Sonoran Desert

We drove into Arizona towards Phoenix along Interstate 10. We knew we had entered the Sonoran Desert when we saw giant saguaro cacti along the side of the highway. A roadrunner ran quickly across the highway in front of us, moving so fast I didn’t have time to touch the brakes before it was lost in the brush on the other side. The Sonoran Desert is a beautiful place.

Halfway Phoenix from the California border, the sprawl began to replace the desert: tract houses, malls, light industrial buildings, the occasional agricultural field, a golf course here and there.

In large part because of its beauty and lushness, more Arizonans live in the Sonoran Desert than in any other geographic region of the state: more than three-fourths of our total of four million people. This crush of bodies, with the pressures they impose on the desert’s modest resources, is the state’s most ominous problem. — Lawrence Cheek, Arizona (Compass Travel Guides, 1995), pp. 34-35.

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, the theologian who was central in developing Mujerista — which can be translated as womanist — theology, died May 13 in New York City. Her obituary in the New York Times notes that Isasi-Diaz preferred the term “Mujerism” to the term “feminist” because, she said, many women in the Hispanic community considered feminism to be “a preoccupation of white Anglo women.”

Many of us are Unitarian Universalists are about to head off to General Assembly in Phoenix, where we will be concentrating a good deal of our attention on the immigration issues facing the Hispanic community. Feminism and feminist theology has been at the center of our identity as a religious community. As we continue to look into issues facing the Hispanic community, it seems to me worth out while to look more closely at Mujerism as it applies to North America. So I’m putting Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz on my reading list for the coming year.

Ray Bradbury: a brief appreciation

When I was a child, maybe eleven or twelve years old, I discovered my parents’ old science fiction books on some metal shelves in the basement. The only one of these books I really remember was a paperback edition of Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. In my mind’s eye I can still see the cover design, and the cracked binding. One of the stories in particular stuck with me, still sticks with me:

In “The Man,” a spaceship travels to a planet that hasn’t been visited by any spaceships for a long time. The crew of the space ship expects to be greeted with astonishment and wonder, but upon landing they discover that another visitor, a solitary man, has preceded them by just a few days. Everyone who met this man is filled with a kind of peace and inner contentment. This amazing man has gone on to a new planet. Some of the crew decide they must meet this man themselves, and they head off in the space ship to follow him. But a few of the crew remain on the planet; they know that the rest of the crew who are pursuing this man will never quite catch up with him, they will miss him by a day, then by a few hours, then by minutes, but they will always miss meeting him in person; they decide they don’t need to meet the man in person, that living on this now-peaceful planet with these now-peaceful people is enough.

Even at eleven or twelve years old, I figured out that this story was about religion, about a Jesus-like figure. Later, I figured out that this story was criticizing literalism in religion; it is futile to try to find the “real” Jesus, the “real” prophet, because you will never catch up with him (or her). Later still, I discovered that Ray Bradbury was a Unitarian Universalist, and this was exactly the kind of story a religious liberal would write.

Some of Bradbury’s work can be overly sentimental, with stereotyped characters and pat endings. One such a story comes to mind: In “Kaleidoscope,” a spaceship explodes, the crew in spacesuits are propelled off in all directions, knowing they will live only as long as the oxygen lasts in their space suits; they talk with each other via their suit radios, talking, crying, saying vicious things, telling what direction they’re headed in, coming to peace with one another. Slowly each one passes out of radio range of the others. One of them is captured by the gravitational well of Earth, and is seen from the surface of Earth as a meteorite, a shooting star. It’s a story about how we all have to die alone, but Bradbury can’t resist the pat ending of having one of the dying crew men end life as a shooting star upon whom a boy makes a wish. But in spite of that, I can’t help liking “The Kaleidoscope”: I know we die alone, and that most of human death amounts to little more than a lone spaceman flying off into the endless void; but I want to believe that once in a while, the end of a human life can be a force for good in the world, even if it’s little more than a brief flash of light in the night.

Transit of Venus

I’m taking a break from work here at the Palo Alto church, and watching the transit of Venus. I’m projecting an image of the sun using a pair of 7×25 binoculars mounted to a tripod. I have a white card set up about six feet from the binoculars, resulting in an image that’s approximately five and three quarters of an inch in diameter. The optics in the binoculars are not particularly good, and there’s enough chromatic aberration that I don’t get a particularly crisp image. Nevertheless, I can clearly see the shadow Venus is casting as it crosses the sun; on this projection, it’s approximately three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter, and at this time about one and three sixteenths inches from the nearest edge of the sun. The card I’m projecting the image on is eight and a half by eleven inches oriented horizontally; the earth moves such that I have to readjust the binoculars every sixty or seventy seconds in order to keep a complete image on the card.

Venus does not appear to be moving in relation to the sun. I suppose if I sat out here long enough, I’d be able to see some relative motion; but the transit is going to take four hours, and I don’t suppose I can take that much time away from work.

And yes, the transit is a pretty amazing phenomenon to watch, even with my crude projection device.

Corrected per Erp’s comment.

Long live the Enlightenment

Jeremy, someone who sings in the same group I do, passed along a photocopy of an article, “The Enlightenment, Naturalism, and the Secularization of Values,” from the magazine Free Inquiry. It’s a historical overview of the Enlightenment by historian Alan Charles Kors of the University of Pennsylvania. During the break in singing tonight, I told him that I finally read the article.

“What did you think?” he said.

“I liked it,” I said. I told him I had been expecting the article to come down on one side or the other of the argument going on right now about whether the Enlightenment is a good thing, or something we have to move past; that is, I had been expecting a modernist/postmodernist argument. Instead, Kors gives a pretty straightforward overview of the Enlightenment from his perspective as a historian.

We both agreed that we’re of the party who would like to continue the values of the Enlightenment. “But we can’t go back to the eighteenth century Enlightenment,” I said.

Jeremy wondered aloud: “Why not?”

I argued that the insights we have gotten in the twentieth century from psychology, particularly developmental psychology, pose a major challenge to at least one eighteenth century Enlightenment assumption: we now know that children think differently than do adults; they are not rational in the way that adults may be said to be rational. Furthermore, beginning in the lat twentieth century we began to learn from neuroscience and cognitive science that human beings may not be as rational as we’d like to think they are, or perhaps not rational in the same way that we have imagined them to be.

Jeremy argued that the insights of developmental psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive science do not fundamentally contradict the eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophers. But I said we can’t yet be sure of that. The field of neuroscience, for example, is changing so rapidly that we really only have preliminary hypotheses of how the brain works; new experiments could change our ideas even further. And developmental psychology is still trying to reconcile the two very different approaches of Piagetian and Vygotskian (more individualistic and more communal) developmental psychology.

The only conclusion we came to was that we both were happy to have moved beyond the excesses of Romanticism. Although Jeremy loves that quintessential Romantic composer, Beethoven, while I don’t; and I still remain at heart an Transcendentalist. So maybe we haven’t escaped Romanticism as much as we thought we have.