Monday, February 28, 2011

Sun Unleashes Massive Solar Flare

Last Thursday, the Sun discharged an immense solar flare, thankfully pointed away from the Earth. Since we are approaching the maximum in the solar cycle, the Sun is becoming more active. Solar flares and events known as Coronal Mass Ejections (CME), will become relatively common over the next year or two. A CME is where basically the Sun suddenly ejects a ton of material  out into space, as opposed to a solar flare, where most of the ejected material falls back onto the Sun.

This solar flare is nowhere near the most powerful one ever recorded. Actually, there was a flare on Valentine's Day that was almost ten times as powerful. That one was directed towards the Earth and it did cause a few problems. However, what is great about Thursday's flare is the awesome video the Solar Dynamic Observatory captured!

Solar flares and CMEs send a stream of charged particles towards Earth, which enter our atmosphere. The Earth's magnetic field forces the charged particles to flow towards either the North or South Pole, which causes the aurora borealis and the aurora australis (the northern and southern lights). Unfortunately, if enough particles make it to Earth, it can also generate electrical interference, called a geomagnetic storm. Satellites can be damaged and entire power-grids overloaded. In 1989, most of Quebec, Canada lost power due to a geomagnetic storm. In our modern world, where we rely on electronic devices for almost everything, including communication and navigation, this could be devastating if it occurred on a larger scale.

There's your science lesson for the day!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Religion vs. Science (Part 1)

The past two centuries of human civilization has brought about a myriad of scientific discoveries and technological inventions. As we embark on the second decade of the 21st century, the pace of progress is only accelerating. However, these advancements have incited some profound and contentious questions. Many of these questions arise from the discrepancy between ancient religious ideologies and recent scientific theories. These disparities have instigated religious, social, and political animosity, particularly in the United States. Why has this conflict developed? What is the most controversial issue? Most importantly, can religion and science coexist?

I will endeavor to answer these questions in a three-part series. Today, I will examine “Why has this conflict developed?” Note: Because I will be concentrating substantially on the United States, the primary religious doctrine scrutinized will be Christianity.

The antagonism separating religion and science is not a contemporary phenomenon. It originated during the Renaissance. Western civilization exited the Middle Ages and underwent a resurgence of scientific curiosity and exploration. This exploration included the new science of astronomy. Discoveries in this young field would thoroughly subvert humanity’s perspective of the universe and our status within it. The revelation most significant to this change in perspective was the heliocentric theory of Nicolaus Copernicus, which postulated that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the universe. This theory was enhanced by Johannes Kepler, but it was popularized by Galileo Galilei. In 1609, Galileo learned about the device we now call the telescope, and constructed one for himself. That he originally invented the telescope is a prominent misconception. The observations Galileo made with his advanced contraption, including the phases of Venus and the four largest moons of Jupiter, supported heliocentrism.

Unfortunately, when Galileo published his conclusion, he was summoned by the Inquisition on suspicion of heresy. He was found to be a heretic and sentenced to house imprisonment for the remainder of his life. Why? Because, the Catholic Church asserted that the Bible proclaimed the immovability of the Earth: it could not revolve around the Sun (Psalms 93:1, 96:10, 1 Chronicles 16:30).

The situation with Galileo demonstrates the authentic foundation for the contention between religion and science- the inerrancy of scripture or dogma. Within Christianity, each discrete denomination has its own doctrines, either from the Bible or from their distinctive analysis and interpretation of the Bible.

So, if the inerrancy is stimulating the hostility, what is the rationale for the inerrancy?

During the first centuries of Christianity, there was a dilemma over what books should constitute the Bible. However, by the time the Roman Empire finally disintegrated in 476 AD, the Catholic Church was instituted as the prevailing political force in Europe, the canon of the Bible had been settled, and the Middle Ages had commenced. This period in Western history is frequently designated as the Dark Ages. This is due to the relative deterioration in education and literacy. The citizens of Europe were split into two categories: the few of the aristocracy (which included a majority of the clergymen) and the many peasants. Only the aristocracy was literate and educated. Since Europe was devoutly religious during this period, almost everyone attended church. For the illiterate peasants, this was their only source of religious knowledge. At that time, the Catholic Church taught the Bible as if every passage was a literal description of reality. Of course, with science as we understand it not actually existing, and general knowledge about the world making relatively inconsiderable development, there were no challenges to that perspective. They had no reason to question their assumptions.

Once the Middle Ages concluded and the Renaissance arouse, there was a reason to start rethinking the literal interpretation. Multitudes did. But many more multitudes did not. Why? One word: tradition.

Tradition dies hard. Religion is transmitted through families from the older generation to the younger generation; parent to child. Customarily, religious beliefs are instilled in children at a young age, usually before the child is able to comprehend the intricacies of or rationally analyze those doctrines. Even once their mind has matured enough to examine their beliefs and make a logical decision whether or not to affirm and comply with them, the beliefs have been instilled so deeply that the concept of investigating them is too terrifying to contemplate.

Because of this, anything that contradicts their religious faith is usually instantaneously disregarded. There are two dominant justifications for this, one conspicuous, the other, often unconscious. The obvious reason is fear. Believers, especially within more conservative traditions, are frequently persuaded that doubting, questioning, or investigating their faith could be punished by God with tragedies on Earth or eternal condemnation to hell, and that "true" or "sincere" believers never entertain questions or exhibit doubts. The obscure reason is identity. A majority of believers regard their faith to be intimately intertwined with their identity. To doubt their faith is to doubt themselves.

Currently, the theories causing most of the dispute among religion and science are evolution and the Big Bang, both of which are more complicated than heliocentrism. This complication can amplify the problem, since these theories are often misunderstood. Misconceptions about what the theories actually assert have become quite widespread. Take, for example, the prevailing conviction that evolution indicates that humans evolved from monkeys. Of course, anyone who has seriously studied evolution understands that humans did not evolve from monkeys, but instead that humans and monkeys share a particularly recent common ancestor.

Despite evolution and the Big Bang being more elaborate than heliocentrism, they offend identical religious precepts. In the first book of the Old Testament, Genesis, God creates the Earth and the whole universe for a sole purpose: man. The Big Bang threatens this notion by revealing billions of stars and planets not only exist in the universe, but were indeed spawned before our Earth and Sun. Evolution endangers it by postulating that God did not create us ex nihilo (out of nothing), but that we gradually emerged from the "lower" animals. Yes, these theories also invalidate other Biblical tenets, such as the age of the Earth. Utilizing the Bible, dozens of theologians have dated the Earth at roughly 6,000 years. On the other hand, evolution requires billions of years to fabricate humans, and the geological record establishes the precise age at approximately 4.5 billion years. But, threatening the centrality of mankind is much more offensive than threatening the age of the Earth.

The modern world has inevitably generated an environment hostile to tradition in two notable fashions. First: the quickening pace of scientific development. Second: the expansion of education, both basic and supplemental. Basically, as science invalidates more Biblical principles, and more individuals obtain an elementary science education, tradition will not only increasingly be assaulted, it will be assaulted in regions of the Earth where it has endured, unchanged and unfazed, for thousands of years. Without a transformation by a majority of religious believers to a more metaphorical method of interpreting their sacred scriptures, I anticipate the repercussions of this will be a dramatic expansion of conflict between science and religion. Regrettably, I do not envision this transpiring unless religious followers realize their beliefs do not have to exemplify their entire identity and existence, and that it is acceptable to make modifications without being tormented by threat of eternal consequences.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Update 2

This past week or so, several people have asked me how I have been doing, so I thought I would post another update. I have been feeling a little better in the past 6 weeks, primarily because of the break in chemotherapy. Although I am often nauseous, my weight loss has slowed down and most days I am able to eat at least one small meal. Despite still being low, my white blood cell count has increased slightly. My biggest battle is still the constant and relentless fatigue. On average, I sleep 12 to 14 hours a day. My muscles feel incredibly weak. Tasks I used to do easily now I find to be quite challenging. Usually, I am awake a night just because the pain and nausea does not seem as bad then. Unfortunatly, I do start another round of chemotherapy next week. On the bright-side, this round will not be as strong as the last round, so it shouldn't make me feel as sick. Hopefully that means I will be able to continue posting here about 2 or 3 times per week, but I cannot make any guarantees. At least, I won't completely disappear for 2 months like I did last time.

Thank you to everyone who has sent kind e-mails or left reassuring comments. It is deeply deeply appreciated. This probably sounds extremely stupid and corny, but this blog and the people whom I interact with on it mean a great deal to me. The discussions we have either on my blog or on other blogs have made me feel better during this terribly difficult and painful time in my life. It has given me some of the strength and courage I need to battle this awful disease.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Wonderful Universalism Explanation

I just wanted to link to an extremely wonderful post called Universalism and the Open Wound of Life by Richard Beck at Experimental Theology. It is one of the best explanations for a belief in universalism that I have ever seen.
"The doctrine isn't attractive because it solves the problem of hell. The doctrine is attractive because it solves (or at least addresses) the problem of pain.

The issue isn't about salvation (traditionally understood). It's about suffering. Universalism, as best I can tell, is the only Christian doctrine that takes the problem of suffering seriously. As evidence for this, just note that when a theologian starts taking suffering seriously he or she starts moving toward universalism."
Anyone who is interested in universalism, whether you believe in it or not, I highly recommend you read Richard's post. It is not long, but it is remarkably illuminating. Experimental Theology is a wonderful blog and I have consistently enjoyed reading it.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Concepts of Hell

The primary reason I left conservative Christianity as a teenager was my utter revulsion in the idea of hell and in a God who would send people there for nothing more than being born into the "wrong" religion. As I mentioned in my post Fear, Anger, Guilt, and God last week, total terror of hell was drilled into me from a young age and continues to haunt me to this day. However, even within the small churches my family attended, there was no single conception of hell. Ideas about hell differ as much as preferences for things such as music or food.

In this post, I would like to examine the ideas of hell I was exposed to as a child in a conservative Christian community. I realize that it will be in no way exhaustive of all the ideas about hell that can be found within Christianity, let alone the entire world. To examine every view of hell in all of human history, one would have to write an immense book, so I am just going to stick with my personal experience.

The three main views of hell I encountered are: Eternal Physical Torture, Seperation from God, and Annihilation.

Eternal Physical Torture

This is the most traditional view of hell in the Christian church. It is what appears in most people's minds when they imagine hell. It is the hell at the center of the Earth, home of naked, bright-red demons, blood-curdling screams, the smell of burning flesh, volcanoes of fire and brimstone, and rivers of lava. In this hell, the damned keep their bodies (and, of course, all sensation of pain) and are eternally and gruesomely tortured by Satan's demons, if not Satan himself, using methods scarcely imaginable to those still living.

This version of hell seems to be derived from Tartarus in Classical mythology. Tartarus was the ancient version of hell. While all dead souls inhabited the underworld, the underworld itself contained a deep pit, where the wicked were harshly punished for their sins. Much of our imagery for this hell comes from Dante Alighieri's Inferno, where Dante himself takes a journey through hell with the ancient poet Virgil as his guide. The idea that hell has distinct levels and punishments for different types of sinners comes from the Inferno.

This form of hell is the most common in Christianity and Islam. It is, in my opinion, also the most vile. As a universalist, my one and only creed is that God is love. Although I do not claim to fully understand God (not even close), I know that God would not, and could not, do such a thing to creatures He loves. All sins, no matter how depraved or evil, are still finite. Yet, this version of hell condemns man to infinite punishment. To put it simply, that punishment just does not fit the crime.

Separation from God

This view of hell is becoming more and more popular lately. It is a more "metaphorical" take on hell. Instead of souls being actually physically tortured, souls are sent into a dark abyss, to a place of tremendous mental and spiritual suffering. While not being subjected to physical torment by demons, they are totally separated from God for all of eternity. Some describe this hell as less of a place and more of  a state of being.

Although this hell is marginally better than the hell of Eternal Physical Torment, it still involves God eternally torturing a person. Any type of eternal torment is unjust because of the finite nature of human sin. Again, I do not believe a God of love would allow His children to be subjected to eternal damnation. It makes God out to be a monster who cares nothing for justice but a reveller in the agony of lesser creatures.


The doctrine of annihilation holds that, instead of eternally tormenting the wicked, God will just permanently destroy them. Some annihilationists believe evil souls will first be punished in the hell of Eternal Physical Torment before being annihilated, while others believe that they are annihilated upon bodily death, since the soul is not immortal.

Again, this version of hell is slightly less revolting than the last. At most, malevolent people will only endure a finite punishment before ultimately being destroyed. It would be as if they never existed in the first place. Nonetheless, if I reflect on this for too long, it makes me nauseous. The thought of God just snapping His fingers and the offending person is instantly gone is sickening. What if that were me? I must admit, the idea of losing my consciousness to pure oblivion is quite scary to me. I do not know anyone who is not somewhat afraid of that, although many pretend not to be. How could a loving God do such a thing?

For me, the answer is simple. He cannot. Not because He does not have the power, but because He could never discard one of His beloved children, no matter what they had done.

Please do not get me wrong, I do not think bad people get a free pass. There are consequences for harming other people. Yet, an eternal hell is not the answer. God loves all of us too much to lose even a single one of us. Heaven could never be heaven unless everyone made it there eventually. For, how could a good person in heaven be happy knowing someone they love is forever suffering in hell or just simply gone? How could God ever be happy or satisfied knowing that He had failed some of His children?

Hell is mostly a human creation. As a species, we are obsessed with "fairness". Obviously, people do not always get the punishment they deserve in this life. Hell is a handy way to comfort  people who have been harmed by awful people. Unfortunatly, hell has morphed from being solely a place of punishment to a place of vengeance. Hell has been used by ambitious men to gain power. They threaten their followers with hell for disobedience and teach that anyone outside their little sect will burn forever. Most of the time, these groups are small and radical enough that they are classified as cults. Occasionally, however, they can become leading sects or denominations in one of the world's major religions with the ability to influence thousands, if not millions, of religious believers.

Self-righteous individuals even take great pleasure in "knowing" someone is going to hell. The famous fire and brimstone preacher Jonathan Edwards said that "The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardor of the love and gratitude of the saints of heaven." Think about that quote for a moment. Really think about it. He is asserting that if you go to heaven, you will spend some of your time gazing at the damned souls in hell and enjoying their severe suffering. It's beyond disgusting.

Hell has done nothing but traumatize children and cripple adults with fear. It has driven genuinely good people away from God. I do not claim to have the answers. I am not even sure I am asking the right questions. All I know for sure is that my God would never harm one of His children in such a savage way, nor throw them out like yesterday's garbage. My God is a God of love, who will not rest until every last one of His children has returned home to Him.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Favorite Songs

After the sorrow and seriousness of my last post, I thought I would try something a little lighter and fun today, so I've posted videos of 4 of my favorite songs. I would love for anyone to comment on the songs or the bands, no matter if you like or dislike them, tell me their favorite songs or bands, or even leave me suggestions for songs or bands you believe I might enjoy. Thanks!

Sammy's Top 3 Favorite Songs

#1- Into the Ocean by Blue October (#3 on Foiled)


Blue October is my favorite band. I discovered them my sophomore year of high school (about six years ago).  The are an alternative rock group from Houston, TX. I love them because of their true uniqueness. Their variety of instruments goes far beyond the standard guitar, bass, and drums. They've used pianos, mandolins, violins, cellos, flutes, etc in all 5 of their albums. Their songs tend to be more somber and sad, but their latest album, Approaching Normal, does have several truly upbeat songs. The lead singer, Justin Furstenfeld, has struggled with mental illness and self-harm, something I can genuinely relate to. For anyone who desires to try something a little different, I cannot recommend them more highly. 

#2- Last Night by Motion City Soundtrack (#4 on Even If It Kills Me)


Motion City Soundtrack is an indie rock/pop punk band from Minneapolis, Minnesota.They are my second favorite band. They have released 4 albums. As with Blue October, I stumbled across them in my early high school years. I greatly admire the emotional depth and complexity to their lyrics, many of which hold metaphorical meanings. All 4 albums have a mixture of upbeat and gloomy tracks, but I tend to prefer the gloomy ones a shade more, for the emotion is more subtle, yet, somehow, at the same time, more intense. There is the strong beat and a quick tempo in many of their happy songs, so they are excellent for dancing and singing.

#3 - Fireflies by Owl City (#9 on Ocean Eyes)

Owl City is a new discovery for me. The first Owl City song I heard was Fireflies, and that was only about 5-6 months ago. Instantly, I was hooked on their unique sound. Owl City's genre is synthpop, which, like the name suggests, has a synthetic, electronic sound. The song reminds me of my childhood, when my sister, our friends, and I would catch fireflies after the sun went down, putting them in jars to make lights for our clubhouse. And yes, we would let them go when we were called in for bed time. The song also details the feeling of insomnia, a problem I have battled on a off for years. Next month, they are releasing their new album, All Things Bright & Beautiful, and I am sincerely anticipating its release.

Sammy's Favorite Religious Song- White Man by Michael Gungor

I came across this song about two years ago when Andrew posted it on his blog Hackman's Musings. As I watched the video for the first time, I got tears in my eyes. The animation is cute and just a tad bit cheesy. However, the meaning is anything but. This song sums up my religious beliefs perfectly. GOD IS LOVE! It's what I feel in my heart, and what I know in my mind. It's what I live my life by, and it's why I write this blog. Anytime I am upset or feel overwhelmed by life, I'll listen to this song 2-3 times through, and it reminds me of what I'm fighting for.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Fear, Anger, Guilt, and God

In my first post on this blog, I detailed my life and my religious beliefs as they evolved over time. Much of my description focused on the horribly negative emotions I associated with God, including my considerable fear of His punishment, my raging anger at His egregious injustice, and the immense guilt I felt for experiencing the fear and anger, the certainty that I was a completely bad person, and the guilt itself.

Thankfully, my personal discovery of universalism eliminated a vast majority of these feelings. However, even today it can continue to be a struggle. This has always been something I find quite challenging to discuss. I suspect this is due to the guilt. When I was younger, it always felt like I was the only one combating doubts about God and religion. Everyone else was "superior" to me because they did not question (at least, I thought they did not; in reality, I am sure many of them did) God or whatever the pastor preached. This was one of the primary reasons I characterized myself as a bad person. I never expressed these emotions to anyone for fear of being reveled as a fraud.

The time (summer of 2009) around my transformation to universalism was not a pleasant period in my life. I had just recently dealt with two extremely difficult personal problems. Only two months after this transformation, early symptoms of my current illness began to show. The first time I was admitted to the hospital, a CT scan revealed a massive cyst in my abdomen, which the doctors logically assumed to be the cause of my symptoms. All of a sudden I was informed that I required emergency surgery. Up to that point in my life, I'd never even had an IV put in, let alone a major and risky surgery.  To top it off, I was at school in New York City, 1500 miles away from my family, who was unable to come and be with me.

Although it pains me to admit it, I was terrified. All the previous fear of God that universalism had taken away from me instantly came flooding back. I could not suppress the thought "What if I was wrong?" and that God might be punishing me for my new found beliefs. I began to feverishly pray silently, apologizing to God for ever doubting in Him and pleading that, if I did not survive the operation, not to send me to hell and torture me forever and ever. It was all I could do not to start crying in front of the doctors and nurses.

By the time the operation was over and I was wheeled up to my hospital room, it was after midnight. Physically, I was pretty uncomfortable; enough so that I could not sleep. Mentally, I was a disaster. I was overwhelmed with guilt. It was paralyzing, like there was a tremendous weight crushing my chest, and I struggled to breathe. For several months, I had considered my revelation of universalism a gift from God and cherished the happiness and the peace of mind it had brought me. Yet, as soon as a substantial threat had come along, it was as if I threw it all out the window. I was incredibly ashamed of myself. Worse, I was scared that God was also ashamed of me, or even angry at me.

I wish I could say these feelings were resolved quickly and easily, but they were not. It took several weeks.  Eventually, I came to understand that God was not angry for my lapse. Actually, I believe He was genuinely sorry for the terror I had endured. I realized that He wanted me to reach a position where, even in life threatening situations, I would trust His unconditional love to save me and holding not even an infinitesimal fear of being thrown away like a piece of garbage. How I recognized these things, I honestly cannot say. They are just something I know. And yes, I am very much aware of how idiotic that sounds.

I also wish I could say that situation was the end of those disturbing feelings. But it wasn't. I still must occasionally battle them. Since becoming sick, my life has been put on hold. I was forced to take time off school and move back home. There are many nights where I lie sleepless in awful pain, angry. I bitterly ask God, "Why has this happened to me?", "Why are you punishing me?", "What have I done to deserve this?". Of course, I always feel guilty for my outbursts later.

Yet, I still wish I had the answers to my questions. Basically, I long to know why I must suffer, why we all must suffer. Because of this mystery, many conclude either that there is no God or that He does not love us unconditionally. But, as trite as it sounds, I know in my heart that He does. I know that He loves me and I know that He loves every single individual He has created. I know that, no matter the outcome of my illness, good or bad, God will support me every step of the way, even when I do not even realize He is there.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Conceptions of God

Probably one of the extremely few points all the major religions agree upon is that God is beyond complete understanding by humans. We might be able to discern many of God's specific attributes or perceive pieces of His character, but, as God is infinite, we are unable to fathom Him in His totality.

Several days ago, while just randomly surfing the Internet, I came across a website. It was kind of a New Age spirituality blog. Unfortunately, that is not a movement I identify with in any way or am even interested in (no offense to anyone who is; I having nothing against New Age beliefs, I just don't relate to them) so I did not think to bookmark the site. However, I did quickly take a peek around and ended up reading a couple paragraphs concerning our flawed perceptions of God. It suggested that phrases such as "I love God" are ultimately pointless because you do not actually love God Himself, but only the conception of God you've constructed in your mind. Basically, this author of this site felt that you cannot have any feelings toward, and, therefore, any relationship with, God, since those feelings and the relationship is directed towards a perception that does not actually exist.

To say this idea disturbed me is an understatement. Although my heart instantly concluded it was false, my brain was not so quick to come up with a valid counterargument.

The idea that my personal conception of God is not accurate is not shocking in the least. I have always known that how I imagine God in my head is nothing more than an estimation that my brain can handle. God is infinite. He knows everything that can be known about a universe which is itself so enormous and complex we cannot comprehend it, let alone its Creator. Personally, I do not believe God meant for us to be able to totally understand Him. We are just too small. To realize that our images of God are finite, imperfect, and exist merely for our own convenience is a sign of a mature and modest person. Only arrogance could convince someone that their image of God alone is perfect.

However, does the fact that we require a simplified image of God mean that our feelings toward Him and our relationship with Him are worthless? If so, it renders much of religion, especially the monotheistic religions which stress a personal relationship with God, utterly meaningless.

After pondering this proposition for awhile, I realize it is absurd. One of my stanchest religious beliefs is that God deeply desires a personal relationship with all individuals. However, if our flawed conceptions of God hinder every single one of us from having a meaningful relationship with Him, it would mean that God knowingly created us this way. Considering God longs for relationship, why would He deliberately do this?  Such a contradiction would be damaging to both humans and God.

While no one person perfectly understands God, we do have the ability to learn more and more about Him. As I have grown up, my internal image of God has changed considerably, growing more mature and complex. This has occurred in a multitude of ways: reading sacred religious texts, reading about universalism, writing, contemplation, and prayer. I genuinely believe this will continue if only because I desire a closer relationship with God. My closeness derives from my awareness of God's nature. I'm fully aware of the limitations of my awareness. There are many aspects of God I do not know, and some I doubt I will ever know. But my imperfect understanding does not mean my relationship with God is meaningless. We are meant to have a relationship with God, despite lacking His intelligence.

I feel it is important that everyone know the limitations of their mind when it comes to perceiving God. But to completely dismiss the possibility of a relationship with God because of these limitations is overkill. We deal with limitations in every part of our life: school, career, family, etc. Yet most people don't just give up. My relationship with God is probably one of the most crucial parts of my life. To throw it away because of limits not under my control would be foolish. God had a reason to create us the way we are. I highly doubt He meant for us to ignore Him just because we don't know everything about him. How depressing the world would be without the promise of a Father who supports us through all troubles and loves us more than we can comprehend.