Articles in section: 'Faith'

A Church with no God

Church with no GodAn article in the UK Telegraph alerted us to the curious “Sunday Assembly” godless church movement. Although the idea was originally hatched by some comedians (literally-speaking) in London, the article focuses on a congregation in the somewhat unlikely locale of Nashville, Tennessee. (On the other hand, perhaps it’s not so surprising that atheists in that part of the country would want to network and find some reassurance in numbers.) [Read more →]

George Herbert and Samuel Menashe; Improvidence and Faith

George Herbert Samuel MenasheVery recently I happened upon one of those discoveries (new at least to me) that seems sufficiently obscure to justify being written down, and especially so while it’s still at the frontal area of the old lobe. It is merely a beguiling echo perceived in two poems, written respectively by two poets separated by about 330 years.

Samuel Menashe was born in 1925 in New York City, and died in that same city in 2011. The relevant poem from him is “Improvidence.” I hope no one would come after me for quoting it here in full; Menashe’s poems are so short, and so tightly constructed, that it is not as if one can just quote a verse and say “buy the book and read the rest” (though by all means buy the book and read the other poems). In the great majority of cases the poem is a single stanza, and you need the whole thing to have any sense of it. All the more so “Improvidence,” which possesses careful timing all the way to its quasi-punchline. It is a poem which on its face is about economics, as well as human nature, and indeed Menashe liked to mention that it was once incorporated into a talk by an economist of note. [Read more →]

Death is not the End

Death is not the endDeath was the chief topic at church this morning. It is a sturdy old standby. Death, ironically enough, never seems to get old. Just when you might think it’s become old hat, that you’ve been there, done that and moved on, death has this way of reasserting itself in one’s life in some novel and unexpected way. Endlessly resourceful, death may sometimes take a holiday but, just like taxes, will always return demanding to be paid. And even if you purchase an island and declare personal sovereignty, you turn out still to be within the dominion claimed by death. You may argue and protest, of-course, but while the case is tied up in the courts death will simply take everything you own and move on. (Exactly like taxes, then.)

Someone who is well aware at the moment of the truth of all the above is Miley Cyrus. A few days ago her dog Floyd died suddenly. I intend no mockery here; as a lover of dogs, I have no doubt as to the genuineness of the grief felt by a dog owner when one dies. There can even be an added nakedness and rawness to the emotion. The mechanisms and rituals we human beings have for finding consolation and closure after the death of a fellow human being aren’t there in the same way when a pet dies. And no matter how senior, a dog’s life always seems to have been too short, because their lifespans are so short compared to ours. [Read more →]

Cantor Bob at 75

Bob Cohen and Delores Dixon
Bob Cohen and Delores Dixon at Temple Emanuel

Yours truly has been blessed to get to know a little bit the inestimable Bob Cohen over the last several years through shared interests in music and related shenanigans. In his current life, he is Cantor Bob Cohen of Temple Emanuel in Kingston, New York, and yesterday held a shindig there in celebration of his 75th birthday; essentially it was a chance to play music with and and for his friends, and intersperse it with stories of how he became the Bob Cohen he is today. [Read more →]

It’s All Good: Bob Dylan and Saint Augustine

[Adapted from a version originally published in 2010]

Bob Dylan Augustine It's All GoodWhen, not very many years ago, I first read the great work, Confessions, by Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430), I recall being a little inwardly nonplussed at the fact that while reading it I was persistently put in mind of Bob Dylan. It often seemed as if Augustine were subtly echoing Dylan, or as if the lines in Confessions were ever-so-close to flowing right into one of his songs. I thought: Is this what it’s come to? Am I so deranged now, on account of listening so much to this old warbler from Hibbing, that I can’t even read a great piece of literature, completely unrelated to him, without his songs flitting in and out of my head?

And unquestionably I am so deranged, but, with hindsight, it’s perhaps not so hard to understand why my mind was making the kinds of connections it was. [Read more →]

Natural Wonders and Belief in God: Important New Research

Natural wonders and belief in GodOnce again, scientists have directed their telescopes and most advanced instruments upward, have spent long months studying the data and spending their grant money, and emerged to deliver their important conclusion: The sky is blue.

The story this time is in the UK’s Daily Mail: “Natural wonders increase our tendency to believe in God and the supernatural.” Doctor Piercarlo Valdesolo of Claremont McKenna College and Jesse Graham of the University of Southern California announced their findings based on studying the reactions of human subjects to awe-inspiring natural sights, and have concluded that such sights increase the tendency of people to believe in God or the supernatural. Amazing. [Read more →]

River of Love – T-Bone Burnett

T-Bone Burnett River of LoveStopping by the local chapel this morning, some might have heard Psalm 46:

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Hearing mention of that river which makes “glad the city of God” caused my brain to make a connection—which might not be so wildly inappropriate—to this old T-Bone Burnett tune, “River of Love.” He’s known all over these days as the producer to tap when a deft touch on rootsy-realness is called for (recently even bringing Reggie Dwight back to basics) but yours truly was the closest-thing-possible to a real fan of his back in the mid-1980s when he was still releasing records under his own name on a semi-regular basis. His music had a special charm (and so still does), being a fine cocktail of wryness, cynicism and hope, with memorable melodies and a decent degree of that rootsy-realness. [Read more →]

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – The Erasmus Lecture

The Erasmus Lecture Rabbi Jonathan SacksRabbi Jonathan Sacks—who recently moved on from his post of Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, which he occupied for 22 years—gave the Erasmus Lecture in New York City last Monday night, an annual event sponsored by the journal First Things. Yours truly was fortunate enough to attend, and judging by the energy and passion of Rabbi Sacks’ talk, he is not interested in fading away, but looks rather likely to relish his new freedom and devote it to advocating for the value of faith in the contemporary world. The title of his lecture was “On Creative Minorities,” which would seem to be a yawn-inducing topic before you even get to the fourth or fifth syllable, but turned out to be quite the opposite: it seemed very timely, even urgent, and it was delivered with a spirit, erudition and humor that earned the rabbi a number of standing ovations from the religiously-mixed audience (Catholics, Jews, Protestants, intellectuals, and the usual motley band of dilettantes to which I subscribe).

The term creative minorities has a quite specific origin, but Sacks structured his lecture to introduce that source later, the better to begin, I suppose, with a broader sense of what a creative minority might be. So he began 2600 years ago, with a letter from the prophet Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon, including these verses from Jeremiah 29:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Sacks pointed out that in contrast to Jeremiah’s reputation as a prophet of gloom or doom, he was fundamentally a prophet of hope. And in the lines above Jeremiah is (while speaking for the LORD) giving a hopeful prescription to the exiles from Israel who were a small minority in Babylon: live, increase, pray for that place in which you live, and seek its welfare. Sacks later recommended a similar role for public religious intellectuals today; that is as prophets of hope rather than doom. [Read more →]

Heschel on Good and Evil

Abraham Joshua Heschel Between God and ManJust another paragraph or two from Abraham Joshua Heschel, these words being from his book Between God and Man. [Read more →]

On Prayer: Heschel, Ysabella, etc.

On Prayer: Heschel, YsabellaPrayer would seem to be a very simple thing, a straightforward concept that the devout and the atheistic alike easily understand. “Please God, do this for me, make that right, fix this problem.” Yet the older I’ve gotten the more I’ve come to believe that the beating heart of prayer is actually something far simpler that I ever comprehended as a young person, loaded as I was with the ideas and traditions to which I happened to be exposed. And it is the simplicity on the far side of complexity (as per Oliver Wendell Holmes) that is most to be desired.

Some of what seems to me to be great and ultimately simple wisdom on the nature of prayer is below from Abraham Joshua Heschel:

The true source of prayer [...] is not an emotion but an insight. It is the insight into the mystery of reality, the sense of the ineffable, that enables us to pray. As long as we refuse to take notice of what is beyond our sight, beyond our reason; as long as we are blind to the mystery of being, the way to prayer is closed to us. If the rise of the sun is but a daily routine of nature, there is no reason to say, In mercy Thou givest light the the earth and to those that dwell on it … every day constantly. If bread is nothing but flour moistened, kneaded, baked and then brought forth from the oven, it is meaningless to say, Blessed art Thou … who bringest forth bread from the earth.

The way to prayer leads through acts of wonder and radical amazement. The illusion of total intelligibility, the indifference to the mystery that is everywhere, the foolishness of ultimate self-reliance are serious obstacles on the way. It is in moments of our being faced with the mystery of living and dying, of knowing and not-knowing, of love and the inability of love—that we pray, that we address ourselves to Him who is beyond the mystery.

That’s from Heschel’s book Man’s Quest For God.


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