Wednesday, June 24, 2009

On the "exercise" of religion

As exemplified in last month's article in Harper's Magazine ("Jesus Killed Mohammed: The Crusade for a Christian Military"), some exercise of religion leads to evil consequences, and our Constitution's quashing of any law "prohibiting the free exercise thereof" [as it's phrased in the First Amendment] was ill-advised. The Constitution should have limited the "exercise of religion" to the confines of each person's own mind and private practice among consenting adults, the way various sexual activities are protected so long as they don't scare the horses.1
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  1. "My dear, I don’t care what they do, so long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses.” –attributed to Mrs. Patrick Campbell, British actress (1865-1940)
  2. Or was it Lady Astor? At another website I found this quotation: "But it was Lady Astor, very much a Victorian, who said, 'You can do anything you like in public providing you don't frighten the horses.'"

Monday, June 22, 2009

Ken Marks gifts us from Italy

Superb photographer Ken Marks has returned from Italy with a trove of photographs for our delectation. How does he achieve the patina?

So, why is he still going to the wall?

A very old Jewish man had been going to the Wailing Wall to pray twice a day, every day, for a long, long time. For so many years, in fact, that word of him reached CNN. Yesterday a reporter went to witness this for herself. Indeed, there he was, praying. She watched him for about forty-five minutes and when he turned to leave, using a cane and moving very slowly, she approached him for an interview.
    "Pardon me, sir," she said and identified herself. "May I ask your name?"
    He told her his name, and she asked him, "Sir, how long have you been coming to the Wailing Wall to pray?"
    "For about sixty years."
    "Sixty years! That's amazing! What do you pray for?"
    "I pray for peace between the Christians, Jews, and Muslims. I pray for all the wars and all the hatred to stop. I pray for all our children to grow up safely as responsible adults, and to love their fellow man."
    "How do you feel after doing this for sixty years?"
    "Like I'm talking to [an effing] wall."

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day

On Friday about dinner time, the doorbell rang and we discovered a tall cardboard box sitting at our front door.
    "Happy Father's Day," said my wife.
    "Oh, is this Father's Day weekend? Nice."
    The box said it was from a rose company.
    "We need to bring it in and open it," she said.
    The plant's label card said:
William Shakespeare 2000TM (Ausromeo)
Superb blooms of richest velvet crimson. Strong Old Rose fragrance. A bushy, free flowering shrub.
4ft x 3ft. Zones 5-10.
This was another example of the incisive thoughtfulness of my wife, who thirty years earlier had given her "suffering artist husband" a little book of selected paintings by Vincent van Gogh.

Apricot Kuchen

And my wife prepared and baked a kuchen for me this morning, using apricots from Visalia, California, a dozen miles from where we met, on Friday, March 4, 1966:

My first piece:

My second piece:

My lunch (with raspberries from Florida, where my wife and I vacationed in the early 'nineties—with our daughter—and in 1995, while the OJ Simpson trial was going on):

My dessert after lunch (with blueberries from Watsonville, California, about 45 miles from where my wife and I were wed on Friday, April 15, 1966):

My dessert after dinner:

Thank you, my dear wife, and "Happy My Father's Day" to you too!

And to Siegfried, shown here distracted from playing with one of the socks I had worn three and a half hours outside this afternoon while stimulating the Bermuda grass to grow in some sparse areas.

Friday, June 19, 2009

We wake, we work, we eat...

On April 17, I wrote that it might be time for me to re-read Chapter 7 of The End of Faith. Today I'm finally doing it. If I understand William Pennell Rock's position on the question whether Jesus actually existed, then his and Sam Harris's views seem quite similar. Says Harris at the outset of his chapter, "Experiments in Consciousness":
At the core of every religion lies an undeniable claim about the human condition: it is possible to have one's experience of the world radically transformed. Although we generally live within the limits imposed by our ordinary uses of attention—we wake, we work, we eat, we watch television, we converse with others, we sleep, we dream—most of us know, however dimly, that extraordinary experiences are possible.
    The problem with religion is that it blends this truth so thoroughly with the venom of unreason. Take Christianity as an example: it is not enough that Jesus was a man who transformed himself to such a degree that the Sermon on the Mount could be his heart's confession. He also had to be the Son of God, born of a virgin, and destined to return to earth trailing clouds of glory. The effect of such dogma is to place the example of Jesus forever out of reach. His teaching ceases to be a set of empirical claims about the linkage between ethics and spiritual insight and instead becomes a gratuitous, and rather gruesome, fairy tale. According to the dogma of Christianity, becoming just like Jesus is impossible. One can only enumerate one's sins, believe the unbelievable, and await the end of the world.
    But a more profound response to existence is possible for us, and the testimony of Jesus, as well as that of countless other men and women over the ages, attests to this. The challenge for us is to begin talking about this possibility in rational terms. [p. 204]
In his erotic way, Frank Harris attested to it in the passage I quoted from his memoir the other day. And more than once in the two hundred pages of My Life and Loves that I have read so far, he regrets that men made a religion of Jesus's teachings rather than simply followed them.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Frank awakening

Almost fifty years ago, in my college roommate Jim's home, in Pittsburgh, I picked up his parents' copy of My Life & Loves by Frank Harris (1856-1931). It could have been the same 1963 Grove Press edition that I borrowed this afternoon from a UNC library, for I no doubt went home with Jim that year, as I did every year I was at Yale. As a barely experienced 20-year-old, I of course pricked up to Harris's candid descriptions of his sex life. Now, at about the age of Harris when he was writing his memoir, while I can still manage a somewhat hard-on, I've at last picked up the book to read the whole thing (all 983 pages, if I peruse the index).

Actually, I'm reading a copy on tape from the Library for the Blind & Physically Handicapped. Last night, listening with ear phones so as not to attract the attention of my wife, I was struck by the following passage at the end of Chapter III, in which Harris depicts his boyhood reflections on the recent thrill of having copped a feel from the French maid Lucille:
It was the awakening of sex-life in me, I believe, that first revealed to me the beauty of inanimate nature.
    A night or two later I was ravished by a moon nearly at the full that flooded our playing field with ivory radiance, making the haystack in the corner a thing of supernal beauty.
    Why had I never before seen the wonder of the world, the sheer loveliness of nature all about me? From this time on I began to enjoy descriptions of scenery in the books I read, and began, too, to love landscapes in painting.
    Thank goodness!...From that day on I began to live an enchanted life, for at once I tried to see beauty everywhere, and at all times of day and night caught glimpses that ravished me with delight and turned my being into a hymn of praise and joy.
    Faith had left me, and with faith, I was as one in prison with an undetermined sentence; but now in a moment the prison had become a paradise, the walls of the actual had fallen away into frames of entrancing pictures. Dimly I became conscious that if this life were sordid and mean, petty and unpleasant, the fault was in myself and in my blindness. I began then for the first time to understand that I myself was a magician and could create my own fairyland....
    ...I find that I am outrunning my story and giving here a stage of thought and belief that only became mine much later; but the beginning of my individual soul-life was [the encounter with Lucille], that I had been blind to natural beauty and now could see; [that experience] was the root and germ, so to speak, of the later faith that guided all my mature life, filling me with courage and spilling over into hope and joy ineffable.... [p. 47]

Friday, June 5, 2009

A diminishing finite supply

John Updike (1932-2009) died in January. By the time his twenty-first novel, Villages, was published, in 2004, he was lacing more and more references to mortality into his fiction. I too have been thinking more and more about death, in the same cold-eyed way that Updike seems to have thought of it in his own final years:
Some days, half-roused, he finds the way back to sleep only by remembering one of the women...having one of them beneath him, beside him, above him...but today is not one of those days. The strengthening white sun of spring glares brutally beneath the window shade. The real world, a tiger unwounded by his dream, awaits. It is time to get up and shoulder a day much like yesterday, a day that his animal optimism assumes to be the first of a sequence stretching endlessly into the future but that his cerebrum—hypertrophied in the species Homo sapiens—knows to be one more of a diminishing finite supply.
    ...Birds long have been astir, the robins picking after worms, the crows boring into the lawn for chinch-bug grubs, the swallows snatching mosquitoes from midair, kind calling to kind in their jubilant pea-brained codes...
    ...he hears the mockingbird, mounted on its favorite perch at the tip of the tallest cedar, deliver a thrilling long scolding about something or other, some minor, chronic procedural matter. All these local levels of Nature—the birds, the insects, the flowers, the furtive fauna of chipmunks and woodchucks scuttling in and out of their holes as if a shotgun might blast them the next instant—have their own network of concerns and communications; the human world to them is merely a marginal flurry, an inscrutable static, an intermittent interference rarely lethal and bearing no perceived relation to the organic bounty (the garbage, the gardens) that the human species brings to Nature's table. They snub us, Owen thinks. We should be gods to them, but they lack our capacity for worship—for foresight and the terrors and convoluted mental grovelling that foresight brings with it, including the invention of an afterlife.... [pp. 5-9 in the large-print edition]