Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Back Home

Well, we're back from Spain, and I'm driving between our Springfield home and my parents' home in St. Louis, alternating one night in Illinois and the next in Missouri.  Our friends from Taiwan, the Tseng family have come for a short visit, and I've put up a page of pictures of them as well as a few images from some slide film I used in Spain at this site.  

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Spain pictures

I have put up the photographs for the first 14 out of 15 pages we'll make for our trip to Spain, but I haven't had time to work on the captions or descriptions of what we did and experienced each day.  The pages start at URL http://home.comcast.net/~hadleyives/eric/Spain_2008_1.html. From each page you can follow links to any other page.  Click on the square images to get larger versions of the pictures.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

We're In Spain

I may not have much time to write about our experiences in Spain until we get back, but I've already started putting photographs up on web pages to show some of what we have seen on this trip. If you want to check these out, start with the first day at this link. That page actually has photographs of our visit in New York as we were heading out to Spain, but there are links from that page to actual Spanish scenes.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Reading in preparation for Spain

I’ve been doing some reading in preparation for our trip to Spain, and I thought I’d take this opportunity to share some reflections on the books I’ve been consulting.

I found Miranda France’s Don Quixote’s Delusions: Travels in Castilian Spain (2001) at the Lincoln Library (call number 914.62 FRA). This book offers an interesting mix a few a different types of narrative. Miranda France is about my age, or maybe a couple years older, and she describes her time in Spain as a university student (in 1987-1988). This part of the book is a personal memoir, and she shares what it was like to be a young person in Spain during this time when Spain was experiencing the post-Franco exuberance. She had an interesting assortment of friends and house mates, and I think her reflections on what these people did and what motivated them is quite good. There is psychological insight and plenty of anecdotes to illustrate both the universal human condition and the particular aspects of life she had at that particular time and place. There are also many chapters about Don Quixote and its author, Cervantes. These are examples of literary criticism and philosophical musings on the meaning of Cervantes. Other chapters of the book describe her travels in Spain, both during her student days and then more recently when she returned a decade after leaving Spain. She’s a good travel writer. Finally, there are chapters and sections in which she explores Spanish history and culture. I found her views to be reasonable and intelligent, and I liked her perspective on history. She is a person who loves Spanish culture and cares about her subject, but she is at the same time critical and analytical. Her life as a student reminded me of my own experiences in many ways. However, she was probably more closely associated with the seedy and underground aspects of Spanish life than most writers on Spanish culture, and this gives her a unique perspective. I highly recommend this book.

Gaudi, a biography, by Gijs Van Hensbergen (Lincoln Library, call number 720.92 GAU) offered me some insight into one of my favorite architects. It was a fine biography, with much attention to the political and economic conditions in Barcelona and more widely in Spain during Gaudi’s life (1852-1926). I was glad to read the defense of both Gaudi as a person and also his architecture, which many people find vulgar, silly, or crackpot (it is not: it is brilliant). Two other Gaudi books were Essential Gaudi (by John Gill, published in 2002, call number 720.92 GAU) and Gaudi (by Ignasi de Sola-Morales, published in 1983, call number 720.92 GAU). The second of these is a fairly straight-forward picture book with a biography and several pages of photographs devoted to each of Gaudi’s projects. I loved the sketches by J. Matamala of what he remembered Gaudi’s ideas were for a skyscraper hotel in New York City (images 142-146, see example posted as part of this blog). The Essential Gaudi had a nice format I would probably use if I were making a book about our upcoming trip to Spain. As you opened the book each two page spread had a text article on the left and a full page photograph on the right. This was a book that paid far more attention to architectural considerations. Both these books were a delight to browse through in anticipation of going to Barcelona and seeing the originals for myself.

The book that gave me the most pleasure was Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain (edited by Jerrilynn D. Dodds, published in 1992, call number 709.46). This book contained a catalogue (pages 190-391) of an exhibition given at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The first 189 pages of the book offered well-illustrated essays about the Islamic history and culture and artistic trends during the age of Islam in Spain (mostly 711-1492). I'm trying to get my history straight. The history of Islam in Spain is usually divided into six periods. The initial conquest and the rule of Umayyad Governors runs from 711-756. This is followed by the Umayyad Emirate from 756-929, the Umayyad Caliphate (929-1031), the Taifa Kingdoms (1031-1086), the Almoravid and Almohad rules (1088-1232), and finally the Nasrid Kingdom in Granada (1238-1492).

The best history book I came across was Spain: The Root and the Flower by John A. Crow. I found the third edition, expanded and updated, published in 1985, although the first edition came out in 1963. Crow mixed cultural insight and popular history with the normal accounts of the politics and kings and wars. I liked his opinionated comments on various aspects of Spanish history, and his emphasis on artistic and intellectual developments, and particularly the Spanish literature. This was available in the Lincoln Library, but I got the most recent edition from my university library at call number DP 48 C8 1985.

The book I read to learn about current events in Spain was Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past by Giles Tremlett (both the Lincoln Library and UIS library have this, and the call number at the UIS library is DP 233.5 T74 2007.) This book had some interesting details about Spanish attitudes and popular culture. There was a lot about sex. For example, Spanish men pay for sex more than other Europeans. Miranda France had also commented on the highly visible sex worker business. There were stories about scandals and corruption, and some stories about popular figures like famous Flamenco singers and so forth.

Another art biography I highly recommend is Goya, by Robert Hughes (Call number 759.6 GOY at the Lincoln Library). I like Robert Hughes, and I like Goya. This book helped me to make sense of Goya’s fascination with witches. It also explained to me much about the politics and culture of Spain in the late 18th century and early 19th century. The book is very well illustrated.

Stories of the Spanish Artists until Goya by Sir William Stirling Maxwell (published in 1938, and available in the Lincoln Library at call number 759.6 M46s) gives some background on the artists whose work we’ll be seeing in the art museums. The stories were sometimes interesting. This was a good bedtime book.

For fun, I picked out a 122 year old book from the UIS library, The Story of Spain by Edward Everett Hale and Susan Hale, part of The Story of the Nations series, published in 1886. The call number is DP 68 H16. I don’t think the history was particularly accurate, and the authors' attitudes were very dated, but the book itself offered some historical insight into what Americans or English people might have read about Spain when my great-great grandparents and great grandparents were in their prime. The book concentrates on the very early history of Spain, and legends or myths about its history. The chapter on Ferdinand and Isabella (late 15th century) doesn’t come until page 298, it’s chapter 20 out of 25. The book did offer this advice, “...the student of modern Spanish history must remember all along that Spain is the prey of unceasing partisan dissension....” That seems to be still the case, according to what I read in Tremlett’s book. I've shard a couple illustrations from this old book here in the blog.

Walk in Lincoln Memorial Gardens

Sebastian and I went for a walk in the Lincoln Memorial Gardens yesterday. We saw a couple little fawns with their mother doe, but the deer were too obscured by leaves and trees to make a good photograph. We were pretty close, however, perhaps only twenty meters away.

We also saw a turtle crawling through the clover. There were plenty of insects out in the park. We saw several six-spooted green tiger beetles (Cicindela sexguttata) out hunting along the trail. The Staghorn Sumacs (Rhus typhina) were in bloom with their impressive red clusters of flowers, as were some prairie flowers like the yellow Slender Rosin-weed (Silphium gracile) pictured here.
On the back of one of the benches was carved a quotation from Abraham Lincoln that I thought fairly profound: "I care not much for a man's religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it." Sebastian and I discussed this, and decided Lincoln was saying that we judge religions by the way the believers behave, and we must look beyond how they behave when it comes to obeying rules and treating people well. We must look to the private actions that show more directly the deeper feelings and sentiments of people, such as how they treat animals, who cannot complain or tell people about their treatment. I've often felt it's unfair to judge religions by the behaviors of believers, since people tend to fall short, but as a general rule with allowances for individual exceptions, this does make sense as a general rule. Lincoln loved animals anyway.

What do people actually believe?

Last week I heard some news about a new report that came out this year about religious belief in the United States. This was the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s report on the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. The news I heard emphasized the fact that most Americans now believe that there are many paths to eternal life. Also, most Americans believe there is more than one true way to interpret their religion. Evidently 92% of Americans believe in God, but only 60% of Americans believe in God and say that God is a Personal God (God is an entity who can have a personal relationship with us). Also, only 71% of Americans believe in God and feel absolutely certain about that belief. The main results of the survey are reported over at the Pew Forums, and from there you can get links to the full report (pdf).

That news item inspired in me some thoughts about what I believe, and what people around me seem to believe. I know that as a child I thought it strange that any one religion would teach that it is the only religion, and so the entire sin-redemption model of Christianity seemed a bit difficult for me. At least, I could never really believe in it as a literal fact that we were cursed by "Adam's sin" and had to be rescued by the blood sacrifice of a Manifestation of God. I've always understood this more metaphorically. Sure, people have "fallen from grace" and we fall from grace all the time, and we are in need of redemption. These ideas make sense. Adam's sin could be understood as humans developing unsustainable civilizations that ruin and despoil the earth, or the rise of hubris that comes along with our growing intellect, or the general problem of being too materialistic, too selfish, and generally disobedient to God, or failing to heed our highest true nature and instead being ensnared by our most short-sighted selfish goals. I don't know what exactly it means, but the sin-redemption model seems connected to these sorts of interpretations to me, and it pretty much always has since I was seven or eight years old.

When I learned about the Baha'i Faith, I immediately became interested. Here was a religion that said all the religions were essentially true, and it wasn't important to worry about going into details about what religions got right and got wrong; the essential thing was to use religious impulses to bring peace, increase love, and help people be virtuous and kind, adhere to high standards of justice and fairness, and so forth. Also, the Manifestations who started the Baha'i Faith were recent historical figures, so I could investigate what they actually wrote. I'm very skeptical about the veracity of the Gospels. It seems the most accurate one might be the Book of Mark, which some early 2nd century Christian in Egypt said was the recollections of a person who had been following Peter (Simon called Peter) around and listening to Peter's recollections of what Jesus did and said. That's about as good as a hadith in Islam, and I'm not very impressed with the likely veracity of many of the hadiths, either. So, a key attraction of the Baha'i Faith was this idea that there were many paths to truth, and all religions offer people a way to approach God and follow God's instructions (well, many of them, Baha'u'llah never made a list of the true religions or ranked the religions according to how good they were).

I grew up in the Methodist Church, which has a fairly liberal theology, and accepts the truth of various other Christian denominations, and also shows respect for Islam and Judaism. I also grew up with some Hindu influences in my family life, and studied Hinduism the way a middle-school or high school student might. So, in my adolescence I explored ideas from Marxim and atheism, Hinduism, liberal Christian theologies, and the Baha'i Faith. There were times I was atheistic, agnostic, or deeply religious, but I didn't really settle down until I was about 17, and from that time until now I've been certain in my belief in God, and pretty comfortable with a religious identity as a Baha'i, although I've been disheartened by many aspects of the Baha'i religion as a human institution, I can't escape my belief in it as a Revelation, so I'm stuck with it they way I'm stuck with my identity as an American, a male, etc., and so I embrace it and make the best of it.

But what do I believe? What do people really believe? I've been thinking about this. It seems that some of the theological ideas that attracted me into the Baha'i Faith are now thoroughly mainstream American beliefs, embraced by a majority of believers in almost all American religious traditions. I wonder, does this make these Americans who believe in progressive revelation and the essential unity of religions functionally Baha'is in some broader general sense?

Belief in God isn't a dichotomous thing where people are either true believers or committed atheists. You could rank people in an ordinal scale according to their beliefs. Here's a scale I would use:
-2 = Confirmed atheists. There is no God, and I'm willing to say so.
-1 = Agnostic doubters. I don't see how there could be a God. I won't say there isn't one, but I see no evidence and feel no reason to believe.
0 = I'm not sure if there is a God or isn't a God. Or, I don't care, and I don't think about whether there is a God. The issue isn't important to me.
1 = I believe in God, but I don't have certainty. I doubt.
2 = I believe in God with a great deal of confidence, but not absolute certainty.
3 = I believe in God with certainty, and I've never questioned this or thought about it. I just accept it as true the way I accept my own existence as real. Of course there is a God.
4 = I believe in God with certainty, and I've examined this belief and challenged it, and yet I remain absolutely assured in my belief.

It's hard to rank category 3 (unexamined certainty) below or above category 4 (examined and tested certainty).

One thing that I find inspiring are the stories of the scientifically-minded and intellectually-inclined modern people who have given their lives for their belief in God. Some of the Baha'i Martyrs murdered by the Iranian Government (executed) in the early 1980s were like this. Some were professors, intellectuals, and worldly technical experts or businessmen who were sophisticated and modern in their outlooks. Yet, when offered the chance to tell the crazy Iranian government that they no longer believed in Baha'u'llah, and thus save their lives and get out of Iran so they could return to their Faith, they instead decided to defy the Iranian so-called "Islamic" authorities and testify to their belief in the Baha'i Faith, and they died for this. I wonder if some of the martyrs were people in category 1 of my ordinal scale of belief in God, and the opportunity to choose martyrdom helped them solve a personal crisis of Faith and move up to category 4.

There are other statements about God I think would be interesting to discuss. In some of these I make a distinction between whether we conceive of religions as mainly driven by humans trying to reach toward God ("artificial or man-made, yet responding to Divine Truth") or mainly Revealed ("given to humanity by God's Messengers"). Which of these comes closest to your view of God and God's relationship to religions?

1) God has never revealed though religion (choose this option if you're agnostic or an atheist).

2) God has revealed through one true religion. Other religious are either false or heresies.

3) Humans have approached God through various human religions with varying degrees of success.

4) God has responded to human religions with varying degrees of guidance and Revelation or Providence to favor some (presumably the more accurate ones) while allowing others to fade away.

5) God has inspired all religions.

6) God has inspired some religions, while other religions are purely the result of human speculation and imagination.

7) God has inspired most religions (God is behind the nearly universal human impulse toward religious thinking), and God has also given various degrees of Revelation (sent Messengers such as Jesus). Humans have responded to Divinely-inspired and revealed religion with varying degrees of accuracy, spirituality, and the use of true Revelation in their human-formed religions.

8) Religions can be rank-ordered on how close to Divinely-inspired Revelation and God's Truth they approach. Some are pretty far from the mark (one thinks of the Aztec religion where children were tortured to death so priests could harvest tears for the rain god), while others are closer to Truth.

9) Religions are human institutions with hundreds of aspects and qualities. Some of these may be more Divinely-inspired in one religion and more human-created in another. So every religion has its strengths and weaknesses.

10) God acts through humans and human-created religions, and also through Revelation, Providence, and Divine-inspiration. The distinction between "true Godly religion" and "human accretions inflicted on religion" is not a pure distinction. Beliefs, teachings, behaviors, and practices may have various mixes of "man-made" and "truth-from-God" within, but at a deeper level both of these sources are rooted in God's Providence and Truth.

11) Most humans have the ability to be receptive to Divine promptings and inspiration.

12) God sometimes (or perhaps, always?) uses humans as instruments of God's Will.

13) Even religions wholly invented by human imagination may contain spiritual truths whether through coincidence, Providence, or influences of true religions on the imagination of the person who invented the "false" religion.

14) The world would be a better place if more people left their religions or their lack of any religion and came into the religion to which I belong.

15) For most people, the religion to which I belong would be the best religion, although many other religions may also be good for them, and some people are better off in other religions instead of my religion.

16) My religion is best for me, and your religion is good (or best) for you.

17) While God loves many (perhaps all?) of the religions, at particular times or places it is God's Will that more people join a particular religion or at least adopt the basic tenants of that favored religion.

18) All religions are equal, so it doesn't matter which religion we believe.

19) Most religions are pretty much the same—or at least it's difficult to rank them in terms of their perfections and flaws so that one can be shown to be better than another—so it doesn't make a great difference to which religion we belong. Some might be marginally better (or worse) than others for some of us, but it's not easy to be certain about exactly which are best or worst for any specific individual or society.

20) All religions have strengths and weaknesses, truths divinely-inspired and human accretions inflicted on the Pure Truth. Most are good or helpful, but all things considered, some are more likely to help individuals and societies conform to Divine Revelation. Other religions are less likely to lead individuals or societies toward the envisioned society recommended in Divine Revelation.

21) The religion to which I belong is one of the better, and probably one of the best religion, although it may not be better or best for everyone.

22) God is an impersonal force without anything like consciousness, self-awareness, or a will.

23) God is a personal God with a personal relationship to each person, a "respecter of persons" who knows each of us much as we know each other or know ourselves, only with all-knowing insight not obscured by the limitations of physical reality.

24) Just as light may be a particle and a wave, neither, or both, so may God be an impersonal force or a personal God.

25) The Universe and reality is "God" and Life is the Universe becoming awake, and the intellectual and spiritual abilities of humanity (and whatever alien species may be more advanced than us) is God/The Universe becoming self-aware and incarnating Universal Mind.

26) The common ground that we appreciate and admire in all religions (such as the Golden Rule, emphasis on love and kindness rather than violence and revenge, idealism of justice and honesty, value of truth, advocacy for peace and obedience to laws and social contracts that keep societies stable, etc.) is the Truth and real object worthy of our adoration.

27) The Truth and real object of our devotion (described in statement 27, above) can be approached directly without going through the filters of religions with superstitious belief systems, so we ought to just abandon the religions with their fantasy beliefs and divisive prejudices, and go straight for the good stuff that emerges in all religions.

I think those make some pretty good discussion statements. I could build a survey to have people rate how strongly they agree or disagree with each statement, and then do some psychometric analysis to see what emerges. I think we could get more insight into liberality in religion by combining a scale like this with some more standard measures of religiosity.

Statements #26 and #27 come pretty much from Richard Dawkins, one of the best atheists for crafting good arguments against belief in God or religion. It's interesting to me that 'Abdu'l-Baha said something not too much different from these statements by saying that it is better to have no religion than to have a religion that causes division and animosity.

One of the issues I'm thinking about regards interfaith dialog. Some say that to have good interfaith dialog you must come from a position that strongly agrees with the statements #16, #18, and #19. It seems to me that most people, even those who are sympathetic to other religions and enjoy interfaith dialog, are more likely to have stronger endorsements of sentiments expressed in statements #14, #15, #17, #20, and #21. If people bother to identify with a particular religion and work in that religion, they probably tend to think that religion is at least marginally superior in its belief systems, teachings, or organization to some other religions. And I think almost anyone who looks at the fruits of a religion can say that whatever religions inspired the Spanish Inquisition, the Aztec mass human sacrifices, the suicide bombers of modern-day terrorism, or the witch burnings, these belief systems are dramatically inferior to whatever religious impulses and organized religions guided people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Mohandas Gandhi, and so forth.

I've made extreme comparisons. It's more difficult to say whether mainstream traditional Unitarians, Quakers, Baha'is, Catholics, United Methodists, Jains, Zoroastrians, and so forth are following better faiths or religions. But you can take extremes (the worst religions, like the cults such as the People's Temple, Branch Davidians, Aum Shinrikyo, etc.) and compare those to the the rest of the world, and it's pretty clear that some religions are really worse than others. Incidentally, I'd consider the religion of Stalinism-Leninism mixed with Russian Nationalism to be a particularly bad religion. So was the Maoism of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the leader-worship of the neo-pagan racialist National Socialism in Germany of the 1930s-1940s, the Militaristic emperor worship of Japan before it was defeated in World War II, and so forth. I'd put the so-called "Islam" of the Taliban in a category with these secular faiths, and probably the sort of Islamic chauvinism of the current Supreme Leader in Iran (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei). American nationalism can be a pretty bad religion as well. With so many bad religions and belief systems available, I just find it difficult to endorse the attitude that all religions are equal or it doesn't matter what religion a person belongs to.