Jonathan Edwards and twentieth-century neuroscience according to Marilynne Robinson

February 9, 2016

RobinsonIn 1959 when I arrived in Berkeley to study church history at Pacific School of Religion, I was familiar with and distressed by Jonathan Edwards’ revivalist sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Early in my studies, I read more of Edwards’ writings and developed a new appreciation for his contributions to American theological and philosophical thought.

Fortunately for students, Yale University Press was then publishing the definitive edition of his entire body of writings. The entire series, which reached a total of 58 large volumes, can still be purchased. Amazon offers a kindle version of this long shelf of books for $1.99, and includes a free Kindle app.

As a doctoral student, I bought two volumes at the discounted price of $6.50 per book and read both of them with considerable care and appreciation. Further encouragement to think well of Edwards came from the biography written by distinguished Harvard professor Perry Miller whose multi-volume masterpiece, The New England Mind, had already shaped a generation of American historians and intellectuals. His biography, Jonathan Edwards, was not easy to read, but it proved beyond a doubt to me that Edwards deserved serious attention despite the sermon that often was used to ridicule him.

The Amazon reviewer says that Miller’s study of Edwards “as a writer and an artist is regarded as one of the great studies of ‘the life of the mind.’ He challenges readers to understand Edwards as an intellectual who, living in his own time and place, wrestled with issues relevant to the modern world.”

My history with Edwards, has come to mind because of Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Givenness,” which helps to explain the title of her book in which it appears, The Givenness of Things. She begins her essay with the statement that she had been reading Edwards’ theology, especially A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. This was the same book that had transformed my appreciation of Edwards 55 years ago.

This book, Robinson explains, rescued her from the positivism of contemporary neuroscientists that she found more constraining than the doctrines of original sin and predestination in the Calvinist tradition that Edwards represented.

Robinson describes Edwards as a pragmatist because he accepted “the givenness of things.” She perceives a direct line leading to the philosophical ideas developed by William James and states this similarity in one of her characteristically long sentences:

James’ “posture of objectivity, scrupulous because it is tentative, different as it is from Edwards’ intensely scriptural and theological approach, makes the same assertion Edwards makes, which is that a kind of experience felt as religious and mediated through the emotions does sometimes have formidable and highly characteristic effects on personality and behavior that are available to observation” (p. 73).

Robinson gives a name, “the mysteries of consciousness,” to this aspect of human life. She refers to it as “higher order thinking,” which describes aspects of what we think and do that “are shaped and triggered by culture and personal history” (78). Edwards referred to them as “affections,” and listed them as “joy, love, hope, desire, delight, sorrow, gratitude, compassion, and zeal, as well as fear and dread.” He showed from Scripture that the are an “intrinsic part in the experiences of faith” (p. 73).

Modern neuroscientists, Robinson explains, study the processes in the human brain that can be examined by devices and procedures they have mastered. They can display the neurological synapses in the brain that are triggered both in humans and in other primates when they encounter something fearful such as a lion on the loose.

At this point, neuroscientists assert that there is nothing beyond these neurological processes, nothing in human culture and experience that also generates the wide range of response and behavior that we regularly experience in ordinary human life. Their already agreed-upon criteria of what is real require that they reject any evidence that does not agree with these conditions.

Using materials from the Bible and from contemporary human experience, Robinson counters by asserting that factors denied by neuroscientists are in fact true and trustworthy.

“Love, however elusive, however protean, however fragmentary, seems to have something like an objective existence. It can be observed as well as tested. Perhaps it is better to say, language reflects a consensus of subjectivities. We seldom agree in our loves, we vary wildly in our ability to acknowledge and express them, we may find that they focus more readily on cats and dogs than on justice and mercy, neighbors and strangers. And yet, for all that, we do know what love is, and joy, gratitude, compassion, sorrow, and fear as well” (p. 79).

Her final plea is that any explanation of reality we use must include “the most basic knowledge we now have of the cosmos.” That knowledge is found, as she points out at the beginning of the essay, comes from what theologian Jonathan Edwards called “the religious affections.”

It’s time to reread A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections!


A new way of life in the American West

February 2, 2016

Introducing The Eagle Bird: Mapping a New West, revised and updated, by Charles Wilkinson (Boulder: Johnson Books, 1999).

WilkinsonDuring this winter’s bicycle travels in the Desert Southwest, my contemplations are being shaped by two books, both of which explore the same topic: finding new ways to live in the western regions of the United States. The challenge facing the nation, and especially those of us living in the West, can be summarized briefly.

  • Despite its vast size and wealth of natural resources, this part of the continent is fragile and easily degraded.
  • Long-standing policies and practices have exploited the natural wealth of the region and degraded the landscape and its fragile balance of flora, fauna, and waterways.
  • The human population already exceeds some estimates as to the maximum capabilities that this region can support; and the manufactured infrastructure, especially the harnessing of waterways and irrigation of fields, seems irreversible.
  • People continue to migrate to this part of the country and the environmental pressure continues to build.

So what do we do? The two books traveling with me as I bicycle in the desert provide differing, though compatible, answers to this question.

The longer and more complex—Stitching the West Back Together: Conservation of Working Landscapes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014)—is a collection of essays that were prepared for a working conference of twenty ranchers, environmental activists, and conservation biologists whose purpose was to find a way to set aside old differences and craft a new vision for the West.

I came across this volume a year ago in a splendid little bookstore in Bisbee, Arizona, but have pushed it aside because other work seemed more pressing. Now that I am returning to the Southwest for my annual winter visitation, it is time to read the book.

The foreword is written by Charles F. Wilkinson, a name I did not recognize when I bought the book. In late September, however, I took a brief break from normal duties by driving through the Columbia River Gorge, another part of the West where the challenges are especially evident. In the bookstore of the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Museum in The Dalles, Oregon, I bought a copy of the revised and updated edition of a book of essays written by Wilkinson: The Eagle Bird: Mapping a New West).

The book jacket identifies the author as “the Moses Lasky Professor of Law at the University of Colorado in Boulder [and] author of several books including Crossing the Next Meridian and Fire on the Plateau.”

After graduating from law school in 1966, Wilkinson practiced with private firms in Phoenix and San Francisco and then served as staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder. In 1975 he became a member of the law faculty at the University of Oregon and later moved to his current position at the University of Colorado.

The first edition of The Eagle Bird was published in 1991. Wilkinson’s goal was to discuss critical western issues in a way that would be accessible to laypeople who might not have the background in western history and the law to avail themselves of the technical literature that was available.

When he revised the book a decade later, he was surprised to realize how much these issues had changed in such a short period of time. I suspect that changes have continued during the decade and a half since this revision was published. Wilkinson’s current point of view can be inferred from a paragraph in his forward to Stitching the West Back Together, which was published in 2014.

“The heart of this fresh and ambitious book is that when you talk long enough and listen enough, and dare to open up your mind enough, you realize that most people and sides are making ethical and moral arguments that deserve high respect. Yes: achieving a vibrant community economic footing is a worthy—and moral—objective. Likewise, embedding communities in healthy, lasting landscapes is a moral imperative” (p. ix).

Later in the foreword, he notes that ideas about life in the West “need to be lived, not just asserted. Employing them must be practical and workable.”

Wilkinson’s essays in The Eagle Bird are valuable to westerners for several reasons. He is thoroughly acquainted with legislation and court cases that deal with the issues of life in western United States. He is also well acquainted with a large body of literature discussing conservationist and environmental issues. Much of his work has been with and on behalf of Native American communities in the West. He is a lucid writer and, has published many articles and fourteen books (according to the bibliographical sketch in Stitching).

Perhaps most important is the fact that I generally agree with his point of view. This is the primary reason for taking this book with me as as I bike and blog my way through the Desert Southwest this winter. Charles Wilkinson will help me understand what I see going on all around me.

Aldo Leopold: The Bicyclist’s Guide to the Desert Southwest

January 30, 2016

MeineAldo Leopold (1887-1948) devoted his career to working with the U.S. Forest Service. He quickly became one of the most perceptive and articulate spokespersons for the conservation of forests, streams, range land, and wilderness throughout the United States.

My interest in Leopold’s life and work was enlivened soon after my first bicycle excursion through the southeastern region of Arizona, a portion of the state drained by the San Pedro River and featuring several mountainous uplifts sometimes called “the sky islands.”

After completing the ride, I discovered that in 1936 Leopold had written a poetic description of this region, declaring that “these pine-clad mesas spangled with flowers, these lazy trout streams burbling along under great sycamores and cottonwoods, come near being the cream of creation.”

In preparation for another bicycling expedition in the sky islands, I turned to Curt Meine’s comprehensive biography of Leopold. It is a formidable book: 33 pages of front matter, 529 pages of text, and 100 pages of notes and index, all printed in small type with narrow line spacing. In order to be ready for my 2016 Arizona tour, I focused on Part III in which Meine writes about the beginning years of Leopold’s career, from 1909 through 1924.

He was twenty-two years old and a graduate of the Yale School of Forestry when he began his work as an apprentice with the Forest Service. After a week’s training in Albuquerque, he was assigned to the Apache National Forest in Arizona. He devoted fifteen years to his work in Arizona and New Mexico and then moved back to his native Wisconsin, working first in the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory in Madison and later as a professor at the University of Wisconsin.

During his years in the Southwest, Leopold gained a thorough knowledge of the geographical facts and ecological history of this fragile land. Leopold worked very hard, both in his official capacities and as a private citizen to overcome existing abusive practices and to develop better ways of managing the natural resources in this world that he came to love. Even if he had done no more than this, Leopold would be a person whose legacy deserves to be remembered and respected.

More important, however, is the fact that Leopold thought about what he experienced and developed keen skills as speaker and writer. Throughout his career he wrote a long string of important essays about the well-being of the land and how individuals, local communities, and national agencies such as the Forest Service should act. Over the years, he revised his ideas on the basis of further field study, debates with colleagues, and his own intuitions about the larger patterns at work in the world.

I have made only a cursory reading of the 144 pages of Meine’s discussion of Leopold’s Arizona-New Mexico years. Even this has convinced me that as I continue bicycling through the West that I love Aldo Leopold will be my guide. More than any current conservationist, he will help me understand the issues now facing all of us in this fragile environment.

Right now, I’m on the lookout for a book of Leopold’s essays with an intriguing title: The River of the Mother of God. I can hardly wait!

Afterword: While reading Meine’s biography, I have also been reading Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality. Although Leonard was highly skeptical about religion, there are places in his writings where he and the pope express remarkably similar ideas about nature and how we human beings should live in relationship with this world.

“Possibly, in our intuitive perceptions, which may be truer than our science and less impeded by words than our philosophies, we realize the indivisibility of the earth—its soil, mountains, rivers, forests, climate, plants, and animals and respect it collectively not only as a useful servant but as a living being, vastly less alive than ourselves in degree, but vastly greater than ourselves in time and space—a being that was old when the morning stars sang together, and when the last of us has been gathered unto his fathers, will still be young” (quoted in Meine, p. 214).

Sources: Leopold, Aldo. The River of the Mother of God: And Other Essays by Aldo Leopold. J. Baird Callicott and Susan L. Flader, eds. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991). Leopold, Aldo. For the Health of the Land: Previously Unpublished Essays and Other Writings. J. Baird Callicott and Eric T. Freyfogle, eds. (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1999). Meine, Curt. Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988, 2010).


Integral Ecology: Envisioning a New Future for the World

January 28, 2016
The Encyclical in English

The Encyclical in English

One of the noteworthy books of 2015 is a religious exposition, Pope Francis’ 160-page Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home. In her introduction to the Melville House English edition, Naomi Oreskes compares it with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Silent Spring because it is a book that “catalyzes thought into action.”

It covers “virtually every important topic in contemporary life,” a list that includes “climate change, deforestation, and the need for clean, safe drinking water [and] “population (and abortion),” but also various problems of science and technology—including public transportation, urban planning and architecture, social media, genetic modification of crops, embryonic stem cell research—and law, economy, and governance—including the problems of deregulated markets, corruption, and weak governance” (pp. vii, viii).

In his preface, Pope Francis presents the point of view that characterizes the entire book. Citing the writings of his patron saint, twelfth century Francis of Assisi, the pope describes Mother Earth as our sister and declares that she “now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life” (¶ 2).

He cites St. Francis, beloved by people everywhere, as an embodiment of the principles which can be entitled “integral ecology.” We must approach nature and the environment with a sense of awe and wonder, the Pope affirms, for “if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs” (¶¶ 10, 11).

Although the encyclical is oriented toward members of the pope’s own church, he acknowledges that people in other religious communities and other disciplines enrich the church’s teaching. He closes the preface with an appeal to readers everywhere: that they join together in “a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet.”

The next few paragraphs of this introduction to the encyclical offer a summary of its main ideas. It uses phrases and comments from the text of the encyclical, but without attribution, and arranges them in an order that sometimes differs from their placement in the encyclical itself. My purpose is to suggest the range and value of the encyclical and encourage a serious study of the document itself.

The major part of this review essay consists of detailed notes on the encyclical, following the sequence of Pope Francis’ exposition and providing full documentation. (Since the encyclical in all of its editions is divided into numbered paragraphs, I cite the text by paragraph [¶] rather than by page).

Although the encyclical is divided into six chapters, it can be outlined under four headings: (A) where things stand now: crisis; (B) analysis of how we reached this state of affairs; (C) the new world and way of life for which we can work; and (D) a course of action for people everywhere, but especially for those whose current way of life is largely responsible for the ecological crisis now confronting the world. Read more. . . Integral Ecology-Pope Francis

Churches, schools, and political parties: better to build than to burn

January 23, 2016
A Church in the Heart of the City

A Church in the Heart of the City

I was born early in the Great Depression and spent my first nine years living in desperate rural poverty. At the low point my family made do in a shanty with no electricity or running water. Mother was eight months pregnant and Dad had lost the farm job that had provided a subsistence livelihood for the five of us.

This first chapter of my life helps me sympathize with the condition that David Brooks describes in a column entitled “The Anxieties of Impotence” (New York Times, January 22, 2016). In its details our world is dramatically different from the one in which I grew up. In both, however, a rapidly growing number of people lived in deepening economic distress, and the result is an ever greater sense of impotence.

When I was a boy, the rise of Hitler and turmoil all across Europe threatened the well being of Americans despite the security that two oceans were thought to provide. It might have been true, as President Roosevelt told us, that all we had to fear was fear itself, but most people were afraid. In our time, terrorist movements, especially in the Middle East, and escalating pressures against the middle class, are causes of anxiety and the feelings of powerlessness.

Brooks points out that in such times some people join groups and take steps to better themselves. Other people, and today they seem to be the most vocal, “feel dehumanized, forsaken, doomed and guilty.” They distrust not only themselves but also their institutions—family systems, economic processes, schools, political institutions, and religious institutions—often lashing out to destroy them.

Brooks follows his diagnosis with a prescription: “To address these problems we need big, responsible institutions (power centers) that can mobilize people, cobble together governing majorities and enact plans of action.” While his column deals with political institutions my reflections focus on two other institutions of American life: churches and public schools.

Two months before Pearl Harbor our family moved to the semi-rural outskirts of Portland, Oregon. Over the weekend, I transferred from a one room school with twenty-one students to a K-8 Portland school with more than 500 students. At the same time, we were embraced by a traditional church and for the first time in my life I began my participation in a full range of church activities.

These two institutions opened new worlds to me. They provided an enlarged family and friends that I had never experienced previously. They shaped my heart and stocked my mind with ideas, hopes, and a new sense of what I and my world could become.

I know, of course, that the world keeps changing and therefore its institutions also must change. Schools and churches suffer from systemic challenges as do the political institutions that Brooks describes. Just as many people, including politicians, seek to destroy political parties and governments, so others undercut public education and recommend the abandonment or dismantling of churches. They cast about for impromptu forms of schooling and group activities designed to express and encourage “spirituality.”

With Brooks, I am convinced that solutions are not likely to come from those who rail against institutions, urging that they be discarded, burned down, and abandoned.

“If we’re to have any hope of addressing big systemic problems we’ll have to repair big institutions,” which for Brooks means rebuilding political parties. For me, this means supporting public education despite its many challenges, and participating in the on-going life of churches—established, well-staffed, with well-rounded programs, and commodious buildings.

In the seventy-five years since urban schools and a traditional church gave me a new life, much has changed, but churches and schools are still vital to the life of a society in which people can live with freedom from fear and in hope of a better life.

So today I’m publishing this personal testimony. More important, I’ve just cast my vote in favor a a tax levy for public schools in the city were I live and getting ready to go to worship and the annual meeting of my church—an old line Protestant church in the heart of Portland’s cultural, political, and economic life.

For churches and schools, as well as for political parties, it’s better to build up than to burn down!

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The Complete Book of Bicycling for People Growing Old

January 14, 2016
First Edition of The Complete Book of Bicycling

First Edition of The Complete Book of Bicycling

My interest in bicycling as an adult began in 1965 when I started a two-mile daily commute on a Sears three-speed bike. Five years later I discovered a new book: The Complete Book of Bicycling by Eugene A. Sloane (1916–2008). Soon thereafter an interview of him on national TV confirmed my determination to use his book as the guide to all aspects of cycling.

According to the Chicago Tribune’s obituary, Sloane was on a business trip in New York City when he heard that Simon and Schuster was looking for someone to write a book on cycling. “He promptly went to the publisher’s office and got himself hired” (April 1, 2008). His qualifications were persuasive: a life-long interest in things mechanical and his career as writer, editor, and public relations expert.

Furthermore, he had already become an aggressive cyclist, commuting to his work year-round, first in Detroit and later in Chicago (close to 25 miles each way). He had started cycling for health reasons after giving up smoking. While riding to work one morning on his three-speed bike, someone on a drop-handlebar, ten-speed bike had swept past him. Catching up with the faster rider at a traffic signal, Sloane met Detroit’s premier cyclist, Gene Portuesi, who introduced him to the deeper knowledge of serious, adult cycling.

For two or three years, Sloane’s was the only book on this subject. The copy my son Mike and I bought at Block’s department store in Glendale Shopping Center, Indianapolis, on Memorial Day Weekend 1971 was one of the 100,000 copies sold that first year.

Mike was turning 14 when we came across this book. Following Sloane’s advice, we bought entry level ten-speed bikes and learned how to ride them according to the disciplines and techniques that he laid out. We followed his lead in learning how to repair our own bikes and Gene Portuesi’s guidance for long-distance touring, including two tours of more than 1,000 miles in length across Indiana, Michigan, and Ontario. Although other books have been published on cycling and many changes in technology and riding disciplines have occurred during the forty-five years since his first book came out, I still think of Gene Sloane as my mentor.

Following Sloane’s death in 2008, an appreciative reference to the book appeared in Bicycle Quarterly. That same year I reread The Complete Book and wrote a thirteen-page essay, Bicycling by the Book describing its role in shaping my continuing passion as an adult cyclist, later publishing it on my blog.

Gene’s son, Nick Sloane, came across that blog and we exchanged several emails. Late in 2015, he sent me some of his father’s books: four editions of the Complete Book and Eugene A. Sloane’s Bicycle Maintenance Manual.

The first edition of The Complete Book of Bicycling was published in 1970 and was followed in 1974 by The New Complete Book of Bicycling. The book jacket says that Sloane “undertook to revise and update his classic—and ended up rewriting almost the entire book.” In 1980, he published The All New Complete Book of Bicycling. Sloane explains that there was “so much that is new in bicycling equipment, camping gear for cycling touring and camping, places to cycle and new government regulations affecting bicycle design that I had to take a completely new approach to writing this volume. In effect, this, then, is an entirely new book, with very little of the two previous volumes used in this new edition” (p. 7).

To me, the most interesting of the books Nick sent me is the “advance uncorrected reader’s proof from Fireside Books” of Sloane’s Complete Book of Bicycling: 25th Anniversary Edition that was published in 1995. Still in print, this 400-page book is a comprehensive guide to all things related to cycling. Although many details are now outdated, the over-all guidance for buying and riding bicycles is still useful.

When he published this edition, Gene Sloane was living in Vancouver, Washington, where my wife’s family has lived for many years and where we moved in 2003. Nick’s brother Pete lives here now and in early January 2016, the three of us enjoyed lunch together at a restaurant near my condo. They told me more about their dad’s long-time interest in cycling. He continued to ride until he was in his late 80s, and then had to give up cycling because macular degeneration and other challenges brought on by aging made cycling too dangerous.

As an octogenarian cyclist, I am increasingly aware of the effects of aging upon my cycling abilities and interests. Very little has been published on this subject, and I’m having to figure it out for myself. If only Gene Sloane, my long-time cycling mentor, had written one more book: Eugene Sloane’s Complete Book of Bicycling for People Growing Old!


Dare we believe in America’s future?

November 21, 2015

A Review of The Spiral Notebook: The Aurora Theater Shooter and the Epidemic of Mass Violence Committed by American Youth, by Stephen Singular and Joyce Singular (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2015)

Singular 1The title and sub-title of this book accurately denote the two narratives that are intertwined throughout its 290 pages. The Aurora theater shooting on July 12, 2012, and the slowly unwinding legal proceedings that followed is the attention getter, but the careful exploration of why so many young white males are committing these atrocities is, to my mind, the more important narrative.

The authors are investigative journalists who have spent two decades writing books about American violence. To write The Spiral Notebook, they spent time in places that are important to the Aurora event and the life of shooter James Holmes and conducted interviews over a two-year period with psychologists and psychiatrists, first responders, private investigators, and teachers throughout the nation. They also interviewed “many, many young people throughout the nation” and include quotations from these conversations at the beginnings of many of the short chapters in this book.

Perhaps the most important leads during their investigation came from their son who “like many teenagers…hadn’t shared much with us,” but after his first year in college “was slowly opening up, speaking about his classes and which professors had influenced him the most” (pp. 2–3). He helped them understand what they were seeing and hearing and gradually opened up new areas for investigation.

The central theme of the book is the shooter, James Holmes, and how and why he committed this act. The account begins with his apprehension in a parking lot immediately after the shootings, and follows him as he slowly winds his way through an increasingly frustrating, unproductive, costly, and inconclusive legal process. There are illuminating descriptions of his keen mind and academic achievements that contributed to his psychological imbalance and led him to become a mass shooter.

Read more. . . The Spiral Notebook


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