Sunday, August 23, 2015


An acquaintance the other day said "I don't believe in any coincidence". The implication was that every chance was directed/managed by God for a purpose. This is quite a faith perspective and I, thinking about my own belief, wondered about the statement "I only believe in coincidence". My implication would be that every chance is just that... chance. There is no actual direction/management by God. Clearly these are two extreme positions (all or none), but does one suggest a stronger faith? Is one a better or more faithful expression of the gospel? I am sure (and by "I am sure" I mean that "they exist", not that "surely there must be, but it's not my area", which is often the implication when we say "I am sure") that there are theological and philosophical treatises on each of these positions. Free will comes in to play, God's ability and/or willingness to act on earth, the entire existence and purpose of the Holy Spirit, etc.

But as the untrained (in theology or philosophy), let me think about what my world of coincidence means about faith. In my world, there is no higher power directing my decisions, massaging my daily routine to orchestrate a chance encounter, providing the extra second of green light or quick red to insure I am in the right place at the right time. Instead, I make decisions, based on response to stimuli. And with the vast multitude of variables in the universe, there are bound to be convergences of events that my pattern-recognition-seeking-brain sees as improbable, but fortuitous. So if I live my life this way, every event rational cause and effect (no matter how complex), where does that leave God or faith. Did I just place God in a glass jar, unable to interact with the world? Did I relegate miracle to the mundane? Maybe. But I don't think it is my role to relegate God. I choose to believe in a God who is big enough to get out of any jar I put her in. The fact that I believe, that my decision process is based on a commitment to live a particular kind of life, in itself changes the direction/management of my life. Instead of God managing the externalities of life, setting up coincidences that I respond to, God infuses the internalities of life, affecting my identity, which manifests itself through my actions and responses.

I don't want to say one point of view is "better". But coincidence makes more sense to my hyper-rational world view. Even so, I am a little bit nervous about this thought train as it seems to leave me at the platform of the "rugged individualist", which is really inconsistent with my thoughts on communal contributions to faith. But I will let it sit for awhile and see where it goes.

Saturday, August 15, 2015


A strange conglomeration of reading this summer, but some thread of identity flows through it. A little bit of Cultural Revolution (The Vagrants) and Mexican Revolution (The Underdogs), a little bit of gender exploration (Middlesex) and coming of age(Boy's Life, The Dust of 100 Dogs). A bit of career and personal insecurity (Crossing to Safety, The Man with the Compound Eyes, Station Eleven, All the Light we Cannot See). Perhaps what I am thinking about is less about "Who am I" and more about the effect of external stimuli affecting identity. This external stimuli could be environmental/situational or it could be communal, and we have varying degrees of control over these factors. After a pandemic flu, you have no control over your situation and you are basically in react mode. But how you react and who you choose to be even in survival (especially in survival?) is when true identity is revealed. When put into the stressful situation, when the intellectual action filters are not working, who will you be? Very rarely in literature do we see this part of life. The pre-stress life where identity is forged. How a character chooses to act and think as an individual in the privacy of their mind, how they choose to act and interact in community when surrounded by "like-minded". These are the essential practice grounds for identity. These thoughts, interactions, actions, while seemingly innocuous in the daily grind, become our foundation for action under stress, in the dystopian future, so to speak. It is this daily grind if identity formation that is rarely explicit in our story telling. After all, it is boring. But somehow, the combination of books I read this summer started to give me a glimpse.

For myself, the clearest example of this boring identity formation is my life decision to be pacifist. Will I ever truly be in a position in my life where I have to test this decision? I sincerly hope not. So how do I know I am pacifist? It is easy to claim if you never encounter violence. So I need to form my identity in the small arena. To make daily choices in personal interactions that move away from violence. This must include verbal violence in conversation (which is often more subtle than I am even aware). This includes violence of invisibility, for example, with homelessness and poverty and all the unpopular. If I choose to see each person I encounter as truly and fully human, my hope is that even in a stressful, dystopian future event I will be unable to view anyone as anything less than fully human. That I will be unable to participate in violence. I suppose that is how you know it is identity.

Saturday, August 9, 2014


Knowing that I work at a school, a friend asked me the other day how I treat the Pledge of Allegiance. Every working day for me starts with my students being asked to stand and recite The Pledge. And every day, this is a reminder for me about my beliefs, my journey toward pacifism, my anabaptist heritage, and the subtle differences in this country between patriotism and nationalism. The students, of course, notice. I opt out. And this leads to an opportunity once a year or so to have a discussion about all of these subtle issues. A starting point for me is allegiance. To whom or what do I owe allegiance? And to whom do I pledge mine? Allegiance implies loyalty, and the following of orders, arising during the middle ages with liege lords and vassals. And the bottom line is, I do not pledge allegiance to my country. There are things that my country could (does) ask of me that I am unable to do. Instead, my allegiance is to God. In my worldview, there are some things that happen where God and country are in contradiction. Capital Punishment might be one such example. And were you and I to sit down and have a discussion, we could probably come up with a few others that we might agree on. More likely, I would have some, and you would have some, but we would not agree. And that would be a fun discussion. And if you push me, I am sure that my professed allegiance to God has holes. That is, there are things that God clearly requires of his followers that I do not do. But like my pacifism, my Christ following is a current and ongoing journey, not a destination. For me, standing in silence, conspicuously respectful, during a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance is a daily ritual reminder of where my allegiance does belong, where I am on that journey.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Why am I a vegetarian?

Most times I don't like the question because it is a throw away for the person asking. For example, when standing in a cafeteria line and a friend says something like "Oh yeah, you are vegetarian right? Why is that?" and by the way, you have 30 seconds to answer before we get to the cashier and I will have something else to talk about.

When I first started teaching at my current job, I taught Environmental Science for several years. During the development of this course I was reminded of the environmental impact of meat production and the environmental impact of malnourishment. Sometime in there, I decided that I would eat less as a means to decrease my personal ecological footprint. Forego that hamburger and you save more water than you could possible save with a week of shorter showers. So initially I have vegetarianism in the same category as upgrading to compact fluorescent bulbs. During that time, I took a trip to Guatemala to do a bit of an eco-tourist thing and to visit a few anabaptist churches out in the campo. Again, I was reminded of the difference between wealth and poverty, between choosing to be vegetarian and eating vegetarian because meat is expensive or not even available. This trip pushed me from just an "ecological footprint" action to a solidarity action. For a long time, every time I had to choose to eat vegetarian, I was reminded of the global poor, who do not have that choice. My choice became a mantra, a ritual that daily reminded me of my professed value system and worldview. So for awhile, my 30-second answer to the question was "I choose to be vegetarian so that I can be in solidarity with the global poor who do not have a choice". As you can guess, that is not a good response to a throw-away question. It begs for discussion. What do you mean? Why is this solidarity important? What belief system makes this make sense? Instead, I usually got a quick "Oh!" and a turn to the cashier. I still don't have a good 30-second response.

What I do find interesting about the ritual aspects of my vegetarian choices is how ritual evolves. I have questions about ritual in general (see this previous introduction), but I have found more recently that my food choices are so embedded into my being that I often forget the original intent. I can go days not eating meat, and not think once about the global poor or my value system. It never goes much beyond a few days since I eat out enough to always be making choices on menus, but it does make me wonder about other rituals. What rituals do I participate in that have been so imbedded that I don't even recognized them for what they are? And does the simple act of reflection on the history/origin of a ritual bring it back to life or allow the recapture of meaning, or is something else required? Do these sorts of "dead rituals" need to be blown up and replaced for the original meaning to be reintegrated into life? And is it just a bit ironic that the main way I am reminded about my concern for the global poor is by eating out at restaurants and reading menus? Just a bit pathetic...

So there you have it in a few more than 30 seconds...

Friday, June 6, 2014

Literary Residue

How does one recover a lost literary history? Annika and I were recently talking about books that we read as kids. I don't remember. And if one does not have a "family home" where one's parents have maintained a bookshelf full of books that you read as a kid, how does one recover that bibliography. I am sure that my reading formed me, or at least had an impact on me. But in what ways? Is that avenue of reflection lost to me? All that is left is the residue of my memory, so let me at least meander through what is left. My family moved from a central California farm to Oregon just as I was turning 8. This change in scenery was dramatic enough that most of my memories are vaguely categorized as Oregon and before-Oregon. And my literary memory is all Oregon. My first memory of books I read on my own was a series of Pink Panther books. These were approximately 6 inch, square format, paperback books of a couple hundred pages, but each page had a comic on the left and text on the right. I read these at a rate of about 1-a-day for awhile, so there must have a been a bunch in the series. I remember specifically that I got permission from my teacher to count these as "books" for the reading contest.

Otherwise, I believe my first book-book was Pilgrims Progress. My dad and I started reading this together out loud, and by half way through, I couldn't wait, so just finished it. Maybe this is was what led me to CS Lewis Narnia series and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. For some reason, I read LoTR and the Silmarillion and couldn't get enough of this world, but did not read The Hobbit (which is still missing from my bibliography).

I vaguely recall some Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys and some Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). I specifically recall The Hounds of the Baskervilles. Somewhere in there was a brief name-your-own-adventure book, where you got to choose the path of the plot. I say brief because I was not interested enough in the necessarily simple story-lines to go back and re-read with a "different" choice. Elias Chacour's Blood Brothers and Chaim Potok's The Chosen and The Promise definitely pushed my perspective outside of central Oregon. At some point my mom and I got plugged in to Alexander Solzhenitsyn (she with Cancer Ward, me with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich).

In High School, the only thing (and I have thought about this repeatedly over time) that I remember reading for school is the play Death of a Salesman. No Shakespeare, no American or English classic lit, no "summer reading" for history, nothing. You could name any book in the high school canon, and if I have read it, I have done so after my 30th birthday. In that time frame, but outside of school, I only remember reading Cat's Cradle (Vonnegut) and The Empire Strikes Back.

And that is it. This is not a brief overview of the types of books I read. This is a comprehensive listing of the books I remember reading. The volume of reading I remember doing (staying up late most nights with a book) is not consistent with the number of pages I have listed here. So something (many things) are missing. When I browse lists of books like "1980s Science Fiction" or "1980s Fantasy" or "1980s ..." I don't recognize anything. So I find it strange that my identity as a reader is based on a memory that remembers the process of reading, but not the content. And the one nearly sure thing about memory is that it is not going to get any better with time. Those clearly formative years reading at least kept me interested in reading, and formed me into a reader. How the content of my reading formed my thoughts and ideas and persona seems to be lost...

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Body and Soul

How much of our consciousness and identity is physical? I've started thinking of this again recently, having recently read Galileo's Dream and The Unwind Trilogy as well as having this exact conversation with a friend recovering from a surgery. You hear about organ recipients having strange new memories or cravings that can be attributed to the donor. Somehow some part of identity of the donor got transmitted via a kidney or liver. This is not consistent with our western idea of identity and consciousness living in the brain. I have not heard discussions of what happens to the donor. Do they lose part of their identity? A friend recently had a gall bladder removed as well as part of some intestine. I asked her if she felt something missing. I personally couldn't tell you if I feel more complete because I have my gall bladder. Like most of my physical body parts, the better they function, the less I know they are there. You are not supposed to feel your kidney, or your knee ligaments. But what is it like to suddenly have something like that taken out? To intellectually know it is missing as well as to viscerally know. My friend talked about the surgery causing a feeling of being disconnected from herself, having several experiences of watching from outside of herself. However, she also admitted that this may not exactly be because of the gall bladder removal, but due to a series of surgeries and just not quite knowing how to process the massive change in her life.

Which leads to the problem with the question: How would a scientist quantify the physicality of consciousness? One way would be to follow the cult practices described by Christopher Paolini in his Inheritance Cycle books, where the priests of Helgrind would amputate portions of their body in sacrifice to the Ra'zac. More senior priests have more amputated parts and eventually need to be carried around. If we could interview these subjects about identity, we might get some clues. Or since this is just a fantasy novel, we might interview trauma victims who have lost body parts, or even organ donors. But the entire exercise is completely subjective. As a physical scientist, I might want to get an MRI brain scan before and after a donation. But that takes me back to relying on western thinking about consciousness, which presupposes that the brain is where we will find answers.

One difficulty is that the physicality of life is so massively complex (100 billion nuerons in the brain, many trillions of cells in the human body) that objective, physical-science, particle-by-particle determinism is not possible. So I will be satisfied with remaining fascinated by consciousness and the complexity of life. I will continue to be intrigued by the physical connection to consciousness and the implications for universe sized intelligence and artificial intelligences.

Sunday, March 9, 2014


Another friend mentioned "I don't do ritual". My first response is to want to know more. What? Why not? No rituals? or just no religious rituals? What specifically are you avoiding? Is the blanket dismissal of ritual really based in some deeper philosophy of meaning and how meaning is demonstrated? Perhaps one reason this statement 'popped' in my mind was because I view myself in the same boat. But when I ask myself all the questions that I wanted to ask my friend, I realized that I am not really as much of a ritual-avoider as I thought.

For example, I have lots of rituals that I follow around sports. But in thinking about them, I put them on because you are supposed to have rituals around sports. The old don't-change-your-socks-all-season-for-good-luck kind of thing. These rituals are often good for team chemistry when they are corporate ritual, and good for mind-clearing when individual.

A second recent encounter with ritual was attending a funeral mass. I realized that this mass was 100% ritual. Four hundred people were in the room on a Thursday morning, all for a ritual. What is the value? I think that the passing of a loved one can be so painful that it is beyond our conscious ability to know how to process. You can't think yourself to acceptance or moving on. So you sit in a mass. You let your body participate and let your community do the work. In a ritual like this, there is no thinking necessary. And it becomes a way to be physically part of a process in time. Perhaps it provides the time for the sub-conscious to begin its work of healing.

In many ways, this use of ritual as a placeholder in time connects to the phrase "faith of our fathers". This means that if there are times when I do not have faith, I can rely on the faith of my ancestors, who modeled perseverance and belief. I will be able to trust in them, and that their faith will be strong enough for me. It gives me permission to believe solely because they believed, and it gives me time to doubt. So ritual is both an act of individualism and of community.

One final thought on ritual. As a pacifist, I have a deep belief in the wrongness of violence for any reason. And the most frequent questions about pacifism come in the form of crazy hypothetical situations that I will likely never encounter. "But what if someone was holding a knife to your child and you had a gun in your hand..." kinds of scenarios. My only response is that I don't know what I would do. But I can only practice nonviolence on a daily basis, hoping that if I ever find myself in such a crazy situation, that all my practice will result in actions true to my lifelong belief. This lifelong practice is yet another form of ritual. A daily ritual of nonviolence, in all of the ordinary and boring ways that such a ritual manifests itself - hopefully building confidence that under stress, reactions will follow that same ritual.

So I do ritual. But I also have a counter-cultural, non-conformist, obstinate streak in me that results in me refusing to participate in some rituals, perhaps just for the sake of being different. But that is for another post.