Friday, May 18, 2018

The Identity of a Book

      At the beginning of his novel, The Shadow of the Wind,Carlos Ruiz Zafón has Daniel and his father making Daniel's first visit to the "Cemetery of Forgotten Books" in post-WWII Barcelona. As Daniel's father explains it:

This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.*

Zafón (or Daniel's father) doesn't say it, but I took this passage also to imply that the book becomes part of the soul of the reader. And, in my experience, the more folks I know who've read a certain book, who've shared their thoughts and feelings about it, my tie to the book "grows and strengthens". There arises a community "of the book".
       This put in my mind of part of Tim Crane's analysis of religion in The Meaning of Belief,**the subject of this month's book discussion. Crane takes to task the "New Atheists" (e.g., Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, etc.) for missing the point about religion. He argues (among other things) that these authors want to reduce religion to a antiquated cosmology so that they can more easily dismiss it. He points out that these authors don't quite understand why the "religious" don't fall under the weight of their critique, and renounce their delusion. And, then, Crane asserts that it's because the "religious" don't base their adherence to a religious system solely on its cosmology.
        Crane—an atheist himself—proposes that the religious world-view is a combination of (a) a sense of the transcendent, and (b) the role of identification with a community—past and present—that provides, through rituals, being together, and common understanding, ways of making meaning in one's own life, and of life in general. This goes far beyond any kind of cosmology. 

         Most religions, or course, arereligions "of the book" in one way or another. Attitudes towards sacred texts vary, but the transmission of the tradition relies in no small part on the presence of those texts in the lives of the community of the faithful. Those texts help "make us" who we are. But, if my supposition about Zafón's implication that books become part of the soul of the reader is correct, I have to wonder what we do to ourselves when we pull other volumes off of the shelf. And, here, of course, I include more than simply novels, but movies, social media, etc. -- any transmission of information.
         An old cliché has it that "You are what you eat". If it were modified a bit, would we be happy knowing that "We become what we read"? And, if not, what's our appropriate response?

*Translated by Lucia Graves (Penguin Books, 2004), 5-6.
** Subtitled Religion from an Atheist's Point of View(Harvard, 2017).

Friday, May 11, 2018

Look again!


    Over the last several months, I've been playing the game "Word Crossy" on my phone. The screen shot above probably says as much about how the game should be played as any narrative. But, basically, I need to string the letters together to fill the various rows/columns in the "cross-word" puzzle, without any clues.  Sometimes I can speed right through the game. Other times I can barely start. There aresome "helps" provided. Tapping the light bulb in the lower right will charge your "bank" 50 points (of the 278 in the lower left) and fill in one letter in the puzzle; often that's enough to spur thinking. Or, the little double-crossed arrows in the lower left corner will re-juggle the letters in the circle; the supposition is that seeing things differently will also spur thinking.
     There have been plenty of times when I've used up my points, and juggling the letters just doesn't work. So, in frustration (why doI keep playing this game!?), I leave the app and check my mail, or the weather, or Facebook. Or I just shut the phone down and go clean the bathroom. Then, more often than not, when I return to the game, I solve it within seconds. The letters hadn't changed; I simply quit staring at them for a while. Clearly, the same phenomenon is part of the fascination with some optical illusions. You can look at the patterns of colors or shapes and only see oneimage. Come back to the picture later, and, all of a sudden you can't believe you didn't see the otherone!
 I've found something similar in a "non-visual" arena. Starting last year (2017), I decided that I would read another tradition's sacred text over the course of the year. In 2017, it was the Quran; this year is the Bhagavad Gita. Some of this comes from my innate curiosity. I just want to know what the text reallysays (rather than relying on snippets, sound-bites or proof-texts); and, I want to read it appreciatively. When I find something I don't understand, I can easily turn to a knowledgable-in-that-tradition friend. But another reason I've been doing this is that I find places of convergence between the other tradition and my own. And, often enough, my understanding of my own tradition is deepened or altered in a way that wouldn't have happened had I spent all my time in my own texts. I've very much come to value this addition to my spiritual practice.
      There's something here that points, too, to one of our society's besetting problems these days. Whether its our choice of multiple broadcast news outlets or which online news sources we "follow", we have such a tendency to fall into tribalism. "Echo-chamber" is the phrase often bandied about. Getting out and hearing a different voice is becoming increasingly foreign. And, I believe, we are all the lesser for it.
      Yesterday, I led a workshop on Appreciative Inquiry for one of DU's divisions. Part of the workshop had the attendees pair up and interview each other on a series of questions. At the end, when I asked "How was the process for you?", one participant said that he had been paired with someone in a different unit within the division, someone he didn't know well. And then he commented on how valuable that was, as opposed to being with someone from his own unit whose answers he probably already knew.
      It's so often time to shut the app down, do something else, read something else, talk to someone else, and then come look again.



Friday, May 4, 2018

Living in a microbial world

     This past Wednesday evening, we happened upon an episode of NOVA on PBS (no, we're NOT one of thosefamilies!) on microbes: "What's Living In You?" Absolutely fascinating . . . and a bit frightening! The show featured some segments where researchers took "skin scrapes"  from peoples' faces (e.g., collecting the skin-cells/oil from next to the nose) and placing them under powerful microscopes. The images were astonishing. But what was even more mind-blowing (to this non-biologist) was the assertion (as described in the teaser on the RMPBS website):  "Microbes play a central role in your life. Trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi are so abundant in your body, they outnumber your human cells." "THEY OUTNUMBER YOUR HUMAN CELLS"!There are more things living ON me, than there is OF me!
      My word! What if they ganged up on me? I wouldn't have a chance!
      Well, of course, that can happen, in some ways. Some of the microbes are harmful and can cause disease. And then there are others that will attack the bad guys! But, most of the time, we leave at relative peace with one another, me and my millions of microbial guests. They need me, and, apparently, I need them. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago*, we are all interconnected in ways we rarely consider.
      As humans, we have a tendency to forget that we are part of something larger, or more complex. We have been steeped in this kind of thinking since the dawn of humanity: our "tribe" is the only "human" one, all others are barbarians; our world is the center of the universe; our universe is the coolest. Or, more pointedly, in the words of Paul Simon, "I am a rock; I am an island".** We see things from our perspective -- naturally, but not necessarily helpfully.
      Much the same point was made by physicist Carol Rovelli in an 
interview with OnBeing's Krista Tippett. Except he took exception (though not directly) to the fixed nature of Paul Simon's "rock": "
We live 100 years, but suppose we lived a billion years. A stone would be just a moment in which some sand gets together and then it disaggregates, so it's just a momentary getting-together of sand." His point throughout the interview is neatly summed up in the title to the episode: "All Reality is Interaction." And I remember being taught much the same "stuff" when, in college, I took a course in process philosophy. The agreement between the physicist and the philosophers is quite striking. First, according to process philosophy, everything "proceeds" towards its goal, although not at the same speed (i.e., a spark proceeds fast than humans, which proceed faster than stones). But second, every encounter between two "entities" changes both of them in some way, so, in Rovellis' words, "all reality is interaction."
       I can't really get over some of the implications of this. Yes, there is the "butterfly effect" -- one small action may have incredible consequences far away. But I have to wonder what would happen if we really started thinking about our (inter-)actions and the impacts they may have. We are so intertwined, from the microbes on the bridge of my nose to those who supply me with tangerines. Wouldn't it make a wonderful difference if we believed that, and acted in accordance with that belief, as opposed to our ancient, and increasingly prevalent, tribalized thinking?

Friday, April 27, 2018

A veiled threat . . .

      I've been taking a few days off in order to get some home repairs done before dear daughter comes back from college -- with her dog -- in a couple of weeks. The thing that has been most pressing has been painting:  both a railing between our kitchen and "great room", as well as part of our deck. Both of those areas are accessible to the pooch, and would be difficult to paint with a romping puppy around. This is not a onerous task! I love painting (it's one of the ways I earned my way through college and seminary). There's immediate satisfaction when the task is done. All of the nicks and scratches are covered over; it all looks clean again, and folks are happy!
        I also know, from years of experience, that painting can hide more than simple blemishes. It can mask some pretty serious problems. Filling in a crack with spackle, and then painting over it may make the wall look smooth, but the crack may indicate settling of the building's foundation -- not good. Spraying sealer over water stains, and then painting over THAT, doesn't solve the problem of leaky pipes  or bad roofing. In some ways or circumstances, painting can be like putting a veil over the reality that is the structure: we won't see what's truly there.

       "Veils" were brought up in a presentation I attended earlier this week. The particular reference was to something being "veiled in print." That is, we are such a print-oriented (although now we might also be video-oriented) culture that we often confuse what is "written" about something (or, I suppose, "filmed" about something) with the thing itself. One could make the argument, for example, that we have substituted text-messages for real, face-to-face, conversations. Or, witness the debate over how sacred texts (including the US Constitution) should be interpreted: ought one be faithful to the words, or the spirit behind the words.
       This temptation to confuse the representation with reality troubles me. The representation can never capture the whole. Indeed the representation can hide the whole, much like a veil can hide what's behind it. There may be no intention to deceive, but, over the last couple of days, I've taken a bit more care in reading, just to be sure I'm not missing what's really important.


Friday, April 20, 2018

The World in a Tangerine

      For several years I've taught an Honors Seminar at DU called "Pets, Partners or Pot-roast". It was an examination of the various ways humans interact with non-human animals. We began by looking at how various disciplines (science, philosophy and religion) draw the distinction between "us" and "them" (everything from genetics, to reasoning capacity, to clean/unclean). Then, the remainder of the course was devoted to the arenas of interaction:  environment, service animals, research animals, livestock, pets, and food. That is, what the students had to do was decide how they distinguished between "us" and "them", and then decide what difference that might make when considering whether to use animals for cosmetic research, or what happens when Fluffy runs afoul of a coyote in our suburban neighborhoods, or what conditions are "humane" when raising/slaughtering livestock. At the end of the first year I taught it, I realized it was a class in applied ethics; decision-making isn't easy!
     An exercise I had the students "do" when we got to the "Environment" week was an variation of Thich Nhat Han's "Tangerine Meditation."  I give each student a "Cutie" (okay, they're not tangerines, but in February, they're plentiful and inexpensive!), and ask them to look deeply at the fruit, smell it, peel it (and notice the difference in aroma), and finally taste it. And then we talk about all of the factors that were necessary to produce that fruit and get it into their hands. Everything from soil nutrients, rain, fertilizer, the folks who make the trucks, who pave the roads, who make the little mesh bags in which the Cuties arrive, those who pick the fruit, who stock the store-shelves -- all of these things are found in the single Cutie. And, of course, the point of doing this exercise on "Environment" day was to highlight the various ways that both big and little, human-caused, things can have an effect on the non-human animal life that populates our skies, forests and waterways.
      While I didn't teach that course this year, I recalled the exercise while reading about a waterway in Where the Water Goes: Life and Death Along the Colorado River by David Owen.* The book was the focus of April's "Chaplain's Book Discussion" -- partly in observance of Earth Day. Owen follows the Colorado River from its headwaters in Rocky Mountain National Park to its terminus in the sands of northern Mexico. Along the way he observes the multiple sources (i.e., tributaries) of the river, as well as the various places the "water goes". And he talks with folks whose lives and/or livelihoods are dependent on the river. I was floored by what I learned.  For example, micro-irrigation may SAVE water in one way, but prevents the "overflow" from doing good in other places. Or, we "export" water in the produce and meat that we send overseas (the effect being that the water is NOT returned to the Colorado River watershed). And then, of course, there's the matter of all that water that is diverted from the west side of the Continental Divide through a series of tunnels to satisfy the thirst of Colorado's Front Range (on the eastern side of the Divide, for you non-Coloradans). Like looking at a tangerine, when thinking about the Colorado River, it is clear that there are SO many factors that have an impact ON the river, as well as so many ways the river's water (or lack thereof) has an impact on the environment and people both along its banks, as well as within reach of miles of diversion tunnels and canals.
 As we approach Earth Day 2018, I invite folks to consider the many, many, ways we experience "Interbeing" (to use Thich Nhat Han's word).** How are we intertwined with people near and far, from farmers to corporate executives to politicians -- all who have an impact on our environment? What happens to insect life when we refuse to recycle? And what about that hamburger? This is the only planet we have; just about every religious tradition suggests that we have a responsibility to take care of it.
       Look to your right, and pick up any item that is handy.  Spend just a few minutes considering all that it took to get to that place next to you. Be it a sharpie, or a cell-phone, or a Cutie . . . It is your teacher.



Riverhead Books, 2017.  A "Colorado Matters" podcast with the author can be found here.
** A very full description of the concept can be found here.

Friday, April 13, 2018

YOU are a Canada Goose!

[Caveat lector:  If the reader is unfamiliar with the Harry Potter series,
some of what follows may be a bit hard to follow.]

     This last Wednesday evening, while exercising my TV-remote skills, I happened onto a broadcast special: "Harry Potter: A History of Magic". As described in the Seattle Times,it was  "A look at the British Library’s upcoming 20th-anniversary exhibition; author J.K. Rowling reveals the real-life counterparts to her fantastical world, Elizabethan invisibility spells, the real search for the Philosopher’s Stone, magical places including wizarding wandmakers in the English forest and witchcraft of Boscastle, Cornwall, with readings by actors from the Harry Potter films." Being a Harry Potter fan (indeed our whole family is -- dear daughter requesting a boxed hard-cover set of the books for her 21st birthday), this was exactly what the doctor ordered for Wednesday evening viewing.  One of the things that struck me was how Rowling mixed good historical, geographical and linguistic research with her own fanciful imagination. That really came home when she described how she came up with the "spells": some very much relate to Latin descriptions ("Accio" or "Crucio" spring to mind); others, she admitted, were simply products of her creativity.
       Thinking about the Latin background of a lot of the spells reminded me of the Boy Scout campout I helped "chaperone" last month. At one point, we went on a little hike that took us past a semi-frozen pond.  Sitting on some of the ice were a pair of Canada Geese. One of the younger boys asked "What are those?" Another, older, scout said (in true Boy Scout fashion), "Birds." Now, I'm an avid bird-watcher and am also a "certified counselor" for the Bird Study merit badge. I'd heard that one of the attending scouts was working on that badge (news to me!), and I said to him, "D., here's something for your merit badge knowledge. Those are 
branta canadensis, the scientific name for Canada Geese." And, then it occurred to me, "Branta Canadensis" sounded just like a Harry Potter spell! You can imagine, given the correct wand motion and the proper Hermione Granger intonation, "Branta Canadensis" might be just the thing to temporarily turn someone into a goose! Since then, I've had some fun imagining other spells derived from bird names:
 "Coccyzus americanus" (Yellow-billed Cuckoo - most of us have met someone like that), or "Molothrus ater" (Brown-headed Cowbird -- a bird that lays its eggs in another bird's nest to relieve itself of the responsibility of child-rearing). I've even tried "casting such spells" while driving (instead of engaging in other manners of road rage); it certainly defuses the situation for me.
       The idea of "casting a spell" that turns a tense situation into a humorous one lies behind a scene in one of the Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Harry's class is learning the use of the "Riddikulus" spell (yes, derived from Latin!) when confronted by a "boggart":"a shape-shifting creature that will assume the form of whatever most frightens the person who encounters it."* "Riddikulus" turns the boggart into the most humorous thing the spell-caster can imagine. Part of the less-physical point of the lesson is that, knowing how to defuse a fear through humor is a useful skill, whether for a wizard or muggle! I was given much the same advice by my spiritual director about what to do when my "shadow-side" (my inner boggart) starts to attack me. His counsel?  Don't give in, but, instead, just say to myself "There you go again" and start laughing.
        The old saying isthat "Laughter is the best medicine." I fear that it's medicine many of us have forgotten how to take. On the contrary, when a boggart appears, our first reaction seems to be to try to summon a bigger one (a "biggert"?). Escalation ensues; solutions flee in terror. And, often, in the end, the "foes" come off looking like petulant children. We have to develop a better way of dealing with things. A broader sense of perspective is one way. A over-arching concern for justice is another. A sense of humor at absurdity is yet another.
        I really do like the way "Branta canadensis" rolls off the tongue; it just feels right (and, if the image used above is what accompanies the spell, there is truly something "riddikulus" about it). But sometimes it feels more satisfying to cast a spell on someone who's all "puffed up" with the Latin name of that common spring-time bird, the American Robin (since this is a family-oriented newsletter, I'll leave it to the "lector" to look it up . . . . Caveat!). I recognize that, as a muggle, my ability at casting spells is non-existent. That said, simply "casting a spell" is usually a better idea than "casting a stone". Especially if it creates a smile at my own expense.


Gary"Boggart" by the way, is not from the Latin, but from Old English or Welsh -- related to "bogey-man".

Friday, April 6, 2018

Unexpected service

Glorify the Lord, all you works of the Lord,
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.*

      The third chapter of the biblical book of Daniel tells the story of three young men - Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego**. These Hebrew youths refused to bow down to an image set up by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, the punishment for which was to be thrown into a fiery furnace. The youths declare that their faithfulness to their God would preserve them. And, indeed, according to the account, they were unharmed by their experience in the white-hot furnace. Their joy and thanksgiving is recounted in the "Song of the Three Young Men".***
      This long hymn expands on the first line (above) -- the "all you works" portion, with continual repetition of the second line. Based on a theology that attributes everything to the activity of God, that whole creation is summoned to give glory:

Glorify the Lord, you angels and all powers off the Lord,
O heavens and all waters above the heavens.
Sun and moon and stars of the sky.

Glorify the Lord, O mountains and hills,
and all that grows upon the earth . .
 . . . O springs of water, seas, and streams,
O whales and all that move in the waters,
All birds of the air . . .
 . . . all you flocks and herds

O men and women everywhere . . .

And, lest one think that the inhabitants of "creation" were set in stone, a New Zealand version of the hymn adds creatures the biblical author might never have imagined (or included, as they might have been considered "unlean"):
Dolphins and kahawai, sealion and crab,
coral, anemone, pipi and shrimp:

Rabbits and cattle, moths and dogs
kiwi and sparrow and tui and hawk . . .****

And, a version I recall seeing  a number of years ago in Arizona included the javelina!
     Certainly the point of the original, and of the more localized versions, is that there is nothing that exists that does not, or cannot "praise . . . and highly exalt [God] for ever". And I get that. But I was challenged a bit recently when reading another tradition's sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita, where I ran across the assertion that all living entities were servantsof God (6.29 - emphasis added)*****. That passage reminded me of the "Song" above. Yes, for many traditions, "praise" is itself an act of service, so that wasn't what challenged me. What revved up my mental engine was the idea that ALL living entities were servants of the Divine. Really? All? Even mosquitos? Norway rats? Even thoseelected officials? They are "living entities . . . so they'reall servants?      Well, mosquitos DO feed birds and bats -- creatures I like!  So I can see them as "servants". And, thinking that way turned the equation a bit in other areas. Perhaps the "service" provided by thoseelected officials is to prod the rest of us to make necessary changes in the direction of justice or conservation or equality or . . . ?  Maybe I simply need to expand, or deepen, my idea of service. Even in the few days I've been thinking about this, I have noticed a bit of an increase in compassion for those unexpected servants. I trust that's a good thing.       (I'm still working on Norway rats . . . .)


"A Song of Creation" (the Song of the Three Young Men), 1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 88.
** The Babylonian names given to the Hebrew youths Hanania, Mishael, and Azaria.
*** This hymn is not found in any Hebrew versions of Daniel, but is part of other early texts, including Greek, Syriac and Latin. Because it was not in any Hebrew texts, it was excluded from most Protestant versions of the Bible, although it is in Roman Catholic and Orthodox versions.
**** Benedicite Aotearoa
***** Bhagavad Gita As It Is. 2nd Ed. (Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983, p. 282).