Current issues in liberal religion: race

Talk given during a class on the topic of race and liberal religion. I co-taught the class with Amy Zucker Morgenstern at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto on 17 January 2012.


I want to begin by telling you a little story. A couple of years ago, I was at a Unitarian Universalist social gathering, and I was standing around chatting informally with three other people, two of whom were white like me, and one of whom was black. I forget what topic came up, but it was some political topic in which I felt race played a part. I do have a clear memory of what I said. I said, “And of course, what was really going on was sheer racism.” The black person said something like, “Well, obviously.” Upon hearing the word “racism,” the other two white people suddenly found something else to do — they melted away from our little conversational group the way snow melts away when it falls on a Palo Alto lawn. The black person watched them go, looked back at me, and said, “Well. I guess they didn’t want to talk about that.” And I replied, “Well, I don’t care.” And the two of us kept on talking.

But I did care. This happens to me a lot. I spend a lot of time thinking about race and racism, partly because from a moral standpoint I’m outraged by racism, and partly because from an intellectual and theological viewpoint the intertwined issues of race and racism provide a major impetus to rethinking the Enlightenment emphasis on individualism and the primacy of reason. Continue reading “Current issues in liberal religion: race”

New weekly publication schedule

Starting today, I’m moving this blog from a daily to a weekly publication schedule. The immediate cause of this move was Apple’s January 19th release of iBook Author, an iPad application designed to make it easy for educators to publish textbooks and supplementary materials. Apple’s announcement clarified something for me: blogs are just one aspect of the revolution in publishing that is currently happening.

I love blogging — and over the past few years I’ve experimented with video blogging, photo blogging, audio blogging (podcasts), microblogging (Twitter), and of course text blogging — but I’ve been spending an average of two hours a day on my various blogging projects. I want to experiment with other kinds of new publishing methods as well: interactive textbooks, e-books, print on demand, and more. In order to carve out the time to experiment with other publishing methods, I unfortunately have to cut back on the time I spend blogging.

So I’ll be changing my publication schedule here to a new post every Monday. If something comes up in the middle of the week — e.g., if I’m at a conference — I may post on other days as well. But there will always be something new every Monday.

Why I dislike cleaning out desks

This afternoon, I set myself the task of going through a desk that I had used when we lived in New Bedford, but which has since then stood in the garage. I found stationery I had forgotten about, a brass button that had come off my blue blazer, blank checks from a bank that is now defunct, and a set of keys to my parents’ old house. For some reason now forgotten, the keys were on a key ring that originally had held the keys to a 1969 Plymouth Valiant automobile I once owned, an automobile (not that it matters) which I had purchased from a direct lineal descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The sight of the key to the porch door instantly brought back a vivid image of walking up to my parents’ house and letting myself in. This was a disturbing image because when dad sold the house after my mother’s death, the new owners tore it down; nothing from it had been salvaged but everything merely thrown away; while in its place a tawdry three-story mansionette was erected, the new building extending to the absolute limits of what the zoning regulations allowed.

This train of thought led immediately to a consideration of the vanity of human endeavor. This is why I do not like to clean out desk drawers and make them tidy: better, I think, to let some things lie unseen.

On a rainy evening

At last we’re getting a real winter storm: dark clouds all day long; an early dusk; constant rain all afternoon and evening, sometimes light, sometimes heavy; occasional gusts of wind driving the rain against the skylights of our little second floor apartment. A perfect evening to read Jackson Bate’s biography of Samuel Johnson.

I’ve gotten to the point in the biography where Bates describes what Johnson was like when he had just turned fifty: his wife dead; his great dictionary done; well over a million words written and published (half a million alone in his reporting on Parliamentary debates), most of it ghost-writing or anonymous hack work that paid little; and he has always struggled financially, has been arrested for debt, and wears clothes that a homeless person might wear. But however skillfully Bates tells Johnson’s tale of middle age, Johnson himself told it better, more concisely, more pointedly, in this essay from December of 1759:

We do not indeed so often disappoint others as ourselves. We not only think more highly than others of our own abilities, but allow ourselves to form hopes which we never communicate, and please our thoughts with employments which none ever will allot us, and with elevations to which we are never expected to rise; and when our days and years are passed away in common business, or common amusements, and we find at last that we have suffered our purposes to sleep till the time of action is past, we are reproached only by our own reflections; neither our friends nor our enemies wonder that we live and die like the rest of mankind; that we live without notice, and die without memorial; they know not what task we have proposed, and therefore cannot discern whether it is finished. —The Idler, no. 88.


Last night, Carol and I were out for our nightly walk. We were talking about the various challenges and problems of the day, when we heard a crash behind us. We both spun around, and saw something had happened two or three blocks back along San Mateo Drive.

“Dan!” said Carol. “Do you have your cell phone? you better call 911.”

It looked like a motorcycle had crashed. It looked bad, but I was reluctant to call 911, only to have them get mad at me because it was only a fender bender. We started jogging towards the crash; I punched “911” into my phone and was ready to hit the send button; but before we had gone a block, we could see that a police car had already arrived at the site.

By the time we got to the crash site, we could see a cop standing over someone lying on the sidewalk, shining a flashlight on whoever it was. Her police car was parked so as to block two and a half of the four lanes of San Mateo Drive. The motorcycle was lying on its side a hundred feet down the road from where the person was lying, and pieces of it were scattered across the roadway. Then it looked to me like the cop stood up suddenly and took a step back.

Soon, another police car arrived and parked next to the first police car, and the first cop moved her car and parked it across the other end of the block. Then two more police cars arrived. We started walking away, wondering why there were so many police cars coming. I called out to the first cop as we walked by, “We heard the crash but we didn’t see anything”; and Carol added, “But there were no other cars.” The cop, in a shaken voice, replied, “No, it was a solo.”

As we walked home, we talked about what we had seen. Why had that cop arrived at the scene so soon? Had she been chasing the motorcycle? It looked like they were treating it as a crime scene; was the motorcyclist dead? Two fire engines went down San Mateo Drive towards the crash; then another police car; then, at long last, an ambulance. We had completely stopped talking about the various problems and challenges of the day; the crash had put things into a different perspective.

There was nothing in the news about the crash. Tonight, we walked by the crash scene, but we couldn’t see anything. We’ll probably never know what really happened.

The story of Demeter and Persephone, part 1

I’ve been putting together some stories for liberal religious kids, and I’m working on a version of the story of Demeter and Persephone, as told in the Homeric Hymns. I’ve taken the translation by E. G. Evelyn-White (Cambridge: Harvard, and London: William Heinemann, 1914 — now in the public domain), and simplifying it somewhat for upper elementary and middle school kids — but retaining the somewhat archaic flavor of the translation, and retaining some of the Greek epithets (“rich-haired Demeter,” etc.). Here’s the first part of the story:

Rich-haired Demeter, goddess who strikes awe in the hearts of all humankind, the goddess of the wheatfields, goddess of farming and agriculture—Demeter had a daughter named Persephone.

Once upon a time, trim-ankled Persephone was playing with the daughters of Oceanus. They roamed over a soft meadow on the plain of Nysa, gathering flowers: roses, crocuses, beautiful violets, irises and hyacinths, and also the narcissus. Gaia, mother Earth, made the narcissus grow at the will of Zeus, the ruler of all the other gods and goddesses. All-seeing Zeus, the god of loud thunder, had decided that Persephone was old enough to be married. It was his will that the narcissus should grow in the meadow, to attract the attention of Persephone. The narcissus is a marvellous, radiant flower—a thing of awe whether for deathless gods or mortal men to see: from its root grew a hundred blooms and is smelled most sweetly, so that all wide heaven above and the whole earth and the sea’s salt swell laughed for joy.

When Persephone saw the narcissus blooming, she was amazed, and reached out with both hands to take the lovely toy. But to her surprise, the wide-pathed earth yawned open there in the middle of the meadow. Out of the yawning hole rode Hades, Son of Cronos and brother of Zeus, god of the underworld, Host of the Many (he was called “Host of the Many” because he ruled over the underworld, the land of the dead, which meant he was host to all the many people who had died over the centuries).

Hades caught up the reluctant Persephone and carried her away. Continue reading “The story of Demeter and Persephone, part 1”

Three ways of saying the same thing

Here are three ways of saying the same thing. First, here’s Juvenal from the Tenth Satire:

Haud facile emergunt, quorum virtutibus obstat / Res angusta domi

Now here’s Dryden’s translation:

Rarely they rise by Virtue’s aid, who lie / Plung’d in the depth of helpless Poverty”

And finally here’s Samuel Johnson’s very concise translation:

Slow rises worth, by poverty depress’d.

However the thought is expressed, I agree with it.


This post is really about language, thought it might not seem like it at first.

This afternoon, we went to a lice removal specialist up in Burlingame. We’d done the pesticide shampoo, we’d washed bedding and clothing in hot water, but it’s really hard to be patient enough to spend an hour combing through your partner’s hair to remove nits, and then spend another hour having your partner comb through your hair. We decided it was worth it to us to spend the money to have someone else do it for us.

As I sat there, I realized that what the fellow was doing to me was picking nits — he was, in fact, a professional nitpicker. As it is usually used, the word “nitpicker” has negative connotations: it means someone who pays too much attention to detail, who doesn’t see the forest for the trees, a micro-manager. But if you’re getting rid of a live infestation, you really, really want obsessive attention to detail. Thus it is curious that the word “nitpicker” has negative connotations; it makes more sense to me that it should have positive connotations.

But language changes over time, and the meanings of words often evolve away from their original meanings. So nowadays it is no longer a compliment to call someone a nitpicker.