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.

March 31, 2011

An Agnostic in Zwingli's Church

Zwingli and I wouldn’t have gotten along. He was the original hard-ass, humorless theist. Thanks to him, “most frivolous behavior - drinking, prostitution and actually most fun was forbidden or strictly regulated,” according to the tourist guide, Zurich In Your Pocket. (For a more erudite source, see here) The local sculpture of Zwingli has him posed with, of course, Bible and sword.

Within the confines of the austere Grossmunster Kirche (church) is the Chapel of the 12 Apostles, which is the best place for contemplation I have seen since Rothko Chapel in Houston or any of the monasteries I used to frequent. There is a large stone cistern there, shaped like the wide half of an egg turned upside down, hollow, with octagonally chiseled sides. Within is a brass tray filled with water and, sometimes, lighted candles floating. In the chapel are chairs and meditation cushions for the use of visitors. I lit a candle and placed it on the water, thinking of my theistic friends whose faith is but an expression of the truths they see and seek, and a goad to help themselves live better lives. Though I may not agree with their metaphysics, I applaud the lives they lead, for whatever reason they lead them.

Long ago, some friends and I were playing a game of “What One Historical Event would you undo if you could?” I wanted to undo the burning of the Library at Alexandria, but someone else suggested undoing the marriage of “Holy” and “Roman Empire” under Constantine. Neither the Church nor the Empire benefited. Doctrines of the Church could be imposed by law; laws could be given the sanction of the Church and, by implication, God. How do you amend God’s laws? How virtuous is coerced, as opposed to taught, and embraced, virtue?
Today’s “dominionists” and American fundamentalist Tea Partiers, like Zwingli or Catholic Inquisitionists of days past, or like the Taliban, seek to use power to impose their principles, in part because, who wouldn’t want to use the power dropped into their laps by the Fates to advance their highest principles? Who hasn’t said, “If I was President, I would [insert support for cause X here]?” Especially if you might get credit for doing God a favor?

Reminds me of a picture of Moses, as played by Charlton Heston, armed to the teeth with bandoleros and semiautomatic rifles, that appeared on the cover of The Wittenburg Door magazine long years ago. Reminds me also of the martial music playing at the end of the film Passion of the Christ, implying that Jesus is pissed off, and SOMEbody  is gonna pay. Or the Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels, that ends with Jesus opening his mouth and flaying the skin of unbelievers from their bodies. Or the Gnostics, who fashioned themselves as Children of the Light, while all the rest are Children of DARKNESS, and there is a WAR against darkness . . . ad infinitum et spiritu sanctum, amen.

However, this problem is not exclusive to Religion when wed to power. Look at what happened to both business and government when they joined forces: government ceased to be responsive to any but matters of business, because business helped particular government officials keep their jobs; business stopped having to do the R&D to stay competitive, because government made it easier for them to be profitable without being competitive. For a while. Both are now broken. They do not serve the people, or even the principles underlying their existence, they are meant to serve.

I want to know more about the Founders’ ideas of separation of powers. Because this seems essential: not just to our branches of government, but to any entity in which power is concentrated and which has the capacity to augment its power by an alliance with another entity. Power has a tendency to aggregate. Whenever it does so, those with the ability to channel it – whether in their religion, their business, their government (or branch of government) – need to keep it corralled, lest it damage both institutions, the people affected by those institutions, and the principles meant to be served by the use of that power.

In other news, classes have begun at the Goethe Institute, and I am settling in to Freiburg with my new classmates. I must say I am impressed by how much care the Institute takes to make sure each student is in their proper class level. We submit a test before arriving; we engage in a brief conversation with one of the staff as we are registering and getting oriented; then we spend the first three days in the class which they think suits us best. At the end of those three days, the staff meets to discuss whether the fit is right, and whether we need to be moved up or down a level. Classes are active – lots of time is spent out of our seats, moving around, speaking with each other. We constantly are using the language in different ways, so we are getting a lot of practice.

Freiburg is beautiful, and wet: it has been raining for the last two days, off and on. Tomorrow we will take a walking tour of the town that will emphasize practical needs more than history and culture. On Sunday morning we will make our first excursion to the Black Forest.

I was going to buy two things when I arrived: a crock pot, and a bike. I can rent a bike here almost any time I like, there are so many shops and rental businesses. And no one here seems to have ever seen or heard of a crock pot.

I have met students from Poland, Thailand, China, Iraq, Ukraine, Britain, and Venezuela so far. Most students are from Saudi Arabia and Libya, with students from the US being third most numerous. Yes, it will be a very interesting time.

March 24, 2011


Three weeks ago I commended Boz to his new family. I saw him last weekend, and he is doing well. He was glad to see me, and I him. He is more mellow now, owing, I think, to the more regular stimulation his new living situation provides. He goes to work with Dad, on walks with Mom, and is learning how cats and 16 month olds work. I imagine he never looks at his new family and wonders how long it will be until they put down the book or leave the keyboard. But it’s interesting, how one can grieve in response to a change that is, according to all available evidence, good for the one for whom you care.

Yesterday I left home, commending it to Lauren, my long-time friend and, now, house sitter. I was ready. I had packed night before last, for the most part, so last-minute additions and changes were kept to a minimum. The only glitch was that I had read my flight’s departure time as 2:45 instead of 12:45. Fortunately, I checked my flight status by flight number on my iPhone app, Flight Tracker, and discovered my error just before 11 AM. My error cut short my time with my friends, but we made it to the airport by a little before noon; not a soul was in line at the Southwest counter; and I was sitting at my gate with half an hour to spare.

Speaking of time to spare, my 3 hour layover at Chicago Midway has stretched to 4.5 hours. And there is no Wi-Fi working here. Which is why I can be productive now and write the first blog of this new adventure.

I am going to Germany to learn the language, learn about the people, discover why they are so green (as opposed to America, which thinks of climate change as Al Gore’s false prophecy), and to dig up some family roots. I hope to return to America in September, via freighter or cargo ship, imitating as best I can the voyage my mother’s forebears took to come to America in the mid to late 19th century. Between now and then, the unexpected awaits. I will remain in Zurich for a few days to get over jet lag, before going to Freiburg to begin my studies.

But why am I really going to Germany? I’m not sure I can answer that. It occurred to me a minute ago that it feels a bit like migration: a kind of psychic imperative. Last year the imperative was physical: to flee the heat of Southern Europe. This time I am more drawn than repelled by anything. Germany seems an adult country, compared to America’s adolescence. Certainly this is not necessarily a favorable comparison, given Germany’s crimes against humanity last century. But they seem to be unflinchingly (permit the generalization, please, though I know it’s wrong in some particulars) aware of their past crimes, yet able to move on and meet today’s challenges with brio. Of course, part of the draw is the knowledge that I am a quarter German (Mom’s Father’s side), but it feels less like a personal inquiry or journey of self discovery than it is an anthropological or philosophical excursion. So, while I may indulge in some travelogue of a personal nature, I hope to focus more on what Germany represents, who the Germans are, and how defining a people or person based on one part of their past, no matter how archetypically heinous, may be inadequate.

So the migrations in question are not just geographic. I'm not sure which adjective fits. "Psychic" feels too Sedona to me, but that's partly it. As migration is in a bird's nature, so is change in ours, whether we are a people or a person. We are capable of improving, or of declining – or even doing both, at the same time, in different aspects or relationships.

America is the country of atrocities to Native Americans and Vietnamese and Iraqis. We are also the home of jazz, skyscrapers, the concept of Pattern Language, the moon landings, the laptop computer, and so many more good things. Germany is the country of the Holocaust, ground zero of 20th century (and before) anti-Semitism.It is also the home of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Fassbinder, Durer, Nietzsche, BMW, Einstein, Porsche, Adidas, Leica, and more.

We can say that O.J. Simpson was a great football player and a passable actor without in any way qualifying the hatefulness of his crimes. Saying what was good about him makes the picture more complete and true, and makes his story more complex – and so, more likely to be real and true to life. Saying he was a great football player does not imply approval of his hateful crimes. It may, instead, help us to understand that people who have been respected before, who seem to be like us (only richer or more famous), may suddenly succumb to their inner Mr. Hyde. And so they become a cautionary tale for us, rather than a monster story that has little or no connection. We begin to be able to understand different points of view, like why some people may have supported him initially, before the truth became widely known, and why some people who knew him liked him.

I'm hoping to gain some perspective on Germany and the Germans, thereby gaining perspective on human nature. I will share what I am learning, and hope you will join me in discussion.

Auf wiederbloggen!

March 14, 2011

Helping the Japanese People

Dear friends,
I know you are watching the devastation unfold in Japan and are wondering what you can do to help. I have chosen a charity, and provide this link to Charity Navigator's page on the disaster in Japan to help you choose a charity that is established in Japan and works efficiently, putting your money to good use. Charity navigator also gives tips on how to choose a charity and how to avoid scams run by predators who would even take advantage of this disaster.
I have always wanted to visit Japan. The Japanese have so much to admire in their history, their art and culture. I am confident that we will all be inspired by the way they respond to this disaster.
Thank you,


Reuters Photo

March 8, 2011

Trading a Known Good for a Complete Unknown

The bird in hand is, as we know, worth at least the two rumored to be in the bush.

Boz has joined a new family. It became official today. He spent the weekend with them while I was in Kansas City, and charmed them. They, in turn, assured me that they had already fallen in love with him. After three years of living with him, he has moved in with a family that will adore and stimulate him as they did their last two labs, both of whom died last year at good old ages.

I will be traveling. Soon I will leave for a long stay in Germany. I decided that the quality of his life would be better if he lived with someone who was around more and whose life was more stimulating for him – i.e., less sedentary, more active, than my own. He has a 16 month old boy and a cat who will challenge him to learn to live with them. He has a dad who will take him on the job at his landscaping business five days a week, and a mom who is a teacher, a former Peace Corps volunteer, and an avid walker. As their son grows older, they will take him and Boz hiking and camping together. It's going to be a good life.

Am I doing the right thing? Who knows? I hope and believe so. If I am not, at least I will be the only one paying the price for the mistake. Boz will be in good, caring hands. I have learned, again, that doing the right thing does not make it easier.

I don't know where my life will go after Germany. The last trip taught me that life, like travel plans, can take unexpected detours with no warning. There is no doubt that, having found Boz a great new home, I will have more options for my future. Only time will tell if that flexibility will lead to better places. Life is full of choices that cannot be clear without knowing the future.

It is right sometimes to risk even the great goods in our lives if, by doing so, we make greater goods possible. But, inspirational possibilities aside, the fact is, we risk opening ourselves to regret at the same time. That's what makes it a risk, and not an inspirational anecdote.

And so I have let the bird (dog) in hand fly free. He is, I know, better for it. I'm going, empty-handed now, to investigate what's in the bushes, and the forests behind them. I will keep you posted on what I find.
Because I Need to Know If McAndrew Is Full Of It