Sunday, March 28, 2010


Sunday is that awkward point that should be a day of rest, yet there are always things to be done before work on Monday. I've been trying to stay motivated to finish needed tasks today, but I took time for breakfast out, with a collection of H.P. Lovecraft short stories as my reading of choice. After reading "The Dunwich Horror," it occurred to me that in many horror stories from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the world was often saved by librarians. Librarians who were, of course, versed in the "forbidden books". While all of these stories are fantasy, it also occurred to me that if they were mirrored by any real life event, that would probably leave just myself and my friend Phil to save humanity from demonic monsters. We're the only librarians that I know of who have actually read "those books". Not like there's any pressure in that, or anything.

Of course, my friend and I may not have those books, as we've been selling off many pieces of our respective collections to battle another demon--a miserable economy. In reading various comments about the Obama administration on blogs and on friends' Facebook pages, I was struck by one particular comment yesterday. Someone suggested that what Obama is doing is bad, because they had "worked hard all their life for their money" and now "had to give it to people who didn't want to work but felt entitled." I realized that this is the core myth surrounding the secondary myth of American socialism. It's a mantra my father has recited for years. What that implies, of course, is that anyone who receives a "government handout" is the equivalent of a welfare recipient. Through the eyes of those with that viewpoint, a welfare recipient is defined as someone who is manipulating the system so they don't have to work. In short, they are "lazy", and should "pull themselves up by their bootstraps".

To a certain extent, you may be astonished to learn that I agree with this point of view. There certainly are people out there who milk the system. Women who pop out children who they then neglect just to collect checks from the government. Men and women who get falsified doctor's notes to get disability payments when they are perfectly healthy. People who seem to be living better than the rest of the struggling masses, and they get all their money from government programs. When the Clinton administration wanted to give social security and medicare benefits to illegal aliens, there was what I consider to be a justified outcry. You don't give non-citizens privileges that your own citizens can't get much of the time. I also lump in this category the big bail-out given to banks (who then proceeded to take that money and throw a $10 million party with it). The latter should have been heavily regulated, except regulations were thrown out through a back-door deal a couple of years ago. Taxpayer money should not be used to reward corrupt behavior.

On the other hand, the implication is that anyone receiving welfare or any kind of government benefits is a lazy so-and-so. While the lazy ones are certainly out there, I would suggest that the majority of people in need are people who don't have the opportunity to make the money they need. Some are sick either mentally or physically (or both), some have had a major crisis that left them with nothing. I ask the folks who say, "It's my money and I worked hard for it and no one else should get it" to consider--what if it happens to you? What if you have a terrible accident that leaves you physically unable to work? What if you have a wealthy spouse who suddenly leaves you, and they have a good lawyer who ensures you get nothing? What if that spouse took off and left you with a ton of unpaid taxes you didn't know about? What about the tanking of the stock market 2 years ago, when a lot of retirees lost half or more of their savings? If your family has no money to help you, what are you going to do if the government doesn't provide it? It's easy to discount everyone else as lazy because of a few horror stories about the lazy ones. As Ammaji once said, "The only way to understand the poor is to live with the poor." Not many of us want to do that, but if you've done any charitable work at all, you realize that the homeless and destitute are not largely "lazy" people. And like it or not, we're all part of the same community. When we help others, we help ourselves in the end.

When it comes to health care--I can remember a time when I was in graduate school full time and worked 3 part-time jobs. In fact, I cannot recall a time in my working life when I did not have 2 or 3 jobs, the present included. I hardly consider myself lazy, yet I have never had adequate health coverage. When I was in graduate school I had NO health coverage, except for a clinic at the school that I attended. As I get older, I dread the inevitable life and health changes that are already starting. I can't afford to get old or to get sick--even with all the work I do, with all the savings I have.

It's easy to get jaded by the manipulative and the entitled. God knows I do. I hate it when capable people play victim. But working hard and making money is not enough. Not all of us are millionaires, no matter how hard we work. Life can hand us very unexpected and consequently very expensive things. I'm sure most of the people opposed to "government handouts" would not say no to someone truly in need. But once again, the media only focuses on the exceptions. Or, we hear about the exceptions in our community. The exceptions need to be dealt with by stricter regulation, not by denying everyone in need.

Is this post turning political again? OK, someone IS going to slap me next week. I think I'll go back to reading some more Lovecraft. I just read "The Silver Key" and it almost made me cry...

Friday, March 26, 2010

Just the Facts, Please

I have to say that I'm already sick (no pun intended) of the debate on healthcare in the United States. Some people really hate the new law, some love it. Some people like parts of the bill, but dislike other parts. This is America, so everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I'm not annoyed by people having different opinions. I don't mind debate. But for God's sake--please, please debate based on facts. The amount of insane conspiracy theories and melodramatic rhetoric is nothing but a huge mud wrestling match. It's not amusing when the lives of people are at stake.

First, if you're going to scream "socialism", get your definitions straight. Socialism is strictly defined as giving up individuality for the community, to the point where creativity and individual talent is stifled. I don't see how trying to provide healthcare for uninsured citizens fits this definition. What happens in Europe and in Canada is often referred to as "democratic socialism", and is not the same as this strict definition. Society is basically democratic, but the government controls just about everything commercially. Citizens pay very high taxes, but they are taken care of when they are sick, and when they get old. At least that is how the system is supposed to work, and it works quite well in some countries. However, the U.S. isn't even close to that kind of a system, though this may be the sort of thing dissenters are really pointing at. Healthcare in a wealthy country like ours should be as basic a service as police protection and fire department services.(And by the way--threatening lawmakers with death when you didn't get your way makes you seem a bit...I don't know...totalitarian? If you live in a glass house...)

Secondly, if you're worried about "death panels" and compromised medical care, I have bad news--that happens already with our for-profit insurance companies. Insurance companies would rather see you die than pay your claims. If they can weasel their way out of paying because of some loophole in your policy, they will try to do so. This may not be as big of a deal for doctor visits, but if you have to go to the hospital, you're screwed if your insurance company doesn't pay, unless you're really wealthy. I know people who have had heart surgery, cancer surgery, lung surgery--these things cost tens of thousands of dollars, and no matter how much you follow insurance company procedure beforehand, all it takes is for your surgeon to call in one doctor while you're on the table that's not covered by your plan, and guess what? You have to pay that doctor's bill. The doctor has the right to do it, so you can't blame him. And it may cost thousands of dollars. If you're a woman getting an annual gynecological exam, and your doctor finds a mysterious lump or evidence of cancer, it is very common for insurance companies to deny you the right to surgery--they tell you to "wait". In short--if you think healthcare in this country is "just fine", you obviously have not dealt with anyone who has a serious illness requiring hospitalization in the last 15 years. When my ex-husband had surgery, it took me 2 YEARS to sort out his medical bills, all of which were supposed to be covered by our insurance. They found all kinds of ways to try to avoid paying. If the sick person had to deal with it on their own, they probably would have a relapse. It is extremely stressful and complicated.

Third, the people raging against government control are either directly benefiting from government handouts, or expect the government to manage other aspects of American life. I'm sure none of them would back getting rid of Social Security or Medicare, for starters. I think they need to take a look at exactly what they are fighting and why.

Which brings me back to facts. I can relate my own opinions and experiences, but you should check the facts to formulate your own. You don't do this by watching Glenn Beck, listening to Rush Limbaugh, or even watching Jon Stewart or Bill Maher. Fliers handed out by activists and chain e-mails are also unreliable. Go to the non-partisan, non-profit organizations that exist to read and interpret policy for citizens. Here are a couple:

Enough with the partisanship, the hypocrisy, and the hysterical screaming and threats. Don't get me started on civility (I already blogged about that)--just realize that some of you sound like two-year-olds throwing a screaming fit because you didn't get your way. It adds no credibility to your protests, either as citizens or politicians. If there are really problems with this law, deal with it factually and like adults. Don't get caught in the trap of "emotional contagion" and "herd mentality". By doing that, you're actually moving us towards the thing you claim to be fighting against--violent suppression of the freedom to disagree.

And now my friends have to promise to slap me if I deal with a politically charged topic in this blog again.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


I am currently working on a very long, novella-length story in my archetype series. As a result, my brain feels like it's sort of fizzling when I try to come up with meaningful and/or quasi-interesting blog content. So, while I'm revising like a fiend, I wanted to share a few outside links discovered or re-discovered this week.

First, a disputed island in the Bay of Bengal disappears. I guess that solves that, then.

The NY Times has noted that reading scores are down for American schoolchildren, and speculate as to why. (I know! Pick me!)

Misleading headline of the week: Nazi doctors' documents found in attic. That's like saying you found personal documents of mine by going through my junk mail recycling.

I don't remember this book as a child, but it looks positively awesome.

Speaking of childhood--here is the amazing Patti Smith singing a horrible Debby Boone song on a show that was on television when I was a kid:

And finally, some more MST3K goodness. "A young Franz Kafka awaits his fate..."

Til tomorrow...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Parking, God, and Gender

Sitting in my car with the driver’s side window rolled down, I put the seat back and relax on my lunch hour at work. It’s hot inside the car, but there is a cool breeze blowing outside. I’m too tired to go for a walk, as I only had three hours of sleep the night before. Looking in my rearview mirror, I see that a campus public safety officer is ticketing illegally parked vehicles in the lot. Most of the vehicles are illegally parked. The lot is a faculty/staff only lot, but students have no qualms about parking here.

As I sit there trying to rest a bit, all I can hear is the frantic running of students who realize they’re about to get a ticket. Many try to talk their way out of it. I hear one young woman say angrily, “I left my phone number on the windshield so you wouldn’t give me a ticket! You could have called me!” I didn’t hear the officer’s response, but that was probably the most audacious excuse yet. I’m partially irritated by the sounds of student whining, but I’m also partially amused. I have no sympathy for these students, as their illegal parking is one of my pet peeves. Our campus is small, they’re all young and healthy, and it’s a beautiful day outside. You would think they could walk a quarter of a mile from the student common lot. But no. They have to drive everywhere, and are incapable of walking any distance outside. If they went to any other school in this area, they wouldn’t even be able to park within a mile of the library. I work at other universities, and even as faculty I can’t park close to the library, or even to my classroom. And never mind that we have staff in our building who have difficulty walking and various other major health issues. When they have to walk long distances from another parking lot because they go to lunch and can’t get a parking spot later because of healthy students, it really burns me up.

If you think I am starting to sound like an old curmudgeon who complains about kids being too soft because I had to walk to school uphill both ways in ten feet of snow, you are right. One day I will make an excellent crabby old lady, yelling at kids to get off my lawn, shaking a cane at them threateningly. And I will live a long life as a result. Or so I’m told.

Back in my office, I make myself a cup of instant coffee, that General Foods International crap that makes me happy for some reason. I stir the contents of the cup with a ballpoint pen, and find myself thinking about the idea of God and gender as I am getting back to work. This is not as random as it seems; last night I attended a panel discussion at one of the universities I work at on this topic. Naturally the panelists were looking at a monotheistic view of God. From the Jewish perspective, Dr. Michael Kogan suggested that God is given a male descriptive pronoun because men held the power in that culture, and God made his covenant with men. When the question was asked about what this meant for Jewish women, he replied that it gave them freedom. Men were bound by the rules; women could circumvent them. And ultimately, in the Old Testament, the critical decisions are made by women. Dr. Kogan also passed around a copy of an image of the Qabalistic Tree of Life, with its ten sefirot. He notes that each sefirot denotes a quality that emanates from the Ein Sof (“No-thing-ness”, or “Limitless”), and there is a balance of male and female divine qualities in each of the sefirot as they progress towards Malkuth (Kingdom, or Shekinah), which is the divine essence in the world. He mentioned the Creation story, and suggests that the Bible actually has 5 creation stories. The Genesis I creation story is different from the Adam and Eve creation story—the latter was written about 300 years after the first. He mentions the appearance of Hokmah (Wisdom) in Proverbs 8:22—this is yet another creation story, involving a divine feminine companion to God.

Dr. Stephen Johnson spoke about the Christian view of God, and could find fewer New Testament examples of the feminine describing God. He mentions another of the creation stories, this time in the New Testament, in the Gospel of John. John starts with “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God...”, and Dr. Johnson notes that the structure of this long verse mirrors the structure of the creation story in Proverbs 8:22. The difference is that instead of there being a feminine Divine Wisdom, there is now the masculine Greek Logos (Word). Since the gender of Greek terms is very deliberate, it is clear that this choice of word is deliberate. Over time, Christian thinking subsumed the Aristotelian idea of Spirit and Matter as separate, one being higher than the other—and conceived as Spirit as masculine and Matter as feminine. Since matter was temporal and subject to decay, it was considered weaker. I think of Tertullian’s injunction against sin in a letter to his wife, saying that “though the flesh is weak, the spirit is strong,” hence Christians should have a strong spirit and not sin, ever. From this idea you get the notion of woman as weaker. Tertullian goes as far as to blame Eve for causing Adam to sin, with Satan going after her because clearly she was the weaker of the two and he wouldn’t dare touch the man.

Incidentally, I happen to be working on a psychological history of Tertullian. For those who have wondered why, you should wonder no more. He was certifiably in need of a long vacation or some serious drugs. You have to wonder how someone gets like that. I also thought about the Gnostics, who were vilified for championing Spirit over Matter. Sounds like that idea didn’t exactly go away.

Dr. Cynthia Eller gave a feminist critique of the whole shebang, noting that there are two things we “want” from God—a mysterious all-powerful force, and a shoulder to cry on when we are suffering. One doesn’t need gender for the first, but it’s helpful for the second. She surveyed a number of people about their “image” of God, and they were overwhelmingly masculine conceptions. She suggests that using the male pronoun “He” for God does have a powerful effect on our psychological symbols for God—if we identify God as male, then men somehow assume a divinity that is absent in women, even though that is clearly not the intent of the image. She suggested the experiment of calling God “She” for awhile, and found that those who did it said it “didn’t seem powerful enough.”

I don’t know. My own preferred image of “God” is the Goddess Kali. Not a Western conception, of course. But certainly powerful. In the end, all images fall short, and are merely mental conveniences. You can’t ever “know” anything about what we call “God”, personal or impersonal.

Speaking of, Dr. Kogan came up with my new favorite word to describe Biblical literalism: Scripturdolatry. Use it in a sentence today.

Monday, March 22, 2010


What a magnificent weekend. Beautiful warm days, lots of visits with friends, delicious food and good beer. In the midst of these pleasantries, I was catching up on my latest RSS posts, and saw a lecture on time by Sean Carroll. It seemed rather synchronous, since I’d just blogged about time and its peculiarities a couple of days earlier. It’s a fascinating talk, and I recommend you watch it. You can view it here.

Sean talks a lot about entropy, which is often defined as disorder or chaos in a system. Time moves in the direction of higher entropy; it becomes curiously difficult to define the direction of time when entropy is low. He gave the example of a rack of billiard balls. When you disperse the billiard balls with your cue at the beginning of the game, you can easily see how you move from order to disorder. If you filmed it and ran it backwards, it would look like a film running backwards—you don’t see the scattered balls moving back to their original configuration by themselves. On the other hand—if you only have 2 billiard balls, and you hit those with the cue, it wouldn’t be as easy to tell past from future if you similarly filmed that event and ran it backwards. Boltzmann explained this by defining entropy as a greater number of configuration possibilities (referring to atoms). The more possibilities you have, the more disorderly the system becomes—and thus, the higher the entropy.

A couple of things occurred to me in this discussion. First, the human tendency towards order. Psychologists suggest that we are hard-wired to try to make sense out of the insensible—to make order out of chaos, to find a cause for all effects. The more complex the conditions, the more complicated the rationalization for their configuration. The religious idea of “God” is the ultimate “ordering” of a life and universe that is mysterious. Yet, amazingly, everything we are able to experience is the result of disorder. Is organized religion as we know it in the West an attempt to “manage” entropy? After all, if there is a being called God watching over things, it’s pretty clear that the “orderliness” of things is illusory. We perceive what we perceive with regard to space and time because of this high entropy state.

Which leads me to the second thing, namely, that the inevitable movement from low entropy to high entropy mimics human psychological behavior. Think of any organization or group that you’ve joined. Typically, when there are only a couple of people, or a very small group, things run smoothly. While it’s possible to have one member of the group who is problematic, successful groups are generally small and have a great teamwork ethic. Things are very organized and orderly because there are so few people involved.

However, as organizations grow, disorder also grows. Large groups have to break down into smaller groups. There are more personalities involved that can present problems. If the group has trouble dealing with the disorder, someone will step forward to try to order things, with either good or ill results. There are more people who need to be in agreement on things, and the basic ideals of the group has to grow into a Charge, a set of by-laws, a list of rules. The more complex the group, the more complex the rules. It is almost inevitable that politics take over, and that corruption appears somewhere in the system. One example that jumps to mind are Catholic religious orders that start out with a few people living simply as poor folk and serving the poor, but later are taken over by the ruling bureaucracy, and may become bloated bureaucracies themselves. As the disorder and uncertainty increases—scenarios will undoubtedly arise that challenge the rules—the number of rules and enforcements needed to maintain the same order will increase. In other words—we keep trying to increase order to manage disorder.

You could probably conclude (or question) a number of things from this. To me, it seems like we are trying to collectively fight a perceptual hallucination. Why do we believe that things have to have order? If you listen to Eastern Vedantics, the whole point is to embrace the disorder and go with it, not fight against it. Even notions of “surrender” in Islam and in Via Negativa theology really come down to this, as far as I’m concerned. Happiness comes from not trying to weigh the world down with too many expectations, too many “ought-to’s”. We need a certain amount of structure to function consciously without killing each other or going mad, but there is a tendency in our culture to overdo it. Rigid constructs and rules applied too broadly and without equanimity are going to hurt someone in the long run.

For my purposes, this is just an analogy. It would be interesting if it turned out to be more than an analogy.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


Spring is officially here. Even if it wasn't 70 degrees outside, I'd know it. I woke up this morning, and stepped on something soft and squishy in the living room. I assumed it was a cat toy; it was, in fact, a dead mouse. So, I got to wash my hands and feet very early, and then pick up what remained of my rodential visitor. I noticed that his fur was rather wet, so I assumed Shiva licked him to death. However, it proves to me that Shiva (a male cat) can kill a mouse without female help. So, good for Shiva. I apologized to the mouse as I dropped him into the garbage can. Not a very hospitable way to treat guests. On the other hand, if you're a mouse stupid enough to break into a house with 3 cats...

But finding mice in the house isn't the only sign of Spring. I find myself thinking about chocolate, and not just any chocolate. It's the kind of chocolate that comes out around Easter time; you see brands of chocolate that never appear any other time of year. For those of you who may not experience this chocolate, let me give you an idea of where it fits in on the "chocolate scale".

First, think of European chocolate. I never actually buy this chocolate when I'm in Europe, though I've received it from others--as a gift of exquisite Belgian chocolates from a former boyfriend when he was on business overseas, a gift of German marzipan from a Croatian Fulbright scholar visiting my classes, and the various French and German chocolates brought to me by one of my best friends when she heads over to Europe for her school's foreign exchange. In the States, we have Lindt chocolate, which is Swiss, and then there is the ever-present Cadbury's, which is probably considered cheap chocolate next to these others, but still a cut above most American chocolates. European chocolate is to be enjoyed while standing around at upscale parties, enjoyed with a fine dessert wine like port. This is not the chocolate (except maybe Cadbury's) that you eat while sitting around in your PJs watching the tube. It's too good for that, and the chocolates will avenge their dignity by flinging themselves out of the box and onto the floor, preferring suicide to such plebian treatment.

The next level is high-quality American chocolate. Hershey's is the big name--there are Hershey Bars (milk chocolate and with almonds), Mr. Goodbar, Krackel, Special Dark, Hershey's Kisses, M&M's, and the purely evil Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. The latter are at least as evil as girl scout cookies. There is also Nestle chocolate, slightly less popular, but a reasonable competitor nonetheless. (Technically, Nestle is not American, but many of the things they produce that we are familiar with are only produced here.) No one would confuse this chocolate with fine European chocolate, or even put it on the same table. Nonetheless, it is quite respectable, and is enjoyed in many versatile settings. I should also note that these chocolates don't discriminate against children--fine European chocolate is typically only shared among adults, because if kids don't like the chocolate's filling, they will tend to spit it out ignobly in disgust.

The next level is the kind of boxed chocolate that seems to reproduce in drug stores. Russell Stover's and Whitman's are good examples. The quality is usually 50/50--some of their chocolates are excellent (Read as: Russell Stover's French chocolate mints), others are more mediocre. I should note that both Russell Stover's and Whitman's should be asked to cease and desist from labeling anything they make as containing "peanut butter". These products do not contain peanut butter. They contain this rubbery substance with a vague peanut flavor which is not fit for human consumption. Still, they have been bought as last minute birthday, anniversary, get well, and good luck gifts for people who forgot about said events, and they are always located within reasonable reach of the greeting cards.

The lowest level of chocolate, the "Thunderbird wine" of the group, is the kind of chocolate you see at Easter only. Palmer's is the most notable example. They make solid and hollow chocolate bunnies, and sometimes even filled chocolate eggs, though I dread to think of what might be inside of them. This chocolate is made deliciously palatable while standing in your kitchen, cutting it to pieces, and slathering it with peanut butter. In fact, next to Reese's, it's probably one of the best tasting things with peanut butter.

Now I am off to the grocery store, to see if the Palmer chocolate has been reduced from $6.00 per chocolate bunny to the still overpriced but more reasonable $.50. As we move closer to Easter, the price on the leftovers goes down. Still, I imagine it has a long shelf life. Kind of like Peeps and candy corn. But that's another story...

Thursday, March 18, 2010


3:30 am on my day off, and the cat wants me to feed him. I always set my alarm an hour earlier than the actual time I want to get up, namely because I have a knee-jerk (or arm-jerk) snooze button reaction. Today the alarm is set later, but the routine is as usual. I give up at 4:30 and go feed him.

As I lay there in a half-awake state, I start to think about time. Time is a human construct. We talk about past, present, and future. Physicists and Buddhists talk about the present only-the only real time is "now". At some point time as we understand it disappears. The Sanskrit "Kala" means time. The goddess Kali is the devourer of time. Time seems to slow down when we are aware, and speed up when we are unaware. We experience premonitions, deja-vu, and all other sorts of time illusions. In relativity theory, time is bound up with space--they're both measurements of what we subjectively experience, relative to the speed of light. Stephen Hawking says in his book on time that we measure time in the direction in which disorder increases. He found it interesting that we remember the past, but not the future. Time seems to be an arbitrary tradition of human consciousness.

This is all well and good for humans, but what about animals? We've just had our annual daylight savings time change, so it's not convincing to point to something like the amount of light in the sky or other subtle natural factors. The cat still wakes me up at exactly the same time regardless, as if he has his own innate sense of time. For that matter--what about plant life? Again, one could point to changes in temperature and light for plant behavior, but they also seem to have a sense of human time. I remember when I was living by the river about 12 years ago. It was around the 20th of September, and everything was still very green. Autumn was to begin the next day. The next day came and--remarkably--all the trees had suddenly started to turn colors. A LOT of colors, not just a smattering here and there. The air was cooler, but it had been for awhile. All I could think was, how does Nature know? Even understanding the subtle factors that cause these changes, the punctuality of them on that day was staggering.

There is an implied consciousness here, even if it's mostly instinctual. Human consciousness is different from animal consciousness, and animal consciousness is different from plant consciousness, to be sure. But somehow we've agreed on this mutual illusion. Is it some kind of genetically coded thing, something evolutionary idea that we need to survive? I recall some comments Stephen Hawking made about time travel. There are some theories in physics that suggest this is possible, but we may be genetically "hard-coded" to avoid such endeavors. There is also the psychological tendency towards "ordering"--we have an innate need to organize disorder, to make sense of things we don't understand or don't fit in with our worldview. Such measurements as space and time help us do this. But it still doesn't really explain plants and animals. Are we back to Bell's Theorem and the idea that our proximity to each other makes us like each other? Have animals and plants adopted human ideas the way two particles in close proximity adopt the same spin? Or is it the other way around?

I would think about this some more, but time has slipped away from me in my unawareness. Time to go have needles stuck into me at the doctor's office. Then off to enjoy this beautiful day...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Outside the Classroom

This week, I saw an interesting post that came from the Rate Your Student site. For those of you unfamiliar, RYS is a place where professors go to kvetch about the trials and tribulations of teaching. Some of it is just pure kvetch, but there are moments of insight about pedagogy in general. I saw one of those posts this week.

The post was about the boring nature of classroom instruction, and how this particular academic gained his passion for his field outside the classroom—sitting on rooftops talking with other students, informal conversations with a professor—it was these things, and not classes, that fueled academic interest.

I thought back to my own years as an undergraduate. I had started out as an English major. I took a particular class with a really excellent teacher that got me interested in Religious Studies. At first, I planned to minor in Religious Studies. But our Religious Studies department was different—they would have lectures in the evening, and then invite students to either the department chair’s home, or the home of another senior faculty member who lived nearby. Sometimes they scheduled informal talks where a faculty member would present their ideas for a paper, and we would have an informal discussion, over drinks and food at a professor’s home. It was these community experiences that made me decide to switch from having a minor in Religious Studies to having a major. I still majored in English concurrently, but that department was too big and impersonal for me to really develop fondness for any but a couple of the professors there.

A couple of years ago, before I started teaching Religion as an adjunct myself, I had a conversation with one of the senior faculty in the Philosophy department from my alma mater over lunch. (Yes, I still kept in touch with everyone there, and still do). As an alumna, he wanted to know what I felt the best thing was about the Religious Studies department. Those who founded the department prided themselves on their more personal approach to working with students, but newer faculty disagreed that it was desirable or necessary. He felt that the days of having students at professor’s homes were numbered.

I understand the concerns of the more recent faculty—there might be insurance risks, perhaps it encourages personal relationships when you should have a teacher/student boundary, it places too much of a burden on faculty that are already busy. But to give that up would really eliminate the one thing that makes the department stand out from all the others—and it may be in those places, and not the classroom, where the passion for the discipline is cultivated. I happened to enjoy my classes, but I enjoyed those non-classroom opportunities just as much. I felt like my interests were taken seriously and respectfully; there is a leveling of the playing field when someone is talking to you one-to-one and not standing at the front of the classroom. At a time when the Humanities in particular have to justify their existence to schools more focused on vocational interests than scholarship, it might not be a wise move to eliminate activities that make their departments desirable.

Fortunately, my alma mater has not given up this tradition entirely, and they also have a “Philosophy and Religion Club” where faculty come and talk informally with students. I enjoy visiting these sessions, as it’s always refreshing to talk to a new crop of genuinely interested students. I hope the students feel the same way I do about it. The heck with university scholarship as vocational training—the college experience is supposed to enrich your worldview and teach critical thinking, and frankly, there’s not enough of that happening these days.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

MAAR Day 2: Zombies, Magic, and St. Paul

I started the day on Friday at yet another session by the Religion and Arts section of MAAR. All three papers were interesting, though the first probably raised the most questions. James Siburt presented a paper on "The Zombie as Sign and Symbol", examining the zombie character in folklore, literature, and cinema and its metaphorical relationship to a social "mindlessness", the sense of being a cog in the machine. Some may fear the symbol, others will identify with it. He notes that there are really two kinds of zombies--the first is the kind in Haitian voodoo culture, the mindless slaves that do their master's bidding after receiving a potion that makes them "almost" dead, and allows the practitioner to manipulate their consciousness. The second type is that popularized in George Romero films like "Night of the Living Dead", which is really part Haitian zombie and part ghoul (voodoo zombies do not characteristically eat human brains or flesh). The TV series "the Dollhouse" revolves more around the first type of zombie, where those enslaved in the dollhouse have their consciousness "downloaded" and replaced with others to fulfill certain tasks. It is considered ethical because the person eventually gets their own consciousness back. What this really amounts to is Cartesian dualism taken to an extreme--the idea that the mind and body are separate, and function separately. Siburt also noted that the popularity of zombies is usually concurrent with some other major event--a reaction to war or the fear of war, usually.

Dan McClain gave a paper on "Magic and the Journey to God", looking at the works of British fantasy writer Susanna Clarke. He asks the question, what does magic tell us about reality? He looks at Buber's idea of "pure relationship"--you need God, God needs you. But her argues that Buber's conception is too abstract, too much in the realm of the "spiritual". He goes on to talk about the sacramental nature of relationship--God revealing Himself in the material milieu. But the emphasis here is still on the aesthetic rather than the material, and still leaves the material world as somewhat impersonal. The energy of the sacramental is still one that is alien to this world. Not satisfied with either conception of "relationship" with the divine, he looks to Pseudo Dionysus and the notion of sacred order, the Source that lies beneath everything else. He points to the ritual of the liturgy, as well as the ritual act of anointing, as examples of ways that a hierarchical transformation involving the material can occur. Material signs cannot be reduced to mere "mind-body". McClain then uses a Clarke novel as his metaphor to show how Nature will not stand to be objectified. In Clarke's novels, magic serves Nature's demand for justice. Magic re-incorporates the material into the mystery, which is needed to "humanize" our relationship with others, Nature, the Divine (and/or in all cases), and not leave it as an abstraction.

Johanna Monigan-Schaefer then presented a paper on the works of Eugenie Marlitt, a late 19th-century popular fiction writer from Germany (and its first best-selling author). Marlitt's works were later panned as "mere Cinderella stories", but Monigan-Schafer suggests that they have literary merit, and do much to demonstrate criticism of false piety and corruption in both the Lutheran and Catholic Churches in the 1860s. The characters and storylines are somewhat formulaic--beautiful young girl, representative of freedom, ends up living in a house with a cruel stepmother or uncle, who represent false piety and judgmental holier-than-thou religious behavior. There is always a happy ending (usually marriage--very Shakespearean comedy-like) but the books become platforms for the author to criticize established religion, and also to make a case for the education of women.

I had hoped to attend the afternoon Plenary, but it was not in the assigned room. I did go to the AAR business meeting to discuss the blogging possibilities, and chatted with a couple of people who turned out to be colleagues that I never see or scholars from universities very near to where I work. So, my next and last session was the Christian History and Theology section. The paper that seemed to attract the most attention (though all three were fine papers) was Matthew Novenson's paper addressing the question of whether or not St. Paul considered Jesus to be the Messiah. The conclusion drawn by many scholars is "no", and that has been used to various ends throughout history, particularly as a justification for trying to convert the Jews to Christianity, or dismissing them as past history. However, the works of Gaston/Gager and Stendall point to Romans 9:11, where Paul says there will be a time when all Israel will be saved. He does not mention Jesus, and that absence suggests to them that Jesus is the savior for the Gentiles, while the Jews will be saved by God, presumably through their already-existing covenant.

The first of the other two papers focused on Edith Stein, a Catholic convert at the time of the Holocaust, and close associate of Edmund Husserl. Marian Maskulak suggests that her life and writings support the idea that she was a social reformer. Stein's 1921 publication, "What is Essential to a State?" was released at the same time as Hitler's "Mein Kampf"--both asking the same questions, and coming up with very different answers. She believed in the importance of community, and felt that family and school were instrumental in cultivating community oriented behavior in children. She noted that marriage often ends up being a business deal that breaks up when it becomes unprofitable, or a legal way to satisfy one's drives until the relationship no longer does so. Children are considered unfortunate accidents in such cases. Both cases have lost the real meaning of marriage. (How true).

The last paper of the day was by George Pickens, and he looks at how missionary work in African communities can be a disaster for existing communities if a foreign version of the religion is imposed, but can bring about great social change if an indigenous version of the religion is adopted. He uses the Johera religion in the Nyanza Region in Kenya as an example. White Anglican missionaries often set up schools and converted masses of people, but did nothing to help them when they were in trouble. At that point, the disillusionment of the converts was used to fuel a new indigenous movement that is now dying out, perhaps because it has outlived its purpose.

More detailed accounts of sessions will be available at:

Saturday, March 13, 2010

MAAR Day 1: Via Negativa and Quantum Physics

On Thursday and Friday of this week, I attended MAAR (Mid-Atlantic American Academy of Religion)'s annual conference. It was held in New Brunswick this year, which made it reasonably close to home. This year, as in years past, I went to listen to papers rather than to present. What follows is a summary of the sessions I attended on Thursday, and tomorrow I will write about the Friday sessions. This year I approached MAAR's regional director about having some kind of conference blog, and he agreed it was a good idea, though there's always some trepidation about attaching "official" AAR responsibility to a private blog of any kind. So, I am going to set up a separate blog for more extensive treatment of the sessions I attended, and will provide the link to that, hopefully tomorrow. That link should eventually end up on MAAR's webpage. Hopefully others will add their observations to that blog. I've always felt that there's not enough scholarly conversation in the blogosphere by religion professionals. What's natural to the tech fields seems to be foreign to the humanities. Hopefully that will change--the only people (besides people like myself) blogging about religion are usually right-wing conservatives who are also blogging about politics. There needs to be a little more representation from other groups.

The papers were extensive and complex, so I'm only going to note a few highlights here.

The first session I attended was on Religion and the Arts. Out of the three papers presented, I was most struck by Ronald Bernier's paper on Bill Viola's work and its relationship to the theological "Via Negativa". I am particularly drawn to the Via Negativa theology because it so closely resembles the Eastern conception of "God". Via Negativa, or The Way of Negation, suggests that God cannot possibly be known or described--we only know that God is Unknown. (This is similar to the Vedantic idea of God as "No-Thing"). All notions of God as good, or wise, or loving are totally inadequate, as God could not possibly be those things in ways that we understand. Via Negativa theologians include Meister Eckhardt, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and the author(s) known as Pseudo-Dionysus. Implied in this theology is the sublime experience of union with God--it is both pleasurable and painful at the same time. Viola's installation, "Room for St. John of the Cross", is meant to demonstrate the pleasure/pain paradox of the sublime. Viola's video installation, "The Passions of Bill Viola" demonstrates, among other things, the difference between an icon and an idol. An icon points to another Reality, but becomes an idol if the "human gaze" is too attached to it instead of the thing it's pointing at.

The next session I attended was the AAR Plenary address. This was given by Charles Mathewes, the editor of the Journal of the AAR. He was discussing the future of religious studies, and he predicted a bright future, if scholars "played their cards right". His talk was focused on the interdisciplinary nature of religious studies, and felt that scholars didn't do enough to look outside their own disciplines for opportunities--and humanities scholars needed more in the way of religious studies education, as religion is a crucial factor in many major world events. He warned against reductionist theories of religion, that reduce religious behavior to economics or genetics. He also felt that schools should re-think encouraging Ph.D.s in religion when there are very few jobs. I've always viewed religion as interdisciplinary, and I would imagine that only the Bible scholar (or the equivalent) would believe otherwise. Knowing that one can look to other humanistic fields for inspiration is good for writing and research, but doesn't say much about jobs. Maybe he means that more opportunities may come about if the academy as a whole sees the value of religious studies relative to other disciplines.

The second session of the day, on Contemporary Theology, also consisted of 3 papers, and there were 2 that made an impression on me. The first was by Matthew Riley, about Bell's Theorem, local realism, and our sense of "place". He mentions the notion of inner quiet often described by contemplatives, and suggests that it's hard to imagine that quiet in a largely urbanized humanity. He then tackles the notion of "local realism", based on the idea that the universe is made up of matter--material, tangible, and partitioned. Riley cites Alfred North Whitehead's critique that this view of the universe is "useful but false". He proposes that the universe is made up of subjective entities and experiences. Each entity is a locus for the universe. Everything is interdependent and moves in relation to each other, not in isolation. Riley points to Bell's Theorem which shows that 2 particles that come within proximity of each other (become "entangled") will gain characteristics of the other, including the particle's spin. This happens instantaneously--there is no time lapse. Riley does not address the time factor, but he does suggest that this rules out the entire class of local realism theories--things are neither here nor there, but both here and there. While Riley is using Bell's Theorem as more of an analogy, it is interesting how quantum mechanics shows the very unexpected nature of matter and the universe, and even though we don't see the effects at our complex organic level, it still may have far-reaching effects. In fact, it's hard to imagine how we're NOT affected, even if the effects are not apparent.

The second paper that grabbed my interest was Dr. Stephen Johnson's paper, "Catholic Tradition's Critically Expanding Universe". Dr. Johnson unfortunately wasn't at the conference, and Dr. Cynthia Eller read his paper quite capably in his stead. His papers are always entertaining, as he is as a teacher (I took most of my undergraduate religion classes with Dr. Johnson, and I credit him with my ongoing interest in religious studies). The paper is actually a review of Sister Elizabeth Michael Boyle's book, "Science as Sacred Metaphor." Dr. Johnson found the book to be pleasantly full of insight, as Sister Boyle describes God as possibility, seeks to defend science and religion from fundamentalist literalism, and even compares string theory to the Greek opposites of Apollo and Dionysus (something need to reconcile the order of classical physics with the disorder of quantum mechanics). Dr. Johnson went on to add his own critique of the Catholic Church as it is becoming under Pope Benedict, and spoke in particular about the Vatican visit to the American nuns, who he noted had spent time trying to become self-informed and gain credibility among people, while the Church hierarchy was increasingly losing credibility. He suggested that Catholics may need to lose the Church as it is now in order to regain it--they should not give up all the ground gained in Vatican II. I felt some validation in these last remarks, as they mirror my own thoughts on the issue.

Tomorrow I will talk about the Friday sessions.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Watching the Mind

The mind does not like being watched.

I recall my morning meditation, which has taken place just about every morning over the last 6 years, with some lapses. It is a kundalini meditation taught by my guru. As you might expect, at some point during the meditation one...well, meditates. The mind watches itself. And I find that it retreats like a self-conscious child, aware that he is being watched at play. It prefers to be a soundtrack, white noise, that perpetual background always running but not really noticed. Unlike white noise, one could compare the effect of the mind on our daily actions to that of a subliminal message--we accept what it says unconsciously, without any kind of awareness.

Today I am at MAAR (The Mid-Atlantic American Academy of Religion meeting) in New Brunswick, and I'm writing this at lunchtime. It is a reasonably nice day, so I walk across the street from the hotel to look at the headstones in Christ Church Episcopal churchyard. Just before, I take a quick walk around this section of the city, passing Rutgers students in conversations, open trucks with burly men yelling to each other as they unload them, honking horns, and the roar of cars. It is noisy, as any city would be noisy in the middle of the day. So, I am struck when I walk into the churchyard and it is suddenly quiet. I do hear the occasional roar of a truck, but it is remarkably quiet for a place so unprotected from the roar of the city.

It is at this moment that I understand the lesson of meditation, of watching the mind. The churchyard has become a metaphor. When we withdraw to a sacred space within ourselves, it is quiet, regardless of how noisy the world is around us. I had an experience once of meditating during a visit from one of Amma's Swamis. There was a period of meditation after puja, and when it was finished, everyone else got up to start preparing dinner, running around, starting social conversations. I continued meditating--I couldn't help it. It was though I was blanketed in silence--I could hear others chattering and moving on the periphery of a circle that had me at its center. But they were far away, it seemed; I was perfectly silent. The churchyard at this moment was a materialization of that event, with one exception--this experience brings me words. For the meditation experience, I had no words.

Later, when the day's sessions are over for me, I walk over to the Harvest Moon Brewery for dinner. The Rolling Stones song, "Let's Spend the Night Together" is blaring from the stereo speakers while I am reading through a copy of Tertullian's "Ad Uxorem" ("To My Wife"--a treatise from the pre-Nicene Church father to his wife about chastity, abstinence, and not re-marrying after he dies). The irony of this is not lost on me.

Tomorrow I will start going into detail about the highlights of MAAR's sessions. So far, there have been many...

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Brain Candy

Today I am tired. I always start out energetic enough, but I have so much to deal with before I even go to work in the morning. By the time I'm finished with work, I'm ready for some good food, some good wine or beer, and something to turn my brain into pudding, because it just can't handle anything else. I suspect that some of you may be like me in this respect, so here are some things to entertain you after a long day at work:'s 7 (thankfully) extinct giant versions of modern animals. I now have the phrase, "Boy, it hasn't been the same since the scorpion lobsters showed up" stuck in my head.

Here is an old IHOP commercial. I've never seen IHOP buildings like these--well, actually, I have--but they're not IHOPs anymore. I only go there when they have stuffed french toast. But this commercial is seriously weird. Thanks to WFMU, where I first saw it. (And speaking of, visit their website to pledge in their annual marathon fundraiser).

Auto Tune the News, #10. You shall build a turtle fence.

Ever hear of the Bayeux Tapestry? An account of the Norman Conquest, dating from around 1077, that is demonstrated through a series of pictures? Well, now you can make your own history using images from the Bayeux Tapestry. (Thanks to Miss Cellania at Mental Floss).

Lastly, no post would be complete without a LOLcat:

funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures


Monday, March 08, 2010


Uncertainty makes us do strange things. With regard to religion, nothing makes humans turn to religion and/or spirituality faster than an unexpected shock, or a major uncertain life situation. The most obvious example of this is the person who suddenly becomes religious on their deathbed, but it doesn't have to be that level of uncertainty.

When things are in order, under control, and going our way, we can manage the little uncertainties. If you have a spiritual bent, this is the time that you're likely to lapse in your practices--you become too busy to meditate, or practice ritual, or go to church, or whatever it is that you do. But once things start to get out of control, or we start to feel out of control, all of the sudden we are looking to those disciplines again.

This is not so unusual, but it is interesting. Religion becomes the means by which we try to control uncertainty. We are uncertain about "God" until we are in crisis. If you believe in a personal God, then obviously it's a case of consulting with the highest possible authority. If you don't believe in a personal God, it is an attempt to harness the power of the "whole". If you don't believe in God at all, it may be a time of intense self-examination.

Those who are religious by habit may regard this as somewhat hypocritical. You only think about the bigger picture when you're in trouble, not when things are going well. But this isn't as hypocritical as it seems. The sense of being overwhelmed, feelings of loss, sorrow, or anxiety, can remind us that it's not all about us. We may be lacking in awareness, and we can be shocked back into awareness. If everything goes smoothly all the time, we may lose that opportunity to check ourselves and how we're moving in the context of the bigger picture.

Thinking about last week's post on talismans, some people use religious belief as a talisman. When things go wrong, they feel that they can literally right things by saying the right prayers, maybe giving up a few things temporarily, attending religious services again after a long lapse. You might also compare this to the parent/teenager relationship--the parents are pretty much non-existent until the teenager gets into trouble, needs money, needs to borrow the car, whatever. We are independent until we are faced with things beyond our reason and control. Then we need that "parental" help.

Those who take that idea too literally get into trouble, as you might expect. I think of George Carlin's routine on religion, where he said he started praying to Joe Pesci, and got what he prayed for at least as much as he did when he prayed to God. But that's just too literal--I ask God for something the way I ask my parents for something, and I get it or I don't. God is not a literal "being", so there's no "person" to answer your request. When you do pray, meditate, do ritual, and get the hoped-for response, it's because you've mobilized your own faculties by connecting with the greater, non-personal Reality. Or, you've centered and quieted yourself enough to stop worrying about things you have no control over. The answers to our concerns frequently don't follow the path that we think they should. We're very outcome-driven--we want to know what is going to happen, and how it's going to happen. In my experience, I have found that however my mind tries to predict the logical path of a situation and its outcome, the actual turn of events is something I never would have expected in a million years.

I've spent the last eight years under the tutelage of a guru, and I sometimes wonder if these out-of-the-blue screw-ups in our plans are the universe's idea of a practical joke. It's like a hazing for those who believe they know everything. Somehow everything comes out all right, but not before the situation has been turned on its head. It's training in non-attachment and non-reaction. The notion of "surrender" revolves around perfect trust in the universe/God/your Self, whatever. But we can't surrender--we have to know what's going to happen, when it's going to happen, and how--and we want to control or be totally prepared for that outcome. This is the clue to the fundamental problem--we don't trust ourselves, or anyone/anything else. If we trusted that things will come out as they should regardless of circumstances, we wouldn't have these issues.

But what does it mean to "come out as it should"? Does every story have to end happily? Is there a "reason" that things come out for the absolute worst in spite of our efforts? Again, we're trying to apply logic, reason, and control to situations that are irrational and totally beyond our control. The mind wants a reason, but there isn't always one. The hard part is to say, "that's okay", and pick up the pieces and move forward.

This has been on my mind lately because I have been hit by some decidedly mundane issues very unexpectedly. After months of running ragged, I decided it was time to slow down, start meditating again, and focus more on my spiritual practices. I can't "hear" what my inner voice is telling me if my brain is constantly giving me these anxious, speculative messages. While I still don't have all the answers, I feel much calmer at this point, and have more trust that the answers will present themselves--and some already have. The greatest benefit of meditation is that it restores your awareness of the present moment, and you realize that nothing else is real, or has much importance, except that moment. If I could remember that always, I'd be a much happier person all the time.

Saturday, March 06, 2010


Saturday morning breakfast at a different cafe from the usual. The farther North you travel from Frenchtown, the more you move into earthier territory. While Frenchtown has antique dealers and artists and authors, Milford has farmers, laborers, and tradesmen. That fact is neither here nor there ; it does make for a different experience as you sit in a restaurant or visit the shops nearby. The waitstaff is very amiable, and if you sit at the counter the locals tend to chat with you. However, you do get a sense of the provincial--people look at you strangely when you walk in. They know already that you're not part of their community, and they tend to gravitate towards their own.

This morning, I am looking over some writing at the counter as I have my breakfast. Three men walk in, and sit at the counter nearby; I move down a bit to give them some space. They begin a rather animated conversation. Clearly they all work together, they all have families. One man is lamenting that he's never had a son--he ended up with four daughters. The other complains that he took his teenage boys on a trip out West, and they acted utterly indifferent to the magnificence of the Grand Canyon. His friend commented, "Kids spend too much time on their video games. They don't appreciate anything else." As their discussion turns to work, I hear them talking about various churches along the Delaware River. I come to realize that the men are professional gravediggers.

I finish my coffee, pay the bill, and go to my car. The first thing I have to do is find a CD with a Beatles song, because I had the misfortune to hear "Hotel California" on the cafe's radio when I walked in the door. I finally find a copy of "Help", and pop it into the CD player. By association, I recall that Fleetwood Mac's song "Sara" is about the abortion of Stevie Nicks's love child with Don Henley. It makes the song seem more like the theme for Rosemary's Baby in that light. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about, click here and look at #3 on the list).

The evil effects of Don Henley thus averted, I look at the muddy landscapes before me as I head off to my Saturday errands. The brownish, swampy fields dotted with white piles of dirty snow are the theme everywhere. I remind myself that this is a precursor to Spring ; indeed, this is supposed to be a warm day, and it's only supposed to get warmer during the week. The crocuses have pushed their way through the rocks in front of my house, and it's a heart-warming sight. I do see hints of Spring everywhere--little tendrils of green peeking up through yellowed grasses and barren flower boxes. There are human signs as well--the cashiers at the auto garage, the grocery store, and the liquor store are much more chipper than usual. The lines at the car wash are out to the road. Everywhere I drive, I have to be careful because there are people out walking--in pairs, in groups, or on their own. Clearly everyone has had enough of this winter. There is a need to move beyond the boundaries imposed by the cold weather and snowstorms.

Scott Adams wrote about moving beyond boundaries this week, though he was specifically talking about curiosity and its relationship to attraction. He put forward an interesting and sensible idea--that you can measure someone's attraction to you by the amount of curiosity they show about you. You can read his post here. I find it interesting, because I am what you call "socially challenged" when it comes to interaction with men. Most of the time I will talk to a man and will have no clue as to whether he likes me as a friend or is interested in getting involved beyond that. This can lead to problems in both directions. Since I am a friendly sort, I usually get into trouble because some men interpret my friendliness as a romantic interest. Often, I'm only demonstrating an interest out of basic human respect. But if I think I will be misunderstood, I will be colder than usual. Sometimes I switch gears quickly, because I realize I've made a mistake, and I feel bad about it. I don't like shutting people out because of that miscommunication of intentions.

While I think Scott's post is enlightening, I don't think it's a catchall--I'd be a bit wary. Not only is it possible that people who appear to be attracted are only being friendly, but it's also possible that people who don't appear interested really do have an attraction. If someone has experienced heart-shattering rejection or betrayal, they might always put on a cool veneer, and only give away interest through subtle clues. I'm sympathetic to this--why would you stick your neck out if someone is always trying to chop off your head? Such people don't tend to show much unless they've imbibed a lot of alcohol, or let their guard down for some other reason. Such people may also be more "stalkerish"--looking at your social networking profiles and such, but never commenting or showing their presence. They are trying to gather information surreptitiously, not because they're creepy--it's because they're cautious.

Of course, people may have an "attraction" for other reasons as well--you may seem like a good business partner or professional contact, for instance. It's just a shame that if men and women contact each other, there is automatically assumed to be an underlying romantic intention. But that is a long, convoluted, and complicated subject, and I don't feel like falling into that death spiral again.

Ah--Spring, life, death, graves, romance, mud--time, I think, for some Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

New Story Published, and Reflections on "Insincerity"

Before I get to today's post, I have an announcement. The third story in my archetype series, "Trickster", has been published in Static Movement, an online literary journal. You can read Trickster here. It's actually my favorite of the 5 stories written so far.

Saturday’s blog posting “Rituals” generated some private commentary, and led me to an interesting question: Is a religious expression invalid if it is insincere?

The immediate thought would be “yes”. Religion is so connected to morality that we find insincere expressions to be hypocritical. Superficial displays of piety can be sickening; they are lacking in humility, which is supposed to be one of the most basic religious virtues. However, if you think about the question, it is not so simple.

Most people do not have deep religious experiences; our day to day lives are very removed from that kind of thought. The most common type of religious experience is the “conversion”. Whether a person is converting from one religion to another, or from irreligion to religion, that is the most common starting point when one turns their attention from the mundane to the spiritual. But it is only a starting point.

When someone begins a spiritual journey, a couple of things tend to happen. First, there is a sense of clarity, an enthusiasm—a feeling that everything now “makes sense”. Second, there is a disavowal of the “old” life, when one was “lost”. It is not uncommon to hear conversion stories from drug users, prostitutes, and criminals, who talk how lost they were, but now they are “saved.” Certainly in Christian conversions, this is followed by the sense that this new clarity should be shared, and that they now must “save” others.

In the first book on his encounters with Don Juan, Carlos Castaneda gives us Don Juan’s explication of the four great enemies of the spiritual warrior. Each spiritual attainment becomes an enemy, starting with clarity. Clarity is the first great enemy. Why? Because once you attain it, you think you’ve attained it all. Instead of instilling humility in the face of the Ultimate, it makes one egotistical, because now they think they “know” the “mind” of God. But it is a normal part of the spiritual journey, and as long as one moves past the initial experience of clarity, it is not a problem. My guru, Ammaji, is frequently approached by devotees who relate wonderful spiritual experiences that have changed them, and they want her opinion of the experience. Ammaji almost always replies, “It is nothing, pay no attention to it.” She is purposely bursting their bubble so that they don’t get hung up on the experience. We use our feelings as a gauge of sincerity, but in reality, feelings have little to do with it. Devotion is not an emotion.

Ammaji once said that if you don’t feel devotion, you should act as if you have it, even if it’s insincere, because at some point, the insincerity will be replaced with sincerity. It is difficult, though, because we don’t like to pursue things that we don’t “feel” like doing. One could then say that the “insincere” person is at least making the effort, even though they don’t feel like it. But I think insincerity becomes distasteful when it’s accompanied by self-righteousness. The holier-than-thou person is going to be called out for their fakery in a way that the wavering aspirant who is trying and not quite making it is not. Often, the insecurity is within ourselves; we need validation from others that we are really “spiritual”. This is the root of zealous missionary activity; indeed, there are some Christian sects who are built entirely on that need for validation from others. They are the ones who show up on your doorstep with pamphlets. They must convince you because they haven’t convinced themselves on some level.

Which brings us to disillusionment. When the convert sees hypocrisy in their newfound congregation, when they get worn out and find that they aren’t so sure of themselves, they may give up temporarily, or altogether. But it would be a mistake to see disillusionment as the “bitter reality”—it’s only the bitter reality of how humans behave in organizations, and it's good to know the difference between that and one's own spiritual experience.

So, maybe we should cut those who seem insincere a break. We’re all insincere to a point, since we tend to have a spiritual goal of always feeling “happy”, and it takes awhile to realize that the emotion of happiness is not the goal. There really is no goal. But that realization doesn’t make things any easier.