Monday, December 31, 2012


Things don't get easier to understand with the years, but they do get interesting in tangled new ways. Happy new year, twenty-thirteen!

Sunday, December 30, 2012


We had us some weather today!
(We got some rain too but it wasn't photogenic.)

Saturday, December 29, 2012


Have I told you about "resource use decisions" (RUDs)? This deliberately unlovely, bureaucratic-sounding formulation is my contribution to the ERSEH (Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalayas) project. It came to me the last morning of our workshop in Shangrila, and now it's time to write it up. We're putting on a big conference in March, and want to circulate the papers well in advance. If my ideas prove helpful, they might shape some of the other papers.

RUD emerged from discussions about what on earth "everyday religion" was, and in what ways studying it might be useful in promoting environmental sustainability. "Everyday religion" was a term chosen by our little organizing committee at the one organizing meeting I had to miss - I'd been pushing for "lived religion." I continue to think of the two as cognates although, in fact, they're the fruits of different intellectual projects and disciplines. Engaging concerns of sociologists, historians and anthropologists as well as scholars of religion, they provide different problems and prospects. More grist for the theorist's mill! But also, one hopes, occasion for helpful clarifications.

According to sociologist Nancy T. Ammerman, studies of "everyday religion"

privilege the experience of nonexperts, the people who do not make a living being religious or thinking and writing about religious ideas. That does not mean that "official" ideas are never important, only that they are most interesting to us when they get used by someone other than a professional. Similarly, everyday implies the activity that happens outside organized religious events and institutions, but that does not mean that we discount the influence those institutions wield or that we neglect what happens within organized religion "every day." We are interested in all the ways in which nonexperts experience religion. 
Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives (Oxford 2007), 5 

That sounds pretty good to me as a start. It speaks to the populist anti-authoritarianism I preached when giving my talks in India in January, though it doesn't go as far as I'd like. There is expertise outside of specialists and status-conferring institutions, I'd want to insist, and there are traditional religious events outside these institutions, too. I worry about the passive implications of the language of "experience," even in a study emphasizing the ability of individuals and collectives to improvise and sustain alternatives to the work of institutions (13).

The "everyday" also brings all sorts of conceptual challenges with it. A distinguished anthropologist gave a talk about the everyday at New School recently which suggested that many of her colleagues (readers of Heidegger!) distrust the everyday as thoughtless, unconscious and, most damning, incapable of transcending itself; I encountered a similar perspective at the Center for the Study of the Developing World in Delhi. There's also a suspicion of the everyday deep in classic religious studies perhaps most visible in Weber's theory of "charisma," defined as out-of-the-everyday ausseralltäglich, and threatened by the everydayification Veralltägliching usually rendered "routinization" in English translation. To one of my religious studies colleagues, RUD sounds like the worst kind of routinization. These aren't debates I wanted to get involved, but it's actually proved good in helping me tease out the stakes of our proposals.

My preference, as you know, is for "lived religion," the view that what historian Robert Orsi calls "religious creativity" happens at every level and all the time: there is ... no religion that people have not taken up in their hands. The study of "lived religion" is in its way more ambitious than the exploration of "everyday religion." It directs attention to institutions and persons, texts and rituals, practice and theology, things and ideas – all as media of making and unmaking worlds. If the latter acknowledges (while challenging the dominance of) expert and institutional religion, the former implies that besides "lived" there is nothing but dead religion - even specialists in their institutions have lives and have creatively to make and maintain worlds. World-making is, I think, not only a great way of describing what people do, but a way to avoid anxieties about "syncretism" based on problematic ideas of purity.
Robert A. Orsi, “Is the Study of Lived Religion Irrelevant to the World We Live In?"
Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 42/2 (Jun. 2003): 169-174, 172

"Lived religion" is still in the same ballpark as "everyday religion," attending as it does to unofficial and domestic(ated) practices. But it might be better called "everywhere" or "everyone religion." Though it shares the preferential option for the non-specialist, it's really a theory of religion as a whole (and of religious studies as an ideological distortion of that whole). As you've seen me thinking and teaching about it, the lived religion approach inverts the view of the nature and history of religion which comes from specialists and was long replicated by academics. Religion isn't primarily the experience of something outside human life, but emerges from the challenges (and blessings) of life. Not everyone does it well - there are people with special gifts, many developed through special training, and it's natural to enlist their services - but everyone does it. And while we're at it, religion isn't just about otherworldly things. (Not Heidegger but the American pragmatists are the philosophical sources here.)

"Lived religion" has blind spots of its own, I'm sure, but I think it has great promise. For instance, on the vexed question of what is to count as religious. Ammerman again offers a good start:

Sometimes the participant is clear about what is happening, while the observer misses the religious dimension. At other times, the observer sees something of religious significance, while the participant is not so sure. … [W]henever people talk about and orient their lives in ways that go beyond everyday modern rationality, when they enchant their lives by drawing on spiritual language and concepts and experiences, they are engaging in religious action. Not everything is religious (or even spiritual) but when either observer or participant uses that category, social scientists should be interested in knowing why and how and to what effect. (224-25) 

Just how the participants' and observers' perspectives are to be brought together is the biggest question. My instinct here is to focus on the why and how and to what effect but Ammerman goes on to suggest that some kind of definition of religion is needed after all, and trots out the language of "sacred" and "transcendence" already hinted at above in "enchant" and "spiritual," along with "sacred others" like gods. I'm not sure we can do without something but this all sounds very monotheistic to me, indeed Protestant. As with the language of "experience" there seems a presumption that religion comes from outside and takes you outside ordinary life. I remember that at our first ERSEH discussion in Kathmandu one scholar embraced the category of "everyday religion" because, unlike most western "religion" theory which was about otherworldly things, this sounded like the dharma of South Asian traditions. 

I hope we can punt on the definition of religion by focusing on things people actually do and the decisions they make about them - our focus is given by concrete questions of environmental sustainability, not theoretical questions like "what is religion?" or "are all people religious?" or meaninglessly broad queries like "what is the Buddhist view of environment?" And so we come to "Resource Use Decisions," which only seems like a bureaucratic charisma-killer. Rather than supplement apparently non-religious categories used in studies of environmental sustainability with specifically religious ones, it stretches them in such a way as to let religious world-making flow in.

Here's the proposal from Shangrila:

The ERSEH project focuses on the way everyday religion shapes and is shaped by environments broadly understood, with an eye to informing policy on issues of environmental and cultural sustainability. It hopes to enrich studies of religion, environmental sustainability and the rapidly changing and politically and culturally vital Himalayan region by attending to the resource use decisions of ordinary people in their religious lives. These key terms are used not in their conventional economic ways but in a manner expanded and enriched by dialogue with the concerns of religious and environmental studies. 
Resource is understood in ways attentive to "sacred" as well as "natural" and "human" resources as constructed by different peoples. Resources are components of a complex social-ecological system in which individuals, groups and institutions not only use resources, but modify them, create them, and destroy them. Frameworks like RED facilitate the modeling of connections between components of each local "system" and can help clarify what is known and not known. Examples might include water supplies, time, the sacred energies of mountains, or the powers of religious objects and specialists. 
Use refers to the engagement of resources involved in all human practices. It draws attention to the variety of ends of human activity, far exceeding the emaciated ideal of homo oeconomicus, and to the various and new ways in which resources are crafted, exploited and improved by design. Examples might include sustenance, purification, propitiation of dangerous powers or festal squander. 
Decisions draws attention to the decisions people, individually and even more so as members of collectivities, make about resource use in ever changing social, economic and cultural landscapes; our attention is directed not only to what is decided but to how decisions are come to, as people seek advice and examples, cite, balance or contest authorities, seek validation from various sources, and give reasons of various kinds to various stakeholders. Many decisions are not experienced as such; it is interesting to observe when and how habitual decision-making practices are upset, recalibrated, and return to habitual status. Examples might include daily sacrifices, contributions to religious institutions (like sending sons to a monastery) or the amending of a ritual in the face of a changed resource environment. 
This model does not claim to be exhaustive but, together with the flowchart of interactions of environment, religion and state/development, offers a template for facilitating the analysis and integration of case studies. The deliberately mundane categories of resource, use and decision are intended to focus attention on different elements of social, ecological and symbolic systems; we may emend or replace them as a result of our studies. We may conclude that the terms, even as stretched, are still too utilitarian, or that they fundamentally distort indigenous understandings and experiences of agency. Even these, however, would be useful insights to offer environmental policy-makers. 

RUD was offered as a synthesis of many discussions and, in the absence of other proposed syntheses, has by default become our shared platform. I think it has a lot going for it, especially in the ERSEH context. Does it solve the problems of "religion," "world religions" and "everyday religion," and of the integration of participants' and observers' categories? It may not even successfully skirt them. But it does make clear to our research collaborators, innocent of the academic study of religion if not of western ideas of "religion," what we're about.

Sure, the RUD terms don't sing the way "sacred" and "transcendent" and the like do. They're not supposed to! (I actually like that the acronym can be pronounced rude.) But we've also stripped the ecologists' language of its secular halo. Who knows what we might discover!

Friday, December 28, 2012


What to do on a Friday night in San Diego? How about checking out one of the 40+ craft breweries tucked in the suburban landscape - like this one in an office park in Scripps Ranch? The Sculpin IPA vaut le voyage.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Corpses at the door

Spending Christmas with folks means getting to read some of the same books and talk about them. Or is that just a roundabout way of saying that I've been busy reading the book I gave my father for Christmas? The book is Charles C. Mann's 1493, sequel in its way of the amazing 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. Like the earlier book it's a masterful synthesis of the work of historians (cultural, economic and environmental) which signals or cements a new paradigm. Mann builds on Alfred W. Crosby's idea of a "Columbian exchange," the global spread of species large and small once "Old" and "New" worlds were linked, and Michael Samways' concept of the "homogenocene," the rendering homogeneous of ecosystems across the globe. It really is epochal, epic.

I'm about half way through, and overwhelmed by not just the scale but the violence of the changes brought about by species unleashed on new and unprepared continents. Part I, "Atlantic Journeys," recounting (among many other things) the settlement of the Americas by more and less free Europeans and enslaved Africans in landscapes reshaped by malaria, involves death rates on a scale I have never encountered before, and not just once but over and over and over. Hegel's "slaughter-bench of history" comes to mind and, less teleological, a turn of phrase from a particularly sensitive student at Princeton, years ago, who wondered how we could live with all "the corpses at the door" of each building we enter. How do we?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


Not sure the new camera passes the succulents test. What do you think?
I'm not getting the sharpness, depth of field I've become accustomed to.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012


Got a new camera for Christmas, which is great in low light, and also has this nifty function called panorama... an enormous sunset provided a perfect occasion to try it out!

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Venite adoremus

This year's nativity scene features self-transcending bubblewrap and an African angel (and ancestors), with Torrey Pine needles and seeds.


Here's something fun, Volxbibel, the world's-first wiki-translation of the Bible open to anyone - so long as you know German street slang.

Was denkt ihr, wie würdet ihr abschneiden, wenn er jetzt eure Gedanken liest? Denkt ihr, dass ihr Gott genauso täuschen könnt, wie man Menschen gern mal verarscht?
Er wird bestimmt ganz schön sauer sein, wenn er mitbekommt, dass ihr so ungerecht seid und ihn bevorzugt, nur weil er Gott ist.
Dann werdet ihr mächtig Schiss vor seiner heftigen Art bekommen.
Eure tollen Sprüche könnt ihr euch sonst wohin stecken, und eure Argumente sind echt für den Arsch.
Haltet endlich die Fresse, jetzt sag ich mal meine Meinung! Es ist mir egal, was dann mit mir passiert!
Was hab ich noch zu verlieren? Warum sollte ich mich jetzt noch zusammenreißen?
Gott wird mich sowieso töten. Ich warte schon die ganze Zeit dadrauf. Aber vorher will ich ihm noch mal meine Meinung ins Gesicht sagen!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Coming together

So here's what I ended up with, with the help of some e-mail buddies:

The historical critical understanding of the Bible has not gone unchallenged, of course. Indeed the main reaction to it – inerrantist biblical literalism – is the view taken by the majority of Bible users today. This approach is often misunderstood as naïve but literalists take “literal” less literally than their critics do, and are capable of vast erudition in their efforts to use only the Bible to understand what the Bible is saying to them. (See the Ryrie Bible, illustration 9) Literalism may seem a return to the world of the “ancient interpreters,” and it does indeed share many of the four assumptions Kugel describes. In fact, “relevant” and “divinely granted” are a pretty good account of their view. (Whether contemporary forms of apologetics treat the Bible as “perfect” in Kugel’s sense is less clear.)

Biblical literalism does not, however, share the foundational assumption that the Bible’s meanings are “cryptic.” This makes a huge difference. The idea:

that almost everything Scripture says is literally true … is one that would certainly have puzzled the ancient interpreters. On the one hand, they would have readily agreed that what the Bible reports did indeed happen ... On the other hand, they would also have dismissed such statements as obvious; Scripture’s important message, they would say, is often hidden, so that only by going beyond the obvious can one arrive at its true meaning. It is precisely that message, they would tell fundamentalists, that you are missing. (Kugel 673-4)

For the ancient interpreters the Bible didn’t just bring the transcendent into our world, but showed us to be participants in a different order of causation and signification entirely. For all their suspicion of the “scientific” assumptions of historical critical work, biblical literalists share the modern world’s understanding of a univocal reality. The Bible may be for them a talking book with numberless things to say to numberless people and situations, but it does this by a kind of metaphorical multiplication of local and fixed meanings.

The findings of historical critical scholarship have forever changed the ways in which the Bible is read and lived. Whether we absorb its suggestions or confine ourselves to a received text for theological, traditional or literary reasons, we are making a decision. These decisions are not made lightly, and are so shaped by communities of worship and interpretation that they may not feel like choices. But in a pluralistic age choice is inescapable, even if it is the choice to accept the tradition you were born into. [fn ref to Berger, Heretical Imperative, Taylor Secular Age] The challenge is to own the ways in which our choices of methods and interlocutors make biblical texts into books we can use. This need not be an occasion for mutual recrimination. It can be an opportunity for solidarity and learning.

Abiding with Job can be valuable here. Job too suffers the loss of a foundation for making sense of his world, and seeks resources in received wisdom, personal experience, the baffling processes of nature and God himself. Job’s exchanges with his friends provide an object lesson in the difficulty of collective meaning-making. As Maimonides suggested, the reactions of incompatible positions against each other might clear a space for deeper insight. The Book of Job itself, like its protagonist, has undergone afflictions that undermine its certainty and resist the comforts of closure. Keeping patient company with it may be a way to glimpse truths beyond the types and shadows of modern understandings of the world and its meanings.

As for "final causes," they wound up a bit earlier in the book:

the confident discoveries of the scientific revolution led to an enhanced assessment both of human capacities and of the possibility of making a home in this world. The discovery of exceptionless natural laws showed the world to be solid and safe enough for human flourishing. The mechanical philosophy of the 17th century rendered all but one of Aristotle’s four kinds of causality obsolete. The “efficient causes” so successfully mapped out by modern natural science rendered the “material,” “formal” and “final” causes moot. Conceptions of God’s relationship to the world changed, and understandings of the agency of those created in the divine image followed suit. 

The existential threat of chaos faded along with fear of demonic powers (though not without a struggle). Scientific discoveries did not displace religious faith but reframed it. God worked his wondrous ways through benevolent natural laws. As a result, however, evil – especially human evil –  came to be experienced as the signal exception to an otherwise providentially governed world. How could God have permitted it? Paradoxically evil becomes a discrete philosophical problem as it ceases to be a taken-for-granted and universal experience. 

There's a lot packed into these lines, I grant you! The hope is that the reader who's just skimming won't be tripped up, but the reader taking her time might encounter some interesting new ways of thinking...

How can one weigh each of 52,289 of one's own words? Thank goodness the text will go through the winnowing of a professional copy editor; I leave final questions of clarity and style to her/him!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

White Christmas

Not quite powder snow, but as close as it gets in Southern California at Christmas. The humidity of the Pacific cavorts with granulated sugar...

Friday, December 21, 2012

Happy new baktun!

End of the day the world didn't end.


Can you name even one of these colors?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Final cause

The Job manuscript is just about done! I have a few more transitions to write - paragraphs at the ends of sections I ended perhaps a tad too cutely - and then there's the integration of images into the text, and that'll be that! What a pleasure to be able to think about the text as a whole, and see how it, by and large, hangs together. But I'm also tempted to try to add one last larger argument - also, for that matter, an amplification of something that's there already but surely too understated for most readers to notice. Perhaps explaining it to you will help - this blog has offered me that kind of talking cure many times before.

The place where the issue rose to the surface was is in articulating just how modern biblical literalism is different from the "ancient interpreters" for whom, too, the sacred text was, in James Kugel's terms "relevant, perfect and divinely granted." The difference comes in the the last one of the "Four Assumptions" characteristic of ancient understanding of the Bible, which Kugel calls the "cryptic." I'm quoting from his discussion of how they differ. To ancient interpreters the idea

that almost everything Scripture says is literally true … is one that would certainly have puzzled the ancient interpreters. On the one hand, they would have readily agreed that what the Bible reports did indeed happen ... On the other hand, they would also have dismissed such statements as obvious; Scripture’s important message, they would say, is often hidden, so that only by going beyond the obvious can one arrive at its true meaning. It is precisely that message, they would tell fundamentalists, that you are missing.  (How to Read the Bible, 673-4)

I need to say more about what it is they are missing and why it matters, something less, well, cryptic, than the coy and cute suggestion that allegory may be true - though that is in fact where I'd like to end up. For one thing, literalists are not as literal about the term "literal" as their critics are! "Relevant, perfect and divinely granted" is closer to what they mean than "historical." It takes considerable ingenuity to read the Bible the way literalists do, given its obscurities and incongruities. I'm including an image of the Ryrie Bible to honor that dedication:
the garlanded margin is in fact a long list of Biblical cross-references to shine light on what's going on in the text. "Bible-believing" Christians take great liberties with the Bible, casting about among different translations for what sounds like what God is trying to say to them at any given moment. They are encouraged to visualize scenes, indeed to put themselves in the scene, to bring it into their world. Accepting the Bible as an "inerrant" foundation is what makes all this meaningful.

Is this really qualitatively different from what the ancient interpreters were doing? I guess I want, with Kugel, to find a way to dismiss these new readings as closed to something of surpassing importance. What is that thing, and on what grounds can I make this claim? The way I've been inclined to make it is ringing untrue... Here's what's in my draft:

For all their suspicion of the “scientific” assumptions of historical critical work, biblical literalists share modern science’s understanding of a univocal reality. The Bible may be a talking book with numberless things to say to numberless people and situations, but it does this by a kind of metaphorical multiplication of literal meaning. Midrash and allegoresis were more than interpretations of a static text but windows on to a world itself governed by more than efficient causality…

You see the problems? Not only will my readers have no idea that "efficient causality" is the last survivor of the four causes of Aristotelian metaphysics. (I could remedy that by mentioning final causes earlier in the text.) I'm pretty sure the "ancient interpreters" weren't Aristotelian, though Maimonides and Aquinas were. And of course most contemporary Americans don't get "modern science's understanding" of anything. Are they really caught in what William Blake calls the illusions of space and time, the "immanent frame" of "buffered selves" acting in "secular time" with "instrumental rationality" which Charles Taylor describes in A Secular Age (542) - or is it just us overeducated types? Are they using the Bible as a source book for "moralistic therapeutic deism" in an essentially disenchanted world, or is that me?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Getting there!

Almost all the dog-ears are unfolded!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Follow the sun

Colorful sky over Jefferson Market at dusk. My next sunset will be over the Pacific! California beckons. I'll be back in NYC on January 11th.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A positive

Theorizing Religion ended with unexpected tenderness today. Students shared their "Final Reflections," many of which were quite personal. Most declared themselves more confused than when they started, but it wasn't quite a complaint. Biases coming in had been put aside, snap judgments shown the door, new and better questions discovered. Now, one student said (mashing up some arguments of Diana Eck), it seemed like the important questions had to do with relativity and commitment. I like to hear that sort of thing, so for her pains she was treated to a congratulatory snapshot of the Perry scheme of cognitive development, whose telos is "commitment in relativism," something each student must work out for herself but a good college curriculum helps along.

I also always like to hear that people have read more, have worked harder for my class than their others. And I especially like to hear student using texts and arguments we studied, though this time, I mock-complained after the Reflections ended, they were of no use to me at all: virtually all of the 25 texts we used had been mentioned by someone, and when we went through the syllabus to see if there were any nobody had mentioned, all but one of the remainder (Masuzawa's very bookish The Invention of World Religions) were claimed. How was I going to make room for new material next time around? To my feigned complaint one of the best students gave a feigned retort: it was my own fault for assigning texts that related to each other.

A good learning experience in the end after all, it seems! In the general camaraderie of the moment we had an entertaining exchange. One of the atheistic students (though she was sounding downright religiophiic today) asked, "Am I allowed to ask what you believe?"

"Are you allowed to?" I asked back.

She thought me an atheist. Others weren't sure. Another student, on the religious end, who knows me from another class, protested "he's totally religious, he's Episcopal!"

To which I replied, "That doesn't answer the question."

Not really changing the subject, I asked them if they'd ever heard of 血液型 ketsuekigata, Japanese blood-type characterology. (Ubiquitous in Japan, it's a remarkable example of old folkloric ways melding with new discoveries - no ancient Japanese person could have known about A, AB, B and O blood types!) Whenever someone asked me what type I was, I told the class, I always asked back "what do you think?" and whatever they replied, said "you're right!" which made them very happy.

"You just did that to us, didn't you?" said a perceptive student.

So it was time for my Weberian teaching credo: the power relationship of the classroom makes the lectern no place for preaching; what professors should instead do is provide "inconvenient facts" for every position.

The primary task of a useful teacher is to teach his students to recognize ‘inconvenient’ facts – I mean facts that are inconvenient for their party opinions. And for every party opinion there are facts that are extremely inconvenient, for my own opinion no less than for others. I believe the teacher accomplishes more than a mere intellectual task if he compels his audience to accustom itself to the existence of such facts. ("Science as a Vocation," 147)

Probably mercifully I didn't have this quote to hand, but they seemed to recognize what I was talking about. Have I succeeded in this? Or have I been "all things to all people" - each thought I was in her/his camp. In any case, they seemed impressed that I had a thought-out pedagogical position at all. And nobody pressed the original question. It doesn't matter that I'm A-positive; they're aware of alternatives to their received ideas and on their way to commitments of their own.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


Here's how to make an easy recipe - lasagne - stupidly difficult. Plan two, each with an entirely different set of ingredients, each of which for its part has to be individually prepared! Add up enough simple recipes (roasted squash, eggplant, sweated mushrooms, sautéd yellow peppers with red onions, ricotta with caramelized onions and blanched kale - actually three easy recipes rolled into one! - and another ricotta with garlic, pecorino and cayenne, not to mention the tomato sauce) and it comes to really rather a lot. No time even for a casual snap, besides this Gran Padano that impersonated an African thumb piano.) But it was the last Sunday dinner of the year, and we were nine... No regrets, but next time I'll make a point to keep it simple and single, too.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

It unfolds

Final fixes on the Job manuscript! The sheets without a folded corner (or double-folded corner) are two pages good to go. The others are waiting for missing references, better word choices, and, in only a very few cases, real thinking. Not new thinking - it's too late for that - but thinking how to make explicit what I'm doing, something unclear, in these few places, even to me! How did I think I was going to get from Herder back to Lowth, foward to Otto, and then back againto Blake? (Not that it doesn't work as it is, where I just go there, no explanation given.) More pressingly because more delicate, how do I get from Wiesel to Susman to Taylor's "immanent frame"? It'll happen somehow!

Not again

In the morning paper, a heartbreaking article about a deranged man who attacked an elementary school in Henan Province, China, stabbing twenty-two. There have been a series of such attacks since 2010.

Most of the attackers have been mentally disturbed men involved in personal disputes or unable to adjust to the rapid pace of social change in China, underscoring grave weaknesses in the antiquated Chinese medical system’s ability to diagnose and treat psychiatric illness. 

Although nine were hospitalized, nobody was killed, thank goodness.

A few hours later it was our turn. This time the children did die.

There are no words. (I just howled.)

Or (I can write this a day later) are there too many words? The fumbling formulaic attempts to name the individuality of victims we're grieving only because they all died together. (We don't name the thousands shot one by one every year.) The crass comparisons with the last massacre. (A category error.) The hollow hopes that it's time finally that something be done, haunted by the last time we said this, and the time before that, the time before that. (The heartbreak of political failure - but try this anyway.) The sleazy smear "politicization." (The irrelevance of victims after all.)

Words fail and we have nothing but words.

What barbarous society even has the word "school shooting"!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Moby Dick

The Guardian offers an utterly amazing video of a giant glacial calving in Greenland. It's like every disaster film you've seen in CGI, but real. The blue-black undersides emerging as broken-off pieces roll into the water are like nightmare prehistoric whales... Sublime Leviathan! I think the film of the whole 75 minute episode is coming to theaters.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


In Neil Gaiman's American Gods, America's geographical center - a place which one might think would be the most powerful place in the US - is instead its most anti-sacred. The sacred happens where it will, where it has always happened. Geometry has nothing to do with it.

I experienced something like that today. I got to spend the moment 12:12:12 (EST) of 12.12.'12 with my Theorizing Religion students but they were not only completely uninterested, they paid it no heed at all. I called up the official Eastern Standard Time on the class computer and arranged to mention the start of "2001, A Space Odyssey" at roughly that six-twelves moment but they hadn't even been following it in the corners of their eye. I guess I'm older than they, have missed a slew of x:x:x, thinking I ought to have done something special to them, and - more importantly - know this to have been the last. Or are they wiser than me, knowing better than to see significance in coincidence?

Sacred time happened instead at an afternoon music recital, organized at school by my friend H, where some newly composed jazz and some works for violin and piano flanked a remarkable pairing: Brahms' two songs for alto, viola and piano (Opus 91), and a sitar performance (dedicated to the memory of the performer's teacher's teacher Ravi Shankar, who passed way yesterday). These Brahms pieces are ones I have known and loved for years but haven't listened to in a long while. A wonderful reunion. And, amazingly, the Brahms and the sitar piece somehow commingled sweetly in the after-concert drone. Perhaps best of all, the second Brahms song plays off an ancient Christmas melody, Josef, liebster Josef mein... perfect for this tender season, and I'm not sure the young performers even knew it.

Then in the evening another confirmation of the unmovability of the sacred. The choir of Trinity Church started singing Handel's "Messiah" at Alice Tully last year. I went (guess I forgot to mention it here) and was floored by its seamless grace and power, and its theological complexity and sweep - from Christmas through Easter to Judgment. I took a gaggle of friends with me this time, waiting to see their surprise at hearing the famous Halleluiah chorus come not from a choir of angels celebrating a baby's birth but after an aria for tenor, as Christ stampedes through Hell

Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron;
Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel. 

This time it felt weird, somehow. Shattering theology, spectacular performance, but somehow out of place. It moves too quickly from For unto us a child is born... to He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief - and the child isn't even born yet! "Messiah," allowed to be itself, isn't actually a Christmas piece at all! (There may be a moral here about Christianity as a whole...) Bach's "Weichnachtsoratorium," which I will hear Saturday with Philippe Herreweghe's brilliant ensembles from Ghent, should realign things.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


My babies, the murals Thomas Hart Benton painted for the New School, are moving up in the world, or at least uptown. They won't be on display until 2015, in what is now the Whitney Museum. But it's something to look forward to. A space I've worked for years to give people a sense of will soon be a space they can actually enter! For the meantime, the Met has a lovely video recreating the space - minus only the specially designed lighting fixtures, furniture and the view of the skyline through the blue curtains - much higher res here than in the Times article.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Wherever you are

In the propenultimate session of this year's Theorizing Religion we talked about identity - globalized, marginalized, queer and religious. Recalling last week's long discussion about atheism I asked what the students make of the fact that atheists now use the language of "coming out." Is it just that they feel they are an oppressed minority which must stand up and be counted? We found something a lot deeper. Melissa Wilcox uses Judith Halberstam and Lee Edelman's concept of "queer time" to understand the life narratives of the subjects of her Queer Woman and Religious Individualism. Narrative is especially important for selves which have experienced the "forced disruption of one's expected life path that often accompanies the coming out process." (177)
In queer life stories "time seems both to cycle and to meld." It's full of "I didn't know it then but..." and "I didn't have a name for that then..." and the clichéd but none the less ubiquitous "I knew I wasn't like the others." Now think about the coming-out narrative of atheists - especially those who grew up in religious settings. This discussion helped me more than the only article I've found on the subject (Jesse M. Smith's “Becoming an Atheist in America: Constructing Identity and Meaning from the Rejection of Theism,” Sociology of Religion 72:2 [2011]: 215-37). In the context of our discussion about hybrid globalized identities and how religion speaks to and for postmodern selves, it made for quite an illuminating discussion! Are we all queer now?

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Stitches past time

As part of my colleague and friend O's "100% Fashion" weekend at the Textile Arts Center, I got to spend part of this afternoon with a bunch of fashion studies students and alums. We sat around a big table tearing, cutting, stitching and embroidering cloth. A few of us talked about the weekend's topic, Fashion and Social Justice, too, and the subject for today's session, "Commemorative Crafts," but often we sat in a intent silence. I was there in part to talk about the sewing rituals which Jeff Wilson found have attached themselves to "water baby" (mizuko) liturgies in American convert Zen centers... This was the closest I've come to feeling the quiet energy and gentle solidarity of such circles.

I made something, too! The prompt was to bring a piece of clothing "made by an unknown" - from a big chain store that probably uses sweatshops - to work on. Mine was from uniqlo; also represented were Old Navy and, clear favorite among the fashion folk, H&M, though most had disavowing stories: "My mother bought it..." "I was new to New York and wasn't prepared for how cold the air conditioners here are..." The question was how we might honor and recognize the unknown's work.
On our minds were the hundreds of people who've died in South Asian sweatshop fires recently, as well as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire which happened a few blocks from where we were. The fashion folks did subtle things like resewing labels. A novice, I just took an idea of O's and ran: he had recalled that firefighters' uniforms include a kind of handle on the back, so they can be pulled to safety if they are injured or asphixiate. Some clippings from my neighbors found their way in too.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Gingerbread stadium

This year's Joyce Coffee Shop gingerbread house honors the newest and biggest newcomer to the neighborhood, the Barclays Center. I especially like the little pretzel cars - though they may be little winks at the traffic congestion Barclay Center will soon be bringing our way.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Black Marble

Gosh but NASA's Black Marble images of the earth at night are gorgeous!

Thursday, December 06, 2012


I honor Hans Christian Andersen by making my Advent wreath always with cut branches left behind when Christmas trees are trimmed.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Sunday 1pm


You really, really can't predict what will set people off! Today's reading in "Theorizing Religion" was a chapter from Melissa Wilcox's Queer Women and Religious Individualism. I thought we'd discuss this (173):

A kind of "We're here, we're queer, get used to it!" addressed to God, I think it invites all sorts of reflection on queer faith, faith journeys, communities, and what Judith Halberstam calls "queer temporality." We got to it, eventually, but first we spent the better part of an hour trying to talk down one very vocal student who was indignant at this (169):
Why indignant? "She has no right to call herself an atheist!" So the class discussed if you could be an atheist and believe in something after death or that there's something "bigger than us" - most thought so, but not the accuser. I said that as a scholar I had to take seriously every self-described X in trying to understand X, and could not privilege her over Silva just because she was in the room. I trotted out Cornel West - "there are as many kinds of atheism as there are theisms being rejected" - and offered them a reason for not describing oneself as an atheist:

Presumably ... believers in fairies would call those who do not share their views ‘a-fairyists’, hence trying to keep the debate on fairy turf, as if it had some sensible content; as if there were something whose existence could be a subject of discussion worth the time. (A. C. Grayling, Against All Gods, 34)

While there are political and developmental reasons why people might need to define themselves through rejection of an error or prejudice (a common stage in coming out), shouldn't they eventually or also be able to define themselves in positive terms? The class came up with various possibilities (though not humanist, which I suggested) but not the fundamentalist, who stammered but gave no ground. Give her time...

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Plate full

The ends of semesters, especially Fall semesters, are jam-packed with projects new and old, but today has been an unusually rich confluence of things. Started the day trying to get my first years to rise to Robert Orsi's challenge (in "Snakes Alive!") to recognize how our fears and desires lead us to privilege things we're comfortable with and marginalize or even demonize those which bother us. At the weekly lunchtime confab with faculty interested in religion I told an India China Institute colleague about conversations I had at the 90th anniversary banquet of the United Board for Christian Education in Asia on Saturday and was invited to talk about American mizuko rituals at an upcoming event of a Fashion and Social Justice class. Over a quick coffee at Joe a seminar fellow pitched a radically new and quite wonderfully engaged way to reconceive the First Year Workshops next Fall. At the office of NYU Press my fellow Queer Christianities editors and I gave a progress report on our book and received helpful and very encouraging advice. (It reminded me that I owe my Princeton editor a 350-word blurb for the Job project.) Home to prepare for tomorrow's Theorizing Religion class and a strategy session on the Fall 2013 iteration of our New School history class - there'll be a bit less prep time tomorrow than usual as I'm meeting a friend from Delhi for coffee and observing a class by an alumna in the morning - and some other odds and ends: invitations and clarifications regarding the 2013-14 Religious Studies and First Year curricula, and laundry. And as if all that weren't already plenty, the proofs of "Unsettled," the article on my adventure teaching about Australian Aboriginal religion, have arrived to be checked. Whew! At least there were leftovers in the fridge from Sunday's dinner for nine!

Monday, December 03, 2012

Not so simple

We discussed Diana Eck's contrast of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism in Theorizing Religion today, an important moment in every iteration of this class, perhaps especially for the instructor! ('08, '09) This time we thought we were getting it until I challenged people to diagram what was at issue on the board. Good thing we did! I'm not sure we figured pluralism out - it may indeed be unrepresentable in two dimensions! But it did show what very different senses students were making of it. And it showed something more. None of the students' pictures included other traditions! (So you can guess which two drawings are mine.) I guess pluralism is compelling only when you've had the unsettling, enriching experience of otherness. Should I have - could I have - offered them that experience in this class? It's one of the main objectives of next semester's "Exploring Religious Ethics."

Sunday, December 02, 2012


This is the final push! Before I head home for the holidays, the Job manuscript - final draft! - will be on my editor's desk. I went to Princeton Friday to check out some illustration possibilities in the Rare Books Room. I had a 1536 German Bible in my hand, inscribed by Luther and Melanchthon! I was also given a tour of Princeton University Press and introduced around as a "Princeton author." Gulp! I'm not sure whether to be reassured or unnerved by their proud lobby display of their big crossover hit, Harry Frankfurt's essay-turned-pocketbook Bullshit, shown in a dozen translations (including the unlikely Japanese 『ウンコの議論』).

The delectable image of Leviathan above is not one I'll be using, since it's not from a Bible, but a "North French Miscellany" in the British Museum, c. 1280 CE. It may show the mythical beast not in Job at all, but when he's served up at the messianic banquet. Bon appétit!

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Tricks of time

This was posted by a friend on Facebook today. Since a wonderful conversation with an ex-student last week (one of the greatest rewards of being a teacher), I've been trying to find words for my own gosh- GOSH-gosh! sense of our moment in history. I'm a few years younger than the Facebook friend, but old enough to have seen history end and start again, and to feel new historical vistas opening up, not all as happy as this one. If I don't write about it in the next weeks, remind me.