Monthly Archives: March 2014

Newsletter – March 2014













   You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
   you have a right to be here.
   And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.



March Greetings, Dear Friends…

Here in Coromandel, New Zealand, our March (September in the northern hemisphere) both came in and is going out like a lamb. I sympathize greatly with those of you who, like my Vermont relatives, are enduring endless winter to be followed by endless mud season. But, never mind, they too shall pass.

My Musings this month take a bit of a personal turn because of my experience recently with a very talented and bright wwoofer (that’s an acronym for ‘Willing Workers On Organic Farms’ which is how Mana Retreat Center mainly staffs itself). Catherine Cooper is a very accomplished writer whose first book, The Western Home, will be published next month. She also has much experience working with the Canadian Film Board and has done two recent radio shows with old Father William. The second was initiated and controlled by her as she insisted on reversing roles and interviewing me. She is not only an artist but a forceful director and manager as well.

Catherine’s second show, as the first, was a delight (you can download it here until April 15 if you’re interested), but, after she listened to it, she whined, “Oh, my voice is horrific!” Since I had just welcomed her to do a second show, you can understand how I took this rather personally, and responded she was being “ridiculous” – and that “people who got to do return engagements were not ‘horrific’ on performing dimensions”. She just whined more about how her voice had always been ‘horrific’ so I stopped listening and went about more interesting parts of my life.

But the next morning I woke thinking about how common it is for us to feel we are undesirable in many ways when reality simply doesn’t support such self-denigration. And that brought back memories of times I had suffered from the same error and instances when I had received help that enabled me to move beyond some obsolete beliefs about myself. I’m going to share a few of my stories with you and Catherine in hopes you may find them of such use in your own moving beyond, too…

I was raised Catholic in the 1940s and 50s, and there is a great deal of truth to the saying, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” Even though I’ve not participated in organized religion since 1955, this 75 year old man still has indelible imprints of that Catholic boy. The term “Recovering” applies as much to religious upbringing as to alcohol consumption. One of the Catholic teachings that will never be erased from this boy’s mind is “Mea Culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa”; this translates roughly as, “It’s my fault, it’s my fault, it’s totally my fault.” Not a bad preparation for a lifetime of believing in whatever the circumstance, any fault was my fault – that I must be wrong and “horrific’ in ways I could not even glimpse.”

The result of this conditioning was that whenever there was a circumstance in which someone seemed to feel something was amiss, I immediately knew it must be my fault, and that I needed to atone for whatever it was I had done or not done. And much of the time this meant blindly guessing what that was or, even worse, thinking I knew and deserved the punishment coming.

In 1969 a friend and teacher named Don Polkinghorn gave me my first release from this imprisonment. Don was leading a personal development group process I was part of, and I‘d felt unapproved of by someone during the day. I was telling Don about this as a way to see if I could get him to absolve me of whatever sin I had committed. He listened carefully until my tale was finished. Then he looked at me as if what I’d said puzzled him deeply and said, “How strange! When someone doesn’t want to know me, I just think they’re missing something and it’s their loss, not mine.”

I remember being struck dumb, as though this very wise and credible person had just told me that up was down! I’d never before had the thought that someone’s rejection of me could possibly be their problem and not mine!

What an eye-opener that was! And it was that experience that helped me start to live the simple wisdom of ‘Transactional Analysis’ that was in vogue at that time. In his book “I’m OK, You’re OK”, Thomas A. Harrison made popular a simple but powerful framework for noting your psychological health. Using the four variations of his book’s title, Harrison made dramatically clear that only the first offers a possibility of healthy life…

   – When we can ‘recover’ sufficiently from our early destructive imprintings to understand, accept and believe that I’M OK AND YOU’RE OK, we can live lives relatively free from guilt and the resentful hatred that accompanies it;

   – If we’re caught in the pathological arrogance of I’M OK BUT YOU’RE NOT OK, we can eventually take this to the extreme of murder because, believing our pain is caused by you, we are clearly entitled to rid the world of your filthy self;

   – More likely for most of us is the sickness of I’M NOT OK BUT YOU’RE OK which in its extreme will resort to suicide to rid the world of our filthy self;

   – And worst of all four is to be crippled in the belief that I’M NOT OK AND YOU’RE NOT OK because that psychopathology will drive us to ridding the world of you, me and everything else.

So to my new friend, Catherine, and everyone else, I recommend the wisdom of Don Polkinghorn, Thomas Harrison and Max Ehrmann…


“Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

   “Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

   “Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.

   “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

   “Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.”

Much love, FW

PS: Since I’ve had so much fun using Catherine Cooper’s “I’M NOT OKAYNESS” as the source for these Musings, I’ll plug her new book once more. I found THE WESTERN HOME absolutely engaging! Here’s Catherine’s synopsis of this very unusual work…

   “The word nostalgia comes from two Greek roots—nostos, meaning the return home, and algos, meaning pain or longing. The Western Home tells the story of the folk song “Home on the Range” through tales about characters seeking to integrate their experiences of upheaval and alienation into meaning and identity – to transform their longing into belonging, their pain into understanding – by retreat to the safety of an ideal. “Home on the Range” is the protagonist of The Western Home, and the supporting characters are the people who helped shape its destiny by writing, rewriting, singing, recording, claiming and disowning it. Each story in the collection takes place in a different decade following the song’s composition as a poem in 1872. Beginning with the lonely, alcoholic pioneer who wrote the poem and concluding with a disaffected teenager working in a rural Kansas tourist kiosk, this collection explores themes of collective memory, collective forgetting, and the loss that is implied in both. Whether they are seeking out ideal landscapes, pursuing invincible beliefs or trying to make meaning out of chaos, the characters in these stories are all trying find a way home.” 




 “That includes all you guys over there near the bar,” she added, as she waited for the crowd to quiet down at the Women in Film reception on Friday evening. The boys did as the Dame commanded.

Ms. Mirren was out and about on the party circuit on Friday – she’d also made a brief appearance at the British film reception beforehand – and was this year’s co-host of the annual event, held at Fig & Olive restaurant. It spotlights female Oscar nominees – each wears a fragrant white gardenia corsage – and also serves as a booster moment to reverse the continued gender disparity in the industry.

As Cathy Schulman, president of Women in Film, noted, “There are only 41 women who have directed the last 1,100 top films.”

If Ms. Mirren were in charge of more of them, that would probably be different. Actually, if Ms. Mirren was in charge of anything at all, the Bagger would gladly follow suit.

“I don’t often wish I’m younger, because I think it’s pretty cool to be old,” she said from the stage. “What I love most about being old(-er) is that lovely, I don’t give a” — let’s say, hoot –“kind of thing,” she continued, using a stronger word. “All you young things, don’t be afraid about being older because it’s” hooting “great.”

The crowd cheered. That included nominees like June Squibb (another of the don’t-give-a-hoot variety) and Lupita Nyong’o, making the rounds with her mother, Dorothy, and best friend, Ben Kahn, and personalities like Melanie Brown, better known as Scary Spice of the Spice Girls.

“But tonight, looking at this audience, I do wish I was about 40 years younger,” Ms. Mirren continued.

“It’s not that I want to have a better body or, you know, remember my husband’s name – remind me? Taylor, thank you, Taylor Hackford – or be able to dance all night or any of those things,” she said. “I’m just so excited about what happens next.”

When she started out in the business, she said, “you walked onto a film set and it was all men. Really it was like walking into a locker room of an N.F.L. team. It was a very, very male atmosphere. Maybe there were one or two women on the set. And my God, how much things have changed. I’ve witnessed that change.”

She’s now worked with female cinematographers, first assistant directors, boom operators and more. “I just salute those women who’ve made that change happen — the women who stood there 20-odd years ago and said, ‘I can do that.’ You know? ‘I can do that!’ And they have made the world such that the younger girls amongst us are looking at you guys going, ‘Well, if she can do it, then I can do it.’”

“That’s why I want to live another 40 years,” she concluded, “because I want to see what further changes are coming. It’s coming, women and girls, it’s coming! Enjoy it. And have a drink.”




These came, a gift out of the past, from a friend I knew 40+ years ago when I was fortunate enough to teach where she was learning. She was Jeanie Carroll to me then, and her mom, Loretta, worked at the school, too. I asked Jean if I could publish some of her work here, and sent her one of my wife Donna’s recent poems. Being Jean, this is email I got back…

   “Oh, thank you so much for sharing Donna’s lovely, evocative, celebratory piece.  How delicious that it is part of her 60-day party!

   “I’m gonna try to do this ‘Bill’ thing, but – well, shoot.  You met my parents.  I rest my case!  However – I will try.  I can see that it would be a bit disheartening to have a 70-year-old scrabbling along behind, calling, in a reedy voice, “Mr. Idol!  Mr. Idol…“

I hope you’ll enjoy Jean’s poetry as much as old FW is – if you’d like to send her a note, her email is


Stargazing  (For Mom)

I asked my mother once, when very young,
Why children fear the dark.  She paused, arrested,
Set down the iron with care upon its base,
And stepped back from the board, by which I knew
That what came next had weight.  I should attend
With care.  Her deafness daily lent my life
Dimensions hearing folk could only envy,
For while she steered, without apparent effort
Faultlessly the hazardous straits of sound,
Her hands had never unlearned their silent speech
She answered with each atom in her body,
Expressive as a dancer.  Delight, trailing
Like powdered gold from long, fluttering fingers,
Infused the room, nodding to passing dust motes.
“Oh,” she breathed, her voice pitched to enchant,
“They’ve never seen what’s really there. Black velvet,
With diamonds scattered everywhere.  That’s all.”
She gazed with pleasure up to our dark blue ceiling,
Inviting me to join her contemplation
Of constellations only we perceived.



 For me, it’s about the connections,
     the consociate, elliptical loops,
  their unsealed ends stretching like eyeless mouths
      open to swallow.

    The infant or the lover at the breast,
       is equally ecstasy,
           equally invader –
      (the skin is indiscriminate, you see,
              and pure in its intentions.)
  But once the infant’s mouth has found the milk,
    the lover’s hand has sealed the leaping flesh,
       where is the self?  An open-ended circle,
            seeking, seeking.



the snake took the bus to eden, wanting
in his supple way, to be inconspicuous.
his reasoning was sound. if they’d had time
to talk about the apple in advance,
to consider temptation – well, they’d have recalled
The Voice, and thought it over. no telling the outcome.

 he thought it best to catch them by surprise, and did,
dropping with insouciance from a branch,
grinning, charming, candidly subversive.
he actually knew he’d won when eve blushed
as he leered at her.
and that was before she’d even taken the bait.
easy, he thought, and nudged her hand with his blunt head,
(twining a carelessly thoughtful coil
about her wrist when she shivered and drew back),
toward the fruit.

and then, it was all as it had been, over and over.
she giggled as the juice stained her lips, adam
stopped fiddling nervously with fig leaves,
the results of Original Incest litter the earth.

the snake slipped out of the garden,
a certain jauntiness perceptible in his slither,
and caught the next bus somewhere.

lust and doubt remained, flourishing, despite
he worthy, wordy, educated tracts,
written to suggest that godhead is
best served by misery; sackcloth spectacles.

laughter goes almost everywhere.


Tough Love  

 If hearts were sold in slices, neatly placed
     on poreless styrofoam, under plasticine,
    like liver, calamari, organ meats,
      then we would see their tough and sinewy fibre,
    and know how necessary is the mallet,
      the back of the knife-blade pounding against the
    creating blood-filled ruts in muscled tissue –
      small, salted intersections that tenderize.




Since ancient times, the elusive concept of wisdom has figured prominently in philosophical and religious texts. The question remains compelling: What is wisdom, and how does it play out in individual lives? Most psychologists agree that if you define wisdom as maintaining positive well-being and kindness in the face of challenges, it is one of the most important qualities one can possess to age successfully — and to face physical decline and death.

Vivian Clayton, a geriatric neuropsychologist in Orinda, Calif., developed a definition of wisdom in the 1970s, when she was a graduate student, that has served as a foundation for research on the subject ever since. After scouring ancient texts for evocations of wisdom, she found that most people described as wise were decision makers. So she asked a group of law students, law professors and retired judges to name the characteristics of a wise person. Based on an analysis of their answers, she determined that wisdom consists of three key components:

   – Cognition;

   – Reflection;

   – Compassion.

Unfortunately, research shows that cognitive functioning slows as people age. But speed isn’t everything. A recent study in Topics in Cognitive Science pointed out that older people have much more information in their brains than younger ones, so retrieving it naturally takes longer. And the quality of the information in the older brain is more nuanced. While younger people were faster in tests of cognitive performance, older people showed “greater sensitivity to fine-grained differences,” the study found.

It stands to reason that the more information people have in their brains, the more they can detect familiar patterns. Elkhonon Goldberg, a neuroscientist in New York and author of “The Wisdom Paradox,” says that “cognitive templates” develop in the older brain based on pattern recognition, and that these can form the basis for wise behavior and decisions.

According to Dr. Clayton, one must take time to gain insights and perspectives from one’s cognitive knowledge to be wise (the reflective dimension). Then one can use those insights to understand and help others (the compassionate dimension).

Working from Dr. Clayton’s framework, Monika Ardelt, an associate sociology professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, felt a need to expand on studies of old age because of research showing that satisfaction late in life consists of things like maintaining physical and mental health, volunteering and having positive relationships with others. But this isn’t always possible if the body breaks down, if social roles are diminished and if people suffer major losses. “So these people cannot age successfully? They have to give up?” she recalled asking herself.

Wisdom, she has found, is the ace in the hole that can help even severely impaired people find meaning, contentment and acceptance in later life.

She developed a scale consisting of 39 questions aimed at measuring three dimensions of wisdom. People responding to statements on Professor Ardelt’s wisdom scale — things like “a problem has little attraction for me if I don’t think it has a solution,” or “I can be comfortable with all kinds of people” and “I’m easily irritated by people who argue with me” — were not told they were being measured for wisdom. Respondents later answered questions about hypothetical challenges and crises, and those who showed evidence of high wisdom were also more likely to have better coping skills, Professor Ardelt found. In general, for example, they said they would be more active than passive about dealing with hardship.

An impediment to wisdom is thinking, “I can’t stand who I am now because I’m not who I used to be,” said Isabella S. Bick, a psychotherapist who, at 81, still practices part time out of her home in Sharon, Conn. She has aging clients who are upset by a perceived worsening of their looks, their sexual performance, their physical abilities, their memory. For them, as for herself, an acceptance of aging is necessary for growth, but “it’s not a resigned acceptance; it’s an embracing acceptance,” she said.

“Wise people are able to accept reality as it is, with equanimity,” Professor Ardelt said. Her research shows that when people in nursing homes or with a terminal illness score high on her wisdom scale, they also report a greater sense of well-being. “If things are really bad, it’s good to be wise,” she said.

The Berlin Wisdom Project, a research effort begun in the 1980s that sought to define wisdom by studying ancient and modern texts, called it “an expert knowledge system concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life.” A co-founder of the project, Ursula M. Staudinger, went on to distinguish between general wisdom, the kind that involves understanding life from an observer’s point of view (for example, as an advice giver), and personal wisdom, which involves deep insight into one’s own life.

True personal wisdom involves five elements, said Professor Staudinger, now a life span psychologist and professor at Columbia University. They are:

   – Self-insight;

   – Ability to demonstrate personal growth;

   – Self-awareness in terms of your historical era and your family history;

   – Understanding that priorities and values, including your own, are not absolute;

   – Awareness of life’s ambiguities.

Wisdom in this sense is extremely rare, Professor Staudinger said, and research has shown that it actually declines in the final decades. As a coping strategy, it is better to be positive about life when you are older, she said, and the older people skew that way. They are more likely to look back on their lives and say that the events that occurred were for the best; a wise person would fully acknowledge mistakes and losses, and still try to improve.

True wisdom involves recognizing the negative both within and outside ourselves and trying to learn from it, she said.

Modern definitions of wisdom tend to stress kindness — even if it’s not on the order of Buddha, Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. Wisdom is characterized by a “reduction in self-centeredness,” Professor Ardelt said. Wise people try to understand situations from multiple perspectives, not just their own, and they show tolerance as a result.

“There’s evidence that people who rank high in neuroticism are unlikely to be wise,” said Laura L. Carstensen, a psychology professor and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity in California. “They see things in a self-centered and negative way and so they fail to benefit emotionally from experience, even though they may be very intelligent.”

Professor Carstensen does not consider herself a wisdom researcher because “there’s a piece of me that thinks it’s not useful to use a term that’s been around for 1,000 years.” Some researchers are skeptical about testing for such an amorphous trait as wisdom.

But Professor Carstensen does study emotional regulation, and says that is a key component of wisdom.

If you are wise, she said, “You’re not only regulating your emotional state, you’re also attending to another person’s emotional state.” She added: “You’re not focusing so much on what you need and deserve, but on what you can contribute.”

Daniel Goleman, author of “Focus” and “Emotional Intelligence,” said, “One aspect of wisdom is having a very wide horizon which doesn’t center on ourselves,” or even on our group or organization.

He said an important sign of wisdom was “generativity,” a term used by the psychologist Erik Erikson, who developed an influential theory on stages of the human life span. Generativity means giving back without needing anything in return, Dr. Goleman said. The form of giving back could be creative, social, personal or financial, and “the wisest people do that in a way that doesn’t see their lifetime as limiting when this might happen,” he said.

Dr. Goleman interviewed Erikson, along with his wife, Joan, in the late 1980s, when both were in their 80s. Erikson’s theory of human development had initially included eight stages, from infancy to old age. When the Eriksons themselves reached old age, though, they found a need to add a ninth stage of development, one in which wisdom plays a crucial role. “They depict an old age in which one has enough conviction in one’s own completeness to ward off the despair that gradual physical disintegration can too easily bring,” Dr. Goleman wrote in The Times.

In the final years of life, “Even the simple activities of daily living may present difficulty and conflict,” Joan Erikson wrote in an expanded version of her husband’s book, “The Life Cycle Completed.” “No wonder elders become tired and often depressed.” The book adds: “To face down despair with faith and appropriate humility is perhaps the wisest course.”

“One must join in the process of adaptation. With whatever tact and wisdom we can muster, disabilities must be accepted with lightness and humor.”

Whatever the nature of one’s limitations, simplifying one’s life is also a sign of wisdom, Dr. Clayton said, for example, by giving your things away while you are still alive. Some people have trouble with the idea of settling for less — “they’ve gotten so used to the game of acquiring more,” she said.

Settling for less and simplifying is not the same as giving up. In fact, when older people lack challenges, self-absorption and stagnation may take over, the Eriksons said. The key is to set goals that match one’s current capacities.

Continuing education can be an important way to cultivate wisdom in the later years, researchers say, for one thing because it combats isolation. But training in practical skills may be less useful for older people than courses in the humanities that help people make sense of their lives, Professor Ardelt says. She and other researchers recommend classes in guided autobiography, or life review, as a way of strengthening wisdom. In guided autobiography, students write and share their life stories with the help of a trained instructor.

Dr. Clayton says there’s a point in life when a fundamental shift occurs, and people start thinking about how much time they have left rather than how long they have lived. Reflecting on the meaning and structure of their lives, she said, can help people thrive after the balance shifts and there is much less time left than has gone before.





Nathan Phelps, the estranged atheist son of anti-gay Kansas pastor Fred Phelps who died Wednesday (March 19), is asking people to look beyond his father’s legacy of hate.

“I ask this of everyone,” the younger Phelps said in a statement issued Thursday about his father’s death at age 84. “Let his death mean something. Let every mention of his name and of his church be a constant reminder of the tremendous good we are all capable of doing in our communities.”

The younger Phelps, who is 55 and goes by Nate, is one of four of Fred Phelps’ 13 children who renounced their father’s activities, which included picketing the funerals of veterans, AIDS victims and celebrities and left his Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. The church of approximately 40 members of the Phelps clan is best known for its public protests and colorful signs declaring, “God hates fags.”

“Unfortunately, Fred’s ideas have not died with him, but live on,” Nate Phelps’ statement reads. “Not just among the members of Westboro Baptist Church, but among the many communities and small minds that refuse to recognize the equality and humanity of our brothers and sisters on this small planet we share.”

He says he will mourn his father, “not for the man he was, but for the man he could have been.”

The church has declined most media requests for comment, and in a blog post sought to put Phelps’ death in perspective: “God forbid if every little soul at the Westboro Baptist Church were to die at this instant, or to turn from serving the true and living God, it would not change one thing about the judgments of God that await this deeply corrupted nation and world.”

Nate Phelps moved far from his father’s theology, which holds that God is punishing the United States because of its tolerance of homosexuality. In fact, the younger Phelps has become an outspoken supporter of gay rights.

He left the Westboro compound where he was raised on his 18th birthday. In a 2010 interview, the younger Phelps said his father beat his wife and his children with his fists, a leather barber strap, or the wooden handle of a mattock, a tool like an ax. His sister, Shirley Phelps-Roper, accused her brother of trying to gin up publicity for a book, and said her church appreciated the attention he brought them.

Though he explored other forms of Christianity, Phelps eventually became an atheist. He is now the executive director of the Centre for Inquiry in Calgary, Canada, a skeptic organization. He issued his statement through the group Recovering from Religion, which assists people leaving abusive faith situations and where Nate Phelps is a member of the board.

“Even more, I mourn the ongoing injustices against the LGBT community, the unfortunate target of his 23-year campaign of hate,” the statement reads. “His life impacted many outside the walls of the WBC compound, uniting us across all spectrums of orientation and belief as we realized our strength lies in our commonalities, and not our differences.”

Nate Phelps announced that his father was near death in a Facebook post on March 16. He did not see his father before his death.

“My father was a man of action,” his statement concludes, “and I implore us all to embrace that small portion of his faulty legacy by doing the same.”




Yesterday I was at my local Kroger buying a large bag of Purina dog chow for my loyal pet, Jake, the Wonder Dog and was in the check-out line when a woman behind me asked if I had a dog.

What did she think I had? An elephant? 

So because I’m retired and have little to do, on impulse I told her that no, I didn’t have a dog, I was starting the Purina Diet again. I added that I probably shouldn’t, because I ended up in the hospital last time, but that I’d lost 50 pounds before I awakened in an intensive care ward with tubes coming out of most of my orifices and IVs in both arms.

I told her that it was essentially a Perfect Diet and that the way that it works is, to load your pants pockets with Purina Nuggets and simply eat one or two every time you feel hungry. The food is nutritionally complete so it works well and I was going to try it again. (I have to mention here that practically everyone in line was now enthralled with my story.)

Horrified, she asked if I ended up in intensive care, because the dog food poisoned me. I told her no, I stopped to Pee on a Fire Hydrant and a car hit me. 

I thought the guy behind her was going to have a heart attack he was laughing so hard.

Kroger won’t let me shop there anymore. Better watch what you ask retired people. They have all the time in the World to think of crazy things to say.




Some students of science and consciousness believe that we don’t directly experience reality, we only perceive it with the senses of our central nervous system (seeing, hearing, touching and so forth). Then we interpret that perceived reality with our minds, based on our past experience and what we’ve learned from the experience of others. We sometimes communicate that interpretation to others, and it becomes a part of their experience. Finally, our consciousness keeps watch over this whole process. All of these steps are subject to error in both perception and interpretation, so our individual understandings of reality may be quite different. At this point, some of you are probably saying to yourself “But my mind doesn’t work like that.” And, that’s my point precisely.

Before we talk more directly about science and religion, let me introduce some terminology that you might hear in these lectures:

EPISTEMOLOGY – This is a 4-bit word that translates into “How do we know what we think we know?”

ABSOLUTISM – There is a real world out there and with a little bit of effort we can get real knowledge of that world. Taken to an extreme, absolutism becomes materialism or rationalism, meaning that if you get enough data, you can explain everything, including the future. This was a science view that developed a lot of supporters in the 18th and 19th centuries, but got shot down by quantum physics in the early 20th century.

RELATIVISM – We can never really know whether what anyone says is true or not, or even if our senses are conveying accurate impressions.

Now we get to the key question of “Whose information do you trust?”

AUTHORITY – You trust the information because you trust the source of the information. That was largely the position of the church until the Protestant Reformation, and it’s still the position of some (should we say many) faith traditions today.

EVIDENCE – You trust no claims unless they are based on evidence. And, of course, the interpretation of the evidence can be a major source of disagreement, even today.

As we might expect, modern science shows a strong preference for evidence, although scientific scholarship has to make some concessions to relativism, that is, can you really believe anything if you’re not sure your senses are conveying accurate impressions. This is particularly true in the field of quantum mechanics. Having said that, most scientists would agree that: first, all stories are not equal, and second, science can and does evolve and improve, which is the basic nature of science.


   – It applies to all modern forms of scholarship

   – Even if we rely on authority, we want assurance of the authority relied on evidence

   – All scientific scholarship make some concessions to relativism

   – All stories are not equal

   – Science can evolve and improve

So with this strong evidence criteria of modern science, where does this leave us with our ancient scriptures? This is not a new problem. St. Augustine addressed this question with great insight in the 4th and 5th centuries as he led the canonization work on the New Testament. He said:

   “Faith and reason are two means of obtaining knowledge; two sources of knowledge statements are the traditional ‘Two Books’:

   Book of Scripture – Let the Bible be a book for you so that you may hear it;

   Book of Reason – Let the sphere of the world be a book for you so that you may see it.

   Both books require careful interpretation. Disagreements arise from poor interpretations.”

Now let’s turn from science to religion for additional guidelines from creative thinkers. Hans Kung, a Catholic theologian and President of the Foundation for a Global Ethic since 1995, observes that:

   “The Bible is not speaking any scientific language of facts, but a metaphorical language. Here, too, it is again true of biblical language that:

   “Images are not to be taken literally; otherwise, faith becomes superstition.

   “But images are not to be rejected simply because they are images; otherwise, reason degenerates into rationalism.

   “Images may not be eliminated or reduced to abstract concepts, but have to be understood correctly: they have their own reason, depict reality with their own logic, and seek to disclose the deep dimension, the overall meaning of reality. So it is important to translate what they mean once more from the framework of the understanding and imagining of that time into the thought of the world today.”

That’s a powerful statement by a theologian about how we ought to view scriptural writings. As a side note with these and other religious and church political views, the Vatican has rescinded Hans Kung’s authority to teach Catholic theology, although he remains an emeritus professor of ecumenical theology at the University of Tubingen in Germany.

On a more basic level, Kung had this to say about the role of religion in world cultures:

   “There is no people without a religion, much less without an ethic; in other words, without quite specific values and criteria. Already in the tribal cultures, there are unwritten norms, not given propositional form, a family, group, tribal ethic handed down in stories, parables, and comparisons which, if they are recognized as ‘good’ – are universalized:

   “A sense of mutuality, justice, generosity;

   “A deep reverence for all life;

   “Particular rules for sexes living together;

   “Great respect for parents, care for children.”

As we’ll see in the presentations on cultural evolution, religion has been a foundational element of human society from the very beginning, and Hans Kung shows us some of the reasons for it.

Having said that, what have been the purposes and practices of religion throughout history, and how many of those are still part of our rituals today? From my research for this program, I started with a list of four purposes and practices of religion and ended with this list of seventeen. I can tell you that it’s been more than a little controversial. I’ve gotten a lot of help and input on it, and undoubtedly it’s not complete yet. I won’t go over every item on the list, but will give you a summary to read and reflect on:


 1. Plea for protection from the whims of capricious gods

 2.  Ask (pray) for divine help from powerful deities to meet the burdens and challenges of human existence;

 3.  Offer sacrifices of labor, goods, animals and human lives to demonstrate commitment and devotion to deities;

 4.  Exercise power and control over people’s behaviors;

 5.  Build temples and monuments to the deities in sacred places;

 6.  Study, understand and predict the heavenly movements of the sun, moon and stars;

 7. Heal the sick and afflicted; provide food clothing and shelter for the impoverished;

 8. Conduct rituals of burial for the dead and to honor ancestors;

 9. Seek salvation and achieve after-life with the gods;

10. Develop a moral code of conduct and ethical rules of behavior, including peace and justice for all, to help stabilize and sustain societies;

11. Advocate violent or non-violent ways to convert others to your “true” religion;

12. Advocate ecumenical understandings and exchanges between various faith traditions;

13. Celebrate life through festivals of music, dancing, food, drink, rituals and pageants;

14. Make a spiritual connection to an Ultimate Consciousness to help experience life and to achieve personal enlightenment and fulfillment;

15. Celebrate rites of passage from childhood to adulthood;

16. Teach religious and cultural wisdom to the next generation;

17.  Promise or imply “certainty” about life’s meaning in an uncertain world, providing deep comfort as a result.

We’ll be covering much of this material in more detail in the presentations on cultural evolution, but here are a few more thoughts as we begin: 

Items 1-6 were all key elements of the earliest religions, from Sumer and Egypt onward, and Items 1-5 are still very much a part of religion today.

Item 6, study of the movement of heavenly bodies in order to predict the future, is mostly restricted to professional cosmologists, astrophysicists and astronomers today, although when you note the amount of time given to weather forecasts on the daily TV news, it would be hard to argue that weather predictions are not a continuing core concern of society.

Our Celebration Garden and memorial services for loved ones here at Northaven certainly speak to the importance of Item 8.

As for Item 9, we don’t preach and teach salvation and after-life much here at Northaven, but you have to admit that it’s still a core teaching of some contemporary faith traditions.

In my personal view Item 10, a moral code of conduct and ethical rules of behavior, is and has always has been at the heart of what religion means to a society, much as Hans Kung noted earlier.

Items 11-12 deal with the Yin & Yang of faith traditions; that is, conversion of others to your own “true” faith (by whatever means necessary), or the ecumenical view of cooperation among religious faiths in supporting and sustaining the culture.

Item 13 which honors the ancient rituals of celebrating life through song & dance, food & drink, rituals and pageants are a vital part of who we are today.

In Item 14, we recognize the spiritual connections so important in the meditation teachings of Eastern religions which are even now becoming a larger part of religious practice for some at Northaven.

Items 15-16 relate to the ancient practices of marking the passages of our children into adulthood, and teaching the best of our religious and cultural wisdom to the next generation.

Item 17 addresses the role of religions in promoting psychological well-being in an uncertain world.

Again, these ancient rituals continue as core values in our church programs today.

Now, why did I show you a list of things you already know? It’s just a reminder at the outset of this program of the many roles that human society has always looked for religious faith to provide, including some where modern science might alter our understandings and even our practices. Here’s what a Jewish rabbi, Rami Shapiro, said recently about religion:

   “At its best, religion is about personal freedom, social justice, compassion for all living things, and your relationship with God. At its worst, it’s about power and control. Religion is rarely at its best.”

PART #4 will continue in April’s newsletter.

Tom’s interested in thoughts readers might have about this work, and if you do, please send him an email










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Newsletter – February 2014













“Unity, not uniformity must be our aim. We attain unity only through variety. Differences must be integrated, not annihilated, nor absorbed.”

“The very essence and substance of democracy is the creating of the collective will. Without this activity the forms of democracy are useless, and the aims of democracy are always unfulfilled.”



February Greetings, Dear Friends…

I’ve been given a gift by an old friend and client, Tom Timmins. We worked together in the 80’s and 90’s on some very challenging attempts at corporate change and have stayed in touch since. Recently Tom made me aware of a project he and a team had done for the Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, in 2012. It is an inspiring, practical and essential contribution to us and our time.

Why, as a Vermont liberal and NZ resident, am I so excited about the work going on at a ‘mainstream’ church in Texas, one of the US states whose political values I have the most difficulty with?

Because Tom and Northaven’s team are doing a great service by countering the hostile, nasty and combative elements in America whose paramount goal is to keep the population in a dysfunctionally GOOD/BAD, EITHER/OR polarized state. If you’ve ever heard Rush Limbaugh, you know what I mean.

The way to let those with the most raw power to run rampant is by making sure uncorrupted government ceases to function, and this is just what’s been happening in my birthplace for more than thirty years. But when things like…

2. SCIENCE & RELIGION: MYSTERY & MEANING – The next gift of self-integration from Tom, Team and Northaven…

3. A POEM: ‘INTRODUCTIONS’ – A way to live our whole selves…

4. ‘OLD FAT WHITE MEN’ ARE NOT NECESSARILY BIGOTS – A possibility for one of us is a possibility for all of us…

5. THE DANGERS OF CERTAINTY: A LESSON FROM AUSCHWITZ – This is only one part of ‘The Ascent of Man’; the whole is worth seeing!

6. ‘MORAL MARCH’ MAY BE THE START OF SOMETHING HUGE – Reverend Barber’s leadership (like MLK’s) has joined a wide range of perspectives, especially secular and spiritual, in co-creating a better world for all of us…

7. THE OLDER MIND MAY JUST BE A FULLER MIND – And mine certainly likes this rationale for its many petty slippages!

8.  THIS MONTH’S LINKS – Like friends Tom and Ronn, I, too, recommend

…are happening, we are on our way out of the divisive and crippling – in race, gender, age and social status – hole we’ve dug ourselves into. This is why I am excited about the work that is happening at Northaven and so many other power-controlled places these days. I hope you will be, too.

Now I’ll let Tom introduce the SCIENCE & RELIGION: MYSTERY & MEANING program to you…


“Welcome to this introduction to Northaven Church’s adult education program titled SCIENCE & RELIGION: MYSTERY & MEANING. Throughout history, human beings have addressed the religious challenge of finding meaning in all the mysteries of life. While Science can fill in some of our knowledge gaps about the physical world – and it has certainly done that – for every question science has answered, it seems that two more questions arise. So, much of the “mystery’ remains as we struggle together to learn what it all means.

“My name is Tom Timmins and I’m the team leader for this program. I’m a chemical and nuclear engineer by education; a science researcher, long-range planner, and corporate manager by profession; and a student of history and genealogy by avocation. I say to my friends that I’m a financial conservative, a social progressive, a political independent, and a religious seeker.  As for theological education, I’ve read a few books on religion, theology and moral philosophy and I’ve been a member of this church for 44 years, attending adult Sunday school classes, and hearing our pastors’ sermons. Does all that make me qualified to lead such a broad program on science and religion? Probably not! But then, can anyone really qualify as an expert on so much of human experience? In a sense, we’re all amateurs here, trying to do the best we can with the skills and tools available. With that limited apology for the qualifications of all our team at the outset, let’s move on to what this program is about.

“Bob Radford, our resident philosophy professor, wrote this short description of our objective for this series:

‘To provide pointed opportunities for individuals at Northaven and elsewhere to begin to think in new ways about their own spiritual life – and relationship with God – within the context of taking seriously some of the more fundamental findings of the diverse modern sciences, from adolescence to old age, as a significant contribution to their need to find integrity in their outlooks on life.’

“You might note several things about this statement:

   “First, it taps the resources of modern science to help us think in new ways which might help bring integrity to our spiritual life;

   “Second, it’s intended for people of all ages, both within and outside Northaven;

   “Third is a point, subtle but just as important, and that is the notion that our religious and spiritual beliefs are personal and individual, and should be understood and internalized as such. While we can intellectualize and learn together as a group, and exchange interpretations and meanings, ultimately our beliefs are our own and taking ownership in those beliefs is what brings integrity to the way we live our lives.

“How do we begin to talk about meaning and reality? Let’s start here. You are the stuff of stardust.  We are, all of us, the stuff of stardust. Our bodies are made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, iron and other elements born billions of years ago in the explosion of a star, a super-nova, somewhere in the Milky Way galaxy or possibly in a galaxy far away.  Our human bodies are an integral part of the Universe, and quite literally, we are the stuff of stardust.  How’s that for a starter on the meaning of life? Here’s another. Our deep-time distant ancestors were one-cell organisms that somehow converted our star-stuff into life-stuff. We’re not exactly sure how they did it, and it took a very long time to get it done, but we can be forever be thankful that they did, for here we are now, human beings with a heart, a brain, arms and legs, sexual organs, a consciousness and a soul. That’s some accomplishment, however it came about.

“Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician, physicist and philosopher from the 17th century reflected on the meaning of life in these terms:

‘For in fact, what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginnings are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret; he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up. What will he do then, but perceive the appearance of the middle of things, in eternal despair of knowing either their beginning or their end? All things proceed from Nothing, and are borne towards the Infinite. Who will follow these marvelous processes? The Author of these wonders understands them. None other can do so.’

“It is particularly intriguing and ironic that Pascal’s 17th century view on humanity’s role in the middle of things is just where we find ourselves today, caught between the sub-atomic world of quantum mechanics and the cosmological vastness shown by the Hubble Space Telescope.

“I started thinking about this course when I visited the online website of the philanthropic Templeton Foundation ( I saw the scope of their intellectual research, including their sponsorship of church-led courses in the U.S. on Science & Religion and their focus on some of the ‘Big Questions’ that mankind has long tried to answer. Unfortunately, we were too late to get funding sponsorship from Templeton, but took a look at their list of Big Questions, and then we added some of our own.

“Our Science & Religion planning team was organized and we created a team list of ‘Big Questions’. I asked them, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could present a program at Northaven that would address some or all of these questions?’ Note that I very carefully used the word address, not answer the questions, although I believe in the next 13 weeks that we’ll be able to actually answer some of these questions. For others, perhaps all we can hope for is some enlightenment, which isn’t all bad. Here is our list:



   – What are the origins of the universe and humans?

   – How should we understand and teach creation stories and Genesis?


   – How did humans come to be who we are?

   – How, when and why did religions begin?

   – What purposes have religions served in history?


   – Is God a relationship resulting from spiritual experience?

   – How do we share spiritual experiences with others?

   – Do the natural laws exclude the possibility of miracles?


   – What is unknowable about the nature of God? Or is it unknowable?

   – Does Science make belief in God obsolete?

   – Does personification of God (Father in Heaven, Children of God) with human attributes (love, compassion, empathy, judgment, punishment) limit our understanding about God’s nature?

   – Is it still possible to speak of the ‘soul’? If so, how?


   – How will recent advances in science (e.g., quantum theory, Hubble space telescope) impact our understanding of ‘who we are’?

   – How will this new science contribute to our understanding of our relationship with God?

“I should say up front that this series is not designed from any specific religious perspective, but views many historic religions for their impact on humanity’s progress (or lack thereof). You can find plenty of other courses here at Northaven to learn about Christianity and other religions. This series is not about religious education per se, but about the intersection of religion with science and their combined impact on world cultures. Let me emphasize that again, we’ll be looking at the impacts of science and religion on world cultures, and how those cultures evolved under the influence of these two elements.

“Do we expect these viewpoints and discussions to be controversial and to cause disagreements?  I certainly hope so. I can’t imagine anything more boring than to attend 13 weeks of study where we all agreed with everything that was said.

“As we begin to look at these ‘big questions’, a little theological grounding seems in order. Bill Holmes was senior pastor here at Northaven in the late 50s and early 60s, and later became senior minister for 24 years at Metropolitan Memorial UMC in Washington, D.C., Methodism’s national church.  Bill has just completed a new book called ‘The God Mask,’ in which he guides the reader on a literary safari into the sacred, a search for the mystery we call God. He has this to say:

   ‘We are struck by the indispensable role doubt seems to play in theology and science.  While both disciplines are conjectures (hypotheses) based on hints and clues as to what is ‘real’, both rely on doubt to relativize conclusions and guard against absolutism. Theologically, only the fundamentalist interprets ‘truth’ as revealed directly, literally and self evidently. All other theologies consider ‘truth’ as perceived indirectly, symbolically and inevitably subject to interpretation.’

“I think you’ll find this grounding present throughout all our forthcoming lectures on science and religion.”


And so does Father William. Thank you, Tom, Team and Northaven United Church for making this possible for me and many others who weren’t there in 2012. What we humans need most at this time is help finding a universally acceptable synthesis between our rational/logical and intuitive/mystical selves. The work you have done offers a wonderful portal into this, especially in cultures whose people’s disappointment has turned them to cynicism and materialism. It pains me greatly to acknowledge the extent to which my own homeland has succumbed to this disillusionment.

I am going to create a space in this newsletter to present the rest of Tom’s introduction in consumable bites over the next few newsletters. This space will appear as: 2. SCIENCE & RELIGION: MYSTERY & MEANING, and you’ll find the next ‘Bite 2’ below. Tom, thank you very much for the permission to do so!

The reason old FW is so excited about the work Tom and Northaven are doing is because it offers a frame that helps me understand why I choose what I choose to include in these newsletters – openness to seeking out and living what unifies rather than divides…

Much love, FW




“When looking at ancient religious writings, scholars engage in a process called “higher criticism”, which includes an appreciation for myths and images from the past. Myths are sometimes much more powerful than historical reality. In his dialogues with Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell had this to say:

‘Myths are the stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance. We all need to tell our story and to understand our story. We all need to understand death and to cope with death, and we all need help in our passages from birth, to life, and then to death. We all need for life to signify, to touch the eternal, to understand the mysterious, to find out who we are.’

“When we understand some of the biblical stories as myths, I hope we give that term the respect it deserves. Those myths are the spiritual songs of our ancestors telling us over the ages who they were and how they saw themselves in relationship to God.

“We often find ourselves using the word “reality” as some simple idea, but theologians – and more recently, scientists – have understood how complex and uncertain “reality” really is. I found this definition of reality in a book called THE DANCING WU LI MASTERS which is all about quantum physics, if you can believe it. The author says:

Reality is what we take to be true

What we take to be true is what we believe

What we believe is based on our perceptions

What we perceive depends on what we look for

What we look for depends on what we think

What we think depends on what we perceive

What we perceive determines what we believe

What we believe determines what we take to be true

What we take to be true is our Reality

“Now that’s one to make you stop and think! You’ll note that I’ve highlighted the fourth item, ‘What we perceive depends of what we look for’. Our challenge in this SCIENCE & RELIGION series is to expand what we all look for, and perhaps, create a new Reality for each of us. Is that ambitious enough for you?”




“Thank you to Susan Glassmeyer for such a radical, thrilling and simple reorientation to the way we greet each other.

And thanks to GRATEFULNESS.ORG for sharing Susan’s poem in their February Newsletter:

Let’s not say our names
or what we do for a living.
If we are married
and how many times.
Single, gay, or vegan.

Let’s not mention
how far we got in school.
Who we know,
what we’re good at
or no good at, at all.

Let’s not hint at
how much money we have
or how little.
Where we go to church
or that we don’t.
What our Sun Sign is
our Enneagram number
our personality type according to Jung
or whether we’ve ever been
Rolfed, arrested, psychoanalyzed,
or artificially suntanned.

 Let’s refrain, too, from stating any ills.
What meds we’re on
including probiotics.
How many surgeries we’ve survived
or our children’s children’s problems.
And, please—
let’s not mention
who we voted for
in the last election.

Let’s do this instead:
Let’s start by telling
just one small thing
that costs us nothing
but our attention.

Something simple
that nourishes
the soul of our bones.
How it was this morning
stooping to pet the sleeping dog’s muzzle
before going off to work.

walking in the woods
spotting that fungus on the stump
of a maple
so astonishingly orange
it glowed like a lamp.

 Or just now,
the sound
of your
own breath
or sinking
at the end
of this

— Susan Glassmeyer




Texas sports broadcaster Dale Hansen has been praised for his unexpected rant about homophobia and hypocrisy in the NFL.

During a segment that broadcast Monday, the ABC local presenter railed against those who had criticized footballer Michael Sam, who revealed at the weekend that he is gay.

Hansen was moved to highlight the inequalities in the game after critics claimed being openly gay would affect the Missouri lineman’s chance of making it on a NFL team.

In the two-minute broadcast, Celebrating Our Differences, filmed as part of his regular Hansen Unplugged series, the sportscaster pointed out that NFL fans appeared to be more accepting of players who were rapists and killers than those who were gay.

‘You beat a woman and drag her down a flight of stairs, pulling her hair out by the roots? You’re the fourth guy taken in the NFL draft.

‘You kill people while driving drunk? That guy’s welcome. Players caught in hotel rooms with illegal drugs and prostitutes? We know they’re welcome.

‘Players accused of rape and pay the woman to go away? You lie to police, trying to cover up a murder? We’re comfortable with that,’ Hansen said.

He then added: ‘You love another man? Well, now you’ve gone too far.’

‘It wasn’t that long ago when we were being told that black players couldn’t play in “our” games because it would be “uncomfortable”,’ he added.

Hansen has been widely praised for pointing out the hypocrisy of those who had said Sam wouldn’t be welcome in a locker room ‘because it’s a man’s world’.

The video was widely shared on social media, where Hansen has been praised for his ‘jaw-dropping speech’.

Hansen was taken aback by the reaction to his piece, saying he has received more than 700 emails thanking him.

‘I honestly didn’t think it was going to be that big a deal,’ he told the Huffington Post. ‘I write only what I believe – and I simply believe what I wrote. Seems like common sense to me.’

You can also see his interview on ‘Ellen’ here:




As a kid in England, I watched a lot of television. There weren’t any books in our house, not even the Bible. TV was therefore pretty important, omnipresent actually. Of course, most of what it delivered was garbage. But in 1973, the BBC aired an extraordinary documentary series called “The Ascent of Man,” hosted by one Dr. Jacob Bronowski in 13 hour-long episodes. Each episode was what he called an “essay” and involved some exotic and elaborate locations, but the presentation was never flashy and consisted mostly of Dr. Bronowski speaking directly and deliberately to the camera.

A scientist who warned of ‘the assertion of dogma that closes the mind, and turns a nation, a civilization, into a regiment of ghosts — obedient ghosts or tortured ghosts.’

Dr. Bronowski (he was always referred to as “Dr.” and I can’t think of him with any other, more familiar, moniker) died 40 years ago this year, at the relatively young age of 66. He was a Polish-born British mathematician who wrote a number of highly-regarded books on science, but who was equally at home in the world of literature. He wrote his own poetry as well as a book on William Blake.

He was a slight, lively, lovely man. Because it was the early ’70s, some of his fashion choices were bewilderingly pastel, especially his socks, though on some occasions he sported a racy leather box jacket. He often smiled as he spoke, not out of conceit or because he lived in California (which, incidentally, he did, working at the Salk Institute in San Diego), but out of a sheer, greedy joy at explaining what he thought was important. But there was a genuine humility in his demeanor that made him utterly likeable.

“The Ascent of Man” (admittedly a little sexist now – great men abound, but there are apparently few great women), deliberately inverted the title of Darwin’s 1871 book. It was not an account of human biological evolution, but cultural evolution — from the origins of human life in the Rift Valley to the shifts from hunter/gatherer societies, to nomadism and then settlement and civilization, from agriculture and metallurgy to the rise and fall of empires: Assyria, Egypt, Rome.

Bronowski presented everything with great gusto, but with a depth that never sacrificed clarity and which was never condescending. The tone of the programs was rigorous yet permissive, playful yet precise, and always urgent, open and exploratory. I remember in particular the programs on the trial of Galileo, Darwin’s hesitancy about publishing his theory of evolution and the dizzying consequences of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Some of it was difficult for a 13-year-old to understand, but I remember being absolutely riveted.

The ascent of man was secured through scientific creativity. But unlike many of his more glossy and glib contemporary epigones, Dr. Bronowski was never reductive in his commitment to science. Scientific activity was always linked to artistic creation. For Bronowski, science and art were two neighboring mighty rivers that flowed from a common source: the human imagination. Newton and Shakespeare, Darwin and Coleridge, Einstein and Braque: all were interdependent facets of the human mind and constituted what was best and most noble about the human adventure.

For most of the series, Dr. Bronowski’s account of human development was a relentlessly optimistic one. Then, in the 11th episode, called “Knowledge or Certainty,” the mood changed to something more somber. Let me try and recount what has stuck in my memory for all these years.

He began the show with the words, “One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an actual picture of the material world. One achievement of physics in the 20th century has been to show that such an aim is unattainable.” For Dr. Bronowski, there was no absolute knowledge and anyone who claims it — whether a scientist, a politician or a religious believer — opens the door to tragedy. All scientific information is imperfect and we have to treat it with humility. Such, for him, was the human condition.

This is the condition for what we can know, but it is also, crucially, a moral lesson. It is the lesson of 20th-century painting from Cubism onwards, but also that of quantum physics. All we can do is to push deeper and deeper into better approximations of an ever-evasive reality. The goal of complete understanding seems to recede as we approach it.

There is no God’s eye view, Dr. Bronowski insisted, and the people who claim that there is and that they possess it are not just wrong, they are morally pernicious. Errors are inextricably bound up with pursuit of human knowledge, which requires not just mathematical calculation but insight, interpretation and a personal act of judgment for which we are responsible. The emphasis on the moral responsibility of knowledge was essential for all of Dr. Bronowski’s work. The acquisition of knowledge entails a responsibility for the integrity of what we are as ethical creatures.

All knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call ‘a play of tolerance.’

Dr. Bronowski’s 11th essay took him to the ancient university city of Göttingen in Germany, to explain the genesis of Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in the hugely creative milieu that surrounded the physicist Max Born in the 1920s. Dr. Bronowski insisted that the principle of uncertainty was a misnomer, because it gives the impression that in science (and outside of it) we are always uncertain. But this is wrong. Knowledge is precise, but that precision is confined within a certain toleration of uncertainty. Heisenberg’s insight is that the electron is a particle that yields only limited information; its speed and position are confined by the tolerance of Max Planck’s quantum, the basic element of matter.

Dr. Bronowski thought that the uncertainty principle should therefore be called the principle of tolerance. Pursuing knowledge means accepting uncertainty. Heisenberg’s principle has the consequence that no physical events can ultimately be described with absolute certainty or with “zero tolerance,” as it were. The more we know, the less certain we are.

In the everyday world, we do not just accept a lack of ultimate exactitude with a melancholic shrug, but we constantly employ such inexactitude in our relations with other people. Our relations with others also require a principle of tolerance. We encounter other people across a gray area of negotiation and approximation. Such is the business of listening and the back and forth of conversation and social interaction.

For Dr. Bronowski, the moral consequence of knowledge is that we must never judge others on the basis of some absolute, God-like conception of certainty. All knowledge, all information that passes between human beings, can be exchanged only within what we might call “a play of tolerance,” whether in science, literature, politics or religion. As he eloquently put it, “Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”

The relationship between humans and nature and humans and other humans can take place only within a certain play of tolerance. Insisting on certainty, by contrast, leads ineluctably to arrogance and dogma based on ignorance.

At this point, in the final minutes of the show, the scene suddenly shifts to Auschwitz, where many members of Bronowski’s family were murdered. Then this happened. Please stay with it. This short video from the show lasts only four minutes or so.

It is, I am sure you agree, an extraordinary and moving moment. Bronowski dips his hand into the muddy water of a pond which contained the remains of his family members and the members of countless other families. All victims of the same hatred: the hatred of the other human being. By contrast, he says — just before the camera hauntingly cuts to slow motion — “We have to touch people.”

The play of tolerance opposes the principle of monstrous certainty that is endemic to fascism and, sadly, not just fascism but all the various faces of fundamentalism. When we think we have certainty, when we aspire to the knowledge of the gods, then Auschwitz can happen and can repeat itself. Arguably, it has repeated itself in the genocidal certainties of past decades.

The pursuit of scientific knowledge is as personal an act as lifting a paintbrush or writing a poem, and they are both profoundly human. If the human condition is defined by limitedness, then this is a glorious fact because it is a moral limitedness rooted in a faith in the power of the imagination, our sense of responsibility and our acceptance of our fallibility. We always have to acknowledge that we might be mistaken. When we forget that, then we forget ourselves and the worst can happen.

In 1945, nearly three decades before “The Ascent of Man,” Dr. Bronowski — who was a close friend of the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, the reluctant father of the atomic bomb — visited Nagasaki to help assess the damage there. It convinced him to discontinue his work for British military research with which he had been engaged extensively during the Second World War. From that time onward, he focused on the relations between science and human values. When someone said to Szilard in Bronowski’s company that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was science’s tragedy, Szilard replied firmly that this was wrong: It was a human tragedy.

Such was Dr. Bronowski’s lesson for a 13-year-old boy some 40 years ago. Being slightly old-school, I treated myself last Christmas to a DVD deluxe boxed set of “The Ascent of Man.” I am currently watching it with my 10-year-old son. Admittedly, it is not really much competition for “Candy Crush” and his sundry other video games, but he is showing an interest. Or at least he is tolerating my enthusiasm. And of course beginning to learn such toleration is the whole point.

Simon Critchley is Hans Jonas professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York and the author of several books, including “The Faith of the Faithless,” and, with Jamieson Webster, “Stay, Illusion! The Hamlet Doctrine.” He is the moderator of this series.




Nearly 100,000 people took to the streets in Raleigh, North Carolina on February 8 in a Moral March to say “No!” to the state’s sharp right-wing political turn and “Yes!” to a new, truly progressive America.

They weren’t just marching for one issue or another. They were marching for every issue progressives care about: economic justice; a living wage for every worker; support for organized labor; justice in banking and lending; high quality, well-funded, diverse public schools; affordable health care and health insurance for all, especially women; environmental justice and green jobs; affordable housing for every person; abolishing the death penalty and mandatory sentencing; expanded services for released prisoners; comprehensive immigration reform to provide immigrants with health care, education, and workers rights; insuring everyone the right to vote; enhancing LGBT rights; keeping America’s young men and women out of wars on foreign soil; and more.

All this in Raleigh, a metro area of barely more than a million people. It’s as if a million and half turned out in New York or DC, or a million in San Francisco. When was the last time we saw such huge crowds in the streets demanding a total transformation in our way of life? This could be the start of something big.

And it was all led by . . . God?

Many of the marchers would say so. Many others would doubt it. The organizers invited “secular and religious progressives alike,” people of every faith and no faith at all. “The march brought together a diverse group from Baptists to Muslims and gay marriage supporters,” as USAToday reported.

But no one doubts that it was all started by a man of faith, the Rev. William Barber.

“We will become the ‘trumpet of conscience’ that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called upon us to be, echoing the God of our mothers and fathers in the faith,” the Disciples of Christ minister told the huge crowd, exhorting them to “plant America on higher ground.” Then he prayed: “Lord, Lord plant our minds on higher ground. Plant our hearts on higher ground. Plant our souls on higher ground. Lord, lift us up, lift us up, lift us up and let us stand. Plant our feet on higher ground.”

The night before the march he led what a local TV station called “a spiritual pep rally” the Abundant Life Christian Center, designed (the organizers said) to prepare the marchers “by spiritually invoking … love, peace, and a source of power beyond what can be seen with our eyes or calculated with our minds.”

Those organizers, many of them clergy and religious leaders, are well aware that “some secular progressives object to the use of this kind of language because of its religious overtones. … Sure, Barber prays in public, uses church language and premises many of his beliefs and arguments on his understanding of the teachings of his faith — he’s a preacher for Pete’s sake! But his policy messages, his organization and his objectives are thoroughly secular and open to all, whatever their beliefs or lack thereof when it comes to religion.”

It’s not surprising that his politics would be thoroughly secular. He’s got a BA in political science and a PH.D. in public policy as well as pastoral care. He’s proving himself to be a shrewd, hard-headed organizer and political tactician. 100,000 progressives don’t just appear out of nowhere.

In fact, the Moral March was initiated by the “Historic Thousands on Jones Street (HKonJ) People’s Assembly Coalition,” started by Barber and other religious leaders back in 2007. It took plenty of hope and faith to believe that within just seven years a small group could swell to such a huge crowd.

Rev. Barber says he learned at seminary that hope is an essential part of Christian theology, tied directly to helping people. “When you stand for justice and help folks, you’re at the same time, giving them hope. That’s why because Jesus helped us at Calvary, the writer said my hope is built when the Lord helped us.”

But building this mass movement also took political smarts. And HKonJ has done a lot more politically, especially at the North Carolina state house. They played an important role in passage of a Racial Justice Act, obtaining Same Day Voting; winning workers the right to unionize; getting a former Democratic governor to veto Voter I.D. Laws, an unfair budget, and repeal of a Racial Justice Act.

In 2013, as a Republican governor and legislature moved their state ever further rightward, Barber and his allies stepped up the action. They began weekly sit-ins at the state capitol on “Moral Mondays,” which eventually saw just short of a thousand people arrested.

“Clergy were especially prominent” in those actions, the Washington Post reported. Local Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and United Methodist leaders issued a joint statement supporting the action: “It is a matter of faith with respect to our understanding of the biblical teachings and imperatives to protect the poor, respect the stranger, care for widows and children and love our neighbors (Isaiah 10:1‐2, Hebrews 13:2, James 1:27, Matthew 22:39, Galatians 5:14).”

They were moved not just by anger but by the hope of repentance, Rev. Barber says. “That’s part of what it means to be a person of faith: You believe that people can be moved in deep places and change. So you put a cross before them, you put yourself, your body. You’re willing to sacrifice in hopes that somebody will say, ‘Wait a minute,’ and change their ways. The non-violent and the people of deep faith always transform history. And we’ll do it again.”

This politically savvy preacher has very concrete plans to make sure we do it again. He sees the movement he leads as a model for resistance across the country: “We must reduce fear through public education, through the streets, through the courts and through the electoral campaigns.” 

“If you are going to change America you have to think states,” he says. “We believe North Carolina is the crucible. If you’re going to change the country, you’ve got to change the South. If you’re going to change the South, you’ve got to focus on these state capitols.” Spin-offs of the Moral Monday movement are already starting up in Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

And you’ve got to change state politics at the county level, Barber advises. So he and his group are launching “North Carolina Moral Freedom Summer,” a statewide registration and mobilization effort for voters in all 100 counties of North Carolina.

But that’s just part of a larger program that also includes voter education, a social media strategy, and a legal strategy. “Many of these things, not just the voting rules, are going to be challenged in the courts using our state and federal constitutions,” Barber promises. That’s a lot of smart strategic thinking.

As far as he is concerned, though, there’s no way to separate smart politics from devout faith. He takes his inspiration equally from the Constitution, where he finds deep values to promote “the common good,” and from the Bible, which he sees teaching that love and justice should be at the center of public policy. “Isaiah 10 says, ‘Woe unto those who make unjust laws that rob the right of the poor.’ And we said, wait a minute, when you look at these policies, it’s not only bad policy, but it’s immoral and extreme.”

“Clergy persons are choosing to move in a prophetic tradition to challenge injustice and wrongs in government and systemic transgressions against our values,” Barber explains. “It’s our Jewish friends, Christian, Universalist, Muslim friends and others who are willing to put their voices and bodies on the line. That is significant when pulpits get on fire for justice.”

And wherever he goes, his “thundery oratory” will be filled “with biblical references to Pharaoh, Goliath, good and evil,” as ReligionNews reports. 

“Good and evil.” That’s the key to the power of this new movement. It has gone beyond single-issue politics by find the common thread tying all progressive issue together, the thread spotlighted in the name of their action: The “Moral” March.

In North Carolina they understand what George Lakoff has been telling us for years. The left is losing the political argument by sticking to specific issues and factual evidence. Conservatives are winning because they “speak from an authentic moral position, and appeal to voters’ values.” So progressives “have to go up a level, to the moral level” and start dealing publicly “very seriously and very quickly with the unity of their own philosophy and with morality and the family.” Otherwise “they will not merely continue to lose elections but will as well bear responsibility for the success of conservatives in turning back the clock of progress in America.”  

In North Carolina they are talking very seriously about morality, saying out loud that the same moral foundations undergird all progressive policies.

And they’ve discovered the power of that little word “moral” to unite religious progressives with secular progressives, who elsewhere are so often scared off by any talk of God and Jesus and the Bible.

The HKonJ organizers understand this very well. As their website says, they intentionally highlight the word “moral,” even though some secular progressives object to the use of this kind of language because of its religious overtones. It sounds too much like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. But of course by that logic, progressives couldn’t use words like “liberty” or “freedom” either. After all, both of those words have also been monopolized by the far right in recent years. Indeed, there’s a strong argument to be made that progressives have too often shied away from the use of such overarching language — thus ceding it without a fight to the right. Put simply, there is nothing inherently religious in the word “moral”; it is a powerful and important word that’s plenty big enough to be of great use and profound meaning to secular and religious progressives alike.

Those nearly 100,00 Moral Marchers in Raleigh pose crucial questions to progressives across America: Are we ready to move beyond our own issues to join a unified, strategically savvy progressive movement encompassing every issue? And are we willing to do what it takes for that movement to succeed: to drop our suspicion of religion, to lift up the word “moral” as a bridge across the religious-secular divide, to judge religious progressives by the content of their policies and not the color of their vocabulary?

If enough progressives answer “yes,” this could indeed be the start of something big.

Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of “MythicAmerica: Essays.” He blogs at




People of a certain age (and we know who we are) don’t spend much leisure time reviewing the research into cognitive performance and aging. The story is grim, for one thing: Memory’s speed and accuracy begin to slip around age 25 and keep on slipping.

The story is familiar, too, for anyone who is over 50 and, having finally learned to live fully in the moment, discovers it’s a senior moment. The finding that the brain slows with age is one of the strongest in all of psychology.

Over the years, some scientists have questioned this dotage curve. But these challenges have had an ornery-old-person slant: that the tests were biased toward the young, for example. Or that older people have learned not to care about clearly trivial things, like memory tests. Or that an older mind must organize information differently from one attached to some 22-year-old who records his every Ultimate Frisbee move on Instagram.

Now comes a new kind of challenge to the evidence of a cognitive decline, from a decidedly digital quarter: data mining, based on theories of information processing. In a paper published in Topics in Cognitive Science, a team of linguistic researchers from the University of Tübingen in Germany used advanced learning models to search enormous databases of words and phrases.

Since educated older people generally know more words than younger people, simply by virtue of having been around longer, the experiment simulates what an older brain has to do to retrieve a word. And when the researchers incorporated that difference into the models, the aging “deficits” largely disappeared.

“What shocked me, to be honest, is that for the first half of the time we were doing this project, I totally bought into the idea of age-related cognitive decline in healthy adults,” the lead author, Michael Ramscar, said by email. But the simulations, he added, “fit so well to human data that it slowly forced me to entertain this idea that I didn’t need to invoke decline at all.”

Can it be? Digital tools have confounded predigital generations; now here they are, coming to the rescue. Or is it that younger scientists are simply pretesting excuses they can use in the future to cover their own golden-years lapses?

In fact, the new study is not likely to overturn 100 years of research, cognitive scientists say. Neuroscientists have some reason to believe that neural processing speed, like many reflexes, slows over the years; anatomical studies suggest that the brain also undergoes subtle structural changes that could affect memory.

Still, the new report will very likely add to a growing skepticism about how steep age-related decline really is. It goes without saying that many people remain disarmingly razor-witted well into their 90s; yet doubts about the average extent of the decline are rooted not in individual differences but in study methodology. Many studies comparing older and younger people, for instance, did not take into account the effects of pre-symptomatic Alzheimer’s disease, said Laura Carstensen, a psychologist at Stanford University.

Dr. Carstensen and others have found, too, that with age people become biased in their memory toward words and associations that have a positive connotation — the “age-related positivity effect,” as it’s known. This bias very likely applies when older people perform so-called paired-associate tests, a common measure that involves memorizing random word pairs, like ostrich and house.

“Given that most cognitive research asks participants to engage with neutral (and in emotion studies, negative) stimuli, the traditional research paradigm may put older people at a disadvantage,” Dr. Carstensen said by email.

The new data-mining analysis also raises questions about many of the measures scientists use. Dr. Ramscar and his colleagues applied leading learning models to an estimated pool of words and phrases that an educated 70-year-old would have seen, and another pool suitable for an educated 20-year-old. Their model accounted for more than 75 percent of the difference in scores between older and younger adults on items in a paired-associate test, he said.

That is to say, the larger the library you have in your head, the longer it usually takes to find a particular word (or pair).

Scientists who study thinking and memory often make a broad distinction between “fluid” and “crystallized” intelligence. The former includes short-term memory, like holding a phone number in mind, analytical reasoning, and the ability to tune out distractions, like ambient conversation. The latter is accumulated knowledge, vocabulary and expertise.

“In essence, what Ramscar’s group is arguing is that an increase in crystallized intelligence can account for a decrease in fluid intelligence,” said Zach Hambrick, a psychologist at Michigan State University. In a variety of experiments, Dr. Hambrick and Timothy A. Salthouse of the University of Virginia have shown that crystallized knowledge (as measured by New York Times crosswords, for example) climbs sharply between ages 20 and 50 and then plateaus, even as the fluid kind (like analytical reasoning) is dropping steadily — by more than 50 percent between ages 20 and 70 in some studies. “To know for sure whether the one affects the other, ideally we’d need to see it in human studies over time,” Dr. Hambrick said.

Dr. Ramscar’s report was a simulation and included no tested subjects, though he said he does have several memory studies with normal subjects on the way.

For the time being, this new digital-era challenge to “cognitive decline” can serve as a ready-made explanation for blank moments, whether senior or otherwise.

It’s not that you’re slow. It’s that you know so much. 








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