Monday, September 30, 2013

Page 99 Test

I got to contribute to another blog! Check it out in larger print here.

For some less carefully honed words about the book, here's an interview I gave the school paper. The student who interviewed me had not, she told me afterwards, heard of the Book of Job before being assigned the interview, but she was glad to have learned about it. She added that she'd done some research on it (she didn't have access to my book) and reassured me that everything I'd said squared with what she'd found out! The next day I happened to see her and asked, a little apologetically, if she'd been up all night transcribing (I talked her ear off). No, she said, she'd written it out from memory, and only then gone back to the tape for details. Just sayin'.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Gray matter

Just read a first book about religion in contemporary China, and it's amply confirmed my religious studies excitement about going there next year. Purdue Sociologist Fenggang Yang's Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Community Rule (Oxford, 2012) surveys the place of religion in China before, during and after various communist measures at control - or, during the Cultural Revolution, elimination - and develops a broader theory of religion to make sense of it. A great place to start exploring!

Yang challenges secularization narratives as well as the "new paradigm of religious vitality" in recent US religious studies, the idea that China has never been religious (Hu Shih) and also the view that China has always been religiously pluralist in a "diffused" way (C. K. Yang). China is better explained as a religious "oligopoly" - several religions are officially recognized by the state, all others repressed - and an object lesson in the futility of religious regulation.

The main theoretical proposal is a "triple-market" understanding of religion. When what is permitted (he calls it the "red" religious market) doesn't meet everyone's religious demands (he takes from Janos Kornai the idea of a "scarcity economy" found across communist societies), a "black" market of underground practices and communities emerges. The costs of participation in the black market are high, however, so a third market emerges, a "gray" one, which includes the forbidden activities of members of permitted religions as well as alternative religions presenting themselves non-religiously (as culture or folklore, as economic driver, or - as in the case of Qigong - as health science). If all these are included, China seems religiouslyvibrant beyond most estimates, and likely to remain so as long as the government tries to manage the religious sector.

It's a rich and intriguing thesis, engaging many of the broad theory of religion questions I love to discuss. Yang rejects those views which suppose religion culturally or historically contingent, something which might not be a feature of some societies and will in any case disappear from any society as it modernizes, but also those like the "new paradigm" which presuppose an unchanging demand" for religion among all people which religious organizations seek to meet. As Yang reads the Chinese evidence, religious demand, at least "active demand," does seem to ebb and flow in response to changing environments.

Despite its title, though, Religion in China offers itself as a contribution to the sociology of religion as a whole, not just the study of a region; indeed, Yang scorns regionalist views (like the exceptionalisms bedeviling the study of religion in America) as unscientific. Leave the search for the "idiosyncratic uniqueness" of particular regions to the humanities, he says (10). Fighting words - but I can understand his desire to shake up a sociology of religion seeking universals in European and North American experiences but seeking culturally specific phenomena - if anything - everywhere else.

The book does leave me wanting more texture in its account of China, though - and not just, I think, because I'm in the humanities. Yang rightly questions the "new paradigm" assumption that the story of religious change is the story of competition among suppliers in the face of a constant demand, but he doesn't provide any account of the nature (and varieties?) of religious "demand" or what drives it, and drives it to change when it changes. By default he winds up endorsing a somewhat flabby version of the "new paradigm" view, a view suggested by occasional use of phrases like "religious" or "spiritual hunger" (144, 152) and reference to a "spiritual consciousness ... waiting to be awakened" (118, see 139). Are all people spiritual, then, needing a religious dimension to their lives? If one think so one should admit it, and, especially if a scientist, give some reasons for others to agree - and explain why it doesn't express itself consistently in "active demand."

I have no doubt Yang has interesting and considered views about all this, just not in this book. But on reflection I find that these are precisely the questions most interesting to me - and the ones which make me think that a sojourn in China would be so edifying. There may be better ways than thinking of religious "demand" but I'll let it stand. What I want to know is what the oligopolistic Chinese past, always with attendant black and gray markets, has done to understandings of cosmos and society. More recently I want to know how religious "demand" has been shaped by violent collective traumas, massive social disruptions, collectivizations, the Cultural Revolution, the one child policy, and the future shock of contemporary China's top-speed transformations. Etc!

Friday, September 27, 2013


It begins again!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Credit is due

The official release date of the Job book isn't until October 23rd, but I have now seen my first copy that someone other than me purchased - a friend got it delivered overnight from Amazon. We're officially in previews! What happens next is detailed in a long "marketing plan" I got in the mail yesterday, a rather overwhelming campaign of "personal calls to many major media outlets in the United States and in the United Kingdom," galleys sent to assorted "book review editors, radio and television producers, and online media (blogs, etc.)," copies of the book and a press release sent to even more, displays at academic meetings and advertisements - all backed up by the Press' connections to 5000 bookstores, maintained by 10 sales representatives always on the road. From the letter I learned also that the book is appearing both in "print and e-book" format! So a few more copies may sell...

It's high time I make clear how many people have contributed to the book's appearance - something I wasn't, due to inexperience, able to do in the book itself: I was assuming the press would ask me late in the process for Acknowledgments - an unnumbered page so not important in the typesetting I thought - but they never did. Not that giving credit everywhere it's due is easy, either. I'm an ambient learner, knowingly and unknowingly transposing things rather quickly from one context to others, and inspired and sustained by many people who might not even have known much more than that this book was happening. (A list of intellectual debts would start with Victor Preller, who taught me how to understand the slow round of faith, argument and ritual, and Jerry Schneewind, who taught me how to think historically about ethics and ethically about history, but the list would go on and on - and few folks on it would even know I'd been working on Job!) I did ask all sorts of people for advice along the way but I didn't pass the manuscript around among established scholars or colleagues.

Working with Princeton University Press has been a dream, as my project passed from one brilliant professional to another, from the commissioning editor Fred Appel and his assistant to the copywriter, picture editor, typesetter, cover designer, indexer, publicist... It takes a village! The outside readers were critical and generous - one let me know who he was, and we skyped through a meticulous line-by-line edit.

The most important help and inspiration turns out to have come from students and ex-students, so it was appropriate that I shared a bottle of pro secco tonight with three - Kendall Storey, who works in publishing, Nick Laccetti who helped with the manuscript (more below), and Candace West, who was there way back when I first taught about Job in "The Problem of Evil" at Princeton years ago. Missing were only members of my two Job courses at Lang, the syllabus of the first of which - a freshman seminar my first semester there - it was that got me the commission to write this book in the first place. And Brian FitzGerald, another Princeton alum who has inspired me ambiently over the years, who provided indispensable advice along the way and was the first person to read through the whole manuscript, patiently skyping with defensive me for hours over matters of diction, definition and direction.

Everyone in the Spring 2010 Lang seminar course on readings of the Book of Job deserves mention: James Angelos, Will Baker, Nate Cummings-Lambert, Chantel Duhamel, Teresa Franco, Peter Lamson, Liz Light, Helena Martin, Kingsley McCandless, Liana Russo. The joy and challenge of spending serious time with serious (but not too serious) people over Job helped clarify what it was my book could and should try to do. Much from the class discussions found its way into the book by way of this blog. Come to think of it, merits an acknowledgment of its own, as it has been my laboratory not only for intellectual synthesis and exploration but also for working on voice.

My greatest debt goes to Nicholas Laccetti, there for tonight's pro secco, but for whose enthusiasm the book might not have come together. Nick's a Lang alum of unusual learning and insight whose unfailing sense of significance as well as of verbal grace rescued the manuscript from pointless pedantries as well as the more than occasionally teutonic turgidity of my prose (see what I mean?). He also helped me think about potential audiences for the book, their concerns, and how best to address them. If it flies, it's due in no small part to his vision.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Your toes show it

Two poems I haven't really thought about since high school made a return in the last days. The more serious was Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," part of which I read in the course of explaining Horace Kallen's 1939 essay "Beauty and Use" for our New School history course.
I'm not sure my reading was very good (though I did practice many times), but I hope my pluck at least made students sit up and take notice. None would admit to having caught the reference in the Kallen essay or even knowing the poem, so although I joined Kallen in criticizing the poem's desire for a beauty so pure it was immaterial and outside time, one of them might years from now thank me for introducing them to Keats. (The teaching life!)

The other poem is from Don Marquis's series about Archy the cockroach and his alley cat friend Mehitabel (about the same time as the emerging New School, come to think of it). I've tried lazily to recover it several times over the years, finally succeeding last night with some visiting friends. It's quite as splendid as I recalled, though much longer - I remembered mainly the bit starting at line 12 and ending with the beetle saying "amen." I'm not sure where or why I will have encountered this poem as a child; glad to be reconnected to it, though!

the robin and the worm 
a robin said to an
angleworm as he ate him
i am sorry but a bird
has to live somehow the
worm being slow witted could
not gather his
dissent into a wise crack
and retort he was
effectually swallowed
before he could turn
a phrase
by the time he had 
reflected long enough
to say but why must a
bird live
he felt the beginnings 
of a gradual change
invading him
some new and disintegrating 
was stealing along him
from his positive
to his negative pole
and he did not have 
the mental stamina
of a jonah to resist the
process of assimilation
which comes like a thief
in the night
demons and fishhooks
he exclaimed
i am losing my personal
identity as a worm
my individuality
is melting away from me
odds craw i am becoming
part and parcel of
this bloody robin
so help me i am thinking
like a robin and not
like a worm any
longer yes yes i even
find myself agreeing
that a robin must live
i still do not
understand with my mentality
why a robin must live
and yet i swoon into a 
condition of belief
yes yes by heck that is
my dogma and i shout it a
robin must live
amen said a beetle who had
preceded him into the 
interior that is the way i
feel myself is it not
wonderful when one arrives 
at the place
where he can give up his
ambitions and resignedly
nay even with gladness
recognize that it is a far
far better thing to be 
merged harmoniously
in the cosmic all
and this confortable situation
in his midst
so affected the marauding 
robin that he perched
upon a blooming twig
and sang until the
blossoms shook with ecstacy
he sang
i have a good digestion
and there is a god after all
which i was wicked 
enough to doubt
yesterday when it rained
breakfast breakfast
i am full of breakfast
and they are at breakfast
in heaven
they breakfast in heaven
all s well with the world
so intent was this pious and
murderous robin
on his own sweet song
that he did not notice
mehitabel the cat
sneaking toward him
she pounced just as he
had extended his larynx
in a melodious burst of
thanksgiving and
he went the way of all
flesh fish and good red herring
a ha purred mehitabel
licking the last
feather from her whiskers
was not that a beautiful
song he was singing
just before i took him to
my bosom
they breakfast in heaven
all s well with the world
how true that is
and even yet his song
echoes in the haunted
woodland of my midriff
peace and joy in the world
and over all the 
provident skies
how beautiful is the universe
when something digestible meets
with an eager digestion
how sweet the embrace
when atom rushes to the arms
of waiting atom
and they dance together
skimming with fairy feet
along a tide of gastric juices
oh feline cosmos you were
made for cats
and in the spring
old cosmic thing
i dine and dance with you
i shall creep through
yonder tall grass
to see if peradventure
some silly fledgling thrushes
newly from the nest
be not floundering therein
i have a gusto this
morning i have a hunger
i have a yearning to hear 
from my stomach
further music in accord with
the mystic chanting
of the spheres of the stars that
sang together in the dawn of
creation prophesying food
for me i have a faith
that providence has hidden for me
in yonder tall grass
still more
ornithological delicatessen
oh gayly let me strangle
what is gayly given
well well boss there is
something to be said
for the lyric and imperial
believe that everything is for
you until you discover 
that you are for it
sing your faith in what you
get to eat right up to the
minute you are eaten
for you are going 
to be eaten
will the orchestra please
strike up that old
tutankhamen jazz while i dance
a few steps i learnt from an
egyptian scarab and some day i
will narrate to you the most
merry light headed wheeze
that the skull of yorick put
across in answer to the 
melancholy of the dane and also
what the ghost of
hamlet s father replied to the skull
not forgetting the worm that
wriggled across one of the picks
the grave diggers had left behind
for the worm listened and winked
at horatio while the skull and the
ghost and prince talked
saying there are more things
twixt the vermiform appendix
and nirvana than are dreamt of
in thy philosophy horatio
fol de riddle fol de rol
must every parrot be a poll

Spring course

Just finalized the description for my Spring course, a new one:

This course uses Buddhist traditions, ideas and questions to reimagine and renarrate the story of modern thought. After engaging debates about the "invention of Buddhism" in 19th century Europe, the class explores Buddhist influence in the history of western ideas, "Buddhist modernism" in Asia and the West, and Buddhist understandings of modernity and postmodernity in our own time. Students also conduct extended research on a figure or movement of their choice.

Sometimes I think I have way too much fun in this line of work of mine - but at least students and others get to share the ride!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

News cycles

So in Theorizing Religion I've tried something new. Where in the past students were charged with researching and attending some religious festival and writing about it, this year I asked them to find an article about religion in the news and analyze it for implicit and explicit understandings of religion. What the class came up with was a rather surprising roster of articles and "news sources"...

Mohammed Jamjoom and Hakim Almasmari, "Yemen Minister on Child Marriage: Enough is Enough," CNN

Lauren Marcoe, "Ethicist Shaun Casey to oversee engagement for State Department," Washington Post

Renee K. Gadoua, "NY state pastor among Methodists defying church law," Religion News Service

"Exclusive: Vanna White son under the spell of religious cult," National Enquirer

Hamilton Morris, "The Magic Jews: From Manischewitz to mescaline," Vice 

Jed Lepinski, "A visit from the devil: Feared traditional priest from Ghana spends a year in the Bronx," New York Times

Joseph Bottum, "The things we share: A Catholic's case for same-sex marriage," Commonweal

Elisabetta Povoledo and Dan Bilefsky, "The Pope gets on line, and everyone is talking," New York Times

Laurie Goodstein, "Zoroastrians keep the faith, and keep dwindling," New York Times 

Simran Jeet Singh, "Hate hits home: When my friend became a target," Huffington Post

Peggy Fletcher Stack, "Mormons join Hawaii's gay-marriage fight, but with a new approach," Salt Lake Tribune

Jodi Rudoren, "Jews challenge rules to claim heart of Jerusalem," New York Times

William McGurn, "The Prez v. the Pope," New York Post

Phil Plait, "Creationists once again threaten to make a mockery of Texas science education," Slate

Samuel G. Freedman, "A church that embraces all religions, and rejects 'us' versus 'them'," New York Times [source of photo above]

"Brazilian believers of hidden religion step out of the shadows," NPR

Each student had five minutes to present her work, so we didn't get very far into any of them - but enough, at least, to start a discussion I didn't expect, or think we'd need. What is a newspaper? What is a news article? How does a news article differ from an opinion piece or entertainment? What makes a reliable source? Why might it matter?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Coming soon - LREL Fall roundtable

Put this in your calendars - it's going to be fantastic! As ever the religious studies program shares with the larger community discussions and research happening in our classes and beyond. Two of the speakers are faculty, the other a student (inspired by our excursion of Saturday!). Moderator will be yours truly, who might waffle about Bruno Latour...
Your truly is responsible also for the flyer design, an ink painting of the famous story of Zhuangzi (Chuang Tsu), the Daoist sage who dreamed he was a butterfly, then wondered if it wasn't in fact the butterfly dreaming him. The image is by Ike no Taiga, an 18th century Japanese artist - a private nod to my Japanese past and Chinese future.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


Sales of my book are going briskly! Well, I bought twenty copies. But I may sooner or later be confronted with the question of what to do with any royalties I receive. I made a promise way back when I was teaching on "The Problem of Evil" that I didn't want to profit from evil, and the few royalties I received for The Problem of Evil: A Reader went to charity. So too the advance I got from Princeton for this book.

In fact, let me tell you what happened to that advance, for therein lies a lesson. This was in December 2009 (did it really take me four years to write a little book?!), and the New York Times magazine had recently published a cover story by Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof called "Why Women's Rights are the Cause of our Time." This was also the time when microlending was news, so I followed a suggestion in the WuDunn
and Kristof piece and used my $2500 to makes loans through the microlending site Kiva. In the not quite four years since then, I've made nearly 400 loans (most are $25), almost all to women, in lots of countries, totalling over $10,000! Each time I pay the recommended 15% to cover Kiva's overhead, but there's still money available for lending after many cycles of relending. Wow, to be a banker!

My friend L, who has degrees and experience both in religion and in business, recently told me that he thought all liberal arts students needed to learn about compound interest. Without an understanding of compounding they not only take on debt they shouldn't, but fundamentally misunderstand the way the world works. Amen to that!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Big game hunting

New York is full of surprises. So it's pretty much par for the course that I encountered these two big taxidermized animals in the space of the last twenty-four hours, one in the window of a boutique on Madison Ave in the 80s, the other - a whole elephant's head!! - at the Harvard Club.
You'll have guessed it was the Met which brought me to Madison on a Friday night, but what was I doing at the Harvard Club? Truth to tell it was a kind of big game hunting. With three students (religious studies minors all) I attended a luncheon about something called Big History.

What is Big History? A movement, associated with the work of David Christian at Macquarie University in Sydney, to tell the 13.82 billion-year story from the Big Bang to us. Disciplines from sciences and humanities are threaded together like beads - cosmology, astronomy, chemistry, geology, biology, anthropology, archaeology, history - into a narrative that helps students think through the Big Questions: who are we, why are we here, how should we live?

In some ways a very old-fashioned project reminiscent of universal history (I'm reminded of Herder), it focuses on some very new ideas: complexity, "Goldilocks conditions," emergence, thresholds. Students learn to think not only globally but in integrative trans-disciplinary ways and across different scales and levels. And a shared "origin story" undermines ethnic chauvinisms and anthropocentrism and helps people feel "at home in the universe" (a phrase probably taken from complexity and emergence theorist Stuart Kauffman). All to the good, yes?

Our Lang group (I include this photo since it fits the big game hunting theme) had various questions. It needs to interrogate a naive scientism and in any case should be big histories. But the students were very excited by it all, and even started asking me how we might get a course like that of our own. Clearly at least religious studies minors are interested in big cosmic stories, or at least connected ones!

We'll be learning more about all of this as one the students, an Education Studies major, wants to write her senior work on the Big History Project. For my part, Big History is interesting as a phenomenon on the labile contemporary border between science and religion. And, need I add, as an approach possibly congenial to my next project in its sense that answers to human ethical and existential questions cannot be found in humanity alone.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Change is good

What I've so long wished for is finally happening: the first year program is out of my hands! I am in the 7th year of my 3-year term as chair, and have spent Fall of each of the past five years asking the dean who will take over and how I can help her/him transition. I've had my chance to develop something and improve it, I said, but the college and its resources have changed, and I'm a little burned out. The program needs fresh ideas; there's a reason chairs' terms are capped at two 3-year terms. But year after year the dean's office found no replacement and I, with increasing reluctance, agreed to stay on for "one last year." So this is good news. Movement at last! And a college-wide discussion framed in excitingly broad terms. Not "how do we do what we've been doing better" but "what should we do?" Not "what is the best first year program
for us?" but "why do we need a first year program at all?" Of course letting go isn't that easy. These broad questions are ones I tried in vain to get people to engage year after year - everybody seemed to content simply to entrust the program to me without learning anything about what I was doing with it or why - but it turns out I'm more invested in the curriculum I wound up building than I thought I was. I suppose that's not a bad thing - it'd be a sorry state if the chair of a program couldn't care less about the program he was directing! But I'm finding it makes me prickly and proprietary when I mean to be collegial. It took a conversation with a friend who's a dean at another school to make me realize that I need to let go and get out of the way.

(The photo of is of what was St. Vincent's: parts of the old facade are being maintained, but the building has been gutted and will be rebuilt.)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Its legend

Had a very encouraging lunch today with someone who knows a lot about study in China. (He directs a fellowship program.) Contrary to what others have told me, he says it's not that hard to learn to speak Mandarin if one is really committed. Two of his fellows started from scratch this summer, devoting themselves to two months of intensive nothing-but-language, and are now skyping him in Mandarin. So my tentative plan to do an intensive summer program (perhaps at Middlebury) and then head to China makes a lot of sense to him... and now to me, too. (My Japanese will clearly help a lot with the written language, too.) His further suggestion - to arrive in China without too many introductions, as every introduction will lead to others. Chinese people are very friendly, he says, and go to great lengths for others.

He is himself originally from China, and is convinced that everyone who goes there will fall in love with it. Everyone except, well... he's heard that people who love Japan tend to hate China. I've heard that too. Guiltily I told him about my trip to the Palace Museum in Taipei, where nothing particularly appealed to me until I spotted something that turned out to be a gift from Japan: d'oh! It was a failure, not a victory, I assured him, one reason I need to go - to learn how to appreciate Chinese culture! But I was also remembering a display of bonsai for sale we'd seen on the sidewalk on the way to the restaurant. His reaction had been "You can get them for a tenth the price in Chinatown!" Mine was: "In Japan, nobody would display them like this, each one should at least look like it's a unique tree..."

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Back to front

The majority of students in our New School history class this year are students from the design school, many from the school of fashion. So our exploration of pedagogical, cultural and political debates of the early 20th century holds limited interest for them. Happily their first assignment involves reading through a dozen pages (each a different set) from the New School scrapbooks we helped get digitized, and each student seems to have found something to pique her or his interest.
As I was going around my discussion section asking pairs and groups of students what they had found, one group had a startling response. Didn't the scrapbooks - primary sources! - give them a sense of the past, I asked? "They're great," said one, "but they look too perfect." What did he mean? "They look photoshopped!" Another kindly explained to me (who presumably was too pre-digital to know this) that many people nowadays photoshop images to make them look just like these!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Seeing what's not there

Leading a fresh crop of students through David Hume's 1757 essay "The Natural History of Religion," I realized anew how deeply my approach to the history of ideas (and other things) is indebted to Jerry Schneewind.
It was from Jerry that I really learned how to do history of ethics - our cohort of graduate students at Princeton were lucky enough to be able to work through the just-published anthology Moral Philosophy from Montaigne to Kant put on by Princeton's Philosophy Department (though none of its students stayed in the class...!), as Jerry was putting the finishing touches on The Invention of Autonomy.

My Schneewindianism came out today reading the very first sentence of Hume's work: there are two questions in particular, which challenge our attention, to wit, that concerning [religion's] foundation in reason, and that concerning its origin in human nature. Hume's focus will be on the latter, and everyone now sees that the former was a foil, needed to conceal his skeptical project from the censors. But what's most interesting is what's not there. Has religion no foundation beyond reason and human nature? Revealed religion has lost the game before it even starts.

What we learned from Jerry was that some of the most eventful shifts in thinking happen when someone simply drops what had been a standard part of a problem. (It's like when modern ethicists argued that there are no duties to God, just duties to others - without mentioning that, for centuries before, it was thought there were three sets of duties: to God, to self, and to others.) They usually don't say that they're dropping it, so a reader has to know what came before to appreciate what's just happened -
especially in game-changing works which have shaped the subsequent direction of thought.

Not every dropping is the same. Sometimes it's polemical, sometimes it's sneaky, often it makes explicit a change in the topography of thought which is already well underway, maybe even as good as done. As Dewey said somewhere (or was it Rorty?!), philosophical problems are not solved but forgotten.

Monday, September 16, 2013

New School history in a nutshell

Had a chance to give a 20 minute history of The New School today. It was to the seminar fellows (peer advisers to the first year class) and an effort to offer them resources for their discussions, as well as some storylines they might use. It wound up being a resumé of greatest hits of Mark's personal mythology of the place!

One of our alums was visiting the class, and had said that the old official history wasn't really that interesting to him: archiving his own personal history there was more important. This made it a little hard to try to get people born in the 1990s thinking about 1919, 1933, 1943/44 and 1970/71, my hop-skip-and-jump history, but I think I did alright. Happily the resources I'd assembled were almost all from a student's point of view, so I could with conviction argue that The New School, more than most, has been made by students, their personal histories becoming its official history.
I framed my tale with the commencement speech Jean Rohe gave in 2006, protesting the invitation of John McCain to be the speaker - delivered in front of thousands, just a few meters from where McCain was sitting. (Rohe was, of course, the orientation speaker this year, so it would connect well for first years.) Rohe gave us our graduation back when she said that McCain "does not represent the ideals on which this university was founded," and traced her protest in the "tradition of great political thought" of which The New School had been a part. So... what ideals? what tradition?

We start in 1919, an act usually linked to the struggle for academic freedom, but I folded the founding into a different question. What did "social research" mean? And how did a school offering courses in social sciences and current events wind up in just a few years a center of the modern arts? (An example from a little later.) Could it be that the arts are a form of social research? That making your personal history through exploration and experimentation is a kind of research, can contribute to a body of research on our times and how to live in them?

1933 brought us the University in Exile, a story I was shocked to hear nobody knew. (One student had heard that we brought a lot of Germans over! Umm...) I offered them a telling of the history connected again to student protest, delivered as part of a teach-in by the anarchist student group New School in Exile in 2009. No dusty old history this, nor a self-serving institutional one!

1943/44, which brought us the BA program (GI Bill!), set up the story of the New School as a inside-out trickster school that started with university extension, then added graduate degrees, then completion of BA degrees started elsewhere, offering a full 4-year BA - where everyone else starts - only much later. But throughout it was a place committed not to credits, degrees and disciplines but to the continuing educating of the educated - offering whatever courses the times demanded.

1970/71 gave us the Parsons merger and the establishment of the Freshman Year Program which would, 16 years later, become Lang. Only now did "traditional age" undergraduates come to school, live in dorms, etc.: a big culture change! And harbinger of another: I allowed myself to observe that, as the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament teach us, it takes forty years to change a culture - Parsons and New School have only really started functioning together since 2010!
Winding up, I told them how J and I are trying to get more information about students' experience of the school, something remarkably hard to do but each time revelatory. The cherry on the cake: Clara Mayer, forgotten but for the memory work of our librarian and unofficial archivist Carmen Hendershott. Mayer ran the school for forty years! But she started as a student. And she seems to have been the reason why they started offering courses in psychology and the arts... This place is what you make it!

We ended with a recording of a "Shout Out," a spoken-word poem by Sekou Sundiata, coming full circle - Sekou who had been instrumental in our visiting alum's experience of the place.

... Here's to the crazy, the lazy,
the bored, the ignored,
the beginners, the sinners,
the losers, the winners,
the smooth and the cool
and even to the fool
to the rule-benders and the repeat offenders,
to the lovers, and the troublers,
the engaging, the enraging,
to the yearless and the fearless
to the fixers and the tricksters
to the was you been
to the is you in
to was deep in deep
to was down and down
to the lost 
and the blind
and the almost found. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Mountain man

The professional photographer who was part of our Kailash group has posted some of the thousands of pictures he took. They're spectacular: check them out! (The starscape at top is over Lake Mansorovar.) My only question - who is that shaggy mountain man in some of the pictures?

Friday, September 13, 2013

Mugging like an author

Wednesday's interview requires an author's photo - what to do? I found one I liked, taken by my sister on our trip to Canberra - a detail of a picture with one of my nephews on the Telstra Tower overlooking the city at dusk. One of my friends thought it made me look "satanic," an issue for the author of a book on Job, but everyone else liked it.
Unfortunately, however, it's not enough pixels! So we needed a new one. My housemate and I laughed our way through several dozen unusable ones with me trying to look like I wasn't posing, finally settling on this. I look a little supercilious, but in just the right "I write books" way. And I'm happy with the background - a poster I picked up in Taiwan (you may have seen it my living room) which catalogs some of the thousand manifestations of Amida. No claim to be a biblical scholar!

There are secret meanings too (I love those). The poster's in a language I can't read (don't ask me if I read Job in the original!). And my book catalogs some of the thousand manifestations of the Book of Job.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Board games

After a week rather ventilated by holidays (Labor Day, Rosh Hashanah), the school year has well and truly begun. As evidence I offer you images from my two academic classes. Above, carefully mapped concentric circles represent the philosophy of education of Nicholas Murray Butler and the squiggle that of John Dewey as the New School history class discussion section wrestled with foundational questions about the nature, purpose and methods of education. Below a loosely-organized brainstorm from this year's Theorizing Religion class on the old chestnut, "what is religion?"

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

On the Job

Had a very pleasant chat over the phone this morning with someone writing a profile of the author of the Book of Job: A Biography for Publisher's Weekly. She hadn't had a chance to read more than a few pages of the book but the interview was to be about how I'd come to the topic, etc., etc. - and my view of the field of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament studies. I had to make very clear that I'm no Biblical scholar nor pretend to be! But what should I pretend to be? Job isn't a lifelong obsession, my bread and butter, the text that will not let me go.

She sent me some of her past profiles, and they're engaging little portraits, so I got to thinking about what might make a good lede for her. I came up with something - we'll see if she takes me up on it!

It's a true story: my first real encounter with the Book of Job was through the Torrey Pines High School theater program's production of Archibald MacLeish's J. B. I wasn't Job. Nor was I God, or Satan, or one of the friends (or Mrs. Job, for that matter). I was a bearer of bad tidings, indeed, I'm remembering, all the messengers. I reread the play a few years ago and those are small parts but hard. (What I really remember - I didn't say to the interviewer - was that I had to come on stage as a jerky journalist and smack a woman on the butt so hard that the audience could hear it but without causing pain; it was barely in my power to do either; the breakthrough came when the girl playing the other part threatened me - if I didn't get it right, she'd smack me back in the show so the audience could hear; the audience heard my smack.)

What I talked about instead is how one of the distinctive elements to my approach to the Book of Job is an awareness that I am not Job, nor God. You know this already - it's all about the friends, who are, yes, lousy friends. But they're there throughout, and Job's friendships are restored before anything else is. (He doesn't get twice as many and/or better friends, as he does everything else.) They are where we could enter the story, even as it warns us to expect failure. I do not come to Job, I explained, out of grief or tragedy of my own - another thing I thought I should make very clear. I am troubled and fascinated by the hard call to be witnesses. And friends.

Starting with J. B., rather than church or shul or seminary or tragedy, I was ready to talk about storytelling and ritual and performance... But she had interesting questions of her own, which it was fun to answer. The other predictable one was about my next project, so I tried to describe "wider moral communities" in a few words, and conceded that there was perhaps a connection to Job: in the theophany, with its suggestion that the human story isn't the only story there is, and isn't a story that can be understood in the breach without knowing the stories of many other kinds of beings.

I'm curious to see what she picks up from our conversation. 500 words is long enough to tell a story... Maybe she'll mention Deborah Bird Rose on Job's dog, something I babbled about because she told me her dog had his head on her lap as she was interviewing me!

(The drawing by Hirschfeld is from the 1958 premiere of J. B.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Monday, September 09, 2013

O ye of little faith

You'll recall, perhaps, that we will feature at least two ways of "starting the story" about The New School in our course. One is the familiar Columbia story, according to which professors indignant over Columbia University's firing of pacifists during World War 1 headed downtown to start a better university, explicitly dedicated to academic freedom. The other could be called the Croly story, and suggests that the Columbia folks stepped into an already ongoing concern, the idea of "new schools of social science/research" developed not from a university but from a magazine, The New Republic. The New Republic's editor, Herbert Croly, wrote a long article about the need for "A School of Social Research" in June 1918. The school's first buildings were around the corner from the New Republic office on Ninth Ave, and many board members as well as its first president came from the New Republic too. It's quite a different story if we're born from the head of a university or a magazine!

More on that anon. But rereading the Croly essay (we've assigned it, along with the original "Proposal" and works on education by Columbia's president Nicholas Murray Butler and John Dewey), I find grist for another of my mills. The essay argues for a school like the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques (now "Sciences Po") in Paris, bringing science's experimental method and practical learning to educate people who will provide the expertise and administrative acumen required for complex modern societies to thrive. Without such people - and Croly clearly has no faith in universities' ability to produce such people - civilization's in grave danger. Technical advances exacerbate class conflicts, and for this and other reasons everyone's giving up on human nature. The new school will be founded in the faith that science can give back to mankind some of the security and integrity which its own capture by individual, national and class particularism has jeopardized.

Yay science! But Croly's final paragraph ends all religious:
A "restoration" of religion? Are we to conclude that religion was part of the New School story not just with the secularization theorists in the 1960s and their critics in the 1980s, with Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1950s, with Jacques Maritain in the 1940s, with the "Religion - Why?" series of 1932, or with Horace Kallen's course "The Function of Religion in Social Progress already in our second year, but from the very moment of conception? Yes and no. Croly was, by some accounts, the first baby in America baptized into Auguste Comte's "religion of humanity"! The "new faith" whose birth we were to "anticipate by education" was humanist - but no less religious for that.

Can't you see it? The New School: A Religion.

Saturday, September 07, 2013


I don't get out New York much - out into the New York environs, that is! So it was a rare treat to hitch a ride to Cornwall, up the Hudson River a ways, today. Crossing the George Washington Bridge and following the Palisades Parkway, we were rolling up and down wooded mountains just an hour after leaving the city! The purpose of the excursion: my friend S, an Episcopal priest, was being officially "instituted" as rector at the church where she's been serving for much of the last year. The institution is a heavy duty service, presided over by a bishop, and in more than one way like a marriage service: vows are exchanged. Cornwall's a nice little town, but with more churches than churchgoers I suspect. It'll take lots of energy, vision and faith to lead St. John's Episcopal into the future. I wish both partners well - they're an appealing couple, already happy together.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Job prospects

Well, I'm told that the advance copy of the printing of The Book of Job: A Biography has arrived at the university press office, and is being sent on to me, a brace of author's copies soon to follow. It's really happening! And as if to confirm that this really is more than a private fantasy coming true (how often have I said "it's due to appear in September 2013" without quite believing it), someone's just asked to interview me for the AAR/SBL insert of Publisher's Weekly. Time to gird my loins!


Currently on at the Rubin Museum of Art: an exhibition devoted to prayer beads. Most are, unsurprisingly, Buddhist and indeed Tibetan, but the case below has Hindu, Christian and Muslim exemplars. The docent showing us around emphasized that prayer beads are very personal, and it was tempting to imagine thumbs and fingers making their way around each one we saw, the beads making their own rounds as mouths and sometimes the rest of bodies worked their way through deepening iterations. There is a rack of prayer beads for visitors to finger, but without even a photograph of a hand, or a video of prayer 
beads in use, or a soundtrack of prayer beads clicking, the overall effect was static and lifeless like a gallery of x-rays. In a few places, however,
I sensed the curators doing the best they could, I guess, to mime this movement. I'm assuming the delightful play of shadows in the case at top was planned, the shapes looping and combining and intersecting in beautiful ways. And then there was this thousand-bead one from Korea, which a monk apparently used to mark his three thousand daily prostrations. (When people sought an audience with him they had to follow him on his rounds, we were told; most never made it through the three thousand prostrations - finding they were well on their way to enlightenment before that!) It speaks of spooling and unspooling time.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Mapping the new

There are people who wander through google maps looking for spatial and temporal anomalies. I'm not one, but I noticed one that's close to home. If you look at the neighborhood around the New School's new University Center - a cleared building site. Samefor streetview! Zoom in, however, entering their 3-D mode, and it shoots upward (though the image is still more than a year old - compare)! Wonder when it'll update to show the now complete skin...

Tuesday, September 03, 2013


After days of muggy heat - I have no air-conditioner, and there's only so much you can do with fans - the cool breeze flowing through the apartment feels like a brook of pure crystal water.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Fact values

One of my colleagues has turned me on to the amazingly creative writer Kim Stanley Robinson, a writer who wears the label science fiction with pride:

It’s often struck me that the name “science fiction,” in some ways so inaccurate and wrong, is actually extremely powerful anyway, because the two words can be translated into “facts” and “values,” and the fact/value or is/ought problem is a famous one in philosophy, and often regarded as insoluble, so that if you call your genre “fact values” you are saying it can bridge a difficult abyss in our thinking. 
This means frequent failure, of course, as it is indeed a difficult abyss. But it is a strong claim for a genre to make, and I’ve come to love the name “science fiction” and dislike very much the various replacement names that would supposedly rehabilitate or make respectable the genre: speculative fiction, fabulation, the fantastic, etc. None of them have the power and historical heft of science fiction. (source)

Robinson's good at both the fiction and the science part - apparently he routinely includes detailed description of technical innovations that pass scientific muster. I've picked up his recent 2312, and so far so good! Not forty pages in he tells you how to hollow out an asteroid (at least 5km in diameter and 10k long) and turn it into a terrarium for earth habitats. Rotate it fast enough and you can replicate the force of gravity centripetally on the inside of its walls, so you get a kind of wraparound world. (By 2312 there are "innie" and "outie" settlements throughout the solar system!) A properly timed lighting element along the axis replicates the effect of a terran day. It sounds simply gorgeous. The lights from a village overhead twinkle like stars at night!

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Love of the world

As the new semester settles into a rhythm (actually, holidays will knock us right back out of that rhythm this coming week), I'm finding a little time to think about other, longer-term projects. The big one, I suppose, is the "next project," which I have to introduce to the world at AAR in November as "Wider Moral Communities." A second is what to do in 2014-15, when I'm due to be on leave, and am close to deciding should be very significantly about China. You'll doubtless hear lots about both of them in the coming months and years. For now, some glimmers of the next project.

There is a sense in which the next project is simply what everyone everywhere is doing - well, lots of people in lots of places - varieties of what you might call posthumanism or postanthropocentrism. The human story isn't the only story any more and, as importantly, can't be understood only in its own jealously protected terms. Put this way it probably just sounds like "religion," but I'm as interested in the ways this thinking crosses over from the sciences.

I suppose a seed was planted way back when I was at Princeton when a group of students asked me to supervise a reading group around E. O. Wilson's Consilience:The Unity of Knowledge (1999). Wilson can sound narrow on human culture but the idea that the universe is shaped by self-organizing systems at various irreducible levels, among which are the dynamics of social animal communities like our own, is an exciting one.

Yet I'm intrigued also by thinkers like primatologist Frans de Waal's championing of what's usually critiqued as anthropomorphism; it's from de Waal that I got the notion that we were moral before we were human: demonstrable similarities among species make it not just defensible but important that we use previously exclusively human categories when discussing animals. Questions along those lines come up, for instance, in observing animal mourning. The new horizon: "morality" or "mourning" are no longer quite the same if they are not a human monopoly (though we may still count as specialists, perhaps). Or even, perhaps, an animal monopoly... or an organic one? We're not the only show in town, but the show, with a vastly bigger cast, is still our show too...

Some of the people who look at these questions call themselves "new materialists," a movement I need to get to know better. From a few first glances this movement seems to move beyond the matter/spirit dichotomy not by denying the existence of spirit or mind or whatever (as did materialisms past) but by insisting that everything thought to be immaterial must be found in matter if anywhere. This reminds me of what I've long been calling "religious naturalism" but something's very different about it. A friend who knows more about this than I suggests that it is still different from the impulse driving me (an impulse he shares) because new materialism understands the world as ultimately meaningless, and I'm trying to track moments of unexpected meaning.

My sense is closer to one mentioned by Natalie Batalha, a NASA scientist interviewed by Krista Tippett on "On Being" this morning, who finds even shadowy dark matter to contribute to a sense of being at home in the universe.

Ms. Tippett: I sense that this life of discovery that you're involved in does bring you back to think about something like love differently. That it informs and somehow infuses your thinking about that. So talk to me about that. 

Ms. Batalha: Yeah. This has been the surprise to me actually that my perspective on love has been so informed by science, but it has. It's been fundamentally shifted, you know. And then I read other scientists who've had the same perspective and it all kind of makes sense. I mean, Carl Sagan's quote, you know: "For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love." This love, this idea, is this moving force. I mean, it just permeates our history, our culture. I've equated it to, you know, this analogy of dark matter. 

Ninety-five percent of the mass of the universe being something we can't even see, and yet it moves us. It draws us. It creates galaxies. We're like moving on a current of this gravitational field created by mostly stuff that we can't see. And the analogy with love just struck me, you know, that it's like this thing that we can't see, that we don't understand yet. It's everywhere and it moves us. And science has given me that perspective, but also in very logistical, tangible, practical ways, you know. I mean, when you study science, you step out of planet Earth. You look back down at this blue sphere and you see a world with no borders. 

You see a tiny mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. You see the expanse of the cosmos and you realize how small we are and how connected we are and that we are all the same and that what's good for you has to be good for me, you know. I mean, it just changes your perspective.