27 July 2007

Stropping Occam's Razor

I shaved.

Once I longed for a beard to make me look older, being so youthful looking in a field where age was still something of value. Now I am older, the status of clergy age is lesser, and the result was something I did not like.

Puts me in mind of something I learned about Thomas Edison. On his way to inventing the light bulb he tried scores of different filaments. It was long and frustrating, but he apparently commented on how each failure one was one less he had to consider. We arrive at answers both by positive and negative means - one by selection and the other by elimination. Each yields information we need.

But somehow learning that something is not the answer, or not what we want, seems like a failure. My elder son is coming back from a summer program for those interested in urban planning. He got a negative result, meaning he is not as interested in the field as he once thought.

“Dad,” he said, “this was a waste of money.”

“No it wasn’t,” I said. “You could have gotten into a graduate program, which is way more expensive and time consuming, and then found out.”

If knowledge is a good thing, we tend to forget that learning is often a process of elimination. Proving something is not true is as much a victory in science as proving something is. In fact, it is more so. One proved wrong, one can move on. But things held to be true are ever after tested and challenged.

We chip away at the block of unknowing. What remains is more likely true than we has been made into dust, but how much is still false remains to be seen.

This applies to our lives as much as particle physics or paleontology. We need to be scientists of the soul. But in that case the process is like shaving than chiseling.

25 July 2007

Wake Up And Go To Sleep

The whole point of this blog is to wake up. I think most of us phone it in, spiritually. It’s hard not to. Life is full of stuff, and having to pay actual attention to it all is impossible. We end up multi-tasking, which is really ignoring with more gestures; or going on auto-pilot.

But writing absolutely requires that I think about what I am doing. Perhaps not at exactly the moment it happens, but soon enough. No question, I am more awake than I was.

And no one said being awake always felt good either. Like what happened today. Nothing big. No drama, just a moment of recognition.

I saw myself in a store window, and saw not myself but my father.

Now, I have seen the resemblance before. What stopped me today was how when I glimpsed myself in that window I was old.

Of course, part of why this happened is that I am growing some whiskers, as I often do in the summer. Mine are slow, sparse and mangy so it takes me a long time to see any results. And now, because I am older, it is gray as well as light blond, so it takes even longer.

The reason why I mention this is that my late father kept a small beard in his latter days. He and I have similar colored hair as well. And today I was wearing a summer shirt that is like those he wore. So I saw him looking back at me today, not the man I am now.

Until today the man who looked back in the mirror was passably under fifty, younger in deportment and appearance than his years. This has been a frustration sometimes as people tend to treat you as younger as well. But I told myself it would pay back as I got older. While contemporaries raced toward antiquity, I though, I would remind people of Dorian Grey.

Over the years I have seen the boy I was looking back at me in the mirror. Today for the first time I saw the old man I am to be.

That woke me up.


Can I hit snooze?

23 July 2007

Spring Hopes Eternal

Yes, I am still working on the book idea. But events have commanded my time.

Foremost death, the recognition of which is the highest duty and honor in clergy life. But also among the most demanding. When it comes (not if but when and never conveniently but that’s part of the delusion of control we humans continue to succor) all else must give way. So we move appointments, defer plans, even reroute our travels. At least a half dozen times in my career I have been summoned from a distance to conduct these good offices.

Next, those deferred appointments and plans, which now are wedged into places left for writing and other non urgent tasks.

Finally, the time needed to think and arrange thoughts is itself given to deal with the changes. I remember reading in John Irving’s “Garp,” that the title character, himself an author, wrote his first book with very short chapters because as a house husband he could only write while the children were napping.


While there is no direct analogy here, this July which I thought would be serene has not been. Writing needs serenity, or at least long patches of time to think, write, revise, crumple the paper, and write again. "Lather, rinse, repeat."

Now it is late July, September tasks are now only six weeks away not ten. We are taking time away this month, both to vacate and to visit relatives.

All of this is to say I shall continue to work, but the pace shall be slower than hoped. The good news is that I am being encouraged to consolidate my time and focus it more, which may give me leave to do more of exactly what I need to do. That process will itself take time. But in the end I shall be in a better position.

For now, let me remark on one small thing.

Outside the window of the room at home where I have been working, I often see and hear mourning doves. Their cooing resembles owls in a genteel way; indeed, I mistook them for owls at first.


What struck me was how every time I hear them, or other birds as well, I thought of spring. Nothing to me bespeaks the newness in life better than a birdsong. I am sure literature and folklore have influenced me, and yet that first sound of a bird in March or April is the sure fire sign that the season is coming. Budding trees can be seduced by a warm spell only to be thwarted by late snows. Even a tuft of green can appear in rare Februarys. But a robin on the branch or in the ear is definitive.

Now, in mid July, when I can tell the sun I setting earlier and thus we are on the inevitable path to autumn, even now when a robin or a mourning dove speaks, it is April again. I feel a surge of aliveness and hope and eagerness.

Pavlovian? Probably. But I hope I never lose it.

22 July 2007

Apostle, Firing Off Epistle

The title is from a cartoonist with a rakish sense of humor but whose name I cannot fetch. He pens an old robed fellow scribbling furiously with a quill, eyes furrowed and focused. Underneath was the phrase, "Apostle, Firing off Epistle."

I got a great comment from a recent post. Let me cite it here before responding.

"Dr. Wooden,

"You say that the church recently has gotten on board with miracles and believing things that sound magical, which seems to be a factual error as what do you do with the historical belief in the resurrection? Historically, it has been the belief in the resurrection that has set Christianity apart and defined it through the centuries. In fact, Paul says that if the resurrection isn’t true, then woe to us for we are all fools! If you say that Christianity is wrong in accepting the things that we cannot prove with our “enlightened” minds, then you are talking about a Christianity that is completely foreign to the Bible for Paul’s theology is soundly based on the presupposition that Christ actually did rise and that it had and has actual ramifications for the believer.

"On a side note, your idea of not wanting to accept things transcendental occurred to the first century writers which is why they cite so many witness of the post-resurrection Christ. The fundamental problem with your argument is that you are trying to pick and chose and accept Christianity for what you want it to be and not what it actually is. Christianity is not some nebulous idea without a past which we can form to our every whim and temporal passions; it is something that has existed in time and space and whose principles and beliefs were established two millennia ago."

Let me start by saying that my post was about the culture more than the church. I was saying that there is a craving in the culture at large, a hunger for the fantastic that we find in films, books, television and so on. Most of this is not religious in the formal sense at all, and is focused instead on contemporary times. It is a broad desire for a sense of enchantment.

I distinguish this from historic claims about mirculous events in religions, in that the miracles of the past were demonstrations of something. Jesus healed, but not as a parlor trick or even to show what a powerful fellow he was. He healed as a means of demonstrating his ideas. Every miracle was also a lesson, a revelation in a sense, that was intended to change people's minds. Even the resurrection is to make a point, not merely to show that Jesus was immortal.

My problem is not so much with the idea of supernatural events as the longing for them to happen to us right now. Evert child believes in Santa and dreams of being a seperhero. No adult should. I suppose I am bemoaning infantile notions in adults.

Now, let me further clarify that I did not deny the transcendental. I have no doubt that there are elements, aspects, dimensions and realms of reality that are larger than I can perceive. No doubt, they defy my understanding and capacity. But they are not, strictly speaking, supernatural. They belong to the same fabric of reality we know.

You are right that i am picking and choosing, because I believe the witness we have in the Bible is not itself transcendent. That is, the Bible is the witness of mortal humans to the world they lived in. While I accept that they speak honestly, I do not grant that they speak accurately.

Galen and Ptolemy were honest in their medical and astronomical findings. They did not lie and thought themselves to be accurate. But it turns out their honest fingings were not true in the factual sense. Thus do I approach scripture. I honor their authenticity and their insight. Paul I am convinced was right in several ways, deeply wise about human nature, and penetrating in his analysis of his time, but he was not right in every way.

And friend, Christianity is nebulous, meaning like a cloud. The creeds of the early church attest as much to the confusion as to the power. The divisions of the church prove again and again that the unity we all sense is there cannot be precisely named or ultimately defined. At best we have a bell curve, a statistical center of belief and practice, but when you collect all the procmained Christians, it also includes Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, Silent Quakers and Pentacostals, Trappists and Snake Handlers. This seems pretty wide and nebulous to me. It may not be nebulous in some ultimate sense (Paul was right about our epistemological limits) but we are unable to overcome it because of our own finite and imperfect limits.

And let's remember, I did not claim the Christian label in the first place. What I did say was that conservative Christianity as we see it in the USA has profited by the cultural hunger for it. It does increase credulity, I have no doubt, but beware of what you pray for, as the saying goes.

Good Christians love Halloween, yoga, past life therapy, channeling, chrystals, and other non Christian magical things. Thi is not a door that can be opened only to the right sort of magic. The willingness to believe goes beyond good sense. As a friend once aid, don't be so open minded that your brains fall out. That is very much to the point here. Our cultural pining for magical things to make us feel special and significant makes us prey to all manner of folly and falsehood. Personally, I find there to be much meat even on a Christianity apart from resurrections and miracles. But beliving in magic amounts to mindless hoping not faitjful living.

From what I see, though, that's all there is for some people, just the smoke and mirrors and special effects department. If I am right we are in deep trouble.

18 July 2007

Presto Chango

Played a little hooky today, taking the afternoon off to take my son and do HP IV. That’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (fourth in the series).

We were surprised that the theater was already nearly empty. Yes it’s been out a little while, but we were among the dozen in the theater, if there were that many. I read a review or two ahead of time. There was something of a video symposium on the NYTimes website, which I watched the day before.

But I am not here to review the movie. What got me, started during the coming attractions. We saw ads for “Enchanted,” “The Water Horse,” “The Bourne Surpremacy,” and a television promo for something about a man who can revive the dead to reveal their killers (coming this fall!).

See a pattern here?

I do. Magic is everywhere. “Enchanted” is about a cartoon prince and princess (as well as the evil sorceress) who get transported into the real world. “Water Horse” is about the Loch Ness Monster and his little boy friend, (Can you sing "Puff the Magic Dragon?”) and the TV show is what it is. Now add in Potter, Heroes, Medium, Charmed, Buffy, Halloween I – XX, Nightmares on Elm, Maple, Oak and other streets, and gods only know what else that I cannot remember at the drop of a cape or mask.

We are living in a culture saturated with magic, be they good wizards, kindly monsters, zombies or superheroes. If I had the time I would compare the ratio of movies/tv shows about supernatural themes now to those 20 years ago and 40 years ago. Sure there was Mr. Ed and Topper (combined grotesquely later in "My Mother the Car"), and we had Bewitched, the Munsters and the Addams Family, but it seems to me that the density of supernatural themes (cinematic and televised) was never so high.

My amateur anthropologist mind thinks this started in the 1970s, a byproduct of the New Age movement, with hit films like ET, Close Encounters and Star Wars. There was a market in fantasy and money to be made. Sci-fi got the first boost, but the generation who read Tolkien as part of its identity crisis opened the door to D&D, Mad Max, Conan, and other fantasy realms. For a while it was exotic, unusual, and even a little suspect. But now it is not only mainstream, it is the mainstream.

The point I want to make is that this has also played into the resurgence of magical religion – especially conservative Christianity. By restoring legitimacy to hobbits and robots and the undead, it also sustained miracles, messiahs and resurrections. Magic is no longer mere fantasy. People really believe in it. They see it in the movies, portrayed with intense verisimilitude. They see it on TV.

And as TV and movies are now our standard for reality, or what we believe reality could be, we seek that in the world around us. Why can’t our lives be splendid and exciting, with no pimples and lots of lush background music? Who wouldn’t want that compared to ordinary life with its doldrums, dirty dishes, warts and no idea whether it means anything at all?

No wonder Christianity, conservative Christianity with its promise of immortality and intervening miracles and magical moments of utmost meaning, is so appealing. It is the closest we can get to being a superhero, pointing a wand or battling a dragon.

Mythic religion, by which I mean not false religion but those wrapped around a magical story, is always appealing. How else can we explain their existence in the vast majority of ancient cultures. No doubt the ancients felt the siren tug of needing a world more orderly, explicable and meaningful that the one they saw around them.

But that’s exactly the problem. We are going bakcward, becoming like ancient people. Seduced by the glamour of the magical, we then proceed to say it must be true BECAUSE it is magical. Tertullian, early Christian theologian, once is supposed to have said, “Credo quia absurdum est,” I believe because it is absurd. He was not so simplistic as that sounds, but we are becoming so. Our culture now craves the miraculous over the mundane, and whenever it sees even a shadow of a hope proclaims it to be proof of whatever supernatural hope they champion. Magic is now assumed to be real, not perhaps Harry Potter but in the visions of Jesus and Mary seen in cinnamon buns or on cement walls, in being spared death or pain in an accident, and especially in the remission of disease. These tantalizing bits are treated like theological forms of the legal doctrine of “ipse dixit,” the thing speaks for itself.

Of course, a despicable outcome to this is that any religion of spirituality that does not truck with miracle and magic is discarded. It is simply not religion. Religion is belief in magic of some form. Absent that it is not religion.

This angers and saddens me. I have a profound and pervasive faith that reaches beyond the material world I know, but it has no need or desire for the magical. There is enough mystery, majesty, and awe in the world we have to satisfy my thirst for grandeur. I feels like those families who are driving through the american west in a minivan, surrounded by scenes that are beyond belief, but the children are oblivious because they are watching videos and movies. Their eyes and ears are so enthralled by the false power of magic they simply cannot see or hear the genuine power of reality.

Then I remember that they are driving the van!

16 July 2007

Echoes Near And Far

Wild day today, as I ended up at the wrong house for a pastoral call. Who knew we had two members with the same name in the same remote town? All’s well that ends well, which it did, but I was ever after 45 minutes behind schedule, ending at 7 p.m. tonight.

On the way back to the office the radio was playing the first Brandenburg. Instantly, I remembered when I first hear it as a high school student. What a revelation! No less than three melodic lines – oboes, horns and violins – jostling back and forth as if vying to be the solo.

And they were, solos that is. In baroque music the concerto was distinguished from other forms by having a solo voice or voices (the obbligato or parts which had to be written out, hence the term obbligato, if memory serves) and the ripieno (which means back bench, or those who had a mere outline of a part. By Bach’s time even these parts were written out as the bench grew from a clavier and cello to a whole section of strings). Even then, there was the idea of foreground and background, solos with light accompaniment interspersed with choruses when they all played together in concert; that made it a concerto you see, instead of a duo or trio sonata.

Back then I was especially entranced by the third movement, with its scordatura violin solo, tuned to a higher pitch to make it stand out against all those other instruments, and the virtuoso horn parts. Played that movement over and over as some kids did tracks from Pink Floyd. That’s right, I was weird even then.

Remarkable how short it is. Barely 15 minutes with all the repeats. And yet so much packed in. I can see why the next generation wanted to simplify. An even later generation would name the earlier generation baroque, which we understand to mean ornate. The succeeding generation was called the classical, invoking the ideas of Greek clarity and simplicity. Of course, they did not see themselves that way. We forget that it was contemporary music for them. Not until the late 19th century did music become a museum process, playing more golden oldies than brand newies. From 1650 to 1850 all people wanted was something new. Old was just that. From then to now art music has been more about preserving the past. New was suspect. And it may be that by 2050 we will have swung the pendulum again. At least so I read in the papers.

I cannot say whether that is inevitable, lamentable, or laudable. But for one born into the last generation of genuflection, it will be sad to see it go.

15 July 2007

Cotton Candy Days

It’s fun to practice what I preach - to pay attention.

I need this as my predilection for reflection can make me both blind and deaf to what’s going on around me, often at close quarters.

We took a little day trip yesterday, which was not so little after all, ultimately lasting more than 300 miles. At the current price of gas and the cost of lunch we spent less than $100 but not by a whole lot. Not a cheap day. But very much worth it.

Anyway, we went north, to sample the fabled lake shore, with a goal of reaching Traverse City and sampling the Cherry Festival. But most of the day was on the move, in the car, harkening back to when a drive was itself an activity, as in to ‘go for a drive.’

I should make note that part of the pleasure of the occasion was being a twosome. Even though we were alone at home, our sons being away, the house is a siren of its own. The laundry and cleaning are always murmuring in the background. And other duties like work to be done and books to read and finances to organize, all have their mewling demands as well. Only when these too are left behind can we feel free to be with each other for each.

So off we went, first in the driving rain that made me wonder if this was all folly. But the forecasters said it was clearing up north, and beyond Muskegon the sky truly did begin to open.

We left the main road to find the lake shore which winds and twists wonderfully. You need to know what where I live is mostly rather flat, especially as it approaches the lake. But north of Muskegon the geology becomes interesting. Hills rise, valleys dip, the lakeshore alternates beaches and cliffs. That variety of landscape was what I wanted as much as any water view.

And good thing, because we rarely saw the big lake (there are many inland lakes, so locals sometimes refer to Michigan and the big lake) at all. That’s because most lakefront is owned, and upon them sit cottages.

Cottage is a euphemism, but not in the Newport RI sense where they are not rusticities but opulences. Some here are quite plain, but others are quite substantial. Few are the huts and shacks of beach life. These are second homes, some are year-round.

Wending our way north, before reaching Pentwater, they are usually invisible because the road is several hundred yards from the beach and trees are thick. Now and then a dip or clearing allows us to see a small roof peak or a patch of blue water.

Our proximal goal is the Little Sable Light House. My spouse has read about it and we triangulate our way via an old map and a book. Being part of a state park, as we approach it the cottage density picks up. The area takes on the aspect of a seaside village with numerous smaller cottages crowd7ing close along an inlet for putting in boats. Some cottages are clearly of the early 20th century with their deco simplicity and roaring twenties style. Think glorified cabanas, some are so tiny.

They are often part of old motor courts, those quaint little circles of cabins, a few of which even have neon vacancy and no vacancy signs lit. But here and there, actually nearly as much here as there, modern suburban style homes have sprung up. They loom over the aging smaller ones as a giant grandson towers over a proud wizened grandmother in a high school graduation picture.

The road where these places are is the one to the light house and park, and is off the state route. At the corner are the small businesses one expects at a vacation spot – gasoline, food, beer, diner. We twist our way down the narrow road looking for children in swim suits and inner tubes. Past the free parking lot we leave see the better cottages because they are closer to the beach, some with actual lakefront. The tree line breaks and we can see the light house, a large brick thing with elegant masonry details. It is the tallest of those on this side, and part of a state beach where one has to pay to stay.

That’s not our plan so we tool down to the dead end of the road where the newest cottages are, to turn around and make our way back.

What is it about waterfront living that makes it so distinctive? It is not the water actually. There is something about the check by jowl building, the conscientiously nautical themes and prerequisite architectural palette.

It is fundamentally false. Beach living is to real life as Disney world is to the real world. It is all about ambience, for who would come out here except for the ambience. Waterfront living is not economically sound, unless one lives on a boat or operates a business that depends on the water. And the way the land is developed here has no economic purpose. Everyone here and everything here is aesthetic. Each house is a statement, a self conscious expression of what the owner thinks is goodly and pleasant. Aesthetics trumps pragmatism at every turn – such that to live here at the water means an ultimately unsustainable relationship.

I sound harsh, which is not my intent. I have spent some weeks over my years at beaches, finding them quite charming and memorable. But what makes them charming is their difference from daily life. One is on vacation, away from the practical norms. One can do this for a week, maybe two, but it cannot be done all the time.

For example, the houses at the end of the road are more than a mile from even that small grocer at the corner. Everything one needs to enjoy the beachside life requires a long journey by car. I have some older friends who retired to their cottages some years ago and are now relocating to the city because they realized living at such a remove was getting harder and more perilous. They could not sustain it physically. If they find it unsustainable, are all these buildings creeping up the beach any more sustainable for the ecosystem? I wonder.

I noticed the oddness of vacation living before, but only this time did I think about it and see how it is founded upon as much fancy as any amusement park. The whole enterprise is built upon a falsehood – a notion of what the good life is. For kids the good life is a fantasy cotton candy and roller coasters and a kind of carnival giddiness. We know that is unsustainable. But what adults believe is the good life, or some at least, is as unsustainable and as fantastic if we take a good look.

Makes me wonder how much of life, my life, is erected on a tinker toy skeleton of dreams. Paying attention literally means paying. It exacts a price of innocence. But grownups know reality is ultimately more exciting than any amusement park. Even our own amusement parks.

14 July 2007

A Good Gray Day

Still digesting that last morsel eh? I think of Dickens, who is the most famous serial writer of books. For those who do not readily recall, CD created many of his novels one chapter at a time and published them thus, in newspapers. Given their ultimate size, no one would have willingly embarked on a Great Expectations if that doorstop were in the bookshop window. But one elephant bite at a time it was not so daunting. Of course, he was paid by the word, so larger books meant fatter paychecks.

I am working the opposite tack. To say in as few words as necessary (note I said necessary not possible) the elemental premises for liberal religion and what they mean when carefully considered. I want them to be few for two reasons –


1. As a writer it leaves fewer places to be misunderstood or inadvertently to lead astray; and shorter things are more memorable and durable.

2. While we all appreciate Dickens, we quote Shakespeare. If we all need to study Plato we all remember Paul.

That’s why you have to talk to me. Books are dialogues, and it I am not making sense then what good is it?

I shall refrain from adding to the tome today. Earlier this week the wife and I resolved to take Saturday for a day trip up north. Never seen scenic Michigan and we owe ourselves a taste of what people come long distances to see. Weather was fine all week, even a bit cool at the ball park last night where we were to watch out single A Whitecaps unsuccessfully battle the Beloit Snappers. I wore my Brooklyn Cyclones cap with pride and pleasure.

Of course, today it’s cloudy and rain is on the radar. But I have to work tomorrow. So we are going and will thus enjoy the rare rainy day in northern Michigan. Yay.

Nothing truly to complain of, though. Having conducted two memorials this week, visited someone who’s purchase on life is getting daily more precarious, and learning of someone who got a wretched diagnosis, my lot is supremely good.

Still, could I have just a little sky today. Please?

I’ll let you know.

13 July 2007

Hearing No Dissent...

Friday, blessed Friday. Except for having a filling replaced this afternoon, and needing to clean like crazy, and invite someone to go to the ballgame with us tonight, and going to the bank, call the fellow who is repairi ngy garage, and reading the week's acumulated newspapers, it is a slow day.

Younger son is away on camping trip to an island in the big lake. Our lilies are blooming. Our tomloato is dying. Tha pachysandra is staying at bay. Someone plopped an election sign on my lawn. I hapopen to support him, but I do ot remember asking for one or requesting one. Cheeky. My younger son is cutting his politicl teeth on this campaign, working as a runner for a candidate who is in a different race but who is tied to the opponent to my guy. I am glad my son is getting involved, and glad also that he is seeing how messy it can be.

Now posted comments on my draft introduction. Well, not much. Hearing no dissent, as the title says, I'll put the next bit of thought up for your view and appraisal. This one is a bit longer. As ever, though, you are the reader-editors. If it makes no sense to you, or evades a point of logic or fact, I need to know. You are friendly critics, emphasizing both words equally. So here we go.

Ball, Box, Tune, Tale...

Ball

Imagine a sphere, one you can hold in your hand. You might be thinking of an orange, or a marble or a baseball. There are lots of spheres to choose from, but the one I want you to imagine has nothing on the surface - no umbilicus where it broke off from the tree, no nub where a pump fills it with air, no stitching nor ribbing to give away purpose or construction. Think of a mere sphere.

Where does it begin? Where does it end? Does it have parts? Can you see it all? A sphere turns out to be quite a marvel. It has no beginning and no end, yet it is clearly finite. It has but one surface, one part, but no matter how you try, you cannot see all of it at once.

§

To say the world is like a sphere is a bit obvious, even simplistic. Of course it is. We have seen pictures of it from space. That’s the satellite view I mentioned before. What is new is saying that reality, all of it from the tiniest quark to the furthest cosmic ray, is like a sphere. Not exactly like a sphere, to be sure, but shares those features we just noticed – finite but endless, of one substance, never fully perceivable.

I came to this notion partly from knowing that the word ‘cosmos,’ by which we mean universe is originally the Greek word for world. We use ‘world’ to mean something like the cosmos when we mean not just earth but everything around us. The Western world is not just Europe and the Americas. It is also its history, ideas, attitudes, culture and so on. German has a word, weltanschauung, world view, which means that larger sense of ‘world.’ To say reality is like a sphere, then, is to assert a weltanschauung, a world view, a sense of the world and cosmos as a sphere.

But it actually began when I was a child. Mind you, I was no prodigy; my report cards will tell you that; if I could find them. But I do remember sitting on the back porch one summer when I was nine or ten, reading a book because my home town of Baltimore can get really hot and humid. The day was close, the sun harsh, and the grasshoppers were making their mean buzzing sound that only happens on hot days. The porch was a bit of shade.

I sat on one of those aluminum frame lawn chairs with the plastic strip lattice that always frays and breaks. The book was of the “golden book” variety, with lots of color illustrations. I noticed (as many of you did I am sure) that the solar system and an atom resembled each other. There was something in the middle around which spun other things.

What if, I thought back then, the solar system was just one atom in a vastly larger reality? Or that somehow each atom was itself a solar system. This thought, that patterns are present at the smallest and largest scale, is something we’ll come back to later. The important thing now is that we all have seen a family resemblance between various disparate things in our universe. Yes, the atom and the solar system; but also the tree and the nerve cell, rivers and blood vessels, thunderclouds and the Magellanic Cloud.

§

Noticing resemblances - wondering if there are parallels, imagining connections - that’s analogical reasoning. And it is the key to how this handbook operates. Likening reality to a sphere is an analogy. But no analogy is perfect. However much an atom resembles the solar system in some ways, science will tell us there are no little people riding on electrons. There are substantial differences. To the insight of analogy we must add two other processes –

1. Logic. Careful thinking will prevent us from seeing too close a resemblance. One form of this is the logical error called – post hoc ergo propter hoc. Logicians love Latin, it makes them sound wise. The English translation is, “since this, because of this.” Just because B comes after A does not mean B happened because of A. Superstition is all about this error. I hit a home run when I wore my green shorts. Therefore I hit a home run because I wore my green shorts. Thus I must wear my green shorts to hit home runs.

Another form of logical error is what is called Occam’s Razor. And English monk of the 14th century, he did not invent it so much as refine its use. In simplest terms, and here is some more Latin to impress your friends, it is ““entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.” Entities should not be multipled without necessity.

Even in English this is hard to grab. Call it the law of parsimony, which says that when two theories are offered to explain something, everything else being equal, the simplest is more likely to be the true.

Note the condition, everything else being equal, and the two words more likely. Considering the first phrase, if I have a choice between believing schizophrenia is to be cured by prayer or neurochemistry, and simplicity is the only criterion, prayer wins. It is way simpler than all those drugs. But they are not equal alternatives. Our knowledge of facts about the brain and medicine tells us schizophrenia and other diseases have complex causes. Another way to state this is to say, the simplest theory that meets all the conditions given is more likely to be true.

The second phrase reminds us that we may not know all the conditions. Medieval people had no knowledge of the brain and modern medicine. They did not know all the conditions involved. Their answer responded to the knowledge they had. Our answer now is better to be sure, but it may turn out there are other conditions and circumstances we do not know about mental illness. Our answer now may not be adequate to what we learn in the future.

For our purposes, it means “seek simplicity but suspect it.” The Logician in all of us knows “if you hear hooves, think horses.” True it could be Zebras or Buffalo, but unless you are in Africa or Yellowstone, the odds are with horses. Still, it just might be Zebras, so “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” is also good advice. We must ever be aware of our tendency to project our own hopes and beliefs onto a situation, especially an analogy used to describe ultimate things, one that the facts may not perfectly support. That does not mean we cannot use analogies, but as simple answers, we should not assume them to be perfect or adequate. They must be tested by facts as well as logic.

2. Facts are the second process. Check the facts. Because we cannot see everything at once, we must always remember our ideas are tentative until facts confirm or deny them.

Both processes, please note, are more helpful at revealing error than proving truth. Logic and careful reasoning are intended to prevent poor thinking. Science and other facts are most helpful in keeping us honest than in proving us right.
That means, ironically perhaps, that nothing I am saying here is provably true. Spiritual questions are simply too large to be proven. What I am saying is that I can offer a spiritual, moral, religious world view that is less likely to be wrong.

That may sound rather timid compared to the confidence of other religions. And confidence is very powerful. Many have joined a religion persuaded more by the fervency of those who believed as the beliefs themselves. How wrong can they be, we may think, when so many are so convinced?

But, are they right just because they believe? Think post hoc. Check the facts. Do they support or question the ideas? See what I mean.

§

Now go back to the analogy of the sphere. Being careful about sloppy thinking and the possibility of seeing more than is there, making sure we let the facts keep us from making mistaken conclusions, let’s look at those three ideas I ventured a few paragraphs ago.

Reality is finite but endless, of one substance, never fully perceivable. Try as I might, I cannot see how logic or facts shows these to be wrong. Of course, I could be wrong. If I am, do let me know.

I am not the first to use this analogy as you may guess. Both Plato and Aristotle thought it was a sphere. They’re pretty solid company. Somewhat later, Eratosthenes even used scientific thinking to determine that the earth had a circumference of 24855 miles. But it was not science that led to the spherical notion. The sphere was presumed, because a sphere was the simplest and most perfect three dimensional form. What else would the gods choose in forming the universe?

I am using this analogy for a different reason. Odd as it may seem to say, I want to talk about liberal religious fundamentals. They have them as much as any religious conservative. There is nothing wrong with fundamentals in fact, but the intensity religious conservatism has brought to theirs – something correctly called fundamentalism – has made religious liberals wary of admitting they even have them. Yet they do exist, and ignoring them has been a mistake. It is time to acknowledge them and own them rather than avoid them for fear of being abused.

Most religious liberals thing freedom is the bedrock. After all, liberalism contains the word liberty. Much of what it does is about getting it, using it, protecting it. One of the great ironies of modern times is how conservatism has claimed liberty as its cause, effectively implying that liberalism is not about freedom at all. That made me think. A good thing. and I found myself wondering why we believe in freedom.

Why is freedom a good thing? Certainly its absence is bad, but what is good about liberty itself? Is liberty an end or a means to some other end? That sounds rarefied and abstract so look at it this way – Everyone wants to be rich. Why? To buy things. It is not having lots of money that people want, it is to use it. Well, what good is freedom by itself? It must be used to be good. So what is it for which we use and need liberty?

Liberal religion (other forms of liberalism I might add) has been fixated on the means not end, on the tool not the product, and thus has lost sight of its basis. There is a rich and complex history to this which I leave to others to write and argue. All I want to say is that religious liberals cannot hope to survive much less prosper if they do not ask why they believe in what they believe and to what ends.

§

The answers to those questions are the fundamentals, which I believe can be stated and affirmed, and upon which the wild inchoate mass of liberals can actually agree. I say that because those fundamentals are so simple, so evident, and so basic as to be incontestable. They are, as I said a moment, ago, very like a sphere.

Liberal religion holds the following truths to be self-evident.
- Reality, like a sphere, has no edges. There is no other reality out there. Only one. Whatever exists is part of the same reality.
- Like a sphere it has one surface, substance, which means everything part in the whole, just as every point on a sphere shares in making it a sphere. However different things seem, everything is as real as everything else.
- No matter how we try we cannot know all there is to know. Like a sphere, we can never behold the whole truth.

Pretty simple stuff. Hard to disagree with them. But when you think about it three basic ideas arise that challenge some strong assumptions found in the world.
- Reality is a unity.
- Diversity is part of that unity.
- Mystery is part of that unity.


11 July 2007

Eight Long Years And what Do you Get?

"Another day older and deeper in debt," says the song.

Sorry for neglecting you, but stuff piled up. A dear old lady died a few months back and the service is tomorrow. Family is from out of town. On top of that a grand old man died late last week and so that means a committal was yesterday with a larger service next week. Add to that my incontinent refrigerator, recalcitrant TV cable, and the need to replace my front porch light. And oh yes, the power went out last night. Only for about an hour, but just a little something to brighten up our "lazy hazy crazy days."

(I have in point of fact been drinking soda, eating pretzels and downing beer. Smithwicks tonight with two church members and Fin du Monde earlier, which is really strong in taste and buzzness.)

Almost lost my book into the ether this morning. It’s only ten pages long so far, of which I have offered two for your perusal. (No responses yet.) Somewhere this morning when I was writing the memorial for tomorrow, Word punked out on me, the plumber showed up, and Windows sent some updates. By the time I dealt with them all the file had gone from 10 pages to one blank one.

Thanks to an external backup drive and a background backup program I had a copy. A lesson learned the hard way a few years back when my hard drive when belly up and recovering it cost $2000. The digital version of “When I nod my head you hit it with a hammer.”

You either got that or not.

And now it’s nearly ten p.m. I really want to write but my eyes are drooping.

My spirits are too, as the news from DC gets worse and worse. Or more accurately, refuses to change. No matter how hard we hit it with a hammer, some heads resolutely remain unfazed. Tell me, someone, how a stained dress was a threat to the republic and lying, defying, and spying are not. Please tell me, or else explain why there are not fires in the streets of DC?


I am a man of hope, despair bringing me to paralysis, but it is getting harder and harder to hope my children will have anything but a wretched life cleaning up after this calamitous administration, something that may take the next fifty years.

And yet, I do hope. Paul is my model, though he would not welcome it. A liberal following Paul? Not in every respect, of course. But in the sense that his immediate world was one of great sorrow and despair and yet he was confident in the ultimate triumph of good. Just read his letters, they are thrilling in their conviction despite all evidence to the contrary.

Yes, I do believe that good will prevail. Must. And so back to the pages in making. Bear with me. As we all must with this strange new world.

09 July 2007

Stuff and Nonsense - You Decide Which

Another hot day, and way more humid. It is July after all, hardly out of the ordinary. My younger son wrenched his ankle playing UCTS. Give up? Urban Capture The Flag, a viral game spread by cell phone and email in which people use downtown areas as their playing field. He called to say he needed a lift, having, as I said, wrenched his ankle.

Now, a few weeks back when it was just starting I took a little walk to spy on the enterprise. A few college-agers were sprinting around, lurking in corners and acting very much like cats on the prowl but for the most part the place was deserted (hey, Sunday evenings in GR are a little slow even in the summer).

Last night there was a significant clot of young folks. This is a growing thing. Keep an eye open for scurrying white kids who seems to be running every which way. Your chance to be ahead of the cultural curve. By autumn it will be over.

Anyway, I bring my son home and prop him on the couch. And because he slept on the couch last night, I had my morning coffee at the computer in a different room. Which is all to tell you that while at the monitor this morning I found a fun and funny send-up of the impending end of Potter in yesterdays
NYTimes. Check it out.

I am actually reading the penultimate volume. My first foray after having taken said son to see the movies. He had read them beforehand, that was the deal. Being the dad I was excused from the reading part, supplying instead the money part.

All I can say is that Rowling has the narrative gifts of Dan Brown, but with considerably stronger writing gifts. The plot is the thing, and it moves just fast enough to be engaging but not so wild as to be confusing. Brain candy, someone once called a book. Good term. Rowling versus Brown? M&Ms versus Godiva. Both are of no nutritional value, but if you have to waste calories…

Contrast that with Stephen Ambrose, whose saga of Lewis and Clark I am reading. A much richer tale in every sense. But his writing is pasty. Miles away from Edmund Morris and his magnum opus on TR. It is frustrating to find such a great story told so clumsily. I am saving Patrick O’Brian for later. Good tales, good writing, good history. On the candy meter –
Rhebs! (The nonpareil of American made candy. Their truffles attract French pigs!)

All this talk of books reminds me to post a draft forward. Remember, I am trying to make this a short book, aiming toward being evocative more than erudite, intriguing rather than inspiring. I am trying to channel Scott Peck in style and Anne Morrow Lindbergh in length, so it is deliberately short.

I have written a bit more than this, but it needs a second glance before sharing. Still, feel free to tell me what hits you right and wrong – both substance and style. I will eagerly post your comments. So this is not only a book that is being written publicly in real time, but it welcomes critics at the outset, who can doubtless effect its outcome. Sort of an interactive game. Cool!


Here Goes:

Ball, Box, Tune, and Tale – A Handbook of Faith
for the Second Millennium

Is life worth living? I sat on the floor of the fluorescent hallway of my college dormitory 38 years ago, plagued with insomnia, reading The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, who said there, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” For the lonely insomniac that makes entirely too much sense.

My life since then has been chasing the next sentence. “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Over thirty years later, I can begin to say yes. Along the way it drove me into seminary and into clergy life. I have witnessed lives lost, saved, wasted and redeemed. I have seen suffering and sorrow, hope and love, buried the old and the young; and experienced all of these in my personal life as well as my calling.

The question of whether life is worth living is universal, not just a riddle for philosophers and theologians. That we have not obliterated ourselves implies that we think life is worth it. That there are libraries devoted to saying why tells us we are still figuring it out. So it must seem an act of breathtaking hubris on my part to claim to have found the answer and put it into this small book.

I am not doing that. In fact, there are several things I am not writing.

This book is not the last word. I call it a handbook because it is intended to help you think, not answer your every question. Like a map, it is intended to situate you on the terrain of life and help keep you from getting lost. Like a travel guide, it describes major sites but not every nook and cranny. Ultimately, you have to make up your mind where you are going and what you choose to do with the information.

It is not the first word. Nothing here is new. All that I am saying someone else said or wrote and certainly thought. You have probably have thought them yourself. This volume only seeks to arrange those ideas in a way that avoids unnecessary problems. For example, the problem of evil is actually quite simple; so also the nature of God; if we start from different assumptions. They became complex because assumptions made long ago are now clearly wrong, but because they are so entrenched, we all but forget they are there. It is as if, having traveled for years along one route we do not even imagine there could be others that are shorter or better.

That said, this book is not a critique. While much of what is here differs from the doctrines of the major world religions, dissent is not the aim. Even when I disagree, it is because I stand on their shoulders and can see further than they. In other words, they are the basis for my insights, even though what they conclude and I conclude is different.

What this book is, then, is mostly a weather satellite. Not so long ago, weather was predicted by gathering data from the ground and comparing it to previous data and so on. It was not bad, but not very good either, especially when it came to predicting hurricanes and tornados. That’s why towns like where I grew up and where I went to college and where I now had warning sirens. Limited to direct observation of a tornado, say, which was then reported by telephone, sirens were the very best way to warn people.

Then satellite cameras began to show us whole swaths of land. Now we can see great systems of weather and predict with far greater accuracy what is coming. The facts were always there, right? But we could not see then because of limited abilities. That’s what this book does. It takes advantage of our larger range of view. While we still do not see with complete clarity, Paul’s dark looking glass is a bit brighter and clearer now than it was then.

There are four parts to this book, hence the title. The first looks at the nature of reality and what we are in it – the basis for believing life is worth living. The second outlines the religion that comes from that. The third notes what is required to live by that religion. The fourth, well it is barely more than a page. You can read it now and say, “I knew that.” Of course you did. There is no surprise ending or ‘aha’ waiting for you. But it will mean something more than it did before when you get to the end. Thanks for making the trip.

07 July 2007

Air On The G String?

So an editor friend, actually former editor and current friend, tells me that I need to think of my audience. To whom am I writing this book?

Someone else who wrote an encouraging note said, “If I know anything it's that our experiences must be expressed. Not simply experienced, expressed."

Am I serving a need to express or a call to communicate? Very different things. One requires no audience; its reason is to speak. The other requires an audience; its purpose is to be heard. Do I have something that needs to be heard?

I think so. What has bothered me for years has been how liberal religion has assumed it is a boutique alternative, something for the elite few who ‘get it.’ Then we wonder why no one takes us seriously, or that others do not understand us. Of course not. We are not proclaiming something to others, but congratulating ourselves.

Unless we have something to say has broad appeal, we shall dwindle until we inhabit only the cobwebbed corners of history like Dunkers, Samaritans, Sufis and Farsis. Either we mean to speak to everyone, or we consign ourselves to a virtual cloister, refugees from society, in it but not of it.

So I guess I have two audiences, and they are very different.

One is the body of current religious liberals who have gotten into ruts about theism and humanism, individuality and community, spirituality and social action. These are false choices, false dichotomies actually. They result from flawed assumptions at the foundational level of our faith. Securing the true and lasting foundations is what that audience needs to hear.

The other is the body of non liberal religionists, from those who have no idea what they believe but have some notions of being spiritual in some way to those who have a distinct idea and think theirs is the best if not the only way to see things.

In truth, I would rather talk to the second group. Didn’t someone say (being snarky now) that a prophet is not without honor save in his own country? But those who are encouraging me, that would be all of you out there, are part of the first group.

What do you think?

And here’s another question.

Should it be narrative or argued? Narratives are better sellers. Fulghum and Albom and those guys tell lots of stories which grab our attention and get the point across. On the other hand Paul scarcely tells us anything narrative in his few epistles and yet clearly has the upper hand influence wise.

While I know what to say, I find myself stammering when it comes to how to say it.

That audience thing is a big part of it. My Sunday crowd is of the first sort. I want to get out beyond that, to those who are not listening but need to hear...

... Today was hot, windy, but reaching toward 90 F. I hashed at this project for two hours before giving up and going out to serve as a time keeper for a summer rowing regatta for my son. I clocked races for about 4 and half hours and chatted with fellow crew parents amiably if not very deeply.


At home later, my son is trying on teenage rebellion much more eagerly than his big brother. But he is so decent hearted that he apologizes later.

“Sorry I was so nasty,” he came in to say.

“That’s your job,” I say. “Teenagers have to rebel. And parents have to resist. That’s our job.”

I know that sounds weird, but think of it this way – a violin string can only sound when pulled taught. Tension is some endeavors is necessary. The trick is finding the right amount. The secret to life may be staying in tune.

06 July 2007

Storm Warning Or Is it Just Ringing In My Ears?

The monthly noon siren just went off. During warmer months they test it, in case of impending tornados, of which we have very few. Last big one was over a generation ago.

Makes me remember the siren near my boyhood home just outside Silver Spring MD. That was not for tornados, though.

I was nine during the Cuban Missile Crisis and can assure you was completely aware of what was going on. Air raid drills at school were a fact, the fear of nuclear attack honest (it was Washington DC after all) and so my brother and I sometimes wondered what might happen as we waited to fall asleep nights.

One winter day my father sent me to the little store about a quarter mile away to get some milk. Mom was out and the younger sibs could not be left alone with me, so he bundled me into miy coat, put his lambswool cap on my head – as much to designate my role as adult emissary and ambassador as to keep me warm, and sent me up the chilly road.

The air raid siren went off. It was not the usual day or time. I was terrified. Was this an attack? Turning around, I hastened home.

My father could not understand the depth of my fear. It was, obviously, overblown and groundless. He had seen the last war, knew what it was. He could read the news. All I had was the ominous worry of a cold war child living within the concentric circles of a nuclear target.

I'll tell you about my tornado experience another time. Don't get all excited. It was real but tame.

Today it is almost hot. My one tomato plant is withering. While we were away it got dry but kept growing. Then in the last 2 days it began to go limp and wither. The leaves and stems are drooping. Many years have passed since I last cultivated a tomato. Any insights out there? I gave it plenty of water. Does it need more, less?

My frig may have a problem, or not. The repairman, yes a man, unclogged ice build up in the ice maker. All was fine until this morning. And now my bathroom sinks have crummy pressure. A great old man is courting death at the nursing home. Another is raising his eyebrow to the reaper in a town a few miles from here. Must attend them. No greater honor than this.

Even so, I am chiseling a few sentences for that demonic book I am dueling with. As so many of you have expressed interest and support, I will gladly send it if you want. Just comment on this post. All of them come to my home email before being printed. Tell me you want it and I’ll send it out to you.

Unless of course you want to see it here. I am open to it all. Let me know.

Gotta schedule the dentist, the plumber, the car shop, the dermatologist, so off I go. Stay in touch!

05 July 2007

Notes from My Cell, uh Office...

Something about summer makes it possible to clean up. I am deceiving myself of course. There is always time. That’s the same whether it’s winter or summer. But for some reason I find it easier to do the work in summer.

Yesterday, for example, I spent several hours reseating a decorative brick edge to my front yard, where the slope of the vinca meets the sidewalk. The bricks were toppling over from the relentless pressure above it. It looked slovenly.

Actually, I started some days ago, but most of it remained to do so I used my Independence Day to dig out the bricks, clean out the channel they need to be in, reseat them in their sawtooth pattern, and then cart what was about 200 pounds of dirt back to my garden waste area.

I like the sensation of getting things done. Over time gravity will have its way again, but gravity always will. Even my brick house will eventually tumble. For now, and for the foreseeable future, it looks nice. Those in ethereal jobs, whose tasks are hard to define much less complete, rarely get the sense of something actually being done.

I suppose that’s a reason to write a book; a personal and selfish reason along with the more benign and magnanimous ones. The authors I know really like holding the object, not just because it is an accomplishment but because it is done! Once printed, there is no more to do with that task.

Must admit that is very tempting. Yes, I preach sermons. But I liken this to cooking souffl├ęs. Even at their best they last but a short while and before long you’re hungry again. It’s a genuine “what have you done for me lately,” world. I can see how some clergy are drawn to the church building, literally building. One way or the other, they know something is going to last a while.

Meanwhile, back at home there are pictures to hang that have been waiting for two years. And the basement needs to be reorganized. My gutters need to be inspected, and the garage needs repair. This afternoon the repair man comes to fix the leak in the back of my frig (water for the ice maker). It had ‘peed’ all over the floor when we were away, curling the floorboards, and the only way to stop it was to turn off the cold water to the kitchen. And then there are the newspapers and magazines I haven’t read…

The “woods are lovely dark and deep,” aren’t they?

04 July 2007

Another Country (or Two) Heard From

Took a long walk this morning…

… There is an outcrop, not quite an island, in the middle of our Grand River. The river is less Grand now, being slowed by dams at various points. It is not very deep. Fisherfolk wade in regularly. But this outcrop is a favorite for waterbirds.

Crossing a pedestrian bridge just south of the island I pause to appreciate the ducks that are parked downriver of it where the water is more still. Something catches my eye and I try to focus on the island. Old eyes! But yes I can see something, a blue heron. It extends a wing, turns in a circle, hops down and drinks from the water.

In the slow water I can see river grasses under the surface. They are enormous and look very much like juniper from this distance above. The current brushes them like hair, into one direction.

A poor man- I can tell because he is wearing worn clothes and has a plastic food bag he is filling with deposit bottles -
is on a bench nearby. We are the only ones here. Should I wait to see the heron move? No sign it will do so…

What is it about nature that consoles us? I know the usual answers, but I suspect there is something deeper, almost beyond words, underneath emotions even. Someplace sense and feeling and death and life and silence meet – that’s what nature is about...

... The responses to my query just keep coming. Here they are:

- “Fred, you know I've said before that you should write a book, and I'll do what I can to help you make it happen. You've already written book-length (I've been reading your dissertation in Wiggin Library). This is a project close to your heart, so write it down for others to read. My thoughts about doing so in Web form are that it might be a bit of a hindrance to future publication on paper, so I suggest you write a proposal and a few chapters and send it to publishers. I want to read it, and crib from it at sermon time.”

- “Wow, this is something to think about, kid. You are talking about a mainstream outing I take it, not Beacon or Alban or some scholarly press? Something fun? That would actually make it to a book table in Barnes & Noble and not just our undercroft?

Of course you can do this. You identified your main problem in your first fear: that you won't finish it. Your mind leaps around, and you may find yourself with too many ideas, or a single idea that's too limiting.

Outline what you want to say. No, the ten things you identify are not enough. Too formulaic, too purpose-drive-lifelike in approach. Don't fall into the trap of simplifying your theology… Thanks for bringing me into the conversation! Great decision.”

- “Fred: I can't think of anyone I know whom I would rather read! I miss hearing you on Sundays and would love to read your book. Write it please.”

And the Survey Said...

Well, talk about a cool day with you folks!

When all was said and done 99 people dropped in and pondered my question – whether to write a book summarizing some spiritual thoughts I have been ruminating on for the last few years. That’s as high a number as I've had in months.

Of course, I salted that mine by sending an invitation to a bunch of people to read it and comment.

In addition to the five comments sent to the blog itself I had another five sent to me directly. As they chose to do that, I’ll quote anonymously. Here’s a run down:


- “Well, Fred, chances are my first, top-of-the-head response is as good as any. You've got a good story to tell, and you've been telling it. Perhaps the question to answer is, how do you want to tell that story?”

- “Fred, I personally would enjoy reading your thoughts and reflections having sat under your teaching for a year now. If you believe in what you have discovered, and if only a handful would benefit, it is worth writing…Would a published book help those in our community...? I do not know, but to have a voice like FSC in their backyard, and to not be able to attract them seems like a tragedy.”

- “Regarding your question about whether a book on this topic would be worthwhile, I absolutely think it would be. The concepts you have laid out are simple, and some might say, too simple. The cynical part of me says it’s a little too formulaic. Kinda the Paul McCartney approach to religion. (Does that analogy make sense to you?) When maybe the world needs is a bit more John Lennon. However, I think some things are best understood that way, and certainly the average person isn’t going to wade through all those great thinker books that burden your shelves, and to a lesser extent mine, to glean those kernels for him or herself. So there may be a huge audience for your material. I know I would read it.”

- “Fred - Write the darn thing. I will by it and read it. It is not fair that you keep all your stuff in the North. I listened to your sermons in Brooklyn, spent many hour in conversation with you, attended your lectures, so why wouldn't I nread your book?Also - don't write the book for any other reason that you have something to say. All the other doubts are just excuses to stop you from getting it done. Will it be a best seller? Get you on the talk show circuit? Become a major movie? I don't know. Write the darn thing and let's find out.”

- “Yes... I have many representatives of eastern deities--statuary in my home. They really comfort me. I have pointed out to our son that I do not have any statuary of Jesus and that that has bothered me but it comes to this--I just don't relate to the imagery of suffering and I have trouble with the whole idea of "one human body suffering for all time for the sins of billions".… someone needs to write about Christianity and JOY. So far he has not taken up the cause. But, at any rate, there needs to be MUCH better literature out there for all of us to read and consider. OH yeah, I am full of ideas.”

- “Fred, write it here. You will reach many more people through your blog and even better, get their feedback immediately, than you will through a printed book.I was in the publishing industry for 15 years. Getting a book published is very difficult. Selling books is very expensive. An enormous marketing machine must kick in to sell physical books… You may reach hundreds, perhaps thousands through that traditional method.Blogs are growing exponentially. People all over the world can read your words and be touched by them. Potentially, in time, you could touch the lives of tens of thousands or more. If your primary goals of writing a book are getting it birthed and reaching people, then the web is the ideal medium. Free, immediate, egalitarian, everywhere.If your primary goal is to make money, chances are very very very very good that you will not. That's not about you or your idea or your skill as a writer, its about the economics of the business.Best of luck. I look forward to reading what you have to say, no matter what. If you do get published, I will buy the book.”

- “Fred,Do it … now.”


- “By all means, go for it! You want to do it, you need to do it, and certainly all those whom you have touched so personally and profoundly will want to read it. That's all that matters.”

- “Having spent a lifetime writing music, some of it that has never been heard, all I can say is that you are crazy not to do this, if the urge is upon you. If it doesn't work, so what, maybe it will clear the mind--maybe you can come back another year, after leaving it fallow for a while, and find out why it wasn't working. But you must know that the very doing of something creative takes you places you hadn't thought about before. The process itself starts brain traces moving that weren't there before….The urge to find some way of dealing with what can only be called a planetary crisis is strong and my puny addition to it may be of no consequence whatever… It doesn't make any difference whether anyone out there is going to care or not, but you do, and that makes all the difference.”

- “I would buy many copies, read one and distribute the rest!”

This is hardly a scientific sample, but how exciting to hear so many voices. There are folks here from at least three churches I have served and friends from other walks of life. “Compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses,” says an ancient Epistle, I think I ought to do this.

But I really like the idea of doing it on-line. While I do hope to get something written worthy of paper publishing, the idea of getting feedback and help on-line, as part of writing process, strikes me as very exciting. I know I write better in response to questions and criticism, so here’s what I am thinking –

How about I write a chapter and then let you read it? It would be a lot longer than a blog entry so would it be better to read it on-line or get it as a document via email? Someone out there must have some guidance about how (Louise, Are you listening?).

I want to speak to a non academic audience but not like Mitch Albom or Rick Warren do, in a dilute and simplistic fashion. But neither do I want to go citation for citation with the likes of Paul Tillich and Rosemary Reuther. My goal, to use other examples, is to create something more like Simon Washburn or Harry Frankfurt – short, clear, frank, and strong.

What do you say then? Want to help me write a book? Say yes and say how.

It’s July 4th. I woke up listening to the voices of NPR reading the Declaration. Half asleep still, I lingered in bed under the covers with eyes closed as the phrases rolled on. While we should not aspire to talk that way, I do lament that we have as a culture tossed aside that Miltonian cadence as an ideal. It sounds like it was meant to last. And it has.

Today’s words, including those fortunate enough to be printed and set in libraries, seem written for today alone. If as the native peoples are said to have believed, we should make our choices with seven generations in mind, should we not also form our words with such a sense of posterity?

But would anyone today think of pledging their ‘sacred honor?’ Maybe we ought.

02 July 2007

Stop Me Before I Write Again!

I need your help, blog reading friends. A terrible and self destuctive thought is in my head -

- A book.

- That I should write one.

This is a deranged notion, for the world is already full of books that should not be read at all, much less bought or published. I own more books (by genuinely good thinkers) than I shall ever read.

But the deranged part is not that I will add to this intellectaul landfill. That would be the best possible outcome. Well before that travesty come the other terrors of writing -

- That I would not be able to complete the text.

- That it would not be published.

These are the worst, as it seems everyone is writing and publishing these days. My horrid self doubt manages this by saying that when anyone can write a book, no one should. Sort of a snooty disdain to mask stark terror.

But these are not the only pits into which one could fall, psychicly. Say I wrote it, and say some publisher actually printed it. The next hurdles are -

- That it would not sell, that is, it flops.

- That respectable minds find it laughable or pitiful or merely vain.

Perhaps I should tell you whoch book is haunting me. That might help.

Over the years I have sought and with some success (to my mind at least) come to some basic principles of liberal religion.

Growing up a Unitarian Universalist I have ever believed it was onto something but that it was stuck in a defensive, reactive position that forced it to use terms and concepts from normative Christianity.

Even when it rejected that model it was still in reaction to it. For the last thiry years I have sought, through study and reflection and experimentation, to find a firm foundation. I think I have it, or at least part of it.

That's what I would like to write. If you've heard me preach, notably in 2002 in Brooklyn and 2007 in Grand Rapids, you have seen to trial outings. The more recent one allowed me even to leave behind the UU armature, which is good. I think there are lots of people out there with liberal religious notions but they are not Unitarian Universalists or do not wish to join that particular stream of argument (as Diana Eck oncec called her denoninational choice).

It all comes down to ten things. One for each finger as it were.

- One Belief
- Two Doctrines
- Three Duties
- Four Disciplines

Would you like to know what they are?

- (1) We are all the "messiah."
- Reality is ultimately (2) one truth united by (3) one love
- To aquit our messianic calling (which is to unite truth and love) we must (4) free our minds, (5) grow our souls, and (6) change our world
- To succed in this we must (7) worship, (8) study, (9) serve, and (10) sacrifice.

There it is. Intrigued? Tell me.

In my weaker and self deluded moments I see Rick Warren quivering. In my self doubting modes I see a saccharine and shallow text with lavendar pages and lots of "inspirational thoughts." You tell me if there is something in between.

I am not kidding. Talk to me. Send this to other folks and have them talk to me. I even hear books can be written this way, through electronic conversation. At the very least tell me it is dumb so I can get over this notion and get back to cleaning up my files and going to meetings.

I'm waiting. Really.

The Heart of Whiteness

Glorious morning here – temps just above 50 F, clean skies and bright sun and a sweet breeze from the northeast. A little bit of Canada the day after Canada Day. BTW, I love their national anthem. This coming from a man who grew up in Baltimore where our only claim to national pride is Francis Scott Key and the Star Spangled Banner. That too is a fine song, especially the third verse, “O thus be it ever…”

But I digress. This week is mercifully work sparse. Independence Day coming on Wednesday (one of the few we observe on the actual day now) many seem to have taken the whole week off. Half the church staff among them. Has it ever occurred to you as it has to me that sometimes work is created by the presence of workers? When I am out of town they always report things are slower. Likewise when I am in and they are out. We think work is what the boss/church/board/citizens gives us to do but I think it is as much what we give each other, to prove we are worth all the money.

Digressing again!

Yesterday a member and I had a great conversation after church. I had sent her a letter in response to some questions about the policies I am pursuing as the senior minister, including her question why I say we need to be more formal and explicit about welcoming and supporting BGLT folks. Her point, and she was writing on behalf of others as well, was that our actions be enough. We have been welcoming for many years, so why make a big deal about it?

My response in the letter, which was far from exhaustive, is that what we think is welcoming may not be what they see as welcoming. Unless we say it, in essence make ourselves accountable to it publicly, we will never know if we are doing it right from those whom we say we are serving.

Well, this led to another related subject – race. She said, and I was so proud of her for realizing this, that dealing with race will be even harder. Having grown up in a nominally southern state, Maryland, and attended an ancient Unitarian church built with a slave gallery which I though nothing of when I was a boy, I know that race is so thoroughly embedded in our national neurosis that it will be far harder to address than sexuality.

You might think otherwise, but America is so defined by race that everyone is affected by it. The very notion of white people would not exist were there not black people around us. Race not only defines people of color and those who endure its nearly half millennium of oppression, it also defines white people as well, and our many privileges as Americans. To address race will mean everyone changes.

That’s not true for the BGLT issue. Extending true equality to BGLT folk will not affect straights very much at all. That’s the lie behind the “Defense of Marriage Act” and other attempts to say that gayness is a threat to straightness. Straights will always be more numerous. It is an inevitable majority.

But whiteness is not destined to be the majority. It isn’t now on a global scale, and will not be in America in less than 50 years. With the rate of ethnic intermarriage, we ‘whites’ may not survive.

That what scares us. We will not only change. We will vanish. Unless we deal with our (ultimately false) identity as white people, racism will persist. It is the elephant in the American living room.

Do not despair though. You know the answer to the riddle, “How do you eat an elephant?”

One bite at a time.

I have to brush my teeth and get to work.

01 July 2007

Is That All There Is?

So I’m talking to my elder son yesterday - he’s 23 and on the east coast for a summer program - and he’s unhappy. With himself mostly. But also with the world. Well, mostly with the people in it.

It’s existential, not psychological. That’s the problem with educating your children well, they learn stuff. He couches it in Hobbesian terms (He loved Leviathan. Loved is not the right word really, but you know what I mean.) but he’s close to that snarly bumper sticker from a decade a ago: Life’s a bitch and then you die.


He was inclined that way before college so educating him probably helped a bit. Thomas Hobbes is more respectable and thoughtful than a bumper sticker. He also discovered Dante, who is no Pollyanna either. Some of the best minds were not sanguinary types at all. Melancholics and cholerics are well represented in the pantheon of great minds.

What struck me as we talked was how much misanthropy I carry with me as well. I told him it was at least partly hereditary, as I was like that and so was my father.

“What a minute,” you’re thinking. “You’re a clergyman. How can a clergyman be a misanthrope?”

Easy. We see what could be and might be and should be and then what is. The distance is dismaying.

My pragmatically disposed spouse equals me in her way. Her motto has been, “Expect the worst, and the only surprise will be when things turn out right.”

He, my elder son that is, has discovered the quotidian truth of Sartre’s “No Exit.” Something I encounter whenever I find myself around lots of people for a long time.

Like my conference last week.

Sitting through what are called plenaries, business sessions with over 2000 people in the room, I find myself alternately agitated and depressed by the process. I cast no blame or fault. The larger the crowd the less it can do.

I mutter at the vast parliamentary ignorance, their not knowing even elementary ‘rules’ that when followed do allow for some form of debate and discussion. Instead every speaker is followed by someone who does not know what is being discussed or who wants to change the subject or has a 'point of personal privilege' that amounts to wanting and excuse for being stupid.


“Blessed are the cheesemakers,” comes to mind.

What’s worse, in this room of earnest and devoted folks, 75% of this 'debate' involves the same 20 people. Not those chosen to represent their delegations or something, but those who by the law of probabilities cannot resist an open microphone. So all 2000 of us hear the same voices over and over again. You might hope that being so involved they would be, or become over the days more eloquent and informed. But you would be wrong. They are both persistent and dense.

Truly, it is an act of faith to believe in people. Given the way they behave in groups – how we respond like Pavlovian dogs to TV screens, and rush like lemmings to the malls – to believe we can and will save ourselves or will be redeemed is not a conclusion based on empirical data. It is a wild act of hope that I commit for the very selfish purpose of not going mad.

Optimism is the only viable choice, of course, but I prefer that it be an act of honest faith not a false scientific surmise. I even believe that the data will eventually mount up on the side of hope, but if we look at humanity alone, sd it is right now, the odds are long. But if we factor in everything else, the spiritual equivalent of dark matter and dark energy, there is wiggle room enough to believe. And that's what keeps me going.

It’s my version of Auden’s prayer at the end of “For the Time Being.” That “God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.”