Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A Lively Experiment

Rhode Island has a history of religious tolerance and freedom of conscience. It was originally a sanctuary for those fleeing the despotism of the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony; Roger Williams, founding father of the American Baptist movement, settled on the mainland at the head of Narragansett Bay, while Anne Hutchinson and her followers settled on Aquidneck Island (officially known as Rhode Island). In 1663 the two entities united as a single colony and were granted a charter By Charles II.

The key phrase in that charter declared: "... that it is much on their hearts (if they may be permitted), to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained... with a full liberty in religious concerns." Charles II further declared: "... that our royal will and pleasure is, that no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be in any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences of opinion in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences in matters of religious concerns..."

The freedom of conscience guaranteed in the charter created in Rhode Island, and especially in Newport, a truly amazing religious diversity that added to the cultural wealth of its society. The Society of Friends (Quakers) became a major presence in Newport (which was the capital city of the colony, and later the state, until well into the 19th Century), and their Great Meeting House (built in 1699) eventually became the host of the New England Yearly Meeting of the Society (the New England Yearly Meeting was one of the sources of the Abolition movement).

In 1658 fifteen Jewish families moved to Newport after hearing of the colony's "lively experiment" and founded the Congregation Jeshuat Israel. In 1759 the congregation purchased land and hired famed colonial architect Peter Harrison to design Touro Synagogue (named after Isaac Touro, the congregation's first spiritual leader). The synagogue was finished and dedicated in 1763, and is still standing today. Touro Synagogue also played a major role in establishing religious freedom in the newly established United States when a member of the congregation wrote to George Washington, who replied with his famous "To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport" , which stated that the government of the United States "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance..."

The Quaker and Jewish presences in Newport aren't the only result of that colonial charter, just the most famous. Newport is dotted with old buildings that, at the start of their history, served as houses of worship for small gatherings of believers: the Union Congregational Church on Division St., the first free African-American church in America; the Sabbatarian Meeting House on Touro St., now the home of the Newport Historical Society; The John Clarke Memorial Church on Spring St., one of the first churches of the American Baptist movement (and now pastored by a good friend of mine, Paul Hanson, a very genial, easy-going guy with a dry, wicked sense of humor); St. Paul's Methodist on Marlborough St., the first Methodist church to sport a steeple; and a score of other former churches which, like the Union Congregational church, have since been converted to residences.

Because of the vision of the founders of the colony, and because of the guarantee of freedom of conscience written into their colonial charter at their request, Newport has a rich spiritual heritage and holds a major place in the development of the concept of religious freedom in the history of the United States. It's something we take pride in here, and something we celebrate.

But look back at that original charter, that guarantee that within the colony no one would be pressured, harassed, punished, or otherwise disturbed because they enjoyed freedom of religious belief. How refreshing that is! And how far from the current state of affairs in the contemporary US, where we have a major effort being launched by religious despots, direct descendants of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to impose their beliefs and their methods of governance on the people and the government of the United States. People who consider freedom of conscience to be "slack", "lax", "lazy", and most important of all, a sin. People who think that those who believe differently than they must either be converted or punished and removed from "their" society. People who would re-write our history to accommodate their own vision of what that history should have been. People who view any kind of diversity as evil.

The colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations gained great benefit from their practice of freedom of conscience. Given the present situation, I think it's time that our entire country revived that "lively experiment." What say you?

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Familiar Scenes, Different View

I gave myself a task today as I started out on my Sunday hike. I'd go to all my favorite places and take the usual photographs of the usual subjects, but this time it would all be in black and white - bug and flower macros, land- and seascapes, birds, sailboats, whatever. And I gave myself options as I shot - for each subject I took shots in b&w (for reference if for nothing else), and in color (to convert in Photoshop). Then I'd pick which method produced the best photo.

Not everything I shot today produced a usable b&w picture. It was a bright, sometimes harshly sunny day, and that can create contrast problems. I think some of the shots that didn't work would have on an overcast day. Backgrounds were a problem as well - sometimes the subject stands out in color but blends right into the background in b&w, because although they're different colors, in grayscale they produce the same shade of gray. Oh well...

As usual, the hike started in Ballard Park, where the White Wood Asters, a sure sign of Autumn coming, are starting to bloom along the trails:

Down Hazard Rd. to Gooseneck Cove and the salt marsh, to this high tide scene:

Just a little way down Hazard Rd. from this scene is Salt Marsh House, and right beside it is a tangled area of wildflowers, briars, reeds, and Poison Ivy. Among the wildflowers growing there is this Great Lobelia:

and some Orange Jewelweed:

It turned into a breezy day, with a brisk one out of the NW, and I knew this meant that the sailboats were out in force, so I headed up to Fort Adams. The first boat I saw was this lovely little ketch just coming out of the harbor into the bay:

And I caught her again farther down the bay off Jamestown on a following breeze, sails taut and pushing:

My old friend, the schooner
Aurora, came sailing down the bay trailing the ketch:

Another boat, this time a 12 Meter, came out of the harbor to head down the bay. I believe US18 is Intrepid, but I'm not sure.

And here comes the schooner
Adirondack II:

Another old friend, the schooner
Madeleine, came tooling up the bay:

And a little later the schooner
Aquidneck came racing along, hull down and heading for home:

Well, it was a long hike, and the wind, sun, and walking took the oomph out of me, so I decided to take the water taxi back to town rather than hike back in on Harrison Ave. with all that traffic. Ah! the only way to travel! As we pulled into the dock at Oldport Marine, I caught this shot of the draggers pulled up to Parascondolas' docks, the Shadowfax in the front of the line:

And that was today's hike and photographic challenge.

Extra Picture:
This shot never made it to the b&w stage. This big, beautiful Common Green Darner dragonfly just blended into the background too well. It was problematic even in color, and I had to do some tweaking in Photoshop to make it work. So here's today's extra pic:

Friday, August 29, 2008

We Only Fool Ourselves

I was a member of the Baha'i Faith from 1971 to 2003. When I joined in 1971, it seemed to fulfill all my longings, preaching a liberal if not radical social gospel while still appealing to my need for a spiritual basis for this kind of teaching. Among the beliefs emphasized were:
  • The equality of men and women;
  • The elimination of all forms of prejudice;
  • World peace upheld by a world government organized on federalist principles;
  • The independent investigation of truth;
  • Universal education;
  • Ending the extremes of wealth and poverty.

And more like this. What made it unique was that it was part of a religion! Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i Faith, claimed to be the messenger of God for this day, and that these social principals were what GOD wanted humanity to do. NOW!

You can imagine the attraction for someone like me - a progressive social agenda wedded to a spiritual base. And I wasn't the only one of my particular bent to be thus attracted; the American and European Baha'i communities experienced a huge jump in youth conversions in the '60s and '70s. "Hippies" and spiritually-minded social radicals found the Baha'i Faith irresistible.

This influx of young, intelligent, educated, and enthusiastic new converts had a dramatic effect on the American Baha'i community. This newest generation of converts immediately became involved in all aspects of the Faith - writing articles, serving on the local governing boards of the Faith, becoming vocal community advocates of what they perceived to be the important aspects of the Baha'i Faith. They were intent on bringing the Baha'i community into the mainstream of the effort to revitalize America and make it the spiritual as well as material leader of the world. They took seriously Shoghi Effendi's (leader of the Baha'i Faith from 1921 - 1957) exhortation to keep the Faith at the "forefront of all progressive movements." (The World Order of Baha'u'llah, p. 23)

But in the late 1980s the institutions of the Baha'i Faith began balking at the enthusiasms of this wave of idealists. Foremost in these efforts at stemming an activist tide was the constant reminder that Baha'u'llah told Baha'is to stay out of partisan politics and not to interfere in the workings of governments. And they imposed quite a literal interpretation of that principle. The Baha'i Faith teaches that racial discrimination is evil, but the institutions of the Faith deemed it unwarranted interference in the affairs of a "legally" elected government for Baha'is to be involved in the disinvestment movement against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Participation in peace and disarmament marches was first criticized and then outright forbidden, despite the fact that the Baha'i Faith claims to be working for a lasting world peace. There were other similar issues.

In 1986 the more enthusiastic advocates of a more public stand on progressive social issues created a magazine, Dialogue, to provide a public forum for these kinds of issues within the American Baha'i community. The editors, contributors, even those who wrote letters to the editor, were all approached by representatives of the National Spiritual Assembly of the US (the national governing body of the American Baha'i community) and told they were walking on thin ice. In 1988 an article entitled A Modest Proposal: Recommendations Toward the Revitalization of the American Baha'i Community, was submitted to the NSA for pre-publication approval (all materials about or concerning the Baha'i Faith by Baha'i authors and scholars have to be submitted to the NSA for review - can you say censorship?). Several members of the NSA seemed to be enthusiastic about the article, but at the National Convention in April of that year (this annual convention elects the members of the NSA and discusses general community affairs) the editors and authors were condemned - in general session from the podium - for even considering publication of the article, which they denounced as an attempt to "dictate" to the NSA. Dialogue ceased publication soon after that.

There were other issues as well. The Baha'i Faith advocates the equality of men and women but doesn't allow women to serve on its highest governing institution, the Universal House of Justice. The Faith has laws forbidding alcohol and drug use, but refuses to deal with the problems of Baha'is suffering from addiction; in their eyes, since it's forbidden, no Baha'i imbibes so there can't be an addiction problem. Ditto AIDS. Oh yes, and homosexuality, or to be as specific as the institutions get on the issue, the practice of homosexuality is condemned as unnatural. Gay men and lesbians are allowed to become Baha'is, but they're not allowed to live together or have same-sex partners; instead they're exhorted to live a life of "noble sacrifice" in order to show their love for Baha'u'llah.

Needless to say, the children of the '60s who flooded the ranks of the American Baha'i community were increasingly disheartened, and many began to leave. Many still stayed, but starting in the '90s the Universal House of Justice began removing the membership of people who they claimed "didn't have a proper understanding" of the teachings and purpose of the Baha'i Faith. And some are still hanging in there, trying to find ways to keep the struggle alive.

Many of the people who stayed, and many who were ousted, still lay claim to a love for Baha'u'llah and see the current repression as an aberration and a departure from the original teachings of Baha'u'llah, and seek to reform the Baha'i Faith. I used to be one of those, but after much consideration and research, I finally figured out that we were only fooling ourselves. That repressive spirit is written in the writings of Baha'u'llah, his son 'Abdu'l-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi, 'Abdu'l-Baha's grandson and successor. Let's face it, the exclusion of women from the UHJ and the condemnation of homosexuality are in the sacred scriptures of the Baha'i Faith.

The progressive social agenda is just a facade over something much darker; there is in the writings of Baha'u'llah an advocacy of blind obedience, and a condemnation of things that we as Americans hold as basic truths. For instance, this passage which I tried to pass over and ignore for 32 years:

"Consider the pettiness of men's minds. They ask for that which injureth them, and cast away the thing that profiteth them. They are, indeed, of those that are far astray. We find some men desiring liberty, and priding themselves therein. Such men are in the depths of ignorance.
"Liberty must, in the end, lead to sedition, whose flames none can quench. Thus warneth you He Who is the Reckoner, the All-Knowing. Know ye that the embodiment of liberty and its symbol is the animal. That which beseemeth man is submission unto such restraints as will protect him from his own ignorance, and guard him against the harm of the mischief-maker. Liberty causeth man to overstep the bounds of propriety, and to infringe on the dignity of his station. It debaseth him to the level of extreme depravity and wickedness.

"Regard men as a flock of sheep that need a shepherd for their protection. This, verily, is the truth, the certain truth. We approve of liberty in certain circumstances, and refuse to sanction it in others. We, verily, are the All-Knowing.

"Say: True liberty consisteth in man's submission unto My commandments, little as ye know it. Were men to observe that which We have sent down unto them from the Heaven of Revelation, they would, of a certainty, attain unto perfect liberty. Happy is the man that hath apprehended the Purpose of God in whatever He hath revealed from the Heaven of His Will, that pervadeth all created things. Say: The liberty that profiteth you is to be found nowhere except in complete servitude unto God, the Eternal Truth. Whoso hath tasted of its sweetness will refuse to barter it for all the dominion of earth and heaven."
- Gleanings from the Writing of Baha'u'llah, p. 335 - 336

And these others are equally disturbing:

"Mankind in its entirety must firmly adhere to whatsoever hath been revealed and vouchsafed unto it. Then and only then will it attain unto true liberty."
- Gleanings, p. 96

"It is incumbent upon them who are in authority to exercise moderation in all things. Whatsoever passeth beyond the limits of moderation will cease to exert a beneficial influence. Consider for instance such things as liberty, civilization and the like. However much men of understanding may favorably regard them, they will, if carried to excess, exercise a pernicious influence upon men."
- Gleanings, p. 216 [Note: This one always bothered me a lot; how can civilization be considered excessive???]

In 1992 the Universal House of Justice published the definitive translation (Baha'u'llah wrote in Arabic and Farsi) of the Kitab-i-Aqdas (literally the Most Holy Book), Baha'ullah's book of laws. There had been other translations by non-Baha'i scholars, but the official Baha'i version had to have a lot of footnotes, attached documents, and addenda. Why? Because the laws themselves are labyrinthine (e.g. the laws of inheritance and marriage), ridiculous (exhortations to clip toenails, change your furniture every 19 years, men to neither shave their heads nor grow their hair long), or downright barbaric (the punishment for arson is for the arsonist himself to be burnt to death). The extraneous additions are all later writings meant to try to make sense out of all of it and to try to make the more barbaric punishments more humane.

But aside from a canon of laws , it also contains some pretty disturbing statements regarding the individual's freedom of conscience:

"Everything that is hath come to be through His irresistible decree. Whenever My laws appear like the sun in the heaven of Mine utterance, they must be faithfully obeyed by all, though My decree be such as to cause the heaven of every religion to be cleft asunder. He doeth what He pleaseth. He chooseth, and none may question His choice."
- Kitab-i-Aqdas, verse 7

"Beware lest, through compassion, ye neglect to carry out the statutes of the religion of God; do that which hath been bidden you by Him Who is compassionate and merciful. We school you with the rod of wisdom and laws, like unto the father who educateth his son, and this for naught but the protection of your own selves and the elevation of your stations. By My life, were ye to discover what We have desired for you in revealing Our holy laws, ye would offer up your very souls for this sacred, this mighty, and most exalted Faith."
- Kitáb-i-Aqdas, verse 45

One of the more common phrases in Baha'u'llah's writings is "He doeth what He willeth"; that God is supreme and will do whatever he wants and we mere humans have no option but to obey. The following is probably the epitome of that attitude:

"O thou who hast fixed thy gaze upon the Dawning-Place of the Cause of God! Know thou for a certainty that the Will of God is not limited by the standards of the people, and God doth not tread in their ways. Rather is it incumbent upon everyone to firmly adhere to God's straight Path. Were He to pronounce the right to be the left or the south to be the north, He speaketh the truth and there is no doubt of it. Verily He is to be praised in His acts and to be obeyed in His behests. He hath no associate in His judgement nor any helper in His sovereignty. He doeth whatsoever He willeth and ordaineth whatsoever He pleaseth."
- Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, pp. 109 - 110

After many years of trying to convince myself that I wasn't a total sucker, I finally gave up and sent my letter of resignation to the NSA. And when some of my good friends who are still bent on reformation ask me why I gave up, I show them these passages (which I know they're familiar with) and say, "The current ruling regime hasn't strayed from the original purity; Baha'ullah hard-wired religious despotism into his writings from the very beginning. Sorry, but I can't follow a god who thinks I need to be treated like a mindless sheep."

I have nothing against Baha'is themselves; I still have a lot of friends in the American Baha'i community (although a lot of people dropped me like a hot potato after I unenrolled myself). I'm even still on one Google mailing list of Baha'is pursuing Biblical Studies (the list owner is my mentor in the field of Biblical studies, I read Hebrew and Koine Greek, and as Daniel points out, even though I'm no longer a Baha'i I still have a post-Christian perspective on the Bible). And if they want to keep on believing that Baha'u'llah is the messenger of god for modern times, and that his religion will usher in the golden age of humanity, then more power to them.

But as I say to my reform-minded friends, we only fool ourselves. And I finally decided I couldn't do that any more.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Recent Photos

Here are what I consider to be the best of the photos I've taken in the last 30 days or so. There are some black & white nature shots in here; this is something I've been playing with lately. I'm quite surprised at the beauty to be found even when you eliminate color.

A Little Blue Heron in the Gooseneck Cove salt marsh:

The schooner Aurora passing by the Rose Island Lighthouse:

Castle Hill Light taken from the Block Island Ferry:

A Purple Coneflower in the old quarry in Ballard Park:

A Canada Darner dragonfly along Hazard Rd.:

A very close-up macro of Queen Anne's Lace:

An Orb Weaver spider just outside my back door:

A large patch of Black-eyed Susans at the entrance to The Inn at Castle Hill:

A Calico Pennant dragonfly in the Gooseneck Cove salt marsh:

I took many more, and many are published on my page, but I think these are the best of the lot.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Four Pillars of Creation

[Originally published on July 19, 2008]

The four elements of classical Greek philosophy - Fire, Earth, Air, and Water - were described by Plato as the pillars of creation. They have been used throughout over two millenia as the basis for decribing how the cosmos works, first in early Western science, and later in the esoteric movements of the late 19th century and into the 20th. Naturally, now we have the Periodic Table of Elements (up to 118 currently), a more scientific description of the building blocks of creation. But the four Platonic elements are still a poetic evocation of how creation works, and still possess a great power to inspire.

As part of the IPC July challenge of shooting b&w still life scenes, I decided to do a series of still lifes illustrating the four elements. I went through a lot of trial and error before finally arriving at what I consider the best evocations of those elements. Here they are, along with a little meditation on each.


Fire is hot and bright.
Fire generates heat and light.
Fire warms and shines a light in the darkness.
Fire is the genesis of Creation.


Earth is solid and firm.
Earth is brown and gray but wears a rainbow cloak.
Earth owns, possesses.
Earth is the womb that bears Creation.


Air is light and swift.
Air perceives, sees.
Air hears and communicates.
Air informs Creation.


Water is deep and still.
Water lies under all and holds the secrets.
Water rises out of the deep and transcends.
Water nourishes Creation.

Extra Picture:
I won that challenge, by the way; but not for any of the four shots above. I won it for the following shot of a ceramic mortar and pestle on a bamboo chopping block. Still and all, it was a great challenge.

Words to Live By

[Originally published on, August 10, 2008]

I came across an interesting quote this week. In the "New Ground" episode of the Stargate SG-1 TV show an off-world scientist is hiding Teal'c, one of the SG-1 team, from the rather fanatically religious military forces of his planet. Teal'c asks Nyan, the scientist, why he's protecting him when his (Teal'c's) very existence belies the theories held by Nyan and his country's scientific community. Nyan's answer is a classic: "Teal'c, I'm a scientist. When I find evidence that my theories are wrong, it's as exciting as if they were correct."

I like that quote. It's one of those things that resonates so loudly, a truth that bears repeating as "words to live by": "When I find evidence that my theories are wrong, it's as exciting as if they were correct."

This describes the scientific method in a nutshell. To be valid, a scientific theory has to first be proposed as a hypothesis and then tested. The results of the testing must be repeatable, and the effects consistently observable. And scientific theories aren't static; they change or are revised according to new evidence discovered and new methodologies developed. Science isn't a final description of the universe and how it works; rather, it's a work-in-progress, and the process never ends.

In the US we have a conflict between science and certain religious groups similar to the conflict on Nyan's planet. This conflict covers a range of subjects, but the one that ends up in the courts and thus gets reported in the newspapers most is the fight over teaching evolution theory in the public schools.

Now, the establishment clause in the First Amendment of the US Constitution forbids the teaching of religious belief in the biology classes of this nation, so these religious groups have tried to disguise their particular creation myth as "science" by giving it some "scientific" names - creationism (or creation science) and intelligent design theory. But every time these groups have taken their case to the courts to force school districts to teach their "scientific alternative" in biology classes, the case has either been lost or dismissed out of hand. The courts have unilaterally decreed that the religious groups' "science" doesn't fit the criteria of the scientific method, and so cannot be taught as science in a science class.

The evolution theory currently taught in the public schools does fit these criteria. It's testable, the results are consistently repeatable, and the phenomena are consistently observable in the natural world. And it has adapted and been revised continuously since Charles Darwin first proposed it, according to new evidence discovered and new methodologies developed. It hasn't remained static.

Creationism and intelligent design theory, on the other hand, fail miserably to adhere to the criteria demanded by the scientific method. They aren't testable, and they're not observable in the natural world. In fact their proponents would consider it blasphemy to subject their "theory" to testing, nor would they allow it to be revised or changed in light of the discovery of new evidence and the development of new methodologies. They believe that these theories are the immutable, eternal, and universal TRUTH as written in their particular scriptures.

And this is why the courts won't grant them what they want, because what they want is to have the govenment mandate the adoption of the particular creation myth of a particular religious group by the science curriculum of the public schools. And according to the First Amendment, you just can't do that: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...."; the Fourteenth Amendment has extended this prohibition to the state and local levels of government.

But really, just on pure moral grounds, aside from any constitutional issues, who really holds the moral high ground in this conflict? The person who holds that his particular belief system is the immutable, eternal, and universal truth and must be enforced as the law of the land? Or the person who sincerely states: "When I find evidence that my theories are wrong, it's as exciting as if they were correct."

I think the answer is obvious.


Mi'ráj, "ascent", refers to the Prophet Muhammad's night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and His ascent to Heaven, described in the Qur'án, chapter 17 verse 1. Many modern commentators believe it to be an allegorical description of an intense spiritual experience.


Dusk in the desert; light enough to see forms, too dark for details.
A magic time, when saguaros stand like Muslims praying the maghrib.
A symphony of sounds, harmony and counterpoint, as the dwellers in desolation awaken in the heat's slow dying.

In the shadow of boulders a spark flashes, then glows, then bursts into flame.
A man sits there - an old man, not much to look at.
Ragged clothes, worn down boots.
Indian, tribe unknown.

An owl pops out of a tall saguaro nearby.
The old man looks up, says "Grandson."
The owl bobs, says "Grandfather", and flies off.

The old man returns his gaze to the fire, to the rabbit roasting on a spit.
He sings a song, a prayer, to the rabbit, saying: "Forgive me, brother, but I must eat."
He prays to the Spirit, in the tongue of the Spirit, which knows no words.

Night in the desert.
Complete darkness; no forms, just sounds, a fire, and an old man singing.


There is no Art in the city, just stark, barren utility.
Can't get a job, have to join the union first.
Good Lord! Have to have that bloody card just to play back-up for a third-rate Barry Manilow cutting his first demo.
God forbid you should write your own songs!
And for heaven's sake don't tell them you want to make your presence felt in the music world.
Don't tell them you want to experiment, point out new directions.
Nobody wants an artist, just a hack to keep 'em dancing.

Just walk the streets for now, look at the people.
Uh oh! Have you looked at the people lately?
You're in the ghetto, baby; heavy tunes!
Poor li'l honkey, with all those black folks looking at you like you just did something nasty.
Slow down, walk naturally, just smile and look pretty.
Turn down this street, then head down the next block toward downtown.

What's that?? Music!
Beautiful, moving music.
Swaying music, sweet harmony, soul syncopation.
Well, go on in, it's a church; you'll be safe there, listening to all that pretty music.

And so the music goes on, one hymn into another, glory glory hallelujah, world without end, amen.
Then the piano stops.
And the choir stops.
And the congregation stops.
And a little black man in a dark suit steps up to the pulpit.
And he looks out over that sea of black heads stilled by the silence.
And he zeroes right in on you.
And he begins to speak.

You ain't so bad off.
Oh, I know you can't find a job.
Yeah, and I know you're hungry and you got to pay that rent.
Ain't nothin new about that.
Ain't even any shame in it.
Lots of people been there before; they got through and so will you.

You might have to go a little hungrier than you want.
And you might have to go a little colder than you want to.
But you'll get through.

Now you may think you wandered into the wrong place.
You may not want to be in no city.
You may not want to be in no ghetto.
You may not even want to be in no church.
But it don't matter, 'cause that's where you are now.
Stick around and check it out.

Because, you know, this could be the turning point in your life.
It could be you're here 'cause God wants to give you a sign.
It could be that from here you're goin to go on to be what you were meant to be.
Or it could be that you're just here to find shelter from whatever demons are chasin you.
It don't matter.
Stick around and check it out.

And now you're on the verge of tears; you feel you don't belong here, but you don't want to leave.
But it's alright, because the little black man in the dark suit is looking at you and saying:
"Stay awhile; come on and sing with us."
So you stay.
And you sing.


After seeing her husband off, after that long morning of chores and errands, she rests.
She sits down by the crib, gazing in at the sleeping baby.

What are you dreaming, little one?
What is it you've seen today, or yesterday, or any day, that reflects itself in your sleep?
Or do you still dream of that floating darkness in which you lived for so long, only to be pushed reluctantly into a new world of bright light and noise?

Do you know what a wonder you are?
Such a small thing, yet so complex.
Miles and miles of nerves, blood vessels, and organs; such a complicated system in such a small box.
And to think that you grew from one tiny cell!

I think I remember the night you began, that act of love between your father and I.
And I remember carrying you those nine months, sharing with you everything I had, everything I was, and everything I felt, and saw, and heard, and smelled, and tasted.
Did you feel them too, and see, and hear, and smell, and taste?
Did you feel your own growth, as I felt it?
Did you know when you kicked, or reached out, there in my womb?
Did you feel my heartbeat and hear my thoughts?
And did you know when it was your time to be born, and feel my pain and my joy?

Such a wonder you are!

- © A. Roy Hilbinger, December, 1981 - January, 1983

Thoughts on Being Pagan

[Originally published on, June 30, 2008]

There's a lot of hot and bothered people in the Pagan community these days, ever since Cathy Lee Gifford mentioned "the nasty, bad pagans" while doing a wedding faux pas survey during the Today Show. I don't know what all the fuss is about; most of America knows that Cathy Lee is an empty-headed Barbie doll wannabe and nobody really even hears her when she opens her mouth, much less pays attention to what comes out of it. But I digress...

All of this, and some discussions amongst fellow Pagans, got me to thinking about what I really mean when I call myself a Pagan. I'm not a Wiccan or a member of any of the other organized groups working under the general blanket of "Pagan" or "Neo-Pagan" (although I have a real affinity for Oberon Zell and his people). I'm what the Pagan websites would usually label "eclectic" and "solitary". I observe the European-based Wheel of the Year and celebrate the quarters and cross-quarters (I love Samhain/Halloween and Yule), I work with the Tarot and Runes, and some of the objects on my altar are a nod to the traditional European "elements" - earth air, fire, and water. But...

I also work with the I Ching, and my version of the Tarot (I have my own self-designed, hand-drawn deck) is based more on the work of C.G. Jung than on Egyptian mythology or the principles laid down by the Order of the Golden Dawn. I really like the Tao Te Ching, and Rumi's works, and Zen and Sufism. And I have statuettes of Ganesha and the Laughing Buddha - both symbols of home, family, hearth, prosperity - and a Tibetan singing bowl on my altar. And most of my spiritual philosophy is based on Matthew Fox's Creation Spirituality theology.

That previous paragraph there makes a lot of Pagans of my acquaintance say that I'm not really Pagan because I accept those "foreign" elements into my belief system. Of course I point out to them that the roots of modern Paganism, which is more accurately called Neo-Paganism, was created out of equally diverse and "foreign" sources. LOL!!! So far that hasn't changed anybody's mind, but they stop bugging me.

The source of my Paganism is the source of the word "pagan" itself - it comes from the Latin paganus, which means "country dweller", from pagus, country. In Roman times pagans were the farmers, close to the earth, worshipping the earth dieties like Pan and his fauns, and following the rhythms of the seasons moreso than the urban dwellers. And that's what defines my own Paganism.

To me being a Pagan means following an earth-based, human-centered spirituality. I'm a real Nature Boy; if you want to hang out with me you need to own a pair of hiking boots. I consider Creation to be sacred, and I'm spiritually moved walking through a forest, or sitting on a rock while the waves crash against it, or looking up at the night sky, or looking at the Hubble deep space pictures.

Most "organized" religion teaches that the physical creation - Earth. the Cosmos, and especially our bodies - is somehow inferior, flawed, incomplete. The Augustinian angst that flows through most of Christianity teaches that everything associated with the human body is dirty (especially sex), and Augustine himself described man as "born amid urine and feces." The less radical approaches still see physical creation as at least a distraction from man's real "reality". The Buddhists even go so far as to declare Creation as not there at all, just an illusion of an unenlightened mind.

Well, I don't buy any of that. I love Earth, I love Nature, I love the Cosmos, and I love all our oh-so-human bodies. If you're going to believe in a God, at least admit that what this God created carries on His/Her sacred nature; if it's all so nasty as Augustine thought, a truly Divine Being wouldn't have been capable of creating it. And if it's not there at all, then what's the purpose of creating the illusion in the first place? Sorry, but to me all that is plain, unadulterated nonsense!

As far as I'm concerned, we're here to celebrate the great gift of life that we've been given. That's what my Paganism is all about! So I go hiking and take pictures of all the critters and trees and hills and coves and all that I see. And I celebrate the harvest season with ale and cider and Lammas bread, and the Winter darkness with a burning log and Holly and evergreens. It's all wonderful - celebrate it!

Drama in the Sky

[Originally published on, June 1, 2008]

Our day started out very foggy today, but by noon the fog had burned off. But the fog didn't exactly go away; instead it piled up in the sky to the north of us, giving a dramatic cloudscape for the afternoon. I first noticed the dramatic sky walking on my "country lane" route up on Beacon Hill Rd., where I took the first two shots. I kept going until I came to King Park on the southern end of Newport Harbor, where I promptly claimed a bench and started shooting. I shot in black & white with a circular polarizer filter to make the clouds as clear and dramatic as possible.

The Newport Waterfront in Black & White

[Originally posted on May 23. 2008]

I went out the door this morning with no clear idea as to where I was going. But after stopping at the Cumberland Farms store for my PowerBall ticket, I figured I'd keep going downtown. Once downtown I headed for the waterfront, and looking at the fishing boats (the pleasure boat fleet isn't here in any strength yet; a tad too early) and docks and cranes, I thought it would make a great b&w subject. So I headed north up Washington St. and started this photo safari by the Van Zandt Pier shooting the Newport Bridge, and worked my way south to King Park at the southern end of Newport Harbor.

The Newport Bridge, officially named the Claiborne Pell Bridge:

Fishing boats in the inner harbor off Long Wharf:

The Goat Island Light:

Fishing boats off Perry Mill Wharf, viewed from the north:

Fishing boats off Perry Mill Wharf, viewed from the south:

I call this one "Two Worlds" - pleasure boats and lobster pots at Brown and Howard Wharf:

A gazebo at dock's end off Brown and Howard Wharf:

The docks off Waite's Wharf:

The docks off Coddington Wharf:

The Spencer Pavillion in King Park, looking north over the harbor:

The Rochambeau Monument in King Park. Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau, was a Lieutenant General under Lafayette. He landed with his troops at Newport and marched south to meet up with Washington and his troops at Dobbs Ferry, NY, where they marched south and trapped the British forces at Yorktown, VA. I used to live an an old colonial house that was right across the street from Rochambeau's headquarters at the corner of Mary and Clarke Streets.

And that's our b&w Newport Harbor walk.

Re-discovering the Divine Mother in the Torah

[Originally published on, April 27, 2008]

Let me show you something interesting.

In the King James Version of the Bible Deuteronomy 32:18 is worded this way: "Of the Rock that begat thee thou art unmindful, and hast forgotten God that formed thee." Note well the verbs used here: to beget (to father, to sire) and to form. Both masculine expressions of the act of creation.

Why is this interesting? Because here is the Hebrew original from which it was translated:
transliteration: tsuur ylaadkhaa teshii wa-tishkah! el mh!ollekhaa.

A more accurate translation of this would be: "You were unmindful of the Rock that brought you forth, and you forgot the God who labored to give birth to you." The Hebrew verbs used are yalad (to bear, to bring forth) and h!iyl (to writhe, to twist, to be in labor, to give birth to), both feminine expressions of the act of creation.

How did such a discrepancy come about? Ah, therein lies a tale!

Long ago in the mists of time the ancient Hebrews were polytheists, like everyone else in the world at the time. Their monotheism based on the High God YHWH emerged only gradually, and even after it triumphed as the "official" national religion a polytheistic folk religion existed side by side with it. When a scriptural canon was eventually compiled and written, elements of the old polytheism, including expressions of the Divine Mother, survived embedded in the text, due to the magnitude of the job and the wide diversity of the materials being compiled. Deuteronomy 32:18 is an example of those old expressions slipping through the editorial net.

Much later on Christianity, which grew out of Judaism, claimed the Hebrew canon as the "prequel" to their own canon. But Christianity was virulently misogynistic; the early Church Fathers, most notably Augustine of Hippo, even argued that women had no souls. Naturally a religion so anti-female couldn't accomodate the idea of the Divine Feminine, so translations of the Hebrew canon buried the Mother under masculine terminology.

[Note: Oddly enough the Greek Orthodox canon preserves those expressions of the Divine Feminine. There was a pre-Christian Greek translation of the Tanakh (the Hebrew name for the Hebrew Bible) which came out of Egypt and was called the Septuagint, or LXX, and was intended to be used by Jews living in the Graeco-Roman world outside the traditional Hebrew homeland. The Greek church adopted the LXX as its "Old Testament" unmodified, and so preserved the original intent of the Jewish canon. Deuteronomy 32:18 runs thus in the LXX:
transliteration: theon ton gennesanta se engkatelipes kai epelathou theou tou trephontos se.

This translates as: "The god who brought you forth you abandoned, and you forgot the God who nurtured you." As you can see, the feminine expression survives.]

Since the 1950s Biblical translation has gotten more accurate and honest. The expressions of the Divine Mother embedded in the Hebrew text are being restored, at least in most English translations. The ESV (English Standard Version), which is the 21st Century update of the Revised Standard Version of the 1950s, translates Deuteronomy 32:18 thus: "You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth."

Hopefully Christianity, which has accepted the Father all along, is now beginning to discover the Mother as well. After all, a healthy, functioning Family of Humanity needs both the Mother and the Father, something the rest of us accepted long ago.

Los Pequeños Milagros

[Note: This was originally written in 2000 in response to some friends who accused me of being a "materialist" because I didn't agree with their views on spirituality.]

I've been thinking about miracles lately because of an interesting linguistic oddity. The Spanish word for miracle is "milagro", and in Mexican Spanish milagro also means gift or blessing.

The reason this makes me think is because I've noticed that you have to be very careful about miracles. Did you ever notice that those who perform them are very private about it and don't want word to get around? Jesus was always telling people not to tell what He'd done for them, but instead to repent and sin no more. There was a follower of Muhammad who tallied up a whole book's worth of tales of Muhammad's miracles - Muhammad made the believer hand over the book, which He promptly tore up and threw in a well, telling the believer that physical miracles had no meaning except for the person they happened to; the real, important miracles were the ones resulting from the power of the Holy Spirit on the individual soul. The physical stuff was just window-dressing for the ignorant and illiterate.

Jesus was also always telling His followers that miracles only had meaning for the individual they happened to, and meant absolutely nothing for anybody else. And Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl,an early Bahá'í scholar, wrote in his book Miracles and Metaphors (I'm paraphrasing, because I don't have access to the book at the moment): Sometimes what looks like a miracle isn't, and is in fact totally useless and meaningless. A person gets sick and calls a doctor. When the doctor arrives, the sick person asks, "Are you any good?" And the doctor says "Yes, and to prove it, I'm going to fly around the room." But how does flying around the room prove how good a doctor is at practicing healing? It doesn't - all it proves is that you're probably better off looking for another doctor.

I've been looking at some of the recent writing on miracles lately, and they all look a bit too much like the doctor flying around the room. People are being wowed by the flashy stuff, and totally missing the point. And really getting the true point is where the concept of "gift" comes in.

A classic example of people missing the true miracle because they got hung up on the physical manifestation is the old story of the loaves and fishes. Here you have all these people gathered on this big old hill, some of whom have travelled for days, to listen to Jesus give His best sermon - the Beatitudes, where He tells everybody that it's the small, and the oppressed, and the poor, who will inherit the earth. And afterwards there are all these people, and the disciples are worried about how all these people are going to be fed, because they're far from any town where they might go and buy some food from a food-stall in the marketplace.

Now the traditional interpretation of what happened next is a classic example of getting misled by appearances and missing the point. Because the traditional interpretation is that Jesus grabbed a passing group of fishermen and turned their collective lunch of 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread into a full meal with leftovers for 5,000 people. Excuse me???? Who are we watching here, Jesus or Doug Henning? C'mon, now! In the miracle business, making fish and bread expand is on the level of pulling a quarter out of the mark's ear, or forcing him to pick the card you want out of the deck. Any dime-a-dozen Nostradamus can pull a stunt like that!

No, here's the real miracle. You've got close to 5,000 people on this hillside. Roughly half of them have come out from the nearest town, and they've each brought along the equivalent of a picnic lunch. The other half are people who have come a long way to see Jesus and hear Him speak, and they have nothing with them at this point but the clothes on their backs. Now when the people from town see how things look when they get there, they put 2 and 2 together and figure they're gonna be called on to feed all these other people, so they surreptitiously slip the food under their robes and pretend they're as foodless as the others - it's their food; why should they have to share it with a bunch of dusty, smelly strangers? But in the course of talking to them, Jesus opens up their hearts, His words investing the power of the Holy Spirit on their souls, so that when the sermon is over and it's time to settle down and think about what to do for lunch, the people from town have been so opened up by the influence of the Holy Spirit laid on them by Jesus that they just naturally pull all that food out from under their robes and start divvying it up with the people around them. Meanwhile the Disciples have grabbed the fishermen and comandeered their lunch, and when they see all the food left over, they think Jesus pulled a fast one and passed His hands over the fish and the loaves and multiplied them. No, what Jesus did was far more meaningful than that - He opened the hearts of those people and taught them to share. That's far more meaningful than what amounts to a simple magic trick akin to pulling a rabbit out of a hat!

And that's the problem with miracles -we're too apt to be distracted and wowed by the big, flashy, physical stuff,and miss the little things that happen every day, los pequeños milagros, the little blessings, little gifts, little miracles. Down in Mexico, the Aztecs and Mixtecs and Zapatecas, etc. inhabited the land. They often wore lots of jewelry - carved jade, little molded or carved bits of gold or silver, or pieces of ceramic or stone - representing various gods and goddesses. When the Spanish came and conquered the land and forced the people to abandon their previous religions and accept Christianity, they confiscated all that jewelry and threw it away, and destroyed the temples and plowed them and their contents under the soil. Now, centuries later, these little bits of sacred jewelry pop up from beneath the ground - after a rain, while plowing, when digging a grave, etc. And now the people see them as little gifts, little blessings left by this Saint or that one, to be found unexpectedly and thus bless the life of the finder. Los pequeños milagros.

Our lives are full of these little blessings, little things we collect throughout the course of every day, which affect our lives in a small but significant way. Let the foolish be wowed by the big dramatic stuff. It's the little, undramatic things which mean the most and effect the most lasting change. Los pequeños milagros.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Let's Relight This Candle!

Okay, I'm a bad boy! I haven't done much with this blog in a while. But I'm back, and in the next few days I'll be republishing some articles I've published on, just to fill in the gap. Then we'll get down to business on a regular basis. I hope.

Picture of the day:

Castle Hill Light in Newport, RI, taken from the deck of the Block Island Ferry on August 13, 2008. I went on a little day trip the other day. You can read the photo essay on it on my page.