Thursday, July 30, 2009

Brief conversation about God

"Haven't flown in a few years, but I used to sing the chorus to 'Up, Up, and Away' in my head as the plane was taking off. After a quick prayer of 'Get us up, get us there, and get us down safely.' I successfully flew a lot for a few years, so it must have worked."
    "Wow, proof not only of the existence of God, but also of his/her/its listening to and answering prayer! Amazing!"
    "Or maybe he just likes The Fifth Dimension."
    "Or maybe it was just a coincidence that you prayed and also landed? I suspect that a number of people who have died in plane crashes also prayed during take-off and were good people who 'didn't deserve to die.' And perhaps a few very evil people have flown and landed safely?"

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

My Shakespeare rose

This morning my wife cut a Shakespeare rose and brought it to me in a jar of water. Not the same rose as pictured here, but very similar.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Peripatetic me

I was delighted to see that yesterday's "Word of the Day" from was
peripatetic \pair-uh-puh-TET-ik\, adjective:

1. Of or pertaining to walking about or traveling from place to place; itinerant.
2. Of or pertaining to the philosophy taught by Aristotle (who gave his instructions while walking in the Lyceum at Athens), or to his followers.
3. One who walks about; a pedestrian; an itinerant.
4. A follower of Aristotle; an Aristotelian.

Nevertheless, the attachment which in later life he developed towards Charleston suggests that his peripatetic childhood had left unsatisfied his need for a permanent home.
-- Frances Spalding, Duncan Grant: A Biography

I was born in Italy, my sister on the west coast of Canada, because my father was pursuing a peripatetic career as an artist.
-- Anna Shapiro, USA Today, July 13, 2000

He would have a long way to go before he would match his peripatetic father. Nick had now moved five times and lived in four states from Kentucky to California.
-- Allen Barra, Inventing Wyatt Earp

Peripatetic derives from Greek peripatetikos, from peripatein, "to walk about," from peri-, "around, about" + patein, "to walk."
If I am philosopher at all, I'm certainly an itinerant one, thinking and writing about whatever strikes my fancy as I walk about life. Moristotle is my peripatetic homage to Aristotle. As for pedestrian, I confess that some of what I say about religion sometimes feels a bit pedestrian to me, religion's being such a dead horse to flog.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Master's thesis

Olympic diving is judged on a scale of difficulty from 1.2 to 3.8 or more, with the reverse 3½ somersaults being among those rated 3.5 (or more, depending). This dive, as I pointed out on Wednesday, is the diving equivalent of theology's revelation of god.
    On my walk with Siegfried this morning, it occurred to me (a revelation of god?) that an ambitious student of theology might propose as his or her master's thesis to rate the major theological half-gainers down through history as to their relative difficulty on the same Olympic scale. The thesis would defend the researcher's standard for identifying major half-gainers and his or her method of deciding for each one which Olympic dive is its equivalent in difficulty.
    Surely some Department of Sports Studies somewhere in our Christian nation1 would look with enthusiasm upon such a proposal.
  1. I but take up the hint from the title of Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

More theological loopholes (or half-gainers)

My recent discovery that a man celebrated as one of the foremost intellectuals of the twentieth century—William F. Buckley, Jr. [1925-2008]—devoted a considerable portion of his brain power to theology (the invention of loopholes to avoid certain problems of religious belief) has inspired me to revisit my March 30 post, "Definition of theology," and add a few more examples of theological concoction:
Problem to Avoid: It is unendurably sad to contemplate that after a loved one or I myself die, we shall never again see one another.
Loophole: We don't really die! We will be resurrected (so long as we believe the prescribed things) and will enjoy each other throughout eternity.

Problem to Avoid: But I can't stand many of the people I might have to spend eternity with.
Loophole: When people are resurrected, only their pure parts are revived. If they were personally insufferable and hideously ugly in real life, they will in heaven be exceedingly nice and gloriously beautiful to look upon.

Problem to Avoid: The good die young and even those who are not so terribly bad often die before their time.
Loophole: Whoever dies before his or her time (and believes the things prescribed to get into heaven) will be proportionally recompensed in heaven so that by the time eternity has elapsed, it will all have evened out and everyone will have gotten his or her precise due.
    ...And those who live beyond their time (perhaps because of having been put on life support against their DNR order) will be proportionally penalized, etc. As I said, it'll all have evened out by the time eternity has elapsed.

Problem to Avoid: But eternity will never elapse! In fact, heaven could become terribly boring at some point.
Loophole: The Director of Heavenly Amusements already has (and has always had, throughout preceding eternity) a continuously diverting program planned. No one will ever, ever get bored. For one thing, we will sit around a lot and play theology.
The half-gainer concocted by Buckley in his son's book (not that it was original with Buckley) isn't any more convincing than the ones above, now, is it? All such concoctions down through the ages (since those recorded in the Israelites' ancient literature) have similarly been in the service of trying to demolish unpleasant, inconvenient facts or beliefs about the world in which we live. It is ironic that some such concoctions (starting at least with the Israelites' attributing jealousy to their god in order to avoid the problem of his vengeful destruction of people who offended him) have been accorded special authority as "revelations of God": the author of Exodus 20:5 had his god "reveal" the attribute in his own voice: "...for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God." Revelation of God is the reverse 3½ somersaults of theology, and the writer in question was undoubtedly one of our earliest theological geniuses.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Not your average Joe

In my short review of Martin Scorsese's documentary about the Rolling Stones, I mentioned the famous incident of the Stones' peeing against a wall in public and remarked that "A part of your average Joe (particularly your average Republican Joe) wants to be able to pee in public and get away with it." At the time I thought of "peeing in public" as merely symbolic of some other, factual act. Imagine my surprise, then, upon reading the following passage from Christopher Buckley's memoir about losing his mother and father:
I'd been looking forward this year to [our annual ritual of driving up to the town in northwestern Connecticutt where Pup had grown up with his nine brothers and sisters]. I sensed that it would probably be our last Thanksgiving drive up to Sharon. I'd brought Caitlin along. Pup dotes on what he called "my favorite granddaughter." (He had only one.) I'd warned Cat that driving with Pup now often involved a tendency that she might find a bit unusual—namely, his habit of opening the front door while the car was moving, and peeing. He did this routinely now, including from his limousine, in traffic. I've often wondered if there are people out there scratching their heads and saying, Marge—was that William F. Buckley Jr. who just peed on our Lexus? –p. 163, Losing Mum and Pup, Twelve, New York & Boston, 2009

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Theological half-gainers

In Christopher Buckley's unexpectedly caustic memoir about losing his parents, Patricia Taylor Buckley and William F. Buckley, Jr., he recounts his father's regret that a beloved friend whose ashes he and Christopher have just scattered was not a Catholic. "What do you mean, Pup?" Christopher asked.
He replied matter-of-factly that as Harry was not a Catholic, he had no expectation of seeing him again in heaven. This truly hit me like a smack in the face. Pup loved Harry wholeheartedly, but rules were—apparently—rules: The gates of heaven were shut against nonbelievers. I was crushed, for I too had loved Harry. I was, at the time (age twenty-eight), very much a believer, and I tended to take Pup's theological pronouncements as having ex cathedra papal authority.
    Sometime later, he spoke—with genuine relief in his voice—of his discovery of a loophole called "the doctrine of invincible ignorance," which, if I understand it—theological half-gainers can leave a lad's head spinning at times—means that the normal rules with respect to admission to heaven are suspended if you are incapable intellectually or culturally of accepting that the Catholic Church is the one true Church, the only means of redemption. How Pup smiled with relief as he explained it across the lunch table that summer day! –pp. 39-40, Losing Mum and Pup, Twelve, New York & Boston, 2009
Theological half-gainers! I wish I'd thought of that for my "definition of theology." Having only a vague sense that a "half-gainer" is some sort of dive, I looked it up (in
gain·er (gnr): n. 2. Sports A dive in which the diver leaves the board facing forward, does a back somersault, and enters the water feet first.
half gainer: a fancy dive in which the diver springs from the board facing forward and does a back flip in the air so as to enter the water head first, facing the board.
What's fancy about a theological half-gainer is the believer's adroitness in positioning his head. Buckley is astute in classifying such theology a sport.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Shine an embarrassing light

A couple of nights ago I watched Martin Scorsese's 2008 documentary film "Shine a Light" about the Rolling Stones and featuring a 2006 performance at the Beacon Theatre in New York. While some of the music was okay, the Stones' oeuvre is so inferior to that of the Beatles, their early rivals, that it's amazing, really, how they lasted so long. I think their public longevity must owe to their having become symbols of rebellion. There was the famous incident, for example, of their peeing against a wall in public. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Charlie Watts are legendary rebels—and multi-millionaires to boot. A part of your average Joe (particularly your average Republican Joe) wants to be able to pee in public and get away with it. Being your own man and wealthy to boot might be the contemporary version of the "American dream." It keeps Americans ambivalent about taxing the rich. "Hey, I could be rich someday myself; do I want to be taxed more because of it?" The picture of men about my own age (sixty-two in Wood's case to sixty-eight in Watts's) cavorting about the stage seemed self-parody. Jagger's trompings and finger stabbings and lip poutings just didn't have the insouciant swagger of youth. Not sexy.
    Yet, there was something nostalgic about the spectacle, something touching about the four guys' comradery and love for one another. Maybe they've become symbols of keeping on keeping on together. We too lose our youth and hope our friends and family survive.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Peculiarly caught and hoisted

From's Word of the Day for July 7:

Shibboleth is from Hebrew shibboleth, "stream, flood," from the use of this word in the Bible (Judges 12:4-6) as a test to distinguish Gileadites from Ephraimites, who could not say 'sh' but only 's' as in 'sibboleth'.

shibboleth \SHIB-uh-lith; -leth\, noun:

  1. A peculiarity of pronunciation, behavior, mode of dress, etc., that distinguishes a particular group of persons.
  2. A slogan; a catchword.
  3. A common saying or belief with little current meaning or truth.

Accustomed to the veneer of noise, to the shibboleths of promotion, public relations, and market research, society is suspicious of those who value silence. –John Lahr

The fish oil shibboleth is only the latest to be overturned in recent years. Vitamin supplements and fibre have also been found to provide no benefits. –Nigel Hawkes, "Nice idea, but where's the proof?", Times (London), March 24, 2009

Class size is another shibboleth: First, small class sizes do not increase learning, and, second, class sizes have become quite small anyway. –Jay Nordlinger, "The Anti-Excusers", National Review, October 27, 2003

To illustrate the third sense more pointedly might be added something like:

Bible quoters who utter such shibboleths as "God hears and answers prayer" and "whoever believeth on His name shall have eternal life" are hoisted on their own Biblical petard.


This post is dedicated to my cousin some times removed, Will B.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Fact or fiction

Some of my friends really like science fiction. They read it the way my wife reads murder mysteries, one after another, like a chain smoker. I've never cared for science fiction, although I too have read a number of murder mysteries, so it's not that I don't like to read fiction. I read a lot of fiction and have made numerous references to various authors on this blog (Ian McEwan, David Lodge, John Mortimer, John Le Carre, Philip Roth, and others).

Lately I've been wondering why I don't like science fiction. I think the reason is that real science (that is, the fact of science) is more interesting than fictional science ever could be. I don't think, though, that "mainstream" fiction is similarly less interesting than the real life on which it is based. Real life, though I enjoy it and think I have a handle on it, just doesn't hold together or coherently signify the way life can as presented by a competent fiction writer. A good novel or short story can reveal truths that we haven't discovered from actual experience. And the plots of our actual lives are just not as compelling as the plots on which most novels are built.

Religious fiction isn't a recognized category the way science fiction is, even if a writer named Tim LaHaye has published quite a few "Left Behind" novels in what might be described as the religious fantasy (or apocalyptic) genre. The very idea is revolting to me, but apparently LaHaye has millions of readers, who I suppose come mainly from the ranks of the religious. I'm not sure who readers of science fiction are, for the little science fiction I've read would seem to appeal more to people who like to fantasize than to people interested in actual science.

Anyway, it seems to me that "religious fiction" is redundant, for by being religious you're already involved in fiction, if not in outright fantasy, notwithstanding that the Bible and the Koran do contain a few factual statements. LaHaye has a huge potential readership already conditioned to fantasy of the religious variety.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Sarah Barbiecuta

"Truly, Sarah Palin has come a long way," writes Gail Collins in today's New York Times (in a column ironically titled "Sarah's Straight Talk"). "When she ran for vice president, she frequently became disjointed and garbled when she departed from her prepared remarks. Now the prepared remarks are incoherent, too."

Collins mentions that Palin was the subject of a recent Vanity Fair article by Todd Purdum ("It Came from Wasilla"). I managed to read only about a fifth of that article because even Purdum seemed bored by the subject matter. But, according to Collins, Purdum says "that McCain campaign aides found it almost impossible to get Palin to prepare for her disastrous interview with Katie Couric. And there is no sign, Purdum reported, that Palin has made any attempt to bone up on the issues so that next time around, she could run as a candidate who actually had some grasp of the intricacies of foreign and domestic policy."

Of course, there'll always be a large enough number of fools and jokesters1 in this country to ensure that Palin can continue, as she will presumably want to, to enjoy a degree of celebrity. It's the American way.
  1. My friend Greg is no fool, but he's clearly a jokester: "I regularly wear a Palin/Joe the Plumber 2012 campaign button that an Obama Washington State delegate gave me." While I envy his detachment, I can't emulate it.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Holy Days, holidays...all folly days

I really dislike holidays, including both the secular ones (like the big one tomorrow) and the "holy" ones: the Sunday-Go-to-Meetin' Days, the Sabbaths—of, if you speak with a Cockney accent, the Allah Days. About the only good thing to be said for them is that they excuse us from going to the office. Everything else about them is a downer. Like tomorrow, you're supposed to set off fire crackers or sparklers or "fireworks," and if you don't set them off yourself, try to get away from those who do. Or try to avoid the ghastly "fireworks stands" that spring up wherever fools with money to burn can be expected to see them.

Philosophically, my main objection to "holy days" is that if any day is holy, then they all are, and to single particular days out to make a big to-do about being extra good or whatever is, in reverse, to single all the other days out to slough off and be mediocre, or worse. Essentially the same objection applies to Mother's Day and Father's Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day...and the Fourth of July. If parents (or children) deserve to be honored, they deserve to be honored everyday, not just on one "special" day of the year. If our Nation or our Founding Fathers or the Declaration of Our Independence is worth celebrating, then isn't it worth celebrating (genuinely, in our minds and hearts) everyday?

To teach our children to celebrate Independence Day on one day of the year, and to do so with dangerous toys that make loud noises and go flash, sends a corrupting message: it's not really that important, it's just an excuse to over-eat watermelons and hot dogs and act more rowdily and foolishly than usual.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Planting & pruning for your place & purpose: Ask my wife

My friend Rolf inquires from Germany:

I planted three fruit trees about four years ago and all of them have become misshapen: the apple tree has become enormously tall, the plum tree totally misshapen by a huge number of branches, the cherry tree also goes up but not wide.
    If you have any good websites on gardening advice, please let me know.

Good questions! My wife being the botanist in our family, I appealed to her for some advice for you:

Well, there's the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. But what I do when I need to find some info is a Google search on my problem and I usually find something helpful. For example, when I wanted to know what trees would survive in clay soil, I did a search on "trees for clay soil" or something like that. I found a University of Minnesota site that had done a very thorough report on the subject. It had recommendations for trees that would grow in clay soil and also for planting the tree. (That's how we ended up with some of the trees we have.) But you need to be able to recognize the kind of soil you have or take it to someone who can tell you.
    I guess it's a matter of figuring out your question. Rolf's problems with his fruit trees might go back to selection. He might not have chosen an appropriate tree for the amount of sun and other conditions. Or he may have selected varieties that just grow the way his trees are growing. I recommend that he learn all he can about the varieties he has, then search for info on pruning. Pruning is not that simple. You have to figure out what you want to achieve. Do you want to maximize fruit production? Or are you after appearance?
    Gardening is all about figuring out what you want to achieve and what kind of soil and how much sun you have. Also how much water, time, and money. If you've got enough money, you can just hire someone to help you do the figuring out and everything else. But where's the fun in that?

Later, my wife overheard me listening to Frank Harris's My Life and Loves and suggested—almost as quickly as it occurred to me—that I also share the following passage with Rolf:

Europe has learned what natural beauty is from English tourists. Was not Ruskin [John Ruskin, 1819-1900] the first to assert that French trees were far more beautiful than English trees? He did not give the reason, but I may. England is afflicted with a wind from the southwest that blows three hundred odd days each year. Against this attack all trees when young have to stem themselves or they would be uprooted; as it is, they are dwarfed and crooked. And the woodlands of France suffer from the same plague, though much less severely. There are no forests in the world to be compared with the American: in half an hour's drive out of New York up the Hudson one sees more varieties of exquisite and well grown trees than one can find in all France, or even Germany. [p. 371]