Thursday, February 23, 2006

Seeing God in Everyone: A Practical Application

The second issue of the on-line magazine Hindu Voice carried this inspiring story titled, "Hinduism on the London Underground" by Ritesh Jigani: LONDON, ENGLAND, February 19, 2006: Hindu Press International
Standing on a packed train on the way home from university, I was feeling terrible. It had been a hard week, I was annoyed with several colleagues, the train had been delayed and everybody nearby seemed to be coughing and sneezing on me! In the rush to get onto the train people were barging each other and getting into heated arguments. I was feeling erratic, as if I would hit someone at the slightest provocation. As all this frustration and anger was swirling around in my head, I started thinking about what advice Hinduism could give me in a situation like this. I started contemplating advice that I had heard during lectures, or read from books. Recalling some helpful anecdotes from a talk I'd attended in the past, I felt better.
It quickly occurred to me tha t it wasn't justifiable for me to be so angry and frustrated. People die of starvation or lose their loved ones to terrorism, on an almost daily basis. By comparison, I had little to complain about. Then I thought about the concept of indwelling God, the idea that every person has a portion of the divine residing within him or her. Up until then I'd been growing increasingly annoyed at the people standing around me. But now I tried to think of God's presence in all of these people. Slowly my anger began to subside. Already I had come a long way towards restored sanity, the result of a few minutes of positive thinking.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Go With Your Gut

By HARRIET BROWN The New York Times : February 20, 2006 Madison, Wis.
Last week's reports that low-fat diets may not reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer have left Americans more confused than ever about what to eat. I'd like to make a radical suggestion: instead of wringing our hands over fat grams and calories, let's resolve to enjoy whatever food we eat. Because, as it turns out, when you eat something you like, your body makes more efficient use of its nutrients. Which means that choking down a plateful of steamed cauliflower (if you hate steamed cauliflower) is not likely to do you as much good as you think.
In the 1970's, researchers fed two groups of women, one Swedish and one Thai, a spicy Thai meal. The Thai women — who presumably liked the meal more than the Swedish women did — absorbed almost 50 percent more iron from it than the Swedish women. When the meal was served as a mushy paste, the Thai women absorbed 70 percent less iron than they had before — from the same food. The researchers concluded that food that's unfamiliar (Thai food to Swedish women) or unappetizing (mush rather than solid food) winds up being less nutritious than food that looks, smells and tastes good to you. The explanation can be found in the digestive process itself, in the relationship between the "second brain" — the gut — and the brain in your head.
Imagine sitting in your favorite Japanese restaurant before a plate of sushi, chopsticks poised. You take in its fragrance and the beautiful cut of the fish, the shapely rice and nori rolls. Those delectable smells and sights tell your brain that the meal will be enjoyable, and the brain responds by pushing your salivary glands into high gear and ordering your stomach to secrete more gastric juices. Result: you get more nutritional bang for your buck than you would, say, faced with a platter of lutefisk. In that case, your brain might send fewer messages to your mouth and stomach, causing the food to be less thoroughly digested and metabolized.
Does this mean we should be reaching for the Krispy Kremes and forgoing the raw cauliflower? No. The food has to have nutritive value in the first place. But maybe we could take a lesson from the French, whose level of heart disease is lower than ours despite their richer diet. The French savor the taste and texture of food and the experience of eating; we tend to eat dutifully (how much cauliflower can you choke down?), on the run (hardly realizing what we're eating), or rebelliously (devouring a whole box of Entenmann's because we feel deprived).
In fact, we're hard-wired to enjoy food; it's a survival mechanism. Volunteers in the 1946 University of Minnesota Starvation Study, who spent six months at half rations, developed a slew of peculiar rituals around eating. They devoted hours to meals that might normally take a few minutes, cutting a slice of bread into tiny bits with a knife and fork, arranging the bits on the plate, chewing each mouthful 200 times — all behaviors engineered to prolong both the act of eating and the enjoyment of the limited food available.
The health writer Lawrence Lindner tells of a committee that gathered to hammer out the wording of the United States Dietary Guidelines in 1995. One committee member suggested that the first guideline read "Enjoy a variety of foods" — language that was rejected as "too hedonistic." (In the end, Mr. Lindner wrote, the committee "opted for the apparently less giddy 'Eat a variety of foods.' ") So let's vow to enjoy our food, not wolf it down in the car with a heaping order of guilt. Call it Slow Food, conscious eating, or eating the French way, the point's the same: eating well and with pleasure is more than hedonism — it's good nutritional policy and practice. Bon appĂ©tit! Harriet Brown, the editor of the forthcoming anthology "Mr. Wrong," is working on a book about anorexia.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Science news is sometimes managed

Someday the Sun Will Go Out and the World Will End (but Don't Tell Anyone) By DENNIS OVERBYE The New York Times: February 14, 2006 That science news is sometimes managed as carefully as political news may not come as a surprise to most adults.
I've always been proud of my irrelevance. When I raised my hand to speak at our weekly meetings here in the science department, my colleagues could be sure they would hear something weird about time travel or adventures in the fifth dimension. Something to take them far from the daily grind. Enough to taunt the mind, but not enough to attract the attention of bloggers, editors, politicians and others who keep track of important world affairs.
So imagine my surprise to find the origin of the universe suddenly at the white hot center of national politics. Last week my colleague Andrew Revkin reported that a 24-year-old NASA political appointee with no scientific background, George C. Deutsch, had told a designer working on a NASA Web project that the Big Bang was "not proven fact; it is opinion," and thus the word "theory" should be used with every mention of Big Bang. It was not NASA's place, he said in an e-mail message, to make a declaration about the origin of the universe "that discounts intelligent design by a creator."
In a different example of spinning science news last month, NASA headquarters removed a reference to the future death of the sun from a press release about the discovery of comet dust around a distant star known as a white dwarf. A white dwarf, a shrunken dense cinder about the size of earth, is how our own sun is fated to spend eternity, astronomers say, about five billion years from now, once it has burned its fuel. "We are seeing the ghost of a star that was once a lot like our sun," said Marc Kuchner of the Goddard Space Flight Center. In a statement that was edited out of the final news release he went on to say, "I cringed when I saw the data because it probably reflects the grim but very distant future of our own planets and solar system."
An e-mail message from Erica Hupp at NASA headquarters to the authors of the original release at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said, "NASA is not in the habit of frightening the public with doom and gloom scenarios." Never mind that the death of the sun has been a staple of astronomy textbooks for 50 years. Dean Acosta, NASA's deputy assistant administrator for public affairs, said the editing of Dr. Kuchner's comments was part of the normal "give and take" involved in producing a press release. "There was not one political person involved at all," he said.
Personally, I can't get enough of gloom- and-doom scenarios. I'm enchanted by the recent discovery, buttressed by observations from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, that an antigravitational force known as dark energy might suck all galaxies out of the observable universe in a few hundred billion years and even rip apart atoms and space. But I never dreamed that I might be frightening the adults.
What's next? Will future presidential candidates debate the ontological status of Schrödinger's cat? That's the cat that, according to the uncertainty principle of quantum physics, is both alive and dead until we observe it. Apparently science does matter. Dreading the prospect that they too may be dragged into the culture wars, astronomers have watched from the sidelines in recent years as creationists in Kansas and Pennsylvania challenged the teaching of evolution in classrooms. Never mind that the Big Bang has been officially accepted by the Roman Catholic Church for half a century. The notion of a 14-billion-year-old cosmos doesn't fit if you believe the Bible says the world is 6,000 years old.
And indeed there have been sporadic outbreaks, as evidenced by the bumper stickers and signs you see in some parts of the country: "Big Bang? You've got to be kidding — God." When the Kansas school board removed evolution from the science curriculum back in 1999, they also removed the Big Bang. In a way, the critics have a point. The Big Bang is indeed only a theory, albeit a theory that covers the history of creation as seamlessly as could be expected from the first fraction of a second of time until today. To call an idea "a theory" is to accord it high status in the world of science. To pass the bar, a theory must make testable predictions — that stars eventually blow out or that your computer will boot up.
Sometimes those predictions can be, well, a little disconcerting. When you're talking about the birth or death of the universe, a little denial goes a long way. That science news is sometimes managed as carefully as political news may not come as a surprise to most adults. After all, the agencies that pay for most scientific research in this country have billion-dollar budgets that they have to justify to the White House and the Congress. It helps to have newspaper clippings attesting to your advancement of the president's vision. It's enough to make you feel sorry for NASA, whose very charter mandates high visibility for both its triumphs and its flops, but which has officers recently requiring headquarters approval before consenting to interviews with the likes of me.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

The values of secular liberalism

Believing in Doubt By AUSTIN DACEY The New York Times: February 3, 2006
Pope Benedict's worry is that individual autonomy has been elevated above moral absolutes...The pope has used the term "relativism" to describe not only non-absolute standards, but also uncertain ones. The alternative to certainty, however, is not nihilism but the recognition of fallibility, the idea that even a very reasonable belief is not beyond question. If that's all relativism means, then it is hardly the enemy of truth or morality.
Accepting that we are fallible doesn't keep us from thinking that we're right. It just keeps us from thinking that we couldn't possibly be wrong. And that's a good thing. The ability to revise beliefs in light of new information is part of what makes having a mind worthwhile. It worked for a young German theologian who (according to his biographer, John Allen) in the late 1960's began a transformation from Vatican II reformer to enforcer of the faith. Even the church itself has been known to self-correct every once in a while (see Galileo and Darwin).
What Pope Benedict calls relativism are actually the values of secular liberalism: individual autonomy, equal rights and freedom of conscience. But it is easy to conflate what liberals affirm with the way they affirm it. Liberalism tells us that our way of life is up to us (within limits), not that the truth of liberalism is up to us. It entails that we tolerate even claims that we doubt, not that we doubt even the claims of tolerance. Many liberals themselves are guilty of this confusion, which can manifest as all-values-are-equal relativism (especially common among freshmen in ethics classes, at least until the instructor informs them that because all grades are equally valid, everyone will be receiving a D for the course).
True, secular values can turn a civilization inside out. In post-Christian Europe, entire nations have been plunged into endemic health, skyrocketing education and hopelessly low rates of violent crime. Indeed, it's hard to build a decent society without secular values, and "Deus Caritas Est" acknowledges this: "A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the church," where politics is "the sphere of the autonomous use of reason." The role of the church is to "bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good," not to "impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith."
Perhaps a future encyclical will concentrate on the truly harmful kind of relativism. This is the misguided multiculturalism that keeps Western liberals from criticizing the oppression of women, religious minorities and apostates in Islamic societies for fear of being accused of Islamophobia. In such cases we should not shrink from the ideals of autonomy and equality but affirm them openly for what they are: objectively defensible principles of conscience.
The important contrast is not between absolutism and relativism, as the pontiff would have it, but between secular values and their traditional religious alternatives. He can accuse secularists of believing in the wrong things. But that's not the same as believing in nothing. Austin Dacey is writing a book about the secular conscience in public life.

For the Love of God

By LORENZO ALBACETE The New York Times: February 3, 2006
Benedict's conversations with nonbelievers have convinced him that their major concern about Christianity is not its "other-worldiness" but the very opposite. For them, what makes Christianity potentially dangerous as a source of conflict and intolerance in a pluralistic society is its insistence that faith is reasonable — that is, that it is the source of knowledge about this world and that, therefore, its teaching should apply to all, believers and nonbelievers alike.
The Christian faith faced a similar criticism before, Benedict has argued, when it first came into contact with the religious and philosophical world of the Roman Empire. The Roman world celebrated religious pluralism and was willing to welcome Christianity as an ethical or "spiritual" option, but not as a source of truth about this world — that was considered to be the realm of the philosophers.
At that time, Christianity would not accept a place with the religions of the empire. It saw itself as a philosophy, as a path to knowledge about reality, and not primarily as a source of spiritual or ethical inspiration. The problem was that it claimed to be the only path to full knowledge about the meaning and purpose of life.
Indeed, throughout history Christians have used this claim to justify their intolerance of other views, even turning to violence in order to affirm and defend their idea of what is true. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, reminded us that this unhappy tendency was not limited to the Christian faith, but seems inherent in religious belief. If a god offers absolute truth, then those who disagree with that god's teachings are enemies of the truth, and thus harmful to society. It makes no difference whether the intolerance comes from a Christian god, who punishes countries and cities with natural disasters, or a Muslim god, who encourages terrorists to kill the innocent.
Hence the pope's insistence on the importance of emphasizing that God is, above all, love, and that love and truth are inseparable. "In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred, this message is both timely and significant," he wrote. "For this reason I wish in my first encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us, and which we in turn must share with others."
For Benedict, God "loves with a personal love." In fact, human love (eros) and divine love for us (agape) are intertwined. "God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape." That is why God's passionate love can be described "using boldly erotic images." Faith reveals God's love to be a "turning of God against himself" that replaces the demands of justice with the demands of mercy.
It's worth noting that in the second part of the encyclical, Benedict says that the charitable mission of the church is informed by the belief that human and divine love are inseparable. This is why believers and nonbelievers can come together to fight poverty and injustice — and why the church can be trusted not to impose its social teachings on "political life."It is for this reason that believers and nonbelievers alike should welcome Benedict's reflection on love. In a time when we are rightfully suspicious of the power of religion to stir violence, Benedict has sent a clear message: No one has anything to fear from a God who is love. Lorenzo Albacete is a Roman Catholic priest.