Friday, November 1, 2019

Knowing Water

Transparent, but a lot to be seen there.All of us have known water since before our earliest memories of anything.  Maybe that first taste of water was from a nippled bottle, maybe from a small cup.  But we encountered water long before we could have thought about it.  Water is basic.

Despite its being so basic, there are many ways that we know water.  Thus there are many ways -- all valid -- of answering the question, "What is water?"  And they demonstrate the variety of ways we know this world.

On a beginning chemistry exam, if I am asked what water is, I know to answer that water is composed of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen -- H2O.  I understand water chemically as I understand that formula, along with knowing what a molecule is.  But that is a very abstract type of knowledge.  Long before modern chemistry, humans knew what water is when they were refreshed by drinking it or bathing with it.

Writers of the Bible knew those immediate ways of knowing water.  They also knew how those ways of knowing water are not confined to the human race but are also experienced by other
animals. The writers of the Bible knew how experiencing water’s life-giving properties could open a person to remembering and re-encountering God.  As a typical psalm of creation, Psalm 104 (1--11a, NRSV), puts it, speaking to God:
"You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal."

We can know more about water as we come to know it through our religious traditions. As a Christian, I understand religiously what water is in several ways:  By attending baptisms. By singing hymns and hearing scriptures containing the word “thirst.”  And by joining with other people of faith to see that homeless people are provided water.  Christianity and Judaism are not unique in their integration of the theme of water into their theological reflections.  In the Islamic tradition, the Qur’an (Koran) states:
"In the water that Allah sends down from the clouds and quickens therewith
the earth after its death and scatters therein all kind of beasts,
and in... the clouds pressed into service between the heaven and the earth,
are indeed Signs for a people who understand."

The telling presence of water.Scientists, in their own way, know which planets might have had forms of life by finding indications that the planet has had water -- water being essential for life.  If I pause to reflect upon water, which I often take for granted, I can re-discovery my commonality with all of life.  A commonality not just in needing water, but also a commonality in yearning, longing, and striving. Also, it is through a recognition of types of striving in other kinds of living beings (animals and plants) that we intuit that they are alive too.

Gabriel García Márquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is set in a town in a tropical jungle. In a memorable scene, the protagonists' encounter with a new form of water becomes an encounter of a miraculous kind.  A gypsy opens a chest, revealing to the protagonist and his father José Arcadio "an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars."  José  Arcadio ventures a guess as to what it might be:
" ' It's the largest diamond in the world.'
'No,' the gypsy countered. 'It's ice.' "

~ ~ ~

(Can you recall a particular occasion when you had no water handy, and recall how it felt to take that first drink when you were so thirsty?)

(Qur’an quotation is from sura 26, trans. Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, quoted in Matthew Fox's One River, Many Wells, p. 38.)
(Quotation from Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, © 1970, p. 18.)
(Photographs are in the Public Domain.)

Friday, October 4, 2019

Halloween, and Civilizing Nature

Although I cannot remember her name, I remember hearing on the radio several years ago an Asian-American woman relating her immigrant family’s first encounter with Halloween.  As they experienced it, one evening in October, an unknown child knocked at their door.  And, as best they could understand it through the language barrier, the child was wanting something sweet to eat.  Although not having made any preparations for this unexpected visitor, the family did their best to satisfy the child's seeming hunger because they knew from their own background in Asia the dangers of malnutrition and starvation.

But within the hour, another child came to the door of the family's home!  And then still another child, again asking for something to eat.  The family, having soon exhausted their supply of sweets, went to their refrigerator to get more food, but had only some pickled cucumber to give to the child, which they did.  Hearing this story, I could not help but laugh as I imagined the expression of a trick-or-treating child being given pickled cucumber instead of a Snickers bar.

To act or to rest?This anecdote, besides providing humor, gives some insight into aspects of our human nature.  Our current-day Halloween has mostly lost any real threat that children will perform some practical joke against us (some "trick") if we do not provide a treat as requested.  The Halloween tradition has evolved into the form of giving candy to unknown children to match their preference for sweets.  And with that act of giving, we extend ourselves beyond our human tendencies to hoard for ourselves, or to share primarily with those closest to us, such as our own family.  Halloween thus embodies a suppression of some aspects of our human nature (selfishness) coupled with the encouragement of other aspects of our human nature (compassion for others).

Even in its earlier manifestation that included real tricks, Halloween embodied a channeling and civilizing of potentially troublesome aspects of human nature.  Namely, the danger of children acting out their powerlessness and frustration by destroying something adults own.  Instead of such destructiveness, on one night each year, children (if they did so anonymously) were allowed to perform practical jokes against adults, such as rubbing soap on a house's windows.  That sort of channeling of childhood powerlessness into tricks has been mostly dropped from the celebration.  The gifts of candy are now usually freely given to any child who rings the doorbell.

There is much argument today about what is our "human nature."  And the choices are often presented in terms of opposites.  This is nothing new.  Three centuries ago, Alexander Pope wrote of humans:
"Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,...
He hangs between, in doubt to act or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;"
It does not require much reflection to realize we have sometimes unjustly indicted animals ("beasts") for seeming faults that we possess as humans.  Nevertheless, Pope's point about the tension within our human natures still stands.  On Halloween night, some children do play the role of the "beast" within them by costuming themselves as monsters. And we adults aim to act out the more generous nature within us by giving candy.

Maybe there also lies waiting at the heart of Halloween a deeper mystery that we might know if we could develop a reverence within ourselves.  That reverence would be woven through with humility, because it would be the act of adults (with all their powers) leaning down to children in an act of giving.  The result could be an experience of self-transcendence.  A century ago, the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore captured the wonder of such a loving act in one of what he called his "song offerings."

A writer, and an advocate for childhood education.
Rabindranath Tagore
"When I bring sweet things to your greedy hands,
 I know why there is honey in the cup of the flower
 and why fruits are secretly filled with sweet juice -- 
when I bring sweet things to your greedy hands....
When I bring to you coloured toys, my child,
 I understand why there is such a play of colours on clouds,
 on water, and why flowers are painted in tints -- 
when I give coloured toys to you, my child."

~ ~ ~

(How do you think we might nurture the human qualities Tagore expresses, even if we do not have children of our own?)

(The Pope quotation is from Essay on Man, II, 1.)
(The Tagore quotation is from his book Gitanjali, © 1913, no. 62.)
(All the photos are in the Public Domain.)

Friday, September 6, 2019

Spuds: Not Something to Spit At

They rarely make it into the news.  Potatoes, that is.  Not as colorful or as flavorful as their cousin the sweet potato, the common "Idaho potato," as we call it, needs to be dolled up with sour cream and bacon bits before it becomes appealing to our sensation-desiring tastes.

The only occasion during my lifetime that the potato made front-page news was when an over-confident vice-presidential candidate made a photo appearance at an elementary school.  Potatoes fared better than the candidate, however, who tried to correct a boy's spelling of "potato" -- when it was the boy's spelling that was correct.

Even if news reporters rarely find potatoes newsworthy, a young painter with a heart intensely responsive to the poor did:  Vincent van Gogh, in his 1885 painting "The Potato Eaters," captured the somewhat sad nobility of a poor family sharing a meal of plain potatoes.

In the quite contrasting economic situation of U.S. in its post-W.W.II baby-boom, some potatoes became disposable items, so cheap that they could be turned into toys and then tossed away.  "Mr. Potato Head" (the first toy to be advertised on the new medium of television) was a simple assortment of plastic feet, ears, eyes, and other body-parts that could be stuck into a passive potato.  What a simple toy compared to today's electronic games!  And yet, it was a toy that made room for a child's imagination and for play between children (especially after Mrs. Potato Head came along).

There is a long ancestral story behind today's potatoes.  The lowly potato plant prefers high altitudes, its native place having been the western mountain range of the Americas, especially in what is today Peru and Colombia.  Discovered by Spanish conquistadores, it was carried across the Atlantic in the 16th century.  Once it reached Europe, it worked its way northward from the Mediterranean countries, eventually reaching the British Isles.  In the following century, it returned to America, but this time to the eastern coast of North America, carried there by the Puritans.  As European-Americans carried it further westward, the now thoroughly domesticated potato came full- circle, meeting in Wyoming some of it close relatives who were natives.

Despite the ways potatoes have thus served humankind, they usually make an appearance in history books by their absence. Namely, the Irish famine of 1845 and 1846.  When the potato first came to Ireland a couple centuries before, the tubers, growing underground, had the advantage of being hidden from the sight of marauding British who wanted to destroy the Irish people's crops.  But in the mid 1840's, a blight devastated the usual harvest of potatoes, which the Irish had come to depend upon as their staple crop, their essential form of produce.  A Catholic priest, Father Mathew captured the plight and observed:
"In many places the wretched people
were seated on the fences of their gardens,...
wailing bitterly
[over] the destruction
 that had left them foodless."
A million Irish emigrated to America.

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from the humble potato.  Potatoes are so knobbly that the standard reminder to grocery shoppers is that there is no "perfect" potato.  So is it with us humans, with our moles, birthmarks, and other physical imperfections.

Also, our media today force us to live in a society that spotlights celebrities.  But few of us can be a celebrity.  Adolescents and young adults can especially feel unworthy because they have not accomplished something "big."  Nevertheless, like the potato that has served as a staple crop, it is the common people -- those who ring the cash-registers, tend the kids, and pick up the garbage -- who serve as the foundation of society.  There is a beauty in that.

~ ~ ~

(Has the long history of the potato made you think anything about our lives today?)

(The quotation by the priest is taken from The Origins of Fruit and Vegetables by Jonathan Roberts, © 2001, p. 192.)
(The first photo is in the Public Domain. The second is used by Fair Use.)

Friday, August 2, 2019

Gift about Life on a Deathbed

What would you want to be given as a gift if you were not likely to live much longer?  Of course, if in pain, medicine to alleviate that suffering would be welcome.  But in this instance, the bedridden man -- Charles Darwin -- had learned to live with a chronic illness through most of his adult life (even during his most fruitful years of scientific research and writing).  So, what turned out to be a welcome gift was a book to read.  And the book was on Darwin's favorite subject:  Nature.

Ancient (but not perfect) knowledge passed down.
in an
old Latin translation
The gift, from William Ogle, was his new translation of a work by Aristotle titled The Parts of Animals.  That ancient Greek scientist's collection of observations about animals would have been of particular interest to Darwin.  Even though Aristotle's way of doing science was not grounded in the experimental methods of modern science, Aristotle's collection of investigations about animals had been part of the corpus of Western education for centuries.  Aristotle recognized the temptation researchers might have of not investigating animals they might consider useless, ugly, or even disgusting.  Therefore, in the book Darwin had received, Aristotle cautioned:
"For this reason we should not be childishly disgusted at the examination of the less valuable animals.
For in all natural things there is something marvelous."
Those words would have gone straight to Darwin's heart because they mirrored his own endless fascination with Nature's intricacies (something Darwin had commented on in the eloquent closing passage of his own book Origin of Species).

Thanks to the rapid growth of the railway system in England during the 19th century, frequent correspondence by mail had become a mainstay of life among many Brits, and Darwin had throughout his career relied upon a network of correspondents (some of whom became good friends) in order to ground his scientific studies.  Darwin always wrote cordially, expressing his appreciation.  And now, he did so again, expressing how even near the end of his own life he was grateful for the new perspective the gift of a book had provided.  Darwin wrote to Ogle, who had sent him the book:
"From quotations I had seen I had a high notion of Aristotle's merits, but I had not the most remote notion what a wonderful man he was.  Linnaeus and Cuvier
 [two pivotal 18th-century biologists] have been my two gods... 
but they were mere school-boys to old Aristotle."

William Ogle, upon receiving Darwin's letter with its complimentary remark about Aristotle, wrote back, saying:
"Thank you for your kind and eulogistic letter re [Aristotle's book].
It gave me much pleasure.  I am glad also to have added a third person to your gods."

Darwin died only three days after Ogle sent off his letter.  But Ogle's, Darwin's, and Aristotle's lives had all become tied together through a chain of correspondence.  And also through a mutual fascination with the forms of animal life in which Aristotle had found "something marvelous."

Virtually countless animals to see!

Are there any animals you find particularly fascinating?  Which ones?

(All of the quotations are taken from the "Aristotle" entry by James G. Lennox in
Evolution:  The First Four Billion Years, ed. Michael Ruse, et al., © 2009.  p. 427.)
(The images are in the public domain.)

Friday, July 5, 2019

A Better Question about Beauty

What do we see?
If anywhere today the matter of beauty comes up for discussion, almost inevitably someone asks, "Is beauty just in the eye of the beholder?"  (Sometimes, that question will be simply implied by someone repeating the stock phrase that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder.")  In our heavily scientific age, that phrase -- "eye of the beholder" -- casts a cloud of suspicion over beauty.  Modern science seeks empirical observations that can be made by multiple scientists.  In contrast, two people observing the same object can disagree about whether that object is beautiful.  And so, there is an air of suspicion about whether beauty is "really out there" or is just something our minds project upon the world.  Beauty is not easily nailed down.

Philosophers today spin in circles asking questions about beauty.  And most modern theologians usually don't even address the matter.  Meanwhile, ordinary people throughout the world make beauty a part of their lives.  And find beauty in Nature, and are inspired by it.  They pick flowers and make art.  They listen to birds and create songs.  They are not fooled by philosophical questions.  The contemporary writer Elaine Scarry makes a critical point:
[Beauty] seems to incite, even to require the act of replication.... It makes us draw it,
 take photographs of it, or describe it to other people."
Perhaps we would get deeper into appreciating and understanding beauty if instead of the usual question about "eye of the beholder" we asked why beauty entrances us.  And why we humans are drawn toward imitating it.

Another stock phrase that can be a stifling cliche is that "beauty is only skin-deep."  Admittedly, that phrase can remind us that we can be misled by some person's superficial beauty.  But the phrase "skin-deep" can discourage us from looking more deeply into the nature of beauty's power upon us -- including it's ability to bring us closer to our best true selves.  And its ability to draw us closer to the Divine.

Forgotten thoughts about beauty.
Before modern times, the eighteenth-century Christian theologian Jonathan Edwards believed that beauty was an essential part of his experience of God, who was revealed through the natural world.  He wrote:
"When we are delighted with flowery meadows and
 gentle breezes of wind, we may consider that
 we only see the emanations of the sweet benevolence of Jesus Christ ... his love and purity."

A few contemporary theologians are beginning to wake up to the fact that in modern times their field of theology has neglected the topic of beauty.  One such writer is the contemporary religion professor Frank Burch Brown.  He emphasizes that:
"Aesthetic experience is a pervasive factor in our sense of the sacred,
[and] in our delight in creation."

Asking the more productive question about beauty -- the one about our desire to replicate beauty -- is not just an academic matter.  It is a critical matter because we are confronted daily with so much ugliness.  Especially in the way humans often behave toward one another.  Everything from terrorists to ugly internet comments.  That gives us even greater reason to cultivate forms of beauty.

Beauty is not just something we perceive (or don't perceive).  It can also be something we do. A person can display beauty through loving and giving.  When we create beauty, and when we act in beautiful ways, we align our lives with the natural beauty in the world.  And thus transform ourselves.
~ ~ ~

What experiences of beauty in Nature linger in your memory?

(The Elaine Scarry quotation is taken from her book On Beauty and Being Just, © 1999, p. 3.)
(The Edwards quotation is taken from Open Secret by Alister E. McGrath, © 2009, p. 284.)
(The Frank Burch Brown quotation by is from “Aesthetics” in the New & Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology,
 Donald W. Musser & Joseph L. Price, eds. © 2003. pp. 19 & 21.)
(Both pictures are in the public domain.)