Category Archives: Memoirs

Personal reflections on a life spent in religious study

Stamp Collecting

Like most awkwardly shy children, I used to collect stamps. Even today a bright one will catch my attention although it’s been years since I actively sought them in a household not really important enough to receive much more than bills. To make up for not getting our own mail, I’d go to the local hobby store (not Hobby Lobby, thank you) and get those cheap packages of cancelled stamps from countries I’d never heard of. Using special strips designed for introverts, I’d mount them carefully over their black-and-white image in my stamp album. Looking at those carefully engraved pieces of miniature art was a way of traveling for a kid in a lower-income family who considered a trip to Pittsburgh the big time. I’ll still save a flashy stamp although the album was lost decades ago.

The other day I saw a Liberty forever stamp. Looking at the headlines, I think the stamp has been lying to me. The idea of liberty doesn’t seem to involve using “Nuclear Options” to stack the Supreme Court after illegally refusing a hearing for the lawful candidate our last true president nominated. Liberty doesn’t involve beefing up security so we can deport those we normally exploit and then firing our missiles at those we personally dislike. No, my philatelic informant seems to be sadly misinformed. Nothing is forever. Indeed, some of the stamps I purchased before the price went down are now more expensive than they need to be. We can always use the surplus to buy more missiles, I suppose. But wait, the price has gone back up! All reprieves are short-lived.

As I daily watch our government dismantle the freedoms we’ve so carefully built over the past two centuries, I glance at my liberty forever stamp and wonder what went wrong. When did hatred of others trump the desire to be free? When did the slimmest of crooked margins become a mandate? When did braggadocio become a sufficient substitute for intelligence? When you place “forever” as the value of a stamp, you no longer know just what it’s costing you. I was born in the age of the 4-cent stamp. Since 1885 the price had never gone over 3 cents. Stamps were more honest in those days. They didn’t say “forever” on them since, it seems, we all knew that nothing lasts forever. Not even liberty.

Russian Watchtower

From time to time I’ve good-naturedly poked fun at the Watch Tower Society members who used to visit with some frequency. I don’t belittle anyone’s belief system, however. Believers of any faith are generally sincere and certainly entitled to follow the dictates of their own consciences and reasoning. Still, as John Cale sings, “nothing frightens me more, than religion at my door.” Some of us prefer to keep our religious preferences private, while musing publicly about the wider world of religious diversity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have come to mind again because of an article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger my wife clipped out for me. According to Amanda Erickson, writing for the Washington Post, Russia has now classified the Witnesses as religious extremists. She points out the irony since the Watch Tower Society is officially a pacifist group, opposed to any violence. It’s difficult to radicalize a pacifist.

I’m not at home enough any more to be here when the Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by. I know they still come because I can see their tracts. There is a Witness who occasionally stands outside my gate at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. He stands, patiently smiling, next to the entrance holding up the Watchtower while anxious commuters and day trippers give him nary a glance. He seems like a nice guy to me. Always neatly dressed. One day I noticed him commenting to a New Jersey Transit employee that a particular denizen of the Post Authority was acting oddly. He was right, and, as a daily user of that facility, I know it takes quite a lot to earn that kind of notice. Ports, after all, bring in many with diverse outlooks on life.

What’s behind the Russian rage against the “extremist activities” of a peace-loving sect? I suspect the real problem has to do with the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are so typically American. And, like the Mormons, a fairly successful New Religious Movement. Religions, it seems, do grow a bit stale with age. Once in a while, something new comes along and revitalizes old systems of belief. Russia, however, is not the Port Authority. There is a repression there that is the envy of New Jersey Transit and every other carrier, I’m sure. Right, United? If only people would conform. Wouldn’t we all be happier if everyone else just believed like us? I’m not sure that history concurs on that point. Perhaps the safest alternative is to remain private. You don’t, however, grow a religion that way. If Russia wishes to inherit these States, they’ll need to learn a bit about the joys of religious diversity. Pacifism is a risk you have to take.

Ode to Hubris

One-hundred-five years ago today, one of modernity’s great achievements sank alone in the icy waters of the chilled North Atlantic. While the ultimate cause of Titanic’s demise may have been an iceberg, the proximate cause was surely much more common. Human arrogance, we’re reminded daily, never learns its lesson. Despite what elected officials tell us, arrogance at the top will always lead according to its surfeit of self-confidence. After all, there are no icebergs this far south so late in the year. It seems that we’ll never forget Titanic and the hundreds of needless deaths, but somehow we’re not very good at transferring the lesson to other media. Let me give just a small example.

Yesterday I was in New York City. My family came during the day to celebrate my wife’s birthday. One of the benefits of New Jersey Transit is that after 7 p.m. on a Friday, a monthly bus pass also works on the train. I can meet up with my family after work and we can ride home in comfort instead of taking the bus, such as I usually do. We didn’t know that at 3:30 that afternoon a train had broken down in one of the limited number of tunnels under the Hudson. (Governor Chris Christie had famously stopped work on another set of tunnels to ease the commute.) About twelve-hundred passengers sat for an amazing three hours with no lights, air conditioning, or announcements. No trains could make it into New York’s Penn Station. When we arrived, oblivious, just before 7 p.m. there were people pouring out of the station. Coats and clothing were strewn all over the steps, as if the homeless had been raptured. The police told my wife and daughter not to go down. A few minutes later they said, “Definitely no shots were fired.” When we got to the platform all the monitors read about half-past five. Discarded clothing was everywhere. It was only when we finally got on a train that we learned that in the anxious terminal where crowds were restless, Amtrak police had tazed a man. People thought shots had been fired, and panicked. The video taken by those in the station shows people running, dropping clothes, luggage, and shoes in their haste to flee. Just after this, we’d arrived.

Titanic, it seems to me, is about building something so massive that it can’t be controlled. Human arrogance is like that. This week we heard about United Airlines security beating up a passenger to make room for company employees who needed to be on an oversold flight. Just a couple weeks back another New Jersey Transit train derailed in Penn Station, disrupting for days the insane commute some of us undertake daily. Who’s the captain of this ship? Oh. But we don’t have to worry. There are no icebergs this far south this late in the year.

Publisher’s Breakfast

I recently had the opportunity to discuss publishing to a room full of academics. (Ooo, I can feel the envy rising already!) Although I discuss books quite frequently on this blog, I generally don’t discuss publishing much. One of the reasons is that publishing isn’t easy to tie into religion sometimes. Another—and this may be the bigger factor—is that publishing is work. This blog, which is technically a form of publishing, is more for letting my mind wander outside the paddock after being penned in at work for too much of my adult life. Still, I’m glad to give publishing advice for those who want it.

The focus of these talks (of which I’ve given precisely two) is how to get published. My main approach to this question is to point out that higher education and publishing are diverging rapidly. The reasons for this are complex, but simply put, publishers need to make money. Having been on the receiving end of tuition statements for a good deal of my life, I have no doubt that institutions make ready money. They may have trouble meeting the costs of all those administrators for whom they keep creating positions, like any good business, so each semester the bill creeps up a bit until suddenly you realize your bank account’s empty and you’d better get to commissioning some more academic books. After all, this is all about money, is it not?

Like many in higher education, I courted academia as a hopeless romantic. I believed that love of subject and ardent devotion with ample proofs of said love would woo the academy into a permanent relationship. I’ve always been an idealist. Now I’m on the side of the desk where colleagues approach me to ask favors. It’s kind of like The Godfather, really. Only those who kiss Don Corleone’s ring tend to do so knowing that favors require some kind of reciprocity. The academy may not welcome you but would you mind helping us out now that you’re in a position to do so? No fear of horse heads here. Perhaps by now you understand why I don’t write much about publishing on this humble little blog. The focus of The Godfather, after all, is really young Michael Corleone and his devolution from an upstanding citizen (shall we say “academic”?) to a mafia crime boss. I’ll leave the other side of the equation blank. Trade secrets, after all, are worth money.

Radicalizing the Normal

Reading Orwellian headlines on a daily basis can wear you down. Think about it—we know because of the endless obfuscation that the Trump administration has deep entanglements with Russia. We know that Russians tried to sway the election toward Trump. We also know that the incumbent refuses to release his taxes or divest from his personal business interests and we can only infer that our tax-payer dollars are going into more personal pockets than ever before. We have on tape evidence that the commander-in-chief is a sexual predator who wants to remove the healthcare of millions so that his lackeys can get even more of that lucre. And when the White House speaks its message is that we, not they, are the problem. What used to be normal life in America is now radicalized. Fascism is the flavor of the term.

Photo credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1970-005-28 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

I’m inclined to be philosophical about such things. After all, I lost my job at Nashotah House while doing things as I always had—the administration had changed, not me. Don’t get me wrong. I know that you have to be flexible and adaptable in the world these days. The policies I see being spewed from the corridors of power, however, are backward facing. Trying to make America as great as it was during the Depression. They call it the Great Depression, after all, don’t they? And the war before that, before it acquired an awful twin, was known as the Great War. Doesn’t everyone look back at those times with a rosy glow of nostalgia? The problem I’m having is trying to figure out what’s normal. You see, you’re born into life with no instruction book. If you’re from a working class family you’ll be told that an education will improve your job prospects. Who am I to question those who know better?

It used to be, back in the good old days, that you could count on the government looking out for your own best interests. You didn’t have to spend every day signing petitions and calling your congress-persons simply to avoid the next disaster. You didn’t spend your weekends at marches and huddles and organizing meetings. The little time you had for leisure has now become time we owe the government to make sure they don’t intentionally ram the iceberg straight ahead. What used to be normal—a drowsy weekend with time to work on your latest book—has now become a radical dream. Midterm elections, in my humble opinion, can’t come soon enough. I can’t wait to get back to normal.

Universal Growth

Maybe the universe isn’t expanding, maybe it’s growing. Always tinged with a healthy dose of pantheism, I’ve often opined to those who will listen that life might be more than animals and plants and microorganisms. But then again, I don’t have the numbers to back me up. These aren’t just the ravings of a guy who wanted to be a scientist but whose religion prevented him, they’re also pretty close to those of a scientist who became a religious guy. When more than one person sends me the same article I figure I’d better comment on it. Those who used to be professors can’t help but professing, after all. So I read Meghan Walsh’s Ozy story, “Jeremy England, the Man Who May One-up Darwin.”

England spent his education on science only to turn to religion along the way. That’s pretty unusual, according to the standard social discourse, but I suspect it’s more common than we’d like to let on. There’s no clause in science that says you can’t believe in anything. Even Richard Dawkins has beliefs. Many scientists have been suggesting, of late, that perhaps physics and religion are converging. (Some of us from the other side of the equation have been saying so for years, but who believes a religionist?) Before I’m misunderstood, I’d hasten to add that I don’t mean religion as in literal trumpets sounding as a white horse and rider descend through the atmosphere. Nor do I mean in the sense of the minutiae of the Talmud. What I mean is the symbol systems that religion has long used may have been in some sense in line with what science has been trying to tell us.

According to the story, England thinks that matter may be self-organizing. That means life occurs where matter exists. Before I become too close a friend with my sofa I have to remind myself that this doesn’t mean everything’s conscious. Although my reading of Thomas Nagel does have me wondering even about that. You see, religion has historically been one of those disciplines where imagination has had a valued role to play. Those who accuse it of being doctrinaire and evil need to talk to a few more people. Religion has always claimed there’s more to life than what the senses reveal. Science professionally limits itself to the inferences of those senses. And you can get away with paying religion specialists a lot less. What’s not to like about this situation? If the universe is growing, there’s room for us all.

Interior Theodicy

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Speaking of theodicy, I have a dentist appointment today. Now, if you were raised with the Protestant guilt that used to be so pervasive in this nation, you’ll understand. I do brush my teeth twice a day. I even use floss and that mouthwash that burns away a layer of mouth lining every night. But there’s always more you could do. I’m not particularly good about visiting the dentist, though. Partially it’s a memory thing, partially it’s a pain thing, but mostly it’s a time thing. No matter how far back I jam the toothbrush, well beyond my gaging threshold, cavities seem to appear. And I don’t even have a sweet-tooth. What kind of deity allows cavities in a person who eats very little sugar and brushes so assiduously that last time the dentist told him to ease up a bit since he was scraping away the enamel? (People tell me I’m too intense.)

One of the real ironies of all this is that for all the trouble teeth give us during our lifetimes, they are our most durable parts after we die. Archaeologists find mostly teeth. In fact, it seems that Neanderthals might have practiced some primitive dentistry. I wonder what they thought of their neanderthal deity? So teeth are pretty useful, no matter whether the gray matter above them is dead or alive. I can explain this to my dentist, but he only seems interested in me as a specimen of carnassial curiosity. Maybe it all goes back to my belief that fillings were meant to last forever. Or all those root canals that seem to come in pairs that cost as much as a semester at a public university. Mostly it’s the memories.

In Edinburgh I had a tooth go bad. The Scottish dentist was surprised. “You’ve got a twelve-year molar erupting,” he said (you’ll have to imagine the accent). I asked if that was unusual. He owned that it was as I was a post-graduate student in his late twenties and the twelve-year molar was so precise in its timing that child labor laws used to be built around its presence. Years later in Wisconsin a different dentist asked about one of my fillings. I told him it was from Edinburgh. He called all the other dentists in announcing, “You wanna see a real Scottish filling?” Or maybe the fears go back to my earliest dental nightmares where the cheap doctor seemed unaware that teeth actually had nerves in them. I always left with a guilt trip. “You should brush —“ (more, better, longer, with a more gentle touch) you fill in the blank. I’m afraid of another kind of filling. And I know as it is with Protestant guilt, so it is with teeth. There’s always more you could be doing.