• Tag Archives religion
  • I (heart) Religion

    Imbolc                               Waning Bridget Moon

    Some people like NASCAR, others quilting, some the middle ages, some middle age.  Tastes and attractions vary for often indiscernible reasons.  Me, I like religions.  Most of them anyhow.  Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Shinto, Taoism, Celtic Faery Faith, ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian, Voodoo, Native American, Mayan, Aztec, Hawai’ian, Tibetan Buddhism, Jain.  Buddhism, except for its practices like meditation, mindfulness, some how doesn’t attract me.  Don’t know why.

    A part of me, a strong, even dominant part never left the young boy stage where why came out at every instance of anything.  Why do birds sing?  Why do dogs die?  Why is the sky blue?  Why is Dad grumpy?  Why did you make noise last night, Mom?

    Philosophy suited me, fit me like a bespoke suit straight from Saville Row.  What is beauty?  Why do we love?  What is justice?  What is the nature of reality?  What is reality anyhow?

    Religion is often a folk way of asking–and answering–these same questions.

    Let me give you an example from breakfast.  I just experienced transubstantiation.  The folks who run the monastery think that happens at the eucharist as the wine and wafer transform themselves into the actual body and blood of Jesus.  I”m not sure about that.  But, I do know that this morning I ate an apple, a slice of bread with peanut butter and drank some tea.  They became me.

    No.  I’m not saying I’m Jesus, far from it.  I am saying that the apple, the peanut butter, the bread and the tea did transform, through the miracle of my digestive tract and its millions, billions, of host organisms, into me.  Think about it.  After the big bang and the gradual cooling of the universe, gas clouds gathered, due to gravity and created stars from the initial elements, thinks like hydrogen, iron.  The stars themselves, in their fusion furnaces, then combined and transformed those basic elements into the familiar elements making up the periodic table.

    Later still, as the gas clouds and chunks of matter surrounding each star coalesced those elements deposited themselves inside and on the newly born planets, comets and asteroids.  Those same elements, the very same elements, then, through more eons, at least here on earth, combined and recombined to form simple organisms like single celled animals and  plants. Long after that those simple organisms combined to form multi-celled life forms, among them humans.

    This morning I–consider that I–the end point of a certain historic chain of events traceable to the creation of the universe ate.  In eating I took in the products of other organisms, the apple which grew in the air on a tree, wheat which grew in fields across these very plains and peanuts which grew beneath the soil.  I also drank water, the same water present on earth for eons, perhaps the same water drunk by dinosaurs.

    And it is, even now, as I write, becoming me.  The apple, the wheat, the peanut are also, like me, the end point of a traceable (if we had the instruments and skill) chain from the moment before time until now.  So we recombine, sift and shift elements.  A miracle.

  • Questioning the Questioners

    Fall                                          Waxing Harvest Moon

    An idea keeps nudging its way forward and I want to get just a bit of it on paper, or in print, or bytes.

    The Future of Liberal Thought.  Is equivalent to the struggle over the last century and especially since WWII to define what art is.  That is, a shaking of the foundation, eliminating beauty and traditional forms like painting and sculpture, at least as they had been perceived, to run out in the desert of unknowing.  Saving art by killing it.  If you meet the artist on the road, kill him.

    The paintings that capture this notion for me are those of Mark Rothko.  Compare this piece to the Mannerist, Baroque and Neo-Classical works.  Is it of the same tradition?  Does it have the same aim, the same desire?  What of the artist?  What was he thinking?  Or, was he thinking at all?

    Just so.  Consider.  The Holocaust.  The Armenian genocide.  WWI.  WWII.  Korea.  Vietnam.  The Great Depression.  Mass starvation, drought, despair.  The cold war.  The rise and fall of the United Soviet Socialist Republic.  Quantum mechanics.  Relativity.  Godel.  Wittgenstein.  The decoding of the human genome.  The discovery of planets in other solar systems.  Manned flight to the moon.  Men and women shuttling regularly between earth and the heavens.

    The death of God.

    Well.  How do we approach the questions of meaning, the questions often called religious questions?  How do we approach them in light of scientific, cultural, political and economic changes?  Are these changes so momentous that they demand a break with our religious past, a break similar (the same?) in kind to the radical artistic movements of the 20th century?  I think so.

    Anyhow, this is where I’m headed.  More.  Later.

  • How Do We Open Ourselves to Mystery?

    Lughnasa                                      Waxing Back to School Moon

    A very busy three days with something in the evening each night plus events during the day, too.  Glad to get a chance to get back to the bees and the garden.

    Some autumn blooming bulbs came in the mail today, so I’ll get a chance to plant them over the weekend.  I need to get outdoors.  Fall bulb planting is one of my favorite garden chores.  Crisp weather and Folk Alley radio, sometimes the Andover Marching Band can be heard in the background.

    I’m still trying to come to grips with the unsettling experience I had at the seminary tonight.  I have no patience for the God talk, less for the elaborate hermeneutical dance that goes on in such settings.  I put myself in the room as a favor to Groveland and to Leslie, but I no longer feel like I belong there, a strange feeling after 15 years in the ministry.  These used to be my people; it is my seminary; but, I feel more like an outsider now than I did when I began back in 1970 and I was very outside the norm then.

    I hope I’ve not done Leslie a disservice by agreeing to do this.  I still respect the faith journey, the attempt to wrest some purpose out of life, to read the palimpsest of history and of nature, scraping away the latest scribbles to look even deeper, to find a way into the world of divinity, a trace of the sacred on the wind.  These represent the sweetest and the best of human endeavor, those moments when the human vessel becomes a vehicle for discernment.

    The institutional expressions of religion, the rationalization of charisma as Max Weber said, do little or nothing, indeed often obfuscate the journey with the insistent demands of institutional maintenance:  credentialing of clergy, fund raising, dogma protecting, seeking new members, building buildings, routinized worship.  Where is the ecstatic?  The mystic?  The awe-some?  Where is the deep calling unto deep?  Where is the fearless acceptance of the human condition?  Dangerous, lovely, cloying, sensual, heady, brutal, wild and untamed, even in the most civilized.  The Methodists and the Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ and the Baptists and even, for no God’s sake, the UU’s have fashioned clay towers with bright windows but no doors and no way outside.

    The journey happens at night as sleep comes, when a dream grabs you by the throat and won’t let go.  The journey proceeds as you walk to work, hold hands with a lover, dance in the rain, smile at the gorilla and the lion fish.  It goes forward along the ancientrails of art, literature, dance, music, theater.  Meditation?  Sure.  Quiet moments with fellow travelers?  Yes.  Finance committee meetings?  Don’t think so. Evangelism?  Nope.  The journey deepens when we become vulnerable to ourselves, to the world around us and I’m sorry, but I don’t see the support for that in the pews of any church I’ve ever attended.  Perhaps the monastery holds an echo of it.  The solitary parishioner at prayer.  The Jews at the wailing wall.  Muslims at the Kabah.  Maybe.

    But the weak tea I experienced tonight? Unlikely.  And I feel bad about that, sad.

  • Critiquing Salvation

    Imbolc                                     Waning Cold Moon

    OK.  To finish up the thought that got strangled as Morpheus took over my body last night.

    Salvation through technology has infected our thinking, a direct consequence of the relentless application of reason to larger and larger spheres of knowledge.  Astronomy, physics and chemistry, geology, later biology all have had their mystery peeled away to reveal orderly, predictable processes.  As mystery drained away from the natural world–though note that mystery is not gone.  It lurks still behind quantum mechanics, life, consciousness, unified field theory–a slow build of an irrational hubris grew in inverse relation.  Because we knew some, we believed we knew enough.

    Salvation through economics has infected our thinking, a direct consequence of the relentless application of reason to the idea of value and its diverse manifestations.  The ancien regime has been replaced by capitalism in many flavors, Marxism, socialism and even state socialism.  Again, as mystery drained away from the field of economics–though note that mystery is not gone.  It lurks still behind market crashes, the failure of planned states and the strange amalgam called socialism with Chinese elements–an irrational hubris grew in inverse relation.  Because we knew some, we believe we knew enough.

    Salvation through religious dogma has infected our thinking, a direct consequence of an aversion to the application of reason to matters of faith.  The axial age faiths continue and have split, many claiming exclusive paths to human redemption.  They have not been replaced and  the mystery is why?  The strong brew of metaphysics, gods and goddesses and an answer to the perennial question of death keeps reason at bay when it comes to matters of faith and belief.  Because we believe we know enough, we believe.

    The only way to examine these outsized claims lies in the disciplines that fall under the broad rubric of the humanities.  Only by going deep into the ways humans have lived their lives and responded to it through the arts and through historical reflection can we critique those splinters of our humanness that clamor for our attention.  Technology, economics and religion seem to offer hope for the future if only we can subjugate ourselves to their demands.  The unexamined aspect(s) of our lives poses the greatest threat to control us.

    It is to this project that I have donated my life, the project of never taking anything for granted, of trying to see as many sides as possible of a claim, of using unexpected tools.  Poetry as a defense against the outsized claims of economics.  Music as a foil to the reach of technology.  History as a way to place religious systems within their proper context.

    In that sense, then, yes, knowledge is the fuel and I do know where I’m going.  I also know I will never find the end of this ancientrail.  Its end lies beyond all of us, perhaps beyond the gates of death itself.

  • Up At 5AM and Hard At It

    33  bar steep fall 30.11  6mph N  windchill 33

        Waxing Gibbous Moon of Winds

    Boy is my sense of time screwed up.  Got up at 4:30AM for the bathroom.  Went back to bed.  No sleep.  Waited.  Still no sleep.  So at 5AM I got up, went downstairs, opened by John Weber collection catalogue and tried to figure out what to do next.  This was difficult because I had put my notes for the tour in the carrier I take when I go into the museum.  That location didn’t occur to me until ten sleepy minutes had gone by shuffling this paper and that trying to locate the item I needed to finish the tour.  Those notes.

    But I did find them.  As a quiet spring snow began to fall outside in the dark, I entered again the world of the Heian poets, the Shining Prince Genji and the floating world of courtesans, no theatre and elegant costume.  Japan and China are strange and distant cultures for most Westerners so entree into their world does not come without some struggle, some setting aside of preconceived notions. 

    Over the last three years in particular I have worked hard to get a handle on the historical context in both Japan and China.  I’ve worked harder on China, but Japan has had some time from me, too.  As so often happens in the life of the mind, eventually the heart begins to follow and somewhere along the line I went from interested to captivated. 

    It was easy then to begin comparing poems used in the poetry competitions, mythical contests in which cultured Japanese matched poets from different eras, then matched two of their poems that seem to have resonance.  The competition was not between the two poets in question of course, but among the Japanese who created the matches.  It would be like, say, putting Robert Frost’s “Snowy Evening” against one of Emily Dickinson’s darker pieces, Wallace Stevens and Coleridge. 

    So it went for two hours until the dogs began to whine and I let them out of their crates, fed them and began my own breakfast.

    After breakfast I caught another hour and a half or so of sleep, then drove into the Common Roots Cafe where the docent book club gathered to discuss the (apparent) lack of religion/spirituality in contemporary art.  I guided this discussion, but I’m afraid I didn’t conceive a way to do it fruitfully.  We had a lot of conversation, though, and I think we may have gotten greater clarity from it than was immediately obvious. 

    It was Tom Blyfeld’s 80th birthday.  He celebrates his 56th wedding anniversary on Friday.  He mentioned the doctor who delivered two of his children, a man 90 something who has great-great grandchildren. Amazing.  He will celebrate his 65th wedding anniversary.  These are numbers unattainable by most of us in the divorce generation.

    Tonight is the celebration of St. Patrick’s day at Frank Broderick’s.  He bought the meat last Friday.  His table always groans with meat and potatoes and cabbage.  I look forward to it each year.

  • Art and Religion

    30  bar steady 30.06 1mph WNW windchill 30

         First Quarter Moon of Winds

    When I woke up, Kate was long gone.  It was 9:30.  I missed my nap yesterday and I picked the sleep time this AM.

    The rest of the morning, what there was left anyhow, I used looking over my notes for the religion and contemporary art discussion I will lead on Monday.  This topic follows two ancient trails I have followed for many, many years.  I would not characterize myself as an expert in either one, though I know enough to guide conversation.

    The result of this work has convinced me that there are several interesting tours at an encyclopedic museum like the MIA that do not follow either the cutesy or the artworld insider glimpse that most of our tours use.  With tours like love and scandal or chocolate whatever we give a cutesy turn to looking at art. It gets some people into the galleries I suppose and and the works themselves have many different facets, so these tours are not vacuous at all, but they don’t focus the mind.

    The other category of tour:  On Dragons Wings, a Taste of Asia, Art of the Americas, Art of the Ancient World give tour goers an insiders tour, a short glimpse of the world of art history, connossieurship and curating offered through a slice of an encyclopedic museum.  Nothing wrong with this either, though I often wonder about the value of this brief an introduction to six to eight objects.  It may spark interest that tour goers will pursue on their own.  I hope so.

    The kind of tour topic this religion and art material suggests could offer a third type of tour, one that takes a point of view and pursues an argument through use of various objects.  The relationship between religion and art has a long history with many chapters and in some senses the most interesting chapters come last in the world of contemporary art.   The MIA has a much better collection for pursuing this topic than, say, the Walker because we have art as old as the Lady of LaMouth and art as recent as Hirsch’s, Death of St. John.  Other interesting tours along these lines would involve the relationship between literature and art.

  • Art’s Beginnings

    -2  46%  20%  0mph S bar 30.37 steep drop windchill-4  Winter

                Waxing Gibbous Winter Moon

    As predicted the day has continued cold, thought we’ve warmed a bit from the early readings.  Still, when the high is below zero, you know you’re dealing with a bitter time.  We have the most trouble with the whippets when the temperatures drop.  They have zero body fat, so they do not like to go outside.  This increases the pressure on their bladders.  Accidents do happen.

    The work of the day involves the waning religious influence on art in the modern era, though, as I’ve learned, the decline can really be seen post-Renaissance.  James Elkins makes a creditable argument for the pervasive nature of religious art during most of the millennia of human existence.  Art’s beginnings lie somewhere in our murky transition toward full consciousness, a transition accelerated when humans realized they would die.  If not in the service of the hunt, a ritual activity in its earliest form, then in the service of funeral rites, early humans drew elegant animals on cave walls and adorned their dead with red ochre, feathers and other items felt necessary to the afterlife.

    This general trend continued for many cultures well into the modern era, but in the West, sometime in the Renaissance/post-Renaissance period, religious art became a particular kind of art, rather than the primary purpose for artistic work.  It was during the Renaissance that an emphasis began on the skill of the artist in addition to the importance of the subject matter rendered.  These two factors, appreciation of the talents of individual artists and the addition of subject matter like history, portraiture and mythopoetic themes opened a fissure between what had previously been art’s sole domain, the religious, and other forms of art.

    More on this as it gets clearer to me.

  • Religion Is the Least Interesting and Most Common Expression of Spirituality

    21  59%  23%  1mph E  bar29.99  steep fall windchill20  Winter

                  First Quarter of the Cold Moon

    A friend from California called me to ask, “What is the difference between religion and spirituality?”  This is an often asked question.  In part its puzzle represents what I believe is a category mistake.  There’s an assumption implicit in the question that religion and spirituality represent aspects or spheres of the same thing.  They don’t, at least as I understand the terms. 

    Religion, for me, identifies the institutional, external vehicle necessary for the transmission of religious beliefs, teachings, history and insititutional form.  In the instance of the Roman Catholic Church, a familiar example, then, religion is everything from the institutional forms like the parish, the episcopacy, the Vatican, monasteries and convents to the magesterium (teachings) to statues and artworks and liturgy.  It may also include the inner life of an individual when that inner life attempts to conform itself to those forms and teachings.

    Spirituality, on the other hand, is always an inner journey, but never one in which the goal is forcing that journey down a certain path.  Spirituality is about the freedom of the human spirit to search where it will for nourishment.  It may be that some of that path will include methods conceived by others:  contemplative prayer, zazein meditation, dream work,  psychoactive drugs or ecstatic dancing for example.  The end, though, cannot be forseen for the spirit is the essence, the heart, the soul of freedom and its seeking can never be constrained.  This is why spirituality is often seen as inimical to religion; it refuses boundaries and escapes from dogma like air leaving a punctured tire or a deflating balloon. 

    In this understanding it is possible that religion and spirituality have nothing to do with each other, though I think the reality is otherwise, but the reverse of what most people imagine.  Spirituality, as I said, is often seen as an aspect or sphere of religion, when, in fact, religion is the least interesting and most common expression of a vital spirituality.  In this I follow Max Weber who referred to religion as institutionalized charisma.  The Christian church in all its expressions, according to Weber, represents the institutional accretions that grew up around the extraordinary work and teaching of the man Jesus.  According to Weber, the further and further we get from the original charismatic individual or group, the less and less vital and more and more bureaucratic a religion becomes.

     Let me know what you think.

  • Christians Sued for Use of Allah

    22  82%  25%  0mph ENE bar 29.95  windchill 22  Yuletide
                      Waning Gibbous Cold Moon 
    My brother Mark sent me this one.  He’s on his way to Malaysia this week to renew his Thai visa.
    From a BBC Online article: 
    Malaysian row over word for ‘God’ 

    (Religious freedom is guaranteed under Malaysian law)

    “A church and Christian newspaper in Malaysia are suing the government after it decreed that the word “Allah” can only be used by Muslims.In the Malay language “Allah” is used to mean any god, and Christians say they have used the term for centuries.

    Opponents of the ban say it is unconstitutional and unreasonable.

    It is the latest in a series of religious rows in largely Muslim Malaysia, where minority groups claim their rights are being eroded.

    A spokesman for the Herald, the newspaper of the Catholic Church in Malaysia, said a legal suit was filed after they received repeated official warnings that the newspaper could have its licence revoked if it continued to use the word.

    “We are of the view that we have the right to use the word ‘Allah’,” said editor Rev Lawrence Andrew.”

    Here’s my reply to Mark:

    Thanks for sending it over. Irony comes to mind. After all, the so-called Abrahamic religions all claim to worship the same God, so why wouldn’t the names be interchangeable? Stupid also comes to mind.

    And Mark’s back to me just moments ago: 

    “Indeed. A Muslim lawyer was complaining in the Malyasian Star, a local paper, that the Muslims were being way too sensitive. Indeed, I read further that the Catholic paper is suing whomever gave that ruling. The lawyer pointed out that Al means the and lah means God in Arabic. It seems futile and yes, dumb. The God of the Jews, Muslims and Christians is the same. It seems especially dumb to have the dispute around Christmas, but there you go.”