Friday, May 12, 2023

Review of Beyond the Gates of Time: The Emerald Scepter of Prester John

Beyond the Gates of Time: The Emerald Scepter of Prester JohnBeyond the Gates of Time: The Emerald Scepter of Prester John by Robert F. Thompson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To quote the back cover "This book is a re-imagining of the New Age of the Holy Spirit, making use of the Medieval legend of Prester John. As such, the book is also about us and about the kind of world we want to live in." 

As with all of Robert's books, it is a work of depth with numerous references, citations, and quotations which evoke in the reader many thought-trails to pursue. Due to space I can only provide two of many passages especially meaningful to me. 

(1) "One needs to understand that religions – each and all of them – are created in time. They each have their gift to bring. Spirituality, on the other hand, is primordial. It is global and it has always existed. Discern that and connect with that. The Christian faith is best understood as an expression of the primordial spirituality." page 41 and 

(2) "As I write these words, on a mid-August day in the American Mid-South bio-region, I can hear the cicadas in the trees, praising God in their own language. The constant roar of the cicadas can be regarded as the continuous rattle of a cosmic shaman taking us on a collective journey." page 80


Other passages that made me think which are not in the review but for which I have space here:

(3) "In thinking about what is called Christianity, we don’t want to essentialize Christianity (by providing a definition), but rather to imagine its further evolution – what it will become in the future.  This is, however, a conventional way of speaking, whereas the reality we are striving to discern is the timeless, changeless, life-giving radiance of the Holy One beyond all knowing."  Page 15

(4) "Here is a vignette, a tiny story, that seems to me to encapsulate all the wonder and mystery of the Kingdom.  This morning, from our kitchen window, I saw a tiny fluttering moth caught in a spider’s web.  I walked outside and, with my finger, released the moth and it flew away.  Of course the spider needs to eat.  Of course the moth loves its life and wants to fly away.  Of course, a human being desired to release the moth.  There is wonder and mystery enough in this tiny story that leaves me speechless when I think of it.  Behold a great mystery! So it is!"  Page 23-24

(5) Our individual well-being is bound up with the well-being of all other beings.  With this understanding, a simplified notion of practice can be characterized as awareness and attention in the moment to what is, because that’s where God is, where peace is.  Page 61

(6) The “good” (or “true”) emperors, such as Michael II and Prester John, rule by their inherent (moral) power – not by the exercise of force.  The distinction drawn here between “power” and “force” is that the exercise of force creates reaction, whereas moral power elicits cooperation because of its evident goodness or rightness. Page 78-79

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Highlights from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Finished Gilead at the first of the year.  Had been intending to read it for a long time.  After reading it, I recognize why it is so very popular and meaningful to a great many people.  It touched me in a number of ways.  This afternoon, I decided to review the highlights of books in my Kindle that I've read in the past year or so. Had forgotten how many highlights I made.  Below are most of them, some with comment. Will be reading more books by her.  She is marvelous.

- Your Highlight on page 7 

There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.

My comment 

     People would confide in my Dad who was a minister into his eighties.  He kept many           secrets  to himself.  I know just the barest outline of a few things that slipped out.  


- Your Highlight on page 7 

My father was a man who acted from principle, as he said himself. He acted from faithfulness to the truth as he saw it.

My Comment:

     So did my Dad.


- Your Highlight on page 27

It seems to me some people just go around looking to get their faith unsettled. That has been the fashion for the last hundred years or so.

My Comment:

     I understand why the old fellow felt that way.  I'm one of those who had his faith unsettled. I did not consciously question my faith because of fashion, though, in retrospect, that had to be part of it.  I am a man of my time.  We all are and we cannot escape that.  


- Your Highlight on page 32 

This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.


- Your Highlight on page 49 

It is hard to understand another time.

My comment:

     I know that is true.  I've  now lived long enough to perceive  the gulf between now and the 1950's  when I first came to consciousness. And how the 1960's were different.  And then how the succeeding decades built on or terminated what went before.


- Your Highlight on page 51 

A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation. It has to be heard in that way. There are three parties to it, of course, but so are there even to the most private thought—the self that yields the thought, the self that acknowledges and in some way responds to the thought, and the Lord. That is a remarkable thing to consider.


- Your Highlight on page 53 

But he was a fine preacher in the style of his generation, so my father said.


- Your Highlight on page 55 

He never encouraged any talk about visions or miracles, except the ones in the Bible.

My comment:

           Same as my Dad who preached for about sixty five years.  The most he would proffer was the hope of Divine Providence.  And so it grates on me when evangelicals are so glib about the Lord helping them do this or that.  


- Your Highlight on page 56 | Location 689-689 | Added on Sunday, December 26, 2021 6:11:22 PM

To be useful was the best thing the old men ever hoped for themselves, and to be aimless was their worst fear.

My Comment:

            That describes me.  Expressed it to my friends in my early twenties.  And to be useful and seen as competent has been my ardent desire.


- Your Highlight on page 64 

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again.

My comment:

      That is me too.


- Your Highlight on page 75

Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it. But this is truest of the face of an infant. I consider that to be one kind of vision, as mystical as any.


- Your Highlight on page 131 

I think of playing catch in a hot street and that wonderful weariness of the arms. I think of leaping after a high throw and that wonderful collaboration of the whole body with itself and that wonderful certainty and amazement when you know the glove is just where it should be. Oh, I will miss the world!

My comment

      Oh what a wonderful description.  I played baseball for ten summers of my life.  Am thankful she reminded me of the great physical pleasure of playing catch.


- Your Highlight on page 141 

When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?


- Your Highlight on page 146 

My point was that Abraham is in effect called upon to sacrifice both his sons, and that the Lord in both instances sends angels to intervene at the critical moment to save the child.

My comment:

I never had considered or heard that before. But it has to have been intended by the author/editor(s). Great insight.


- Your Highlight on page 162 

How do you tell a scribe from a prophet, which is what he clearly takes himself to be? The prophets love the people they chastise, a thing this writer does not appear to me to do.


- Your Highlight on page 164 

There have always been things I felt I must tell them, even if no one listened or understood. And one of them is that many of the attacks on belief that have had such prestige for the last century or two are in fact meaningless.


- Your Highlight on page 201 

I have thought about that very often—how the times change, and the same words that carry a good many people into the howling wilderness in one generation are irksome or meaningless in the next.

My Comment: 

        I am hoping some of today's political catch phrases and slogans become like that.


- Your Highlight on page 202 

And they want me to defend religion, and they want me to give them “proofs.” I just won’t do it. It only confirms them in their skepticism. Because nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.

My Comment:

Now that is a different take than I have encountered.  Insights like that which she makes I find compelling.  


- Your Highlight on page 203 

I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things.


- Your Highlight on page 215 

I fell to thinking about the passage in the Institutes where it says the image of the Lord in anyone is much more than reason enough to love him, and that the Lord stands waiting to take our enemies’ sins upon Himself.


- Your Highlight on page 224 

Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable—which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live.


- Your Highlight on page 228

But your mother said, “I was in St. Louis once. Some of us went there looking for work.” She laughed. “No luck.” He said, “It’s a miserable place to be broke.”

My Comment:

          I recall visiting Dad's relatives in St Louis, the summer of 1956 I believe.  Watched chimps riding bikes at the Zoo. i thought it was great.  All of life was enchanting as i was five years old.


- Your Highlight on page 237 

Two or three of the ladies had pronounced views on points of doctrine, particularly sin and damnation, which they never learned from me. I blame the radio for sowing a good deal of confusion where theology is concerned. And television is worse. You can spend forty years teaching people to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no more theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten. I do wonder where it will end.


- Your Highlight on page 268 

When I mentioned the history we had here, he laughed and said, “Old, unhappy far-off things and battles long ago.”


My Comment:

I needed this.


- Your Highlight on page 268 

He was expounding the wonders of the larger world, and I was resolving in my heart never to risk the experience of them. He said, “I have become aware that we here lived within the limits of notions that were very old and even very local. I want you to understand that you do not have to be loyal to them.”

My Comment:

        Wished I'd had an older brother who gave this advice.  But it turned out I would being him.


- Your Highlight on page 273 

I thought he should be aware that grace is not so poor a thing that it cannot present itself in any number of ways.

Monday, December 20, 2021

What If?

What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions  by Randall Munroe

This book was a lot of fun to read.  Randall is a cartoonist with a popular web page, google XKCD, where people often ask all kinds of questions involving science, engineering and technology.  Many are wild and fanciful.  For example, the question was asked whether if everyone on earth had a laser pointer and directed it at the moon, could the reflection be seen from earth?  The way he sets up the answers are always instructive.  He lays out assumptions and starting scenarios.  For this one, he makes the reasonable assumption that the world’s population would have to congregate in a suitable location on the same side of the earth.  And at night of course.  He suggests placing everyone in the the Arabian peninsula, and at a time when the moon is three quarters dark.  There would have to be enough moonshine to know where to point.  Laser pointers are usually about 5 milliwatts each.  But, several billion such eye safe laser pointers striking the moon would be too faint to see.  So he ratches up to a more powerful laser, by 200 times.  It is possible to buy a 1 watt handheld laser.  It is not recommended.  That is enough power to ruin an eye and can catch things on fire.  Even if each person directed a 1 watt laser accurately to the lunar surface, the reflection would not be visible on earth.  What if every person had an IMAX projector with a pair of 30,000 Watt lamps?  Well yes, finally, it would be visible.

He answers fifty such questions in a similar way.  Often throwing in all kinds of wonderful factoids. 

This is a great way to learn. 

Sunday, January 31, 2021

1961 - The first modern year

When did we become modern?  There are many answers. Good answers and explanations.  And they change depending on what we mean by that term and the context.  But for me it was the year 1961.  That was the thinking of my ten-year-old self as our family walked across a parking lot at Bull Shoals Dam in Arkansas that summer.  "This is the first modern year" I said in my mind.  It was my own idiosyncratic take.  Why would I have thought that?  What did my young mind mean by that?

1)  There were several technological advancements that occurred in 1961.  It was the year that humans travelled to space for the first time. And that made an impression.  But that was not the only reason.  Every year brought significant technological achievements.  Already, by that mature age I expected technology to continually advance.  The explosion of TV ownership occurred in the early 1950’s.  I don’t remember not having a television.   As far back as I can remember, science and science fiction shows of TV fascinated me.  Upon reflection it is clear that I was programmed to believe in a future of fantastic gadgetry.  I clearly remember a toy robot advertised when I was only four and desiring to have it. A robot is both an object of the here and now and a symbol of ever advancing performance and automation

2)  Even the many and varied cowboy shows taught me that life in the recent past had been different.  A number of my great-grandparents were still alive in the fifties.  They were born in the 1870’s and 80’s.  I knew life had been and still was less technologically advanced for them than it was for me and my family.  I remember their outhouses.  Some never learned to drive.  I remember getting water from a manual hand water pump outside one of their houses rather than from an indoor faucet.  There were many and varied cowboy shows on television in the fifties and sixties and they conveyed a different world.  My impression was that my great grandparents were born during the cowboy days. Reflecting on that fact, I knew they experienced great technological changes in their lives, perhaps more than any previous generation.  For example, telephones, automobile, and airplanes arrived, effectively, in their adulthoods.  We could easily draw up a much longer list.  Because of this, I expected the march of technology to continue in my life as well.  

3)  There was another reason for thinking and feeling these things.  We had moved less than a year earlier. The house was new, the first one for our young family.  Our previous home dated to the 19th century. The octogenarian next door neighbor had been born in an earlier version of it.  That old house was enchanting when we first moved there, with its push button light switches and other odd features.  In earlier days its water came from a cistern which by our time was filled in and covered.   It provided a contrast to the new one.  After just a few weeks in the new home came the Christmas break. As usual, we trekked to Michigan to spend a couple of weeks with grandparents. Breaks in space and time can be occasions of transition and new beginnings.  It was this time. Coming back to that new house with its new look and smell to begin a new year filled me with the expectation that the future would be exciting and promising.

4)  What You Are Is Where You Were When is a video series by Morris Massey I viewed in the 1980's.  In it he explained that a person's gut level values are programmed into them at about age 10.  The way life was when you were ten years old is how life is supposed to be.  He then explained how that explains differences in outlook and behavior between the generation that arrived at that age during the Great Depression and the Baby Boomers. In my case, my view of 1961 defined how life was going to be. 

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Some highlights from Metamodernity: Meaning and Hope in a Complex World by Lene Anderson

Someone in my Twitter feed about a month ago mentioned the term Metamodernity. That spurred some comments, comments which showed that others were aware of it and it is a thing.   That stoked my curiosity.  So after a quick google search to learn more,  I downloaded the book Metamodernity: Meaning and Hope in a Complex World by Lene Anderson. Here are some highlights.

Will not try to summarize the book, define the term, or otherwise review.  Will just present a few things I highlighted.  There's no pattern to what strikes my fancy and leads me to highlight a given passage other than momentary whim.  Am sure to have missed some interesting ones.  

Humans are a pattern seeking and pattern recognizing species in need for love and search for meaning.

Yes, I think so.  We see patterns where there are none.  We are stubborn about it sometimes.  

A common denominator for all the Axial Age religions that have survived until our time is that they have provided us with symbolic worlds expressing the core moral and existential struggles of humans in big societies, and none of the stories can be taken at face value. The theologians and storytellers of the pre-modern era were not simpletons, their stories have lasted exactly because they contain several layers and we need to dig into them, and keep digging if we want to understand the stories—and ourselves.

This idea of an age of similar and parallel developments which occurred simultaneously across a broad stretch of the ancient world from Greece, to the Mideast, to India and to China is fascinating to me.  It is called the Axial Age. It was first proposed and described by Karl Jaspers for the period, roughly, of 3rd to 8th century BCE.  It fits in with my view that our religions have evolved through the centuries as our societies have developed.  How can it be otherwise?New situations, new problems call for different doctrines and new theologies.  (Have referred to the Axial Age in two previous posts).  Jeremiah and the Block Chain and The Second Axial Period.  

What is new in metamodernity compared to postmodernism is that meaning can be judged according to its depth, and this depth is defined by the richness of its connectedness in the meaning making fabric, the epistemology.

This may be the author's own desire and goal for metamodernity.  But why not? At the beginning one can hope to influence a movement in what one believes is a positive direction.  If metamodernity addresses the issue of meaning, that would be an advantage over postmodernism which is often perceived by many as subtractive of meaning.

We are also creatures of habit, and we have a natural resistance towards knowledge that goes against what we already know. It is not so much that we are allergic to new knowledge; it is the dismissal of old knowledge that is painful. It is letting go that hurts. Accepting that our defining cultural code does not hold all the answers is terrifying. It is particularly hard if that code and the knowledge that it holds came from people we love and trust, or from authorities that we love to trust.

This squares with my seventy years of life experience.  It was easy for me as a teenager in the 1960's to see how lots of older folks were allergic to the new thinking about civil rights and women's rights and many other things like music and hair styles which most of us now take for granted. Those things were not as disorienting for my older loved ones as changes occurring in our religious heritage.  Our church had a firm set of answers and questioning those answers was terrifying and had to be resisted.  As an young adult I lost confidence that our distinctive religious heritage had the answers. Have been searching ever since for something that could provide a similar comfort and assurance I felt growing up. Would like to think I've learned and made reasonable changes.   Now I'm the old guy.  What views/feelings am I holding onto which are now outdated?  I'm still looking.  Will continue to explore Metamodernity.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Recent Favorite Tweets

Here are some uplifting, to me, tweets I've come across in the past few months that I thought I'd share here:

And we will close out with another tweet from Len Sweet which falls in line with the one above:

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Book Reviews: Artificial Intelligence by Melanie Mitchell and Beyond the Known by Andrew Rader

I would like to recommend two excellent books.  They were Christmas gifts which I thoroughly enjoyed and savored.  Artificial Intelligence by Melanie Mitchell takes the historical approach for introducing us to the field. Substantial activity begins in the 1950’s,  within the first decade of digital computers. This period saw the introduction of many of the basic approaches that are still being pursued today. I was happy to learn about neural networks and how that avenue of investigation has evolved through the decades. I had heard the term for many years but never took the time to investigate. Also critical to the story was the intense activity in teaching a computer system to play games, including checkers, chess, Go, and Atari games. Incredible progress has been achieved the past decade in language translation, pattern recognition, and self-driving. Though Mitchell acknowledges  grand achievements to date, the field has often been over hyped and is careful not to do that.   She has spent her career in this field and made contributions, so her perspective is important. I plan to read some of her other books.  In finishing she notes that considerable hurdles remain before a computer will be able to pass the well-known Turing Test.  Here is how she closes:

“The impacts of AI will continue to grow for all of us. I hope that this book has helped you, as a thinking human, to get a sense of the current state of this burgeoning discipline including its many unsolved problems, the potential risks and benefits of its technologies, and the scientific and philosophical questions it raises for understanding our own human intelligence. And if any computers are reading this, tell me what it refers to in the previous sentence and your’re welcome to join in the discussion.”

The second book, Beyond the Known: How Exploration Created the Modern World and Will Take Us to the Stars by Andrew Rader. It was very much like a condensed version of one of my favorite books, The Discoverers by Daniel Boorstin, which I read almost forty years ago. The theme of Beyond the Known is the role of exploration in the story of human advancement. It starts with the migration of out of Africa many millenia ago and then proceeds to cover human history since. Both books contained riveting descriptions of the era from Marco Polo followed by the voyages of discovery around the southern tip of Africa and shortly thereafter to the Americas. Beginning in the 20th century, air and space flight receives the emphasis. Rader works at SpaceX and is well suited to describe the most recent forty years that postdate Boorstin’s book. He discusses how we might make Mars and other places in the solar system suitable for human environment and even discusses interstellar travel. It closes with

“The challenges we face today are no more daunting than they’ve been in the past, and the rewards no less meaningful. Pushing our boundaries is the best way to expand them, and to unite humanity in common purpose. Will we turn from this calling and abandon exploration? I don’t think so.  There will always be wanderers among us.”

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Photos of the Sagrada Familia

Was in Spain recently for the Three Wisemen Winter School of Luminescent Nanothermometry where I gave the opening talk on the History of Phosphor Thermometry just outside of Madrid.  Later travelled Barcelona where we visited Gaudi's cathedral. It is called the Sagrada Familia. It was astounding.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

And Now I Know, Doubt is Who I Am

Joined Twitter in 2009 but did not do much with it until a couple of years ago. Now, I spend at least an hour a day, often more. I've met a great many perspectives, read some awful and wonderful things, and often drop my jaw at the cleverness, insight, pathos, and mirth of all varieties. I learn many new things every day.  Was scrolling through the tweets this evening to review and savor what I'd seen in the recent past when I came upon this one from JohnsHopkinsMedicine.
Since retiring I've been able to review my life and recognize some aspects of myself that I did not perceive earlier.  Have made some positive changes resulting from that introspection.  Looking back I acknowledge often having the problem of being a person who doubts themself obsessively.  Fear and uncertainty also accompanied this.  It has often been difficult to make decisions because I feared I did not have enough knowledge and information.  In the article from which the above tweet originates, the psychiatrist notes that doubt can often be something that characterizes a person's obsessive compulsive disorder, OCD.    He gives examples of patients who continually check that the door is locked.  They repeatedly check it and physically re-lock it. 

About 3% of the population has OCD.  Some fraction of these include this problem with doubt.  Often it limits a person's functioning in life.  Cognitive behaviour therapy can work and failing that,  antidepressants can be effective. 

It would seem the doubt issue would also relate to other personality traits like the ability to take initiative. 

I am a very religious person.  Every day I read something of a religious nature and ponder it.  I do this even though I'm unsure and have many doubts.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Eden as Past, Future, and Present

A friend recommended Tapestry by Bishop SeraphimSigrist.  I liked it very much.  It’s reads like stream-of-consciousness.  It provides many interesting vignettes.   Here is a meaningful snippet lifted from Chapter 18.  Not that I think there was a literal Adam, still, nonetheless I like this.

Ch. 18  Eden as Past, Future, and Present

Poem by Charles Reznikoff

As I was wandering with my happy thoughts,
I looked and saw
that I had come into a sunny place, familiar
    and yet strange.
“Where am I?” I asked a stranger.  “Paradise.”
“Can this be Paradise?” I ask, surprised,
For there were motor cars and factories.
“It is” he answered.  This is the sun that
    shone on Adam once;
The very wind that blew on him, too. 

Sunday, August 18, 2019

New Forms of Spiritual Understanding

I've been thinking a lot about how Christianity is by its very nature not a static thing but adaptable and always changing.  It seems to me that is the way it should be.  The tradition I come from wanted to go back to the first century and RESTORE Christianity to how it was at its founding.  The assumption was that there was one, immutable way for it to be and we must practice only that version of Christianity.  But long ago I lost confidence in that approach.  I came across a quotation this morning while reading Edward Hirsch's book "How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry."  It supports my view.  Edward, on page 193 of my Kindle version, cites this as from Hart Crane and his "General Aims and Theories" which I have not read. 
New conditions of life germinate new forms of spiritual understanding
Hirsch is discussing art and says of the above that "This key modernist idea, that fresh or changing conditions ferment fresh forms, has had particular resonance" in the New World . . . .

Even though he is discussing art, I think the principle holds for religion.  Art and religion are intertwined, despite how the Reformation heritage has attempted to squelch the connection. 


Saturday, May 18, 2019

From Chapter II of A Many Splendored Thing

How often do we read a book that surprises us in with topics and content we didn't expect?  That was the case with this book, A Many Splendored Thing by Han Suyin.  I did not anticipate it would contain some insights related to religion.  My twenty year old self was in mood to read something and this book was available.  On picking it up in my hand, I thought it was a romance novel based on the hit song and movie it inspired, and it was.  But the book is autobiographical and the romance cannot be understood with its highs, lows, and tensions without Suyin's  history as a person living in multiple worlds, Traditional Chinese, Western, and the newly emerging modern East with the rising communist tide on the mainland and burgeoning commercial world of Hong Kong.  In some sense all of these worlds are native to her.  She is specially positioned to perceive people from all angles, intimate with them all.  The following is from the second chapter titled "The Kingdom of God"  The timeline is important and so each chapter is dated by year and month.  The content of this chapter explains her experiences in Hong Kong shortly after moving there from med school in London. She lives in a half-way house for missionaries families who have had to leave China in that disruptive time. 

*Chapter II  The Kingdom of God  March 1949
I had always thought of missionaries as “superior persons” in the Confucian sense; that their fund of goodness, benevolence and knowledge must be greater than the average person’s.  It was with relief that I found they were just ordinary people.  Well-meaning, earnest, hard working, not endowed with more wisdom, knowledge or virtue than anyone else.  Not gifted with more vision and not always more tolerant.  Teaching the Bible was their métier, just as medicine was mine, although I suppose both professions deluded themselves into calling it a vocation.  They were concerned, as all normal, healthily self-centered people are, with family, children, home, security, life insurance, salaries, pension and furlough, all the mechanics of existence.
When I was growing up, occasionally a missionary would visit our church and give a presentation/sermon.  Usually it was a Sunday or Wednesday night so the lights could be turned off to enable a slide presentation.  It was exciting to my young self.  I would for a short time have a romantic desire to go to where ever it was they were living and working.  Of course, with never a thought of the mechanics of existence and all that would be entailed.  I heard few critiques of this.  A great Uncle was a missionary in New Zealand then.  Not long after, a cousin just older than me would move to Kenya where he lives as a missionary to this day. 
In those early months of 1949, they seemed bewildered, confused and indignant.  What was happening in China? 
Some averred that it was only a passing phase of violence, similar to those previous eruptions of xenophobia which flare up from time to time in China.  Some were inclined to think that the Kuomintang government would make a stand and win in the end “if only it would carry out reforms instead of just proclaiming them.”  The fact that the Chiang Kai-sheks were Christians seemed to them a guarantee that the Kuomintang government might still turn over a new leaf and that all would be well again.

Perhaps those who understood the irreversible change which was taking place remained in China until they could do so no longer, but those I met in Church Guest House showed much bewilderment and hurt.

It was a little like unrequited love.  “After all we’ve done for them,” they implied, “look at what they are doing to us.” 
How difficult it must be to be a missionary! In order to convince others, one must be so completely indoctrinated with the superiority of one’s own brand of belief.  To understand, to tolerate, to condone, is incompatible with the very idea of being in possession of a higher truth, a better explanation of the spiritual life. 
I don't remember having an immediate reaction when reading this last paragraph all those years ago but that question of the superiority of "our" brand of belief  would soon haunt me.   This book planted the seed which would grow into my consciousness and cause me to critique my inherited beliefs. 
There were two types of missionaries in Hong Kong.  The first, those that had not been long in China, were still under the spell of their narrow denominational fanaticism.  They carried with them a sulphurous aroma of hell-fire and damnation to the heathen.  They were spiritually intolerant and physically bigoted.  They were inclined to gloat over the possibilities of martyrdom and to emphasize the persecutional element in the pressure against them.  But they were very few.  The larger group was eminently likable.  They had been converted and mellowed to humanity, tolerance and a sense of humor.  They had quietly jettisoned the belief in the infallibility of their own theme of salvation, together with the more wrathful aspects of the Deity they professed to love.  They were far more interested in the social and practical aspects of Christianity.  They were humanists, sociologists, and for them religion became the building of hospitals and schools, the creation of Christian Associations, and picking up abandoned waifs.  But they were the ones most hurt, because they had loved their work, and they had been selfless in their devotion to it.  “What is going to happen to our Christian communities?  Many of our Christians seem to have gone over to the new regime, some have not. Will these be persecuted?  What is going to happen to our churches, our schools, our hospitals?”  They wanted to help China.  And they found that their motives were suspected, and their efforts towards conciliation and understanding misunderstood.  They were no longer wanted. China was throwing them out.
* A Many Splendored Thing by Han Suyin An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Little, Brown and Company, Boston. 1952 

Saturday, May 11, 2019

I read "A Many Splendored Thing" years ago

We are often encouraged to reflect on important books in our lives.  And reading is recommended for help in coping with life and mental health generally.  I’ve enjoyed reading Deborah Cox’s blog and one recent post discussed this aspect of books:

While considering what new books I might read, it came to my mind to consider which books have been most important to me.  I traveled back in my mind and eventually came upon one that changed my life.  Though, it is only on reflection of my life subsequent to reading it that I now realize that fact.  Had not thought about this book in many years.  It is not about science or religion or philosophy.  It is not recognized as a classic.  The book is “A Many Splendored Thing” by Han Suyin.  It is one of only two or three Romance novels I’ve ever read.  But it came at a critical time with some messages especially pertinent to my young life.  I re-read it a few months ago to help bring back my memories of how and why it has the effect it did.

It was late summer of 1971 just before the fall term of my senior year of college and my 21st birthday.  So, a time with critical choices on which path my life would take.  I loved science and technology.  I also desired to be as good a Christian as I could be and had always considered Christian ministry in some way as a possible life path.  The previous summer I’d been to Europe on an Evangelistic campaign.  This summer I had been involved in Christian ministry in Europe.  It was late in the summer when I read the book, shortly before coming home.

It is important here to discuss the nature of the devout Christian fellowship which had nurtured me, the Churches of Christ.  My Dad was a minister and a model of love for his family and devotion to his calling. The county where we lived from second grade through the tenth had a population of about 12,000 people.  In the 1960’s there were 16 Churches of Christ in the county if I recall correctly.  In early and mid 20th century, we were amazingly independent of the rest of Protestant Christianity.  We had distinctive ideas about worship, baptism, and church organization.  Looking back, the accusation that we felt we were the only “true” Christians did have a valid basis.  Fortunately, that exclusivism and isolation has significantly waned.  Our distinctive practices are not perceived as the only valid way.  But that was the milieu in which I was raised.  Our lives were built around the Church, attending 3 times a week.  Most of the people who were my close friends were within this fellowship.  I went to a Church of Christ college where immersion in this insular world continued.  And I have many wonderful memories from those days.  While growing up I never questioned the teachings seriously.  We had a strong family history in this fellowship.  I knew the stories.  It was my identity.

That was the young man who began reading the book. 

I did not know that religion would be an important component of this book.  And that it would profoundly influence me. To be continued....

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Spiritual Meaning of Trees - Maya Becomes a Tree

Finished reading A Many-Splendored Thing by Han Suyin this evening.  It is a semi-autobiographical novel about a romance between a Chinese Eurasian woman and a British correspondent.  The action is centered in Hong Kong with some action in China and Korea in 1949-1950.  Read it for the first time in 1971 and it made a big impression on me as I was about to start my senior year of college and turn 21.  Upon this re-reading I underlined and made checks in various places for later contemplation. 

Here is one extended passage that happens to connect with my interest in the spiritual meaning of trees is from Part 3 Chapter 4.

One day I found her sitting at my desk in the office, having fled her bed again and as if it were the most natural thing in the world, she began to tell me about the tree.
Suyin, the main character, is at her job transcribing handwritten medical records using a typewriter when her sick friend, Maya, comes to visit.  She has terminal tuberculosis. Maya describes an experience.
“As I walked here” said she, “something which had not happened before occurred to me.  Halfway up the road I sat under a tree to rest, under a candlenut tree.  Facing it, looking at the straight gray silver trunk, ringed and speckled with a frolic of young days, at the dappled white-flecked leaves, plumaged-mottled birds poised for the gust of light, under the cool green shadows spread over me, and the slanting sunlight falling upon my hand, I became a tree.
You can search and find pictures of candlenut trees of Hong Kong as well as other places.  This is startling beautiful language presaging and amazing passage.  Maya describe existence as a tree.
Insidious and bone-deep the transubstantiation; an enchanted dupe I sat, my heart the tree heart, coursing sweet green sap, sweet fire within my veins, I knew its secret name, its drift of years; I felt my thick mindless roots clutch the live earth, digging through earth and stone groping for water.  I heard each leaf grow out, an unfurling pennant in strong search of that other rain, the light.  I strained my branches, insinuating into emptiness the flourish of my life.  I knew the self-absorption of the tree, the peace acquired at last, its contemplation of the day. I sat on without motion, tree basking in the sun, and all previous awareness a half-remembered dream.
This captivates me. I don't know what it means.  It does not seem like something the author could have completely made up.  She must be conveying to us something she remembers.   I wonder if this identification with trees or other entities is something that happens with some people?
“Suddenly there was a wrench, I coughed, and the division fell between the substance of the tree and myself.  I was I and the candlenut tree stood above, green and dappled with flakes of sun, remote, unknown. I came here.”
Now that this is posted, I plan to come back to it and ponder it from time to time.  It must mean something.

Should also mention that a movie was made of this book called "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing" in 1955.  I was a little tyke but remember the Oscar winning song by the same name, a lush romantic memorable piece that attracted me to the book in the first place years later. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

A Goethe Quote on the Stages of Life

Maxim #390 from "Maxims and Reflections" by Goethe 
“Every age of man has its own appropriate philosophy. The child appears as a realist; for he finds himself as much convinced of the existence of pears and apples as of his own.  The youth, overwhelmed by inner passions, must observe himself, feel his way forward; he is transformed into an idealist.  On the other hand, the man has every reason for becoming a skeptic; he does well to doubt whether the means he has chosen for the purpose is indeed the right one.  Before acting, in acting, he has every reason for keeping his intelligence mobile, so that he need not subsequently be sorry for having made the wrong choice.  The old man, however, will always espouse mysticism. He sees that so much seems to depend on chance:  the irrational is successful, the rational fails, fortune and misfortune unexpectedly coincide; so it is, so it was, and old age finds comfort in Him who is, who was, and also who will be.“
I originally read this in the summer of 1971 in “First German Reader: A Beginner's Dual-Language Book” ed. by H. Steinhauer. Published 1964. Library of Congress Number 64-7673. page 89-90.  Today, I learned that the quote derives from  maxim #390 from “The Maxims and Reflections” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe which he published in 1794.

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