"Except for the point, the still point, there would be no dance, and there is only the dance." ~ T.S. Eliot in "Burnt Norton"

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Poetic Theology and Wonder

As part of my dissertation research, I just started reading Poetic Theology by William A. Dyrness.

This quotation has thus far stood out to me, though I imagine there will be quite a few others as I go through this text:

"...aesthetic experience, broadly conceived, and the rituals and created objects that express this, are fundamental to the shaping and expressing of human identity. That is to say, they are not optional extras, but fundamental to the growth and flourishing of persons...aesthetic and symbolic projects are also spiritual sites where the affections, the goods of the world, and religious longings meet and interact....symbolic practices of this kind can also be 'theological' in the broad sense of the word. That is, they are places where, because of God's continuing presence in creation and God's redemptive work in Christ and by the Spirit, God is also active, nurturing, calling, and drawing persons--and indeed, all creation--toward the perfection God intends for them" (6).

In the introduction to this same book, Dyrness says this:

“These symbolic constructions express Augustine’s fundamental insight that people are defined not simply by what they know but by what (and who) they love. Second, these targets of desire coalesce into various objects and practices whose figure and texture evoke praise, even wonder—or at least are intended to do so….As Philip Sidney put this in his sixteenth-century defense of poetry, the poet ‘ever sets virtue out in her best colors…that one must be enamored of her.’”

Put together these both reminded me of perhaps my favorite passage (among many) within Walker Percy's novel,  The Moviegoer, which I finished reading about a month ago. Percy says this through the voice of his protagonist, Binx Bolling:

"And there I have lived ever since, solitary and in wonder, wondering day and night, never a moment without wonder....As for me, I stay home with Mrs. Schexnaydre and turn on the TV. Not that I like TV so much, but it doesn't distract me from the wonder. That is why I can't go to the trouble they go to. It is distracting, and not for five minutes will I be distracted from the wonder."

So all of these together have got me thinking about the connection between spiritual experiences, beauty, and wonder. As someone who is in love with science as much as I am in love with art, I find that the point of connection between the two is beauty and wonder. So much catches my eye or my ear or my heart. I've recently also been reading Sam Kean's The Disappearing Spoon, a book, if you can believe it, about how cool the periodic table is, and along side it William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, a book so poetically astonishing I can't even find words yet to describe it, finishing it only this morning on a train ride back to DC from Baltimore where I had to keep myself from tapping strangers on the shoulder in order to read passages aloud to them. But what I feel as I read the description of the Easter church service at the end of that book and what I read about the element mercury evoke a similar emotional, and yes, even spiritual, response in me: awe. Wonder. And gratitude. 

So what is this wonder that Percy's Moviegoer can't let go of for even five minutes, this wonder at a galaxy or an atom or an ameoba or a turn of phrase or a painting, this wonder that also leaves an ache, like all beauty, somewhere deep inside of ours souls? Dyrness says it is theological in the broadest sense of that word, that such moments of wonder are places where God's continuing presence in creation breaks into our consciousness...and perhaps moments when we recognize our own longing for an unending beauty, which some theologians would call "God". And it might be true. This sense of wonder is the root of any spiritual experience I have ever had, be it in a specifically religious context or not.

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle sees wonder as the root of philosophy:

"For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe."

But I think wonder is also the root of all theology. The wonder that Aristotle describes is to ask questions and search out the answers. It is the wonder of all scientific investigation. But the wonder that exists in the face of beauty is a different kind of wonder, not unrelated to that which asks questions. It is a wonder in the face of mystery. It is a gratitude and a recognition. And it is also a gift. Also the wonder that prompts making, which was Aristotle's large definition of poetry, prompts art, prompts what Dyrness refers to as "a more general human inclination to make beautiful things."

And so I find that as I think of this more and more, I echo the words of Percy's Binx Bolling, the moviegoer, and decide that I, too, will not for five minutes be distracted from the wonder.


Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Sparrow, Children of God, and Me

*Disclaimer: this contains graphic depictions of my own theological development and should not be viewed by those who are easily bored with the internal musings of others*

I just finished reading Children of God, the sequel to The Sparrow. In the profound emptiness that resulted from finishing the novel, I find myself lost in a haze of theological and philosophical questions. But perhaps “lost” is not the proper word, because it implies a certain amount of fear, danger, or desire to be “found.” For the time being, I’m perfectly content to sit in the thick mist and think – it seems like the only appropriate thing to do.

Those who know me are aware that I’m prone to grossly over-dramatic statements; I have a bad habit of making grandiose declarations and portraying small occurrences in my life as profoundly moving moments. So, when I say that The Sparrow and Children of God have irrevocably changed my perception of religion and theology, it might seem that this, too, is simply another in a long line of melodramatic moments that I portray as being somehow profound. I suppose this could be possible, but considering how fast my mind is racing, and to what conclusions I’m coming to, I don’t think that’s likely.

I’ll be the first to admit that my own prejudices have fostered a deep mistrust of religion and its institutions; on a completely superficial level, I’m a gay democrat raised in secular homes by divorced parents. Statistics say that the chances of me attending church on a weekly basis are less than five percent. But on a deeper level, I’ve struggled with God and faith for many years. Resentful of the condemnation of my sexuality by most religious authorities, I turned my back on Christianity. Seeing the deceptive, manipulative, hand of Churches (specially, the efforts of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) in forwarding hateful political messages, I condemned religious institutions. And as I began to invest myself further into the Grand Game of Politics, I found myself increasingly on opposite sides of religious institutions and evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity.

In high school, I was drawn to Buddhism. While I was far from practicing, I began to identify with the faith, and furthermore, to identify as a Buddhist. It was peaceful. It was calming. It wasn’t judgmental, and it seemed completely compatible with scientific thinking and hard facts. Logic was essential to my understanding of Buddhism, and I marveled at this Eastern religion that spoke directly to my heart and codified spiritual assumptions I’d long ago made for myself.

In retrospect, I have a feeling that this “conversion” was more a spiteful repudiation of Christianity than a search for missing faith. Everything I felt about Buddhism was true. It did speak to me, and it did mean more to me than any religion ever had before. But I never would have discovered how meaningful Buddhism made me feel if I had not sought a way to abandon the Christian label. In the United States, a mythological divide exists between “Christians” and “non-Christians.” Despite notions to the contrary, American culture is a Christian culture – that is to say, Christianity is the single-most prevalent religion and irrevocably shaped and guided the development of our society. It’s almost a surety that an American was raised, at the very least, in a place where Christianity is the norm, and that, while one may not attend church, one still believes in the Christian God. Having felt that Christianity was hostile to me, in return, I felt hostile to Christianity. And by telling my parents that I considered myself a “non-practicing Buddhist,” I was expressing my disgust and contempt for a religion that had never been accepting or welcoming to me.

I was an avowed atheist. Buddhism embraces those who have rejected God or been rejected by him. It encourages people to believe evidence, and hold science as truth. Naturally, this means that when atheists find no evidence of God, Buddhism welcomes this conclusion.

But a great deal changed this past year. I grew, and I thought. I listened and learned. I reexamined the reasons I had decided there was no God. It came down to one argument: The Problem of Evil. If God is all knowing and supremely benevolent, why does He allow genocide? Why does He allow millions of children to starve to death in Africa and Asia? I answered the question, but the conclusion I came to wasn’t “because there is evil, there is no God.” The conclusion I came to was, “if there is a God, He is no God I will worship.”

It took me a long, long, time to realize that my understanding of the Problem of Evil didn’t make me an atheist. In fact, on some level, it expressed a certain degree of theism.

This conclusion only became apparent when I finished reading The Sparrow. Beautifully written, elegantly presented, and profoundly moving, the novel challenged my beliefs in a way that I have no way to express in words. Uncertain where I stood theologically, but knowing something had shifted… something had changed… I no longer considered myself atheistic. When I finished Children of God, I felt empty. But that emptiness actually felt beautiful, and the character of Rukuei describes my notions of this emptiness wonderfully:

                        “I have learned that poetry requires a certain emptiness, as the sounding of a bell requires the space within it. The emptiness of my father’s early life provided the resonance for his songs. I have felt in my heart his restlessness, and lurking ambition. I have felt in my own body the violent exuberance, the almost sexual exultation of creation… I have learned that a soul’s emptiness can become a place where Truth will dwell – even if it is not made welcome, even when Truth is reviled and fought, doubted and misunderstood and resisted.”

So, as I sit here in a heavy fog, I wonder why these books have had such an impact on me. I honestly don’t believe I’ll ever know. But I’m okay with that. If I understood, I could not possibly be in the mental place I am right now.

But really, my sudden nervousness … the part of me that is slightly afraid of where my thoughts will take me, is written in the final chapter of the book, when Emilio Sandoz contemplates language.

                        “He was a linguist, after all, and it seemed entirely possible to him that religion and literature and art and music were all merely side effects of a brain structure that comes into the world ready to make language out of noise, sense out of chaos. Our capacity for imposing meaning, he thought, is programmed to unfold the way a butterfly’s wings unfold when it escapes the chrysalis, ready to fly. We are biologically driven to create meaning. And if that’s so, he asked himself, is the miracle diminished?”

As an amateur writer, I’ve always found language to be the most profound art humanity can create. As stated above, language is nothing but noise, but in that noise, there is meaning. Yes, the value is created by our minds, but that doesn’t make the meaning any less real. What if God is like language? Created by belief, manifest in us by sheer will of faith? Thoughts are in our head. Ideas are nothing but neurons firing in our brains. But our thoughts affect the physical; ideas change reality. Dreams shape the world. And dreams have shaped me.

My contemplations of these books are ongoing. The conclusions I’ve left here are largely based, ironically, not on the Bible, but on a novel by Mary Doria Russell. Perhaps it’s just a novel. But my thoughts regarding the book, and even faith, are drifting further and further toward the conclusion of D.W. Yarbrough in The Sparrow: maybe it’s only poetry. But if it is, it’s poetry to die for.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Song 1 by Doug Aitken

One of my favorite things in the world just ended: Song 1 by Doug Aitken, which was an exhibit that was up at the Hirshhorn from March 22-May 20. In the course of those two months, I went four times to watch this film projected on the circular facade of the museum. And since it started, I have been trying to figure out exactly what it is that makes it so special to me. In many ways this was a simple piece of artwork: a film, without a narrative, set to various arrangements of what is also in many ways a simple love song: "I Only Have Eyes for You." And I think this simplicity is part of it. Each time I went, I went with the same person, and the beauty and simplicity of that repetition, of that particular relationship, that particular slice of human community, is also bound up with the beauty I find in this piece of art. But somehow, in spite of that repetition, each time was different. Each time that person and I had grown and changed, our relationship moved to a slightly different place, our lives progressing in this city in which we live, in the rooms and offices and parks we inhabit. Each time we would arrive and leave at a different moment, come upon the film at a different scene, sit in a different place, the environment around the film altered and changed, once by the constant buzz and hum of tour buses, partially blocking the view, teenagers pouring through the doors to gaze for ten minutes before being told to board the bus again for a head count. Another time I was distracted by the sound of dog tags and barking as an unruly dog jumped and wandered about, his owners unable to control him. And once, I had to leave earlier than I wanted to, because I got too cold and began to shiver in the night air of early May. And in all of these instances, the film played on, lighting up the National Mall with the colors and images and sounds of human ordinariness. But I think this is what Song 1 is about: change in repetition, beauty in familiarity, community in isolation. As Daoud Tyler-Ameen from NPR Music explains of this piece:

"As overwhelming and isolating as cities may be, they're exciting too. In exchange for the daily trial of pushing through crowds of strangers, we occasionally stumble upon people we really connect with — and when that happens, everything else gets the volume turned down. Which happens to be precisely what "I Only Have Eyes for You" is all about:

I don't know if we're in a garden
Or on a crowded avenue
You are here, and so am I
Maybe millions of people go by
But they all disappear from view

Those moments, admittedly, come few and far between. Song 1reminds us what goes on the rest of the time. By necessity, we all gird ourselves against the crush of stories that happen all around us in daily life. That's true of the lonely giants on screen, who sing to themselves rather than engaging one another — and of the viewers below, who watch in silent reverie, barely aware of their neighbors. Side by side, people indulge private moments in a very public place."
But where Ameen sees Song 1 reminding us of "what goes on the rest of the time." I see it as reminding me of those few and far between moments of connection and community. Because it is as if the characters (if we can call them that) in the film are remembering these moments, or longing for them, or both. They are singing about a moment in which a connection is so strong that the larger world disappears, and don't we all long for those kinds of connections and cherish them when they come? And this is what I think may make Song 1 so special because it is just that. Sitting under the night sky those four times and looking up at this film, listening to the song again and again beside a person who also constitutes one of those few and far between moments of connection, I found the world fading away, even as the environment around me also took on a new sharpness, as if someone had focused the image and turned up the volume. It was like my memory of certain poems, which demand so much of my attention that I see and hear nothing else, but at the same time they are so profound they heighten my awareness, like that sensitivity to touch that comes in the midst of a fever or how the entire world seems to shimmer just a bit after you kiss someone. Song 1 is in itself one of the moments of connection to be cherished and held and remembered. Because those moments come in the countless forms of beauty and awe and astonishment that this unimaginable universe holds. And in this sense, Song I is supremely beautiful.

RadioLab Remix

The super cool people over at RadioLab just posted this contest, which involves re-imagining RadioLab episodes. I'd love to see what some of you come up with in relation to this. And there is a $500 prize.

Also, since we are talking about RadioLab, they have a program in which you can become a lab partner (cute, huh?).

Anyway, with the dissertation taking up my full attention at the moment, I don't have time to reinvent a RadioLab episode, as much as I might like to...though there is a strong possibility Tina might be able to talk me into some kind of collaborative project :)

But perhaps some of you do. And if so, I think you should. And then you should share it with us!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Bill Maher and Liberty University

I recently posted something on Facebook that I feel is an appropriate extension of the conversations we had in class.

Rather than summarize, I'll let you see for yourself. I posted the following:

"Wildly inappropriate. Highly offensive. Religiously insensitive. And, on some levels, true. No, Mitt Romney. No, Glenn Beck. Jesus did not write the Constitution. The Declaration of Independence was not bequeathed unto us by Him. They were written by incredibly intelligent men, who were educated at institutions that taught science, not dogma. I'm not saying Bill Maher is right -- I'm saying, take a grain of salt with your religion-inspired nationalism.


So, here's my question - is Bill Maher (venomous hatred for religion, the Right, and Mitt Romney aside) correct? Is a degree from Liberty University the equivalent of a degree from a similar, secular, institution?

And going further, is it okay to infuse religion with our history, thereby creating a modern religiously-inspired nationalism? It's hard for me to avoid feeling absolutely horrified when I see paintings of Jesus giving the country the Constitution. I'm angry that religion is being brought into a (proclaimed) secular government, I'm sad that society is cheapening religion by imagining Jesus composing law, and I'm frustrated that it has become increasingly difficult to separate the mainstream Right from the theocratic-mongering idiots like Glenn Beck. I worry that paintings like the one shown in the video are the very beginnings of the creation of a theocracy that is a mere Christian reflection of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

And even MORE worrisome, is the fact that it took the angry, mean-spirited, media-mogul Bill Maher to make me ask these questions.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A "More Human" Google


BBC recently posted this article on how intelligent Google is becoming and some recent updates that make it "more human." Artificial intelligence was a topic we discussed in class at length during the semester and Google was actually one example that we focused on for a bit. You all might find this interesting.