Cormorant Fisherman by the Li River II

September 23, 2016


Cormorant Fisherman by the Li River II by Shan Huang

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All the Water on Planet Earth

September 12, 2016


Explanation: How much of planet Earth is made of water? Very little, actually. Although oceans of water cover about 70 percent of Earth’s surface, these oceans are shallow compared to the Earth’s radius. The featured illustration shows what would happen if all of the water on or near the surface of the Earth were bunched up into a ball. The radius of this ball would be only about 700 kilometers, less than half the radius of the Earth’s Moon, but slightly larger than Saturn’s moon Rhea which, like many moons in our outer Solar System, is mostly water ice. How even this much water came to be on the Earth and whether any significant amount is trapped far beneath Earth‘s surface remain topics of research.

Astonishing, from NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Suppose, now, we asked for–imagined–a picture of all the living water on planet earth.


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Submitting to Those Claiming to Speak for God…

September 8, 2016

Among my regular reading is the blog Marginal Revolution that Tyler Cowen (Professor of Economics at George Mason University) writes with Alex Tabarrok.  Cowen often sees things differently than I do, but in a serious, interesting and truthful way.  He also reads voraciously and points me to things I would never otherwise have read.  This morning he quotes Mark Lilla’s new book The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction:

Michel Houellebecq is not angry.  He does not have a program, and he is not shaking his fist at the nation’s traitors…He appears genuinely to believe that France has, regrettably and irretrievably, lost its sense of self, but not because of feminism or immigration or the European Union or globalization.  Those are just symptoms of a crisis that was set off two centuries ago when Europeans made a wager on history: that the more they extended human freedom, the happier they would be.  For him, that wager has been lost.  And so the continent is adrift and susceptible to a much older temptation, to submit to those claiming to speak for God.  Who remains as remote and as silent as ever.

Michel Houellebecq is not a writer in whom I take any pleasure at all and so avoid, but Lilla’s insight is on target.  Yes, we (all of us) have made a wager that more freedom will make us happier, and this is quite a disputable proposition.  And yes, one of the dangers of having gone down this road is that many people feel lost, purposeless, adrift, and thus “submit to those claiming to speak for God.”  They grasp at false certainty.

Where I depart from this is in the claim that God “remains as remote and silent as ever.”  I believe God will speak to us (and regularly does) if we will still ourselves and listen.  But we are surrounded by many, many false prophets.

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I’m With Stupid

August 7, 2016     Message delivered at Durham Friends Meeting

You’d think that someone standing up to bring a message would talk about something he knew. Wouldn’t you? That would be reasonable. But this morning I want to talk about what I don’t know and how important it is to me to accept my limitations – especially my limitations on understanding.

I'm with StupidSo to give it a title, we might call this message “Two Cheers for Lack of Understanding”, or better even, “One Cheer for Ignorance and one for Confusion.” I even have a prop for today to help you follow along. I have this T-shirt “I’m With Stupid.” That’s me.

Or Really what I want to say is ‘that’s me and the Disciples,’ because I’m really struck by how much Jesus’s Disciples are confused. I take comfort from the Disciples in their ignorance and confusion. I learn from that.


I didn’t always think this way. I grew up thinking that being a good person, being a religious person, meant believing certain things. And by “believing certain things” I took to mean “knowing certain things.” Knowing their truth. The cornerstones of religion were “beliefs,” I thought, and I needed to learn those things and know them.

What beliefs? Well I wasn’t very sure, but there seemed to be a lot of things. The Presbyterian Church I grew up in had a worship service in which we read together or recited together statements of belief. There was nothing uncommon about that. That was true of most Christian churches you could attend then (Catholic or Protestant), and true of must churches you could attend today.

For example, we recited the Apostles Creed. This is a statement accepted as authoritative by most Christian Churches, Protestant and Catholic. Here’s how it goes:

Apostles Creed: Traditional English Version 

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. 

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. 

I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. AMEN.

That’s a lot of beliefs to believe. This Apostles Creed is a very old statement of Christian beliefs. It’s called the Apostles Creed because some people have thought that it originated with the Apostles – that is, with Jesus’s Disciples. We’re pretty sure that’s not true. This Creed may come from the 3d or 4th century, but it doesn’t come directly from the Apostles.

It took me a very long while to realize reciting statements like this wasn’t going to work for me. As a young man I realized I couldn’t succeed at knowing spiritual things in the same way I had come to know geometry or the causes of the American Revolution or the parts of speech or even how to row a boat. Those were things I could learn, be confident I knew, and feel good about knowing them. But I realized spiritual knowledge was different. Trying to have spiritual knowledge in the form of certain, creedal beliefs was just going to lead to dead ends and frustration and failure. At least for me.

This realization has something to do with why I was drawn to Quakers. From their beginnings, Quakers have refused to subscribe to Creeds like the Apostles Creed. For Quakers, it is what God says to us directly, not what others tell us God wants us to think.


So let’s talk about the Disciples: what they knew and how they knew it. They are hand-picked by Jesus, they follow him around, they hear him preach, and sometimes they make the necessary arrangements. They’re like advance men in a campaign.

We don’t notice them much in the story, or at least I don’t, unless we really focus attention on them. They’re in the background, and they never do anything that’s particularly praiseworthy.

“And they were amazed at Him.” How often do we hear that said of the Disciples? They are with him day and night. They hear every word that he says; witness every healing; wrestle with every parable. Over and over again, despite all this preparation, Jesus says something to the Disciples “And they were amazed at Him.” “Amazed.” They seem never to know what to expect, no matter how much they have heard him before.

Often they don’t even get it after Jesus has tried to help them understand.

In Mark 4, for example, (and I’m going to stick to that Gospel, today) Jesus tells the parable of the Sower to a large crowd. It’s the one about seed being scattered and only some of it thriving. Afterwards, he has a private meeting with the Disciples. Jesus explains the parable, something he didn’t do with the crowd. And then he asks, “Do you not understand this parable?” (Imagine him looking at blank faces, dismayed.) “How then will you understand all the parables?” (Mark 4:13). Jesus sounds a little frustrated.

A little later, in Mark 7, Jesus has a dust-up with some Pharisees about what makes a man “unclean.” Again, Jesus speaks to a big crowd, and then afterwards he talks with the Disciples alone. Again he seems frustrated. “Then are you also without understanding?” (Mark 7:18).

Not long after that we come to the story of the loaves and the fishes, when a great crowd listening to Jesus preach is fed with seven loaves and two fishes. (Doug Gwyn has preached about this here at Durham recently.) Right after this, Jesus and the Disciples get in a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee. The Disciples forget to bring any bread on this trip, and they start fretting about this. Jesus again gets a little frustrated. “Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear. And do you not remember?” (Mark 8:17-18). There’s that note of frustration, again.

At the end, as he nears his death, Jesus asks three of his Disciples (Simon, James and John) to be with him while he prayed. All Jesus asked was that they stay awake. But they don’t. Three times they fall asleep (Mark 14: 32-42).

Hand-picked, the Disciples don’t appear to do a great job. They regularly misunderstand what Jesus is teaching, even when they get special make-up classes that aren’t available to the multitudes. They don’t understand. The Disciples aren’t pictured as the sort of people who would write the “Apostles Creed” with its list of specific beliefs and its tone of certainty.


Why are the Disciples so dim? I can think of two possibilities.

One is that they’re just characters to draw us into the story. In Plato’s dialogues, for example, Socrates does his teaching not by lecturing about things but by asking questions of young men who follow him around – sort of like disciples. Socrates regularly provokes these discussions in the middle of a walk, or a in the midst of a party, about big topics like piety or justice or knowledge. Somebody will say something casually, in passing, and Socrates will say, “so you think justice is ‘giving every man his due?’ And the person will respond yes, that’s what I think. And Socrates will ask them a question: do you mean this, or do you mean that? Do you mean justice is what “seems” to be their due, or what “really” is their due?

Every time, whoever Socrates is talking with will take the dumbest alternative. They’ll pick “appearances” (what seems to be the case) over “reality” (the heart of the matter) every time. Reading Plato gets to be like watching The Price is Right. You’ll find yourself shouting at the page “don’t take Door Number 1.” Don’t take the first choice. Don’t take “appearances.” Down that road, you know, Socrates will make them look stupid. But they always take Door #1 first.” Socrates winds up making everyone look a little dim-witted. You start thinking you know the right answer, and then Socrates will show you that you’re wrong, too. But he’s drawn you in.

I don’t think this is what is going on in the Gospels, however. I don’t think the Disciples look stupid in the Gospels because the Gospel writers were using the same story-telling device. Rather, I think the Disciples regularly get it wrong because spiritual understanding is hard. The Disciples were good folk, they were trying hard, but what they were trying to learn is hard. The y just didn’t get it right much of the time – most of the time.

Jesus teaches in parables, because what he’s trying to teach can’t be written down in a formula or a paragraph we memorize and recite. He’s trying to get us to approach life in a very different way. Love your neighbor, even your enemy. Fear not, even though the world is a scary place and death even scarier. Welcome the stranger. Be grateful and approach the world with humility. All these lessons run against our instincts; they even run against common sense. (And I can’t help but notice that none of those lessons are even mentioned in the Apostles Creed.)


Even at my best, I’ve come to think I’m like the Disciples. I regularly don’t get it, don’t see it or hear it. Regularly, I don’t understand. Sometimes I fall asleep in Meeting. Perhaps you’ve noticed and were too kind to mention it.

Me? I’m with Stupid.

Paying attention to the Disciples should help us see that none of us are likely to have this all figured out.

Nevertheless, the Disciples stay at it, and that’s what I’ve learned from them. Spiritual understanding is hard and elusive, even when we have good teachers. The important thing is to stay at it.

Listen patiently for God to speak to us if and when God will. We may not hear much, but what we hear we can trust.



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Not a Calvinist, If I Ever Was

July 11, 2016

On the Writer’s Almanac yesterday (July 10), Garrison Keillor noted the birthday of John Calvin, “theologian and ecclesiastical statesman.” I first knew Calvin as the founder of Presbyterianism, my earliest religious experience coming thorough Brighton Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York. My Dad, having been raised a Baptist, could be heard muttering nearly every Sunday afternoon about what he couldn’t accept in the morning sermon because of Calvin’s strictures. My difficulties with Calvin’s ideas are similar to my Dad’s, but now they are all my own.

Keillor noted that Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion were grounded in five “general rules” or principles, and that (in English) these could be remembered through the mnemonic TULIP:

Total depravity: all people are born sinful.

Unconditional election: God has already chosen those people who will be saved.

Limited atonement: Jesus died to atone for the sins of the elect only.

Irresistible grace: If you are among the elect, you will inevitably repent and become Christian.

Perseverance of the saints: You can never lose your salvation.

It is not my experience of myself or of others that we are “totally depraved.” I experience in myself and in others good intentions and selfish ones, generosity and outright meanness. As Friends say, I know this experimentally. It would strike me as false to try to see human beings as “totally depraved.”

But what repels me most about these principles is the air of certainty they contain about God and about God’s intentions toward human beings. How does Calvin presume to know that “God has already chosen those people who will be saved?” Or that “Jesus died to atone for the sins of the elect only?” There is a spiritual arrogance in that.

For me, the beginning of spiritual wisdom is humility about what I understand, which I know to be very little. I catch glimpses of God. Occasionally I know what is the right thing to do. But of “general rules” I know nothing.

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Unless You Are a Pacifist…

May 30, 2016

“Unless you are a pacifist….”  With these words, E. J. Dionne begins a thoughtful column about Obama and Hiroshima’s Moral Lessons concerning the President’s recent visit to the first site of a nuclear bomb strike seventy-one years ago.

Unless you are a pacifist, you accept that evil acts — the destruction of other human lives — can be justified, even necessary, in pursuit of good and urgent ends.

Dionne has nothing further to say about pacifists in this column published on the eve of Memorial Day 2016.  Should one be a pacifist? Dionne doesn’t say explicitly, but he goes on to discuss only the alternative: that you are not a pacifist.  Here’s the second sentence:

But unless you are amoral, you also acknowledge the human capacity for self delusion and selfishness. People are quite capable of justifying the utterly unjustifiable by draping their immoral actions behind sweeping ethical claims.

Thus, Dionne brackets the reasonable man’s approach by positioning it between “pacifism” on the one hand and “amoralism” on the other.  The position of the reasonable man turns out to be Obama’s, and also turns out to be that of Reinhold Niebuhr as expressed in Moral Man and Immoral Society (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932).

For the record, this pacifist does acknowledge “the human capacity for self-delusion and selfishness.” It is because I recognize my own capacity for selfishness that I am a pacifist, not because I think myself purer than others.  I suspect most pacifists would agree. So why don’t we pacifists acknowledge that “evil acts can be justified, even necessary, in pursuit of good and urgent ends”?

Because, as A. J. Muste put it elegantly, “there is no way to peace; peace is the way.”  The “no” has to begin somewhere. Why not with me?  Justifying evil acts can have no end in sight.

I am glad Dionne praised President Obama’s speech at Hiroshima, and glad that he excavated its roots in Niebuhr. But I wish he hadn’t raised the possibility of pacifism and then sidestepped its challenge so casually.

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The Greatest Commandment

May 24, 2016

As an anchor in my understanding of what God is asking of me, I turn often to the Bible passage often known as The Greatest Commandment. It’s told in three of the Gospels. Here’s the version from Matthew (22:34-40):

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

There are also versions of this same story in Mark (12:28-34) and in Luke (10:25-28). For me, this story contains the distilled essence of Jesus’s teaching. Nevertheless, the more I look at the three versions, the more I am struck by the differences–and one element in common.

What leads up to the encounter? In Matthew, a group of Sadducees had been talking with Jesus, testing him, no doubt trying to trip him up. Then the Pharisees take up the questioning. Referring to the Mosaic requirement that a man marry his brother’s widow, they ask Jesus with which brother will the woman be reunited after the resurrection. In answering, Jesus scolds them telling them you “know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.” (Ouch.) Nearly the exact same story appears before the Greatest Commandment account in Mark. In the Luke version, there is no adversity. Jesus has been talking with the 70 he has appointed to “go on ahead of him, two by two.” He then has a private word with his disciples, telling them “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.”

Who asks the question? In Matthew, it is a Pharisee who asks the question, and he is identified as a lawyer. In the Mark version, it is a scribe who asks and it is not clear that this scribe is a Pharisee (or a Sadducee); he is simply identified as one who heard Jesus disputing with others. In Luke, the questioner is identified as a lawyer. Presumably he must be one of the 70 since there were no lawyers among the disciples. The Sadducees and Pharisees are nowhere about.

Who answers the question? In Matthew the question is asked, and Jesus answers straightaway. In Mark, the scribe asks and Jesus answers, and the scribe responds that Jesus is right. After being praised, Jesus tells the man that he is “not far from the kingdom of God.” In Luke the answering and the praising is the other way around. Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer asking him “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” After the man answers, Jesus praises him, saying, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

Does it matter who asks the question and who answers it? Perhaps not. Does it matter whether Jesus told his interlocutor that he was “right” or that he was “not far from the kingdom of God?” Perhaps not, even if those don’t mean the same thing. Perhaps these are insignificant details in tellings of basically the same decisive story. Jesus is drawn into efforts by the Jewish authorities to show him up, and instead he deepens their understanding. Jesus adroitly sidesteps rank ordering the Ten Commandments by gathering their essential guidance into just two. I find the differences in what happens next more interesting.

What happens next? In Matthew, Jesus continues disputing with the Pharisees by posing a question to them: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?” In Mark, Jesus raises the same matter but asks a question: “How can the scribes say that Christ is the son of David?” He asks it while teaching in the Temple; apparently he has turned away from disputing with the Pharisees. Does that matter? Perhaps not.

In Luke, however, the dialog with the lawyer simply continues. Having said that one should love your neighbor as yourself, and having been told he was right, the lawyer asks Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus tells a story, one of the most memorable and oft-discussed stories of the Gospels, the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 29-37). That story doesn’t appear in Matthew or Mark. I can’t help wondering why not. Surely anyone who had witnessed the encounter as described in Luke would have found that exchange fascinating and memorable. Any retelling would have included that story. So why didn’t Matthew or Mark include the parable of the Good Samaritan along with the Greatest Commandment? I don’t know. Perhaps the author of Luke drew that story from some other occasion and grafted it on to the encounter we know as the Greatest Commandment.

Who dares question Jesus? One other detail fascinates me about the Greatest Commandment accounts. Mark adds to his account, right after Jesus tells the scribe he was right, that “After that no one dared to ask him any question.” Matthew adds roughly the same sentence but puts it after the ensuing discussion with the Pharisees about who is the Christ. “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” And Luke? He does include this sentence, but not until ten chapters later (Luke 20: 27-40) when he tells the story that in Matthew immediately precedes the Greatest Commandment story, the exchange with the Sadducees about which brother will wind up with the wife after resurrection. In Luke’s account, Jesus does not rebuke them; rather one of them says, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” And Luke adds, “For they no longer dared to ask him any questions.”

We generally praise teachers for inviting and encouraging questions, and criticize teachers who shut down questions. That’s why this detail common to the three accounts—even if differently placed—fascinates me. Perhaps the gospel writers are trying to communicate that Jesus’s understanding was far beyond that of any mere human. Perhaps. But if that is so, what leads some of us to be so certain about the precise meaning of the details of Jesus’s teachings?

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