From ancient byways to modern highways, glimpses of faith are everywhere...

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

White dwarf and red giant: The yin yang of it all recently reported that the Harvard College Observatory has a unique set of 500,000 astronomical photographic plates that were made during the period of the 1880s through the 1980s. 

Researchers are studying these plates in order to view the variability of stars during this approximately 100-year time span.  Within the data, pairs of stars were discovered in which one is hot and the other is cold.  An example of this “symbiotic star” phenomenon is when a white dwarf and a red giant orbit one another.

Wikipedia reports that the white dwarf is a “small star composed mostly of electron degenerate matter.”  Its high density results in a mass comparable with the Sun’s and a volume comparable with the Earth’s.  When first formed, it is intensely hot – and remains that way for quite a long time.  A red giant, on the other hand, has an immense radius and a relatively low surface temperature.

The symbiotic dance that these stars do with one another can be thought of as a yin-yang connection. explains that the Ancient Chinese studied natural patterns and relationships rather than isolated things.  They viewed the world, and even the universe, “as a harmonious and holistic entity.”  The origin of yin yang theory came from their observations of the natural environment.  For example, they would note that day and night were continuously evolving from one another.  They would also note the sunny and shady components of the same slope.

“Cold” is traditionally associated with yin, and “hot” with yang.  Wikipedia explains that yin and yang complement rather than oppose one another.  These “seemingly contrary forces” are actually “interconnected and interdependent in the natural world.”  In Taoist philosophy, a balance between the two is valued, and favoritism is avoided.  Both are needed –  whether one is dancing with the stars, or watching the stars
dance with one another.


Copyright January 31, 2012 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Monday, January 30, 2012

When thy neighbors don't love thee back

When God distilled His 600-plus Commandments down to Ten, He may have been hoping that this would clarify matters once and for all.  However, humans can be an obtuse bunch.  God had to then distill those Ten down to these Two:  Love God, and Love Thy Neighbor.

The world has since discovered the unpleasant reality behind Robert Frost’s famous quote:  Good fences make good neighbors.  Sometimes even those who manage to love their neighbors find that these very same neighbors just don’t love them back.

What then?

Chronic inflammation – that’s what…

Melissa Dahl of MSNBC’s Health Today reports on the results of a new University of California, Los Angeles, study linking “negative social interaction to increased inflammation.”  Although inflammation itself isn’t a bad thing (“it’s an immune system response that fights infections and helps heal physical injuries”), chronic inflammation is linked to an increased risk in diseases such as coronary heart disease and even cancer.  Stress seems to activate this immune response – and Jessica Chiang, lead author of this UCLA research report, adds that “interpersonal stressors are often the biggest stressors that people experience in their daily lives.”

This, indeed, might be the definitive response to Frost’s poetic query:  Why do good fences make good neighbors?  Nevertheless, we and the poet go on pondering mysteries such as these:  Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out.

After all:  Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down!  - and that “Something” might just be greater than all the inflammatory conclusions this world can muster.


Copyright January 30, 2012 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Horatio Alger: From rags to wretched

Horatio Alger, Jr. (Harvard, 1852)
The Horatio Alger “rags-to-riches” American myth has certainly been criticized by everyone from Max Sawicky (formerly of the U. S. Treasury Department) to Michael Moore (Academy Award winning filmmaker).  However, “rags to riches” might not be nearly as mythological as Horatio Alger’s own stereotypical persona.

Although it’s (sort of) true that Alger grew up in (relative) poverty, someone who began prep school by 13 and Harvard by 16 couldn’t have had that rough of a childhood.  According to The Literature Network, Alger’s father was a Unitarian minister who supplemented his income “by becoming the first postmaster in town, tending a small farm and occasionally teaching grammar school.”  Alger’s mother was “the daughter of a wealthy merchant,” and Alger’s father’s cousin helped to foot those Harvard bills.

No problem…  Older people helping younger people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps…  Still in line with the best of Alger’s stories.

Unfortunately, that’s where Alger’s reality begins to sharply diverge from his simplistically idealized storylines.  Whereas Alger’s imaginary heroes may have befriended young males for the love of God and country, Alger’s own mentoring history was a lot more tainted.  While later ministering to the First Parish Unitarian Church in Brewster, Massachusetts (having followed – perhaps unwillingly – in  his father’s footsteps), Alger “left for New York City rather suddenly, ostensibly to pursue a career in writing.” reports the following:  Church records uncovered after Alger’s death indicate that he was quietly dismissed for having sexual relations with several teenage boys in his parish Alger Sr. (that is, Reverend Alger, Sr.) once again came to his son’s assistance (?) by helping to hush up the whole sordid affair.

Years later (years during which Alger continued to focus upon mentoring – and even informally adopting - young males), Alger wrote the poem Friar Anselmo.  This poem, which many believe to be autobiographical in essence, begins like this:  Friar Anselmo (God’s grace may he win!)  Committed one sad day a deadly sin…   Amazing grace ends up transforming Friar Anselmo – and hopefully, Alger, too.    


Copyright January 29, 2012 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Atheist Temple: Church minus God?

Gonville and Caius (a de Botton alma mater)
Planning to build a temple is not usually big news.  On the other hand, planning to build a “temple for atheists” ups the ante – especially when the planner’s name is Alain de Botton.

Wikipedia describes Alain de Botton as a “writer, television presenter and entrepreneur” whose works apply classic philosophy to everyday life.  Wikipedia also mentions that he comes from an atheistic Jewish (contradiction in terms?) family.  He was born in Switzerland (the only son of banking magnate Gilbert de Botton), and currently lives in London (city of his
proposed atheist temple).  His prolific output includes the following:  Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion and Are Museums Our New Churches?.

The latter BBC transcript (subtitled Why are museums so uninspiring?) explains some of the rationale behind de Botton’s thinking.  He points out that although art is featured in secular museums, it is featured in “bland academic ways that fail to engage with the real potential of art, which is… to change us for the better.”  De Botton then praises Christianity’s way of encouraging art to be “a medium to inspire you to faith, to remind you to be a healthy-minded, good and godly person.”

If this sounds quite different from the atheism espoused by the likes of Richard Dawkins, then de Botton would likely be pleased.  The Guardian quotes de Botton as saying that Dawkin’s type of atheism is “aggressive” and “destructive.”  De Botton is therefore encouraging a “new atheism” that draws upon some of what he thinks religion has to offer, while leaving aside the “God” part.

De Botton’s “tower of atheism” would thus “borrow the idea of awe-inspiring buildings that give people a
better sense of perspective on life.”  He wants to erect it within a financial center because he believes that’s  
“where people have most seriously lost perspective on life’s priorities.”


Copyright January 28, 2012 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Golden Temple: What is it really?

Harmandir Sahib (Photo by J. Budissin)
In the wake of Jay Leno’s controversial remarks about Mitt Romney and the Golden Temple, some have been wondering just what the Golden Temple actually is.

The real name of this central Sikh gurdwara (“place of worship” – literally, “Gateway to the Guru”) is the Harmandir Sahib (“Temple of God” - aka Darbar Sahib in Punjabi).  Early in its history, it was also called Amritsar (“Pool of the Nectar of Immortality”), a name which was later passed on to the surrounding city.

The Temple site was a wedding gift from Mughal Emperor Akbar to Third Guru Amar Das’ daughter when she married future Fourth Guru Ram Das.  The emperor did this because he was so impressed with the Sikh way of life.  Wikipedia reports that this gift was the equivalent of “the land and the revenue of several villages” in 1574 CE. 

In 1577, Guru Ram Das began the on-site excavation and construction.  Sukhmandir Khalsa reports that Fifth Guru Arjan Dev, son of Guru Ram Das, finished the construction in 1604.  Meanwhile, Guru Arjan Dev
had also been compiling the scriptural wisdom of his predecessors into a Holy Volume that would come to
be known as the Adi Granth (or Aad Granth, literally meaning “the half scripture”).  When Guru Arjan Dev
first began compiling these scriptures, he is said to have given this explanation for doing so:  “As the Panth
(‘Community’) has been revealed unto the world, so there must be the Granth (‘Book’), too.”   The Adi
Granth was installed in the Harmandir Sahib almost immediately after the Temple’s completion.

The true “Gold” in the “Golden Temple” is therefore this sacred Granth (which was expanded in 1704, then
declared to be the  Guru Granth Sahib - or “the final and eternal guru of the Sikhs”) by Tenth Guru Gobind Singh.

The Temple’s gold plating, marble, fresco work, and gemstones are beautiful and costly – but simply pale in
comparison to its faith treasures.  


Copyright January 27, 2012 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Thursday, January 26, 2012

To the moon, Gingrich!

Osiris (by Jeff Dahl)
As Newt Gingrich moons over his presidential possibilities, his so-called grandiosity knows no earthly bounds.  Why just the other day, he promised “to create a moon colony by 2020 if elected president.”

This claim has raised some eyebrows (and ire) amongst those who consider it to be the lie-detector equivalent of “a chicken in every pot.”  Gingrich’s response?  I was attacked the other night for being grandiose.  Lincoln standing at Council Bluffs was grandiose.  The Wright Brothers standing at Kitty Hawk were grandiose.  John F. Kennedy was grandiose…

Gingrich might just as well have referenced the Shangqing Daoists.  They, too, were preoccupied with moon colonies.  In fact, they were convinced that an overall celestial realm existed “that was populated by gods, immortals, demon
kings, converted spirits and ancestors.”  Their means of travel to the moon and beyond consisted of meditation and visualization.  Dee Finney of also tells us that during such excursions, some Shangqing
meditators would “accompany the stars on their heavenly journey, nourish in their effluences and play around in the paradises they protected.”

The Ancient Egyptians were also noted for their lunar proclivities.  Finney reports that their moon god, Ah, was very likely “the son of the great Mother deity Apet, who was identified with the female hippopotamus Taurt…”  Osiris, whom Wikipedia reports is “usually identified as the god of the afterlife, the underworld and the dead,” was also known as “the son of the sacred hippopotamus.”  This connection between Ah and Osiris resulted in Osiris absorbing “the attributes of the moon spirit…”

If these deities and spirits have indeed been populating the moon for eons, then what would they think of Newt’s plan to turn it into a mining camp (the likes of which the American Southwest has never seen)?  Would they think his plan grandiose?  Or would they instead deem it to be essentially small-minded?


Copyright January 26, 2012 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Big Miracle: That whales still even exist

Harpooning a Whale (Engraving by John H. Clark)
Whales have been featured within humankind’s sacred tales for centuries.  This is understandable, given the majesty of these aquatic mammals. reports that whales have been represented in “mythology from around the world.”  Yu-kiang was an ancient Chinese water deity – a whale that turned into a giant bird whenever it got really angry.  This bird then
whipped up “terrible storms” as it emerged from the ocean into the air.  The Inuits believed that the whale was the most “magnificent subject” of their sea goddess, Sedna.  An East African story tells of a whale that was sent by God to teach King Sulemani a lesson in humility.  Icelandic legend speaks of a man who “threw a stone at a fin whale and hit the blowhole, causing the whale to burst.”  As punishment, the man was ordered to stay away from the sea for the next 20 years.  When he disobeyed, “a whale came and killed him.”  The moral of this story is said to be that “whales can forgive a crime, but only if it had been properly atoned for.”

If this moral is accurate, then many humans could be in whale-sized trouble (as in Moby Dick times ten tremilliaducentredecillion).  Although humans have been hunting whales since at least 3000 BCE, by the late 1930s “more than 50,000 whales were killed annually.”  Wikipedia reports that by the middle of the 20th century, “catches far exceeded the sustainable limit for whale stocks.”  Therefore, whales were (and perhaps still are) in danger of becoming extinct due to their mass slaughter by humans.

That is why Paul Watson, “a co-founding member of Greenpeace,” formed the Sea Shepherd Conservation
Society (SSCS) – which Wikipedia states is “a non-profit, marine conservation organization based in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, Washington in the United States.”  This organization utilizes “aggressive actions” in order to discourage what seems like “species-endangering whaling and fishing practices.”  Animal Planet’s weekly series, Whale Wars, is based upon the SSCS’s opposition to the Japanese Whaling Fleet in the Southern Ocean.


Copyright January 25, 2012 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Year of the Dragon: Not so lucky for everyone

The 2012 Chinese New Year began on January 23rd.  This year of the water dragon is being heralded by as potentially “a very energetic year, filled with optimism, power and entrepreneurship.”  The website further explains that “even the most powerful will give a patient hearing to the weaker, and will try to see through their point of view.”

However, Jane Macartney of The Australian has already reported that “Chinese forces shot dead three Tibetans and wounded about 30 amid a mass refusal by Tibetans in China to observe the Chinese
New Year.”  She then quotes a Tibetan source as saying:  “The situation is very volatile and the police are particularly sensitive because Tibetans have refused to mark the New Year to show their
discontent with Beijing rule.”  Since it is quite unusual for this type of an open-fire response, the situation is being called “one of the most
serious incidents since the 2008 [Lhasa] riots.”

Less tragic, but disturbing nevertheless, are the results of a survey that was conducted by the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs.  According to VOA News, 70 percent of migrant workers in China’s six biggest cities are hesitant to go home for the traditional New Year celebration.  Many are dreading the trip itself – often a long and arduous one.  One microblogger described her journey by train, bus and ferry as “absolutely

Others dread appearing like failures to their families.  A nervous microblogger posted this as he waited for
the train that would take him back home:  “I have been in Beijing for three years now and I don’t have
anything.”  This fear of not meeting high family expectations is compounded by “the rising burden of the hongbao, the traditional red envelopes filled with money that people hand out to relatives during the holiday.”

Fortunately, some are beginning to challenge this intense preoccupation with “wealth and achievements.”   In a popular article, Beijing sociologist Zhou Xiaozheng stated that it’s far better to instead focus upon the “sense of happiness” that celebrating with family can bring.        


Copyright January 24, 2012 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved


Monday, January 23, 2012

Cheating and heart attacks: Are they related?

(Autopsied Human Heart)
Coveting thy neighbor’s wife (or husband, or friend) has been an age-old recipe for disaster – but now there is new evidence to suggest that it might also be a recipe for death.

Bloomberg Businessweek reports that “most people being treated for heart disease can safely have sex”; however, “the risk of sudden cardiac death may rise for men when the amorous activity occurs during an extramarital affair.”  Nevertheless, Professor of Medicine Glenn Levine states that he’s never yet had a patient who asked him “about the cardiac risks of an extramarital affair.”  (Bet he’s never had a patient who asked him about the spiritual risks of such, either.)

Levine - who conducted the research behind Bloomberg’s report - goes on to elucidate that in the “autopsy reports of 5,559 cases of sudden death” which he and his team reviewed, 75% of those men who died while having sexual intercourse “were having extramarital sex, in most cases with a younger partner and after excessive food and alcohol consumption.”  (Maybe those seven deadly sins weren’t so far off the mark, after all.)

Now this isn’t to say that all sex is sinful – or even that all desire is sinful.  However - there’s desire, and then there’s covetousness.  The Free Dictionary defines “covetousness” as “excessively and culpably desirous of the possessions of another” – but also more simply as “marked by extreme desire to acquire or possess.”  So if your desire for either your neighbor, his/her possessions, or both is morphing you from Good Neighbor Sam (who wasn’t that good to begin with) into Casanova – then internalizing the Tenth Commandment may be long overdue.


Copyright January 23, 2012 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Al Green: The singing Reverend

(Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)
It’s not that Al Green needed the publicity.  He’s certainly been getting enough of that on his own for decades.  However, when President Obama recently cut loose with the opening line from one of Green’s L-O-V-E songs, “Let’s Stay Together” – the Reverend was yet again making headlines.

Reverend Green was deemed “born to make us smile” by Rolling Stone magazine in 2005, which listed him as 65th of the 100 all-time greatest artists.  That was ten years after Green was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which called him “one of the most gifted purveyors of soul music.”  Wikipedia reports that to date, “Green has sold more than 20 million records.”

Born Albert Greene in 1946 - he began his music career at age 10, and has not stopped since.  In 1974 - while his popularity soared, tragedy struck.  His then-girlfriend, Mary Woodson White, “doused Green with a pan of boiling grits while he was showering, causing burns on Green’s back, stomach and arms.”  Shortly thereafter, she killed herself, and was found with this note to Green still in her purse:  “The more I trust you, the more you let me down.”

To Green’s credit, he viewed this “as a wake-up call to change his life.”   He therefore entered the ministry, and two years later began serving as ordained pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, Tennessee.  Green still serves in this capacity, as evidenced by the “Full Gospel Tabernacle” section of his website.  Those who click upon are therefore privy to this greeting:  Thank you for visiting my website.  I would like to take this opportunity to invite you to bring Christ into your life…

As this greeting indicates, the line between Green’s music career and his ministry is somewhat blurred.  During an interview with Sophie Harris of Time Out New York, Green explained that “the man upstairs” affirmed his singing of “Love and Happiness.”  Green “quoted” God as saying:  Yeah!  ‘Cause if it hadn’t
been for love and happiness, how’d we all get here?

After perceiving this affirmation, Green then put his whole heart (and presumedly soul) back into singing those sexy songs.  He further explained to Harris that it felt like God was saying:  I gave you this special ministry, don’t  nobody else have it.  I gave it to you, Al Green… that love; L-O-V-E love.  That’s a signature for you to be able to cause families to grow, husbands and wives to come back together, to give children a chance to blossom.


Copyright January 22, 2012 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved



Saturday, January 21, 2012

Mitt Romney: His Mormon genealogy

(Helaman Pratt)
Wikipedia reports that Mitt Romney is “a sixth-generation member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” and “is descended from a genealogically interconnected political family sometimes known as the Pratt-Romneys.”  The Pratt-Romney family is linked by marriage to the Smith family – the most famous member of which was Joseph Smith, Jr., founder and prophet of the Latter Day Saints movement.

The genealogy chart that is depicted in Wikipedia’s “Pratt-Romney family” article shows that Mitt Romney’s maternal great-grandfather is Helaman Pratt, and his paternal great-grandfather is Miles Park Romney.  These men were both key figures in Mormon history. 

Helaman Pratt, who was “born in a covered wagon during a one-hour stopover on the Mormon Trail near Mount Pisgah, Iowa,” became one of the first Mormon missionaries in Mexico.  Todd Compton tells us that before Pratt’s missions to Mexico in the 1870s, Pratt had “lived a full life of Mormon leadership, exploration and colonizing, including numerous confrontations with American Indians.” 

Miles Park Romney was born in the Mormon city of Nauvoo, Hancock, Illinois in 1843 (within a year of Joseph Smith’s martyrdom).  Ethel Romney Peterson tells us that Miles Park Romney was an “ardent admirer” of Brigham Young, the second president of the Church of Latter Day Saints.  After being ordained a High Priest and then a Bishop – Miles Park also resettled in Mexico.

Both these great-grandfathers of Mitt Romney were polygamists.  They believed that it was their religious duty to be so.  When the United States government began outlawing polygamy, both these staunch believers chose to insure what they saw as their religious rights by permanently moving to Mexico.  Todd Compton reports that “these remarkable men allow us to see where Mitt Romney and George Wilcken Romney’s talent for leadership came from.”


Copyright January 21, 2012 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved


Friday, January 20, 2012

February 2: Babies and bellies and bears, oh my!

Meeting of the Lord  (Russian Icon)
Although in Western culture, February 2nd often seems like just another hurdle on the way to Valentine’s Day – in many other cultures it is supremely important.

There is an ancient Jewish tradition of ritual purification after childbirth that goes back to these instructions from Leviticus 12:  “A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremoniously unclean for seven days…  Then the woman must wait [another] thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding…  She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over…”

Judaism 101 explains that, in the days of the Temple, ritual purity was deemed to be especially important.  The Holman Bible Dictionary defines “ritual purity” as being “free of some flaw or uncleanness which would bar one from contact with holy objects or places, especially from contact with the holy presence of God in worship.”  One theory regarding ritual purification after childbirth is that blood “is related to the mysterious power of life,” and therefore “any loss of blood called for purification.” tells us that Mary, in keeping with these Leviticus laws, “submitted to the childbirth purification ritual… for the same reason that Jesus submitted to circumcision…”  It is said that neither of these sinless ones actually needed to submit to these laws - but both were humbly obedient, nevertheless.  Mary’s “Purification of the Virgin” took place 40 (7 plus 33) days from the birth of Jesus.  When Jesus’ birthday is celebrated on December 25th, Mary’s purification is then celebrated on February 2nd.   This purification celebration is commonly referred to in Christianity as Candlemas.  Because Mary brought Jesus to the Temple with her that day (in accordance with the “redemption of the firstborn” Torah laws) – the celebration is also known as the “Presentation of the Lord,” or as the “Meeting of the Lord.”

Interestingly (but not necessarily coincidentally), the (likely) pre-Christian Gaelic celebration of Imbolc (from the Old Irish i mbolg – meaning “in the belly”) also occurred in early February.  This was the time of year that the ewes were “with lambs” (so to speak) – thus the reference to “in the belly.”  The ewes therefore
began lactating, and Spring was in the air.  The blackthorns were blooming, and agrarian festivals were in full swing.  Celebrations included bonfires, candles, divinations, and weather prognostications.

That’s where the serpents, the badgers, the groundhogs, and even the bears joined in.  It is said that if a
hibernating bear awakes long enough to see its shadow – look out!  Six more weeks of winter will follow.  (And if a winter-starved bear sees you instead, it might be best to look out anyway…)


Copyright January 20, 2012 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved