No "God Spot" In the Human Brain

Apparently a recent study has discovered that there is no single "God Spot" in the brain responsible for mystical experiences. Rather, there are several parts of the brain involved.

Okay, well, that isn't terribly interesting in itself. This was interesting, though:
In the study, 15 cloistered Carmelite nuns, ranging in age from 23 to 64, had their brains scanned while asked to relive the most intense mystical experience they had ever had as members of the religious order.
23 year old nuns? I didn't think there were nuns under 60 anymore...

Read about it here.


This is just sad...

We were talking informally in class not long ago, 17 college sophomores and I, and on a whim I asked who some of their favorite writers are. The question hung in uneasy silence. At length, a voice in the rear hesitantly volunteered the name of . . . Dan Brown.

No other names were offered.

The author of "The DaVinci Code" was not just the best writer they could think of; he was the only writer they could think of.

From "Writing Off Reading," by Michael Skube, which ran in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago. Read it here.

Frankly, I find this a little bit hard to believe, but only a little bit.

Kids don't read. And their writing is atrocious: I've had students -- some of my brightest students -- write things like "u r" instead of "you are," on formal assignments.

I have a bit of a problem with Skube's implication that high school teachers are to blame for this -- "Did no one teach these kids basic English?" -- as if high school teachers can coerce their students into learning. And you can't fail an entire class, even if they deserve it.


More on the Middle East

In his latest speech, which infuriated so many people, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad uttered a sentence that deserves attention: "Every new Arab generation hates Israel more than the previous one."

Of all that has been said about the Second Lebanon War, these are perhaps the most important words.

This is from a terrific article by the Israeli writer/peace activist Uri Avnery.

People who criticise the state of Israel are often accused of anti-Semitism (or "self-hate," if they happen to be Jewish). But when a state is intent on doing everything it can to ensure it's own destruction, criticism is the only loving thing to do. Avnery articulates that point very nicely.

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Oh, Rowan...

Rowan Williams, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, has changed his mind about homosexuality.

In 1989 he said, "The pressure that some church figures put upon people of differing sexual identities is a greater disgrace than anything else seen in the church." Now he's the one putting on the pressure.

People often take the position that changing one's mind is itself some kind of moral transgression (unless they agree with it, of course). I'm not one of those people. It takes a measure of humility to acknowledge that you were previously in error.

But I have to question the sincerity of this about-face. Williams is too smart to be reverting to a Biblically fundamentalist position on morality. It's hard to shake the feeling that he's just appeasing the malcontents on the right.

I'm not sure if this is necessarily a bad thing. If you're the Archbishop of Canterbury, and you have to alienate a segment of your church population (which is inevitable in this situation), it's better to alienate those with a progressive mentality. Why? Consider the alternative: when you alienate conservatives, you risk driving them away into fundamentalist sects. And the last thing the world needs is more fundamentalists. Most progressives won't go anywhere, and the ones who do will go to a more progressive church. Less harm is done that way.

You can read the story here.

The latest in obscene gestures...

A Polish soccer player has gotten in trouble for making the sign of the cross during a game in Scotland. Apparently it caused "alarm and crowd trouble."


I hope the Scottish people who were so offended by this don't ever go to a Major League Baseball game in North America. The number of players who cross themselves when they come up to bat would probably give them a heart attack!

Read the story here.

Jewish Dissent

Prominent Jewish leaders like to give the impression that all Jewish people support the actions of the Israeli government unequivocally. This is, I think, a dangerous tactic, and also an inaccurate one. Henri Picciotto, an American Jew who grew up in Lebanon (and chairman of the board of Jewish Voice for Peace) has written a short, but thoughtful piece about the segment of the Jewish population who dare to question Israel's actions. You can read it here.

I also recommend checking out the Jewish Voice for Peace website.


A close call...

I came very close to deleting all of my blogs today. I've been very dissatisfied with my output this summer. When I read the stuff I wrote last summer, and I compare it to what I've been writing this summer, I can't help but notice the recent stuff isn't nearly as good. Last summer I would write something and post it. Now most of the stuff I write doesn't get posted, but remains in limbo as a "draft," or is deleted altogether.

After a nap, however, I decided to keep them, for now. I'll probably discontinue the knownunknown blog, which was probably going to have to happen anyway, after I go back to work.

I feel like I need to do some more writing just for myself. Most of my more original material from last summer had been written previously in a journal. I need to do more of that if I'm going to have anything original to say in the future.


Review: Making Sense of Paul by Virginia Wiles

I picked this book up quite some time ago, but didn't get past the first few pages until recently. There was something about the style of writing that I found off-putting. The other day I decided to give it another chance, though, and I'm glad I did, because this is a very good book.

It occured to me that I've never actually read a book about Paul's theology before. This was surprising, since I own quite a few books about Paul, and I took a course concerned exclusively with Paul when I was an undergraduate. But those books were largely concerned with critical scholarship. This book is quite different.

Wiles explains in the preface,
The book presumes a particular understanding of theology... In my understanding, the language of theology interprets (and thus enables) human life by raising questions about what is of ultimate importance in human life and experience. That is, theology primarily concerns human life rather than doctrine. (xi)
I thought this was a refreshing way to think of theology.

Wiles is largely concerned with what she calls "the terminological gap." She points out that "Paul uses several terms in his writings in an almost technical way," like "sin, law, Christ, body, flesh, believe, spirit," etc. (3). These words are all familiar to us today, but "what we mean by these words usually differs markedly from what Paul meant by them" (3-4). This is particularly true of words like "righteousness" and "justification," which have come to be (mis)understood in a way that really takes the edge off of Paul's message.

For example, Christians often assume that the pattern of repentance and forgiveness is somehow a part of Paul's teaching on justification, which seriously blunts the effect of his message: "as Paul states it, the gift of justification comes with no qualifications -- there is no mention of repentance. And therein lies the scandal of Paul's message" (99).

Wiles also does a fine job of explaining Paul's seemingly contradictory teaching concerning the law. I won't say too much about this right now, because I want to write about it at length some other time. I had never been able to make sense of Paul's ambivalence towards the law, so I quite enjoyed this part of the book.

There are a few comments scattered throughout the text that left me scratching my head. For instance, Wiles suggests that "To be a monotheist in our day and time and in this Western world is both to accept the dominant cultural assumptions about the nature of the divine and to express an enlightened tolerance for religious diversity" (emphasis added; 13). I don't know about that. I would argue that the least tolerant people in "this Western world" tend to be monotheists! I also thought some of the sidebars (which are quite numerous) were unnecessary. But these are minor quibbles, and don't really detract from the book as a whole.

When I took the undergrad course on Paul a few years ago, I started to feel that maybe he has been misunderstood. Now having read this book, I'm quite certain of it. Paul hasn't been the most popular biblical writer in recent decades, at least not among progressive Christians. But I think if we understand Paul on his own terms, we'll find that his message is far more radical than our conservative co-religionists would like to believe.


Some clarity from Chomsky

I don't know how I missed this before, but Noam Chomsky gave an interview to ZNet a couple of weeks ago that laid bare much of the hypocrisy in the West regarding the situation in the Middle East. Here's a small taste:
[T]o the outside world, it sounds a bit odd, to put it mildly, for the US and Israel to be warning of the "Iranian threat" when they and they alone are issuing threats to launch an attack, threats that are immediate and credible, and in serious violation of international law, and are preparing very openly for such an attack. Whatever one thinks of Iran, no such charge can be made in their case. It is also apparent to the world, if not to the US and Israel, that Iran has not invaded any other countries, something that the US and Israel do regularly.
Of course, I recommend reading the entire interview.

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Revelation 3.16

"…because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth." (Rev 3.16)

I was actually planning on writing a post about something completely different, when I decided to use this verse at the beginning. It is frequently cited as a warning against taking a moderate position, and at first glance, that might seem to be a reasonable interpretation.

But something about it didn't quite sit right. If, for example, being "hot" is good, wouldn't being "lukewarm" be better than being cold? So I decided to do a little research.

In my own library, I found very little dealing with this verse. The Book of Revelation is my least favourite biblical text, so this isn't terribly surprising (in that I don't have any books that deal with it exclusively). But even the New Jerome Bible Commentary passed over this verse without comment.

David Aune's note on the verse in the HarperCollins Study Bible says, "Cold, hot, and lukewarm are figures of speech meaning 'against me,' 'for me,' and 'indifferent'; lukewarm may also allude to the tepid and nauseous local water supply." (2314, n.3.15-16).

This didn't really answer my question: why would being "indifferent" be worse than being "against me"?

So I turned to the HarperCollins Bible Commentary. The commentary on Revelation, also written by Aune, notes that the community to which this part of the text is addressed, Laodicea, "was the most important city in the Lycus valley, where two other cities also contained communities, Hierapolis and Colossae (Col. 4:13)" (1193). Aune writes,

The community [in Laodicea] is condemned for being neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm..., a metaphor linked to the region's water supply. The "hot" springs of Hierapolis were famous for their medicinal properties, and the "cold" waters of Colossae were prized for their purity. The tepid waters of Laodicea, however, were both abundant and bad. (1193)

The fact that John counsels them to obtain "white garments" (of purity) and "salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see," might support this interpretation (cf. Aune 1193). I don't know, that part might be a bit of a stretch. It's difficult to know how this would have been interpreted by people in that community at the time.

Anyway, I thought that was interesting.


New post

The second post on my theology blog is up. I had a lot more I wanted to say on the subject, but it was already over 800 words, which is what I'm trying to limit myself to.


Somehow this doesn't inspire me to want to see it...

"It is one of the greatest pro-American, pro-family, pro-faith, pro-male, flag-waving, God Bless America films you will ever see." -- Cal Thomas on Oliver Stone's World Trade Center

Nuclear Hypocrisy

In the April 16 issue of The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh reported that "some in the [Bush] Administration were looking seriously" at the possibility of using nuclear weapons against Iran (32).

Scary as that sounds, there are some interesting twists to the story that I only read about recently in the current issue of Tikkun.

Tad Daley writes,
Perhaps because the Bush administration has displayed such unconcealed disdain for international law, hardly anyone since the Hersh story first broke has mentioned that a U.S. nuclear strike on Iran would explicitly violate the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NTP). ("Nuclear Irony," 26-27)
Daley explains that, in that treaty, the non-nuclear weapons states "agreed never to produce or acquire nuclear weapons, in exchange for a promise from the five nuclear signatories to eventually get rid of theirs" (27).

Daley further explains that "the NPT also contains a number of other, smaller mutual pledges. One of these was that the non-nuclear states insisted, in return for promising to remain non-nuclear, that the nuclear states promise never to launch a nuclear attack upon them" (27).

This is not quite accurate. That pledge is not contained in the text of the NPT itself, but rather in UN Security Council resolution 984.

Still, the irony remains: "in order to show the illegitimacy of nuclear weapons, and to demonstrate our categorical intolerance for nuclear weapons, the United States was going to keep another state from obtaining nuclear weapons.... by using nuclear weapons" (26).

Is that irony or hypocrisy? Sometimes I can't tell the difference.

Interesting sidebar: in that April 16 New Yorker article, Hersh says that he asked government consultant about the possibility of Hezbollah getting involved in the conflict. The consultant said that, "if Hezbollah fired rockets into northern Israel, 'Israel and the new Lebanese government will finish them off'" (37).

Oh, is that right?

Works Cited

Daley, Tad. "Nuclear Irony." Tikkun. July/August 2006: 26-28.

Hersh, Seymour M. "The Iran Plans." The New Yorker. April 17, 2006: 30-37.

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"Be an Expert on Anything"

Stephen Colbert has written an amusing article for the "How to" feature in Wired magazine: How to "Be an Expert on Anything."

I particularly enjoyed this part:
SPEAK FROM THE BALLS, NOT FROM THE DIAPHRAGM. In the expert game, you’ve got to have sack. That means speaking with confidence. In America, you’ve got to steer clear of nuance and ambivalence – and don’t even contemplate doubt.
Yeah, that's pretty much how it works.


The "Pre/Post Fallacy"

I've been reading Ken Wilber's upcoming book, Integral Spirituality (which is gradually being posted online for members of the Integral Spritituality Center), and in the second chapter he makes a very interesting point that, I think, makes sense of a lot of the conflict within the Church.

Wilber notes that human development in various areas (cognitive, moral, psychosexual, etc.) tends to go through three stages: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional.

So in moral development, for example, a baby who has yet to be socialised into the commonly accepted norms of his or her culture is at a preconventional stage. Once they have been socialised, they are at the conventional stage. And at some point they may reach a point where they can reflect critically on those norms, meaning they are at the postconventional stage. This will be familiar to anyone who has studied the theories of moral development of Lawrence Kohlberg or Carol Gilligan, but it applies equally to other areas as well.

Now, if I'm at a preconventional stage, my moral reasoning will be centred on "me," and I might reject cultural norms for no reason other than, "I don't feel like it," or "nobody tells me what to do."

If I'm at the conventional stage, I will accept the norms of the culture.

If I'm a the postconventional stage, I might find fault with some of the cultural norms, and might have legitimate reasons for rejecting them.

So the rejection of cultural norms, when it happens, comes from people at the lowest and highest stages of development. But those in the middle -- those who do not reject the norms -- often conflate the two groups as though there were part of one undifferentiated mass.

So, to use an example from recent Church history, there are people who might very well reject the official teaching on contraception for purely hedonistic reasons. On the other hand, there are others who have carefully studied the issue, and found that the teachings are based on faulty reasoning. But to many of the staunch defenders of Humanae Vitae, these postconventional criticisms are coming from the same place as the preconventional rejections, and can therefore be dismissed for the same reasons.

And this is an example of what Wilber calls the "Pre/Post Fallacy."

Of course, those who have only developed to the conventional stage will not accept this, because they don't recognise any stages beyond their own. Those who dare to criticise the official teachings are inevitably thought to inhabit a lower stage, never a higher one. Which is probably why so many conventional thinkers seem to think that most dissenters would change their minds if the official teachings were taught with greater forthrightness and clarity. In other words, if people dissent, it is because they have not yet been adequately socialised.

Those aren't accidents...

"If Lebanon were Bosnia, the destruction of neighborhoods and the killing of civilians would have been labeled ethnic cleansing. In the case of Lebanon, we are told, the bombardment is simply creating a buffer zone to protect northern Israel from attack. But depopulating south Lebanon is not a legitimate tool for protecting the population of Galilee."
-- Editorial in America

I think this might be the first time I've read something in the American media that actually recognises that the civilian deaths in Lebanon, far from being "collateral damage," are an integral part of the plan.

Bravo to America for publishing this, especially in a country where honesty regarding Israeli military actions is always in short supply.

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I've published my first post on my new theology blog. I called it "known|unknown"


Actually, I have no idea.


Pat Robertson changes his mind on global warming...

"...it is getting hotter, and the ice caps are melting, and there is a buildup of carbon dioxide in the air. And I think we really need to address the burning of fossil fuels. If we are contributing to the destruction of this planet, we need to do something about it." -- Pat Robertson, The 700 Club (Aug. 3)
Normally I don't care about anything Pat Robertson has to say (unless it's funny), but perhaps his waking up to the reality of global warming will inspire others of his kind to do the same.

The story is here.


Yet another blog...

I've sort of noticed that my posts tend to fall into one of two categories: there are the long, somewhat formal ones, and the shorter, more informal ones. In order to keep things a little more uniform, I'm going to start a new blog. It will deal with the serious theological stuff, which will update once a week. This blog will be reserved for everything else, and will update much more frequently. But more about that later...


You had to know this was coming...

A "creationist museum" is opening in Kentucky:

John Morris, president of the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego, an organization that promotes creationism, said the museum will affirm the doubts many people have about science, namely the notion that man evolved from lower forms of life.

"Americans just aren't gullible enough to believe that they came from a fish," he said.

Americans don't come from fish? You learn something new everyday!

You can read the story here.
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