Monday, January 31, 2011

Omnipotence and Omniscience

Stefan Molyneux
From an essay entitled, "Against the Gods", by Stefen Molyneux we have the following quote:
...omniscience cannot coexist with omnipotence, since if a god knows what will happen tomorrow, said god will be unable to change it without invalidating its knowledge. If this god retains the power to change what will happen tomorrow, then it cannot know with exact certainty what will happen tomorrow.
What are your thoughts?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Big Words

I have been accused of using too many "big" words more than the total word-count of Marcel Proust's collected works.  That is, of course, an exaggeration.  Still, the number of times I have endured the crassness of being told "you use too many big words," or "why don't you just speak in English," or "would it hurt you to speak a little more simply" has become a source of silent irritation for me.

So now I'm going to write about it.  And I may just use sesquipedalian verbiage to spurn any familiar detractors.

To start, Ayn Rand wrote "words are a lens to focus one's mind."  If that is true, then the larger the lens the greater the focus.  Which really stands to reason since the proper use of a bigger word is not an easily accomplishable feat for the neophytic philologist.  Can I say that my use of larger words has always been clear, and well executed?  Heavens no!  I amassed an admirable storehouse of "big" words at a very young age simply by listening to the adults around me.  I didn't really know how to use those words properly, however, until I was more mature.

That's when I entered highschool.  In highschool, I was practically battered with small-worded accusations by friends and classmates alike for using words outside of their ken.  The same unthinking trend followed me through college and seminary, too. It was really quite demoralizing.

Who of us would arrange the courage in ourselves to accuse an excellent musician of being too quick at trills?  What right-minded individuals would upset themsevles for a gymnast's greater agility and balance?  It would seem to me that having a decent capacity for expression is no greater a crime than being able to run faster than others, or tickle out a frenzy of notes on the ivories with more finesse than the typical church pianist.

Now, I could go ahead and estimate the kind of distorted psychology that prompts such ill-reasoned attempts at censoring another's self-expression, but that would be too much of a meandering speculation for me to feel comfortable with.  Instead, what I've boiled things down to, in my own mind, is a more generous perspective. 

I think it's simply a matter of "jargon."  That is, people have environmentally prescribed jargon-sets that help them navigate their way through assumed common experiences.  And depending on the variety and intensity of those experiences, the amount and use of jargon changes.  But when faced with someone who can work with jargon across varied and diverse fields, communication can become a little intimidating.

So, what about jargon?

Well, everybody speaks it. Some more than others. It's especially rampant amongst chattering intellectuals, the back offices of medical centres, and the austere corridors of academia. But it happens on the street, too, where the “huddled masses” spin their cant in an ever-evolving dance of gritty descriptions and colourful metaphors.

When people speak their jargon on the streets we call it “slang.” When people pour out the lingo in cloistered meeting halls, sipping coffee and polishing their chins, we dignify it by labelling it “terminology.” And it may very well be that. But the only difference between the terminology of the person on the street, and the slang built in to certain fields of study is the environment in which they're used.

Who hasn't had the common experience of meeting-up with a co-worker at the coffee maker and spending the next several minutes listening intently to a subject that seems distant, foreign, even arcane? Who hasn't had the experience of being that person at the coffee maker percolating stories in strange terms while your co-worker squints on, earnestly attempting to relate to what you're saying?

It's something that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein described very well when he wrote, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922). The words people use give an indication of the personal world of their experiences. A person used to living in the harsh backwoods of the Yukon wilderness may very well seem like a different creature to the savvy urbanite used to a steady diet of posh trends, and fashionable mannerisms. The point remains though: however they choose to talk about their experiences, they bring their worlds to each other by the very words they use.

So to argue by accusation that another uses too many "big" words can (as it did in my case) have the effect not only of diminishing one's own world by sneering at expansion, but demeaning another's world by snidely implying it is 'wrong' or 'difficult' because it is too big.  Having given some thought to this subject, it seems obvious to me that the best course of action when dealing with someone who has a demonstrably wide grasp of the English language (or any language, for that matter), would be to ask for definitions and explanations when fronted with a word one doesn't know.  The residuals may just be that your own world is given greater scope and colour, and that the other's world is appreciated and made more enjoyable.

Not a bad trade-off, really.  Wouldn't you agree?

A Bit of Whimsy

I just had a fast and invigorating experience.  There was nothing to it, really.  I just had a rush of happy energy, got to my feet and began to run about and jump here-and-there with my kids.

Now they're all sitting placidly in front of their paper and pens, drawing happily, and using their uber-creative craniums for all manner of new sword designs.  Well, all except for the eldest and youngest who are satiating their morning with Finding Nemo.

Perhaps it's a beatific rush due to post-traumatic stress.  There's been a lot of stress in the past while.  Maybe it's because I'm eating a lot of awesome foods and my body is having a welcome endorphine spike.  Or maybe--and this is more likely Occam's case--it's because I'm with my family, and I love them, and things just feel great today.

Anyway, I just thought I'd put that out there.  A bit of whimsy, you could say.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Defending Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais, comedian extrodinaire.
I haven't written an interactive snark-piece in quite a while.  I suppose I lost my enthusiasm for it and tried my hand at new forms of literary scrutiny.  Tonight I find myself somewhat riled and inspired to lay a curmudgeonly type-lashing to a one Josephine Vivaldo of the Christian Post.

Aside from being exceptionally poorly written, Vivaldo's comatic awareness of her subject material reads as an insult to her own intelligence.  But to spare you from my own nitpicky appraisals of Vivaldo's technical abilities, let's just jump right into the slaughter, shall we?

In her piece, Vivaldo has singled-out Ricky Gervais, a public atheist, brilliant comic, and first-class actor (see: Ghost Town, The Invention of Lying) who, during the Golden Globe Awards, made a playful remark:  "Thank you to God for making me an atheist."

Vivaldo's ignorant little scribble can't even be bothered to quote Gervais properly, let alone take the comedian's jibe in context:
"During the Golden Globe Awards, host and professed atheist Ricky Gervais said, “Thanks to God for making me an atheist,” but in an interview with Piers Morgan on CNN, he says he was not mocking Christians."
The conspicuous absence of the personal pronoun "you" in Gervais's joke let's us know that Vivaldo's reporting is lackadaisical at best.  I wouldn't usually take interest in such a triffling detail, but let's face it: Gervais's comment wasn't so long as to make missing words a strong possibility.  But then to cite Gervais's rebuttal to the ridiculous allegation that he was mocking Christians only shows that Vivaldo is pedaling mealy-mouthed tripe fed to her by other jaded, evangelical alarmists.

Half a second of thought would illuminate to Vivaldo and any of her like-minded and equally addled co-conspirators that Gervais was taking a playful poke at the untold scores of actors who, year after year, curry favour with the wider public by tossing out superficial homages to 'God'.  This fact is made startlingly clear when Vivaldo goes on to report that CNN reporter Piers Morgan challenged Gervais with a note on the American Christian population:
Morgan began by pointing out to the British comedian and actor that millions of Americans are in fact Christian and it seemed obvious that he was poking fun at that particular religion. In response Gervais negated the assumption of offending American Christians, especially when he personally doesn’t find it offensive when people say “thank God” all the time.
Notwithstanding the fact that the use of the word 'God' is not exclusive to Christians, it really doesn't help Morgan's case to make such blunders when Gervais openly admits that he doesn't find people's use of the phrase "thank God" in any way offensive.  This highlights a strange irony: the demand for religious tolerance is openly upheld as long as no-one is irreligious.

In North American countries, a Christian can careen headlong into a blowhard speech about evil, gay Teletubbies, or the insidious, creeping poison of condoms; and in doing so, write off a whole culture of people as godless, sinning, reprobates who will never be whole without their particular brand of Christianity, and the God they envision.  But because Ricky Gervais took a harmless poke at a customary exit quip made during celebrity galas ("thank God"), he must be mocking Christians, and should damn-well be dragged through the media's kangaroo court.

Having turned his pedestal upside-down so he can more assuredly stick to it, Morgan pressed the issue further by "rephrasing" his original question:
Morgan continued on by rephrasing his question and Gervais, 49, said “no no, I’m not mocking them, people’s beliefs aren’t my concern at all, I certainly don’t differentiate religions either, I look at all religions the same, unlike religious people I look at all religions equally.”
American Christian Jesus
Gervais's response further emphasizes my point that the amorphous title 'God' is not the exclusive property of Christians, much less "American Christians" (as if their nationality makes their spirituality somehow a purer pedigree).  The fact that Gervais considers all supernatural views as part of a homogenous batter called 'religion' rips the stuffing right out of Morgan's juvenile insistence, and any other puerile attempts at directing Gervais's remark to any specific religion at all.  And good for Gervais for pointing out that segregating between religions is the practice of religions, not the areligious.

Gervais also pointed out that the religious don't have a monopoly on what is 'good', and that,
“Some people say who says what good is but you know what I say ‘I do’ I’m good to people because it’s the way I want to be treated and I don’t believe I’ll be rewarded in heaven, I will be rewarded now.”
Despite the awkward wording of Gervais's remark, he brings up a good point: what is 'good' is not good because certain people, or religions say it is.  What is good is 'good' on its own, and if you practice those things that are evidentially good (e.g., treating people the way you'd like to be treated), then that goodness will be its own reward now.  If you're religious, you may also believe that you'll have some kind of reward for your present goodness when you're in heaven.  But the point remains that by practicing what is evidentially good now, that goodness will be rewarded or enjoyed now, in the present.

Not to be undone too easily, however, Morgan moved on to suggest that atheists, in their dotage, must feel a sense of waste if this life is all they have.
Morgan expressed his sentiment about how “the problem for atheist it must be doom and gloom when you get to like at 70 or 80, to think that’s it, that’s the end of everything, so you must fear death ten times more than Christians”.
Morgan's intensely ignorant segue, notwithstanding, Gervais responded eloquently by noting that there are many different conceptions of 'God' and that, by implication, if the aggregate number of gods in the world has still not reasonably assured people of their present and future states, why should anyone think atheism is on the deficient end of the spectrum?  Says Gervais:
“I can’t help what I believe anymore than you can, it’s up to you what you believe in. This thing about not believing in God, there are 2,780-odd gods, and if you’re a Christian you believe in one of them and you don't believe in all the others.”
Far from being a "dispute" as Vivaldo mislabelled it, the exchange was a simple exchange between two people with contrasting points of view.  Gervais, I think, came out on top of the intelligible end of things.  And as far as I'm concerned, reviewing Gervais as a tasteless air-pounder with a preachment up his sleeve is the kind of moronic ignorance Morgan and Vivaldo should be repenting of.  Gervias was who he is: a comedian with an observation and ironic comment to make, not to Christians in specific, but for the sole purpose of a joke.  Besides, if celebrities can rig galas for the singular focus of "roasting" each other, why should Gervais be harangued for telling a joke when that is what he was specifically employed to do?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Religion and Teapots

Bertrand Russell
It's certainly no secret that people do horrific and absolutely insane things as an expression of devotion to their particular religion.  Christians conjured up regrettable notions of witchcraft and slaughtered thousands, sometimes purely on suspicion and without a shred of evidence.  Muslims have had their historical share of swinging the sword and tossing rocks.  And there seems to be no end to the number of fringe-group religions and eccentric cults enacting wanton violence on others simply because they think they're under some mysterious, divine fiat that only they know about, and that only they can confirm comes from their god/gods.

Whatever the peculiars of the case, one underlying question, in particular, undergirds any helpful criticism of such fanatical religious stupidities: how can the God/gods purported be proven to be in any way real?

One philosopher, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), proposed that, in matters of the supernatural, the person who states there is a divine super-reality (including divine beings) has the responsibility to prove their statement(s) are evidentially true.

Russell used the analogy of a teapot in orbit around the moon:  anyone can say there is a teapot encircling the moon, but the person who states such a thing has the burden of proving that their statement is true by showing the evidence for their claim.  This responsibility for furnishing a positive position or proposition with accomodating evidence has become known as the "burden of proof."

In matters of religion, it is the person who states that God exists who has the burden of proof and give evidence for their claim.  The non-believer is under no such responsibility to give evidence for their non-position.  Or, to put it another way: person X claims God exists and offers evidence to prove their case; person Y makes no claim on the existence of God and therefore has no burden to prove a non-claim.

So where does this leave us?  Well, here is a clever little presentation (2 minutes) that illustrates not only the absurdity of some religious mindsets, but also incites the necessity for proving that the celestial teapot exists but only having the fanaticism of religious teapotists to point to.  Enjoy!

Thank you to Atheist Media Blog for this clever little video.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Turning Primal

Part of this article is extracted from a comment I made to a fellow blogger, SkeptiGirl.  We have been enjoying some small conversation about dietary committments.  And since I have dedicated some of my blogging time to fitness and nutrition, I thought it worthwhile to reproduce part of my contribution to SkeptiGirl's blog here at Saint Cynic.

As some of you might know, I have disowned the standard Western diet, which consists of a good deal of grains, and a long list of corn-derived ingredients infiltrating and polluting almost anything available at the local grocery store.  The Canada Food Guide recently decreased its suggested grains intake to 8 servings a day for 19-30 year olds (in the new food guide, servings are based on age).  But what some of you might not know is that some research suggests grains are, in fact, not good for you at all. At any age.

So discovering that a large part of my diet relied specifically on grains and grain-fed animals, I resolved to alter my eating habits: I turned primal.

What does it mean to "turn primal"?  The answer to this question is part of the contents of my latest exchange with SkeptiGirl, in fact.  Here is what I wrote:.
The Paleo diet does have an underlying philosophy, absolutely. That's, of course, part of its overall value. But in essense, eating paleo is an attempt at maximizing gene expressions by eating more like our primal ancestors. You see, the agricultural revolution is a very recent advent in human history; too recent, as some scientific opinion goes, for the human body to become an effective grain machine. Thus our bodies, in their present evolutionary situation, are not adapted to properly digesting grains and the anti-nutrients they contain.
By going primal/paleo, the focus is to eat in such a manner as best befits the present state of our genetic make-up. Such a dietary shift requires eliminating grains. And for some, it also means giving up dairy.
Another issue is that because people literally are what they eat (on a physiological level), intake of dairy that has been sourced from grain-fed animals means that the dairy being received is made-up of deficient nutrients. As such, that dairy is incompatible with a lot of people's natural bodily expression and results in a good many deliterious results: e.g., insulin disregulation. So, for some people, like myself, I have eliminated dairy and replaced the fats I would usually receive from it with coconut oil. Mid-chain fatty acids do wonders for me, as they do most people.
Now obviously "turning primal" isn't simply about altering eating habits, though that is a large part of it.  It's also not a cultism demanding you chase down your meals and otherwise grow them for the harvest.  Eating and living primal does require though, that an effort is made to alter your current perspectives on nutrition and commercial wisdom.*  Hence the reason for stating in my letter to SkeptiGirl (above) that there is an underlying philosophy to the primal diet: that switching to a primal diet requires a paradigmatic shift in the way we view our evolutionary development, our interactions with nature, and how food effects our genetic make-up and stability.

The other part of "turning primal" deals with movement.  That's right: movement.  With respect to how we use our bodies to accomplish workaday tasks, there is a prescription within primal living that flies in the face of--again--commercial wisdom.  Essentially, we are taught that in order to keep our bodies strong, we have to pile on vast amounts of hours doing cardiovascular activities (e.g., jogging, running, aerobics).  It's not for wrongheaded reasons that a top-level runner like
Mark Sisson can re-label the fanaticism surrounding cardiovascular training "chronic cardio," and disparage it as a bad thing.  The upshot (one among many) of "turning primal" is that a person can maintain a strong body with moderate committments to cardiovascular exercise, and a respectable, regular dose of heavy lifting.

The difference, it seems, is that by accepting and trusting our bodies to do their ominivorous tasks, we maximize our physical and mental potentials.  But that difference can really only be made by plucking up the courage to question typical received information about diet and fitness.  If it is true that our present evolutionary make-up is not so far removed from our primal ancestors that a reasonable imitation of their basic living habits will dramatically improve our health, then it behooves us to become a little more primal.  Doesn't it?
* By "commerical wisdom," I mean the medical platitudes that are pumped into us via mainstream media outlets; e.g., the blanket notion that cholesterol is bad, or that saturated fats are the bane of a healthy diet.  Such clichés do not stand up under closer scrutiny, and there is a bevy of information to sharpen anyone's perspectives if they take the time to read, say, Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes.


Does unjobbing lead to freedom?
The talk around my home of late has been almost entirely about how to initiate and sustain one's life without recourse to employment.  This doesn't translate to self-employment, as is commonly suspected.  It does equal-out to a fancy new term I've recently become familiar with: unjobbing.

Essentially, by unjobbing, a person is taking the initiative to motivate their own income through multi-streaming, and a constant evolution of creative efforts as they align with personal values.  Perhaps one day you go out and wash windows, and another day you accept cash to do clean-up at a construction site.  And in the meanwhile, you're plugging away at that article for a local publication while querying an editor for yet another spot in a different press.  It doesn't really matter so long as you're investing your time and effort into things that make a return on your terms, and that keep in step with your values.

The essential difference between unjobbing and self-employment, as I've been able to figure out, is that self-employment is (generally) a single-focus, self-styled business that doesn't necessarily rely on creativity so much as networking and resource savvy, and takes more time from you than it can reasonably give back to you.

This is not to decry self-employment.  Not by any means.  I, personally, would much prefer self-employment to the job I presently do.  On the other hand, I would much prefer living by my wits and creativity.  However, since I'm in a job, and I'm not unjobbing, I'm starting to question my creativity.  As for my wits: they've always been a question.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Reading List for 2011

I read a lot of books.  In the past I have listed some of the books I am reading, and others that I will be reading.  Admittedly, I wasn't able to finish some of those books for various reasons.  Nevertheless, I have composed a reading list for myself for the year of 2011.

In total, I have listed 30 books, and divided them evenly between academia and fiction (15 in each category).  What follows is my list, and the category titles before the genre.  Enjoy!


 As can already be seen from one of my recent posts, I am already reading A History of God by Karen Armstrong, and enjoying it immensely.  Part II of my review will be coming in the next couple of days, so look for it!
Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter put together this slim volume, Rich Dad Poor Dad, to help people understand paradigms for money-making and money management in a modern world.  I'm reading it because I have a lot of difficulty understanding how to manage money, and it is doubtlessly one of those things that must be understood well if a person wishes to meet with even moderate material success.

This book, The Evolution of God, is a book that I've been itching to read for quite a while now.  My wife bought it for me for my birthday last year, and I've been waiting for the right moment to get started.  Robert Wright is an excellent writer, and froma cursory breeze through the first few pages of this book, I know I'm in for an intellectual feast.

This massive book (1216 pages), Christianity: The First 3000 Years, is a tour de force through Christian religious history by the internationally acclaimed theologian and historian Diarmaid MacCulloch.  I sold my outdated and horribly biased 8-volume history set by Philip Schaff just to purchase MacCulloch's 2009 publication.  Personally, I think it was a wise decision.

Sally Fallon's critically acclaimed cookbook, Nourishing Traditions, promotes whole, organic foods, and offers-up a veritable cornucopia of information about food composition, traditional preparations, and health information.  A treasure waiting to be mined!

Good Calories, Bad Calories is Gary Taubes's seminal book on the fat-cholesterol myth handed down from the "experts" since the 1970's.  It is an examination of the current Western diet, and evolutionary nutrition.  Having begun this book just before Christmas '10, I can say it is an information-dense, critical examination of everything you might think you know about food and nutrition.

In 1859 Charles Darwin published a single book that, like the bible, shook the world.  That book was On The Origin of Species, and has formed the basis for the biological explanation of perrenial questions like 'How did we get here?' and 'Who am I?'  I'm very much looking forward to steeping myself in the original thesis for our gradual evolutionary development.

In Praise of Slow is Carl Honoré's discussion on the "cult of speed" exemplified in American culture, and fast becoming the societal norm for most of the rest of the world.  Honoré endorses the Slow Movement and calls for people at large to slow down and live life, instead of just getting through it as quick as possible.

I could not find a suitable icon for David Suzuki's book, The Sacred Balance, so I substituted with a picture of the Canadian celebrity scholar, and environmentalist activist instead.  On my wife's recommendation, I will be diving into Suzuki's much lauded and sensitive view of living responsibly on this planet.

Frederick Copleston's masterpiece, A History of Philosophy, is unrivaled in the Western world.  The 9-volume set was originally published between 1946-1974, and covers all the major philosophers from the pre-Socratics to 20th century existentialists.  I have all 9 volumes, but recently found out that two more volumes were included in the British publication covering Russian philosophy, logical positivism and existentialism.  When money permits, I shall have to order the missing two books.

There is no question that Bart Ehrman's groundbreaking book, Misquoting Jesus, will jar me and force me to face questions I've been slow in asking.  Ehrman is a formidable scholar, and those who have read Misquoting Jesus have been illuminated by the hard work of slogging through a long and obscure history of biblical redactions.

I encountered Elaine Pagels's academics when I was in seminary in 2004.  Since then, I have been intensely interested in reading more than selections from her most famous book The Gnostic Gospels.  So, last year, in a rare moment of serendipity, I came across her book Adam, Eve and the Serpent and bought it straightaway.  Now I will be embarking on a wonderfully complex analysis of how Christian theology and politics had a widespread and damaging effect on human sexuality, especially via St. Augustine.

The Empathic Civilization is Jeremy Rifkin's manifesto to the world to harness our empathy on a global level as a foil to the global entropy we're currently witnessing.  Rifkin is a senior lecturer for the European Union, and is an internationally respected scholar and cultural commentator.  I'm sure his book will be a hard-going challenge, and that I'll learn more than I'm presently anticipating.

Fiction and Literature
 Fool's Fate is the sixth book of six dealing with a reluctant assassin who finds himself embroiled in a world of conspiracy, intrigue, and unwanted conflict.  I have read the other five books in the series, and am a third of the way through the 900 page final volume.  I highly recommend anything by Robin Hobb; she is a master fantasist of the highest order.

Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism is best expressed in her fictional books.  The Fountainhead was the first of her fictions to attempt an encapsulation of her view on life, morality, and rationalism.  Rand, as I understand it, is a challenge for even the most studious reader, so I'm anticipating a paradigm shift or two in this fiction.

Hermann Hesse is one of my all-time favourite authors.  Yet, I've never tackled his magnum opus, The Glass Bead Game.  Well, such a literary travesty cannot continue for me any longer.  2011 will see me lost in the raptures of Hesse's brilliance once more.  I can't wait!

If you have ever read Stephen R. Donaldson's epic fantasy, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever and The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever then you understand entirely why I would be very excited to read his duology The Mirror of Her Dreams and A Man Rides Through.  Donaldson is easily equal to Tolkien in his ability to absorb his readers in a story, and unrivaled in the world of fantasy literature in weaving together so many different strands of plot so seamlessly, and effectively.

Fyodor Dostoevsky is recognised the world over for his intense psychological dramas, and unforgettable characters.  Once a person starts in on one of Dostoevsky's works, there is no turning away.  To do so is a sin.  I am going to relish every moment between the pages of The Brothers Karamazov.

Charles Dickens.  Enough said.

Bleak House.  Enough said.

Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged in 1957, and since then the only book that has out-sold it is the Bible.  Atlas Shrugged is the consumate outline of Objectivism.  This is considered Ayn Rand's finest moment, her most clearly expressed philosophy on life, and it is wrapped up into one of the finest pieces of fiction ever written.

The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake consists of the titles "Titus Groan", "Gormenghast", and "Titus Alone."  It is classed as gothic and surrealistic writing and details the lives and events of Titus and Steerpike, the main characters, as they grow-up in Gormenghast Castle.

It wasn't until I had read Christopher Hitchens's brilliant memoir, Hitch-22, that I came across the name of Herman Wouk.  Hitchens gives Wouk a few favourable words, which I took as instructive to look him up.  So while I was at a local thrift store, I came across the very edition of Wouk's book Marjorie Morningstar pictured on the left.  So I bought it for $0.25 and will cast my lot in with Hitchens's brief but favourable recommendation, and read Wouk's fiction at some point this year.

Robin Hobb is one of the best-loved fantasy writers on the market today.  And from having read a number of her books before (as I mentioned above with Fool's Fate), I have no trouble understanding why: she is absolutely brilliant in all the ways a first-class author ought to be.  With that in mind, I will venture gladly into the world of one of her latest trilogies, The Soldier Son Trilogy.  Three titles comprise the set: Shaman's Crossing, Forest Mage, and Renegade's Magic.

All told, I will be attempting a 30-book year.  In the past, I have been able to handle 30 books a year with no difficulty.  I was less busy then than I am now.  Still, I see no reason why I shouldn't be able to shore away some time over the next 11 months to continue reading through the list I've already started.  As I progress, I will drop an occasional note onto the blog with some opinions, criticisms or reflections, as the urge hits me.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

John Paul II: Saintish Update

This blood's for you!
Apparently a vial of the pope's blood drawn from him shortly before his death will be installed in the alter at a Polish church.  This "relic," as it is being described, will serve as a vampiric reminder of John Paul II's something-or-another.  I think it's really rather creepy, to be frank.  But I suppose Catholics will come up with all sorts of theologies surrounding veneration (of the dulia variety, mind), and defend their adoration of a dead man's blood come hell or high water.

Maybe the pope's second miracle will be that he prevents the blood from turning brown.  Or maybe the church will employ a bit of scientific know-how to prevent that from happening.  Personally, I think they should leave it alone and see if this pope is one of the necrotic superheroes, The Incorruptibles.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

John Paul II: Saintish

Pope John Paul II
Beatification is the first step in making someone a saint in the Catholic tradition.  The late John Paul II, who was pope for almost 27 years (1978 - 2005), will be beatified on May 1st, 2011.  The beatification of John Paul II was approved by the present pope, Benedict XVI, as this BBC article makes clear.

And from the same article, it appears as if a devout nun, who, suffering from the same disease John Paul II suffered himself, prayed to John Paul II two months after the patriarch's death and was miraculously cured.  Sister Marie Simon-Pierre now attributes the remission of her parkinson's disease to the direct intervention of John Paul II, who, being the saintly chap that he is, had God zap her with a cure from beyond the grave.

Of course, such a reductionist and cynical look at the seeming cure of Sister Marie Simon-Pierre really doesn't fall within the official view of the Catholic church, whose envisioning of the activity of the saints is a tad more austere.

For Catholics, because the saints and beati (those who are not canonized, but nevertheless closer to God in death) are in the presense of God they can attendend to the prayers of the living, and act as intercessors or intermediaries between God and people.  A fulcrum serves the same purpose as a pivoting point between both ends of a teeter-totter.  In short, because of their proximity between God and people, they can run interference.  The point is that the saints continue to serve those left on earth by petitioning God on behalf of the living.  This increases the likelihood of God answering the prayers of the living faithful.  It's kind of like spiritual nepotism, really.

Click to see larger image.
Still, this is only John Paul II's first miracle, so he's not quite good enough to qualify as one of heaven's sanctified élite.  To date, John Paul II, despite being instrumental in more material and explicable miracles like overthrowing Poland's communism, is not quite as awesome as St. Francis of Assisi, whose claims to divine fame were his overweening sentimentality for animals, and his alleged stigmata.  St. Franis did also set up a cluster of cloisters meant to harbour the pious poor, and set out orders for those poor that they had to remain poor if they wanted to be closer to God.  Apparently repressing the human instinct to increase personal security and social mobility is a loftier act of devotion to God than John Paul II's tireless efforts to improve social and religious relationships between Christians, Jews, and Muslims--an improvement the world continues to need rather desperately.  I wonder where we'd be without John Paul II's efforts?

In any case, John Paul II is on track for canonization.  Soon, he'll be part of the rank-and-file of the heavenly élite, schmoozing it up with the likes of Aquinas, Augustine, Mary, Ambrose, Benedict, Patrick, et al.  Though only after he pays his 'Saints Union' fees with one more miracle.

Whatever that miracle might end up being, the one he has apparently effected shortly after his death has the suspicious stamp of having been certified--pay attention now--purely by church sources.  From the BBC article linked above, we read that "Church officials believe that the Polish pope... interceded for the miraculous cure of Sister Marie Simon-Pierre" and that "Church-appointed doctors agreed that there was no medical explanation for the curing of the nun" (italics mine).  Such being the case, I wonder what would've happened with Simon-Pierre's case had purely secular sources investigated the nun's claims?

Doubtless there would be a lot more controversy than the slight ripples caused by a Polish doctor who suggests that Simon-Pierre wasn't suffering from Parkinson's disease but may have found temporary alleviation from a nervous disorder.
"A Polish newspaper said that a doctor who scrutinised the nun's case had concluded that she might have been suffering not from Parkinson's, but from a nervous disorder from which temporary recovery is medically possible."
Everyone and their dog will be praying.
Humbug!  There is no room for scrutiny when the Catholic church has investigated with its own self-interested and self-appointed sources.  Using critical medical counter-explanations could possibly dent the metallic sheen of John Paul II's church-approved miracle.  Such anti-Catholic rhetoric cannot be accepted or allowed to interefere in any way with the gradual additions to the cult of saints.

Nevertheless, John Paul II is, I'm sure, daily being petitioned by faithful Catholics everywhere, who by dint of their prayers, may be able to spur the nigh-sainted pope on to just one more miracle.  Can you imagine being that special person who finally experiences, or at the very least identifies John Paul II at the apogee of his postmortem handiwork?  I'm glad we have living Catholics around to tell us what certain individuals are doing in the afterlife, and that we have big gold stars that read 'saint' to pin to their memories.

Friday, January 7, 2011

A History of God: Reflections & Review P. I

I've taken the plunge into Karen Armstrong's magnum opus A History of God (Knopf, 1993).  It is a book that any serious reader of religion and history would be well-advised to read.  The book aims to give an account of the development of the three major monotheistic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and their respective evolving ideas about God (e.g., who and what God is, how God has acted in history, and how God has -- interestingly -- taken on competing perspectives despite the same Abrahamic roots).  Finally, Armstrong examines some modern philosophies concerning God, such as the 'death of God movement' and post-modern conceptions of God.

Armstrong is no friend to ignorance, so anyone investigating the perrenial question of 'God' had better come to this volume with an open mind to learn, or an already firm grasp of the issues attending the monotheistic religions and their notions of God.  This is not to say that Armstrong has written a compendium of arcana, or some arid piece of abstracted academia.  It does mean, however, that she has taken an angle not popular to the usual considerations of religious history.

More specifically, Armstrong's work on the Judeo-Christian heritage draws from a particular source theory called the Wellhausen Hypothesis, or the Documentary Hypothesis.  Such a theory of biblical origins is minority opinion, absolutely, when contrasted with the classic circles of literal-historical method.  Though it isn't without merit, the literal-historical method takes too much advantage of the willingness and (sometimes) unintentional ignorance of the well-meaning believer. 

For example, it is clearly the case that there are two different creation accounts in Genesis, but the literal-historical method, while it may recognise this, eventually relies on the willingness of the believer to accept on faith the discrepancies in the biblical narrative.  The documentary hypothesis, while not unsympathetic to the demands of faith to believe the claims of the biblical narrative charts, dates, rearranges and makes a fair-minded attempt at explaining oddities in scripture by examining the historical-cultural events attendant to Christian holy writ.  Once that is done, the reader has a more thorough working knowledge of what the biblical authors were writing, and how they were communicating age-old stories in new symbols.  Granted, literal-historical method includes some of the same rigorous examinations of history and culture, but the difference is usually split between which hermeneutic is going to source evidence to support an already established outcome (literal-historical) and which explanation will review the evidence with an eye to assembling a scientific and irrespective account (documentary hypothesis).

Because Armstrong's account draws on the documentary hypothesis, she is bound to be discarded as 'confused' or 'godless' or what-have-you by the vast majority of Christians.  Despite this automatic anethema in the majority Christian world, Armstrong has still managed to pen one of the most dramatically successful historical theology texts in the Western world.  And the reason for this is not hard to see.

Certainly the boldly ambitious title A History of God claims people's attention right away.  But more, the gentle eloquence in Armstrong's recounting of the details of otherwise dead, dusty, and dilapidated eras gives the reader a personal sense of the events she relays.  Such an ability to suffuse historical academics with life, light, and occasional nostalgia enlivens the mind to the subject matter, and that is what I personally think owes to the massive success of Armstrong's book.

Alongside Armstrong's easy but penetrating academics, she is not afraid to call a spade a spade.  So while she examines the topics at hand, she sees the relevance of addressing contemporary issues that arise out of the mindsets of the religious history being examined.  For example, there are very few people in the televised Western world unfamiliar with the cultural tactic of claiming God for partisan motives.  Presidents and Primeministers in times of war, call God out as if he were a super-soldier destined to ordain the victory of whoever has enough public pious pomp.  Or, as bequeathed to Jews and Christians everywhere, God has culled certain people to himself as a preferred group: the elect.  Such notions of holier-than-others, or pre-ordained preferential peoples wins no sympathy from Armstrong.  In a memorable quote, she highlights the dangers of such ugly and banal concepts as 'election theology':
The dangers of such theologies of election, which were not qualified by the transcendent perspective of an Isaiah, are clearly shown in the holy wars that have scarred the history of monotheism.  Instead of making God a symbol to challenge our prejudice and force us to contemplate our own shortcomings, it can be used to endorse our egotistic hatred and make it absolute.  It makes God behave exactly like us, as though he were simply another human being (p. 54-55).
Whose side is God on?
Believing yourself more special than everybody else certainly runs one adrift of reality and sets one up to be a potential danger.  Being unafraid to reach out for a moment of sagacity, Armstrong drives home a practical and helpful point to highlight the difference in thinking of some of the ancient peoples and a more morally advanced perspective on the inherent equality of all people.

Still, Armstrong is not preachy, even if she does drop a pearl of wisdom here-and-there throughout her book.  It befits someone of her unusual erudition to address some of the more troubling aspects of humanity's sickly dogmas.  And carefully coddled as those admontions are in a lucid recounting of historical religion, nothing is lost in Armstrong's collisions with cheap theologies.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A Cup of Tea: Clarifications

Chinese Gunpowder Green Tea
The underlying assumption of my last article, A Cup of Tea, was that people are preparing for themselves standard bagged tea (usually a black tea).  In such a case, Christopher Hitchens's advice holds true: pour boiling water over an already present teabag; don't dunk your teabag into boiling, or even tepid water.

There are other teas, though.  And those teas require more tenderness than the standard fare.  For example, Chinese Gunpowder Green Tea (green tea leaves rolled into small tight balls that unfurl during the infusion process) would almost assuredly go unpalatably bitter were you to pour boiling water over it.  In the case of the aforementioned tea, portioning out the amount of leaves you want in your cup, then giving them a quick rinse in room-temperature water before pouring fish eyes over your infusion maximises the delicate flavour of Chinese green tea.

Or, in another case, the age and production of peppermint tea may adversely affect the way the tea reacts to different temperatures of water.   The peppermint tea that I'm currently enjoying requires that I pour the water over the bags just before the boiling point, at a heating point known as rope of pearls.  If I let it go beyond that point, as my wife describes it, "it tastes more grassy and green than peppermint."  And if what you're anticipating is peppermint but you get a grassy flavour, you're probably not going to be satisfied.

All this to say that if you're going involve yourself in the proper preparation of tea, then there are certain teas that simply don't follow the universal rule of "boiling water poured over the bag."  However, in all cases, as far as I know, the tea must be present in the cup or pot before the introduction of the water -- and in some cases, the tea tastes better if is given a rinse in tepid water first.

There is a reason why the Asian countries are famous for their teas, and for tea ceremonies: because there is an entire culture and art surrounding the use and preparation of tea.  So, while Christopher Hitchens and I agree enitrely on the particulars of his article, that agreement comes with -- I think -- an underlying assumption that the kind of tea we're discussing is a standard black fare, an English breakfast tea, say.  There is quite a bit more to the intricate world of tea, however, than boiling water over an already present teabag.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Cup of Tea

The business of making tea can be, and sometimes is, irksome and unsavoury.  Here at home, I have the beatific delight of a partner who understands how to make a fabulous tea.  And, should there ever be an occasion, she also knows how to brew a sturdy cup of coffee.  I think after 8 years of marriage, we have understood the tea-making world, and had enough exposure to the swill that passes as coffee, that we know a good spot of tea, or a good cup 'o' joe when we have one.  Almost invariably, my wife and I make the perfect green or peppermint tea.  And the odd time that coffee comes about, we have mastered the necessary proficiencies to dazzle our taste-buds to satisfaction.

Critic and Author, Christopher Hitchens
So why all this talk about tea?  Because I just finished reading a witty, and very personable reflection on How to Make a Decent Cup of Tea by Christopher Hitchens, one of my literary heroes.  His unabashed insistence that the tea-bag be present when the boiling water is poured into the cup, and not added afterward, is 100% correct.  It isn't ice fishing: you're not trying to plunge something into the water to pull it out again.  It is tea: you are trying to extract the nutritive properties from the dried leaves by a process of infusion.  Frankly, the dunkin' tea-bag method is woefully egregious.  Mr. Hitchens, in an effort to save the ignorant from themselves, has linked to George Orwell's brief essay A Nice Cup of Tea.  It is a shining example of a man who understood how to get the most from a cup.

Enjoy your reading and, most of all, thank you to Christopher Hitchens, enjoy your tea!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2011: A Year of New Directions

It's 2011: How will you change your life this year?
Welcome to 2011!

Saint Cynic will be broadening its scope in 2011.  As many of you already know, Saint Cynic tackles religio-philosophical issues oftentimes by reducing them to the absurdities they are, and then lampooning those issues with some critical, or snarky remarks.  That won't stop.  It's good fun, and I enjoy it.

However, I will be concentrating on writing some more serious essays and presenting them as a series.  My topics will include the philosophical and religious issues I've always examined, but I will also be jumping face-forward into natural, fully concious living; something some people call "wholistic living", or even the "primal lifestyle."  The point of these articles will be to contrast the way modern Western society lives now with the way our ancestors lived eons ago, and to highlight the evolutionary biology that supports a return to some of the dietary and fitness dispositions of the non-agricultural ancients.  It's a topic I'm quite excited about and eager to share with you. (New links to do with this subject will also be appearing in the sidebars, too.)

More, I'm planning on taking Saint Cynic to the streets.  That is, I'm going to be looking into making this site an actual physical entity by scouting out possible regular meeting places for fellow culture-observers, and even sussing-out means to publish a magazine that will include articles from guest-writers.  My goal is to see if I can make my venture here profitable in the offline world.  To that end, I will also be searching for domain providers so I can make Saint Cynic an exclusive name, independent of the usual blogging format.
Lift heavy things

As a personal goal, I will be continuing with semi-regular P90X routines, but combining them with two other elements: The Primal Blueprint, and FitDeck.  These dietary and fitness switches will drive me further into better health, maximize my body's potential, and improve my overall enjoyment of living.  Join me if you'd like to take on a healthy, wholesome challenge.

And on a more personal note, I will be pushing myself to leave my present employment and begin the journey of unjobbing.  This is a scary decision for me since it means divesting myself of the usual, predictable method of giving some faceless entity my time so it can give me money, and I can fuel a minimum number of my interests and passions.  I want to work to live not live to work, as the saying goes.  But I have to go about it wisely: I have wee'uns depending on me, and I'm not willing to let them be diminished in any way by my quest for self-realised income and autonomy.

Thankfully, I have a partner who is topped full of incredible talent in visual arts, communication, music, and intellectual capacity.  I think that together, we can take our lives by storm and start living in such a way that we are both happy, productive, and satistfied.

Those are some of my ambitions this year.  What are yours?  Please comment.  I would love to interact with you more!