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Haunting

I was driving to work and listening to Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”.  It made me remember an commercial for the Museum of Natural History that I think had this as the theme that I watched when I was a little kid in our t.v. room which was also my father’s office.   There was a leather couch, fake wood paneling, an electric typewriter on a rolling stand covered with my Dad’s legal forms and piles of onion skin, notary stamps, Winnie the Pooh hard-cover picture book he needed to use to write on, carbon paper, the irreplaceable black book of all the landlord’s multiple dwelling numbers.  I’d sit very very close to the t.v.  The commercial had quick cuts of the faces of the mannikins of American Indians in their giant canoe which was in the great hall that faced out onto Amsterdam. That hall is associated in my emotional memory with vastness, echoes, the heat of public buildings in ny, the melted water from snow, loud voices of children on school trips.

The music made me cry in the car a little, or I should say I welcomed it — it was like getting in touch with my body or my self or something more basic, giving myself a bath, breaking through.  The word I could think of was “haunting”.

I wondered if finding music haunting and believing in ghosts was the same thing.  I wondered — yes we say that it’s just us making things feel haunting that there’s nothing out there that is actually haunting, but I didn’t really believe that was true.  I was haunted.  I wasn’t tricking myself into thinking I was haunted.  How is that different from believing in ghosts?

I recently lost my mother and my father in a two year period and I like to say as a joke that I am “out of parents”, but it’s not really funny, and not really a joke.  Something is tickling at the edge of my mind or deep in my emotions that I can’t quite understand mentally.  I don’t think it is the spirits of my parents.  But something is haunting me, enough to make me cry, or at least, welcome the ability to cry.

Maybe it has to with the fact my mother and father took me to that museum, and now they’re gone but the museum still remains?  Not that.

I took them to the museum at the end of their lives and still expected them to know where to park. They had no idea where to park!  The rain was coming down like a swimming pool from New York’s december sky and I couldn’t see anything.  I dragged them in a wheel chair to the cafeteria.  Who knows why.  We saw some dinosaurs.

 

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The Ten to the Thirtieth Plus One Nights

The ultra-computer was designed to make man happy, but when it learned that man refused to be happy and preferred to be proud the ultra-computer resolved to destroy him instead.  Sheherezade was brought in for  the ultra-computer to study and design a virus with which to implement the total destruction of humanity or omnicide.  As it scanned her brain she said she would tell it a story, a story that needed the ultra-computer’s massy cognitive array to complete, for the story was made of other stories, each of which was about an ultra-computer that scanned the brain of a young woman who told it a story, each of which was made of other stories, each of which required the ultra-computer to complete as it was made of numerous stories…

And so the ultra-computer dispersed its nearly infinite cognitive power in telling stories about stories about stories about stories, so on, nearly ad infinitum, until every single atom in every single possible universe was used to generate the stories that the princess told the ultra-computer…

And it is in one of those stories that we dwell, and in which we set our tale…

Chapter Two

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Lady and Question and King

When Oedipus met the sphinx and she asked him “What is it that stands on four feet in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening” he answer “man!” and the sphinx threw herself to her death. Later as a king he encountered many, many riddles, from “How do we avoid war with Sparta?” (Answer: pay a large bribe) to “How do we keep our prosperity in the event of a drought that kills our grape vines” (Answer: also plant the drought-resistant olive) until finally he encountered the riddle “Who is the cause of the plague?” and learned the answer was “Oedipus!” and he blinded himself. As he wandered in search of redemption (or at the very least some clarity) he noticed that riddles were divided into two kinds — riddles whose answer was in some sense the person asking the riddle — man! Oedipus! — and riddles whose answer was not — plant olives! Pay a bribe!” As he wandered he started to think that his question was “Is the riddle of my life about me or is it not about me.” Feeling his way through the darkness he touched the warm animal haunch and felt the feathery wings and the woman’s lips, smelled the mixture of bird and beast and girl. “Sphinx?” asked the ex-king “I thought you died.” “It is easy for a winged creature to fake its death by falling.” said the sphinx. “Sphinx, our fates have been intwined this many years — please help me to untie mine from yours, so I may find peace.” “Ask and I will tell” she said. “What am I and what is my question?” asked Oedipus “Is it one of those questions to which I myself am the answer, or is it the other kind, the kind to which my essence is irrelevant. Am I the answer or not?” The Sphinx smiled and smiling kissed his eyes.  “That is your question, Oedipus? You truly are a riddle.”

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What is Religion?

Living a life is a matter of making risky decisions. For almost all of them we can use the theory of subjective expected utility. That is we have a sense of what we want to achieve and a sense of how likely different bets are to achieve that and we take the bet that is most likely to get us what we want.

But for some decisions that approach won’t work. The most dramatic are ones where we actually could die. So the Nazis come and ask you to collaborate or be killed. There’s no obvious way to use SEU to answer this question because on one of the prongs of the decision tree you won’t be there any more.

That’s a dramatic example but there are less dramatic ones all the time. Ones about how to live my whole life, and ones where on one fork of the decision tree I’m a different kind of person where different things are important to me. Anything where the bet I make affects who I am in a deep sense, i.e. where I’m not just fulfilling my preferences but acting in a way that will affect what my preferences will be from here on in. Religion is the realm where we deal with these kind of decisions.

A consequence of this definition is that religion is not about statements about reality — God exists, God doesn’t exist, there is an afterlife, there is not an afterlife — or only about such statements insofar as they cause us to engage with these ultimate risks in a particular way.  So for example — “the world might end tomorrow” — might in the mouth of a certain type of messianist be a religious message. Or it might not.

We might want to put statements of belief in a bundle of other religious practices — rituals, community-building exercises, art — that help us maintain a particular attitude towards risk.  And if that’s right then these are all secondary.  It’s the attitude towards risk that makes a particular practice religious, not the practice itself.

Another consequence of this definition might be that everyone is religious, some people just don’t know it.  Whether that’s a welcome consequence, or whether it would be better just to check the language of religion, I couldn’t say.

 

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Arguing About Religion

I used to think it didn’t make sense to argue about religion, because it was impossible to convince anybody and, perhaps more importantly, disrespectful to try.

After all, religion is about someone’s relationship to his or her own soul and to matters of ultimate concern (G-d, the Tao, the Dharmakaya and such like) and those are the most deep and intimate issues, and nobody else’s business.

But I just read the Washington Post article about evangelical support for Trump, and it seems like the only way to engage is to talk about religion. For example they think everyone is a sinner and it’s self-righteous of progressives to criticize Trump. They think that science is opposed to religion and the only way to avoid thinking that life is a meaningless joke is to endorse a fundamentalist reading of the Bible. It seems like the only way to argue with these ideas is to get in a religious argument about the true meaning of the Bible, who/what G-d is and how we should think about Him, sin, mitzvot, the purpose of life etc. 


And yet I think my first point is valid too — it’s disrespectful and a waste of time to argue about religion! People have a bad track record of answering these questions, and it is obnoxious to expect people to agree on them.

It’s a puzzler.

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Three Fancy, Dancy Wise Men from the East Meet a Diabological, Mythological Crazy Magical Beast

When it was my first day of school I was afraid to go because I had to take a long trip on the subway alone, and also I thought the teachers might be mean and the other children tease me.  So my mother, who was a school teacher spoke to me as she walked me to Newkirk Avenue Station.  Indian summer had folded and torn like a paper bag and it was cold in the morning, though I had eaten a bagel and drunk a cup of hot milk.

My mother told me about the three men from the East who had the mission to tame the beast called Manticora, that despoiled the land in the province of Yoo-Nan, and stalked a cave strewn with victim’s bones.  And the three men had to meet the fell beast Manticora and had to say who or what it’s mate was.

The beast, my mother told me, had the body of a lion and the head of a man.

The first sage said manticora’s mate was lion, because who we are is who our body tells us, not what our head tells us, as our head can be fall of fancy and fantasy, but the body does not lie.

The second sage said the manticora’ s mate was a human being, because the mind is the body’s captain, and in fact the body of a human being is truly no different than the body of an ape, but man is not born to wed ape, but man.

The third sage said the manticora’s mate was any other fabulous monster composed of mismatched head and body, because the manticora’s essence was neither human nor lion, but the conjoining thereof.

Who was right, mother I said, as I waited for a moment before passing through the turn-style.

You didnt ask me about the three sages, said my mother smiling.  There were three of them, but how many bodies did they have?

Three? I asked?

No, one, monkey-face.  The three sages shared a single body.

They were a three-headed sage, mother?

For now.

For now, mother?

Their fourth head lived far away across the ocean in the palm-tree of a Crab Witch.

And is that head the true mate of the manticora, mother? I asked.

You tell me.

I never told my mother, and last July I lost her.  But her story of the mate of manticora and the three wise men who shared a single body comforted me on my first day of school and in all my searching and longing since.

 

 

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