Archive for the ‘spirituality’ Category

Keep going, keep moving forward

August 1, 2012

The sun at dawn this morning is a fireball mounting the treetops, seeming to shout “get up , get moving!”

Yesterday we got up and hit the road at dawn for yet another distant college campus tour. Kayla in Chattanooga is our favorite student guide so far. “I love my school!” She really sold it. But Older Daughter’s decided she doesn’t like “sprawly” campuses. So far as I’m concerned, they’re the best kind. And we haven’t begun to see “sprawly,” anyway. But, I must remind myself, I’m just the driver.

In our absence the mailman delivered a treat, a “classic reprint” of Dr. Curtis’s Science and Human Affairs from the Viewpoint of Biology (1922). Reading it, I know exactly why he was invited to Dayton to defend the humanity of science and the science of humanity: he was the Carl Sagan of his day.

The humanistic philosophy of life, which flowered in Greece and which has blossomed again, is not the crude materialistic desire to eat, drink, and be merry. It is a spiritual joy in living and a confidence in the future, which makes this life a thing worthwhile.

The Cosmos we know today is unbelievably complex and more is being disclosed. Things undreamed of in our philosophy continually appear… The biological discovery of man’s place in nature did more than change traditional beliefs; it gave a point of departure  into a future, unknown but fraught with possibilities.

What science intends, both for the immediate and the remote future, is to keep going. The scientist believes that his rationalistic method offers a means of moving forward… The future is bright with a promise that stands at the threshold of realization.

There you go again, Dr. C., pulling dollars from my ear. It’s a trick that never gets old. The secret? Keep moving.


Summer spirit

July 30, 2012

Lovely cool morning, birds in full voice, air crisp and sweet, 60s heading for the high 90s again. Up early enough to cheat the heat, if not quite yet to re-establish a reliable routine for the schoolyear soon to begin. What ever happened to Labor Day, academic calendar-makers?! But that’s not what I want to think about today.

Awoke to the fine (and free!) Librivox version of John Muir’s My First Summer in the SierraHe goes on too much, to my taste, about God’s glorious creation: Heseems to be always doing his best here, working like a man in a glow of enthusiasm.” (More MuirBut fine dawns like this one do awaken the spirit, even in a heathen like me. And a glow of enthusiasm is exactly what I need. My landlord Dr. Curtis might be an inspiration here. Again, he was called to Dayton to testify on science’s and John Scopes’s behalf.

The defense believed he would make a good witness because he tended to emphasize the spiritual rather than the material influences of science.

Well, now that I’m up I must turn attention to the assignment I’ve put off long enough: rank a batch of new baseball poems. Don’t know much about poetry, but I know what I like: the spirit of summer, what William Carlos Williams called a delightful “spirit of uselessness.” That’s what I’m looking for, what I’ll be trying to hang onto: a particular species of spirit, not separate from but actually implicit in the material of existence.

And that’s what August is about to try to steal!

“Best Spiritual Writing 2012”

December 26, 2011

Spent some time yesterday with the latest annual installment of the alleged Best Spiritual Writing. The series  editor Philip Zaleski is a convert to Catholicism but usually fair-minded and ecumenical. Last year’s edition was introduced and selected by lapsed Catholic Billy Collins. This year it’s Philip Yancey, who casually tosses off this grating aside in his introduction: “The New Atheists do not strive for objectivity.”

Some do, some don’t. Same goes for many new theists.

But the real problem is not an absence of good will in search of demonstrable objectivity, by conscientious religionists, humanists, naturalists, theists, and atheists. They can search all they want without finding that.

No, the real problem is a failure of empathy and an appreciation for the subjectivity of those who experience the world differently. It’s James’s perennial blindness in human beings who insist on treating the spectrum of belief and nonbelief as a catalogue of others’ errors… except, of course, for one’s own privileged experiences and inerrant beliefs.

Zaleski again has issued a volume focused provocatively on “original thought, fluent expression, and vivid personal experiences” that bring light to many subjective corners. For that I can tolerate his and his guest editors’ occasional grating asides, and maybe even begin to understand something of the sensibilities behind them.

“We are not a part of nature, we are all of nature”

March 12, 2011

My head’s back, sorta.

Thinking this morning about my impending presentation at the 16th annual Conference on Baseball in Literature and Culture, about the great Sidd Finch, and about the Buddha on nature.

“He specifically said it was a sin against right living for anyone to claim to have supernatural powers,” Jennifer Hecht reminds us. But,

Once Buddhism was out of the Buddha’s hands, the ideas of prayer and worship, a universal mind, magic, gods, and, of course, karma began to creep into many of the Buddhist sects that arose across the centuries…

Including Finch’s, evidently. Even “The Natural” couldn’t hurl a ball faster than a speeding bullet. What Sidd did in 1985 (in George Plimpton‘s fervid imagination) literally defied nature, not to mention credulity.

But there’s a larger point here:

The Buddha invited us to use our human consciousness to realize that we are not a part of nature, we are all of nature. It was a transcendent secularism, an empirical guide out of the limitations of the human mind… Buddhism is a nontheistic graceful-life philosophy and a nontheistic transcendent program. JMH

“We are all of nature” means we already possess the tools (as big league scouts like to say) to free ourselves from self-centered worries and fears.

This situation of ours is bliss… you are a collection of thoughts amid the universe, with nothing to do but be delighted with that surprising truth, and with the whole range of experience, without preference, without hurry, without dread. Every moment is a marvel of being.

“Nothing to do” is a stretch. Nothing but grade those papers, prep those classes, finish that conference talk (last year‘s & the year before)… Being “all of nature” is a full-time job. But Spring Training was awesome. Wish I was there.


December 31, 2010

Here I sit at my Dad’s old dining room table, gazing out onto the patio where we sat and spoke of final things in 2008… when it was clear to us all that his leukemia was finally non-negotiable. It’s one of my best memories of him, that afternoon in the glorious May sunshine when all pretenses were dropped and we admitted to one another that neither of us could possibly know if there was another side where we’d meet again “up yonder.” Total honesty in the face of inexorably real human finitude was tonic, parting was such sweet sorrow.

So here we all sit, at another year’s end. What to say? I like what Pico Iyer says in his introduction to The Best Spiritual Writing of 2010. The “spiritual,” which he reminds us was spurned as a term (not as experience) by “our most soaring celebrant of spirit, Emerson,” is

in our daily lives, or it is nowhere; it is in our breathing in and out, and in the space where we leap and don’t know what we’ll find

Spirituality– or happiness or daylight– exists precisely where we didn’t think to look for it.

Well, I guess I’ll continue looking. In 2011.

Happy New Year.

simple education

August 9, 2010

Noted in the Sunday Times:

Happiness is more likely to flow from simplicity and richness of experience than from the accumulation of material possessions. (A conclusion we nailed down in Happiness 101 last year, btw.)

People are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it, and when they stop trying to outdo the Joneses. “But Will It Make You Happy?”

So, hold off on that iPad (actually I’m leaning more to the Kindle now) and new shoes (but I’m really enjoying my new Timberland Chocoruas) and new coat of paint. Go somewhere fun on Labor Day weekend instead.

We were going to Chicago and Wrigley Field, ’til some brilliant school planner decided the 10th graders needed to “retreat” that weekend. So, a related piece of  happiness wisdom: don’t let schooling stand in the way of your happy education. (Mr. Twain said it first, I think.)

The piece concludes: “Give away some of your stuff. See how it feels.” It feels pretty smart, in my experience. Like shedding unhealthy pounds.

Also noted: an opining Protestant minister bemoans the commodification of spirit in consumerist America:

The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them.  Congregations Gone Wild

I’m not a churchgoer, but substitute academic for pastoral, students for churchgoers, and professors for pastors and you’ve got a telling vocational parallel. Not all of my teaching colleagues would agree that it’s our job to improve our students and wean them from the depredations of life in consumerist America, and even fewer of my administrative colleagues would.

But that’s how I still see it. The new state chancellor of our governing board was quoted over the weekend as saying something about our mission being to help our students succeed. I agree, though I’m pretty sure he and I have incommensurate ideas about what that entails, precisely. It’s not merely about emerging after four years to join the workforce and start accumulating lots of stuff.

There are important dots to connect here, between happiness, simplicity, and an education worth stretching for. If we don’t at least try, we fail.

wanna play?

May 27, 2010

My iPod clock radio has delivered quality content (only slightly dated) the last couple of mornings, which I see as connected in interesting ways  still to be fleshed out.

First it was Bill McKibben on Speaking of Faith, on the rapidly-closing window of opportunity to save the Earth (or the Earth as we know it and can live on it) now allegedly, barely before us; then, on an earlier installment of the same show, Stuart Brown on the importance of play. (Did you know there’s something called the National Institute for Play? There certainly oughta be!)

Near the end of his interview McKibben resisted the invitation to despair about climate change and the future, instead applauding the youthful energy and enthusiasm of his young (16 to 25) cohorts in and inviting us instead to peg our hopes on the renewal of life they embody.

Stuart Brown connected the dots between play, spirit, character, empathy, trust, irony, problem-solving, pleasure, joy, and much else. He did a more compressed version of the same performance at TED (below).

Now it’s my job to connect the dots between childhood credulity and openness to possibility, youthful passion, and adult responsibility. The whole undertaking fills me with a (playful) sense of mission, and a gambler’s confidence that maybe the planetary jig is not entirely up quite yet.

beauty way

May 18, 2010

Speaking of Chris Phillips: one of his “Socrates Cafe”-style gatherings, recounted in Six Questions of Socrates, is with a group of Navajo. An elderly woman comments on the ancient concept of hozho, a kind of harmony not unlike Socratic virtue.

“The most important thing, in order to have hozho, is that you must ‘walk in Beauty. Every morning before sunrise, you must run toward the sun to greet the day. This is the Beauty Way. If you run toward the sacred sun, if you greet and embrace it as it rises, you are blessed with a new beginning, a new chance for hozho.”

I’m just sitting here, as the sun eclipses the tree-line (or would be, if it weren’t so cloudy this morning), but it feels like a beautiful run. Or walk. We all have to take beauty at our own pace.

how to commune

May 17, 2010

So how do non-churched skeptics find one another, preparatory to congregating in physical space and enjoying a “communion” of the faithless?

One possibility: set up something like Chris Phillips’ “Socrates Cafe“. Chris Phillips has a master’s degree from Montclair State, where he studied with Matthew Lipman, pioneer of philosophy for children. But he’s all about getting philosophy out of the academy and into the lives of everyday people– beginning with kids.

Socrates Café are gatherings around the world where people from different backgrounds get together and exchange thoughtful ideas and experiences while embracing the central theme of Socratizing; the idea that we learn more when we question and question with others…

And the sooner we get started, the better. You could start a club.

Another possibility: mimic the very interesting group read experiment currently underway at Twitter (reading and discussing Neil Gaiman’s American Gods)

Or just pick a venue, publicize a gathering, and show up to meet and greet and commune with whoever turns out.

And once the “group” gains sufficient coherence, publicize it through various channels such as the Dawkins site‘s “New Local Groups” listings.

Where there’s a will etc.

But is there a will? Remains to be seen.  But isn’t it fun, playing with possibility?

P.S. For those interested in joining a communal caravan to historical, hysterical Dayton TN in July, to commemorate the infamous Scopes Trial, here’s some of what’s to see there. I dare you to read Matthew Chapman’s Trials of the Monkey and then try to resist the impulse to go. I suppose the best conveyance, in the spirit of Chapman, would be by Greyhound. Hmmm.

skeptic’s communion

May 16, 2010

It’s raining again. Some of my fellow Nashvillians will be praying together this morning for it to stop, they’re saturated.

I won’t be going to church this morning, though I’ll probably again taxi Older Daughter to commune with her friends– I suppose now they’ve become her co-religionists– the Presbyterians.  They’re nice people. Being around nice people is more important, or at least more gratifying and possibly even more character-building, than being evidentially circumspect. Or so it must seem to a gregarious young High Schooler.

I’m not a church-goer. For one thing I don’t believe in God. But as many of my favorite atheists and agnostics acknowledge, there’s a lot more to religion (or less) than God. So, I could go back and commune again with the Unitarians, also nice people, and exceptionally tolerant. (To a fault, to their critics. Garrison Keillor always has fun with them over this. Sometimes he crosses the line. Blame it on his fundamentalist upbringing: he communed with a small sect of “Sacred Brethren” who wanted nothing more than to leave this fallen, worldly world behind. He’s apparently not wholly transcended their indoctrination.)

I don’t like artificial piety, smug sanctimony, fear-induced conformism, self-righteous moralism, or any of the other non-winning qualities I associate with the Southern Baptism of my own faded youth.

But again, I shouldn’t generalize about church on the basis of that experience and I don’t need to. I’ve had positive church experiences in adulthood, with the Unity School of Christianity (my wife’s old church) and with the Unitarians.  Some of my very best friends are mainstream religionists. Doesn’t make them bad persons.

(I also had a very negative experience with the Southern Baptist who was Belmont University’s provost, for admitting that I kind of liked the Unitarians. But that’s another story.)

Bottom line for me, I suppose, is that I just don’t get enough out of formal spiritual communion under an arched or spired roof with others of my kind, to want to give up my favorite Sunday activities. Sunday Morning on CBS. A nice long walk with the doggies. A hike at Radnor Lake or the Warner Parks or (now) Beaman Park or Bell’s Bend, possibly followed by a family picnic: my preferred form of unplugging and reconnecting with nature.

But others feel differently. I received a wonderful note from a former A&S student yesterday:

I’ve had this idea that just keeps bugging me, in a good way. I’ve been wondering if there could be a possible way to have a form of communion for skeptics, atheists, and the sort. Now as you know I am a believer but I’m also very open minded. I was sitting in church recently and I was really enjoying all the people around me, knowing that these people have all come together to bond and share a common faith. However as I sat there I kept thinking back to our class and how there never seems to be anything like this for people who have their doubts.

Outside of going to a Unitarian Church I was wondering if there was anyway of having some form of communion for the doubters and skeptics out there. I wanted to ask your opinion on the matter because you seem like the right person to ask. I know it sounds weird for someone who believes in God to want to organize a communion for skeptics but I personally feel everyone should have some form of welcome place for them to go. I’m not sure how to go about going this actually but it seemed like a good idea and at the least I was thinking of figuring out how to create an online forum.

Anything that might serve as a place for people to come and meet, online or off, where they’d have a kind of community. Of course I’d offer an open invite to everyone, I think that if we could all get along that would be nice too and maybe some people can see that we’re not so different after all.

My reply, reproduced here in hopes of generating constructive suggestions from sympathetic skeptics (or friends of skeptics) seeking communion:

That’s a terrific question, and it would be a wonderful initiative for you to pursue. I had a sense from many of your classmates that they feel the same. When I taught an adult education evening class in February on the subject of atheist/humanist spirituality, the consensus among the non-believers there was precisely that there is a dearth of opportunity for communion among like-minded non-believers.The fact that you are not a non-believer but are nonetheless interested in providing an occasion for communion is beyond salutary, I’m very impressed.

There are some online resources out there that might help: recall M’s final report presentation, she mentioned that there’s a new MTSU chapter of the  Center for Inquiry now.  They’ve been publicizing a meet-up in June. Maybe you’d want to contact M to see if she’d be interested in working with you on your communion project?

There’s also the Freedom From Religion Foundation… American Humanist Association… Humanist Society (they do weddings & funerals)…the Brights

But it sounds like you have in mind something more local and potentially “real” (not just virtual)… using online connections to establish real-world meet-ups and gatherings and, well, communion. Let me know how I can assist. I’ll be happy to use my blog-space and tweets etc. to publicize your efforts.

You might look again, too, to Jennifer Hecht’s discussion of the importance to us all, skeptics included, of public celebration. Maybe what’s needed is not a skeptical church– as you note, the Unitarians are already there– but more spontaneous and informal kinds of communing that dare to identify themselves as skeptic-friendly.

Let’s keep talking about this, maybe light bulbs will go off!