Archive for the ‘reason’ Category

comfort and joy

Thursday, December 27th, 2007

I visited Israel a number of years ago on a choir tour for a couple of weeks around Christmas. As well as some great concerts, we did the BBC Radio 4 Christmas service broadcast from Bethlehem University. We also had a good bit of time for touring, in groups and by ourselves. It was strange, visiting the religious sites – especially the Christian ones -how un-religious they felt (apart from the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth which was peaceful, beautiful and very moving). I think a large reason for this was that the sites -specifically the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity – are co-owned and run by a number of Christian factions, each of which seems to believe that they should have sole rights. If you follow the link on the Church of the Sepulchre you’ll see information on the famous immovable ladder, for example, where nobody could agree on who should be responsible for work on the church, and today I saw that there was actually a priestly brawl in the Church of the Holy Nativity where “long-standing rivalries erupted in violence during holiday cleaning.” We didn’t see anything like that but we did see a number of ornately robed priests with big beards and heavy wooden staffs who were parading around in a very arrogant manner – you could easily imagine that getting in their way would result in fisticuffs:


christmas musings

Monday, December 24th, 2007

I’ve been doing a lot of carol singing this year – loads of services at the Cathedral, specifically. We’ve been doing a couple of excellent settings of the Coventry Carol, one very medieval as would befit when the words were written (15th Century) and one more contemporary by Kenneth Leighton. The words come from the Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors and tell of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents – when King Herod was asked about Jesus by the Wise Men, flew into a rage and ordered all infants (I think in Bethlehem but could have been further afield too) to be killed. Jesus and his family escaped because Joseph had a dream where he was warned of this and advised to flee to Egypt till things calmed down.

For some reason I’d never really thought this through before. Maybe it’s that I’ve spent a lot of time hugging and feeding a 3-month-old over this Christmas season that’s made it hit home quite the enormity of the story. The way my thinking has gone is something like: God undertook to cause a virgin (Mary) to conceive a child. Joseph (according to Matthew’s gospel) was told of this in a dream so that he wouldn’t freak out that his betrothed was pregnant. A star was sent to guide the Wise Men to Bethlehem so that they could worship the lowly born new king. So far all very interventionist of God, well and good. However when Herod flies off the handle, only (as far as we are told) Joseph is warned, so that I would guess hundreds or more children are killed, but Jesus gets away.

I know that we commemorate this in carols and things, but it does seem quite a brutal start to the introduction of the Bringer of Salvation to the world, don’t you think?


Monday, December 10th, 2007

This conversation happened in the car on the way home from swimming class tonight, between Emma and a boy who is having issues remembering the difference between Moses and Jesus (something to do with being a baby in a basket/manger):

Toby: So… How do you live with God?
Emma: What do you mean?
Toby: How do you live with God?
Emma: What – I don’t understand the question.
Toby: I mean: how do you live with God?
Emma: In… In what way?
Toby: In a dead way


Thursday, December 6th, 2007

Had an interesting semi-discussion (it was over too quickly to be a full discussion) with someone last night. We were chatting about morals and religion and people’s interpretations of god. The person I was talking to said how much she likes the Jewish religion (apart from some of the Old Testament versions of a very tribal, vengeful god) in that on the whole a lot of the morals are around you have your life to live therefore make the most of it and do good because it’s good to do good. I’m not hugely versed in all this but my understanding is that there’s not the Christian concept of heaven, so you have to do what you can while you’re alive and then that’s it. That may freak some people out, but I’ve been thinking about a couple of ideas/quotes I read in the last year: firstly, just because something would be nice, like heaven, doesn’t actually make it real; secondly as Mark Twain said (approximately) “I was dead for billions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me in the least, so why should I be worried about being dead again?”

Anyway, someone else butted into the conversation and made the point that you can’t or shouldn’t trust reason if you’re a faithful person. She said (and this is a direct quote) “Reason always leads to error.” I mentioned how reason can often lead to the truth, like Galileo using observation and reason to note how the universe is not Earth-centric, and how this so freaked out the Church that they made him recant his ideas. This seems to be an example of non-reason leading to error.

I was thinking about the conversation this morning as I was reading an excellent article in the New Yorker about scientists looking at retroviruses which over time have actually become part of the animal genome (this is sometimes referred to as “junk DNA” because it doesn’t seem to do anything, but in the past may actually have helped the host organism, by doing things such as protecting against other viruses or helping the process of placental births to come about), and are yet another piece of evidence in support of evolution: when they examine the chimpanzee and human genome, this retroviral DNA between the two species matches so closely that it’s almost impossible that chance would have allowed this to happen.


Tuesday, December 4th, 2007

A couple of nights ago Toby asked Emma the following question: when the Egyptian army were chasing the Israel people through the Red Sea and God sent the water to kill them, did they have children who were sad that they were all dead?

Although I’m biased in thinking that he’s a smart kid, I think this is a pretty smart question. Emma, who through her degree has a lot of theological knowledge, was able to acknowledge his question and say that each year at Passover the descendants of the Israelites do remember the Egyptians and their children, because they know that they would have been sad.

One of my friends I mentioned the question to said that at least there weren’t as many children as there had been shortly before, because God had recently done away with all the firstborn of Egypt, so you could glibly argue that this might have helped (but not really of course). It’s a good thing Emma didn’t mention this – as the firstborn of my family this bit of the story used to freak me out when I was a kid, and as a parent it still does.


Friday, November 30th, 2007

Doesn’t this story make you feel exasperated and sick to your stomach? Unless you are someone who says “Big man in the sky says this is what we should do.”


Thursday, November 29th, 2007

I noticed this post about one of Toby’s friends thinking through why people think of a god or gods, which reminded me of a conversation Toby and I had a few weeks ago. I was driving Toby home from his soccer class, and there was a decent thunderstorm going on. Toby made a comment about how god makes the weather, which I thought would lead to an interesting discussion about why he, or other people would think that. He told me that his Sunday school teachers told him that this is how the weather came about, and we also talked about the weather forecast and how it’s possible to learn how weather works and therefore make forecasts. Also he does know the general concept of clouds and rain and how that all goes together. As with Paul’s discussion with his son, we chatted briefly about why people think that god would make things happen, and how sometimes people will investigate how things actually work in order to understand the world around us.

Then yesterday Toby saw the book on my nightstand – the recent biography of Albert Einstein. He (Toby) asked who the man on the cover was, and we had a little chat about how he was a very famous scientist and he was really good at asking how things work and what they are made of.

It’s an interesting time with Toby – in some ways he’s very strong on personifying things he can’t quite grasp (which you could argue is a simplified religious leaning) and in others, like lots of other kids his age, he is very good at asking why (which leads to a good scientific way of thinking, like why is the sky blue, or why do we not fall off the earth).

what’s wrong with this story

Sunday, September 16th, 2007

Tell me if I’m being over-the-top in my reaction this story which was told as part of the sermon today by a visiting bishop. It’s apparently an example of the power of prayer.

There was a woman who was once walking through a rather deserted part of town. She felt threatened and nervous so said a prayer as she was walking. She found out later that a woman had been robbed and raped in the same street, just ten minutes after she had been there. The woman wondered why she herself wasn’t the victim, so when they caught the rapist and had him up for trial she asked him why he didn’t attack her, but went for the other woman instead. The rapist said “I was scared to, because there were two big men with you.” The woman had been alone.

Well, I don’t know about you but I find this story offensive on so many levels it’s hard for me to add anything else. What do you think?

data and information

Thursday, August 30th, 2007

I went to a really cool day-long seminar yesterday – noted information design guru Edward Tufte was in town presenting his course on Presenting Data and Information. Totally fascinating – he pulls together sources from all over to demonstrate effective and ineffective presentation of data. There’s a ton of information on his site, and in his fantastic and beautiful books too.

Examples of effectively presenting data which he cited were Galileo’s documentation of his evidence of sunspots, Jupiter’s rings and the almost infinite number of stars, and also the first English translation of Euclid. He even brought along first editions of the books – wow.

Examples of ineffective presentations of data were a bit more up-to-date and focused a lot on the inappropriate use of PowerPoint. It’s worth following the link to see his detailed essay on how use of PowerPoint caused extremely poor decisions to be made at NASA.

Overall, really inspiring, thoughtful and stimulating. I hope that I’ll be able to use what I learned.


Thursday, August 16th, 2007

Tonight Toby and I walked home from school – I really enjoyed it. When I walk that way on my own it takes about 20 minutes; with Toby also it took about twice that length of time, but was a lot more fun. We saw all kinds of cool things including a feather, some green glass and a dead dragonfly. Cool four-and-a-half-year-old boy stuff.

Outside the church in which Toby’s daycare is located, some of the church people were giving away free cookies and bottles of water. No way Toby would walk past a free cookie, so he got one and we picked up a bottle of water too. The bottle’s label was a custom one – it said “Jesus – the water of life”. Nice.

On the way home I noticed a bumper sticker on a car, which said in big rainbow 70s letters “Try Jesus.” I thought this was kind of nice until I noticed underneath in very small letters “If you don’t like him the devil will take you back.” Um, passive aggressive or what?