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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