hundred thousand years ago. That's 40,000 years earlier than any other known workshop, 60,000 years older than the oldest known rock art. We've been at this a longer time than we dared believe. I've felt giddy all day.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Noch einmal, mit Gefühl

A few weeks ago a friend of mine introduced me to the recordings of the Brahms symphonies which Marin Alsop made with the London Symphony Orchestra. They're lovely, dancerly in some places where I've grown up hearing ponderousness, and generally luminous. My friend thinks it's because Alsop is a woman. "Women hear differently," she explained; after all, one hears with one's whole body. I've been mulling that intriguing observation over ever since.

Today I brought it up in class, as we were discussing McGuire's sophisticated and often surprising discussion of gender and lived religion. Students had come up with many examples of religious traditions where women and men have different experiences because of different roles, different access to spaces, etc. Is it only cultural construction of gender she's getting at, I asked, and let the image of a person at the center of an orchestra playing Brahms frame the difficult and historically fraught question of gender and religious experience. It made everyone uncomfortable. A good thing?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Another bric in the wall

We've finished our reading of Meredith McGuire's Lived Religion. Going through it again, with a class, really heightens my appreciation of its achievement, as well as my awareness of roads she hasn't taken. I'm asking the students to follow up two sources she refers to as a way of learning from her and/but also learning how she works from others' research. My illustration is an article by Otto Maduro to which she refers in her closing discussion of syncretism and bricolage. She argues that syncretism is the norm - it is anti-syncretism that needs to be explained! - but the contrast with his argument makes her individual bricolage-focused study seem to present rather too rosy a picture of religion, by still implicitly separating religious from political and ideological structures and ideas.

I would like to see more studies ... of the syncretizations at work in Methodist history between the Wesleyan tradition, on the one hand, and, on the other, U.S. white supremacy, middle class ethos, and Manifest Destiny. Similarly, I would encourage researchers on Pentecostalism to zero in on the ongoing hybridizations in the Assemblies of God between its Holiness heritage and the extraneous trends of dispensationalism, Armageddon theology, and the gospel of prosperity-alongside with the abandonment of an earlier openness toward women leaders and pacifism. I would suggest to those researching the history of missions to study the processes of integration of (and resistance to) capitalism, militarism and U.S. hegemony into the evangelizing practices, among others, of both U.S. Protestant and Catholic missionaries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. To those interested in the sociology of Puerto Rican Christian churches I would propose to reconstruct the dynamics leading to the pervasive recasting of Puerto Rican nationalism as a religious heresy.
Otto Maduro, “‘Religion’ under Imperial Duress: Postcolonial Reflections and Proposals,”
Review of Religious Research 45/3 (Mar 2004): 221-34, 229-30

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

His name is legion

My friend J told me about the poetic algorithm n + 7, created by Jean Lescure of a group called Oulipo, which replaces every noun in a given sentence with the seventh noun after it in the dictionary. Someone's put this online, and explores n from 0 to 15, for any sentence you input. I tried "His name is legion," just for the hell of it. Here's what I got.

His name is legion.

His namesake is legislation.

His nanny is legislator.

His nap is legislature.

His napalm is leisure.

His nape is lemming.

His napkin is lemon.

His nappy is lemur.

His narcissus is lender.

His narcotic is length.

His narration is lens.

His narrative is lentil.

His narrator is leopard.

His narrow is leotard.

His nasturtium is leper.

His nation is lesbian.

Monday, October 10, 2011


Met the creators of a lovely online (western) art history site yesterday - designed to replace the unwieldy, inexpensive and unengaging textbooks students usually have to lug around. Incorporating video, viewer pictures, and unscripted commentary, it's a beaut, and succeeds, I think, in its aim of making the art feel real and relevant to digital natives. Next on their agenda are nonwestern traditions - they're looking for contributors - but they're also offering the lovely design of their site to people who might want to do the same for another subject... I I'll wait to see how the solve the chronology problem with nonwestern traditions, but what they have so far is so neat they might just find a way to do it justice.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Said the parsley to the sage

Golly, Fall is on its way!

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Healthy ethical debate?

Spent yesterday evening and most of today at the star-studded conference "Contemporary Perspectives on Buddhist Ethics"at Columbia, and learned a few things. I gather the tone for the conference was set at a plenary yesterday morning (which I wasn't able to attend) which suggested or perhaps argued that there is not really such a thing as Buddhist ethics - lots of good moral advice but little moral theory. This was from a British scholar who's argued for Buddhist ethics in the past (he found it to be "Aristotelian," if only because he was limited by the options in contemporary Anglo-Saxon moralizing). It wasn't, evidently, meant as a criticism - but also not, as I'd have been tempted to continue, as a challenge to the self-importance of "moral theory" either. (For that matter, none of the questions I raise about Buddhist ethics were raised, not even monastic/lay.)

The conference brought together analytic moral philosophers and psychologists whom someone should have told there is no single Buddhism, although no Buddhist present will tell you that - and Buddhologists who might have benefited from a similar warning about "ethics." Various categories uneasily bridging the traditions were discussed, from empathy, compassion and altruism to free-will, responsibility and engagement.We were treated to delicacies like neo- and paleo-compatibilism, and conundra of reductivism and freedom. Large questions asked if you can have Buddhist ethics without karma, karma without rebirth, responsibility without freewill, autonomy without selves, anger without hatred, a royal flush of skilful means uses of all of these categories understood as merely conventionally true or useful fictions, a "naturalized" Buddhism.

I'm not convinced there's a there in any of these theres, but that doesn't mean I didn't learn some cool stuff. Studies show that mere feelings of empathy motivate altruism little to not at all, and never if there's substantial cost involved, but long-term meditators' brains light up in the empathy regions a lot, without any of the self-referencing business of the pre-frontal cortex. College students who engage in mindfulness meditation are more empathetic - or report themselves so, or discover themselves to be - than those who spend comparable amounts of time developing attention through music or dance (or doing religious studies), especially in the "cooler" flavors of empathy characterized by understanding others' perspectives, but all students' empathy seems to decline over the course of a semester.

Was the whole thing kusala (wholesome, healthy) rather than akusala (unwholesome, unhealthy) - some of the few actually Buddhist categories put forward? I'm not sure. A final panel on "engaged Buddhism" was inspiring but operating at such a different level of analysis and application there seemed as good as no overlap with the rest of the discussions. So much meta- and metta-ethics leaves the moral challenges of our world curiously unattended.

(The picture above is a variant of one included in the slides to Karma Lekshe Tsomo's presentation on the overlooked and belated contributions of women to Buddhism. Apparently someone's written an article entitled "Was the Buddha a deadbeat dad?")

Thursday, October 06, 2011


You know my friend J and I are teaching a course on the history of The New School next Spring, and that we got a grant from the Provost's Office to digitize some old scrapbooks, which will let our students do a kind of primary research on the school's history and its relationship with the city? Well, the first scan has come back from the lab, and it makes us both deliriously happy. Not just because it's full of amazing stuff, but because it reminds us what a good thing it was to have them digitized now. The paper of the scrapbooks is so old that it literally crumbles in your hands. We feel like we've rescued them from oblivion!

Wednesday, October 05, 2011


On the day when hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students joined the Occupy Wall Street movement (I marched with New School students and faculty part way) it was almost shockingly timely to see the Berliner Ensemble (in their first US performance) in Robert Wilson's riveting production of Brecht and Weill's "Dreigroschenoper" at BAM. (Above, the Peachums.) There were cheers of recognition when Mack the Knife asked

Was ist ein Einbruch in eine Bank gegen die Gründung einer Bank? 

somewhat dully rendered into English as Who is the greater criminal: he who robs a bank or he who founds one?

Tuesday, October 04, 2011


And just after that report about the other Ray's closing...

Monday, October 03, 2011

Evolved philosophy

A bright nine year old of my acquaintance has solved one of the great old philosophical questions - though she has tendencies toward analytic philosophy. The question:  Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Her answer: the egg, which was laid by a dinosaur, which we know came before birds, and everyone knows that dinosaurs lay eggs. When pressed she was willing to concede the possibility that it was a flying dinosaur and the likelihood that the egg took a long time to hatch and that the dinosaur probably gave up on it and flew away. But when I parried but which came first, the dinosaur or the egg? She shut me off like a good analytic philosopher: "That wasn't the question."

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The skinny?

One of the students in Lived Religion in New York City sat down in front of a coffee shop in Williamsburg with a sign - "Got a religious tattoo? Want to talk about it?" Many people weren't just willing to talk, but let her take their picture. Awesome! But I need to report that one of our Religiou Studies Program alums, a body artist of some distinction, is very cynical about the significance of religious tats.

If it ain't broke it needs to be

Went tonight to a performance by Zila Khan, a Sufi singer from Calcutta, scion of a great family - and the first woman in its seven generation to be singing in public. She has an amazing voice, and conveys moods from quiet rapture to yearning to meandering delight to vigorous joy. The words, to the extent she explained them, thumb their noses at lived religion. One, addressed to a teacher who has passed away, wishes that her life be shortened so they can be together again. Another says that the purpose of living is to be broken. Another, addressed to God, comes around to lived religion indirectly and almost regretfully: says she had promised to forget everything in her devotion to Him but now everything reminds her of Him. This isn't making do, dealing with ruptures à la Orsi, or even making religious worlds in any conventional sense. And while the original Sufis were elitist world-rejecters, this quwwali music is enjoyed by millions in the midst of life.