Monday, March 31, 2008

Ensorcell me

In her New York Times column "Surrender, Dorothy," Maureen Dowd threw out a word that *moi* was not familiar with: ensorcell. It was used to describe Barack Obama. I thought it might have something to do with sorcery and, in fact, it does. It means to enchant or bewitch.

I have been enjoying reading the New York Times on line because I find the site easy to navigate. It's also updated frequently. It's fast, I'm very seldom annoyed by pesky pop-up advertisements and the headlines are great. It still doesn't offer the same convenience as print ... which for me is the ability to scan a page of articles very quickly, but it's helping me cope with cyberspace.

Anyway, all that being said, I read a piece today in the Times that I imagine was supposed to be witty and tongue-in-cheek, but it came across, at least to *moi*, as nasty. It reminded me of the old days, when the Washington Post would regularly go over the top in cattiness. The Post has made great strides in recent years at civility ... and of course, they publish *moi*, so now I am very fond of them.

However, I digress. The article was about dating and reading and all the people in New York City who have dumped each other over reading. New Yorkers are a finicky bunch. If you've never heard of your date's favorite author, you're out. If your reading tastes are deemed too middlebrow (say, John Irving), you're out. But if you carry a book that seems to scream pretension, you're also out. And if your taste doesn't match your date's perfectly-- for instance, horrors, if you actually like Virginia Woolf, you're out.

Well, we all have our middlebrow reading tastes (I'm reading the Golden Compass trilogy, right now, which probably doesn't even qualify as middlebrow) and we all love authors our friends love to hate. I hope we book lovers are a little more generous, good humored and down to earth than The Times makes us out to be.

I love Nancy Drew as well as Jane Austen. I can also enjoy a good middlebrow adult mystery and some contemporary "highbrow" literary fiction leaves me cold. Are there politically incorrect books you like? Enscorcell me.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Missional churches

I found a link to this good blog entry on the Jesus Creed site:

This describes the emerging church in a nutshell. And reminds me of the early Quakers ... Why don't Quakers do this more?

Friday, March 28, 2008

Nostalgic or Homesick?

I read the following in Christian Century, quoted from Susan J. Matt writing in the Sept. '07 Journal of American History:

"Homesickness is longing for a lost place and nostalgia is longing for a lost time."

I have often experienced longing for a lost place and have thought to myself that I am unheimlich, or out of place, without a home. In very recent years, that feeling has receded. As I've grown older, I've recognized that the place I long for doesn't really exist, at least not in any sustained way. I've simply caught glimpses of it, or experienced fragments of it, the little pieces of the Kingdom of God that have penetrated into our world, often in unlikely places and like oases surrounded by oceans of desert.

I associate Kingdom of God with my early childhood, with a place nobody would mistake for Paradise. And with a high-ceiling, dilapidated apartment I shared with a roommate my senior year of college. I think we expend a great deal of effort trying to recapture our KOG moments, to recreate and refashion them. For example, I wanted to share the English Lake District with my family, in part because of a morning there in a youth hostel's kitchen experiencing a deeply-felt moment of peace and well-being as sunlight (an weather phenomenon to be cherished in England!) came in through windows that lined three sides of the big room.

We make pilgrimages to places that have such layers of holiness that we feel the presence of the Kingdom of God. We bask in that peace. I think it is sad that in our present day, we are so prone to want to tear down and rebuild anything more than 20 years old. It takes time for sacred spaces to emerge. And we need to be able to go back, reconnect with our homes.

Do you have places that especially touch you?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Golden Compass Books: The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife is book two in the Golden Compass trilogy. The plot is complicated, so I will boil it down to a few essentials: a boy named Will from goes in search of his missing explorer father. As he does so, he discovers a window into a parallel universe. He enters, finds a depopulated city and meets Lyra, who has also entered this world from another. (We remember her as the girl heroine of the first book.) Will and Lyra have a series of adventures as Will searches for his father and Lyra pursues the secret of the mysterious Dust (consciousness) that is of grave concern to the Church in her world. In the midst of their travels between parallel universes, Will and Lyra enter a tower where Will fights for what turns out to be the "subtle knife." This is an extraordinary weapon that can slice through any metal. It also can cut windows between the universes. As the bearer of the knife, Will wields great power.

In this volume, we get more hints that the Church from Lyra's world is evil. While this church is not the Roman Catholic Church (this is after all a different universe) the parallels are obvious. There is no pope, but there is an inquisition and highly centralized control through a Magisterium and various councils. This Church, which worships The Authority (what we would call God) is preoccupied with eradicating sin, which it associates with Dust (consciousness). It will go to any lengths to rid its world of sin. What it identifies as sin are attributes such as free will, freedom, thought, transparency and individual growth and empowerment. In fact, the Church demonstrates that it is willing to rob people of their humanity and turn them into mindless zombies if this is what it takes to eradicate sin.

Clearly, the real Roman Catholic church has had problems with abuse of power. It's an easy target because its failings have been so glaring. But the novel suppresses all the good done by Catholicism in order to paint the institution as wholly evil. We never see this parallel church feeding the poor, caring for the dying, helping the handicapped, speaking out for the oppressed in Third World countries, calling for world peace or the abolition of the death penalty or any of the wonderful works that the Catholic Church has and is currently doing. Of course, you may say, this a work of fiction and the author can do what he wishes with his church in a parallel universe, but the distortion bothers me. I fear it plays on the kind of unexamined cultural assumptions (such as religion painted as the impediment to freedom and progress) that we explored in the Galileo series. I fear that the young people reading these books will buy into a distortion and become unduly hostile to an institution and faith that, like humans themselves, is imperfect but not evil. And this bothers me, in large part because it's so insidious.

Why is there such a focus on what is bad in Catholicism? What do you think?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Children of the Light

"For you are children of the light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness." 1 Thess. 5:5

A Quakerly verse. I remember perhaps two years ago taking a walk on a June evening with my family. As we approached the house, we realized that our section of the neighborhood was in the middle of a power outage. By the time we got in the front door, night had arrived. Inside the house, it was dark in a way we are not used to experiencing. Not only were we without indoor light, there was no light from nearby houses. We sat around a taper that illuminated part of our coffee table. To walk anywhere in the house we had to carry this candle. Our house was a little scary, because if you moved unaided by the light, you could stumble over something, run into something, get hurt. To stay in the light, you had to stay close to the light.

As we sat in near darkness huddled around the candle, I thought (of course!) of Biblical metaphors of the light. People in earlier times must have had a more immediate understanding of the danger of straying away from sources of illumination. They must have realized too, that you couldn't stand in a dark corner of a room and say "I'm in the light." Have we, I wondered, lost the power --and the multilayeredness-- of that imagery in our artificially lit world?

In the above letter, written by Paul between the years 48 and 54, the light is Jesus. But why does he address his audience as children? Is it more than simply a rebirth image? What has been illuminated for them? Why would Quakers pick up on this verse?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Golden Compass Books

Because Sophie, my daughter, has been interested in Phillip Pullman's Golden Compass trilogy, I have been reading these books and they are raising some concerns with me. I am in the middle of the third book.

In the first book, we meet a young girl named Lyra, who is growing up in Oxford in a similar, but alternate, universe. Her world is charming in an old fashioned way: there are no computers, no movies and people travel by boat and zeppelin. Everybody is accompanied by a daemon, an animal which is apparently a manifestation of each person's soul and personality and is never far from the individual to whom it is attached. With children, the daemons are constantly shifting, one moment a mouse, then a lion, then a butterfly, etc. For adults, whose souls and personalities are fixed, the daemon is fixed too.

In the first book, Lyra is reunited with the mother she has never known, but soon finds that her mother, a representative of the Church, is an evil women involved in an experiment that involves cutting children away from their daemons, which renders the children zombielike and lifeless. Lyra has been given a golden compass that she is gifted to read. The compass gyrates around between symbols and answers questions for her to give her guidance. Lyra escapes her mother and travels north to the artic regions, to liberate her friend Roger from the remote locale where the daemon removal is taking place. She rescues him with the help of an intelligent armored bear, gypsies and witches and then finds her father, who has discovered a way to blast a hole in space so as to enter another universe. She follows him there. Lyra, the Church, and her father are all in pursuit of a mysterious substance called Dust. The Church equates it with sin and wants to eradicate it.

The books are well-written, with fast-paced, active plots and well-developed characters. They've won awards. Yet as I mentioned above, they make me uneasy. Have other people read them and have opinions? Tomorrow I will talk about book II and some of my unease.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Easter Monday

We got back Saturday evening from our trip to Barnesville, Ohio. Sunday (and this morning) I was unable to access this blog but now I believe I have the problem solved. (HT:Roger)

In meeting for worship yesterday, my mind was filled with theologian N.T. Wright's assertion that Jesus' words on the cross were so unprecedented that the gospel accounts of his death must be true. Martyrs were common during the period of Roman Empire, but normally, according to Wright, a martyr would spend his last suffering minutes (or hours) calling down curses on his oppressors and prophesying their doom. It was a language of unfettered vengeance, part of a back-and-forth set piece of power and domination. In contrast, Jesus calls out to God to forgive his tormentors, and further, states that they don't understand what they're doing. This a stunning, radical shift in a martyr's relationship to his enemies. Jesus refuses to speak their language or to participate in their world view. Instead, he responds to them with forgiveness. Dying, he works to end the cycle of vengeance and violence with love, profound peacemaking and compassionate understanding of the other.

Wright makes clear that Jesus not only speaks a language of love, peace and forgiveness, he enacts it. This is what happens on the cross, as Jesus stands in for Israel and models for them a new path.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


I received the following e-mail and will correct the initial blog entry as soon as I return from Barnesville. Thank you Sister Mary Richard.

Dear Diane,

I just wanted to let you know that Galileo's daughter wouldn't have been a member of the Little Sisters of the Poor. It is the Poor Clares who are the "female branch of the Franciscans."
The Little Sisters of the Poor were founded in 1839 in France to care for the elderly poor. Thank you for correcting that information in your blog.
God bless you.
Sr. Mary Richard, lsp

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Twenty-eight of us, including my friends Sherri Morgan, Doris Rausch and Ruth Alice White, participated in the peace vigil in Columbia last night. Vigilers held signs calling for an end to the war in Iraq. Others held candles. One car stopped and left us coffee and hot chocolate, which was much appreciated given the rainy weather. Another car stopped and offered us money. Many people honked, apparently in support of our stand.

I continue to pray that peace will come quickly to Iraq. The cost of war alarms me, but even were the war to be cheap, no financial price is low enough to offset the human costs of the conflict. Perhaps it is good that war is so expensive, so that people who don't calculate the spiritual cost of combat will at least realize the extent to which it diverts resources from humanitarian efforts. What do you think? Is there any price point at which war becomes reasonable? Should people of faith evaluate war in terms of monetary costs?


My foray into the world of BGE and BGE Home had a good outcome. A manager at BGE Home had a series of conversations with BGE with the result that I will be allowed to pay my natural gas bill in six installments. The downside of this is that large sums of money will still be going from my household into the coffers of Constellation, but at least it won't happen in one $1,000 chunk. Thanks to everyone who offered advice or support. A lesson I take from this: If you are having trouble with your utility company, call your state delegate.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


A few weeks ago, we received a BGE (utility) bill of over $660 because the company had misread our gas meter for December and January and underbilled us. To make a long story short, we have the right to spread our payments over several installments without incurring any interest charges.

I called Michelle Chilton at BGE to arrange for payments. She has been very nice but said that she could not split our bill (which is now over $1,000) into installments because we buy our gas from BGE Home, which is a separate company. I called BGE Home three times and enventually was transfered to a supervisor named Camla Maces. She told me I could not be billed through BGE Home because billing is done through BGE. I told her that BGE said they could not handle dividing our bill into payments because BGE Home is our gas supplier. Camla told me that BGE had to do the billing. I said they said they couldn't. I asked Camla to talk directly to Michelle and she told she wasn't allowed to. I called Michelle and left a message, asking her to call Camla.

Then I called Liz Bobo, my state delegate, to help speed the process along. Liz's office told me to call Mike Fowler, a public affairs representative with Constellation. I left a message with him. He called back this morning to say he was working on this problem.

This (and trust me, you are hearing the condensed version) is where affairs stand now. Needless to say, I am bemused that neither BGE nor BGE Home is able to handle a simple billing situation. Apparently one of them must have the authority to split my bill into payments? I am also frustrated with the amount of time I have had to spend on hold with BGE Home and their lack response to my phone messages.

I have a questions: It has been suggested to me that we buy our gas from a different supplier? Has anyone had a good (or OK) experience with a different provider?

Galileo's Daughter, part V

While Galileo, the Pope, archbishops and cardinals worried about the Catholic church's stance on the cosmos, Galileo's two daughters lived day-to-day lives in a cloistered Catholic convent. Sobel interweaves their story--particularly that of the oldest daughter, Sister Maria Celeste -- with the story of Galileo's battle with church authorities.

Over a hundred of the letters Maria Celeste wrote to Galileo survive. One can't help but be charmed by some of the glimpses they offer of everyday life: ripe lemons falling from the trees, Maria Celeste sugaring orange slices to send them back candied to her father, updates on them lace collars she is sewing for him and her brother.

But a grimmer picture also emerges. From the age of 16, when she took her vows, Maria Celeste was a lifetime prisoner of the convent. She couldn't leave. Though this cloistered existence was supposed to be a free choice, and although Maria Celeste never complains of her fate, it's hard to imagine that she had a real voice in the decision. She and her sister were put in the convent at ages 12 and 13. One also can't help but admire how well Celeste dealt with her situation.

Being members of the Poor Clares, the female branch of the Franciscans started by St. Clare, put Maria Celeste and her sister in particularly trying circumstances. For example, under the rules of the order, they had to rely on their own labors, money from their relatives, and begging for survival. Unlike other orders, they couldn't live on the rents from lands they owned.

As a result, the convent was constantly short of money and the sisters often went hungry. Clearly, as cloistered nuns, their employment options were limited. They baked and sold bread in the hottest part of summer, when nobody else was willing to be in front of a fire. They sold some wine. They grew fruits and vegetables. And each sister was supposed to pay for her room and board with an allowance provided by her relatives. Yet none of it was enough.

Many of Celeste's letters contain requests for money. In one letter, she writes of rooming with a nun who suffers from mental illness and "prattles" incessantly and stays up at night. This nun later hits her head on the ground until it's bloody and cuts herself with a knife. Celeste pleads with Galileo to send her funds for a private room.

“I do not think you will forsake me Sire, in doing me this great charitable service, for the love of God, numbering myself now among the neediest paupers locked in prison ...”

Through the letters, a picture of the private Galileo also emerges: the somewhat bemused patriarch in a society dependent on patronage, spending time finding sinecures for relatives, housing his brother's wife and eight children, caring for his sister, sending money to his daughters. He's financially generous to his convent-bound daughters and diligent at pursuing patrons for his family, but also completely a man of his times. The same person who ahead of most of his peers in his understanding of the universe was the same person willing to consign his daughters at an early age to spending their lives behind four walls. He didn't seem to have any trouble with the juxtaposition of his freedom, wealth and comfort with his daughters' plight.

Francis of Assisi resisted mightily setting up rules for his monastery, though he was under enormous pressure to do so. He only gave in when he realized he was dying and that the church was going to do establish his order to look like the others in the church. However, he'd seen how a set of rules could hamper religious growth and become stumbling blocks after the first flush of religious fervor has faded. We see that in the convent of San Matteo, where women like Maria Celeste, placed there for the convenience of their relatives rather than religious purposes, adapted to a 400-year-old rule that was unfitted to people not called to an unusual level of sacrifice.

Is this the story the textbooks missed?

Forget your principles?

I clipped this from a Dionne editorial in the Washington Post this morning:

"Sometimes you have to forget your principles to do what's right."

What do you think of this statement?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Galileo's Daughter, part IV

If Galileo's heresy trial for asserting the earth traveled around the sun can't be structured as a "religion versus science" narrative, what was it?

First, some bare bones background: In reaction to the spread of the Reformation, the Catholic church convened the Council of Trent in the mid 16th-century. This highly politicized gathering drew a line in a sand between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The Council reaffirmed and strengthened the concept that the Church hierarchy, not individual conscience, would determine Catholic doctrine. While the council avoided confronting church corruption, it did try to correct some ills, for example, affirming that people who were not called by God to Holy orders should not be forced into convents or monasteries.

By 1616, a growing number of telescope-wielding scientists (some of them Catholic clergy or devout Catholic laymen like Galileo and Descartes) believed that Copernicus had the right model of the cosmos. To decide Catholic policy on the matter, the Catholic Church convened a panel of 11 high-ranking clergymen to determine if 1.The earth revolves around the sun or 2. the sun revolves around the earth. The panel decided that the sun revolves around the earth and censored several treatises that argued too strongly in the opposite direction. However, what the panel didn't do was significant: it didn't ban works that argued in favor of a sun-centered solar system, not even the works of Copernicus. Instead, it fuzzed the issue by requiring that such works present themselves as hypothetical. To state as fact that the earth revolved around the sun was heretical; to discuss or entertain the subject was not. Copernicus's work was revised to appear more hypothetical but not suppressed.

Before we are too quick to condemn the council for its decision, we have to remember that, at this time, there was no solid empirical proof for the revolving earth theory. Against scientists' "thought experiments," the movements of the planets and the sunspots stood the weight of Aristotelean tradition (1,000 years old), Scripture and the evidence of the senses. A similar contemporary case to Galileo might be that of Dr. John Lee. He insisted for years that the estrogen in hormone replacement therapy given to menopausal women was causing cancer, but could never prove it. It wasn't until double-blind studies were done by people with funding and the proper status in the scientific community that his theory was widely accepted as true.

Galileo, who was not targeted by the 1616 council despite his known advocacy of Copernicus, decided it would be prudent to lay low. But by 1628, as he was entering his late 60s, fearing his life was nearing its end and angered by Jesuits ridiculing his theory, he revisited the idea of a sun-centered solar system in a book called "Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems."

Galileo submitted the book to the church's censors in Rome, who approved it for publication. He hoped to have it printed in Rome, but an outbreak of the bubonic plague made traveling difficult. Therefore, Galileo decided to have the Dialogue printed in Florence, where he lived. This time he submitted the book to the Tuscan censors, who also gave it their official approval. High-ranking clergy, such as the archbishop of Sienna, also supported publication.

But when the printed book reentered Rome, enemies of Galileo attacked it as heretical. Suddenly, the conjecture that the earth might rotate about the sun, though implicitly allowed by the 1616 ruling and accepted in the Dialogue as non-heretical by two sets of censors, was declared by a tribunal of cardinals to be heretical. Galileo was condemned as "vehemently suspected of heresy." His Dialogue was banned (which fanned the popularity of the book) and he was placed under house arrest.

Why the switch? Did the pope and his cardinals suddenly "find God" in a deeper way?

Not at all. Our "religion versus science" story turns out to have been all about politics.

By 1630, the year the Dialogue was finally printed, Pope Urban VIII was in serious political trouble. The Thirty Years' War, which was supposed to defeat the Germans and show that God was on the side of Roman Catholicism, was going badly for Urban and his allies. Urban had been publicly accused by one of the Borgias of not doing his part for the war effort. He couldn't, as Sobel states on page 225, let another affront to Church go unanswered. Further, he was faced with an outbreak of the plague, another potential sign that he'd mismanaged his role as mediator between Catholics and God.

Galileo, an international superstar, provided just the high-profile scapecoat Urban needed to deflect attention from his failings and prove his zeal. Galileo took the fall and was humiliated through a forced public recanting of his views.


If the true reason Galileo was tried as a heretic was Pope Urban's political troubles rather than a religion's desire to suppress reason, why are we taught a different story?

One reason could be that although distorted, "religion versus science" is a simple story for children to grasp. Another might be modernism's tendency to "universalize" religion. A standard textbook of the mid-twentieth century might contain essays describing the "major religions of the world." These religions would be boiled down to whatever points scholars (primarily U.S and England-trained white Protestant men) decided were normative for that faith. The idea that all religions are internally pluralistic, with many contradictory strands and strains, wasn't emphasized. With this mindset, it would be easy to depict Roman Catholicism as a monolith in which everyone, in lockstep, favored "authority" over "reason." Galileo's Daughter, however, shows us that in this famous case politics and not religion suppressed free inquiry.

Why do you think this story was distorted? What are the implications?

And ...Sobel's book implies, the real issues within the Catholic church didn't lie in how it treated an intellectual debate about what bodies revolved around what. Where did the true problem exist?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Christ-centered worship group

I've come home this evening feeling energized and elated about the new Christ-centered Quaker worship group. Attendance is growing: Ten of us met Sunday evening in Baltimore, a jump from the four who worshiped together at the first meeting in December. Our group is a mix of young and older, surburbanite and urbanite, male and female, black and white, gay and straight, married and single. People seem to be brimming with grassroots excitement and the sense of being part of a bigger movement that is bubbling up in our culture with Christ at its center.

Kevin led us in singing Shaker songs and Rachel, with her guitar, introduced us to two songs by emerging church leader Brian McLaren. One lovely McLaren song spoke of how we are Jesus's hands and eyes in the world, and as such should be kind. It was such a simple heart message that I was almost moved to tears. The Shaker music, with its simplicity and stress on humbleness, was also perfect.

Rachel learned her songs at Brian's "Everything Must Change" DeepShift conference in Vienna, Va. last week. We had silent worship between the singing, shared joys and concerns, and discussed ties between the emerging church and Quakerism. We noted the synergy and affinity between Christ-centered Quakers and the emerging church. Both hunger to "possess what they profess," (orthopraxy), to live in simplicity, and to shed the nonessentials to get to the core of what it means to follow Jesus. And as a sign of the "way opening," the pastor of the Metropolitan Church near Kevin's house has offered us free use of his building should we need it. We are also talking about expanding to meeting twice a month.

What I like best about the group has been experiencing the intense sweetness--or to use the Quaker term, tenderness--of the worship. I felt I was not "sitting in silence" on Sunday but in the palpable midst of Christ's presence. I was worshiping God with my whole heart, soul and mind. The sense of love's surround brought me to a place of gratitude and joy.

I also am feeling hope. Homewood Meeting appears to be supporting rather than suspecting Kevin in his leading to start this group. While Christ-centered Quakers (including me) still speak of feeling the sting of some Quakers' hostility to Christianity, and of a tendency to stereotype all Christians as fundamentalists, our group shows little or no paranoia about being attacked for gathering together. I may be overly optimistic, but I am praying that more and more individuals are discovering the growing swell of Christians who are gentle, caring and loving people trying to form a new kind of Christian identity.

Experiencing God

From Experiencing God Day-by-Day by Henry T. Blackaby and Richard Blackaby:

"And the angel of the Lord appeared to him from the midst of a burning bush..." Exodus 3:2

"If you have not experienced God's power at work in and through your life, do not settle for a secondhand knowledge ...Don't discount the power of God in Scripture just because you haven't experienced it. Bring your experience up to the standard of Scripture; never reduce Scripture to the level of you experience."

"You can be in the midst of a common moment, only this time the activity is filled with the presence of God. ... God usually speaks out of the ordinary experience of life."

These comments sound Quakerly to me ... and also flip our natural way of thinking, so that we and our ordinary experiences are subordinate to a vibrant spiritual realm. Do you agree?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Galileo's Daughter, part III

Part III on Dava Sobel's "Galileo's Daughter:"

Galileo’s contention that the earth revolved around the sun was controversial for several reasons:

1. It struck at the core of Aristotelean astronomy. It was not an edge modification to his theory: it demolished it. Aristotelean astronomy was built on an immovable earth at the center of the cosmos. A parallel today would be the firestorm that might erupt if an eminent scientist proposed a theory that destroyed the theory of evolution.

2. A moving earth appeared to challenge Scriptural truth, such as Psalm 103’s “O Lord my God ... thou fixed the earth upon its foundation, not to be moved forever.”

3. It challenged commonsense. Sobel points out that is was clear to people as they looked at the sky that the sun traveled across it, rising in the east and setting in the west. People also questioned why they didn’t get dizzy or why birds didn’t lose their way if the earth was moving around space at a high speed.

On the surface, reconciling the Bible to science was a fairly easy task. Contrary to what I was taught in school about Bible literalism in premodern times, people of the 15th and 16th centuries, even clerics, had a sophisticated understanding of metaphor. Remember, this was the period of Shakespeare and Donne, masters of metaphoric language. (Also remember that Donne was an Anglican priest.) While Europeans of this era took the Bible seriously, they understood that many passages in the scriptures were poetic or symbolic. One of their puzzles, as today, was determining which passages to take literally.

Helping Galileo was the fact that, contrary to what I learned in school, science and religion were not in an adversarial relationship during this period. There was not an overarching construct of “faith versus reason” or “science versus Christianity.” Instead, 17th century thinkers saw nature and scripture as the two main ways God revealed himself in the world. Nature and scripture were the two prongs (or manifestations) of a God-centered universe. People studied both nature and scripture for the same purpose: to get a better grasp of God’s attributes and his plan for the world. They looked to science--how God revealed himself in nature--to help them interpret the Bible, and they looked at scripture to help understand how God worked in nature. In fact, many scientists were also clergymen, including Copernicus.

Knowing people were going to challenge him on the basis of Scripture, Galileo prepared arguments to show that the Biblical passages that opposed a sun-centered solar system were metaphoric, and he marshalled other Bible verses that were clearly accepted as metaphor to bolster his claim. He asserted that the Bible used metaphor to help people grasp difficult truths and quoted Augustine that hypotheses not be condemned hastily, lest “that truth hereafter may reveal to be not contrary in any way to the sacred books of either the old or the new testaments.”

As with Copernicus, the biggest problem facing Galileo was not religion, but science. Neither man could offer any proof for the assertion that the earth moved around the sun. Copernicus used math and reason to support his theory: A sun-centered solar system was an elegant way to solve difficulties in what he observed about the movement of planets. Galileo, too, intuited from the movement of the planets and other celestial bodies that we live in a sun-centered solar system.

Galileo realized that what he “knew” to be true couldn’t be backed up scientifically. However, he needed empirical evidence to verify his claims. What he came up with were the tides. He attributed the tides’ movement to the earth revolving around the sun, sloshing the ocean’s water all around. He wrote a treatise on the subject, called “Treatise on the Tides.”

Of course, as we know now, Galileo was wrong about the tides, which are caused primarily by the moon’s gravitational pull. Galileo couldn’t know this because he lived in a gravity-free universe. Sir Isaac Newton, the discover of gravity, wasn't born until the year Galileo died. It’s stunning to think that the man who became famous from dropping objects from a tower and measuring how fast they fell never questioned why they fell.

Galileo might not have had proof for his theory, but he did have high-placed friends and admirers, including Cardinal Barberini, a fellow Tuscan who later became Pope Urban VIII.

If Galileo occupied a world in which the church was not wedded to Biblical literalism and which understood science as the revelation of God’s handiwork, and if high-ranking people in the church hierarchy were at least open to hypotheses about a sun-centered solar system, how did Galileo end up hauled in front of the Inquisition and forced to repudiate his claims?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

How old are you?

In our parallel text Bible study on Sunday, I mentioned feeling younger than my chronological age. Johanna's response about accepting one's age triggered a realization in me: However I feel at X age is how a person of X age feels. I think perhaps we experience age dissonance because we have built an idea in our mind that people of a certain age should have attained to a high level of wisdom and maturity. Then we arrive at that age and ... .

What age do you feel? Why? How do you think a person of your real age "should" feel? And why?

Unity in the Eternal

There is also value in dialogue with those who don't share your spiritual basis, but that is a different thing from the diversity within the church. There is something very special in the bond of the unity in the Eternal when in the things of this world you are very different.

Bill wrote the above in response to the diversity thread. He is talking about Christian unity. I have experienced this too and it has been life changing. I wonder if others have had a similar experience?

Galileo's daughter II

Galileo was the scientist superstar of his era (born 1564, launched scientific career circa 1589, died Jan. 8, 1642).

Perhaps because of his dedication to science, Galileo never married. He had a mistress who bore him two daughters and a son. He had his son legitimized but not his daughters.

Until their early teens, the daughters lived with Galileo’s sister. Then Galileo followed the common path of sending the girls to a convent.

His science

At a party, Galileo, already a well-known scientist, saw a new invention, a spyglass that provided crude magnification. It was basically a toy. Upperclass partygoers were thrilled at being able to discern objects too far away to see with the naked eye

Galileo saw the potential in the spyglass. He repeatedly ground more and more powerful lenses, until he had invented the telescope. When he pointed it at the sky, his discoveries upended the Aristotelean universe, which was the foundation of science at that time.

For example, Aristotle said all celestial bodies were perfectly smooth, yet through the telescope Galileo saw that the moon was pock marked and the sun showed spots. Also, Aristotle taught that the earth was fixed and immovable and all the other celestial bodies rotated around it. However, the telescope revealed that at least four bodies (Jupitier’s moons) rotated around a planet other than the earth. Further, the telescope proved that a 1604 supernova took place out in space beyond the moon, in the celestial sphere Aristotle had deemed immutable.

Knowing how radically his observations challenged accepted science, Galileo put as many telescopes as possible into the hands of fellow scientists around Europe. They corroborated his findings.

Most radically, Galileo came to believe that the earth revolved around the sun. And this is where trouble bubbled up ...

Why do you think this assertion was so troubling?

Quaker class diversity

"...if our Meetings become more class-diverse, we, as individuals, will grow close to God's ideal for ourselves. As Tai from the Friends of Color blog said:
I find truth in opposites. I believe that when we are faced with someone who is culturally "opposite" from us, we learn. And it's not the kind of Barney purple dinosaur learn, it's the, this fucking hurts because I'm growing learning.
And if our Meetings become more class-diverse, our Meetings might grow. Martin, quoting statistics about a decline in both Liberal and Evangelical Friends' Meetings except where the Yearly Meeting is dually affiliated with both FGC and FUM, recently said on his blog:
Could it be that serious theological wrestling and complicated spiritual identities create healthier religious bodies than monocultural groupings?
What Quaker doesn't want their Meeting to grow and doesn't want to grow personally?

Jeanne, at (this came across as a link this morning from Martin Kelly's Quaker Ranter) makes an argument for greater class diversity in Quaker meetings. What do you think of this? It caught my eye because often in my work as a religion reporter I met kind, sincere people who wanted me to write about the "diversity" of their group. However, the group in question was seldom more than superficially diverse ... the skin colors and ethnicities might be different, and the group might include the representative Muslim, Jew, Buddhist ... but everyone in it looked at life through the same educated, liberal lens. People would feel good about their "diversity," and they were good, kind people, but their groups only underscored that the diversity paradigm has shifted from race, ethnicity and religion to class and worldview. My experience has been that embracing people who are truly different increases my compassion and self-awareness. Listening carefully to people with different perspectives has shown me flaws or gaps in my own thinking and also revealed to me where I have prejudged (shown prejudice) against a group. But what are some things that block us from doing this more often? What is the downside?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Galileo's daughter

I plan to start blogging about Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel. I read this book a few years ago, and it has stuck with me, primarily because it upset the "science versus the Church" narrative I had learned in elementary school.

In my school-taught narrative, empiricial science (the "good") faces off against the Catholic church (the "bad"). The church refuses to accept Galileo's assertion that the earth revolves around the sun, because the assertion appears to contradict the Bible. Religious irrationality and superstition as well as blind adherence to tradition block rationality and the search for truth. More shockingly, the church uses the Inquisition and the threat of torture not only to silence Galileo but to force him to recant what he knows to be true.

Galileo's Daughter provides a much more nuanced picture of what really happened. I invite you to join in as we work through this book.

For today: Any thoughts on Galileo? On the collision of science and faith?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


The weather has been feeling balmy these past few days. We have a lot of forsythia around our house, and I am looking forward to cutting some and putting it in warm water so that it will bloom indoors. I like that first burst of yellow in the house. The forsythia blooming also brings back happy memories of the 1990s, when my friend Dianne, a hostess extraordinaire, first introduced me to the idea of bringing early springtime indoors.

Do you have signs of spring you enjoy?

Sex scandal continued

OK ... I am going to drop this ... I think ... but one more comment.

I read two pieces on Spitzer in the New York Times. The first brought up the old "politicians are alpha male, risk-taking, thrill seekers" theory to explain Spitzer's behavior. I am skeptical of this theory. Surely there are other ways to seek thrills and such a thing as sublimation. I did, however, agree that these men feel entitled ... in fact, I believe a sense of entitlement is the core problem.

Another piece argued that because Spitzer did a good job in cleaning up Wall Street, we shouldn't judge him so harshly for his private life. However, as a society we do, if only because sexual misconduct is a powerful symbol of ruling class arrogance and self-gratification at the expense of others.

I agree that we should celebrate Spitzer's successes in opposing corporate corruption. I also believe we should applaud Bill Clinton for his achievements in helping to build a strong economy in the 1990s. It's the demonstrated competence of such politicians that makes their sexual contretemps all the more frustrating and disappointing: The self-indulgence undermines the good these people do in other areas. Which makes me ask again wonder why?

sex scandal, economic meltdown

What a morning to open the papers! Since we don't watch television in Reynoldsville, we get our news here from the print media. What of that New York governor? How is that public officials never seem to learn that prostitutes are a bad idea? Maybe memorizing (and passing a comprehension test) on the book of Proverbs should be required before an elected official can take office?

But what concerns me most about the prostitution is how widespread it seems to be. Spitzer was hardly the "Emperor Club's" (what a name!) only client. And what of the movie "Michael Clayton?" In that saga, to "celebrate" a billing milestone, one of the protagonists (the moral center of the movie, no less) and another lawyer friend purchase the services of two Eastern European "redheads." Visiting prostitutes is apparently so ordinary, so commonplace, that it's not worth a second thought. The "redheads" are treated entirely as objects, nameless, interchangeable and dehumanized parts. They're spoken of with utter callousness. No thought whatsoever is given to what life circumstances might have brought them to this pass or what their feelings might be or that they might despise what they are doing or that it might be wrong to use them in this way. And, of course, they must be dehumanized this way for the system to work. Moreover, when it becomes normal and everyday (a "right") to have call girls at your disposal, of course our public officials will want them too ... Didn't Oscar Wilde tell us that nature imitates art?

The one gratifying part of this sordid Spitzer debacle is that "Kristen," Spitzer's call girl, is coming across in the newspapers as a real human. More so than his wife ...

Meanwhile, the New York Times is full of economic meltdown news: See, for example, Are we at the beginning of a new Great Depression? Does the phrase "fiddling while Rome burns" come to mind as we watch our elected officials spending $4,000 plus dollars for a few hours with a prostitute, while millions of two-income families are earning less than $40,00 a year? Am I wrong to be outraged about all this? Is none of it "a big deal?"

Monday, March 10, 2008


Welcome to my blog.

I invite you to comment on my posts --or anything else appropriate. Just click the comment button at the bottom of a post to do so. The only rule is to be civil. I have been much influenced by Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed blog, which manages to be a haven of kind and intelligent discourse.

This blog is a work in progress, and I will see how it evolves.

The chairs in the photo slideshow to the right belonged to George Fox and Margaret Fell. We were allowed to sit in them during our trip to Swarthmoor Hall in England last year. You've got to love the English for that kind of gesture. In this country, those chairs would be behind bullet proof glass. (For non-Quakers, George Fox is usually credited as the founder of Quakerism. Margaret Fell was a prominent Quaker, and after the death of her first husband, Fox's wife.) The other photos are from the same trip to the English Lake District.

P.S. Roger added the "Giant" icon to my post about determining authenticity. What do you think of it?

Determining authenticity

I was in the skateboarding shop yesterday, where I saw a book called "Obey, supply and demand: the Art of Shephard Fairey" about Fairey, an artist who created a black and white logo called the Giant icon. He glued it in public spaces to confront people's expectations about public art.

In some instances, Fairey glued the Giant icon over a Sprite ad that said "Obey your thirst," so that only the word Obey appeared, with the Giant icon beneath it.

Fairey was arrested 13 times because of hanging his street art illegally. Simultaneously, he was earning money as a freelance graphic designer for companies such as Levi and Universal pictures.

"Sometimes I feel like a double agent," Fairey said in an interview in reference to his work both supporting and subverting corporate America.

The book raises three questions I'd like to explore:

1. Dualism:

Is Fairey authentic or is he a sell-out?

This question, the book argues, is a false one because it suggests that there are only two choices.

That got me thinking (again) about how often we put people or things into either/or categories. Either you're a sell-out or you're authentic. Either the Bible was written by God or it was constructed by patriarchal men with an agenda. Either you are an evangelical Christian or you're a Democrat. We impose a grid and then have a difficult time wrapping our minds around people or things who are both/and, not either/or. How open are we to people who defy our expectations? How often do we treat people who don't fit our categories as suspect rather than questioning whether the categories themselves might be suspect?

2. Authenticity:

I know that "authenticity" is an important value to the emerging church. But what does authenticity mean? Is it the same as the Quaker testimony of integrity? Is it the same as the simplicity testimony (being plain?). Would Fairey be more authentic (plainer, living with more integrity?) if he didn't straddle two worlds? Or is he more authentic for throwing out the preconceived script?

3. And the most important questions of all:): what is this book doing in a skateboard shop? What am *I* doing in a skateboard shop?

Bible study: Jesus the Reframer

Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar or not? ... [Jesus] said to them, 'Show me a coin. Whose likeness and inscription has it?' They said, 'Caesar's.' He said to them, 'Then render to Caesar's the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's.'" (Luke 20:21-25, also Matthew 22: 15-22, Mark 12: 13-17).

"'Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?' And [Jesus] said to them, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Matthew 22:36-39, also Mark 12: 28-31, Luke 20:25-28).

In the parallel text Bible study last night, Bill, Ken, Johanna, (it was good to see all of you!) Roger and I discussed the above passages. As usual, Jesus takes a dualistic either/or question meant to trap and pigeonhole him and reframes it. When Jesus then tells his listeners to render onto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's, he leaves it up to them to discern which is which.

In the next passage we read, Jesus conflates two separate commandments from Deuteronomy: love God and love your neighbor. This is one of the few instances of Jesus offering straight answer to a question, but, as usual, it's a response that places responsibility for discernment on the listener.

It strikes me how often Jesus is asked questions with an underlying agenda, and it makes me wonder how often we ask still ask questions to trap people. This is neither plain nor authentic.

Last night, we struggled with the question of war taxes: should we pay taxes to that which opposes Jesus' message of peace? Is our money God's or the state's? How important is money to the Kingdom of God? Do we place too much value on it? Is it wrong to withhold it to coerce people?

Jesus rejects simplistic answers to questions. I believe he doesn't give easy answers because he wants to engage us fully in thinking, feeling and understanding what is like to live in his community (the Kingdom of God). Rejecting formulaic answers is part of loving God with all our hearts, minds and souls. Jesus wants us to examine our preconceptions and our grids. He wants us to embrace a world that is not dualistic but holistic. He wants us to become fully human.