Monthly Archives: March 2006


We awakened to a warm spring morning, the kind of day you’d expect to get in late April: a lazy kind of day, so it was quarter after nine before I got out of the apartment. With the excuse that I was going to look for early spring migrants — although what excuse did I think I needed to get outdoors on my day off when the weather was so pleasant? — I headed over to Mt. Auburn Cemetery with my binoculars hanging around my neck.

I stopped at the chalk board where the birders write down what they have seen that day. A man with graying hair, as unshaven as I, had just picked up the piece of chalk and was looking at small notebook. “What did you see?” I asked, “anything exciting?”

“No, not really,” he said. “220 robins, 6 Northern Flickers, lots of grackles, umm….” He consulted his notebook, a page with the date at the top and each species neatly written on separate lines. The name of each bird was followed by hatch marks, his method of keeping track of his count. “One Fox Sparrow still. Cowbirds, 3 Great Blue Herons…. Nothing exciting. The best bird was the one I didn’t see, a Saw-whet Owl. I found the tree where it had been because of the whitewash and the pellets.” He pulled a small furry lozenge out of his pocket: an owl pellet, the odd bits of hair and bones that the owl can’t digest and later coughs up. “It could have been a Boreal Owl,” he said, “some small owl, but most likely a Saw-whet. But it’s gone now, headed north.”

I left him writing down his findings and wandered off. I had started too late in the morning; the birds wouldn’t be very active this long after sunset. I stopped at the top of one small rise and just listened:

Blue Jays somewhere in front of me. Beyond them, the rush of tires on pavement from Mt. Auburn St. A chickadee up above me; then two more off to one side. Robins behind me, and to my right, and off in the distance all around. Banging from the workers up on the scaffolding over at the chapel. I didn’t see any of this, just heard it around me. Then a funny nasal “cawr” sound: two Fish Crows right up above me. I looked at them through the binoculars, and they looked just like ordinary American Crows; the only way I could tell they were Fish Crows was their call.

The wide-spaced trees and open ground under them creates a sort of savannah in the cemetery. The trees grow more closely together in a few wooded places, and you can hear the difference between the savannah and the woodlands: in more thickly wooded areas, the songs of the birds take on a peculiarly characteristic sound, as their songs echo around the trunks and branches, and it becomes more difficult to determine exactly where the singer is sitting; whereas in the more open areas, you can pinpoint a bird’s location with greater accuracy.

Down at one of the small ponds, I could see a few inches of the new green shoots of cattails coming up above the water. Three male Red-winged Blackbirds squabbled at the edge of the water, setting up nesting territories perhaps. Sounds coming over the open surface of the little pond were characterized by their clarity: the sounds arrived at my ears without anything intervening.

I find it fairly difficult to distinguish between two sounds; I do not have great aural acuity. I once stood at the edge of a field with a professor of ornithology. She said, OK, you hear that Song Sparrow? –well, do you hear the Indigo Bunting that is directly behind it? I literally could not hear the Indigo Bunting; my hearing was unable to sort out its song from the louder, more familiar song of the Song Sparrow. This may be why I am always surprised when people say that a god or gods listens to their spoken prayers. Why would a god listen to individual people? — to me, that seems like a hard way to go about things. If I think more carefully, I suppose I am baffled by the thought of trying to distinguish between the thousands — no, millions — of spoken prayers arising at any one time; no matter how omnipotent a god might be I simply can’t conceive of making sense out of that cacaphony.

Nor can I understand those philosophers who say that language is what creates Being, that without language we have nothing, no meaning, no existence. Or the philosophers who spend their entire lives trying to sort through how language works. Language is not a primary experience for me; it’s probably a tertiary experience. I find myself in the world by knowing where I am in space, not by means of language. Language offers me no insight into the squabble between those three Red-Winged Blackbirds, yet I understood them better than I understand some people.

They say — at least some people say — that spoken prayers find their way to heaven. Who is listening? and where is heaven? –that I don’t know. I know who is listening as I stand under a tree and next to a pond. The Gray Squirrel on that tree is listening to me, and keeping a weather eye on me to boot. The three blackbirds are listening to each other. The Blue Jays listen to each other, and sing at each other using a highly variegated repertoire of sounds that range from harsh cries to flute-like solos; as watch-keepers of the trees, they also listen to everything that goes on, and send out warning calls as needed. I listen to as much of all this as I can distinguish. We’re all listening to each other.

I can’t discount those people who say that God or a god or gods listen to their prayers. I have a friend, someone whom I respect, who says that God has spoken to her and that she speaks to God in her prayers. But when it comes to me, no one in particular is listening. The philosopher Edmund Husserl reviewed Descartes’s famous argument that the only thing you can be certain of is that you think, therefore you exist. Husserl showed how Descartes was in fact wrong. Instead, said Husserl, one thing you can really know is intersubjectivity, that is, you can know that other beings exist. Husserl says this does not happen through listening or language, but through direct apprehension. Therein lies god or the gods.

By half-past ten, the birds had gotten much quieter, and they had retreated into places where they were difficult to see. I watched one tiny Gold-crowned Kinglet flitting from branch to branch high above my head in a tall pine tree. A few chickadees buzzed and whistled. A funeral procession wound by on the cemetery road below where I stood, the black hearse and the train of cars following it with their headlights on. By eleven o’clock, I arrived back at the chalkboard, and I read through the list of birds seen as written by the man to whom I had spoken. I hadn’t seen half the birds he had seen; and come to think of it, I hadn’t seen half the birds on my own list, I had only heard them.

Spring watch

We’re staying in a Cambridge apartment today, and signs of spring are everywhere: purple and yellow croci blooming down the street, forsythia about to bloom, a sprig of pussy willow with big fat gray catkins that someone place in a vase in the entryway to this floor.

Astute reader Craig pointed out a recent article in the Kane County Chronicle: the owls are back nesting in a larch tree outside the old courthouse in Geneva, Illinois. [Link] Last year, I was living in Geneva and wrote about the owls as a sign of spring [Link]. Good to know that spring is indeed coming in Geneva as well as here in Massachusetts.

No child left behind & the tapestry of faith

While I was driving today, I was feeling a little sleepy so I listened to a talk radio show — a sure way to raise my blood pressure and wake myself up. They were talking about the “No Child Left Behind” act, and as I listened I realized that the requirements of “No Child Left Behind” closely resemble the educational reform movement going on within the religious education department of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). But first I have to tell you more about the talk radio show.

The show focused on a new survey released this week by the Center on Educational Policy (CEP) which assessed the effects of year four of the “No Child Left Behind” act. In order to meet the reading and math requirements of “No Child Left Behind,” according to CEP, many school systems are having to cut back on other subjects. In the words of the report:

71% of school districts reported that they have reduced instructional time in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and mathematics — the subjects tested for NCLB purposes. In some districts, struggling students receive double periods of reading or math or both—sometimes missing certain subjects altogether. Some districts view this extra time for reading and math as necessaryto help low-achieving students catch up. Others pointed to negative effects, such as short changing students from learning important subjects, squelching creativity in teaching and learning, or diminishing activities that might keep children interested in school. [Link to this passage; scroll down to page vii]

As usual, the show had people who liked “No Child Left Behind” and people who didn’t, and they heaved fairly shrill arguments at each other. But no one got into the deeper issues of “No Child Left Behind.”

At a deeper level, “No Child Left Behind” uses an essentialist philosophy of education — that is, there are certain essential things that people need to know. Essentialism often stresses a “back-to-basics” approach, with a closely defined body of knowledge and facts that must be mastered by all persons. CEP’s report also assumes an essentialist approach, CEP just defines the essential body of knowledge a little more broadly. And on the talk radio show, the argument centered around what should and should not be included in mandated tests. But what if you doubt the validity of the essentialist philosophy?

Just like “No Child Left Behind,” the UUA’s new Tapestry of Faith curriculum plan takes an essentialist philosophy of education. Instead of reading and writing, “Tapestry of Faith” focuses on:

Unitarian Universalist religious identity development, faith development, ethical development, and spiritual development. Big questions, central stories, spiritual practices, sustained anti-bias foci, and UU Principles and Sources….

But the overall philosophy appears to be the same: learners have to learn a few essential things. And the debate over “Tapestry of Faith” has so far ignored the issue of educational philosophy.

What might be alternative educational philosophies? A progressive educational philosophy would emphasize social problem solving, “educating for democracy,” and learning based on the direct experiences of the learners (think John Dewey). A romantic naturalist philosophy would say that we don’t need school at all (think of the “unschooling” movement). A reconstructionist educational philosophy would have learners working towards building a new social order as a part of their learning (think Paolo Friere, or Greg Stewart’s “Way Cool Sunday School”). More possible educational philosophies here.

I’ve been committed to progressive education, in the sense of “educating for democracy,” for many years now. As someone deeply committed to democracy, I find essentialism lends itself too easily to authoritarianism. And the educational debate I want to have would ask which educational philosophy will best support democracy (either in our nation, or in our denomination). But so far, all the educational debate I have heard has stayed at the level of talk radio — it never gets to the deeper philosophical issues.

City critters

Went to park my car in the Elm St. garage at about ten last night, and wound up getting into a long conversation with the evening parking lot attendant about what mammals might live in the downtown neighborhood. He’s in the parking garage five evenings a week until eleven at night, and from his perch in the entrance booth he regularly sees skunks and possums. We have both seen gray squirrels, of course. And he said there’s a feral cat that lives nearby, appropriately named “Downtown” — a woman who lives nearby feeds “Downtown” every night just across Elm St. on North Second St.

We talked about whether coyotes have made it to the downtown neighborhood yet. He has talked to several people who claim to have seen coyotes in other parts of New Bedford. We agreed that one of the sure signs of a coyote living in the neighborhood is a distinct drop in the cat population. I argued that the presence of “Downtown” the cat indicated that there are no coyotes nearby, but he argued that “Downtown” is tough enough to lick most coyotes.

What other mammals in this center-city neighborhood? Well, I’ve seen harbor seals swim right up to the downtown waterfront. He saw a cottontail rabbit in the garage once. There are doubtless rats and mice. I’ve seen a big brown bat in the church. But shouldn’t there also be raccoons? — can we confirm the presence of coyotes downtown? — any other mammals? We decided this topic calls for more investigation. He’s going to talk to the people who come into the garage and pump them for information; I’m going to start watching for road kill along Route 18 to see what turns up.

Stanislaw Lem is dead

BBC News has a short notice that Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem has died. Link

If you don’t know his work, Lem is probably best known for his novel Solaris, a story of a planet-wide intelligence trying to communicate with human beings by dredging up painful memories from their individual subconscious minds, a book which became well-known after it was made into an English-language movie. But I remember Lem best for three other books: The Star Diaries, the adventures of eccentric genius Ijon Tichy; The Cyberiad, tales of two robots who are inventors; and Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, a dystopian novel of a society living in an underground complex after a nuclear holocaust. It would be too easy for American intellectuals to dismiss him as some half-famous Polish science fiction writer. But he was much more than that. Lem combined sly humor with mythic story lines and an unblinking appraisal of humankind; and he managed to slip in some barbed critiques of 20th C. life and politics; and his writing was informed by his deep humanity. I will miss him.

Update: Good balanced obituary at the (London) Times online: Link


Yes, I know I always catch up with hot trends two years after the fact. “Oh My Gods: The Pagan Based Comic Strip for the Polytheistic Masses” ran a spoof of Unitarian Universalism back in June, 2004. Unitarian Universalists are portrayed as the Borg from the Star Trek movies, assimilating all other religious traditions into their own bland, tasteless religious mash. In my favorite strip from this “Oh My Gods” series, the dialogue goes like this:

Kay, the leader of the Spiritual Fish cult: “So you guys just go around assimilating other religions and then arguing over proper ways to have spiritual worship?”

UU borg members in unison: “Yes we wouldn’t want to offend anyone. We have to make sure we have at least one person from each social, gender, and sexual class before we can practice equally.”

Kay: “I haven’t seen spirituality this watered down since they tried to say Beltane wasn’t about sex.” Link

What?! Did I hear wincing coming from my Unitarian Universalist readers? Then read the whole series — the UU character is introduced to “Oh My Gods!” here, and the series on UU assimilating other religions starts here.

Spring watch: loon

Drove down to the New Bedford end of the hurricane barrier, parked the car, and walked out. Low gray clouds, a stiff northerly breeze, a spattering of rain now and again. It was cold enough that I put my hood up and kept my gloves on; not a day to believe that spring is coming.

On my way back from the far end of the hurricane barrier, I stopped to look at a Common Loon in the water below me. It was quite close, close enough to see individual feathers through the binoculars. The loon was in the process of molting: the checkerboard pattern already clear on its back, the head becoming all black again as the white winter feathers on the throat came out. Soon the molt will be complete, and with its new set of feathers the loon will start to fly north, away from its wintering ground here in New Bedford harbor, to raise young loons on some lonesome lake in Canada. I could see, at least in imagination, the whole progress of spring written in the patchy feathers on its head.

How to stay outdoors after dark

This afternoon, I drove out to Concord. In the fields of the old prison farm, a Greater White-Fronted Goose was supposedly hanging around with the geese that usually live there; I wanted to see this resident of the arctic.

There stood the goose, looking odd with its orange bill. I looked at it for a while, and realized I had a little time before dark, so I drove over to the national wildlife refuge a few miles away. I climbed the observation tower there. As I got up onto the observation deck, a boy’s voice said, “Are you a birder?”

I said, “Well, sort of.” The boy was about 12. He was with a man who had binoculars and never used them, but just seemed to be looking at the scenery.

He said, “You see those ducks out there? –what are they? You can see them in the telescope.”

But I already had my binoculars to my eyes, and could see them well enough to say, “Well, they’re probably Ring-necked Ducks.” Then I looked through the big telescope mounted on the observation deck, the same one that was there when I was a boy. I said why I was sure they were Ring-neck Ducks, with that white streak in front of the wings, and the distinctive shape of their heads.

The boy nodded wisely. “Yeah,” he said.

We talked about birds a little bit; the Red-winged Blackbirds were back; ducks were on the move. I asked if he had seen the Greater White-fronted Goose. Behind me, I could feel the man politely rolling his eyes, the way Carol does when she has to endure listening to people talk about birds. The boy was pretty excited to hear about the goose, though he hid it. I told the boy where to see it, but, as is often the case for someone that age, he didn’t have a strong sense of how to get from one place to another. So I told the man, who knew where I meant. The man had a faint European accent; the boy did not.

“We better tell your mother about it,” said the man, which either meant that the boy’s mother was a birder, or this was a ploy to get the boy down off the observation tower.

“Just FYI,” said the boy to the man, as they began walking down the steep stairs, “a Greater White-Fronted Goose is not something you see every day.”

“Not around here, that’s for sure,” I said in parting. The man smiled, a little tightly, but didn’t say anything. Maybe he didn’t realize that goose had probably flown down here from Greenland.

I wandered over the dike between the two main pools of the refuge, well behind the boy and the two adults. I don’t think his mother was a passionate birder, because they didn’t seem to stop and look at the Northern Shoveler. I took my time, saw a lot of birds, and wound up getting to my car just as the man was trying to get the boy back down off the observation tower and into their car. “Come on,” the man said in his faint accent, “we have to go now.”

Like the boy, I didn’t want to leave. But I had to get back to New Bedford, and with the light fading fast I no longer had the excuse of staying to look at birds. I slid into my car, started the engine and turned on the headlights. When I pulled out, the boy still wasn’t in the car. Maybe he was doing the right thing; so what if it’s too dark to look at birds any more; so what if he was annoying two adults; any excuse to stay outdoors longer.

Maybe I’m getting too responsible.

Religion vs. spirituality revisited

I’m working on this week’s sermon, which will focus on “new religious movements.” As I did some reading to prepare, I found an interesting passage in the book New Religions: A Guide: New Religious Movements, Sects, and Alternative Spiritualities, edited by Christopher Partridge (Oxford University Press, 2004), that has helped me to clarify the difference between religion and spirituality.

In his introductory essay, Partridge takes some time to distinguish between religious movements, sects, and alternative spiritualities — and I found his definition of the latter to be particularly helpful:

The term ‘alternative spirituality’ has been included because not all the articles in this volume discuss beliefs and practices that can be described as ‘religious’. Arguably, one of the more significant developments in particularly Western religious adherence is the emergence of private, non-institutional forms of belief and practice. The sacred persists, but increasingly it does so in non-traditional forms. There is, as the sociologist Grace Davie has argued, ‘believing without belonging’. More specifically, it can be argued that much of this believing without belonging should be defined as ‘spirituality’ rather than ‘religion’. There is in the West, for example, a move away from traditional forms of belief, which have developed within religious institutions, towards forms of belief that focus on the self, on nature, or simply on ‘life’. While there may be particular traditional teachings that are valued by the individual seeker, or particular groups to which the individual belongs, generally speaking there is a suspicion of traditional authorities, sacred texts, churches, and hierarchies of power. There is a move away from a ‘religion’ that focuses on things that are considered external to the self (God, the Bible, the church [and maybe Truth and Goodness?]) to ‘spirituality’ — that which focuses on ‘the self’ and is personal and interior….[pp. 16-17]

Reading this, it struck me that ‘believing without belonging’ is one of the major challenges faced by any institutionalized religious movement today. It also fits in with my observations:– many newcomers to the congregation I serve have little idea of how institutionalized religion works; they are sometimes suspicious of institutionalized religion; and they are often wary of committing themselves to a religious institution.

Christopher Partridge continues his definition of “alternative spiritualities” by saying this:

While the term ‘spirituality’ in this volume often has a particular reference to the ‘turn to the self’, it is also used of religious reflection that, strictly speaking, refers to more than this. For example, much contemporary feminist and eco-feminist spirituality cannot be considered as principally a ‘turn to the self’ and, indeed, is often developed within a particular religious tradition. Hence, when the term ‘spirituality’ is used of such developments it is used in a broader, less precise way, which merges with what might be understood as a ‘soft definition’ of religion. …[Some] Christian spiritualities discussed in this volume seek to overturn the distinction between the spiritual and the non-spiritual and understand spirituality to be a quest for full humanity that embraces the whole of the created order. Perhaps spirituality can be understood as a path that, while focusing on the self, seeks to extend to all life and certainly beyond the bounds of institutional religion. [p. 17]

While I’ve always felt a little queasy about “spirituality” as the term is usually used, I could definitely be an advocate of spirituality as a quest for a full humanity that gets individuals to embrace all humanity, all living beings, indeed all of life. At the same time, I’m all too aware of the pressures of mass culture that don’t allow us time or place to engage in spirituality — and that time/place is exactly what institutionalized religion (especially a local congregation) can provide.