Sunday, May 30, 2010

Right and Left Brainiacs

For some reason the end of the school year (this has always been the case and is particularly true after graduating) leaves me in a right-brained renaissance where I just want to go outside, employ as many senses as I can, crawl up to interesting things and look at them as closely as possible or step back and view something I'd never seen as a whole. My guess is that it's a response to all the left-brained academic work I push myself to finish at the end of the year, the papers, the exams, the scheduling, the organizing, the deadlines at the end of the year. Yuck yuck yuck. I'm left turning in my paper and not remembering anything I do for about four days because half of my cranium is exhausted and needs a few weeks to recover, thus I follow some schedule my unconscious beams down to me from outer space, similar to what happened with the Power Rangers (wasn't that how it worked?).

Nevertheless, in my roaming the internet for some label in which hemisphere I use, here is the best test I've found that is free.

My results:
32% left brained- (most dominant to least dominant) symbolic, linear, verbal, reality-based, sequential, logical

68% right brained- (most dominant to least dominant) random, concrete, fantasy-oriented, intuitive, nonverbal, holistic

Take the test and post your results.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Gravity of Denominations

I’ve been inspired to read more Catholic fiction, a desire that began with Chesterton, moved to Graham Greene, and has now moved to Evelyn Waugh. The book that was suggested to me, other than his most famous work “Brideshead Revisited”, is a biography he wrote on St. Edmund Campion, a Jesuit priest martyred in England during some of their most tumultuous years in transitioning from Catholicism to the Anglican Church as the state religion.

I suggest to anyone who is interested in either systematic theology or church history to devote a significant portion of their study on the Reformation with all its interesting elements and nuances that ripple far through the centuries and meet us in the our congregations every Sunday. Personally, I’ve been more interested in the early church period rather than the thousand years later that changed the West permanently, but the more I’m alive and study theology the more I see its value.

After reaching the halfway point in Waugh’s account of Campion’s life, I find myself perplexed at what occurred within Christianity four hundred years ago. The massacre of other world religions during the Crusades seems somewhat understandable, but when I read about Christians killing other Christians something inside me is unsettled. It’s the difference between fighting between families and fighting within families. The latter seems far graver. Religious freedom in our time is usually a conversation about Christianity among other world religions. This is not to say there is tension between denominations, but Islam and the West is undoubtedly a bigger question in the mind of our culture.

Imagine this: the United States makes the necessary changes to the constitution to abolish freedom of religion and institutes, let’s say the Southern Baptist Church, as the national religion in which all citizens are required to attend worship every Sunday under penalty of fines on the first offense, incarceration on the second, and death for the third. All other forms of worship are forbidden by the state. Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Muslims, scientologists, etc. are all forbidden to have their weekly, monthly- whatever they want to do- services.

Take that scenario, which is very similar to what happened in England in the 16th century, particularly toward Catholicism, and combine it with a popular view of Christianity and denominations in the US. What view is that? Ever heard someone say, “Most Christian denominations believe virtually the same thing. We’re all brothers/sisters in Christ”? I heard an ordained elder in the UMC say he could be a minister in any Christian denomination except Catholicism only because they require celibacy for priests (the elder was married). This is the general attitude.

In this scenario, especially if you’re not Southern Baptist, would you “see all denominations as the same”? Of course, you’d have to sign on to a set of beliefs about God, Scripture, etc. to be a part of the national church, which all congregations would confess every Sunday. In this case, the doctrines of once saved always saved, the inerrancy of Scripture, believer’s baptism, and all the other trademark stances the Southern Baptist church takes would be included in the confession.

St. Edmund Campion and Rome saw it as imperative that missionaries be sent to England to reevangelize the country and support those who are loyal to the Catholic Church in England. As a result, Campion and hundreds of others were hanged, drawn, and quartered for their loyalty to Catholicism.

What’s implied- the text between the lines that seem painfully glaring out from the page- is that Campion saw the Catholic Church as the one true church and the Anglican Church as a heretical sect. Why? Why not? When a person says they believe something, why not really mean it?

It’s easy to criticize these people as fanatical, intolerant, radicals compared to our “enlightened” religion of the 21st century, but what value lies beneath this chapter in the church’s history?

Does it seem insane? If there was a persecution to this degree of your denomination would you feel compelled to stand up for it and put your life on the butcher block simply to confess what you believe, or would you take the “all denominations are basically the same” approach and confess beliefs contrary to your own?

Friday, May 28, 2010

Leaders and Followers

When I came to Perkins to visit the campus for the first time, I met a self-proclaimed “Christian comedian.” Apparently, this is an occupation, and some places even host gatherings of Christian comedians who compete for the grand prize of most Christ-like (in the sense that Christ was funny) Christian comedian.

Needless to say, the man was loud and easily noticed just by the way he carried himself or breathed loudly after walking a significant distance (he was a big man, so it usually wasn’t too great of a distance to get this effect). I asked him about his work as a Christian comedian and what it was like to be in a room with a bunch of other people who define themselves as funny people. He said he hated it. “Comedians don’t think other comedians are that funny,” he said, as he looked around to see if anyone else heard him. He turned to me and continued saying something. I don’t really remember what it was.

You can come up with several reasons for this, but it’s there nonetheless.

I asked another writer who took creative writing classes at SMU what it was like to be in a room with a group of other writers. He said everyone tries to talk and muscles their way into conversation to say what they think. Of course, no one is listening to each other. We can be long-winded. This is true.

In a similar vein, Perkins also showed me how critical pastors are of other pastors, and how disastrous it can be when you gather a group of people together who define themselves as spiritual leaders. At seminary, people both minister to you and preach to you willingly; often when you never asked for it in the first place. I saw many of my own flaws flaunted in front of me, like a thief watching a surveillance camera immediately after his arrest. “Yes, officer, that was me putting the Dr. Pepper underneath the shirt.”

You can guess how both humbling and troubling it was to receive the same lines I’d use, and the overbearing advice-giving. Guess who the police officer is in the analogy.

What’s they problem in these scenarios? Everyone is playing the same role. The comedians are all trying to be funny, the pastors are all trying to care for people, the writers are all trying to say profound things to amaze people. Chaos ensues when everyone plays the same role. It becomes stale or overly competitive.

This is one reason I’m not a huge fan of group projects. Democracy tends to fail in group projects if there isn’t one person singled out to be the leader. One person who, at the end of the meeting, makes the final decision.

However, the wisdom and discernment of a leader must be coupled with patience and loyalty from her followers. This is the only way it will work.

Sometimes it’s best to have someone in front calling the shots. The comedian, the pastor, the group-appointed leader of the project. Jobs can be delegated and criticism can be corralled by the leader, which makes it all so much easier.

Having a leader also helps to quell the people with bad ideas or “with something to say” that goes from a lecture to a rant to people squirming in their seats as the person “with something to say” starts waving a gun around, shouting, and weeping uncontrollably as everyone else is wondering if that thing is loaded and if Taco Bell is still open.

We can all do without that.

Oh, and leaders usually should be armed.

And yes, Taco Bell is still open.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Great Expectations

Expectations lead to disappointment.

Ever heard that before? Did you make you vomit a little when you heard it?

Stop and think about that. Answer in your head, keep it to yourself, what the implications of that statement are. Think about it....

It's ridiculous isn't it?

Wait, Will. Look at how beautiful the world would be if you saw things that way. I'd be surprised by the sunrise every morning, I'd be overjoyed that my roommates didn't steal everything from my apartment overnight and are still nicely tucked away in their beds, fast asleep dreaming sweet dreams with no expectations of waking up. Heck, I don't expect the banks to hold my money. I don't expect people to keep their word when they make a promise. I don't expect a policeman to randomly open fire at me as I drive by.

It's a horrible world, isn't it? Sure. Expect the worst and you won't be hurt. That's what that means. Pain is the motivator, or the averting factor.

Going back to the sunrise. I'd flatly disagree. A sunrise is more beautiful because I know it will come everyday. My expectations make it that much better. And it's that easy.

Aside from my timid counter-arguments, I’ve come to learn truth speaks for itself and often doesn’t need mine or anyone’s defense. Common sense runs nicely at its side.

When a person says something something as horrible and nasty (I'll call it that because that's what it is) as expectations only lead to disappointment, they are rearranging the way they view everything that happens in their life based on the pain of disappointment. Pain is not the same as evil. Pain is not the worst thing that could happen to a person. Stop being such a hedonist. Get over it.

Expectations can be dangerous, though not in people’s philosophy of life, but in the way they go about their friendships and relationships. I’ve heard several people in the training for my summer job say they get angry when people don’t do things they expect them to do. My only question is, “Did you tell them you expected that? Did they agree to it?”

It’s not hard. If you go to all the trouble of being offended to the point of holding a nasty grudge for months and months until the friendship is only a passing silence, or superficial niceties with nothing underneath, then I think a person is entitled to know what expectations you placed on them, and there should be some agreement.

“He should know I’m angry with him. He knows what he did.” Guess what? He probably doesn’t know. His first job in this world is not to read your mind. It isn’t, nor should it be.

What’s the key phrase used to solve this bad habit in relationships: realistic expectations. I like the sound of that. Realistic expectations have a mutual tone to them that levels the playing field. A person with realistic expectations of others has a baseline view of politeness and etiquette. Expecting apologies when your feelings are hurt or you are angry is not a realistic expectation. To expect people’s complete attention in catering to your needs without you telling them is an unrealistic expectation. I completely agree that it is ideal, and it would be nice, but it’s unrealistic.

People carry with them a million tasks, thoughts, and feelings in a single stroll to their car. Where does a person get off saying they should know what other people are thinking and feeling? “Should” is a powerful word, and becomes lethal when misused. Let’s not get luxury and duty mixed up.

Is anyone listening?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

George Bush, TED, and the left

During the summer of 2007 I was up late watching TV, probably the last time I ever did such a thing, and a show came on about a conference that moves around to different parts of the world that encourages people with ideas to get together and share them. It was called the TED conference. They had one at SMU in the fall of 2009, in fact.

You name the big, innovative figure in our time, and he or she has probably spoken at the TED conference. Professors, entrepreneurs, artists all meet to share with each other what they know, and somehow the mixing of other people’s ideas leads to them being applied to find solutions to some of the biggest problems facing our world. Needless to say, I was blown away by the interesting work these people spend their lives developing and I support the endeavor in what it’s trying to do.

Listening to the different speakers these past three has presented a problem I’d like to see resolved soon.

The problem is that over the years I’ve listened to it enough to find a pattern in the talks, and the people they invite. They are mostly concerned with a handful of issues, and their solutions seem to give the more credence to the left in facing these issues.

I don’t think conservatives have been good in handling certain global issues of the day, but I also don’t think it’s the political philosophy that is to blame. The pattern of political power in its decline and ascent in this country has led to the left taking the helm on big problems our country needs to face. Another issue for another time.

On my eight hours of driving this weekend I heard most of the speakers bash George Bush and credit him in doing work similar to the Soviets or the Third Reich. Environmentalism is mentioned in 70% of the talks, globalization is a big issue, ending poverty is another big one, but I never hear anyone supporting conservative politics or their solutions.

A survey was done to find out how many people in the academy voted for George W. Bush when he ran for president, and the number was basically zero. Does this mean the more education a person gets, the more liberal they become? I doubt it.

What this tells me first is that the left dominates the academy.

Second, it tells me they are not up for discussion on these issues. They don’t know how to disagree with people. At the undergraduate level, I experienced more lecturing than debate on political issues like this. Graduate school wasn’t much different.

The political right is a valid philosophy with principles that can be used to handle these issues. Why don’t we hear their voice?

I don’t think this is a problem with the academy alone. Since I’ve been reading “The Economist”, a British news and opinion magazine, I’ve noticed how they engage positions at the level of argument and debate, not attacking the people themselves. Ad hominem arguments are rampant in the US, which is why when someone disagrees with another person in our culture it’s taken as a personal attack.

This habit is going to kill us in the long run.

Is it as bad as I think it is? Do we disagree well in this country?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Create life? Check.

Scientists have now created life. A bacteria cell has been engineered and assembled by humans without any such organism existing previously, which now opens the possibility of creating new forms of life. The potential to create algae that can turn carbon dioxide into fuel, or many other possibilities to fit our needs has become a reality, and corporations have begun the scramble to harness this technology and use it to not only create an edge in areas such as the energy market, but also make a lot of money in the meantime with new and more efficient ways of doing things once confined to narrow and specific methods. The science of Dr. Frankenstein (the man who created the monster. The monster was not named Frankenstein, nor did he get an M.D. degree) is now becoming a reality.

Whoa, what? Isn’t God the only person that can do such a thing? Isn’t this a threat to our faith in the one, true God that created the heavens and the earth?

One of two things could be potentially hazardous to Christian theism in this work:

We’re breaking some role God ordained for Himself, not for humans to participate in. Never before this point has humanity been able to create new forms of life, which other than God, evolution was doing through genetic mutations and such. A breach in our preordained role would be a sin, thus these scientists should be shunned and any work similar to it should be called a sin.

God in fact does not exist, or if God does exist then the power to create life in this way is not unique to God, and this one thing that we worshipped God for- one of the many things God does- is now not so special and we can be less amazed at this aspect of His character.

Neither of these are true, nor are they threats to Christian theism.

God commanded us to be fruitful and multiply. We are doing that. The only difference is that it’s not specifically the call to make more humans. God created us in His image, a divine image, that creates in a way no other creature does. All that’s happening is our role as stewards of creation in supporting life on this planet and ensuring its continuation is being exercised.

This brings up other issues like stem-cell research, where humans are manipulating life and using it for their own ends. While this is manipulating life in a sense, it is not what stem-cell research is on a fundamental point: stem-cell research is manipulation of already existing life while this is creating life where life did not exist. The difference is crucial.

But are we playing God in this kind of work?

Another difference must be noted. The scientists merely assembled a new organism using a unique sequence never before seen of the four proteins that make up DNA: adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. The question is: who made these four proteins? Who made life in the first place? It was God. Creatio ex nihilo is the name of this part of God’s work in creations. God created out of nothing. These scientists are creating life out of already existing materials.

A question that arises in this work that I’d like to see answered is whether scientists could create another human being in this way. A human being created in the divine image would be a controversial achievement to say the least. I’m sure the discussion of first causes and such would arise, but it must be noted that humans can create another human in the divine image. But that’s a different discussion altogether.

Is it dangerous what scientists are doing? Does it fit within the proper role of humanity in Christian theism?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Review for "Canticle for Leibowitz"

History repeats itself. Walter Miller Jr. would agree. He takes the parallels between science and religion through the ancient, medieval, and modern periods and offers a retelling of this interaction in addition to the one we have, only after the world nearly destroys itself through nuclear war. Although still a pressing issue, nuclear war is less imminent on the United States than it was in 1959 when the book was written, however, his does not take much from the overall message. The three parts of the book are short narratives, usually involving a monk and some mission or conflict they struggle with, that characterize each period.

The first part begins after the Great Simplification where the humans left revolt and destroy any remnant of the civilization that threw them into such dark times, which is made parallel the burning of the libraries during the fall of Rome. The only institution seeking to preserve it are struggling monastic orders in the Catholic Church, now under “New Rome.” Miller then works through the minimum preservation of civilization through the book copying that occurred in the Dark Ages, the development of science as we know it in the Middle Ages, and the clash between the two that occurs in modern times.

Although many aspects of worship and church life are accurate (Latin is spoken throughout the book, certain canon laws are accurately portrayed, etc.), Miller makes monasticism to be primarily about preserving knowledge and using it properly. The mistake is common and serious. Monasticism was birthed by individuals desiring holiness. It has never been anything other than that. Christians did not have the option of martyrdom after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman empire, so they moved out to the desert to live ascetic lives of poverty, chastity, and obedience in loose communities of Christians living as hermits. In medieval times, some monasteries were growing wealthy and lost sight of their true purpose, so the Cistercian, Franciscan, and Dominican orders come about, which were all led by charismatic and saintly leaders. Thus, monasticism has come in many forms to fit certain needs in the church. Certainly, there were the Benedictine monasteries in the early Middle Ages (the order the monks in the book mostly resemble) and they still exist today, but there were also mendicant movements and eremitic movements dotting the church’s lifespan.

Aside from the cliche nuclear fallout subject, Miller gives a interesting story with characters to remember. A fair defense is given of religion’s role in the world, and its rocky relationship with the science. It’s worth noting that science was studied by monks in universities when they were solely religious institutions with theology as the “queen of the sciences,” and great scientific discoveries were made before it became an altogether separate discipline. Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican monk. Augustine of Hippo started a monastic order. Blaise Pascal was a brilliant physicist that wrote wonderful theological works still read and quoted today. The two were not always on opposite sides of the aisle.

The question arises in the last part of the book that is the crux of the whole matter, science seeks to gain power over nature, but who or what will govern that power? Religion is the answer. Religion is like the old king that once ruled the city, but was driven out and taken over by those who forgot he ever existed as its ruler. The analogy holds in the faces of religious observance held by those who place their faith in science, and the seemingly atheistic conclusions it brings. Without the church’s robust morality and intense reflection on the most serious matters facing humanity, science is like a prodigal son still estranged and doomed to failure while separated. And as the story goes, the son will experience unnecessary suffering until the two are reconciled. The father was the one who let him go, but it was his personal life that changed little because of his son’s absence. However, it must be noted that science was born out of the work and cultivation of religious people, and in the darkest times it was the Church who carried the sealed tablets of the ancient world’s work, only to be opened and studied to grow into the sophisticated subject it is today. The study of God, then, is rightly called the queen of the sciences for it is by her that all knowledge finds its proper place.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Robots and the Practical Use of Practical Jokes

Two things worth noting happened recently:

Robots are the ones who have made significant progress capping the oil spill, preventing it from causing more damage in the Gulf. Once again, pop culture is wrong. Robots are no threat to us. They are our friends. The fact that I don’t hear politicians debating this issue scares me.

Practical jokes are a big part of my family. There’s just something about playfully deceiving someone that gets a laugh like nothing else. The same tactic was employed this week by authorities sans the playful laughter afterwards. California police sent 2,700 letters and emails to family members of convicts who had broken parole and were suspected of committing further crimes. The emails said the authorities would strike a deal if they turned themselves in. The reward would be a two hundred dollar reward and entrance into an amnesty program forgiving them of any parole charges. One hundred and fifty men came in only find themselves handcuffed and arrested. Whoever thought of this deserves a medal.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

After Four Years at SMU

I was handed my Master’s of Theological Studies diploma yesterday. It hasn’t become a full reality to me for several reasons, but what’s interesting as a development in this time of transition is that in the past two weeks I’ve only thought of how I got here rather than where I’m going. Isn’t that the popular graduation gift, “Oh, the places you’ll go”? It’s a look to what’s next. What I thought would happen is I’d finish the school year, graduate, and look on to the next step in my life with a kind of disdain or light affection for the place I put up with for a few years. This sounds grim, but I thought this way for a while. I thought one hundred percent of my attention directed toward my career would be the wisest way to go about my life in my 20s, with partial attention to people I'd meet along the way.

Expecting detachment isn’t a stupid prediction simply because it’s how I acted when I finished my bachelor’s degree. I was hardly reminiscent of anything I’d done at Louisiana Tech, and I couldn’t wait to get out of Ruston. In fact, the summer before I left I remember calling a close friend in a near-breakdown state saying my summer was unbearable. It was, and I couldn’t wait to leave.

Oddly enough, when I got to SMU all I could think of was my life in Ruston and how much I missed the friends and familiarity I’d left behind. That year was one of the darkest twelve months of my life. I don’t remember seeing the moon once.

What’s happened at the end of my time at SMU is the reverse of what I expected. I came here thinking I would spend only two or three years studying theology, and eventually move on to a doctorate program that would open possibilities in having a career in theological education. None of that happened.

I feel ready to leave, but I also mourn the loss. The alma mater played at the commencement ceremony and presentation of my class in receiving our diplomas evoked such emotion in me, it’s left me puzzled as to why there’s more attachment to this campus than to my undergrad campus. I have one guess.

I don’t think I was capable of an emotional attachment to Louisiana Tech while I was there. It was only my final year there that I saw a maturation to the point of being able to appreciate what had happened, which was time spent as a graduate not taking classes. I was around college students living that lifestyle, but it involved no class time and it’s purpose was to listen to God in my own life and the lives of others on that campus. That’s the best I can describe that job. We were trying to make sense God and each other. Somehow doing that together reaped lasting rewards that I still benefit from today in the smallest of ways. And you wonder why they paid me for such a thing. Well, they didn’t. I did it for free.

What happened at SMU was another college experience, but this one had the foundation of what I’d done at Tech beneath it. I could see and feel things more acutely and I had the experience to articulate and identify what was happening in myself and the world around me. My understanding of the world was greater. I made more friends at SMU, I was more involved in campus life, I grew more while I was here. This is why my feelings have the volume turned up as I’m leaving.

I look back at my first quarter at Tech in the fall of 2001 and I see an eighteen year old boy. In many ways I’m the same person now. Some similarities between now and then are beneficial, and some I still hold on to, needing to be shed for my own betterment. I know how I felt then, and it’s completely different as I come to a close in my college career. I may return to it. I love learning and the academy may be the place for me, yet it doesn’t seem to be that way at the moment, and not listening to that voice would force me to commit the crime of self-deception.

A nice thing to say at times like these is that I have no regrets about the past. I’m happy with the way things are, so any regret or change in what happened would spoil it, right? It’s beautiful and comforting to hear and say, but it would be a lie. I have a ton of regrets amassed from decisions I made in the past four years. Would I take any of it back? Absolutely. It could’ve been much better. There were times when I clung to things that were killing me, and when I thought I’d dropped them for good they came back in ways I never expected. I shed old habits I shouldn’t have, and I created ones that do more harm than damage.

However, I don't see this as a reason for despair. Someone who gets bummed about realizing things could've been better has bigger problems to deal with. I see this as opportunity for growth. It's saying to myself, "Look, Will. You have so much more you could be doing. If you think that was good, then just wait." I'd say that's a reason for hope.

A good question to ask myself at this moment is whether or not I’ve become a better person in the past four years. I read stories about young people on the path to living out the best of what God gave them, and some tragic thing occurs and all is lost. Years are spent recovering from it. Listen to an honest testimony by anyone over the age of forty and you'll catch a hint of this reality. In a bracketed portion of their life, they came out worse off than before. It happens.

Again, this isn't a cause for despair. However, I will say I do not believe everything happens for a reason, or if it does, that everything happens for a good reason. Horrible, tragic, evil events occur and we're left making sense of them years later. This doesn't mean good is incapable of following these events, or that all hope is lost. It does mean, however, that regret is a legitimate feeling and life actually can be perfect.

First, I must say there are people in this world much better than others. The saying “All men are created equal” is a political term, not one that applies to other human relations. If that last sentence leaves a bad taste in your mouth, then I ask you to think of people that inspire you or people inciting awe when you see them or hear them speak. Don’t they seem so much better? And I mean “better” in the most basic sense of its meaning ("of a more excellent or effective type or quality"). This implies no competition or license to dominate, but it does allow us the wonderful right to be inspired by others. Life is a long battle and there is no question in my mind that I have gained ground that has been crucial to my success. I am a better person than I was four years ago. Growth is hard to measure when it is your own, but I’m nearly certain I am better than I was when I got here. That alone is worthy of gratitude.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Why there hasn't been an entry in a while

I thought I'd explain why there hasn't been an entry for about a week until today, which was an impulse post. I hate that that's the case, but it's how it happened. I read the article, commented, and felt like posting it on the blog.

I'm sorry for the sparse postings. It's been finals. In less than twenty four hours, I'll be finished with my Master's degree. I'll have more time after tomorrow. Good luck to anyone who still has them. I'll post in a few days.

Diversity at SMU

Here's an article posted in the Daily Campus on Diversity at SMU. My comment is the first on the page.