Monday, July 30, 2012

Got closer to Do Ho Suh's "Fallen Star." Landscaping! I'm impressed by the garden hose. Apparently you can go in, Tuesday and Thursdays.


So I'm trying to figure out what to say about "Leibniz' Theodicy as a Metaphysics for Lived Religion." When I proposed the topic, I vaguely had in mind the presentation I gave at the International Leibniz Congress in 2001 on the Theodicy as ethics - but also, of course, "lived religion," buzzword of the year. The thought was that Leibniz' idea of possible worlds encourages and emboldens a situated experimental and resilient practical engagement with the world, one which refuses to accept that things must stay the way they are, avoids grand narratives, and absorbing the failure of some of our world-improving projects with deference to divine wisdom.

Not a bad argument, and probably what I'll wind up making in Lisbon, with a quick resume of my Theodicy interpretation, an overview of the project of "lived religion," and some telling examples, perhaps some from Leibniz and some from religion (sociologist David Smilde's concept of "imaginative rationality" is promising).

But today I was reading in Maria Rosa Antognazza's big intellectual biography of Leibniz (2009), which claims to provide a synoptic and coherent narrative of the polymath's life and work which no earlier generation could achieve - and some critical assessments of it. Antognazza distinguishes her project from that of earlier biographers stumped by the sheer variety of Leibniz' theoretical and practical projects, starting with Fontenelle in 1717, and the generally accepted response - focusing on only one or two strands of his oeuvre, ignoring or even deploring the others. Recent scholarship allows us to see that 

Throughout his life Leibniz nursed essentially the same dream: the dream of recalling the multiplicity of human knowledge to a logical, metaphysical, and pedagogical unity, centred on the theistic vision of the Christian tradition and aimed at the common good. (6)

On the basis of a broad and deep reading of Leibniz' work and the latest scholarship in and beyond the history of philosophy she promises to stitch back together the man dismembered by Fontenelle and his successors by emphasizing the organic development of a generally harmonious system of thought and action within a particular historical context (10). Even his philosophical works can't be understood without awareness of his non-philosophical projects. That fits my understanding of the man - but then I focused on his philosophical theology (as Antognazza did in her first book), not his work in mathematics, law, history, physics, metaphysics, etc. (Intriguingly she argues also that Leibniz only makes sense if understood as a German, a thinker of the Holy Roman Empire: more, doubtless, anon on that.)

One scholar whose work I admire has serious "methodological" concerns about Antognazza's project, though. In order to make of Leibniz' life and work a whole, he alleges, she claims that the seeds of all of Leibniz' mature work were there at the start of his career - just as the late "Monadology" would predict: it almost seems as if the most basic features of Leibniz's intellectual system were implicit from the beginning (9). He assails her for the vagueness of the claim, and challenges her specific accounts of alleged early anticipations of mature views on monads, sufficient reason, etc. There's no consensus among scholars about the relationship of Leibniz' early, middle and mature thought. Few believe that Leibniz did not correct and even replace many of his ideas along the way, and everyone knows that his Nachlass is full of semi-serious experiments.

I can't get into the details - I don't know them! But this disagreement got me thinking about Leibniz and "lived religion," and biography. A biography of the whole man clearly makes him more three-dimensional, and will surely help us understand his thought better. (Not everyone would agree with this claim, actually. I remember the rather pained introduction to a biography of Kant, where the biographer had to come to terms with Kant's own apparent contempt for the irrelevance of merely biographical stuff - a contempt I imbibed as an undergraduate in Oxford. Who cares if someone figured something out as a result of love or loss; if it's worth anything it makes philosophical sense, and that's the only reason we could possibly be asked to care about it.)

But the narrative of a whole life inevitably irons out some of the larger and most of the smaller contingencies of a life. (We've seen Margaret Urban Walker's objections to the ideal of the "career self.") Even without the help of the "Monadology," a biographer will plant seeds in her account of her subject's early life to give us something to follow, continuity, tension, tragedy, triumph. I'm not sure you could write a satisfying biography without doing something like that.

What's this got to do with lived religion? Well, one of the emphases of scholars of lived religion is that life is messy, people's religious lives are less coherent than philosophers and theologians demand, and folks are less bothered by that than one might think they should be. They're characterized by a "logic of practices" quite unlike the logic of concepts. It's more like a habitus, a pragmatic social habitus, a process, a modus vivendi and operandi too, savoir faire as well as vivre. And one of my emphases is that this is true not only of lay people but of religious specialists and professionals, too.

Would I dare claim that part of Leibniz' appeal is that his life was so shaggy - and not held back by its prolific messiness but driven by it? Would it be heavy-handed to suggest that this is the form of engaged living the Theodicy was written to promote?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Late afternoon light shows spiders (silver argiope and funnel web, among others) doing their thing in Torrey Pines State Reserve.

Bruised and bemused

I've just finished reading Richard Holloway's stirring memoir, Leaving Alexandria (Edinburgh & London: Canongate, 2012). A friend in Australia posted some reviews of it on Facebook and I found I had to read it. I don't read a lot of memoirs, but this one sounded important, so I got myself a copy. To tell the truth I'm not sure I would have bought it in a bookstore, with its blurbs from Alexander McCall Smith, Philip Pullman, Karen Armstrong, Alain de Botton and others; I'm glad I did.

Holloway has been a hero, perhaps a martyr, for liberal Christianity - though he wouldn't put it that way. He was a bishop, finally Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, but gave it all up because of the intransigence of reactionary voices within the Anglican Communion (especially on questions of sexuality). He threw his mitre in the Thames at the Lambeth Conference in 1998, and resigned as bishop in 2000. In the last few years he's pretty much given up Christianity, or, perhaps, given up on it. Was religion a lie? Not necessarily, but it was a mistake. ... The mistake was to think that religion was more than human. (343)

But while he prefers the company of (non-evangelical) atheists to that of Christians who claim certainty, Holloway seems happiest in the company of poets, and would like to find a way to sustain the poetry of religion without its prose. This poetry works with experience of absence more than presence, and its central motif is pity - for others, and for oneself. These experiences are something churches - especially dark old churches which are open at all times - make possible. Philip Larkin had a name for it in his poem Church Going: "ghostly silt." Silt is the perfect word. It suggests the slow silent accumulation of pain and regret, and their distillation into memory and mercy. (252) We'd be better off without church hierarchy, but not without churches.

Part of what's fascinating is that this is not a simple losing-faith story. As Holloway eloquently describes, he struggled with doubt from the get-go. His faith journey was characterized by it. And, indeed, his preferred form of Christianity - humble, compassionate, engaged, Episcopal/Anglican - is characterized by it too.  

Let us suppose that God exists and Jesus is his revealed meaning and live in faith as though it were true. We cannot know any of this for certain, but there is beauty in the choice and it will give our lives a purpose, and maybe pay the universe a compliment it does not deserve. Care to join the experiment? Care to do the insane and lovely thing? (185-86)

But if there's ebb and flow along the way, the larger story is of ebb, uncovering what in retrospect seems an inevitability. He was never cut out to be a believer, or to be loyal to institutions. Part of the pity he learns for himself is to recognize that we are not the masters of our fate, or even of our characters. Accepting this would make us better, and better to each other, but religion, in denial of its own uncertainty, gets this wrong in terrible ways, especially Christianity, which has lost sight of Jesus. The parable of the good Samaritan, Holloway reminds us, isn't about the problem of religious hypocrisy. It's about the problem of religious believers whose piety blocks pity.

I don't any longer believe in religion, but I want it around: weakened, bruised and bemused, less sure of itself and purged of everything except the miracle of pity. I know that the people who will keep it going will have to believe in it more than I do. Who could be persuaded by my whisper? Who could even hear it? (349)

I hear it, but I'm not sure what kind of persuasion it's hoping for. There's no "argument"! I'm not poetic enough, I think, not yet.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

In gear

I just can't resist these, especially garlanded with Escherian shadows!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Hautkrankheit der Erde

Interesting map showing where humanity has most completely affected the natural environment through building, agriculture, power grids, management of waterways, etc., featured in a powerful series on population growth in the LA Times.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


The newest member of UCSD's Stuart Collection of public sculpture, Do Ho Suh's "Fallen Star," as seen from around Geisel Library. I wonder if one can ascend to it, see the garden, see the fully-furnished interior...

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

There be monsters

I brought this box of preserved fruit back from Kunming, for the chinglish "monsters" and also to share the experience of new culinary frontiers. I thought the Eighteen Yunnan Monsters would be in separate compartments, and they are, but there's no correlation with order on the box cover. It would be one thing to try a smoked plum, quite another to try something and wonder if it's a smoked, crisp or preserved plum, a red bayberry, a flowering crabapple, a red haw or a sour horn.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Is the best good enough?

I'm easing myself back into the world of Leibniz' Theodicy with the help of Steven Nadler's The Best of All Possible Worlds, one of a good many books which have appeared since I last occupied myself with these subjects. Nadler comes to Leibniz from Arnauld, Malebranche and Spinoza, so is able to evoke a whole philosophical world convincingly and engagingly. He's also not a Leibnizolater (as I was when I was doing the Leibniz thing), so it's a helpful wake up call to my old reflexes... To tell the truth it's also a reminder of just how weird the history of philosophy can be. Nadler does a remarkable job of making late 17th century debate exciting. At least until that world becomes more real to me again, however, I can't imagine devoting a career to it.

Monday, July 23, 2012


One of the (many) pleasures of the rapidly approaching Fall semester is a return to "Theorizing Religion," perhaps my signature course, after a two-year hiatus. The class started as "Approaches to the Study of Religion" at Princeton and has been my constant companion and conversation partner as I make my way in religious studies.

Although the colleague who's taught it the last two years hasn't changed my syllabus from 2009, I can't just teach the same class again. The field of religious studies has evolved - we're decisively post-secular now as well as post-modern and post-colonial - and so, in my nonlinear way, have I. The Aboriginal Australia course experience necessitates the inclusion of something about the contemporary study of indigenous traditions. The lived religion course and ERSEH require engagement with the emerging field of lived religion. And it's high time I included some non-western theorists, and even some queer theory.

How to do this while still grounding students in the classical theorists of religion is the question! (Yes, I guess I still, if somewhat uneasily, believe in classic texts.) It'll certainly be fun, though. Wish me luck!

Sunday, July 22, 2012


Something's eating this kelp leaf, I'm not sure what.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tim the Panda's new book!

If only it were as easy to write under my own name as to ghost write for a Lego panda! Some highlights from the just released More Adventures.
This last is an exclusive image, only part of which appeared in the book, of my nephews' trick for driving away bears in Kings Canyon. Happily there was no occasion to test it, or we might one day see the grim scene in the random snaps from the back cover, exemplifying the rangers' dire warnings about what happens when bears forget how to be wild.

The gang was all here

The Australians are on their way home after three weeks of sun and sand and Sequoias, and Del Mar is weirdly quiet... Come back soon!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Beach daze

Days at the beach begin to blur after a while... (These are not our wine glasses - they're those of a party next to us at Poseidon as we had a bon voyage lunch at Poseidon in Del Mar - but I couldn't resist a picture.)

The chipmunk that roared

The great photochronicler of the life of Torrey Pines State Reserve is a friend of my parents. His website is full of amazing closeups and action shots, especially of birds. Even he was amazed, he told us, at this shot - one of the peregrine falcons which nest in the cliffs being chased away by a young chipmunk!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Mountain mahogany is doing its thing in Crest Canyon, too!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Royal treatment

If you should want a perfect trip to California's Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park, you could do a lot worse than what we just did (as much through happy accident as through research or planning).
Stay in a cabin at Grant Grove in Kings Canyon National Park. Drive in on a Wednesday, arriving in time to attend the Junior Ranger talk about the amazing life cycle of the giant sequoia from oatmeal-sized seed (one of 2000 in one of the 10,000 egg-sized cones sequioas produce each
year after a century of childhood) to skinny conical "spire" to scraggly "broccoli-top" and finally, after several centuries, to "monarch." Enjoy a delicious pizza at the lodge as mule deer munch in a meadow nearby.
That night marvel at the stars, and discover, as your camera flashes as you try to get a snap of the Milky Way, that the air is full of tiny bits of tree pollen wafting by like gold dust, and feel for a moment that you've seen the jewel-sparkling nature of true reality, Tathagatgarbha...

Perfect Day I
Grant Grove 

On Thursday, walk down to the General Grant tree, largest-girthed tree in the world, surrounded by dozens of others (like top of this post), most named after US states, occasional leopard lilies or lupines at their feet.
As you sit staring up at its gnarly top a French tourist might come up and ask, "excuse me, do you know where is the big tree?" and you might giggle about this for the rest of the day. Was she joking? You decide it doesn't matter. These trees are absurdly big! Then drive up the windy one-lane road to Panoramic Point for a view of the high Sierra, and the silver sliver of Hume Lake below. Then drive down to the area by the park entrance where loggers felled many sequioas a century ago, and clambering up as many of the massive stumps as you can. If the spirit 
moves you, dance or act. (We chose a suitably intimate stage for a Shakespearean moment.) After dinner a ranger talk takes you to back to the Milky Way and its kindred galaxies, and the joys of astronomy. Later that night, the Milky Way glows almost audibly with invitation.

Perfect Day II
Sequoia National Park

On Friday, drive down to Sequoia National Park to walk around and (on a huge fallen tree) across the impossibly verdant Crescent Meadow.

Then climb the 300+ steps to the top of the granite megalith Moro Rock for a spectacular view of Sierras and foothills. After an ice cream bar at Lodgepole Market, walk down to the General Sherman, largest tree in the world and (calculated by volume!) at least as old as the common era, set like a treasure in an elaborate frame of trails and railings. 
On the way follow the sightlines of a gaggle of tourists with big cameras and espy one of the park's famous black bears on the hillside above you!
Back to the pizzeria for lunch, again noticing mule deer in the adjoining meadow, and tally up all the kinds of animals you've seen so far: 24!

Perfect Day III
Kings Canyon National Park

On Saturday, wend your way to Kings Canyon proper, driving the National Forest Scenic Byway through breath-taking (and hair-raising)  geological wonders, and equally multicolored foliage as manzanita glow and oaks glower greens, some other tree flashes red and orange, and above mountain mahogany's twisty filaments shine a fluffy white. 
Zumwalt Meadow in the Cedar Grove area of the park is like Yosemite, incense cedars, ponderosa pines, cottonwoods and cattails taking the place of redwoods, as the bright clear Kings river flows quietly by. 
Seek out these tiny fruits. They taste like raspberries! Have lunch alongside the watery roar and the happy cries of visitors diving at Roaring River, the falls roaring lustily despite a near snowless winter.
Then finally unwind at Hume Lake (which you saw from Panoramic Point), swimming, renting canoes and then enjoying "Humeburgers," corndogs and Sierra Mist at the Christian camp center there - a perfect (and perfectly post-secular: Hume Christian camps?!) end to a hot day.
A final ranger talk at Grant Grove will remind you that most of Sequoia-Kings Canyon is not redwoods but alpine and subalpine wilderness by telling about a Norman Wynne other intrepid rock climbers of the 1930s and 1940s, with stunning images by Ansel Adams. You might remember the call of the American West, and vow to return soon with a backpack, and go into the high country for a proper trek, to see the sunrise over an alpine lake, and the stars from a summit... The sky might put on a specially bright show for you, to spur you on...

And home

After three perfect and beautifully contrasting days, each with three beautiful and perfectly contrasting expeditions, head home. It's a largely truck-free Sunday, and some of the orchards on the way down Route 63 to Visalia might have some freshly picked fruit available to sweeten the journey. Without heatwave and weekday smog, you can see the mountains north of Los Angeles float toward you, like lightest brushstrokes of watercolor on the pale blue sky, and then roll around you in yellows, browns and greens. And before you know it, the blue band of the Pacific is accompanying you on your right, waiting for you to take your post-journey dip, buzzing with the wonders of California.