Voice of the Past: Jesus on Bragadoccios


I rarely touch upon politics and religion on this blog, as I tend to rely upon Emily Post for my posture–that politics and religion are not fodder for polite conversation. And yet, those two subjects are well-worn sawhorses for me (just not through this medium).

Many Americans may not remember, but there was a time in our history when the blanket label “Christian” did not exist. In fact, most Christians would identify as Catholic or Protestant. Of the latter, the divisions would be more pronounced, such as Methodist, Baptist and Lutheran, among others. In the 21st Century, the non-denominational Christian tends to get an outsized presence in communities and politics because of the emphasis placed upon evangelicalism, taking St. Paul as a model. However, those more quiet denominations tend to focus less on praise and more on social justice issues–as described in the Sermon on the Mount.

Two main threads of Protestant (meaning non-Catholic) Christianity are those that focus on grace and social justice (as defined by the theologian Arminius, then John Wesley among others), and those that focus on evangelicalism (as defined by John Knox and John Calvin). Calvin’s influence is most palpable in non-denominational and Baptist theology. Arminius and Wesley can be found in Anglicanism and Methodism.

While each side of the schism can point to chapter and verse to justify their theology, I have always found that for mainline Protestants, that Jesus’s word on evangelical thinking must outweigh St. Paul, Knox and Calvin:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”

Matthew 6: 1-34.

The Oxford philosopher AN Whitehead said that “Religion is what a man does in his solitude”–another oblique way of stating the above passage. Given the implications of boasting too much about the blessings one may have received by coincidence, is it any wonder why Emily Post instructs not to speak of religion in mixed company? If not for only for practicing grace and manners, but also for the instruction of the Nazarene alone.

To All of My Friends...

Photo credit: Edal Anton Lefterov / Foter / CC BY-SA

Buddy Jesus Photo credit: Viewminder / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND


Voice of the Present: Dawkins on Being Lucky

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins has entered the global conscious as the 21st Century’s ur-atheist. His polemics against organized religion aside, he is also among the greatest living evolutionary biologists and science educators alive today. In his early works that focus on the evolution of species by natural selection, Dawkins has been able to explain complex theories in impeccable English prose. And in that voice, he has also found ways to offer solace and wonder to those who seek to ascribe meaning to life.

When it comes to our own fleeting existence, Dawkins is in awe of the statistical odds stacked against all of us:

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

Here is another respect in which we are lucky. The universe is older than 100 million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth. Every century of hundreds of millions has been in its time, or will be when its time comes, ‘the present century.’ The present moves from the past to the future, like a tiny spotlight, inching its way along a gigantic ruler of time. Everything behind the spotlight is in darkness, the darkness of the dead past. Everything ahead of the spotlight is in the darkness of the unknown future. The odds of your century’s being the one in the spotlight are the same as the odds that a penny, tossed down at random, will land on a particular ant crawling somewhere along the road from New York to San Francisco. You are lucky to be alive and so am I.

We live on a planet that is all but perfect for our kind of life: not too warm and not too cold, basking in kindly sunshine, softly watered; a gently spinning, green and gold harvest-festival of a planet. Yes, and alas, there are deserts and slums; there is starvation and racking misery to be found. But take a look at the competition. Compared with most planets this is paradise, and parts of Earth are still paradise by any standards. What are the odds that a planet picked at random will have these complaisant properties? Even the most optimistic calculation will put it at less than one in a million.

Imagine a spaceship full of sleeping explorers, deep-frozen would-be colonists of some distant world. Perhaps the ship is on a forlorn mission to save the species before an unstoppable comet, like the one that killed the dinosaurs, hits the home planet. The voyagers go into the deep-freeze soberly reckoning the odds against their spaceship’s ever chancing upon a planet friendly to life. If one in a million planets is suitable at best, and it takes centuries to travel from each star to the next, the spaceship is pathetically unlikely to find a tolerable, let alone safe, haven for its sleeping cargo.

But imagine that the ship’s robot pilot turns out to be unthinkably lucky. After millions of years the ship does find a planet capable of sustaining life: a planet of equable temperature, bathed in warm starshine, refreshed by oxygen and water. The passengers, Rip van Winkles, wake stumbling into the light. After a million years of sleep, here is a whole new fertile globe, a lush planet of warm pastures, sparkling streams and waterfalls, a world bountiful with creatures, darting through alien green felicity. Our travellers walk entranced, stupefied, unable to believe their unaccustomed senses or their luck.

As I said, the story asks for too much luck; it would never happen. And yet, isn’t it what has happened to each one of us? We have woken after hundreds of millions of years asleep, defying astronomical odds. Admittedly we didn’t arrive by spaceship, we arrived by being born, and we didn’t burst conscious into the world but accumulated awareness gradually through babyhood. The fact that we gradually apprehend our world, rather than suddenly discovering it, should not subtract from its wonder.”

–From Unweaving the Rainbow

In my darkest moments, when thinking of those I have lost over the years, I have found comfort in this passage. We are lucky. And we continue to be lucky.

Richard Dawkins with LEGO minifig likeness (instagram)

Photo credit: mrccos / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Mini Dawkins Photo credit: xeni / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Voice of the Past: Ben Franklin on Moving

Ben Franklin

I am slowly returning to my blog, having spent more time than I thought possible moving 600 miles from the east coast of the US to the Midwest. I join the ranks of many movers whose personal effects have been savaged by a large, green and yellow moving company Christened with the name of the Puritan’s flagship to Plymouth.  As the only recourse after hours of browbeating by stentorian customer service representatives is either a. alcohol or b. a Zen-like piece of mind, I have to choose the latter if I desire to not die of stress.

I should have remembered my Poor Richard’s Almanack before heading out on this adventure, for Ben Franklin offers sagely advice for the modern migrating American:

“I never saw an oft removed Tree,

Nor yet an oft removed Family,

That throve so well, as those that settled be.

And again, Three Removes are as bad as a Fire.”

–Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1758. 

Franklin had an axe to grind with the Puritans too, it seems. After all, Ben left Boston in his youth to make in his own way in the world. In Ben’s estimation, after my 14th remove in 33 years, I should be contented by the fact that I could have had a pile of cinders instead of crates of possessions. When Ben made the move from Boston to Philly, he arrived with only the clothes on his back (a minimalist!):

“I have been the more particular in this description of my journey, and shall be so of my first entry into that city, that you may in your mind compare such unlikely beginnings with the figure I have since made there. I was in my working dress…I was dirty from my journey; my pockets were stuff’d out with shirts and stockings, and I knew no soul nor where to look for lodging. I was fatigued with travelling, rowing, and want of rest, I was very hungry; and my whole stock of cash consisted of a Dutch dollar, and about a shilling in copper.”

–Autobiography of Ben Franklin, 1785.

Another piece of advice, unheeded in my most recent caravan. So, dear migrant, should you ever yearn to move from place to place, take Ben’s advice.

Pack lightly.

Ben Franklin Boombox

Franklin Photo credit: Angela Rutherford / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
Beatbox  Photo credit: Lulu Hoeller / Foter / CC BY

Intermission: Turkey

I am still on “hiatus” as I have just now received my favored computer for writing from the movers, and internet access from the cable guys. I have managed to unpack enough of my effects to feel a bit more at home and in the mood for blogging. In the interim, please enjoy this lovely video from The Perennial Plate, a blog on sustainable living. This video, Faces of Turkey, highlights the faces, foods and colors of the Turkish landscape, culture and palate.

As the Turks would say, afiyet olsun!