Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Jonah Lehrer (who looks like he’s about seventeen in his profile picture) is the author of “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” and “How We Decide.” In his blog, The Frontal Cortex, he reports on a study of how bran activity is involved in the enjoyment of music:

Before a pattern can be desired by the brain, it must play hard to get. Music only excites us when it makes our auditory cortex struggle to uncover its order. If the music is too obvious, if its patterns are always present, it is annoyingly boring. This is why composers introduce the tonic note in the beginning of the song and then studiously avoid it until the end. The longer we are denied the pattern we expect, the greater the emotional release when the pattern returns, safe and sound. Our auditory cortex rejoices. It has found the order it has been looking for.

I find this fascinating in its own right, and it causes me to speculate on something I’ve discovered over the years: I love a good academic or theological lecture, and find I am most stimulated when I am challenged at the outer limits of my understanding. I wonder if this is when and how true learning takes place – when the brain is actively making connections between what is already there (in one’s brain) and something brand new, and that this connection is enhanced (as in the enjoyment of music) by the surprise factor. (The “aha!” of learning being the intellectual cousin of the emotional response to music.)

There seems also to be an obvious connection between the studies of the brain’s response to music and reports that the aging brain is kept healthy by continuing to learn new things and departing from routine (as reported in this recent New York Times article).

On a more mundane level, this is why the Saturday New York Times crossword is more enjoyable than Monday’s.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


R.S. Thomas, in his poetry as -- I assume -- in life, wrestled with doubt and the absence of God, but emerged with faith nonetheless (often seemingly in spite of himself). He would have agreed with contemporary theologian Douglas John Hall that "the Bible-writers will give up on the glory of God before they'll deny the reality of human suffering," and with the writer of the 23rd psalm that human life is, in fact, a walk in the valley of the shadow of death.

In his poem, "Geriatric," Thomas looks straight at these verities (although with "rheumy" eyes), and discovers that not even God escapes the reality of suffering; he is "torn" by the brambles, too. As is typical of Thomas, he expresses a hope that sounds faint, but is actually so deep that it is beyond our ability to completely grasp.

(At the risk of providing cues that are an insult to the reader's intelligence: Charcot and Meniere are, like Alzheimer's, diseases. "Rabbi Ben Ezra" is the source of Robert Browning's line, "Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be....")


What god is proud
      of this garden
of dead flowers, this underwater
      grotto of humanity,
where limbs wave in invisible
      currents, faces drooping
on dry stalks, voices clawing
      in a last desperate effort
to retain hold? Despite withered
      petals, I recognise
the species: Charcot, Meniere,
      Alzheimer. There are no gardeners
here, caretakers only
      of reason overgrown
by confusion. This body once,
      when it was in bud,
opened to love's kisses. These eyes,
      cloudy with rheum,
were clear pebbles that love's rivulet
      hurried over. Is this
the best Rabbi Ben Ezra
      promised? I come away
comforting myself, as I can,
      that there is another
garden, all dew and fragrance,
      and that these are the brambles
about it we are caught in,
      a sacrifice prepared
by a torn god to a love fiercer
      than we can understand.

As I write, I have two friends walking into the valley's shadow, caught in the brambles. Here's to green pastures and the fragrance of that other garden.

Douglas John Hall quote (from memory) from God and Human Suffering, Augsburg, 1986
The poem, "Geriatric," from No Truce With the Furies, by R.S. Thomas, Bloodaxe Books, 1995
More on R. S. Thomas here.

Monday, January 4, 2010


Although there is nothing especially biblical about capitalism, it has been raised to the level of an inerrant religion among some economic and political communities of this and other nations. (And why, I wonder, this curious link between what might be called conservative Christianity and conservative capitalism, when a literal reading of the New Testament calls for an economy that sounds like communism or socialism?) Therefore it may be appropriate to point out that the adherents of capitalism apply the same pick-and-choose literalism to their holy book (Adam Smith) as many Christians do to the Bible (as discussed in an earlier post). One oft-cited case in point is the recent bail-out of high stakes bankers and investors (including the subsidizing of enormous bonuses for those who lost the money). Ironically, truly conservative capitalist thinkers point out that this violates capitalism's tenet of "moral hazard," which holds that the only way to keep a capitalist honest is if true risk is involved. Those who proposed (perhaps for good reason) and those who accepted the rescue money must of necessity overlook this aspect of capitalism.

Another conveniently overlooked part of Adam Smith's work has to do with fair taxation. The "no-new-taxes" crowd of politicians (including our Minnesota governor Pawlenty) are simply catering to our selfishness. The idea of fair taxation -- or the degree to which taxation contributes to the good of a balanced society -- is never mentioned. Adam Smith, however (in a recent "interview" in, states directly that
It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.
(Smith, in "The Wealth of Nations" as well as "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" also suggests that the rich will want to care for the poor simply as a matter of kindness and charity, but one recent study has shown that 80% of estates valued at a million dollars or more give nothing to charity.)

When comparing the economic and social systems of today with those of Jesus' time, it is appropriate for Christians to consider taxation as being included in our theology and practice of stewardship, and to see both our taxes and our church contributions as parts of the same whole: care for the poor and the good of society. To this point, St. Paul agrees with "St. Adam Smith" when, to the Corinthians, Paul writes (speaking of his appeal for contributions for the poor),
I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little." (2 Corinthians 8:13-15)
I emphasize that I am speaking of Christian stewardship here, and do not mean to imply that a Christian analysis of capitalism necessarily applies to citizens in general. But to the degree that a citizen or a political leader claims a Christian basis or a Christian audience, it is wrong-headed or cynical to undergird a politics of no new taxes with an appeal to Christian faith. And, seductive as it may be to promote the lowest tax possible, let us call that philosophy what it is. There is nothing Christian about it. It is selfishness. (Which is a different matter entirely than what Adam Smith meant by "self-interest.")

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary to him though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. ~ Adam Smith, "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" (1759)