Saturday, December 21, 2013

When A Flag is not a Flag: Jasper Johns and George Zimmerman

George Zimmerman eBay Flag 2013

                                     Jasper Johns White Flag 1955 Metropolitan Museum of Art

George Zimmerman, recently acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin in Florida, has taken up the life of an artist. His flag painting, posted for sale on eBay, is reported to be up for bid at $100,000. Both George Zimmerman and Jasper Johns grew up in the Southeast--George in Virginia and Jasper Johns in South Carolina--and both have painted representations of the American Flag. But as in  the prototypical final art history questions from college art classes where students are asked to compare and contrast two works of art, these two flags couldn't be further apart in form and nuanced content.

Zimmerman's flag is hard-edged, linear and conceptual. It broadcasts a literal visual re-interpretation of a text, the Pledge of Allegiance, begging us to conform to a standard of justice, ironically abrogated from some people's viewpoint, by the Zimmerman trial itself. Could Zimmerman's painting be a surreal parody of justice? Or does that give too much credit to Zimmerman's scope of understanding? Johns's, White Flag, is painterly and suggestive, compelling us to distance ourselves from its face content and immersing us in a field of color and vague form. White Flag is not a flag; it is a cornucopia of intimated symbols. It is more akin to poetry than to the prosaic art of Zimmerman.

Giorgio Vasari, the 16th century artist and biographer, sought to understand Renaissance art through his biographic treatment of the major artists of his time. Can we tell a bit from Zimmerman's and Jone's artwork how each might have viewed the world? Are the hard-edges of Zimmerman's painting a mirror into a reflexive and jarring violence than seems to be borne out both by his actions and an overly enthusiastic patriotism? Does Jasper John's flag hint at the avant garde and at a hope for an open, complex and welcoming society? Two flags, two radically different messages.

Monday, December 2, 2013

12 Years a Slave: Steve McQeen and the Avant Garde

Aristotle in his Poetics proposes that the goal of tragedy is to arouse feelings of fear and pity within the audience an then through a process of catharsis purge these emotions. I can think of no better exemplar of catharsis than Steve McQueen's film, 12 Years a Slave. It is not the dense and compelling narrative that purges fear and pity, a narrative that remains strikingly close to Solomon Northup's original 1853 autobiography; rather, McQueen's direction and cinematography fasten and rivet our emotions. A steamboat paddle wheel spins, churning a wake of eddies along a river; embers from a burning letter disappear into the night. Images of light and darkness, water and wood, long close-ups of anguished faces sustaining brutal rapes and floggings. McQueen in his post-minimalist cinematography creates a visual catharsis instead of the more typical purging of emotions through word.

Steve McQueen is an artist. Winner of the British Turner Prize in 1999, he is known for his experimental films. I had the pleasure of seeing a retrospective of his work last year at the Art Institute of Chicago and his short, highly abstract films were a feast for viewing. I do wonder, at the risk of oversimplification, whether McQueen arouses in us the emotion centers from the right hemisphere of the brain--the regions that process the vague, the fuzzy, the sustained emotional, facial and visual content of our perceptions. Perhaps empathy is necessary for Aristotelian catharsis. If so, McQueen is an aesthetic genius of empathy, having discovered a direct non-verbal route for all of us to feel the horrific incongruities of American slavery.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Pantheism: Bridging the Gulf between Humanism and God

I have always treasured walking in the woods. Like many, nature provides me an emotional and spiritual nourishment far beyond that which I receive from attending most formal religious services. Viewing nature is like seeing a painting or reading a poem; nature is a multilayered canvas whose unity demands from us an active sense of composition: Unity in Variety. Pantheism, the belief and experience that All is One, that Nature is the ultimate ground of being, begs for such a unifying vision. We worship in nature by communing in her presence; we can venerate the woods either in a solitary way, like Daoist philosophers, or communally, as the ancient Druids were said to have done.

The great divide in our Unitarian Universalist congregations has historically been between those who are theists, namely those who believe in some sort of personal God, and our humanists/atheists who believe that humankind is the ultimate measure of all things. A monotheistic God is a unifying principle, while humanity is a source of rich diversity. What if Pantheism were a middle path between monotheism and humanism, between the One and the Many?

In my role as an intern minister at a local Unitarian Universalist congregration, Starr King UU Church in Hayward CA, I had the great joy of leading an adult religious education/faith formation class on Nature-Based Religions. I've noticed that Pantheism furnishes a large theological field upon which naturalist/atheists, animists and theists can all play. Everyone in the class had reported transcendent experiences in nature--just their interpretations differ: you can celebrate physical/chemical/biological laws, view trees, rocks and streams as burgeoning with spirit and consciousness, or witness the presence of God(s) in the comforting woods. We all sang the beauty of Nature together, refracted through our individual lens. A Unity in Diversity.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Black Madonna in Provence: An Earth Based Spirituality

                       The Black Madonna from the Crypt of the Abbey of Saint Victor, Marseille

I have always been fascinated by images of the Black Madonna--rich, earthy, like dark-roasted coffee she leads us into darkness. Many have conjectured that she continues a tradition of pagan earth goddesses, most frequently the Egyptian goddess, Isis with her son Horus. But, in the case of Marseille, whose Greek founders herald from Western Anatolia in the city of Phocaea near the ancient Ephesus, the patron goddess was Artemis--the many breasted nurturing earth goddess.

So I often delve into the crypt in the St. Victor's abbey when I visit Marseille to reconnect with darkness, an earthly baptism. It is the beauty of metaphor that can free up us religious liberals to at once be skeptical of religious canons and textual literalism and, at the same time, reinvent for ourselves profound spiritual experience. I believe even atheists would be moved by cryptic encounters, interpreting the experience as aesthetic rather than liturgical.

Whether we view the Black Madonna as art, as archetypes of the feminine repressed, as emblems of the neglected earth or as icons pointing to veneration of the Virgin Mary, she cannot fail to inspire our curiosity for the extraordinary and a transformation of our souls.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Marseille, MuCEM and the New Mediterraneanism

MuCEM--Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations
A Mediterranean Map

Plato once said that the Mediterranean was a giant pond upon which many frogs croak. Yet the nature of a pond is that it is, par excellence, a stable ecosystem that embodies unity in diversity sustaining many species that, through mutual interactions, stabilize the pond's biological richness. As we see from the sort of Dadaist map above, the Mediterranean Sea is one of the few places on earth that can at once be both provincial in its insular geographic isolation and cosmopolitan in its easy seafaring routes of commerce. From time to time, the Mediterranean hosted a unified local in global culture: we can think of the Hellenistic Era in the Greek Eastern Mediterranean, the Roman Empire that politically united all shores of the Mediterranean and, more recently, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy's attempt to form a Mediterranean Union as an alternative partnership to the EU, inclusive of the North African and the Eastern Mediterranean nations. 

But, often what may fail politically or economically may succeed, in small part culturally. Hence the recent opening this past year of the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM) in Marseille. I can't tell in words just how remarkable this museum is! Architecturally it resembles a dense forest of trees and brush, as if to remind us of the ecological diversity of Mediterranean woods. The museum offers not only a permanent collection of Mediterranean cultural artifact, ranging from the Neolithic to the present era, but also, in a special exhibition entitled, "The Black and the Blue: A Mediterranean Dream", shows us the cyclical attempts to create a culturally unified Mediterranean ever since the late 1700's. As we sadly know, such attempts have fallen victim to the political colonialism and academic orientalism that essentialized those living in the eastern and southern Mediterranean as "others"--either to demean or to appropriate from.

But this current incarnation of Mediterraneanism, as reflected in MuCEM's philosophy, lifts up a creative and compelling hope that Plato's characterization of the Mediterranean as a frog laden pond rings true. The Mediterranean has always been a paradox between the hybrid and the isolated, between islands and ports of call. The city of Marseille, itself, now is as ethnically diverse as my home stomping grounds of Oakland, CA. The markets are filled with Senegalese, Tunisians, Moroccans,  Lebanese and Armenians. Let us look to MuCEM as a new forest of cultural reconciliation.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Pilgrim's Progress: Trudging to the cave of Mary Magdalene in Provence

            Cave of Saint Mary Magdalene Interior Grotto

      Cave of Saint Mary Magdalene

The air of Provence is redolent with mystery. Provence, itself, is a hybrid of cultures--the Greeks who founded Marseilles in 600 BCE, the local Celtic-Ligurians who traded with them for wine and the Romans who established a series of cities in interior Provence along the Aurelian Way. In the midst of this cosmopolitan province arose the story of Mary Magdalene's life after Jesus. Mary is reported to have sailed from Palestine or Ephesus and landed near the mouth of the Rhone with her brother, Lazarus, her sister, Martha, her handmaiden, Sarah, and an early disciple, Maxmin. Mary then went on to evangelize the people of Marseille.

After a few years, Mary Magdalene retreated to a remote cave at the top of a mountain, named Sainte Baume. There she became a contemplative and is said to have been elevated by angels seven times each day on account of the depth and intensity of her prayers.
Sainte Baume--photos above--is isolated and exhausting to hike up to. But the exhaustion was sweet and meditative and transforming in its quietness. Our guide told us that the mountain was a center of feminine spirituality, even before Christianity, where the forest leading up to the grotto was a Druid sacred space.

It is astounding how different Provencal spirituality feels from the spiritual disciplines we liberal religious folk usually employ for self-cultivation. At once emotional and profound, it is difficult to acquire a sense of detachment from either the world or the Divine. The adoration of Mary Magdalene more resembles the bhakti (devotional) yoga of South Asia than the detached, raja (royal) yoga of renunciates. In fact, the Gypsies of Provence who originate from India will each year celebrate the arrival of Mary Magdalene and Sarah to the mouth of the Rhone similar to the worship of the goddess Parvati or Lakshmi in India.
A cosmopolitan Provence has implanted diverse and syncretic religious practices on its rich vintage soil.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Science and Religion: Contemporary Encounters through Archaeology and Anthropology

In 1959, the renowned physicist and novelist, C. P. Snow, delivered an address entitled The Two Cultures in which he bemoaned the unfathomable gulf between scientific and humanistic literacy. Each enterprise was just too narrowly focused to bridge the difficult policy decisions of the modern world which, he felt, required an integration of scientific methodology with the insights into the human condition furnished only by an artistic or literary understanding of the expressive life. I am not sure that we have overcome this divide in the half-century since his lecture, but many liberal religions, such as Unitarian Universalism, pay lip service to their reconciliation in sermons and in religious education.

C. P. Snow, however, was not so acquainted with certain social sciences--particularly from North America--that from their inception have attempted such an integration. I'm thinking, most particularly, of anthropology and archaeology which ever since the 1960s have sought a scientific approach to interpreting cultural phenomena.

This week, a couple of fascinating reports from these fields have the capability of transforming our biased views about religion and ethics. The first is a study conducted by the anthropologist Dean Snow (no relation, I presume) from Penn State. He analyzed a large set of Paleolithic cave paintings from Spain and France such as those made famous in Werner Herzog's  2010 surreal documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Received opinion concluded that the uncannily representational drawings of bison and bears and horses were drawn by men--male hunters who represented these animals as a form of sympathetic magic to facilitate their kill. Dean Snow, rather conclusively showed that the adjoining hand prints to these cave paintings were female hands, based on the ratio of digit lengths, index to middle fingers. Since the 1800s, we have often heard that religion and art were invented by men for the purpose of facilitating hunting; Snow's results leave us in a quandary of interpretive mud. What were cave women doing when they painted wild animals. Could we be witnessing the rudiments of eco-theology? A harmonizing of the human with the wild?

Another study conducted by the primatologist Frans de Waal from Emory University found that the odd species of chimps, the bonobos, whose hierarchies are based on affectional rather than aggressive behavior, exhibit empathy toward orphaned bonobos through hugging and other forms of close physical contact. The Ancient Near Eastern religions, Mesopotamian and Israelite, frequently dictate an ethical concern for orphans and widows. Could we have inherited such a specific empathic concern? Could our God, as well as our primate behavioral genetics prime us to console those who are underprivileged or lost--an inchoate liberation theology among bonobos?

Perhaps science and religion are mutually reflecting enterprises, if we delve deeply enough.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Nine Days with Divine Mother: Celebrating Navaratra

                         Parvati--Chicago Art Institute                           Puja for Gauri Devi Sunnyvale Temple                                     
From October 5th through October 13th, we enter a nine-day period of worship and celebration, termed Navaratra, for the Hindu Goddess, Durga, in adoration of her manifold ways of being in the world. Durga is a complex and dynamic figure who, as a warrior goddess, kills demons that the gods could not overcome and who, as a nurturing and devoted protectoress, Gauri-Parvati, sustains beauty and love in the world. To the devotees of Shakti--the primordial and active feminine power that undergirds the universe--Durga, in her many manifestations, is their personally chosen deity. She supports a kind of monotheism of worship and meditation while sustaining the pluralism of the world.

I had the great pleasure of visiting and attending one evening of puja (worshipful offering) for Gauri-Parvati at the Sunnyvale Hindu Temple in Sunnyvale, CA. What a transforming experience! Flooded in variegated colors, circling around scores of diverse god and goddess images, smelling the sweet aromas of incense and fruit and milk, hearing bells resounding as multitudes of devotees capture moments of intentional meditative awareness, I was in awe! How different is the pluralist market of Hindu devotional religion from the Protestant simplicity of form. Yet underneath this surface polytheism and perceptual richness lies a singleness of purpose and devotion that is often lacking among the liberal religious. As a devotee, I choose the corner of the temple where the image of my god or goddess resides. In Hinduism, no dogma dictates to whom I express my praise. A unity in a kaleidoscope of multiplicity--all under the same temple roof.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Does God have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Last week, I was talking to a friend who is an Evangelical street minister from East Oakland. She, herself, lost a son to a drive-by shooting and she was complaining that it is difficult to get folks to turn to God or Jesus on the streets of Oakland because so many have witnessed friends, children and other family members killed by violence. They ask, "Why doesn't God intervene at these unfathomable horrors and stop them? Where is God?" An unusual thought occurred to me, when I heard about their incredulity from my friend. I spurted out, "Maybe God has PTSD from witnessing the violence on the streets." My friend responded, "That's deep. Maybe God is sad."

As I reflect on our conversation, I'm getting increasingly convinced that God has PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Like Vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, women and men who are victims of sexual assaults, and those witnessing street violence in the inner city or in Baghdad or  those touched by the terrorism in Nairobi, maybe God feels survivor guilt and withdraws her/his will from intervening in human events on account of her despondency.

This quirky twist on the "problem of evil" or, more technically, theodicy, assumes that God is a present witness to the world. Theologians, such as Sallie McFague, posit that the universe could be viewed as the "Body of God" and that rich metaphoric descriptions of God, such as God as Mother or Friend or Healer, are paths leading away from the theological literalism of Fundamentalism or the irrelevancy of God as Father to contemporary culture. If the world is God's body and her body is assaulted by violence and pollution and neglect, it would seem natural that she or he would develop PTSD.

The idea that God might have PTSD hearkens back to the city lamentations of the Ancient Near East. In the Mesopotamian Laments of the City of Ur, the goddess Ningal weeps for the ghostly desolation that has befallen her beloved city, Ur. She is tearful and sad, like my friend's God who mourns over the unspeakable devastation and the loss of the children of Oakland. If God were all-powerful, then he could of course, in principle, intervene; if God were empathic, the she would cry over incomprehensible pain and loss. I choose empathy over power; loving awareness over detached principles. A traumatized God is preferable to an indifferent deity, if we are created in the image of the Divine.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

A Unitarian Universalist Confessional Prayer

During these High Holy Days of Judaism, there is a specific practice, called Tashlikh. Celebrants will gather by a body of flowing water and cast off their sins into the sea. The best water will have fish in it, which, as one friend told me, can symbolize the open eyes of the Holy One, observing our actions. Last Sunday, at the Starr King Unitarian Universalist Church in Hayward, CA, we recited a litany prayer, with one line spoken by the worship leader and the response in italics by the congregation:

We have turned to pride over humility, arrogance over humbleness.
May we wash away our flaws in the cool waters of forgiveness.

We have loved ourselves over others.
May we wash away our flaws in the cool waters of forgiveness.

We have remained silent in the face of injustice.
May we wash away our flaws in the cool waters of forgiveness.

We have hunkered down in fear rather than breathing out compassion.
May we wash away our flaws in the cool waters of forgiveness.

We have clung to the familiar instead of opening up to the new.
May we wash away our flaws in the cool waters of forgiveness.

We have tread on the fragile earth rather than preserving the greenness of life.
May we wash away our flaws in the cool waters of forgiveness.

We have been quick to anger rather than wise in slow hesitation.
May we wash away our flaws in the cool waters of forgiveness.

We have been fractious in our demands rather than unified in spirit.
May we wash away our flaws in the cool waters of forgiveness.

Let us love and forgive and mirror the Divine waters
Which erode away error and smooth over harshness
That we may, with intention and love, renew our commitment to justice, compassion, unity and discovery for another year.

Amen and Blessed Be

Thursday, September 5, 2013

God is Love...Or not?

One of the most common and extensive monikers for the Christian God is "Love". 1 John 4:8 proposes that "Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love" (NRSV). Indeed for Unitarian Universalists, our Universalist strand of theological inheritance is grounded on the belief that God is love and a loving God could not condemn anyone to Hell. In addition to this equation of God as Love, almost every church that I've attended, including some UU congregations, will argue, in sermon after sermon, that Christian love is agape--akin to familial or selfless love.  Agape is distinct from the Greco-Roman construct of love as eros, typified by the obsessive and chaotic love between ardent lovers. The former pope Benedictus XVI wrote in a 2005 encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, that earthly Eros can lead to heavenly Agape, just like, initially,  puppy love can lead ultimately to the stability of marital relationships.

My experience as a therapist and a pastor-to-be compels me to recoil at such simplification. The nature of love is turbulent and chaotic, cyclical and unsteady. Living through love is more like tacking through a typhoon than quietly sipping a coffee onshore. But that is not necessarily bad, just psychologically realistic.

Plato in his Symposium on Love presents us with a bevy of beautiful stories and allegories about the nature of love as eros. On such myth, as told through the voice of the priestess Diotima, recounts the genealogical origin of the god Eros. Eros' father, the god, Poros (plenty or resourcefulness), got hammered from drinking nectar at one of Zeus' parties. Eros' mother, Penia (lack or poverty), seduced Poros and later  gave birth to Eros whose character traits combined both those of his mother and father. Eros often is in need, empty and squalid like his mother, while, at other times, is resourceful, clever and energetic like his father. He is betwixt and between. Unlike either parent he craves the beautiful because he is simultaneously aware of his emptiness and motivated toward seeking perfection.

We humans are sibs to Eros--body and soul--lack and plenty. We are in urgent need for love, yet, at the same time, aware of its storminess. Let us not forget our humanity is our striving for the impossible perfection of an immutable "God as Love".

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Christ the Teacher: Buddha the Preacher

Sarcophagus from the Crypt of the Abbaye of Saint-Victor Marseille France
Christ Teaching Peter and Paul 4th Century CE

Architectural Element from Gandhara, N Pakistan SF Asian Art Museum
Deities Imploring Buddha to Preach 100 to 300 CE

Don't we usually imagine Jesus as a preacher--Sermon on the Mount--and Buddha as a wise and psychologically insightful teacher of the Dharma? In these two images, a reversal of roles of these two community ministers compels us to re-imagine their messages. The early Christian iconography of traditio legis or Christ's handing down the law to Peter and Paul derives from Roman images of philosophers or emperors passing on knowledge or decrees, while Greco-Buddhist iconographic tradition of Buddha being coaxed by the gods to preach the Dharma comes from sutras narrating stories from Buddha's life. What these images share is an uncanny visual artistic style, that of the Hellenistic sculptural tradition. Here Provence meets Pakistan and Christ meets Buddha in a feast of the hybrid. Both Buddha and Christ preach and teach their respective laws through the medium of an expansive iconography that stretches across Eurasia. Could Christ and Buddha share ethical and sapiential values as well?

Friday, August 23, 2013

Art Therapy: Hellenistic Style

Sextus Empiricus, the Skeptic philosopher from the 2nd century CE, recounts this story of Apelles, a famous Hellenistic artist:

“The Sceptic, in fact, had the same experience which is said to have befallen the painter Apelles. Once, they say, when he was painting a horse and wished to represent in the painting the horse's foam, he was so unsuccessful that he gave up the attempt and flung at the picture the sponge on which he used to wipe the paints off his brush, and the mark of the sponge produced the effect of a horse's foam.”
(Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Book1:Chapter 12)
Skepticism, from Sextus Empiricus' version, encouraged a suspension of judgment through the psychological technique of always  presenting opposing thoughts and perceptions to consciousness and holding them in our minds until we become mentally paralyzed. Only then could a person finally achieve ataraxia (<a(not) &  tarassein (to trouble)). Ataraxia was a state of tranquility, or untroubledness, through the breaking out of the box, like the effect of contemplating a Zen koan. Apelles' art therapy resulted in his state of ataraxia by his giving up on visually representing the horse's froth through detailed reconstruction. Rather, he spontaneously developed the technique of "action painting" through tossing a paint-laden sponge onto his picture.
Apelles was our first action painting abstract expressionist, predating Pollock and de Kooning by over 2000 years. Sometimes skepticism, which seems these days to be heavily intellectual, can instead nurture a spontaneous, impulsive and non-dogmatic creativity.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A Cosmopolitan Meditation

One of the reasons that I savor the accumulated wisdom of the people of the Mediterranean is that there are so many sage meditations, reflections and epigrams from this region that help us today. The Greco-Roman world, from the Hellenistic culture spread by Alexander the Great to the Late Antique Roman Empire, was decidedly cosmopolitan. Encountering the diverse cultures of the Mediterranean, the Near East and Persia, the Hellenistic Greeks and later the Romans chose to broadly incorporate indigenous religions and philosophies rather than suppress them (unless they posed a political threat). Even the word, cosmopolitan, is derived from the Greek, kosmos and polites, roughly meaning citizen of the world.
The concept of cosmopolitanism was originally proposed by the founder of the Greek Cynics, Diogenes of Sinope (Greek colony on the Southern Black Sea coast) and a contemporary of Alexander. When Diogenes was asked, "Where do you come from?",  he responded, "I am a citizen of the world".  Later, the Stoics embraced this notion of world citzenry--most notably a stoic named Hierocles, circa 100-150 CE who left a marvelous meditation to train our souls to encompass concern for all beings. I list here a modification of Hierocles' meditation adapted to our context:
"Imagine a series of concentric circles with yourself at the center point. The first circle would be your mind and your body, the next your family, then your community, friends, your communal associations, your city, country and all the world. Now, allowing the most distant circle to contract toward yourself and the inner circles to expand to encompass all beings."

This reads almost like a Buddhist Metta meditation. You almost wonder whether Greco-Roman cosmopolitanism adopted aspects of Buddhist ethics in its encounter with South Asian culture. But that is another story...

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Beyond Belief: An Exhibition of the Spiritual in Modern Art

                                                    Teresa Fernandez Fire 2005 SFMOMA
San Francisco is a marvelous city for discovering the idiosyncratic. A art exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum assembles many artworks from SF Museum of Modern Art that reflect the uncanny overlap between spirituality and modern and contemporary art over the past 100 years. Having abandoned its association with organized religion at the onset of the Enlightenment, modern art has sought meaning in subjective spiritual experience and in the conveying of Divine presence in the material of the art. This exhibition does just that to the viewer, transporting us through  various qualities of the spirit: genesis, abstraction, presence, meaning-making and hiddenness. Schleiermacher, an early 19th century theologian, wrote an apology for religion to his Romantic artist friends in which he posited that  religion was grounded in feelings, namely, a feeling or intuition of utter dependence on something beyond oneself. Experiencing this exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum rivets the soul with this sense of dependence on the infinite and complex expressions embedded in great art.
                                      Ana Mendieta Tallus Mater/Stern Mother 1982 SFMOMA

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Yurok Spirituality

The Yurok people, living in their ancestral homes from Trinidad to the mouth of the Klamath, have retained, revitalized and reclaimed their indigenous religion and language. They dwelled along the coast of Northern California in harmony with the bountiful redwoods, Sitka spruce, and Douglas fir. A sense of animism pervades their  world--an animism that both endows personhood to individual crags, locations, trees and rivers and spurs a relational ethos to these spirited beings. The "New Animism", a term that encompasses a multitude of spiritual beliefs and rituals, from some Neopagans to Pantheists to adherents of African Traditional Religions, fits with the notion that relations among beings, broadly understood, has traction over a monistic worldview--the local precedes the global. So it is a wonderful thing that the Yurok are teaching their language in public schools in Northern California. A striking example of the Yurok relational way is the carving of redwood dugout canoes. The canoe displayed here is from the reconstructed Yurok village of Sumeg at Patrick's Point State Park. It was carved by the Yurok elder, Dewey George, and has carved ornaments depicting the heart, the two kidneys and the two lungs of the tree spirit.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Jesus as Zealot: Reza Aslan's New Biography

Reza Aslan has written a splendidly crafted story of Jesus' life and ministry in which he argues that Jesus was a proto-Zealot who sought to overthrow the hegemonic Roman rule of 1st century CE Palestine. Aslan's Jesus is a political rebel who overturns the tables of the moneychangers at the Jerusalem Temple court. Aslan depicts Jesus as an "Occupy the Temple Court" sort of leader rather than the mild-mannered minister conventionally portrayed in the religious education classes and sermons of liberal Christian churches. Aslan supports his narrative with a caravan of religious and historical scholarship, posing the basic question of what kind of crimes were punished by Roman crucifixion? For those of us who are aficionados of the TV series, Spartacus, the answer, of course is sedition, crimes against the Roman state.
What is most enthralling about Aslan's book is the skill with which he recounts the narrative. Aslan, not only has a PhD from UC Santa Barbara in the sociology of religion, but also has an MFA from U of Iowa in fiction writing, and it shows! Aslan has mastered the highlighting of conflict and character development in Jesus, as well as created a detailed social historical context for Jesus' peasant revolt against the Roman rulers and the complicitous landowners and priests of Palestine. Moreover, he traces the budding conflict among the early Jesus followers between the "Hebrews" and the "Hellenists", between the Jerusalem church of Jesus' brother James and the Hellenistic Diaspora influenced Paul, who, according to Aslan's story, caused the theological rift that would forever separate Christianity form Judaism.
An interesting twist to Aslan's personal narrative is that he, a week ago, was interviewed on Fox News by Lauren Green, their religion correspondent. In a lamentable display of xenophobia, Green lambasted Aslan for being a Muslim writing about Jesus despite Aslan's scholarship in religious studies. I often wonder whether the "Religious Right" freaks out over ambiguous or multiple identity--how can Aslan both be a Muslim and a Christian religious scholar? How can Jesus be a zealot, a prophet and a wisdom instructor, all at the same time?

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Trinities of Trinidad

The town of Trinidad, California was so named because Spanish explorers on June 11, 1775 discovered, claimed and performed a Mass here on the feast day of the Holy Trinity. Of course, the indigenous Tsurai had dwelled at this location for centuries. As described in the diary of Fray Miguel de la Campa, chaplain  of the Santiago, "After landing we all worshipped the Holy Cross that had been made to be placed at  the top of the mountain...we ascended, but not without difficulty because of the rough, steep, and somewhat dangerous path. Having arrived at the summit, we set up the Holy Cross...I said Mass and preached amid great quiet and calmness, for the Indians were content to observe what we were doing from the rancheria...On descending we met four Indians near the beach, and to the one whom the afternoon before we had judged most intelligent, the captain of the schooner said to say 'Long live Charles III,' and he, very happily, repeated along with our men 'Long live Charles III.'" (Robert Heizer and John Mills, The Four Ages of Tsurai, Trinidad Museum Society: Trinidad, CA, 1991, pg 40). The explorers wrote that the Tsurai were atheists since they found no evidence that they believed in a supreme being.
I am a Unitarian Trinitarian. Unitarian because I believe in the oneness of the Holy One; trinitarian because all good things come in threes. Threeness has a long and regal philosophical history. The Neoplatonic philosopher, Proclus, saw triads everywhere. His fundamental trinity was that of Being, Life, and Intellect, but triads pervaded throughout the structures and processes of the universe. For me, my foundational triad is Rock, Tree  and Water--just like what I see as I watch the noontime scene from a cliff overlooking College Cove. In contrast to the Christian Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, my trinity is impersonal, almost pantheist in scope. No Holy Cross, but groves of Holy Trees.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

An Impressionist Theology

The late 19th century impressionist painters rebelled against the French Art Academy by painting scenes that emphasized the artist's individual perceptions of the visual world over strict artistic conventions. But a person's individual impressions varied over time of day, season and weather conditions. No better example of this shift from artist dogma to individual experience is the series of Monet's paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, now distributed over a dozen of museums across the globe.
The photo above was taken at College Cove near Trinidad, CA, a personal sanctuary where I return to for spiritual sustenance year after year. Yesterday it was shrouded in clouds; other times, the sea glistens under afternoon sun. Each spiritual experience differs from day to day. I cannot help but to muse that liberal religion, like my Unitarian Universalism, spurred the transition from Christian dogmatism to a personal experience of the Divine, close to the time of the Impressionist painters' revolt. The Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau, the nature spiritualism of John Muir, and the influx of  the Yoga philosophy of Swami Vivekananda at the Parliament of World Religion's in Chicago in 1893, all fostered the shift from religious creed to lived religious experience.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Arcata California

Islands are more than bodies of land surrounded by water. Any place that is geographically isolated may function like an island with retention of culture brought by immigrants for a long period of time. I am vacationing in Arcata, California for a couple weeks. Arcata is a progressive city in Northern California near the coast. It has retained an environmental consciousness for over forty years. This morning I walked to the nearby Arcata  marshlands. Lovely! The lagoons are ensconced in verdant bushes so removed from the city that I felt transported to another land. Arcata is a city in sympathy with nature.

Everyone is an Island

Last week, Bernard Barryte, the Curator of European Art at Stanford's Cantor Center for the Visual Arts, showed me splendid collection of Bronze Age Cypriot Art housed in the crypt beneath the museum. It was mostly pottery and figurines. Islands are hubs that store up traces of immigrant cultures. With luck, we can decipher each cultural layer and reintegrate them into a historical montage. Each of us, like an island, is a montage of ancestral influences, a kaleidoscope of genetic signals from all over the world. Contrary to John Donne's dictum that "No man is an island", I believe that everyone is an island--islands that form nodes of interpersonal, ancestral and cultural streams of influence.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Welcome to the Mediterranean Wisdom Blog

The regions within and surrounding Mediterranean Sea have been the source of numerous fascinating religions and spiritual practices. These range from Greek philosophy and Roman mystery religions to Judaism and early Christianity. I've always been drawn to these religions and have applied their spiritual gems to my practice as a psychotherapist, a spiritual director and a minister. This blog is dedicated to exploring the interesting nuances of Mediterranean wisdom--both as practical tools for a rich spiritual and ethical life and as a means for understanding the rich interplay of Mediterranean religions throughout history.