Friday, November 30, 2012

Don't cry for me Argentina

Are the people of some nations more emotional than others? Even if so, could you measure it? You might, I suppose, ask questions like those listed below. Tabulated the results might look like the map above...
Climate clearly has little to do with it, as the most and least emotional countries - the Philippines and Singapore - are practically neighbors.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Is it tacky to quote a poem from an advertisement? If the advertisement is for a collection of poems? I'll risk it. Behold this poem by Mary Oliver:

I Go Down To The Shore

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall -
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

I suppose I'd better go buy the book, A Thousand Mornings, now!

Go west

Booked my flight back home for Christmas. I'll be in San Diego December 19th to January 11th. Anyone else planning to be in those parts?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Last gasp

Finally finished Mo Yan's Life and Death are Wearing Me Out "finally" not because it's a tough read (though it is half a thousand pages) but because I read slowly and get distracted. I don't finish most books I start so my finishing this is a strong endorsement! Actually I think Mo Yan may have been ready to finish the book, too. The protagonist's final incarnation as an animal (a monkey) is very brief, and in the final chapters the author gets rid of one character after another to rather tabloid deaths until there are just three left - including the latest incarnation, finally a human being, but a child unlikely to live to adulthood. I'm not sure he likes any of his characters enough to mourn them, and it is creepy that the bustling world of his book does not survive into our own time. Or maybe that's beside the point. Something like the moral of this exhausted story, and perhaps of the half century of Chinese history it describes: "The dead cannot be brought back to life, and everyone else has to keep on living, whether they do so by crying or laughing" (538). [pic]

Monday, November 26, 2012

Lord of the dance

In Theorizing Religion today we read part of Tisa Wenger's fascinating book We Have A Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian  Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom. I seeded discussion with two letters to the New York Times from December 1923, articulating two sides of the controversy. One (YWCA Board Member Edith Dabb, Dec 2nd), representing the old regime of Protestant missionaries acting as agents of government-promoted civilization, deplored the alleged debauching of young girls in secret ceremonies. The other (the Museum of the American Indian's F. W. Hodge, above, Dec 20th), articulated the emerging understanding of Indian dances as not only morally innocuous but religious in the purest way. Other views discussed by Wenger celebrate the dances precisely for a non-puritan sensuality - it is the 1920s, after all! Native American voices are more circumspect. It all proved a good way into a discussion of the dilemmas of indigenous peoples in modern settler colonial states, their cultures saved but also trivialized as tourist destinations by the secular-Protestant category of religion as essentially private.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Capitalist logic

I'm still mulling over something one of the students in Theorizing Religion said in class earlier this week. We'd been discussing Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. I'd given my line on the book - every detail has been challenged, but the argument as a whole continues to resonate because it gets something very important very right about the logic of capitalism. Ordinarily I'd have led us back to Marx's claim that Protestantism is the appropriate religion for a commodity system in which everything, from labor to value, is abstracted. Instead we got on a tangent about Ayn Rand, perhaps because C, the alum who'd covered for me on Monday and was co-leading the discussion Tuesday, mentioned that he thinks she deserves to be taken more seriously than Lang faculty generally do.

Then this student said: True capitalism has never been tried - governments have always interfered. If we killed everyone who's living now and started over, giving everyone five dollars, we'd see.

I was speechless - this was abstracter than I thought anyone was capable of being. C was quicker on his feet. While he appreciated the sentiment, that five dollars sounded like a government handout!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Larger than life

Went to see Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" today with my friend L. It was a full house and we arrived only 15 minutes early, so were seated in the third row center. We hope to see it again from a vantage from which you can see the whole screen at once! But, once as accustomed as one can be to the distorting angle, I found I was glad to be so close. Why? Because Daniel Day Lewis' Lincoln is so magnetic a character I actually felt grateful to be close to him! I know, I know - it's just a movie, an actor, a screen (and history, and History). I don't care: I loved him.

Friday, November 23, 2012


I met my first years on Monday night for pizza (to make up for one of our Sandy-scrubbed classes). They were to talk about their final research projects. The topics were one more sensationalist than the next - straight from the tabloids! I guess the sorts of "lived religion" we've been reading about are sorta dull.
So I decided we'd read Dennis Covington's account of Pentecostal snake-handlers (which is discussed in our last reading, Robert Orsi's essay "Snakes Alive!"). I hadn't read it before. Just did. It's a trip!

Thursday, November 22, 2012


The only thing worse than seeing Christmas trees for sale on Thanks-giving is seeing them on a balmy 50˚F afternoon under trees which have barely noticed it's Fall! Looks like Santa's not in the mood yet either...!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Late in the day, late in the year

A museum-quality view from the window of, well, a museum: the Met.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


The trees in the New School courtyard have lost most of their leaves, but on nearby 12th Street the Japanese maples have only just peaked.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Skimming the surface of religious studies 2012!

So that was my AAR 2012. (I left early in order to make up classes missed at school due to Hurricane Sandy.) Highlights? Someone's describing his first year students' "naivete as their ally" - as when one inter-viewed a Mayan god through a shaman. Someone's tracing St. Cuthbert's ducks to a pagan silk robe placed in the saint's grave by a king. A Hegelian account of forgiveness. An argument that to resist the individualization of capitalist modernity we must recognize our neighbor as God - and as our enemy. A Sikh's account of his religion's emergence into the secular space of pluralism since the Wisconsin gurudwara shootings. An account of how the Hare Krishnas were prevented from singing at the Minnesota State Fair because they insisted on moving - couldn't they just rent a stand like everyone else? A queering of Avaloki-tesvara whose multi-morphic compassion could make him/her an inspiration to multiply marginalized people. Lining up two more fabulous contributors for our "Queer Christianities" volume. And of course that talk where someone said that Lessing took liberties with Leibniz, but they were Leibnizian liberties! There are 1200 panels in the conference so I didn't even scrape the surface of the surface. You get a sense of what else was going on in the book exhibits - above are pics of some that caught my fancy. (I didn't bother taking pictures of the legions of books on secularism and its others, on pop culture, and ethnographies of new religions and churches.) Don't ask me this time next year if I've read them all. No, actually, please do!

Sunday, November 18, 2012


The Sistine Chapel ceiling is 500 this year! A scale reproduction of it was offered as part of our AAR festivities, allowing unusual views.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Kant we all just get along?

My second date with Leibnizian destiny has come and gone: the panel of the Philosophy of Religion Section of the American Academy of Religion. (My talk: "Posthumous Sins: Lessing and the Legacies of Leibniz.")This was this group's first panel devoted to our Universalgenie and I suspect it will be the last. Not because the papers weren't good (though I dare say mine was the only one written for the occasion and to the question of the panel), but it's just not a group which gets the interest of the history of philosophy. The discussion, like the other papers, was about already canonical philosophers: Spinoza, Kant, Schleiermacher. Silly me, trying to historicize the way we subordinate Leibniz to these other thinkers' agendas! (I heard discussion more germane to the sorts of ideas I was hoping to provoke in the Popular Culture and Religion Group's session on medieval religion before the printing press!)

In a strange way, I felt protective for Leibniz, and even proprietary - strange because, of course, I have not occupied myself with Leibniz at all these several years. Do I need to find a way to write up what these two reunions with the old flame have produced - a sense (and argument!) that Leibniz is someone from whose intellectual practice we can learn? My Leibniz was a situated, engaged thinker whose Theodicy was intended to support lived religion, and who never published his own system because maintaining the larger, open-ended conversation was more important to him? Even if I were right about that (I'm not sure I am) would anyone care? It's been fun, though, reliving the old thrill...

Friday, November 16, 2012

This land is your land

Greetings from Chicago! AAR starts for me only this afternoon, so I took the morning to visit the Field Museum, Chicago's natural history and anthropology museum, built around collections from the 1893 Columbian Exhibition. As public museums on weekdays often are, it was awash groups of school children, whose voices swirled gaily through the halls, their excitement, often at heritages discovered, was infectious.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Purple mountains majesty

 Here's another way of showing the true lay of the land. Instead of shrinking or expanding the area of counties to reflect population, it keeps the geographical size but shades it according to population density, reflecting its weight in presidential elections.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Eat your heart out, Louis Comfort Tiffany!

Monday, November 12, 2012

That time of year again

Thought all the city's leaves would have been plucked off by superstorm Sandy. Nothing of the sort!

But they will doubtless have fallen by the time I return from AAR a week from today. I get a few more days to bask in their radiance, though: I only fly Thursday evening.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

More or Lessing

My second Leibniz gig is upon me - well, a week off. This one is a panel of the Philosophy of Religion Group at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting in Chicago, and our topic is "Leibniz and his Legacy in the Philosophy of Religion." My paper is called "Posthumous Sins: Lessing and the Legacies of Leibniz." It focuses on a sneaky little essay Gotthold Ephraim Lessing published in 1773 called "Leibniz von den ewigen Strafen" challenging the widely held view that Leibniz only pretended to support the doctrine of eternal punishment but really believed in universal salvation. Leibniz was not a hypocrite, argues Lessing. But he also didn't mean what the orthodox meant by eternal punishment. I'm introducing the debate but my main concern, like Lessing's, is with a broader question - how to read Leibniz - and an even broader one opening out from that one - how to be a philosopher of religion.

As it happens neither Lessing nor those he is criticizing think that Leibniz actually believed in eternal damnation in hell. All of them offer reasons why the arguments clearly in support of orthodox views of hell in Theodicy should not be taken at face value. But why the apparent endorsements at all? One Eberhard thinks Leibniz can't help himself, craving the approbation of all and so thinking of crafty ways of marketing his system as compatible even with the most errant views. Lessing thinks this sells Leibniz short. What Leibniz is really doing is what ancient philosophers did: meeting their interlocutors where they were, finding the grain of truth in their otherwise erroneous systems (for there is no view actually held be someone which doesn't have some truth to it), and guiding them with its help towards more truth.

Leibniz's own view, Lessing argues, is that the doctrine of eternal punishment contains a valuable truth: everything is connected, and so every act has infinite consequences. Since God has so arranged nature that evil is punished (the agent's perfection is diminished), every sinful act produces its own infinite series of punishments. That's it! No need for a hell at all, just immortality. And for all we know the infinite duration of punishment is compatible with, even constitutive of, a kind of restoration too. So you can have your universalism without giving up philosophical rigor if you work with rather than reject tradition. What's not to like?

Lessing's larger point, which is also mine, is the approach to religious ideas at work here. It is not sufficient to work out a philosophy of religion. You must engage with religious traditions, turning and turning them until you see the truth concealed in them - for every perspective contains a truth to be found nowhere else. We may wonder if Leibniz or Lessing really lived out this preachment in practice (Leibniz "struck fire from stones," Lessing concedes, "but he did not conceal his own fire in them") but the idea is appealing, compatible with dialogic understandings of knowledge and even of truth.

Friday, November 09, 2012

A more perfect union?

Remember those election maps from 2008? Here are the equivalents for the election just past, confirmation that we're still red and blue all over. Sprinkled all across this great land of ours (as a politician might say) are 61,675,412 Obama votes and 58,479,114 for the other guy. Not pretty, exactly, but an improvement over foolishness from the left (likening the results to the Civil War) and the right (claiming Obama was reelected by non-whites). And an ongoing challenge. Can we do purple?

Buddhism as a metaphysics for lived religion

In my first year course we've started reading Jeff Wilson's Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual comes to America. As I should have known to expect, nobody knew anything about Buddhism, so I had to trot out my canned history, carefully eschewing derogatory terms like 'Hinayana'. Hard to resist the four noble truths in this context!

It was too early to question if 水子供養 mizuko kuyo - the subject of Wilson's book - really is a "Buddhist ritual" so I slipped in a cameo for William LaFleur's book Liquid Life and the wisdom and humanity of a tradition which understands that there are no bright lines in life, its beginnings or its endings, and - LaFleur eloquently if somewhat wishfully rhapsodized - acknowledges this fluidity with opaque ritual. (By contrast  LaFleur accuses Americans of thinking they can master the contingency and complexity of life with "definitionism" and silence).

Since we were heading toward 地蔵菩薩 the bodhisattva Jizô I capped it with a brief ode to upâya (方便 hôben), the "skillful means" of enlightened beings who take whatever forms necessary to reach suffering deluded beings in their delusion. There is no length to which a bodhisattva will not go, even using untruths strategically in helping suffering beings break through to the truth. This was a subject which intoxicated me when I learned about it in graduate school, and seemed to me at the heart of the sacred mysteries of teaching (you might remember it from here). Hardly germane to lived religion, or?

In the context of this class on "lived religion" other things came to mind, or fell in place. Wilson describes the way "water baby ceremonies" have been taken up in American convert Zen, especially in monasteries led by women. He describes in detail a ceremony at Oregon's Greater Vow Monastery (images of whose Jizô Garden I show here), whose inclusion of a statue of the Virgin Mary is my favorite icon of lived religion. The ceremony's structure and participants' roles, even its "Zen" aesthetics of nature, are American. But Buddhist ideas made it possible.
The last class reading (while I was away), Neil Gaiman's fantasy novel American Gods, let us think about "lived religion" from the perspective of hungry gods struggling against obsolescence. With Wilson's help, perhaps we can consider lived religion as guided by bodhisattvas!

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

We did it!

In the subway on my way home from the opera (Thomas Adès' ravishingly beautiful "The Tempest" at the Met) news updates on my smartphone - some at 72nd Street, more at 14th (a wifi station): Networks predict a second term for Obama! Warren ousts Scott! Akin and Mourdock out! Dems keep Senate! But the one that brought tears to my eyes awaited my arrival in Brooklyn, an e-mail from Mainers United for Marriage:
Victory! We won!
For the first time, a state has won marriage at the ballot box
and we’ve done it right here in Maine.

And actually it looks like Maryland approved marriage equality, too!

The nation's ballots remain to be counted, and I suspect we won't see the last of Mitt Romney for a little while yet. (But after that: oblivion!) The popular vote's a lot closer than the Electoral College: lots of people again voted against Obama, will resent the non-abolition of "Obamacare," and will blame him for the poisonous political climate. The nation remains parlously divided.

But I'm feeling the "arc of the moral universe" right now.