Sunday, April 27, 2014

"To the Thawing Wind"

To The Thawing Wind
Come with rain. O loud Southwester!
Bring the singer, bring the nester;
Give the buried flower a dream;
make the settled snowbank steam;
Find the brown beneath the white;
But whate'er you do tonight,
bathe my window, make it flow,
Melt it as the ice will go;
Melt the glass and leave the sticks
Like a hermit's crucifix;
Burst into my narrow stall;
Swing the picture on the wall;
Run the rattling pages o'er;
Scatter poems on the floor;
Turn the poet out of door.

Here in Minnesota serious winter cold set in before the Solstice and has only now relaxed its grip.  We've been calling for the thawing wind since February, but here in the central part of the state we had eight inches of snow as recently as April 16.  Now at last the thaw has arrived, with wind and rain punctuated by occasional sunshine.   Yesterday, despite the remaining winter chill in the air, we fertilized and tilled our plots at the St. Cloud Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Community Garden. We’re looking at another week of spring rain.  It seems a good time to appreciate Robert Frost’s “spring” poem, published in A Boy’s Will (1913).

We think of spring in clich├ęd terms of budding trees, singing birds, blooming flowers, and warm sunshine; Frost reminds us that early spring can be cold, wet, and windy.  And in northern climes, the thaw can come late in April.  It is a time of year when the wind and rain are welcome signs, not only of winter’s end, but of an end to our long indoor human hibernation.

Frost writes the poem in a staccato-like trochaic imperative, calling on that wind and rain, indeed, celebrating the coming storm.  It’s not a gentle wind and rain but “loud” and strong enough, at least metaphorically, to “burst” the window, rattle pages, “scatter poems,” and blow the poet out of his “narrow stall.”  The lines grow shorter as the poem goes on, increasing the sense of urgency for escape from winter’s grip.  Yet the couplets convey a sense of order and security that somehow the storm will remain within nature’s bounds, even as it brings disruption to the indoor life.

Obviously it is a poem about the welcome change of seasons and the anticipation of singing birds, blooming flowers, and warm brown earth, but perhaps more importantly (“whate’er you do tonight”) it is a poem about the anticipation of a thaw in the human isolation of our winter hermitage.  The inner life has become close and confining; we yearn for relief and release to a more active, outgoing life in the open air, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.  We long for escape from our introspection to a life of interaction with the outside world. 

I have no problem seeing Frost’s text as both a nature poem about the change of seasons and a psychological poem about the human need to escape from our own inner prisons.

What I wonder about is the reference to “a hermit’s cruxifix.”  Of course the poet is being compared to a hermit and the crucifix literally refers to the wooden crosspieces within a window frame.  But does that reference to a religious symbol suggest some other meaning?  Does the cross represent the burden of winter, of human self-consciousness, of the poet’s calling?

Or, does the cross represent the universal principle of sacrifice, the reality that suffering is the necessary evil that makes some greater good possible.  Is the suffering of winter necessary to the glory of spring and summer, is life possible without death, is our human inwardness somehow necessary to enhance our social life, is the poet a kind of scapegoat whose sacrifices make possible a higher level of consciousness for all of us? 

Or, are we too far out on the limb of interpretation?

For those who insist Frost’s text is just a simple nature poem, in which the poet expresses his winter weariness and longing for spring, we’re making too much of a good thing.  For those who love poetry for the levels of meaning it can express, its power of expressiveness, and its unfailing ability to surprise us with new insights, we’ve made a good thing even better.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Living with a Wild God

Having spent the last eight months reading and discussing Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (see previous posts Sept., 2013-April, 2014) in my Unitarian Universalist Adult Religious Education group, it seemed serendipitous when I saw Barbara Ehrenreich interviewed about her new book.

An atheist writing about having had mystical experiences?  What would Dennett say?

Probably he would say what Ehrenreich herself said for years: temporary psychic break, “perceptual slippage,” sudden electrical or chemical power surge in the brain, etc., in any case, a perfectly rational and natural explanation.

Raised by atheist parents under the strong influence of her scientist father, Ehrenreich struggled most of her life with those rational and natural explanations that were never quite commensurate with the experiences themselves, experiences in which the natural boundaries of ordinary physical objects broke down and the world seemed to flame out in radiance.

She pursued a career in science herself, moving from chemistry to physics, finally earning a Ph.D. in Cellular Immunology, before becoming a free-lance writer more focused on the social science of feminism, economic inequality, war, militarism, and the politics of health care than chemistry, physics, or religion.

It was actually her research into the origins of human warfare that eventually intersected with her life-long quest to understand her seemingly “mystical” experiences.  The study of human evolution led her to, lo and behold, the Hyperactive Agency Detection Device or HADD (see previous post Jan., 2013), which Dennett cites to explain the rise of early religion in the form of animism and the human belief in other types of “imaginary agents.” 

For Dennett, this survival mechanism becomes overdeveloped, even as it makes the advancement of the species possible, resulting in supernatural belief and eventually the cultural evolution of organized religion.  By now, however, Ehrenreich’s faith in the certainties of empirical science has been undermined by the New Science of quantum mechanics and “non-linear dynamics.”  And she dares to ask the question:  If the HADD is reliable when it comes to detecting conventionally observable predators, why is it not reliable in detecting other, non-conventionally observable agents? In any case, how do we know that the latter type of agents is entirely imaginary?

In the end, she does not undergo any kind of religious conversion, but her “faith” in atheism has been shaken.  While, she says she does not believe in a god or gods or divinity or universal consciousness at work in the world, she keeps an open mind, neither drawing definite conclusions from her “mystical” experiences nor rejecting them as aberrations without any meaning.  There may just be more going on in the universe than our ordinary powers of human perception can take in, and “it may be seeking us out.”

Metaphysical musings aside, Ehrenreich’s book is also an autobiographical study of family dysfunction, a string of broken relationships, academic experimentation, political and social awakening, and self-exploration, all held together by the author’s lifelong quest for the truth about our inexplicable human “situation.”

She recounts tragedy, disappointment, misdirection, social idealism, political activism, success and failure with a cold, unsparing eye and a sharp wit.  There is no sentimentalism, no high-flown rhetoric, no glamorization, and no air-brushing of stark reality.  Ehrenreich’s unflinching rationalism, skepticism, and wry humor make her openness to the possibility of a “palpable Other or Others,” more credible than the espoused certainties of either true believers or confirmed non-believers.  She is not one to be seduced by easy answers or wishful thinking.   And that ethic applies to herself as well as to her “wild God.”

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Breaking the Spell VI

I found chapter 9 to be a fascinating discussion of why people are so attached to their religions as to foreclose any rational investigation of them.

Daniel Dennett cites three reasons:  1) love that is akin to irrational romance, 2) the postmodern academic restriction that only sympathizers are qualified to study religion, and 3) the “belief in belief” discussed earlier (see previous post Feb., 2014).

First, like lovers who eschew any rational questioning of their romantic attachments, many religious adherents appeal to experiences with the divine as beyond words, much less logic.  Just as critically analyzing a love relationship ruins the romance of it, so subjecting the religious experience to empirical study is completely antithetical to the experience itself, which transcends all mundane research.

I admit to a certain amount of sympathy with this line of thought, but when I consider how often irrational romantic attachment and religious enthusiasm can both lead to destructive, even violent, behavior, I welcome any study that helps us better understand these states of mind.  And I would think that romantic lovers and religious believers themselves would want to have some insight into the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy attachment.

Second, since the advent of postmodern identity politics, the whole idea of academic neutrality has been thoroughly interrogated and largely debunked.  A male can’t really study feminism because he is inherently biased in favor of his own gender.  The same applies to whites who attempt to study non-whites or privileged elites who study the poor.  Similarly, non-believers cannot escape their own bias when studying religion and are therefore less credible.  It takes a religious sympathizer who applies academic methods from “inside” the subject matter to arrive at the most reliable understanding.  Of course, women, non-whites, the less privileged, and religious sympathizers can’t escape their own biases either, but at least they speak from first-hand experience.  

Again, I see the value of this point of view, but as a white woman of professional class status I can also see the value of learning about my social situation from a non-white, non-professional male, who may be able to instruct me in how my attitudes and behavior affect him.  Similarly, as a Unitarian Universalist I think I can learn from an outside observer of my religious denomination.  If absolute objectivity is impossible, then surely the most complete understanding comes from both an inside and outside analysis.

Finally, just as Americans who criticize the United States are sometimes told, “America, love it or leave it!” so those who question religion, even from within, perhaps especially from within, are often made to feel like traitors.  The “belief in belief” is so powerful because, just as extreme patriots believe their country would be better if all its citizens displayed unquestioning loyalty, so religious adherents often believe that the world would be a better place if everyone held an unquestioning belief in God. 

This last deterrent to the rational study of religion raises the question of what religion is good for.  Earlier (see previous post Jan., 2014) Dennett had conceded that false belief can yield benefits, such as greater confidence, optimism, and even enhanced physical and mental health.  In this chapter he cites empirical studies to support such ameliorative effects of religion, but he claims the research results are mixed and withholds judgment until more thorough research can be done. 

This certainly seems fair.  At least he does not dismiss the possibility out of hand that religion may be good for people, regardless of its truth value.  Even if the possibility is confirmed, Dennett raises another question, namely what are the side effects of false belief, and do they outweigh the benefits?  More importantly, is religion the basis of morality?  And that question will be addressed in the next chapter.