Friday, November 29, 2013

Claes encounter

Claes Oldenburg's spoon and cherry, over a frozen pond, by the Walker Art Center. Evidently this monster, inspired in part by the Betty Crocker spoon logo, has become an icon of Minneapolis. I learned that, and much else, in a fascinating exhibition devoted to Oldenburg's early work in the 1960s, against the backdrop of which these megaliths - and all that preceded them - make a bit more sense. Pity, really, that New York's Times Square didn't get his proposed erect banana, half-peeled.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

False but good

As you may know, I often start "Theorizing Religion" with a 2x2 grid, representing the possible answers people might give to two questions: Is religion true or false? Good or bad? Good-and-true and False-and-bad don't describe all possible options. I promise that several the most interesting things we'll be reading are in the false-but-good box, though I sometimes find myself tempted by its contrary, the true-but-bad.

From the false-but-good corner, this word from China. In the Communist Party's official newspaper Wang Zuoan, head of the State Administration of Religious Affairs, has apparently written:

We should pay great attention to the eagerness of religious believers, foster the positive contents of religion, expound upon religious doctrines which accord with the development needs of society ... guide religious believers to have correct beliefs and follow correct practices, carry out the religious principles of reconciliation, benevolence, tolerance and moderation.

Nice religion lives! Maybe we should introduce him to the compassion industry and the Fetzer Institute for Love and Forgiveness?

Minneapolis skyline

Last photo before the sub-zero temp zapped my camera battery...

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Perfect shape

My friends J and A have opened their home to this wonderful beast. A mutt from down river - Minneapolis adopts many, apparently - her name is Daisy. And she's won my cold cat-loving heart completely!

Riverine reflections

Visited the Frank Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum this morning. It's perched next to the bridge connecting the two parts of the University of Minnesota, the Mississippi winding below. Here's part of Maya Lin's lovely "Silver River - Mississippi" of 2007, a view of the river itself, with Canadian geese flying southward, and two of the museum, one from partway across the red and yellow bridge (notice its colors reflected in the museum, and the icicles below!), one through frost from the bridge's covered walkway.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


Late afternoon view from my friend J's office on the 14th floor of the Social Sciences building, University of Minnesota on a bright cold day.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Beyond pluralism?

Sunrise over Baltimore, as seen from the 14th floor of the Marriott Courtyard Inner Harbor. AAR is nearly over for me - I'll attend another plenary and a panel and a half, and it's off to Minneapolis for a few days and Thanksgiving. It's been fun watching two Lang fellows - a faculty colleague and a student, both named Michael - navigate their first AAR, though I wish it were one of the more focused ones. The myriad panels, almost all of which one must miss as they are packed something like 50-deep (90 including SBL!), are overwhelming in number as well as specialization and jargon. Specialists can seem to be going to a hundred parallel conferences, never overlapping.

Sometimes, however, the big plenaries (chosen by the president) bring luminaries together around an exciting theme. This year's theme seems to be the rather passé topic of pluralism. The plenary by Karen Armstrong was like a TED talk for toddlers; the conversation with Diana Eck apparently even less interesting. Perhaps today's plenary on public presentations of pluralism will change that (hope springs eternal).

In the sessions themselves, however, pluralism is over, or taken for granted. Bringing world religions together in peace and mutual understanding seems a bizarrely abstract idea, and not just because we gave up on "world religions" years ago. We understand now that living in muddled worlds with multiple religious sources and resources is something like the norm, and that at no scale are people or peoples defined simply by a single identity or commitment (though it's interesting to study why and when they think they are, or say so). There seem to be few papers on pluralism, and many more going beyond that rather brittle concept to the messier realities of religion lived with others and other traditions. One session I attended (admittedly one on World Christianity) engaged syncretism, dualism, dual or multiple belonging, contextualization, vernacularization, indigenization, acculturation, blending, hybridity, bricolage and what a Catholic panelist called pansacramentalism. As many other panels are about intersectionality - how distinctions of every kind (race, gender, class, sexuality, etc.) are interwoven with the others in complicated and challenging ways.

Pluralism looks pretty simplistic by comparison. But I have to admit that if it's old news in the American Academy of Religion, it's still big news in the wider world, and something fervently to be wished for elsewhere. It's the ethos of much of the teaching of "world religions" attended by numberless students in our universities, and the structuring assumption of my own field "comparative religious ethics."

To be honest, pluralism lies at the heart of my understanding of what I'm about as a scholar of religion, too - recall my mantra that religious studies is the discipline that reminds us there is no consensus on the real. Just last week I had to defend Diana Eck's case for pluralism (students were dismissing her arguments as ideological too quickly!) and became almost maudlin in describing how the encounter with another religious tradition - an other tradition - can be thrilling and humbling in a religious way: God (or whatever) is greater than any of our traditions, that greatness experienced as much in the incompatibilities of our traditions as in their commonalities. You can't have it all, but recognizing this is a powerful thing. Lee Yearley calls this feeling spiritual regret. Can one still feel that if one's understanding of religion insists on human messiness all the way down?


Made my escape from Baltimore just in time - Minneapolis isn't just warmer than Baltimore, but out of reach of that messy storm back east!

Sunday, November 24, 2013


The hotel I'm staying at for the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion is in Inner Harbor, a very recently built up area southeast from the main wharf area where the National Aquarium lies, about 20 minutes' brisk walk from the Convention Center. At the heart
of these new hotels, shops and restaurants is a roundabout with a big gilded object. To the untrained eye it looks like public art. Even when not surrounded with Christmas lights, its wavy golden flames look cheerful. Come closer, though - something I fear few do - and dark
shapes emerge in the golden flames, shapes which eventually reveal themselves to be hanged bodies. This is no ornament for an office park or luxury hotel; it's the National Katyn Memorial, erected on the 60th anniversary of the Soviet massacre of 20,000 military officers in 1940. Somehow it upsets me greatly to see it in this so unsuitable setting, and I've found myself walking over to it repeatedly as if to console it. Inner Harbor must have looked quite different in 2000. Perhaps the flames rose over the water and into an open sky? Now it's hidden in plain sight.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Lives of Great Religious Books

The happy family of which my book is one of the newest members!

Friday, November 22, 2013


Greetings from Baltimore! Those are chessies floating there...
Who knows what other discoveries await?

Seasonal shift

The last of the leaves are still clinging to the branches in New York, but by the time I return next Saturday, I imagine they'll all be gone. Before that I'll be in Baltimore - busing down this morning - for the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, and much more foliage, and then in Minneapolis, where the leaves disappeared weeks ago.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Life partners

What will it look like when gay marriage is fully recognized? Perhaps something like this: The US President giving the Presidential Medal of Freedom to two great Americans - in this case astronaut Sally Ride and civil rights leader Bayard Rustin - who, having passed on, are represented by their surviving spouses. That these were same-sex spouses matters not a whit, only their enduring commitments to each other.

New School religion

Poking around the digitized catalogs of the Adult Division, I found this course taught by Heinrich Blücher - Hannah Arendt's husband - in 1955.
It's one of ten courses in religion listed. You'll notice the one by Walter Kaufmann above Blüchers; there are also no fewer than four on Buddhist philosophy! There's reason to think there was an eleventh religion course, too, The Old Testament: Its Meaning for Today by Erich Fromm.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


It sometimes happens that issues from different courses I'm teaching align - always fun - but I wasn't expecting that to happen this semester. "Theorizing Religion," "Who New: A History of The New School" and the "Teaching and Learning Seminar" for peer advisers, three entirely different courses in entirely different fields? And yet it's sort of happened this week, over a surprising thing: the oddity and ubiquity of the "neutral" liberal state.

In "Theorizing Religion" we've finished the run-through of the great texts in the field, and entered the end zone which complicates and updates them, confronting them with contemporary pluralism, secularism and post-secularism, post-colonial, queer and lived religion perspectives. Yesterday's readings were from Tisa Wenger's We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom, an engaging account of a debate in the newspapers over the status of dances among the Zuñi and others. The dances had earlier been described by the Protestant missionaries working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to assimilate and "civilize" the Native Americans as varieties of paganism, demonic or debauched, and called costumbres by the Zuñi themselves (they used the word religion for their Catholicism). Starting in the mid-1920s a group of modern artists, anthropologists and feminists ushered in a new understanding of the dances as themselves religion. This protected them under the US constitution's protection of religious freedom, but brought all the baggage of the "modernists" (who liked their religion "primitive" and timeless).

It's a fascinating story. It also left us right smack in the middle of recent arguments that the category of "religion" is a legal category, defined not by scholarship or practice but by the state... and perhaps serving nobody's interests so well as it does those of the state. Yes, religions are protected from each other's judgment, and individuals from abuse by their own traditions, but all decisions are made by legislators, officials and, ultimately, judges. I'm not sure there's a better way of managing the religious field (Winnifred Fallers Sullivan's The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, central among these arguments, doesn't see an end to the tunnel either) but it's a bit of a rude awakening after months of imagining that the only players are religious folk and scholars, however dogmatic!

In "Teaching and Learning," this week wraps up the "Sex and Safety" section, run for us by university health educators and student health advocates. The overarching approach is "harm reduction": it's not the school's business to tell you whether or not to be sexually active or to use intoxicants, but whatever choices you make, we want you to avoid harming yourself or others. Sex should be safe and consensual, and drug or alcohol use controlled. Each year there are a few students who think this curriculum endorses sexual activity and drug use when it should be discouraging them (aren't illegal drugs, well, illegal?) but the health educators explain that it's not for them to question people's life choices. It's the stance of public health. What's proven not to work is pathologizing behavior, even behavior that may be bad for people: an anti-drug policy wouldn't reduce drug use but would guarantee more overdoses, just as anti-sex policies would produce more STDs.

I'm not suggesting an analogy between the liberal state's view on religious freedom and our university's harm reduction policy on sex and drugs, not exactly... though it might be good to think with! The real reason the liberal state was on my mind was the epoch in New School history we entered this week, when we had decisively become a university with many divisions, graduate as well as a burgeoning undergraduate curriculum, and, for the first time in our history, a residential community. The president who led New School through this transition, Jonathan Fanton, made a point of insisting that a university was not a state - by which he meant that it couldn't be administered by
some kind of democratic referendum system - but in many other ways his understanding of our achieved universityhood was very statelike. You could call it the apparatus of the university as bureaucracy protecting freedom.

Fanton published many of his talks in a book called The University and Civil Society, and among the week's readings for our course were three chapters from this book. Convocation 1994 marked the 75th anniversary of The New School and the beginning of a new era as a residential university. Parsons 1992 Commencement called for an alumnae network of not just rights but responsibilities, including ensuring "visual progress" around the world. And a letter to the university community in 1989 discussed the Matsunaga Exhibit and freedom of expression.

What came to be known as the "Matsunaga Affair" was a huge event on campus. An exhibition of 350 corporate logos by the Japanese designer Shin Matsunaga, on display in the Parsons gallery, included one for the soft drink Calpis which included a crude stereotyped image of an African American. A few days before the exhibition was to close, Lang poet Sekou Sundiata, an African American, defaced it, drawing a big blue X through it and, in the passepartout above, wrote This is racist bullshit and signed his name. Several students subsequently signed, too. Big fracas followed: a work of art (actually a reproduction) had been defaced! Sundiata should be condemned! The image was to be condemned! The exhibition should be taken down because of it!

Fanton wrote of the conflict between "freedom of expression" and "freedom from intolerance and harassment," values he was sure everyone at The New School shared. Sekou (unnamed) had gone too far in trying to censor the objectionable image, but it was great that people had protested. Fanton personally found the image offensive, too. But the university could and should do nothing - not even add a sign indicating that it was aware the image was objectionable. Any reaction would imply that every other object or expression met with university approval, and, more fundamentally, would suggest that the university had the right and perhaps the duty to make such judgments. Fanton hoped the community would understand that the university guaranteed freedom of expression precisely by taking no stands on any question. The exhibition of course stayed up, and heated discussion continued. We contrasted Fanton's view with that of faculty members who insisted that the abstract account of values in conflict ignored the historical setting - a school which had an exemplary record on freedom of expression but nothing like that on anti-racism. What would you say?

I don't want to push the analogy too far, but in each of these classes we came up against the difficulties of the minimal, neutral, merely procedural liberal state. The state, or university, protects its citizens' right to maximum freedom of choice by apparently making no choices of its own. In doing so, however, it permits many behaviors which might be objectionable and in ways which render the public sphere that much more dependent on the absent arbitrage of the state...

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Ni Hao!

Just became a member of the China Institute, which entitles me to a small discount on their intensive beginning Mandarin course, which starts January 13th! (So no India this time.) Together with auditing a course on East Asian religion (in my own department), my China adventure will be starting well before I get there in September 2014!

Monday, November 18, 2013


Tastes of the season: mezze penne with roasted butternut squash and sage brown butter; watermelon turnip gratin with cayenne, savory and thyme; kale chiffonade with oranges, walnuts, cranberries and mint.

Sunday, November 17, 2013


Here's an interesting way to complicate red/blue, north/south, east/west, coast/flyover generalizations. The American Communities Project at American University has broken the country us down into 15 kinds of counties across the land. Worth looking at in detail!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Shared capacities

We had a final information session for the "Shared Capacities" - not not gen ed - Initiative in the Orozco Room yesterday. Free lunch served!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Distant peaks

Courtesy of Facebook a spectacular view of Kanchendzonga (Kangchenjunga) on a bright moonlit night, taken from the window of Revolver Lodge, where I stayed when visiting Darjeeling, January 2012. I don't expect I'll be back in Darjeeling any time soon, but it is looking like I might be going to India this coming January, just for a short visit. Not confirmed yet, but looking like a distinct possibility...

Thursday, November 14, 2013


In New School history this week, we discussed the merger of Parsons with The New School for Social Research in 1970. It was a startling development for both institutions, a bolt from the blue. There was no prior relationship of any kind and, as we've had occasion to remark already, it took time for a true relationship to emerge even after this.
What do the divisions have to give each other? We had the class debate the claim Design and liberal arts (Parsons and the New School) need each other. Because most of our students are at Parsons (most of those in Fashion) and perhaps also because we were half in 1970, the question of what design might offer the liberal arts was not addressed.

Highlights of their arguments are summarized above. You can't quite tell from this, but the contra side rather decisively won! A little upsetting. Beyond basic information available online, liberal arts seems to them at best a diversion, at worst a costly and useless nuisance, to many of the design students. But when I asked (in my discussion section) if there were design skills they thought liberal arts students should learn, they didn't want to there either. The deeper difference really is that between people who are seeking to excel (and find a job) in a given field - the conservatory model, on of my students (a dancer) suggested we call it - and the open-endedness of an education decoupled or at least loosened by design from such questions.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


After more than eleven years as my trusty companion, my backpack is retiring. It's been on every trip I've taken, large or small, from going to school to walking Kailash. I can't quite imagine myself without it.
My grandfather introduced me to the concept of built-in obsolescence, but I don't feel it applies here. I don't think this one was designed to wear out, though I suspect I've shared my life with it much longer than the marketers at Timberland ever planned! Still, I was interested to observe that, after yeoman service, the backpack hit some sort of limit in the last months and several parts of it started to go. The zipper started going wonky at just the same time that the stitching gave out.

In Japan, tools and other objects which have formed an important part of your life aren't just thrown away but commemorated with a ritual of 供養 (kuyô), an interesting mix of gratitude and apology. This rucksack, which was too close to me even to have been given a name of its own, definitely deserves one. In more than punny ways, it had my back.

What might an appropriate kuyô be? I've put it in an armchair (after letting it get some sun, above), but that's not enough. I think I'll let myself be inspired by tailors' and seamstresses' 針供養 (hari kuyô), kuyô for sewing needles, which, after a lifetime of having to press through hard fabrics, are finally passed through soft tofu. One day soon we're going for a walk in the park, just the pack - blissfully empty - and me.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Autumnal colors

(but actually we had the first snow flurries of the winter this morning)

Monday, November 11, 2013

It's a small world after all

map of multinationals shows how obsolete the national brand is. Kraft owns Toblerone but Unilever owns Knorr? Nestlé owns Poland Spring but Coca Cola owns Nestea? Mars owns Uncle Ben's, P&G Braun?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Saturday, November 09, 2013


When folks find out I'm planning to spend next academic year in China, most ask why with some combination of surprise, confusion and alarm. Depending on my mood and who the interlocutor is, I give different reasons, or at least different constellations of reasons. The main reason is of course academic - the recent resurgence of religion in China is important for the global study of religion, including the theory of religion, as also of modernity and secularism. But I have also long been fascinated by Christianity in China, which seems to me an important chapter in the future of Christianity. (This is one reason why there's a copy of a page from a recent Chinese edition of Job in my book.) I'm curious even about the Three-Self Patriotic Movement 三自爱国运动, the officially sanctioned Protestant church in China. The three-selfs - self-government, self-support and self-propagation - were enforced by the communists in 1951, severing all connections with western Christian organizations. They actually go back to the mid-19th century, but indigenization was turbocharged in the second half of the 20th century.

What, I wonder, will it be like to worship with these Christians?

Above: collage of church entries in rural central China by Yuanming Cao.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Back for more!

This year's Reading NYC courses, once again led by Lang alumnae/i!

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Last stand

Yesterday, today.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Teachers gotta teach

It was the sixties in our New School history class, from decolonization and the anti-war movement to the Port Huron Statement and adventures in non-hierarchical education. As we did already last time, we had students in the discussion section act out and continue a dialogue reporting the regularly scheduled exchanges between students and faculty at the newly-minted New School College in, say, 1967.
On a whim I asked all the students who'd played the Students to gather in one part of the room, all the Department chairmen in the other, to confer on ways of continuing the debate. I was with the former and was surprised to hear my fellow Students making one argument after another for the chairs. Sure, this stylized dialogue makes the students sound like children, but it makes the chair sound pretty bad too, no?

So it fell to me to try one sixtiesish argument after another with the whole class - though they could just as well be seen as New School arguments, harkening back to the idea that the school should meet the unanswered needs of their students, the students being the best arbiters of what's timely and relevant. Why not let students determine what they want to learn about and hire faculty as needed? They weren't having it.

Kids wouldn't use such power responsibly, they said, and the self-indulgence this encouraged would wind up only adding them to the population of homeless in Union Square. Just one student got it. Why shouldn't students be able to fire teachers who are incompetent, she asked? Her classmates tuttutted about how every student's experience is different, some sure to punish teachers who were hard on them... until a Parsons student told us how students in her program had recently complained so concertedly about a professor that he was let go. Oh!
Three slides from this week's New School History class. An image of the department store at Fifth Ave and 14th St. which was converted into the Graduate Faculty for the 50th anniversary in 1969, and whose slogan was once inverted by students: 14th street value at Fifth Ave prices!


A 1968 New Yorker cartoon my co-teacher J found which marks the Adult Division's civic status - yes, we did offer courses on humor! And my rather cheeky juxtaposition of our newly chosen mascot, Gnarls the Narwhal, and his predecessor as mascot, the ubiquitous Hannah Arendt.

In case you haven't seen this one, too

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Guilty pleasure

It's been a while since I taught Mircea Eliade's essay "A New Humanism," the editorial kick-off of the new journal History of Religions in 1961. (Last year Hurricane Sandy gobbled up several class sessions, so it was dropped.) While I'm no partisan of the history of religions approach to our field - and in fact start my course with its great critic Jonathan Z. Smith - this essay inspires me every time. I'm not sure how I feel about that.

The new humanism of the title is Eliade's hope for a kind of revival in human civilization to be ushered in by the study of religion. Just as the renaissance humanists regenerated western civilization by reconnecting Europe of its roots in classical antiquity, so the study of religion will let us restore our humanity after the devastations wrought by modernity and the monotheistically-inspired colonial history-makers who have "desacralized" the world. From Oriental and "archaic" societies (India and aboriginal Australia, for instance) we can relearn that human beings cannot make meaning by sheer force of will, that time destroys all things, and that man's "thirst for the real" is best answered in religious ritual and myth, as well, in a derivative way, as in the arts.

Eliade thinks of the study of religion as both an academic field and a spiritual practice - and as the potential savior of the world. It can go to the head of a scholar of religion! The problem is... Well, we now know (and you might recall) that Eliade consorted with fascists in Romania, even getting his central conception of sacred and profane from a teacher named Nae Ionesco who was the inspiration for a fascit group. There's something more than notionally antisemitic in the celebration of cyclical time and folk traditions rooted in ancient soil, and there are shades of transmuted Christian antisemitisms in the characterization of modern irreligious man as constituted by a series of refusals and denials, seeking the empty freedom which comes with killing the last god.

Since these revelations of Eliade's youth, he's damaged goods in American academe. As you know, however, I'm in a way even more troubled by the enthusiasm which which his ideas were accepted and celebrated in postwar America, the way his quest for a way out of history and politics and cosmopolitan complexity spoke to cold warriors and to the counterculture too. My version of bearing self-vigilant witness as a German isn't exhausted by the memory work of "never forget" but extends to culture critical worry that "it could happen here."

I don't think that the study of religion has to carry this antimodernist proto-fascist baggage, but every time I return to "A new humanism" I have to admit that my heart sings. My own understanding of religious studies is only a little less messianic - it's not just a compensatory discipline making up for what overhastily secularized other disciplines ignore, but a call of conscience to all the academy. You've heard my mantra before: religious studies is the discipline that reminds us there is no consensus on the real. This is a quite un-Eliadian view, I'm relieved to note, closer in fact to Weber. It's a call to recognize and wrestle with complexity and difference rather than seek a way around it. But I feel a certain kinship with Eliade in my insistence on speaking of "the real," as if religious studies alone is able even to recognize it...

Monday, November 04, 2013

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Lit hum

You may have heard that interest in the humanities is waning among undergraduates - measured, at least, in terms of their chosen majors. The situation isn't quite so simple. Although the percentage of graduates majoring in humanities has fallen (though the percentage has been stable for the last 30 years) the number of humanities majors recorded by the National Center of Education Statistics has actually been rising. Compared to other liberal arts majors we're even doing pretty well. The big story is really the growth in non-liberal arts majors, which signals a change in college's role in American society. From a certain point of view, what's remarkable is that the humanities continue to hold up!

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Hudson River school

An old sailing ship happened by just as I was in Fort Tryon Park today.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Brooklyn window views pretty amazing, too

Even (especially!) on a grey day the colors glow bright

Hangin' in there

The Lang courtyard trees survived a surprise morning squall without losing too many leaves! But can they make it through the weekend?