If I asked

If I asked
what you thought
about God,

would you try
to tell me
there’s no God?

would you try
to save me
from some hell?

Probably,
like most: an
axe to grind.

All I want
is to talk,
just to talk,

nothing more.

Online summary of distributed cognition

Joe sent me a link to an excellent online summary of distributed cognition some time ago, and I have been meaning to post the link on my blog. Here it is:

“Distributed Cognition” by Edwin Hutchins of the University of California, San Diego

In this ten page paper, Hutchins gives a good concise introduction to distributed cognition. He points out the close relation between Vygotksy’s theories and distributed cognition. Hutchins provides a nice division of distributed cognition into three types: cognition “may be distributed across the members of a social group,” cognition may involve an interaction between internal processes and the material environment, and cognition may be distributed through time.

I’ve been finding that the concepts of distributed cognition are extremely useful in understanding how congregations work. I’ve found this paper to be very helpful as I continue to deepen my understanding of distributed cognition, so I thought I’d share it here.

Reluctantly re-examining personal sin

I have never thought all that much about personal sin. After all, I’m a product of Social Gospel Unitarianism. Sin, for many of those of us who were raised within the Social Gospel world view, is located outside the individual, in society. This is why people like me don’t spend much time worrying about our personal sinfulness, nor do we spend much time trying to achieve personal salvation. Instead, we spend a great deal of time worrying about the sin that is out there in the world, and we spend lots of time working for the salvation of the world. Prayer on bended knee admitting what nasty individuals we are? Nope, we don’t do much of that. Saving the earth from climate change, saving the whales, saving land from being strip malled? Oh yeah, we do lots of things like that.

Recently, I was talking to a friend, another religious liberal, who has been beset by small-minded people intent on doing damage to this friend of mine. My friend, in a moment of anguish, said something about the sinfulness of these small-minded people. This assessment contained the truth of my friend’s personal experience: these small-minded people were full of sin. The sin lay in two things: they did not treat my friend like a full human being, and when they had a choice about the way they could act, they chose to act hurtfully.

As a Social Gospeler who doesn’t think much about personal sin, I am tempted to explain away the actions of these small-minded people using the concepts of popular psychology: they must have something bad going on elsewhere in their lives to make them act this way, or perhaps they had troubled childhoods. As a twenty-first century Social Gospeler, I am especially prone to use the psychology of family systems theory: the problem lies, not in the individual, but in the social system that allows such behavior. But psychology is designed to explain why persons behave the way they behave; psychology does not make moral judgments, it does not say when something is good and right, or bad and wrong; psychology is not a substitute for morals and ethics.

I’m extremely reluctant to re-introduce the concept of personal sin into my religious life. I’m quite comfortable talking about the sins of society. I’m quite comfortable talking about evil, which I think of as those dark forces outside of us, and in some sense outside our control, that can force us to do things that are bad. Besides, the word “sin” has been so badly misused by so many people in our society that it’s almost unusable in ordinary conversation. Yet my friend really was sinned against; I was perfectly willing to agree that those small-minded people sinned when they made my friend’s life miserable.

What do you think? As a religious liberal, do you think about personal sin, or not? How do you define personal sin? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Sixth anniversary

Six years ago, I posted my first entry on this blog, using AOL’s old blogging service. Within a year, I had moved the blog to my own Web site. And now that I’ve just had a complete meltdown of that blog installation, I’m rebuilding the whole blog once again. I was planning a complete rebuild anyway, so this has been a great way to force me to buckle down and actually do it.

You’ll notice that I’ve changed the look of this blog, with a new design. The header photo is a photograph I took from a steep hillside in redwood country, in Camp Meeker, California. Over the next few days, I’ll be moving posts from the past two months into this blog, reinstalling the blogroll, and refining the internal navigation. As I fine-tune this rebuild, your comments and ideas, as always, will be gratefully accepted.

Some things won’t change — I’ll still be writing six or seven times a week, I’ll still be focusing on liberal religion and all the topics I’ve always focused on. But I hope you enjoy this sixth anniversary blog makeover.

Welcome aboard

Sometime on 24 February 2011, my blog located at danielharper.org/blog melted down; cause remains unknown, but it may have been due to files that were damaged by a malicious hacker earlier in the week. Long story short: I had to create a whole new blog, which is what you’re now reading.

I placed a redirect on the old blog’s address, so your old bookmarks will still work. If you subscribed to the old blog via RSS feed, you may have to resubscribe. And if you ever linked to a post within this blog, that link will no longer work.

At some point, I will restore most of the old blog posts and comments somewhere on this Web site; but my first priority will be to get this new blog up and running.

Snow on the mountains

On the drive down to Palo Alto, there’s an overpass from which you can see the range of mountains south of San Jose. The highest peaks were still white today from the snow that fell early in the week. Today’s San Francisco Chronicle reported that up to eight inches fell on Mount Diablo (elev. 3,864 ft.), eastwards across the bay from us.

And the Chronicle reports that meteorologists say there’s a possibility that the Alaskan storm now heading southward could possibly deliver snow at sea level over the weekend. It probably won’t happen, but what if it does? — If it does snow, I’ll try to get a photo of snow on the orange tree in our back yard, which still has ripe oranges on it.

“Stencil-style writing” and zone of proximal development

Notes from my teaching diary, dated Sunday 20 February:

Paul was the lead teacher in the 11:00 a.m. Sunday school class this morning. Paul brought in a lovely picture book that a friend of his had given him. It was very attractive, and a couple of the children looked at it curiously. After everyone checked in, and the two new children got more comfortable, Paul started the lesson proper. “I brought in this picture book,” he said, “and I also have a story from our regular book [From Long Ago and Many Lands by Sophia Fahs]. I thought you could choose which story you wanted to hear.” I was sure the children would want to hear the story in the attractive picture book, but they wanted to hear the story from the regular book — it was obvious that they really like the regular book.

After Paul read the story to us (it was the story of “The Wee, Wise Bird” on p. 146), we talked a little about the story, and then Paul asked us to draw scenes from the story. Billy* was having a hard time settling down, so as the assistant teacher I asked him to come sit beside me; he enjoys himself more when an adult can help keep him focused. We talked about what he might want to draw, and he said he didn’t really want to draw, but he might like to write down the three lessons the wee, wise bird tried to teach the dim-witted gardener. He began to write the first one, very neatly and carefully. I told him that he had very neat handwriting, and admired the special way he was writing. “That’s stencil-style writing,” he said with pride.

Across the table, Jack* drew very quickly: first a giant bulldozer, then a plane about to drop a bomb. Paul suggested that Jack might want to draw a picture of what the wee, wise bird might look like if it really could have had a pearl bigger than itself inside its body. Jack took great pleasure in dashing off another drawing showing exactly that.

When it came time for everyone to show their drawings, Isaac,* who was the youngest child there at age 6, showed his drawing. “I drew what he drew,” he said a little shyly, pointing to the 8 year old next to him. He had done a good copy of his neighbor’s drawing. I couldn’t help thinking to myself that this was a very visual example of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, and a good reminder of how much the children are learning from each other, and from us adults, not through the explicit lesson but simply by watching each other and us. Along those lines, the class always seems to go well when Paul is teaching: the children come away from class feeling they have learned something concrete and memorable, we have all had time to chat (there was a lot of informal chatting while we were drawing).

At noon I checked the Main Hall and found that the main worship service was running a little late, as usual. So Paul asked if the children wanted to hear the story from the picture book he had brought with him, and they did. A couple of parents came in in the middle of this story, but none of the children took this as a cue to get up and scramble out of class: they all stayed and listened to the whole of Paul’s picture book. In another testimonial to the approach we are taking, about a half hour after class had let out, one of Billy’s parents came up to me and said that Billy didn’t really want to leave the house to go to Sunday school this morning, but once he was in the car he remembered that he really liked the 11:00 Sunday school class.

* Pseudonyms, of course.

Blog problems

On 21 February my blog was taken over by some malicious person who utilized a security hole in the old version of WordPress I was using. The problem was bad enough that Dennis from my Internet service provider had to shut down the blog, install the latest version of WordPress, and reinstall blog data. In the process, quite a few photos in past blog posts were lost; I will gradually reinstall those. Please let me know if you notice anything else that’s missing (e.g., a comment, etc.).

To other bloggers: If you’re using WordPress, save yourself some grief and install the latest version immediately!

Just to state the obvious

When confronted with a twelve year old girl who had just died, the story about that radical rabble-rouser and rabbi Jesus of Nazareth does not have him saying: “Your daughter is in heaven now because God needed another angel”; nor is he reported as saying, “I know just how you feel, but your daughter is in a better place now.” Nope, the way the story runs is that Jesus walks into where the girl is lying, takes her hand, and says, “Girl, get up!” and she does. (For you Bible geeks, this is in Mark 5.35-43.)

Mind you, I’m not someone who believes in the literal factual truth of the stories in the Bible, nor do I believe in the literal truth of the stories told by Shakespeare, and in fact I have a limited amount of trust in the literal factual truth of stories in the New York Times or on Fox News. Stories have their own narrative logic that is different from, but no less true than, literal factual truth.

So reading this story is not going to make me go out and try to do some faith healing — no more than reading King Lear is going to make me say to my sweetheart, “I love you according to my bond; no more nor less.” (For you Shakespeare geeks, that’s act 1, scene 1, lines 94-95.) However, reading this story in the Jesus saga is going to make me think twice before uttering platitudes to the parents of a dead child. Jesus did not try to placate them by saying, “Your twelve year old is one of God’s angels now.” Instead, he showed up. He didn’t weep and wail. He was matter-of-fact. He paid attention to the parents, and paid attention to what they really wanted.

Just to state the obvious, this story is not a literal story about a dead girl that came back to life, but it is about a different kind of miracle: showing up, not freaking out, and paying attention to someone who needs it.

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Repost: letter on PCD politics

The letter below was sent out by the executive committee of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association of the Pacific Central District (PCD-UUMA). The letter gives the “understanding” of the PCD-UUMA regarding the recent termination of Cilla Raughley as District Executives of the Pacific Central District. N.B.: This letter came with explicit permission to “post it on your blog, FaceBook page, tweet a link….”

I don’t really run a news blog, but there has been a dearth of official communication on this issue, and for that reason only I’m willing to repost this here. Please note that while I have received an apparently official statement via email from both the Pacific Central District Board and staff at the Unitarian Universalist Association, those email messages did not come with explicit permission to post them on a blog, and I’ve always had a policy of not posting email messages to this blog without explicit permission (see About this blog).

If you want to reply to this letter, please communicate directly with one of the signers. I have zero interest in moderating comments on someone else’s letter, so I’m going to shut off comments on this post. And before you complain that I’ve turned off comments, please remember that this blog is my hobby: I do it for fun, I do it in my spare time, and I get to choose to not moderate comments on something I didn’t write. Continue reading “Repost: letter on PCD politics”