Early Morning Raid

I’ve got a new video up now to join the rest of them, a music video of the previously unheard-by-anyone-except-me song “Afghanistan.” The song is set to some video I got of a wild thunderstorm in New York the other night, which looked so much like a bombing raid that I had to juxtapose it with footage of one, the one that continues to haunt us so much.

“Afghanistan” was originally written and recorded in 2004 for the first Novice CD, Elementary Forms, but at the time I decided not to include it. Finally I have found a use for it that I like.

New York State of Mind

In a new way I was struck today with what six months in New York (pretty much to the day) can do to a person. I came here originally, to be sure, with a mission. Not quite “to make my fortune” but close. For love and friends, of course, but also to try my hand at being a Writer, to publish, to make some money, and gain a reputation somewhere of some kind. And along that way there has been some success: a few interesting jobs, some articles published, a book in the works, and, of course, friends new and old. But those things, like all things, don’t leave one unscathed.

Take this very blog, for instance. The redesign last week was, in some respects, a departure from what The Row Boat has always been about. It (secretly) shares a motto with Small’s Clone Press, the wonderful phrase of Jorge Luis Borges: “I write for myself and for my friends, and I write to ease the passing of time.” Yet the purpose of the redesign was, in many respects, an effort to open The Row Boat to a world beyond, equipping it with the latest blog software rather than the homespun Little Logger program that I wrote myself and that worked perfectly well for me and those friends of mine who care to read. In New York, the instinct has been so much to hand out business cards, to self-promote, that I began turning The Row Boat into a business card without even knowing it. I even caught myself (and only half stopped myself) trying to use the site to boost the Google PageRank of my name, Nathan Schneider. Red-handed if I ever saw it!

In a lecture at UCSB last year (moderated by my graduate advisor, Ann Taves), Rabbi Michael Lerner asserted that American culture is permeated by the religion of capitalism, which other religions like Christianity and Judaism tend to be subservient to. They mold their anthropologies to frame capitalism as the only realistic practice. And this religion, in turn, molds us. According to Lerner, it makes it harder for us to love and care for each other by insisting always on fame, wealth, self-interest, and the bottom line. Now we could go on forever about whether capitalism could be called a religion, but it seems a much more straightforward claim to say that working in certain ways does adjust our values and habits. One need not even point the finger at capitalism as such, for there are all kinds of capitalisms. I might even call it, simply, the New York state of mind.

These things, however, are for the beholder. Anyone who has spent time in New York knows that what it is most of all is multiplicity; it is many things. The nicest people in the world, who will go forever out of their way to make sure you get on the right subway line, and the meanest. What this place is full of is choices—even, in Lerner’s terms, religions—to choose from. The gospel of wealth or the gospel of poverty. The gospel of non-profit or the gospel of for-profit (both come in all kinds, in turn). The gospel of Brooklyn or the gospel of Queens, even.

Remembering those words from Borges reminded me that there are different ways to go. We are not creatures of the plainest rational choice theory, simply maximizing money and reputation wherever possible. At worst, we participate in much broader kinds of economies, and recognize a whole range of capital. In some economies, kindness, charity, creativity, courage, reflection, and so forth are ends in themselves.

While I used to be content writing for friends and family alone (possibly more out of necessity than choice), I now economize and write almost exclusively when there is money or reputation to be gained in it. The redesign notwithstanding, though, The Row Boat is still an exception to this. I still write here with little expectation of readers, with only the desire to write, my little act of memory, my substitute for immortality in the very doing of it. I’ve tried Google ads, I’ve tried sharing links, I’ve tried everything you’re supposed to do to get traffic on the web, but still no money or reputation has come out of The Row Boat. Hardly anyone reads it. Maybe that is its greatest gift.

An Exchange on Adi Da

Adi Da SamrajFor the last several days, I’ve been in email contact with someone named John Forth, a devotee of the new religious movement leader Adi Da. It began when I received an email from him, possibly related to an earlier Row Boat post, that was clearly an anonymous form letter. It was filled with links to Adi Da sites that might be of interest, especially those related to his recent “monumental” photographic art. For instance, this and that.

I first encountered Adi Da a few years ago in the library at Brown University when, during the course of my research on creationism, my eye was caught by a book titled Scientific Proof for the Existence of God Soon to Be Announced by the White House! Its author was Da Free John, one of Adi Da’s several previous names. It had an enthusiastic introduction by the New Age philosopher Ken Wilber (who has since distanced himself from Adi Da) followed by a number of peculiar, fascinating essays. With amazing lucidity, they pronounced on spiritual subjects with loads of Capitalized Terms. A little like Mike Meyers’s new character Guru Pitka, Adi Da is an American (from Queens, educated at Columbia and Stanford) who got his spiritual education in India and became a Hindu-style guru. Now he lives in quasi-exile in Fiji.

John Forth, it seems, has a history of his own. A Google search actually turned up an essay by one Mark Fischer in a book about the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner that started with a similar mass-email encounter with Forth. Since the essay made it sound like Forth was willing to talk, I decided to write back to him, and doing so started a bit of an exchange. He asked that I not publish what he wrote in full, so I will try to summarize the gist of the conversation.

In my first email, I made a remark that caught his eye:

From an anthropological rather than theological point of view, I agree with Fischer that people like Adi Da tell us a lot about Jesus.

Forth answered with some links to writings by Adi Da about “Saint Jesus of Galilee.” He then went on to suggest that my remark was “typically Christian of course, with the usual prejudices,” and that Western religious traditions had left people like me in a “perceptual strait-jacket” to which Adi Da offers an hope for the “Divinization of Humankind.”

With a certain arrogance, I went a bit on the offensive in my next message. I tried to be polite, but I also tried to be honest about how my encounters with Adi Da and his movement have struck me.

Forgive me for thinking I know your story before really knowing it, but you sound like you’ve given yourself to a teaching that limits you as much as any other orthodoxy, including Christian ones. I’m sure you’ve had some tremendous experiences with Adi Da, undoubtedly genuinely transformational ones. I would love to learn about them. But so have many people, thinking in many different ways.

To me, at least, depending on a person (even one so extraordinary as Adi Da certainly seems) feels like an unsatisfyingly narrow way to go about life. Certainly all of us depend on others and on our worlds. But in my experience I have found it far more satisfying to hear as many voices as I can, particularly those that I at first disagree with. No one voice speaks authoritatively on everything, but we can live in networks of perspectives quite happily. No divinization necessary.

He continued to be extremely gracious and forthcoming with links to Adi Da writings. In a way that is common in New Age circles, he spoke of the real Jesus, removed from the apparatus of church and tradition (“All the death and resurrection stuff is garbage”). He spoke, as Adi Da has, about the tendency in the West to marginalize and persecute saints and spiritual masters. Again, the “perceptual strait-jacket.” He warned me away from the “meat-body perspective” of Western thought, which would probably encompass all the perspectives I am learning from. It was the final sentence of this letter, though, that struck me the most: “There is nothing narrow about the way of life lived in Adi Da’s company.”

I replied:

I love how you say that “there is nothing narrow about the way of life lived in Adi Da’s company.” I believe it. The “paradox” that you speak of—the simultaneous submission and liberation—is one of those odd mysteries of human experience. We are able to call what is clearly a contradiction a paradox because we don’t happen to be the logical creatures certain ways of thinking expect us to be. We find liberation in submission, oddly. I think there are pretty persuasive evolutionary psychological explanations for this tendency. Whatever the explanation, though, it makes for irreducibly rich experiences.

However, despite the beauty of your words, I am not terribly tempted to jump on the Adi Da train. The reason is that I feel like I could say the same thing in reverse: There is nothing narrow about the way of life lived outside of Adi Da’s company. Many possibilities exist. Many missions, submissions, meanings, and joys. Also sadnesses, addictions, fears, and the rest: things which I’m sure find their way into Adi Da’s company as well. The circumstances in which everything falls are neither fair nor otherwise well-suited to the best laid plans of people. I don’t think the fact of unusual people like Adi Da particularly changes that, though they might have an extraordinary meaning-giving power. Meaning is a wonderful gift, but I have lost my appetite for giving such people the title of God or avatar. But perhaps, so dependent are we on meaning and inspiration and compelling personalities, that we have no choice but to do so.

After that I went on to make some jabs about orientalism and how so often the desire to escape Western traditions for Eastern ones is really nothing other than an old habit of Western tradition itself.

I myself was brought up in this tradition, visiting Indian gurus in California, objecting to certain Christian doctrines (like the “garbage” you mention), while finding space in our hearts, here or there, for what is believed to be the real, original person of Jesus. This kind of “orientalism” is part of a cultural inheritance in North Atlantic lands—Christianity itself was an eastern religion. Now so many of us head to India for wisdom thinking that we are escaping the narrowness of our tradition, while in many respects we are bringing it with us. Take Theosophist Annie Besant, for instance, who got into the habit of telling Indian Buddhists what “real” Buddhism was: to her mind, evidently a combination of European esotericism with the ideas she encountered in India. The point is, it seems easier to think one is departing from “Western” traditions than to actually do so.

Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. Dialog is better than departure.

The last letter I got from Forth dealt mainly with this final concern. Adi Da, he insisted, doesn’t claim to be an “Eastern Teacher,” though of course many of his own teachers were Indian. He also talked some more about “life in Adi Da’s company” and the need always to confront the “pit of snakes” that is life as an ego.

I took on the exchange as an experiment in communication. How much could we say to each other, how much could we understand? Both of us, I think, tried hard at two things: (1) to be polite, patient, and respectful; (2) to have no intention of being convinced by the other, but rather to convince. Of course conversations like this, rightfully, can take forever—years of long walks through the woods, perhaps (I think of J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, for instance). We both succeeded in our aims.

As I attempted to craft my messages, I kept running into this dilemma, which I’ve encountered before: the more patient and attentive one is, the more difficult it becomes to make a persuasive point, to prove one’s case. The more one listens to another human being, even one of a vastly different point of view, the more the hinges of one’s own point of few begin to corrode alongside theirs. It is not a final corrosion; in fact, it makes me feel even less capable of being convinced by the other. But one is forced to listen to the human truth at work in the other, and notice the strangeness of the tendrils that hold together all of our convictions, however strong they may seem. Even as I write these words, I can feel their meaning dissolving, quite beautifully in fact, into the ether of our limitations.

Oh Soul Most Dear to My Soul

Anselm, the eleventh-century discoverer of the ontological proof for the existence of God, archbishop of Canterbury, and authority on Trinitarian doctrines, is not much known for his views on friendship. Yet, especially in his letters, it was a subject of great concern to him. The ecstasy with which he speaks of and in friendship seems met only by that with which he proclaims his proof for the existence of God.

Take this letter to his friend, the monk Gundulf:

When I sit down to write to you, oh soul most dear to my soul, when I sit down to write to you, I am uncertain how best to begin what I have to say. Everything I feel about you is sweet and pleasant to my heart; whatever I desire for you is the best that my mind can conceive. … Why do you entreat me though your messengers, exhort me in your letters, and constrain me by your gifts, to remember you? “If I do not remember thee, if I prefer not Gundulf among my chief friends, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth” [paraphrase of Psalm 137:6]. (Quoted in R.W. Southern, Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape, 1990: p. 144)

And then this, from the Proslogion, in the chapter before presenting the ontological proof:

Be it mine to look up to thy light, even from afar, even from the depths. Teach me to seek thee, and reveal thyself to me, when I seek thee, for I cannot seek thee, except thou teach me, nor find thee, except thou reveal thyself. Let me seek thee in longing, let me long for thee in seeking; let me find thee in love, and love thee in finding. (Prosl., chapter I)

And finally, from the next chapter, the famous definition:

And indeed, we believe that thou art a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.

The letter above, one of Anselm’s earliest, was written some time before the terms of “nothing greater conceived” became the ground of his proof. The language, nevertheless, is so much the same. With the same regularity, whether speaking of friends or God, he quotes the Psalms, admonishes his unworthiness, and sings praises of the other.

R.W. Southern’s 1990 biography of the saint devotes an extended chapter to the idea of friendship that emerges in Anselm’s writing and the part it played in his life. He lived at a liminal time in the history of friendship, just before the troubadours’ vision of romantic love of women would take European culture by storm. In Anselm’s time, thinking about friendship still rested on the Classical ideal: a rational, while loving, relationship between men directed at a worldly purpose. Yet he broke these rules, nudging in the direction of the romantic ecstasy that was to follow.

For Anselm, friendship was an ecstatic, even salvific event. More than purposes of government or industry, it served above all the cause of eternal salvation. The ecstasy between friends was a place along the path to heaven. The colorful language he uses for and about friends—as well as theology—was considered extreme in his Benedictine monastic life, and as he took on more official responsibility, he was obliged to cool it a little.

The connection between friendship and philosophy that I have explored in other places (here and here, for instance) plays out explicitly in Anselm. At the start of two of his major works, the Monologion and Cur Deus Homo, he explains that the ideas contained therein came first in the course of conversation with brethren, who then asked that he put them into writing. The circle completes itself in the works themselves, where language blurs the line between human friendship and abstract philosophy.

The Great Burden of Sin

The eleventh-century Archbishop of Canturbury, Anselm, wrote on “the great burden of sin”:

If you should find yourself in the sight of God, and one said to you: “Look thither;” and God, on the other hand, should say: “It is not my will that you should look;” ask your own heart what there is in all existing things which would make it right for you to give that look contrary to the will of God. (Cur Deus Homo XXI)

That is: If you could, would you be able to stand not glancing at the face of God? (Notwithstanding Exodus 33:20—”Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.”) The answer was particularly clear with Anselm, who wrestled his whole life with the effort to comprehend God intellectually, and in the process gave philosophy its most enigmatic proof for God’s existence. But if you don’t see what’s so utterly impossible to resist about seeing God, pick your poison. A beautiful woman or man? Naked? A taste? A loved one who has died? We all seem to have our gods in one place or another, and we all have our temptations.

To me, this is a biological point. Theologians have long looked to biology for evidences of the Fall; all that pooping, copulating, sweating, gobbling, sleeping, aging, and dying that people do hardly seems like the work of an infinitely intelligent designer. Since we are so eager to think of ourselves as better than our bodies really let us be, something must have happened along the way. And since God is good, it must have been our fault.

Daniel DennettLet’s probe the biology a little further. In his Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett seems to reframe the whole problem, drawing on contemporary neuroscience and philosophy of mind, as well as some basic Freud. Rather than following Anselm’s assumption that the conscious will is a cohesive, unitary agent, Dennett believes it is just one among many systems simultaneously at work in the mind. The limit of the will’s control is not a theological consequence of the nature of will itself—or, more theologically, the soul—but a fact of how the mind operates in general. (In fact, such a scheme might invoke Augustine’s sensation in Confessions of being divided against himself.)

Evidence for this is constantly accessible to us. Things in the visual field are constantly being processed without being noticed. Consider, for instance, how your head turns toward someone looking at you (God?) before you realize what it is doing. These mechanisms, as Dennett assumes, come to us through a long line of evolutionary histories.

However we explain it, at some level of analysis, the condition is the same. I cannot resist looking at God. The illusion of control is shown for what it had always been. (Though philosophers have lately asked, if consciousness is an illusion, who is it that is being deluded?) In both cases, I have lost possession of what I call myself. The scientific idea, like the theological one, is deeply humbling. I am not my own. Whatever that means, it is just as true as ever.

When we figure out how to replace religious ideas with scientific ones, the first impulse is often to be thrilled at our power of reasoning and cleverness. With this science-y replacement, it appears, the concept of sin can be gone, along with its weight. Dennett certainly thinks this way, as we learn well enough in his New Atheist treatise, Breaking the Spell. And to a certain degree, it is right. The scientific explanation does capture things that the theological ones doesn’t. But, in its way, the weight of sin remains.

Climbing the New York Times Building (as metaphor)

Ray Clark climbing the New York Times BuildingI have never felt more in an office.

Today two men climbed the outside of my office building, the fifty-something story New York Times Building in midtown Manhattan (one and two). Meanwhile I was in meetings or sitting at my computer. Metaphors begin in things that are real. I can still hear the sirens outside and the cheering of the crowd below.

Both guys made it all the way up the fifty-something stories and were arrested at the top. The first carried a banner about global warning. The second wore a t-shirt saying, “MALARIA NO MORE.” Indeed.

I have never seen the point so much of climbing mountains—deep down, at least. But I have hardly seen anything so beautiful as climbing buildings.

View to the onlookers below from the 22nd floorHaving been at computers and meetings all day, with none of the incredible fear or exhilaration, metaphor remains. It is Babel, it is Icarus, it is a glorious mis-use. Imagination, salvation, persecution. I heard there were police officers running through the building, trying to pull off the glass to stop him (the first one) but he went up more quickly than they could ride the elevators.

Man against machine. Suicide. David and Goliath.

And there were two of them. Copycats. It’s like the pillar-sitters of late antiquity, who were saints, sitting on top of pillars for years and bestowing miracles. When the fad showed up again in the 1920s, the flagpole sitters were less saints than fools.

The wind was no less strong. Death to malaria.

Hello World!

The Row Boat has been redesigned! Though only powers above mine can know if it was really necessary, I’ve spent the last two days obsessing over migrating from Little Logger to WordPress. All the old Row Boat material is still available on the Archives page, as well as through the search field on the sidebar.

Until now, The Row Boat was one of the few blogs out there not running on one of the major software platforms. Little Logger is a blogging program I built in early 2005, using Perl, static files, and a lot of workarounds. It has served very well since then. But in recent months, it has become clear to me that a change needed to happen. In particular, working with WordPress at The Immanent Frame has shown me what a powerful platform it can be.

The conversion process has reminded me why I stopped being a computer science major in college and switched to religion. I have been quite unable to think about anything else ever since I’ve started, and now I am worried about whether I will fall asleep tonight. This was a regular phenomenon in my computer science days—thrilling, but also perfectly exhausting. It makes me long to be thinking speculatively again, which hopefully can begin again tomorrow. The topic, presently, is Anselm.

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