Amateurs

In February of 1938, Alfred H. Wertheim presented a paper to the New York Academy of Sciences and Affiliated Societies. The “subject” (not title) reads as follows:

 What may be proved from our present knowledge as to the possibility or impossibility of released intra-atomic energy constituting an important source of solar and stellar energy.

Mr. Wertheim’s certificate of membership is dated May 2, 1938, so this paper may be what earned him membership in one of the oldest learned societies in the United States.

For years, I saw Mr. Wertheim’s certificate every day, as it hung on the wall of the dining room in the house where I grew up. Alfred was my maternal grandfather. I never met him, as he died when my mother was a teenager. She adored her father, but did not speak in much detail about him–the memory of his untimely death in his early 50s was, understandably, painful for her. As a result, I don’t know a great deal about my grandfather.

One important thing I do know, however, is this: Alfred Wertheim was not a scientist. At least not by profession: he was a violinist, and he also ran a textile business. But by today’s standards, even by the standards of the 1930s, he was an amateur.

I don’t know if Alfred went to college or earned a degree–or, if he did, what his field of study might have been. But I am sitting here with a draft copy of his 1938 paper on solar energy, and looking at a carefully researched, closely argued essay of a quality I would expect in a master’s level seminar. Not from an amateur.

We need to remove the negative connotations from the word amateur, and welcome more of them into our institutions. Setting aside the natural pride I feel knowing one of my ancestors produced a work of this quality, as an amateur, we need more people who are not the “professionals” making significant contributions to things like our religious institutions, communities, political endeavors. We need to take into account the insights of people with curious minds and meticulous thought processes. We need to respect the intellectual power people have when they apply their abilities to big questions and projects, and stop dismissing them because they are just “amateurs”.

We need, in short, to revive my grandfather.

I’m not arguing we need people who don’t know what  they are talking about being taken as seriously as people who do. I’m not saying (as a recent Facebook meme suggests) a Google search is equivalent to an earned doctorate.

But I think we need to foster the kind of careful thinking about sophisticated ideas by people who may not be getting paid for it. We need to educate people not so much for discreet technical skills, but for the ability to evaluate varying sources of information, compare their quality, and articulate the reasons for accepting or rejecting them on their merits.

The kind of amateurism in Alfred Wertheim’s 1938 paper on solar energy is not the kind of amateurism of a world where Twitter and the 24 hour news cycle reigns supreme. But it is so necessary as an antidote to the world of the sound byte and Facebook meme. My grandfather’s amateurism is what comes from a world where a man or woman with a  wide-ranging mind is encouraged to put serious energy into exploring important ideas, and subjecting the conclusions to the scrutiny of people who know more than he does. It is intellectual courage in a high form.

I wish I had had the chance to know my grandfather. Because I think we need more of what he demonstrated in this paper.

Unfortunate “Christian” Terms

For a while, I’ve been hearing/reading an unfortunate term, used by Christians–often youth pastors–and I think it’s time to say something.

“We’re just here to love on these kids”. Or elders, poor people, people of a different racial group.

It’s a little creepy, and while I agree, “creepy” is only the tip of the iceberg.

To “love on” a person is sort of like “eating on” a plate or a table. The person/plate/table becomes an object for the convenience of the agent–the person doing the “loving” (or eating).

To “love on”, much like to “eat on”, is non-relational, and non-transformative. The person/plate/table “loved” on or “eaten” on, is not changed, improved, developed, matured.

Indeed, it is more likely the person/plate/table is just left with a crumby, sticky, wet mess. And the “lover”/eater is unlikely to want to clean it up.

How about just “love” the person?

What’s in a name?

Around February of 2016, it became popular for the detractors of now-presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to refer to him as “Drumpf”, the name his ancestors brought to these shores from Germany. It started, I believe, with comedian John Oliver, and took off. A number of liberal friends (and I do consider myself somewhat left of center) proudly announced they were going to “make Donald Trump into Donald Drumpf. One praised a student for wearing a baseball cap with “Drumpf” on it.

I cringed.

It is the most ridiculous and childish thing, and completely unworthy of educated, thoughtful people. It has the finesse of bullies on an elementary school playground. One woman  used “Drumpf” on Facebook yesterday, and I called her on it. Her response was how ridiculous it is for the presumptive nominee to put his name on everything (okay, so why not ridicule the name he puts on everything, rather than one he does not use because it is not legally his? ) Ridiculing names is the province of very young children. And last I checked, children whose ages are not in double-digits do not vote in the United States.

Ridicule the man’s ego, his bombastic pronouncements. Take offense at his bigotry and the crude jokes he makes about women’s biological functions. Point out how his speeches make no sense. Vomit at how he made the largest single-day fall of the pound sterling about how he would personally benefit by people playing more golf at his resort in Scotland. (Really?  Food, fuel, and basic necessities are going to cost more, and you think people are going to play more golf?)

But ridiculing a person on a name s/he did not choose seems foolish. Trump is daily showing himself to be a xenophobic fool, on whom expensive education was  completely wasted. But the people who built the wealth which made such a waste possible chose to change the name.

Why would they do such a thing?

Well, this is the only similarity between Mr. Trump and me.

They did it to accommodate people who have a severe learning disability–the inability to learn or function (even marginally) in a language other than English. They did it to pass as Anglo in a country built by immigrants which has never fully embraced immigrants. Frederick Drumpf changed the family name to something these poor benighted Anglo-centric souls could pronounce and accept.

At least, Frederick Drumpf could make the choice.

I am not entirely sure what my ancestral name is, because when my father’s parents emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States, they were simply given a name at the point of entry. They didn’t choose it–it was given by some ignorant immigration official who couldn’t be bothered to even make a stab at transliterating their real name into the western alphabet. So, we ended up with a nice, Anglo-sounding name. An easy name for Americans to pronounce. Well, most of the time, as it still gets screwed up by semi-literate Anglophones. Some of whom are educated, responsible–but still only semi-literate, because they can’t function in a language other than English, and they can’t deal with a name slightly different than what they expect to see.

There is plenty to criticize with Donald Trump’s character, fitness for office, ignorance. There’s a boatload of raw material for late-night comedians to make sophisticated jokes.

But don’t criticize his grandfather for making a concession to the language-learning disabled.

 

 

Orlando

Nobody with an internet connection, a television, or a newspaper can have missed hearing about the horrific slaughter of LGBT nightclub patrons in Orlando this past Sunday morning. And nobody can have missed the blame being thrown about concerning where the fault lies. And nobody can have missed the outpouring of prayer, and the assertions of the (very reasonable) opinion saying prayer is no longer enough. Fortunately, there has been a move on the part of the US Senate to consider (inadequately) more substantial measures to keep of weapons of war out of the hands of people who have no business with them.

Prayer and protest are appropriate responses. Okay, I’m a little tired of what is beginning to feel like a competition to out-pray each other–how large is our vigil, how beautiful is our prayer board with the pictures of all the fallen. Jesus did say something about prayer being done in private, to go into your room and shut the door and pray in secret. We have become very bad about following this directive.

But what I am most tired of is what can be summed up as the “your grief is our grief; your loss is our loss” rhetoric. Yes, we all lose when there is a mass shooting: we lose a sense of security, we lose a bit of dignity for not having saner laws concerning firearms. We have lost the potential of young people’s contribution to society.

But not all of us have lost equally. The LGBT community has lost, the Latino/a community has lost. The families and friends–the people who knew the victims up-close and personally–have lost most of all. And by saying “your grief is our grief; your loss is our loss”, without nuance, we fail to acknowledge the very specific, personal, irreplaceable grief and loss which belongs only to the people who knew the victims well and loved them. Not as symbols, not as emblems, not as martyrs–but as sons and daughters and friends and parents and lovers and spouses and siblings.

Love always wins. But particular, specific, one-to-one love, where the person is a person, not a symbol or a story, has to be allowed to acknowledge the loss it has sustained.

In 1989, my mother died quite suddenly. A friend came to the visitation. She wailed and called attention to herself in ways I found embarrassing. She kept hugging me, and saying how terrible it was–but after half an hour, it seemed it was more for the sake of her need for attention than it was for support for me or my family. (She had met my mother exactly twice.) My father asked me to find a way to get her to leave. We had other visitors to receive, and after all, it was our family, not she, who was in need of care and attention.

I wonder how much the Orlando families and friends might be needing their own space to grieve, in the company of those most affected, who knew their loved ones best. Who have specific, rather than generic, words of comfort and support. For whom the victims were people, not symbols, not stories.

Yes, we should support–sign petitions, send therapy animals, raise money to pay for funerals which were not expected to take place for many years hence, and of course, pray. But we also need to find the line where we are intruding on the private grief of families for our own needs. And not step over the line.

Beyond “Us” and “Them”

We’re all still a little shocked, a little numb, from the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, early Sunday morning, where 50 people (including the gunman) were killed, and approximately as many injured.

I hope we are. Because we should be shocked when demonization of anyone unlike ourselves has such frankly evil effect.

A few years ago, when I was still trying to make church a viable option for myself, I came across Ken Howard’s book Paradoxy: Christian Community Beyond Us and Them. I started an online discussion in one of my LinkedIn groups, which quickly became acrimonious because Ken’s proposals require dramatic changes in the way churches do what they’re supposed to do. And as we know, no matter how badly it is needed, the churches need to change or they will cease to exist–sooner rather than later.

As a result of the acrimony, Ken and I developed a correspondence, collaborated on a couple of blog posts, and become good friends–despite never having (to our knowledge) ever been in the same room at the same time.

Because the events in Orlando are such a dramatic instance of “us” vs “them” in our national life, Ken has taken a bold step. He has bought back the rights to Paradoxy, and is offering it for free (a small shipping charge is required).

In the wake of this tragedy, and others like it, I urge you to accept this generous offer, and read this excellent book.

Algebra

Every time I see something like this, I want to smack the person who posted it. (I would not, because I’m reasonably good at impulse control. You’re welcome.) Especially when said person is an intelligent, well-educated adult whose responsibilities frequently include dealing with complex situations s/he has never encountered before, and who prides him/herself on having dealt with such events in a reasonably successful manner.

Okay, you didn’t sit down with a line of numbers and symbols, with the = sign in the middle of it, and you didn’t look for x without quite understanding y.

But if you’ve had to deal with a previously unknown problem, and you met it through an ordered series of steps, investigating what would happen in one area if you eliminated or added something to a different part of the scenario, and you noted the steps you took so you could apply a similar method to future problems–guess what? You Used Algebra.

Or at least you used the mental habits you practiced when you took algebra. Fiddling around with the numbers was not the important thing, even if it was the thing which meant passing or failing the class.

Developing mental agility, and practicing until it became intuitive, was the important thing.

Only people living exceptionally sheltered, narrow, protected lives do not do this. Only people who are too literal-minded to see larger pictures (and I fear, I see this meme too often out of so-called progressive religious leaders) do not recognize this. Every smart thing you do involves some kind of algebra, even if not literally solving equations. Every dumb thing you do ignores it.

The third dumbest thing you do is to think you aren’t using what you learned in algebra class. The next dumbest is to be proud of it.

The top-of-the-list dumbest is to announce to the world how smart you are even though you somehow get away without using algebra.

So, wipe those smug grins off your faces, and write a note of apology and thanks to your high school mathematics department.

Two Entirely Random unrelated reflections

I.

I’m coming to think the really interesting thing about theology is not what any of it says about God, but how people try to verbalize their belief, and what the attempt tells us about the person and the culture in which said person operates.

II.

Walter Cronkite used to end his nightly news program by saying “And that’s the way it was,” followed by the date.

It was never really “the way it was”. But it sounded so much more authoritative than the truth. Which was, is, and ever will be:

“And that’s the random crap we selected because it keeps our ratings up and makes our advertisers happy”.