Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Our oyster

We're leaving town for a few weeks! First we're spending a fortnight with my sister and her family in Australia, then we stop in California on the way back to see my parents: weaving together our far-flung little family across hemispheres and seasons and across the great Pacific - which feels like a part of the family too.

(I post this picture of our lovely earth with heavy heart, since the Emir of Chaos is rolling his reality TV dice as we speak to determine which way best to profit from undermining the Paris Climate Accord.)


It's gratifying to find that some work I did a (long) while ago has found an appreciative audience. Even more so to have proved useful for an important argument about the very recent construction of "philosophy" as a distinctively western thing, born in Greece. As with the modern theory of race, this happened in German scholarship - with Immanuel Kant playing a major role - not the colonial metropoles and peripheries where it might seem the traditional story that philosophy began in Egypt and the "Orient" would have been more threatening.

Peter K. J. Park, Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: 
Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon, 1780-1830 (SUNY 2013), 92

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Up on the roof

On a lark ,checked and found new graffiti atop our building (where we've just signed a lease to stay another year).

Monday, May 29, 2017

O Canada

I've finished the "Science of Religion" (really CSR: cognitive science of religion) MOOC. I even took the final exam (I got 33 out of 36). It was quite enjoyable, all in all, a nice way to make acquaintance with this burgeoning field.

Perhaps it was fun also because the leads are Canadian, able to look beyond models and problems which take the United States unproblematically as normative and universal. (The University of British Columbia, where Slingerland is based, is the home of the WEIRD critique of US psychology: studies carried out almost entirely on college students tell you nothing about the societies, past and present, that aren't Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic.) Slingerland and Shariff are as unmoved by postmodernist relativists as by militant New Atheists, the former too quick to abandon the possibility of a shared humanity, the latter too quick to think that religion and metaphysically-laden values can be left behind - and both, perhaps, more common on this irony-less side of the US-Canadian border. Our leads find the US's religiosity, anomalous for so wealthy a country, traceable less to the vitality of the American religious marketplace than to the insecurity of a society with a weak welfare state and inconsistent welcome of immigrants and diversity.

Although multiple research projects are introduced, disparate in their their methodologies and their hypotheses, a bigger picture about the nature and history of religion does emerge. It's summarized in the abstract to an article of which the leads were co-authors:

a package of culturally evolved religious beliefs and practices characterized by increasingly potent, moralizing, supernatural agents, credible displays of faith, and other psychologically active elements conducive to social solidarity promoted high fertility rates and large-scale cooperation with co-religionists, often contributing to success in intergroup competition and conflict. In turn, prosocial religious beliefs and practices spread and aggregated as these successful groups expanded, or were copied by less successful groups. This synthesis is grounded in the idea that although religious beliefs and practices originally arose as nonadaptive by-products of innate cognitive functions, particular cultural variants were then selected for their prosocial effects in a long-term, cultural evolutionary process. (

What this means for the future is that religion isn't going to go away. "Promiscuous teleology" and the like will continue to shape human experience, leading even the most hard-nosed naturalists to sense purpose and meaning in events. Science is important but "scientism" - the view that science can answer all questions - is to be avoided. Science explains how, not why, and "radically underdetermines" the values we need to make decisions about how to live. That last point is made with the help of Canadian eminence grise Charles Taylor, though with a cog-sci twist. Here's the explanation of the penultimate question on the final exam:

According to Charles Taylor and Prof. Slingerland, we can’t avoid making strong evaluations. Whether this is due to the “transcendental condition of being human” (as Taylor suggests) or to the innate features of human psychology (as Prof. Slingerland argues), either way we can’t get around holding metaphysical positions on the nature of the universe. Even the most secular ethics, which tries to adhere to fact and reason, is committed to tacit metaphysical positions that can’t be empirically grounded or rationally defended. During the course, we used the example of human dignity, which is not a rational or empirical judgment. Instead it’s a deep intuitive commitment about the nature of the world. In short, holding these positions and feeling deeply committed to them seems to be unavoidable.

It's an irenic project, social science at its friendly best. Everyone is welcome, as long as they're prepared to go beyond inevitably biased "cherry-picking" to seek understanding of what's really happening in human nature and history as a whole. Is there space for believers in the mix? Slingerland and Shariff don't say so. But as psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann (remember her?) says in a TEDx talk included as bonus material to the course: I actually don't think we learn anything about the real nature of God from these observations. I don't think that social science can answer that question. (10:52) 

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Summer's first tomatoes, oven dried with balsamic. (Ottolenghi, again!)

Friday, May 26, 2017

Science o' religion

For the fun of it (mostly) I've decided to check out the new EdX online MOOC "The Science of Religion." It's led by Edward Slingerland, whose translation of Confucius' Analects we used this semester, and a young cognitive psychologist named Azim Shariff, and features cameos by various people whose work I know, starting with Ann Taves. Taves' "building block" approach to religion, with which I end "Theorizing Religion," turns out to be foundational for the "science of religion," and is their way of dodging the question of the definition of religion.

I've finished half of the course now. (It's just videos, rather snazzily if sometimes snarkily edited and illustrated - no required readings, as in "World Religions Through Scripture," though each section has a bibliography and bonus videos.) Much of it is material I've encountered before, but it's nice to have it all presented together. Does it all fit together, come together? Perhaps not, or not yet. Lots of methodologies: Darwinian theory, big data analyses of ancient and contemporary social structures, a sort of folk philosophy about "intuitive" belief concerning existential questions (representative is the part of the text of a discussion above)...

And I remain a skeptic about psychology experiments, as when they claim to show that "priming" people with a reminder of mortality is more likely to make them report religious belief. Belief isn't a momentary thing, surely; no doubt it ebbs and flows in awareness and urgency in response to triggers great and small, but that's not what they claim to be showing. On the other hand, I was pleased to hear (in an explanation of "supernatural deterrence theory") that priming people with religion made them more fair and even generous with strangers - though I was also happy to learn that priming them with civil institutions of justice and order achieve the same! 

What to make of the finding that people who repeatedly choose the intuitive but false answer to word problems are more likely to say they've "had an experience that has convinced me that God exists"? Although the different researchers featured are talking about vastly different things and draw often divergent conclusions from them, the broader sense seems to be that religion comes naturally to human beings (more so than does science!), whether as a byproduct of evolved individual and group traits or as itself a selected trait. Of course not all individuals and societies are religious today - they discuss atheists, secularization, etc., too, along with Charles Taylor's idea that everyone needs "strong evaluations" of some kind - so opting out of religion seems a possibility, albeit with limits. 

These questions are close to those of Durkheim and Freud (mentioned early in the course): can social cohesion be ensured once religion is revealed to be an illusion? I'm curious to see where they end up... I'll keep you posted!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

To the library!

Did something I never thought I'd do today - took coffee into a library. Not that it's not allowed - libraries now allow even food, shocking my bibliophile self. But it was rainy today, so sitting in Washington Square Park wasn't an option. And I knew, the summer just having begun, that I'd have a table discreetly to myself.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


Some flowers from the Kailash trip, safely preserved in a diary...

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Meditations and Sacrament

Although we bounce rather promiscuously between three churches - two Episcopal, one Catholic - probably our favorite is the Sunday evening Service of Meditations and Sacrament at the Church of the Ascension. The first of this past Sunday's three meditations, generally related to the uncertainty of the disciples at Jesus' upcoming Ascension, was by Mary Oliver.

What is there beyond knowing that keeps
calling to me?

I can’t turn in any direction
but it’s there. I don’t mean

the leaves’ grip and shine or even the thrush’s
silk song, but the far-off

fires, for example,
of the stars, heaven’s slowly turning

theater of light, or the wind
playful with its breath;

or time that’s always rushing forward,
or standing still

in the same—what shall I say—

What I know
I could put into a pack

as if it were bread and cheese, and carry it
on one shoulder,

important and honorable, but so small!
While everything else continues, unexplained

and unexplainable. How wonderful it is
to follow a thought quietly

to its logical end.
I have done this a few times.

But mostly I just stand in the dark field,
in the middle of the world, breathing

in and out. Life so far doesn’t have any other name
but breath and light, wind and rain.

If there’s a temple, I haven’t found it yet.
I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass and the weeds.

This Service is interfaith in spirit, ecumenical. I don't know of Mary Oliver identifies in terms of any particular religion, or none. Most recently I saw her words featured in the masthead of the Religious Naturalist Association (along with Einstein and Kazantzakis). It hardly matters. It's bread and cheese for our journey.

Monday, May 22, 2017


Look what arrived in the mail today: yours truly in italiano!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Blog milestone

When I started this blog almost eleven years ago, I was nine days from flying to Australia for the first time. Today, four thousand posts later


(!), another Australia trip is on the horizon, eleven days off this time. Four thousand posts! Have we really been through so much together?

Saturday, May 20, 2017


A wreath of parsley, cilantro and dill, ready to add fragrance to an Ottolenghian confection. (With no sous-chef we include the stems.)

Friday, May 19, 2017

New Pole

University Commencement was in a new location this year, Arthur Ashe stadium in Queens, home of the US Tennis Open. It's a long way from where most students and their families, not to mention faculty and staff, live, though, and the New York City subway was, as is increasingly its wont, uncooperative. We started half an hour late, faculty lined up in an airless corridor waiting, and baked together for the next two hours of recognitions and speeches...  but it's still an exciting experience to see the sea of faces of fresh graduates. Where will they go next? Where will they be in five years, in ten, in twenty? One of our Honorary Degree recipients, who received a BA and and MA from New School, became the first African American women to go to the North Pole, and then also to the South - both after she turned seventy-five! Graduates, commence! 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Stone shelter

A detail from the entrancing senior project of one of our students, a joint BA/BFA students of Lang and Parsons (Fine Arts). She made the carpet which seems to interact with natural lacework in a slice of stone,and embroidered the paisley in another stone slice. The larger work is inspired by ancient Iranian stories about women seeking refuge inside mountains, a trip to Ladakh, and many months of work with stone.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017



Tuesday, May 16, 2017

8:02pm, 14th St at Union Square

Official last day of the academic year (makeup for the two Tuesday snow days). Since my "Sacred Mountains" class had plenty of extracurricular activities, we didn't need it. Farewell, AY 2016-17, a year in which I taught quite the range of courses in quite the range of formats: an upper level and an introductory religious studies seminar (Theorizing Religion and Not To Scale: On Sacred Mountains), a university lecture course (Who New? A History of The New School, with my friend J), a seminar-turned-independent study (Exploring Religious Ethics: Confucianism in Dialogue), an advising tutorial (Buddhism as a Liberal Art), a conference tutorial (Mountains and Sacred Landscapes) and the Dean's Honor Symposium. Whew!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Challenges of a shared sacred landscape

Our Kailash project has been written up on the grant spotlight page of the Henry Luce Foundation, its funder. I wouldn't have written about it in quite the way they do -

The center of the universe—according to many Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, and Bonpos—can be found at the heart of the Himalaya where the borders of China, India, and Nepal converge. It is the home of Shiva; it is the site where Buddhist sage Milarepa defeated the Bon shaman Naro Bon-chung; it is the birthplace of the world.

- but overall it's a nice description. (Yours truly is even quoted, though I can't remember where/when I said what was quoted; the syntax sounds like me, though!) Apparently they don't feature most of the grants they disburse in this way, so it's a sign we're doing something right!

Figuring out how to write about it is something I'll have to work out for myself soon. I'm to be the editor-in-chief of the volume coming out of our project, tentatively titled "Challenges of a Shared Sacred Landscape." Our larger argument will be that the Kailash Sacred Landscape is a "landscape in motion," which has always been characterized by often competing flows of people. My part, beyond editing the various submissions, will be to explore how and why Kailash as "center of the universe" allows and even encourages the elision of contexts and causes exemplified by, for instance, the lines just quoted.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother's day roses

We were back at St. Joseph's Catholic Co-Cathedral today (I can't quite countenance going to Manhattan seven days a week), where they have a distinctive mother's day ritual which emerged through happy accident.

As described in the parish bulletin:

It is our parish custom to give a rose to all the women who are mothers or mother figures at the Masses. One year, we ran out of roses. Displayed prominently in the sanctuary was an image of Our Lady of Guadelupe and it was surrounded by bouquets of roses. I took some of the roses surrounding the image and gave them to the women who remained without a rose to take home. Mary would deny nothing to her daughters. The following year we gave flowers to everyone entering the church. At the offertory, everyone was asked to bring up a rose and place it before Mary. On Mother's Day, many mourn that they have never had the opportunity to be mothers; children mourn mothers who have died, and sadly it is sometimes mothers who mourn their lost children. Some people are angry due to their mothers' shortcoming; all mothers consider the ways in which they may have failed. So this Mother's Day, let us honor Mary, our heavenly mother and her daughters, for whom she would give everything - even her own Son.

We participated, what fun! Offering roses to the Virgen - who of course has a special relationship with red roses - had a special resonance since so many of the parishioners hail from across the Americas whose protectress she is. (Red roses are a little odd for most other mothers, actually, aren't they? A little too oedipal? Good to sublime those feelings heavenward!) It'll be interesting to see if this ritual sticks (designated "mothers and mother figures" no longer get to take a rose home), and, if so, if a different story emerges about it. 

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Dona nobis pacem

It's a little tacky to take a picture of a concert (though better before than during), but at Grace Church this afternoon I couldn't resist. What a sea of faces in the the Choral Society of Grace Church in New York, and the orchestra spilling out the sides. And then the concert began.

The sound of Vaughan Williams' "O, Clap Your Hands" seemed caught in the chancel. But then came Barber's rarely performed "Prayers of Kierkegaard," interesting, which seemed to open the space. But none of this prepared me for the power of Vaughan Williams' "Dona Nobis Pacem," which I'd never heard performed live - and never with the text before me. In parts I was shaking, weeping. Composed in 1936 with most of its words taken from Walt Whitman's poems about the American Civil War, it evokes the all-consuming terror of war, its disruption and despair and moments of mourning tenderness, (After the performance my friend M, who was in the choir, told me it was all she could do not to weep as they sang the words "this soiled world.") I'm not particularly a fan of Whitman but hearing his words here makes me want to go back and read more, knowing now of the music in them. Vaughan Williams' work ends in biblical poetry, though, a messianic vision of hope (stitched from many passages), almost painful in its beauty - how far we are from such peace, such righteousness, such truth! I need hardly add that pathos of listening to this in 2017, in a restive world with a shameless world-soiler in our White House (and one who likes the sounds of explosions). Dona nobis pacem.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Outside the box

Actually this captures the end of "Not to scale: On sacred mountains" rather well. (I took the picture after all had left the classroom for the last time.) I rather cheekily borrowed the mountain-themed tissue box from the Associate Dean's Office, even shaped it like a mountain. While it was used, it couldn't compete with the call of the wild, of nature, represented by the courtyard trees out the window, and the true object of my students' yearning.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Feel the mountain

The Sacred Mountains class has come to a sweet end. I'll share more of the students' final syntheses soon, but here's one. A "Nan Shepherd Mountain" - you can look at it from any angle. It came together with a "Bernbaum mountain" with a conventionally shaped white peak against a bland blue sky and skirts of green - the same yarns, but woven, we learned, with more stress and less joy. It's soft, a joy to touch and hold.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Cause for shame

As the president's nixonian brazenness elicits collusion in more and more of his supporters and allies, I need hardly repost this from Confucius:

The Master said, “Be sincerely trustworthy and love learning, and hold fast to the good Way until death. Do not enter a state that is endangered, and do not reside in a state that is disordered. If the Way is being realized in the world then show yourself; if it is not, then go into reclusion. In a state that has the Way, to be poor and of low status is a cause for shame; in a state without the way, to be wealthy and honored is equally a cause for shame.” (Slingerland 82)

Comey's no hero of mine, but in a government of people with no commitment to the Way or the rites of democracy, it is no shame to be fired. In Nixon's case there were junzi (gentlemen) who resigned rather than be party to shamelessness; where are the junzi of today?

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Musical finale

The course on Confucian ethics wrapped up today with a return to the Analects. I produced a one-page digest of key passages, some of which we'd discussed at length, some of which are influential for later developments we read about, and some of which were new. Here are the three new ones we spent the most time discussing (but in reverse chronological order), and one other, the wonderful VI.20.

The Master was discussing music with the Grand Music Master of Lu. He said, “What can be known about music is this: when it first begins, it resounds with a confusing variety of notes, but as it unfolds, these notes are reconciled by means of harmony, brought into tension by means of counterpoint, and finally woven together into a seamless whole. It is in this way that music reaches its perfection.” (Slingerland, 27)

The Master said, “One who knows it is not the equal of one who loves it, and one who loves it is not the equal of one who takes joy in it.” (59) 

The Master said, “Find inspiration in the Odes, take your place through ritual, and achieve perfection with music.” (80)

Zixia said, “The gentleman has three aspects: when you gaze upon him from afar, he appears grave and imposing; once you approach him, he appears mild and welcoming; and when you listen to his words, he appears strict and serious.” (223)

Monday, May 08, 2017

DHS redux

It's taken a little while, but photos taken at the Dean's Honor Symposium April 24th have finally arrived. Above we are doing a "shakedown" - a dance warmup from an arts center in Crown Heights, with the audience - as Winnie the Pooh wiggles on a GIF. Below, a Chinese student explains the postcards they've designed as souvenirs of the presentation, held by a student whose family hails from Kenya. You might remember that we invited audience members to indicate where "home" was on a globe, and urged them to do the same on these postcards. We did!

Friday, May 05, 2017

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Their "America"

So by the slimmest of majorities the US House of Representatives passed a bill - its details neither vetted nor even fully read by most of those voting for it - which will take us back to the unfair system we had before the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act. Untold millions will be vulnerable again to accidents of fate. And the bill's writers had the effrontery to call it the American Health Care Act.

Perhaps they're right in this. "America" could mean the project of achieving a "more perfect union" - to most I believe it still does. Perhaps many of us have had illusions about the momentum of our movement toward that ideal, and of the distance yet to be traveled in getting there. But the guys on top aren't going there. They're turning back. Their "America" can't afford and doesn't need such democratic decency. It's more like what it meant in the less perfectly united past: piously profess that all are free and respected but seize and entrench whatever advantages you have - and the devil take the hindmost. Shame.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017


Yesterday's classes both ended in Japan! (So did today's stroll through the BBG where we saw the last sakura and the first tree peonies.)

In the sacred mountains class, Japan came as the end of a trifecta. We first watched the final half hour of Zhang Yang's documentary "Kang Rinpoche," witnessing the arrival at Mt. Kailas of a group of Tibetan villagers who'd started their 1200 km full body prostrating pilgrimage a year beforehand. Then we discussed Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s last sermon. And finally it was Dogen's "Mountains and Waters Sutra," a piece of which we'd encountered before. What all three had in common was movement. The Mangkang villagers show the effort of pilgrimage. Dr. King chronicles the progress he's seen, progress which has taken him to the"mountaintop" from which he can see the road that has brought them so far, and the Promised Land. And Zen Master Dogen tells us that mountains walk - and don't say they don't! To doubt the walking of the mountains means that one does not yet know one's own walking.
In the Confucian ethics class it was, by coincidence, the person most responsible for anyone beyond the Soto School of Zen's knowing about Dogen, Watsuji Tetsuro. I've spent a lot of time in Watsuji's company over the years, going back to my year at Tokyo University in 1992-93, but this was the first time I'd approached his Rinrigaku from the perspective of Confucianism. It makes more sense than the Buddhist- or Heidegger-focused readings common in the West would lead you to expect. The 倫 rin of Watsuji's ethics (倫理学 rinrigaku), template for his famous 間柄 aidagara, are Mencius' five relations! And his attention to everyday interactions has a Confucian feel to it, too. But then he was the son of a Confucian scholar, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine! The Western and Buddhist legacies are there, too, of course, and Watsuji's (he would say distinctively Japanese) appreciation of cultural plurality. But it makes a nice denouement for our course on Confucianism's prospects beyond the Middle Kingdom.

The courses continue for another week. Teams of students will give reports on assorted sacred mounts, from Nanda Devi to Shasta (but not Fuji). And our Confucian book club will return to the Analects.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Petal pusher

I'm not quite ready for it to be May...

Monday, May 01, 2017