Category Archives: Religion

I’m a Christian (or the more or less United Methodist variety), and not ashamed of it. Though I am frequently ashamed of what other Christians do in the name of Christianity.

Snips and Dribbles

Brin on Optimism
Science fiction author and noted astrophysicist (and general pundit/curmudgeon) David Brin has a fascinating entry up at his blog right now entitled, “The Ritual of the Streetcorner“. In it, he quotes a little phrase which I’ve seen elsewhere and which I’ve found is disturbingly accurate for myself: “A cynic is an optimist who has snapped out of it and realized how awful people are”. Brin is essentially an optimist when it comes to the forward progress of humanity; you only have to read his novels to figure that out.

I found this paragraph to be particularly compelling, though:

…[W]hich is more amazing? That the Enlightenment is under threat from a collusive cabal of conniving aristocrats, imperialists and extremist nutjobs? Or the fact that this routine and utterly predictable alliance, which ruled every other urban culture for 4,000 years has been staved off repeatedly, till now, by a republic — and a civilization — that has kept combining redesign and renewal and revolution with an almost infinite capacity for resilience in the face of repetitious human nature? (emphasis in the original)

It’s reassuring, in a way; he seems to be reinforcing that old saw, “In times like these, it helps to remember that there have always been times like these.” So in spite of the fact that our nation seems to be in the grip of authoritarian, backwards-looking autocrats intent on consolidating power into an entity which was never meant to have it (see Jack Whelan’s blog post, “Drift to Authoritarianism“, for some thoughts on this), there may be some cause for hope. Even though people seem, as a group, overwhelmingly stupid, you can go to any complex streetcorner and watch as people negotiate the traffic laws and rules and just seem to make things work. Brin says,

Yes, they [our neighbors] look stupid. I am sure yours do, too. Perhaps, as individuals, they are. But when they are taken together, combined, made free to interact under rules that encourage decent cooperation and competition, something happens. We all get smarter than we ever deserved to be. (emphasis in the original)

Brin’s basic point seems to be that things aren’t as bad as all that. Maybe we will wake up one morning and find that the people in our nation have given up all the liberties and freedoms our predecessors fought and died for simply to forward a manufactured and non-existent “war on terror”, but human beings, on the whole, do have the potential to create progressive societies. Brin calls himself a “flaming optimist”, because cynicism isn’t helpful. Maybe it’s a good attitude to have.

Supraluminal Follow-Up

According to the This Week In Science podcast of January 16th, some of the basic ideas behind the so-called Hyperdrive that I talked about a couple of weeks ago have actually been around since 1950, when the original physicist — whose name, sadly, escapes me, but who was German — in trying to reconcile quantum physics with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, proposed a two-dimensional “subspace” as part of his solution. In 1970-something, another German physicist took these ideas and expanded them to build a better solution to the quantum/Einstein conundrum, postulating an 8-dimensional space as a better model (incidentally, I discovered that this work formed the scientific basis for Buckaroo Banzai’s Oscillation Overthruster — hence, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension instead of the Fifth or Sixth Dimension). Starting in the late 1990’s, this theoretical work proved remarkably effective at predicting certain results in particle and quantum physics (I won’t even pretend to understand the science behind it). The trouble is, as I understand it, almost all of the theoretical work has been done in German because the original scientist refused to learn English.

So, if this work — which involves, as I mentioned, eight dimensions of space as well as hypothetical particles called “gravitophotons” — holds up, then one of the implications is the possibility of an actual FTL hyperdrive. Now, according to the scientists who have been working on that aspect, what would be required would be a huge ring surrounding a superconductor of some sort, which would be capable of producing 25 Teslas of energy (this is apparently a huge amount of energy), which would then be capable of attracting or producing the gravitophotons, which would make transit between the dimensions possible, and, thus, the hyperdrive — which is dependent, somehow, on the ability of the gravitophotons to repel gravity. It turns out there is already a working machine in Sweden that can produce the energy necessary, so it is technologically feasible. Since any ships built with this drive would have to be built in space, though, it may be economically prohibitive. For now at least.

Physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, though, writes in his new book that this sort of work involving extra dimensions isn’t necessarily at all useful in physics. I don’t know if this has any bearing on the issue or not. Nor do I know if this new theory of gravity, which dispenses with the notion of “Dark Matter” and introduces theoretical particles called “gravitons”, has any import.
Krauss, by the way, in an interview on the Skepticality podcast, made the astonishing suggestion that the universe may, ultimately, not be understandable; we may, in other words, never be able to form a complete predictive theory which explains the entire universe. This may be disconcerting to scientists of all stripes, but it’s pretty interesting fodder for writers. I’ve already got a story idea based on this. I just hope it doesn’t provide fuel for the anti-science pseudo-Christians who are trying to force Intelligent Design into our schools.

On the Religion Front

Theologian Bart Campolo once summarized Christianity thusly: “Love God. Love people. Nothing else matters.” (source)

I love this. What a great summation of the Two Great Commandments that Jesus gave. Sure, it’s cute and pithy (which is always dangerous), but it pretty much captures, for me, how I understand Christianity. Those two commandments are pretty much all that matters; everything else is (occasionally dangerous) fluff.  Of course it would never fly in the sickening parody, based on hatred and self-worship rather than faith and worship of God, that passes for Christianity in much of our culture today.  Or is that just my cynicism leaking again?
Rib Update

Ribs still hurt, mostly in my left side. Every now and then I worry that it might be indicative of something horrific in my digestive system — a tumor in my large intestine, perhaps, or liver/pancreas/spleen/muscle/etc. cancer; however, the lack of any other symptoms at all sort of reassures me on this point. My health insurance provider won’t pay for the bone scan, so I need to go back to the doctor and discuss other options. I’m just wary of doing that, since I’ve been to the doctor so many times already.

That’s all I got today. See ya later.

Perhaps I should change careers…

…and become an apocalyptic doomsayer. They’re all the rage right now, and, according to this article apparently now we’re in the highest state of “End Times Alert!” than ever before. Higher even than:

  • 1945, when World War II engulfed pretty much the entire globe, atomic bombs were being set off, half the world was in poverty, even the rich nations;
  • 1918 when Spanish influenze swept the world, Europe was engulfed in the worst war in its history, famine was rampant, and people everwhere were starting to come to terms with the Russian Revolution.
  • 1844, when apocalyptic thinking seems to have washed over the entire planet and people everywhere were selling all their belongings and moving to mountain tops;
  • 1450, when a third of Europe was dying of the Black Death, unusual weather patterns brought strange storms (the world was in the grip of a “mini ice age” at the time), wars were a constant of daily life for the elite and hunger and starvation were a constant of daily life for the poor; or, heck, even
  • ca. AD 30, when Christ was crucified, and his apostles were expecting His return at any minute.

I’ve railed against our apocalyptic culture before, and why it bugs me so much. I’ve discovered that there are, in fact, branches of Christianity — sadly, growing more popular — which believe that the worsening state of the world is God’s plan and that to try to make things better is against God’s plan; the sooner we can bring about universal poverty, hunger, war, and so on, the sooner the Rapture will come. This flies in the face of all of the commandments given to us by Christ.

And this sort of apocalyptic thinking is opposed to what we learn from the Bible about what Christ even said about the Second Coming; in short, he said that we simply won’t know, and we’ll all be taken by surprise. To try to set a specific date and claim that it is predicted in Scripture is just, well, wrong.

It just bugs me.

So, let’s all repeat it together, shall we?

  • 2005 is not the worst storm year on record (though, because of global warming, we’re likely to experience increasingly worse storms in years to come)
  • Far fewer people are dying in war this year than in WWI or WWII
  • The war in Iraq is not the worst conflict that region has seen (anyone remember the Ottoman Empire?)
  • All talk about a pandemic of H5N1 “Avian Flu” is hypothetical at best.

Of course, some people are making money off of current apocalyptic ramblings. That’s their own problem.

The Top 10 Intelligent Designs (or Creation Myths)

The Top 10 Intelligent Designs (or Creation Myths)

Flying Spaghetti Monsters aside, this article from Live Science presents a list of the top ten creation myths of all time, from the Norse pantheon to the Judeo/Christian/Moslem ex nihilo myth.

Y’know, as a Christian, I do believe in “intelligent design” (insofar as a human defined quality like “intelligence” can be applied to God), but “intelligent design” is NOT science and should NOT be taught in science classes. It’s an interpretive framework, if anything, and as such belongs in classes on philosophy or religion. Not science. True, science has its own set of faith-based axioms (that the Universe can be explained entirely using natural laws and that these laws can be understood by human reason), but it has worked so well for so many things that it is foolish to dilute it with religion. How many vaccines for smallpox has science provided? How many such vaccines have been provided by Christianity? You get the point.

So, it seems to me that God apparently chose to use a method for creating the Universe which seems random. I don’t have a problem with this myself. It’s not incompatible with my faith. And if I believed that I could explain away everything that God does, then, well, that’d be some sort of sin anyway, now, wouldn’t it?

Just a little bit…

I’ve taken to hanging out in the newsgroup (you can find the website here). It’s a lively place, full of debate between Creationism and evolution. Personally, I have no trouble reconciling my religious beliefs with evolution, but there are a lot of people out there who do. And furthermore, some of the most ardent Creationists have a very strange way of arguing. I was able to summarize a typical Creationist argument this way:

The Scene: I hand Bob a piece of cake, which he scarfs and enjoys.
Bob: What a delicious cake! You must give me the recipe.
Me: There was no recipe. My wife made the cake.
Bob: Well, where did she find the recipe?
Me: I told you, there is no recipe. My wife made the cake.
Bob: Of course there was a recipe. How many eggs did she use? How much sugar? How much flour?
Me: Are you calling me a liar? Are you calling my wife a liar? I tell you there was no recipe! My wife made this cake!
Bob: But… Well, how long did she bake it in the oven?
Me: There is no recipe! Look, here’s this note from my wife that says, “Here, honey, I made this cake.” What more proof do you need that my wife made the cake?
Bob: But you can’t make a cake without a recipe!
Me: My wife is the cake maker. She made this cake! Didn’t you read the note?

Jennifer suggested that I could end the dialog with Bob replying, “But… you’re not married!” Which I think is even funnier.

But I digress.

The new semester has just started, and I’m now officially a second year student in the MLIS program at San Jose State. I’m taking three classes this quarter: Beginning Cataloging and Classification, Information and Society, and Interface Design for Information Systems. I’ve been looking forward to taking the cataloging class for months now (yes, I know I’m weird); it looks pretty interesting, but also pretty straightforward. In cataloging, you get a big book, the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, Revision 2 (2002 Edition), also known as the AACR2. And it’s basically a big book full of rules for how to describe a book or other document. How big is it? Use rule 1.D4 to describe the size. Who published it? Use rule 2.B2 to describe the publication information (I’ve got those rule numbers wrong). And then there’s MARC, a way of encoding all of this information so that a computer can read it. So a MARC entry might look like 300 ## $aThe Information $bThe Sub-Information.

Fascinating, yes?

Information and Society is kind of an overview class. What is a library? What kinds of libraries are there? What do librarians really do when they’re not shushing and stamping? (Those of you harboring “naughty boy librarian” fantasies about me will be disappointed to learn that I’ll probably be doing a lot of cataloging and computer programming in that spare time.) And Interface Design looks like it won’t quite be as I expected; I was expecting some hands-on programming and development, but this course looks to be mostly theory.

Still, I think it’s going to be an interesting semester.

If I can keep from developing an ulcer and permanent migraine, that is.

See, those three classes are nine units altogether. When I finish up this semester, I’ll be halfway done with the program, which is nice. But conventional wisdom dictates that if you’re working full time and intend to have any sort of life, then maybe you should take just three to six units: one or two classes. And I do have time yet to drop a class if that becomes necessary. We’ll see whether Jennifer decides that my stress level makes me unsuitable to live with.

I have been having fun, though. Last week, I was sick with bronchitis and couldn’t go to work, so I amused myself by building a Debian Linux server out of my old Gateway laptop computer to hold all of our book information (between Jennifer and me, we have over 1,000 books; the idea is to get them all entered into our Readerware database, which is on Lucien, the computer I built).

And last night, in between updating the MP3’s on my MP3 player and reading through the AACR2 for the first time, I set about hooking up a UPS to our main household server — the one that acts as our file, printer, and mail server. I wasn’t quite successful; the manufacturer claims that it’s compatible with Linux, and there is a Linux version of the controller software on the CD-ROM that came with it, but I haven’t managed to get it to work yet.

Boy, do I know how to have fun or what?

At work, my boss told me last week that a budget was finally approved that would let them hire me on full-time and permanently instead of as a temp that can only stay here for another year or so before being forced to leave the temp pool (yay unions). I am told to expect an interview sometime this week, but not to stress about it too much. “Unless someone comes along with really amazing technical credentials,” my boss told me a few weeks ago, “The job’s pretty much yours.”

Which would be nice. But I was hired on to make our website talk to Oracle, which I still haven’t managed to do. I’m feeling a tad stressed about that, and as I meet with more and more failures to do so, the stress is getting more intense. I know I can do it. I just have to find the right wand to wave over the server while chanting, “Serverum Repairus.”

Yeah. That will do it.

Twelve Days

I actually had to leave church today. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt uncomfortable with the way the worship service was conducted, or that I had a strong disagreement with the pastor on any subject.

I consider myself a pretty good Christian; my spirituality is primarily Christian, though I suppose it’s been heavily influenced over the years by my study of other religious traditions in the world, such as Buddhism (particularly Zen Buddhism), Islám, Judaism, and even Wicca. My approach to religion these days is not so much as to insist that my way is the right way, but that I have only partial access to the Truth (whatever that is). Not everyone who disagrees with me is wrong, I learned a long time ago, and I always try to keep in mind that I’m not necessarily right. I chose Christianity because, when properly exercised, it is a moral imperative that I can accept and because the theology makes sense to me on intellectual, moral, and spiritual levels. Christianity, for me, is a way of loving people, a way of relating to God, and not a way of imposing judgement on others. The two most important commandments in the Bible are Jesus’: “The first great commandment is this: to love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. The second is like unto it: To love your neighbor as yourself. This is the sum of all the prophets.” And just in case you have any doubts about who your neighbor is, read Matthew 5-7, where he lays out explicitly that we are to do things like pray for our enemies, etc. I could go on and on about this but I won’t, not here.

However strong I feel about my faith, however, I know that it rests on shaky intellectual grounds. I cannot provide any logical or syllogistic or Aristotlean proof that God exists, that Jesus is our Savior, or that certain moral choices are right and others wrong (and besides, moral choices are often ambiguous anyway). But I do know that because my faith is not intellectual, I cannot use it to justify intellectual sloppiness. I try to be a skeptic with regards to claims of the supernatural or paranormal, or even with bits of folklore that I receive over the Internet or by word of mouth from friends and family. I can’t take these things at face value. When my sister received an e-mail a few years ago purporting to contain a recipe from Mrs. Smith’s Cookies (with the old saw about how the sender had been overcharged for a cookie, etc.), I immediately did some research online to find out the veracity of the e-mail, and found that it is a classic urban legend.

So today our church is basing an entire service on the traditional Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. The rationale is that the song is an old one which was invented in England to help Catholic children learn the tenets of their faith in order to keep them safe from English persecution (for many years after the Reformation, it was illegal to practice Catholicism in England). This is nonsense, of course. A moment of common sense will urge you to ask why the Catholics had to codify their beliefs in a song like this when they were so similar to the belief of the Anglican church? But someone on our worship committee heard the legend and didn’t investigate it, and today there was an entire service based on it.

I’ve been uncomfortable with this ever since I heard that it was going to happen. My faith is an odd one, I know, and part of it means that it’s simply immoral to use faith to justify untruth. Scientific Creationism, in this context, is simply wrong; you don’t use faith to justify bad science. And you don’t excuse your lack of research into an urban legend just because some other church said it was true. How can you possibly assert moral and spiritual truths, I feel, when you blindly accept intellectual falsehoods?

Ther sevice would have twelve little speeches about the symbolism of the song, followed by twelve special carols. I was asked to sing along with the carols, and this morning I went to the church early to rehearse. But when I saw the insert and the program, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to stay. I was going to fidget uncomfortably during the entire service, and I was going to feel like a hypocrite and a liar. I don’t like feeling this way, especially not in church.

A couple of weeks ago I went to Snopes and found a long entry about this urban legend. I printed it out, complete with resources, and dropped it off anonymously to our pastor. As far as I know, no good came of it.

I don’t blame anyone; I try not to. I know better than to think for an instant that anyone in our church went out of their way to knowingly present bad information simply because it makes Christianity look better. I know it’s just laziness. But I couldn’t be there and be a part of it.

And that’s why I had to leave church this morning.

Update: 3:00 p.m., December 28, 2003: Jennifer, who went to the service, informs me that our pastor did emphasize that the full truth of the urban legend is ultimately unknown. I feel better now.

'Tis the Season

I cheerfully admit that by the standards of some people — the more fundamentalist of them — I am probably destined to go straight to Hell. In some sort of handbasket, I don’t doubt. My understanding of God and my approach to religion and spirituality are by no means traditional or even very conservative. I just feel, sometimes, like God is… well… just a bit too small.

I’ve just returned from midnight mass at my parents’ church. In years past I have always found midnight mass inspiring and exciting, in spite of my less than orthodox faith. But this year, something was different. I found myself feeling short-tempered, grumpy, and irritable. When mass was over I quickly made my excuses and left the church to head straight back to my parents’ house in order to take some medicine that I should have taken earlier anyway. Perhaps it was that I was tired, or that my allergies were starting to kick in along with my asthma. Perhaps it was that my heart is two sizes too small. For whatever reason, my temper was short and I just didn’t find Mass as inspiring as I usually do.

Religion, I admit, frequently puzzles me. While I am nominally a Christian — more specifically, a Methodist — I just don’t find myself entirely moved or inspired by the story of Jesus Christ or the Christmas story. It may be that I just don’t "get it", or that I didn’t pay enough attention in Sunday school when I was a kid… Or perhaps my faith is simply the measure of a mustard seed.

It’s not that I don’t believe in Jesus Christ; I believe that Jesus certainly existed, historically, and that he was a wise and intelligent man. Was he divine or God incarnate? I don’t know. There are times when I think about it and find the idea of Jesus Christ as God an exciting one; the myth made flesh — or, if the Episcopalian catechism is correct and God is love, then Jesus was a physical incarnation of love.

But at Christmas mass I see people moved to tears by the Christmas story, and I can’t identify.

I do consider myself a spiritual person. I have seen too many miracles in my life to not believe that there is something which exists which is bigger than me, which watches over the universe and possibly even set things in motion in the first place. I don’t believe in a personified deity, someone who sits in a throne and passes judgement on us based on our sexuality or our beliefs or who we voted for in the last election (yes, I have met people who have tried to tell me that I am going to hell because I’ve voted Democrat or even Green in past elections). But I’ve had a hard time ever finding a place where I can feel comfortable expressing my own spirituality. I grew up as an Episcopalian, one of the more liberal denominations of Christianity; but in my time I’ve also attended Catholic Masses, Jewish temple, Moslem prayer circles, Baha’i festivals, Buddhist meditation ceremonies… I’ve even taken part in a Wiccan invokation of the four winds, and danced in a circle to honor Shiva. But I haven’t found an expression of spirituality which doesn’t feel, somehow, small and stifling.

While exploring all of these religious traditions, I’ve also read a wide range of holy books; I’ve read several versions of the Bible, of course, as well as the Qur’an, the writings of the Baha’i Faith, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Tao Te Ching, the Analects of Confucius, and on and on and on. I have found a lot of wisdom in all of these books, and I can easily believe that many of them were divinely inspired; wisdom is wisdom, after all, no matter where it comes from or what trappings it’s hidden in. But none of the holy books can pass for literal truth; the best way to experience the scriptures of any religious tradition, Christianity included, is as metaphor. God is not a concept that can easily be explained or experienced; metaphor is the best that we can do.

With Christianity, I am most bothered by the notion that eternal life and salvation are reserved for those who believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. It seems to me that this turns Christianity into an exclusive club of some sort, where if you accept the tenets of the club you get to play in the clubhouse; and if you don’t believe in what the club believes, no matter what kind of person you are, you can’t play in the clubhouse. Some people find this inspiring. I don’t. I find it frustrating; some of my favorite playmates, when I was a child, were the ones who couldn’t get into the clubs. I know that there are plenty of Christian flavors that don’t believe this way — the Episcopalian church and the Methodist church both spring to mind — but it is certainly true of an overwhelming number of Christian folks.

None of this, though, really explains my feelings at Christmas Eve mass this year; why I was short-tempered, or why I was uninspired or unmoved at service this year. Perhaps next year, when Jennifer and I are attending service together with my parents, before driving home and spending Christmas Day with her family, I’ll feel better about everything.

"I’ll keep Christmas in my way," said Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. I will, too; by reflecting on the season, by remembering that Christmas is not about the presents or the money or the credit card bills; nor is it about being "the one time of year when everyone loves each other and peace reigns throughout the earth" (because, honestly, in my experience, people are just as cruel and mean to each other at Christmas time as they are during the rest of the year; more so, in some cases); it’s about remembering the presence of the divine in the world and reconnecting to it. For me, that is, even if I don’t really identify heavily with the Christmas tradition. Other people do it in other ways; and that’s all right, too.

A Massing of Methodists

My own spiritual explorations have been all over the map: I’ve toyed with Catholicism, Unitarianism, Mormonism, Judaism, Shinto, Islám, and even the Bahá’i Faith. Even though I am a "cradle Episcopalian" — born, baptised, and confirmed in the Episcopal Church — I can’t bring myself to say that the church I identify with is any more "right" than any other faith, nor that any other faith in the world is "wrong" simply because it isn’t mine. Indeed, I identify myself as an Episcopalian for no very good reason at all except that it’s the religion I grew up with. I haven’t been to church in months.

Even so, the idea of entering the clergy has entered my head from time to time. The last time I seriously thought about becoming a priest or even a monk was probably close to five or six years ago (or longer), but that time has passed, and I’m certain now that that’s not where I am called to be. And yet, I can’t help but feel a little bit of awe for those people who are called to ministry in their own faith.

Last Saturday, I accompanied Jennifer to the Northern California/Nevada Methodist Convention in Sacramento, because her mother was to be consecrated as a diaconal minister in the Methodist church. Now, I don’t pretend to understand anything about the hierarchy of the Methodist Church, any more than I understand the hierarchy of any other church (even the Episcopalian church!); but I know that this is an important honor for Jennifer’s mother. I was glad to have been invited to the ceremony, to provide support as her "son-in-law-in-training".

Being in the same convention hall with thousands of people who share a common faith is a memorable experience. I seem to recall looking out over the throngs and muttering to myself, "Wow, look at all these Methodists!" I’ve attended Easter Mass at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and I’m not sure there were as many people there as there were at the Sacramento Convention Center for the Methodist conference. Jennifer led me over to sit with some friends of her family’s from the Roseville church that they had once attended; and we were soon joined by one of her sisters, and her sister’s in-laws, who immediately began to tease me; "Are you sure you know just what kind of family you’re marrying into?" they asked me. I looked over at Jennifer, who was making some sort of silly face at the moment; and over at her sister, who, with her husband, was making google-eyes at their 2-year old son; and I replied, "You might have a point…"

The ceremony began. I had been entrusted with Jennifer’s mother’s camera, and as she and the other candidates for consecration processed into the convention center and past the crowds and on to the stage, I took as many photographs as I could. Jennifer’s mother had a huge smile on her face (not an unusual thing, and, thankfully, a trait that Jennifer has inherited from her), and her husband, who was walking beside her, was beaming as well, in his own stoic way. During the consecration itself — which also involved Episcopalian bishop Jerry Lamb — I kept on eye on Jennifer’s mother, and on Jennifer herself. The look of pride on Jennifer’s face was powerful, as was the look of joy on her mother’s.

After the ceremony, Jennifer and I joined her parents for a late dinner at Baker’s Square. We had a lot of fun, made silly jokes, and laughed a lot. At times, I think our waitress was completely frazzled by our table.

So I’m pretty sure now that I know just what kind of family I’m marrying into. Honestly, I couldn’t be happier. And now that I’ll be marrying a minister’s daughter, I suppose there’s some extra pressure on me.

Heh. I guess we’ll see.