Monday, February 29, 2016


Religious studies - and Meredith McGuire's Lived Religion - are doing well in the wonderful land of NerdyLang!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Philosophical futures

So, how's the Future of the Philosophy of Religion looking, nine papers and discussions later? Last time I was surprised to find myself comfortable thinking of myself as a philosopher of religion for the first time in a while. This time I'm not so sure. Our discussions were wide-ranging and satisfying in lots of ways, but the things I most resonated with came from folks who, like me, aren't mainly teaching philosophy of religion. For example, there was a fascinating paper abut the way Judaism and variously assimilated Jews were all over the modern definitions of philosophy and religion. Another, inspired in part by Ta-Nehisi Coates' locution "people who believe they are white," wondered why we treat "spiritual" beliefs differently from those involving bodies. Another found in Cassian's concept of discretio a way to think about mediating the perspectives of subfields from theology to cognitive science. And then there was the observation that there is no correlate to "human nature" in Buddhism, no idea of nature, really - and, to the extent there is, not a human one. These are still, I think, questions more likely to turn up in a religious studies setting. If an updated "philosophy of religion" names the space where these come together (is it really different from theory and method?), sign me up!

The symposium was (again) a reminder of my rather anomalous existence at an institution which - as I put it at one point - had no full-time person doing religious studies the year I was on leave. Other participants (and not just the majority with tenure) seem to me almost too comfortable in their assumption that there will continue to be departments of religious studies - not to mention positions in philosophy of religion. (For that matter, that "the university" and "the humanities" will survive in their current form.) In a splendid setting such as the one we were in, office of the president of the university until he moved to something even grander and now the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, it's hard to feel the precarity I feel at the ever-New School... The convener told us that he'd started these meetings precisely out of a concern that the future of philosophy of religion - as a job description, not just a vocation - needed some serious thought. Maybe a book of essays will come out of it all, showing as well as telling what a valuable thing philosophy of religion (of the kind we were doing, at least!) is.

And what about the Anthropocene? Is there anything the philosophy of religion has to offer? I come out of this discussion thinking it might. Religious history has its share of apocalyptic movements, and it's hard to avoid sounding apocalyptic when talking about the Anthropocene. (It's also easy to imagine that the broadening waves of disaster, displacement, etc. occasioned by climate change will feed their share of new apocalyptic movements.) Parsing how this situation is and isn't like the earlier ones might be something the right sort of philosopher of religion could do. A world religions version of what my colleague Ken Wark calls "Anthropocene Denial Bingo" is imaginable, too (yesterday's unanswered plea to the Book of Job is an example). And what I suggested in my talk yesterday - reflection on ways in which our very category of "religion" might be fueled by and fueling the unsustainable carbon civilization from which we must learn to wean ourselves...

(The eye-like image above, by the way, is what you see when you look from the ground floor of our symposium building through an opening to the second-floor chandelier.)

Friday, February 26, 2016

No hook for Leviathan

A funny thing happened to me on my way to the Anthropocene. My contribution to the "2nd Symposium on the Future of the Philosophy of Religion" was a thought piece on what role phil-of-rel might play in making sense of the Anthropocene, a set of questions more than any answers. (I started by saying "I won't pronounce on the Anthropocene - I don't even know how to pronounce it!") The funny thing is that it wound up taking on more than a few features of the structure of the Book of Job.

I started by naming three recent Anhropocene-related things I'd encountered around The New School (Roy Scranton's Learning how to die in the Anthropocene, Ken Wark's Molecular Red, and a talk Amitav Ghosh gave a few weeks ago), and then offered some insights from each which might be useful for us to chew on - along with a fourth, a talk Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing gave at Barnard called "A Feminist Approach to the Anthropocene." I could have listed this at the start, of course, but it wasn't New School-related, and it let me make a joking aside about the Book of Job (and also Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, a four-volume "trilogy"). I also found her insights particularly exciting, and liked their showing up unannounced. Then, after I proposed some rudimentary ways we might as philosophers of religion engage each of those points, my talk ended. "I'm out of fuel," I said, "over to you." I was waiting for the discussion to help me figure out what I haven't figured out yet. I was going to let the discussion play the part of God's speeches in the Book of Job.

It's probably just a coincidence, my too-associative mind at nervous work. But as I think about it, a talk on religion and the Anthropocene patterned on the Book of Job might be a cool thing. Job too, after all, encounters a breakdown of expected patterns of causality in his world, and neither he nor his friends are able to make convincing sense of it; the fourth friend makes at most a little headway. Sense, when it comes, it sublime and inhuman - the divine speeches are about everything in creation but the human. And then, well, then comes an ending none of us really likes: things can't really go back to the way they were, can they? They do, in the biblical book, and both the God who wagers with the Accuser and the God who controls the morning stars, the ostrich and the great monsters disappear from view.

Is there a meaningful sense in which the theorists of the Anthropocene (and today's discussion made me realize anew how hard it is to say anything helpful or human-sized about it) are in the same situation as Job and his friends? Let's see. Who is Job in this case? The people - and other animals - whose lives been upended by anthropogenic climate change, I guess. The best of received wisdom is missing its mark, for reasons they don't know. (Only the reader of the book knows about the wager in heaven.) But we do know, sort of. It's not some deus ex machina letting us prove some point. And it seems of the essence that, by contrast with the biblical book, the way things were is over, never to be returned to. Hmmm. Perhaps I'm in really in denial: we're in the dark, as Job and his friends were, but there's a reason, and it's just an aberration, even if they never find that out.

So (this was one of my questions in the talk) will we find all of our old religious resources wanting, articulated, as they were, in those stages of the holocene when regularity, cycles, balance were the basis of reality?

Thursday, February 25, 2016


Greetings from a different 4th-floor walkup than my usual. I'm in a big room on the top floor of a rather classy brownstone B&B in Boston! Just up the road is Boston University, where our symposium on the future of the philosophy of religion will take place. I finished my talk in the bus on the way up - just in time!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Is their impatience at an end?

Tried something fun in "Performing the Problem of Suffering" class today, but I'm not sure it worked. The topic was whether the Book of Job should be read as a whole or approached as a composite of multiple authorships which we, as readers, are free and perhaps obliged to take apart. Students have to write a paper in the next weeks considering how the structure of the Book of Job addresses the problem of suffering. After that, they'll have to memorize a 10-line passage (from any edition, translation, even language they wish) and recite it, explaining why they chose it. So today we explored the issues around the book's seared surface, in part through reading aloud.

Introduction: One book or two? The common distinction between the "patient Job" of the prose frame and the "impatient Job" of the poetic dialogues, and the different views on which came first: a pious tale hacked, or a profound poem coopted

Read aloud together:
David Rosenberg's rendering of Job ch. 3 (24 slides like these)
What did that feel like? (discussion)

• the poetic view and jazz-like voice of the Job author
• Rosenberg's inclusion only of Job's speeches (chs. 3-35), an extreme version of the "impatient Job" school

Text historical scholarship suggests more parts (authorships?) than just frame story and poetic dialogues. Who remembers what they are?
• Elihu, and Carol Newsom's account of him as the "first reader"
• ch. 28

Read aloud together:
Job 28: 1-2, 7-15, 20-28 (King James Version, these 6 slides)
What was that like? (discussion)

Lecturette: Much hinges on what we make of this: who is speaking?
• most translations today separate it out with a title like "hymn to wisdom"; it almost certainly an insertion, may well have an independent origin
• but before chapter headings and text-historical research made it thinkable to parse a Biblical text this way, it was assumed that it was spoken by the person speaking in chs. 27 and 29: Job

Read aloud together:
same but preceded by 27:1, 13-23, without interruption (9 slides in all)
What did that feel like? (discussion)

Lecturette: Newsom's suggestion that the poems (including Elihu and 28) interrupt the pious tale of the frame story, a tale whose arc continues to shape the book.

Activity: the pious tale must have included exchanges between Job and his friends - now lost - which were quite different from those which displaced them. With a partner, try to reconstruct what those exchanges might have been like. Job's words might be familiar - like what we see in chs. 1, 2 and perhaps 28. But what do his friends say? We'd run out of time so sharing and discussing what happened there had to happen in the later discussion section.

How'd it go? Everyone was involved (they had to be!), and the discussions were vigorous and surprising. Students had strong and interesting reactions to the visceral and contemporary language of Rosenberg's translation - most appreciated it. A little unexpectedly, the students really liked the "hymn to wisdom," even in the archaic-sounding language: one illuminatingly commenting that it had a liturgical quality. But what really caught me by surprise was their willingness to consider that these might be Job's words (obvious to premoderns but well nigh unthinkable given what we know about the history of the text today). In vain did I point out that the remaining fourteen chapters of the book hardly seem necessary if Job already knows all that at 28. The "impatient Job" was all but forgotten, not to mention the God who addresses him.

Judging from my discussion section, the final activity fell flat. Maybe this is because 28 does offer an easy way of thinking about the whole; even Job's quest for answers is really just a rhetorical exercise - everyone knows that wisdom isn't accessible to us human beings, including him! So they didn't imagine the "patient" Job's friends might have asked some of the questions taken up by the "impatient" Job of the dialogues.

(I played the friend with one of the teaching assistants as a smarmy-pious Job. I encouraged him to protest the injustice of his situation - he mustn't forget that he's innocent! I accusing him of being a fool for his unchanging expressions of faithful acceptance. I even suggested he pretend to repent so God would give him what he in any case deserved. I don't know where those came from - some from Job's actual speeches, but some also from the responses of some my atheist students to Job.)

It's an interesting exercise, though. If I have a chance to do something like it again, I think I'll set it up a different way. I'll keep the structure of today's lecture - savoring the voice of the rebellious Job first, and then something more "patient." It might be a good idea for the poetry of the two readings-aloud to be more similar in style than Rosenberg and KJV, too. Maybe I need to assign a vindication of the "impatient Job," too, not just the meliorist ways of keeping the whole book in play of Newsom and Cynthia Ozick (and, last week, Elsa Tamez and David Clines). Maybe we do Rosenberg first, let people appreciate the power of the idea that Job's speeches can stand on their own and are smothered by the rest. (Needless to say, Rosenberg doesn't include 28!)

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Deus absconditus

What words might you use to define "religion"? We filled half a board!

Monday, February 22, 2016


The Dean's Office has been asking students to share their readings, a great way of communicating that we're an intellectual community - and inviting the curious into the worlds of our seminars. This week @nerdylang features one of ours, and oh does she do us proud!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

What I yam

I love cooking with new ingredients: sorghum, hominy, today it was yams. My patient friends are good enough to put up both with my anxieties ("no idea if this is how it's supposed to look/taste") and with their occasional confirmation - perhaps be- cause amazing deliciousness (like this!) sometimes emerges.

Animal warmth

I finished reading this little book today. It's the book version of the essay whose title I'll be gesturing at in my reflections on the future of the philosophy of religion on Friday. It's a well written diatribe, which starts with a bracing synthesis of the evidence for galloping climate change and a depressing review of the failure in political responses to it at every level . Then comes a rather grim assessment of human destiny: Roy Scranton thinks the inevitability of conflict is something we've been sheltered from by optimism about "infinite perfectibility," an optimism itself floated by the promises of unending growth made possible by carbon capitalism in the last few centuries. ([San Francisco: City Lights, 2015], 22)  An unsentimental but somehow beautiful history of humanity in the context of the opening and closings of eras and aeons in the history of life on earth follows.

It's not a pessimistic book. There is hope that humanity can survive in the Anthropocene, in new cultural forms - but only if we learn to "die" to the desires, behaviors and expectations of fossil fuel civilization. Needed is a "new enlightenment," a philosophy of interrupting natural-seeming flows of feeling and fear. (That philosophizing is learning to die, Scranton reminds us, has been known since Montaigne, citing Seneca, invoking Socrates, though Scranton also has Dōgen's Zen in mind; the interrupting language comes from Sloterdijk.) And although we're doomed to fail - all of us will die - there is hope yet in memory. A reading of Gilgamesh offers it as an emblem for a concrete hope. Not only does it survive, but it itself preserves a memory of even more ancient times, including a civilizational shift - that from agricultural to herder - perhaps as jarring as the one we'll be going through as the carbon civilization bites the dust. The cosmos, an oracular ending which quotes the Bhagavad Gita and sounds Spinozan and Nietzschean bells intones, started with a flash of light, a light which we too participate in and can take some kind of comfort in being part of.

I can't follow to the end. It was bothering me already with the inescapability of Heraclitus "compulsion of strife," and really lost me when this was connected to our "animal" selves.

But while dying may be the easiest thing in the world to do, it's the hardest thing in the world to do well - we are predisposed to avoid, ignore, flee, and fight it till the very last hour. We are impelled in our deepest being to struggle against it. Every time you feel hunger or taste ambition, every time your body tingles with lust or your heart yearns for recognition, every time you shake with anger or tremble in fear, that's the animal in you striving for life. (88)

Animals are mentioned before in the book - the many species doomed to go extinct because of the Anthropocene - but there are no further references after this one. This is a problem. I don't think that the "ambition" and "recognition" named here are follies of other species. They connect more (on Scranton's own account) to our supposed distinctiveness as meaning-makers, but Scranton's sublime hope lies in imagining meaning-making as somehow inorganic, disconnectable from our animal life or, indeed, any life. The transcendence of death he offers is figured as light, not warmth.

I'm surely not the only person to think that we've made such a mess of things in part because of our inability to be merely animal, our sense that we must leave (or are entitled to leave) the animal behind for reason, will, light. (This is a familiar feminist criticism of the supposed dualism of mind/body so important for modernity, and confirms other feminists' worry that the very name "Anthropocene" reinforces the mayhem-producing machismo it claims to call in question.) Even following Scranton's narrative, I feel more solidarity, sympathy and community with other animals - the species still alive and yet to come - than with humans already dead. Indeed, my sense of the Anthropocene as a great (if unwitting) crime against other life forms makes me feel the more aware of the life we share with other species - plants, too, of course - and the incredible interdependence that has made human flourishing, such as it is, possible. From this perspective, Scranton's view doesn't just look like another iteration of the problem he is diagnosing. It smells of fossil fuel! The image of light from the big bang which might also glow in our philosophizing seems a spark from the worldview of a civilization which can no longer imagine its own life, a reflection of the furnaces of coal mines, not the light of photosynthesis. We're all not only already dead, but already fossils.

Scranton cites Arendt - required, I suppose, since he studied at The New School! But it's the wrong Hannah. He cites from On Revolution Arendt's claim that only our continuing to work over human history "saves" us from "the futility inherent in the living world and the living deed" (99). But what about natality? Imagining newness - the newness that erupts confoundingly all around us, emblematically in birth - is the hardest thing. There's none in Scranton's book, for all his manly cheer. (I'm not claiming moral superiority here. My own attraction to affinities between the organic and inorganic may be a failure on this count.)

In invoking natality I hope I'm not playing what my colleague Ken Wark calls "Anthropocene denial bingo." Those many species are going extinct in the Anthropocene, as might we. But life is greater than that. And might we not do better in mitigating the damage our civilization continues to do if we attend to the predicament of all of life? There's anguish there, but maybe not nihilism.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Heights prospects

Prospect Heights is profiled in the New York Times real estate section today, with pictures of many places I know and go. One, surprisingly, isthe Catholic Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph's. But their photo's all wrong. St. Joseph's is all about looking up, not down. Besides, their picture (perhaps taken some weekday morning?) makes it seem like an empty Manhattan church, when the story is rather of religious resurgence.  

Friday, February 19, 2016

Happy end

This is one of the images I showed in the Job course on Wednesday (seventh of twelve). It's from the studio of James Jacques Joseph Tissot, possibly based on a sketch by Tissot himself, completed 1896-1902. What's going on? It's "Job joins his family in happiness," of course!

It's not a great painting, so it might just be that, but to all of us looking at it, it didn't look like a happy ending. Job, for one, just looks old and bitter. He's holding himself, not his new children; you get the sense he would be sitting there in exactly the same way even if he was alone. None of the people are really in the same space with each other, even where they are touching each other. Even the sleeping dogs seem exhausted rather than at peace.

To us today, the picture would be more satisfying if it this were what it intended to show. It would make sense for the two children leaning on Job to be looking for reassurance that they are safe, that they won't suffer the fate of Job's first brood, and for Job to be unwilling or unable to open his heart to them. I'm not sure this artist would have been capable of showing this even had he wanted to, though; maybe it's just a lousy picture. But how does one imagine the happiness of Job's continued life with a new family? Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, among others, thought that might be the book's greatest challenge of all. Perhaps Tissot himself would have succeeded, composing just this ambiguous scene so that through some other painterly magic - unavailable, alas, to the person who completed it - he could show the miraculous achievement of their true happiness together...

It certainly makes a contrast with this one, from the Free Bible Image series we narrated in the same class. There's family joy here and, for something which doesn't pretend to be great art, the suggestion of some depth; older Job's eyes appear to be shut: prayer, remembrance?

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Lux perpetua luceat eis

A well-connected friend got me a good seat for Voices of Ascension's concert tonight, their old standard, the Duruflé Requiem, preceded by a range of other French choral pieces (including three by Lili Boulanger). I went in a little unenthusiastic - the last concert of their I attended was another old chestnut, the Vivaldi Gloria, which left me seriously underwhelmed. But Voices has a special connection to Duruflé... So glad I went! I was transported... first, to the other time I heard it, on the centenary of Duruflé's birth, 11 January, 2002, and at his church, St. Etienne-du-Mont in Paris, no less. But it transported me also to the environs of the world of the dead - in a way the requiem is our version of the "Tibetan Book of the Dead," tracing the route we wish for the dead through the bardo. So much of Duruflé's Requiem has swirling, almost dancing beats. Everything seems in motion, death not the end, the subsiding, the collapse of something but an opening... Might everyone be borne along by something like this music, I thought.

At some point I felt that I was seeing, in some luminous firmament high above, my grandmother - someone I confess I almost never think of. (She didn't believe in firmaments either, I think.) But when I went back to my diary I found that I'd thought of her that day in St. Etienne-du-Mont, too. Perhaps I will meet her every time I hear this piece.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Making a "we"?

Another adventurous lecture for "Performing the Problem of Suffering" went well today (I think). Having promised the class that I would make it as engaging and interactive as I could, I've been pulling out a lot of stops. Today had special challenges. One was picking up the thread after a two-week break and maintaining momentum four weeks into the semester; it doesn't help that we had a charismatic guest speaker last week who screened some powerful videos. Another challenge was talking about issues of ideology and privilege -one of the readings I assigned, David Clines' "Why Is There a Book of Job, and What Does It Do To You If You Read it?", alleged that the Book of Job looks to be a work for a wealthy and leisured public that can afford to be left unsatisfied by its conclusion, as well as a work that accepts and even reinforces vast social inequality: it transmutes the issues of wealth, power, and class into issues of human innocence and the divine governance of the universe. (in The Book of Job, ed. W. A. M. Beuken [Leuven UP, 1994], 4, 10) I assigned it because I think it's important, but how to talk about it as a white male professor with job security, and in 2016?

I got through it with what my old friend Hannah calls "fancy footwork."

Introduction: We'll review a little, then get to new stuff, but first...

Prelude: Discussion of a beautiful, heartbreaking piece in the recent Times, "Death, the Prosperity Gospel, and Me," by a young historian of prosperity religion who has just learned she has stage 4 cancer. Framing it let me talk about the American culture which thinks people's attitude shapes their good or bad fortune, but the main point was this scene:

This is America, where there are no setbacks, just setups. Tragedies are simply tests of character. […] 
It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason. 
“I’d love to hear it,” my husband said. 
“Pardon?” she said, startled. 
“I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has. 
My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.

Bowler doesn't mention Job but we're in Job territory here.

Review 1: Called up key slides from the discussion of the problem of suffering two weeks ago, then...

New ideas: ...introduced two new issues "for your toolkits" in a slide designed to look like a continuation of the earlier discussion. The first was Weber's idea that there's not just "theodicy of suffering" but also "theodicy of good fortune," which I traced back to Marx's understanding of religion as "the general theory of this world … its general basis of consolation and justification" - which got us to the advertised theme for the class, ideology. The second issue was distinguishing first-, second- and third-personal claims about suffering and its meaning. And what about the plural: can there be a we including sufferers and witnesses, etc.?

Review 2: Reviewed what Bryan Doerries had told us, reframed as building a we. I talked a little about my experience seeing the two readings of Job his company did on the anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, in Red Hook and Long Beach, and the expert way his questions channeled discussion and opened up the possibility of a we.

Activity: At the half-hour mark I figured we needed a change of pace, so I told the class about a very nerdy drinking game I'd learned about: find a set of powerpoint slides you don't know online, and try to give a coherent-sounding talk about them, as someone else advances them; if you can't think of something to say, you have to drink. I didn't have any drink for them, I said, and the slide show in question was one whose story they knew, but I challenged them, in pairs, to keep talking through the 22 slides of the story of Job I'd found on a Christian website (and whose swarthy hero was on my title slide). This turned out to be great fun, a quiz and reward for having actually read the Book of Job last week, and left the room buzzing with happy energy.

Images: What about that sort of tropical looking Job, though? It didn't come from the Tropics but from the UK... what were they up to, beyond representing Job as not one of them (as the protagonist of the biblical book isn't a Hebrew)? Instead of discuss it I offered a whirlwind tour of other artistic representations of Job through the ages, a dozen in all, including a New Yorker cartoon and a drawing by one of my students from last time I taught about Job. It was just enough to pique people's interest, I think, and for me to pose the question: how might the character of Job (protagonist, and Book) be represented in an image?

Short lecture: Then the hard stuff: an introduction to liberation theology (our other reading today was Elsa Tamez' remarkable "Letter to Brother Job"), which let me recapitulate the ideology business, and tell them why we'll be reading Gustavo Gutierrez' On Job. If privileged folks' theology sanctifies the unjust status quo, we need to learn to listen to the Bible as interpreted by the oppressed. Tamez, the Mexican Methodist liberation theologian who edited the Bible of the Oppressed, enjoins Job's prattling friends to learn to listen to the suffering. (In the essay, which we went through in the discussion section after class, Tamez asks Job to be silent, too, so we can hear the silence of God which alone allows us - in protesting and responding to injustice - to become freely and fully human.)

Finale: I pointed out that our other author, Clines, too, was a Christian - his belief that every word is revealed is part of the reason he approaches the text so fearlessly. Then I reminded the class of the place in the assigned essay where he indicates that he was inspired to write the piece because, after years of studying Job, he'd had the text cracked open for him by a student at a black seminary he was lecturing at: Why should I be interested in the story of this rich man? the student had said, He has nothing to do with me. (19) Before that, it hadn't even occurred to Clines that the Book of Job takes wealth (and poverty) for granted. His own best readings seemed ideological.

"I should stop here," I said.

And, to everyone's surprise (since we still had 15 minutes of scheduled class time), I did. I sat down. Stunned silence. Uncomfortable but not entirely unpleasant. Everyone was alert, attentive. Eventually a few students spoke. Had I made a we

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Not unsympathetic

In "Lived Religion in New York" today we discussed the approach taken by the Journey through NYC Religions website whose director visited our class last week: "sympathetic objectivity." I was expecting the students to be critical, since students at Lang are reputedly suspicious of everything, especially religion, but found them instead to be remarkably friendly to the idea. Our visitor had us read the start of the website's account of its method.

The usual method of journalists is to start with skepticism in order to arrive at an objective picture, then to add sympathy toward the end of the reporting process. Over time, the reporter’s skepticism can harden into cynicism about their informants and, at worst, about life itself. The public too has become cynical about journalists. The public believes that the journalist tactically fakes sympathy at the beginning of the interviews in order to advance their reporting. ...

Proposed instead is starting with sympathy - "fellow feeling." Convince people of the "sympathy of the heart" behind your interest, and they'll welcome you into their religious communities. (Journey has visited over 6500 in all five boroughs!) As one journalist fan of the approach summarized it,

Get more bang for your buck with empathy first. Open ears and heart makes for better interviews. Skepticism later, if needed.

The site invites us into a debate in journalism which has helpful parallels for an introductory course in the academic study of religion.

While we also highly esteem investigative reporting, we don’t think it is the primary paradigm for journalism. Rather, most reporting in democratic societies should be rooted in a concern for building a healthy social trust and community well-being. Journalism should start with genuine sympathy or empathy, move to objectivity, and then if called for, add criticism. ...

[S]ympathetic objectivity is not about feel good, positive stories. It is about deeply understanding and appreciating what other religious people have to say to us who have a different religion or those of us with no religion. We discover that the religious people are contributing assets to our lives in the city, not just deficits. Of course, from this position of deep understanding we will run across weaknesses, contra- dictions and conflicts that our audience ought to be aware of. That is why “sympathy” is only the first step in reporting, not the last step.

There's much to like here. But... can you really get to objectivity from fellow feeling? The Journey team gets invited in by convincing communities that they genuinely believe that each is doing something valuable which other people would benefit from knowing about (and I'm not doubting the genuineness of their belief here). But how do you get beyond providing human interest stories and community announcements? Even if you're not convinced that religion often has a dark side, how can you be sure what you're getting from a religious community's self-descriptions is "objective"?

Not to worry: as one of my students said, there's no such thing as objectivity anyway! All of us are inevitably biased and we should just admit it.

This seemed the wrong way to resolve the problem. (Problem, what problem?) But I made things worse by appealing to the "hermeneutics of suspicion" (assuming everyone knew this and resonated with it) and contrasting it with a "hermeneutics of charity," more academic ways of making kindred points. I should have known better, or at least not been surprised that these didn't fly. The former's worry that people might not fully comprehend their own situations - or their own minds! - found no takers. And the latter's idea that I need to approach the other as probably right, someone I could learn from, demands a more dynamic openness than discrete moments of fellow-feeling. Nobody was getting why both seem to me - at least potentially - instruments of human liberation, which might enhance the creativity and power of lived religion. Sigh.

I'd forgotten my frustration the last time I taught this course (and that to a group many of whom had just completed "Theorizing Religion") when most the class shrugged off every attempt to introduce sociology, psychology, history, theory, critique. "Lived religion" is personal, I was given to understand, and just as nobody can tell me what my truth should be, nobody can know it as I do. The only approach to it is sympathetic objectivity - empathetic respect for my reality. The Journey's mutual admiration society is just what the doctor ordered!

I need to find a way to assert the significance of academic reflection and complication. In class today I tried to describe the value scholarly work adds as filling in what people cannot, in the nature of things, know themselves. This isn't skeptical or debunking (or not necessarily) - I understand it more as liberating. The creativity and power of lived religion aren't undermined by what we do, but can be enhanced by it, no? Ultimately the project isn't categorically different than Journey's, but there are differences of emphasis, method and audience which it will be helpful for us to articulate.

Monday, February 15, 2016


Guess where I went today? Lincoln Center! Not to the Met (though I confess I did swing by the box office) but to the Film Society, where Jia Zhangke's new film "山河故人 Mountains may depart" has just opened. Amazing film, beautiful, complex, very moving... I need to see it again to be able to say more. I plan to.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Future imperfect

Weekend after next I'll be in Boston, rejoining a conversation whose start I was at. It's a symposium on "The Future of the Philosophy of Religion," and I can't - can't! - believe that it started eight years ago. Makes sense, I guess, when I consider that I was just coming off my leave in Australia, and processing it by thinking about human history on a scale of thousands, even tens of thousands of years. There've been other meetings in the meantime, one which I was too busy to contribute to, another during the year I was in China. What's the state of the conversation, I wonder?

The first one was an occasion for me to reassess my relationship to "philosophy of religion," something I was surprised and pleased to find all the then participants felt similarly ambivalent about. But I have not in the meantime spent more time in philosophy of religion precincts, or even built out my relationship with the other participants. And the year in China reminded me of all my worries about philosophers' approaches to religion - even as, when push comes to shove in an interdisciplinary conversation, I still identify myself as someone "trained as a philosopher of religion."

So what will I talk about in the twenty minutes allotted me for presenting some ideas? I've sent the title "Learning how to do philosophy of religion in the anthropocene," a reference the others may, or may, not catch. "Learning how to die in the anthropocene" was the name of a post by Roy Scranton on the New York Times philosophy blog "The Stone" in late 2013 (I think I remember reading that it was its most-forwarded or most-commented), which has since become a book. (Writing this now I see that it might also seem to refer back to the title of my presentation at the last meeting, "The philosophy of religion is dead; long live the philosophy of religion!" I didn't intend that. I think.)

Scranton's piece didn't blow me away, but the questions it shares with other thinkers of the "anthropocene" are some I'm glad to have a chance to reflect on. My colleague Ken Wark has written a book of Theory for the Anthropocene, and his prolific posts for Public Seminar have helped me discover other interesting interventions, including a remarkable talk Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing gave at Barnard three months ago. And speaking of remarkable talks, our own India China Institute just hosted a conversation between Amitav Ghosh and Prasenjit Duara on "Global Warming and the Rise of Asia"; Ghosh's talk, an overview of a forthcoming book to be called "The Great Derangement," was epic. (It starts 13 minutes in here.)

"Anthropocene" is one of the names proposed for the era in which human beings have become a planetary force - in which our shenanigans affect not only our species but all other species. The main shenanigan is the release of the energy and carbon from the ancient aeons of life we know as fossil fuels. There are other names and theories, and there are good reasons to keep some of the implications of "anthropocene" at bay, but evidently irreversible anthropogenic "climate change" demands a rethinking of most of what we think we know about what it means to be human.

This is a huge sprawly question, of course, and an invitation to grandiosity. Ghosh's oracular eloquence on Friday made pessimism almost glamorous. One oft-quoted passages in Scranton reads:

The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.

Part of the challenge is how to talk about a human agency that is not the agency of any human individual, group or culture (though most have a smaller carbon footprint than a few). Historian Dipesh Chakrabarty pointed out a few years ago that articulating climate change on the planetery scale upends all the usual commitments and sensitivities of history (except perhaps the history of capital). Presenting climate change as having irrevocably affected the agency of every present and future human individual, group or culture is a way of saying this which still sounds like human agency.

So, what about the philosophy of religion? What can we (there, I said it!) add? A cloudy species-wide act which despoiled the future of all humans - and all of nature - sounds a lot like Augustinian understandings of original sin. So what? Augustinian tropes might be spot-on this time but Augustine could have no concept of irreversible climate change: the whole point of original sin is that it is reversible, if not by us. Human beings have ruined nature, but it will be restored. How does a Christian think about deep time, and irreversibility?

Asian traditions seem better at it, but perhaps not good enough. The Dao balances all things. The Book of Changes has a limited number of combinations. Indian conceptions of time are much longer but still cyclical. Scranton's a kind of Zen Buddhist, and thinks this is a tradition which is all about learning how to die - and how to continue to act in a world one knows is "already dead." Can indigenous traditions, many of them mortally wounded by the encounter with the colonial capitalist modernity, tell us something? If so, what? What do we do with it? That might be the profoundest challenge of the anthropocene theorists.

Philosophy of religion to the rescue, to the lifeboats? Stay tuned!

Polar vortex

Last night may have been the coldest night in nearly a century in New York. Under a crisp sky you can see the steam coming from all the chimneys, something you can only see when it's very cold. How cold?
(Fahrenheit conversion: currently 3˚; Tuesday it's going up to 54˚.)

Friday, February 12, 2016


Why, one day after this,

does this

somehow not come as such a surprise?

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Networks and legacies

I usually don't have many visitors come to my classes, but this week I had high calibre visitors to two of them: Bryan Doerries, of Outside the Wire (whose community meetings around readings of Greek tragedies, and of Job, have reached seventy thousand people), spoke to the ULEC on Job and the Arts, and Tony Carnes, editor of the premier website on NYC religion (which had its thirty millionth visitor last week!), came to "Lived Religion in NYC." It's pretty cool that such people are around and available and approachable: welcome to New York City!

I won't summarize their very different talks. I'll just say that Doerries' theater skill in presenting difficult ideas in a challenging but open way shone on Wednesday, and Carnes' journalist's gift for unassumingly establishing people's trust was on display today. I think students were excited to spend time with people whose work they had read/seen, and, through them, to feel connected to networks and communities of others with similar concerns - I know I did. (My cred went up to, too, for knowing people who know people!)

Doerries and Carnes may have accepted my invitation because I'm at The New School, a place important to both of them. Carnes came here to do graduate work in sociology. He said this was "for a religious reason," since he had recently become a Christian and found he wanted to know more about the way people's basic assumptions affected their social behavior - something most sociology departments in the US didn't touch. He didn't stay through the PhD, being a journalist rather than a scholar, but is grateful for what he learned here.

Doerries' life was changed by intensive work as an undergraduate at Kenyon College with a just-retired professor of religion named Eugen Kullmann. From 1947 to 1968 Kullmann taught course in the philosophy and psychology of religion at The New School. Doerries recounts that Kullman taught him that learning added the e which makes the human humane.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Dark side showing

Earthshine, next Jefferson Market Public Library this eve.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Story morals

The Jataka Tales recount the lives - 550 of them - it took for the future Buddha to be able to be born as the Tathagata. I asked the "Exploring Religious Ethics" students each to surf the net until they found one they wanted to share with the class. (The internet is full to overflowing with such tales, which are clearly the Veggie Tales and Aesop's Fables of Anglophone Buddhist parents in South and Southeast Asia - not just Buddhist.) I had the class do this last time, too, but I don't remember the students so enjoying telling each other moral fables. Nor do I recall its being quite such a revelation of students' temperaments! So we got a story about the importance of respecting others, a story about the importance of not quarreling with one's friends, a story about how even a just man will become unjust when spurned, a story about how the weak can unite to destroy the strong, a story about how the wise can protect their community from dangers... I felt quite flatfooted having chosen a more obviously Buddhist story about an ascetic who offers himself to a starving tigress so she doesn't have to feed herself to her cubs. [picture]

Monday, February 08, 2016

Mind the monkey

It's the Year of the Monkey. 万事如意, may all your wishes come true! Actually I'm hoping this will spell an end to the period of monkey-mindedness framed by the solar and lunar new years. I've been saying "happy new year" to people I haven't seen in a while, then faltering,
since, in China, it wasn't new year yet. (I've probably been spooked about this because in Japan, which aligned its new year with the western one, it was already the Year of the Monkey.) Now we're sorted ... well, as sorted as one can be in the Year of the Monkey! 猴年快乐!

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Don't stumble

While much of America was watching the Superbowl I was at The New School, watching "Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity," a community theater piece about the experiences of young adult Muslims in post-9/11 New York. (It wasn’t a choice, really—there was mention of the Superbowl on Weekend Edition yesterday and I was, like, what? and promptly forgot about it again.) “Beyond Sacred” is a work of Ping Chong, a venerable New York theater-maker, who has since 1992 directed what he calls the "Undesirable Elements” series "examining issues of culture and identity of individuals who are outsiders within their mainstream community." Non-professional actors recount of their own stories, interwoven by Ping Chong’s team from interviews. (See an earlier performance here.) It’s a formula, but it works.

Tonight’s was the twentieth performance for these young people, who had no idea when they responded to a call for young Muslims who like telling stories that they’d be on the front line against the Islamophobia revived by Donald Trump. For American Muslims it feels like 9/11 all over again, the two oldest ones said during the talkback Q&A after. All described having to respond to ignorance and suspicion and worse. They were participating in this piece to share a more accurate picture of the lives of Muslims - diverse, personal, quintessentially American.

One said that if you encounter a stone in the road, you should move it so somebody else doesn't trip over it: that is the meaning of Islam.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Superhuman harmony in the New World

Always a joy, the Brooklyn Museum. Here a happy juxtaposition:

an anonymous 18th century painting of the Carpentry Shop in Nazareth from Bolivia (see Jesus and Joseph with the saw?), and one of Edward Hicks' early 19th century paintings of the Peaceable Kingdom of Isaiah.

Friday, February 05, 2016

A little snow

 Awoke to fresh snow! But by midday it was already melting...

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Ethics in transit

In the "Exploring Religious Ethics" class last week, I vented (as I often do) at the infamous "trolley experiments" used in some moral philosophy courses. (A philosophy student mentioned them.) If a trolley's hurtling toward five people whom it would hit and kill and you could divert it to another track where only one person was killed, what should you do? Don't answer. If you do, there'll be a follow-up. Ten people? Three people? A newborn baby? A famous violinist? There's no end to it. And what is it supposed to achieve? It seems to me absurd to suppose people become better for engaging in such thought experiments.

Far better the kind of discussion we had today, when students shared ethical questions that troubled them. One student spoke about the difficulty of knowing when to stand up to give your seat to someone else in the subway. She mentioned she knew a young man who for this reason always stands. Another student in class said he does the same, to avoid getting it wrong. He was recently in a car accident, however, and standing is painful for him, but he doesn't sit. People can't see his injury so likely would think him selfish. Another student thought that it should be enough for him to know that he was right to sit; what others thought wasn't that important. We need to remember to take care of ourselves, too, added another student, not just others...

What a lovely discussion!

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Somebody to love

A pretty awesome lecture today, I dare say, with lots going on. In my 75 minutes I incorporated 16 minutes of video, two writing assignments, and digestible chunks of concentrated lecture. I think the rhythm and wit of it allowed me to be very serious without being a downer.

Introduction: Problems of suffering

Writing assignment: Larry's questions

Video clip: The First Rabbi/Look at the Parking Lot! (4 mins)

Lecture: Theodicy
     Epicurus - get over it!
     Aporetic problem of evil - get into it!

Writing and sharing: Questions Larry didn't but could have asked

Video clip: The Second Rabbi/The Goy's Teeth (8 mins)

Lecture: Theodicy beyond theism
     Max Weber's "ethically irrational world"
          karma, dualism, deus absonditus
     Marilyn McCord Adams' "participation in horrendous evils"

Conclusions: Why Larry Gopnik suffers
     A Joban movie?

Coda (video clip): Rabbi Marshak's secret source (Jefferson Airplane "Somebody to Love")

A lot to take in, I know, but I trust it was easier to take in this way. Well, I trust so. I hope so. Conversation in the ensuing discussion section was lively, referred often to the lecture, and almost everyone participated, so that's something...

Why, you may wonder, did Larry Gopnik suffer - that question to which he could find no satisfactory answer? Easy! Ethan Coen tells us:

The fun of the story for us was
inventing new ways to torture Larry. 

It's going to be fun to move next to the torments of another literary character, Job. And to see if the students see what I mean by saying that, whatever their intentions, once the Coen Brothers started telling the story of a good (enough) man losing everything he has (almost) and demanding an explanation (and not getting one), they were in Job territory, and would be seen to be making a Job movie.

Incidentally, in this context the lyrics of "Somebody to Love" - the song which starts the film (after the folkloric opening) and whose words the elusive Rabbi Marshak borrows at the end - seem positively Joban, too!

When the truth is found to be lies
And all the joy within you dies
Don’t you want somebody to love?
Don't you need somebody to love?
Wouldn't you love somebody to love?
You'd better find somebody to love.

When the garden flowers, baby, are dead 
And your mind is so full of bread …   

Your eyes, I say your eyes may look like his 
But in your head I’m afraid you don’t know where he is …   

Tears are running, they’re all running down your breast
And your friends, baby, they treat you like a guest … 

 Don’t you want somebody to love …

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Water towers of 11th Street

Noticed some unfamiliar shadows on the very familiar yellow 12th Street part of The New School out my 11th Street office window this morning before class. After a little while I saw that it was the shadow of the water tower atop the building next to mine. New York's iconic water towers found me two more times, today. The first time was when I stumbled across a booklet I'd put together for an early iteration of "Religious Geography of New York," to help convey the piecemeal way in which religious and other buildings change in the city. (You can mix and match from several sacred and secular designs.)And then, walking along 13th Street to University Place, I noticed that half the block on my right was missing. (I was dismayed that I couldn't recall anything that had been there before...) And lo: peering down across the temporary opening was another 11th Street water tower.

Up a tree

I should by now know better than to think of religions as family trees, but when a student asked today what the difference between "Catholic" and "Christian" was I turned horticultural again. I wanted to show that "Christian" was a term used by scholars (and some Christians) to refer to the whole family, while others - a branch of the tree - used "Christian" only for themselves. That things weren't going to work became clear at latest when I found myself representing Pentecostalism as a branch floating free above the tree, which of course some of the self-described "Christians" would, too... at which point I felt obliged to acknowledge that Catholics would represent the tree differently, too. Oy vey!

Monday, February 01, 2016


Watched - perhaps for the fifth time - the Coen Brothers' film "A Serious Man." But today was a little different: I was seeing it on the big screen for the first time (Film Forum). I'd read the script - first time I've read a film script, actually. And I went with my film-buff friend L, so we spent as long after the film discussing its every twist and turn as we did in the movie theater watching it! The occasion is, of course, my ULEC, whose first assigned work is precisely "A Serious Man" (though my lecture will be about other things). When the movie came out, it was "obvious" to many viewers that it was an updating of the Book of Job - though the film directors coyly denied any such intention. The interview posted on the website of their co-producer Working Title includes this:

Is A Serious Man based on a novel [sic!], i.e. The Book of Job? 

Ethan: That’s funny, we hadn’t thought of it in that way. That does have the tornado, like we do, but we weren’t thinking of that. 

Joel: Like when we were doing O Brother [Where Art Thou], we weren’t thinking that was sort of like the Odyssey story, but we did become a little self-conscious that it was about a man returning home, and we wondered whether to make it more classical. But with this film, we weren’t thinking this was like the Book of Job. We were just making our movie. We understand the reference, but it wasn’t in our minds.

I think it was in their minds, if not entirely consciously. In any case, viewers of every religious stripe have seen it as unquestionably a Job movie... which is actually only more interesting if they really truly weren't thinking of it. Many of these viewers see parallels, like that Job has three friends and Larry Gopnik meets three rabbis, or that the film ends with a tornado, which reminds viewers of God speaking from a whirlwind near the end of the Book of Job. But those are superficial: the tornado at the end of the film recalls the start of Job, when his children are killed by a great wind destroying the house in which they were feasting. I'm not sure how I'm going to present all this on Wednesday. Part of the experiment of the class is having them watch "A Serious Man" before reading the Book of Job itself. If they single out the things in the film which I think belong to the Joban template, wouldn't that be cool!