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Friday, February 29, 2008

What a year in basketball! (so far)

There have been big trades in the NBA, perhaps bringing the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers back to playing each other for a championship. Bob Knight resigned in the middle of the season. The Indiana men's coach had to resign in the middle of the season, because of recruiting violations. Yao Ming was injured, ruining his chances of an NBA championship this year, and, probably of playing for China in China for the Olympics, LeBron James became the youngest NBA player ever to score 10,000 points. What's next?

I'd like to highlight two other big developments. I heard Doris Burke calling a men's college game, not as a sideline interviewer, but calling the game. C. Vivian Stringer has become only the third major college women's coach to win over 800 games, and the first African-American coach of either men's or women's major college basketball to do so. Congratulations, ladies!

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Sunspots 149

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

Wired has a report (with photos) on putting a chicken skeleton back together after eating the chicken.

(sort of) Windows 98 isn't dead. Someone with too much time on their hands has produced music from the sounds of 98 and XP. Let's put it this way -- our grandsons, 22 days and 3 1/4 years old, both liked it.

The NY Philharmonic played in North Korea !

Wired on why computer programs don't deal with apostrophes very well, even in 2008.

Wired on techniques being considered that may help distinguish edited photos from original shots .

Susan Palwick on the first rule of fiction.


In case you haven't figured it out, I read Bonnie's columns at Intellectuelle regularly. She has another good one on Christ's authority.

Thanks for reading! Keep clicking away.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

More on the moral status of embryos

William Saletan has reviewed a recent book, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, by Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen. According to the review (I have not read the book, but may do so) the book is an attempt to establish and defend the legal rights of embryos, from conception, based on science, not religious considerations. According to a different article by Saletan, George and Tollefsen believe that not only should embryonic stem cell research and, presumably, some kinds of contraception, be banned, but so should the current practices of removing embryonic cells from, say, an eight-cell embryo for diagnostic, or other purposes, or the production of several embryos for in vitro fertilization.

Saletan was sympathetic, but not convinced. I can't buy the central premise of the book, either. One fundamental scientific fact argues against saying that fertilization is the point at which a new human life is established, distinct from its mother, and all others, namely that there are identical births -- persons who both (or all) came from a single fertilized egg. There are also other scientific facts, which Saletan considers, which cast doubt on that premise. George and Tollefsen have responded to Saletan, here.

If a human fertilized egg can naturally split, and form two or more new humans, it is impossible to say that a human fertilized egg is always a new distinct individual, based on science. It is possible to say so, legally, philosophically, ethically, or for religious reasons, but not scientifically. See here for a previous post on this subject.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 25, 2008

One reason why I read fantastic literature

Today would have been my father's 103rd birthday. (He's been dead for quite a while now.)

I grew up in rural Sawyer County, Wisconsin. My parents were able to acquire a dairy farm, with a few cows. Until my brothers and I were old enough to do the milking, my father did it. (This was all by hand.) He had a radio in the barn, and he would also do something that must have been very rare -- he read while he milked. He propped a pulp fantastic magazine on one leg, milked, and read, and turned the pages as needed. I got to read some of what he did, and it was mostly science fiction and fantasy. This was back in the middle of the twentieth century. A. Merritt was one of the authors I remember. A. E. Van Vogt was another. I'm sure that there were lots more.

I'm sure that there have been other influences, such as finding Tolkien while I worked as a student library assistant while in college, and finding the Narnia books while looking for something to read while a science graduate student, but my father's influence was part of it.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Some thoughts on Joseph's story

Genesis 41:9 Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “I remember my offenses today. 10 When Pharaoh was angry with his servants and put me and the chief baker in custody in the house of the captain of the guard, 11 we dreamed on the same night, he and I, each having a dream with its own interpretation. 12 A young Hebrew was there with us, a servant of the captain of the guard. When we told him, he interpreted our dreams to us, giving an interpretation to each man according to his dream. 13 And as he interpreted to us, so it came about. I was restored to my office, and the baker was hanged.” (ESV)

That's how we forget God. Another thought -- it must have taken some real courage to remind Pharaoh of whatever the cupbearer had done.

Genesis 47:20 So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for all the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe on them. The land became Pharaoh's. 21 As for the people, he made servants of them* from one end of Egypt to the other. 22 Only the land of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had a fixed allowance from Pharaoh and lived on the allowance that Pharaoh gave them; therefore they did not sell their land. (ESV)
*ESV note: he removed them to the cities

I had not noticed this before, but Joseph, clearly a good man in God's sight, here contributed, probably even had the idea, of putting the Egyptians in future economic servitude. He also honored heathen priests. (He had married the daughter of one such -- see Genesis 41:45. Perhaps this influenced this action.) Well, if I understood everything about the Bible, I wouldn't be me.

Taken from the ESV on-line Bible reading for two separate days in January.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Happy 323rd birthday, Handel!

According to my not-too-trustworthy arithmetic, George Friderich Handel is 323 years old today. He is rightly known for "Messiah," which includes "Hallelujah," but wrote lots of other music. You can hear some of it from the link in the first sentence.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

I believe that the universe was designed intelligently, but I don't believe in the Intelligent Design movement

My wife asked me, "What is your problem with Intelligent Design?" I am trying to post my answer, more or less as I gave it to her.

I believe that the universe, the earth, living things, and humans are here because they were planned by an omnipotent, omniscient, eternal God. I can't prove this. People much smarter than I, with larger audiences, have not been able to make a knock-down argument for this proposition. Hebrews 11:3 implies that I comprehend this by faith. Some people do not believe in such a God. Not surprisingly, they see the same evidence that I do, and come to different conclusions. The converse is true of me and my fellow believers, of course. In other words, I believe in an intelligent designer.

Over the last twenty years or so, a movement has grown up. It calls itself the Intelligent Design movement (ID). I have problems with it, and a lot of other people, some of them Christians, also do. (Here's a recent example of a Christian who has such problems. He has said some of the same things I am, and more.) Why do we have problems with such a group? Here are some of the reasons.

1) ID claims that it is possible to scientifically prove that God designed things. On the face of it, that would be extremely difficult, especially for biological phenomena. An IDer may say (one, Michael Behe, did) that blood clotting is so complicated that it couldn't have come about through random mutation and natural selection. However, even if such an origin couldn't be fully proposed when Behe wrote his book, this isn't a knock-down proof of ID. It is always possible that a plausible path for the origin of blood clotting mechanisms by natural selection will be found. That's what has happened to most or all of the "proofs" in Behe's book.

Being as generous as possible, the number of peer-reviewed scientific articles showing scientific evidence for ID can be counted on one hand. The less generous would say that it would take five less fingers than that. (Behe himself, in his testimony in the Kitzmiller case, agreed that, at the time, there was only one. To be fair, he also said that there were few, if any, peer-reviewed articles showing that what he calls irreducibly complex structures could have arisen by natural selection.)

I believe that the proof for an intelligent designer is not a scientific matter at all. It's a religious or philosophical matter. (ID has also made it political.) Trying to prove God's design in a laboratory is like trying to fry eggs in the shower while the water is running. It's not an appropriate place to do this, it won't work, and it may mess up the shower.

[Added April 18, 2009: Here's an e-mail exchange between a person who doubts ID, and Casey Luskin, a prominent ID advocate. Luskin fails to come up with experimental evidence for ID, and the doubter points out how difficult, if not impossible, such evidence would be to obtain.]

2) ID claims that it is scientific, not religious. A recent court case (presided over by a church-going Republican judge, if that matters) denied this. And no wonder. The Discovery Institute, the most important ID institution, published the "Wedge Document," which lays out ID's strategy. One of the "Governing Goals" is "To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.” (p. 15 of the document from the previous link.) If that isn't religious, I'm not sure what is.

A statement of the Discovery Institute's Science Education Policy, published in June, 2009, uses the phrases "scientific theory of design," and "scientific debate over design," both referring to ID. (This paragraph added August 7, 2009.)

Why claim to be scientific, not religious? I'm afraid that the answer is to deceive. The court case cited in the previous paragraph was over an attempt to have ID included in public school science classes. If ID is religious, it doesn't belong in a science class.

(Added March 2, 2009. See here for a discussion of the lack of scientific evidence for ID.)

Lest there be any doubt, I believe that God did design nature, and human beings.

3) ID is often presented (to conservative religious publics -- it was not presented this way in the court case) as compatible with young-earth creationism, when it isn't. When the South Carolina state legislature considered legislation that would have opened the door to presenting ID as an alternative scientific theory, at least one legislator hoped, apparently encouraged by IDers, that this would mean teaching that the earth was only a few thousand years old. But the leaders of the ID movement have said that they believe that the earth is probably very old, and two of the main young-earth creationist organizations have severely criticized ID. (See here for documentation.)

Again, this tactic is deceptive.

God doesn't need these sorts of defense.

I thank my wife for the questions. Thanks for reading.

4) ID comes close to, or does, advocate God-of-the-gaps theology. That sort of theology is dangerous, because it restricts the activity of God to things we can't explain. The problem with that is that the more we think we understand, the less room there is for God, which is nonsense. If there is a God, He did things we can explain, as well as things we can't. (This point was added on July 3, 2010.)

* * * * *

April 18, 2008. On this date, I modified the introductory portion of this post. There were no changes past the first paragraph.

June 2, 2008. On this date, I became aware of Behe's testimony about peer-reviewed articles in the Kitzmiller case, and added the parenthesis to the second paragraph under point 1).

February 28, 2009. I added a link to a post explaining my problems with Young-Earth Creationism.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sunspots 148

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

In case you hadn't heard, ethanol fuel from corn is not good for the environment.

A gruesome, but great, short video of how parasites have affected snail behavior.

Bonnie has a written an excellent post on male headship. (Which means, I suppose, that I agree with it . . .)

Thanks for reading! Keep clicking away.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

More about the days of creation in Genesis 1

I did a Google search, on the words (not phrase) theories on Genesis 1 days. I don't have time, or inclination, to go through the roughly 3,000,000 web pages that Google says it can find for me. However, I was interested in the first few that came up. (I'm not giving the URLs. One reason is that I'm not sure these pages are authoritative exponents of a particular position. If you want to see these pages, you can do a Google search yourself!)

I found that there was a diversity of views on the meaning of the word "day" in Genesis 1, just among the first ten hits.

Here are some such views:
1) The six, or seven, days of creation were literal days, approximately 24 hours in length.
2) The days refer to long periods of time (ages).
3) There was a gap in God's creative activity, between day 1 and day 2.
4) The days were days of revelation. God revealed different truths on different days.

All of these views have problems, as do any other views of the time frame of Genesis 1.

I indicated some of the problems with the first view in a previous post. Some of my readers were kind enough to comment. I may be missing something, but I remain convinced that Genesis 2:5 seems to be scriptural evidence against taking Genesis 1 as speaking of literal days. There are other scriptural reasons for questioning this view. (See this post, and the comments)

Although belief in literal days does not require belief in a young earth, at most thousands of years old, I'm not aware of anyone who believes that these days took place, say, several million years ago. The scientific evidence, what we can learn about nature from observation, is part of God's revelation, according to Psalm 19, Romans 1, and Colossians 2. Although there have been questions about the evidence, the vast majority of scientists believe that the earth is much older than thousands of years.

The second view may be correct, but it is not possible to merely say that the days were long consecutive periods of time, and that making them so yields a scheme consistent with paleontological evidence. Birds appear before reptiles, in the Genesis account, and most paleontologists are convinced that birds descended from reptiles. Water animals, apparently including seals and whales and their relatives, appear before land animals, in Genesis 1. They are believed to have descended from land animals.

As to the third and fourth options, there is little scriptural evidence for them. One of them may be correct, and they both have some appeal.

I received a comment on the previous post, indicating that the commenter, a serious theologian, intends to post more about Genesis 2:5. He hasn't yet, but I await his contribution with interest.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Science versus Christianity? I don't think so.

A commenter on a previous post said, in part:

The scientist Stephen J. Gould said the world can be divided into two "majesteria." One is the physical world of evidence and experimentation. This is where science goes. The other is the world of thoughts and conjecture and belief. This is the world of religion. . . .

The creationism/evolution debate is caused by people leaving their magesteria. Creationism and Intelligent design are unscientific, just as denial of a soul is atheistic. Thus, unless people want Darwinism to be taught in Church, they must stop trying to insert Creationism and ID into science class. One is supported by fact, one by millenia of scripture. They cannot and should not be mixed.

The reference is to Stephen Jay Gould, one of the great popularizers of biological science of the late twentieth century. In Rocks of Ages, one of his many books, Gould proposed that science and religion are Non-Overlapping Magisteria -- each is legitimate, but they don't have anything important to say to each other. On the face of it, that's an attractive view. Science can't answer a lot of "why?" questions, and religion doesn't produce valid equations for gravitational attraction. However, there are some problems with such a view.

This scheme results in the trivialization of religion. Science, after all, is based on facts, and religion is only a matter of opinion, it is often said. In a way, that's true, but there are opinions in "science" that masquerade as facts. For religious persons, the things that are believed are also facts, although they can't be demonstrated experimentally.

For the Christian, there is another problem. That problem is that God has revealed Himself to us in multiple ways, and it is shortsighted and dangerous to ignore any of these ways. (I am not attempting to cover the subject of all the ways God is revealed to us in this post.) Why do I say this? Because of the Biblical evidence. Psalm 19 and Romans 1 tell us, respectively, that
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
4 Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

and that "20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. . . ."

Not only that, but, as I was forcefully reminded in yesterday's sermon at the church I am presently attending:
Colossians 2:1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, 2 that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
(All quotes from the ESV)

If all treasures of wisdom and knowledge are in Christ, surely that includes knowledge about quarks and ecosystems, quartz and energy. How, then, can Christianity be isolated completely from science, or how can science be completely isolated from religion? I am not arguing that only Christians can do effective science, or that the New Testament is a primary text for courses in astrophysics or microbiology, but that Christ, the Bible, and scientific findings are all ways of knowing about God. Nor am I arguing that we correctly understand all scripture, or all scientific findings.

Ian Barbour has been a leader in what he calls integration of science and religion. I think that, rather than what Barbour calls "conflict" or "independence," is the proper relationship between these two important areas of human thought.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Hagar told to submit

Genesis 16:7 The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.” 9 The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” (ESV)

This must have been very difficult for Hagar to take. It would have been difficult for me. Sarai had been mistreating Hagar, so badly that Hagar ran away. Yet she obeyed. Would I have done so?

Taken from the ESV on-line Bible reading for Jan 7.

Thanks for reading.

*   *   *   *

September 16, 2012: I've gotten so many spam comments on this post that I'm turning off the comment feature. If you are a real person, and want to comment on this post, please comment on another of my posts, and refer to this one by title. Thanks.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

More on torture

I don't often post on political matters, even though many people think that's what blogging is all about. However, I'm afraid that the time has come for me to say something about torture again.

In recent weeks, official spokespersons for the Bush administration have: admitted that the US has used waterboarding on prisoners; stated that, if waterboarding were applied to the official personally, he would consider it torture; bragged about the use of waterboarding. This after years of claims that the US doesn't torture people, and that what we do to prisoners is within the law.

The Bush administration has, by using means of interrogation of questionable effectiveness, destroyed its own credibility, disregarded international treaties, exposed our own troops to an enhanced threat of torture, and, likely, crippled attempts to condemn real terrorists in court, because some of the evidence against them has been obtained illegally. How can we expect North Korea, Iran, or the Sudan to abide by treaties if we don't?

See here for some background on Christianity and torture. The Wikipedia article on waterboarding is here. (The article is in dispute, which shouldn't surprise anyone.) This is the Wikipedia article on torture. Here, here, and here are White House press briefings which document, with considerable reluctance, the allegations in my second paragraph. Here is a speech by the Vice President, which also does. Here is a much more negative view, from Slate. The administration claims that waterboarding is not torture, and that it has never violated the law in this area. I consider such statements to be on the level of former President Clinton's "I did not have sex with that woman" -- they are made in an attempt to deceive. We have tortured, and, in doing so, we have violated our own laws, defied treaties that we have been signatory to, lost any moral high ground that we had, and, perhaps, not even gotten accurate information from those tortured.

I don't expect much, if anything, to happen because of this post. I don't expect all of my small group of readers to agree with me. But I do believe that it is necessary for me to speak my own mind. Thanks for reading.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Origins, defined, more or less.

A reader kindly commented on one of what I consider to be my most significant posts, even though the post is about two and a half years old. I am grateful.

Here's my response, changed slightly from my answering comment:
I agree with much of what you say, including the fact that I didn't define "origins." I steered away from using "evolution," because I know that that word has many meanings, and which one is being used needs to be specified, but often isn't. Using origins without definition is just as bad, except that it may avoid some preconceived notions in readers.

I guess that by "origins," I mean how something came about, but the things included are so diverse as to include the universe, the chemical elements, life, large groups of living things (say, Arthropods), species, and humans. It is possible that the mechanisms that produced all of these may have been different from each other. (By the way, I also prefer that "evolution" be restricted to phenomena that might have come about by natural selection, which means that the first two of the phenomena listed in the first sentence of this paragraph, and probably the third, should not be described as having come about by evolution, even by a materialist or atheist. Origins is a more general term.)

You said that "scientists know how the universe came to be." I have to disagree. They think they know, but they can't prove, or disprove, that God acted to bring it about. Most scientists agree that there was a Big Bang, but, even if there was, there is little understanding of what came before it, or, if nothing did, why not.

As to Gould's Non-Overlapping Magisteria, as a Christian, I have trouble with a firm separation between scientific findings and religious belief, because I believe that both are revelations of God to us, and that, therefore, properly understood, they should be complementary and compatible. (See point 12 of this post, and point 4 of this one.)

Thanks again.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

This isn't love. . .

This isn't love. Jadera haematoloma couple, on wall

I took this photo of two Jadera haematoloma bugs, which my source tells me are also known as red-shouldered bugs, yesterday. They apparently spend most of their time locked in coitus, attached to each other. For more information on these insects, see here and here. The second source indicates that they are confined to Florida. Well, maybe. Whatever these insects really are, and they look like the photos in the pages I linked to, they seem to be flourishing in San Diego County, California.

Whatever they are doing, it isn't love. It doesn't match any of the four types of love discussed by C. S. Lewis in his The Four Loves.

For the first time in my blogging history, I have included a short video, which is also of these insects.


Happy Valentine's Day to all, especially my dear wife.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Sunspots 147

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

Supposedly, all blue-eyed people have a fairly recent common ancestor.

Ancient bats may not have relied on echoes for orientation.

Susan Palwick, author of fantastic literature, occasionally writes poetry related to her experiences as a hospital chaplain. She's done it again, with Echocardiogram.

This week's Christian Carnival is here. For information on these Carnivals, go here.

Thanks for reading! Keep clicking away.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ursula K. Le Guin on the centrality of uncertainty

"The unknown," said Faxe's soft voice in the forest, "the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. No Handdara, no Yomesh, no hearthgods, nothing. But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion. . . . Tell me, Genry, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable -- the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?" "That we shall die." "Yes. There's really only one question that can be answered, Genry, and we already know the answer . . . the only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next." The Left Hand of Darkness (New York: Ace, 1969) p. 72. Ellipses in original. Faxe, the Weaver of Otherhord Fastness, to Genly Ai, the envoy of the Ekumen to Gethen.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Science in Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness

I have recently posted (see here and here) on Ursula K. Le Guin's 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (LHD). I wish to continue this series, by musing briefly on the science in this work.

LHD is science fiction, in that Le Guin attempts to extrapolate from the science of today to the science of the future, on other worlds. It is hardly original with me to note that the products of magic and science might be difficult or impossible to distinguish (imagine Frodo trying to understand a cell phone). But there are no wizards in LHD. (Le Guin does have such in her fantastic Earthsea -- see here for one of my posts on that fictional world.)

Although she didn't invent the ansible for LHD -- she had already written about it, and, since she imagined it, so have others -- this device to communicate instantaneously across immense distances plays a role in the book.

The Gethenians are said to be the result of genetic engineering, carried out by the Hainish, a long time before the time of the action in LHD.

Le Guin, as usual, pays attention to the ecology of Gethen, and includes descriptions of how the climate might have influenced the biology. She also has a character say that the rapid adaptation of machines by humans on earth had a significant cost, a cost which the slow development of Gethenian industry has avoided.

Le Guin also pays some attention to psychological or neurological science. Telepathy is one of the abilities of Genly Ai, the Envoy to Gethen, and he is able to teach Estraven to develop this ability to some extent. The most remarkable mind power of the Gethenians is their ability to Foretell the future. They do this by combining minds, in a more or less controlled way, although there seems to be some art in the practice, not just science.

There is mention of various inventions, including electric automobiles, guns, radio, and the Chabe stove, a remarkable device that weighs a few pounds, yet can heat and light a room for months. Le Guin doesn't explain how this device might work, unfortunately.

Thanks for reading.

Where did God go when He left Abraham?

Over the last few years, I have mostly quoted from someone else on Sunday's posts. I used a couple of devotional books, and most lately, hymns by Charles Wesley.

I think I'm going to try interesting items (to me -- because I seldom get comments on a Sunday post, anyway!) from my devotional Bible reading, for a while. We'll (or I'll) see where it goes. God help me.

Here's a verse from Genesis 18, which was part of the ESV Bible's on-line Bible reading for January 8:
33 And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.

When it says "his way," where is that? Heaven? Some other business on earth? Does the phrase have any meaning for an omnipresent God?

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Some quotes on joy: Tolkien, Lewis, and Le Guin

Pippin glanced in some wonder at the face now close beside his own, for the sound of that laugh had been gay and merry. Yet in the wizard's face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1963, p. 31.

From letter 89 by Tolkien:
"... I coined the word 'eucatastrophe': the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of truth.... It perceives-- if the story has literary 'truth'...--that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made. And I concluded by saying that the Resurrection was the greatest 'eucatastrophe' possible in the greatest fairy story-- and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love..."

All joy (as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasises our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings.
~C.S. Lewis, Letters, (Letter of November 5, 1959)

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.'
~C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, Chapter 9 (1946)

Happiness has to do with reason, and only reason earns it. What I was given was the thing you can't earn, and can't keep, and often don't even recognize at the time; I mean joy. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness (New York: Ace, 1969) p. 228.

*  *  *  *  *

On September 4, 2010, I'm adding this:

Yet hints come to me from the realm unknown;
Airs drift across the twilight border land,
Odoured with life; and as from some far strand
Sea-murmured, whispers to my heart are blown
That fill me with a joy I cannot speak . . .
George MacDonald, A Book of Strife in the form of the Diary of an Old Soul, entry for May 29. (public domain)

May you, and I, find eternal joy!

Friday, February 08, 2008

Religion in Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness

In a previous post, I mused about Ursula K. Le Guin's great novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) (LHD). Here's more.

Le Guin says that she is a Taoist. I don't know any more about Taoism that I can find in the page that the previous sentence links to, which is the Wikipedia article on the subject. I am guessing that, when Le Guin says this, she is speaking more of her philosophy than of her religion, although the two are often intimately intertwined, at least in Christianity and materialism.

There are two religions in LHD. One of these is the Yomeshta cult, which seems to be the official religion of Orgereyn, one of the two countries on the planet Gethen in which the action of the book takes place. The other country, Karhide, is described, by Estraven, the most important Gethenian character, as not a kingdom, but a family quarrel. It is subdivided into many small principalities, villages, and households. The people have many beliefs. Some are Yomeshta. Some follow the way of the Handdara. This lifestyle is the most interesting to Le Guin, and to her readers. Karhide is more interesting than Orgeryn.

The Handdara is a religion without institution, without hierarchy, without vows, without creed; I am still unable to say whether it has a God or not. The Left Hand of Darkness (New York: Ace, 1969) p. 57. Genly Ai, the Envoy, a native of earth, describing his findings, after a few years spent on Gethen.

"Well, in the Handdara . . . you know, there's no theory, no dogma. . . ." The Left Hand of Darkness, p. 222. Estraven, a Gethenian who follows the Handdara way, to Genly Ai. First ellipsis in original.

The interesting parts of the Handdara way include their disciplines. Adherents practice controlled starvation, in part as a way of surviving this harsh environment when little or no food is available. They can go into dothe, a state allowing for prolonged exertion, and physical feats. For example, Estraven carries Genly Ai, who is heavier than he, a long distance through the snow. After dothe, the practitioner must have an extended rest period. The Handdara are also able to foretell. A group of them, led by a Weaver, and including at least one member who is coming into sexual readiness (which is cyclical among most Gethenians), one pervert -- person who is permanently sexually ready, and "zanies" (psychotics) are able to answer specific questions about the future. This ritual is performed at physical risk to the participants, and only if the person who wants an answer pays an acceptable price. Often the answer does not tell what the questioner wanted to know -- in one case, a Gethenian asked when he would die, and he was told, in effect, on the 22nd, but not which month or year. According to the Handdara, the Yomesh cult is the result of a Gethenian forcing a Weaver and associates to answer a question, "What is the meaning of life?" which implies that the answer was not valid.

As for Genly Ai, there is little to indicate his religion, except that, once, when Estraven recites a poem with these lines:
Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.

Genly Ai sketches the yin and yang symbol, which is sometimes associated with Taoism, and asks Estraven if he is familiar with it (p. 222). The Gethenian is not.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is one of two novels by Ursula K. Le Guin to be honored with both the Nebula and Hugo awards. (The other is The Dispossessed.) The first link in this paragraph is to the Wikipedia article on the novel, which discusses some of its aspects. I shall muse about some, too.

The novel gained notoriety because it described a race or species of humans who had no permanent sexual orientation. For most of the time, they are neither male or female. For a few days of each cycle, their sexual organs develop, and they experience intense sexual desire. They may become either male or female, depending on environmental cues. This makes such sentences as "the king was pregnant" possible. It allowed Le Guin to explore the importance of sexual roles in our own society, and to speculate about this fictional one, which lacked them. It also, by implication, examined the way the English language deals with such roles. (In case any one is interested, the novel is not about heavy breathing and ripping off clothing.)

In spite of our interest in sexual roles, and of the excellence of Le Guin's imagination, I submit that the novel is really about a more fundamental issue, communication and understanding.

The Ekumen is a loose organization of civilizations on many planets. When Gethen, where the novel takes place, is discovered, it sends individuals to Gethen, to learn as much as they can about life on this planet. These people are unobtrusive, and their origin was not discovered by the Gethenians. Then, Genly Ai, a dark-skinned male from Earth, is sent publicly, as the first Envoy from the Ekumen. It is his job to obtain permission to bring down the other personnel of his mission from the Gethenians, who are in stasis near the planet, and to start them on the road to joining the Ekumen. To do this, he must communicate in two languages not his own, with cultures not his own, and to beings whose gender orientation is not his. The cultural difference includes shifgrethor, a social fabric which the Envoy doesn't understand fully. It is something like face saving. He stands out physically, because he taller and darker than most Gethenians, and is in permanent kemmer, or sexual readiness. Genly Ai must use all his skills to communicate with the Gethenians, to understand them, and for them to be able to reciprocate.

The Ekumen wants Gethen to join it primarily so that communication of ideas will be possible. Gethen is seventeen light years from the nearest member planet, so trade will not be practical.

Genly Ai communicates with a number of persons, including the King of Karhide, one of the nations of Gethen, with some of the political leaders of Orgeryn, a rival nation, with many ordinary folk, and especially with Estraven, who is prime minister of Karhide as the book begins. It develops that, of all the leaders, only Estraven has really understood his mission, and the implications of it.

Gethen, or Winter, is a cold planet. Le Guin has done a superb job of describing how this fact influences eating, dress, transportation, and architecture, and of describing the weather and the climate. The cold of Gethen makes several parts of the book possible, especially an epic journey across the ice by Estraven and Genly Ai. During this trek, they learn to communicate telepathically.

One aspect of communication is the ansible. Using this, the Envoy tries to convince King Argaven that he really is an ambassador from other worlds. Argaven asks Genly Ai to ask the Ekumen what makes a man a traitor (he considers Estraven one). The Ekumen attempts to answer, across interstellar space, but the answer is no better than he could have obtained on Gethen.

Finally, a little on the structure of the novel. Much of it is Genly Ai's journal, or recollections. Much of it is Estraven's journal, sometimes giving a different viewpoint of the same events. There are also other viewpoints.

The only way to really grasp this great novel is to read it. And, although it is easily readable, it should be read more than once.

I plan to post again on this book. Thanks for reading.

A subsequent post considers religion in this novel.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Sunspots 146

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

Literature: A fairly new blog, consisting of original articles on C. S. Lewis.

Christianity: Jeremy Pierce reflects on the idea that Jesus may have made errors in speaking as a young child, as normal children do.

The Praying in Color website -- yes it's real, and it looks like a great idea, especially for doodlers.

This week's Christian Carnival is here. For information on these Carnivals, go here.

Thanks for reading! Keep clicking away.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Mourning, in Matthew 5:4

Matthew 5:4. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted--This "mourning" must not be taken loosely for that feeling which is wrung from men under pressure of the ills of life, nor yet strictly for sorrow on account of committed sins. Evidently it is that entire feeling which the sense of our spiritual poverty begets; and so the second beatitude is but the complement of the first. The one is the intellectual, the other the emotional aspect of the same thing. It is poverty of spirit that says, "I am undone"; and it is the mourning which this causes that makes it break forth in the form of a lamentation--"Woe is me! for I am undone." Hence this class are termed "mourners in Zion," or, as we might express it, religious mourners, in sharp contrast with all other sorts (Isa 61:1-3; 66:2). Religion, according to the Bible, is neither a set of intellectual convictions nor a bundle of emotional feelings, but a compound of both, the former giving birth to the latter. Thus closely do the first two beatitudes cohere. The mourners shall be "comforted." Even now they get beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. Sowing in tears, they reap even here in joy. Still, all present comfort, even the best, is partial, interrupted, short-lived. But the days of our mourning shall soon be ended, and then God shall wipe away all tears from our eyes. Then, in the fullest sense, shall the mourners be "comforted." Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, by Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown. (Public Domain. Emphasis added.)

In church yesterday, the pastor said that the mourning of Matthew 5:4 is not to be taken as mourning for, say, the loss of a loved one. I decided to check this out, and found that, according to the commentary quoted, he was correct. This, to me, is a powerful passage.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

"Christ the Lord is Risen Today" by Charles Wesley

Last year is the 300th anniversary of Charles Wesley's birth. Wesley wrote many hymns. One that is often heard, mostly for Easter is "Christ the Lord is Risen Today." These are the words, as posted by the Cyberhymnal:

Christ, the Lord, is risen today, Alleluia!
Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth, reply, Alleluia!

Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Lo! the Sun’s eclipse is over, Alleluia!
Lo! He sets in blood no more, Alleluia!

Vain the stone, the watch, the seal, Alleluia!
Christ hath burst the gates of hell, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids His rise, Alleluia!
Christ hath opened paradise, Alleluia!

Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!
Once He died our souls to save, Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave? Alleluia!

Soar we now where Christ hath led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!

Hail, the Lord of earth and Heaven, Alleluia!
Praise to Thee by both be given, Alleluia!
Thee we greet triumphant now, Alleluia!
Hail, the resurrection, thou, Alleluia!

King of glory, Soul of bliss, Alleluia!
Everlasting life is this, Alleluia!
Thee to know, Thy power to prove, Alleluia!
Thus to sing and thus to love, Alleluia!

Hymns of praise then let us sing, Alleluia!
Unto Christ, our heavenly King, Alleluia!
Who endured the cross and grave, Alleluia!
Sinners to redeem and save. Alleluia!

But the pains that He endured, Alleluia!
Our salvation have procured, Alleluia!
Now above the sky He’s King, Alleluia!
Where the angels ever sing. Alleluia!

Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!
Our triumphant holy day, Alleluia!
Who did once upon the cross, Alleluia!
Suffer to redeem our loss. Alleluia!

These words were published in 1739, hence are public domain.

This is the final post in this series.

Thanks for reading.