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[The Creation of the Chicken]

An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The data are what the data are

I once made the mistake on Facebook of challenging the data in a statistic provided that bolstered a position in a very political hot topic. As hard as I tried, it seemed some could not get past the notion that I was actually arguing for one side or the other of the political issue when in fact I was simply criticizing the data. Dare I try again?

Well hopefully THIS isn't too terribly controversial. In the interest of full disclosure (though most of you know already) I am not a big fan of heavy handed public health science in the political arena and additionally I enjoy a cigar and pipe about 3-5 times a year. I'll start off by saying I am not going to enter into an argument about the dangers of secondhand smoke, nor the extent to which the government can or should legislate such bans. But I will posit this:

I do not believe there is any meta-analysis that could possibly convince me that this is accurate: "Secondhand smoke causes close to 50,000 deaths per year." I don't think anyone doubts that secondhand smoke is bad for you, but when people start tossing out "body counts" I start having doubts. It ends up being more emotion than real science. So I followed the rabbit down the hole.

CNN says the data came from the American Lung Association's webpage. I went there and looked and looked and looked. They cite the source as being the California Environmental Protection Agency. A reputable source? I'll let you decide. Still seeking the data. The CEPA cites that its source is an Executive Summary intended to set public policy in California. Hmmm. I kept searching...a Fact Sheet...a report...and finally a good deal of details HERE.

In all honesty I do not have time to plow through this in its entirety...but a couple of points to ponder: Did they pick and choose studies? In my experience with nearly every human behavior/health issue there is conflicting evidence. Proving behavior as a cause of death is exceptionally difficult...unless of course it involves an unopened parachute, a very very long skid mark leading to a tree, or a bullet hole. All of us know people who have smoked all their lives and never got lung cancer and some of us no doubt know people who got lung cancer and never smoked a day in their lives - and no exposure the second hand smoke. The point being: smoking isn't the only thing that causes lung cancer. It may be a prominent risk factor, but we have to ask how this understanding of lung cancer plays into the body count? And remember we are talking about a solid number...not increased risk. Insurance companies are probably a good indicator here...they know well that it is a serious risk factor, but that's different than a politically charged body count.

Heart Disease? They cite a number of studies that offers "estimates of the number of CHD deaths in nonsmokers that could be attributed to ETS exposure" and the keyword here is "COULD." That's different from a "FACT sheet" data point...that sounds more like a "Maybe sheet" data point. Heart Disease is a very complex disease and from all I've read the science leaves many questions unanswered. Given all the evidence out there I think it's fair to conclude that MANY factors may or may not play a role in any one person developing heart disease. I will have to look at the listed papers to see how exactly they decided that secondhand smoke COULD be attributed to the disease. But I have a really sneaky suspicion that my concerns will not be assuaged.

I have colleagues who regularly design human subject studies and they have backed me on this point saying in essence that designing studies that prove causality in human behavior/disease is indeed very difficult. And in addition the numbers are spurious.

Anyway...I'll reiterate I'm not suggesting smoking is safe or that second hand smoke is not bad for you. So please don't engage that route. I just don't believe that a body count can be accurately proposed and only serves to win political fights as opposed to providing real scientific insights.

...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 2:13 PM [+]
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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Science Discovers Idolatry

I don't think that THIS is any great surprise, is it?

The notion that this is a "new" thing connected with 21st century technology is, of course absurd. Idolatry is nothing new...we all know this, right? Of course there may be some unique aspects to the brand devotion, but is it any different than the frenzy worked up at sports events? U2 concerts? Or even, oddly enough, the hope and change ridden frenzy of politicians? Being "slain in the spirit" before a movies star? Or the dancing round about golden calves?

The interesting thing about all forms of idolatry is that they never seem to demand anything like personal reflection and change. Though, upon further consideration, they often do demand cash...so there is that sense of personal change.

...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 8:25 PM [+]
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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Fairy Stories

Apparently it's time once again for the news media to drag out a new story about some scientist preaching his (always "his" it seems) atheism. This time it's Hawking. And my oh my, he seems to be getting bitter in his old age saying heaven is merely a story to soothe the fears of those afraid of the dark. Maybe he's right. But, so? Does that necessarily make the story untrue?

I certainly used to believe that and rather enjoyed trumpeting such triumphalism and asserting that I wasn't afraid of the dark. But you know what...SHHHH....when it got to be late into the night and the house would be dark...sometimes I'd get a just a little tiny bit scared. Sometimes I'd turn a light off in the basement or garage and then get a sudden urge to RUN out of that room and into the light. And sometimes when I laid in bed alone I would ponder the nothingness of death and it would send a bit of a shiver down my spine and it would drive me to think of something more calming like food or sex. Avoid the subject of death...gird my loins to maintain the facade. So, my guess is, Hawking's bravery is also a bit of a facade...not to his fault of course, for we all have our facades. It's just that his supposed lack of fear of death is no apologetic for atheism I'm afraid.

And really, Dr. hawking, do you think that the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing", is one that science can really answer? I am not a physicist and so I grant that I might be absolutely wrong, but it seems to me that this is clearly a philosophical question. Is there any more or less science and faith involved in his notion of "Spontaneous creation" than in "'Let there be Light...'"? I agree that the question is not an apologetic for God. Really...God needs no apologists anyway. But something from nothing? Takes some faith doesn't it?

And speaking of the religion of atheism (disguised as science), I hear that the folks claiming the rapture will take place this weekend are being capitalized upon by the local congregation of the scientific faithful. It's a very clever little campaign intended to propagate the idea that science answers all of life's questions. Good times!

We Orthodox are of course tempted to laugh along with them. The Lord knows we've no wish to be lumped in with those wacky fringe Christians. But let's pause and keep in mind that these religious atheists would snicker no less at our belief concerning what happens each and every Sunday morning in Orthodox Churches around the world. I'm not trying to suggest an us vs. them decision needs to be made here...just suggesting we keep in mind that if they ever run out of REALLY crazy Christians to mock they'll hammer on us supposedly less crazy ones. So I'll be praying for the REALLY wacky Christians...God grant them MANY YEARS!

Exit question:

When the communion prayer first included this: "I will not speak of Thy mysteries to Thine enemies" was it perhaps in part to protect believers who might have been persecuted at the time? Clearly it stems from the time when the Liturgy of the Faithful was exactly that. Does anyone know how old that prayer is? Or maybe it's a "pearls before swine" thing? Both? It's interestingly linked to Judas' betrayal. Hmmm.

...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 7:41 AM [+]
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2 comments

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Preparing for Winter


As I cut each round off the tree they fell just like this. A nice start for next winter.

...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 3:22 PM [+]
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Friday, May 13, 2011

Farewell Facebook

A few days ago on a spur of the moment decision I killed my Facebook Account (actually they apparently freeze it in Liquid Nitrogen and are able to revive it anytime I accidentally click on the wrong bookmark of FB, after which I had to go back through the stupid process of explaining my reasons and then being shown pictures of people who will "miss you.") I didn't want to make a big commotion about it because my reasoning (no matter what it may be) will often be taken as a blanket condemnation of FB and all FB'ers. It surely is not! I know many people use FB responsibly and get a lot of good stuff out of it...I just wasn't one of them (at least not enough good to justify staying) and that's certainly a condemnation of ME, but not FB or the good people who use it.

I mentioned when I promised to get back into blogging that I felt like Facebook was getting too noisy for me and that I missed the more simplistic communication we used to have in the blogging world. I compared it to sitting on a front porch and have a leisurely chat whereas Facebook is like Drive By Screaming or sometimes shooting at one another...again that's my feeling...not a fact, every one's mileage varies. I'll also be honest...I got out because as the election season approaches I expect the partisan passions to flare and it just bugs me. Not because I think I stand loftily above the fray, but rather I'm much too tempted to enter the fray. Politics aren't good for the soul...I really believe that and repent of the passion with which I hold and especially have held my political beliefs (this will mesh with a future post about being opinionated). I know some may hold passionate political opinions and not sin, but I know in my heart it was not a force for good. (You'll note I'm not saying I believe I am wrong in those opinions, I'm just gonna hold less dearly to them and I'm gonna be a lot less active in their promotion.)

Also, as I've blogged before, facebook I think is more aptly named "facadebook." I thinks it's very good at simulating community, but I think it might actually deteriorate real community or usurp it. Maybe...that post was really just thinking out loud. Blogging could be similar...but to a lessor degree maybe. If nothing else it gives us a bigger glimpse into people's lives as opposed to the equivalent of 100's of 30 second television commercials.

Anyway, I needed to step away and I'm already finding that it is giving me more time. Will I be productive with that time? Not likely...however much I should. I may write some more (here and also on that darned eternal story I need to finish). I certainly have a ton of summer projects around the farm. And as a supervisor now I can spare no time for FB at work (yeah yeah...we should never spare any time for FB at work! I know!).

So, anyway, I'll visit more blogs and blog myself more. So, grab a fine ale, wine, sweet iced tea, or single malt and sit a spell...that if if you don't mind my ramblings. As before I will promise there won't be too much controversy. And remember I'm not trying to be critical or others who make great use of FB. I'm being critical of myself mostly.

Christ is Risen!
(oops...controversial already!)

...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 3:08 PM [+]
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9 comments

Monday, May 09, 2011

"Spiritual Atheists"

I stumbled upon THIS article late last week and thought it interesting given my last post. I thought the article starts off on the wrong foot right off the bat with this odd statement: "The pursuit of science can be compatible with spirituality." Keeping in mind what I wrote before, this statement is running the red lights in both directions - I think.

I would say that actually a large number of people self-identify as "spiritual" and usually do so to escape the negative image associated these days with being "religious." Similarly many evangelicals will reject being called "religious" in favor of having a "relationship with Jesus." Cynics will of course be quick to tell the evangelical: "Same difference" and they are right. But I'd suggest it's also the same difference for those without a distinct Christian identity who yet call themselves "spiritual." Oddly enough, this article goes on to suggests a big difference between being "spiritual" and being "religious."

According to Ecklund, many of the scientists viewed both science and spirituality as "quests for meaning" that do not invoke faith. Religion, on the other hand, requires belief without empirical evidence, and is thus incompatible with the pursuit of science.

Huh? Ummm....where exactly is the "empirical evidence" people have to support their "spirituality"? I've never seen it and furthermore I'm willing to bet that the 2 out of 5 scientists who are "spiritual" have fairly different ideas of what they actually believe about "spirituality" since as far as I am aware there are no experiments to repeat and no data to be published on the topic. So to suggest that religion is incompatible with the pursuit of science whereas spirituality is not just seems absurd.

And the article isn't done telling us about the differences, but in this example I totally agree:

Another difference between religion and spirituality, according to the atheistic scientists who were interviewed, is that the former is a communal, collective endeavor, while the latter is personal.

Yes indeed. In spirituality you rely solely on yourself. You may look at external data, but you are free to accept or reject it without much consideration - you know, if it doesn't "work" for you. Religion is communal. Amen. But here's something to consider for those seeking to have their "spirituality" be compatible with science:

SCIENCE is also very much communal. I do not go into my lab each day and reinvent the wheel. I build upon centuries (more actually) of experience. And we collaborate. We share ideas and we rest upon the foundation of what we know to be so already. "Standing on the shoulders of giants." Science, in this regard is not all that different from religious tradition...to some degree at least.

To dismiss centuries of spiritual wisdom under the notion that *I* in my own vast wisdom, insight, enlightenment, and knowledge can discern truth (for me?) best is as absurd as me tossing aside the immunology texts and setting out on my own to discern how our bodies manage to fight diseases. I can figure out this truth on my own.

Of course these analogies aren't perfect. But I would simply suggest that neither spirituality nor religion ought to be anymore personal than is science. Discerning truth on your own is a dangerous game. The father and mothers of the Church would agree as much as would all the fathers and mothers of science. If, as the article implies, religion is incompatible with science then I am in big trouble.

:)

...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 8:35 AM [+]
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Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Limits of Proof

The Sunday of St. Thomas always brings to my mind the intersection between science and religion, an intersection at which I spent no small amount of time since I don a white lab coat during the day and a black cassock on nights and weekends. Popularly, I think people tend to believe that science and religion MUST find some common ground or some construct in which they are reconciled to one another. And in so doing we see two extremes (in my opinion): one person will seek to use science to prove all manner of religious ideas, experiences, and history; Another person will insist that such data be made available before they will believe in said religious ideas, experiences, or history. The problem is, as I see it, that both persons proceed from the assumption that the scientific method of discerning truth or reality not only can be, but must be universally applied to all things. There is nothing a scientific approach cannot discern and no place where science can or should comfortably and peacefully remain silent.

Enter St. Thomas. He wants "Evidence that demands a Verdict." It would initially appear that St. Thomas is that second person above who will not believe until he is shown the "data." Now before anyone gets their science loving minds into a frenzy thinking I am being overly critical of the science please consider how I make my living and this: I do not think it is unreasonable to expect proof of extraordinary claims. Usually. Think back to St. Thomas...

St. Thomas, as we all know, gets his data...in a rather dramatic fashion to say the least. But consider the proof needing mind and what response might we expect? You are presented with a person you were fairly certain was dead, now clearly alive. I think most of us would first rationalize the situation with our gloriously powerful and rational minds: maybe he didn't die at all, but merely passed out? We've all heard the phrase: there's got to be a rational explanation! For St. Thomas though, there is no question. Some might suggest that the power of the evidence (perhaps the wounds were clearly mortal) overwhelmed him, but even if so St. Thomas goes a step further and offers that wonderful proclamation and affirmation of our Lord's divinity: "My Lord and my God." One might say that the evidence proved to him that Jesus was supernaturally brought back to life, but no scientific evidence led him to the conclusion that he stood before the Creator of the universe. That was an altogether bigger step...after all he'd seen miracles before. Jesus being "I am" was something he discerned in some other way...no experiment could regenerate that data - not at least in the same way.

You see, I believe that the intersection of science and religion has a natural traffic light - whether we discern its existence or not. Science is limited to our senses and our natures, it is not something that exists outside of ourselves. If all of human kind were to die, so also would science. It doesn't mean reality changes or is different (all the great constants and laws of nature remain as much as we understood them), but it is important for us to understand that science is a tool and is hinged permanently to our senses. Our limits belong to it as well. And, friends, in our fallen state we are in fact profoundly limited...as most of you know, we are not God.

I find that failing to discern the aforementioned traffic light is a problem for both the religious and the secular. The religious are personified by young earth creationists and the secularists really have no demeaning label that I am aware of, but in my experience most secularists tend to see no red light for science. Either way, one sees the Bible as explaining everything and the other sees science as explaining everything. Both are wrong.

One of the biggest areas that I see the push for science to explain everything is in evolutionary sciences and a great example is specifically "evolutionary psychology." The problem I see here is that evolution has come to be an all-encompassing universal theory for all that exists (biologically) and thus for anything we see in our morphology, what we do, what we feel, how we act, what we believe, and indeed EVERYTHING about us must have some evolutionary explanation and therefore all such things are quickly formulated into an explanation as to how it could have evolved through the standard Darwinian method of natural selection. It's interesting, but I think it's also running a red light and frankly there's not a shred of data to demonstrate how (for example) belief in God evolved in us and their likely never will be...it's largely and ironically an article of faith.

Let us pretend for a moment that science CAN explain how we evolved to love or how we evolved to hate. Once it does so, science is then done with the equation and misses the most important part: ascribing some value to love or to hate. Science simply leaves us in the desert of biological determinism and offers us nothing more. I hate or I love...like an on or off switch. From an evolutionary standpoint (as it explains all) posits only one value: propagate my genes.

And similarly, science could offer nothing to St. Thomas that would convince him that he was touching God. The touching itself surely convinced him that Jesus was alive, but his statement was purely a statement of faith which was supported not by facts, data, or evidence but rather by what I believe was his relationship with Jesus Christ. I think this is the case because for me at least, it is this a similar relationship coupled with the testimony of the Apostles ("these are written that you may believe") through which I may touch the nail prints that affords me the faith to make the same confession today. I was 10-fold the doubter that St. Thomas was, but at some point I came to realize what it meant when Jesus and Pilate debated about truth and our Lord proclaimed that HE was the Truth. When Truth is a person, what does science have to offer about truth? Not much. In that realm, science is as useful as a bag of hammers to a scuba diver. We have exceeded our limits.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." No telescope or microscope can help.

...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 8:28 AM [+]
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