Prometheus and Prayer

Cleaning up a room the other day, I picked up a bag and accidentally spilled its contents, mostly papers and articles used for previous Church lessons, all over the floor. As I went through the mess, sorting the papers into stacks of things to keep and things to discard, I discovered a forgotten gem: “Men Against God: The Promethean Element in Biblical Prayer,” by Sheldon H. Blank. The timing of this rediscovery was fortuitous. Our son, who is currently studying ancient Greece in school, had recently asked me, “Dad, who is your favorite Titan?”

“Prometheus,” I replied.

“Prometheus?” he asked back incredulously. “All he did was give us fire, and he shouldn’t have done that.”

I wasn’t sure why Jeremiah was taking the sides of the Olympians on this. I didn’t argue, nor did I bring up the claim that Prometheus provided more than fire: writing, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, and science.

I remember watching a movie production of Aeschylus’ “Prometheus Bound,” with the iron clad Kratos and Bia chaining Prometheus to the mountain in revenge for his defiance of Zeus. With all the suffering in human life, its frailty and shortness, it is hard not to sympathize with the rebel Prometheus against the Tyrant. But it is also hard not to be terrified of Zeus.

Prometheus’ prominence in my psyche arose after reading Albert Camus’ The Rebel. Ever since then I have wanted to do a painting that somehow blended Prometheus chained to a Caucasus peak and Jesus crucified on Golgotha. I had understood that Prometheus was a hero to Romantics–Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example–but I hadn’t seen too many of my co-religionists advocating for Prometheus. But several years ago I ran across Blank’s intriguing article when reading his own book, Jeremiah, Man and Prophet. In the fascinating random walks through our intellectual histories, I had first found Blank’s book while reading the introduction to a beautiful JPS edition of Jeremiah illustrated with wood block prints. The introduction quotes Blank: “Jeremiah is companion to the daring.” Who wouldn’t want to look up such an author!

“Men Against God” commences with the commonsensical observation that not all men pray alike:

Men who pray figure prominently in Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish tradition. But these men do not all pray alike. Some of them pray in a mood of submissive penitence—this is the commoner, the approved way. Others, strange though it sounds, stand up to God in prayer and demand their due. In distress and danger, they defend their rights, the rights of men, against the encroachments of an arbitrary or tyrannical God. We may call these others “Promethean.” In the modern romanticized sense of the term, these men and the spirit of their prayer are Promethean.

Also, these men and the spirit of their prayer do not agree with the prevalent mood of Protestant theology and its doctrine of man. Nevertheless, or for that very reason, these men and their spirit may have some meaning for our times.

To Blank the Promethean heros of the Bible are not to be found among the rebels, among Lucifer and the like, but among the faithful, among Abraham and Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah:

It is not, indeed, among the rebels that we find them, but among the faithful. They hold fast to God even while they question his decrees. Though they defy, they do not deny him.

In addition to Biblical examples of Promethean prayers (generalized), Blank has some entertaining examples from Jewish traditions, including the following aggada (had to look that word up) from the Palestinian Talmud:

When God was about to hand the two tablets of stone to Moses, God still grasping them above and Moses below, the people sinned with the golden calf and God resolved to withhold the gift. Indeed, the precious ten commandments would never have come into man’s possession had not Moses then, at the last moment, with sheer physical strength, wrested the tablets from the hands of God.

This boldness of man confronting God, like Abraham arguing with God over Sodom, seems so alien to our religious sensibilities—“the prevalent mood of Protestant theology,” which I surmise Mormons have inherited more than they would  acknowledge. Why, I wonder, did Blank think this so important for our time? Are we not standing up to God enough? Or are we too complacent in equating “God’s will” with the status quo? I have often said that the way Mormon’s take God’s name in vain is to attribute to God’s will their own actions and preferences. If Blank thought the world saturated with the Protestant worldview of man and God needed to consider the examples of Promethean prayer, could I suggest that Mormons could benefit from it even more? We’re unwilling not only to challenge God, but even to challenge His unquestionably human, and thus fallible  representatives.

Thankfully, there have been voices within Mormonism, that, while perhaps not as bold as most of Blank’s examples, merit attention. Consider this excerpt from Hugh Nibley’s essay “Beyond Politics”:

The question arises, If we decided to do things God’s way will not all discussion cease? How could there be a discussion with God? Who would disagree with im? If we go back to our basic creation story we are neither surprised nor shocked to hear that there was free discussion in heaven in the presence of God at the time of the creation, when some suggested one plan and some another….If we cannot clearly conceive of the type of discussion that goes on in the courts on high, we have some instructive instances of God’s condescending to discuss things with men here on earth. “Come, let us reason together,” he invites the children of Israel. Accordingly Abraham and Ezra both dared, numbly and apologetically, but still stubbornly, to protest what they considered, in the light of their limited understanding, unkind treatment of some of God’s children. They just could not see why the Lord did or allowed certain things. So he patiently explained the situation to them, and then they understood. Enoch just couldn’t see the justification for the mass distruction of his fellows by the coming flood; he too was stubborn about it: And as Enoch saw this, he had bitterness of soul, and wept over his brethren, and said unto the heavens: I will refuse to be comforted; but the Lord said unto Enoch: Lift up your heart, and be glad; and look.” (Moses 7:44. [Italics added by Nibley])

God did not hold it agains these men that they questioned him, but loved them for it: it was because they were first the friends of men, even at what they thought was the terrible risk of offending him, that they became friends with God.

I really like that last sentence and think it deserves repeating: “It was because they were first the friends of men, even at what they thought was the terrible risk of offending him, that they became friends with God.” This sentiment reminds me of 1 John 4:20

If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?

If, as Nibley argues, God loves people for questioning him, because they had primary concern for humanity, we ought to be somewhat wary of much of our piety and loyalty. Consider, for example, the following:

Elder Lee had agreed to give me counsel and some direction. He didn’t say much, nothing really in detail, but what he told me has saved me time and time again. “You must decide now which way you face,” he said. “Either you represent the teachers and students and champion their causes or you represent the Brethren who appointed you. You need to decide now which way you face.” Then he added, “Some of your predecessors faced the wrong way.” It took some hard and painful lessons before I understood his counsel. In time, I did understand, and my resolve to face the right way became irreversible.

What is facing the wrong way? Is this the way to become friends with God, as Nibley describes? I’d like to read Blank’s response to the above paragraph; even better, I’d like to read the responses from some of the Promethean heros of whom Blank writes.

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Adventures of Ideas, A Dialogue: Part 1

Dear David,

I’m sitting in my bedroom wondering why my laptop is running so hot, and imagining what your reaction to reading the first chapters of Alfred North Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas. I first got exposed to Whitehead via a Sunstone article by Floyd Ross with a response from Sterling McMurrin. McMurrin provided perhaps damning praise of Whitehad:

Whitehead’s treatment of reality as process is perhaps the high-water mark of twentieth-century philosophical refinement. His great work Process and Reality is rightly regarded as one of the most difficult and most abstruse philosophical treatises ever produced.

Inspired rather than deterred by McMurrin I round a copy of Process and Reality at the Borders in Madison, Wisconsin and purchased it for airplane reading for our summer trip back to Salt Lake City. Whether or not Process and Reality is “the most difficult and most abstruse philosophical treatises every produced,” I learned that at the very least it is not airplane reading. It is still on my “to read” list, although I’ll probably tackle the book in the form of  Donald Sherburne’s A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality. Luckily Whitehead has produced some more digestible books, particularly Science and the Modern World, and Adventures of Ideas, but I’ve also loved An Introduction to Mathematics, Religion in the Making, and Modes of Thought. But while I find Whitehead inspiring and filled with great quotes, I don’t think anyone would every quip of Whitehead, like they have of William James, that he wrote philosophy like novels. Given your request for something intellectually invigorating and spiritually inspiring, both Science and the Modern World and Religion in the Making would also be of interest to you.

Skipping Chapter 1 where Whitehead briefly lays out his objectives, let’s talk about Chapter 2, “The Human Soul.” This is where Whitehead introduces what I’ll call the Three Ps: Plato, Process, and Patience.

Plato

Whitehead is an unapologetic Platonist, providing great praise of Plato in several of other books, most notably in Process and Reality where he states all of western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. Throughout Adventures of Ideas Plato keeps cropping up as The Prophet, which as a Mormon Whiteheadian I have to kind of laugh at since Platonism is often viewed as the intellectual fuel to the “Great Apostasy,” and the faithful must cringe at Whitehead’s claim that Christianity is but a partial and imperfect realization of Plato’s more general ideals.

Process

Process, the central concept of Whitehead’s metaphysics, is not explicitly referred to but is continually referenced through example. The theme will be illustrated and made concrete as we proceed through the book.

Patience

Patience is perhaps a necessary corollary  of Process, and patience might well be the primary message I take away from Adventures. This chapter introduces the human soul via Plato and then lays out the slow realization of this idea in the beliefs and actions of western society over more than two thousand years.

  • “nerving the race in its slow ascent.” (p. 18)
  • “background of dim consciousness” (p. 19)
  • “The slow working of ideas” (p. 20)
  • “the growth of generality of apprehension is the slowest of all evolutionary changes” (p. 24)
  • “gradual purification of conduct” (p. 25)

This repeated reminder of how slow we improve our vision teaches us to be patient in our judgment of history, a point explicitly made by Whitehead who wrote

The final introduction of a reform does not necessarily prove the moral superiority of the reforming generation. It certainly does require that that generation exhibits reforming energy. But conditions may have changed, so that what is possible now may not have been possible then. A great idea is not to be conceived as merely waiting for enough good men to carry it into practical effect. (pp. 21-22)

We are also reminded to be patient with ourselves and with our peers, because, just like our ancestors in the past, we are people caught up in our times, blinded by unquestioned assumptions. But that is OK, as long as we remember this abstract limitation and seek to see how our foundational ideals could better be realized in the concrete aspects of our lives. Which is kind of a nice tie-in into many of our discussions of religion and our dissatisfactions. Whitehead is not a Christian (although Truman Madsen called him one of the most spiritual writers of the 20th Century), but he gives praise to Christianity and its “impracticable ethics” as a great driving force in the evolution of society. Early Mormonism certainly laid out its share of “impracticable ethics,” and I now wonder if our own new-found practicality is the cause of the more pedestrian Mormonism we are plagued with.

However, for Mormons Whitehead ends his chapter with a bang, and for all the parallels I’ve seen drawn between Whitehead’s philosophy and Mormon theology, I don’t think I’ve seen anyway else point out the similarity between D&C 121, that lays out the ideal of governance, and Whitehead’s description, repeated elsewhere, of Plato’s insight that “The creation of the world—that is to say, the world of civilized order—is the victory of persuasion over force.” (p. 25).

Brian

 

 

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Communities

Twenty-three years ago this month, I had a meeting with Elder Ben Banks, at the time a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Elder Banks was a friend, at least the father of a friend, and the meeting was at his home. Despite the familiarity this was most definitely an interview, with me playing the part of the recently returned missionary. Elder Banks had been my stake president just prior to my mission and he and I actually departed and returned from missions simultaneously. He had left as a mission president in Scotland at the same time I had left as a missionary in New England. Like me, he had returned just shy of two years later after being made a Seventy. From my letters to him when we were both on our missions, Elder Banks was aware of the difficulties I had had with my mission president, and I believe he was taking this moment to encourage me to keep the course. When I told him how frequently my mission president threatened to send missionaries home, Elder Banks responded with near shock: “I used to beg my missionaries to stay!”

Recently we received an e-mail from a friend informing us that she and her husband were “taking a break” from Church, since they found it not only not an uplifting experience but a downright oppressive experience. I really couldn’t blame them. The husband had told me how often he had felt “corrected,” put in his place, and all around made to feel like he didn’t fit in. “You are either with us [whomever us is] or against us,” he was told by a preacher of pure belief.

At about the same time we received this discouraging e-mail, I read another e-mail from a friend back in Pittsburgh. Some five years previous, the bishopric in Pittsburgh, of which I was the first counselor, had asked Lars to be our Sunday School president. In many ways Lars was a misfit in the Church: not only because he never wore a tie, but also because, among other variances, he was a devoted anarchist. I think Lars was hesitant to say yes, but he did, and over the subsequent five years has made an irreplaceable contribution to the intellectual and, I dare say, spiritual makeup of the Pittsburgh First Ward. Although I don’t know for sure, I doubt Lars had been asked to contribute much to the Church since returning from his mission. Yet five years on, he, the tieless anarchist living on the edge of the Church continues to participate, continues to bend his life with the Church.

There are mission presidents that threaten to cast missionaries away; there are mission presidents that beg missionaries to stay. There are wards  that invite people to leave; there are wards that beg people to stay. Wards are made of leaders and members, each of whom has their own attitudes and expressions that indicate whether they are begging people to stay or inviting them to leave. I’ve experienced both kinds of wards and after enjoying the former I’m really becoming frustrated with the latter.

Communities inevitably include some and exclude others. This is natural and important. When we spent a month in Sweden, we found ourselves naturally drawn into various communities: a Mormon community, an American community, a university community. From the vastness of the world, even from the vastness of Stockholm, we needed to reduce the pool of people to a manageable size. But while we were naturally drawn to our fellow American Mormons, we also recognized that this trip offered a unique opportunity to get to know other peoples and other cultures. So we were very grateful for the generous time the Swedish Mormons and Swedish academics offered us. Could our circle have been wider? Certainly. But we also could have been much narrower.

I find a similar example from Pablo Neruda’s Memoirs. As a young and pathologically shy student in Santiago he engrained himself in the small community of young poets. When he went abroad in the consular service of Chile he found himself friends among fellow Chileans and other Latin Americans in the cafés of Paris. But these were but beginnings. Both as a poet and a citizen Neruda did not remain parochial. I am sure that Neruda would agree with these lines from A. E. Housman:

They say my verse is sad: no wonder;
Its narrow measure spans
Tears of eternity, and sorrow,
Not mine, but man’s.

Neruda wrote of his expanding spirit:

Can poetry serve our fellow men? Can it find a place in man’s struggles? I had already done enough tramping over the irrational and the negative. I had to pause and find the road to humanism, outlawed from contemporary literature but deeply rooted in the aspirations of mankind. (Memoirs, p. 139)

But while limiting our communities is natural even inevitable, does that mean that there shouldn’t be some check against our tendency to do so? Left unchecked, isn’t our tendency to limit our communities eventually self-destructive? We have learned how genetic diversity is important for survival. We are even coming to understand the importance of diversity among the bacteria living within our gut (our bacteriome). But I don’t see that same recognition in many of my microcultures, whether in the research environment that I inhabit that seems to be plagued with what I call the Professor Henry Higgins Syndrome (“Why can’t a woman be like me?”), or in the Church where the unity with Christ advocated in the 17th chapter of John or the economic unity advocated in the Doctrine and Covenants somehow evolved to the required unity of manners, dress, and thought with some local leader. Can we see otherwise?

Yi-Fu Tuan has written “Christianity, as a vital religion, continued to use its imagination to deepen and expand the concept of community.” (Morality and Imagination, p. 122)

I wonder how much our own vitality has diminished with our loss of imagination. Joseph Smith’s imagination radically expanded the concept of community: what is meant by Israel, what is meant by the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. Contradictions certainly exist within our thoughts, for example the universal fatherhood of God and a Chosen People. Over the years since we’ve gone through both contractions and expansions of our communities (blacks and the priesthood being an example in both directions). And our current emphasis on opposing homosexual marriages seems to be creating contracting reverberations within our communities.

In my own small and non-authoritative voice I would like to issue a plea for greater imagination regarding our community, imagination regarding what constitutes membership in our community, imagination regarding what the role of the community actually is.

Let me tackle the latter first. I think our Church is confused about what a community is for. On the one hand, membership in the community is vital. On the other hand it seems to imply that the community has no real value. The implication is contained in our denial of communal culpability with individual dissatisfaction (lumped into the banal term “being offended”). The Church cannot offend, they say, because being offended is a matter of choice. But a church that can do no evil can also do no good, since our failure to do good acts would be an evil, and failing to act is always within human—individual and collective—capacity.

Our denial of even the possibility of community offense seems to ignore Christ’s drastic warning:

But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)

(Our rejection of communal responsibility doesn’t seem to translate across all aspects of our experience. For example, why do we obsess about the teaching of “false doctrine” because ultimately wouldn’t it be simply a matter of the student chooses to believe the false doctrine. If you are bullied, does it only matters if you choose to feel bullied?)

We need to apply our imagination to what our comunal responsibilities are so that we can resurrect the idea of communal importance. Mormonism with its paradoxical emphasis on both the individual and the community ought to be a fruitful field for exploring community.

“In the Christian tradition, an individual is considered to be of such importance that under certain circumstances his welfare may not cede even to that of his group.” (Tuan Morality and Imagination, p. 114)

Finally, we need to turn our imagination to what constitutes membership in our religious community. This seems to have been on the mind of President Uchtdorf when he spoke in the October 2009 General Conference:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is continually growing and becoming better known throughout the world. Although there will always be those who stereotype the Church and its members in a negative way, most people think of us as honest, helpful, and hardworking. Some have images of clean-cut missionaries, loving families, and friendly neighbors who don’t smoke or drink. We might also be known as a people who attend church every Sunday for three hours, in a place where everyone is a brother or a sister, where the children sing songs about streams that talk, trees that produce popcorn, and children who want to become sunbeams.

Brothers and sisters, of all the things we want to be known for, are there attributes above all others that should define us as members of His Church, even as disciples of Jesus Christ?

Uchtdorf implies with his enumerated list in the first paragraph, that we often cling to definitions of membership that are not very meaningful. Is there anyone we should a priori exclude from membership? Perhaps only for those unwilling to love, for as President Uchtdorf said:

Because love is the great commandment, it ought to be at the center of all and everything we do in our own family, in our Church callings, and in our livelihood. Love is the healing balm that repairs rifts in personal and family relationships. It is the bond that unites families, communities, and nations. Love is the power that initiates friendship, tolerance, civility, and respect. It is the source that overcomes divisiveness and hate. Love is the fire that warms our lives with unparalleled joy and divine hope. Love should be our walk and our talk.

But most of our community definitions draw very little upon love, perhaps because love, while supremely important isn’t particularly unique or easy to highlight.

Finally as we reflect on community membership, I believe we would do well to remembrer Evelyn Underhill’s observation: “In religion our exclusions are nearly always wrong, and our inclusions, however inconsistent, nearly always right.”

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Palindromes

At 33 I was living in a duplex in Pittsburgh about to move into the first home we had purchased. The purchase was making me anxious but I ha little idea how terrible the move would be given the collision of a small carpet tack with my finger. At 22 I was a student at the University of Utah, studying engineering but wishing I was studying mathematics. I was feeling the loneliness induced by my mission, where my two-year hiatus and created an unrecoverable separation, small yet real, between myself and my high school friends. In a little over a month I would meet Wendy and that loneliness would transmute into different emotions as we embarked on our mutual adventure. At 11 I was in the hey-day of my neighborhood life: basketball in Searle Circle, pretending to me Franco Harris at the Jameson’s side yard, playing Marco Polo at the Three Fountains East swimming pool. How vivid some of these memories car sparkle into my mind, even as the passing of time has made them silent memories.

Today I’m forty-four, living in San Diego, a purported paradise. But lately I’m lonely and wondering a little bit about who I am, what I’ve done. Wendy bought a cake for me at work and lots of people came down and wished me well, but it was bit quiet. Sadly I missed a phone call from my friend Lars Peterson in Pittsburgh. He called from work, a radical bookstore coop, but maybe I can call him back there; I imagine business is slow.

I thought of Lars and my many other Latin-oriented friends as I read my Pablo Neurda this morning, looking for words to capture my melancholy. I think I found them in the “galloping horse of autumn in “Autumn Returns” and the quirky contradictions of the self in “We are Many.” I feel so constrained being an English-only speaker–I can’t even type the titles in Spanish because I cannot figure out how to insert the n~ symbol!

I’m sure as the years go by I’ll have better and worse birthdays than today. Perhaps my most memorable was at 17 when, post surgery, I couldn’t blow out the candles. But what will my next palindrome be like. Alec will be nearing 30, Jeremiah will be in college. Amazing.

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

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Contemplating Yi-Fu Tuan’s Latest Book Part 2: Placelessness

As I wrote earlier, I recently read Religion: From Place to Placelessness by Yi-Fu Tuan. In my previous post I wrote about Tuan’s challenge to the religion of family. At almost the same time I had started contemplating writing about his main theme of placelessness, but life swept past me. However, the theme returned to my mind after my recent trip to New Mexico.  Although my mother had been to Europe during college and thus had been to more countries than anyone else in the family (see Facebook app below), she remained a firmly rooted-in-place person. Perhaps this was because her parents had been farmers, closely tied to their land. When she left Willard, Utah, for college, she never again viewed it as “home,” however, she quickly adopted her new Salt Lake suburb neighborhood as home and never really wandered far away until her kids scattered across the country. (My father, the son of a merchant was rootless.) While we went to the national parks throughout Utah, and once ventured up to Yellowstone, more distant or far away places had little draw for her. I’m sure that to a large part this contentedness with her local place was economic, I also think that to my mother place was primarily people. Thus it wasn’t too difficult for her to late in life relocate to New Mexico since so many of her people at her place had moved on.

Unlike my mother we’ve on a large scale become a wandering people, un-placed people, our wanderings driven by transportation technology living on cheap energy. It is ironic that as we now build large houses, personal places, our intent to spend time in them has decreased. We are out of the home, attending soccer games in one season, baseball in another, on a business trip one month, traveling to see relatives in the next. Our expectations for seeing not just our nearby region, but the world has skyrocketed. Spreading across Facebook are apps measuring how well we compare to our peers in having visited remarkable locations (“100 Places to Visit Before You Die”), or foreign countries (“How Many Countries Have You Been To?”), or, more mundanely, how many U.S. states (“How Many States Have You Been To?”). Our place has been replaced by our list of places.

As we drove through the Land of Enchantment, adding to our own list of places–White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns, Las Cruces–my mother started to reflect with my dad about the evolution of Mormon attitudes and practices over the decades. “Remember, Earl, how we used to make fun of the Catholics and their crosses and pilgrimages. Now we have CTR rings and trips to Church history sites.” Since my mother has enjoyed many trips to Church history sites, I was a little taken back by her pilgrimage critique. (I had heard her CTR complaint previously, maybe even had prodded it along.) An on-line dictionary defines a pilgrimage as “a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion.” A culture of pilgrimage is not placeless, as I describe above, but multi-placed, with each site an indispensable (irreplaceable) foci of the universe’s narrative. For any Mormon history site now controlled by the LDS Church, a visit is much closer to a “religious devotion” than an act of calling forth communal memory, as the historicity of the site is often subsumed (if not outright distorted) for a religious (proselytizing) purpose. (Contrast, for example, tours given by the LDS and RLDS churches in Kirtland, Ohio.) While it is easy to argue that this is bad from an historical point of view, is it good for religion?

In his opening salvo in Religion: From Place to Placelessness, Tuan states “Geography and religion are antithetical. This is my principal thesis.” Throughout his book Tuan argues for and provides illustration that the best expression of religion occurs when people move beyond the limitations of thinking of sacred places to the boundlessness of sacred space. Place is concrete, localized, bounded, exclusionary. In comparing Christianity and Buddhism, Tuan observers, “Both religions call for a shift of attention from communal loyalty to universal compassion.” It is as the antithesis of universal compassion, that the limitations of sacred places is most noticeable.

Moral inclusiveness disregards boundaries, which makes it incompatible with geography, in general, and religious geography, in particular: geography, after all, is about boundaries and bounded places, whom to include and whom to exclude. (p. 44)

Years ago during a discussion about the conflicts in the Middle East, a wise friend of ours said, “The Jews should be forced to give up Jerusalem, the Muslims Mecca, the Catholics The Vatican, and the Mormons Temple Square, so that they will realize that place doesn’t matter.” Not only does elevation of place lead to feelings of superiority based on proximity, but it also leads to a satisfaction–an obsession–with the particular associated with the place without a subsequent progression to the general.

Whereas a sacred natural feature is location-specific, a sacred building, such as a Christian church, can, in principle, be raised almost anywhere with appropriate rites of consecration. (p. 11)

Should we think more of our chapels than the Sacred Grove? Can we give up all our Church history sites? Could we let the pioneer temples become taverns without religious (albeit with historical) loss? By giving up our places, would we invigorate our religion? Should we own homes or rent?

A common name for Christians in early antiquity was “people of the way” or “people of the road”; that is, drifters. A Christian, to a Roman patriarch, was a pilgrim (peregrinus) and the patriarch would have used the word in a condescending way, for, to him the word meant “wayfarer, bird of passage, foreigner, or resident alien.” Rootless and unburdened by family, the pilgrim could not be trusted….But, to early Christians, “pilgrim” had quite a different meaning. They were “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13) who willingly took on the label “wayfarer” or “resident alien,” because, to them, their true home was in heaven (Philippians 3:20). (pp 44-45)

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Twenty Years of San Francisco

Near the end of April, 1992, Wendy and I went to San Francisco for a business trip/vacation. I was presenting a paper at the Material Research Society as the culmination of my year long senior project with the University of Utah and the Oakridge National Laboratory. I flew to San Francisco with Magdy Iskander and the other members of my team, while Wendy flew in a day later to Oakland where I managed to navigate the BART to meet her and escort her to our hotel on the edge of Chinatown. I was a very naive traveler. I didn’t have a credit card, and following Karl Malden’s advice, I purchased several hundred dollars worth of American Express travelers’ checks. I ran into immediate difficulty at the hotel as the amount I needed to pay for my room (for which I would eventually be reimbursed) exceeded the daily limit on my debit card. I was forced to use almost all of my travelers checks to pay for the room upfront, leaving me little “cash” on hand. My first night in the hotel I was selected as a “guest of the night” and given a bottle of white wine and a fruit basket. I kept the fruit and passed the wine off to one of my fellow students. My first night there we went to a small chinese restaurant next to the hotel, having no idea of what chinese food to order I went for their “American menu,” thinking “How can you ruin a steak?” It turns out you can. I slept through an earthquake that night, and I was disappointed when I woke up and discovered I had missed such a geological event.

Things improved when Wendy arrived. Not only was getting to Oakland by myself a confidence builder, but we had been married just over a year and so any small separation was difficult. Although I felt too poor for a harbor cruise or a tour of Alcatraz, we still had a wonderful time. Bill and June Ellenburg, my saviors from my mission took us on a tour of the Bay Area including the Oakland Temple, Lombard Street in San Francisco, interesting hotels, and a marvelous seafood lunch on the water front.

One night we ate at the Stinking Rose. From the outside I had thought it was a Gaelic restaurant. Who would have expected a garlic restaurant? I don’t think I was brave enough to try the ice cream. Another night Wendy and I were at a chinese restaurant with Iskander and my fellow students when riots broke out following the acquittal of the police officers accused of beating Rodney King. With helicopters whirling overhead, we finished our dinner and hurried back to our hotel.

I don’t remember much of the conference. I did meet John Booske a professor I would soon work with peripherally at the University of Wisconsin. My paper went well. I’ve seen it cited once—and that in a SIAM journal! But my heart wasn’t in it. But my heart was in the trip. It remains one of my fondest memories. I didn’t return to San Francisco for nineteen years. In March, 2011 Wendy and I planned a bike trip out of San Francisco after an informatics meeting we were both attending. The Japan earthquake and subsequent tsunami warning disrupted our plans to ride to Santa Cruz and so we rode through the coastal range to a small town southwest of Palo Alto instead. Two trips, two earthquakes—what was up with San Francisco?

In March 2012 Wendy and I were again in San Francisco. Within days of our twenty-first wedding anniversary and nearly twenty years after our first trip to this great city. No longer newlyweds, we had a son in Pittsburgh in college and two kids at home back in San Diego. We were heavier, grayer, wiser or at least more cynical than we had been in 1992. We were now also savvy–relatively–travelers. Wendy arrived in San Francisco early, catching a 6:30 AM flight out of San Diego. (As a loving husband and a cost conscious employee of UCSD, I drove her to the airport.) I flew out several hours later, taking the Super Shuttle to the conference hotel. I arrived with just enough energy to walk with Wendy up Mason Street to the Golden Gate Hotel on Bush Street.

After a little relaxation, we decided to plan on evening on the town. We quickly learned that while a hotel may list having free wifi, this does not mean that the wifi is useful. After wrestling with a weak 3G signal and an incredibly slow wifi connection, we were able to identify some of the hot restaurants nearby. Given how early our day had started, we opted for an early dinner at the nearby Gitane restaurant. The setting was hip and the Spanish inspired menu had phenomenal dishes. For appetizers we ordered the bastilla pastry and flatbread with ham and pears. For main dishes I ordered the braised lamb cheeks with quince, pomegranate, wild mushrooms, and fingerling potatoes. Wendy ordered spiced chicken breast with saffron broth, green olives, vegetables, almonds, and couscous. Neither of us regretted a single bite of our dishes. I could have eaten the dishes all night.

But we moved on. Duane had told us we should go to City Lights Books and Christine had suggested Beach Blanket Babylon. We opted for the bookstore. City Lights is definitely located in a seedy neighborhood, and some of the clerks brought their own counter-culture into the bookstore. I enjoyed browsing through the books, discovering a number of books I would like to buy, including Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean and multiple Naguib Mahfouz books. I bought Mahfouz’s Heart of the Night, as an anniversary present. I’ve got Levant on my wish list. As luck would have it an author was reading from her book that night. Given the smallness of the setting, an early departure would have been uncomfortably obvious, so I was hesitant to stay. But we did; I hadn’t felt so cultured in years. The author Esi Edugyan was reading from her novel Half-Blood, the story of young, black musician in Nazi Berlin.

After the bookstore, we thought it was time for dessert. So we wandered off to another of the hot restaurants–Waterbar, praised both for its food and its view. While we were going for dessert I couldn’t pass on the parmesan fries, but I still ate the peanut butter cookie ice cream sandwich; Wendy had the panna cotta with rhubarb compote. Since we were walking, I think we burned off some of the calories, although maybe not enough to justify the fries.

We settled down back in the hotel. The TV was nearly as ancient as the elevator in the hotel, and about the same size as the tiny shower in our room. Just as well as we both had talks to write for the morning. For a twentieth reunion, San Francisco certainly wasn’t a bad venue.

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Easter, 2012

Spring in California is more subtle than in other areas where I’ve lived. Spring here brings no sense of salvation from Winter with its continual reminder of your mortality. And thus more so than in years past, Easter crept up on me. The Holy week was spent without any particular meditation on the celebration of this most central Christian event.

On Saturday I did manage to listen to St. Matthews Passion, although I didn’t listen to Rutter’s Requiem. On Sunday I read from Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry, turning to my favorite poems from Abioseh Nicol, Anna Akhmatova, and X. J. Kennedy. I contemplated Fred Vanderveer’s talk about the death of his twenty-year-old son, and his hope for the future resurrection, and I listened to Brad Hall playing “I Know that My Redeemer Lives” and remembered my Grandfather Cook’s funeral. But although the resurrection is the theme of Easter, I didn’t think about my future death and resurrection. Instead my mind kept focusing on the here and now. I recited from memory Housman’s controversial “Easter Hymn”

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

“Seeing and saving”–this transports me to Whitman’s poem “I Sit and Look Out”

I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame;
I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men, at anguish with themselves, remorseful after deeds done;
I see, in low life, the mother misused by her children, dying, neglected, gaunt, desperate;
I see the wife misused by her husband—I see the treacherous seducer of young women;
I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love, attempted to be hid—I see these sights on the earth;
I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny—I see martyrs and prisoners;
I observe a famine at sea—I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be kill’d, to preserve the lives of the rest;
I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;
All these—All the meanness and agony without end, I sitting, look out upon,
See, hear, and am silent.

It is very easy to sit silently in my Church, even when I hear “slights and degrations” being cast by “arrogant persons;” speaking out is definitely not encouraged. Even among the faithful, saying something contrarian is nerve wracking. A friend was visiting us recently. He actively attends Church each week, serves as the Young Men’s president in his ward, and had previously been in a bishopric. Yet he says he has to triple think before making a comment in Sunday school. “Why are we so afraid to speak up?” he asked. Perhaps because people like silence, the silence of the same, comfortable thought being said over and over again. Can seeing and saving be as simple as hearing and speaking?

From a friend’s Facebook page I found whymormonsquestion.org where I downloaded the study “Understanding Mormon Disbelief,” an internet survey of Mormons who no longer believe that the Church is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30). The self-reported issues with which disaffected Mormons struggled were interesting; I was familiar with and sympathetic  with most of the them. The analysis was broken down into those who remain active in the Church and those who have become inactive. The respondents tend to be people that started adulthood active in the Church: seventy-three percent of male respondents have served missions and 49% of served in elders quorum presidencies. I found the exploration of what differentiated those that remained active from those who went inactive very interesting. But most interesting to me was how silent everyone is. Only eight percent of active unbelievers have shared their unbelief with other ward members; only 28% ever told their bishop. The first factor of would likely bring inactive people back is, not surprisingly, less silence: “Greater openness and acceptance towards those with doubts and/or non-literal beliefs.”

If Easter were a time to make resolutions, I would resolve to be less silent and to encourage less silence from others. I would remind people that Mormonism is supposed to be scandalous, not a pleasantly suburban church. I’d quote X. J. Kennedy to invoke cacophony in our classroom.

A Scandal in the Suburbs

We had to have him put away,
For what if he’d grown vicious?
To play faith healer, give away
Stale bread and stinking fishes!
His soapbox preaching set the tongues
Of all the neighbors going.
Odd stuff: how lilies never spin
And birds don’t bother sowing.
Why, bums were coming to the door—
His pockets had no bottom—
And then-the foot-wash from that whore!
We signed. They came and got him.

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