Please weigh in, agree or disagree, thoughtfully and respectfully. Ferocity and passion are encouraged; disrespect is not. Thank you for reading, and seeing this as a conversation rather than a monologue.

April 28, 2011


I want to say how important I think is this editorial in the New York Times on the 7th anniversary of the revelations about the heinous things done in our names at Abu Ghraib prison.

While the Golden Rule is the plumb line for morality, I think it's a yin in need of a yang. The yang is, in my opinion, "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me." Not being a Christian or theist, I interpret the "me" to mean that which one holds most dear or in highest esteem, whether that be Jesus, a reputation, security, or The Good, The Just or another principle. These abuses, and the indefinite detention of people without trial in Guantanamo, are unworthy of us.

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I'd just like to say what a swell time I am having over at It's a website devoted to the most dingbatty of teabagger views. I actually ran into some folks there who have made me think more about nuclear energy issues, so I may be writing more about that after doing a lot more reading on the subject. (They're not completely out to lunch about EVERYthing. We had our truthers, remember, but they didn't make us wrong about everything else.) But I have been enjoying the guilty pleasure of egging them on in their birther, fundamentalist, "Obama is a Communist-Socialist" ways. If you come visit, please don't blow my cover.

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I love this: Rand Paul asks The Donald for HIS long-form certificate. Not to prove his citizenship, but to prove his worthiness to join the otherwise august field of prospective Republican (I do not say conservative) candidates.

Personally, I'd love to see a real conservative run. Someone who values families above finances, someone who is fiscally conservative (I think we need to remind ourselves what the phrase means, given how long it's been hijacked), someone who is not a tool of fundamentalists or corporatists, someone who knows Emma Lazarus' New Colossus by heart. We need a grown-up, who asks us to be grown-ups, as head of the Republican Party. Most of you know how disappointed I have been in Obama, once the relief of being done with the Bush years ended. I would not vote for any of the current crop of Republican candidates (no, not even favorite son Gary Johnson). But a real conservative - I would have to take a second look.

And before any of you flame me, please hold your fire: I am working on a blog entry on conservative values that I support, how I define them, and why I support them (and suppose you would, too). It's just taking me a while to put it together. Maybe next week?

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On a personal note, what a weird week. I have been struggling with increasing muscle pain in my neck and shoulder that has exacerbated a decade (or more) long struggle with being able to write by hand. It had become uncomfortable, for the first time, to sit and type, as well – or even to sit. Getting my hair cut, and the usual leaning the chair back to have my hair washed, was almost unbearable. I had begun to wonder if this level of pain was going to be a new normal. Then, Tuesday night, as I went to bed, my mind began to go to strange places. I woke at 4 AM in what appeared to be a panic attack. I opened the computer to try to figure out where they come from and how to deal with them. One site recommended a relaxation exercise that works by first clenching, and then releasing, your muscle groups from bottom to top. When I awoke on Wednesday, my neck and shoulder pain were not diminished. They were gone. And for the first time in over a decade I could write by hand with something approaching a normal grip. Then . . . it gets weirder.

Wednesday after class, I was Dead Tired. Spent. I took TWO naps, and still went to bed around 8:30 PM and slept until 7 this morning. Haven't felt sick. At all. Skipped classes today, since I hadn't been awake long enough to do homework, and wasn't sure what was going on. This afternoon, some of the stiffness is returning, but I still feel fine, and awake.

Body and mind are wonderful things. I'm just wondering what this part of the ride is all about.

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And finally: Superman is renouncing his American citizenship. I wanna say "Bad idea," but you never know what they're going for with comics. Wonder if I can score an issue #900 here in Germany. . .

April 21, 2011

Gas Prices, Earth Day and Economies

Someone asked me recently how much gas costs here in Germany. Rather than doing the math – converting liters to gallons and Euros to dollars – I Googled and found this article. I wonder which gas price they think is shocking: ours, or the higher prices.

Gas is roughly double the price here that it is in America. It's still more expensive elsewhere. Taxes here are reportedly higher, too. Yet the German economy is, by most accounts I've seen, keeping the whole EU afloat. This is 20 years after reuniting with East Germany and absorbing all that debt and neglected infrastructure. Germany's policies are the greenest in Europe.

Happy Earth Day, by the way. We have Earth Day, and Germany is green. Which country is doing a better job of preserving its natural capital, do you think? I'd like to see a side-by-side comparison of our economies. May have to Google more. For now, I think I will have a Hefeweizen.

April 20, 2011

Photos from Freiburg and the Goethe Institute

Almost our whole class on a mountain overlooking Freiburg

My friend Anton, from Ukraine

Frau Ozana Klein: my German teacher, and a delight

Photos are clickable/enlargeable.

Time is FLYING. I simply cannot believe that I have already been here three and a half weeks. These folks are wonderful. I'd like to package them all up and take them with me from place to place, learning new languages, laughing it up, and having a ball.

I repeat: I AM the most fortunate person you know.

I am working on a more extensive blog post. It may be up this weekend, or not until next week. We'll see how it goes. School is out on Friday and Monday in observance of Easter, so I have a long weekend. Going to see Bach's St. Matthew's Passion tomorrow evening. Might even go to an Easter service. You would not believe the size of the chocolate Easter bunnies here.

Bis sp├Ąter, taters!

April 17, 2011

Why I am an Agnostic Rather than an Atheist

I’d like to begin by turning over a hunk of this post to a passage from Stephen Batchelor’s book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. It begins around page 197. (For those who wish to skip my philosophical musings, there is a brief update on goings on here in Freiburg below)

“Siddhattha Gotama did not reject the existence of the gods, he marginalized them. . . .

“I once spent a couple of hours trying to persuade a learned and intelligent Tibetan lama that the world is spherical in shape–but with little success. I would have had even less success had I tried to convince him of other beliefs I held: those about the Big Bang, evolution by natural selection, or the neural foundations of consciousness. I believed these things on much the same grounds that he believed in disembodied gods and spirits. Just as I unquestioningly accepted the authority of eminent scientists, so he accepted the authority of eminent Buddhist teachers. Just as I trusted that what the scientist claims to be true can be backed up by observation and experiment, so he trusted that what his teachers claim to be true can be backed up by direct meditational insight. I had to recognize that many of my truth-claims were no more or less reasonable than his. . . .

“...apart from these primary perceptions, intuitions, inferences and bits of information, the views that I hold about the things that really matter to me–meaning, truth, happiness, goodness, beauty–are finely woven tissues of belief and opinion. These views enable me to get by in my workaday world but would not stand up to a great deal of scrutiny from someone who was not sympathetic to them. Depending on how crucial they are to my integrity and credibility, I am prepared to defend some of them with greater vigor and passion than others. I drift and swim through life on a tide of derivative beliefs that I share with others who belong to the same kind of cultures as myself.”

Elsewhere in the book he enlarges on the first sentence quoted above. He says his atheism conforms more to the meaning of the original Greek, meaning not so much AGAINST theism as WITHOUT theism or gods. I find that to be both a corrective to my own impulse toward a combative agnosticism (an amusing juxtaposition of words, at least) and a concept that permits me to find a cozy spot a short distance from the angry atheists with whom I still feel some ideological affinity when it comes to the desire to combat fundamentalism.

As a layperson, and not a scientist, I have to admit to a level of dependence on authority in matters of the physical sciences. I have been drawing boundaries between the different claims to knowledge and wisdom, allotting each their fiefdom (fifedom – the place to which one can effectively “pipe” one’s followers or those of like mind – would also work). Science is a reliable, and still growing, authority on matters of how the physical world works and has developed, but not a great contributor on its own to questions of ethics or morality. Religion, philosophy, mythology and metaphysics are good sources for stories with which to make sense of the chaotic impressions with which the world bombards us, but no good at all with understanding how things other than humans work, and they have to be applied carefully outside of, or even within, their culture and time of origin. (Yes, I know: there is lots of room for quibbling on both counts, and I could spend time defining these boundaries better: but you have time only to read a blog, not a book, and I have time only to write a blog entry.)

In a nutshell, Batchelor seems to be saying that, yes, his and his Tibetan interlocutor’s ideologies will bear their respective weights; but he wouldn’t recommend jumping up and down on them.

I am not saying (nor, do I think, is Batchelor) that everything from every ideology is equally reliable or unreliable. He tends toward the utilitarian, as he discusses in the pages following the quoted passage. I tend, still, to believe that there are plumb lines, that beliefs and practices can be more or less in keeping with something resembling truth with a capital T, but the truth I imagine may be a projection of my own strivings toward Better. My idea of truth may simply be a longer-lasting or more broadly applicable version of utilitarianism. And it may be something to which we, in our times and places, have no access. We can only read history, learn about other cultures in our own times, and do the best we can. The next few generations will have to sort out what we did right from what we did wrong, in the context of their own times.

Which leads me to why I am an agnostic rather than an atheist. “Atheism” – as commonly used rather than as used by Batchelor – is a limited  term, defined by its aversion to and rejection of a deity. Batchelor’s use of the term comes closer to my idea of agnosticism: he says, in effect, “Ahh, God – interesting idea, anthropologically speaking, that I don’t buy. Let’s move on.” The question of god(s) is marginalized, seen as a distraction, at best, and set aside so other, more pressing, concerns can be addressed. Not worth getting red in the face about. What I like about agnosticism is its implication that all of what we know, however vast, will always be bounded by an ocean of context and information that we do not and cannot know and/or that conditions what we do know. For me, Wendell Berry’s essay, Letter to Wes Jackson, with which his book Home Economics opens, is the best 3 page synopsis of this view that I ever hope to read. (I would quote it at length, if not in its entirety, here, if either Google Books or Kindle had an electronic version.)

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In other news, classes are going well. This weekend was spent going to the M├╝nsterplatz Market (fruits, veggies, wood crafts, plants, etc.), taking some photos, and reviewing the Dative and Accusative cases, and my Past Perfect tenses.

The big news this week is that I was honored to be asked to contribute a short piece to the Goethe Institute’s booklet celebrating their 40th anniversary. I believe it will come out next month. Someone on staff had read this blog and liked what I said about my experience here.

I asked that a representative from the Green Party, which won a big election here a couple of weeks ago, come and speak to us about their plans and policies, the realities of German politics and green business initiatives, und so weiter. I am hoping that that might happen next month as well. There are folks within the Institute who know people in the Party.

Lilacs are big here. See photographic evidence:

My favorite German word of the week: das Chaos, spelled just like the word with the same meaning in English. I like it because it is pronounced very much like “cows.” Which makes my imagination go all Far-Side-meets-Picasso. Cubist Cows everywhere!

On that high note, auf wiederbloggen.

April 10, 2011

A Nod to the Everyday/Allestage

The above is a photo of me taken on The Philosophers' Walk, across the river from old Heidelberg on Saturday. I'm wearing my Santa Fe Institute T-shirt. No, I didn't get an endorsement deal.

Sitting here at a cafe - the only one I found open earlyish - drinking a latte on Sunday morning, tears in my eyes. There is a dog here. Big guy, one of those Rott-shepherd types with the brown “eyes” above their eyes. Big, sweet, doted on by his owner. Eager to befriend the waitress, who is “has a bit of angst” around dogs. He wags his tail lazily, contentedly. It’s nice to let well-behaved dogs into restaurants, like letting the kids in The Golden Compass keeps their daimons near.

I’d like to share some of the mundane, pedestrian things that are making for a life here in Freiburg at the Goethe Institute. Forgive the collage-like nature of the post, then.

Cobblestone streets. I love ‘em. Pedestrian-only zones, too.

LOTS of European people smoke. I wonder why. I even saw one young woman smoking as she rode her bike.

Freiburg has more bookstores than any place I’ve ever seen, except, maybe, Berkeley. Lots of variety, too. It’s good to have them here, as a goad and encouragement to work on my Deutsch. Nearly every time I walk past a store I see a book or two I would like to be able to read.

My German instructor is one of the best teachers I have ever seen. She is ever enthusiastic – reminds me, in that way, of the best manager I ever had, Travis at B. Dalton’s, long decades ago – gently corrects errors, makes sense out of our wildly varied accents as we mangle the German language, and gets us out of our seats and using the language in class (and, on Friday, in town, without going along to hold our hands). But the thing that most impresses me is her ability to speak to those of us who know almost no German in a way that allows us to understand nearly every word she says without it seeming so simple as to be condescending. Such gentle instruction builds in us (others have had similar experiences) the sense that we can and do already understand, giving us the confidence to stretch more all the time. The tour guide we had in Heidelberg yesterday had the same gift. He is now retired, but worked for Goethe for 30 years in countries ranging from Egypt to Japan to Vietnam. He was trained in Greek and Latin language and culture. I could have spent all week listening to him, even in German. Both are willing to use English when the topic or need warrants it.

What's fascinating about being in a group of people learning a new language is the way in which we begin with the things our parents taught us to say: good morning, please, thank you, how are you, I am fine, thanks, and so on. We also try to make up words from the little we know, or even from sounds that we think are expressive of a certain thing we want to say; we use lots of body language; and sometimes we get frustrated and begin to babble in the language we know, even when the person to whom we are speaking doesn't understand. It is very much, I presume, like language acquisition as experienced and practiced by children.

The Germans have begun to come to grips with the horrid part of their past in the last 30 years, from what I am told and have seen. Before that, it was considered bad form to bring it up. Now, here in Freiburg, there are “stumbling blocks” set in the streets in front of the homes where Jewish people, who were taken from their homes and delivered into the hands of tormenters, lived. The stones are gold in color, and inscribed with the names and dates of birth and death of those who had lived there. The place of the old synagogue is, likewise, a memorial park in the center of Freiburg. If there is a concentration camp nearby – there must be: they were everywhere – I am confident that it, too, is a memorial. From what I have observed so far - and my ability to see is still quite limited, I must say – such commemoration has not led to compulsive self-flagellation or wallowing. But I wonder if the seriousness of the German people is not, in part, an echo of these oft-recollected misdeeds. I would be interested in knowing what it is like to be a Jewish person either visiting or living here now. I assume a lot in making the following statement, but it seems that the German people are aware both of the many things on account of which they hold justifiable pride, as well as their reasons for being humble. We’ll see if further experience and reflection uphold this hypothesis.

One of the great things about the Goethe Institute is the way they take pains to build a community, to make sure people don’t feel alone or forgotten. I spent a fair amount of the train trip yesterday in the company of two women from India. For them both it was the first time out of their country, but they both exude a sense of comfort and confidence, of openness. Many people are here from Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iraq, and yet all are interested in meeting and talking with people from other countries, including those of us from the US.

I have learned that, while I like the austerity of living in one room in a dorm, there are a couple of things I need: plants, and art. Accordingly, I bought a few aromatic plants – a couple of rosemary, a mint, and a lavender – and a couple of small ceramic pieces from a potter whose studio and store are right next door to the Goethe Institute and its attendant bookstore. The photo shows them in the company of a little Ganesha, a gift from my friend Maia, which came with me. I have been tempted to buy other things – you can take the American out of America, but not the consumerist out of the American – but have, so far, resisted by asking the question, “Do I really want to carry this with me when I leave here to go to Hamburg in three months?”

April 2, 2011


Had an interesting e-mail discussion with my former pastor from my fundamentalist charismatic days. He asked what I thought the stories of Christians who have been near death and had what seemed to be experiences that confirmed their beliefs about Heaven and the afterlife. He knows I am an agnostic these days, and asked how I could account for such events.

I responded initially by saying that I had heard of similar reports from people of other faiths whose own near-death experiences seemed to confirm their beliefs regarding their deity, the afterlife, reincarnation, and so on. He asked if I knew where he could find such accounts (I didn’t), and how I explain such experiences.

Now, I have a long history of trouble with the whole question of an afterlife. One of my first unsettling questions when I was a fundamentalist reading Aristotle in college (I recommend his Ethics: I used to carry it in one back pocket and the New Testament in the other) was what was the USE of an afterlife. I mean, shouldn’t we do right because we are good, and the right thing to do is just the right thing to do? Not because we get a cookie.

This caused a minor scene in Sunday School thirty some years ago. My friend Drexel was teaching the College and Careers (20- and 30-somethings) class on Easter Sunday. He asked, first, how many believed Jesus rose from the dead. We all raised our hands. Then he asked how many believed WE would rise from the dead (a reference to the afterlife and, perhaps, the resurrection of believers expected to happen with the Second Coming of Christ). Everyone but me raised their hands. I didn’t make a show of keeping my hand down, but I thought the jury was out on this question, so I sat this one out.

Someone noticed. “John didn’t raise his hand,” she said. We spent the entire rest of the hour asking me what I did and did not believe – one of the most enjoyable hours of my time in church. Are you kidding? I was in my early 20’s, full of questions, and was the center of 30-some people’s attention. Plus, I had a vocabulary they’d never run into: in a moment of frustration with what he thought of my evasiveness, one of my classmates asked, “Well what DO you believe,” to which I replied, “Would you like me to begin with my eschatology or my epistemology?”

This was the same church where, in a different class on a different Sunday, one person brought in a church bulletin from the liberal church in town. That church’s singles group was going to meet in a local bar! Oh, the scandal! What would they do AFTER the meeting? {shudder! thrill!} After these preliminaries – I kid you not – they turned, with no apparent sense of irony, to the Gospel passage to learn how inadvisable it to be to casting stones. When I pointed out the jarring disconnect, they were not amused.

Both of these stories put me in a rather flattering light – is this my good side? – when I tell them to my friends who are agnostics, atheists or Christians of another sort.
But here’s the thing: like discussing the nature or possibility of an afterlife, or reincarnation, the foci of my classmates and I were distractions from what is important.

Karen Armstrong once said, “I am not interested in the afterlife. Religion is supposed to be about losing your ego, not preserving it eternally in optimum conditions.”

The only reason to trash the other church’s singles program was to say that we were better. The only reason to grill me – much as I enjoyed it – was to pressure or even punish someone who seemed to be straying from what everyone believed (and should believe). The only reason to discuss the afterlife, or how many angels dance on the head of a pin, is because splitting doctrinal hairs and grading each other’s orthodoxy is a lot easier than doing things that matter.

And the only reason to tell stories that make me look good at the expense of my old friends is that I have been prepared to use them to shore up a personal foundation in which I have had little confidence.

Stephen Batchelor, in his provocative book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, relates a story about how Buddha refused to answer questions about some things. In the Pali Canon Buddha said that to waste time with such speculations is like being shot with a poisoned arrow and refusing to have it removed until you know “the name and the clan of the person who fired it; whether the bow was a longbow or a crossbow,” and so on.

A recent example is with the Catholic bishop that stripped a hospital of its affiliation with the Church because it terminated the pregnancy of a woman whose life was in danger because of the pregnancy. Nicholas Kristof revealed this travesty in his column. The bishop first excommunicated a nun who participated in the decision; when the hospital continued to employ her, he withdrew their affiliation.

My hope is that Jesus would hold the hand of everyone who has to make that wrenching decision, regardless of which tragedy they choose to endure.
Because I Need to Know If McAndrew Is Full Of It