Wayfinding among the Sacred

On a recent trip to the used books section of the Harvard Book Store, I asked a friend of mine, who is training to become a minister, to suggest an introductory title to religion. He picked out Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion. The staff had flagged this book as one of their picks, too, and previously caught my eye. So last week I went home with a copy of my very own.

In the introduction, the author explains that for the purposes of this book, the sacred is merely the opposite of the profane, which makes sense given the title of the book. It’d be surprising if they were secretly the same thing, wouldn’t it? At this point the text only hints at what that relationship between these “two modes of existence” actually is.

Shortly thereafter, the book dives in on sacred space. According to this account, sacred places mark identifiable fixed points in the landscape, against which a person can orient himself relative to the rest of the world. In contrast, profane space is “homogeneous  and neutral”. I suppose that because profane space has no distinguishing features, it’s impossible to navigate. But I find that counter to my intuition and to my experience. Landmarks have existed for a long time, and not even most of them are temples.

I live in Cambridge and visitors stop to ask me directions all the time. “Follow this street until you pass three stop lights, then make a left. Continue until you see Chinese restaurant on the right side. If you pass a supermarket parking lot on your left, you’ve gone too far.” Now, in these directions I’ve mentioned lots of landmarks to help strangers find their way. Yet I’d be hard-pressed to find much that is sacred in the stop lights, restaurant, or parking lot. Landmarks do afford familiarity to otherwise unfamiliar space. And they might signal safety or danger. (Don’t walk around that pond at night!) But sacrality? I think that they can, but aren’t required to. I’d be willing to concede that I’m wrong.

If everything that I use to orient myself is in some sense sacred, I’d be okay with that. But that means that just about every space I’ve visited is sacred. That absolutely everything carries with it some sort of special spark is a very, very old idea that I might be willing to admit to if you asked me directly. On the other hand, that makes sacred spaces, when considered as a whole, a  large homogeneous space itself. And that sounds suspiciously profane. (Unless, of course, each sacred space is sacred in its very own snowflake kind of way. Now, I may be simply confessing my my own limited capacity to experience the sacred, but a lot of my transcendent experiences have felt more or less the same to me. That shared feeling is, in part, how I know that they’re transcendent.)

In chapter one, I think that Eliade overstated his case or I misunderstood it. In some instances I do believe that sacred spaces help people orient themselves in the world, but I do not believe that every thing that helps people—even very religious people—orient themselves is sacred. It’s like how all squares are rectangles, but most rectangles are not squares. So too with signposts: most of them are profane, but a few of them are sacred to some.

Some Mottos

I’m loathe to write this post, because I know it’s going to be short and what I’m about to write—and my essential character, therefore—can easily be misinterpreted. Still, in the last two days people have accidentally uttered things that I think could be motto-worthy. However, one of my implicit mottos, one that I will not formally list, is, “You shouldn’t have too many mottos.” After all, it’s hard enough to carry around a handful of maxims throughout the day. Many more and I’d run out of the computational resources necessary to live by my own standards.

It is my hope that once I’ve got these things committed to (metaphorical, digital) paper, I’ll be able better to organize them, combine them, and generalize them. That’s right: it’s time for a spring cleaning of my wintered philosophies.

So here they are in chronological order:

  1. You can never have too much butter fat.
  2. Treat a person like dirt and he’ll stick to you like mud.
  3. I am smarter than my genes.
  4. I am more patient than a five year old.
  5. Be the person you want to attract.

On Friday DJ accidentally pointed out that I’ve ignored the deterministic components of nurture in the old war between nature and nurture. So maybe it’d be worthwhile to add

  • I can outgrow my environment.

And this morning my aunt Robin called to discuss her responses to Carol Dweck’s book on self and motivation theories that I mentioned a long time ago. I told her that I find her receptiveness to what Dweck has to say encouraging. Her response could warrant a more permanent place in my daily life:

  • It doesn’t matter what you think if it’s not working.

Do you have any words of wisdom that I should consider introducing to my list? You know I love comments.

Burning to Know

Being one of those loathesome Johnnies-come-lately to that hateful though catchy brand of alternative emo-pop à la the Killers and Modest Mouse, I only just discovered that This Fire by Franz Ferdinand is a tribute to the Great Fire of Rome, which began in the areas surrounding the Circus Maximus and continued to rage for six days only to rekindle again for another three. While word on the street blames Nero, the deranged emperor who is said to have fiddled while the wild conflagration razed his city to the street, the song’s refrain, “This fire is out of control. We’re going to burn this city. Burn this city,” speaks to a more contemporary point of view.

The lyrics are meant to channel the Christians whom many modern German scholars now think started and supported the flames. Small fires were commonplace in Rome during the hot summer months, especially in the poorer neighborhoods. Yet, in the affluent parts of town, where the politicians lived, such house fires were hard to come by. Powered by divine vengeance and justified by prophecy, these early Christians set about bringing what they felt to be the Apocalypse, setting the stage for the Second Coming. Hence, they would wanted this fire to be “out of control.” And so, they were “going to burn this city,” and bid us all to “Burn this city”—except in Latin. Truly, this is one of those too rare moments when good scholarship and popular art walk hand and hand. It is my hope that we can expect more music like this to come.

The infamous fire began at night on July 19, 64 A.D, a date which held great weight within then nascent, splintered, and exceedingly superstitious Christendom. [So much has changed since then.] Each year a core of my friends, a rotating cast of spectators, and I purchase fireworks and duel with Roman candles in the woods to commemorate the event and American independence [from Rome, of course].

But then again, maybe I made it up.

It’s been a long week, after all.

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I Was Wrong.

It looks like the creationists got me this time. I would like to apologize to my readers to posting something before checking its authenticity. Professor Eric Pianka does not advocate the mass extermination of the human population. [I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.] He’s not crazy, I am, for believing the story.

But even more, I should apologize to Professor Pianka. And if I thought many of you read my blog, I would. Luckily, and sadly, my sphere of influence exerts very little power on the unfathomably large internet.

According to the local NBC affiliate in Austin, Pianka has received death threats targetting him and his family.

Sean of Cosmic Variance has reported on the misrepresentation yesterday. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, but I should be more wary of outlandish claims against evolutionary biology. In recent history, evolutionary biology has had nothing to do with it. Gosh, those creationists are everywhere into everything. Texas! Bah. It was a dead give away.

I can’t believe how completely had I feel.

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Bad Science.

Not long ago I finished a book which treats social trends as epidemics and fleshes out the implications. The book, should any of you have a few hours to spare, is Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. Reading it fits nicely with my new year’s resolution. Even more than that, it’s helped me to frame an after-school math program. You can read and critique what I’ve come with [rehashed and stolen] in glorious PDF here. Bear in mind that it is what it claims to be — a skeleton — and nothing more. It’s almost vague, but still specific enough to be useful, I hope.

Whoever is in charge of fate must’ve be working overtime today. For he must’ve directed me to this bizarre and terrifying article in the Citizen Scientist. Now I blog a lot [for me] about the terrible misappropriation of science by nefarious and sneaky groups all around the world. But it is seldom that I have the opportunity to strike out against scientists who misuse science. For the most part, the self-regulated, moderating nature of professional scientific investigation keeps scientists from going to far astray from the reason. But not always.

Today let’s take a impromptu trip to [surprise!] Texas. No, we’re not condemning stem cell research or homosexuals bent on abortion of good, Christian babies. Many of you have forgotten that today is Opposite Day. According to the article, Professor Eric Pianka of the University of Texas at Austin is concerned that humans are over-populating the planet and have been at an increasingly alarming rate since the Industrial Revolution. His specialty lies in environmental and conservational studies, and he loves lizards. It is only natural that he’d be concerned. After all, he studies the problems first hand. And like many other scientists, it’s not suprising that he happens to be personally invested in the subject he’s spent decades to pursue. So, during the 2006 Texas Academy of Science Distinguished Scientist of the Year award lecture, its recipient, our friend Professor Pianka outlined the problem as he sees it and a very novel solution.

Professor Pianka said the Earth as we know it will not survive without drastic measures. Then, and without presenting any data to justify this number, he asserted that the only feasible solution to saving the Earth is to reduce the population to 10 percent of the present number.

He then showed solutions for reducing the world’s population in the form of a slide depicting the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. War and famine would not do, he explained. Instead, disease offered the most efficient and fastest way to kill the billions that must soon die if the population crisis is to be solved.

…After praising the Ebola virus for its efficiency at killing, Pianka paused, leaned over the lectern, looked at us and carefully said, “We’ve got airborne 90 percent mortality in humans. Killing humans. Think about that.”

That’s right: he wants to knock out about 5.9 billion people with Ebola.

Pianka doesn’t want to uphold the sanctity of life. He’s extreme. He’s conversative. And he gives an illustrative example of the diversity of forms fundamentalism can take. Religion is getting a bad rap. Crazies, it seems, can come from any where at any time. The religious fundies just happen to be the best organized and most popularized group of extremists in the States. Of course, crazies acting under the guise of patriotism have emerged more recently, too. We should do well not to underestimate any of them.

The article continues to explain that Pianka has a following. One student even publically wrote that he worships the man. And as Pianka notes, just one passenger on a plane to Europe could wipe out the entire continent. That one passenger could be a former student, who, after graduating, goes on to med school. After some training, a few accolades, and community respect, the incog crazy could get near to the virus. My college roommate Alex used to work in an Ebola lab at the Harvard Medical School. As far as I know he still does. Alex worked with the most unholy mix of Ebola, rat cancer, and glow-in-the-dark jellyfish genes. Of course he didn’t have clearance to work with a live strain. It’s hard even to get parts of the beast. And the rat cancer was thrown in actually as a precaution. [I hear that it’s hard for humans to catch rat cancer.] Alex isn’t crazy. But all it takes is one crazy to sneak in to do serious harm.

That’s the point of the Tipping Point. Large, sweeping gestures aren’t always necessary to effect tremendous change. All you need to do is know which nut to unscrew in a big machine in order to cause it to come crashing down.

Not All Religion Hates Science.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is a smart, influential man. In England. Unfortunately, his words are a wash on our Fundies, who, have broadened their attack to include the big bang, not just evolutionary biology and global warming — note: that guy who claims to have a degree from Texas A&M in not-science actually never graduated, and so, doesn’t have a degree even in that.

The Archbishop calms me down slightly, and he reminds me that I need to reevaluate the enemy in this War Against Science. Look at how reasonable he is:

“I think creationism is … a kind of category mistake, as if the Bible were a theory like other theories … if creationism is presented as a stark alternative theory alongside other theories I think there’s just been a jarring of categories … My worry is creationism can end up reducing the doctrine of creation rather than enhancing it,” he said.

Yes! That’s right. Good argument. Not only is creationism not the same as base, secular science, to put it there side-by-side with godless biology would be to defile it. Okay, so he’s not exactly saying that. But really, science doesn’t purpose to say anything about religion; religion ought not to say anything about science, except maybe in fluffy theological treatises where tenuous and often wrong analogies are drawn between the two. They’re simply not in the same category. [Ah, yes, what a good word.]

I’ll leave the dead horse alone now.

An Op-Ed.

I wrote this with the intent of sending it to the Boston Globe, but since time marches on and I’m not the most time-sensitive individual, I pass it off to you to read here. Notice how my professional writing is still vaguely colloquial:

In his opinion piece, “Kids take back seat to gay agenda” (Boston Globe, 15 March 2006), columnist Jeff Jacoby argues that gay activists have pursued their cause, “the normalization of homosexual adoption,” to the detriment of children. He defends the Catholic church’s right to discriminate against homosexual couples. He claims that millions of Americans believe the parents in a family must be of both sexes, and further comments, this is “neither a radical view nor an intolerant one.” Since Catholic Charities can no longer place children with anyone, Jacoby concludes that gay activists and colluding media and state government officials have propelled gay equality forward while relegating children to the back, much like a few rotten apples spoiling the whole bunch. Jacoby is wrong in two different ways.

First, Jacoby ignores the other, very valuable and very laudable work done through Catholic Charities outside of adoption. In addition to adoption, Catholic Charities offers over thirty services, among which include child care, mentoring programs, substance abuse counseling, and homeless shelters and transitional housing. Each year the United Way awards Catholic Charities with a grant, most recently for $1.2 million. Had the State issued a waiver to the anti-discrimination law, it would have put all programs run through Catholic Charities, not just the adoption services, at risk. Most funders, including the United Way and the state government, refuse to grant financial assistance to organizations that discriminate. Many of the budgets of these programs are already sensitive to even slight fluctuations in current funding; if Catholic Charities were allowed to ban homosexual adoptions, the resulting decreased financial backing would ensure a curtailment effecting several other vulnerable populations throughout the city who were not directly involved. In essence, the State’s ruling saved many more charitable programs. Furthermore, it is worthwhile to remember that the Church chose to close the adoption services, not Catholic Charities, and not the State.

Second, the view Jacoby claims to be “neither radical nor intolerant” has no founding in contemporary research, and is, therefore, not only intolerant against gay couples but is also harmful to children. According to the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, between 6 and 14 million children were living with a gay or lesbian parent as of 1990. The dozens of studies to investigate the psychology of children of LGBT parents have been motivated primarily by family law, and thus directly address the effects on children of having gay versus straight parents. Evidence shows pretty convincingly that children are not harmed in any way merely by having homosexual parents. In fact, it shows quite the opposite. According to one study by Hoeffer published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, daughters of lesbians, on average, have higher self-esteem than those of straight women; their sons are more caring and less aggressive. Additionally, children of homosexual parents are no more likely than the general population to be homosexual themselves. In light of these statistics, we have no choice but to deny Jacoby’s interpretation of the views of “millions of Americans” and call his opinion what it is: unreasoned, unjustified, and harmful to children.

One Sunday at Church.

Reverend Doctor Stan Johnson was giving his sermon, the third of a series of six, on one of the four ends of the Presbyterian Church. This week he turned to truth, though he seemed to be talking an awful lot about the all-but-irreconcilable war between man and God. And just as he was about to get to the point, something happened. Ruth McColgan, a new grandmother for the third time, collapsed. I was immediately transported to Missouri, to my cousins’ church, one of those Methodist churches established in the revivalist spirit founded just before the Revolution and carried westward by Manifest Destiny. There it is not uncommon for a woman to faint and fit. There they have a volunteer staff of large, mostly bearded men charged to catch and cradle anyone who might run up to the altar proclaiming His return until, overcome by the Holy Spirit, she drops. This is only really dangerous if the local prophet hits a pew on the way down. Hence the large, mostly bearded men.

But we’re much quieter than that. Our church has a steeple, an organ and a grand piano, no electric guitar or overhead projector, and we only tithe once per service. Only the children are allowed to rush the altar, and then, only when called for “Our Moment with the Children.” So, Ruth gave the rest of the congregation something of a shock. And the accompanying seizures prompted three phone calls to 911 for ambulance service rather than alleluias and reputedly laudatory declarations in tongues.

His sermon interrupted by a grave medical emergency, the Reverend Doctor played it cool. Everyone did. Dr. Johnson called for prayer. Everyone lowered his head and took the hand of his neighbor. The organist provided soft, pastoral music to underscore Stan’s comforting words. The prayer continued until the paramedics arrived and ended shortly thereafter. Then the congregation joined their voices in an round of hymn 327: I Have a Friend in Jesus even though it was not announced in today’s bulletin. As soon as they carted Ruthie away, we did what we came to do: take communion. It was the first Sunday of the month, after all.

After church service ended, the lingering members applauded Allen’s postlude. He had chosen a piece by Franz Liszt, to whom Allen is directly related, in the music geneological sense. We joked about how much Ruth must not have liked what Stan was saying, how we were prepared, and about poor old Ben Wellington, who, a few years later, had finished a sermon during an ordination only to sit down in the choir loft, in the pew I normally call my own, and summarily died. This sort of thing happens about once a year. Jack Harris, who sits in the pew behind me, had had his heart attack there. But medicine is fairly miraculous. They put a stent in him and Jack was back at choir rehersal four days later.

I told my dad and sister about it at the Brockton Bickford’s afterward. Being on the Massachusetts’ South Shore, its sign boasts all-day breakfast, steak, lobster, clam, and beer and wine. What a mix. Then they took off to Sudbury to exchange a pair of my sister’s diamond earrings. She found a speck of carbon in one of them.

Someone about all this feels very New England to me. If there’s a problem crops up, fix it and get back to work. I can think of no better example of the Protestant work ethic. In fact, I’ve noticed a lot of typically New England things lately. I’ll give you only two, but I only expect you to read one. I’ll tell what they are so you can choose: self-service check-outs first, then Dairy Queen second. Both are short, and they’re related sequentially.

Last night, DJ came over because, and I can’t justify this, we have about two and one half dozen eggs and he wanted an omlette. The Grove store closes well before 6pm on Saturdays, so he was stuck to either do it himself or find someone else to do it for him and my will is fairly pliable. We met my sister at the Stoppy down the street. She and her friend April purchased ingredients for a home-cooked steak bomb, done properly with mushrooms, green peppers and onions. Somewhat coincidentally, we picked up a green pepper and yellow onion for the omlette, and told Janice to put hers back. As is, we still had too much pepper and onion. We also got maple syrup sausage links. I just ate the last seven as an after-dinner snack. Without the eggs, they’re a bit unsatisfying.

Not wanting to wait, no one inside of 495 does, we tried our hand at the self-service check-out. This thing is awful. Not only does it cheat real, living people out of jobs, it doesn’t work. We found the barcode for a yellow onion, placed it on the scale, and then moved it to the conveyor belt as directed. The belt ran backwards, causing the onion to hit some sensor bar, which signalled the computer to line-item void the onion, which we could have then easily taken, saving a full sixty-nine cents. We did not, however, steal the onion. Instead, we looked up the barcode in the produce catalogue one more time, weighed the beast, and dropped it on the belt. Having some practice, the belt figured out to run forward, the computer charged us the sixty-nine cents, and we proceeded with the easy stuff that scans without all that complicated searching and weighing.

DJ just visited Virginia, where, it seems, all the gas pumps are pay first and there are no self-service check-out lines at the supermarket. Here we’re on the honor system, and it must work. Otherwise, stores would have taken us off of it. I’m glad that corporate America trusts New Englanders not to steal onions.

After musing on this point exactly, we went to McDonald for, wait for it, a few double cheeseburgers and headed home. To the kitchen. To make the omlette. But, what would you know, Dairy Queen has opened for the summer. In fact, it’s been open since March first. We had snow March second. We drove right by, pulled into an empty parking lot, turned around, and went to Dairy Queen, debating Blizzard mix-ins along the way. The wind was bitter cold last night. And Dairy Queen, as you might know, is a shack with soft serve ice cream machines and freezers full popsicles inside and not much else. It takes two people to work the counter during the early season, three during the peak. While the girl behind the counter prepared DJ’s mudslide Blizzard thing, a couple got in line behind us. They were both bundled up, especially the girl. It was obvious that she was freezing and not especially happy about it. She haunched over to conserve heat. Her hands were placed firmly in her puffy jacket pockets. She scowled as she studied the menu. Despite the decidedly frigid weather, people formed a line outside the Dairy Queen at 7:30pm on a Saturday night in a small, suburban town. [Avon is only about one mile in diameter.] The man who owns the DQ, I am told, now lives handsomely year-round in his vacation home in Florida.

Avon is Rural.

Thursday was one of those grey days, when the ceiling hangs very low and the clouds rather than the grass seems to come up from the ground. I relish these days. On my way to work, to Leverett, I watched the Charles misting as I drove. The winter wouldn’t be so bad if we had more days like these, or, if we had snow.

A moment ago a few flakes teased my winter sensibilities. They have since stopped. The heat was shut off for the break, and I have bundled up in a coat, scarf, and floppy hat. Rather than read math, which is what I had intended to do today, I picked up Gordon S. Wood’s short history of the The American Revolution again. I’ll put it down at the end of the chapter.

The history got me thinking. It’s something I would read to my children, should I someday be allowed to raise children, before tucking them into bed. My father, after all, would cycle between a library of books written to supplement Sesame Street and the Bible. At least the language Wood uses is more tractable than that in King James. But then, and here’s the thinking part, I thought about my father’s reading me the Bible and whether I would do the same. You see, there are two competing forces: on the one hand, I think that religion is a very grown-up affair. Its practitioners should demonstrate an informed faith [something I don’t really believe I have, actually], and such an education requires a mature mind. Really, Piaget would back me up. So most children simply aren’t even biologically equipped to process the implications of their religion, especially not my hypothetical ones. But then on the other hand, if I really believe, let’s say — and now we’re getting theoretical, not personal. My beliefs are more nuanced, but this works for the present — that Christianity is the key to salvation, then it only makes sense to introduce it to my children as soon as possible. And here St Augustine would back me up. And how can I, neither a celebrity developmental psychologist nor a Christian saint, hope to reconcile education with religion?

My friend Michelle offers an anecdote while I continue to ponder. Her childhood friend was born to Quaker parents. Faced with the same problem, they refused to bring their daughter to church until she was eighteen. She was welcomed to go to church with other families if she wished but not her own. Rather than denying my children church, and I confess I haven’t been regularly since I started college, I suppose I would supplement verses not only with discussion, but also with readings from historical exegeses and treatises from the medieval church. I better be careful before I say that we should present children with every possible vantage and then let them choose for themselves. Don’t worry, I don’t think that. But I do want them to be better read than me. And maybe I can use them as an excuse to read more.

If ever I do have kids, it’ll be terrifying. I’ll have to think about things I haven’t even thought to think about then. Good thing grad school is so long.