Category Archives: Meditations

A rural moment

Camp Meeker, California

The retreat center I’m staying at for a couple of days is in the middle of second growth redwood woodlands. This morning, I walked around a bend in a trail , and there were two mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) standing in the middle of the trail They both froze and looked at me, although they were obviously not particularly afraid to see a human being. I froze and looked back at them. The three of us stood there frozen for four or five minutes until the mule deer decided that I was either not a threat, or stupid, or both. They twitched their big ears, and started browsing again.

They were bending their heads down and eating something that lay on the path. There was no greenery for them to browse on; all I could near them see was old redwood cones; so I couldn’t figure out what it was they were eating. I watched their jaws move sideways as they chewed. Little bits of stuff fell out of the side of their mouths as they ate. They were not very attractive eaters.

At last I got bored, and started walking again. They looked at me as if surprised that I was moving, and then bounded away in a leisurely fashion. When I got to the place where the deer had been, I saw what it was they had been eating: acorns from the tan bark oaks (Lithocarpus densiflorus or, according to some taxonomists, Notholithocarpus densiflorus). The bits of stuff I had seen falling out of the sides of their mouths were bits of the outer husk of the acorns.

Two crows

When we were out walking in the city on Sunday, Carol and I saw two crows fighting over something. As we got closer, one crow won and rose up triumphantly, a long strip of furry gray squirrel pelt hanging from its bill. “Ew,” we both said together; I had been expecting the crows to be fighting over a scrap of food that some human had dropped at the side of the road. As for the crows, they didn’t care what we thought one way or the other.

Fear, pt. 2

Today’s San Mateo County Times reports that employees are now paying more of health care costs: “The average employer-provided health plan now costs workers nearly $4,000 a year, up 14 percent from last year…. At the same time, workers also saw average co-payments for routine office visits rise 10 percent and deductibles continue their surge upwards.”

From my own experience, here are two other things to wonder about: (1) My last two employers could no longer afford to pay for health care for spouses of workers — in many couples, both spouses need to work, not for the additional paycheck, but in order to be able to afford health care. (2) Twice in the past three years, my health insurance provider refused to pay $1,000 of a health care bill, once for a doctor’s office visit, and once for a visit to the emergency room — even if you have health insurance, you can no longer be sure that your insurer will actually pay your health costs.

And here’s something else to wonder about: Both the liberals and the conservatives have been completely unable to address the problem of how to pay for health care. The conservatives offer free-market solutions, when it’s quite clear that the health care industry is not a free market. The liberals offer government health plans, when it’s quite clear that the U.S. government is not presently able to fund additional health care. So what’s going to happen? No one knows. At this point, the only thing you can do is stay perfectly healthy. And that’s when fear creeps in: what will happen if I develop some serious illness? How much of my care will I have to provide? Will I become another health care bankruptcy case?


We were talking about some matter of church politics today, doesn’t matter what, when the subject of fear came up. Some sense of fear seems to be driving some people, we decided. But why? We thought about it for a moment, and I said, There’s always the lousy state of the economy; I know that’s injected a fair amount of fear into my life.

In the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt is famous for saying that the only the we have to fear is fear itself. As we struggle to emerge from the Great Recession, there’s a different quality to the fear — it’s mingled in with fears of terrorists, fears of foreigners living among us, fears of losing our honor in Iraq and Afghanistan, fears of looming environmental disasters — but I still would like to have some catchy phrase that helped bring my economic fears out into the light of day where I could look at them clearly.

Summer reading: Escape from Hell

Back in 1976, I read Inferno, a science fiction novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which tells the story of an atheistic science fiction author named Allen Carpenter who, much to his surprise, finds himself in a place that very much resembles Dante’s vision of hell in the first book of The Divine Comedy. Carpentier tries to find a rational explanation for what he experiences in his tour through hell, and spends much of the book convinced that he’s in a sort of bizarre amusement park (call it “Infernoland”) created by sadistic aliens with a very high technology. But by the end of the book, Carpenter is finally convinced that he is indeed in hell.

I read Inferno when I was a senior in high school, and I loved the book; I didn’t pay any attention to the theology, I was captured by thinking about what a twentieth century person would do upon finding himself in Dante’s version of hell. Allen Carpenter builds a glider to try to fly over some of the circles of hell, and this is not unlike the heroes of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island using their nineteenth century technology to address the problem of being stranded on a desert island. In my freshman year of college, I went out and bought a bilingual edition of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (trans. by John D. Sinclair), and started to read the Inferno; I got about three quarters of the way through, but got tired of Dante getting revenge on people he didn’t like by placing them into his vision of hell.

Last year, Niven and Pournelle came out with a sequel to their Inferno, another science fiction novel titled Escape from Hell. At the end of the earlier book, Allen Carpenter learned that you can get out of hell, so he goes back to try to help lots more people escape from eternal damnation. Niven and Pournelle come up with enough new ideas to make this second book worth reading — their depiction of Hell’s bureaucracy is funny and entertaining — but there are major problems with the book. One big problem is that Sylvia Plath is a major character in this book, but Niven and Pournelle’s characterization doesn’t convince me: their character named Sylvia Plath is just another interchangeable female character, and you simply don’t believe that character is capable of writing great poetry. A second big problem is that rather than actually resolving their plot, they end the book with the ridiculous plot device of having a hydrogen bomb explode in hell.

But the biggest problem I had with Escape from Hell is the theology behind the book. Allen Carpenter discovers that anyone can escape from hell, as long as they’re willing to go through a process of confronting the bad things they did in life — there’s a sort of pseudo-psychotherapeutic element in this process. Even though Niven and Pournelle don’t use the psychobabble jargon of “denial” and “acceptance” and so on, it’s the sort of thing you’d expect from mediocre self-help books.

Niven and Pournelle’s understanding of God is about as interesting as their theological psychology. Their God is probably pleasant rather than definitely good, distant and unimaginable rather than immanent and present, and vague rather than awe-inspiring. Their God-concept feels like it’s straight out of the mid-twentieth century when people presented God as either nice or dead, but when God was rarely presented as something compelling enough to believe in. From a literary point of view, if a writer is going to talk about hell as a reality, I’d take the stern yet interesting God of Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” — or, for that matter, the God of Dante who invents such creative tortures for damned souls — over the the namby-pamby, wishy-washy, exceedingly boring God imagined by Niven and Pournelle. They make hell seem much more interesting and even attractive than God.

Then there’s the purpose of hell, as the authors understand it. When I think of Dante’s conception of hell, I think of a place of eternal torment; if you’re talking about punishment for sins over a limited time, then you’re talking about the subject of Dante’s second book, Purgatorio, purgatory. Niven and Pournelle borrow Dante’s hell, and turn it into purgatory. So then what’s the purpose of purgatory? I admit my bias: I’m a Universalist, and I know hell is a mistaken concept to begin with; nevertheless, within the limits of their theological logic, their conception of hell simply doesn’t make sense.

So I find Niven and Pournelle’s theology problematic. But that was actually part of the fun of the book: I not only enjoyed the adventure, I argued with their problematic theology the whole way through, and enjoyed every minute of the argument. Unlike the liberal Christian apologists who dodge the whole issue, Niven and Pournelle confront hell head on. In the end Allen Carpenter admits that he can’t really make complete sense out of hell; it’s beyond human understanding; but this didn’t feel like a cop-out to me so much as a literary excuse for a pretty good adventure story.


The heat broke today: it only got up to 90 degrees in Palo Alto before the cool air started to move in from the Pacific, and now it’s already down to 69 degrees. It’s supposed to go down into the fifties tonight in San Mateo. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that school has started again, and family vacations have ended. All summer long, the traffic on the freeways was merely miserable; now it’s back to being completely insane.

Summertime, and the livin’ is smoggy

It feels like summer has finally hit the Bay area. There’s apparently a high-pressure system sitting over the desert southwest pumping hot air up into our area. Temperatures got up into the mid-nineties today, with little or no wind.

Summer heat in the Bay area means smog and ground-level ozone. Driving down Route 101 to work today, the mountains on the other side of San Francisco Bay, usually clearly visible, were hard to see through the light blue haze. Smog and ground-level ozone mean that I feel lousy.

The short-term bad news is that tomorrow it’s supposed to hit one hundred degrees in Palo Alto. The short-term good news is that the forecast says cool air from Alaska will move into our area by the weekend. The long-term bad news is that University of California scientists are now predicting that climate change in our area is going to cause more hot days, which means more days of high ground-level ozone levels. The long-term good news is… um, what is the long-term good news?

Green tomatoes

We’ve been having a cold summer here in the Bay area, with night time temperatures frequently in the low fifties. Tomato plants do not like it to be that cool, and while our tomato plants set a lot of fruit, the little green tomatoes just hang on the vine and stay both little and green.

We had one tomato plant covered with little green tomatoes, growing in a big pot that sat in a sunny place in the yard. A few days ago I carried it up to our second-floor deck, huddled up against the house where I thought it might be a little bit warmer. Sure enough, after just a few days the plant looks happier, and most of the tomatoes are turning red; while the tomato plants down in the yard are still covered in green tomatoes.

September tends to be the warmest month in the Bay area. Perhaps this cool weather will finally end, and suddenly we’ll find ourselves inundated with more tomatoes than we can eat.

Pacific fog

This afternoon, while I was waiting to meet someone in Berkeley, I walked up the hills behind the Graduate Theological Union, up past the Lawrence Berkeley Lab, up further to where I got a view of the bay. Fog covered most of San Francisco, except for the tall buildings downtown, and a little bit of the waterfront; fog poured around the south side of San Bruno Mountain; fog filled the Golden Gate, so all you could see of the bridge was the very top of the north tower; fog rolled around the Marin headlands and streamed up inland towards the Delta. South of San Bruno down the Peninsula, the higher mountains held the fog back; I could see that San Mateo had no fog. And there was no fog in Berkeley; the city stretched out below me, and I could see little specks that were cars moving along University Ave., west towards the freeway. It was about three hours from sunset, and the way the sun lit of the fog from behind, and the way it shone on the silvery waters of the bay, was enough to make my heart ache from the beauty of it all.