Tuesday, April 30, 2013


Haven't been to the theater in yonks. I'm very glad I broke my fast and went to see "Fragments," a program of short pieces by Samuel Beckett at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, a rather complex co-production of two directors and two theater companies with three actors in five pieces. It all managed to be spare and full and hilarious and pure and a little heartbreaking. This actor, Marcello Magni, did nothing in this piece but
labor through everyday activities, capping each one with a word-transcending shrug and a wheezing sigh that had the audience weeping with laughter. (In the heavier sack is his partner actor, Jos Houben.) The actress Kathryn Hunter has about the most remarkable throaty voice I've ever heard. We tend to forget that there is a sparkle to the absurdism of Beckett, and a deep humanity. See it if you can!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Monkey do

Found out by this gargoyle on 1879 Hall at Princeton Saturday.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Occasions of grace

Bit of a reunion of the Princeton Department of Religion family yesterday - the retirement conference for Albert Raboteau. (That's him, white-haired and beaming, in center of this picture someone posted.)
Al spent the last thirty years at Princeton, and, as one of the pioneers of the study of African American religion, drew brilliant students of color to what had been a pretty white department in a university not exactly know for being racially progressive. Almost all his students were there today - what a sight! Until today I didn't realize of what recent vintage this racially mixed world was, and how incredibly fortunate I was to be able to learn from it.

I never studied or worked with Al, although I sat in on his undergraduate class on African American religious history early on. But yesterday's conference showed that I have nevertheless managed to receive a thoroughly Raboteauian understanding of many things, including but not restricted to the religious history of the Americas. He helped shape the community - intellectual and spiritual - which shaped me.

About half the conference was about Al's contributions to historiography, which are many. I knew he had helped us see American religious history in terms of the black Atlantic, and US history in the context of a hemispheric history involving many more peoples and languages than the old Puritan-focused story. But I hadn't realized, for instance, to what extent he had been forced effectively to invent the study of "lived religion" avant la lettre in finding sources for antebellum African American life.

The other half was about the example of Al's life as a scholar, as a teacher, as a friend. Cornel West preached that Al was a "kenotic" - self-emptying - "holy man," something I imagine we've all had occasion to think about this understated but so profound and serious and fearless and gentle man. More, Cornel argued, Al's also managed the existentially wrenching feat - a thing still very rare - of being "a free black man." I can't pretend to understand all that was going on here, but felt honored to the point of goosebumps to have a glimpse of the passionate discussion these two remarkable men have been carrying on over decades.

My friend R talked about the overwhelmingly difficult pasts Al teaches us to to engage - the ambivalence born of unequal relationships, of bodies and contact zones, of the intimacy of love and violence - and of the importance of his autobiographical courage in describing their weight and light. Two other ex-students spoke of Al in the context of African understandings of the enduring care of ancestors. One read out a long list of spirit healers whose names she had learned from the records of the anti-Ouidah Trinidadian court which condemned them to death: we thank you, she said. This is history as a spiritual practice.
Al's famous book Slave Religion appeared even before he came to Princeton, and clearly continues to inspire scholars in many fields. But what we celebrated today were all the other ways contributions to learning happen - those things so hard to assess, which many at the gathering said are disappearing quickly from a corporate and careerist academy that no longer cultivates or values them.

I went back into my diary and remembered a lunch I had with Al almost exactly thirteen years ago. It seems to have been the first time anyone really talked to me about teaching as a spiritual vocation. This came back yesterday in some impromptu remarks Al made in response and thanks. He was once struggling with what's at the heart of the Bhagavad Gita, he opened: how to do what you have to do without concern for outcomes you can't control.

He told of a student in his course "Religious Radicals" some years ago who seemed disengaged and even angry. Only at the end, in a paper about what in the course had particularly spoken to him, did the student tell him some of what was going on: he'd been struggling with alcoholism, got arrested when he passed out somewhere with a fake ID, etc., etc. He was moved by a 19th century conversion account, where someone had been so compelled by an evangelist he had "given up the bottle" - something the student knew was incredibly hard to do. And by a concept in Thomas Merton, the point vierge, which I've found cited in an essay of Al's available online:

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.
Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 142

Amazing stuff. But Al's point was that he had had no idea any of what was going on with this student. We know so little. He had come to understand that this course, like all his other work, was an "occasion of grace." A little flutter, a flurry, a shimmer, a shiver went through the room when he said that. And another when he went on to talk about the collegiality of a guild of scholars who "shared our baseball cards," and ended addressing his students: you are occasions of grace for me.

Plenty of grace to go around yesterday, and plenty of tears.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

New kid on the block!

We've got a new tree, where the tornado-blasted one used to be.
It looks like they're worried this one might make a run for it, too!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Branching out

A National Museum of Mathematics (MOMATH) has opened just north of Madison Square Park. Don't go - they're a long long way from being ready for prime time. But I have to admit: the human fractal trees were fun!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Keys to the gallery

Never a dull moment - especially come April, when all the school year's chickens come home to roost. So today - with last weekend's conference, Queer Christianities 2, seminar fellow selection, Santideva, Boston, tulips, Mount Kailash and Zaytuna College still on my mind - I had the pleasure of presenting at the conference Museums and Higher Education in the 21st Century: Collaborative Methods and Models for Innovation at Baruch College, with U, a cool new Lang administrator.
We had fifteen minutes to talk about the relationship of Lang and the Rubin Museum of Art, a relationship I've long been a part of, and decided to talk about planning (U) for improvisation (me). Our gambit was that the two institutions' Deweyan commitments to experiential learning have allowed us to develop a remarkably fertile relationship of mutual trust and playfulness. This relationship made possible not only unique and valuable learning experiences for students in courses bridging the two institutions but unique and valuable courses, which neither institution could have generated on its own.

We called it "the keys to the gallery." We started with a scene from a course one of my religious studies faculty taught using the Rubin. He knew the galleries well enough that he let the class explore on their own before one of them chose an object for discussion, and then let discussion flow around it, until it flowed to another work, and then another. To an observer it might look random and directionless, but his preparation, and the wisdom of the museum's curators, made it possible for the course both to cover essential material and to take forms appropriate and unique to that group of students. That was scene one, made possible by the instructor's giving students the keys to the gallery.
Scene two tells a similar story but at the course-development stage. Instead of an instructor bringing a group of students into a gallery, a college brings its faculty (as it were) into the museum's standing collection and upcoming exhibitions and lets some of them choose what to work with. This really is the way the Lang-Rubin courses have been generated, more out of administrative laissez faire than Deweyan conviction, but it has allowed a very distinctive curriculum to emerge. At first, the courses were ones you could have predicted, looking at the college's departments and the museum's collections: "Tibetan Buddhism," "Himalayan Art," "Mandalas," etc. But with time - once folks got to know each other - the partnership gave birth to courses appropriate and unique to the relationship.
I was there in part because that happened on my watch. I told how a trip to the Rubin with one of my first year seminars ("Religion in Dialogue," though I was remembering "Secularism at the Crossroads") had set me thinking about how a course one of whose anchors was the Rubin might explore the variety of ways in which religious objects are placed and presented in museums. The museum educators I asked about the possibility thought one might explore religious objects throughout the city - in religious settings, museums, commercial settings, private houses, etc. And they liked the idea enough to take it on themselves, generating the innovative and successful course "Divine on Display" for Religious Studies. This in turn generated another course, "Sacred Symbols," which found a home in the Arts in Context program. These cool discipline- and institution-transcending classes emerged from the friendships which the partnership had made possible, but also from an administrative set-up - explicated by U (all the pretty powerpoint slides are her work) - which gave faculty the the keys to the gallery.
So that was pretty neat, and I was able to illustrate with other courses which emerged from the matrix of the Lang-Rubin relationship, like one which thought outside the boxes of both college and museum called "Buddhism in New York," and another which went still farther afield, becoming a summer study program in Tibet. But what stole the show was scene three, a story about our seminar fellows.

Baruch College also has a close relationship with the Rubin, and its first year program has been bringing new students to the museum during orientation for a while. The museum proposed the same to us - that's me again, now with my First Year Chair's hat on. Based on our experience generating those distinctive courses I thought we might do something more creative, and so the seminar fellows - the peer advisers who run the weekly First Year Workshops each Fall - had a 90-minute training as museum guides one week, halfway through the semester. The head of the outreach program initiated them not only into the museum's etiquette (never point at a work of religious art but gesture with an open palm) but into their pedagogy (plant people in front of something and wait for them react to it) as well as giving access to a database which provides background on each piece. The seminar fellows then brought their classes to the museum the week following on their own. They were free to do whatever they wanted: we gave them (yes) the keys to the gallery.

The results weren't unmixed. One of the swottier seminar fellows felt she had to pretend to be an authority on Himalayan art and was found out (or thought she was). Most, however, took it in their stride. "Look," they said to their first years, "I've only been here a few more times than you have, but they did tell me a thing or two about what's going on here and this - gesturing at a statue or tangka - is a pretty good example; isn't it gorgeous? It has an amazing history too..." It's kinda like what they were doing as seminar fellows in the first place - college students a few years ahead of the new arrivals but still making their way through the same college's wonders and puzzles. I gather some others said something along the lines of "I'm not sure why we're here - nearest museum to school, I guess - but it's got some awesome stuff; since we're here, we might as well make the most of it. I really like this piece..." Most took the trust we placed in them and rose to the occasion.
Best of all were two seminar fellows who were uncomfortable with the Rubin - what's all this Asian stuff doing in New York? - and integrated the museum into ongoing discussions about diversity, representation and cultural appropriation. When I reported that these seminar fellows had assigned their students an angry article about shallow and disrespectful appropriation of Asian religious symbols in American popular culture ("There comes a point where you are now a walking caricature of another culture by exotifying and romanticizing their culture and that’s offensive and dehumanizing") I could tell we had struck a nerve. Getting this right matters!

In closing we returned to a scene like the opening scene, except that there was no instructor in sight, just students and a somewhat more experienced student, none of them specialists or even devotés of the museum's collections. Here was something new and dangerous, something none of us would have come up with on our own, and I could tell at least some of the assembled museum educators were really intrigued by it. Everyone had been talking about the need to open up to new audiences and allowing students their own experiences, but I dare say nobody had allowed it to go so far...

A little anarchic we may be, but there is method to our madness!

Pink and green

William Seward and George Washington join me in observing that today was a particularly lovely Spring day to be out in one of the New York City parks!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


We had a book party today for our colleague Scott Korb, who’s just published Light without Fire, a book about the first Muslim liberal arts college in America, Zaytuna. The college (located in Berkeley) is still in its earliest stages—31 students in its third year—but it has hopes to become the Islamic Notre Dame or Brandeis. As one person in the audience remarked, many of the great schools of today must have started this small; what a privilege to be able to see this germinative stage. She also imagined a time when Zaytuna, a Sunni-inspired project, is joined by a comparable Shia-inspired university, and their football teams meet in a championship—clearly not a Lang person!

In fact, Scott carefully avoids telling his readers about the Sunni connection at first, or about the Sufi affinities of one of its charismatic founders. Instead he stresses the racial and ethnic diversity among faculty and students. Many of the students grew up in ethnically Muslim households, but two of the three founders are converts, one white and one black, and their hope is to embrace the pluralism of America, a pluralism they see also in the traditions of Islam. Scott quotes Munir Jiwa of the Graduate Theological Union (incidentally, someone who taught in our program a few years ago) describing the Sunni/Shia question as one of the “five media pillars" of Islam. What we’re told are the most important things to know about Islam are worse than superficial, as they conceal the true life of “Islam as it is.” The Islam we learn about from Scott’s near-participant observation of Zaytuna’s first year is scholarly and convivial; explicitly anti-sectarian, its central idea is mercy.

The book’s title refers to something the Q’uran says of olive oil.

It also sets up Scott’s argument that Zaytuna is about providing an alternative to understandings of Islam (from outside and inside) as incipiently militant and fundamentally in tension with American society and its values. Islam is about light, and peace. The reference to olive oil gestures also to the name of the college: Zaytuna means olive. As someone explains in the book, this is a great name for a college, as olives need to be treated by human hands before they can be eaten.

What’s most intriguing to me about Zaytuna is the affinity its founders claim of Islamic learning with the classical liberal arts (trivium and quadrivium) and with American traditions going back to the revolution. (One of the speakers at their founding ceremony was Virginia Gray Henry, a direct descendent of Patrick Henry, and a convert to Islam!) Zaytuna’s main study remains Islamic theology and jurisprudence, but in order to achieve accreditation they will need a general education curriculum (among other things); students are already being grounded in a pretty western-sounding “great books” curriculum, and lots of poetry.

The ideal seems to be pretty “classic liberal arts,” and it might be more interesting to compare it with the ethos of Chrsitian liberal arts colleges than with a secular place like Lang. (The founders are highly critical of the skepticism and nihilism they see purveyed by most of American higher education.) It will in any case be exciting to see what emerges as American traditions and populations live and articulate a distinctively and intentionally American Islam—interesting not just as a chapter in Islamic history, but in the history of American liberal arts. Perhaps all of our gen ed curricula will one day include some of the scholarliness and the mercy of our land’s Islamic heritages.


Remember those tulips from the other day? Well, they've bloomed.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Focusing in on Kailash

Slight change of summer plans, probably a prudent one. Instead of going to Kailash via Lhasa from Shanghai, it looks like we're doing the tried and truer ascent from Nepal. That will give me a bit more time to get accustomed to altitudes... though the Kathmandu Valley's 1400 meters are as nothing compared to our trek from 4640 as high as 5630 meters. Insanity! I fear my head will explode, or float away! So the rather ridiculous China-Tibet-India trip is giving way to something more localized. I might still be able to go to Lhasa afterward, though.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Teaching moments

We found out about the bombing of the Boston Marathon during my "Exploring Religious Ethics" class last week. A student whose twin brother lives in Boston received a text from his mother - something to the effect of "bombs exploding, don't go outdoors!" - so we were able to follow the aftermath live. (Actually, I had the class keep to the scheduled discussions and activities, but made it my job to check the New York Times on line for news.) We didn't talk about it much, it was too fresh... But the one-week anniversary fell during class today, and we shared the minute of silence in Boston and elsewhere.*

*Actually, 4:09:43 was the wrong time. It was on the front page of the New York Times website, but marked the marathon's official time. The bombs exploded at 2:49 EST.

We had a relatively open class as there was a paper due today. (I never assign readings on days when work is due.) I offered the students a bunch of things we might do, including the minute of silence at 4:09* - if we also talked a little about why people do minutes of silence. Then we might talk about their papers, about the bodhisattva vow (the topic of the week's reading), and at the end we'd do a brief guided tonglen meditation with Pema Chödrön. Yes to the minute of silence, they said, and the discussion. I had to cut the discussion off after half an hour, so much, it turned out, was there to say.

I expected appreciation of collective stillness as well as worry over cheap tokens of obligatory feeling, but most of the discussion was provoked by one student's complaint that we are culpably selective in the things we have minutes of silence for. What about the epidemic of rape in South Africa, he asked? When society doesn't mark the suffering of people like you but asks you to mark the suffering of others, something's deeply wrong. What was interesting in his question was his assumption that minutes of silence are powerful, that they do something. That's why it's so unfair that we don't have silences for the victims of attacks on markets, cafes, etc. in Iraq, Syria, etc. - or for the victims of endemic cultures of violence back home either: the energy of our silences is being forcibly coopted. Besides, there aren't seconds enough in the day to commemorate all the suffering and injustice worthy of witness.

This led to interesting consideration of the limits of sympathy, which I tried to turn in a Buddhist-Humeian direction. Sympathy does not, by its nature, extend very far beyond our familiars (quite possible I was channeling Makransky, too). What should do we do about that? We could condemn sympathy as inevitably partial, self-serving, delusory and even false (it flips into us-them, turning into its opposite). Or we could recognize it as something we are naive to rely on in its natural form; it's something chauvinists and "the media" can easily manipulate - but maybe it's also something we can and should work on, work with. No big surprise: I was pushing for the last of these.

I recalled our encounter with metta meditation, which takes self-concern as a point of departure for ethics rather than its nemesis. We can stretch self-concern into ethics if we allow our wish that we be safe, healthy and happy to extend to others; indeed, given the right kind of opportunity, it goes there by itself. The problem is that such opportunities are so rare; the sisyphean feat of maintaining a sense of an enduring self is compounded by late capitalist logics of precarity and competition to make them almost miraculous in their rarity. But aren't commemorative moments of silence among these rare moments? At least a few students still thought so...

Our discussion touched also on why we commemorate anniversaries - why the same hour and minute as the disaster? Is it the moment of tragedy or the moment before it, before anyone knew that the normal and everyday was about to be shattered forever? I told them about the Oklahoma City National Memorial, a reflecting pool framed by two large gateways numbered for the minute before and the minute after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in 1995. The reflections make the gateways into windows into the eternity framing our world. And in the middle the time we could not stop is frozen as space, gathered as a resource for resolve in making the world safer or at least more compassionate.

But it doesn't take a Buddhist to see that we can't, most of us most of the time, live with that awareness of the fragility of our existence. The sympathy-shocked confrontation with the vulnerability we share with other sentient beings is one from which we usually flee. Our moments of silence hope to be inoculations as well as commemorations. Perhaps they flip so easily into their opposites - like the hysterical demonization of the Tsarnaev brothers - because we know we can never be safe from suffering and contingency, and run screaming from that awareness. (Don't get me started on "evil"!)

We had to spend some time on bodhisattva vows, but then turned to a video of Pema Chödrön for the class' last half hour. Tonglen, "exchanging self for other," is a primarily Tibetan form of meditation in which suffering is central. Instead of fleeing pain and grief and anger and fear - in ourselves or in others - we use our own suffering to welcome in the suffering of others, sending back peace or healing. (As others' pain is breathed and our good wishes are breathed out, Pema Chödrön explains, it turns poisons into medicines.) It's powerful stuff - I have a 20-minute tonglen meditation of hers on CD which I wasn't able to complete, so choked up did I get over a sick friend's fear of death - so we did a very brief one, perhaps only 2 minutes long. This produced not conversation but a strong, tender silence. Concern for tokenism or favoritism evaporated. Our silence was energy.

One of the texts we discussed in connection with the bodhisattva vow (bodhisattvas are saints of tonglen) was by Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche. It says in part: In taking the Bodhisattva Vow, we acknowledge that the world around us is workable. From the bodhisattva's point of view it is not a hard-core, incorrigible world. It can be worked with within the inspiration of the buddha-dharma, following the example of Lord Buddha and the great bodhisattvas. We can join their campaign to work with sentient beings properly, fully, and thoroughly—without grasping, without confusion, and without aggression. 

Between our two moments of stillness, amorphous and intentional, we may have experienced the workability of the world, at least a little.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Spring ridiculousness

Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the garden at Jefferson Market.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


"Enlightenment and Liberation" came to a satisfying close today (though again I only caught the last eight hours of the jam-packed day). One of the highlights for me was the contribution to a session on "Liberation and Spirituality" by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher John Makransky.

Makransky suggested that Buddhist and Christian liberation theologies each reveal an epistemological problem in the other - and can correct that problem for the other. Christianity liberation theology's problem is the duality implicit in the idea of a preferential option for the poor. Even if one is supposed to love the oppressor, too, one is called in action to take sides. But this is problematic for several reasons, most of them traceable to the fact that pain and oppression are only the most visible of three levels of suffering caused by deluded responses to emptiness. Not only are we called to see the oppressors' conduct as produced by their deluded efforts to maintain the illusion of the self as a refuge from from transience through control of their world and others, but we must confront our own such delusions, too. Unless we - through meditation - learn to understand these processes in ourselves, we cannot address them in others. Powerful stuff.

But the epistemological lacuna in Buddhism diagnosed and remedied by Christianity was even more powerful - at least for me, who had been suffering a little at the assymmetry of the Buddhist-Christian dialogue: Christians embrace meditation traditions, but all Buddhists take from Christianity is activism and perhaps prophetic anger. Buddhists understand the nonduality of self and all other sentient suffering beings, but this insight is limited by what they can imagine in meditation. To the extent that delusions are socially structured and reinforced - each society treats some people as nonhumans, their suffering not even registered as such - awakening can happen only if we learn from the experiences of the marginalized. Bodhisattvas apparently occupy every place in experience, but the Christian tradition (building on the Hebrew prophets) really drives home the importance of learning from the least of these - did not God in his incarnation choose to live and die with the nonpersons of human society? Christianity's "unique focus on the poor as the hermeneutic key to the unconscious social sin we participate in but do not see" is something Buddhists could learn from.

There were other goodies, including a lovely final session where Paul Knitter looked back on a career which began with Vatican 2 and Karl Rahner followed by memories and blessings by old friends from several traditions, but I think it's Makransky's ideas which will stay with me. (I've ordered his book!) The account of the superficiality of western understandings of social problems is one similar to that of David Loy (who was at this conference, too) but the way Makransky brought together individual, social and liberationist questions with a deep understanding of the profoundest challenges of Buddhist and Christian traditions was a revelation.

(The photo is of a basket of origami lotus blossoms folded by a conference participant.)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Tearing up

What shall I tell you about the second day of "Enlightenment and Liberation" at Union Theological Seminary? I missed the first few hours, but 2-9pm offered plenty. Like yesterday, not all of it was as stimulating as some of it. But by the end of this day, I was really feeling something. It was more than what anyone said, though it came through what they were saying. This is the coming together of a community of people who, between them, have spent centuries (and that just in their current lives!) fighting for justice, praying, challenging their own religious traditions and dialoguing with others. Many have been at it for over half a century, and so by the end of today they had brought into the already charged space of the James Chapel (where, Cornel West reminded us last night, Abraham Joshua Heschel had delivered the famous talk "No religion is an island") some of the great figures of civil rights struggle and inspiration of half a century ago: Thich Nhat Hanh, Thomas Merton and, repeatedly, Martin Luther King, Jr. (His letter from Birmingham jail was written fifty years ago Tuesday but took a week to see the light of day; UTS President Serene Jones made the anniversary of this transit the frame for our gathering.) Quite a company! A very special place, UTS.

I'll describe just one moment for you which really got to me - well, let me make it a triptych. The wings first, then the middle.

Yesterday we heard from Thai peace activist Ouyporn Khuankaew, who described a practice of
being with people as they cry, often after long conversations about lives of great suffering and loss. Not trying to fix them - you usually can't - and not running away from their pain, but being with them in it. I recalled my helpnessness at a student who started crying in my office just the day before (a high school friend had died of a drug overdose, probably on purpose), my helplessness at my helplessness, and how it came between me and him.

This evening, Ruben Habito, a "double belonger" Catholic Buddhist (he runs a Zen center in Texas called Maria Kannon) told a story he'd heard during the many years he lived in Japan. A Korean resident in Japan had lost his son to bullying, and been ready to follow him into death. Then in his darkest despair he felt a single tear, a teardrop in his heart which, as a Buddhist, he understood to come from the bodhisattva of compassion Kannon 観音 (Kanzeon 観世音菩薩, "who hears the cries of the world"). Kannon, like Mary, feels the pain of suffering beings not as theirs but as her own. It gave him strength to go on living.

And in the middle, during the discussion after powerful presentations on "The Sufferings of Racism," the founder of feminist studies in Buddhism Rita Gross recalled how in her early life nobody could hear what I was saying because I was so angry. Buddhist meditation helped with that. But that was also a period of intense fear as my identity of anger was breaking up. To experience the balm of Buddhism you have to be willing to experience that fear. (She speaks slowly and deliberately, so I think I got that down verbatim.) Suddenly a Brazilian liberation theologian (Ilone Gebara) walked up to the dais and back. One of the main speakers, Jan Willis, a Tibetan Buddhism-practicing black woman who had been among the children marching with King in Birmingham, was weeping. She later told us that wise old church women wouldn't let the Birmingham teenagers march if they were angry.

I'm not sure what Willis was responding to at that point, but my eyes responded, too, with tears.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Enlightenment and Liberation!

I'm attending a big international interfaith gathering at Union Theological Seminar called "Enlightenment and Liberation: Engaged Buddhists and Liberation Theologians in Dialogue." This first full day, which started with Korean drumming and an Ailey-like dancer to agospel solo of "Go down Moses" and "Somewhere over the rainbow," was full of pleasures. Not every panel was as good or as balanced as the best, but the best were so good it didn't matter. The event celebrates the career of Paul Knitter, so the cast of characters is tilted toward the old, but that means there's incredible experience in the room - deep, varied, inspiring, in some cases truly humbling. More anon!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


What a treat - two rare operas on Old Testament themes in less than a week, and marvelously performed: Gioachino Rossini's "Moses in Egypt" at City Center - City Opera returning to its original home, doing what it does best. And then Marc-Antoine Charpentier's "David et Jonathas" at BAM, performed by the ever wonderful Les Arts Florissants - queer Christianity in action, stirring and incontestable. Wow: in 1688!

The worst except for all the others

One of those days when you really feel the force of the first half of the famous Churchillian quip about democracy as a system of government. How do we live with ourselves as the corpses keep piling up, how do we avoid despair for our capacity to care for each other?

Monday, April 15, 2013

Kind of virtuous

Wrapped up a lightning-speed tour of the four cardinal virtues in Aquinas with the suggestion that the way to understand something as a virtue - if it is one - is to submit it to the sorts of questions Aquinas aska: what is it in itself and how is it distinguished from similar-seeming virtues? does it have parts, or is it a part of another virtue? what are its contrary vices - for virtues in this tradition are means between extremes, and so have not one but two opposites? The explications of the virtue tradition generate or discover lots of normative terms, distinctions, dependencies and interdependencies and eventually hierarchies.

We only had a few minutes but I think we did pretty well on everyone's favorite contemporary virtue "kindness." (I'd proposed "being nice" and told that was just a wimpy version of "kindness.") Try it yourself! Some questions from our quick discussion. Is kindness a part of consideration, of justice, of liberality, of charity, of love? Is it in the will? Is it a general virtue (a characteristic of any virtuous act) or a specific virtue? Are its contraries selfishness and self-annihilation or coldness and smothering? What about "killing with kindness"? Is cruelty a part of unkindness, or a potential part of kindness (as in "you've gotta be cruel to be kind, in the right measure...")? Is prudence necessary to kindness? Is it really a virtue at all?

Sunday, April 14, 2013


So it looks like I'll be spending another whole summer not in New York - I've already booked my flight out on May 24th, and am likely to be winding something up in Delhi on August 18th! As you can imagine, that's going to make the six weeks until departure jam-packed. I get a preview of it this coming week: a big conference on Buddhist-Christian dialogue is occupying Th-Sa, so an already unusually busy week of classes, meetings, interviews, a first year event (and, yes, an opera) have to be compressed into three very busy days. Won't have much time to think..!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Brooklyn Samothrace

Spotted some dramatic modern dance out the window today -
a pigeon preening with most elegant abandon!

But I was mistaken about one thing:

it was a pas de deux!

Mercan dialects

Now here's a fun map! Turns out there's only a small region where people speak entirely unaccented American English - the thin yellow striped area from Nebraska to Ohio. Lots more to discover!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Good citizen

Depending where you're sitting, you'll either be pleased or appalled to hear that I have agreed to continue as Chair of the First Year at Lang for another year. I know, I know, six years is plenty, I'm burned out, it needs a fresh pair of eyes, and besides, I need to learn to say no! But wait: it was my idea and I'm doing it on my terms. I'll only be covering the fun parts: working with the peer advisers and the alumnae/i teaching Reading NYC courses. The dreary work with departments on First Year Seminars will be taken on by the Associate Dean.

Why'd I do it? Several reasons. For one, I really do enjoy those parts of the program, a lot. For another, I'm not confident that a replacement - let alone a placeholder - Chair would bring to them the care they deserve. (In particular, Reading NYC is my baby, and I want to make sure it survives.) This connects to the sense of desperation I've been picking up from the Dean's Office: they've been unable to move on a new Chair since they feel we need another year to absorb the implications of the just-completed Strategic Plan to know what the first year program will be the first year of. I get that.

And don't worry, I'm not doing this for free. I get my course exemption, which means that I can hire someone to take over one of my classes. And as it happens, just days before making my offer to the Dean's Office I realized that someone who could do a socko job of teaching Spring 2014's "Cultures of the Religious Right" would be in the City just then and in need of support...

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hard cases

In "Exploring Religious Ethics" I've been giving the class half an hour each Wednesday to discuss whatever issues they want. We've done the "speed dating" thing twice; for the last two weeks, students who had brought in a problem or question got to spend 15 minutes with two other students, one of whom then had to tell the rest of the class what their discussion was about. I hope they're noticing that most of the problems are lost in translation, at least in part.

We seem to have at least three approaches. A first kind takes an everyday experience. For instance: your roommate's girlfriend (whom you don't like) keeps eating your oranges; what do you do? These lose least in translation and make for the most helpful and generalizable discussion - though there's a temptation also to get personal.

A second kind is more the sharing of a perplexity: something is troubling in ways the questioner can't quite put her finger on. While it loses detail in translation (I won't try to summarize one), this kind gains in clarity, as the discussion has usually arrived at at least a possible name for what's at issue. ("What's bothering X seems to be...")

The approach which does least well is the most familiarly academic. A student has an issue in mind and imagines or researches a case he thinks illustrates it. For instance: was it OK for robbers to make off with $50 million worth of diamonds from some corporate types who were insured? (It happened at Brussels airport.) Turns out the questioner actually has several questions in mind, not just one. (In this case, questions about victimless crimes, Robin Hood issues, whether extreme wealth is ever legitimate, etc.)

I suppose there are several morals to this story. Grounding ethics in actual experience (1) is helpful, and sometimes life gives you lemons. Life is complicated (2), and it's worthwhile spending time trying to name what's going on. Thought experiments (3) are hard to design, since they're supposed to keep the complexities of life out... but might be illuminating if understood as a variety of (2).

The next step in our explorations should probably be focusing on how the generation of cases, actual or imagined, is part of ethical discernment and deliberation. It's not that life poses questions and we try to answer them, but that things happen and, in our efforts to understand them and respond int he right way, we describe other cases, similar and contrasting, from our experience, from history, literature and the news, or abstract. And it goes on...

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Suddenly Spring

The trees out my office window are in Spring swing, but it wasn't until I got to Brooklyn this evening that I realized that Spring is fully here!
My new low-light camera lets me share the walk home with you!

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Healing the world

My "Buddhism and Liberal Arts" advising tutorial continues to be a blast. In principle we've been working our way through a chapter of Hsiao-Lan Hu's This-worldly Nibbana: A Buddhist-Feminist Social Ethic for Peacemaking in the Global Community, but, as ever, our discussions have been wide-ranging. Hu challenges traditional Buddhists and many new agey western Buddhists to think socially rather than individually about practice and effect, which aligns nicely with the activist culture of our college. But she also argues against "oppositional" thinking, even when thinking about oppression, directing us instead (with inspiration from peace and conflict studies founder Johann Galtung) to look beyond actual violence to the structural violence that makes it possible, and beyond structural violence to the cultural violence that makes it seem natural. (Good politics even for non-Buddhists, methinks.) Oppositional thinking is ineffective politically, she argues, but also bad for those thinking and acting in those terms, as it takes them into the territory of the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion. It's a rich, dense, exciting book - a bit advanced for people without much background in Buddhist studies, perhaps, but full of useful provocations and sources. A mere meditation-for-wellness view of Buddhism looks pretty wan in its light - which was my intention in assigning it.

Nevertheless, the pleasure of this gathering for me has been precisely the experience of a non-academic engagement with Buddhism, and wellness and meditation are the concerns of several of my students. When I invited that masterful Tibetanist to join us a few weeks ago I thought he was liberating them from this concern, but that just goes to show how unmasterful I am. Remember I thought that he had parried a question about Buddhism changing your brain by evoking the monstrous beating heart of a lama who had grown extra arteries to cope with heart disease - surely we didn't want Buddhism messing with the core of our fleshly being like that, I thought! I thought it was supposed to be grotesque, but not, it turns out, the student who asked, who today told us he has found hope in it for healing a number of serious medical conditions he's recently and suddenly encountered. Buddhism interests him precisely for its promise to work "on the cellular level," knitting his broken body back together.

I suppose, with Hu, I have a similar hope for the social body... How much we can learn from each other! We have another visitor next week, a Vietnamese meditation leader and researcher on mindfulness practices in organizations. Is it OK to be having so much fun?

Vegetable souls

The first Sunday after Easter is when we hear about "doubting Thomas." There must have been a time when he was condemned for his lack of faith; the moral of the story certainly seems to lie in the risen Jesus' words: Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. (John 20:29) But this Sunday was yet another "I love Thomas!" sermon. Is it because I go to an Episcopal church that I can't remember any sermon which doesn't defend and even celebrate his skeptical empiricism, or is it par for the course in our secular age?

In any case, the preacher - a visitor from a Haitian-American congre-gation in Connecticut - asked us if we were more like the "Thomas before," who saw and followed Jesus and hoped he was the one, or the "Thomas after," who knew he was the one but saw him no longer. An interesting question, I thought. Until I walked out of the church into Spring, which blows my mind every year. Agog I told a fellow church member that, since I grew up in a desert, Spring comes each year as a surprise to me: I know it's coming, of course, but I'm still amazed every time, as though it might not have happened. "Like Thomas?" I wondered. (Easter would be a different thing without Spring.)

Spring does indeed blow my mind each year, and it's hard not to feel gratitude, along with awe at how very thorough and well-coordinated it is. There seems intent here, if not quite intention - in the sense in which someone can be very intent on something.

I was made to think about this again by an an episode of "Nature" to which my father sent me a link called "What Plants Talk About." Turns out that in time lapse films, plants look for all the world like animals, sniffing out resources with their roots, jostling each other for light, and communicating with each other and other organisms through the release of smells, etc. A wild tobacco plant switches from nocturnal to diurnal blooms when it's had enough of night moth pollinators and wants hummingbirds who don't produce pesky caterpillars. Some plants poison other plants' roots, while sibling plants' root systems don't compete as they would with strangers. Forest canopy Douglas firs send nutrients to their light-starved young via networks of mushroom roots.

The narrator closed with this bromide: So if mother trees can nurture their own kind, if plants can recognize family members and communicate with their friends and foes, how are they doing it if they have no brain, no way to organize or integrate the information they receive? ... Maybe we're not quite as smart as we thought we were and perhaps plants are a lot more intelligent than we ever imagined.

Two researchers profiled in the show mentioned possible answers to the question. One is spliced with the closing words: "There has to be something that's doing this integration, we just don't know what to look for." The other, coming in the description of the forests of the Pacific Northwest, is the idea of a "self-organizing complex system." Not mentioned (even once!) was natural selection. "Animal-like" behavior isn't incompatible with natural selection - just look at us animals!

The show is mind-bending fun, but it shrinks from asking the really interesting question - or maybe it deliberately leaves us just at its threshold. Plants engage in "behavior" just as animals do; maybe our animal and even human "smarts," our "intelligence," are more like the lives of plants than we think. The ancients thought that we had vegetable souls or natures, as well as animal and rational ones. What the study of self-organizing systems is showing us is that phenomena like behavior, intelligence, even intention emerged from simpler levels of phenomena - emerged and still emerge. Maybe a lot of our behavior - even some of our most sophisticated behavior - is more like the behavior of systems that do it without brains. Now that's mind-blowing!

There's not really a connection back to Thomas here, I'm afraid, at least I didn't plan one. It just seemed like a way of consolidating two blogposts into one. (People's sermons routinely do that, starting with some random non-religious thing before segueing to the religious - I just did it in the other direction.) Or... but... ?

Monday, April 08, 2013

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Marriage and beyond

My colleague at Tenured Radical (we do gather some fantastic people at The New School!) has provided an excellent resumé of the social justice case against marriage, a case which has been largely drowned out by the unexpected and not unwelcome prospect of wedding bells for all. 

This talk of happier children (who become crucial if you believe that marriage is designed almost exclusively for reproduction) deliberately diverts us from the queer case against marriage, a civil rights strategy that has implications for children but posits that there are far greater stakes to the marriage debate than the psychological well-being of children or adults. The argument goes like this: marriage narrows, rather than expands, the framework within which social justice and economic rights can be delivered. Why does it do this? Because marriage then becomes the normative condition for delivering social justice, it further marginalizes alternative forms of kinship and mutuality, and it confines the delivery of economic/social rights to those in state-sanctioned unions.

In other words, rights are something you get by agreeing to the social contract of two-adult family units that are recognized by the law. Hence, activisms that make marriage central to equality (the euphemistic phrase “marriage equality” has subsumed the phrase “gay marriage” in common parlance just as abortion rights are now “the right to choose”) obscure many other ideas of what equality might look like. They flatten differences that queer people and radicals have cherished over the years: households, kin and economic networks that celebrate many different kinds of connection. Finally, they makes a lack of access to rights into a “bad choice” rather than an effect of unequal access to economic resources.

People are made for relationship, I do believe, and social recognition of those relationships is important in many ways. Growing up without the hope that your relationships could be recognized - could be worthy of recognition - is, as Jonathan Rauch recalled in a debate rebroadcast on this morning's "On Being," a pain and sadness people on the inside of social favor can hardly imagine. (It took James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room to make that point to me, the only book I've ever stayed up all night to read.) But what Tenured Radical calls "America's romance with romance" narrows our appreciation of relationships, putting all eggs in one basket. To kinship and mutuality add friendships too, in all their forms. Do they also need or deserve social recognition or even promotion? Perhaps. For the children, for all of us.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Spring in the air

High time for another stroll through the Brooklyn Botanic Garden!

A few blooming magnolias and cherries. lots of daffodils and hellebores and lingering snowdrops, early tulips and camelias, something blue, a greenhouse fern and a bonsai momiji looking out the window, and others getting ready to happen (above red are peonies in the making!).