Monday, August 2

Not Saying Farewell … Just Taking A Break

In the immortal words of the country-and-western parody song “Wildwood Weed,” “All good things gotta come to an end”.  Well, so, too, do these “Skeptic’s Collection” columns. So please consider this “Skeptic’s” column my personal Ave atque vale to you, my faithful regular readers and fellow-skeptics. (Both of you?) I began writing this column, believe it or not, 'way back in October of 2013 with “Oil, Water, and Marriage Equality” back when the column was called “Thoughtful Thursday”. Terri Stewart, who at that time I had only ever met on Facebook, admired my snarky sense of humor in some of my Facebook posts, and invited me to join the embryonic (at the time) set of contributing editors to her nascent Beguine blog. (It was also through Terri that I became acquainted with the folks on the Be-Zine, my other sibling community, including Jamie Dedes. My relationship with the 'Zine will not change, as I always published intermittently with them. Both communities -- Beguine and 'Zine -- comprise people who are civilized in the noblest sense of that word, which is often a cynicism magnet for alt-right troglodytes.) I was free to write on anything, any issue, any subject, past or contemporary, that struck my fancy, provided only that I observed the usual columnists’ civilities:  no personal attacks, no copyright infringement, no profanity beyond the mildly scatological (e.g., no f-bombs), etc. So I did.

My inaugural column on marriage equality was followed by columns on religious squabbles, contrarian views on the Bible and God, UFOs, satires on Trump and Downton Abbey, comic books, high tea with Stollen – even stolen Stollen -- at the Empress Hotel, etc., etc., etc. I even published a several-part account of the US Constitution and how it differs from religious law, both Christian and Muslim, and just recently a critique of the Protestant Reformation. But nothing is forever.

Ladder And Wheelchair ... John LeKay
Proposed punctuation mark denoting, not outright disbelief, but doubt

This change is occasioned by the retirement of my wife, who has worked at the Seattle Public Library for 28 years. We plan to travel a lot, now that both of us are retired (me from Boeing in late May of 2010), and, while I can take my laptop with me wherever we go, I want to concentrate on my wife, on the experience of traveling, and I want to allow for the likelihood that I may well not always have access to a decent wi-fi connection in some of the places we will visit. I also want to branch out and do writing in other fora on other subjects, e.g., literary criticism in professional journals on Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jorge Luis Borges, T. S. Eliot, et al., something that requires actual, serious research that needs time I do not have if I am committed to an every-Thursday publication schedule. But be of good cheer:  I will still appear with the occasional “Skeptic’s Collection” column on Beguine. Ditto the Be-Zine, where I have always appeared intermittently. So this column is more of an “I’ll be seein’ ya” instead of a hard-coded “Good-bye”.

But before I sign off the ether, I did want to share with you my conclusions, based on my experiences over the last 5 years of being Skeptic-In-Residence.

o As I have said elsewhere, back in 2009, for reasons that add up to a long story far too involved to relate, I entered on a serious study of the US Constitution, its history, and the various methodologies for interpreting it. (I studied interpretation theory at Exeter College, Oxford University, in 1988, so this was a natural fit.) This study included auditing several courses on constitutional law and the First Amendment at the UW Law School. It also involved reading hundreds of books on various aspects of constitutional history and interpretation – courtesy of some very gracious assistance from Prof. Stewart Jay in compiling a reading list. (Prof. Jay is retired now, but I am still working on his reading list.) All that added up to what I can only describe as a religious conversion. I gained a gut-deep conviction that the US Constitution … dammit all! … matters, and that it deserves to be taken with unqualified seriousness. I gained an equally deep conviction that the vast majority of my fellow Americans are as ignorant about their own Constitution as a sack of rutabagas – and many of them care even less than they know.

Baruch Spinoza (Jewish skeptic philosopher)
James Randi (professional debunker)

o However, I also learned that, regardless of how poorly educated most Americans are vis a vis the historical and “technical” aspects of the Constitution – remember: I used to be one of them – that they nevertheless, on the level of their bone marrow, know how to do the Constitution-as-verb. They may not know a lot about the Constitution, but they know how to do the Constitution.

o The Constitution is utterly inseparable from, indeed, is literally unimaginable without, the preceding European Enlightenment, especially as the Enlightenment manifest itself in England, and equally inseparable from the thousand-plus-year tradition of English common law. To the extent that I have an overarching religious faith to replace the Christianity I have grown away from over the last 15 years, that faith is pretty much comprehended by the basic principles of the English Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. And if anyone’s knee jerks and they point out that even loyal sons of the Enlightenment – Madison, Jefferson, Washington, et al. – owned slaves, I will answer that, not every child of the Enlightenment practiced its principles with fidelity any more than any Christian practices Christian principles with fidelity. So if inconsistency discredits one, then inconsistency discredits the other.

o Nevertheless, I am becoming increasingly apprehensive that more and more Americans, even those who do the Constitution, do not understand that the US Constitution is what this Nation is all about. Not “maximizing shareholder value”. Not minimizing unemployment. Not increasing the growth of the GDP. An analogy that always comes to mind, as alien to most people as the Constitution itself, is the story of Esau’s selling of his birthright to his brother Jacob. Esau was fainting from hunger, probably after having spent time hunting game in the wilderness. Genesis 25:29-33 English Standard Version:

Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom) Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob.

Too late, Esau realizes what he has cheated himself out of. Hebrews 12:16-17 …

See to it that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected. He could find no ground for repentance, though he sought the blessing with tears.

So the US Constitution to me is, quite literally, sacred, not because it is Divine, which it is not, but because it is entirely human and expressive of almost universal human values and longings.

o And speaking of the "entirely human," that brings me to another important principle I have worked out over the past 5 years as Skeptic-In-Residence:  the sacredness of the human.

Quite early in that 5-year period, I described myself as an atheist. What I did not realize at the time is that, just as there are denominations of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc., so also there are "denominations," if you will, of atheists. Bill Maher is an atheist. Albert Einstein was an atheist. But that common word covers a multitude of distinctions. Five years ago, I was an atheist. Now I am an atheist. But 5 years ago, I was a Bill-Maher atheist. Today, while I retain considerable commonality with Bill, these days, I am much more of an Albert-Einstein atheist. Now, by all means, still think of me as an atheist. But at the same time, and to an equal extent, think of me as a "natural mystic": someone who believes that human beings render the Universe sacred by virtue of what Albert Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, called "the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart".

What engendered this conclusion -- gradually, over time -- was life with my wife and with her family, my in-law family, in Hawaii. Without in any way explicitly intending to, certainly with no predetermined purpose, when we get together, Something is born in our midst, something I can only call the Sacred. No hymns. No preaching. No clergy. No laity. Just beer (or margaritas ... ), sushi, sashimi, potato / mac salad, rice, maybe burgers and hot dogs, maybe the occasional loco moco (if you haven't tried it, run don't walk ... so why are you still here?), laughter, "talking story," over-the-top generosity, unconditional welcome ... what, as a Roman Catholic, I was taught to call the Communion of the Saints, a term a bit too stuffy to do justice to the gentle but rambunctious reality. I first wrote of this in my account of my father-in-law's memorial service and the sequel thereto. Wherever human beings gather with all-inclusive welcoming and joy, and without otherwise "doing" anything ... there is the Sacred in their midst. To speak in the Christian idiom:  there is Grace. In fact, that just is Grace. That is what I mean by "natural mystic".

o Skepticism and curiosity are inseparable. I have in my life never won a Nobel Prize or a Fields Medal. But I do claim to have achieved one thing that is arguably of comparable stature:  despite being pushed and pulled and pressured by the American educational system, I have always managed to maintain a driving, passionate, burning curiosity. Curiosity about what? Well ... just about everything. Anyone who remains curious beyond high school, sometimes even beyond college, is for that reason alone deeply counter-cultural, even subversive. This is especially true, given the present trend toward what Prof. Stanley Fish calls the "monetization" of education, i.e., the prevalent belief that the primary purpose of education -- at times, it even seems the only purpose of education -- is to enable one to make money.

But for whatever reason, excellent teachers being one of several, I was fortunate enough to be seduced by the allurements of pure, gratuitous, for-its-own-sake curiosity at a very early age, in fact, even before I was a teenager. I was into astronomy very early, and among my clearest memories of that callow time are recollections of running my parents crazy with my impromptu discourses about the Hubble constant, the period-luminosity relation of Cepheid variable stars, and cluttering my bedroom with several layers of astronomy books, some borrowed, most bought. I hope that curiosity has always been glaringly evident during my tenure as Skeptic-In-Residence. It was certainly evident to folks in the fundamentalist Baptist church of my youth, where I was a perpetual, pint-sized Giordano Bruno, who quickly became one of the heroes of my youth. I recommend him to you, also. And Albert Einstein, who laid claim to no talent other than an intense and omnivorous curiosity. They were my counterparts of Dante's companions: Virgil and Beatrice. They can be yours, too. Or you can find your own. They are abundant.

For now, I leave you with one of the favorite maxims of the old Scholastics:  Omnia exeunt in mysterium ("Everything culminates in mystery").

Ave atque vale!

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Statue of Giordano Bruno ... Sergio Affitto ... CC by SA 4.0
James Randi ... James Randi Educational Foundation ... CC by SA 3.0
Baruch Spinoza ... Artist unknown ... Public domain
No dog shit ... MaxPixel ... Public domain
Ladder and wheelchair ... John LeKay ... CC by SA 3.0
Einstein quote ... Photographer unknown ... CC BY 2.0
Pointe de doute ... Sakurambo ... Public domain
Spectacles of skepticism ... CogDogBlog ...

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